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The Tao of Gamesmastering, Part 2
Firstly, if anyone's actually reading this, let me know. It'd be nice to have feedback.

The Tao of Air

Air has two Virtues - the Virtue of Ubiquity and the Virtue of Motion. Air is the campaign world as divorced from the game, it is the entirety of Rokugan as opposed to the tiny part seen by a single samurai. To be strong in Air is to give life to the world.

Ubiquity is a fairly simple Virtue, summed up by a great philosopher as "No matter where you go, there you are." All roads lead somewhere. Every single person in Rokugan is - or should be - a fully developed character in their own right, ready to step into any tale. If you ever deflect the players from doing something just 'cos you've no idea how to handle it, hang your head in shame.

If a player wants his character to get involved with underground explorations, he can - and a dungeon or sewer will be added to the game world. If a player wants to get involved with mining, then a new mine is opened or a local mine has problems with mujina. If a player wants to find out about trade and merchanting, then he can. Political intrigue? Check. Esoteric philosopy? Check. Never say "you can't do that", and try not to say "you can do that, but that's boring".

Basically, Ubiquity means that adventure/excitement/interesting things are everywhere. No matter where the characters go or what they do, they'll find enough stuff for a fun game session.

To take a few examples of Ubiquity, take Henshu and Shinzui. I expected Henshu to get involved in politics - which he did - but I didn't expect him to get deeply involved in trade. His player wanted to, though, so I went into more detail on the trade routes, and let him negociate a few deals. Similarly, Shinzui got heavily involved with Bayushi Isakamiko, and Suko's family. She asked about the other Phoenix in the city, and although I hadn't planned on Isakamiko being a major NPC, she became so. Ubiquity. The game is everywhere.

How do you square Ubiquity with having major plots and a focussed campaign? If one player is off investigating the legends of the Ghosts of Shinomen Forest, and another is wheeling and dealing in the opium trade, how do you bring both characters together for a fun session. Well, all roads lead to Otosan Uchi, and all plotlines lead to the big plot. Introduce links to the major elements you want to emphasise. I wanted inter-House politics to play a big part, so Shinzui's friendship with Isakamiko and Henshu's trading both lead the characters to being involved in politics to some extent. In the example given above, the opium dealing character finds out one of his rivals has a secret trade route - and the guy in Shinomen forest find signs of people smuggling goods through the forest...

Motion is the flipside of Ubiquity, and is related to the Water virtue of Reaction. A world of Motion is a living world, where things happen that aren't at all related to the characters. In a game without Motion, everything that happens is an adventure hook. Non-player characters sit there waiting for the PCs to foil their plans or save them from evil. The rulers never change, the seasons are static, and the whole world is just there to entertain the characters. Motion is vital to a believable and interesting setting.

Luckily, Motion is really easy to do in L5R. You've got the whole Metaplot(tm) to inspire you. If you don't know what Metaplot is...hmm. Metaplot is basically the Big Stuff that AEG have decided is going to happen - the Scorpion Clan Coup, the fall of the Akodo, Fu Leng possessing the Emperor etc. I know Metaplot is a foul word in some quarters, because it does seem to take away from the GM. It's your campaign, so why should John Wick or Ree Soesbee or anyone else tell you what's going to happen?

Short answer: they shouldn't. Everything that happens in your campaign happens because you say it does...but that doesn't mean they can't offer suggestions. If you don't want a war between the Lion and the Crane, then it doesn't happen - period. If you want a Lion/Crane war, then it happens the way you want it. Now, what if you don't care, if your campaign is set on the Kaiu wall or the Mantis isles? You're not going to be thinking or plotting about the mainland or interClan politics, are you? Using the Metaplot adds depth and richness to the campaign, by adding stuff you hadn't planned yourself.

You're not limited to just the official plot, of course. You should be adding your own quirky rumours, and plotlines that aren't related to the main plots, and wierd little events, and wandering characters. The very lowest level of Motion has the main NPCs doing things not directly related to the player characters. That's the lowest acceptable level of Motion, though - a game world should be a living world.

A GM strong in Air has a breathing, living game world. The characters are the stars of the game, but they are not the centre of the world. The game tells their story, but their story is not the history of the world. A GM weak in Air concentrates entirely on the characters, and his game world is just a painted paper stage, without any activity other than the movement of the player characters. A GM too strong in Air ignores the player characters, and they are leaves blown on the hurricane winds of his plots, unable to affect the oh-so-detailed world in which they live.


The Tao of Fire

Ah...fire. Fire, like all the other Elements, has two Virtues - the Virtue of Imagination and the Virtue of Coolness. Fire is, fundamentally, the Element of Fun. You can have a game choked off from Air, dry as a bone in terms of Water, and about as Earthy as a helium balloon, and players will still think its kewl if you are strong in Fire. At the same time, though, Fire is a destructive and dangerous element. It must be handled with caution, or it will consume the GM who wields it.

Imagination should be a simple virtue to comprehend. After all, roleplaying games are works of the Imagination. Everything takes place within the Imagination of the players and GM. Why, then, should Imagination be extolled as a Virtue on its own? And why is it associated with Fire?

