Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Usagi Yojimbo: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

The Clouds Gather
Book Four of Usagi Yojimbo, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, is a bit different than most of the previous work by Stan Sakai. The entire book is devoted to one story and is of a more traditional nature that graphic novel formats are often used for and which, according to many fans of individual issues, is a loathsome thing as it forces deconstruction of the story to fill so many issues. Regardless, I'm not here to talk about comic collections and methodologies!

The Clouds Gather is a setup for several of the 'main' characters of the series to meet and have a large scale adventure.

Tomoe, the ever loyal samurai, is sent by her master to investigate a nearby lord's activities and report back to her. Tomoe is often seen in the employee of her lord. The benefits of having a lord to tie plot progress into can be overused, especially in a role playing game, but it is also very easy to handle additions to the game by having the players act on behalf of  an employer.

Usagi on the other hand, is out in the rain when he sees Tomoe as a prisoner. The author has already set up Usagi's role here in his introduction of Tomoe's piece by noting that this lord is hiring many ronin. Of course as a ronin himself, it provides a perfect position for Usagi to work his way into the lord's hire.

The other two threads that start here and are further interwoven through the series are Zato Ino and Gennosuke. This is probably the first time I can recall Stan setting up Gen's bounty targets as having an easy time of things while Gen, hot and heavy on their trail, has a loathsome time catching up to them. It's a running gag.

The Wind Howls
In further terms of bringing the main characters togther, Usagi comes across a vilalge that has been slaughtered. He cleans up the bodies to prevent scavengers from getting to them, but does so under the eye of Shingen, a ninja that he has foiled in the past.

So in short order, Usagi and Shingen wind up battling. The ninja seems to die as he falls of a cliff. I've mentioned before, especially in the Usagi setting, that if there's no body, there's no death. That proves to be true here as well. If as a GM you want a character to make a recurring apperance, set up some scenario where the players are unsure if the character has been killed or not.

While Shingen isn't a major character, he has proven to have a high level of competency and is a worthy adversary of Usagi.

More importantly perhaps though, by being a minor character in a cast of larger characters, what will his fate be in the end? You could almost compare Shingen to a guest player at a sesson. While his death isn't guaranteed and he may rise to the occassion or merely fade again into the background, the status of being a 'minor' character places him in a different perspective.

When having guest players over, see if they have any long term plans to show up or if they'd mind taking on the roles of characters already introduced in the campaign to maintain more coherency to the setting.

Downpour
This chapter continues the role of poor Gen running after Zato in the rain and having to forgo the company of two beautiful woman who are interesting in drinking. As a GM, you could either run this as a running gag or make it a skill check where if the player fails, he gets to pick his poison. Keep on the trail of the bounty in potential, or give it up and take the pleasures of shelter from the rain with those who are looking for compaionship. Gen being a true professional, who despite mere seconds earlier in his inner monolog was thinking that nothing coudl get him out in the rain, decides to follow the bounty.

For Usagi, now as a member of the lord's ronin forces, he is able to quickly recognize several elements of the lord's tactics. If the players aren't getting what you as the GM are trying to do, engage them in casual conversation with some of those around the area. In this case, Usagi is able to bounce ideas not only of bushido off of Captain Rorame, but also some information that he might otherwise not have access to.

In this, the use of NPCs to relay information and showcase similarities in thinking, Stan is also setting up the inevitable betrayal. Usagi isn't here to join the captain's forces. He's here to rescue Usagi. The ideas they bounce off each other of loyalty and feidielty to a lord are clothed in the real meanings. The captain is loyal to his lord and will follow that lord even down bad paths and Usagi's first loyalties, now that he has no lord, is to his friends, specifically Tomoe. Without either knowing the other's path, the two could easily be friends and it is this interconnection between characters that makes things more personal when the end does come.

Usagi tries to rescue Tomoe but instead has to leave her behind in the downpour and is then cut off from his own escape and as he plummets to darkness in a fade to black scene, sees the enemy ninja above him with a cruel look.

