Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Thugs Versus Characters

In all the versions of L5R that AEG published, the game depicted combat in the same way regardless of the nature of the combatants. Everyone had a passive “TN to be Hit” (we changed the name to “Armor TN” in 4th Edition but the mechanic worked the same) and made a Skill Roll to attack their foes. Everyone had to be worn down with Wounds that inflicted penalties and eventually culminated in being Down/Out/Dead. The only distinction between the PCs and their NPC opponents was that nonhuman foes had more variety in the number of Wounds they could take and how severe the penalties were they took for those Wounds. (3rd Edition, bizarrely, actually dropped this and tried to give all nonhuman opponents human-style Wound Ranks. This had all sorts of disruptive and unbalancing effects, with weak creatures like goblins getting way tougher while formerly terrifying foes like oni became much easier to defeat. I made it a point of honor to change 4th Edition’s rules for nonhuman Wounds back to how they had worked in 1st/2nd Edition.)

The problem with this approach is that it reinforced the game’s internal conflict between heroic samurai fantasy on the one hand and gritty characters-are-expendable nihilism on the other. Samurai fiction, cinema, and art (including L5R fiction and art) routinely depicts heroic or villainous samurai as carving their way through hordes of lesser opponents. But it has almost always been impossible to represent such action in the game, due to the number of Wounds that even low-powered opponents have relative to the damage that PCs can inflict. Instead, fights become “grinds” in which each foe must be battered down. In the absurdly overpowered 3rd Edition rules, really high-Rank samurai could drop low-power foes with single hits, but even in those rules one had to be a bushi who had reached at least Insight Rank 3 to attain this capability, and if you weren’t deliberately min-maxing your character it took considerably longer. 4th Edition pulled back from 3rd’s overcranked power-level, but also moved the “x5” Wound Rank to the top of the Wound Ranks from the bottom, with the result that even a lowly commoner bandit could absorb 34 Wounds before going Down.

The answer to this problem is a “thug” rule of the sort that many cinematic/narrative RPGs have used to depict low-power villains who rely on mass numbers to oppose the heroes’ superior power. I first encountered this concept in Wick’s 7th Sea (where these low-value enemies were called “Brutes”) but the pioneer of the concept seems to have been Robin Laws’ Feng Shui, an RPG based on Chinese action/fantasy cinema. I liked the idea quite a bit, and actually suggested using it in L5R in 4th Edition’s section on alternative playstyles (for “cinematic gaming”).

For my design work in 2013-2015, I decided to make a Thug (Yaro) rule intrinsic to the game and thereby resolve the conflict between theme and mechanics. The design made a specific distinction between Characters (the PCs and their higher-power opponents) and Thugs, who represented both low-power human enemies (bandits, peasant rebels, generic castle guards, etc) and the majority of nonhuman opponents (e.g. goblins, zombies, etc).

-- A Character defends with a Contested Roll against the attacker. A Thug just has a flat TN to be hit (I called this “Defense TN” since I felt that “Armor TN” was a confusing term). This would typically be about 15 for a basic Thug, increasing to 20 or 25 for more dangerous ones. Really easily-defeated Thugs might have TN 10.

-- A Thug’s attack roll will be weak, but multiple Thugs have the ability to “gang up” on the PCs, with each assisting Thug adding +1k1 to the “primary” Thug’s attack roll and thereby generating a meaningful hazard to PCs.

-- Thugs normally inflict 1 Wound on PCss they hit, with no ability to increase that. So the threat from Thugs is attrition, a hero brought down by a barrage of cuts and bruises, rather than instant crippling/death.

-- A Thug does not take Wounds. Instead,, one hit from a Character defeats/kills him. Moreover, just as in 7th Sea, a Character can use Raises to hit additional Thugs with a single attack. (At the time, playtesting showed that this tended to make it too easy for the PCs to cut their way through huge packs of Thugs, and I was considering raising the Thugs’ Defense TNs somewhat to compensate. However, this was before my later realization that it was better to switch Raises to margins of 10 rather than 5. At margins of 10, the listed TNs work fine.)

All of this represents the “baseline” for Thugs, but can be modified in all sorts of ways to add flavor or challenge. For example, tough Thugs such as Crab bushi or Ogres might have to be hit 2 or even 3 times to take them out. (Or hit with a Heavy Weapon.) Dangerous Thugs – creatures with razor-sharp claws, or veteran bandits – might inflict 2 Wounds if they hit. Extremely fast or cunning Thugs such as Goju or Hanemuri might have higher Defense TNs. No doubt many other options will suggest themselves, all built on the basic foundation of an enemy that is individually weak and easy for a samurai to defeat, but dangerous in numbers.