Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Dueling

The iaijutsu duel has been an integral part of L5R from the beginning, entirely fitting given the centrality of the concept to modern samurai fiction. However, like Raises and Damage rolls, it has been mechanically problematic from the beginning.

The 1st/2nd Edition dueling rules used a “bidding” system based on the characters’ Void, raising the TN by 5 each time. It was an odd and somewhat counter-intuitive system in which a PC chose to either Focus (raising the TN) or call “Strike” – in which case the other duelist got to make an attack roll at their last Focus level. With lower-Rank characters, often the result would be the duelists Focusing the TN so high that they couldn’t hit each other. Overall, the tendency with such duels was for a successful strike to be crippling but not instantly lethal, since the Wound/damage roll system in 1st/2nd was most likely to produce that result from a katana hit. All of this was inherently troublesome at the flavor/setting level, since duels – both those in samurai movies, books, and animation, and those depicted in L5R’s own fiction and art – were supposed to be a dramatic flash of blades that was instantly lethal to one or both participants.

3rd Edition came up with a system that was better than the previous one in terms of results (the loser was more likely to be killed, or at least dropped straight to Down/Out) but added an immense amount of complexity, math, and time to the process, since each “Focus” was now a Skill roll and talented duelists had to Focus back and forth many, many times before a resolution was reached. Each successful Focus awarded a Free Raise to the duelist’s eventual Strike, so the problem of Focusing too high to hit was no longer an issue and damage tended to be higher… but the system, like so much of 3rd Edition, was just too complicated, especially since other elements like Mastery Abilities and Emphases had to be tracked as well.

Then we come to 4th Edition. The dueling rules were one of the few places in the design where we really did try to tear things down to bedrock and take a new approach, abandoning the earlier system of successive Focus efforts in favor of a Contested Roll that determined who got to Strike first in the duel. However, this nice simplification was then counter-acted by the decision to incorporate the new “Center Stance” into duels and to write the rules in such a way that duels could take place during Skirmishes… resulting in immense confusion among players. The mistaken understandings of the dueling rules were so serious that I eventually had to write an entire section of errata in the Imperial Archives book just to counteract all of them. Leaving that aside, though, 4th Edition dueling suffered from a more basic problem – it didn’t generate any meaningful lethality-boost for the Strike. Combined with 4th’s generally lower level of lethality overall, the result was that an iaijutsu duel became little more than an opportunity to start a skirmish with an advantage by pre-emptively wounding your opponent.

So, how to fix this? I worked on this intensively in 2013-2015, and soon came to the conclusion that I’d been on the right track in 4th Edition – simplify and rely on Contested Rolls – but hadn’t taken things far enough. I junked the whole “Center Stance” idea, and firmly specified that duels were unique events and not part of skirmishes. Then the real work began…

I very much liked the idea that the Focus Roll (Iaijutsu/Void) was Contested, but I dropped the idea that it determined who got to Strike first. Instead, Focus generated boosts to the winner’s Strike roll. I went back and forth on how many boosts and how strong they should be – at the time, I was still largely wedded to Raises having margins of 5. Today, I would have each margin of 10 award a +1k1 boost.

Strike is now another Contested Roll, and here I ran into an interesting question: what exactly should the roll be? My immediate impulse was to use the same Iaijutsu/Reflexes option as in 4th Edition (because Reflexes seems to match the idea of a “quick-draw” attack), but the playtesters pointed out that this not only made Reflexes a very powerful Trait (because it was also used for Defense rolls) but also meant that duelists were two-Ring ponies – Awareness for Assessment, Void for Focus, Reflexes for Strike. After a lot of discussion with the playtesters, I settled on the idea of using Fire instead. The Fire Ring was often depicted as the “element of swordsmanship” and the association of Fire shugenja with dueling and swordsmanship went all the way back to Isawa Tsuke. Moreover, making the Strike roll use the entire Fire ring meant that effective duelists had to be smart as well as physically capable. This made sense to me – top-tier martial artists tend to be intelligent people. It also reinforced certain pre-existing aspects of the setting, explaining why the clever Shiba and the flexible Dragon were generally known to be decent at dueling, while the purely physical families like the Hida and Matsu were known to be… not so good.

So, with that out of the way… winning the Strike roll by 5 or more means you hit and your opponent misses (much like the 4th Edition Focus system, a difference of less than 5 is a Kharmic Strike). Initially, I had the Strike inflict normal damage (2 Wounds with a katana), with additional Wounds inflicted with a more successful roll, in margins of 10. (I had already embraced margins of 10 for damage, long before I considered it for other mechanics.) However, I felt unsatisfied with this. Although duels were now more dangerous than before, they still weren’t simulating the instant lethality portrayed in the source materials. A skilled duelist would probably inflict about 4 Wounds on his opponent, which would be unpleasant but wouldn’t kill even an Earth 2 character. (That would require either 6 or 7 Wounds, depending on which option you were using for Wound/death thresholds.)

It was one of my playtesters who offered the solution. If duels to the death were supposed to be lethal, why bother with Wounds at all? Just say the loser dies! And he was absolutely right. An iaijutsu duel to the death shouldn’t be dependent on total Wounds versus Earth for its outcome – it should just kill the loser. Period, full stop. That’s how duels work in samurai movies, that’s how they work in L5R fiction and art, that’s how they should work in the RPG.

(A duel to “first blood” would obviously not do this – the winner inflicts normal damage on the loser.)

There are a number of advantages to this approach beyond the simple benefit of finally making duels match the source materials. A few that come to mind:

-- Duels now are distinctly unique and sspecial compared to Skirmishes.

-- Kharmic Strikes are special and memorrable events, as they should be.

-- Since duels are a guaranteed death, pplayers will take them seriously and will go into them with “eyes open,” expecting and understanding that their characters die if defeated. Among other things, this means that characters who are bad at dueling will be more realistically circumspect in their public manners.

-- Finally, it should be noted that a chharacter who loses a duel could still take a Final Action and dump all his boosts into an attempt to kill his opponent – a last-ditch attempt to convert a defeat into a Kharmic Strike.