Shadow of the Cabal: Episode 1

tl;dr An original and surprising murder mystery with interesting characters and engrossing clues, rendered almost incomprehensible because of the flurry of names, places, and concepts, making it a rough way to enter this series

TItle: Episode 1
Episode: 1
Season: N/A
Podcast: Shadow of the Cabal
Gamemaster: Tanner
Justin as Bayushi Akina
Ryan as Isawa Michio
Dakota as Kitsuki Shiro
Game engine: Legend of the Five Rings (“L5R”)
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

So, I feel a little guilty giving Shadow of the Cabal episode 1 such a low rating. It is a good podcast episode, and I am really interested to listen to more of SotC based on my experience with this ep.

But I had to listen to this episode four times before I could grasp the outline of the plot. I listen to a lot of actual-play podcasts, and having to juggle a lot of meaningless titles and place names is my bread and butter. But even I — even I — had a hard time keeping track of the PCs and NPCs in this episode.

The first time I listened, I even did it without reviewing the very helpful episode 0. Big mistake! Episode zero gives you the rough outline of the game: it’s using the beloved but idiosyncratic game engine for Legend of the Five Rings (check) set in the mythical Japan-clone country of Rokugan (check). The society is similar to medieval Japan: a rigid class system with samurai at the top, peasants in the middle, and untouchable caste of eta at the very bottom. All good so far.

Three kinds of samurai: fighter, cleric, and… bureaucrat, more or less. Gotcha.

Once we cover the various animal-named clans (Dragon, Mantis, Unicorn), the emerald magistrates and the recent history (big war, invasion from the south, successfully repelled) I think I’ve got everything buckled down just fine.

Then all hell breaks loose when I actually start episode 1.

The story opens on a pastoral lunch. A hunting party is pausing in their pursuit of a white boar. Our party are three samurai lieutenants of an Emerald Magistrate currently in the Unicorn clan’s territory on kind of a circuit-judge tour. Each lieutenant is from a different clan.

I’m still holding it together at this point.

Then we get to the rest of the NPCs. Two of them are brothers: the functionary who runs the nearby village, and his right-hand man brother with a similar-sounding name. (Deep breath.) There are also two other rando samurai hanging out. And then a few servants, one eta (for butchering the boar), and what seem to be a couple of women, maybe?

This is where I usually get lost.

As the hunting group decides to continue their hunt, they opt to separate into different sub-groups and compete to catch the boar. We then get a nice segment where the PCs try to figure out who should go in which group. None of them can keep the names straight, either. At the end we get a roll call, though, which really helped on listen #4.

The wonderful thing about this episode is that it really opens up at this point. The different sub-groups are much easier to juggle mentally, and we get some excellent role-play from the GM and each PC. We learn about the NPCs, their histories, motivations and goals. We get to see the PCs  interact with them, and we also get some first preliminary rolls for persuasion and perception.

Also wonderfully, the boar hunt takes a 90-degree left turn as the different parties are tracking the boar. The horse of the local functionary, Moto Shotetsu, is found wandering alone without its rider. Soon, the man himself is found: dead, pinned to the ground face down with an arrow through his back. Whoa!

(A note on horses: apparently the horses were all provided by the functionary for the hunting party. He’s from clan Unicorn, and so Tanner and the players refer to them as “Unicorn horses”. It wasn’t till listen #3 that I realized they were not unicorns with big horns in the middle of their heads, but horses that belonged to the clan Unicorn.)

The story shifts from being an athletic challenge with a bit of courtly manners thrown in to a murder mystery. As the closest lawmen, the Emerald Magistrate and his team of lieutenants are responsible to solve it. The clues are very detailed, like in any good murder mystery — the colors of the flocking on the arrow, the position of the body, the timing of which parties were moving which direction when.

The episode ends mid-interview, which I guess means we’ll be solving this mystery in the next episode, or maybe the next one? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Overall, this is a great story, with interesting characters, complex crossed motivations, and cool plot twists. I can see why people are really into this series. But it is a really, really hard first episode for a new podcast series. Without the helpful intro from episode 0, it’s almost comically hard to follow.

The audio is OK but not great. It sounds like the group is connected by Skype or another VoIP system, and they’re not individually mic’d. I hope that gets rectified in later shows. There are also a lot of mouse clicks and the occasionally email notification sound — they pull you out of the narrative pretty quickly.

But I’m looking forward to more SotC. I think there’s a lot of promise to this series.