Introducing L5R

I ran a one shot yesterday to introduce the RPG to people who had only played the CCG.

I realized while I was writing things up that it seemed very HoRish.  That wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want to just be HoRish, as the module structure is often constraining both in terms of activities and in terms of character ability relevance.

For instance, one of the four PCs I built was a Miya Herald since the player didn’t care about combat and I have constantly wondered what drugs the designer was taking who designed this school since its techniques do nothing.  Knowing that this would be a PC, I threw in a couple possible situations where someone would stop a combat nonviolently.  Something that pretty much is never going to happen unless you go out of your way to engineer it.  Adding Fire Ring to Horsemanship rolls would be a far more useful technique than anything below the R-5 technique in this incomprehensible school.  Of course, it’s not like Otomo or Seppun are suited to PCs, either.

So, I had this very HoR-module-ish adventure put together with a ton of back story elements that were going to be difficult for the PCs to find out about and maybe some openendedness that a module wouldn’t have.  Did I say module?  I mean two modules.  The next most HoR experienced player gave feedback that it came across like playing a combination of two common HoR mod archetypes.

Play.  In terms of actual play, it was even more HoRish than I was aiming for.

For a one shot, having court activities drag on with the absence of any sort of plot goal, then having a linear rescue mission abruptly begin had dissonance.

More feedback.  It was suggested that the order of things should have been inverted.  As an introduction, start with the linear activities to give time for a player to get a feel for the character, then move in to openended activities.  I think I have a hard time envisioning a way to do that coherently because I’m so used to HoR mods that start at court then move to combat.  But, trying to understand how to do this would make me better at writing up adventures.

Introducing …

What did the players have the most problem with?


Structure of society – roles.

How to penetrate the reticence of NPCs.


Mechanical options.


I don’t have a problem with names other than spelling them right when people speak them.  I just assume it will get figured out fast.  Maybe having some real world experience with family name first helps.

So, I don’t realize how hard names are.

Until it gets repeatedly pointed out to me and I blog about how hard names are.  I’ve run into at least three cases where people have said that they just can’t track who is who because of names.

I don’t know what to do about it other than print out a list of family names so that they can all be seen side by side.  Sure, Kitsu and Kitsune seem similar, but, if you know the clans involved, they are incredibly different thematically.

One player suggested avoiding alliteration.  While plenty of names can be made up, when I go to names websites to use actual Japanese names, there are lots of similarities.  Actually, we had two NPCs in the Princess Police campaign that were Hanahime, which is the worst of all worlds, though it didn’t bother me as one of them was important and the other not so, so it was easy for me to distinguish once I clarified which one was being talked about.

Anybody have good suggestions for helping new players with names?


I’d say most of the frustration in L5R play will come from status, including legal proceedings.  Though, it’s not just status.  L5R is what it is because of the rigid society that it provides.  If you are just roving ronin, well, that’s not anything I’ve ever played with this game, maybe never played ever.

Who does what.  Who speaks of what.  Who doesn’t do what.  Who can do what and get away with it versus hoping it’s not seppuku time.

This is not easily explained in one session.  Which means that an intro session should have a set up that makes it easier to learn or avoid.

One suggestion was having the PCs be the only samurai.  I’m not fond of this.  Ordering around peasants does not remotely prepare you for abasing yourself before kuge.  A better idea, as I’ve played in mods where this happened and it was cool, is to have the PCs be working for the society dude in the background.  PCs run around and Commerce their way to victory, while the evidence is handed over to their Kolat boss at the end of the session and the Kolat boss gets some schlup eviscerated by the hideously lethal legal system.

Just like it’s not good to put newbs into a role of being authoritarian assholes, it’s not good to have them be nobodies who should not be heard.


In D&Desque play, I find that PCs just are brutally blunt.  “Give me the info or I murder your soul.”

Rokugani society has some allowances for this when dealing with lessers, but it’s still crude and crude is anti-Honor.  Being difficult is often not intentional with NPCs.  They have no choice because the standard is to be indirect, unemotional, modest, and, yes, even secretive (in a “need to know” kind of way).

As a GM, I find it painful when PCs are struggling to get basic information.  I was playing a servant NPC who could have given info in a simple, informative way because he wasn’t trying to hide anything, but the player kept asking questions in a way that made it difficult to give the answer he was looking for.

Take Commune.  Commune is all about asking the question you want to ask in such a way that the GM can’t screw you over with a vague answer.  Of course, the only reason a GM wants to wiggle out of answering is because Commune is stupidly broken and makes investigations dumb (as well as other stuff, like trying to find something/somebody hidden).

Unless you get to torture phase, which itself is an annoying aspect of L5R, everybody is naturally less helpful than they could be.  That’s not interesting.  It’s also much more work for people not used to this than those of us who are used to this.


Samurai have specific responsibilities, unlike a lot of adventurers.  At times, I get the sense or someone flatly proclaims that a PC isn’t interested in pursuing a plot point.  Trying to get someone to care is tiresome.

