Accompanying Courts of Stone, the Winter’s Embrace adventure takes the player characters to an Imperial Winter Court at Kyuden Doji, where they must navigate rising tensions between the Crane and Mantis Clans. As this is a GM-focused product, most of the review is below the spoiler bar. But, for players, I would note that the adventure is coherent and provides the GM with some handy tracking tools to help make their job easier. As an adventure set in court, you can expect tea ceremonies, the game of letters, contests, plays, romance (if your group is into that sort of thing), and the usual clutch of people pretending to be honest while lying to your face, stabbing you in the back, feigning being offended, etc. Winter’s Embrace itself focuses just on a relatively narrow plot, but there’s also a web download that can be added in for double the plot. My guess is that, because of the amount of downtime in the adventure, your GM will add in the second plotline. Of course, the GM might have Winter’s Embrace be part of a larger Winter Court experience, but this would require lots more work on their part.
Winter’s Embrace comes with a double-sided poster map featuring Mantis and Crane lands on one side, and Kyuden Doji on the other. It’s in the typical style of such L5R maps from FFG so far. For me, that means a gorgeous and useful map of the area, and a pretty but not really useful map of a town/castle. There’s also a page of tokens, which includes a few obvious characters (a boat and Mantis sailors to go with it; a couple of shinobi) and a larger number of more generic-looking courtier-types. These remain of some utility, but might be less valuable than the tokens for combat-focused characters – I’m not sure what one would do with a boat token or the row of tokens consisting of six very-similar-looking female courtier tokens (they look too similar to be useful in distinguishing one character from another, and I’m not sure when one would need to show positioning for a gaggle of noncombatants).
As this is an adventure book, that’s about the level of detail I can give without spoilers, so players begone!
As usual, the readers should now all be GMs or naughty players who would make the Scorpion proud (the other clans, of course, would value and use such players, but claim they would never tolerate such shenanigans).
The basic setup of Winter’s Embrace is that a Lion shinobi forged an invitation for the Mantis to come to Winter Court and, by the time everyone realized that something was up, the Mantis had already accepted the invitation and the Crane were stuck with it. The Winter’s Embrace scenario will unfold over two weeks (there is a calendar available for download on FFG’s website summarizing what happens on each day), and then is complete. Some days have major events for the adventure, some have lesser interactions that are relevant, and others are set aside for the characters getting up to whatever the characters want to get up to (if you want to include the sort of formal negotiations that often take place at LARP or forum-based Winter Court events, there are a couple pages up front about each clan’s goals at court that year). You can keep running the Winter Court after the two-week mark, but Winter’s Embrace won’t be too much help. Winter’s Embrace includes full write-ups for a handful of NPCs, and a paragraph or two of description for the others than the PCs will need to interact with (you can, again, find a handy-dandy one-page summary of these characters on FFG’s website), but doesn’t seek to populate out an entire court full of samurai.
The plot of Winter’s Embrace will kick off when a prominent Crane asks the characters to help investigate how the Mantis ended up with an invitation when the Crane did not, in fact, invite them. This request will be made at a formal tea ceremony, so the characters will get to attempt such goals as “don’t make a fool out of yourself” (I’m kidding … the goal is really “be a model guest”). The adventure sort of assumes that the characters will accede to the request, or at least not reject it out of hand (this is true even if a PC is from the Mantis Clan; Mantis PCs don’t know what their clan is up to and this is probably the first time they’ve heard that their invitation was abnormal … look, just don’t have a Mantis PC for this adventure, it makes some other things a bit of a mess).
The next five days are left for the PCs to seek to contact a few NPCs they are pointed to by the Crane, including an Imperial daimyo, a Mantis captain, and a Crane organizer. They have opportunities to interact with them at an archery demonstration, a snow lantern festival, and a poetry competition (the GM can use the game of letters to push the characters towards these events). The characters also have the possibility of helping run or participating in these events.
On day 7, the characters get a mysterious letter telling them to drop the matter … which of course means that it’s time for the characters to go take a look at the invitation itself. This might mean sneaking into the Mantis embassy or ship … they’ll probably get caught (although they have a better chance of succeeding that one might think), but this is a rather consequence-free event. Alternatively, they might simply ask the Mantis captain to see it. He will agree … if they spill the beans about why they’re asking. The adventure does not propose an alternative means of gaining his trust, but I would suggest thinking of some in advance and being open-minded, because I think there’s a reasonably high chance that the group will have at least one player/character who balks at either sneaking around or telling the Mantis about the Crane’s request (the characters having gone along with that request for the last week). Players might need to be pushed to realize that just asking the Mantis to see the invitation is even an option. Upon getting the invitation, the characters will readily realize that it is a forgery, and that the forgery was done by the same person who sent them the letter that morning. At this point, the characters will either (1) have no idea who made the forgery, and no way to find out; or (2) will already know it was a forgery and who forged it, because she got drunk and told them. Assuming it’s the former, the shinobi will conveniently attempt to steal the invitation from the characters, thus giving them the opportunity to catch and expose her.
