Friday, August 26, 2005

Legend of the Five Rings

I play Legend of the Five Rings with my regular group. We started this game with our group in Colorado about seven years ago. After Krista and I moved to New Jersey, we started up with a new group, with Krista keeping her character from the old game. This has been a long, dramatic, and fun game, with the characters reaching a level of power now that they are going to shake the foundations of the Empire.

This experience leads to the point of this post. I have read a number of critiques of L5R, including this rather disastrous account of a GenCon game. The main thing I keep asking myself is why are we having such a good experience with this game, when others are obviously not? I don't think the game is particularly poorly written, it is a good example of a large RPG publisher's design-by-committee method. It does get a bit muddled when it comes to source material, and the high-ranking NPCs really seem to fall easily into "GM PC" disfunction.

I really have two points here. The first is that the game has a very coherent point to play, which is to accumulate Honor and Glory and increase your character's station in society. There are a number of discrete mechanics which directly support this, and they work pretty well. They could certainly use better guidelines, beyond pure GM fiat, but if implemented as it seems they were intended, they do this. This has been some of the most satisfying advancement in my own game, and now that the characters are all fourth and fifth rank samurai, they are well-established, famous, and esteemed members of their respective clans.

Second, L5R works best if you don't hew too closely to the metaplot. My game works well because I use all of those rich NPCs as accessories to my player characters, not the other way 'round. Why have seven NPC Thunders when the PCs could perform that function just as well? I have found in setting-rich games that it is best if the setting revolves around the characters and their actions. That's where the fun is.

In conclusion, I have a somewhat ambiguous review of the game. If protagonizing GM techniques are used, you can get some rewarding play out of this game. The text does support a very spectator-based game as well, and may in fact slip that direction most of the time. I don't have enough direct evidence to say one way or another.


At 8:45 PM, Anonymous Adj-Sempai said...

If you ask me, the entire scenario he described could have been "teh suck" in any systems. What he's describing is a con GM letting the game be much more important than the players. The GM obviously was trying to get people to see how great the world was by over-emphasizing the world, rather than by allowing the characters to drink from the rich tableau that is L5R.

And I have a serious problem with any game where the importance of the PCs isn't obvious. While the game you played in Ft. Collins didn't have you as Thunders, you were The Guided. You were destined for great OR terrible things, and what you did would influence that. While there were plenty of other things in the world that had more power (physical, magical, political) the importance of the Guided was still great.

Oh, and fyi, the reason you weren't Thunders is because Thunders are meant to die for their destiny, and I wasn't going to do that. :)

So really, it's not L5R that has the problem, it was that GM who had a problem with players coming in and messing up their plots, imho.

At 11:19 PM, Anonymous Judd said...

Alright, here's the way I see and I'm paraphrasing Thor a bit here.

I think the Forge's games work well because they take into account that there are people sitting at the table who are controlling these fictions. Many mainstream games do not and this often makes dysfunctional play much more possible.

I have had tons of fun playing L5R with my buddies, played through a swell campaign.

However, when you get together with strangers, all of whom haven't been thought about how we can misread and mis-use the asian cultures represented, it often leads to problems.

I had one GM who spoke in a broken Japanese accent the entire game.

I suggested that we burn down a warehouse that could embarass our Lord and I got shocked faces at the peasants who would be homeless for the winter. When I suggested that the peasants weren't people, I got stunned faces (I was playing a Phoenix Yojimbo, not a bad-bad Scorpion). "One of the tennets of Bushido is MERCY!" a player told me, red in the face.

"Mercy towards people. They aren't people; they're peasants."

Okay, I was being a hard-ass but my buddies at home would have eaten that shit up. At this table it was a terrible thing and I was a bad person and an ignorant person for suggesting it.

I think L5R leads to problems because it doesn't take a stand in the text on the issues it touches on.

At 7:26 AM, Blogger Brennan Taylor said...

So really, it's not L5R that has the problem, it was that GM who had a problem with players coming in and messing up their plots, imho.

Oh, absolutely. This was a completely crap-ass GM. I do think that L5R has a bit of a tendency toward "look at all the cool ultra-powerful NPCs" in it's text, and it is up to the GM to make sure his player characters are important in the game world. I think to have a really good game, you have to either mostly ignore the metaplot or change it so that the players at the table are instrumental players in it. You did this by introducing (or letting the players introduce) relationships to powerful iconic NPCs like Kachiko and Tsanuri.

L5R is popular because a good GM can pull this off. A bad GM, as noted in the example (and that guy was about as bad as they come), can turn into a miserable experience.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Brennan Taylor said...

I think L5R leads to problems because it doesn't take a stand in the text on the issues it touches on.

Point absolutely taken. Interestingly, we had a bit of a conflict in our game, too, when two characters wanted to beat a young orphan boy with the party who had misbehaved and gotten them in trouble with the authorities. A player with a monk character didn't want them to do it, because he was personally opposed to corporal punishment for kids.

The contrast between samurai and peasants is a really interesting one, and something I got into in my ronin game, more than the court game. The ronin have much more contact with peasants, and one of the characters actually was a peasant pretending to be a warrior (Seven Samurai style).

You have to consciously choose to deal with these issues, and I am always looking for this kind of subtext in game settings. In the L5R rules, they lay out these relationships, but they don't make the conflicts explicit. If you've watched a lot of samurai films you know what the issues are.

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous adj-sempai said...

I would have to agree that one of the problems with L5R is that you get a lot of people who "don't get it." The GM who spoke in a bad accent doesn't get it. Speaking with such an accent makes no sense because you're not speaking in Japanese. The language is native to them, so speak it like you would speak the language native to you, sheesh!

Then you get the players who "don't get it." I heard of one group who were so ecstatic over getting some gunpowder and how cool it was going to be. But then, these are the same type of people who play Star Wars and chortle over how cool it was going to be once they went "Dark Side."

Ask the Spicenator about that story, Brennan.

Had I been in Judd's game when he's saying that "peasants aren't people" I would have enjoyed debating that, depending on whether my character felt that way. But I can totally see how that thinking is in character; sure, one of the tenets is "mercy" but there is also the Celestial Order to think of. That's why samurai are well within their right to kill any peasant that affronts them for any perceived slight. But the other players thinking the player is bad because the character was saying such is another example of them "not getting it." Frankly, the character is from a different culture, and as such may have different values than you or I.

I personally like that L5R presents a value code, but doesn't say what is right or wrong. It simply is that it is. But then, I think the GMs that are really going to like L5R and really make it fly are the ones who have already seen a ton of Akira Kurosawa and the like. (Like myself :) ).

Gosh, I miss running L5R. ;)

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous librisia said...

Adj, I miss you running L5R.

And I wish we had continued to play that Ronin game, so my character could have given that kid a beating like he deserved. :-)


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