Posted by: markfender | July 8, 2014

The Problematic Nature of L5R, Part I

Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) is a game I like, but it has some problems. Let’s start here:

l5r artFor one, it’s Orientalism at its finest – an “exotic” culture rendered down for Western audiences. It has always appeared to me that the writers of L5R have done their research, making the culture as close to Japan as possible (IIRC, Ree Soesbee, one of the original story designers has a degree in Japanese studies). And yet, the elevator pitch for the setting is still “Dude, it’s fantasy Japan.” That’s not necessarily a ringing endorsement for avoiding stereotypes.

And the game is full of stereotypes. The honorable samurai. The demure courtier. Lots of seppuku. A noble class that dominates and diminishes its lower classes. Every Clan is based on some broad stereotype: the stalwart warrior, the sneaky spy, or the mysterious monk. To be fair, these stereotypes were originally created for a card game, which has its own game stereotypes to deal with (the super-strong fighty faction, the tough to kill faction, etc) and so it sort of makes sense to broadly add some flavor to those mechanics that just so happen to correspond to some Asian stereotypes. The families within each Clan also have their own schtick that also provides a stereotypical piece of Asian flavor – the family that exclusively uses two swords, the tattooed monk, etc. These are incredibly broad stereotypes with little room for expansion into a fully fledged idea that steps away from the tropes and embraces some diversity within the families.

But, hey, it’s a game and gamers love stereotypes. It’s also a setting created in the ’90s where the “splat” dominated. If you can’t sum up a particular grouping with a short, pithy statement about the majority of a group’s members, then it wasn’t going to fly. And while some of those ideas weren’t stereotypes, they quickly became them (To borrow some splats from the instigator of that whole movement, Vampire: the Masquerade has rebel vampires, lordly vampires, and crazy vampires. None of these are racist stereotypes (unless you think vampires are a race, in which case, please stay away from me), but they sure are stereotypes).

And just because most of the stereotypes are positive doesn’t exclude the setting from Orientalism. That’s just celebrating the exotic, which can be just as offensive. I mean, wow, those not-Japanese sure did have a sense of honor. That’s surely something to admire, right? Erm, not really. That’s still reducing an entire culture with a lot of history into some 10 point list you’d find on Buzzfeed.

To make it somewhat worse, the game isn’t even culturally-exclusive. It freely throws other Asian countries under the bus in incorporating only the “coolest” aspects of Asian culture. Chinese pirates and Mongols somehow find themselves inserted into this supposed Japanese game (not to mention the snake people and their Akashic Record). Which is a whole other kind of diminishment. And even in these cases, they pick the aspects of those cultures that they want to include and ignore the rest. The Mongol equivalent, the Moto family of the Unicorn Clan, have a Genghis Khan-like NPC, a warlike culture intent on domination, and a preternatural bond with horses. But do they incorporate any positive facets of Mongol culture, like the fact that women called the shots, or that the Mongols invented a postal system, or even the relative tolerance the Mongols had for the cultures they conquered? Not really. They’re just horse lords with furry hats.

Incorporating other Asian cultures into what’s ostensibly a Japanese game is just a symptom of a larger problem with L5R: it’s a stew of “cool” bits attempting to yield a cohesive whole. Bits from different centuries exist side-by-side in L5R’s not-Japan. Rewritten historical figures live side-by-side with other historical figures from different centuries. Institutions that seemed neat live right next to their historical replacements (which also seemed neat) with no sense of how that would work. It’s a hodge-podge of various Japanese dynasties, stories, and historical events – all thrown into a blender and told to co-exist to next to each other. I’m fairly blind to most of this. After all, I’m a Westerner. I’ve been to North America and Europe. I know stuff about Japan because I read Shogun. I’m no expert and so most of this just passes right over me. But, another game from AEG, 7th Sea, illustrated to me why this is a problem.

7th Sea was an Age of Sail RPG about pirates, set in a fantasy world. It took every pirate story and every historical detail about the Age of Sail and mixed it all up into a fantasy world. And it annoyed the shit out of me. The defeat of the Spanish Armada lived right alongside the French Revolution. Not-Blackbeard was standing right next to not-Zorro. The Italian city states were raided by Vikings. As someone with a Western education, this mixing of time periods, historical figures, and fictional stories just didn’t sit right. It’s a mess of time periods, things that should, by all rights, be impossible to co-exist with other setting elements. It took my own culture, removed the bits that didn’t fit, and attempted to make a new setting just consisting of the pirate bits. While I wasn’t necessarily insulted by any of the cultural assimilation bits that were done, it also didn’t strike me as nuanced portrayal of anything other than SWASHBUCKLING!!! And so, knowing what little I do of Japan, I can see how L5R has done the exact same thing, and can totally see how it would annoy people actually familiar with the culture and historical information. It’s the gaming equivalent of Real Ultimate Power (which would annoy John Wick, since he inexplicably hates ninjas and did his best to keep them out of his not-Japan).

