August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.
Day 28: Love
I don’t tend to proactively include love stories in games that I’m running. A large part of that is because I want to avoid the ‘hero gets the girl’ trope that’s in too many action/adventure stories. If I’m running a game that’s meant to be action focused then that is what I will bring to the table.
The exception is when a player brings it to the table, at which point I will actively promote it. During the last Legend of the Five Rings campaign I ran three of the five characters had love interests. One was blissfully married and ended up sacrificing his honour to return home to his family while the other two were in a complex mess of political betrothals and lost loves that culminated with one being compelled (aided by a little bit of brainwashing) to sabotage the wedding ceremony of the other. It was one of the highlights of the campaign and prompted some incredible RP.
Looking back I wish more players were interested in those story beats as I would happily run more relationship based games. While I’ve only played it once Smallville is one of my favourite games and relationships form the core of the system. It’s a game where who you are doing something for is more important than how you are doing it and it leads to some amazing stories that most systems are just incapable of telling.
Legend of the Five Rings is one of those games that holds special significance for many players. Since its inception the world of Rokugan has presented players with an approach to adventuring in sharp contrast to the traditions of D&D. To paraphrase a statement I’ve heard from multiple people
“Everybody is trying to play a paladin, except your moral code is in constant conflict with itself to the point that any solution to a challenge is simultaneously both the right and wrong thing to do.”
It’s a complicated (and often intimidating) world, built up over decades by AEG through both its RPG and CCG. So when Fantasy Flight Games acquired the licence, reset the lore and redesigned the system to use their custom dice it left many fans hesitant. After a turbulent open beta the first product in the new 5th edition line was the Beginners Game box set, released in 2018. I picked it up at the 2019 UK Games Expo and wanted to share my thoughts.
The beginner game comes with everything needed to introduce the world of Rokugan to a new group.
5d6 (ring) and 5d12 (skill) dice with custom symbols. 1 introduction to Rokugan pamphlet. 1 introductory adventure – The Topaz Championship 1 rulebook 4 character folios 1 double-sided map sheet (1 large map, 2 smaller ones) 1 sheet of cardboard tokens
All of the above is provided in full colour, with extensive artwork that lives up to the expectations set by previous editions of the game and professional layout. There’s no other way to say this – this game looks great. Everything is also clearly labelled in terms of read order – with clear “Read this first/second/last” and “Only turn this page when told to” text blocks that help delineate sections.
The character folios are well designed, with clear background information and two double page character sheets. The first presents the character as they are at the start of the adventure, the second is blank and allows for players to spend XP following the adventures interlude. A particularly nice touch is the legend that explains the various sections of the character sheet, which will help avoid the all too common “where is X” or “how do I do Y” questions.
The Adventure and Rules
At the core of the box set is the introductory adventure – The Topaz Championship. This has been a staple since the early days of Rokugan and follows a group of young samurai as they seek to complete their gempukku, the coming of age ceremony that will mark them as adults. The 5th Edition write-up presented here has been cleanly repurposed not just as an introduction to the setting but to the mechanics. Rather than introduce everything all at once each scene layers on a new component, from basic dice rolls all the way up full combat. While the structure of the adventure is relatively straightforward it is generally well designed, extremely well presented and ideal for beginner groups. There is, unfortunately, a potential for the contests to devolve into a simple series of rolls with little roleplaying and new GMs could easily find themselves overwhelmed.
For more advanced groups there are a number of suggestions on how to expand the scope of the scenario, through extra encounters and intrigue. By the end of the Championship players and GM should have a good grasp of the base mechanics… to a point. A number of rules have been simplified requiring players and GM to relearn some mechanics if they continue beyond the initial adventure.
The rulebook included alongside the adventure is there for groups that want to go a little bit further and includes rules that are closer to those found in the full Core Rulebook. I say closer because a number of areas are omitted. There is no character creation or further options for spending XP. Disadvantages are absent, as are any rules for magic while only a partial and quick system is included for duelling. Without owning the Core Rulebook it is difficult to say what else has been omitted and how many systems have been simplified (I get the impression that the answer is quite a lot).
