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 30: Elemental Dynasties and RPGs
So how about that Yoritomo?
Summer is in full swing here in the United States, bringing with it a heat index which makes retreating to the safety of a nicely air conditioned gaming store an attractive option. At the time of this article, we will be in the middle of the release of the Elemental Dynasty Pack cycle, with a rapidly evolving meta-game for the LCG. Still on the horizon ahead lay the tail end of the Toshi Ranbo Organized Play Season, with the finale being held at Gen Con 2018. The new Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game is slated for release in the third quarter of this year, with many expecting it to be quietly unveiled at Gen Con as well. The first L5R Clan Novella, The Sword and the Spirits by Robert “SpookyElectric” Denton III, has finally hit shelves.
All in all, it has been a busy month.
Let’s begin with the end of the inaugural Organized Play season coming to a close at Gen Con this year. What started as a season of great promises has proven to be a far more challenging experience than was anticipated by nearly everyone. The first and most prevalent issue faced was the undeniable, unstoppable dominance of two Great Clans at the top of each tournament. Though the Lion Clan won the World Championship in 2017, they rapidly disappeared from the top tier ranks in major tournaments with the advent of the Imperial Cycle cards, replaced by victory after victory of the Crab and Scorpion Clans. Not including the final two Kotei and a Grant Kotei remaining, the Crab Clan and Scorpion Clan each hold six wins. The only other Clan to have taken home a Kotei is the Dragon Clan, at two wins.
I previously mentioned an excellent piece of analysis regarding this from Joe from Cincinnati, in which he outlined how both the Crab Clan and the Scorpion Clan are able to exert a dual pressure in the LCG by pursuing two victory conditions simultaneously. By contrast, the two Dragon Clan victories came in the same weekend, with Aneil Seetharam taking home the title at Origins in the US while Ralph Pfeufer claimed his prize at the Bologna Kotei, both piloting almost the exact same deck. Aneil walked through the strategy of his deck and its match ups in an excellent strategy video. I highly recommend watching it; it’s a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the best L5R players in the world.
What these victories mean, however, is that there is presently little chance for anyone other than the Crab or Scorpion Clan to lay a claim to the stakes of the final season end prize. As outlined back in October 2017, the stakes of this season is the city of Toshi Ranbo, the Violence Behind Courtliness City. Billed as an exclusive card for the winning faction of the season, it will go to the Great Clan who has earned the most Glory. This Glory is earned by advancing to the Top 16 (30 Glory points), winning a Kotei (100 Glory points), and by earning the Most Honorable Clan at a Kotei (200 for the winner, then 180 for the next, 160 for the next, and so on). Also being determined over the course of this Kotei season is which Great Clan will be hosting the Winter Court World Championship (and thus be the theme of this year’s prizes), as well as access to a second Elemental Role for the World Championships.
So, who is currently winning? The quick answer: we have no clue.
While there has been some effort by the L5R LCG community to keep track of the many moving pieces of the Kotei scoring systems, the truth is simply that we do not know necessarily who is on top. The Imperial Advisor website has an excellent list of the top 4 of each Kotei, along with breakdowns of each Kotei’s specific win ratios. Missing, however, is each Great Clan’s standing in the “Most Honorable” gains, something which can vastly outweigh taking the tournament itself.
We also have no tracking on the Favor Points for the Winter Court or the Elemental Role voting. The Hall of Heroes on the Fantasy Flight Organized Play website hasn’t even been updated since the World Championships last year, and one run (again) by Imperial Advisor is our only way of tracking the current Hatamoto who can earn the Favor Points. Fantasy Flight Games promised the public transparent tracking of these aspects of the Organized Play season. This is especially important for players looking to impact the Elemental Role vote, as without knowing what the current standings are, every vote given to the players at a Kotei is basically a shot in the dark.
The Imperial Advisor link also showcases another problem endemic to this Kotei season: the US Kotei scene has seen significantly smaller player turnout than any of the Kotei events in Europe. Only the first at PAX Unplugged 2017 saw a turnout into triple digits, whereas only the Bologna and Warsaw Europe events saw less than 100 attendees. While some might (and have, very loudly) taken this to indicate a lack of interest in the L5R LCG within the United States, the response from the community has indicated that it speak more about the matter of “pay walls”.
