Friday, May 5, 2023

Old-School Advancement: A Lacanian Approach

Noisms over at the Monsters and Manuals blog has an interesting piece relating the Gene Wolfe book the Wizard Knight to high-level old school play. I wrote a comment in response:
As a hybrid approach, what about planar currencies? It won't have the Wizardknighting effect, but it may lend itself instead to a sword-and-sorcery texture. 

The doughty lord sits in his palace surrounded by the wealth of the ages and feels nothing. Gold has lost its lustre. Until one of his far journeying courtiers / wise soothsayers / demonic servants tells him of the blue crystal roses that grow on the sapphire beaches of the Nightly Shore. The fire in his blood is stoked once more, prepared for a deadlier and more glorious adventure than ever before. 

Maybe this sort of approach can be a buffer between gold-for-xp and wizardknighting. Past nth level, gold no longer gives xp, but each blue crystal rose is 1000xp. A few exist in this world, but to find them in quantity you must travel the planes! There may be many such currencies associated with various planes. Once the PCs are already planar travelers, switch to xp-for-planes or henchman xp. 
The idea of planar currencies is an intriguing one which I may develop more later, but this happened to dislodge another idea when I read the post. But first I have to introduce some rather obscure concepts. 

But I warn you, the crystal rose may be plucked only by a cunning stratagem...

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who in a series of very influential lectures until 1980 examined the role of desire within the Freudian tradition. Many of the ideas and terms he created and developed became part of the core not only of psychoanalysis, but also of other fields such as literary criticism. I don't claim to understand any of it in depth or extent, and I will instead recommend this review of Bruce Fink's A Clinical Introduction to Lacan as a jumping off point. There's just one little concept I want to borrow from that tradition. 

The objet petit a (the partial object, or the partial other) is the thing one desires. At the same time, it can never be acquired. To use a videogame analogy, the objet petit a is not the thing in the quest reward box, it is the quest reward box. When you're doing the quest, desiring the reward, it seems shiny and out of reach. Once you get it, there is a moment of satisfaction, but one quickly grows tired of what one already has. By this time, there is a new quest with a new reward. It's not that the objet petit a is really hard to obtain, it is not a thing which can be obtained at all. The objet petit a which can be grasped is not the true objet petit a

There is an exception to this: it can be acquired in a fantasy. 

Within the imaginary space of a fantasy, it is possible to acquire the objet petit a without it losing its appeal. It still appears as something else, but it keeps all the value and shininess it had when you didn't yet have it because... you don't have it. Except in a fantasy. 

That opens up a really weird question about characters in fantasy role-playing games and how their desires interact with those of the players. Can player characters acquire their partial objects?

Insofar as these are parts of a player's fantasy, they should be able to do so. But this is a role-playing fantasy game, the players are taking on the personae of characters in that world. Everyone from the most cantankerous grognard to the most avid storygamer will agree that these characters have desires and goals of their own, not necessarily those of the player. Should these characters, then, not experience the objet petit a? Should they, unlike a pure fantasy, be incapable of entirely satisfying their desires?

This makes some sense to me. When I think of players who have been good roleplayers at my table, and those who have not, it seems like this might be part of the distinction. Keep in mind that 'bad roleplayer' does not necessarily imply a bad player. My little cousin is, at age 8, a bad roleplayer, but still great fun to have at the table. The crucial difference is between players who have processed that their characters have goals and desires of their own, vs players for whom the character is merely a way to play out their fantasies. This behavior is less charming in adults, especially when the player's fantasy is one which runs counter to everyone else's fun. 

This is part of maturing as a player: no longer treating the game (and the player character) as a vehicle for fantasy alone, and instead role-playing a character who themselves has goals, desires, and, subsequently, fantasies. 

I think this may also be a hidden genius to the xp mechanic, which aids this roleplay in a very subtle manner. The character may acquire any number of desired objects in the game world, but they are only ever stepping-stones for the player, means to further advancement. Both player and character desire gold. The player, as in a fantasy, may be satisfied with this, but the character is the world would not be. Thus, the structure of experience points is created to drive the player to act in the same manner as the character. There is always more xp to find, and the player is thus encouraged to consider their character as an entity driven by something other than player fantasy. 

That brings us back around to noisms' idea of changing the xp-granting object at various points in the progression. At some point, gold is no longer enough to fill the slot of objet petit a, and so other desired objects must be found. At first they may still be physical objects, new and fascinating currencies or treasures. But eventually those no longer satisfy, and desire may turn instead to ascension through the plains, or the advancement of hirelings. I'm not especially partial to the idea of character 'arcs' in role-paying games, especially when they're planned ahead, but I am interested in the growth of characters organically. This occurs mechanically by leveling up and acquiring equipment of course, but also by the expansion of character influence, henchmen and hirelings, domain play, the character takes on responsibilities of increasing scope. The ratcatcher looking for gold in a tomb is not the same person once they're leading a small army of loyal followers. Perhaps it makes sense that their desires, mechanically represented by changing sources of xp, should as well. 

