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 continued on as he examined the current and future of the iconic world of Rokugan. Like all stories, though, there must be an ending.
Chapter 21: The Future, Interrupted
I hadn’t expected to write this until at least the spring of 2016.
I hadn’t expected there to be a need.
After many months of L5R experiences, both within the game and within the community itself, I had reached comfortable stopping point, a moment to catch my breath and re-evaluate the last two years. Legend of the Five Rings never departed my life, even when I went on hiatus, but in the last two years it had become a greater force than it had ever been. I was playing regularly with a collection of friends, I was involved in the storyline and Winter Court IV, I was speaking with the creative minds behind that amazing storyline, and I felt truly connected to the community. It was, frankly, a little overwhelming. Two Gen Cons in a row had been dominated by participation in L5R events, and I was being recognized as ‘that journalist from Dave of the Five Rings’.
Unbeknownst to most, I nevertheless had decided that next spring I was going to take a break from writing about Legend of the Five Rings, because, really, there was nothing much more for me to say. My story had been told.
I have already spoken about my history in the game, my playstyle, how I design a deck, and how I play in tournaments. I had written my reports of several tournaments and managed to make Top 8 at both a Kotei and the Second Chance Event at GenCon. I had written about my enjoyment of the L5R RPG and the powerful experiences at those tables. To top it all off, I even made my own mark on Rokugan through the character Susumu Naishi and her involvement at Winter Court; she’s since appeared in the official fiction twice. I had achieved my goal, and now it was time to rest.
And then, on September 11, 2015, Alderac Entertainment Group announced the sale of the Legend of the Five Rings brand and intellectual property to Fantasy Flight Games.
A New Day Of Thunder
To put it mildly, the community was knocked back on its heels. Fresh from celebrating its 20th year as a CCG – a feat that few other games could boast – it was announced that the L5R CCG was canceled. Evil Portents, the expansion set due out in stores in October and November, would be the last expansion set produced for the L5R CCG, and it would be distributed for free. A game that had been a part of my life, and the lives of many others for nearly two decades, was over. Without a warning, without even a hint, it was done. Suddenly everything we knew was gone.
The good news was that Fantasy Flight Games had intentions to re-release L5R as a “Living Card Game” at Gen Con 2017. It is a very ambitious goal considering the necessary development time for such games but one that many were happy to hear. Realistically, L5R has been struggling commercially for several years, and Ivory Edition hadn’t succeeded in reviving it.
As I’ve mentioned previously in this column numerous times, tournament turnouts seemed to be at an all-time low, and there were very few new players looking to learn the game. The community had not left, but the card game at the heart of the L5R brand was simply no longer successful. The topic of changing L5R to an Expandable Card Game, similar to AEG’s successful Doomtown (and popular favorite among current and former L5R players), was a frequent discussion within the community, though not often an optimistic one. Twenty years of rules and legacy mechanics was a terrible thing to try to design out of, after all. By making the attempt, AEG knew they’d risk losing its remaining player base and interest in the game.
No one, however, expected AEG to sell it to FFG.
In the hours following the announcement of the sale, the community was out in force trying to make some sense of the change. AEG conspicuously turned off their forums in the aftermath of the announcement too, leading to a large migration of the community to discussions on the FFG forums.
It was quickly revealed that no one except the Brand Lead, Design Lead, and the president of AEG himself had been aware of the sale before that Friday. The Story Team, the Player Design Team, the Events Team – they were all just as completely caught off guard as the players.
With little word from AEG, and no word from FFG, the community grew very distraught over the sale and subsequent information vacuum.
Life From The Fire
In that darkness, though, something began to emerge. On the forums of Fantasy Flight Games and throughout the various websites devoted to the community of L5R, people began reaching out to each other. Once the shock had worn off, hope – albeit a cautious one – became the tone of conversation. We were hopeful that this move would be the best for the game, hopeful that this might be exactly what it needed to live again. We were hopeful that FFG would make L5R better than ever, and Gen Con 2017 would be the start of a whole new era of L5R. A better one than we had seen before even.
David Laderoute, the former Brand Lead of L5R, posted his last missive to the community, thanking us for the years of support we had given the game and AEG, and telling us that the decision was not an easy one, but ultimately the best one. Bryan Reese wrote about how he first came to L5R, and how it had changed his life.
They were joined by others, one after another, until nearly every social media outlet that handled L5R was flooded with stories of how each of us had been changed for the better by that game. It was the celebration the 20th Anniversary should have been – the one we were too caught up in historic rivalries, petty grudges, and Monday morning quarterbacking – to do.
The sale of L5R to FFG has brought the community together stronger than it’s been in years, if ever. The former L5R Events team announced their plans to continue the Kotei season well into next year, official or not. Plans were set in motion to run a major event at Gen Con 2016. Several Winter Court IV alumni (both players and staff) began organizing an unofficial Winter Court V, slated for January 2017.
The official FFG Twitter replied to concerns about the RPG license by reaffirming its inclusion in the purchase, even if details on it beyond that are lacking. Cynthia Hornbeck, FFG’s public relations manager tasked with handling the wealth of emails streaming in from all corners of the Internet regarding the sale, has been diligent in replying, though unsurprisingly not saying much.
There is an edge of hope in the community that had been lacking for quite some time. People are repeatedly talking about returning to the hobby as an LCG and believe that such a model will be financially viable for them to remain there. Those who have made the long haul have vowed to keep the flame burning in the meantime, and look towards the future with a hesitant, but persistent hope.
