It has recently become clear to me that how I see one of my favorite roleplaying games and the way it tends to be run are potentially vastly different.
Maybe I’m not well enough versed in all the various pen and paper roleplaying games out there, but I’m only really aware of one game where you can be some kind of romanticized samurai running around in a Japan-inspired place with Japan-inspired magics and culture. That game is Legend of the Five Rings. You want to tell the story of a warrior seeking to become the best at swording, seeking to test yourself against the best of the best and win honor and glory for yourself and your family? You can do that. You want to explore the sometimes tense, sometimes impossible relationship a samurai has between service to their lord and the demands of Bushido? You can do that. You want to solve problems of violence, misunderstanding, distrust, and intrigue using your wits and your ability to speechify? Want to be the one causing those problems? Want to do either by right of steel? You can do all of that. Want to be some kind of Shinto spellslinger? Want to get crazy tattoos that give you superpowers? Want to just flip out as a ninja? Want to do any or all of the above things in the midst of a multi-clan war, or a battle against a horde of demonic hellspawn determined to corrupt and destroy all life everywhere? The game, and the rules, provide the opportunity for all of these things, and for so much more besides. By all rights, it is a game with a flavor for pretty much anyone, assuming they like variations on Asian culture and fantasy.
I have been a fan of the Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game (L5R for short) for almost ten years now. I have attempted to run it for a few friends on a number of occasions, and I have played in other peoples’ games exactly twice. The first time was during the AEG Official Wintercourt 3, which is a whole other rant I need to have, but won’t get into here. The second, and most recent, was during a semi-improvised LARP at Kublacon about a week ago. Beyond that, I have heard a number of not-quite-horror stories from friends of mine that have played in other L5R games. These friends are people who, based on their general tastes and affect, I would think could have a really excellent time playing that game, in that world, who by all rights should be able to love this game as much as I do. Instead they bitterly distrust anything about it. How could this be?
Let’s get some establishing shots up in here. Keep in mind, I’m gonna be hypersimplifying every whichaway for a while, so if you already know the Rokugans, just breath deeply and seek the Void.
Legend of the Five Rings is a game set in the mythical land of Rokugan, which has culture like Japan but looks more like the eastern coast of China, except with more variety. This land has a creation myth which is one part Japanese and one part Greek, with the Moon eating his children to keep them from usurping him and the Sun getting him gradually more drunk in order to save their last child, who ends up cutting his father’s belly open and rescuing his siblings, who then all fall to the human realm. Gnarly, right? So one of those kid gods died in his father’s belly and nobody knew about him for the longest time, and one of them landed a lot farther away from the others as a result of shenanigans. The others all landed in one place and were like “whoa, this sure is a place we have landed in that is not the heavens” and then they were all like “Hey there are people and animals here we should figure out what even this all is” so they all split for like a year or something. Then they all came back together and were like “I kinda wanna just rule the shit out of all these squishy meatbags that somehow happened out of dad’s blood and mom’s tears mixing as they fell to earth, what about you guys” and everybody was all “sounds legit” so they all had a contest and the dude who broke them all out of Moon Gut Prison inevitably becomes Head King Samurai. The only one who doesn’t compete is a future-knowing dragon already and he’s like “This is cool, but when your top bro falls, so will you” and everybody said “sure, yeah, okay crazy dragon guy, you do you” and he proceeded to laugh at them quietly for hundreds of years.
So all the gods go their separate ways and gather up groups of humans to serve them, except for the Head Honcho Big Man, because all the others have sworn their loyalty and service to him. The pretty, cultured god gets pretty, cultured people to follow her. The war and honor god gets warriors and honorable people to follow him. The scholarship and pacifism god gets scholars and pacifists and also this one asshole who is the only one who knows how to do the magics right now. The dragon gets the weird, individualistic people who don’t mind living in cold mountains without a lot of food and meditating sometimes. The tricky god of secrets just gathers himself a whole load of schmucks, so he can hide competent people in a forest of mediocrity. The god of going fast and riding ponies… does… that…? And the god of strongliness and endurance kinda gathers people sort of, but not really, at least until SUPRISE! Remember that one god who fell someplace else? Apparently his entry velocity was so great that when he hit the human realm he just tore a hole through it straight into hell. So now there’s a hellmouth south of Strong Bad’s lands, and demons start coming out of it, and he’s all like “HEY AWESOME I HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH ALL THESE MUSCLES I HAD JUST LYING AROUND” so he gets people who can help him keep that stuff from getting so bad that it becomes a problem for everyone else. It still ends up becoming a problem for a while, until this one bald robed guy shows up and says “You got a problem? Yo, I’ll solve it” but then instead of rapping or referring to frozen infants he just spreads a lot of enlightened thought and picks seven really cool regular humans (who are still pretty exceptional) to go and tell that one god who fell into hell to take a nap or something, because he is causing ALL of the grumpy ruckus. So those people go and do that, and pretty much all of them sacrifice themselves except for one of them, who gets screwed over differently.
