Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

A Root Problem: Conflicting Themes

Once I really started digging into the design of L5R at the foundational level, one of the more interesting realizations I came to was that the game had an inherent flaw that went all the way back to 1st Edition: it was presenting two different themes which were in conflict with each other. The game was intended to be the RPG version of the world (Rokugan) that had already been created for the story of the L5R CCG. That world was of course a samurai world, full of death, defeat, and tragedy… but it was also full of honor, heroism, memorable characters, and world-shaking epic storytelling. The RPG sought to evoke that world in ways both small and large, from the existence of mechanics like Great Destiny and Void Points to the character advancement mechanics that allowed PCs to ascend to the pinnacles of mastery in their Skills and Schools. The very fact that the core book referred to adventures as “stories” made it clear that this was supposed to be a game where the characters were the protagonists of dramatic samurai fiction.

At the same time, however, lead designer John Wick seems to have envisioned a “samurai RPG” through the prism of Akira Kurosawa’s downbeat, genre-subversive samurai films. He wanted a game where the characters were of no great importance and could die at any time, their lives brief and obscure. This was reflected most clearly in the combat/Wounds system and the Mass Battle system, both of which made it astonishingly easy for the PCs to be randomly killed by… pretty much anyone. Indeed, when Wick finally designed his own self-published samurai RPG “Blood and Honor” two decades later, it followed that model exactly: a game in which the PCs are minor pieces in the structure of their Clan, dying frequently and usually with little accomplishment to their names. The Clan matters, the PCs do not.

With hindsight, I can’t help but see the 1st Edition design as a clumsy attempt to merge these two divergent themes, these two conflicting ideas on what an L5R samurai RPG should be. On the one side a harsh, merciless, downbeat game about samurai who live and die in brief tales of tragic futility. On the other side, the heroic/epic themes and long-form stories that drove the CCG storyline.

This made the game design itself discordant in a number of ways.

Why have five ranks of School Techniques, for example, if your character is unlikely to live past Rank One? Why have Advantages and Disadvantages that are designed for long-form storytelling – things like True Love or Social Position or Sworn Enemy or Higher Purpose – but at the same time have a combat/Wound system that makes it quite easy for an angry peasant to murder you with a sharp stick?

(Interesting side-note: John Wick has claimed in several interviews and essays that he actually wanted characters in L5R to just straight-out die if they were hit by a katana, but AEG forced him to change that, so he made the combat system as close to that level of lethality as he could get away with. I don’t know if that is true – these sorts of Wick stories always come with several grains of salt – but when he had the chance to make his own samurai game in Blood and Honor, he did in fact make katana into one-hit-kill weapons.)

When I ran the HoR1 and HoR2 living campaigns, I found myself continually slamming up against this internal conflict in the design. I wanted to tell long-term stories, to have the PCs become movers and shakers in Rokugan and ultimately the key players in saving (or dooming) the world – why else do a multi-year “living” campaign? In fact, I only wrote a handful of adventures – two in the first campaign, one in the second, and the finales of each -- that were specifically intended for plot/drama reasons to cause large numbers of casualties. But the lethality – the -random- lethality – of the system regularly undercut my goal of telling a long-form story. Even in HoR2, where the 3rd Edition system made the characters both more powerful and harder to kill, and I deliberately wrote many adventures to be less dangerous, chains of lucky/unlucky die-rolls often wrecked havoc. In the GM guidelines for both campaigns, I wrote that “characters’ deaths, like their lives, should have meaning and purpose” but all too often this was not the case in actual play.

Designers of L5R’s later editions all sensed the underlying conflict between the original game’s two themes, and tried to find ways to mitigate it – but since “design inertia” presented any serious re-examination of the original’s root mechanics, the results were mixed. Characters got more Wound ranks and later also got a bigger “Earth x5” Wound Rank, Void Points gained the power to negate Wounds, and the mechanical impact of Wounds became less debilitating by changing from dice penalties to TN penalties. (BTW, this change was another example of “design inertia” – 2nd Edition’s change from dice penalties to TN penalties was justified by the game’s smaller dice pools, but then 3rd and 4th stayed with TN penalties while re-inflating the dice pools. During the design of 4th Edition I advocated for going back to dice penalties but the rest of the team preferred otherwise.) All of these changes made PCs somewhat harder to kill… but deaths still were determined by the random effects of attack and damage rolls, so a PC could still die in pointless futility from sheer bad luck.

A closely related problem here is that L5R was originally intended to be a “Narrativist” game as such things were designed and played in the mid-Nineties – hence the emphasis on adventures being “stories,” the importance of non-combat Skills and activities, and the presence of Void Points that granted players greater control over their fate. But in the years since then, narrative RPG design has advanced in all sorts of ways, while the successive editions of L5R have actually drifted away from narrative and toward more mechanical complexity and simulationist detail. Random death is an accepted part of a simulationist game, but undermines the goals of a narrativist game – another manifestation of L5R’s conflicting themes.

So… the point of all this, ultimately, is that I think the fundamental thematic conflict in the original design needs to be dug out, understood, and resolved. What sort of samurai game do you want to play? If in fact you are fine with the specter of random, futile death stalking your game, play on with L5R as written, or play Wick’s Blood and Honor. But if you want the game to more story-driven, to embrace the themes of epic heroism and grand tragedy found in Rokugan’s history, to let PCs’ deaths have meaning and purpose… then a whole lot of things need to be re-worked at a fundamental level.

Obviously, my own preference is the second option.