An extremely notable absence is the matter of death. With the exception of to the death duels there are no rules for when a character dies (and even then it is left to GM fiat). They can be incapacitated or rendered unconscious but that’s as far the text goes. For a system that has historically been associated with sudden character death this is a major omission and just doesn’t make any sense.
But what of the new system? Overall I have to say that I really like it. The new take on role and keep retains the flavour of exploding rolls without being as needlessly complicated as FFGs earlier take on Star Wars. Similarly the use of approaches and skill groups is a great way to limit a single attribute from dominating play.
The approach of encouraging players to use of all the rings even carries over into combat as each of the stances is tied to a specific ring. This forces players to consider whether they want to use their best ring or the bonus effect associated with a particular stance. I haven’t had a chance to stress test combat and assess how lethal it is but the mixture of fatigue and critical injuries makes a lot of sense and I could easily see characters being quickly incapacitated thanks to the multiple ways in which fatigue can accumulate. It is worth noting that I have seen posts online suggesting that the core rules may take a different approach to damage (though it is possible these were referring to the beta rules) and until I buy that book it will be difficult to really appreciate how combat plays out.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention during the beta was the strife mechanic but I think it may be one of the best additions to the game. Representing inner turmoil with mechanically helps to not only make the characters more human but to normalise the idea that they will slip up on occasion and drop the emotional mask that society expects them to wear. There were complaints that it took away player agency but to me that’s missing the point. Emotional outbursts are all about losing agency, whether they are screams of pure anguish or raucous laughter from a joke that shouldn’t be funny. You’re not in control and the mechanics highlight that. What’s especially nice is that they provide you an option to grit your teeth and pretend everything is ok but doing so prevents you from keeping dice that roll the strife symbol.
All in all the system does well to incorporate more modern, narrative based approaches to roleplaying while retaining a traditional core and so long as you are happy with the limited character progression (and lack of magic) you could easily use this introductory rulebook to run your own adventures.
There is a lot to like about the Beginner Game and I really want to say that I love it. Unfortunately there are just too many issues that detract from the set as a whole. First up are the mistakes. The booklets are littered with typos and sentences that don’t quite make sense. Most prominent is in the character folios, where the description of how to spend XP includes this glaring error:
That’s right, it says that to increase the ring costs 2x the new value and then uses maths that implies it is 3x. As an experienced gamer I can use my judgment and be fairly confident they meant 3x but this is a set aimed at new players, who might not be so sure. Given the retail price of ~£30 (making it more expensive than many starter sets) I would have expected proper proofreading from FFG. This appears to have been amended on the bonus online character folios so is hopefully something that will also be fixed in any subsequent printings.
Then there’s the choice of contents. Of the three maps (Tsuma village, the Emerald Champion’s castle and Rokugan itself) only one is actually used by the included adventure. The castle map requires that you download the free followup adventure, while the map of Rokugan would be better included with the core rulebook or GM kit. Next are the tokens, which are pretty much useless in my opinion. The game doesn’t use a combat map and while it does suggest you could use them to indicate where in Tsuma village characters are that just feels like an excuse to include them. How often will the party be separated to such a degree that you have trouble remembering where they all are? How often will you need 10 goblin tokens?
I just don’t see the point and would have preferred it if FFG had included the additional character folios from their website (you get only 4 while 3 more are available online). It’s also worth noting that if you wanted to print out additional copies of the included character folios you’ll need to purchase a digital copy of the beginner game. There is a standard, art free character sheet available online but it omits the useful explanations and background information that is present on the introductory folios.
Speaking of the characters – who on earth thought it would be a good idea to include a shugenja with no spells? Yes, you heard me correctly, one of the characters is a magic user but lacks any actual magical abilities! They can purchase a relatively limited spiritual technique during the interlude but that’s it, for most the adventure they are essentially just a scholar. I get that the characters are all young and in the process of completing the coming of age process but seriously? Magic is the whole point of being a shugenja and you couldn’t include even one basic spell? If the rules for magic are that complicated then just omit the class and include a note that it will be included in the core rules.