The ending of a comic depends on where in the story its ending. Here, the author is building anticipation in the next issue. In a role playing sesson, if you can end on such a note, where the players are going to be talking about what's coming up next sesson and reviewing their own actions of the past to see what lead to this sesson, you're doing something right. The ability to place anticipation into the game isn't dictated by what game system you play, but by the timing of the elements and how much buy in the players have in the setting. A lot of that unfortunately, is on the Game Master's shoulders and it's not always something you'll be able to bring to the table.

Sometimes the game doesn't flow the way you want. Sometimes the players get caught up in role playing with the smith and his attractive daughter. Sometimes they bump into a group of guards and instead of apologizing or even giving them the cold shoulder, decide to attack and possibly wind up dead in the street or in jail. But knowing where you want the campaign sesson to end that night and taking into account the actions of the players will go a lot farther than just hoping it ends where you want it.


Thunder and Lightning brings us to a gathering of forces at last. The ninja has learned the truth about hsi slaughtered people. The blind swords pig and the bounty hunter have it out but before they cam complete their duel, are interrupted by Usagi and his new ninja ally.

There are a few elements here that bounce back into the continuity of the series. One is that the blind swordpig doesn't necessarily like anyone. When offered a chance at a reward, he scoffs at it. However, with his pet 'Spot' there, he realizes he can't keep running forever.

Gen doesn't come out unscathed. He suffers the loss of his horn during the fight. Not a mortal blow or anything 'serious' but it is nontheless like a scar and it's something he carries with him in even the latest volumes. If the players are sometimes out of their leauge and despite warnings and efforts to 'scare' them off the trail, if you as the Game Master don't want them to die, scarring them and leaving them with another opportunity to fight again may be an option you want to look at.

Now with almost all of the pieces gathered in one spot, the forces attack the castle and this 'issue' ends with a splash shot similiar to the cover with all of the forces in alliance attacking the fortress.

Mind you, the four heroes here also have assitance from the ninja clan and Tomoe is still insdie but it's a pretty big moment. A group of heroes fighting against a lord in that lord's own castle under cover of night and rain. It's big. If your players are always fighting bandits and random encounters, try to occassionally break out the 'cool' for them. Even if at the end the results don't necessarily change the campaign setting one way or the other, if the players have the spotlight to look and do cool things, chances are they'll enjoy the sesson more.

The Heart of the Storm
Several important battle scenes take place here with some strange matchs ups.

Gen and the blind sword's pig stick together. Gen wants to make sure that if something happens to the pig, he gets the bounty. Heck, he wants to make sure that he's the one who does something to the pig. But the pig is injured saving Gen's life. A moment changer for Gen who despite his tough outter shelf is actually a decent person in many aspects.

Usagi duels the captain. Usagi knew he wasn't loyal but swore loyalty and now has to fight the man he swore that loyalty to. Note that Torame showcases himself here as a badass cutting through ninja and surviving their ambush while his allies are kileld about him. It's another way of showcasing the character's strength, of implying that "this is one bad mother."

For Usagi though, it's another one of those battles that is oven quickly but showcases that Usagi is a ally well worth having. Having the players have to fight those they know and may even agree with showcases a 'reality' if you will where alignment is not the end all be all of determine who your actual friends and allies are.

Due to the involvement of the ninja clan, the entire affair is covered over fairly quickly, and what isn't covered over, is passed onto Tomoe's lord. Usagi and Gen, being the wanderers they are, move on. Zato, injured while saving Gen, is 'taken' out of the setting so to speak and put on a path to peace where he encounters an isolated village where he can live in peace of he chooses to do so.

With an epic scope in nature, that of preventing a civil war with the Shogun, the story is relatively self contained and doesn't need future expansion. The author manages to bring all the characters together relatively quickly and move onto the action. In a game setting, this could probably be done in a sesson if all of the character of a relatively independent nature, such as Super Heroes that don't belong to one group, or players in a more traditional game that only game one off now and again. It allows for the passage of time and for the flowing of character destinies in a more organic way.

Stan is a master of pacing and timing and bringing up and down 'ticks' to the reader in order to encourage them to see what happens next. If you're not a fan of shorter stories or want something a little more epic, The Dragon Bellow Conpiracy would work great for a Legend of the Five Rings mini-campaign or as a Jadeclaw adventure.