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 upon the game’s sale to FFG in 2015.
Chapter 54: Swords to Plowshares
It has been a while since we last spoke, dear reader. It has been a strange journey for me, these last few months, and it is one that I believe was necessary.
It brought me here, to this point, where I can genuinely say this: I think I am done with Legend of the Five Rings.
This is not the first time I have fallen away from the game. In fact, those who have followed this series since its inception will recall its genesis as chronicling my return to L5R after having been away for a while. I had played AEG’s L5R collectible card game consistently from its second expansion through the end of Lotus Edition (1996-2007), but I just did not find the desire to keep going after Gen Con 2011. I had hit a point with the state of the game where I just did not have the time to participate in earnest anymore. This time is different from that.
This is also not even the first time I stopped playing Legend of the Five Rings actively as part of my weekly gaming habits. I kept up with it for a while after the 2015 sale to FFG, trying to keep that part of my place in the community going. I found it instead in the RPG scene, playing in Winter Court 5 and the Heroes of Rokugan community. I even kept a local tabletop group of the RPG going for a while. Alas, my involvement with the old card-gaming community, a community I had been an active and proud part of for a very long time, had tapered off. It had grown quiet. But this time is different from that, as well.
I wish I had a third example to fit in here, because the writer in me knows that good rhetorical examples come in threes before moving onto the point you want to make, but I do not really have one. My third example instead is this one, having only come to fruition in real time, and it has a sense of finality to it that the previous two examples really did not. It feels like I am done with Legend of the Five Rings and with being Dave of the Five Rings. It has been a long time coming in some ways, but it is still strange. I would not want to leave you without saying goodbye, dear readers, and giving you a full explanation of my reasons.
So, I guess that is what this is, dear reader. This is a goodbye.
A Weighted Decision
As I made mention of in my penultimate blog post, in October 2020 I took a break from Legend of the Five Rings. This wasn’t just a break from the LCG, nor a break from the RPG. This was a break from the community in general – from the habit of checking the Fantasy Flight Games website for the latest fiction, to creating fun little game-design experiments for the RPG in my spare time, to listening to the L5R podcasts which I would play in the background of my day job. I took a step back from the Legend of the Five Rings community to give myself the distance to see this community from the outside, and, ultimately, to find out whether I still belonged as a part of it.
In the interim I found my answer, and it was not the reaffirmation I was hoping it would be. For nearly two and a half decades I found L5R to be a community I could call home, but it had changed. It had been changing for quite some time.
While it would be clever to say that it all started with a single card, it would be more accurate to say that it was a single card which broke my desire to play the card game which lay at the heart of my relationship to L5R. That card was not Stoke Insurrection, Ikoma Tsanuri 2, or even Contested Countryside. It is not a card which will show up on the ban list or restricted list anytime soon. It isn’t even a card which will see much play. It was not a card which broke the game, but it was a card which certainly broke me.
This unremarkable card was Weight of Duty.
Released in Atonement, Pack 6 of the Dominion Cycle, Weight of Duty is a Neutral Void province with an Action allowing its controller to sacrifice a participating Character during a conflict at a Void province to bow and dishonor an opponent’s Character. That was it. Nothing special. Nothing fancy.
And yet it made me realize why I was no longer having fun playing the LCG.
It was a friendly game, and as such, we were not playing top-tier decks. In fact, the whole purpose of the match was to experiment with new pieces of jank in the meta to see what was actually strong, what was actually fun, and what just failed to fire effectively. This was something I traditionally did on my Tuesday nights while everyone else would try to grind out their league games with those top-tier decks, trying to teach the mental muscle memory that lay behind the good decisions of this game.
The L5R LCG is a game, much like Chess, in that you benefit from practicing how to position the game state into a more beneficial one than your opponent and then use that practiced advantage to control the game. With the 2020 Kotei having folded in the wake of COVID-19 and relegating my Tuesday nights to playing Jigoku on a Discord server with friends, I had lost interest in playing competitive decks months ago. What was the point of training muscle memory for a competitive scene which no longer existed, and might never exist again?