Imagination, for the GM, isn't just visualising the scene, or even just coming up with a few ideas. Imagination is being...original. It's doing more with the source material than the players expected. No game is more boring than one which relies entirely on the ideas presented in the rulebook. Predictability is death for a game. After all, most players are just as imaginative as the GM, and know the game as well. If, in your game, all Scorpions are manipulative (like it says in the book) or all Ogres lurk in the forest and are big hulking combat machines (like it says in the book), then what the hell do your players need you for? They know the setting too. They can run fights with Ogres or generic Scorpion just as well as you can? Who died and made you God?

The answer is that you've got to make yourself God, by coming up with imaginative variations on the setting and themes. It is the kiss of death if everything in a game is exactly as the setting would suggest. For example, the players come accross a village. The villagers complain that Ratlings have been stealing their rice. Unless the characters act, the Ratlings will be destroyed. Now, if your twist is that ratlings are actually innocent and were forced to steal the rice 'cos the nasty goblins kicked the ratlings off their land and the characters can put it all right by killing the goblins...then you're in trouble. Ratlings are cute and cuddly, so obviously they're gonna be innocent. You have to "beat" the players by being more imaginative than they are, by coming up with rich and complex plots that they won't see through in five seconds.

Coolness is a lot simpler, really. It's also very important. Coolness is the ego-stroking, mental-masturbation, mirror-shade asskicking we all live for really. Coolness is the Lobby scene from the Matrix. Coolness is the Day of Thunder. Coolness is Toshimoko duelling, Toturi leading an army, Yogo Junzo opening the Scroll.

Yes, that's pretty much a list of stereotypes. Half of them are munchkin fantasies. All of them would look really good on the big screen, in slow motion, with really loud music on the speakers and half a billion dollars in CGI being used. There are times when people want to play for character development or interaction, or want to play detailed and intricate plots. But sometimes you've gotta just play for fun, and coolness.

So, how do you embody the element of Coolness? What's cool in L5R? Coolness deals a lot with...well, stereotypes has got a bad tone, so let's go with the oh-so-fashionably-Jungian archetypes and classic scenes. Duels. Massive land battles. Dragon-shaped kami summoned by spells. Seppuku. Polite words hiding steel. Tea.

Combat is the obvious focal point of Coolness, 'cos what's cooler than a samurai slicing his way through a horde of foes, katana flashing in Lady Sun's admiring gaze? But Coolness exists in other forms. Look at the Great Clans again. Each of them is an aspect of Coolness. Nothing is Cooler than a Crane in a duel, a Lion army charging, a Phoenix Elemental Master calling down the heavens...sometimes, you've just got to make the players feel special, and cool, and kickass. Hand out the mirrorshades freely, but make sure everyone gets a turn.

Example time. Three of the characters - Bayushi Tsuyite, Daidoji Henshu, and Mirumoto Fai Suk - were meeting with the new Imperial Magistrate, Kakita Pukabishi. It was the first time in the campaign that they'd actually met Pukabishi. There were a few NPCs there as well, including the Governess of Ryoko Owari, Shosuro Hyobu. Hidden, disguised as a Crab bodyguard, was a shapeshifted Emishiko. The session started with Henshu currying favour with Pukabishi. If it had been Tsuyite or an NPC, then I'd have glossed over it, but Cranes doing political stuff are Cool, so I made something of a scene of it.

Then an arrow shot through the open window and wounded Pukabishi. Here was an important NPC who I'd been building up for several sessions, getting shot and horribly wounded five minutes after the characters meet him. This surprised the players, who'd been expected a long argument about crime in Ryoko Owari, not a combat (Imagination). The arrow is followed by a billion zillion ninja (ninja are to be expected, so that's not imaginative. On the other hand, we'd seen Ninja Scroll a few days before, so a horde of black-clad ninja leaping over rooftops is Cool). The ninja smoke-bomb the council chamber, turning a generic combat scene in darkness (some Imagination, there - if I'd left the characters able to see, the players would have been making tactical decisions. The smoke made everything confusing). Fai Suk leaped out onto the roof, fighting the ninja as they swung across the walls on ropes from another tower (cool). Inside, Bayushi Tsuyite found Hyobu and escorted her out (backstage Scorpion conniving is cool). Fai Suk cut one of the ninja's ropes as he swung across. The ninja should have plummeted to the ground below, but slowed his descent by scraping the wall with climbing claws (cool, even if it's not a PC.)

It was a fun scene. It came close to wrecking the campaign, in some ways (Pukabishi's apparent death turned the political situation upside down, and the billion zillion ninja running around in broad daylight sucks in terms of realism), but it was fun.

Fire is opposed to Earth. Earth's stablity and calm, fire is change and excitement. A GM strong in fire runs energetic, imaginative, fun games. A GM weak in Fire runs dull, formulaic games which bore the snot out of his players. A GM too strong in fire has Fu Leng wielding Lord Moon's sword in one hand and Oni No Akuma in the other duelling against the returned kami brought back by a Kitsu ancestor-mage turn up in his first session. The next session has the characters travel through a dimensional portal to Rokugan2000 to bring back nano-tetsu-kami to rebuild the Fifth Wall of Otosan Uchi before Lord Moon's starship lands. Or something.

Fire is hot.

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