I have to admit that when I first opened the Beginner Game box set I was apprehensive. The open beta had left me with mixed feelings, the rules were too raw and felt like they had been rushed, as evidenced by how much even core mechanics changed during the course of playtesting. But I have to give FFG credit, they did change them and for the better. Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition is shaping up to be a solid game, with all the style and character of the previous editions. Which is why I wish I could rate this product more highly but ultimately the rules and presentation are let down by one too many small issues. Typos and errors, a magic user that doesn’t cast magic, tokens and maps that aren’t actually needed by the included adventure.
So would I recommend purchasing this? I don’t think so. In many respects it is a great introduction to the setting and system and is an excellent way to ease an entirely new group into the world of Rokugan. But it’s an expensive introductory set (mostly due to the requirement of including FFGs custom dice) and I just don’t see many people new to the hobby picking it up. I think it would actually work better if it were slimmed down even further to a shrink-wrapped magazine like format including just the adventure, character folios and dice, sold for just a little bit more than the stand alone dice set. That would put it in the impulse buy territory for both new and old players.
For more experienced tables my advice is simple – buy the core rulebook and club together for a set of the dice.
All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.
This is another quick topic that is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, but I wanted to elaborate a little on why I picked each of them.
1) Torg – My very first tabletop RPG with an amazing GM that quickly inspired me to run my own games. Yes, the early 90s system is clunky by modern standards (and was so even when I first played it in 2006) but it was Torg that made me fall in love with this hobby. It’s also the game that taught me how much went on unseen behind the screen or in the GMs head, the GM of that campaign made it flow so smoothly that as a newbie I naively assumed it was easy. My subsequent first forays into GMing taught me otherwise.
2) Cortex (Classic, Plus, Prime) – I could easily fill four of the 6 spots here with Cortex games (Serenity, Demon Hunters, Smallville, Firefly) thanks to the impact the line has had on me over the years. Instead, I’m going to list it once, with a separate entry for Demon Hunters for reasons that will become apparent. For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on the system. Cortex was the first game that I discovered for myself, back with the original Serenity. At that point, I’d played only a handful of systems but mostly Torg. Mechanically and thematically the two were so different it was almost overwhelming. I dove into it, roped players into a game… and then ran a disaster of a session as a rookie GM. It was an experience that somehow didn’t put me off GMing.
Since then Cortex has continued to influence me thanks to its continued iteration. Demon Hunters gave me the first glimpse of how a game could be adapted to a new setting with only a few small tweaks. Then along came Cortex Plus, which demonstrated how to take the central DNA of a system and heavily adapt it to mesh with radically different genres. Smallville introduced me to the potential for constant player vs player conflict actively supported by the mechanics while Firefly introduced me to a smooth rules set that is pretty much perfect (in my opinion) for convention play. The in-development Cortex Prime is set to take it even further, providing a full toolkit to build future games on and I can’t wait to see where the system goes next.
3) Demon Hunters (1st/2nd editions) – What can I say about Demon Hunters that I haven’t already said before? It’s a setting that I love for so many reasons, see my recent self-interview for the long list. But the biggest way that it has influenced me? By providing an open world that allows for me to publish my own material. I’ve released two adventure starters (Missionary Opposition and Lockdown) for the most recent edition inspired by the Slice of Life web series and Channel Surfing, an adventure starter drawn from one of my own campaigns and that Dead Gentlemen made available to their GenCon GMs. How cool is that.
4) Hell 4 Leather – One of my first introductions to indie games, Hell 4 Leather bills itself as a Role-Playing Game of Vengeance inspired by tales such as Hamlet and Kill Bill. It’s an inspired game with minimal yet tight mechanics that come together to tell of the repercussions of making a deal with the devil. I’ve played it across a variety of genres, Westerns, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy and it hasn’t let me down. As influences go it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by non-traditional mechanics and tales, supported by the flourishing indie scene in Scotland at the time. While I still tend towards traditional games it was this game that sparked my continued interest in the wider aspects of TTRPGs.
