Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Narrative Control Mechanics

As I mentioned earlier, when L5R was first published it was a “narrative” game design as such things were understood in the 1990’s. That meant things like a simple design that put just as much emphasis on non-combat Skills and abilities as on combat ones, and the inclusion of story-focused elements like Advantages and Disadvantages. It also led to two specific mechanics: Void Points, which granted the players the ability to boost their characters’ chances of success, and Tests of Honor, which gave characters a back-up defense against social attacks.

John Wick’s very next game 7th Sea took additional steps to expand the players’ control options, allowing players to accumulate “Drama Dice” during play rather than just by resting, and allowing them to spend “Reputation Dice” on social rolls. 7th Sea’s original design was flawed in a great many ways, but there’s no denying that Wick was looking for ways to give the players more control over their characters’ stories. Since then, of course, narrative design has advanced a great deal, with systems like FATE, Sorcerer, Wick’s own Houses of the Blooded and 7th Sea Second Edition, and FFG’s Star Wars/Genesys all finding different ways to give players ways to control their characters’ stories. L5R’s later editions, however, for the most part did not follow these developments in narrative game design. I’m not sure how much of this was due to the natural tendency to keep what already existed because it would be comfortable and familiar to the players, how much was due to the pernicious influence of the d20 era (I don’t like to acknowledge that d20 Rokugan was ever a thing, but… it did exist), and how much was due to the specific teams designing the later editions. I myself certainly have a share of the blame for not seeking a more significant re-working of the L5R design in 4th Edition. Regardless of the reason, the later editions of L5R actually shifted to less narrative and more complex, rules-heavy, tactical-combat-oriented play, an evolution which I regarded with dismay.

That being said, there was a limited attempt in 3rd and 4th Edition to give players a bit more control over their stories by making Void Points more flexible (the “spend Void to negate damage” option was quite popular) and by letting Tests of Honor be used as a (somewhat risky) re-roll option for any failed roll rather than just to resist dishonor. However, the game design as a whole became more legalistic and less flexible in those editions, so these modest gains in narrative control were more than offset. So, when I started thinking seriously about how to rework the L5R design in 2013, one thing I immediately addressed was the need to simplify the overall mechanical design and get back to 1st Edition’s looser, less tactical game-play… but another thing I looked at was how to give the players more opportunities to exercise narrative influence. I wasn’t prepared to go whole-hog “pure Narrativist” in the manner of Wick’s Houses of the Blooded (or its samurai spin-off Blood & Honor), but I definitely wanted to give the players more input on their characters’ chances for success. I had already been working on a personal RPG design that went in the same direction, and I felt that L5R needed a similar approach.

One thing that had stood out to me in the old 7th Sea design, for all its flaws, was that it did reward the PCs for boosting their Reputation stat (that game’s equivalent of Glory) by letting them spend “Reputation Dice” on social rolls. I really liked that idea, because in L5R the two “setting” stats – Honor and Glory – were seriously underutilized. Honor had only limited in-game value (which tended to badly undercut the game’s “Honor is Stronger than Steel” slogan), while Glory had essentially none (its only in-game effect was how easy it was to recognize high-Glory characters). Infamy, the counterpoint to Glory that was tentatively introduced in 3rd Edition and became more standardized in 4th Edition, likewise had no real effect – barring house-rules. (In the Heroes of Rokugan 2 campaign, I introduced a house-rule whereby too much Infamy relative to Glory/Status could cause your character to be made ronin. This only took effect once or twice in the campaign, but the threat of it made players far more conscious of their Glory, which I felt was good.)

When I had built my own homebrew RPG design, I deliberately created multiple ways for the PCs to boost their die-rolls, including one based on a “Virtue” stat that was determined by the characters’ adherence to their world’s dominant religious code. This design approach did mean that the players had to keep track of multiple “boost” abilities, but since the rest of the game design was very streamlined and simple, the burden of complexity stayed low – and unsurprisingly, after a few early reminders the players quickly learned to keep track of all the boosts they had. Subsequently, I looked at ways to carry this same idea into L5R, and sought to resolve the complexity issue in the same way – by cutting out complexity from other parts of the design, such as Skill Mastery Abilities, Emphases, and damage rolls. (Yes, damage rolls… more on that in the next essay.)

What I ended up with by 2015 was a system in which the characters had five ways to boost their rolls: Void, Honor, Glory, Infamy, and Taint. -- Void worked essentially the same as bbefore, boosting any die-roll by +1k1 but also having other abilities such as negating Wounds or letting a PC ignore Wound penalties for a Round. This made it the most powerful and flexible of the five possible boosts.

-- Honor only boosted Skill rolls, but aawarded a +1k1 boost in the same manner as Void. (It should be noted that this idea comes in tandem with restoring Honor to its original 5-rank system, rather than the 10-Rank system used in 4th Edition.)

-- Glory awards +1k1 boosts on any “poositive” Social Skill roll, e.g. Courtier, Sincerity, Etiquette, and suchlike. I also experimented with an alternative approach in which Glory awarded only +1k0 boosts but any number of Glory Points could be spent on the same roll.

-- Infamy awards +1k1 boosts to “negattive” Social Skill rolls, e.g. Intimidation and Temptation. Here again, I also considered an option for +1k0 but with the option to spend multiple points on one roll. The +1k0 option is definitely weaker overall, since mathematically an unkept die is only +2 to a roll’s total result whereas a kept die is +6, so the GM’s choice here should be based on how strong you want Glory/Infamy to be in your game.

-- Taint awards +2k2 – or if you reallly want to make corruption tempting, +3k3 – to any roll… but you get more Taint every time you use it.

An important note: I decided to make all of these boosts “per session” instead of letting them refresh daily. The basic reason for this was that I had seen over the years how the “Void and Spells refresh with a night’s rest” mechanic encouraged players to take a D&D-esque approach in which they constantly sought opportunities to rest before the next big scene. It also meant that in adventures which took place over an extended period of time (such as travel or Winter Court scenarios), Void and Spells effectively became limitless, distorting their value. Accordingly, I decided it would be better to take a more abstract approach in which things like this – not just Void and Spell-recovery but also stuff like healing and limited-use Techniques – are handled “per session” and players/GMs are not required to worry about how often the PCs can rest. Obviously, the GM has the option of overriding this if it seems appropriate – if the PCs go on a month-long hike from the Crab lands to the Imperial capital midway through the playing session, it is reasonable to let them regain their health and boosts during the trip.