This came up in the comments on Sovay’s LJ, and it turns out to be much too long to fit into the comment limits. Besides, I’ve told gaming stories here before and been assured that I can actually make them interesting, so why not share the story with all of you?
This is the tale of
Hantei Seikiro Shosuro Arikoto the man currently known as Ensō, an NPC in my Legend of the Five Rings campaign. Also known as, my best effort to date at creating a Magnificent Bastard.
For those who don’t know L5R, its setting, Rokugan, is very much fantasy!Japan with some other Asian elements thrown in. It has the courtliness of the Heian Period, the warfare of the Sengoku Period, and the bureaucracy of the Tokugawa Period, with a dose of folklore and mysticism. My campaign takes place in the Togashi Dynasty AU I created when I started freelancing for the game, wherein the canonical founder of the Dragon Clan instead became the first Emperor, and Hantei (who in canon was the first Emperor) instead founded the Owl Clan. The effect of this is that our Rokugan is much more wuxia and supernatural than the usual run of L5R.
<pauses to allow people familiar with those characters to stop screaming>
— wherein her PC would fall in love with some guy and then be horribly betrayed* by him.
She expressed no opinion as to whether this should be a matter of him heel-turning for some reason, or him being evil all along and it only becoming apparent at the moment of betrayal (which would be the Seishirō model). I contemplated a bunch of different possible flavors of villainy — but in Rokugan, a lot of the chief options involve spiritual corruption of the sort that can only be healed by Plot Hammer. Besides, if the corruption was involuntary it wouldn’t be much of a betrayal, and if it were voluntary . . . that would be kind of hard to forgive. (She wanted at least a thin thread of hope for her PC to cling to, that the guy could be redeemed.) It would fit the setting for his betrayal to be of the sort where he chooses his duty over his heart, but that didn’t really fit the flavor we were going for.
Enter the Scorpion Clan.
I think of the Scorpion as the Malkavians of L5R. Just like Malks in Vampire: The Masquerade, they’re a type of character lots of people think would be cool to play, but doing them well? That’s a different matter. The Scorpion are the Clan of Secrets, the Clan of Lies, the Emperor’s Underhand. In an empire of honorable samurai, their ethos is “necessary villainy.” Their job is to be the bad guy so the clans will have an enemy to keep them from uniting against the throne, and to do dishonorable things so their more honorable cousins don’t have to. The failure mode of the Scorpion, naturally, is unnecessary villainy, because when you’re a pack of ninja and dirty tricksters, it’s easy to get into the habit of doing whatever you like. But done right? The Scorpion are awesome. And I was determined to do it right.
The PCs are all Owl Clan samurai, so I made a Scorpion sleeper agent posing as one of their own. He trained as a Shosuro Actor — a school whose students learn to masquerade as other kinds of people. When he finished his training, the Scorpion murdered a Hantei kid who was about to go train as a bushi (warrior), used magic to face-sculpt their guy into passing for the dead one, and sent him off to start a new life as an honorable Hantei bushi. Which he did, quite successfully, for a number of years.
Here I should note that in L5R, “Honor” is one of the stats on your sheet. It changes based on your actions, can be perceived by other people, and has a mechanical effect on how well you do at resisting things like Fear effects. So the man now known as Hantei Seikiro was performing all the actions of a high-Honor samurai, all the while knowing that he was a despicable liar. I ended up resolving this by giving him several ranks of the Perceived Honor advantage, while capping his actual Honor at 3.9, meaning he could never rise out of the category labeled “Untrustworthy.” It seemed the best compromise, and ended up being a good way of representing his eventual conflict, which was that he got so good at pretending to be honorable that he started to wish he really was.
So the PCs come along and Seikiro hitches himself to their wagon as the yojimbo (bodyguard) to Kitsune Reishin, the one he’s going to have the tragic romance with. (This is slightly hilarious because Reishin is Chosen by the Oracle of Earth, and your Earth Ring is the stat that supplies your hit points. Reishin needs a yojimbo less than just about anybody in the party: looks like a delicate flower, takes damage like a concrete bunker. But falling in love with your yojimbo is a classic scenario, one that comes equipped with all the hurt/comfort opportunities you might want.) Things go along swimmingly for a while, with Seikiro using his Shosuro Actor training to encourage Rei to fall for him . . . and, of course, falling for Rei in return, which he isn’t supposed to do. The player knows this will go wrong at some point, but doesn’t know when or why.
It starts to fall apart when the PCs find a mirror in the haunted forest they’re assigned to patrol (the Shinomen Mori, for those playing along at home). It’s Shosuro’s Mirror: an obsidian artifact created by the founder of Seikiro’s real family, and given to the founder of the Scorpion Clan. Centuries ago in my campaign’s timeline, it wound up at an Owl Clan monastery, by means that make Owl samurai look uncomfortable and change the subject. (The Hantei in particular are supposed to be quite honorable. Like many of the setting’s high-Honor families, their failure mode is the arrogant assumption that they’re better equipped to deal with something than those dishonorable scumbags over there. If making sure an artifact as dangerous as the mirror is safely locked away means stealing it, well . . .) The Scorpion stole it back; their thieves were pursued and died in a battle in the forest; the mirror was lost. But now it’s found again, and Seikiro reports this fact to his handler.