I instead took refuge in my “after-market playtesting” style of game which I still found fun. I had a Turbo-Yurting deck which could deck itself on the Dynasty side in the first turn if it was not careful. I had a Scorpion deck which was designed to use Stoke Insurrection, Ambush, and other means to cheat bodies into play whom would then never die. I even had a Dragon dueling deck which would grind the game to an absolute halt and generally win after the tenth turn. And so, I sat down to play against my opponent running a janky Scorpion dishonor, and saw this Province get put to use.
This usage manifested by having Character with Fate on it get stolen by a Blackmail and fed into a Weight of Duty to bow and dishonor my Character at home during an attack. That’s when it hit me: this was a broken card. This was a card which genuinely created a scenario so profoundly negative in my experience that I just wanted to quit the game entirely. With the right combination, this card would spread like a cancer throughout the meta of this game, creating decks which focused on stealing your opponent’s best Characters to feed into this Province, bowing and dishonoring their remaining Characters, and creating a devastating wave of shifted value.
As evidenced even in my casual game, the right combination of cards already existed in this environment, with pieces like Blackmail and Stoke Insurrection. This one Province could create a degenerate, negative play experience deck, and all the pieces were there.
But those pieces would never get used, because they just were not good enough.
Weight of Duty was a card that broke me, and which should by all rights have broken the game. But in my heart I knew it never would. I knew that it was jank, and it would never replace Shameful Display.
The value of a single Core Set Province was simply more reliable, less flashy, more powerful, and ultimately no less of a negative play experience. Shameful Display made it feel bad to attack my opponent, and I had just gotten used to putting up with it for three years.
I responded to this feeling of outrage in the way that I do: immediately building an entire deck centered on turning Weight of Duty into the most toxic play experiences I could. I made a platform under which my opponent’s best Characters would get fed into my Weight of Duty, to steal and sacrifice what I could and generate crippling levels of value. I threw my heart into taking every single piece of broken card design in the entire Dominion Cycle and crammed it into a single deck. The primary point was not to win but to make my opponent viscerally feel bad about playing the game. I played two games with this deck, made some tweaks, played one more, and then put it down.
I walked away from the LCG that night, and I have not played a game since. I have not wanted to.
The deck did what I built it to, but it did not matter. I could create the most toxic play experience imaginable, but it would still not be powerful enough to win. You can’t commit too much to creating a toxic deck and win in L5R, but that’s not to say that you should avoid toxicity per se. You need to embrace it to achieve victory. The trick is to immerse your opponent in it, not yourself. You aren’t merely defeated in an L5R game – you are crushed. No one enjoys losing, but in too many instances an L5R loss isn’t just disappointing. It can be down right infuriating. Too often, victory in L5R isn’t as much about the thrill of victory as much as it is to avoid the palpable sting of a loss.
I played this deck three times, and doing so brought into my mind every single time someone rage-quit against me in Jigoku. It brought to mind the player who stormed out of Round 2 of a Store Championship because they did not understand how one single card actually worked. It brought to mind the time I had to try to talk someone out of quitting the game during the World Championship because I had simply been more practiced in that specific matchup than he was.
Playing this experimental deck revealed an unfortunate truth: winning itself in L5R LCG felt toxic to me, and I could no longer play the game because of it.
It should be no surprise to you, dear reader, that it was a Dominion Cycle card which broke me. My previous few months of coverage have invariably been negative on the design space explored by the LCG, and none of the previews of the Temptations Cycle had been able to give me hope for the game’s direction. The Dominion Cycle was supposed to be the last Dynasty Cycle before the first real Rotation Event, and it absolutely set a tone for the LCG.
With the removal of the Imperial and the Elemental Cycles, the game would have shifted dramatically. Perhaps there would have been a new Core Set to address some of the systemic issues (or to at least give the Unicorn Clan a playable stronghold with Hisu Mori Toride being cycled out). Yet taken as a whole, the preview that Dominion Cycle gave was a game pushed forward by haymakers and crippling value swings, where certain factions would Just Be Better than others due to the quality of their hits.
