How do you like your GM Screen?
The GM Screen is a essentially a reference sheet, comprised of several card sheets that fold out and can be stood up to serve another purpose, that is, to hide the GM's notes and dice rolls. On the inside, the side facing the GM are listed all of the tables that the GM might want or need at a glance without the need to have to leaf quickly through the core rulebook. On the outside, facing the players, is either more tables for their benefit or representative artwork for the game itself. This is both the basic function and the basic format of the screen, neither of which has changed very little over the years. Beyond the basic format, much has changed though.
To begin with the general format has gone split, between portrait and landscape formats. The result of the landscape format is a lower screen, and if not a sturdier screen, than at least one that is less prone to being knocked over. Another change has been in the weight of card used to construct the screen. Exile Studios pioneered a new sturdier and durable screen when its printers took two covers from the Hollow Earth Expedition core rule book and literally turned them into the game's screen. This marked a change from the earlier and flimsier screens that had been done in too light a cardstock, and several publishers have followed suit.
Once you have decided upon your screen format, the next question is what you have put with it. Do you include a poster or poster map, such as Margaret Weis Productions included in its screens for the Serenity and BattleStar Galactica Roleplaying Games? Or a reference work like that included with Chessex Games' Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune or the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu? Or a scenario such as "A Restoration of Evil" for the Keeper's Screen for Call of Cthulhu from 2000 or the more recent “A Bann Too Many” in the Dragon Age Game Master's Kit for Green Ronin Publishing's Dragon Age: Origins RPG, of which more in a future review. In general, the heavier and sturdier the screen, the more likely it is that the screen will be sold unaccompanied, such as those published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for the Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPGs.
So how do I like my GM Screen?
I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but some form of reference material. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, I also like GM Screens when they come with a scenario, which is one reason why I like the Game Master’s Screen and Adventure for Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition, Alderac Entertainment’s second release for this new version of the game. The other reason that I like it is because I am currently playing in a Legends of the Five Rings campaign, of which more later as it has some bearing upon the scenario, “Descent into Darkness.”
The Game Master’s Screen is a four –panel affair in landscape format. The centre of screen depicts a battle scene at the Kaiu Wall, the giant fortification erected by the Crab Clan to protect Rokugan from the Shadowlands. To the left of this is an image of a Phoenix Clan air shugenja (a spell casting priest), while to the right is a Lion Clan bushi complete with the skin of a plains lion.
On the inside, the screen covers from the left, fear and other conditional effects; combat, actions, manoeuvres, and stances; skills and weapons; and the gain and loss of both Honour and Glory. The inside is done in black, white, and greyscale, and is easily readable. Having played the game a fair amount and refereed the once, this is good choice of tables and is all very functional. If there is an issue, it is that by today’s standards, the cardstock for the screen is a little light. It is still serviceable even so.
The Game Master’s Screen actually comes inserted into the adventure, “Descent into Darkness.” This is a short twenty-page scenario designed for characters of Ranks two or three. It is written to be run using just the core rulebook, though considering some of the foes faced, a GM might like to have a copy of Enemies of the Empire to hand for reference. This supplement is not necessary though, and “Descent into Darkness” can be run entirely without the need to refer to that supplement.
The scenario takes the player characters from their current city location to the remote village of Mushi Mura whose samurai master has sent a request for help to the nearest magistrate. Several suggestions are given as to why the magistrate sends the player characters to answer his request, which include their being of the same clan as the magistrate, being magistrates themselves, and even a simple case of the magistrate hiring ronin to undertake the task for him.
The village lies four days’ travel away and when the samurai arrive, they are greeted cordially rather with any degree of hospitality. The samurai in charge of the village even dismisses the request for help as having been sent by a disgruntled vassal. This is of course, a brush off, but it will take eagle–eyed investigators to spot that anything more is wrong than poor employer/employee relations. Not only that, but they will also have to interact with the heimin of Mushi Mura, not always a pleasant prospect for proud samurai. As they learn more, the mystery points towards the nearby forest and the secrets it harbours.
“Descent into Darkness” combines investigation and interaction with combat against a quite nasty villain. This is not an easy adventure, and it will be all the more difficult if the player characters have too many courtiers amongst their numbers. A shugenja will also be useful, but one type of shugenja might be too useful and give the players too much of an advantage – a Kuni Witch Hunter. It is unlikely that anyone starting a game playing the new edition of Legends of the Five Rings will be playing one of these, though a group that has simply switched their characters from Third Edition to Fourth Edition might number one of these amongst their group. This is the case with our group and my character in particular. The point is, Witch Hunters possess the means to determine the nature of the threat present in "Descent into Darkness," so the presence of one of these will circumvent some of the scenario's mystery. Some advice on dealing with this issue might have been helpful, but the likelihood is that my character, Kuni Hiroji will not be playing this scenario, but rather that I will be running it for our group when our GM wants a break.
Physically, “Descent into Darkness” is laid out in the now familiar style from both the core rule book and Enemies of the Empire. Indeed, some of the artwork from those books appears in the pages of this adventure. If I have an issue with the scenario, it is that it is done as a magazine rather than as a roleplaying booklet. It would have been nice if “Descent into Darkness” had been given a card cover like that of Legacy of Disaster, the Quick Start rules and scenario released for Free RPG Day 2010.
In terms of writing, "Descent into Darkness" comes with some nicely drawn NPCs – especially for peasants! – and some fun moments of roleplaying for the GM. The likelihood is that these moments will be frustrating ones for the players, but they make sense considering what the villains have done. The scenario ends with a vile encounter and leaves a mystery deep in the woods. It also leaves the village all but empty, a secondary aim of the adventure being to provide a base of operations for the player characters. The village is itself fully detailed, along with a map. As a base of operations it might be a little remote for some groups, but a good GM should be able to turn it into the base for his campaign.
So what does the Game Master Screen and Adventure add for Legends of the Five Rings? The Screen itself is a useful accessory, while the adventure will not only provide two good sessions of play, it also provides a base of operations for the player characters, new spells for the GM to give his villains, and a range of sample NPCs and enemies. The adventure is also a good follow on from the adventure in the core rulebook and Legacy of Disaster, though the likelihood is that together both of the adventures will not provide enough Experience Points to achieve the necessary Rank 2 to play this adventure. Nevertheless, "Descent into Darkness" is worth waiting to play and the GM will get plenty of use out of the Screen.