Each US-based Kotei and Grand Kotei has been linked to a major convention with its own challenges of attendance. It is, simply, overly difficult for L5R players to secure access to these events, then secure access to the Kotei within the event. Fortunately, this problem has been communicated in many places to Cascade Games, the company responsible for the boots on the ground of FFG’s major events, and it has even been acknowledged by Cascade. It is too late this year for any major changes to be implemented, but there is hope that next year will see more Kotei events in the United States with less of a barrier to their entry.
The Return of Mantis
Organized Play aside, L5R is also in the middle of its second Dynasty Pack cycle. The Elemental Cycle focuses around spells, shugenja, and the elements, providing more and interesting choices for each of the Great Clans. With the release of a new Stronghold for the Lion Clan in the first pack, Breath of the Kami, there has been a great deal of speculation regarding the Stronghold coming in the final pack of the cycle, Elements Unbound.
Based on a potential spoiler leak, most believe it to be a Unicorn Clan Stronghold with a very similar ability to the new Lion Clan Stronghold, though whether it proves true or part of an effort by FFG to “leaking” fake cards as a means of identifying and shutting down lapses in their information security. While I feel that it is very likely that the game will see a new Unicorn Clan Stronghold in Elements Unbound, I would hesitate to go with the one described by the supposed leak. My hope is that instead we see a Stronghold which reflects the impact of the Kiku Matsuri story choice, wherein the unique magic of the Unicorn Clan was not outlawed. A repeat of Hisu Mori Toride with a purple paint job would simply be disappointing.
Also featured in the Elemental Cycle are the Mantis Clan, the plucky Minor Clan who played a more prominent role in the CCG version. Lead by Yoritomo, the Mantis Clan are a loosely allied group of pirates and merchants operating out of the Islands of Silk and Spice, and are the undisputed masters of naval combat in the land of Rokugan. Yoritomo himself has been featured in multiple fictions so far, having kidnapped the Yasuki family daimyo in order to establish a trade alliance with the Crab Clan and distantly worrying the Crane Clan champion over a brewing conflict between Yoritomo and her husband in defense of the Crane lands.
The new Yoritomo was previewed for the LCG in the Ebb and Flow Dynasty Pack, and it’s certainly a card which will have an impact on the current game. Although significantly over-costed for his baseline Skill, the text of Yoritomo is where it shines. Yoritomo is a prime target for both Charge! on the offense and Cloud the Mind on the defense. Still, he’s not the prime Mantis card to watch. That honor goes to Kudaka, a unique Mantis shugenja for 4 Fate who adds a significant economic boost to the power of the Air Ring. I’ve already had the opportunity to play with her, and the impact is nothing short game-changing.
With the last of the Elemental Cycle being released on the Thursday of Gen Con, the Ebb and Flow Dynasty Pack will be the last legal for the main event. Both All and Nothing and Elements Unbound will be legal for the Skirmish and Casual side events, however, giving a brief glance at what the meta game might look like at this year’s World Championships. There’s still the potential of the Scorpion Clan Pack being released in time for legal play, however, and there will be the new Elemental Roles determined.
L5R RPG Advances
Also expected to be released at Gen Con 2018 is the new L5R RPG. Alongside the main rules, both a Beginner’s Game and a Game Master’s Kit will be released, starting it off with significant support through the end of the third quarter. Some sharp-eyed members of the community have also pointed out that the product numbers indicated a fourth release between the Beginner’s Game and the Game Master’s Kit, which I suspect to be the published version of Wedding at Kyotei Castle. Wedding at Kyotei Castle proved to be one of the hottest ticket items this year at Gen Con and sold out quite rapidly after tickets went on sale. At the moment I am not one of the lucky attendees with a ticket, but fingers crossed I might be able to secure access within the next few weeks.
Based on what has been shared in the product announcement, it doesn’t outwardly seem like a significant change from the game as it was presented in the Beta release earlier this year. It still uses a blend of the Narrative Dice systems of Genesys and Star Wars by way of the old d10 Roll & Keep mechanic of the classic L5R RPG. The product page even specifically calls out how Opportunities in the new Narrative Dice System act similarly to the Raises of the old system but are designed to be handled after the roll rather than before.
Strife as a mechanic remains a core component to these checks, though, as players must weigh the cost in Strife gained by keeping the dice they need to achieve and exceed their goals. Strife still adds up too, causing outbursts of public emotion in high stress environments.
