Thursday, May 26, 2011

Usagi Yojimbo Volume 21: The Mother of Mountains

Usagi Yojimbo continues to advance the characters in directions they already travel even as it reveals more of their background, as well as the background of the setting.

In terms of setting, gold comes to the front again as a peasant finds a gromwell, a bush that has absorbed some of the gold mineral deposit below it. Gold is always a useful tool for rulers. It brings power with it. Its also something worth killing over. Anyone see the anime Ninja Scroll? The first one, the movie, not the series? Yeah, gold has a lot of power.

Those who seek the gold appear to be mere bandits but they are lead by Noriko, the cousin of Tomoe. Tomoe, being an ally of Usagi, has made others into her allies, such as young Motokazu.

In their dealings here, Tomoe is sent to investigate rumors of a plague. Much like in Ninja Scroll, it's a cover for the discovery of gold. This mission is being lead by Noriko known as the Blood Princess due to her ruthlessness. In flashbacks, we see training and sparring between Tomoe and Noriko with Noriko always gaining the upper hand. These flashbacks provide foreshadowing of a future duel and the difficulty that the hero will have in overcoming her nemesis.

But there are complications that Stan throws in. Turns out that the two's relationship is not that of cousins, as Tomoe believes it to be, but of sisters. Noriko and Tomoe share the same father and it turns out that due to an arranged marriage that Norkio wound up in a loveless family. So in typical villain fashion she poisons her false father and seeks acknowledgement from her true father. When if fails to arrive, she kills him too. When she explains this to Tomoe, it fills in the answer of who murdered Tomoe's father and brings them both reason to hate each other more. Noriko, right or wrong, feels that Tomoe had the life she should have had and Tomoe father's death is all the reason she needs.

This tying of character into character, of trying motivation into the scenes, is a powerful tool that can make adventuring more than merely dungeon crawling. There has to be logical reasons for linking characters and events though. Just randomly throwing some information out probably won't make for a better game, but if the players have relatives that work for a castle with a known dungeon or have relatives who have gone ahead of them into a famous dungeon and were never heard of again...

Usagi, despite being the star of the book, is in many ways just another character in the saga here. His sword skills continue to perform, his ability to joke in dark times under dire circumstances, such as when unarmed he takes out the eye of a mercenary and tells him, "Now you'll be known as the one-eyed orphan maker", continue to support the character he has shown in previous volumes.

This brings a nice level of consistency to the character. One of the issues that other types of media can suffer, is a change of staff or writers. In speaking with friends and reading various online sites, I'm not the only one who found later seasons of Heroes to suffer horribly due to quick personality changes and character goals switching every few episodes. Continuity and consistency can provide your game with a stable footing for the players. If things change rapidly, this should be a big clue to the players that something is seriously wrong and in need of investigation.

For the big duel between Tomoe and the Blood Princess, it doesn't end in anything other than a stalemate but in an interesting way. In the past, Stan has proven capable of 'killing' a character by having them have some thing befall them which prevents the body from being found, often using this 'trick' with Jei, the demonic spear fighter. Here, The Blood Princess runs into a mine that explodes and collapses. While Tomoe has a vivid dream of how her cousin could have escaped, we, the readers, don't know what actually happened to her. By providing the villain with an out, Stan is able to bring her back in the future without diminishing her potency and in fact, providing more reason why she would want to battle Tomoe again.

On other fronts though, Tomoe's lord is slowly coming under influences that are not goodfor her. They do not come out and accuse of incompetence, at least not in anything other than trying to use past events to paint her in an unflattering way, but the seeds planted in earlier novels continue to move forward, perhaps foreshadowing Tomoe's fate?

Stan continues to provide characters that don't need to be dark and gloomy with histories rebooted time and again in order to provide entertainment that brings a lot of ideas to any game and especially to an Oriental Adventurers based game.