Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Defense Versus Offense

One of my biggest personal design insights was the realization of how much L5R was still in thrall to ancient D&D concepts, concepts that even today are used by most RPGs simply because that is how things are done, and they are done that way because…. well, because that is how D&D did them.

Consider the near-universal paradigm whereby defense is passive (you sit and wait to see if the enemy hits you) while offense is active (you get to roll dice to try to hit the opponent). This goes right back to the original Chainmail/D&D concept of “Armor Class” as the measure of a character’s defense. When applied to a samurai world like L5R, this concept introduces all manner of problems. Historically, samurai learned defense just as assiduously as offense, and the great swordsmen of history were extraordinarily adept at not getting hit. Miyamoto Musashi, the man whose writings helped inspire L5R, in his old age would “spar” by simply evading his opponent’s strikes until his foe admitted defeat. This sort of thing is impossible to depict in any edition of L5R, even in 3rd Edition where the rules could be exploited to raise one’s TN pretty high. Since defense is unrealistically (and more importantly, out-of-thematically) weak, players respond by pursuing the only other way to stay alive: raising their Earth to get more Wounds. Designers of later editions, sympathetic to players’ desire to have their characters last more than a session or two, also encouraged this approach by increasing the number of Wound Ranks, reducing the penalties for Wounds from dice to mere TN modifiers, adding the “x5” Wound Rank, and adding the option to spend Void Points to negate Wounds. So a game about samurai ends up going down the same path as D&D, where the ability to survive fights is derived mainly from soaking up the damage inflicted by the enemy while inflicting more damage on that enemy. Fights become slogging grinds to wear down the opponent’s Wounds, character Rings and Traits become skewed as all the points go into Agility and Earth, and the resemblance to samurai fiction – with its lightning-fast deadly and dramatic fights – fades and vanishes.

How to solve this?

There are a number of interrelated issues here – Wounds, weapon lethality, the role of Skills and of armor – but the core problem at the root of it all is passive defense. So, I decided a long time ago that I wanted to abandon that – not just in L5R but in my own personal game designs as well – in favor of making combat into Contested Rolls, attacker versus defender.

If one is sticking with the L5R 4th Edition Skill list, this would mean the attacker rolls Skill/Agility with the appropriate Weapon Skill, while the defender rolls Defense/Reflexes. If the attacker wins the roll, he hits and inflicts damage on the defender; if the defender wins, the attacker misses.

Right away, one can see the advantages to this system. The Agility Trait is no longer supreme in combat, now being rivaled by the previously less-valuable Reflexes. The undervalued Defense Skill is now well worth learning and improving. It is now entirely possible to create an authentic Musashi-esque “defensive fighter” who uses high Defense and Reflexes to avoid being hit.

(A side question here: who wins a tie? Technically, the defender is setting a TN with his roll and the attacker succeeds by matching that number, but my impulse would be to lean the game a little more toward defense by letting the defender win a tied Contested Roll, at least in this specific situation. The GM can go either way depending on preference.)

An alternative approach would be to drop the Defense Skill entirely and instead have the characters make Contested Rolls with their Weapon Skills. This makes sense given that in the real world, training in a weapon naturally includes defensive fighting as well as attack, and every weapon is used differently on defense as well as on offense. A samurai who is skilled at defending himself with a sword will not automatically be equally skilled at defending himself with a knife or a spear. So using the appropriate Weapon Skill for both attack and defense would encourage characters to be more well-rounded and develop Skills in multiple weapons, as samurai actually did in reality. How does one handle ranged weapons – bows, hand-hurled stuff, etc – in this system? If one is using the Defense Skill, it still works the same way – though now both combatants are using the Reflexes Trait. (Personally, I lean toward using a different Trait for ranged attacks, but that’s a discussion for later.) If one is instead using Contested Weapon Skills, though, things get trickier – it doesn’t make much sense for a character to use their own Archery Skill to dodge an incoming arrow. Perhaps, though, a character normally shouldn’t be able to use a Skill at all when defending against arrows? After all, dodging an arrow is a whole different sort of challenge than deflecting or avoiding a melee attack. Maybe the defenders should just use raw Reflexes, thereby giving a boost to archery – the “Way of the Horse and Bow” – that the game’s basic design lacks? And, of course, this would leave open the option to introduce arrow-cutting (which did exist in reality, albeit only among the rarest and most skilled people, and is definitely a part of samurai fiction/film/animation) by way of Techniques or other special rules.

What about armor? How does it work in this system? There are two possible answers:

Option 1: Armor grants bonus dice to your defensive roll. This is actually my personal preference. How many dice, and what kind, is a question for GMs to test out. I went back and forth many times myself on this question. Should light armor be just +1k0, or better than that? Should heavy armor award a kept die? Should ashigaru armor be depicted at all? My current option is ashigaru +1k0, light +2k0, and heavy +2k1, but those are obviously open to change.

Option 2: Armor reduces damage. In 4th Edition, we added a damage-reducing ability to armor in addition to its TN boost. (I argued at the time that we should do one or the other but not both, but this was one of a number of design arguments that I lost. Not all that surprising given that I was the junior partner in the Design Team at the time.) In the real world, of course, the value of armor is not avoiding being hit but rather avoiding being hurt when you do get hit, so a GM who wants to lean his L5R toward greater realism should probably take this approach. If you are using the standard rules-as-written damage-roll system of L5R 4e, I would suggest making the damage reduction equal to the TN bonus the armor would award under the standard rules, e.g. 3 for ashigaru, 5 for light, and 10 for heavy.

This is a good place to mention that I also sought to redesign the damage system in order to reduce die-rolling and change the overall combat paradigm. I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of that later, but regardless, such a change would have to interact with any sort of damage-reduction mechanic, which could get tricky. Thus my design work in 2013-2015 stayed with the idea of armor boosting one’s defensive rolls. (And it would do so against archery even if you didn’t get to use a Skill to defend against archery attacks.)