Indirectly helping the FFG stewardship of the game is the fact that many at FFG have ties to the L5R brand, including Steve Horvath, the Senior VP of Communication, former Brand Manager of L5R when it was owned by Wizards of the Coast, and Top 4 at the Day of Thunder tournament at Gen Con 1997.
However, they will have their work cut out for them. With a prospective release date of Gen Con 2017 (the twentieth anniversary of the Day of Thunder), they will have a very tight development cycle. A year and a half is barely enough time to get a single expansion set together, let alone design an entirely new game which captures the feeling of the old one.
It is that very important last facet- retaining the games unique feeling – which will challenge FFG the most. FFG has demonstrated some of the best customizable card game design on the market presently and have consistently brought a quality product to bear. Ultimately, however, they will need to do something more to keep L5R being L5R.
The Ideal Road Map to 2017
There are certain key elements needed by the new ‘L5RCG’ to maintain the community and culture that the game has built around itself, elements that FFG will need to incorporate for it to be successful. The first and foremost of these is the fact that L5R is a story-driven game. While it must be designed as a good and well designed game, neglecting the story aspect of Legend of the Five Rings will only do a disservice to the brand and the IP.
Since its inception L5R has been a story about the Emerald Empire of Rokugan, ever moving forward through a series of multi-voiced stories. It is a shared universe, with dozens of authors and thousands of fans, driven primarily, yes, by the CCG. The storyline is advanced through the CCG, though, and it predominantly through the CCG that the players learned of the world. For the LCG to do that, it will need a team of writers very similar to the soon-to-be-former Story Team. Many fans of L5R are hoping the Story Team continue with the game after the sale, but like so many other details right now, we simply do not know what will happen.
Secondly, the story of Legend of the Five Rings must move forwards, not backwards. While the history of Rokugan spans twenty years of storytelling, it is not the stories themselves which hold the imagination. Rebooting the brand entirely back to the Clan War would be a colossal mistake, as would moving the game into a timeline neutral stance (as seen in the RPG).
Despite some appearances, the Clan War is no more iconic of L5R’s history than any other time in its history. While the characters of that era loom large in the recounting of those stories, they are not truly what the Great Clans have come to represent. Take that from someone who played through the Clan War the first time. Rebooting the game back to the Clan War would mean either staying faithful to the history of the game and losing all dramatic suspense over two decades, or fundamentally changing it, creating something akin to the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek.
Simply put: Legend of the Five Rings does not need to be new Trek, it needs to become new Doctor Who.
Finally, the simply moving the story forward is not enough. It must remain interactive in some capacity. The commercially competitive advantage that has taken L5R this far has always been the promise that anyone who plays it, if they are good enough and lucky enough, can shape the future of Rokugan.
Take the victory of the Lion Clan on the Day of Thunder tournament at Gen Con 1997, or the Honorable Dragon Movement of Jade Edition, or the creation of the Shadow Dragon or the Iweko Dynasty. This interactive model, which AEG fostered over the years with multiple card game titles, helped give it a notable edge when going up against the CCG juggernaut Magic: The Gathering. Magic has also had it share of notable stories over its lifespan, but not a single one was a result of input from its players. L5R is at its greatest when its players shape the destiny of Rokugan.
That being said, this approach can also be its worst enemy at the same time. AEG’s turn for even greater interaction was not the proper direction for the game; the glut of Story Prizes going uncollected was proof enough of that. Too much of a good thing, etc. Luckily, FFG already has a model in place which can help this.
For example, the summer NetRunner tournament series impacts which factions receive a new Identity. Moreover, the Chapter Pack release format also allows for the inclusion of regularly released fiction influenced by an interactive storyline. At a minimum, FFG needs to copy that approach. By presenting players with a clear, controlled means of interacting with the storyline of L5R, FFG will give players what they want while maintaining the narrative focus that the game has sometimes lacked.
The game of Legend of the Five Rings has changed many times over twenty years, and this latest one is the most radical yet. I, like many who have taken this journey in the land of Rokugan, look upon the future with hopeful uncertainty. I want to believe that the game that I have been playing for two decades of my life will remain a game that I can be involved with, that rewards me for my participation, and gives me the sense of community and identity that it’s maintained throughout its history. I want to believe that Fantasy Flight Games is capable of making not just a worthy successor to the CCG but even better game, freed from the financially inferior model and designed in a way that’ll reflect the improvement of the game over two decades. At the same time, however, I want it to still be a game wherein it is my world, my stories, my Empire. And I, as always with L5R, am not alone in that.
So, that is all I have left to say for now, dear reader. Thank you for coming on this two year journey with me, but much like the game, this column in its current form has run its course. Thank you for reading my words, for sharing in my triumphs and defeats, for listening to my voice in the wilderness. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to show you Rokugan and Legend of the Five Rings through my eyes. I hope that this journey has been as exciting for you as it has been for me. I had originally only planned for this to be a six month hiatus. Now, it will be an eighteen month hiatus at best. Hopeful is the word of the L5R community, and that’s where I shall leave you – hopeful to see you again at the far end of the wait in 2017.
And now, dear reader, in remembrance of its twenty years, let’s hear it one more time for the CCG which started it all. Raise voices with me, samurai of Rokugan and cry out:
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 were his stories. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo Credits: Legend of the 5 Rings images by Alderac Entertainment Group; Box images and LCG logo from Fantasty Flight Games; The Grinch Who Stole Christmas from MGM Studios; Star Trek from Paramount Pictures; Fry from Futurama from Fox