The power of Stark compels you!
Let's do a game about ninjas in FantasyCraft! That's quite literally where I started doing this, and it's since grown into a nicely detailed (I think) game. So here I'll try to summarize what's been happening and how I run my game. This'll likely be long and rambling, so grab something to drink. You may recognize details from my threads about Legendary Items and the Heroic Heritage feat chain.
The Setting, or "My throwaway references do totally pile up into a vibrant and coherent game world, shut up"
Basically, I went with a historical Japan with the serial numbers filed off and a lot of...ahem...liberties. Essentially, there's an island Empire ruled by a veritable stable of lords, bandit kings and bureaucrats, all supposedly reigned over by the Emperor. However, said Emperor has gone missing to parts unknown, and hasn't been seen in 10 years. He's not officially dead, and there are neither heirs to ascent to the throne nor anyone else making a grab for it. The empire is run by the entourage in the meantime, the self-styled High Lords who were bigger and badder than the others. But it's not working out too well, and the country's slowly going to the bandits and the foreigners without a strong Emperor for people to believe in.
Oh, yes, the foreigners. Their presence is expanding, and they bring with them skilled traders and advanced military science. They have expanded their trading port in the East of the empire into a fully fortified city, and while they seemed long content to simply trade, it looks like they're trying to gain a serious, invasion-ready foothold. I based these guys off the Hanse, because it allows me to easily have a "foreign" language for them (German, mixing several nothern dialects) and I find the High Medieval European style a more interesting clash with Mythical Japan than the Age of Sail stuff and Commodore Perry.
In this kind of barely contained chaos, old ninja clans have gained new prominence, while the official armies and the samurai are in decline. My ninja run the gamut from actual spies and messengers to the classic black-clad assassins all the way to slightly better bandit gangs.
Basically, what it's all about is providing a diverse game world that has a lot of potential for the PCs to shape it and interact with - a few powerful people move and shake the world, and the right action here can create big results there. The chaos and strife gnawing on an almost fossilized social order also allows a wide mixture of character backgrounds - sheltered ninja cubs and hermits mix freely with savvy conmen, foreign pirates and powerful noble warriors.
The Player Characters, or "Open season on game balance"
Kagemaru - one of the original two players. A sneaky sneaky ninja of the Ayami clan who favors the garotte in his kills. He's social enough, but a bit...naive and trusting. On the one hand, it gets him into a lot of trouble, on the other hand it's kinda disarming. Built as a mix of Assassin and Burglar, looking to branch into the Shadowdancer expert class.
Kiara - the other original player. Also a Ayami ninja and Kagemaru's "sibling", she's by far more aggressive and forward. She's a ninja insofar as she can be sneaky and climb buildings if she wants to, but really she's more about the violence and not averse to hacking her way through crowds of enemies. Built as Scout, branched into One-Man Army expert class. (Which is pleasingly easy to convert to FantasyCraft.)
Ramma Yadanoshi - the first addition. A drunkard bowman with a mercenary past, Ramma added some direly needed ranged firepower. Built as a Soldier. Unfortunately, the player dropped out soon after, so Ramma had to leave the group again fairly quickly.
Kasumi Kagawa - the second addition. A tough-as-nails Conwoman in the guise of a geisha, Kasumi's a social monster and equally dangerous on the battlefield. Her tragic past means she hates nobles, though developments in the story have softened her stance somewhat. She's growing into becoming a heroic sword saint, leaving her criminal past behind. Courtier branched into Gallant.
Toshiba Shiretoko - an ex-Ayami ninja turned lonely woodsman, Toshiba is still deadly as ever with a knife, but not the most socially graceful. He is a talented flute player and (somewhat less talented) poet. Straight Scout, player has no intention of branching.
The Story So Far, or "I swear it all made sense in context"
Kagemaru and Kiara are given their first mission: kill a person called "Little Fox". To this end, they leave their clan fortress for the first time. Their first stop is Golden Harvest, a small village in the valley below famed for its farmers. On the way in, they meet a farmer, Yukio Mohime, who has lost her draft horse to a snakebite and sent her husband, Toshiro "Toshi" Mohime, to borrow a new horse. Kagemaru and Kiara decide to help her pull her wagon back into town, where Toshi shows up with two horses a little too late to be the hero. As thanks for their help, Yukio allows Kagemaru and Kiara to spend the night.
