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 16: Interview with C. Thomas Hand
Welcome back, dear reader. It seems of late that every time I sit down to write one of these articles, something extreme happens in L5R within the preceding week. Most recently, at the time of this writing the first fiction for Thunderous Acclaim has been released on the Imperial Assembly, and it is yet another game changer.
By now the first wave of the Story Choices will have been released to the players at large, and we will see which way the Empire will go. By the time of my next installment, Thunderous Acclaim will have hit shelves, hopefully, and the voting will have closed.
This is truly an exciting and challenging time to be an L5R player I must admit. The game is changing every week, and with it comes a passion. Even this very article delayed in part because of yours truly getting in several online arguments regarding these recent storyline developments.
Without any further ado, however, I am pleased to report that in between such arguments, I was able to sit down recently with C. Thomas Hand, one of the storytellers from Winter Court IV and recent addition to the Story Team. Mr. Hand has been working diligently, providing several amazing fictions in the living world of Rokugan. As you are about to see, Mr. Hand speaks as he writes, with a clear passion for the game and devotion towards making it the best game world out there.
C. Thomas Hand And Storytelling
CR: How did you first discover Legend of the Five Rings?
I played Magic: the Gathering, but grew tired of the aggressive and unfriendly nature of the crowd I was in. A friend suggested that I try the Legend of the Five Rings CCG. It was a year after it came out. I sold all my Magic cards to the store for credit, as did my friends, and we bought a few L5R starters. The Ruined Fortress of the Scorpion was my first Stronghold, and the others picked up the Naga, Crane, Phoenix, and few others.
I was around 13 or 14 the first time I saw the RPG book on the shelf. My friend Jason’s mother, Kathy, saw us eyeballing it and bought it for us. We were immediately hooked! I have personally run the Topaz Championship in some iteration out of that book at least three dozen times.
CR: What attracted you to Legend of the Five Rings as a game? As a setting?
I have always been interested in eastern Asian cultures, and what kid doesn’t love samurai and magic together? As we played the CCG more, the ability to interact with and affect the story was very appealing to me. The living story at the heart of the Legend of the Five Rings, one that grows as the game moves forward, was a key attraction.
The player community was also a huge draw. The people playing L5R were extremely friendly and welcoming. They went out of their way to make us a part of them. About two months after we started, these two guys from Nashville drove the hour out to where we were in Dickson and instructed us how to make awesome decks. They showed us a lot of neat tricks and gave us over two boxes worth of cards to help set us up.
I don’t remember their names, but it is people like that who make up the L5R community. I have only rarely had negative interactions with L5R players in person or online. They are a giving, tight crowd that, more than anything else, has kept me coming back each time I’ve taken a break from the game.
CR: What faction in the game / setting were you first drawn to?
I started off playing the Scorpion badly, then decided it wasn’t for me. I went through a lot of different options, but as I was usually the GM of my RPG group, I didn’t fall towards one faction or group in any game I played. After a while, though, I settled on the Naga, Yoritomo’s Alliance, and the Phoenix Clan. I played those factions my first few years until my second Gen Con. There, I listened to Ree Soesbee speak amazing stuff about the Clans, and specifically the Crane Clan. I was hooked.
I became a Crane Clan player from that point on in the CCG. That being said, I don’t get to play the CCG as much now because there aren’t a lot of people near where I live to do so. I don’t have as much time either to dedicate to it. If I had to pick a favorite faction, Crane would be what I most identify with. I love their focus on culture, perfection, and just the right amount of arrogance which mimics my own attitudes.
CR: What was your favorite story as an L5R player?
My favorite line from any L5R story is “And in the darkness, Norikazu screams.”
My favorite story was probably the Shosuro / Kachiko return in the lake beneath Kyuden Bayushi, but that has more to do with the fact that I saw John Wick read the story at Gen Con while dressed as Bayushi Yojiro. It was a touching moment that I will never forget.
Outside of canon, I love the dozens of alternate storylines – especially the examples and histories in the Imperial Histories books. The Peasant Revolt and the Togashi Dynasty are both amazing.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not say how much I absolutely love Rokugan 2000 by Rich Wulf. Man, those stories drew me in and still do.
CR: How did you become involved with writing the storyline for Legend of the Five Rings?
I sent in submissions during 2nd Edition of the RPG and was accepted to write on a few of the Secrets of the Clan books as well as a few of the R&K / d20 crossover books. However, time and life pulled me away, and I had to stop writing.
After I joined the military, between my time as Enlisted and while I was finishing my degree to become an Officer, I once again sent in submissions. I asked Shawn Carman if he needed help. They picked me up for Secrets, and I’ve been writing on every RPG book since.
When they solicited for new Story Team members, Shawn suggested I apply. So I did. It took a while, but I was accepted. One of my pieces is the continuous fiction located in the Sword and Fan RPG book, as I wrote all of them together. This is truly the dream of my teenage self, to be affecting the story of a game I have loved since I first laid eyes on it.
CR: What was your first official piece of fiction for L5R?
Not counting the fictions in the RPG books, my first Weekly Fiction on L5R.com (the Herald) was Witness followed by Reconstruction. Each focus on the events of the Winter Court IV event, which I helped GM as Shi-Tien Yen-Wang.