5) Lady Blackbird – This was, in many respects, a turning point for me as it was one of the original inspirations behind Project Cassandra. While the two bear little resemblance thematically the underlying system once did. Yup, Project Cassandra started off as a hack of Lady Blackbird. The system used is, in my opinion, extremely elegant and the whole idea of being able to wield powers in the same way as any other skill (and with few limits) really spoke to me. As I worked on the concept the systems diverged but that was where my interest in game design began.
6) Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) – A game that has influenced me in many ways but the biggest was providing me with the chance to join a long term, online campaign. My introduction to playing in the setting came via an online campaign run by Sir Guido and organised through the Happy Jacks Podcast community. It was the first time I’d really played an online campaign and the first where I was gaming with people across the world (we had people from Alaska through to Turkey). While I no longer regularly game online the experience was great and allowed me to step outside of the relatively small bubble that I was gaming in up to that point. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, especially when I get to the point of restarting playtests of Project Cassandra.
The latest gaming tag to do the rounds on Twitter is that of #RPGStruck4, where people post up images for 4 games that define them, my own post for it was this:
Each has been superceded by newer (and generally improved) editions but in terms of impact on my gaming these have each had a significant impact Torg Serenity Demon Hunters Legend of the Five Rings#RPGStruck4pic.twitter.com/Erc3gbg0gg
and while most people have been posting without explanation I wanted to briefly dig into why these four games are personally significant.
Torg – Long after it had gone out of print this was my introduction to tabletop gaming. I’d LARPed before, I’d participated in freeform play by posts but had never rolled dice or filled in a traditional character sheet. As an introduction to ttRPGs I couldn’t have asked for more. I was hooked and before long was itching to run my own game, largely thanks to how well Snap, our amazing GM, had run that first campaign.
Serenity – My first foray into GMing was… disastrous. A massive Firefly fan I’d eagerly picked up the game on its release and dived into learning the system which was very different from what I’d experienced up to that point. I’d prepped heavily, with a focus squarely on all the wrong things and the first session was a catalogue of errors. Somehow it didn’t put me off running games and Cortex quickly cemented itself into one of my go to systems, which neatly leads me on to…
Demon Hunters – As is evidenced by the plethora of posts about it you could say I’m a bit of a fan. While I knew of The Gamers it was the original Demon Hunters that made me a true fan of Dead Gentlemen Productions. It’s my go to light hearted setting, perfect for both one off sessions between campaigns as well as campaigns themselves. The setting can handle over the top chaotic slapstick as or serious urban fantasy (I tend to drift toward the former) and the writing is just as fun, to the extent that it’s almost as good to read as it is run. The second edition builds on the first with a new system, refreshed lore and brand new comic book look based on the short lived webcomic. Oh and a few adventures by yours truly.
Legend of the Five Rings – When it comes to games with hefty reputations few can compete with the world of Rokugan and it’s samurai society. The setting clearly defines not only the role of PCs within that society but sets out clear expectations for their behaviour and consequences for going against those very expectations. Framed by the tenets of Bushido and an honourable ideal it’s a world where doing the right thing almost always has consequences, in stark contrast to the kill, loot, profit style espoused by many D&D games. It’s not only a world that I love returning to but once that has influenced my wider thinking on the positioning of PCs within wider settings and idea of lasting consequences.
26th) Which RPG provides the most useful resources?
Quite a wide open question this. What should be defined as a resource? You could go the splat book approach in which case I would have to say Legend of the Five Rings and Corporation. For both of those games the extra books really expand upon the settings and provide (generally) useful additions to the rules. They’re also both systems where I really enjoy the style of writing so having extra books doesn’t feel like a chore to read through.
There’s also resources in terms of referenced information, such as depth indexes and system documents. In that case I’d have to go with FATE as both the core book and the SRD are thorough and easily accessible. Really handy when you need to look up something on the fly. The community for FATE is also really engaging and including Fred Hicks regularly engages with the games audience including commenting on blogs such as this one (See this post from when I was struggling with some parts of the game).