The next morning, Kagemaru and Kiara are still trying to get their bearings when they run into a samurai serving a powerful noble, Lord Aotaka Matsumoto. The samurai reveals that he's hunting for Toshi, because he stole two of Matsumoto's prized horses that were spending the day in the village's stable. The two ninja decide not to sell out their new friend and help Toshi evade the samurai. Toshi reveals that he was going to bring the horses back, but they were stolen during the night. Toshi further reveals that Matsumoto is nicknamed "Old Fox", so the ninja immediately suspect that their target must be a member of Matsumoto's family, probably his child. With Yukio worried sick, the three set out toward the Forge, the valley's main center of trade and banditry, with the hope of finding the horses so they can return them and hopefully get Toshi off the hook. Along the way, they pick up Ramma Yadonoshi, a down&out bowman, who decides to travel with them when they promise him food and some silver coin for his trouble.
In the Forge, their asking around for the horses reveals that the entire town is looking for them. Toshi runs into Kasumi Kagawa, a local conwoman who has a history with him. It's revealed that both of them are conmen working angles at Matsumoto's place, and Kasumi tags along to resolve the situation before her own scheme unravels. The ninjas do not learn of this, however, and accept Toshi's word that Kasumi is merely an old friend. Ramma suggests that if the horses were in town, somebody would have found them by now, and that a likelier place to look are the bandits in the surrounding forests. This strategy pays off, and they manage to infiltrate the bandit camp, strike down their leader and set the whole place on fire in their escape, though they lose sight of Ramma in the confusion. They return to the Forge and lay low in a hostel.
Another denizen of the forest, Toshiba Shiretoko, stumbles upon the burned-down bandit camp and investigates. He finds a scrap of cloth from Kiara, which he identifies as Ayami clan clothing, and decides to go into town and sell what he knows - if Ayami ninja are in town burning down bandit camps, something big has to be going down, right?
At the hostel, the team tries to pull together a plan on how to return the horses without getting Toshi killed or imprisoned. They decide to scout out the place a little first; Kagemaru does a round in the day, barely missing Toshiba heading for Matsumoto's place. Toshiba is eagerly received when he presents his interpretation of the events in the woods, correctly linking Matsumoto's horses into the ploy but thinking the Ayami ninja are in town to kill Matsumoto. The lord asks him to stay the night as a guest.
Kagemaru sets out for another run at night, infiltrating the mansion via the underground water supply and generally being pretty damn sneaky. However, he runs into Toshiba. The two of them hit it off despite having no concrete reason to trust each other, and Kagemaru explains why they're here. Toshiba feels compelled to help them or at least not get in their way, due to a mix of old loyalty to the clan and genuine sympathy for their not-so-bad intentions here.
The next day, the team awakes to find Toshi and the horses gone - he's left for Matsumoto's place, intent on bringing the horses back and shouldering whatever the punishment will turn out to be. With little other choice, Kasumi uses her connections to get them into the mansion through the front entrance, to be received by a pleasant Matsumoto as his guests. The team begins to suspect that Matsumoto knows more about them than he lets on, and so the theme of the evening until dinner is massively unease. At dinner, Matsumoto sends his toadies away and interrogates both Toshiba and the team about the events in the forest. The team admits to trying to help Toshi recover the horses without revealing who they are and what their mission is, which seems to satisfy Matsumoto. Later, Kagemaru and Toshiba climb from their rooms onto the roof of the large mansion, where they witness a heated talk between Matsumoto and Toshi on the lord's chamber's balcony. The way Matsumoto scolds Toshi, it appears that Toshi is not a conman at all, but rather the lord's son. Kagemaru immediately makes the connection that he must be Little Fox, then, but given how they helped Toshi and saw him try to do right in his own well-meaning, if bumbling way, he begins to get serious second thoughts about the mission. He and Toshiba return to the guest quarters, where Toshiba officially joins the team and all cards are laid onto the table.
The next morning, Toshi is permitted to leave with them. They corner him and the ninja reveal their mission, asking if he is Little Fox. Toshi denies it, but further interrogation reveals that he knows who Little Fox is - Yukio, his wife! She is, in fact, Matsumoto's daughter, which makes Toshi the lord's son in law. At this point, the ninja have both pretty much decided that they can't go through with their mission, so they collectively trek back to Golden Harvest to tell Yukio the truth.
