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[L5R] A learning experience, if nothing else

Started by Bankuei, September 08, 2005, 05:16:41 PM

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About a month ago I finished up running a game of the new (3rd) edition of Legend of the 5 Rings that ran for about 10 sessions in total.

Socially- a completely new group of people.  No one who I had played with previously, and all folks recruited via online.  The first 3 sessions were basically a trial run to meet new people, etc.  All in all, me + 4 players, all male.  Ages ranged from early 20's to early 40's.  All but one player are fans of L5R, familiar with previous editions and the whole setting, etc.  In fact, everyone except that 1 player were usually GMs for L5R.

We had decided upon playing all Scorpion Clan, which is pretty much the double dealing, deep intrigue, lies upon lies sort of clan.  Everything takes place just before the Unicorn Clan arrive, which allows me to bypass most of the metaplot stuff and also gives more room to establish characters without having to worry about the CCG storyline.

We set up the idea for everyone to build their characters around trying to remove a particular General from office.  The General, Bayushi Gendo, was basically established as being either a) the guy who puts everyone through exceptionally hard situations to test them and thereby remove the weak and incompetant from power, or b) the guy who uses his mandate to do so to steal power and set himself and his family up while crushing rivals.  I also established all characters at rank 3 in order to allow them to have enough power and independence to actually do stuff without being complete lackeys to other NPCs.

Characters were:

Shosuro Kotaro

A courtier who had a rivalry with a visiting Crane courtier.  Despite having godawfully powerful social skills, didn't too a whole lot for the whole game.  Reason to remove the general?  Ambition to take his place as the de facto "King of the City" as it were.

Soshi Senzaburo

A shugenja who specialized in deception magics- used a lot of magic to impersonate others, while also working for the local magistrates.  Initially pushed the impersonation trick to establish lots of fun, situations, then not much after that.  Reason to remove the general?  To put him through the same kinds of tests he puts the rest of the clan.

Shosuro Goro

A shinobi established as an agent in the Yakuzas.  This player joined at a later session and I failed to require him to tie into the main plot.  Bad, bad, on my part.

Bayushi Nomo

The general's son- who, apropos to the L5R game, blames his father for the death of his mother, lost his eye as a child trying to cut his father down,  can't lie, and therefore is a poor Scorpion member, and also whose mother is from another clan.  A bit overboard?  Probably, but being that this was the most inspired of the ideas, I decided to roll with it.  On the other hand, he's the only one who consistantly aimed to remove the general, well... sorta.


Nomo blows back into town after 7 years absence, having trained in his mothers' clan style of fighting, and now looking to take revenge.  Nomo's goal? Get his father mad enough to duel him.  Not terribly realistic, but this being L5R, I'm willing to cut some slack.  Senzaburo through some magical trickery and good talking, ends up impersonating Nomo, charming the hell out of Shosuro Emi, the general's current flame, and setting up a date.  Nomo completely unaware of the relationship (poor social skills, doesn't make friends, doesn't play well with others...), actually goes and ends up getting down with her (she has reasons too, later).  Well, now that a creepy Oedipus situation has been arranged, that's a pretty good reason for the General to take to the blade right?

Well, turns out the General and Emi had been married about 5 years ago- but the marriage has been kept secret for political reasons, and so has their son.  This info and a document of it ends up finding its way to both Senzaburo and Kotaro's hands...  where it does nothing.  Prime blackmail material, and nothing... 

Goro finds himself trapped in a yakuza war, and manages through superb ninja skills to serve both his real lord and the yakuza he has been assigned to watch.  Mostly, small missions and such.

Nomo goes about town, killing low rank yakuza to "prove his worth" to his father, which, uh, is completely against what most samurai would consider worthwhile activities, and also seems to go contrary to his other goal of pissing his father off enough to duel him.  General Gendo decides that since now the secret wedding can't ever be revealed (much as Emi's plan was), that he might as well order Nomo to kill his own half brother, whom has been fostered under Gendo's bodyguard- Tashiro.

