Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Plans and Storyline Development - A Discussion

When HoR1 first launched, it was “Living Rokugan” and was part of the RPGA, and thus was heavily influenced by the structure and methods of the other RPGA campaigns. Generally speaking, those campaigns put out self-contained adventures that had no connections to each other aside from their shared setting. Occasionally, there might be a larger “metaplot” (such as the war that took place in the Living City campaign in 1995-97), but even in those cases the individual adventures were stand-alone and had no real impact on the larger story. A partial exception to this pattern, however, was the “Living Death” campaign (based on the obscure Masque of the Red Death game/setting). In Living Death, every module had a Critical Events Summary that had to be filled out and sent in, and this could result in major changes to the campaign if the majority of the players failed a particular adventure. If I recall correctly, at one point a major city was overrun with zombies because too many players failed a key module. Moreover, Living Death had multiple named story arcs, and was designed and intended to end after 10 years (which, in fact, it did).

Living Rokugan definitely drew on the example of Living Death for many of its early ideas. I had Critical Event Summaries for most of the modules, and I planned from the start to have an Iuchiban-based story arc, followed by something based on the Clan War era. Still, a lot of the first couple of years’ worth of mods were initially written and designed with the expectation that they would be stand-alone scenarios with no larger metaplot connections or ramifications. A lot of them were also influenced in various ways by the knowledge that they would be played by “typical RPGA gamers” – this meant I tended to put in a lot of combat, but also made the combats deliberately mean in order to weed out the more hack-and-slash sort of players, who I felt would be a poor fit for L5R.

All of the old living campaigns used “certs” (paper certificates, signed by the GM) to represent magic items and other special benefits which the characters acquired. (This system was introduced in, I believe, 1995 after it became apparent that a sizable minority of the RPGA community was willing to cheat on the acquisition of magic items.) I used this idea for Living Rokugan, but wanted certs to be more unusual and special than in a D&D campaign, reflecting the different tone of L5R role-playing. This led to the decision to make them full-page and visually elaborate. Keith Weepie designed the cert template, using some very large graphic files (which is why the cert files were always so huge and difficult to e-mail around in the days before broadband). I very deliberately had only a few certs in the first couple years’ worth of modules, and many of the ones I did include were “booby prize” certs such as maho scrolls and Shadow corruption.

The storyline of Living Rokugan/Heroes of Rokugan 1 was derived primarily from the “classic” Clan War era depicted in L5R’s 1st Edition, which was the version of the game in print when I planned and launched the campaign. Interestingly, after our campaign was approved but before it launched, one of the RPGA’s senior leadership told me about the impending Gold Era timeline jump in the CCG, and offered to let Living Rokugan be the official, canonical record of events happening during that 20-odd years. I turned him down because (a) I didn’t know nearly as much about that era of Rokugan than I did about the 1st Edition era, (b) I was already planning the campaign and had written the first couple of modules, and (c) I really didn’t want to be trapped into a storyline which ultimately couldn’t go anywhere interesting due to the need to “set up” the next CCG era. (I would soon see what a problem that was for the Living Force campaign, set after Phantom Menace. What point in playing a Jedi when you know your actions will mean nothing in the end? This affirmed to me that I had make the correct choice to turn down the offer.)

Of course, because I stuck with the Clan War era, the campaign soon had to grapple not only with the release of the RPG’s 2nd Edition (an unpleasant transition due to changes in the Skill Roll system) but also the subsequent release of the "d20 Rokugan" and various “dual stat” d10/d20 products that were set in the CCG's new Gold/Diamond era. Many of the new game mechanics introduced in these books were timeline-specific, so each release meant a painstaking update of Living Rokugan’s House Rules to specify which mechanics were allowed in the campaign.

Despite my desire to build a campaign with a higher level of storyline intensity and player engagement, there was only so much I could do within the RPGA. For instance, the lead times to write and submit mods were enormous – the RPGA required all non-D&D mods to be submitted six months in advance of their release. For GenCon, it was eight months or more. This placed severe constraints on my ability to incorporate player actions and mod outcomes into the campaign. Sometime in 2001, I don’t rememeber exactly when, the RPGA’s rules were revised somewhat and the lead time was cut down to two months… except for GenCon, which was kept at eight months.

As a result, it wasn’t until late in Living Rokugan Year Two and early in Year Three (basically all of 2002) that I started trying to add more continuity between mods and looking for more ways for players to influence the story. Not coincidentally, this was also when I started adding Interactives to the campaign – since they were not “sanctioned” modules, I could make them more reactive to player decisions.

It was also in late 2002, when I was planning what the module premiers would be for GenCon 2003, that I finally started nailing down where the campaign’s overall storyline was going and how I wanted to approach things like the return of Fu Leng and the Day of Thunder.

Of course, no sooner did I finalize my plans than the RPGA kicked us out. :) Regardless of the details of how that happened (yes, I still bear a grudge, although it is a pretty minor one by now), leaving the RPGA in mid-2003 actually freed me to make the campaign much more reactive/responsive to both player choices and my own evolving plot ideas. It became quite common for the outcome of a module to show up in the storyline for the next one, and I began writing news and short fictions on the campaign website and YahooGroup to show what was happening.

The departure from the RPGA had another side-effect due to what happened when we approached AEG to seek their sponsorship. They were amenable (it was free publicity for their game, after all) and I had a face-to-face meeting with the then-Brand Manager, Ray Lau, at the GAMA Trade Show in March of 2003. At that meeting an important thing happened. I explained that the campaign was set in the Clan War era and thus made only limited use of the CCG-driven "dual-stat" books that AEG was releasing at the time. Ray accepted that the campaign could not be halted mid-stream, but strongly advocated that we should eventually do a forward time-jump to the current era. I was already starting to plan something along those lines, and I told him the current campaign would wrap up in two or three years.

Ray nodded and repeated, “Two years.”

Thus I found myself committed to finishing the HoR1 campaign by 2005, in the process creating some problems for myself by having to compress so many events into the final year – and also accidentally creating the “five year arc” pattern that held true in HoR2.

Ironically, by the time 2005 arrived, Ray was no longer Brand Manager and thus I probably could have extended the storyline by another year if I’d really wanted to. However, by then I had firmly and publicly committed to having the Day of Thunder at GenCon 2005. Plus, the release of L5R 3rd Edition lined up nicely with the end of one campaign and the launch of the next one, so overall things worked out for the best.