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 26: The First Winter & First Winner
It has been an interesting month since we last spoke, dear reader, and I hope that it has treated you well. The Winter Court 2017 World Championships have come and gone, and by the time this article is published, the Toshi Ranbo Kotei series will have begun with the first Grand Kotei being held at PAX Unplugged in Pennsylvania. We are in the middle of the aforementioned accelerated release of the Imperial Cycle (with the first six Dynasty Packs being released at one new pack per week rather than per month). And on the tabletop side, the RPG Open Beta test continues, with regular surveys being sent out to participants to provide feedback.
All in all, Legend of the Five Rings appears to be in full swing as a marquis brand going into its first holiday season.
It’s A Whole New World…Championship
Congratulations are due to Samuel Benies of the Lion Clan for the first World Champion title of the L5R LCG. The Crane Clan fought hard against him, with Crane Hatamoto John Urbanek coming in second. The stakes of the first World Championship included the traditional L5R prize (and continued by FFG) of designing a card to be released in a future expansion and a unique and compelling storyline choice.
The brother of the Crane Clan Champion, Doji Kuwanon, had been captured by a group of ronin who brought him to the wrathful Matsu Tsuko. With her betrothed and champion dead at the hands of Crane steel, many thought she would choose revenge.
Due to Samuel’s decision, however, she chose instead to seek justice, and released Doji Kuwanon so that he might return to Otosan Uchi and investigate his father’s death. Now, with war looming between the Lion and the Crane over the hotly contested Osari Plains and its main city, Toshi Ranbo, alliances are falling into place surrounding the Clans. The Unicorn Clan have made allies with the Crane Clan and enemies with the Lion Clan, while the daughter of the Master of Void in the Phoenix Clan just wed Akodo Toturi, the thoughtful but young Lion Clan Champion. When the flames of war ignite, it will catch all four Clans in its wake.
With the Winter Court 2017 World Championships behind us, Fantasy Flight now has the challenge of their first full season of competitive play in front of them. Starting with the Imperial Summons, each Great Clan must play using a new Role chosen by the top of their Clan at the World Championships. These Roles shape not only the direction of the Great Clan over the next year in the storyline, but they decide which cards will and will not be legal for their decks at all Premier and higher level tournaments. As such, the choices made at this year’s World Championships will have a strong impact over the inaugural twelve months of organized play.
Not all choices were without controversy, though, as many players in the Scorpion Clan questioned why their top players would choose the Seeker of Void Role over a Keeper Role. Among the cards previewed for the Imperial Cycle was Back-Handed Compliment, a Keeper-only Scorpion Event which had the potential to easily knock a player out of the game by reducing their Honor to zero. According to the top Scorpion Clan players, however, the Scorpion Clan decks do not need that card in their arsenal to be competitive, and including it would have a substantially negative impact on the Organized Play environment. They chose a Seeker role instead, to help create a more fun, more positive play experience for everyone.
Fantasy Flight Games has not released the full details of the upcoming Toshi Ranbo Organized Play details, but rest assured, as they become available, I will talk about them here. Participation in the growing organized play community is a big part of what is keeping this game fun and fresh for me, and by this time next month, we will have six full Dynasty Packs in the environment to discuss. In the meantime, let’s turn towards the other half of the Legend of the Five Rings experience: the roleplaying game.
Released in a very robust beta format last month, the Fantasy Flight Games version of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG has preserved a great deal from the old AEG model but had made several key changes to reflect a more modern game design. The beta document itself clocked in at 233 pages before the multi-page errata which was recently released, collecting several initial changes to certain key systems.
The beta game itself is remarkably comprehensive, containing more than enough material to build multiple PCs from each of the seven Great Clans, as well as a starting module, “A Ronin’s Path”. Although absent any significant art assets, the layout is in keeping with the aesthetic used for the L5R LCG and Battle for Rokugan, presenting a far more professional and complete beta than many were expecting.
Each of the seven Great Clans are equally presented, with rules governing each of the main families for the Great Clans. Two Schools are given for each Great Clan as well, giving a degree of linear progression for character advancement similar to previous versions. Each of the five Elemental Rings also remain, along with a myriad of Skills, though the specific Attributes which built the Rings have been removed.
The central engine of “Roll and Keep” remains too, as players assemble a pool of dice based on the Ring and Skill used for a check. In this system, players roll the dice in the pool, then select and keep a number of dice equal to their Ring. While Honor, Glory, and Status appear in the new version of the RPG, their mechanics feel more like they were imported from a previous version after the fact and do not reflect a full integration into the system.
Advantages and Disadvantages remain after a fashion, though they are far less a focus of the new game than they were in the previous editions, putting to bed the system which dated the game back to its late 90s origins. They are relegated to more mechanical and roleplaying notes and quirks than the focus of a character’s story.
Many of these similarities, however, quickly prove themselves to be little more than cosmetic changes on top of a fairly massive overhaul. While the linear progression of the School Rank remains, the road forward in progression is filled with the potential for far more twists and turns than in previous versions.
Rather than receive a single Technique at every School Rank, Techniques have been separated from their Schools, with the School only granting a single Special Ability at the first rank and a capstone Special Ability at School Rank 6. These Special Abilities often scale with School Rank, becoming more effective as the character grows more powerful. Techniques have been separated into categories, and made available to be purchased a la carte with experience points.
