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 53: Vision Problems
By the time you are reading this article, it will already be too late.
An ominous way to write about August, dear reader, but the truth stands. By the time that this article is published, the Fall 2020 Imperial Law document will have already been released, and much of what I am about to talk about may already have come to pass. However, it nevertheless speaks to a trend in the LCG form of Legend of the Five Rings which merits discussing, and while I might be a little late to the party, I will do my best to present the argument in a compelling and reasonably succinct form. Let us talk about Contested Countryside and the concept of meta-pressure.
Before we can do that, however, we should talk about August 2020 as it applies to Legend of the Five Rings. As we continue to trudge through the expanding months of the pandemic, L5R continues forward in its various forms: quiet but surviving. For the LCG, survival has taken the form of continued monthly releases, with August 2020 seeing the release of As Honor Demands, the fifth pack in the Dominion Cycle. As I will get into momentarily, this pack has been deeply impactful on the meta-game of the L5R LCG.
Living Through Insurrections
As Honor Demands is notable for a couple reasons. The first is that it breaks the trend of the Dominion Cycle in that the Lion Clan were not given the single most powerful card in the pack. That honor goes to the Scorpion Clan this time, with the exceptionally powerful Stoke Insurrection, a blowout Event which feels cheap even at the staggering cost of 4 Fate.
Comboing with extreme efficiency with Governor’s Spy and City of Lies, it is not impossible for a canny Scorpion Clan player to be able to fire this Event off for as little as 1 Fate, pulling their opponent’s best two Characters from their row, and deploying them directly into a Conflict. This card is already creating the memes of “What’s better than stealing your opponent’s Kisada? Stealing their Vanguard Warrior as well!” or stealing your opponent’s Ikoma Ujiaki, and then using Ujiaki’s ability to summon up two more Characters from your Province. With the average cost of a Character in this game running between 2 and 5 Fate, it is hard for Stoke Insurrection to not get its money’s worth. Add to that the ability for Scorpion Clan to run 6 to 12 no-cost counters, and Stoke Insurrection is undoubtedly a card which players are just going to have to live through.
That is until it is inevitably added to the Restricted List, like every other powerful Scorpion Clan card, and goes into the binder to live.
That is not to say that the Lion Clan did not pick up some good tricks in As Honor Demands. Honored Veterans is a Dynasty side Event with the Rally keyword which lets the Lion Clan start their Honor train early and fits the final piece into their non-interactive Honor-runner strategy. The Crane Clan picked up Seven Fold Palace and Master of the Court, giving them access to repeatable Honor gain and a Character who can cancel Events – a powerful ability as it is effectively a counter that cannot be countered. The Crab Clan have picked up another save in Ceaseless Duty and their third native Commander in Hida Etsuji, nearing the watershed that will allow them to dip fully into the powerful Commander tools. Yet unsurprisingly, the Dragon Clan received three coasters, each more questionably useless than the last.
My sympathies go out to the Dragon Clan players in their time of struggle. Not only is the game accelerating with each expansion, the cards you are being given almost insultingly poorly designed and speak to a lack of a central, unifying vision for how your Great Clan should play. While Iron Mountain Castle coming in Pack 6 might give you finally a playable card for this game, you truly have my sympathy now for every single time your opponent punishes you for choosing to put Agasha Sumiko’s new version in your deck by playing Stoke Insurrection.
For a full breakdown refresher of As Honor Demands, check out the accompanying piece on Imperial Advisor.
Things Get Dire
In more LCG news, Fantasy Flight Games previewed Twisted Loyalties, the first Dynasty Pack of the Temptations Cycle. In it, we get our first taste of the Dire keyword with Khanbulak Benefactor, a Unicorn Clan character without the Cavalry trait to allow for the Unicorn to get her into play without paying full cost.