Finally there’s resources in terms of extras that add to the game without being necessary. Spell cards, custom dice, details character sheets etc. D&D and Pathfinder are the obvious answers for those games but they’re the big publishers, they rely on those sort of extras to entice players to keep spending. It’s even seen in the scale of their organised play, a great resource but not something that the smaller publishers could ever really contemplate.
A quick last minute post here that I might expand on later but here’s a few that I enjoy reading for a range of reasons.
Legend of the Five Rings – Probably the best world building and setting information I’ve come across. The text is just a joy to read and really lets you know that Rokugan is a fully fleshed out setting.
Corporation – Another one that is an easy to read and gives a clear indication as to the potential depth in this post-cyberpunk world.
Demon Hunters – Almost as fun to read as it is to run. The writing does an amazing job at conveying the tone of the setting.
Dungeon World – Clear writing that helped me grok PbtA while simultaneously actually managed to make me interested in standard fantasy in a way D&D has consistently failed at.
12th) Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?
Like the cover art question difficult to answer, when it comes to art I tend to appreciate its inclusion as a whole but rarely pick it out individually. Tales from the Loop gets an honourable mention once again but I think I’ll actually go with Legend of the Five Rings. The books are, in general, gorgeous and really give a feel for the setting as a whole. I’d actually say that I think they may be up amongst the best looking RPG books I’ve had the chance to own. One of the most striking aspects is the consistency of the artwork. All high quality and in styles that mesh well with one another. Unfortunately with the transition to kickstarter I’ve come across too many games where the artwork is a mix of styles that don’t mesh or are completely different from one another due to the need to spread the load around multiple artists. It’s an unfortunately reality of being a small publisher but does (to me) stand out more than I’d have expected it would.
Once again another difficult question to answer as while I can think of numerous impactful games many of those came from looking back after a campaign and seeing how the story arcs had come together. I could mention my first campaign of Torg which saw my bitter ex-cop descend into darkness to become the very thing that had broken him in the first place. Or I could talk about the excellent Smallville campaign by Stephen of Step into RPGs where my ordinary, boring and completely un-powered sidekick character ended up having to step up because those who should have been saving the day were too distracted with their own messy relationships (seriously, Smallville is amazing and such an underrated system). Or I might discuss my introduction to Legend of the Five Rings where my samurai went from having everything he could have dreamed of to a tragic tale worthy of the pillow books of Rokugan.
But those are campaigns and the question was session. Which goes to a game where I was GM rather than players. A Demon Hunters adventure where the players decided to metaphorically turn left instead of right. We hadn’t even started the adventure but were in what was the transition period from the previous mission. One PC was recuperating, having recently been turned into a vampire. The rest decided they wanted to get flowers for her and being a rookie GM I made an offhand comment that that section of the Warehouse (an interdimensional essentially infinite storage space) had been declared off limits for some reason or another. I’d been trying to redirect them back to the job at hand (I’d yet to come across the idea of “Yes and…”), instead they ventured off into the unknown assuming the comment was a plot hook.
We’d not even started the adventure and they’d already managed to break it. I was flummoxed. I could handle players getting creative in solving puzzles or side stepping encounters but bypassing the entire adventure? That was new and from the look on my face they knew how much they’d thrown me.
So I did the only thing that was fair, I literally screwed up my notes, admitted how much they’d evaded my prep and called a 10 minute beer break. Looking back I can’t remember the details of what I’d planned but I can tell you that the adventure we ended up with was far more creative and entertaining. It eventually led to the Chapter imploding in on itself with the vampire PC giving in to her hunger for blood and turning not one but two of the other characters after having been attacked. We ended on an epic fade out with the Chapter fighting amongst themselves in a grand library while trying to rules lawyer their way out of a Demonic contract.
It was amazing and taught me a lot of vital lessons about GMing.
The Fallen Mountains campaign I was running wrapped up a couple of months ago and having gained some distance from it I thought it was time to reflect on the ups and downs of the campaign. All in all I would classify it as a success but I wanted to focus on a few individual bits that went well and a couple where I felt I was especially lacking.