It's an interesting concept which could add a lot of texture to a long-term campaign. I'm tempted to build it into my own upcoming campaign now, though I'm not sure how to. Expect more on this subject.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

On a First Experience with Ultima Underworld

Out of nowhere, I decided to try out Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. Commonly cited as the predecessor to the Elder Scrolls games, and as one of the great early 3D fantasy games period, I was already halfway sold on it, and it's cheap too, so why not. I got it bundled with Ultima Underworld II for 6 bucks. 

I buy it, install, have to go fiddling with GOG but... it runs! Credit to whoever is maintaining DOSBox that installation was clean and the game ran... well not smoothly, but as smoothly as I expect it ran on computers of its era. On MacOS at that, plenty of modern games can't claim the same (I long ago tried to play Gothic, no dice). 

I boot it up, ooooh! A pixel art cinematic! Gets us efficiently into the shoes of the Avatar and pushes us to search the Stygian Abyss for the damsel Ariel. I make myself a paladin with charm and swordsmanship (named Jethro Tul, same as my first PC in Baldur's Gate) and we're off to the races!

Okay, I'm trapped in a dank, dark dungeon and- wait no, that's a bit faster than I intended, woah, and that does not move me backwards. This does have keyboard movement as default in addition to the Elder Scrolls: Arena-style mouse movement (haven't played Arena myself, just recognize the system) but it's not quite the same setup as most modern games. Take a few moments to accustom myself to the controls and peek through the manual. I'm already nervous about my first steps into the dungeon. I'm reminded of the opening moments of my first playthrough of Daggerfall, and those are great vibes to have. I can't tell what's part of the track and what might be a sound from around the corner. 

Mess with a sack on the ground, read a note, pick up a skull, get some food. Feeling a lot like Legend of Grimrock. I try to open a locked door, maybe this pull chain opens it? No dice, and I'm not trying to bash it down with this measly dagger. If I don't find the key I might try to do it with an axe later. Ah, and I have a map, which I can annotate!? Lovely! Peek around the dungeon, arm myself, kill a rat. I didn't lose a hit point (er, vitality point) to a rat, no sirree. 

Find an pack with a goodbye note, poor sucker. Peek around some more, find a more expansive area with red walls, sneak around the edges with my torch unlit. Looks secure, going t- DEAR LORD- ahem. It's juts a guy. Just a human. Standing in the middle of the room. Friendly fellow this Bragin guy, tells me to beware the green and gray goblins and to seek out the human stronghold whose banner is the ankh, and whose leader is... Caliburn? Caribu? I missed the guy's name, sorry. 

Take a moment to get my bearings and double back, then move on. I'm getting comfortable with these controls, moving cautiously... and I move a bit too fast and fall into a crack in this ramp. No issue, I can climb back up. 


This is not Daggerfall. I cannot simply climb back up. 

Oh well, I must be able to double back somehow. Trudge through water, kill an overgrown centipede, pick up a shield, throw a switch open a doorway, everything's coming up Jethro. Now just gotta GOOD LORD WHAT THE HELL IS THAT! AH, I'M POISONED, DIEDIEDIE!

Is it dead? I don't hear anything or see it anywhere, but neither do I see a bloodstain. Goddamn mass of blood-red wings and teeth. This apple isn't doing much to help the poison either, and I don't have anything resembling an antidote. No two ways about it, just have to keep moving forward. Let's try swimming through here. A bit slow going, but seems fine, is that a frog-NO THAT IS NOT A FROG GODDAMN SATANIC TEETH AND TENTACLES! I have to... oh no. I can't pull out my weapon on water. Gotta swim away, so slowly, so slowly, ow, ow, ow.

Okay, it's gone. And I have exactly one hit point left. And I wound up fleeing in the opposite direction I knew. At least I can check the map while in water. Wow, I've made it a long way. No turning backwards, I'll be easy prey for that tentacle monster. Gotta keep moving forward. Got to. Keep. moving. forward...

I sink in the freezing waters of an underground river. My vision swims, full of skulls with flaming eyes. 

In case it's not clear, this first <1 hour with Stygian Abyss has absolutely sold me on the game. Highly recommended, pick it up if you want a videogame experience that simulates old-school dungeoneering. 