Even something as simple as a competition or opportunity to show off can lead to player boredom as a PC ignores the event.  Now, I don’t think everyone has to do everything.  But, why care about +.2 Glory?  Glory doesn’t do anything.  It’s going to be 10.0 or 10.9 in two ranks, anyway, unless you go out of your way to not spiral up.

What’s the payoff?  In the Princess Police, Winter Court had the Emperor around.  Any event had massive rewards, which wasn’t remotely clear until people like me went “Wait.  What?!?  That 8 person polearms event sees the winner gain what??”  You don’t want massive rewards for newbs.  That skews play.  It’s also not going to be like mods except in rare circumstances (winning Topaz Championship, for instance).

But, it’s not just “fun stuff”, it’s also things like NPCs dicking with other NPCs.  In HoR, you have to care about anything that seems related to gaining the fourth XP for the mod, so you are on the lookout for plot hooks.  But, to achieve my goal of making it clearer what one NPC was angling for in yesterday’s session just required too much time and effort.

Sure, this is something that can be more easily fixed with “your daimyo told you to do this” or whatever.  But, it’s a feature of society in that society dictates what you care about where many a world it’s the PCs who drive what they care about and/or something is trying to kill them.

Mechanical Options

I actually was much better than usual about overexplaining mechanics.  I didn’t go into the movement rules much.  I only pointed out combat maneuvers when combat actually occurred and one of the PCs was expected to commonly Guard.

I find highly experienced players really suck at using the options available to them.  I put some of this down to how L5R appeals more to thematic types than mechanical types in many cases.  Some of it is just that people aren’t good at math and/or good at understanding mechanics, something I run into with much crunchier play, like D&D.  I, myself, keep forgetting to use Knockdown more, though most of my PCs are Strength-deficient.

One thing I find odd falls under this topic but has little to nothing to do with new players.  I find it odd when players don’t try to use abilities.  I’ve often had the case where a player tells me that they didn’t know how to pursue something they wanted to do, and I just start rattling off using different skills that could have been used.  I don’t know what produces this problem.  Is it being used to games where you are constrained by lack?  In L5R, you can even roll things you are unskilled in.  But, I always want to roll obscure skills, so I often try to think of some way to shoehorn in a skill use to achieve something, no matter how trivial, like getting +.1 Glory for random P: Biwa play.

Lot of learning tactics is through observation and experience.  But, I don’t find L5R complicated.  I find it rather intuitive, I guess, in that I don’t recall fighting the system like I find myself fighting RuneQuest or Fading Suns or various other systems.


There are things I think I do well.  I think my soap opera inclinations produce interesting back stories.  I think I can mechanize thematics well.  I think I can envision things to write up scenes.

But, the players often don’t find out about my back stories nor do I convey the images in my mind to a compelling degree.

I also suck at bringing life to my NPCs.  I have problems with scene transitions.  My combats aren’t as interesting as I would like.  I have lots of problems with player motivation.

So, what does this have to do with new L5R players?

I need to have set ups that are better for motivation.  One idea I had but didn’t try out was giving everyone a 3×5 card with three goals and have the player choose one or more goals on the card to pursue.  I just struggled with having that many things going on at once.

I need to focus on what is interesting.  I had lots of elements I cut from yesterday that were subtle court things to try to portray what was going on with the NPCs.  I keep saying it, but it affects how I perceive things so differently from my players – I care more about NPCs than pretty much anything else.  I want to relate to them.  Because of that, I would end up doing stuff in my own games that never happens when I run.

(I also don’t mind watching other people do interesting things and tend to try to make my PC relevant to what’s going on even when I’m not good at resolving a challenge, which helps my enjoyment of play.  The former bores some people a lot, while the latter is something I’m surprised more players don’t look to do.)

Violent is interesting.  I’m not talking about combat.  I’m talking about jarring events.  Prominent.  I do subtle.  Subtle is so bad, made even worse for new players who are just trying to figure out what their dice pools are.

Force action.  The linear opening, maybe not a four hour wolf fight but like a four round bear fight that TPKs, does make sense to me.  Get dice rolling.  Get clear objectives and clear resolution.  Then, optionally, change gears.  Or, not.  Keep having clear objectives and clear resolution.  Just don’t fall into a trap of making it generic FRPGing, though a veneer of L5R is possibly fine for new players.

The two mods I always think of as good intro mods for HoR are Secluded Village and Harsh Lessons.  Not because they are perfect but because they both have straightforward activities.  In the former, you wander from town to town trying to get a piece of the plot resolved.  In the latter, you take up full attacking bamboo as all great samurai do.

There’s a spiritual element to both.  Adding the spiritual elements to an otherwise straightforward preindustrial game gives it that “this is fantasy but not ‘fireball fantasy’ like those other games”.

I’m fond of the fantasy aspects of L5R.  Why don’t I think of focusing on those in an adventure rather than the shogi tournaments?  Why?  It still provides a distinctive angle, even if it doesn’t provide the court stuff that some may love with L5R.

Oh, by the way, for the players, the Crane Magistrate hated the fiancee because she blamed the older sister for getting the magistrate’s intended killed.  Yup, more back story that would have taken another half an hour to find out about.

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