Posted by: markfender | July 9, 2014

The Problematic Nature of L5R, Part II

Yeah, it’s a series. That could be a problem.

L5R-Void-TattooLegend of the Five Rings is an ongoing story. And that makes it difficult when you want to roleplay in that world.

Now, if you play the collectible card game, having an ongoing story is awesome. Opening new cards is exciting for the normal reasons opening new cards is exciting, but also because you get to see the impact your actions at tournaments had on the evolving story. I honestly wish more card/board/mini games would do that. And there’s new fiction every week advancing the storyline (It’s not the support that Magic: the Gathering gives on their website, but then, nobody else has Magic money to burn). The game is doing its damnedest to keep you involved with an ongoing plot. (Although I have no idea how you find out what the storyline prizes are for the various tournaments.)

I’m not a giant fan of the card game itself, however. It’s got a good base and some neat mechanics but suffers in a few key areas. For one, there’s too many factions. Considering how many cards are in a base set and dividing by the number of factions means that you’re getting less cards useful to you from each pack. Now, they mitigate this somewhat by have a lot of generic action cards, but even a lot of these are obviously most useful to certain strategies and those strategies are based on factions. In addition, I can’t believe that after two decades of editions, they have yet to distinguish between Traits and Keywords. (For those not clued into the lingo, a Trait is a generic descriptor that can be affected by other cards. In Magic terms, its the text right below the picture that says things like “Creature – Goblin.” If you have another card that says “All Goblins get +2 Strength” than cards with the Goblin Trait are affected. A Keyword is a short descriptor of a common rule where the full rules text doesn’t fit on the cards. So, to use Magic again, the text box might say “Flight” but not explain what that means. L5R does not distinguish between these two types of things. So, you get really long lists of descriptors (“Samurai * Bushi * Tainted * Naval * Experienced 2”) and some of those descriptors have rules attached to them. Losing track of what rules apply to your cards is a bad idea. It’s as if Magic just put “Creature – Plainswalking Goblin” right below the picture. How often would you forget your Goblin could Plainswalk?) And because of that weird split between factions and “generic” cards, the wording on their cards is oftentimes so specific that just understanding what the card does requires reading a lot of text. (“Target your unbowed Magistrate card. Bow this card. Target enemy Magistrate card with 4 less Chi than your Magistrate, but not if it has the Ninja Trait.”) The more exclusions that end up on your cards, the more fiddly your game gets. I honestly think eliminating three-four factions would eliminate the need to have so many exclusions in the rules text, making the game flow a lot better. But they’d never do that.

But that’s not the point. The point is that the evolving storyline plays some amount of havoc with the roleplaying game in a couple of different ways. For one, each edition has taken a different approach to how it’s going to handle the card game’s story. First edition set the game just prior to the beginning of the card game. Yes, it had write-ups of famous personalities in the card game, but these were all placed right before they started to be affected by cards. And those hints on the write-ups about where their story might be going felt more like a plot hook than a tease. After all, if you have no idea what’s going on in the story, that Great Destiny the NPC writeup talked about could be anything. Second edition decided to exist right alongside the current storyline, as did 3rd edition. That didn’t really work because the resources dedicated to both games wasn’t even. IF AEG has ten koku to spend on developing L5R products, nine of those koku are going towards the card game because it makes more money. Which means the storyline moved faster than the RPG could keep up with. One book might explain this great battle that had just happened, but the next book in the line would have that same event haven taken place five years ago (in some cases, the storyline moves fast). Which made little to no sense if you don’t follow the card game. Fourth edition has taken a storyline neutral approach. It talks about historical events as well as storyline events in the same breath, and makes sure to present rule options for varying things. If a family switched Clans at some point in the storyline, the RPG will present stats for the family within both Clans. There’s also a series of Imperial History sourcebooks exploring different snapshots of the setting through time, which helps you get a better idea of what’s going on a bit.

The storyline also likes to repeat itself a lot. In the historical background of the game (before the storyline ever started), there are a couple events that get mentioned all the time: the Day of Thunder, the Gozoku Alliance, and the rise of Iuchiban. So, of course, the storyline ends its first storyline arc with the Second Day of Thunder. And later the Gozoku Alliance gets reintroduced. And would you believe that Iuchiban is back? (Of course you would). And that doesn’t even mention the time that the spirit world opened up and a bunch of previously dead characters from the storyline came back to life and had more adventures. I imagine this is slightly better in the card game, where these story arcs might take years to reach fruition. But to me, reading a recap in the history in an RPG, these same events just pile on top of each other in quick succession, making me think the writers of the storyline just tell the same damned story over and over again.

Another odd problem with the storyline is how it encapsulates events. In the before-storyline timeline, you get a broad cross-section of events. But then, you hit the storyline and the participants are having crazy adventures every couple months when the new release comes out. So, if you’re reading an NPC in the RPG, you get some general background stuff like how their families were and how their gempukku ceremony went. And then they hit the storyline and the events in their life gets pants-on-head crazy. There’s betrayals, magic artifacts, deaths, resurrections, counter-betrayals, marriages that ended in disasters, etc. All packed into a paragraph. It doesn’t provide much insight into the character sadly.

So far this has just been about presentation. But the biggest problem to me is that so many of these events are decided at tournaments. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that the story will be satisfying. All those crazy betrayals and tragedies were decided by an arbitrary person who was just playing a game (and might not have even cared what the impact on the story was). And so, the events, twists, and switches just seem to come from nowhere. That’s not great fiction. The storyline fiction tries to provide reasoning for some of these storyline changes and can definitely place an event into a greater context that results in a better story, but sometimes it’s an uphill battle and it doesn’t always work.

(An example from just the RPG side: In the first edition Scorpion clanbook, there’s a story told of the return of the Unicorn. The Scorpion go meet them in battle and get crushed utterly. The Scorpion book paints this as the desired outcome in a “I meant to do that” sort of way so the rest of the Empire would see them as weak. That’s kind of dumb. The fourth edition Great Clans sourcebook has a bit of intro fiction from the Scorpion daimyo at the time of this event that goes into greater detail. In the story, it becomes a tragedy because he has to send his best friend to lead this doomed battle, and both of them know that the friend will die, either on the battlefield or through seppuku. It places the event into context and gives a little pathos to a singular kind of stupid historical event. (It still comes across as a defensive “I meant to do that,” though.))

So, there’s weird arbitrary decisions made in the storyline that then don’t make sense out of that context. The new Empress, picked by the gods, is….random Dragon courtier number 4!!! Huh? Where was the foreshadowing of this event? What life experiences did random Dragon courtier number 4 have that will make or break her Imperial reign? It just doesn’t work from pure story perspective. As the culmination of a long tournament season with the Dragon somehow emerging on top, it works but as a narrative structure it just doesn’t work.

The good news is that the 4th edition rulebook does try to be neutral in its storyline presentation. So you can pick and choose what bits you want to use. I know in my last L5R game I used NPCs from much later in the timeline, randomly inserted into earlier parts of the storyline. Events that did sort of sound cool from the card game can become plots in your RPG, and, since you know they’re coming, you can lay the proper seeds to make them fit better. It does require your players to ignore the storyline entirely, which could be a problem if you have a lot of card players in your group. It’s not ideal, but it can work. Basically, if you think of the storyline as someone’s crazy-ass Actual Play report on their campaign, you can steal their ideas with impunity and hopefully ignore the dumb bits.

 

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Responses

  1. >The new Empress, picked by the gods, is….random Dragon courtier number 4!!!

    Much as I don’t like that particular part of the story, you’re talking random Dragon courtier #4 down way more than she deserves.


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