Nomo decides to disobey the order (yay), and put the child in hiding.  Tashiro manages through magical means to find where his foster child has been taken, and demands to know the meaning of the whole affair.  Nomo's player decides that the men with Tashiro are "planning to kill the child", and slashes them all down, unprovoked.  Which, by way of becoming a straight up murderer destroys any chance Nomo had of getting a duel from his father.

During this whole time, both blackmail material and dirt on Gendo keep finding Senzaburo & Kotaro, which at this point, I should have realized they would not act on...  Kotaro does send word out to the Clan Champion that the city has gone to crap and the power games are getting out of control.  To which, the new bloodline Governor steps up to take power by way of order from the Clan Daimyo, replacing the figurehead governor who was basically Gendo's lackey.

Nomo's captured, and, actually given the chance to explain his actions... which the player flubs horribly.  At this point, during a break, I asked the player if he wanted to actually try to escape or if he would be happy for Nomo to meet death with honor.  The player wants Nomo to at least confront his father, so...

The Unicorn arrive, and after Kotaro actually runs out and does some fine negotiating, the Unicorn have agreed to camp outside of city until everything is clarified.  Hostages are exchanged, and the Scorpion being a pragmatic lot- send Nomo- "A general's son" which seems to go over well with the Unicorn.  Kotaro establishes a good blackmail setup with one of the Unicorn ambassadors by both framing him for murder, convincing him he must have done it while drunk, and also helping cover up the murder...

The Scorpion assess the Unicorn for about a day and a half, then poison Nomo so that he appears dead- thereby justifying their attack on the Unicorn.  Gendo's power plays have been looked upon disfavorably by the Clan Champion, so he is sent to "spearhead" the battle with insufficient forces...  Gendo's rivals rather enjoyed all the dishonor Nomo brought to the family, so they also set up for Nomo to receive an antidote while the battle rages...

Nomo & Gendo meet and Gendo asks if his Nomo will either die serving his clan in fighting the Unicorn or will honor him by not letting him fall to barbarian swords.  Nomo decides to duel him, wins, and leaves to wander the land as a notorious legend.

Overall- incoherence.  It was similar to most other games I had gotten to witness or sit in from a great many of gamers.  Only Nomo's player seemed to grasp the idea of his character as a protagonist, but also seemed to be going through periods of "videogame wack out" play- where he'd do inexplicable stuff based on a chain of logic no one could really follow.  Everyone else seemed to be sitting around mostly waiting for an important NPC to give them a mission or something.


1)  If you're going to go Nar, use every trick in the book(well, all the books).

I should have made everyone make solid kickers.  I should have taken a stronger leadership role during chargen.  I should have applied metagame discussion across the board.  Shoulda-shoulda-shoulda.  Or I just should have went straight illusionist if I wasn't going to do that.  Mike's right- you can't sneak up on mode.

Of course, the other half of this is that I'm not the sole person responsible for the outcome of how play went- but without the means of dialoguing this- it becomes impossible to really discuss it against entrenched gamer assumptions.  Probably the best answer- a different set of rules that incorporate the necessary techniques.  If I ever want to do L5R again, I'm using Sorcerer or Riddle of Steel instead.

2) When gameplay gets more fun when you use the rules less, that's a bad sign.

And, a good reminder why most gamers believe rules inherently don't work, fudging is a necessity, and system doesn't matter.  When you have broken and poor rules as the standard, it becomes the assumption that all rules are broken.

3) If the milk is bad, don't try it again...

Well, knowing that the rules didn't work, I was determined to see it all the way to the end of the storyline.  Why?  God knows.  It wasn't a horrible experience, it was just very disappointing, maybe even a bit frustrating, like bad sex.

Comments?  Thoughts?


Eric Provost

Here's something that struck me.

QuoteEverything takes place just before the Unicorn Clan arrive, which allows me to bypass most of the metaplot stuff and also gives more room to establish characters without having to worry about the CCG storyline.