Emperor Hantei the First (the guy who was in charge this whole time) apparently got injured at some point and is dying, and he gathers his siblings and is like “hey I feel terrible, I think I’m not gonna make it, you think maybe I’m dying?” to each of them and all of them are like “no, no way, you are the coolest and best guy, it’s not as bad as it looks” except for the tricky god of secrets who is like “bitch you gonna die”, and then the Hantei is like “aight, all yall gonna have a specific purpose once I’ve died and my son takes the throne. Pretty, cultured people of the Crane will be in charge of making pretty things and establishing culture. Honorable warriors of the Lion will be in charge of protecting law and order in my lands, which is all of them. Phoenix will be in charge of magic, because they are the best at it right now and kind of discovered it in the first place. Dragon will be in charge of probably spiritual guidance or some bullshit I don’t know. Unicorn have ponies and go fast, so they will be in charge of protecting us from threats from outside the Empire. Crab will keep the Shadowlands demonspawn off my lawn, and Scorpion… tricky secret people will be in charge of playing the villain, maintaining the balance of power by pitting the clans against each other so that nobody gets strong enough to be able to unseat the Emperor” and everybody was like “wut” and he was like “EMPEROR OUT” and died.
So then time went on.
A lot of things.
More than one thousand years worth of things.
Like the time when a conspiracy was formed to make a puppet Emperor and was ousted because they spat on temples and monks, or the time this one guy was like “BLEEDING IS MAGIC” and everybody was like “that guy is creepy” and killed him, or the time that same guy came back and was like “HEY GUYS YOUR DEAD RELATIVES ARE MY ARMY NOW” and they were like “we’re not okay with this go live in a rock forever”, or the time a murder happened and somebody was like “YALL GONNA BE JUDGED BY MY DEAD DAD” and a freakin lightning bolt smashed the doors where the murderer was hiding open, or the time the Nothing that spawned the universe was like “I AM READY TO MAKE THINGS NOT BE ANYMORE” and everybody was all “wut” and chaos ensued, or the time (etc. etc. etc.)
Still with me?
If the above example didn’t make it clear, L5R has story history for DAYS. A lot of it is really cool, and well worth reading through, but it ain’t simple, and it ain’t short. Playing in Rokugan more or less REQUIRES players to have some familiarity with the game setting and it’s history, which isn’t great for beginner-friendliness. It is a game with rich texture and emotional depth, and if faithfully run that way, it will alienate the average (or even above average) western beginner to the game almost 100% of the time. People come to play a fun game about dudes with swords running around and kicking butt and get drama, politics and semantics they don’t understand or can’t follow, historical references they won’t get, and what they’re most likely to end up getting, besides frustrated, is punished for not knowing things they never had a chance to learn.
On the one hand, L5R is definitely not your parents’ D&D. On the other hand, making people feel excluded or pushed out, punished, or ignored because of how you run your game is bullshit.
Maybe it’s just a result of having played in a game at a convention, but owing to how it was established- namely, as a walk-in game where anyone with any level of familiarity with the setting was invited to come- I cannot help but disapprove of that kind of GMing. If you’re going to run a game for people who maybe have NEVER PLAYED IN THE UNIVERSE BEFORE, it is my opinion that you should run in such a way that those people can have an enjoyable time and make a positive connection with the game. Maybe it detracts from the samurai feelyfeels that the long-time fans and players want out of the game, maybe it doesn’t. What I can say for certain, however, is that L5R is a game that necessitates SOME kind of primer before play, if for no other reason than to introduce players to the sorts of themes and tropes you intend to explore in the game you’re about to run. Then at least you give your players the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether they want to double down and play, or step out since it’s not their cup of tea. That way, the people who want a rip-roaring chanbara happy time can see that you’re intending to explore themes of mortality, loyalty and self sacrifice (i.e. a typical samurai tragedy) and decide whether they’re willing to play a game where their character will probably be dead by the end of the game or not. Likewise, if they’re not interested in playing a game where the whole game will be speaking politely and trying to convince somebody to verbally slip up so you can duel them, they can make that decision before they find themselves embroiled in plots they don’t understand.