Saturday, December 24, 2022

State of the Blog Year 4

This is the 4th anniversary of A Distant Chime! Time really does fly, I hope you're all having another wonderful Christmas Eve, now onto the year's reflections. 


In keeping with the trend from last year, 2022 saw fewer posts than any previous full year. There's a few reasons for this. I've been balancing school with a part time job this year, I've been dedicating more time to running games than writing about them (the L5R game the last few posts were about is ongoing, I just haven't been good at writing up play reports). The biggest difference is that this year I've started a long-term romantic relationship. That said, there are a few posts I recommend reading:

Books for Dungeon Masters: The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker recommends an excellent nonfiction book, whose prose can be a great aid to DMs learning to narrate

Julius Wavestone Keep Killing! is a short adventure I wrote for Bryce Lynch's Wavestone Keep contest, which got a decent review from him, and which I found gratifying

An Alternative Humanity in Vampire: the Masquerade takes Justin Alexander and Yora's criticisms of VtM's Humanity system and proposes an alternative which lends itself to a quite different playstyle. If I run VtM in the future, I'll do it this way


Blogger tells me that this blog received 60k views this year, more so than any previous year, accounting for a plurality of my all time 150k views. How this occurred in a year when I wrote less often than ever before I'll never know. I suppose this is the strength of a big backlog. Interestingly, the most popular post this year was the Epilogue for my Castle Xyntillan campaign series. 


I occasionally share my posts on the OSR discord, but that's about it, but it doesn't seem to have hurt readership too much. 

The Index

Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level posts stretch far away

Away from the Blog

I've been running fewer games online (only a handful this year so far), and more in person. Still, those were fewer games than in previous years, less than twenty, a far cry from the pandemic days when I would regularly run two online games a week. I don't regret this, since that time is going into things I value more highly, but I am feeling the effects of not having a nearby, stable group a lot of the time. Most of the people in my Ptolus game earlier in the year are also in my current L5R game, but I can't rely on them also being around for more than a couple years out. This is both because it's a university group, and because I move around a lot, I don't live in one place for more than a few years at a time, making cultivating a solid group for long-term in-person play difficult. A couple months ago I tried to recapture some of the magic by gathering players I knew from DMing online during the pandemic for an AD&D 1e game, the world for which I've been prepping for a while now, albeit privately rather than on the blog. I managed to make a session work, but some player fallout after the session heavily demoralized me, and speaking with a couple players it's clear that the environment for online play just isn't what it was a couple years ago. My best players are older, married with kids, and during a time when they were laid off or otherwise had more time on their hands, it was possible to dedicate a lot of time to games. But this is less the case now. 

I intend to take a break from DMing online, and from playing online as well (with the exception of participating in Rick Stump's very occasional sessions and PbP) and focus on in person games, even if those campaigns are shorter term and for shifting groups. 

If there's one thing I'm proud of this year, it's that I introduced my little cousin (10 years old!) to old school D&D. I did that last year actually, but when he visited for the summer he was obsessed, and I wound up running some simplified AD&D 1e for him and my girlfriend. They had a delightful time, and I've now set him up with OSE books and Rich Burlew's color-in monster tokens, which he should be getting... oh right about now. He intends to run games for his friends in school, and I for one can't wait to watch that happen. 


Thus ends another year! I hope you all have an excellent holiday season, spend time with your families, and special thanks again to commenters Sofinho and Spwack!

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Emerald Empire Sessions 2 and 3: A Writ of Justice

My Legend of the 5 Rings game continues! Hiruma Saya's player's cousin visited us and I took it upon myself to introduce him to tabletop games as a guest player. 


Bayushi Nori, Scorpion clan courtier
Suzume Minori, Sparrow clan warrior
Tsuruchi Kenzo, Wasp clan archer
Kitsuki Ayumi, Dragon clan investigator
Hiruma Saya, Crab clan scout
(Absent in session 3) Shiba Imori, Phoenix clan warrior 
(Guest in session 3) Ryuma, Unicorn-born ronin
(NPC) Akodo Torokai, Lion clan shugenja

The Session

The party learned that Kitsu Rin, court diviner of Vigilance Castle, was missing, and resolved to solve this mystery. 

The next morning they spoke with Matsu Hiro at greater length and learned more about the situation. They were granted access to Kitsu Rin's room, and Ayumi's keen eye soon found several clues. The floor had been scoured with lye, but a trace of the pollutant remained: a bloodstain. His desk had a secret compartment, which had recently housed something, but was now empty, and showed no sign of forced entry. Outside the window, on the ground three floors down in some bushes, they spotted something glinting. Akodo Torokai later collected it and confirmed it was an amulet Kitsu Rin frequently wore. 

