Originating as a series chronicling David Gordon’s return to the Legend of the Five Rings CCG after a several year absence, Dave of the Five Rings continues on as he examines the current and future of the iconic world of Rokugan.
Chapter 13: The Winter Court, Part I
Snow falls between them unnoticed. Dozens have gathered to watch them upon this field, two true masters of their craft. The words spoken three days before had cut deeply, and there could be no recourse. To ignore them would be to admit their truth. There could only be one response, one means of satisfaction. Neither had need of a champion, as both bore their daisho proudly as bushi.
This was the moment they had been waiting their entire lives for. Each stance was perfect. Each movement was flawless. But still, only one could win. And as the Otomo kicked his leg to catch the kemari ball, he knew it was too late. He was bested. Years of practice and training had led him to this moment, only to prove he always had more to learn. Such is the way of Winter Court.
And if you think that reading the hottest contested kemari match (think competitive hacky-sack played in full court regalia with a deflated volleyball) of the season is just as intense as a duel to the death, then you should play Winter Court.
Every two years, Alderac Entertainment Group opens up a forum-based game which runs from December through February to cover the events of a major Winter Court in Rokugan. For those unfamiliar with the setting of Legend of the Five Rings, Rokugan is an empire of magical samurai divided into various Great Clans warring amongst each other for power and prestige. In Rokugan, as summer is the time for the bushi, winter is the time for the courtier. The Imperial Winter Court is designated by the Empress, and it is the single most important assignment any courtier could hope for. The fate of cities, armies, and entire Clans are decided at these events, which are often just as deadly for its occupants as the battlefield can be for the bushi. It takes a skilled hand, a cool head, and a cunning drive to succeed to achieve ones goals at court. Fortunately, there are also very many parties in which to unwind. Or to keep politicking.
Part of their Interactive Story Gaming approach to L5R, the Winter Court exists in a place close to the canon of the setting. Storytellers are selected from among volunteers, plotlines are given by various members of the staff and Story Team, and the stakes of the Court are drawn up. Over 150 players are selected from a large pool of applicants, divided up into the various delegations, and invited to play the L5R Roleplaying Game in a play-by-post forum format. Now in its fourth iteration, AEG’s ability to pull this off each successive time is impressive.
This year’s Winter Court IV would cover the events of the Imperial Winter Court of 1199 IC. Held in the capital of Rokugan, the Violence Behind Courtliness City – or Toshi Ranbo for short – would be an Imperial Court attended to by the Empress herself and her Chosen. The most driving issue of the day leading into the Winter Court was the growing conflict in the Colonies between the supporters of the Empress’s two sons.
The Traditionalist samurai favored Iweko Seiken, the elder son who had been trained as a bushi and spoke of returning Rokugan to the ways of its glorified past. The Progressive samurai felt the younger son, Iweko Shibatsu, a courtier who had been fostered to the sinister Spider Clan, would bring Rokugan towards a glorious future. While neither son condoned this violence, the Empress had not named which son she felt to be the worthy heir to her dynasty. As this conflict grew, the Imperial Court was met on the first day by the Empress announcing her seclusion to consider which son to name as heir, leaving the child Regent Utaku Zo Sia (selected by the winner of the 2014 World Championship in Europe) and her other Chosen to manage the court in her absence.
A Royal Invitation
I kept my eye on L5R.com for the weeks after their announcement of looking for Game Masters, chomping at the bit for their player applications. When they finally released them for Winter Court IV, I filled out and edited mine over the next two days before sending it along.
The questions themselves were very insightful, asking after the applicant’s history with the game and experience with online RPGs before progressing into more detailed and challenging material. This second half of the application was a series of proposed situations, with open-ended questions on how you would handle the various situations given. These covered the usual gamut of where to draw the OOC line of politeness and demonstrating a proper understanding of Rokugani etiquette, to very specific questions of how to handle spies you placed in rival’s households or what to do with a traitorous boss.