The Lion Clan’s Honor-runner is getting a few reinforcements with this pack, including new Courtiers who can trigger their ability once a player has gained two or more Honor in a phase. The Crane Clan, however, seem to be the clear winner in this set, with Diplomatic Gift-Giver stealing an opponent’s Fate to put on your Characters and Exemplary Etiquette to just stop both Commander and Duelist decks in their tracks. While I expect Lion and Crab to be the big winners on the Dire keyword, with their multiple ways to keep a body in play despite it not having Fate, we have not yet seen much from the Temptations Cycle to show us just how powerful it will be.
The Story Sputters Along One Axis…
D.G. Laderoute meanwhile continued the Temptations Cycle of fiction for L5R with the release of “The Last Leaf Falls”. Focused on the actions of Akodo Toturi and Agasha Sumiko following the revelation that Hantei the 38th was murdered, this fiction continues to creep the story forward at a snail’s pace.
I do not wish to fault the writing, for it was more than adequate to cover the details of the story, but it just did not feel like it carried the necessary narrative punch that these events should have had. This revelation should have felt more tense, like the situation could explode into violence at any moment, and that it failing to do so should not have felt like a foregone conclusion. It might be the general sense of ‘plot armor’ surrounding every named character in the story currently is just reaching the point where we can no longer ignore it, or it might have had more to do with me having just finished Trail of Shadows.
Trail of Shadows, the Crab Clan Novella (also written by D.G. Laderoute), follows the actions of Hida Sukune as a lost relic of the Crab Clan is discovered by a nezumi tribe inside the Shinomen Forest. It was released on August 21, 2020, and I was not only able to pick it up at my FLGS that day but finish it in a single sitting. It is a swift read, arguably the swiftest of all the novella to date, but I do not know if that was a result of my reading acumen or my tilting desire to get it over with.
Of the five novella so far, I am sad to report that Trail of Shadows is arguably the weakest, due mostly to it feeling deeply repetitive and overly reliant on ‘tell, don’t show’. The opening chapter’s focus on the nezumi was by far the strongest part, but it stalls out in the next two chapters and never really picks up the pace. Interesting developments are suddenly cut short, characters hold the Idiot Ball for no ultimate narrative benefit, and the novella will beat you over the head with its message that the old ways are bad.
The novella itself at several times teases something from the old canon, only to directly and deliberately run counter to it, as if included only to make the fans of the old L5R canon feel unwelcome. The Gate of Persistence sequence in the novella felt particularly egregious of this. Not only is there a new Fortune of Persistence (a title held in the old canon by the returned Hida Kisada, a story achievement built by player victories across multiple tournaments), but the story of this new Fortune fails to resonate with the rest of the narrative and ultimately feels like fan DISservice.
While I normally enjoy D.G. Laderoute’s fiction, and consider him one of the most influential voices in Legend of the Five Rings, I cannot recommend Trail of Shadows. It was not an enjoyable read; it feels padded and nothing too important actually occurs in the narrative. Read a synopsis and save your time. That said, the section in the back on the Crab Clan and the promos included are fairly pretty, and with the Crab Clan being able to run more Commanders in the LCG, I would expect to see Hida Sukune find more use soon.
…While Thriving On Another
On the RPG front, two new supplements were released in August as well. Celestial Realms is similar to both Shadowlands and Courts of Stone in that it chooses an aspect of the setting of Rokugan, as well as a single Great Clan and a single Minor Clan. For Celestial Realms, the aspect is the Spirit Realms, the Great Clan is the Phoenix Clan, and the Minor Clan is the Centipede Clan.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the setting information in this book. I greatly enjoy the depiction of the Spirit Realms in the new L5R lore, as it feels less like a version of Dungeons and Dragons and more an attempt to create a new fantasy inspired by the East Asian source material. FFG has been open about their process of involving more East Asian writers in their product and involving sensitivity readers as well, and the impact of both on the quality of the game is showing. While the game was shaky in several places coming out of the core rulebook, Path of Waves and Celestial Realms have begun to move the tabletop game in a positive direction.