The party spoke to the various guest samurai, whom Matsu Hiro suspected. They determined that the Scorpion courtier, Yogo Akira, wasn't what he seemed. In fact, he likely wasn't a courtier, and his painting secretly encoded the locations of Lion clan battle camps. 

Isawa Kato, the Phoenix shugenja, accepted Bayushi Nori's challenge to a go game, and won handily, while the rest of the group determined that he was preparing suspicious scrolls. Shiba Imori accepetd Mirumoto Nobara's challenge to a sparring duel, and was defeated, but earned her trust, while the rest of the group learned about the castle's history from Doji Mai: until recently it had been a Crane stronghold, but the Lion clan invaded it, and the Crane samurai within threw themselves from the tower rather than be captured. 

The party also investigated the servants and the steward, Roku. They quickly determined that several of them knew more than they were letting on, and with Matsu Hiro's permission pressed Roku more forcefully. He was extremely confused, but the truth soon came out. A week previous, they had been summoned to Kitsu Rin's room, and saw Matsu Hiro leaving with a bloody blade, Kitsu Rin dying on the floor. He ordered them to clean up the mess and bury the body, and then he took several documents, which Roku presumed got burned. Thereafter they buried the body away from the castle. 

The next day the party took Roku to investigate the burial site with a crew of eta (the lowest caste, responsible for filthy jobs such as touching corpses) and confirmed Kitsu Rin's body was there. They also found that he had inscribed something into his arm using his fingernail, a series of ragged characters which spelled out 'Ko-ra-to'. 

Back at the castle, Akodo Torokai broke the news of the party's investigations to Matsu Hiro. The lord was overcome by grief, and soon afterwards departed for a local monastery for an indeterminate period of time. 

That very day, however, the party received a letter from the nearby North Hub Village, requesting aid on behalf of Otomo Sojin, a prominent courtier of the Imperial clan. They made their way with all due haste, arriving the following afternoon. Just within the town gates they were met by a ronin, Ryuma, hefting a colossal axe in one hand, who was waiting for them and was prepared to guide them to Otomo Sojin. Akodo Torokai separated to announce himself to the local magistrate, and instructed the party to meet Sojin and learn what afflicted him.

They followed to the Gentle Blossom geisha house, where they were expected, and the madam welcomed them all effusively. Within a private and luxurious room they encountered Otomo Sojin... who was not expecting. Only Akodo Torokai's personal seal convinced him they were here to help. Earlier that very day (well after the party got the letter asking for help) he had received a ransom note for his son, Otomo Kokare, who would be returned only when he paid back the debt owed. The note warned against contacting the authorities, lest his son be punished. 

Sojin was distraught and confused, and proved to be entirely unaware of who his son associated with and what he did. The party gathered basic information and were warned not to take this to the local magistrate, a member of the minor Tortoise clan that Sojin demeaned as a near-peasant. Ryuma spoke up to inform the group that a good source of information was the Smiling Tigers yakuza gang, one of two major criminal organizations (along with the Red Foxes gang). He pointedly refused to confess who his employer was. 

The party took him up on this and visited the gang at their headquarters in an abandoned inn. They soon met a gang lieutenant, Adoka, who presented Bayushi Nori with a recognition sign: he was an undercover member of the Scorpion clan backing the Smiling Tigers. The conversation between Adoka and the group, primarily with Kitsuki Ayumi, was tense, as Ayumi didn't want to tip her hand in case the Smiling Tigers were responsible for the kidnapping. Eventually, however, they got a hint that they could find what they needed in the Drunken Phoenix gambling house, which was sponsored by the Red Foxes. Nori spoke with him further alone, and learned that Adoka had been the one to send them a letter asking for help, having caught wind of the plot early and hoping to use the group's help to crush the Smiling Tigers' rivals and gain a monopoly over organized crime in town. Nori did not share this information with the group. 

They investigated the Drunken Phoenix, with Nori gambling (and ultimately winning a few silver bu) while the rest of the party drank at the bar. Hiruma Saya made fast friends with a ronin, Tomoji, who turned out to know Kokare, as the two frequently drank together and gambled at this establishment, in blatant violation of class norms. They plied him with drink until he confessed that he saw Kokare escorted from the Drunken Phoenix two nights before by a pair of burly men, whom he pointed out, likely yakuza belonging to the Red Foxes. 