A mad scramble ensues, with the Scorpion ambushing the PCs when they’re supposed to meet up with a Hantei who will guide them to the monastery where the mirror will be secured once more. The Scorpion plan involves killing all of the PCs and leaving Seikiro “nearly dead;” he’ll drag himself back to civilization and report the tragedy, with his cover secure. But because this entire enterprise had to be thrown together at the last second, it starts to fall apart, leaving Seikiro facing a choice: defend the man he loves and the people who have become his friends, or prove his loyalty to his clan by turning on Reishin and taking the mirror.
He makes the wrong choice.
Which you knew he would, because you read the beginning of this post. But there are two additional complications. First off, all four of the PCs are Chosen by one of the Elemental Oracles: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. But this is Legend of the Five Rings, and so their backstabbing Scorpion traitor companion? Is of course Chosen by the Oracle of Void. He knew for years that a day would come when he’d have to choose between the Owl and the Scorpion, and when that day came, he was determined to choose the Scorpion. But the actual choice ended up being between the fate laid on him by the Celestial Heavens and his temporal loyalty . . . and he chose wrong.
Second, the most unforgivable sin a Scorpion can commit is to betray his own clan.
I’ll skip over the weirdness wherein Rei’s non-existent ghost twin starts soul-popping Scorpion ninja out of their bodies and tries to do the same to Seikiro and when Rei stops him (because love, even if betrayed) Rei ends up getting pulled into the Void. Seikiro snaps his wakizashi in half, because in Rokugan that’s the symbol of your honor, and absconds with the mirror. The other PCs fight off the Scorpion attack and pursue Seikiro through the Shinomen Mori — tracking him by way of magical messenger birds bearing death poems — but because the forest is weird, they lose not only their quarry but an entire year in there. When they come out, they decide to go incognito to the Scorpion capital, where Imperial Winter Court will be beginning soon, because that will give them a chance to steal the mirror back (again) and fulfill their duty after all. Everybody thinks they’re dead, so the Scorpion won’t expect it, right?
The man formerly known as Seikiro is at Winter Court, now under his real name: Shosuro Arikoto. He’s a complete asshole and a borderline alcoholic, because the Celestial Heavens have cursed him for his betrayal, and he’s also lugging around a homebrew disadvantage reflecting the fact that he keenly feels the gap between the honorable man he pretended to be and the honorless piece of shit he actually is. Also, Rei is (completely unconsciously) sending him poems, which appear burned into the floorboards or etched into the inside of his mask**, which is enough to drive anybody insane. Eventually he figures out the PCs are still alive — not realizing that Rei is only quasi-alive, being an incorporeal manifestation projected out of the Void — and now, oh joy, he gets to make that choice again!
His Cunning Plan ™ is this: he gets Rei alone while people are outside of Winter Court for an event, using this as his one last chance to kiss the man he loved and betrayed. (Because of course Arikoto is the one person who can touch Rei. Remember, the goal here is angst.) When Rei tells the others they’ve been made, Arikoto lures them to what looks like an ambush and goes Full Metal Bastard to provoke them into killing him — because that way they’ll get the satisfaction of revenge, and he won’t have to decide whether to report them to his clan or not. Unfortunately for him, they figure out what he’s trying to do (though not why) and decline to cooperate. One of the PCs tosses a piece of “Seikiro’s” broken wakizashi at him and they walk out.
At this point Arikoto can’t dodge the choice any more. Does he report the PCs to the Scorpion? Or does he keep their secret?
This is Rokugan. He chooses Door Number Three: he picks up that piece of wakizashi and commits seppuku with it.
Which brings Reishin sprinting back into the cave to heal him (scorecard now says Rei has twice saved the guy who betrayed him). A conversation ensues which features things like Arikoto saying “apparently I can’t serve either clan with honor” and having his abject state aired all for the world to see — or at least all the PCs — especially since Rei has used magic to see his various advantages and disavantages (missing only the one that says Arikoto loves him back). They don’t exactly trust him yet . . . nor should they, and he tells them that himself. They wind up leaving him in the cave to ponder his failure to kill himself and the untenable position he now occupies. For an added twist of the knife, one of the other PCs tries to reassure him that the Scorpion prize the virtue of Loyalty above all, so maybe they’ll understand his loyalty to the group?
His response, which she did not hear, was “You don’t know my clan. This path ends on a tree.”