“But Rowan!” I hear my devil’s advocate cry, “Won’t that just reduce the number of people who end up playing the game at all? What if nobody decides they want to play? What if nobody can run because they don’t have the players?”
Let’s cover those one at a time.
1) Misleading people into joining your game, even if you do it unintentionally, more or less guarantees those people feelings of bitterness regarding any future iterations of the game. Maybe it ends up being a good surprise, in which case, AWESOME! In the more likely event that random strangers feel tricked into a game where they didn’t get to feel heroic, valuable, or relevant AT ALL because of a fundamental lack of establishing information, you have just reduced the number of people who will ever play the game again. Ever. So maybe in the short term fewer people join your game. In the long term, the more people play the game and have good experiences with it, the more the joy of the game will be spread to those peoples’ friends, and their friends, and hopefully also their friends, so that the pool of willing players grows. I know the game is not going to jive with everybody, and that is fine. Everybody has different tastes, and everybody wants different things out of their roleplaying experience. All I’m asking is to give your prospective players a little advance warning so the ones who want to play what you run will find you, and the ones who don’t can choose something else, until time and circumstances collude to bring them around.
(Editor here, to step in briefly: I played in the same game Rowan is referring to here. I don’t think anyone was “misled” about what kind of game they were going to play. I do think the GMs probably assumed that everyone had some level of familiarity with the L5R world, which is something that’s happened at every L5R game I’ve ever tried to play, and is probably more of what Rowan is referring to here. Editor out.)
2) If nobody wants to play your game, maybe the pool of people just isn’t quite right for what you want to run. Maybe it’s a bad time. Maybe it’s the specific themes. The only thing you can do is do what you can to know your audience. Unless you already have a dedicated pool of players, try and run games that have something for EVERYONE, so that no one, not a single person, feels like they have wasted their time on your game. Obviously you can’t control that, and there are going to be assholes who show up just to ruin peoples’ day by being belligerent without cause, or trying to steal spotlight from whoever happens to be doing something that might be relevant or important. Have a plan to deal with that if it comes up, but for goodness sake, don’t give up on the idea of giving your players something to love about your game, no matter what level of familiarity they have with the setting.
By all rights, Legend of the Five Rings should have something for everyone. There are any number of time periods to play in, exploring any number of conflicts between different clans, romance, intrigue, the importance of honor, compassion, and the other tenets of Bushido, sprituality, the relationship man has with nature and the gods, philosophy, and plain old fashioned glory or/and death bloodshed. You can run it in a post-apocalyptic timeline, or a Star Wars like future timeline. You can decide that certain parts of the history never happened, or that they happened differently, or that play will determine a huge shift in the course of the Empire. What I have seen and heard about too often are games in which players end up feeling like their actions changed nothing, or had no particular impact in the events of the story. What I have seen and heard of too often are adventures designed to take glory and put it on the shoulders of some NPC who the players are supporting, but cannot equal. What I have seen and heard of too often is the story-on-rails, whereby players are treated as children who cannot be trusted to make important decisions.
This topic hits me where I live for two reasons. The first is that I already don’t have anybody to play the game with. I have a few friends who would like me to run it for them, but nobody I know to run it for me, and none of us have the time most of the time anyway. Therefore, when I find friends who I COULD introduce the game to and they’ve already had it tainted for them, I take it… perhaps a little personally. This is because, reason two, I really do love Legend of the Five Rings. It fills a space in my mind and my heart filled by no other thing, and I owe my interest/fascination with enlightenment through pursuit of honor, through humbleness, and through self-improvement to my exposure to it’s various stories and writings. I love it because it takes place in a world where men and gods live closely together, where magic is still rare enough to be considered wonderous, where the virtuousness of a soul can actually literally turn back the darkness of the Realm of Evil, where people can be real and complex and become figures of legend by wit, by will, by force, by peace.
That is the Rokugan I know and love.
So I will thank you, very kindly, to stop ganking my newbs.