That's the kind of problem that I had with L5R and Mage in the year or so before hitting the Forge.  I'm really really familiar with that feeling.  So, I have to wonder, why did you feel at all constrained by the prescribed metaplot when the metaplot has nothing to do with the mechanisms in play?  Or does 3rd Ed have some closer constraints that I'm not aware of?  I'm especially keen on why you might have felt constrained by the CCG metaplot.  Or, more precisely, why you felt the need to say that the events would take place in a particular place in the established timeline instead of simply ignoring the metaplot timeline all together.



Hi Eric,

If these were people unfamiliar with L5R, I wouldn't have felt as constrained.  Thing is- it's easier to add to something that isn't there rather than try to get folks to "unlearn" what IS there, especially if we're talking longtime fans who have ingrained the ideas rather deeply.  Last time I played L5R, which was back in '98 (geez, it WAS that long ago), everyone would constantly compare the in game events to the metagame events and to a degree, I felt that it detracted from play rather than helping it.  Also, since I never kept up with the CCG plot, I knew that it would be godawful impossible for me to try to explain the differences between that timeline and whatever I was running with.


Eric Provost

QuoteIf these were people unfamiliar with L5R, I wouldn't have felt as constrained.

So you didn't feel like you could just say that you're presenting situations that occurr in X city about Y general and that metaplot elements from the texts shouldn't be considered topical for this game?  Or do you think that would have offended the sensibilities of the former L5R GMs?



Hi Eric,

It's simply about the process of being clear on setting.  It's easier to start with something that has very few constraints, than it is to say, "It's just like this, except this, this, this, and this is different".  It ends up becoming more of a focus on the differences from canon rather than its own thing. 

Even during play, players often referenced NPCs from metaplot as side commentary, and I was totally at a loss as to what in the hell they were talking about.  On one hand- it really helped me grasp what it must be like when a non-comics person is surrounded by comic geeks, on the other hand, it also showed me something I generall don't like- when the "aura" of the established setting becomes more focal than the actual protagonists and what's happening now.  I would have even had been pleased were the players to directly rip off ideas straight from the metaplot NPCs or fiction, because at least that has some direction and interesting stuff going on with it.

Also- with longer established groups, it becomes easier to shift from setting because collectively communication styles have usually been worked out, and it requires less discussion.  For me, personally, I figured, a whole new group of players + a new edition meant it would be easier to cut down the number of things to focus on.


Tony Irwin

Hi Chris,

I loved L5R! Tonnes of questions for you:

Was the game played online? You said you recruited them all online but I wasn't sure if it was also played online.

Also how did you use honour and glory? At what kind of rate was honour shifting up and down, and was it you who adjusted the honour scores or the players? How did your game-world acknowledge and respond to the changes in the character's scores? Did any character "suffer" for movements in their scores?

Was there a particular resource or pair of resources you would say that you focused on throughout the game, forcing the players to put it at risk in each scene: Honour? Glory? Status? Void points? If so, was that planned or did it arise through play.

How would you say the characters at the end differed from the start? Lost a father but gained glory? Failed ambitions but gained honour? That kind of stuff. Was Nomo the only one who's situation was irreversibly changed by events?


Tony Irwin

Quote from: Tony Irwin on September 09, 2005, 08:45:53 PM
Hi Chris,

I loved L5R!

Hey, just to clarify - that line and the rest of my post wasn't meant to be a challenge of how you played it or anything. Just that I was deeply drawn to the game and had some wonderful play experiences (and experienced bewildering and lasting confusion over just how the game is intended to be played). I'm interested in the nuts and bolts of how you tackled the system in your latest game.




Hi Tony,

Not taken as a challenge, I'm glad to discuss it with someone familar with the game.  We played in person, tabletop style, usually 4 hour sessions, over the course of 10 weeks.  We played Sunday afternoons, so it wasn't late or after work or anything like that.