(I’m looking at you, Lion and Scorpion).
The release of Skirmish L5R encapsulated this design direction and showcased the flaws of the game writ large. Skirmish L5R fixed certain issues of the game by cutting out entire sections of it, whereas the core game tried to solve these problems with silver bullets. Rather than solve the issue of toxic Provinces, L5R introduced Contested Countryside to abuse them worse. Rather than address the issue of undying, powerhouse towers, the game introduced Lost Papers to try (and failed) to lock them down.
However, both silver bullets and excising whole swaths of the game are lazy design solutions and rarely work to solve the underlying problems. Further, when some element of design went too far, creating something demonstrably unfun, the response of “We’ll put it on the Restricted or Banned List” revealed a simple truth of how L5R was being treated by FFG. In film, there is only one good reason to say “we’ll fix it in post” – you’ve run out of time or money to fix it while shooting. It was clear that Tyler was not being given enough time to develop L5R, and FFG was not interested in paying enough money for people to design L5R well.
Now, I’ve met Tyler. I like Tyler. I think Tyler is a wonderful person who thinks deeply about game design and truly loves games and their power to transform lives. But the Dominion Cycle has shaken my faith in him as a lead designer.
If nothing else, it has confirmed in my mind that the L5R LCG is not a game that should be designed by a single person but rather needs to be designed by a team. You do not need one person working 40 hours a week on L5R but four people working 10 hours a week. You need a diversity of vision and approach, especially when trying to flesh out 7 distinctly different clan philosophies, or else you get what the L5R LCG is currently. It is clear that Tyler has a vision on how this game should be played and is designing around that vision. And the factions which fall within that vision do well. Lion excels. Scorpion excels. Even Crane and Crab can excel. But when Phoenix excels? It’s like they have found an exploit. When Unicorn excels, it is like it had to jump ten feet when everyone else only had to jump five. And Dragon Clan is just a hot mess. Still.
It is this reality which has driven me away from playing the L5R LCG, dear reader. One card brought six months of growing disenchantment with the direction of design into perfect focus, and like a crystal bullet it hit me and exploded such that afterwards everything I saw in the game just made me dislike it.
Yet I would be remiss if I did not take it a step further and explain that I am but a symptom of the bigger problem. And that is that Legend of the Five Rings is a dying brand.
Worse, I cannot even say that this is a bad thing.
The Thousandth Cut
When I was first drawn into Legend of the Five Rings, I was already familiar with the philosophies of Confucius and Lao Tze, and was already a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films. For me in the late 90’s, Legend of the Five Rings dovetailed into my growing interest in Chinese and Japanese culture which fulfilled a part of me that the overly-produced, overly-marketed American culture lacked. I had moved away from my tribal community in Vermont and was desperately searching for a connection to a greater culture which did not feel immediately insincere. It did not matter to me that the cultures of China or Japan were not my culture; they were beautiful in a way my world at that time was not.
I stuck with Legend of the Five Rings through high school and into college, returning to it time and time again. I did not limit my time with various East Asian cultures to just L5R, and it served as a gateway to a much deeper and fulfilling appreciation of the elements L5R reflected. I studied the histories of nations, admired their art, even audited four semesters of Japanese in college. But with each step I took into a greater understanding of Japanese culture, I saw how shallow L5R could be at its worst and how the worst elements of the community celebrated and enshrined these shallow parts of this game I loved. When I began to see how much these elements harmed some people I was not surprised, but I was saddened. I grew sadder still when those same worst parts of the community grew louder and louder in response to other people’s genuine pains and concerns in recent years.
The most joy I found in my waning months of 2020 activity with L5R came from listening to the Asians Represent! Podcast’s critical read of the L5R RPG and participating in their chat. I engaged with the hosts on Twitter, and it allowed me to get to know Tsar Agus better – someone I had known only in passing during last year’s Winter Court but now someone whom I truly respect and appreciate for all his work in the community.
