Monday, September 17, 2012

The New Dragon: L5R Campaign Planning (One)

As I posted before- New Worlds: Campaign Pitches and Results- my group selected a Legend of the Five Rings campaign from the pitches I gave them. I've started work putting that together. I thought I would post some of my thinking and work here. I am using a homebrew system, but one we've played for years. That creates a set of jobs I have to work through before I can actually run.

I’ll be running in Action Cards, our rules-light system using aspects like FATE in which each player has an individual and unique deck of cards representing their character. Beyond the individual deck, characters buy a) skills, b) advantages/disadvantages/ancestor, c) schools, d) magical abilities as defined by chosen track (spells, kihos, tattoos), and e) aspects. The skill list will be open-ended- I’ll have a suggested list, but players can make their own skills up. Having a relevant skill allows a redraw when working with that action. Likewise players will have five aspects to start- one trouble, one based on their family, one based on their school/path, one based on relation to a bushido virtue, and one free. Aspects can be invoked to gain a redraw, bump a result up by a degree, or change the situation- all by paying a Fate point.

The more concrete material I have to develop will be the schools, magics, fighting styles, and the advantages/disads. I’ve already done adaptions of L5R into Rolemaster and Storyteller before, so I’m not too worried. Magic will be descriptive, with casters able to significantly modify a base effect from a spell they learn. I’ll talk some more about that in a moment.

There’s a basic question- why reinvent the wheel? Why not simply use 4e, 3e or an earlier edition? I have a couple of reasons for this. We’ve been playing with Action Cards for the last decade or so and the group has really enjoyed it. This group in particular requested using it again. I also like to see how far I can warp this system- what changes do to the play. In particular there are several sub-systems within L5R that I want to consider how to model: seasonal actions, large-scale abstract units, dueling, and honor/social combat.

To begin with the players will be building a new family for the Dragon Clan, a smallish one which will be controlling a new province. The Dragon have seized territory as a buffer between warring neighbors; this will be the PC’s province. I’ll be fudging some of the geography to make that work. The creation of the family will borrow heavily (i.e. steal fully) from the Clan Creation mechanics of Blood & Honor. However, I want to expand some of the options and change up some of the details. I want the game to be a blend of standard and seasonal play. But the seasonal stuff will be secondary- kind of a bribe to the players for moving time along. I want building and resource management, but flexibility to modify that based on the players’ interest. My sources for this will be Blood & Honor, Legends of Anglerre, and Reign. At least that’s where I’m looking first for inspiration. In particular I want to consider how to do interesting things with grand scale actions and choices. I looked at the Clan Burner system from The Blossoms are Falling, but it isn’t particular good or useful. I'll be going through my list of samurai rpgs hunting for details.

Part of the reason I want some seasonal level material is to move time forward. This gives an excuse for character advancement. But more importantly, it allows me to have several different Winter Courts over the course of the campaign. The first one of two could have the PCs traveling to a foreign court. Eventually the PC will have to put on and manage the affairs of a Winter Court of their own.

Players will represent younger samurai, who have for various reasons become part of this newly established Dragon family. Some might be related by blood, others may have chosen to take up this mantle. That means that players, while they might all be part of the Dragon Clan, will not have to have studied at a Dragon Clan school. I’m assuming a few will, but I want to leave that door open. Despite being younger, each PC will occupy a significant role within the family, in charge of some kind of duty or role.

The players will be in charge of keeping things stable in the province, dealing with threats, finding adventure, uncovering plots, and fighting monsters. But they’ll also be gathering resources, making allies, and negotiation relations with those in power (perhaps even their Daimyo). The game will be about growth on several levels. I picture some one-off character episode sessions, plus a central arc story for the season. We’ll then move forward to the next season and I’ll let the players make choices about where they’re putting their non-adventuring attention.

A few issues will be harder to work out- or at least work out in a satisfying way which emulates the setting.

SHUGENJA: For magic, I’m planning to simply have players buy spells which are written out very abstractly. I found a file online of all of the spells for L5R in a table. I stripped out everything except name, element, and description. They I went back and simplified what the spell does. As examples,
Castle of Air- Air- Area of buffeting winds slowing progress and making actions difficult.
Speed Growth- Earth- Ritual. Plants undergo one month's growth. Non-Stackable.
Spikes of Earth- Earth- Summon damaging spikes which can act as a bad footing.