Honor & Glory was awarded at the end of the session, as per typical L5R play.  I found Honor shifts were very slight, usually only a point or two over the course of a session, as most of the players' actions would generally cancel out and keep them near a certain range.  Of course, if everyone's playing down-low Scorpion, so that's pretty much to be expected as well.  Glory shifts were not much greater for most of the characters, as again, Scorpion tend to keep a low profile.  Only Nomo, the outlaw, had major Glory shifts (into Infamy...)

Kotaro, the courtier had established the beginnings of a diplomat's career.  Goro's lord had taken Gendo's place, and now was the general for the city.  Senzaburo pretty much laid low, did very little, and had little changes.  And Nomo got revenge, but pretty much lost everything else (including honor, and a place in the celestial order...)

I wouldn't say that the players necessarily made "meaningful choices" about their characters in play, it wasn't choosing between honor and revenge, or glory and duty.  They weren't addressing theme- they had figured out how their characters were, and simply played through, plowing ahead without any real thought to the choices put before them.  Whereas I would put a choice before players, they wouldn't even consider it a choice, it was straight ahead with the concept they laid out during creation...

Overall, things were pretty standard from what I've seen of L5R play...  Which, unfortunately always misses the boat of the real thematics of good samurai stories.  The issues of personal ethics (loyalty, love, compassion) vs. social obligations (family, lord, duty, etc.) appear to evaporate when it comes to actual play, though the very same players might appreciate and recognize those things in movies or books.  I'm not sure if this is gamer holdover from other games, or if it's due to something else.  Mechanically, Honor & Glory are there, but they're not strong enough to seriously sway play.  This is why I believe Sorcerer or Riddle of Steel would be much, much better at getting people the play that they're looking for after getting jazzed by the setting.


Tony Irwin

Thanks Chris for taking the time, that's a lot of detail.

Do you have any examples of how your Rokugan punished or rewarded the samurai as a result of their honour shifts. (Was anything tangible like clan relationships or kith & kin relationships being affected by the changes.) Although I understand that a few points either way might not deserve much of a response from the world around the characters.



Hi Tony,

I'd say my game didn't really do much in terms of exploring honor, for several reasons.  First, it was an all Scorpion game, in the City of Lies, which pretty much guarantees play is going to be more about underhanded dealings rather than bushido.  Second, the PCs stayed all in the Honor 0 to Honor 1 Ranks, which meant it wasn't a big deal to them either.  And finally- given the setting, the things which the Scorpion respect- intelligence and loyalty at cost of face, don't necessarily mesh with honor (as presented in L5R).

My general take on it is the same as what I see in both samurai and asian gangster films- the honorable respect honor, while the dishonorable do not.  The real issue almost always at hand is morality vs. realpolitick, sometimes instead personal code vs. society's code, but usually the former.  There was a mix of honorable and dishonorable characters in the game, but the players never really engaged or seemed concerned with the differences.  I guess, to better put it- the whole issue of honor is only best explored when you have characters loaded on both sides of the scale- but all the PCs were firmly on the dishonorable side, and it never occured to them as an issue.

The only massive honor shift was Nomo, who betrayed his lord (his father), disobeyed direct orders, killed men without real cause, and basically broke every ideal of bushido- for revenge.  The honor shift was far less of an issue than his Glory shift to Infamy.


John Burdick


I'd heard of the game, but never encountered it really. I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea of a detailed pseudojapan. A pseudojapan that is simple enough to explain in one page, sure. A detailed depiction of fictionalized movie Japan, sure. Japan with furries, sure. Other than that vague feeling, I've nothing against it. So, when I see the new book at the store, I take it to read through carefully.

I gave up reading when I got to a part explaining how Scorpion clan values duty above honor. I found that so frustrating a statement I didn't even try to translate its meaning. I just put the book back.



This game seemed to have a common problem of Big-setting-fantasy-sim-games, espicially Sim-going-on-Nar games.