“Wheel of Judgment” is the companion adventure module for Celestial Realms, and it contains one of the single best twists I have seen to date in any L5R RPG module, including the previous editions. The twist is not that the characters start off dead and wind up on a journey through the afterlife of Rokugan in search of a villain causing all sorts of problems there. No, the twist comes in HOW the player characters journey through the afterlife. And no, I am not going to spoil it here. I highly recommend picking this adventure module up and giving it a whirl.
While you are at it, download “Deathly Turns”, the free DLC that accompanies the module.
Lastly, while the Organized Play community of L5R has been put into hibernation by the pandemic, there are still some interesting efforts to keep the game alive and played online. The Clan War has been happening through the Legend of the Five Rings Discord, with regular updates being posted to the LCG Facebook group. While I am not participating in this event, many of the bigger names of the L5R Organized Play community have been, providing massive amounts of data for how the Dominion Cycle is shaping the metagame of the LCG.
Things Get Dire
Which brings us to the principal topic I want to talk about today, dear reader.
By this time, Tyler’s latest update to the Imperial Law document will have been released. Tyler had signaled prior to that point that he was intending to target five of the most contentious cards in the Dominion Cycle, and speculation had been fairly rampant. The current front runners are Lost Papers, Contested Countryside, Ikoma Tsanuri, Butcher of the Fallen, and A Season of War. Personally, I would place Master Tactician on this list, but then it would stand out as the only non-Rally card present. What stands is that Rally, as a keyword, has changed the way the game of L5R LCG is played, and there is no going back to how it used to be.
(Update: Indeed, the Imperial Law document was released prior to this publication, and I will talk more about that in my next article. Apparently, the fifth card hit by the Imperial Law was a Scorpion Clan province which has now officially been errata before it was even in stores. So, yeah. That happened…)
But Rally is not the problem; the problem is deeper in this game than just the cards being released. The problem is, ultimately, in the design of the cards themselves.
Tyler as a designer has been very open about certain creative choices he’s made. First, he claimed in a previous Imperial Law article that he has a specific vision in how this game should be played – namely through winning conflicts. He has taken steps on multiple occasions to limit the ability to achieve victory through other means by way of the Restricted and Banned List. Which has become A Problem.
This enforced narrowness of design vision is actually deeply disheartening for people who enjoy the ability to experiment with the rules of a game. This would not be unlike saying that in Magic, a player can only attack with creatures to defeat their opponent, and anyone who creates a deck which reliably can kill their opposition without summoning creatures will have its component parts removed until it no longer works. This philosophy discourages experimental play, as discovering an effective workaround from the “win conflicts” part of the game leads to that loophole getting closed.
Second, he has openly stated that he wanted a faster, punchier format of Legend of the Five Rings LCG, and that is why he created Skirmish L5R. Which in and of itself is fine. However, I will posit that this same stance was deeply influential on the development of the Dominion Cycle. A game of Skirmish L5R should take about 20 minutes to play compared to the 45+ minutes of Stronghold L5R. However, Stronghold L5R is now in a state where 90% of the game is concluded by the end of the second round, with the winner being fairly obvious due to board state. This usually hits around the 25 minute mark, and while upsets are still possible, they have become less and less likely to happen as the card pool in both Dynasty and Conflict become more predictable. This leaves the game lurching to the finish line in the back half of the game, with one side incentivized to drag it out just in case the opponent makes a mistake, or you draw that lucky card you need to win.
Skirmish L5R also has neither Strongholds nor Provinces, two aspects of the game that the Dominion Cycle has shown a great deal of difficulty with. Additionally, Contested Countryside is a card meant to place direct meta-pressure to the game by punishing players for playing strong Provinces – a long-time aspect of the game which pushed it away from aggressive conflict and towards strategic control.
Under the rules as they were written, any on-break or on-reveal Provinces could be triggered by the Attacker if they were first player, which would prevent them from being triggered by the Defender. Ergo, an attacker who was First Player with a Contested Countryside would be able to make the Defender discard down to four cards by breaking Restoration of Balance, making the Defender unable to trigger the discard effect back. While this ruling was later reversed after public outcry, it does not change the fact that this was how the card was intended to be played.