Seeing and hearing both the pain and, yes, joy expressed by the Asians Represent! group on their episodes was a genuine relief to something I had been carrying around for a long time. For years I had known there were deep issues in L5R which needed to be addressed, and for years I continued to participate in the game and its community to try to make those issues better. And for years, a small part of me thought that maybe I was seeing certain things which were not really there. But they were, they always were, and to have a panel of people talk openly about them was something I am deeply grateful for.
And then I saw the response of that same community to Tsar when he made a statement to that end, which caused problems. After my last fall update, I had taken a few weeks away from L5R to process my thoughts on the state of the game and where it was going, and so I only saw the fires after they were raging. Many of my friends wear their being banned from the Facebook group and Discord server for defending Tsar as badges of honor, but there were also those who tried to find a way to reconcile with the people attacking him.
I could not be one of those. I could not reconcile myself to sharing a space with the worst parts of the L5R community any further. L5R under Fantasy Flight has come a long way in correcting some of the more egregious and systemic problems of the game from its Alderac days, but the combination of their seeming incapacity to reform it further to where it needs to go (however well-intentioned they may be) and a not-insignificant portion of the community vociferously opposed to such changes, was simply too much to bear any longer. And so I found myself taking another step further away. It was the Weight of Duty which broke my desire to play the LCG, but it was the community’s response to being informed how they were being harmful which ultimately broke my heart. A community that I have belonged to off and on for more than 20 years. And it is why I am not coming back.
A Final Bow
There is so much more that I could say on this subject that I am not sure I have the endurance to get into. The fact that there is no Foundry for the L5R Roleplaying Game, allowing people to be paid to create user-generated content for their game, is an endless well of frustration which drives my game-designer ambitions into other projects. The RPG itself is deeply flawed, flaws which are growing with each released supplement (barring Path of Waves). The last time we’ve even heard anything about the L5R RPG was during Gen Con Online 2020. Edge Studios has not updated its English website in months.
The L5R novella likewise have been on a steady decline since the bravura effort of Robert Denton’s “The Sword and the Spirits”, to the point where I have not even touched the Aconyte Books novels. Perhaps those will be better, but I have not been able to bring myself to reading them. Similarly, the game fiction online has been coming at a snail’s pace, and it feels like we have been stuck in the week after the death of Hantei the 38th since 2018. Will we ever see another L5R board game, or is Clan War the only one? Only FFG seems to know for sure, and even then I can’t be positive there’s a definite plan there, either.
When Legend of the Five Rings was bought by Fantasy Flight Games, I remember hearing a lot of discussion about the ‘lifecycle of FFG LCGs’. This is when Fantasy Flight releases a new LCG, creating massive amount of hype in the months prior. It then supports that LCG for a full year in the spotlight before passing it off to a smaller team after the honeymoon is over. Over the course of the following year or two the pace of the game’s content and products begin to slow, until its audience dwindles.
Then, at some point, the game starts releasing under-designed, under-tested products, which leads to a spike in degeneracy in Organized Play. Decks achieve a required level of toxic play experiences in order to stay competitive, and you either love the toxicity, or you quit. And, then, a year after that, FFG pulls the plug on the game and states it is a finished product, moving on to start the cycle anew. While Lord of the Rings (at least until mid 2020) and Arkham Horror currently, being either soloable or cooperative rather than competitive, are proving to be the exceptions which prove the rule, Legend of the Five Rings most certainly is not. It is dying, and it is not just the pandemic killing it. It is by design.
But when Legend of the Five Rings dies, I will not be here to see it. Maybe, if I am motivated, I will sit again with you, dear reader, and pick through the remains to see just what happened and if it could have been avoided. I might like that, if only to share another few thousand words with you. But that day has not yet come to pass.
So, for now I must close this multi-year chronicle that is Dave of the Five Rings. I will still be around on The Cardboard Republic and intend in 2021 to shift my attention back towards RPG review coverage as I’ve done here in the past. The RPG community is experiencing a renaissance, and that means someone has to review all these delightful new games which have cropped up. It has been a good journey, though, and I will miss you, dear reader.
Until when and where next we meet.
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 on Twitter.
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Photo Credits: Legend of the 5 Rings images by Fantasy Flight Games.