Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Traitors of the Earth: Usagi Yojimbo 26 by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo, a long running series about a ronin rabit, continues in volume 26, Traitors of the Earth.  Below I'll be discussing the spoilers of the book and my thoughts on it so if you wish to avoid such spoilers, read no further.

This volume starts off with Usagi as a youth getting a lesson from his mentor. Turns out a farmer was skipping stones into a Kami's pool in anger because he dropped his axe. The kami offers him a silver axe, a gold axe, and his normal axe. When the wood cutter denies ownership of the treasures, the kami gives him the golden axe. Usagi assumes this is a reward for the axecutter's honesty, but his mentor informs him that it was a death sentence. See, with a gold axe, you can't cut the trees down and the guy freezes to death. If you can incorporate rewards that may not be all they seem, as Stan did with that tale, you can make your players question more about their treasures.

After that we get to meet Kitsune and her apprentice, Kiyoko as they are moving through the city, doing their regulard thieving ways. This isn't the first time Kistune picks up an odd item that has significance as she gets a netsuke of a skull. Turns out this one controls an ancient undead army. If there is a character that continuously steals from various NPCs, it can lead to whole adventure arcs as they steal something they were not meant to. In many ways, its a perfect player driven adventure seed.

The only trick is not to over use such an abuse. Its like playing out how many times the characters get caught doing it and that turns into a big deal. Later in this volume Kiyoko is noticed stealing and has to endure a few chases but those things won't haunt her later down the road. Failure should be an opportunity to open further ventures as opposed to bringing it to a dead stop. What's more entertaining, the thief getting caught right there and then or busing out the dice and using some chase methodology?

Indeed, it is this very chase that leads to a different adventure. While she is hiding from the police, she hears a plot to assassinate a merchant. Using the players own initatives to provide them with adventure seeds can provide them more interaction with the world and provide them more opportunities to experience adventure seeds they may not normally.

Stan has woven mystic and supernatural elements into his tales before and when he does that, he often brings in Sasuke, a demon queller who has worked with Usagi many times in the past. He is able to do so again as Sasuke's ghost mentor sends him towards the action. When you have players who can't always make it, having reasons for them to be part of the group is important. In this case, we have random chance for Kitsune, but the ghost mentor allows a much firmer reasoning for characters to met.

It may get old after a while but if the characters aren't meeting each other that often, it allows that guiding force to be mysterious and to let the players know that this is the in meta reason while the in game reason itself may still be mysterious. The repetition of Sasuke having another mission immediately after showcases how to get rid of such characters as well. Instead of sticking around and hanging out when the player himself can't, that player's character can be given another mission right away.

The last of the tales this volume goes back to the earliest parts of the rabbit ronin's tale. He has an opportunity to battle against Lord Hikiji, the one who slew his lord and set him on his ronin path. These long term seeds are sprinkled throughout the series and Usagi has still yet to come across the man who gave him the crescent scar again but he has fought Hikiji's allies and spoiled many of that lord's plans time and time again. Having a long term goal, one either embodied by this unreachable nemesis or one that's a personal self goal, such as Usagi's training on the open road, can also provide the Game Master with various opportunities.

The trick in such a situation, especially one in a long running game, is not overplaying your hand. If Hikiji was to start sending assassins after Usagi in every issue, it would only be a matter of time before Usagi would have to go for a final confrontation. Because of Lord Hikiji's standing and status though, that's not something Usagi would do unless his very life depended on it.

Usagi Yojimbo continues to blend traditional elements of Japanese history with mythology and nods to modern events. If you want a different take on undead samurai, Traitors of the Earth is for you.