After this, Arikoto was fresh out of fucks to give. He figured he would die horribly in the near future, so in the meanwhile, he might as well throw away what remained of his honor to help the PCs in their goal. This culminates him him pretending to help the Scorpion investigation against them, luring the leader of that investigation to attack the PCs with insufficient forces, and then cutting the guy’s throat — on holy ground, no less. Retrieving the mirror features enjoyable highlights like a “best of all possible worlds” dream realm where he really is Hantei Seikiro, meeting the ghost of the murdered kid whose place he took (which has been imprisoned in a bag for all the years since), and coming face-to-face with the founder of his clan, whereupon he has to admit that he’s betrayed the fundamental principles of the Scorpion***. Coming out the other side, after the mirror is delivered to the Emperor instead of the Owl, he has a lovely stretch of time wherein the Scorpion know he’s a traitor but, by imperial fiat, are not allowed to kill him — so instead they make his life a living hell. Oh, and that “murder on holy ground” thing earned him a type of divine wrath where sake = instant alcohol poisoning, so he can’t even drink his troubles away. Throughout this all, he is convinced that, while Rei does still have feelings for him, he’s doing this best to get over that and is making good progress. So naturally, the tiny shred of honorability that still remains in Arikoto’s soul says he should keep his own mouth shut re: feels. After all, he manipulated Rei into falling for him in the first place, their entire relationship is built on lies and betrayal, and Rei has a duty to his clan/family/lord to get married, not to moon after a worthless Scorpion bastard****. Plus the other Scorpion would totally use this against them both. Better to just stay silent and let Rei get over him.
Which blows up spectacularly when Rei recites a poem at court that is a coded but extremely public declaration of love for him.
The Scorpion can’t kill either Arikoto or Reishin (yet). They can, however, torture Arikoto and use magical messenger birds to send the sound of his screams to Reishin every night. Which they do. While Arikoto does his best to fuck them over any way he can during his daytime non-torture hours. This finally ends when the PCs resort to having a Nezumi (giant rat creature) enact a ritual that erases his true name from existence, causing everybody but celestial beings and themselves to forget anybody named Hantei Seikiro or Shosuro Arikoto ever existed. But hey, at least he’s spared one final indignity: only the Nezumi knows his true name was a dysfunctional hybrid of “Hantei Seikiro” and “Shosuro Arikoto,” reflecting the way he was torn between those two identities. Wiped clean and given a chance to start over, he asked the PCs whether he should be honorable or go on being their Scorpion Friend who would do the dishonorable things so they wouldn’t have to; they hemmed and hawed until Rei finally told him to be honorable. So now he’s going by the temporary name of Ensō and trying to remember how to not be an asshole ninja murderer.
This came up on Sovay’s blog because we were talking about characters having their shameful secrets aired in front of the people they’ve been trying to keep those secrets from. It’s an experience Arikoto has suffered through repeatedly; at this point, he has very few secrets left. Off the top of my head, the only things the PCs don’t know are (ROT-13 again) gung ur’f gur fba bs n Lbtb, gung ur fgntrq n qhry va juvpu ur tbg jbhaqrq qrsraqvat Ervfuva fcrpvsvpnyyl gb rapbhentr Erv’f nggnpuzrag, naq gur shyy rkgrag bs uvf qvegl gevpxf va gurve qrsrafr. Most of them have even figured out that he loves Rei back, though Rei is convinced otherwise. (Downside of being Chosen by the Oracle of Earth: Rei is stubborn like a stubborn thing, and is determined to filter all of this guy’s actions through a “he doesn’t actually love me” lens.) Will the two of them find happiness despite their flaws? In a normal world I would tell Rei to run for the hills, but this is a story, so yes, they will. Eventually. Once they get their heads out of their hakama.
After all, as Om Shanti Om taught us: if the ending isn’t happy, then it isn’t the end.
*Here I should note that at the time, I forgot she had only seen X/1999. Where those two are undeniably messed up — but not half so badly as they are in Tokyo Babylon, which she had not read. She only knew the general outline of what happened there. I . . . might have gone overboard in inflicting angst on her, because I took Tokyo Babylon as my yardstick. Oops?
**All Scorpion wear masks. It’s their thing. Also how the Owl didn’t recognize him the moment they showed up to Winter Court.
***In a way which perfectly upheld their fundamental principles. But like the instance of Cassiel’s Choice in Kushiel’s Dart, the Scorpion could never acknowledge that; doing so would make it no longer perfect.
****ROT-13’d in case my players read this: Ur’f npghnyyl gur onfgneq fba bs n Fubfheb ybeq. Nf gur Y5E cynlref nzbat lbh unir cebonoyl nyernql thrffrq, uvf zbgure jnf n Lbtb — obea vagb n snzvyl jubfr zrzoref ner nyy phefrq gb orgenl jungrire gurl ybir gur zbfg. Frvxveb vaurevgrq gung phefr, naq gevttrerq vg jura ur ghearq ba Erv.