Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Wounds and Death Part 2

Okay, here’s where we get really crazy. The stuff I’ve discussed up until now was extensively playtested and will probably run just fine in any game. Here I move into pure theorycraft – I think it will work, and it seems really cool in concept, but the only way to know for sure is to try it out.

So, any discussion of the conflict between lethality and storyline always comes back to the problem of random death (as opposed to story-driven death). How to deal with this? In my own homebrew RPG, I introduced a mechanic called “Doom” – a (very) finite resource that could be spent to avert death or to gain a big (+3k3) boost on a roll. Doom eventually ran out, though, at which point PCs could no longer escape their fate.

In talking about this with gaming friends, we considered how a rule like this might apply to L5R. Perhaps a character might have a limited number – say 5, one per Ring -- of non-refreshing “Kharma” points that could be spent to avert death. Once they run out, the character is at the mercy of the dice. (Of course, you are not required to spend Kharma if you feel your character’s proper death has arrived. And realistically, you probably shouldn’t be able to spend Kharma in a duel, though I could see an argument for being able to spend it to save yourself in a tied mutual-annihilation duel.)

So, that’s a cool idea, if you want to add just a little more control over the characters’ fate. But there are more interesting places we can take this concept, if we’re willing to get a little radical…

John Wick has often claimed that he originally meant for katana hits in L5R to just straight-up kill people. Whether that is true or not – Wick can be a bit of a tale-teller – it is certainly what he ended up doing in his much later samurai game “Blood and Honor.” And I confess that there’s a part of me that finds the idea appealing – it certainly feels true to the setting. Indeed, much of why I want to use “Thug” rules is because they help recreate samurai-movie lethality without automatically turning the PCs themselves into quick-dying shlubs. But the main reason not to do it is that it does, in fact, turn the PCs into quick-dying shlubs, keeling over like extras in a Kurosawa film and pretty much eliminating long-term individual storytelling. It isn’t a coincidence that “Blood and Honor” puts its focus on the Clan, with the PCs merely cogs in the Clan’s machine.

So is there any way to have setting-authentic lethality and long-term PC story-arcs? The concept of “Kharma Points” pointed toward a more ambitious mechanical solution to this conundrum. However, it’s also a very radical solution: Abandoning the concept of Wounds altogether and just focusing on the mechanical effects of Wounds – namely, die-penalties and death.

In this model, a PC has a number of (non-refreshing) Kharma Points equal to his Ring Ranks. So a new PC starts out with around 10, and the very most you can accumulate is around 25 (5 rings at Rank 5). There might be some tweaking of this based on whether you opt to use a “weak Ring” rule (one Ring starts at 1 and can’t go above 4) and whether you allow an Advantage to cap one Ring at 6.

Regardless, the Kharma Points are unique. You get one per Ring Rank, ever, and they don’t come back once you spend them. They can be spent for exactly two purposes:

-- To avert death.

-- To get +3k3 on any roll.

I considered putting a cap on how much Kharma a PC can accumulate(”bank”?) at one time – maybe a maximum of 10. However, given the extremely limited supply of these, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

So what happens when a PC is hit?

If the hit is from a Light weapon or from a Thug, all that happens is the PC accumulating die-penalties. Each hit inflicts 1 die-penalty, although more could be inflicted if a Character attack rolls well or the Thug has special bonuses.

If the hit is from a Character wielding a lethal weapon – a katana, no-dachi, spear, naginata, Heavy Weapon, a Character-level monster’s claws and teeth, maybe even a bow if you want to put archers on par with melee fighters – it kills the PC. To avert this death, the PC spends a Kharma Point. The Kharma Point negates the death, but the PC still accumulates die-penalties as though he’s been hit – e.g. 2 or 3 dice worth, plus more for Raises.

So a Character can potentially accumulate a giant pile of die-penalties… can that eventually be lethal, or are Characters immune to being killed by Thugs or knives? Well, a Character has so many die-penalties that he can’t make an Athletics roll anymore, he also can’t move at a faster speed than crawling. And when he can’t make a Defense roll anymore, there’s nothing to stop an enemy from walking up and cutting his throat, or snapping his neck, or decapitating him. The only ways to avert these effects is to spend Void (or roll Stamina) to be able to ignore Wound Penalties for a Round… or spend a Kharma Point to not die.

So how does this work for NPCs? Thugs still work the same as before, but what about enemy Characters? Do they get Kharma as well?

I think they do… but not always to the same degree as the PCs.

As I’ve mentioned before, 7th Sea 1st Edition was a flawed design but had many good ideas (which made the flaws all the more frustrating). One of the more interesting concepts was that NPCs operated at three levels of capability. At the bottom were Brutes, and at the top were Villains who had the full capabilities of PCs. In the middle, however, were Henchmen, who required a single Dramatic Wound to defeat.

This concept could be brought into L5R via the Kharma Point system. A full-fledged NPC opponent would have just as much Kharma as the PCs, but a weaker “vassal” NPC could have, say, 1 to 3 Kharma Points, making them less difficult to defeat.

So far so good… but a final question arises: what about Shadowlands opponents? Sure, things like goblins and zombies are Thugs, and creatures like ogres can be depicted as unusually strong Thugs, but what about the Character-level monsters, like Lost and Oni?

So, I was talking about this with a gamer friend of mine, and it hit me: Shadowlands Characters don’t have Kharma.

They have Taint.

As I mentioned in the earlier discussion on Narrative control, Taint for a PC is something you can tap for die-boosts in the same manner as Void or Honor; the boost is stronger but in return you pay the price of gaining more Taint. But for Shadowlands Characters, Taint is a powerful asset – they can use it for all the functions of both Kharma and Void. So they can spend Taint Points for +3k3 on a roll, or to negate die-penalties for a Round… or to avoid death. And unlike Kharma, Taint refreshes! In fact, for really powerful Shadowlands foes like akutenshi and top-tier Oni and Oni Lords, I would let them do it once per encounter.

So would all of this work in an actual game? I don’t know, but I want to try it!