Among these questions were two that I would like to call out for specific relevance to us here today.
The first question that I had trouble handling was the inquiry of what sort of character I wanted to play. As a showrunner of L5R, I had seldom been on the side of the GM screen it was asking about. I have truly run more L5R RPG games than played in, and when I get the fortune to actually be a PC, I usually just take whatever role the party needs. Here I was being offered a genuine choice.
I considered truly what I wanted to play in Winter Court, and I decided on an Investigator. It did not matter if I was a bushi, shugenja, courtier, or something else. I wanted to play an Investigator, one who uncovered mysteries and sought out hidden truths. For me, Legend of the Five Rings is a nearly perfect engine for the mystery / investigation game. In a game where combat is swift and deadly, social conflict is polite yet vicious, and spells are rare and powerful, L5R comes alive in the hands of a solid mystery plotline. It is one of the very few games which can do suspense amazingly well. After all, no one is ever more than two exploding damage dice from death.
The second question of note was their inquiry (or warning) of the time commitment required. From the application, any player of the Winter Court required up to “12 hours of time a week” in order to be active. To this, I offer only this:
12 hours a week would prove to be the low end for my involvement in this endeavor. I have been so active on the Winter Court forums that this number clocks closer to over twenty hours a week and has since December. As of this article we are nearing the end of the Court, and I can confidently state that I have made over 2,100 individual posts on that forum, each averaging about a solid paragraph. For those doing the math, this approximates to over 25,000 words on this game over the last three months.
That is the approximate total of this series’s previous twelve chapters combined.
Admittedly, most of this came at about the halfway point as my character rose to a level of prominence in her delegation, but still. A 12 hour requirement proved to be a fair minimum for them to put on the application, but in truth, I was not even the most verbose or frequent poster for that game. The sheer magnitude of text created from the Winter Court IV is nothing short of staggering, and while I would love to see some hard numbers breaking it down the analytics of it, I clearly have not had the time.
The Spider’s Grasp
The Winter Court it may be, but the beginnings of the process began during the summer months. I submitted my application in July and, like many, waited for a response. As part of the application, I noted down my preferred factions in the order of Spider, Crab, and Imperial, with a preference for playing a homebrew. There would be ten delegations this Winter Court, one for each of the nine Great Clans and one for the Imperial families.
Each delegation would have fifteen applicants, with seven of the applicants playing canon characters who already existed in the CCG. The remaining eight applicants would be allowed to create unique characters with the chance of earning the honor of being made into canon in the CCG.
As someone who had been playing L5R in both forms for nearly two decades, this was a once in a lifetime chance. Despite my best efforts in the previous year – and many before that – I had never placed high enough in the tournament scene to truly have an impact on the game. I saw Winter Court IV as my opportunity to change that, to add something to the world that had been a part of my life for so very long.
That is why the response I received in September saying I was selected as a delegate for the Spider Clan thrilled me to the nines. Furthermore, I was selected to play one of the eight unique Clan slots. With the Spider Clan still being so very young, my ability to have an impact on this faction that I had been playing for the last year filled me with anticipation. I created my account as soon as the forums opened for the first month of OOC development and character building, diving headlong into making myself part of the new community.
My other delegates were just as excited as I was to be there, and we each felt we had been selected to achieve something great. While we had some early disagreements on establishing order in the first few days, the level of excitement in the Spider delegation was staggering. Our two Assistant GMs were Konohama and Emma-O, named after the goddess of flowers and the god of death, respectively.
Despite such odd omens, the Spider delegation very quickly began plotting how to achieve the maximum impact on the court itself. We chose Susumu Takada, the Master of Guile as our delegation head, a character who had already been strongly represented in the fiction and the card game as a means to put the other delegations back a bit on their heels. Takada was known master manipulator, and while his player had some worries over his ability to be regularly connected to the internet, he agreed that the reputation alone made him the obvious choice.