CR: As a member of the Story Team, describe the process by which the stories develop. What is the first step? How do you bring it to a conclusion?
The process is myriad in approach. Shawn and the Story Team determine a base meta-plot and begin ascribing details. We work at least one and a half to two years out on the large, sweeping plots which will be the background of the tales we write and those the players will affect.
There is some confusion from players when we say that we write the story this far out, though, thinking it means that their wins and picks at tournaments don’t affect the game. That is very much not true.
The story we write this far out is like a GM plotting out a long campaign which will take years. We can lay out the basic plots, sweeping generalizations, et al, but the players will make you shift and change and alter them.
We split up Clans and themes between the writers and work on primers, background, and Focus characters. We try to stick to the themes of those clans and the chosen tone of the Big Meta Plot.
Then, we get help from Design, Brand, and the Players to shape the focus of these stories. It’s an All-In process; no one person or group does it all. We pay a great deal of attention to how the players respond, what they like and do not like, and we try to take the positive, while fixing the negative.
CR: How many drafts does an official fiction go through before it’s released to the public?
Ha! Mine? Loads.
I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and am working on my Masters at the University of Texas in the same subject. When I write something, I start with an idea. I write down basic plot points and the vital information which must be in the story. I write notes on the tone. Then I write the story. I rewrite at least once and send it to a trusted friend or two on the ST. After that, I revisit at least once more to rewrite and polish, and in some cases start all over.
I have to admit that the first two fictions are not my best work because of the limited time to write them and the need to fit in so much Winter Court information. I was constrained by what had to be included. However, I still think they turned out pretty well despite that.
We are already working on future stuff. Specifically, myself and the other two new people, Max and Mari, are working diligently to destroy the backlog of unresolved Story Prizes and build a “Stable” of good fictions so that we can eventually get back to one fiction a week.
CR: What sort of writing works have you done outside of Legend of the Five Rings?
I am currently working on a short story for an anthology, but can’t really discuss much at this time. I write my own short stories, but that work is not at all related to gaming and tends towards very adult themes and descriptions.
I’ve never written for another game line, though, I know Robert Schwalb (one of the main writers for D&D 4th and 4th Edition) currently Kickstarted his own work: Shadow of the Demon Lord. Check it out. He’s amazing.
CR: What is your favorite L5R story contribution to date?
The upcoming work for Onyx, because I am in on the ground floor for the writing and am getting to help shape major plot points for the overall story. I cannot say much about it, but you are going to see some amazing stuff.
CR: What story was your biggest challenge as a writer?
I only have a limited experience, so I have to say the Winter Court stuff. The outline on those two stories pretty much dictated exactly how I should write them. And I didn’t get to include anywhere near as much detail and coolness as I would have liked.
CR: What do you feel is the most rewarding part of being on the L5R Story Team? The most challenging?
The most rewarding part is seeing other people talk favorably about my work and / or offering good criticism.
The most challenging is seeing people have knee-jerk negative reactions that I know are unwarranted because I know the future of the story. I can’t adequately describe to them why they should remain calm because I cannot share that information.
CR: When you’re not building the world of Rokugan, what do you do for a day job?
I am a Missile Operations Officer in the USAF with prior enlisted service as a Biomedical Technician.
CR: If someone was interested in becoming part of the Story Team?
First, they should produce their own fiction. Vet it, edit it, and make it something comparable – or better – to what they see online.
Second, they should send it to Fred Wan, our main editor, or one of the Story people to get it up to him.
Third, they have to wait for a position to become available. We may not always have room for another person to add to the team, but I think we are always interested in accepting potentials.
CR: Lastly, take us back to the beginning: what is your favorite part of L5R?
The fact that no matter how many times people proclaim the sky to be falling, it continues on, growing and getting better. The players come and go, and many return. They are always friendly in person and (usually at least) cordial online.
And, even when they disagree, it’s usually because they have a deep, abiding passion for the game and not just because they disagree. This game is not just mine or Shawn’s or John Zinser’s or any one person’s. It belongs to us all and we all help shape it.
That is beautiful. It is like a macro-scale version of a tabletop gaming group. You all get together with your characters and your GM. You have a basic story worked out and yet the players change and shape it. By the end, you have all collaboratively written a work of true majesty that will live in your hearts and minds forever.
That is all for now, dear reader. In my next article, it’s back to the gaming tables, wherein I’ll discuss my performance at the Cambridge Kotei and how I got to use the Susumu honor hijinks deck I’ve been trying to play from when I started in Ivory over a year ago. I will also be discussing the turn of the story in Onyx Edition, and how the Empire might change with all of Jigoku being unleashed upon it. Until then, dear reader, keep your swords ready and your mind keen.
The Blackest Storm is on the horizon, and we shall see if Rokugan will survive it.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo Credits: Futurama from Comedy Central; Legend of the 5 Rings images by Alderac Entertainment Group; The Hunger Games from Lionsgate Movies; Lord of the Rings Image from New Line Cinema;Mickey Mouse by Walt Disney; Parker of Leverage from TNT; South Park from Comedy Central Films