This moves the action on to the second arc of the adventure. There is a big play. The Imperial Heir will be watching. The lead is currently a Crane. The Mantis would like one of their own to have this role, on the belief that the actress will be so impressive that she will end up betrothed to the heir (it is unclear why an imperial marriage would ever be arranged on this basis, but that’s the plan). The characters have probably been told this by the Mantis captain, and have definitely been told this by the Crane master of intrigues. Both want to see the Mantis actress take over the role, thus resulting in her exultation or humiliation, based on how well it goes … with the PCs making sure it goes one way or the other. Getting her into the part should not be too difficult (and might be very easy). The rest of day 9, and then days 10-11, are for the player characters to do as they wish (but see below about The Scroll or the Blade).
The play is on day 12, and I think there are four possible ways things could go. If the characters somehow never got the Mantis actress the part, the play goes well. If the players got the Mantis actress the part, and then helped her out in some way, the play goes well. If the players sabotage the Mantis actress (for example, by waiting until day 12 to let her know that she has the part), then the play goes badly. Sabotaging the actress is a pretty big honor hit (more than anything else in the adventure), so expect players to be grumpy if that’s the way they want to go. The fourth way is if the characters got the actress the part, told her she got the part, and then did nothing. Then the play goes badly anyway – apparently she just isn’t that good.
The consequences for the characters begin to unfold on day 13, as the player characters get challenged to a duel. If they supported the Mantis actress, the Crane challenge them (for ‘threatening’ the director to change the casting, an accusation that probably won’t be true). If they sabotaged her, the Mantis challenge them. It’s unclear what’s supposed to happen if the Mantis actress simply failed on her own merits. I imagine the Mantis would challenge anyway (it’s not like evidence matters, right?). Also, the Crane champion will be the master sensei of the Kakita Dueling School, which either means a whupping for the character who accepts the challenge or pretty significant breach of verisimilitude. I could see this mandatory duel creating hard feelings among some groups. Give them the choice to side with the Mantis or the Crane, then socially dishonor them for siding with the Mantis? Day 14 is just a chance to touch base with any NPCs again, and the GM gets to hand out allies, adversities, experience, and such.
Overall, I have a positive impression of Winter’s Embrace. It gives the players a couple of discrete, achievable tasks and lays out a few ways of handling things. It also provides a few more typical Winter Court activities, and weaves those a bit into the plot. It gives the GM a framework to know how to structure the two-week time frame, while also making sure there’s some extra time so that the players don’t feel overly constrained. However, there are more than a couple stretches made by the adventure in order to keep things moving. It’s left to the GM to figure out why the Crane would assign the initial task to them, and (depending on the players) some GMs will need to figure out how to ensure that the PCs accept the task given. As the players proceed, they will find that NPCs of all stripes are surprisingly trusting, handing out a lot of private information to this group of samurai wandering around asking questions. The adventure assumes that the characters won’t even try to get the invitation until day 7, and then they have to get it that day. The adventure assumes that no one else involved in the play’s production will let the Mantis actress know she’s been cast in the lead role. All of these will require the GM to put a little thought into keeping the characters on track and on schedule. How well the adventure will go over with a could depend significantly on whether the players involved tend to take direction well and how the GM feels about things going ‘off script’ if they don’t.
As mentioned above, there is a web supplement (The Scroll or the Blade), that can be run along with Winter’s Embrace. The action in that story – which revolves around whether the Phoenix or the Dragon should get custody of a child – takes place over a few days such that it will fit in days 9-11 of Winter’s Embrace. It feels like the two are probably better run together, or else Winter’s Embrace might feel a little too straightforward with a few too many ’empty’ time slots. My guess is that in another time they probably would have been published as one unit, but page limitations precluded that here. There’s also a little bit of groundwork for integrating Winter’s Embrace into something a bit longer (especially if your group likes romance), but it’s still only a bit of groundwork – the GM will still have a lot of work ahead for that option.