Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew


So, time for some genuine L5R heresy. Let’s talk about Raises.

The concept of Target Numbers (TNs) and Raises is at or near the core of the L5R Roll & Keep system, and it is certainly a clever and creative mechanic that I greatly admired from the very beginning of my experience with L5R. I’m not sure, but I suspect this mechanic may actually have been pioneered by L5R; certainly I don’t recall seeing it in any earlier games, although it has appeared in several others since then… notably Savage Worlds and L5R’s systemic sequel 7th Sea. At the basic level, the concept of “it’s this hard, but you can make it harder in order to get a better result” is one of those ideas that immediately feels right, especially in the context of a heroic fantasy game. In particular, it lends itself very nicely to the idea of a PC making a “do-or-die” move to try to win a desperate fight – especially when combined with things like the “exploding 10’s” mechanic and Void Points.

So, it’s the ideal system for L5R, right?

Well, I thought so for a long time… but maybe not anymore.

There are a number of problems that have slowly become apparent to me. One of the first ones I recognized was actually pointed out to me by a freelancer/playtester who worked on 4th Edition. She noted that the Raise concept didn’t work properly when applied to knowledge-type Skills such as Lore. How could trying to remember or research extra-obscure information on a topic result in your not knowing anything about the topic? And I realized she was quite right. I tried to come up with a way to solve the problem and realized that within the context of L5R as written, in all four editions, it couldn’t be solved. The TN/Raise mechanic simply didn’t work for those Skills. This led me to think more carefully about the whole TN/Raise system, and I realized that Lore Skills were not the only place where it was not quite so ideal as I had once thought. The problem wasn’t confined to a character trying to use Lore. There were all sorts of situations where it didn’t make any sense. For example, consider a PC trying to follow the trail of some bandits who kidnapped the local Lord’s daughter. So, he calls a couple of Raises to try to learn information from the trail – things like how many bandits there are, if the kidnapped girl is walking or being carried, etc. And because he called Raises, he misses the roll and learns nothing. Which means that trying to get more information from the tracks somehow caused him to lose the tracks altogether!

(Now, unlike the problem with Lore rolls, there is a solution here. Namely, adopt a variant of the Gumshoe system’s approach to Skill rolls, in which simply having Ranks in the right Skill means the PCs automatically get the minimum information they need to advance the plot, and actual Skill rolls – and Raises to those rolls – are used only to get additional more-detailed information. But this solution is itself a new mechanic added on to the system; needless to say, when it comes to adding new sub-systems YMMV. As someone who prefers that a narrative-driven system be as simple and intuitive as possible, I don’t necessarily favor this solution, at least not without changing the approach to the TN/Raise system as a whole.)

Another issue I noticed once I started paying attention was the way the TN/Raise system devalued rolling well. For Skill rolls, players only had to roll well enough to hit their TN – anything beyond that was “wasted.” (Certain non-Skill rolls, primarily Initiative rolls and Damage rolls, were the exceptions to this principle -- more about those later.) In the overwhelming majority of cases, getting a really good Skill roll basically has no value, which feels odd and often disappointing.

(3rd Edition had a sub-mechanic – the recovery of Void via multiple exploding 10’s – that created some value for rolling well. However, 3rd Edition was also a trainwreck of bad design, of which its absurdly over-cranked power-level was one of the worst aspects. Getting back Void from multiple exploding dice without all the other ridiculous power-gaming nonsense of 3rd might be a worthy idea… but then again, this brings us back to the problem of piling on too many sub-mechanics.)

The more I thought about it, the more I felt like there was something subtly wrong at the root of the TN/Raise system, something that didn’t work quite right. But short of piling on a bunch of special-case rules and over-complicating the system, was there a solution? During my original design period in2013-2015 I wasn’t able to find one, but I’ve continued to wrestle with the question from time to time, and eventually I had a thought: What if we let players call Raises after the roll?

This clicked with me immediately. It gets rid of both the problems with Lore Skills and the problems with Raises derailing the basic Skill functions. It makes rolling well intrinsically good, which “feels” right. It makes spending a Void Point on a roll inherently a good idea.

But wouldn’t this be too strong, too super-heroic, given that Raises would now happen much more often?

Well, about that…

That leads me to the other problem I noticed recently as I dug into this aspect of the L5R design: how poorly Raises were defined in the L5R system and how varied their listed effects were. Sometimes the rules make Raises very powerful; other times they seem to be almost trivial. The same game-effect – a +5 to the TN – can do something strong like adding a target to a spell, or something weak like increasing the spell’s duration by 20%. (But for some spells, in some editions, adding a target takes 2 Raises instead!) A “Free Raise” generates +5 to damage, but a called Raise generates only +2 (the mathematical effect of adding an unkept die). A “called shot to the limb” with no mechanical effect at all requires the same number of Raises as a Feint that inflicts major additional damage. If you’ve player L5R, no doubt you can think of many more examples. I‘ve come to feel that the “margin” for Raises – that +5 TN increase – is too small, making it difficult to clearly define how strong Raises should be. They wind up being underpowered in the majority of situations, but overpowered in a minority.

So… a second thought came to me: What if Raises were done in increments of 10, instead of 5? So, getting a Raise isn’t as easily done as before, but when you get one it is guaranteed to be something very useful. And with that change, calling Raises after the roll (instead of before) becomes much more viable as a new approach to the mechanic. Of course, changing this basic mechanic would have “ripple effects” throughout the game – many Techniques would have to be redesigned, for example. Still, I think the net gains would be worth it to build a stronger foundation to the game.