From the card game, our delegation consisted of Susumu Mizuki, a seductive and sinister courtier; Daigotsu Geiko, the grumpy and majestic bushi from the Colonies who had remained untouched by Jigoku, unlike many other Spider; Daigotsu Atsushi, Takada’s yojimbo and a notorious duelist with a reputation for killing his opponents; Gyushi Kageto, the lone shugenja of the Spider Clan and the heir apparent to the nascent Gyushi vassal family of the Spider Clan; and Toku Saiga, a Monkey Clan member of the Minor Clan Alliance who had sworn his service to the Spider years ago. Our canon personalities each brought a certain sinister reputation with them, providing us with the basis of an effective political arsenal.
Beware The Ides
Reaching out to the GM Emma-O, I proposed a series of character concepts for preliminary approval. My first offer, a Daigotsu Obsidian Magistrate duelist was denied due to his technique no longer being taught and us already having a bevy of duelist bushi. My second concept, was a grumpy ex-Phoenix who swore fealty to the Spider Clan to seek ambition, was also rejected due to a lack of focus. It was my third concept that caught Emma-O’s eye, however, and he encouraged me to pursue it. The idea was for an Ide Emissary, a school and family known for their compassion and skilled mercantile aptitude, who married into the Susumu family. This Ide had become a novelist, publishing a series of pulp fiction detective stories in the capital, which had proved to be exceedingly popular. Emma-O felt that the addition of an Ide Emissary, a former Unicorn, would tie the delegation closer to their closest ally and give the Spider a tool they did not have in their arsenal.
The more I played with it, the more Susumu Naishi steadily became a clearer character in my mind. I chose to make her a woman, as the majority of the Spider Clan characters had been initially men. I also gave Naishi two young children, one of who had been sent away to train, and I reached out to the other players for connections.
As I did so, Naishi’s novel series also took form, and soon I had descriptions of three of her novels, along with her formula and writing style. Call it unashamed wish fulfillment, but I made Susumu Naishi a very successful and skilled author who publishes her stories under a pseudonym of Ki O Tsukete (Japanese for “Be Careful”) throughout the Empire. Even the name of Susumu Naishi was modeled after Ben no Naishi Nikki, a 13th century Japanese woman poet. I had crafted Naishi as a novelist who held a keen investigator’s intelligence, having been inspired by a Kitsuki magistrate’s solving of her father’s murder when she was a young girl. It was this character that I briefly introduced to you back in December.
As I neared the final pieces of Naishi’s creation, however, I felt she was missing something.
The more I thought about it, I realized that Naishi needed two things to become a fully fledged character. The first was a secret; the second was a weakness. Naishi’s secret became that she knew her father had been a member of the criminal Kolat conspiracy before his death and that he had been planning on bringing Naishi into the fold. As a result, Naishi had spent her life secretly studying the Kolat, learning their methods and secrets to the best of her ability, out of a fear that she might one day be targeted by their assassins. She lived with the terrible truth that the Kolat were real and they were everywhere.
For her weakness, I gave Naishi more than just an open heart. I gave her the Dependant of her six year old son, Susumu Nori. Her second child, Nori, was more like his mother than his father, having been born with her own inquisitive nature and gift for language. Naishi feared that these would make him a target for the Kolat to recruit, but also that his physical prowess would make him an ideal bushi. The last thing Naishi wanted was for her son to be sent to train in the Colonies and never come back.
As these last bits of Susumu Naishi solidified, I was given the positions of the Spider Clan ambassador to the Unicorn and Lion Clans. Before too long, December came, and with it, Winter Court began in earnest.
And so began my part in the Spider Clan’s court influence. Next time, we’ll talk about some of the other characters in my delegation (spoiler: they are pretty awesome), as well as the other delegates I interacted with.
We may also discuss a thing or two about what transpired in this roller coaster of a court.
Until then, dear reader, Carry the Fortunes.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he also has a long and complicated past with L5R. These are his stories. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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