LemurCon: Legend of the Five Rings

Standard

Image:Legend of the Five Rings Logo.jpg

Gaz ran Legend of the Five Rings for us at LemurCon this weekend. Here’s my comments, and for the purposes of this ‘blog, my thoughts on using Lo5R for one shots and Con games generally.

I’ve played Lo5R a few times now. Once at a Con actually, and I don’t remember much about it, but what I do remember wasn’t particularly noteworty. Gaz and Lemur are long-term fans, and I’ve always kept my ear to the ground about the game’s fortunes over the years. I actually bought 3rd edn last year just to try to get in on the action. Never really got much further than a decent skim of the text. I managed to snap up a copy of 1st edn on the lads’ recommendation recently (30p off ebay!) and I really liked what I saw. The art was great, the text accessible, a great example of a complete core book. I have to admit I’ve struggled with the setting before, my knowledge of feudal Japan is restricted to watching Shogun on TV years ago and reading the novel a while back. I’m more of a western fantasy kind of gamer to be honest.

All the above makes me what I’d consider to be a typical Con customer. Most players I’ve encountered tend to be interested, but not immersed in the game on offer. The real experts are in the minority and if anything, come from the GM’s home game and are there for moral support as much as anything else. How does the game fare then? I’m going to look at three aspects: the system, the setting, and finally the scenario, all from a one shot perspective.

System
It’s a slightly odd one. It’s what they call roll and keep. You get a bunch of d10s equal to stat plus skill, you roll the lot but only keep a number equal to your stat. These are added together to give you a final number, which has to equal or beat a target number. All 10s explode, so there’s no real upper limit to the results. This is all fine. There’s a nice tactile element to rolling multiple dice. You do have to stop to move your dice about and count them, the exploding dice slow you down a little too. I stumbled with my numbers on more than one occasion. It’s a perfectly good base mechanic (used in 7th Sea too as it happens). The real sticking point for me is the notion of raises. You have a chance to declare before you roll if you are willing to try for a bigger or better effect. This puts the target number up. If you miss the new number you get nothing. If you hit it, you get more, there’s no middle ground. There are lots of special sub systems for raises and as a newish gamer with this sytem you need good advice from the GM before you can make your decision. Contrast this with, say, Savage Worlds in which you just roll as high as you can and you get more effects the better you do. There’s nothing wrong with Lo5Rs approach, but it’s a mark against it for the one shot. It requires expertise to a certain level. Its the same with some of the other parts of the game, which really shine in a campaign, but struggle to surface in 4 hours. Honour, a big part of the setting, tied into the system quite neatly, but didn’t come up. Same for Glory. What did get a lot of use was Void, a ‘try again’ token mechanic that almost every game has these days. In Lo5R you have about a dozen different ways of using Void points. We had a crib sheet, and we really needed it too.
To Gaz’ credit he used two other parts of the ystem that I’d never seen in play before Duelling and Mass Battles. I think these are both great examples of shining a light on the tropes of the setting, using hard rules. I don’t pretend to have fully understood the duelling, but it was exciting. Same for the Mass Battle rules, which use random tables for events so it’s very difficult to weigh up options as a new player.

I really quite like the system, but for Con games it’s got too much depth and detail. You’d need to put serious effort into the first 15 minutes of your game, and your character sheets would have to have loads of little primers on them too. 2/5.

Setting

Fantasy feudal Japan. Extremely gamable world that feels very alien to a western gamer. Loads of great flavour, a detailed alternate history, a ready made set of conflicts, obvious adventuring hooks aplenty. But, and it’s a big but.

It’s hard going at first. The terminology is pretty exotic, sword fighting is Kenjutsu, duelling is Iaijutsu etc etc. The clans are beautifully done, providing niches to fill, either by stereotypical play or by your own take on it. They all need a little explanation though, and they do make me readily think of inter party conflict, which is generally a bad idea.

The same thing is true of the world, your GM needs to be very good at evoking the look, smell and taste of Rokugan. It helps if you’ve seen ‘Hero’, or ‘Crouching Tiger…’ of course, but it’s still tricky to see in your minds eye if you’re not a student or fan of the orient. Then there’s the culture. As a pc you have to understand, and more importantly, act upon, the warriors code of bushido. The shorthand for that is to act like a chivalrous knight, but that’s not quite right. This might sound a little strange, but for the first half hour or so the game felt like Judge Dredd to me. Once I knew what the social rules were, I didn’t know whether to punish (and that invariably means death to the wrongdoer) or whether to overlook, and would that make me forfeit my life? We didn’t get into the whole seppuku thing and the idea of lives as goods that belong to another, but the whole set up serves to act as speed bumps in the first hour of the game. Again, in an ongoing campaign that depth would be richly rewarding, but one shots don’t have that luxury.