The players. Dear god were the players a highlight. None of them had ever played Legend of the Five Rings or had me GM for them before but they each dived into the game and got it. They understood the role of honour but also that samurai are just human. They let themselves mess up and say the wrong thing while striving to be honourable. They also embraced both the strengths and the flaws of their clans, especially the Scorpion players who both refused to fall into the stereotype of a dishonourable ninja. Being samurai is about walking the knife edge of what is necessary and what is right, what is easy and what is polite. The players got that and the game was better for it.
Character backgrounds. Across the 11 sessions we managed to cover 3 distinct short arcs while also hitting upon at least one element of backstory for each of the five characters. The balance between them wasn’t perfect but each of them had a moment to shine and develop their characters in ways that I hadn’t anticipated at the start. I think 11 sessions was too short to give each their own arc but I’m glad we did manage to incorporate something for each of them into the wider campaign. Which brings us to…
The setting. While I always had an idea as to the mysteries lurking in The Fallen Mountains I’d never really fleshed them out, preferring to deal with it in play. Across the course of the campaign we managed to do so and in a way that really worked. The players seemed to buy into the story of the Lost Legion but didn’t chase it until they started uncovering clues. Until then they treated it as the characters would, a tale from the history books and used to scare children. It made the setting feel like what it was meant to be, a legend, and not just a simple plot hook.
Ending. We finished the campaign and in a manner that was satisfying. Like many people (I assume) that’s pretty rare for me so it’s always satisfying when it happens. I’m also coming to the opinion that those mid length campaigns suit my GMing style. It gives enough time to learn the characters, have multiple adventures and showcase a metaplot. 11 sessions is probably the minimum for this sort of campaign and I feel like it could stretch up to around 20 without feeling like I was pushing it too far.
Not so happy
The second arc. Shugeki’s wedding, the second of our three arcs, was inspired by the introductory adventure from the 4th edition rulebook. For those not familiar with it the adventure is a murder mystery that occurs during a series of inter Clan courtly challenges. The former is the backbone to the adventure while the latter provides an introduction to the system and Rokugani culture. Taking place at court it is very heavy on NPCs and in the end I just wasn’t happy with my portrayal of them. The NPCs were introduced too quickly to get a feel for them or build proper relationships with them. Likewise I didn’t feel like I’d introduced enough characters to really widen the suspect pool. Maybe that’s the best way to go, it works in TV shows where only the prime suspects ever get any real screen time but it felt forced here and isn’t an adventure I would feel comfortable running as a one shot or opening arc. I think it could work well as part of a longer campaign with a cast of established NPCs. Despite my misgivings about the overall structure of this arc it did introduce one of the best moments of the campaign, with one player fully diving into the role of being a Kolat sleeper agent and then having to commit Jigai to atone for her sins.
Combat. At the outset I’d been expecting a combat heavy game and things just didn’t go that way. Partially because of the players circumventing it (which I’m all in favour of) and partially because of how the plot progressed. When it came to the final adventure there was combat but I failed to adjust it to take into account the rapid advancement of the characters (we went from rank 1 to 4 over the 11 sessions). In doing so I failed to provide any meaningful challenge, an issue for a game with a reputation for being deadly. To compound this error I feel like I failed to properly pace the final combat, which was meant to cut back and forth with events occurring elsewhere. A lesson to learn from and I think in future I would keep the game at a low power level, likely Insight Rank 3 or below.
When it comes to GMing I have to admit that quite often I cheat with NPCs and enemies. Not with their dice rolls but with their stats. Most of the NPCs and monsters in my games consist of only a fraction of the detail that would be found in a complete write up.
A lot of the time I lean towards the bare minimum, noting attributes and skills on the fly as required. I’ll often have an idea of their competencies in my head but until they come into play they’re just that, ideas. Doing so requires a level of system mastery that I don’t currently have with Legend of the Five Rings, especially given it’s a system where antagonists can easily out-rank the PCs. To help with that I’ve put together a generic NPC cheat sheet, which covers all of the essential components other than the school specific abilities. It’s geared primarily towards bushi and courtiers. For shugenja rings will be slightly higher, skills slightly lower. It’s already proven useful in my current Fallen Mountains campaign, hopefully it’ll be of use to other GMs out there.