Posted on March 11, 2020
Rokugan on my mind
Way back in 2018 I mentioned that I was excited about all the games that I was fixing to play or that were headed my way. I was VERY excited about The Stars Are Fire, because I was on a space adventure kick. But now I’m not. I have no idea why. Star Trek likely suffers from the same problem. I’m just not that into space right now. I will be again, that’s how it works.
I think the problem with Star Trek is also that it’s a sorta clunky ruleset, compared to the sleeker, easy-come-easy-go Numenera. There’s a time and place for those games and I love many of them dearly. The writing for Star Trek was a bit patchier too, with some excellently organised stories and some really confusingly edited stories.
Tang Garden hasn’t arrived yet, although it narrowly seems to have escaped China before Coronavirus started affecting transport. I do hope it will be here soon, the last email I received said it would be here this week. Longer on a container ship just means it is safer to inhale that new game smell, right?
Nope, the Spring lantern that has been lit in my heart is for Legend of The Five Rings and the fire shows no sign of going out any time soon, buuuut…. I do this, a lot; get super psyched for some game and get really into it and then… a brief pause and I lose all interest in it. I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve learned to go with it now and not try to make something last. I’m SUPER-INTO Legend of The Five Rings right now, but when I’m over it, I’ll be over it. The ideal way this would happen is for all the stars to align and I’d actually get to play the game while my ardour is up, so to speak. But at the moment I’m crashing towards MNUFC home game schedule, wanting to finish the arc of the first “season” of 2menera, enjoying the easy dungeon-bash nature of Descent and wanting to play all the cool boardgames we all own and some of the ones we don’t. It’s a trial for sure.
Fortunately, L5R has plenty to keep me going. It’s a game that has a whole bunch of lore, but with Fantasy Flight’s reboot, they’ve dialled back the timeline and are writing a new story, one which is a bit more… organised. I’m not saying the original story smacked of cool ideas hurled together haphazardly… but the new story is real good.
I never really got into Game of Thrones because it was mostly magically warmed-up history nuggets hurled at each other into a (sort-of) coherent shape. Nothing wrong with that, it just wasn’t for me. Maybe there’s a Japanese guy out there looking at the L5R lore and thinking exactly the same thing and that’s also totally fine. The game definitely owes a lot more to samurai dramas than any other source. This isn’t an historical re-enactment; Rokugan isn’t even an island FFS.
In the extremely unlikely event that I haven’t talked your ears off about this game: players play members of the privileged Samurai class of the Emerald Empire. The game plays with the tension between the character’s wants and desires (extremely low on the scale of what is considered important), their loyalty to their family (and their unique abilities), their loyalty to their clan (and all its political maneuvering), their loyalty to their Emperor (who owns everything, but doesn’t necessarily have their best interests at heart) ALL while trying to live up to the unattainable code of Bushido. And keeping the elemental spirits happy. And trying not to let the demons and foreigners over-run the empire. Also, there are forest-spirit giant squirrels that shoot streams of angry bats out of their mouth. Someone should do something about them.
My guess is that it plays sort of like WFRP: Talk, Investigate, Fight, Recoil in horror, Reassess, Talk, Investigate, Fight, Cover it all up. Although there’s a side of the game that seems like it will play more like Star Trek meets Birthright/Game of Thrones: fiercely competent people with lots of rules governing them, making life terrible for each other, using their families as weapons.
How the Hambaagu gets made
Mechanically, Fantasy Flight really love their custom dice, so they’ve used them in this game too. You have Ring d6s which represent whichever elemental approach you take to a problem: getting through a door by breaking it down, jimmying the lock or heaving it off its hinges are all different approaches and likely have different elemental connections. A character may have more dice available in their Fire pool, for example, but decide Air might achieve a more appropriate result. The d12s are Skill dice and you roll one of these for each point in a skill you have. Then you decide which dice to keep as you only get to keep as many as your Ring score. This gives you some flexibility that lets you pour on the successes, pull your punches, or get additional benefits with successes. And there are exploding results and that’s always great.
The elemental stances tied to your Ring values are my favourite mechanic, though. When attempting a task you must select a stance and the benefits of that stance (extra damage, harder to hit, can’t be crit’ed, etc) and since successful results tend to be “Success and also…” the stance you take influences the “and also” part of it. Conversations in L5R are a lot more like combat than in other games, so the same careful choice of stances can pay off in the talky-talky department.
Another notable mechanic is Strife. Strife doesn’t affect the success of a roll but you sometimes accumulate Strife during tests and when you’ve accumulated enough… you snap. The carefully composed mask of perfect samurai impassiveness shattered and you – to the likely embarrassment of everyone around you – do something emotional and vulgar. Like laugh. Or cry. Or something else recognizably human. Gross, ew, stop.
In a helpful episode of Court Games podcast (RPG) (there is a Court Games podcast that is LCG, but they’re not helpfully delineated) they dole out their number one piece of advice for new players: no Gotcha moments using the lore as a trap. The samurai they are playing barely survive the social interactions unscathed and they’ve practiced the custom and etiquette their whole life, players certainly won’t be able to. GMs wouldn’t ask a player to demonstrate how their tiefling thief will kill someone from behind before they let them try it, so why ask a player for the bajillion rules of the tea ceremony? Take it as read that they know what they are doing and if they are going to do something that would dishonour them let them know ahead of time. That way the player gets to weigh up the options.