The categories available for the character to purchase are determined by their School, along with several starting Techniques. As such, while every Hida Bushi learns the Kata Technique: Lord Hida’s Claw, it is up to the character to spend experience points to master the Kata Striking as Air. Alternatively, the same character could choose to pursue Rituals and learn how to put up a magical ward against spirits, or spend some time at court and master a Shuji Technique which allows them to give a rousing speech in a mass combat. Nothing prevents the character from shaping their own direction forward, though not all Techniques advance their School Rank. Each School is given an “Advancement Chart”, detailing what the character needs to purchase at each School Rank to advance to the next. The reward for reaching School Rank 6 is the powerful capstone Special Ability, which can truly provide the character with truly legendary levels of power.
Similar to Techniques, characters can purchase a variety of different Skills, some of which advance their School Rank. Learning how to better create emotionally moving flower arrangements can make one a more effective Doji Courtier, but it matters little to a heavy cavalry Shinjo Bushi. The Skills themselves are further separated into categories, with each category providing a specific Approach related to each Ring.
For example, a character wishing to use their mastery of weaponsmithing to create a new spear would rely upon the Invent approach of the Smithing Skill, which is tied to the Fire Ring. The same character wishing to repair a blade would use the Restore approach of the Smithing Skill, which is tied to the Earth Ring. Examples are given in the Skill chapter for each Approach with each Skill, serving as a fairly exhaustive list very much in need of a single, centralized table detailing each Approach by their Skill Group and Ring.
New Engine, New Pricetag
Yet the biggest change by far, echoing previous versions of the RPG, are in the dice and engine itself. In the old RPG system players rolled a number of d10s equal to their characters’ Attribute + Skill, then kept a number of them equal to their Attribute. Any natural 10 rolled “exploded”, allowing the player to roll that die again, and add 10 to the result. Another natural 10 allowed another “explosion” and so forth. The players then totaled the kept dice together, and compared against a Target Number or TN. The player could adjust that TN by making additional risks to raise it or expending resources to lower it. That was it: success or failure was determined by a dice roll against a target number.
In keeping with Fantasy Flight’s tendency towards proprietary pieces, the dice used in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG are entirely custom, with custom symbols indicating different outcomes. The Ring dice are d6s and the Skill dice are d12s. Each die has a series of faces containing symbols indicating Success, Explosive Success, Opportunity, or Strife, with many faces having two of these symbols. The player assembles a number of Ring dice equal to their character’s Ring, then a number of Skill dice equal to their Skill. They roll the dice, then select a number of dice equal to their character’s Ring, which they keep.
The symbols on the dice each correspond to their own mechanical effect in the game, with the most straightforward being Successes. A given check still has a TN, but it’s now a threshold of Success symbols on kept dice needed for the check to succeed. Opportunities represent narrative and mechanical adjustments the player can do on behalf of their character, making an attack more deadly or an argument more stressful on a particular opponent.
Explosive Success counts as a Success and allows for an additional die of that type to be rolled and kept. Finally, Strife symbols indicate a growing state of mental and emotional stress on the character, which accumulates over play in a form not unlike a social / mental hit point system. Once a character gains too much Strife, they become Compromised and cannot keep dice with Strife symbols on them. The character can, however, have an emotional outburst (called Unmasking) to lower their Strife with some mechanical penalties and advantages.
The inclusion of custom dice was an expected action by Fantasy Flight Games by the general community, and it has been accepted with a sort of weary exasperation. Fantasy Flight Games is a business, after all, and part of a successful business is making money. While nothing is stopping a player from simply collecting a set of blank d6s and d12s and writing their own symbols to correspond to the dice described in the beta or using a chart to compare numerical values against, it’s important to note that FFG did release a dice-rolling app for iPhones and Android devices on the day they released the beta. And while it costs $5, that’s likely several steps less expensive than the physical dice will be if they are priced similarly to the Star Wars Saga or Genesys dice.
Aside from the elements which mirror previous editions of the game, however, there are new elements central to the new version of L5R RPG which I feel is an excellent change. Most notable is the singular focus the new version gives to the concepts of ninjō and giri. Similar to the LCG’s incorporation of the Japanese mono no aware, or “the impermanent nature of the world”, the RPG examines the core of the samurai narrative by directly addressing ninjō, or “human feelings”, and its conflict with giri, or “sworn duty”.
In the course of their lives, samurai must strive to balance their inner person with their outer obligations, reconciling their emotions and feelings with their duty to their lord and Empire. In the best samurai drama, these two aspects of a person come into conflict with one another, driving the story forward as the characters must choose between being true to themselves, or true to what the world expects of them.
By making ninjō and giri prominent and central to the game itself, Fantasy Flight’s version of the L5R RPG shows great promise of exceeding its predecessors in providing a game positively ideal for compelling stories of honor and tragedy. My only critique of their handling of ninjō and giri is that they do not have enough mechanical impact on the game in its current form although the shadow of both should loom over the character at nearly all times.
The ultimate question when reviewing any RPG, however, is simply “How does it play?” That, at present, is a question I do not yet have the answer for due to some playtest scheduling difficulties. However, dear reader, rest assured that there are plans in place to correct this, and next time, I will be able to speak further on the subject of how the RPG beta plays in practice, as well as a discussion of which Great Clans came out ahead in the Imperial Cycle of Dynasty Packs, and which ones really could use a little more attention.
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.
You can discuss this article and more on our social media!
Photo Credits: Legend of the 5 Rings images by Fantasy Flight Games.