Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Power Levels and Power-Creep

Power-creep isn’t universal to RPGs, but it is certainly a very widespread problem in the hobby. Pretty much any game that features character-advancement and has multiple character options is liable to succumb to it, and in some games it seems to be an intentional feature of the design. (I’m looking at you, D&D 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder!)

L5R was no stranger to this problem, especially in 3rd Edition. I could write many pages on the specific issues with School design, Paths, Spells, secondary mechanics like Kata, and all the rest of it, but ultimately that would be a lot of work for little return. Instead I’m going to focus in on something more basic: Rings/Traits and Skills. In 1st Edition, all Skills were capped at 5 (along with many other things – clearly intended to thematically echo the “Five Rings” in the game’s title) and Rings were effectively capped there as well, since you had to raise your otherwise-near-useless Shintao Skill to at least 3 (representing the beginning of “enlightenment”) in order to go above that level at all. The expectation was that a really experienced, very long-lived character would be able to roll 10k5 with his best Skills – hence the “maximum of 10 dice” rule. All of this meshed nicely with the overall style of 1st Edition, which had a baseline of gritty Kurosawa-esque realism undergirding its heroic fantasy. Unfortunately, right from the start this theme of realistic, human-scale heroism started to be undermined. The tendency of the Way of the Clans books to be written by fans of those clans led to all manner of overpowered mechanics and absurdly-godlike NPCs, not to mention the hilarity of Hida Kisada and Kakita Toshimoko having Shintao 5 in order to justify their ridiculous stats. (Maybe Toshimoko found enlightenment in a geisha house?) And of course, once there were NPCs were in the game with Fire 8 and Earth 9 who were mechanically as strong as Oni Lords, players (rightly) demanded to know why their characters couldn’t have the same…

Then we got 2nd Edition. 2nd was an oddball design that made some peculiar choices, most notably switching from “roll Skill plus Trait, keep Trait” to “roll Skill, keep Trait.” This weird variation on the original base mechanic was apparently motivated by the belief that players were undervaluing Skills and putting all their points into raising Traits (because Traits awarded kept dice, and Skills awarded mere unkept dice).

This was a classic example of the design trap (also seen later on with D&D 4th Edition) of listening to a few loud voices on the Internet rather than looking at what actually happens in real games. The “problem” of people buying all Traits and no Skills was not a real problem at all – it existed mainly among forum theorycrafters doing min-max mathematics tricks disconnected from actual play. In reality, the high Experience Point cost of raising Traits in 1st Edition and the low cost of Skills meant that most players followed a balanced path of advancement. And no, this isn’t just my own theorycrafting opinion – I ran multiple long-form campaigns at home and then spent a decade running “living” campaigns with thousands of players worldwide. The problem 2nd Edition tried to solve did not actually exist… but the myth of “Skills need to be boosted to make them desirable over Traits” persisted for many years at AEG, exerting a destructive influence on game design.

In 2nd Edition, the changed design combined with the desire to keep the maximum possible roll at 10 dice meant that Skills now operated on a 1-10 scale instead of 1-5. As for Traits/Rings, the previous limits were removed (so Kisada no longer had to be “enlightened”) and they could all go up to 9. So the thematic concept of everything capping at 5 was already fading away, and the maximum theoretical roll was now 10k9. Moreover, this theoretical maximum was now much more attainable, because the 2nd Edition design responded to the devaluing of Traits by making them much cheaper to increase – the Experience Point cost dropped from 5x Rank to 3x Rank. This meant that while 2nd Edition characters started out much weaker than 1st Edition ones (annoyingly undercutting the whole concept of samurai as being skilled and capable), their long-term power-levels rose both faster and higher. Shugenja, in particular, benefitted from the much cheaper price of raising their Rings.

Perhaps most importantly from my viewpoint, 2nd Edition’s changes created precedent and “design inertia” for later versions of the game. Not only the raising of Skills to 10 and Rings to 9, but also other changes such as adding Mastery Ranks to spells (and introducing an array of higher-power spells to fill out the upper Mastery levels) and introducing new power-up mechanics such as Advanced Schools, Kata, and Paths all set the stage for worse problems in the later editions.

