Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 19 January 2019

Screen Shot VII

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 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 many 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 Chaosium, Inc.’s last screen for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition?  Or a reference work like the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu? Or scenarios such as ‘Blackwater Creek’ and ‘Missed Dues’ from the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition? 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 Kit for Fantasy Flight Games’  Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying. As the name suggests, this is the Game Master’s screen and pack for use with the roleplaying game set in a fantasy version of feudal Japan, but also heavily influenced by other Asian cultures. For what comes with the screen in the Game Master’s Kit is a scenario which builds on the campaign begun with the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game, focusing on a very different part of Rokugan.

The Game Master Screen is a four-panel affair in portrait format—as opposed to the trend for Game Master Screens to be in landscape format—done in sturdy cardboard. On the front is a panorama of a landscape, set before a wide mountain range. In the centre is a manicured garden a lake and islands connected by a bridge, whilst on the lakeshore stands a pagoda. To the left the lands become black and blighted, whilst to the right, the lands and mountains are covered in snow. What this actually depicts is Rokugan in its entirety, from the twisted Shadowlands beyond the Wall in the south to the mountains in the far north of Rokugan and the Phoenix Clan lands. In between are the delicate, almost pastoral lands of Rokugan itself. Altogether, this is a lovely illustration, if not necessarily an exciting one.

On the other side, what is clear about the layout of the screen is that despite there being a lot of information the designers could have put on here, they have opted for an open layout, so that the content is easy to read. It is also very clearly marked with the page references for when the Game Master needs to look something up in the core book. The basics of Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying’s mechanics are summarised on the left-hand panel, including an explanation the five Rings, dice symbols, turn structure, how to make a check when performing an action, and skill groups, skills, and approaches. Some of this information is perhaps a little basic, but the table of skill groups, skills, and approaches is perfect. The inner left-hand panel gives sample tasks and task numbers, summarises the game’s stances for when a character is in a skirmish, duel, or intrigue, common conflict actions, silhouette sizes, unarmed combat damages, advantages and disadvantages, range bands, and examples of spending Opportunity in play. This last section feels a bit truncated and as if more explanation and examples were needed. After all, this comes up quite a lot in play and there is a whole page devoted to it in the core rules. The inclusion of the whole table would have been more useful.

On the inner right-hand side, the page numbers for commonly referenced rules are listed, along the initiative rules, NPC demeanours, the use of Void points, and Critical Strikes. On the right-hand side are explanations of common item qualities and common conditions. Overall, it is a useful and easy-to-read screen, but with a couple of issues. One is the aforementioned brevity of the Opportunity spends table and the other is that perhaps the combat information could have been better grouped together. 

The booklet which comes in the Game Master’s Kit is a sourcebook and scenario called ‘Dark Tides’. It describes a mysterious minor clan, its major holding, its strange mission, and provides a scenario set in that holding. The minor clan is the Tortoise clan, who turn out to be very un-samurai-like in comparison to the other Rokugani clans. They have regular dealings with peasants, with outsiders, and they can obtain things that other clans cannot and would consider dishonourable to do so. The Tortoise clan, its Kasuga family, and its Kasuga Smuggler School are provided should a player want to play one. In terms of design the school offers a variety of skills, both Social and Martial, but it places an emphasis on Trade skills above all else.

The clan holding is Taimana Choryū or Slow Tide Harbour, a swampy backwater port just north of the imperial city of Otosan Uchi. It is rife with crime, ships from all over dock here, and Gaijin walk the streets, but the Tortoise clan seem to give this no heed. All this will be a shock to any samurai which come to the port, which player characters will do as part of the scenario, ‘Dark Tides’. They are asked to find an imperial nobleman—described as a ‘wastrel’—who was last heard of in Slow Tide Harbour and has not been heard from recently. They will find the port bustling with commerce and business, but otherwise a sleepy little affair, the Tortoise clan content to let matters continue as they are without the need to rock the boat.

The adventure consists of three parts, each being quite different in tone. The first focuses on investigation and intrigues, the player characters discovering and following up on clues that point to various witnesses and potential suspects and attempting to get information out them. This is quite lengthy section and comprises the bulk of the scenario and may be a bit frustrating for players wanting a little more action. That all comes in the second and third parts as first the player characters track down the villains of the piece and final confront them. As well as well being a solid investigative scenario, ‘Dark Tides’ grants the Game Master the freedom to choose the villain of the piece, from a choice of three. Reasons are also given as to why they are involved and what clues point to their involvement.

The other thing that ‘Dark Tides’ does is continue from ‘The Topaz Championship’ from Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game and its donload sequel, ‘In the Palace of the Emerald Champion’. Thus the player characters are expected to be Emerald Magistrates and if they are, then ‘Dark Tides’ can be their first assignment. Alternative suggestions are given if they are not though, but that will make the scenario slightly more difficult since they will not actually hold any authority when conducting the investigation. Of course, neither the Tortoise clan nor the criminal fraternity in Slow Tide Harbour will go out of its way to be too helpful.

As well as being solid investigative scenario, ‘Dark Tides’ also does the ‘fish out of water’ aspect very well too. Any overly mannered or cultured samurai is going to find themselves very much out of their depth in the skeevy little port where peasants rub shoulders with samurai who rub shoulders with Gaijin. And despite the obvious disparities between the social orders in Rokugan, there is a nod in the scenario—a simple mention, nothing more—to the equality of genders and sexual preferences. It is not necessarily part of the scenario, but it is there.

Physically, the Game Master’s Kit is nicely produced. The screen is sturdy and accessible. The booklet is done on glossy paper with full colour illustrations just as the core book. Overall, an attractive package.

Any Game Master for Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying will find the Game Master’s Kit in her game. The screen itself is useful and helpful in play, the scenario is excellent, and it introduces aspects of Rokugan not seen in Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying—Slow Tide Harbour could become the basis for a campaign of its own were the Game Master to develop it and the players decide to play ‘less honourable’ characters. Besides dice, the Game Master’s Kit is going to be what the Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying Game Master wants at her table.

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