I recently learned about the upcoming release of Legend of the Five Rings, fourth edition (published by AEG). I’m still not entirely sure what I think about this. L5R has been among my favorite games since my friend and I bought our first starter decks for the CCG sometime in the late ’90s (Jade edition starters, though that story arc was nearing completion). I noticed books for the RPG soon afterward, and started picking those up just as the 1st edition line ended. Since then, the game has been a standard among my group of ever-shifting players, both with 2nd edition and then 3rd. The L5R CCG remains the only CCG I’m even willing to consider playing anymore, and the RPG is one of the few games that I’m equally excited to run or play.
My initial hesitation was due to the fact that the 3rd edition came out in 2005, and the 3rd edition revised (3ER) book only came out about a year ago. Heck, the 1st edition is from 1997! Four editions (four and a half, counting 3ER as 0.5) in less than 15 years? Dungeons & Dragons just hit 4th edition, and that games been around twice as long!
So I was torn. There are some issues with 3rd edition that I think needed clarifying, or simplifying, or flat-out redesign. Overall, though, I really like 3rd edition, and think that it’s way too soon to be pumping out a whole new edition. In an attempt to learn more, I’ve been checking out AEG’s forums. After all, I’m a firm believer in not judging something (particularly a new edition of a game) until all the facts are known.
In the “L5R RPG 4th Edition: Design Notes” thread, the opening post from lead designer Shawn Carman features the following block of text:
The RPG market has changed dramatically over the past few years. A combination of factors, the most significant of which is likely online gaming, has dramatically reduced sales across the board for the industry. In order to survive in this environment, a fourth edition of L5R is going to have to expand its customer base beyond the loyal following we have developed over the years. New customers are essential to the game’s ongoing success, and in order to gain them, we must follow several clear mandates:
1. Divorcing the Story from the Mechanics – The story is what sells L5R, but there are just as many people out there who want to tell their own story. We must serve both. Fourth edition must have everything a fan would require to run a campaign in the current storyline, but the information must not be so ingrained into the mechanics that it prevents others from creating non-canon stories and campaigns.
2. Simplification and Streamlining of Mechanics – Third Edition is an excellent game, but over several years the mechanics have become too complex and intricate. This cannot be allowed to continue. Players must have the same robust character options as in Third Edition, but once a character is created, minimal page-flipping should be required. Effects must be simple and easy to note on a character sheet. A completed character should have everything, absolutely everything, he needs on the character sheet. “Play from the sheet!” is our battle cry.
3. Intuitive Organization – Third Edition is scattered all over the board, with an organization that makes little to no sense. Fourth Edition must not suffer from this malady, which is mentioned with great frequency by critics of the game.
4. Unified Voice – Fourth Edition as a whole must have a consistent tone and voice, and must maintain that throughout all sourcebooks and supplements. Editing notwithstanding, there cannot be unnecessary padding or repetition of material.
Let’s look at these one by one, shall we?
- Divorcing the Story from the Mechanics: While probably the main thing that makes L5R such a dynamic setting is the meta-plot, there’s a lot more to Rokugan. There’s a lot of history there, and a lot of interesting points to set your game. Plus, with the story constantly advancing, you run into problems common with meta-plot games: your story not being ready for the next installment, or needing to wait for the next installment to insure your ideas don’t contradict canon. While I respect that, I’m a firm believer in taking what the game designers give you, and make it your own. If something conflicts, ignore it, or incorporate it into a new development. Sometimes this isn’t an option. Say I’m a big fan of the L5R world, but I’m new to the RPG. The GM says we’re playing the Four Winds era, and I decide I want to be a Daidoji Harrier. I pick up 3ER and flip through it. No Harriers. I look through all the available 3E sourcebooks. No Harriers. Why? That school was printed in the 3E rulebook, but by the time 3ER came out, the story had advanced and that school was wiped out. They’re still around in the era we’re playing in, but I can’t play one unless I track down an out-of-print 3E rulebook, or the 2E book they were originally presented in (and then deal with edition conversion). So this point gets my full support.
- Simplification and Streamlining of Mechanics: “Play from the sheet” is a great goal. I designed my own character sheet for 3E. I also had that goal in mind. But since I was using the existing system, rather than designing one, I knew that a character sheet would need a lot of information on it to prevent constantly looking things up in the book. Knowing that it was going to be lengthy anyway, I designed a thematic sheet, with five pages, one for each Ring. That’s right, five pages. Well, four. The fifth was Void and was basically a blank sheet for notes. It looked great, and worked great, but I would really have rather had a one- or two-page sheet. Simplicity, while sometimes compromising realism, allows for faster and smoother gameplay. Where the line is drawn in this regard is always tough, and you’ll never please everyone. I prefer smooth gameplay, so this goal pleases me.
- Intuitive Organization: 3E did suffer from some organizational issues. They nailed the broad categories, like the various Books, using the same organization since 1E. But within those, there were some issues. Most notably within the Book of Fire. It wasn’t terribly bad, though. I dealt with it pretty easily, and could find whatever I was after pretty quickly. Except Honor. I always had problems tracking those rules down.
- Unified Voice: Definitely a plus, but by no means essential. It’s only really a problem when two authors are describing different but similar things (like a Family from a Great Clan), and they do so completely differently. When looking for a particular bit of information, I should be able to find it in a similar area as the same information for a different group. 3E suffered from this a bit, but not to any unfortunate degree.
So, based on those goals, I’m impressed. Reading more and more of the thread (which features regular input from Carman, as well as many of the playtesters), I’ve yet to find anything to nitpick or dislike about the upcoming fourth edition. Now that’s really saying something. One of my absolute favorite games, one of my absolute favorite settings… It would be easy to disappoint or worry me. Everything I read gets me more excited for it. Every little thing that I did not like about 3E (or, in many cases, any of the previous editions) that has been addressed (in the forums so far) is being altered or fixed in ways that fully satisfy me.
I very much look forward to learning more, and eventually getting my hands on the book when it comes out next year.