Spells are assumed to do what they do at touch range, with a base damage, on a single target unless otherwise described. For example, Castle of Air’s an area spell, so that’s built in. If you want the spell to do more stuff, then you can add stuff to it.

These are called MODIFIERS. Each modifier added makes the spell do more, but also makes it more difficult to cast. There are EASY and HARD spell modifiers. EASY spell modifiers add +1 to the result you need. The most important and common spell modifiers are:
Ranged: get someone at a distance
More Damaging: increase dice of damage
Last Longer: spell continues for more turns

Easy Spell Modifiers: At Range, More Damage, Last Longer (for non-damage spells), Seeking (no combat pull needed), Penetrate Armor, Stronger Effect, Precise, Triggered, Extra Effect (Minor), Hard to Detect, Cast in Armor (Light), Faster (reducing the time for a spell to act), Without Scroll in Hand

HARD spell modifiers add +2 to the pull you need. The most important of these is:
Area Effect: Hit several targets

Hard Spell Modifiers: Affect an Area, Hit Multiple Targets, Ignore Armor, Go Really Far, Last Longer (for damage spells), Exploding, Much Stronger Effect, Independent, Extra Effect (Major), Last Much Longer (for non-damage spells), Cast in Armor (Medium or Heavy)

After figuring out modifiers, you can choose to do something to reduce the total difficulty. The lowest this can go is OK. If you have an Expertise in the type of spell, you can reduce the difficulty by one (each). Each element has a set of three expertise you can develop. You can also:
• Take an extra turn to cast -1
• Use an aspect -1
• Use an item (varies)

After casting you test to see if you hit your target. You also take stress for casting, depending on the power of the spell. The caster takes one point of stress. If the caster added +3 or more in modifiers, the caster takes two points of stress. Certain advantages can reduce this.

STRESS AND CONSEQUENCES: Some games spread out different damage types into separate tracks. I’ve certainly done that before. The problem is that in play, one track- usually physical- gets focused on. The others do represent a real threat. If players operate with different damage types, they can’t coordinate easily. I plan on using a single stress track/pool to represent all of the damage a player can take from all sources: wounds, fear, reputation undercutting, exhaustion, and so on. Characters “move on” when they lose all of their points.

Action Cards uses dice for one sub-system, determining damage. Why? Because players like rolling damage. It is weird and it breaks up the symmetry of the game, but in practice the players enjoy it (and frankly I do to). Combat and results are determined speedily- and then people get to throw and count damage. We have optional rules (actually the original rules) for determining damage based on success margin as well. In any case, handling damage this way does lead to the problem of consequences. In FATE-type systems, consequences arise when characters take damage.

One version has the player with a track that gets marked along- they take damage which would be marked off of the track, i.e. the player has four boxes but takes a five-point hit, they must choose to take a consequence or else retire. That system’s a little meh and leads to some strangeness. Two other approaches seem workable with how I want to do damage. One, players simply take damage whenever they hit a tier of stress taken. For example, for every five points taken, the PC has to apply a consequence. That’s easy to track and makes fights dangerous. But it doesn’t allow a lot of choice, beyond setting the details of the consequence. So you take damage, and then you effectively take more damage. On the other hand, some systems allow consequences as a way of flushing damage. If a player takes a consequence of X value, they can flush Y damage. I like that system- but it does rely on the player to remember that they have that option. It also meaning you want to keep healing/consequence clearing magic to a minimum to keep players for avoiding damage. And I do want to combat here to be deadlier than most other versions of Action Cards.

HONOR AND EVERYTHING AFTER: Samurai games offer a number of abstract concepts to measure Face, On, Insight, Status, Honor, Glory, Reputation. Sometimes these detailed numbers and mechanics. For this system, I really only want to consider Honor and Reputation. L5R has insight, but I don’t necessarily want to worry about that- when I’ve run it before I haven’t used it. Instead I tied that to experience in the campaign and time passage. Status is another issue, but I think that can come from campaign play- with a raise in status or position coming as a reward. Differences in status levels can be an abstract modifier to conflicts as necessary.

Reputation represents the social face of a player and is what can be besmirched by poor actions and social attacks. That means it is essentially another form of stress. Destroying a samurai’s reputation can be just as effective as killing them. Social combat can be subtle or more open. Social attacks and visible poor choices will cause consequences- essentially aspects which the player needs to take action to clear. These don’t heal naturally, but action and assistance is required to clear them. On the other hand, public actions can gain players temporary positive aspects which go away after use. Once you’ve traded on your reputation, you need to reestablish it.

