In preparation of the 4th edition of Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game being released this summer, I’ve started putting thought into what I want to do for a new campaign. I’ve enjoyed every edition of L5R to date, and the designer diaries for 4th edition are addressing those things that I did not like about 3rd. So I am excited for it, and will be kicking off some sort of campaign as soon as I’m comfortable enough with the rules. It doesn’t look like the book will be coming out until late June, so I’ve got some time, and what follows is more or less of a documented brainstorming session inspired by some ideas I’ve had over the last few weeks.
The first question I have to answer is: At what point of the official timeline do I set the game? Or really, do I use the official timeline at all? The official storyline contains about 1000 years worth of historical events, some more fleshed out than others. There’s also two or three generations worth of much more detailed events (those that have been covered in depth by the CCG). I’m most inclined to go with the period I’m most familiar with, and that’s where the 1st edition of the game was set – just prior to the Scorpion Clan Coup. However, I think I’ll go vague and not pick a specific year or time. This will allow me to spring the Coup whenever I see fit.
There’s another issue regarding timeline, though. Well, two other issues. One is that the PCs will do something that affects the outcome of a particular event and therefore changes “history.” This is an issue with any game in a setting defined by someone other than the GM. The answer to this is that the GM (me) needs to be flexible and not take anything as set in stone. What would have happened if Bayushi Shoju died before the Coup? Up to me to decide, and adapt the entire post-Coup history appropriately.
The other issue I mentioned is that many of my potential players have some concept of the official storyline, to one degree or another. I need a way to keep them on their toes. That means changing the storyline, which ties back in with the above point about GM flexibility. But what events to change? I had this idea where I will occasionally hand the players character sheets for other characters. No names or other identifying information will be given, nor will any character info or stats that are not directly tied to the upcoming event. For example, I’ll hand two sheets to two of my players. Each one will only have enough information on them to cover what you need to know to participate in a duel. I will then lead the two players through a duel between each other. They have no idea who is actually fighting the duel, or when, or where. One wins, one loses. The duel is to the death, so someone has now died, but who? A session or two later, during the Scorpion Clan Coup, they witness Bayushi Shoju and Doji Satsume dueling. If they’re perceptive, they notice the duel is very reminiscent of the duel the players fought earlier. In the end, Satsume cuts down Shoju, a distinct break from official canon. Hopefully the players put two and two together, and realize that one of them was playing Satsume, and the other was Shoju. Do this for most important events, and history will begin to take on a very different shape.
The second major point I need to address when planning my campaign is what Clans to allow or disallow for PCs. Mandating that everyone play Lions, for instance, puts off the player who hates the Lion Clan, and disappoints the one who has strong loyalty to the Phoenix. Multi-Clan parties are tough to keep together, especially in the shifting political landscape of Rokugan, unless they all play Emerald Magistrates, which is a cheat that I’ve grown tired of.
What I’m going to do, then, is both whittle my play style down to small adventures as opposed to epic campaigns, while at the same time raising the bar on the scope of what I’m doing. How can I do both? First, I pick a Clan (while not decided yet, it will probably be Dragon, Lion or Unicorn). Everybody makes a character from that Clan, and off we go on some fairly small scale adventure; something that will only take two or three sessions. Then I pick another Clan, and everyone makes characters for that. Another short adventure for these PCs, and we do the process again. Basically, we do this until the players all have a PC for each of the seven Great Clans (I’m debating doing a Minor Clan/Ronin set as well). Then we hop from one set to another, always with short adventures, but all within a consistent world: If the Crab group fails to hold back some Shadowlands threat, maybe the set of Crane characters will have to deal with it. Eventually, the groups may even start splitting up/merging with one another.
The benefits of this are that with each group, we get to really explore what gives that Clan its character. We also get to see certain events within the Empire from a particular set of eyes. How will Scorpion PCs react to the Coup as opposed to Lion… or Dragon? The only real potential drawback I see is that with so many characters per player, they may not get developed as much as in a normal campaign. It may also take a bit after each switch for players to get back in the saddle, as it were, of each character.
If it works, it will be the stuff of legend. If it doesn’t, it’ll die a quick death and no one will remember it.
How soon this happens depends largely on the 4th Edition rulebook, and what’s inside. If there are enough School options for a single-Clan group, then we’ll start as soon as I’m comfortable with the rules and I manage to get players together. If the choices are particularly limited, I may choose to wait until upcoming sourcebooks give me the variety I want.