As I spoke at length about this in my review of the RPG Beta, this simply creates a different dynamic of risk vs reward, one which favors long term planning (balancing your Strife and letting it cool down) and resource allocation over short term tactical choices (calling your Raises by judging how much better you can roll than an expected Target Number).
So far, what we have been shown of the new RPG is nothing short of gorgeous. Beautiful, detailed maps are available alongside full color, lovingly illustrated character folios and many excellent pieces of art. My only critique of the visual appeal of the game is in the design of the dice themselves, as red-on-black Ring dice and red-on-white Skill dice could have easily been designed with different colors for each symbol, for ease of reading at speed.
My final review of the product will have to wait on having it in hand, it is my hope that the “20 Questions” of character creation presented in the Beta (and again in the product announcement) is given only as one way to build a character in the L5R RPG. While including it is useful for people new to the game and setting, forcing it on experienced players is potentially yet another example of the heavy-handed, “samurai drama OUR WAY” approach that has been leveled as a powerful criticism of the Beta. The Beta as presented did not trust its players and the GM to know how to run a game of samurai drama, and instead presented a very rigid system of storytelling in Rokugan. Hopefully the full game will remain more open and trusting.
Finally, over the last month, I read the excellent L5R Phoenix Clan Novella, The Sword and the Spirits. Initially meant to release alongside the Phoenix Clan pack, it was shipped out after a small delay and should be available at your local source of all things L5R. As a fan of the growing body of fiction for the reboot of Legend of the Five Rings, I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to enrich their enjoyment of this deep, intricate world. Written by Robert Denton III, this novella follows the journey of Shiba Tsukune, the newly chosen Phoenix Clan Champion, on the trail of her former charge and old friend, the ambitious Isawa Tadaka. This journey takes her to the Cliffside Shrine, the home of the Kaito vassal family and the seat of a dark secret which threatens the very heart of the Phoenix Clan itself.
The Sword and the Spirits is a novella of moderate length, weighing in at 122 pages of solid prose. Included with it is a full color insert detailing the history and secrets of the Kaito vassal family of the Phoenix Clan, and six extended, alternative art promo cards. It’s an enjoyable read, one which only took a handful of hours to chew through. It’s a worthy example of Robert Denton’s signature style of storytelling in Rokugan, allowing him to establish the characters of Shiba Tsukune, Isawa Tadaka, and Kaito Kosori, before moving onto where he shines. At the heart of The Sword and the Spirits is a supernatural mystery, one which Denton navigates with insight and care. “Spooky”, as Denton is known to L5R fans, perfectly portrays a world filled with the supernatural, living alongside the more mundane challenges of a samurai’s heart versus their duty.
In addition to Spooky’s deft handling of the supernatural in L5R, I was impressed by the inclusion of a depiction of an anxiety attack inside the narrative. That is something that doesn’t get shown in fiction like this very often. Showing Shiba Tsukune dealing with anxiety, and the reaction of Isawa Tadaka showing this is not the first time this has occurred may seem trivial, but to someone who reads these novels and may suffer from anxiety in real life, it creates an instant connection to the narrative.
Ultimately, my sole criticisms of the novella relate to its length and depth. It is rooted solely on Shiba Tsukune’s perspective of the events, and while she has probably the most interesting experience out of the story, never stepping into the shoes of Kaito Kosori or Isawa Tadaka limits the scope of the piece. I would ideally have loved to see a novel twice this length that incorporated the narrative viewpoints of both Kosori and Tadaka.
Also, would it have been too much for FFG to have given Kaito Kosori’s artwork the birthmark she is described as having, rather than the conventionally beautiful woman the card depicts?
Still, I am now looking even more forward to the next L5R Novella, Whispers of Shadow and Steel by Mari Murdock. Taking a walk around Ryoko Owari Toshi in the skin of Bayushi Yojiro, investigating a murder and a conspiracy is pretty much exactly how I would love to spend a weekend.
And that is it for the moment, dear reader. As I mentioned previously there will be no update next month due to Gen Con and my impending marriage, but that only means September will have no shortage of things to talk about. Until then, dear reader.
Carry the Fortunes.
David Gordon was 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 were his stories. He can be reached on Twitter.
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Photo Credits: Legend of the 5 Rings images by Fantasy Flight Games.