Your biggest standard for the game appeared to be "Do the PC's choices make pretty good sense in the context?" , as most of your praises and complaints against Nomo line up on that basis, which Nomo's player didn't quite meet up to(I'm focusing my comments on that player because none of the others really connected with the same.)

I think it's specificly a problem among big-setting-fantasy-games because the "Fantasy" implies a certain sense of imagination and loose reality, wheras the big-setting means that it's extremely front-loaded and has all of this history and mapping and crap that you're supposed to incorperate into an idea of "What makes sense" in the game.

I don't see the logical disconnect in Nomo's actions that you do. Getting his dad angry seemed like a perfectly good way to get a duel. Wondering around town killing Yakazuka punks hit me as a pretty normal movie-samurai thing, and wanting his prospective-dueal-opponent fo consider him "honorable" also seems like a sensible goal. The assumption that the men played to kill the child makes pretty good sense: They're Gendo's men, and Gendo just ordered this child killed.

I have to assume that it's part of the setting that makes these choices unreasonable. Did you expect Nomo's player to know enough about the setting that he'd wise up to it?

It seems that you might be setting your standards of "what makes sense" are abit too narrow and personal for this paticular group, and maybe most possible groups. Once you do that, the game turns into that rather unpleasant mode of "Guess what the GM thinks is appropiate", which is a relatively sure-fire way to make players turtle, stunt any kind of protagonization, and completely sink attempts at Nar elements.

I'd suggest figuring out if this is what you really want from a game like this, in which case you should focus on getting players that are more into L5R, Samurai flicks, or whatever you primarily deonte your sense of in-game consistency from, and if its not, don't indeliberately make a big deal out of it.


Hi sirogit,

While I am making a lot of side commentary upon the sorts of view I have on the samurai genre in general, it's more directed towards Tony's specific questions- like I said, nearly none of those views actually got applied in play, and I didn't make an effort of trying to apply them. 

With regards to the specific player- he's one of the longtime fans(& GM) of L5R, and his actions didn't make sense in any sort of addressing premise way, nor did they make sense in "fitting canon", nor make sense in "realism", or even make sense to any samurai movie or anime conventions I could think of.  If anything- it was like trying to follow a story arc in a comic book where the writers change every 3 pages...  I have a pretty wide range of "what could make sense" and he was falling into none of it.  It was like he would start on a tangent, then suddenly switch.

I was trying to find any angle to understand where the hell the player was coming from with things.  If anything, he had the most promising idea, and had an issue worth pursuing, and personally seemed the most interesting thing on the side of the players for me.  The most I got back from him was that "things weren't going as planned"... ?  More than anything, I'm reminded of a thread somewhere back where folks were pointing out a behavior where players would set up for their characters to do some wacky, outlandish, or strange action, and then after getting halfway through it- get stuck on what happens next.



Hi John,

Yeah, to be sure, L5R has definitely become a more and more bastardized child with each edition, and even moreso with all the CCG storyline added to it.  The basic concept that John Wick said recently was that the idea was that each clan was supposed to emphasize an aspect of Bushido over the rest (though the whole Unicorn Clan... eludes me on that).

"Honor" as defined in L5R has always been a slippery concept.  It's supposed to represent the ideals of Bushido, in a literal sense, personal honor, and to a degree, "face" & social mores.  Where it falls down, is that for any story that deals with honor in those regards is that all of those are different things- and very often are at odds with each other.  Failing to see that, or define it in any meaningful way means a LOT of L5R "discussion" gets weighed down in people arguing whether honor is relative, universal, etc. etc. etc.

Hence- trying to say that the Scorpion clan value loyalty and duty over face and social mores gets craptastically framed as "duty over honor"...

Again, this is why if I was going to use the setting, I'd grab something like Sorcerer or Riddle of Steel where these differences can be clearly brought out either through a dual definition of Humanity or varying Spiritual Attributes.




I'm in a pretty succesful L5R campaign.  It meets infrequently as its participants are scattered across the country, but enough to be considered an ongoing campaign.

I have to agree with you somewhat that both Scorpion and the game mechanics of Honor/Glory don't seem to work too well. 

