I posted a comment on the L5R forums recently that resonated. I see the point to playing the Legend of the Five Rings RPG to be something that I don’t feel from how other people talk about the game.
To me, the point isn’t to play a character with a katana. Highlander did a pretty good job of making katana not so cool to me. Nor is the point to play ninja, which I used to think were cool, but L5R has done a pretty good job of making them seem way less cool. (Naruto is kind of a mixed bag, here, though I guess it would fall on the side of more cool rather than less cool. I haven’t seen ninja movies in a long time, ignoring all of the ninjalike characters of the spy or Batman sort, so maybe they seem less cool now because of the lack.)
And, I never really felt anything for samurai-bushi, so L5R was never a draw to me because of the opportunity to play such. I do have a significant interest in Asian fantasy, which is why I gravitate to the more fantasyish parts of L5R and away from the politics and intrigue. But, I’m taking a while to get to the point.
To me, the point of playing L5R is the set of Glory/Honor/Status. These concepts can easily apply to other worlds, to the point where there was a time where I was getting tired of how overbearing Rokugan could be and was more interested in a Native American game with many of the L5R mechanics, as I thought they were a good fit.
A term I find reasonably amusing for what PCs are called in hack-and-slash roleplaying, videogame roleplaying, dungeoncrawl, or whatever one wishes to call the tactical wargame exercise that D&D so often has been is murderhobos. L5R PCs should be the antitheses of murderhobos.
What are the goals of PCs in many a fantasy RPG? Often, get more powerful. Better attributes, better abilities (skills, powers, talents, etc.), better “dice”, more hit points, better equipment – these are routinely seen as goals. Now, I’m hardly going to suggest that these aren’t goals for players of L5R. I talk about buys all of the time.
But, at a mechanical level – I do want to make it clear that when I say I see the prism for L5R being the Glory/Honor/Status prism, I’m talking about mechanics as support for thematics – the in character (IC) goal of glory/fame/reputation should be reflected in a mechanic. Conan d20 has Reputation. Some games have Fame/Renown/whatever. L5R has Glory.
Unfortunately, Glory sucks as a mechanic. In 4e, Glory has no mechanical effect at all. The only mechanics around Glory are that you may get recognized … which has no mechanics. It’s up to the GM (or campaign staff for HoR) to make it mean something. Yet, it so often doesn’t mean anything.
Because it’s hard to control Glory. I’ve played a good number of mods in HoR3 with my alt character, yet my main is still at Glory 10. Glory just keeps going up, hardly ever goes down. Even a couple of pips every three mods is: (.2) x (30)/(3) = 2.0 ranks every 30 mods, plus a rank every Insight Rank increase, plus a rank+ every battle interactive or some other bigger gain every once in a while.
It’s hardly fair to place value on Glory when experienced characters, around early to mid rank 3, are all Glory 9 or 10. Yet, if a mechanic doesn’t actually do anything, then it doesn’t shape player behavior, which means it doesn’t provide any value at all. I spent quite a long time caring about Reputation when playing Conan d20 because I wanted to care about some goal besides leveling up. Eventually, the lack of meaning to the data points finally caused me to stop caring.
In the home game I’m running, I’m trying to make actual use of Glory. The 3e rule of Glory adding to social rolls makes a bit of sense but doesn’t work well with how Glory just tends to move towards 10. I could try to limit Glory gains and inflict more Glory losses, but losses are kind of annoying to deal with and it doesn’t make sense that +.3 Glory is some massive gain, especially when the norm for gaining an Insight Rank is +1.0. I suppose dropping the autogains for ranking up would help manage things a bit, but, actually, going from rank to rank is kind of a big deal. I’ve yet to have a rank 5 character in campaign play.
Anyway, my method of attacking the problem of the mechanic of Glory is to turn Glory into a commodity. It doesn’t make a lot of thematic sense, but, by making Glory something you can sell off to unlock achievements, like when I had the party spend two ranks of Glory (however they wanted to divide it up, though our home campaign has both personal Glory and “town” Glory) to get a competent matchmaker to work in Gaki Mura, Glory actually gets used for something *and* Glory levels aren’t always at preposterous levels.
Go ahead and claim it’s an oversimplification, but I view high Honor as good and low Honor as evil. That the Crab tend to have low Honor doesn’t fit the model so well, but what’s the alternative? So many people are into playing Scorpion in L5R, to make some point about how being scuzzy can be good or whatever, but I just don’t relate to that thinking. If higher Honor isn’t more good than lower Honor, why does Honor matter at all?
Mechanically, higher Honor is relevant for the Honor Roll mechanic, which some groups don’t even use. I don’t rate it being important for Fear, not meaningless, just not important. And, it’s meaningless for Intimidation, Temptation, and the like because I virtually never see those skills used on PCs. It’s highly relevant to certain techniques, of course.
But, rather than seeing it as a mechanic reserved largely for specific schools/paths, I see it as the defining goal in the game. Where Glory provides a nice contrast – do I go for fame or for righteousness – Honor is far more distinctive in a RPG than Glory is.