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all bad. From the very beginning, L5R was egalitarian. That demure courtier could be male or female. Likewise, samurai warrior dudes could be samurai warrior women if they wanted with no concern. I had a female player in my last L5R game and she played a bushi (warrior) with no problems. I’m sure she appreciated the ability to do that without having to come up with some elaborate Briene of Tarth story justification (Although she did pick one of the matriarchal families – I’m not sure what that says). I’m gonna give L5R some credit for ignoring historical precedent here and letting people play whatever the hell they want. (But, in another bit I’ve never understood, despite the egalitarian nature of not-Japan, certain Clans have matriarchal families that read an awful like “straw-women.” The Utaku, Matsu, and Moshi families are rabidly man-hating, won’t let men do their special snowflake thing, and have established a fascist female dictatorship. Which just seems like an attitude that wouldn’t even exist in a setting that’s been sexism-free for centuries).

The art has been problematic as well. With thousands of pieces of art produced over the last two decades for the card game, there sure are a lot of white people depicted. I picked the picture above because it actually does have Asian features, but there’s plenty of examples of what look like white people wearing kimonos. AEG has gotten better about this, hiring more Asian artists to illustrate their game about Asia, but they still screw up sometimes. Fan favorite Steve Argyle (and, last time I checked, Art Director for L5R) seems to inexplicably always paint sexy white chicks for not-Japan (which is really a shame because he’s an accomplished artist). Thank God people like Michael Komarck seem capable of painting Asians.

Are there positives? I think there are. With decades of stories written weekly for their website, L5R has an extensive back story (that seems to be putting it mildly). The broad strokes that the setting has taken can be fleshed out by having stories about individual people within that sometimes problematic setting. Nothing removes stereotypes quite like having individual characters with their own personalities inhabit those tropes (either rejecting or accepting, honestly. Justification can be found for both). It’s partially because of how RPGs are written that the issues arise. If the game spent a lot of time talking about individual characters and how they fit into not-Japan’s culture, it would go a long way to expanding those stereotypes. But then gamers would complain that the game spent too much time talking about NPCs rather than giving a setting broad strokes. Ultimately, all RPG settings are broad strokes and can’t step away from stereotypes.

And yet, I said at the top that I like the game and I still do. So, what does that mean? It means that L5R is problematic. But, it’s okay to like problematic things. I just have to be sure to acknowledge those problems, do my best to minimize them, and address concerns when they arise. I can’t recall being insulting to Asian culture in my L5R game, but, then again, all my players were white as well so I could have just missed that. Every story published by the company does a little bit to broaden stereotypes (I mean, unless it’s a really shitty story). Many of the sourcebooks talk about the positives of a certain cultural aspect while also talking about the negatives. In broad strokes, L5R can be problematic. When you drill down a little, I think it gets better.

And, let’s be honest, cultural appropriation is cool. That picture up there? That looks bad ass. I want to play that.



  1. Kind of missed that they did include almost all of those positive Mongol elements in the Unicorn Clan. The Utaku family of the Unicorns is led by Women and even includes some of the only schools that are restricted only to women. (The Utaku Battle Maiden)

    Additionally, a large part of the Unicorn clan’s lore is all about them journeying through the wastes to the West and meeting with other tribes and cultures and incorporating elements of them into their own practices. The Moto family of the Unicorn clan don’t actually originate from Rokugan but were originally a steppe tribe that joined with the clan on their journeys. Many Unicorns don’t follow the Rokugani religions and instead follow foreign gods a practice viewed with distaste by the Rokugani but tolerated within the ranks of the Unicorn. The Unicorn Iuchi family even adopted a form of foreign magic known as meishodo into their typical shugenja magic.

    Also seems a little odd that you’re going after L5R for cultural stereotypes but spare Vampire: the Masquerade. You forget that while many of the Vampire clans were more based off of vampire stereotypes than cultural ones, that wasn’t universal. The Brujah dip pretty heavily into the hot-blooded latino stereotype, the Lasombra and the Sabat in general kind of do an evil catholicism thing, and those are the more tame.
    Giovanni are the Italian Vampire Mafia.
    Aasamites are Arabic vampires that are all Assassins, an aspect that started to really branch into “Terrorist Vampires”
    Worst of all are the Ravnos, gypsy vampires that are literally all criminals (literally their clan weakness means every Ravnos has a vice that they can only resist indulging in with great mental willpower and which ranges from plagarism to mass-murder.)

    I’m not going to ignore that L5R doesn’t pain Asia in broad strokes, but the fact that it takes place in a fictional version of Asia (similar to how almost every other fantasy setting takes place in a fictional version of Europe.) is worth something, especially when you compare it to some of the ignorance that was on display in Vampire the Masquerade’s “real-world” setting.

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