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 12: The Stories of Fred Wan
Welcome back, dear readers. I hope that this winter is treating you well. For me, it has been a very busy one. Aside from the usual usual holiday hubbub, I have been deeply embroiled in the continued machinations of the official Legend of the Five Rings Winter Court since December 1st, and it has been nothing short of tumultuous. As a delegate of the Spider Clan, we have had our work cut out for us from the get-go. With the Voice of the Empress and the Imperial Advisor both being Crab Clan, the Spider Clan definitely started from a challenging position compared to our primary enemy, the Crab. Even as I write this, the game continues, and I hope to share some of this experience in more detail in another article.
Today, we explore the intrigue of L5R in a different manner.
Gen Con afforded me a great many opportunities to speak with the minds and personalities behind L5R to which I found invaluable. My conversations with Robert Hobart, head of the RPG line, provided excellent insight into how the game has developed through Fourth Edition, and left me confident for its future. Speaking with Bryan Reese illustrated many of the central mechanics to the CCG and how the game has evolved recently. He helped reiterate that Ivory Edition is meant as a new starting point for the game, and despite some hiccups, it has been fairly successful.
Yet it was my conversations with Fred Wan, the assistant lead to the Story Team and CCG Continuity Editor, which truly stood out.
Fred, along with Story Team lead Shawn Carman are the ones responsible for keeping alive the two decade long tradition of Legend of the Five Rings and its unique empowerment of its players. As someone who came to work for L5R first as a player, Fred spoke powerfully about the responsibility of being a storyteller in such an invested world. “It is like inheriting your father’s katana, held in trust for your children,” he described. ” I am not the first to tell this story, and I will not be the last. I must honor this duty and this privilege.”
Due to his unique perspective of the game and his role in it, I wanted to hear more. Fred and I made arrangements after the convention to sit down and speak further on the subject of L5R and its history, its appeal, and what it is like to be standing at the helm of this game as it moves into its second decade of storytelling. What follows is a portion of that conversation; I hope it proves as enlightening to you as it was to me.
Fred Wan And Rokugan
CR: How did you first discover Legend of the Five Rings?
I started playing during Imperial Edition, when there was only the CCG. I purchased two starters of the game from my friendly local gaming store, choosing the two clans which appealed to me the most. The Crane Clan were the artists who inspired the Empire to greatness. The Phoenix Clan were the wise priests who guided the Empire’s soul. It was the Phoenix Clan who I ultimately stuck with playing for several reasons, and it was not until Jade Edition that I began regularly playing other Clans.
CR: What attracted you to L5R as a game, and how has held your interest since?
I didn’t actually get to play the game for a while after I purchased those starters. For me, what truly appealed was the promise that I could change Rokugan by just playing the game, that any player could change the entire game world. Even now, this is a unique concept in the world of gaming. While Magic: the Gathering has introduced some player impact and some idea of factions, no other CCG really gives its players as much control over the destiny of the game world as L5R does.
The Shadowfist CCG had some ability of player feedback, but at the time L5R came out, it was this promise that really sold the game. The nearest analogue to the power of the players in Legend of the Five Rings is in the game EVE Online, where the narrative is entirely player-driven. EVE, however, has developed this narrative due to the absence of any official narrative from the game designers. L5R players do not operate in the same vacuum.
This isn’t always a pleasant thing. There is a trust inherent to handing control of your story to anyone who happens to win a tournament, and that trust ebbs and wanes as the story continues. The trust needs to be two ways, as players need also to trust the Story Team to implement everything they can.
It is when this trust is rewarded that truly memorable stories are created, by both the players and the designers. Working together, we can create an amazing story that empowers the players while still making narrative sense. It is the promise of L5R’s empowerment of its players that attracted me to the game, and seeing that promise fulfilled as much as it can be.
CR: Tell us about your first forays into L5R as a player.
I opened an Isawa Tsuke as my first rare in Legend of the Five Rings and played Phoenix Clan through most of my first series of tournaments as a result. Isawa Tsuke was a powerful, deck-defining rare, and it immediately made playing Phoenix appealing. Looking back, I played an incredibly corrupt Phoenix deck, filled with Shadowlands and Kolat, without really understanding why that was a bad thing. Like the Crab, playing the Phoenix corrupt was nearly a requirement in order to be competitive, with the Shadowlands cards giving the deck the powerful tools it needed in order to win.
Now that I am on the other side of the game, I see the conflict between corrupting a deck and keeping it pure in a different light. If a deck has to be corrupted to win, is it really fair to punish a faction for running corrupt decks? If someone loves their Clan, is it better for them to win no matter what, or better to win the right way?
During Jade Edition, there were not enough Phoenix Clan cards to make a deck. I switched over to the Unicorn Clan, and became involved in the major tournament scene. I won the Nothing to Lose storyline event in Seattle during the years L5R was owned by Wizards of the Coast, and I was very fortunate to have had the impact I had as a player of the CCG. After Jade, the CCG bug was mostly out of my system, and I focused my attention on other parts of the game. Having started in the CCG, though, I think I have a perspective on that game which helps me immensely as a writer of the storyline. I have been where every player who comes to this game is, and I have heard its promise. As story team, I help deliver on that promise.