I can forsee something even worse, the canon cop. If I were to run this game at a Con, and in the introductions find out that a player had been a Lot5R gamer for years, through multiple editions and all the card game backstory, I think I’d be wise to worry. The way the setting works means that you can get involved as a player in a big way. There’s all kinds of awesome in the meta plot. Even the politest fan would struggle to not reveal their knowledge of the fate of the Bayushi family to a table of newbs.

For Con gaming purposes, 2/5

Scenario

Gaz is an old hand at writing one shot scenarios and it showed through in this one. I won’t spoil the plot because I’m convinced he’ll want to run this one out again in the future. I know he’ll agree that it could have been better prepped, that’s always true. We had nice pregens that gave us a broad choice of samurai to play. None of the more fiddly types were offered, and we could tell this was going to need sharp blades more than sharp arguments, wwhich is absolutley fine. The party concept was that we were roving ‘constables’ for the magistrate. A good hook, instantly recognisable and meant we could get involved in the world straight away.We had travel and exploration before being ambushed by bandits. With a bit of tightening this could serve as a decent combat intro to the game. It did it’s job, but I’d have liked to have seen something that made it stand out from any other basic combat in any other game. Perhaps an exotic location, or some element that shouted ‘Rokugan’.

As always in Gaz’ games there were some superb handouts for us. Every NPC had a full colour portrait to back up his portrayal. Vitally, these included the characters name. This helped avoid us having to say ‘thingummy’ and ‘wotsherface’ later on in the scenario. We had some cool interactions with the world and it’s inhabitants. I held back from really engaging to be honest, not because the scenario wasn’t grabbing me, it was, but because of the setting issues I spoke about earlier. I didn’t want to derail the game by accident. Playing a scorpion clan member made it even harder to get involved. I had to make a conscious effort to not go off on my own and hog the spotlight as a sneaky traitorous ninja type might.

With 6 players and no real time pressures the game went on for longer than anyone expected I think. In hindsight we could have all used more pace, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to make that happen. We got a conclusion to the game, which was were the mass battle came in. This part went really well, considering there wasn’t a whole lot of prep on show. Its a testament to Gaz’ GMing chops that he could handle six players in a brand new sub system thats full of crunch, and still manage to weave a story with it. Arguably, with a few rolls you could generate an entire one off out of it.

I thought this scenario was good. I think it’s well worth going back over and colouring in a few sections for sure. With a bit more prep this could be a great scenario, and it will be interesting to hear Gaz’ own thoughts. 4/5

Overall

Legend of the Five Rings is considered a classic game, and rightly so. I could see this being a deep, rich and colourful gaming experience that is very different from the norm. Unfortunately I think almost all of that is wasted in a Con situation. It is a perfectly servicable Samurai game, but that alone doesn’t do the game justice. On the other hand, at the right Con, with the right players, I could see great potential in a courtier based game, but I’d still want the players to have some setting know how in advance.

Approach with caution.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “LemurCon: Legend of the Five Rings

  1. evilgaz

    Okay, well here are some thoughts, (some written at a different time to others, so all a bit hodge podge).

    First of all a warning. As an entry point, Lot5R 1st edition is a much better starting place, cheap on eBay often enough and a better buy for new players interested in the system or setting. 3rd edition takes more work, the system is more in depth and the setting information all but impenetrable without plenty of time and effort going in. That said, it is a great, pretty book. Just for convention or one-off games, a bit of a mare.

    The prep could have been better, no diggity, no doubt, but then you can always do more prep. Always. It was solid enough I think – I should have pressed the accelerator sooner (especially as I hadn’t realised some people were leaving quote so early), but the beauty of running at a LemurCon is you can lean back and enjoy it – I certainly don’t think people were getting bored or anything. There was the option for a fight with some rum buggers at the port shortly after starting, but some intimidation sorted this out, and the possibility of a duel next, but politeness meant that didn’t happen either. Ultimately some bandits turned up. B mentions that it could have been more stand-out and indicative of the world – I can see that. For my part, I was happy with a simple snappy combat to get the n00bs at the table used to how the system worked and a taste of getting hurt. Which hurts a lot.