Back in Golden Harvest, more sordid history is revealed: Yukio's actually not "just" a noble, but a serious warrior in her own right, who almost graduated the Imperial War Academy as a full-fledged samurai before she met Toshi and ran away with him to marry him. Since then, leagues of assassins have been sent to kill her, even when she was staying with Toshi at her father's mansion. They never figured out who sent those guys, but given the persistence of the attempts, it's clearly someone powerful. And now that our ninja have found them in Golden Harvest, they're not safe anymore and need to leave again. Yukio suggests that they go back to the War Academy - she suspects one of the other nobles she trained with may hold a grudge against her for leaving, and that Master Oa, the head of the Academy, might have more insight.
Along the way, they run into a piss-poor ambush by a youth named Ueki Kogin - the younger brother of the bandit boss they killed when they recovered the horses. Kasumi offers to face him in combat, and though she easily defeats him, she decides to spare his life and take him along. The distraction, however, is good enough for an Ayami clan messenger to show up and talk to the ninjas (and Toshiba, who's kind of back out of exile at this point). Bottom line: their kage, Master Sinan, isn't exactly thrilled, but they've been investigating the contract on Little Fox and suspect that this is a setup of some sort. The team is ordered to stay with Yukio and be ready to kill her if the order comes, though.
At the Academy, they are received by Master Oa, a small old man who nevertheless seems quite capable of kicking ass. He offers them quarters for the night and more answers tomorrow. He also addresses Kasumi as if he knows her, which has her sneak into his room in the evening to demand answer. He casually drops that he knows she's using a fake identity. Kasumi breaks down, and we reveal that she's really Kirika Kaneda, the daughter of a sword saint who was ruined and murdered by his noble "friends" when she was little. Oa reveaks that Kirika was accepted to the Academy and supposed to attend, but her father's murder forced her and her mother on the run and they never got the acceptance letter from Oa. However, Oa does present her with a sword her father commissioned for her and tells her that they will find a way to make up for lost time in her training.
(Break for cigarettes, restrooms are to your right, please do not leave the building)
During the night, the team is attacked by a team of ninja. Their leader gives Kiara and Kasumi a good fight before fleeing with a leg wound, Toshiba manages to kill another, and the last one is brought down by Kagemaru after a long footchase through the Academy grounds where the ninja demonstrates blatantly supernatural powers in sticking to surfaces and climbing. Wrestling on the ground, Kagemaru rips the ninja's hood off, and the suit immediately collapses, letting out a screaming shadow that slithers off into the night.
The next morning, the team confers with Shimazu, the head instructor, about the attack and their suspicion that the ninja that got away didn't leave the Academy grounds but is actually one of the students. Shimazu obliges them by ordering the assembled students to do exercises that stress the legs, and one does indeed falter - Nagiko, an old rival of Yukio's. Under the team's guard, she's brought to medical treatment for her still-untreated leg wound. (The medicine woman's question of "Wake-up tea?" and the foul but very restorative potion of that name consequently become running gags for a while.) Nagiko reveals that she's working for the Red Dragon clan now, a group of ninja with a nearby stronghold who took over the contract on Yukio. Yukio advocates rolling into the fortress and just killing them all, but the team suggest a sneakier method - have Kasumi pretend to be a noble interested in buying off the clan's contract, while the ninjas sneak in alongside and see if they can find records of who's behind the contract. In preparation, Kasumi goes to spar with Yukio, and the two of them beat each other black and blue with practice weapons. In the process, both discover respect for each other: Kasumi proves she's a capable fighter and not just a pretty face, while Yukio proves she's actually interested in honor and discipline, not like the nobles Kasumi hates so much.
At the clan fortress (more than a little inspired by the mountain monastery from For Your Eyes only), Kasumi does her insertion using Nagiko as a hostage, with Yukio disguised as her mute bodyguard. The ninjas infiltrate from a nearby tower of tock with Kagemaru's new suit (which incidentally doubles nicely as an enemy unifom) and a custom arbaleste for Toshiba that shoots bolts with an attached rope. Kasumi and Yukio are invited to speak with the clan's kage, Master Aogin. Aogin quickly reveals himself to be a money-grubbing son of a female dog who openly boasts of his violent exploits. The ninjas manage to quietly take out the guards at the record room and find the contract on Yukio - but it's signed in foreign! Looks like the contract may come from a complete outsider, but that just makes it even more unclear as to why they want Yukio dead. Meanwhile, Kasumi has teased from Aogin that he thinks he's been hired by the High Lords - i.e. the guys who run the whole damn country - for an internal power struggle against Matsumoto's family. He then boasts that he killed Yukio's brother, the Swift Fox, and took his blade. Before Kasumi can ask "Wait, you have a brother?", Yukio sees red and attacks, but Aogin easily parries - and then a series of shuriken hit next to our heroes. Turns out that his cave lair is, of course, full of ninjas, his personal bodyguards. Things look dire until the rest of the team busts in from above through an air shaft, and the fight is on!