The GM has changed the Scorpion to a more grey, reasonable idealogy.  The idea of wearing a mask because everyone wears masks is kinda intriguing to me.  But no PC is a scorpion.  Only NPC allies.  And the idea of them being all spies and untrustworthy, unhonorable has been tossed.  In fact, we've been presented with a very honorable from all evidence on the table, Scorpion ally.

Honor and Glory seems to accumulate BECAUSE of the role playing we do... not facilitate it.  And the opposite is true.  Usually when a decision by a PC has to be made that will result in the loss of Honor... it is the decision itself that is nerve-wracking... not erasing a few cheque marks on the character sheet.  Its kinda nice to see my PC's honor go up, after all, he is a country bumpkin trying to make his way through court politics.  It is a benchmark mechanic.  But I never consider it when I'm actually at the table making decisions.  Those decisions are all filtered through my pretty fleshed out personae.

Unlike Burning Wheel, which my recent acquisition has brought me back to these forums, its Belief mechanics do seem to really IMPACT gameplay.  In a positive manner.  They facilitate role playing.

Now.  to the Player who is sorta wandering all over the place.  What has he said when you've discussed the game?  Have you brought up films that he might have mentioned... or anime that he has liked.  To me, L5R is playing fantasy game within social constraints that are much tighter than the average fantasy world.  Even Scorpion.  That is very appealing to me as a player.  Does he feel the same way?

While our GM is a medieval professor and is very learned in Western medieval history, fantasy tropes derived from Western imaginations, he is running L5R precisely because it isn't Western.  I came to the table with more martial arts background, a couple courses in Japanese & Chinese history and a love for Chambara/ wuxia flicks.  I've challenged a few assumptions about the L5R world and he has responded brilliantly.  We've kept things that make sense, tossed things that didn't and had a lot of fun crafting the L5R world for our game.

Rant On/ Sidebar

My problem with L5R, and this dovetails with the Unicorn, is that it assumes a faux-Japan, yet the Empire looks like China geographically.  So MUCH of Japan is based on the fact that it is ISLAND culture.  In my mind, the Unicorn was meant to represent the horse culture of the samurai.  Then the Mongol archtypes were tacked on.  Our game really centeres around the Unicorn, so we've had to kinda tackle this head on.  The main plotline of our game looks more like China/ Great Wall/ outside wanting trade ala Silk Road then Outsiders forcing their way in ala Dutch or Commodore Perry.  The geography of L5R has forced certain decsions and allowed for what I think is a Wuxia-ing of L5R. 

Face it, since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, wuxia has hit the mainstream.  And it is spilling over into L5R.  I know, because I do artwork for the card game.  In the beginning, the Unicorn looked samurai like.  They used katanas, despite the more ornate, chinese/mongol looking armor.  NOw, the art guides ask for swords that resemble chinese Butterfly swords and Tulwars, chai daos instead of naginatas... the armor is being pushed even more towards Mongol aesthetics to the point where I'm just drawing Mongols and it is being accepted.  The Unicorn are not Faux-Japanes-y any longer.  Now, this is a visual cue that I dont' think a lot of folks are going to pick up.  After all, it is a fantasy game. 

But it would be really tough for the Unicorn to wander the Burning Sands in their history if Rokugan was an island chain.  I think that Rokugan is slowly, but surely changing into a Japan/China/Korea/Mongol amalgam instead of being a faux-Japan.  The geography is helping that transition.  Which doesn't bother me in the least.  But does require some thought.

Rant off.

I think the whole clan structure of L5R is somewhat silly and reminiscent of White Wolf's vampire clans.  You belong to X, so your goals, desires, social mores is X.  BUT!  It does allow for folks who are not nipponophiles or sinophiles to get a quick entry into a feudal world that isn't quite Western.  My GM is not an expert, the structure attracted him.  And while I have problems with some of the decisions made in the design-stage... I"m loving the game.  And that is really the bottom line.