There is often down time when my Legends of the Five Rings group gets together, before we actually start playing. Someone may be cooking breakfast, another racing to meet a work deadline, and so forth. When last we all met to game the idle pre-game banter turned to character concepts from Clans nobody had ever played before—as one person excitedly talked about their plans for a Scorpion, the others seemed inspired, talking about their own Scorpion character concept ideas. For a second it almost seemed like they were more enthusiastic about the idea of a new, single-Clan campaign than they were the spiritualism story they were currently playing through.
I surprise myself when I look back and realize just how much L5R I’ve run in the past twenty years, from table-top games across almost all game editions, a home-brew live-action game played at a local college, and with themes and stories that span the Emerald Empire. The one constant that has held true across all of those games, including the plot arc I’m running now, is that each character hailed from a different Clan than one another. With how stratified the game world is and how quickly even idle conversations turn into an “us versus them” mentality, even just having two members of the same Clan roam with other disparate samurai can be overbearing for gameplay.
Long have I held that there are only two real ways to have a campaign succeed—when it comes to character creation in general—and that’s to either have every character from a different Clan or to have the whole group hail from a single Clan. I’ve yet to run a game with the latter scenario, largely I think because players want so many different things out of the game. Each Clan has the particular ideal that they exalt above all others, their specific prejudices and proclivities, and their unique take on the concept of Bushido and honor. I’ve almost never seen a group of players come together and agree on a single perspective through which they want to explore the game world, whatever the time period or era.
My past several campaigns have been rather Scorpion-light, with no players opting to play the enigmatic Clan, and only few NPCs clad in black and scarlet; I wanted to—and I like to think succeeded—tell stories about all the terrible things other Clans can get up to, those dirty secrets they decry the Scorpion for. To that end I’ve had Crane plot the downfall of the Emperor, the Unicorn almost single-handedly responsible for the spread of an insidious and counter-culture spy network, and the Phoenix guard their knowledge with such arrogance that they became their own worst enemies. In almost no case was a Scorpion at the root of the major or minor plots, save when dictated by the characters’ own backstories.
One of the (many) aspects of Legends of the Five Rings I truly appreciate is that it’s possible to find a deep personal connection with the ideas and ideals of any particular Clan. Though there are some for which the authors’ preferences show through, by and large each Clan represents true and noble virtues, no matter what everyone says behind their backs. It may be cliché to like the Scorpion, being the underhanded and back-stabbing betrayers that they are, but for me the draw is why they feel the need to engage in the dishonorable acts other Clan’s won’t or can’t. Perhaps like the proverbial teacher’s child who gets treated more harshly than their peers out of the parent’s attempt to remain fair and unbiased, I don’t include many Scorpion in my games in an effort to cater to other people’s equally-valid attachments.
With all the excitement surrounding the idea of a Scorpion-only campaign, I’d be lying if I didn’t say ideas and potential plots came to me even as the players were still dreaming up character concepts. Something I’ve noticed as I’ve delved deeper into accepting that I am a writer—as opposed to just someone who writes—I’ve certainly recognized that inspiration can and does come from anywhere, from everywhere. It’s an odd feeling, especially when so many of those errant thoughts aren’t quite what I’m looking for.
“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”—Neil Gaiman
As a storyteller or game-master it’s important for me to make every campaign different while still holding true to the setting and the strengths of the system. The last L5R campaign I ran focused on physical and social threats to the Empire while my current one has a tight lens for the spiritual and religious aspects of daily life, particularly when that faith is put to the test. What kind of game could I come up with next? There had been a good six month break between the last campaign and the new one, and I only started feeling prepared to run this set of stories after a truly unexpected bout of inspiration hit me out of the blue. How could I make lightning strike again?
All of those thoughts racing through my head, while simultaneously considering or discarding different plot ideas, ignored some larger questions that warrant being asked, before one sits down to plan out a game, no matter the setting or system: do I want to run a game? Are the players and I on the same page for what we want out of the experience? Is this the group I want to run a game for?
I have a long history of jumping into projects, hobbies, or other extracurricular activities, only to walk away a very short time later. This trait has showed itself time and time again, and is evidenced even in my writing—after 500–1000 words my inspiration wanes and I feel the need to end the story/post/entry. Forget ever going back and editing my work. I find myself getting ramped up and excited about an idea without the ability or ultimate desire to see it through to completion. Often my decision to stop comes around the same time it starts being difficult. For me, creating a game campaign is hard, and I’m honored that players seem excited to play a game where I help them bring the story to life.
My last L5R chronicle lasted five years, which just became unmanageable. More than 650 hours of NPCs, story elements, character progression, and intra-group politics came together to—eventually—tell the story I wanted them to experience. While I’ve put a hard cap on this story from the outset, announcing up front that I didn’t want it to last more than 90 sessions (about two years, give or take), honestly my hope is that we can explore everything this chronicle has to offer in a shorter amount of time. Though we’re only on game session number fourteen, already specific players are showing a great deal of apathy or indifference when it comes to the game, spending most of the session on their phones.
As someone who expresses a great deal of indifference in my daily life, I fully understand how sometimes something just doesn’t hit all the high notes I expected it to, or that I’m distracted by something else and my head isn’t in the moment. I’m also someone who always has multiple things going on, be they text conversations, silly mobile games, or jotting down story ideas that I pluck out of the ether. I fully recognize that I have not been the best player of chronicles in the past, my former terrible sleeping habits making me drowsy—at best—around the table each week. I really want to drive home the idea that I fully understand what it is to not be present for a gaming session. For it to happen week after week however, in a game that these players specifically asked me to run, that’s frustrating and more than a little demoralizing from a storytelling perspective.
Other than the interregnum Monster of the Week campaign which spawned my first novel, and gave me time to create this new L5R campaign after the previous one ended, I think the last time I actually played in an ongoing chronicle was 2016 at the latest. I love helping people create and tell stories, and I’m honestly in disbelief about how much people express they like the games I run, but running a game is work, like I said, and sometimes I want to tell a story from a different perspective—namely from a single-character point of view, rather than framing the entire world and setting.
Will I run another L5R game after my chronicle the Famine runs its course? I don’t know. Will I get the opportunity to play in an engaging chronicle thereafter? I don’t know. Do I want to do either of these things? I think only time will tell.
This post has meandered quite far afield from where I had first intended it to go, as is so often the case with my writing, and I would like to thank you for sticking it out to the end, and know that I appreciate it very much.
I’m very thankful that my players want me to guide them through exploring the unique setting of Legend of the Five Rings, and trust me to make a compelling and hopefully memorable story that lives on far after the game wraps up.
The incredible header image for this entry was created by Drew Baker