(SFX: Voice screams "MORTAL KOMBAT!")
Long story short (ha, too late!): Kasumi and Yukio manage to beat Aogin to within an inch of his life, which isn't easy when the man can spit fire and is tough like hell, and Kiara stops her ninja cuisinart act long enough to grab Aogin's weapon and finish him off with it. The team is left with a cave full of the clan's riches and dead ninjas. Outside, Nagiko has rallied the rest of the clan, and for a second it looks like they're gonna have to fight their way out against all those ninjas when they bow to Kiara. Turns out it's one of those "You kill it, you keep it" dealies. Kiara is content to issue some general "rebuild what we blew up, stay away from these icky kinds of contracts in the future" orders and leaves Nagiko in charge. The team has some foreigners to visit. Oh, and Kiara gets to keep the sword because Yukio wants to see it put to a good use rather than gather dust in her father's treasure vault.
However, on their way back, they find the Academy has been attacked while they were away by a group of mercenaries using glider wings and blackpowder weapons (gonnes), and they've kidnapped Toshi! Yukio is extremely pissed off, and Toshiba perks up when he hears that it's the work of the Blue Oni, a known rogue and bandit leader. They set off immediately after the Blue Oni, using Toshiba's tracking skills, but the Blue Oni has a considerable head start. During night camp, Kagemaru is visited by the previous user of his new stealth suit, a living shadow that claims it would dearly like to choke out his life, but due to Kiara running the clan now, he's going to be Kagemaru's guide to the powers of the suit. Kagemaru realizes that the suit will eventually transform him into a shadow creature like that, though the shadow claims it'll suck much less for him since he won't have undergone the ritual that binds the old shadow to the suit and forces it to stay loyal to the clan. Also, the Ayami messenger shows up again, revealing herself to Yukio and Kasumi in the process. The hit on Yukio is officially off - they are to keep following her to *protect* her now. Kiara and Kagemaru are more than relieved, but the messenger makes it clear that this is Master Sinan's own decision, not some reward for their persistence in not following the original orders. The team asks the messenger if she can try to scout for Blue Oni's trail, and she obliges while everyone goes back to sleep.
The next day, they catch up to Blue Oni on a mountain pass to the coastal region the foreigners occupy. A sneaky approach reveals that the Blue Oni is delivering Toshi to a man named O'Laff-Zen. The team attacks from ambush, and Toshiba tells the team that he used to work for the Blue Oni before he was thrown off a cliff by the same and left for dead. However, he's not sure if it was the same man - the Blue Oni does not appear in public outside of his armor. Toshiba forces the Blue Oni to strip, revealing an unnaturally handsome man - and promptly shooting him in the head. Toshiba's plan is to wear the armor and go to the Blue Oni's arranged meeting with O'Laff-Zen, so they can get some answers. Toshi and Yukio reunite, but given the dead guy in the snow next to them, it's hardly romantic.
On their way into the foreigner city on the coast, the team runs into a group of foreign traders. Kagemaru reveals that he speaks some of their language, and they quickly hit it off, ending the night outside the city gates in drunken revelry. Intoxicated, Kasumi makes a pass at Yukio, and they wake up the next morning sharing a bedroll. Awkwardness ensues for a while until they admit to each other that they've both got feelings for the other and that they'd like to explore them. Yukio goes off to discuss her *ahem* infidelity with Toshi, but her husband tells her that he's okay with it and that she should follow her heart on this. The team gains entrance to the foreigner city, and one of the traders - Knut - tells them they can rent his house for the next few days to have a place to stay.
(You look up from the wall of text and see a dim light at the end of the tunnel. Almost done!)
