Sunday, October 3, 2010

Usagi Yojimbo Book 2: Odds and Ends

One of the things about Usagi's setting, is that while it is mostly historical in nature and most of the enemies that Usagi battles, regardless of their animal like apperance, are mostly 'human'. Rogue samurai, fellow ronin, bandits and opposing lords on the other side of the battlefield.

That isn't always true though. As a matter of fact, the first apperance of Usagi has him fighting a goblin. After the majority of the background tale earlier in book two, Usagi winds up metting a kappa.

Stan does some interesting things though. At first, when the kappa approachs Usagi, the ronin is able to keep the kappa at bay with a bride of cucumbers. As the wikki article points out, kappa prefer the taste of cucumbers even over children. When Usagi continues on, he is greeted by an old mother who shares her meal with him and then exclaims in horror that she left those cucumbers as a bribe for the kappa for her own son!

Here Stan brings out the more traditional, well, at least traditional from an adventurer's point of view, method of handling a monster; fight it out. Usagi manages to save the mother's son but is then shocked to learn that the mother the samurai was visiting was herself dead, killed by the kappa last year! Yeah, Stan would make a great writer for the Twilight Zone show.

In terms of applying something like this to a role playing game, I'm more tempted to point out the utility of using myths and lore and history to bring a section of the setting alive. Kara-Tur, Legend of the Five Rings, and other 'Oriental Adventure' based settings have the advantage, at least in the United States, of having a background with a fairly broad setting that is fairly easy to research because of old school Samurai Sunday and America's love of the idea of a warrior caste ranging from semi-modern movies like the Last Samurai, to modern film makers doing their own homage to the material ala Kill Bill or just bringing over the material similiar to 'Presenting Iron Monkey'.

When using a setting that isn't generica land, using those specific monsters, myths, and magic items of a given region and provide more depth and specific feel for a land. Long ago when dinosaurs ruled the lands, Mayfair Games did a series of books called Role Aids and they featured many a book on Mythic Treasures and Monsters of Myth and Legend. These books provided a wide variety of information on cultures not traditional covered by role playing games in any detail back then. As the internet use has risen and research has become easier, there's really no reason not to be able to throw some specific monsters and myths into the campaign.

This doesn't mean that you should make every encounter such a unique event though. If every fight the players are butting heads with the mystical, it tends to make the mundane even more mundane. Stan manages to avoid this by having the monstrous and mythic elements of the setting only rise to the foreground every so often and having them stand out in their unique features.

Next up, Usagi goes to the silk fair. Like many of the wandering ronin's encounters, it takes place with him witnessing some bandits attacking a peasant. As the busybody he is, Usagi interrupts the attack. Note that this is a common feature of the series. Usagi doesn't necessarily have his own goals and ambitions in mind. He stumbles upon these events. He wanders into them. If your gaming group is okay with this type of set up, don't argue with them about it, run with it. It's a convient set up that saves time.

But the thing I wanted to mention isn't Usagi's strange method of adventure starting. Rather, it's Matsutaro, a samurai hired by the merchant Kaiko. The towns folk believe that Matutaro is a powerful warrior and his bluster and apparent willingness to fight tend to showcase that side.

When action comes though, Matsutaro flees.

It's a setup I've seen my fellow Game Masters use and I've used myself. By making someone appear strong and powerful, the players may come to overestimate the individual. In one of my friend's campaigns, good old Mike, back in the Forgotten Realms, probably first edition, there was a competition of swordsmen where if you won, you earned a flat out 10% chance to critical with every strike. It wasn't an arena thing, it was a wandering encounter thing.

Anyway, one of my friends, Kashi, was playing a bad ass fighter-thief or some sort and the GM described how a fellow wandering questioned him about the contest. When Kashi replied that he was in. The young man put his backpack to the side and challenged Kashi. The GM described in detail the katas and stances the young man went through and then the initative dice were rolled. Kashi won and pulled out his most powerful magic item and used it, completely destroying the wanderer.

We then heard the cries of an anguished mother who was running behind her young son to prevent him from engaging in the contest and she pointed out that her son was inexperienced and only knew how the moves looked, not how to actually perform them. The mother cursed Kashi's character and the rest of us had a pretty good chuckle at how the GM got in his head.

I've done the same thing to the point where the players sometimes over compensated for their enemies. In my experience, players tend to pay attention when the GM starts providing unique descriptions to the bad guys. It's a verbal cue that more than the normal is going on here.

On the other hand, as the game system has continued to evolve, methods of determining how powerful an opponent are have worked their way into the game. In this way, the GM can be like Usagi, and know that while the enemy appears to be formidable, he's really not. This allows the players some freedom in how they will react and what information they may pass along.

In Usagi's case, it's a matter of waiting and seeing what happens and taking advantage of the situation that crops up when the reliable and powerful samurai runs out of town. For your players? Try it out and see.