The party left the gambling house but stuck around the area until the yakuza left, and tailed them to their headquarters nearby, the 'Red Fox Inn.' The party rendezvoused with Akodo Torokai, and in the small hours of the morning made their move: Torokai used an earth spell to let Ayumi float underground and observe the goings-on within, and she located Otomo Kokare tied up in a storage closet within, as well as identifying the dozen-plus yakuza within. The group got into position, and launched their attack. Tsuruchi Kenzo and Bayushi Nori hung back and shot the guards at the front door, shortly backed up in melee by Ryuma and Ayumi. Meanwhile Hiruma Saya and Suzume Minori scaled the walls to the inner courtyard and assaulted the compound from the other side. 

Also, all the melee combatants were cloaked in a spell of magical fire that burned their opponents. 

It was a massacre. They had secured the two main entranced, and with their archers having good lines of sight, their enemies never got a break. Their biggest scare came when the Red Foxes' lieutenant, Yukira, came out to meet Saya and Minori in the courtyard... and cast a blood magic spell on Saya, which enervated her leg. Luckily the two of them were able to slay him swiftly before he could cast more blood magic. 

In short time, only a fraction of the gangsters remained, and survivors surrendered, with Ryuma taking their weapons and purses. Minori and Saya located Kokare and unbound him, though he was in such terrible shape he couldn't even walk. Saya turned Yukira's room upside down until she found the blood sorcery scrolls there... very similar to the ones found at Half-Moon Village a few weeks previous. Minori, meanwhile, found the near-deaf boss of the gang, Boss Churokire, who attempted mightily to bribe her into letting him go, but ultimately went quietly. 

By this time the guard had shown up, and with the order of an Emerald Magistrate, took custody of the yakuza. Kokare was returned home swiftly, and the party was fêted and richly rewarded by Otomo Sojin, who offered each a boon. Ayumi accepted a wardrobe of fine clothing which marked its wearer as one in the good graces of the Otomo family, Minori commissioned a fine sword with the Sparrow clan mon inscribed on the blade, Kenzo and Nori accepted specialized archery equipment, while Saya reserved a future political favor for her boon. They were also weighed down in fine gifts for the wedding they would be attending shortly. 

They were visited by many local samurai who wished to meet the brave magistrates-in-training, debriefed with the local Jade Magistrates regarding their repeated encounters with blood sorcery, and met Ikoma Satoshi, an officer in the Lion army who had taken leave from the front to visit Torokai, his old friend, and took the party out drinking. 

When the week was out, the party was ready to get back on the road to the Dragon lands, where they would attend a wedding between the Otomo and Tamori families. 



Saturday, October 1, 2022

Emerald Empire Session 1: Sunrise Over The Empire

Earlier this week I ran the first session in what will hopefully become a short (25-ish session) campaign using Legend of the 5 Rings (L5R) 4th Edition. I actually ran this same campaign before for an online group around the same time as my Icewind Dale game, also as an introduction to the setting and system. I didn't effectively document either campaign, so I hope to make it up with this one. Strap your swords to your belt, and get ready to enter Rokugan!


Bayushi Nori, Scorpion clan courtier
Suzume Minori, Sparrow clan warrior
Tsuruchi Kenzo, Wasp clan archer
Kitsuki Ayumi, Dragon clan investigator
Hiruma Saya, Crab clan scout
Shiba Imori, Phoenix clan warrior

The Session

After finishing up their character sheets and getting introduced to one another outside of the game, the party got their first taste of Rokugan. It's the late spring of 1113, the tenth year of the reign of Emperor Hantei XXXVIII, and the characters, who were all unlikely candidates to become Emerald Magistrates (think samurai FBI) receive letters of acceptance. They will be assigned as trial magistrates under the watch of newly minted magistrate Akodo Torokai, a very high-status and orthodox cleric of the Lion clan. They will serve under him for a year, and at the end if they have his approval, they will become full members of the Imperial bureaucracy.

They meet him in his estate outside the Imperial City, and discover they've all been chosen as part of Torokai's pet project to expand the Emerald Magistrates outside their usual strict conformity by injecting some unusual candidates into the mix. As a result of politicking against him, however, the group has not been assigned a mission, so if they want to gain glory and achieve high status, they'll have to go looking for trouble. After he is pulled away for a moment, his wife, Akodo Tomoko, threatens them all with gruesome death if her husband doesn't come home, and instructs them in how to properly serve him. 

They depart the Imperial heartlands and head west toward Lion territory. Along the way, they run into a group of monks on the road. They are fleeing the looting of the nearby Half-Moon Village, where bandits have taken the head priest hostage. The party deliberates and settles on a plan. Hiruma Saya disguises herself as a monk with Shiba Imori, Suzume Minori and Kitsuki Ayumi 'escorting' her in the direction of the village while the archers lie in wait. when they run into a handful of bandits guarding the entrance to the walled village, they drop their disguise and demand the surrender of the bandits. 