At the house, an off-hand question from Kasumi reveals that Toshiba now knows where the meeting with O'Laff-Zen is to take place - because he's wearing the Blue Oni armor, and the Blue Oni knows. They fail at extracting any other tidbits after Toshiba becomes aware of that little wrinkle, though. Meanwhile, Kagemaru and Kiara go exploring the city's rooftops, where they run into the messenger again. At the same time, the Captain of the Guard shows up at the house and talks to Kasumi. A magistrate has been murdered by what his bodyguard's describe as a ninja - so the city's on lockdown, all Imperial citizens are under suspicion, and if they can't find the actual assassin, well, they'll have to hang *someone*. Kasumi is appalled, and Van Synt - the Captain of the Guard - doesn't seem too enthusiastic about it, either. He suggests that he'll allow them to help with the investigation, since he's very short on people who know anything about ninja methods - and in return, they'll make sure that they catch the actual assassin and don't have to execute a random Imperial.
However, the messenger reveals to Kagemaru and Kiara that the assassin is one of the Ayami clan, was wounded in his escape and needs extraction. The team deliberates what to do, and for a moment it looks like the devious game master has succeeded in trapping his players in a dilemma, until Kagemaru suggests that they hide the assassin and use their access to the investigation to frame an Imperial citizen who actually deserves to die. The messenger is sent off to find a suitable target, the dilemma is solved with a third option and the GM is very impressed with his player's resourcefulness.
Oh, and the assassin was hired on the orders of O'Laff-Zen, who the team finds out is a bit of a corsair, in the "actual pirate" sense. Looks like they've got a lot of interesting questions for him when they meet him...
And that's where we are right now.
Comments, or "You're not seriously still reading this, are you?"
This is basically a little catchall for my various other things I couldn't fit in so far.
We currently play the game on Google Wave, which has a good dice roller (Dicey) and collaborative editing. It's pretty cool, but it tends to bog down when waves go beyond a hundred posts or so, and Google's planning to kill it anyway. It's a pity, I think it had a lot of potential for roleplaying use. I guess we'll have to go back to forums and roll with Invisible Castle or something.
In retrospect, I wish I'd planned ahead a little more, because the game has completely exploded out of the scope I had planned (Let two players be ninjas!). I guess my urge to inject some "realism" and details along the way kinda made the game world more and more complex, and I succumbed to the urge to make the plot twisty instead of letting them finish the mission and give out a new one.
The way we play the game is that we use...about 75% of the system? Thereabouts. I don't track XP or design adventures with the system, though I do use the NPC generator. I started out keeping track of wealth and gear but we've gone a long time without bartering, the adventure's pretty equipment-light in general and I've found it's not too much of a problem to just forget it most of the time. I try to stick to skill uses, though my DCs are frequently derived from the "feels right" school of scaling. In combat, I usually fudge the positioning stuff. And of course every PC has a special item by now that's game-breaky in their own way, but I think everybody's having fun, and by putting most of the challenge into the overarching mystery (Why does everyone want Yukio dead?), the combat twinking doesn't actually come up too often. When it does, hey, they're legendary heroes. Good chapter, have a level, guys. I like that even with my laissez-faire methods, it feels like everyone has a skillset to contribute.
I think if a game runs long enough, even the most inconsequential of actions can become very important. If my two original ninjas had known who Yukio was - literally the first NPC they met in the first scene of the game - things could have been very different - she was unarmed and alone. Strike her down, mission complete. If I may briefly elevate myself here, it is - to me - similar to how Planescape: Torment wraps up your journey. That which you sought was right where you started, you just didn't know. And by the time you do know, you've seen enough that what you want has changed considerably. I think that, in the process, Yukio and Toshi have become two of my most successful NPCs - the players like them and care about them, and they're no longer simply "arrogant samurai lady" and "bumbling conman", but a sympathetic couple who have been through a lot with the players.
I'm less thrilled with my use of villains. In keeping things shadowy, there's not enough buildup to the mini-bosses, I think. The players meet them, but then it quickly goes to the killing phase. It makes it difficult to sustain a feeling of fighting against one overarching threat with its servants, rather than a string of obstacles on their way to the next clue. Also, we're perpetually in trouble over scheduling time to play, but that's more of a meta issue.
In conclusion...um, yeah. I think it's a good game, and am very much looking forward to the conclusion, when it finally comes. I still have tons of ideas for the setting and the adventure, even beyond the team solving the central mystery.
Thanks, Crafty, for giving us the toolset to execute our fun gaming diversion with. And thank you for reading this huge wall of text. Just had to get all that stuff out of my brain. Comments and questions welcome, of course.