CR: What was your favorite story as a player of Legend of the Five Rings? How about as a writer?
Can any story stand up to the Day of Thunder? John Wick standing in front of the crowd in GenCon 1998, tearing up the two envelops and ad-libbing a story on the fly. The stories of the Day of Thunder hold a place in the community that others have to measure up to. For me, it is the story in the Time of the Void rulebook and the character of Isawa Osugi.
Isawa Osugi was a shugenja of the Phoenix Clan who could not gain the Shadowlands trait, making it hard for her to be run in any corrupt deck. In the fiction of the Time of the Void rulebook, Bayushi Kachiko encounters Isawa Osugi and is impressed by her purity and power. She is an eight year old prodigy of magic who stands above the corruption devouring her clan from within, and despite the small amount of time she spends in the storyline, she left a strong impression on me as to how a game’s story can be communicated perfectly through its mechanics. Isawa Osugi was a success.
For personal reasons, the story of Akasha and the Legacy of the Naga also holds a great deal of importance to me. I played Unicorn through the Legacy of the Naga storyline events, and the Unicorn victory of that global event was something I had an impact on as a player. It was at the Seattle Kotei that the fiction was read aloud by Ed Bolme of the Story Team, and it was my first time witnessing L5R history first hand.
Still, as a member of the Story Team, Sacrifices by Rusty Priske is one of my favorites. In Sacrifices, it is the start of another conflict between the Crane Clan and the Crab Clan. The story follows the Jade Champion, a Crab Clan shugenja, who needs more of the holy material to support the forces of the Crab in their war with the Shadowlands. He begins requisitioning it from the temples of the Crane Clan, who immediately object to the destruction of the artistic accomplishments of their ancestors by the brutes of the Crab. To each side, this was a matter of survival, of preserving that which was truly important. Players of both sides loved the story, and spoke of how it resonated with them. Both Clans are shown in the light of their needs, and the light of the other’s needs, and it served the purpose of building the conflict between them perfectly.
CR: Lastly, what are some of the rewards and challenges you experience now that you’re a part of the game as a member of the Story Team?
My favorite part of Legend of the Five Rings always is the people I have been able to meet because of this game. At every convention I get to meet people new to the game and catch up with old friends, trade stories and learn new twists and turns. I was recently invited to speak at a panel at PAX about interactive storylines in games and met many new people from the video game industry as a result. Once, when I was travelling across the border to the United States, I even made friends with a border guard because he played L5R.
I also know I have been given a tremendous responsibility as the assistant lead to the Story Team. It is not one I take lightly. I am walking in the footsteps of John Wick and Rich Wulf, translating a story that speaks to thousands in terms of empowerment and community. I have to forge a future from out of the stories they left us, but I cannot be held back by that same foundation.
As much as it is the people who time and again make this game the amazingly rewarding experience it is, it is the legacy we treasure which is the most challenging. To tell the story of L5R, the players and the designers have to trust each other to tell the very best story we both can. That means taking risks, such as the one we did with Heaven’s Net. We handed Nancy Sauer the challenge of telling the story of Togashi being called before Heaven to answer for his actions in the storyline, and she told an amazing story that challenged many players’ ideas on how the world worked in Rokugan. It ultimately changed the character of Togashi Satsu and the Dragon Clan drastically, and bold moves like that must be taken for the story to stay compelling.
Taking leaps like that, however, is a challenge. We have inherited the story of Legend of the Five Rings from the writers who made us love Rokugan, and we hold it in trust for the writers who will take it from us when our time writing it is done. It is an honor and a privilege, and neither should be taken lightly.
The honor and privilege of writing the story of Legend of the Five Rings is a powerful thing. It is a game that has been a part of my life for nearly two decades, and one that does not show any sign of letting up. We are grateful Fred Wan took the time to speak with us about this game that has brought so many together.
This chapter marks one year since this series began, and those twelve months alone has been quite the journey. I have been to two Koteis, the Gen Con main event, and reconnected with a community that has had a powerful impact on my gaming career. This coming year I will see two more Koteis, another Gen Con, and of course, the Winter Court lies before us. All of this is ahead of me before my original faction returns, wherein I shall shed my Spider colors for the green scales of a Naga.
Speaking of which, I hope that you stay tuned for my next chapter, where I discuss the beginning of Winter Court 4 and the challenge of building Susumu Naishi, my plucky Spider Clan investigator. 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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Photo Credits: Legend of the 5 Rings images by Alderac Entertainment Group; Court Dance from The Tudors by Showtime; Gen Con from GenConLLC; Peanuts cartoon from Iconix Brand Group, Inc.; Sabrina the Teenage Witch from ABC; Friends by NBC