Battle breaks out, with Saya taking injuries, but the archers' support and the intimidation factor of well-armed samurai allows the group to kill two and take one hostage while one escapes and raises the alarm. The remaining bandits scatter with what little loot they could take, but the party finds the shrine still occupied. Within, the bandit captain is interrogating a young priest while the elder priest lies dead on the floor. 

The party launches an ambush and manages to incapacitate the second-in-command, but only lightly injures the captain, who attacks the restrained priest while muttering a strange spell. He is slain in short order, and the party is even relieved to see the elder priest rise... until they realize he has been animated as a zombie. 

Only half the party manage to keep their wits about them, the rest trembling in fear of the undead creature before them. Nevertheless they are able to dispatch it with some difficulty. 

Investigation and interrogation, as well as consultation with nearby Jade Magistrates (the party's opposite number focused on spiritual threats to the empire) confirm the use of blood magic, and find the bandit's true goal: a cache of blood magic scrolls, hidden in the foundation of the shrine over twenty years ago, which are promptly burned. 

With this inauspicious beginning past them, the party continue on their way. Their first stop is the Castle of Vigilance (Shiro no Yojin) of the Lion clan's Matsu family. This fortress is the Lion's greatest stronghold on their southern border with the Crane clan. At the moment, however, it is nearly empty as its lady, Matsu Megumi, and her army are at war with the Crane clan and have pushed the border fifty miles south. The Lion are allied with the Crab and Scorpion clans, while the Crane have allied with the Unicorn and Mantis minor clan which controls the seas. The Dragon and Phoenix clans remain neutral. 

The acting lord of the castle is her husband, Matsu Hiro, who happens to be Torokai's cousin. He also intends to visit the castle diviner, his friend and mentor Kitsu Rin. The party arrives and is treated to a luxurious bath and welcome, and soon meet other samurai staying in the castle as guests. These include Doji Mai, a Crane clan courtier taken hostage by the Lion, Yogo Akira, a Scorpion clan courtier on his way to a wedding, Mirumoto Nobara, a Dragon clan duelist traveling around to refine her skills, Isawa Kato, a Phoenix clan cleric also here to see Kitsu Rin, and Yasuki Arinori, a Crab clan merchant here to discuss supply logistics and trade. 

This group is dickering over a trinket; a hair ornament shaped like a dragon's head carved from a single piece of blue jade. They finally decide to dice over it, and Shiba Imori and Tsuruchi Kenzo also join in, though ultimately it goes to the Yogo, who proposed the game of chance in the first place. 

Akodo Torokai returns without having met Kitsu Rin, who is in isolated retreat. Instead they are all treated to a dinner with the castle lord. At the end of that meal, when no servants remain in the hall, Matsu Hiro confides in them: Kitsu Rin has been missing for a week and is presumed dead. His servants are acting strangely, and with several samurai from other clans present, he cannot afford to act rashly. Thus he charges the party to get to the bottom of this mystery, and the session ends. 


If you're interested in running it yourself or introducing this system to your group, I link here the primer I made for my players. 

The players haven't yet adjusted to the notion that they aren't playing outcast drifters a la D&D, but instead magistrates with a great deal of status. This is something to instill in them over time. 

Counting up dice rolls in this system definitely takes longer than in systems without dice pools, but I expect this will be remedied over time as the players grow more fluent with counting up dice. I tend to roll my dice in a cup, and next session I'll make sure everyone has their own dice cup. I'll probably also print out a cheat sheet for stances and actions, as the combat this session was slowed down with people not being sure which actions to take. Movement was, oddly enough, an issue that kept popping up, with players feeling they couldn't do anything because they couldn't get close enough to the enemy. 

And as a payoff for the title pun, my song of the week: Archenemy's Sunset Over The Empire

Legend of the 5 Rings Megapost


L5R 4e Primer

This is a short primer I wrote for my current Legend of the 5 Rings 4th Edition campaign (you can find the megapost here), in case any of you are interested in running this system or introducing it to your friends. 

The Primer

You are a samurai. You live, fight, and die in the empire of Rokugan, a fantasy mashup of East Asia filled with magic. The gods and spirits are real, some might be your ancestors. Heaven is a place you can fly to (if you go without permission you will be shot down) and your soul is trapped in a cycle of reincarnation. Demons are also real, and there’s a whole land of them just to the south which are barely held back. Good luck. 

Your character, mechanically and RP-wise, can vary a lot, but a few things are constant. Honor and Glory matter to you, as does the code of Bushido, whether you follow it or defy it. A samurai’s life is marked by five events: Birth, Graduation, Marriage, Retirement, Death. The three in the middle are expected but not absolutely necessary. 