What does it say about a game when the designer intentionally puts a pressure card like Contested Countryside into the game?
Third, Lost Papers is another example of a pressure card with the distinct purpose of influencing the meta. Designed as the cheapest card ever in L5R, it hits tower players hard by locking down their card with the most Fate on it. That is, of course, unless they are playing any number of the cards which ready their Tower to swing it into a new Conflict. Lost Papers creates blowout turns, where a player without the plentiful Ready effects found in Lion Clan and others has their only piece on the board shut down for the turn. If it has no fate, it effectively kills it – an effect which happens more often than not with Lost Papers. There is no doubt in my mind that Lost Papers will get banned, and rightfully so, due to it applying too much pressure into the meta and shaping it in distinctively unfun ways.
Which brings me to the next point.
Relying on a Banned and Restricted List to “correct” your meta is the ‘We’ll fix it in post’ of game design. Tyler has talked about his idea of “hits” and “haymakers”, or the concept that you release some cards which are good, and some card which are amazing. And for a game with an ever-increasingly supply of duds in its card pool (shocking, as the game has no rarity to chase, and thus printing binder-fodder is literally a waste of cardboard for both the producer and the consumer), L5R LCG has become a game increasingly about its haymakers.
The single best example of this that I can think of is the aforementioned Stoke Insurrection, the Scorpion Clan Event which is a haymaker that makes more haymakers. At the same time as Stoke Insurrection is coming out, though, we are seeing cards like Master of Many Lifetimes, an over-costed body which lets you recycle a Character leaving play by putting them into your provinces. Dragon Clan have nothing which triggers off of coming into play, and it fails to even be an indirect save.
And of these bring me to my final point, which is that at this moment in time it is clear that there is a lack of vision on how each Great Clan should feel to play. With the game now 90% over by the end of second round, any Great Clan whose engine doesn’t kick in until round 4 is unplayably slow. The Dominion Cycle was designed to be the last set before a Rotation Event, with both Imperial and Elemental exiting the legal pool, and it is clear how it was shaped by that timeline.
Yet what also has become clear was how not every Great Clan was designed to be able to win in the new meta, because the path to victory is too narrow for seven Great Clans to stride it side by side. The Dragon Clan have sat through the Dominion Cycle, cracking jokes about geese and terrible cards. The Unicorn Clan would have seen a meta without Hisu Mori Toride, giving them only their Clan Pack and the original Core Set to choose from in Strongholds. While it is clear that there is a vision for Scorpion Clan and Lion Clan in the LCG, and a good idea for the Crane Clan, Crab Clan, and Phoenix Clan, the continued lack of vision in how each Great Clan should feel to play will continue to negatively impact design in the L5R LCG.
I do not lay blame or anger over this solely at the feet of Tyler, but I think a big part of the issue is that this LCG is a beast of a game to design for. It was a beast under AEG, and it’s only grown bigger and meaner under FFG. It is not a game best designed by a single person, who has to split his time to work on other bigger money games like Keyforge.
The L5R LCG is a game best designed by a team of part-timers, each with a vision on how the game should feel to play and the ability to shape the game towards that. It is a game which requires design diversity at the highest level, because none of us are Richard Garfield, a once in a generation game designer. The L5R CCG under AEG was at its best when it was being put together by a Player Design Team, which featured a diversity of talent and visions on the game.
As it stands, I have seen nothing in the Dominion Cycle or the Temptations Cycle reveals thus far to make me hopeful about the future of the L5R LCG play experience, with many trends continuing to keep the game less than fun for many players going forward – as well as several Clans writ large – especially when divergent paths to victory (or enjoyment in general) are actively and intentionally cordoned off or abandoned.
And that is what I have to say about August 2020 in Legend of the Five Rings. Let us see if September gives us something more positive to talk about, dear reader. At the very least, I’m trying to be hopeful of that prospect. Until then.
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.