    Honour was used a bit, but not loads. John Wick has since said he’d do it all differently and I agree it needs it. Having read a lot on the topic and tried lots of things out, it was best to leave honour alone a bit. Everyone was happy to try and do the Right Thing, so as long as that was going on, it’s all good. Honour is especially important for high Honour characters. In this game Jules’ Hida Bushi helped kidnap a girl – bad news – because he’s an uncouth Crab however, it didn’t actually impact him. If one of the Lion samurai had done it though (due to his high honour) the penalty is more severe and he’d have lots a full rank. In the case of either Lion samurai this would have had game effects and reduced the characters effectiveness mechanically. Something that Baz didn’t see was the use of an Honour Roll (once per session reroll using Honour and risking losing a full rank of Honour if you mess it up). This worked fine in the Sunday game and there’s suitable tension at rolling and risking something quite key to the character.

    Duels are good – the genuine tension, everyone leaning in for every roll on the build up – it all worked beautifully. The let down was me forgetting about the free raise each participant gets every time they focus. Doh! That would have made the finale much more interesting, with a much greater chance of someone getting cut in half (as is supposed to happen), but regardless – it worked for 90% of the sequence.

    Similarly, the Mass Battle was great. I’d not tried it in anger before, although it read well. In the actual run through it worked a treat, with the focus on individual character’s Battle Opportunities and how they help sway the battle effortlessly weaving a story we could all see. The different levels of engagement, moving between them, capturing the enemy standard, seeing off their archers, creating a circle of calm in the eye of the storm to duel etc. All good! The only weird thing about the system is that there’s no mechanic for determining who wins the actual battle, just the individual elements!? I’m happy enough narrating the win for the home team, given the massive advantage they were building up, but was surprised to see nothing about “If the difference between the two general’s bonuses/penalties is 20 or more, then the battle is over” – or even grade the level of success (30+ total victory, 0-10 marginal win with heavy losses, whatever) – but instead there’s an arbitrary number of Battle Turns assigned based on the size of the opposing forces, and nothing to tell you how it ends, why or what any of the outcome or fallout is.

    Baz makes the point that for a newbie it was hard to decide where to go in the battle and what the risks where or opportunities. I think this was fine though. Big ass battles are supposed to be mercurial, where samurai can be left stranded or surged forward unawares, may stumble upon an old enemy or find themselves trapped and surrounded. Only you really need to know is, the further forward you are, the more opportunity there is for Death or Glory. I need to think some more about the battle system and also tighten some things or house rule (although having said that I think there’s an expanded section in a source book somewhere), but aside from that, its really good. One of the best systems I’ve seen for getting characters involved in a meaningful way in a big battle.

    On to other things – watch some ‘Hero’, or ‘Crouching Tiger…’ by all means, but be aware they’re Chinese and show superhero levels of action more suited to Qin or something similar. You’re better off with Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress etc), Beat Takeshi’s Zatoichi or the Shogun TV mini series for general flavour and add magic and daemons. Chinese and Japanese (Rokugani) cultures are often mixed up and intertwined, and I may appear picky, but I think its important to get things right. Hearing about Geisha houses in Qin would be equally out of kilter for example.

    Useful as a con game? Maybe – but it takes lots of work, is gamist, in depth and alien. In can definitely be worth it, but as the man says, approach with caution.

  2. bazking

    Gaz said (amongst other good things):

    “On to other things – watch some ‘Hero’, or ‘Crouching Tiger…’ by all means, but be aware they’re Chinese and show superhero levels of action more suited to Qin or something similar. You’re better off with Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress etc), Beat Takeshi’s Zatoichi or the Shogun TV mini series for general flavour and add magic and daemons. Chinese and Japanese (Rokugani) cultures are often mixed up and intertwined, and I may appear picky, but I think its important to get things right. Hearing about Geisha houses in Qin would be equally out of kilter for example.”

    Which kind of underlines my terminally inadequate genre knowledge doesn’t it! And perhaps proves my point at the same time?

  3. evilgaz

    Baz asked:

    “Which kind of underlines my terminally inadequate genre knowledge doesn’t it! And perhaps proves my point at the same time?”

    It certainly goes towards supporting the assertion that its difficult as a one-off. Knowledge comes from exposure to the game or research – neither of which you can guarantee from players at a con.

    Word.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s