Honor’s a tough call though. I don’t want it as part of the general stress track. I’ve had versions of L5R which have required tracking too many separate things (chi, focus, honor, wounds). But I think something for honor tracking should exist. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be an absolute scale (ranked 1-10), I don’t think. Perhaps a default value of 0 as the standard, then shifting the scale up or down by one when significant events and trials occur. The higher the honor, the more difficult to sustain it. Should this also create consequences? The real difficulty is that honor represents legislated morality. Players are rewarded or punished for their choices based on the GM’s judgment of their worthiness- a truly subjective decision. I need to consider how to manage that- perhaps suggesting tests on honor? Is there a way I can link up Fate’s compel mechanics with that?

DUELS: I want this as a challenging and strategic process- with the challenge, focus, and strike pulls all contributing to a final result. I need to go through Art of the Duel and basic L5R book.


  1. While we're discussing L5R, any opinions on the weird, sorta-worked-didn't-quite mashup of L5R and Oriental Adventures that occurred with the last edition of Oriental Adventures? My own impression was that it was the effort to sell one product to 2 audiences: traditional D&D'ers with fond memories of the old OA book (and/or Kara-Tur) and people who'd been playing the L5R card game and been sad when it died.

    I have to say I was never that thrilled with the 3.5E OA book *except* for the web-only supplement WotC put out detailing an alternative ancient-India setting for the whole thing ('Mahasarpa' I think it was called; yeah--here it is:

    I can take or leave China-themed campaigns and I *definitely* don't care for samurai-themed ones. But I always dreamed of finding someone who would be willing to run a campaign in an India-like setting. I think the Black Coursers series (which was maybe more like Nepal than India) was severely underrated.

  2. I wrote about the problems of that L5R 2e/Oriental Adventures approach a while back. We'd played the old OA which was kind of a mess and kind of a weird lift from Bushido. The new OA was WotC's attempt to get more life from the CCG they owned at the time and AEG's attempt to get some of that sweet d20 money. As I understand it, it did decently for them. But it was a mess.

    I can certainly sympathize with historical-themed campaigns which don't appeal. Lots of people like Vikings, and that's about the last thing I'd want to play. Others like Ice Age stuff, Medieval England, etc I steer clear of. I've done some wushu China stuff, but in some ways that's harder than most given the span of time. It becomes harder to to anything but a pastiche (like many of the wuxia series do.) But I like samurai and I know that's not to everyone's taste.

    For a long time Steve Jackson promised they were going to do a GURPS India sourcebook. But that eventually vanished off of their forthcoming list, at least for 3e. That's too bad some of their sourcebooks, like GURPS Russia, were really excellent. I expect you already know about Sahasra and Silk Road. I'm surprised we haven't seen that backdrop used more.

    1. I must admit I've never heard of those last 2 and I am almost entirely unfamiliar with GURPS (except insofar as there seems to be a GURPS *Everything* out there).

      Samurai in general bug me because it seems overdone. Or, at least, I personally feel overfamiliar with it. And the L5R/OA mashup bugged me because of the whole 'choose-a-clan' thing: For much the same reason as most of the White Wolf games irritated me--that is, "Pick a tribe/clan/faction" sounds great until you remember that you have to give your PCs some reason to work together. Since the only really compelling reason to slice up Rokugan into clans is so that said clans can go to war with each other . . . I didn't see the point.

      (Although now that I think of it, I *did* like the factions from the original Planescape setting . . .)

    2. The next Age of Cthulhu supplement will be The Timeless Sands of India. I'm not sure exactly what you mean by overdone, but i guess you're talking about the breaking down into the subdivisions. That's the L5R structure pasted on to the OA material in that case- and it doesn't quite fit there. It certainly takes things in a different direction from the original OA.

      I've certainly criticized WW before for the reliance on built-in-split/splat factions. However in my experience, certainly with the various groups I've played with, it works for L5R. It gives the players an accessible hook, helps people see it as a fantasy instead of history game, and makes for fun plot tensions. I've seen systems and settings where those structures don't add anything but detail and division. IMHO that's not the case with L5R, but YCMV. Planescape and Changeling the Lost would be two others with really interesting and playable "splits".