Them Clans tho…
Big picture, there are Seven Great Clans of divine origin and eight different types of “techniques” such as martial Kata, Invocations, sneaky Ninjitsu, etc and the character classes are really just builds that give you access tothese techniques. The flavours of techniques vary a great deal between Clans and that’s really the big differentiation between characters. A courtier and a bushi may both be pretty great with swords and dab hands at poetry, but there will be a world of difference between a Crab and a Unicorn samurai of any type.
The tension between the Clans is the pot-boiling fiction that Fantasy Flight is pumping out as the story progresses through short-fiction/card game story packs and the RPG. E.g. The death of Doji Satsume, the Emperor’s deputy is pivotal to the short fiction, set-dressing for the card game but actually solved by the players in the RPG. This event is one of a few that sets a Game of Thrones-spiral into effect as the Empire starts falling apart and conflict looms.
It’s possible to play samurai all of one clan, but the default is that you’ll have a party of a few different Clan loyalties. And the Clans are fun as hell. One of them might appeal to certain players, but I can’t say which is my favourite as there’s an appeal to all of them.
The sturdy Crab are tasked with keeping the taint of the Shadowlands at bay, which they are only just doing. The Shadowlands plays a lot like Chaos in Warhammer settings – insidious, inexorable and inevitable. It would maybe be easier if anyone fucking helped them, but for all sorts of reason the Crab are shouldering this seemingly unwinnable war (more or less) all by themselves. This has made them a good deal less bothered about their tea ceremonies and calligraphy than everyone else.
Speaking of tea ceremonies and calligraphy… Crab’s neighbours, the perfectionist Crane, meanwhile, have been centuries closest to the ear of the Emperor. They are the tasked with seeing to the smooth running of the Empire and so fulfill many courtly roles. But their power is slipping; they never got on with the Crab, they’re being drawn into conflict with the Lion and a tsunami totally buggered their rice paddies, traditional source of their fabulous wealth and influence.
The mystical, isolation-leaning Dragon are dwindling, and all the cool martial artist monastic orders in the world won’t help them. Still, they’ll look rad doing… whatever they’re doing up in the mountains, generally seeking enlightenment, which was their clan’s task. The Dragon are going to be your cup of tea if you’d like a much more martial arts/Wu Xia tinged drama, although that’s certainly not all they’ve got going on.
The Lion Clan are the Emperor’s Right Hand, where the Crane is the Left Hand: they provide the martial might to keep the gaijin at bay and everything else hunky dory (not the Shadowlands though). Imperial decree prevents the Clans from properly warring against each other so the Lion clan can’t just stomp everyone else in Total War, which is what it is good at. Uniquely, the Lion rejects the Tao of Shinsei, sticking solely and rigorously to Bushido.
The Phoenix Clan are, like their mystical neighbours the Dragon, tasked with more arcane purpose: they look after the spiritual well-being of the Empire and are primed as intermediaries between the Rokugani and the kami, elemental nature spirits. Any domain not of the mortal realm falls under their jurisdiction and they get to declare things kosher or heretical with some heft behind the pronouncement.
The Unicorn Clan were originally the Kirin Clan and they left the Empire in the early days, tasked with finding out what’s good in the world at large and bringing it back to Rokugan for the Empire’s benefit. And they did, name change and all, finally return three hundred years ago…. and they still don’t quite fit in. They adopted gaijin weapons, magic, customs, names, and even an entire family (the Moto) from the Ujik steppe-nomads. The two biggest innovations they brought back though are legit, serious cavalry (as opposed to the smaller Rokugani ponies) and Meishodo, a form of magic that doesn’t entreat the kami, but binds and commands them. Their ongoing foreign-ness puts them at odds with a few Clans.
Lastly, the Scorpion Clan. If the Lion are the Right and the Crane the Left hands, the Scorpion is the Underhand. Tasked by divine Hantei to do what others could not, in service of the Empire, the Scorpion puts their duty and loyalty above their own honour. Which means absolutely nobody trusts them and quite right too, unless you’re the Emperor. But they work in the shadows to make sure internal threats to the empire stay just threats. And they get to wear dope masks. And dress in red and black. While all other clans try to live up to the code of Bushido, the Scorpion approach the code with a “Yes, but…” built into their very founding. And while all other Clans have their problems, the Scorpions may start suffering because of their recent successes.
Definitely not the last word
I’ve got my GM screen (gorgeous!), I’ve got my Rulebook (beautiful!), I’ve got my Stance Cards (useful!), I’ve got my set of special dice (profitable!), I’ve got the Starter Box and downloadable sequel adventure (appropriate!). I’ve got everything I need to run this game, except 3-5 players and time to play. I’ll work on getting that sorted when Descent’s done and the first season of 2menera comes to a close.
FF have done a really fantastic job on this game’s production and I hope it survives the many changes they are currently going through. Rumour has, it will be okay. It’s been pretty well supported so far.
Also, shout out to whoever it was who wrote the sidebars regarding in-game xenophobia, racist tropes in media, sensitivity regarding religious stereotypes and the warnings about themes of self-harm. They could be non-existent (looking at you Games Workshop) or clunky and well-intentioned-but-jarring (looking at you, first edition Vampire the Masquerade), but they aren’t. They’re really well written and provide the readers with ideas for directions to take their game, rather than being simple “C’mon, don’t be racist, eh?” scolds. I’m especially down with seeing these brief, intelligent notes added to games, because I’ve seen the type of people they annoy and that alone tells me it’s the right thing to do.