Which brings us to 3rd Edition… well, that was quite the train-wreck, wasn’t it? 3rd Edition embraced the “Power Sells” mentality that the intervening d20 era had established. Thus, while 3rd Edition did take the design back to the proper “Skill plus Trait, keep Trait” baseline mechanic, it kept the maximum Ring and Skill levels established in 2nd! Not only that, but Skills were now further boosted by the addition of “Mastery Abilities” and “Emphases” that awarded power-ups for higher Skill Ranks – their inclusion yet another symptom of the “Skills need to be boosted to make them desirable over Traits” myth. The new system inherently ratcheted up the power-level of PCs (on top of the other power-ups that occurred in different mechanics such as Schools), and also guaranteed that experienced characters would exceed the 10-dice limit – greatly expanding the “rollover” effect introduced at the end of 1st Edition (dice above 10 are dropped, but increase the number of kept dice).

In sum, 3rd Edition was so over-the-top that it effectively “broke” the underlying design.

Sadly, when we designed 4th Edition our focus was more on re-working and “fixing” what had been done in 3rd than on building a new game from the foundations up. As a result, all the gradual power-creep decisions made in previous editions carried over into 4th, a perfect example of design inertia. Although we consciously tried to throttle down the game’s power-level in many ways – toning back the School Techniques, getting rid of Free Raises, getting rid of static add-in boosts, changing most boosts to unkept dice – the result was just a cleaner, better-thought-out remake of the over-powered, over-complex mess that had been created in 3rd Edition. Skills and Rings still went to 10, Skills still had Mastery Abilities and Emphases, Spells still went to Mastery Level 6, there were still Advanced Schools… 4th was certainly not _outrageously_ broken in the way that 3rd had been, but it still produced absurdly potent super-human characters who bore only a surface resemblance to the gritty, semi-realistic PCs of the original game. So, how would I try to improve this?

In my view, the foundational mistake made in 2nd and subsequent Editions was to accept and normatize the absurdly over-powered NPCs from the 1st Edition Way of the Clans books. Instead, later editions should have firmly dropped the idea that Traits and Rings could go higher than 5... and in fact this was precisely what I planned to do in my L5R work in 2013-2015.

For a Homebrew revision of L5R, I would set 5 as the upper limit of human capacity in both Rings and Skills, with only monsters and other supernatural beings capable of having Rings of 6 or higher. I might make a partial exception by letting PCs purchase an expensive Advantage that would let _one_ Ring go to a maximum of 6… but the counterpoint of that is that I would also advocate for every PC to have a “weak Ring” that starts at 1 and can’t go higher than 4. (This is derived from a number of other narrative RPG designs, such as Houses of the Blooded, which push the idea that characters should not be “perfect” and should always have to deal with some kind of inherent flaw – an idea that, I think, is entirely appropriate for the tragic-heroic world of samurai drama.)

For Skills, I would completely dump all the various add-on mechanical aspects of Skills – Emphases, Mastery Abilities, all that clutter. Partly this is because I want to purge a lot of the excess complexity built up via design inertia, but also because doing so gets the game back down to 1st Edition’s more human power-scale. Much as with Rings, one could include a special Advantage (perhaps “Prodigy”) that would allow a single Skill to go to Rank 6.

So, we end up more-or-less back at 1st Edition’s concept of characters topping out at 10k5 for their Skill rolls after a long campaign in which they have accumulated and spent many XP. Getting “rollover” dice is still possible, though. In addition to the potential Advantages listed above, there might be other Advantages and Techniques that award dice, and PCs can get dice from other game effects such as Stances or Armor, as well as spending “boosts” like Void. So the net power-level would be slightly higher than in 1st Edition, at least in terms of the base die-rolls, but without turning the PCs into superhuman absurdities.