You live in a society full of ritual and history, where it’s easier to justify murder than an insult, and where the wrong word can be the difference between eating like a king or begging for scraps on the roadside. You are part of a hierarchy, with lords you obey and peasants who are utterly terrified of you. Figuring out how to get what you want while dealing within the system is difficult, but it’s part of the fun. In D&D terms, you might be Good, Neutral or Evil, but you’re definitely Lawful. If you can’t navigate Rokugani society, you’ll be a pariah at best, hung from the nearest tree at worst. 

Basic Mechanics

You roll pools of d10s. When you see XdY, it means roll X d10 and keep the best Y d10. You will never keep more dice than you roll. Usually, you keep dice equal to your trait, like Reflex when rolling attack, or Fire when casting a Fire spell. For example, a player with Reflexes 3 and Archery 2 would roll 5 dice and keep 3, and the sum of those 3 dice is the total of the roll.

Dice explode on a 10, meaning that you get to reroll and add the result on top of the 10, unless otherwise noted. If you roll another 10, they explode again. This can get crazy. 

When you fail a roll, you can sometimes roll a second time at a +10 penalty. Wanna try again to climb that tree? Go ahead. Obviously, this doesn’t work for attack rolls and most mental skills. And there’s no third shot. You just ain’t climbing that tree. GM has final say. 

Other, more exotic rolls like Cooperative rolls and Cumulative rolls also exist, don’t worry about them just yet. 

Rings and Traits

Why is this called Legend of the 5 Rings? The 5 Rings are Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Void, representing your alignment with the four fundamental elements of the world and the voidness that unites them. Each Ring is associated with two Traits, one physical and one mental:

Air: Reflexes and Awareness
Earth: Stamina and Willpower
Fire: Agility and Intelligence
Water: Strength and Perception
Void is not associated with traits, but Void Points, which can be spent to enhance rolls. 

All PCs start with these traits and rings at 2, though by the end of character creation you’ll have a few raised to 3.

Your Ring is equal to the lower of the associated Traits. For example, if you have 2 Agility and 4 Intelligence, you have 2 Fire. If you improve your Agility to 3, your Fire goes to 3 as well. 

Traits and Void can be improved directly. To improve Traits, spend XP equal to 4x the next rank: increasing Agility from 2 to 3 costs 12 XP. Void is improved for 6x the next rank. 


You also have Skills, which are ranked from 0 to 10. These include the usual suspects, like Archery (Kyujutsu) Stealth, Animal Handling, and so on, but also things like Dueling (Iaijutsu) and Artisan: Flower Arranging. Not all skills are equally useful, but none are useless. Even Flower Arranging. 

Skills are increased by spending XP equal to the next rank. You can also spend 2 points to get Emphasis in a skill. This means choosing a subspecialty of a skill, like Heavy Weapons (War Bat) and when you make a Heavy Weapons check using a War Bat, you get to reroll and replace 1s, but just once. 

If you have 0 in a skill, it is Untrained, and it has some limitations: mostly, dice don’t explode, and you don’t benefit from Raises. 


Raises let you gamble with the dice. Say the Target Number (what we call the DC ‘round these parts) is 15, and you’re confident you can beat that. You can call a Raise, which raises the TN by 5 to 20, with a benefit, like dealing extra damage. If you fail the roll, you get nothing, even if you beat the old TN. You can do pretty much anything with enough raises. Want to disarm the enemy? 3 raises. Want to prevent your rival from realizing you’re the one who spread that nasty rumor? 2 raises. Want to expand the duration of your spell? 1 raise. The amount you need varies from situation to situation, GM has final say. 

Also, you can only benefit from called Raises to a maximum of your Void Ring, so pump that number up. Luckily, some abilities give you Free Raises that don’t count towards that. They can either give you effects for free, or lower the TN by 5, your call. 

Clans and Families

Unless you’re a Ronin, you belong to a Clan. There are major and minor Clans, but we’ll be sticking to major ones. Each Clan contains multiple families, and multiple schools. You can mix and match family and school, though in most cases you will be educated inside your own clan, unless you’re part of a hostage exchange.

Your school trained you as a Warrior (Bushi), Cleric (Shugenja) or a Courtier. There are also Ninja and Monks, but we’ll be sticking to the big three for this campaign. All Clans have at least one school of each, but different clans have different specializations. 

These influence your starting Traits, Honor, equipment, and the techniques you can acquire. They also affect how the world treats you. 

If you’re a Ronin, time to get hustling, because you’re outside of the system, nobody is going to protect or feed you, and if you offend or scare anyone too much, nobody will go looking for your body. 