Sure, again, there’s some payoff in the form of the Honor Roll mechanic. I quite despise the way 4e does Honor Rolls, which I’ve mentioned previously, even though it’s the way 1e did them (with a different Honor scale) and even though I’m totally in favor of Honor Rolls. From a mechanical standpoint, without one or more Honor Rolls, the only common reroll mechanic is Luck. Anything that reduces the dependence of PCs on Luck is a good thing, though, if Luck were correctly costed at 7xp per rank or, even better, my system of 8/6/4 for 1/2/3 ranks, there wouldn’t be every incentive in the world to have a minimum of two ranks of Luck.
But, say you start with lower Honor, even 4.5, though 3.5 and less are common enough. Why do you ever care what your Honor is? And, if you don’t care, then what is the point of the world? Cool swords are easy to find in other genres, as are cool abilities. Yes, I know that many are attracted to the detailed history and other elements of the setting. I find a huge disconnect, though, between reading L5R and playing it. The L5R of fiction is one of fantasy and much more the triumph of good over evil, though an argument can be made that samurai society is evil, so it’s really the triumph of evil over misunderstood monsters/bandits/necromancers/destructive gods/other.
Where L5R fiction seems to hammer on Honor and the challenges of it, parties typically often freely mix “paladins” and “thieves” (assassins, etc.), with success often coming from “black ops” doing stuff behind the backs of the “paladins”.
While I realize there are plenty of folks who like playing the black ops types and appreciate that the game can be played a lot of different ways, outside of the focused parties of all ronin, all ninja, all monks, all whatever, I see the game getting too far afield from what it is supposedly offering, which is an opportunity to play with a system that cares about morality in a way the goofy gamist D&D alignment system never did (in my experience).
Maybe it’s because I still, even after many more years of playing in RPG campaigns, think in terms of fiction, where morality is so often fundamental to the protagonist(s) succeeding over the antagonists. Maybe, also, it’s because I virtually never see high Honor antagonists in L5R play. The antagonists are typically bandits, maho-tsukai, monsters, gaijin (the closest I’ve seen to high Honor with high Integrity or similar Honor comparables), and the like that are meat to the Jade Legionnaire technique.
What’s my answer? One that many who play L5R wouldn’t like, but it’s basically a matter of eliminating the low Honor clans and the weird conceit that Rokugan needs internal villains (weird because it has plenty of external villains and scuzzy peasants, to boot).
If Glory is not terribly unique to Rokugan and Honor gets into a lot of philosophical debate, Status takes the hobo out of murderhobo. Authority is a big deal in a RPG world. In the absence of authority, the party tends to lack connections to the world as realism flies out the window. Repercussions often don’t exist for actions that would logically see … rough times for the party.
Not only does L5R have authority, it has a great deal of structure for hierarchy.
And, yet, I haven’t found it to work. Status is a common enough HoR goal and arguably the primary IC goal for PCs. But, the combination of arbitrariness of Status along with the lack of seeing how it meaningfully impacts resolving challenges leaves me so disinterested in it. In HoR2, I wrote fictions to *lose* Status. Sure, it was cool at times to be respected by NPCs. But, I hate being in charge, and it was a burden of responsibility I wasn’t interested in much of the time.
Is that just me? Well, maybe I want to eschew the responsibility that comes with higher Status, but I haven’t found that it makes for a different play experience to have a party with higher Status – just the internal party awkwardness that can arise of one PC being more important than another. As much as there might be some path opened up to a party if someone has enough Status in a mod, I just don’t feel the thematics altering that much, not even in home games.
For one thing, it’s incredibly easy for a party to majorly diverge in Status. A common enough party is an Emerald Magistrate with a bunch of yoriki, a setup for a home game I play in, though there are two EMs in this particular party, with one being a NPC. If the EM is the only one who can do certain things, how interesting do those challenges where those things matter become for the rest of the players? So, rather than seeing challenges that rely upon unequal importance, I tend to see a more equivalent weight to PCs. For example, when gathering information from someone while the EM is present, the yoriki should only speak when the EM encourages them to do so, but it’s common for anyone of any Status to pipe up to move the plot along. Thematically, Rokugan is all about Status, but, besides sitting in a different seat at dinners, I don’t see play reflect the massive differences that different ranks of Status could display.
Do I want to be beaten over the head with Status? No. I’m big on fairness and Status certainly isn’t fair within Rokugan, though a campaign could make it a more fair goal/reward. So, I don’t know. Maybe, it’s fine the way I see it played. It’s just that Status is something that crosses genres really well and seems like it should be a driving goal of PCs, something that isn’t just looting one’s latest victims.
It just feels like the inspiration for L5R is so often missing in actual play. Now, I find a lot of other things missing, like the idea that Rokugan is a fantasy setting – shugenja, Communing with kami, et al, don’t really make me feel the fantasy anymore (possibly ever) since they are so common. But, it often amazes me how much people worry about their dueling stats or their attack and damage rolls or what to do at rank 6 or whatever and not how G/H/S define characters and define the campaign. For the most part, L5R removes money as a driver, but how much does it replace that with the quest for Glory, Honor, and Status?