School Rank

This is the system’s equivalent of Level. Going up in school rank grants you extra techniques, access to better spells and kata, the works. 

Going up in Rank depends on your Insight score, which is a combination of your skills and Rings and some other stuff. Just put XP in places that make your character more effective, you’ll be fine. 

Combat and Actions

The basics are similar to D&D. You have Initiative rolls, you can delay actions, and at initiative 0 there’s a Reaction stage where status effects get resolved. At the start of each round, you take a stance: Attack, Defense, Full Attack, Full Defense, and Center, with their own effects on what you can do. Attack is the default, with no restrictions or benefits.

You have Free Actions, Simple Actions, and Complex Actions. In any turn, you can either do 2 simple actions or 1 complex action, plus a bunch of Free Actions. Refer to the table:

Damage in this system is called Wounds. There are various thresholds, depending on the game’s difficulty and your character’s Earth, that make things more difficult as you get injured. 

This Campaign

Without a doubt the most respected group within the whole empire are the Emerald Magistrates. They are the Emperor’s own lawkeepers, with the whole of Rokugan within their jurisdiction, warranted to act with great leeway anywhere that the empire’s laws against banditry, heresy or subversion are threatened and wherever the individual clans cannot deal with problems on their own. Groups of Emerald Magistrates bring together samurai of many clans and backgrounds, and with enough distinction any samurai can join their ranks and become a wealthy and high-status agent of the Emerald Throne. 

You are not Emerald Magistrates. Yet. 

You are young samurai in your late teens and early twenties, some only recent graduates of your schools, others with a few years of duty to your clan under your belts. All of you have distinguished yourselves, whether by personal action or your connections, and been accepted as trial members. You will serve as the bodyguards, assistants and spiritual advisors to a newly minted magistrate for the space of one year, and if you prove yourselves to him within that time, you will join the ranks of the exceptional. 

Your boss for this year is Akodo Torokai of the Lion clan. He is not intended to be a DMPC or a damsel in distress, but a superior interested in accomplishing missions, upholding the law and testing your abilities at the same time. His role in most sessions will be to provide an example of a very orthodox samurai against which to define your own characters, provide the framing and setup for adventures, and handle the bureaucracy and ass-kissing so your characters can do detective work, demon-fighting and conspiracy-unraveling you came here for. Buckle up, because you’re about to have a very eventful year.

Character Creation

You will begin by choosing a Clan, then a family of origin and a school within that clan. These will give you bonuses to two of your traits, the first rank in several skills, and your starting equipment. You also get 40 experience points to use as you wish, with which you can raise your traits more and improve your skills. I usually recommend spending 24xp to raise two more traits and spending the remaining 16xp on improving your main skills and picking up the first rank of some new ones. 

You also have Advantages and Disadvantages, which help you define your character. You spend xp to gain Advantages, and you can also select Disadvantages to gain xp: for example, if you spent all your xp on traits and skills, you can still pick up the disadvantage Bad Health, which gives you back 4 points. You could use these to pick up the Absolute Direction (1 point) and Precise Memory (3 points) advantages, or spend them on skills, or any combination thereof. 

You may not have more than 15 points each of advantages and disadvantages. 

Many dis/advantages only really make sense if purchased at character creation; it’s hard to justify your character growing half a foot after buying the Large advantage halfway through the campaign, or suddenly taking the Soft-Hearted disadvantage after you’ve already killed several people. If you think these dis/advantages describe your character, it’s best to pick them up early, though many, especially social or spiritual dis/advantages, may be purchased or awarded by the GM in play.

Sample Characters

With more than 30 basic schools available, finding the right setup for a character can be overwhelming at first. Here are some notable schools which might fit your character concept.

Want to be a duelist? The very traditional Kakita school of the Crane clan and the eccentric Mirumoto school of the Dragon clan both claim to produce the best in the empire.

Want to be a sly courtier? Between them, the secret-obsessed Baysuhi of the Scorpion clan and the ultra-refined Doji of the Crane clan rule the courts of the empire.

Who are the fiercest fighters? The matriarchal Matsu of the Lion clan charge into enemy formations without fear, the Hida school of the Crab clan fields heavily-armored walking tanks, the Tsuruchi archers of the Mantis clan are unmatched at range and the Utaku cavalry of the Unicorn have almost supernatural connections with their mounts, and while the Shiba warriors of the Phoenix clan are pacifistic, that just means they’ll cut you down while perfectly zen.

What about spellcasters? Nobody doubts that the Isawa of the Phoenix clan are the greatest generalist spellcasters, but don’t count out the Unicorn’s Iuchi school focused on speed, the Scorpion’s Soshi school who control the secret of undetectable spellcasting, or the Dragon’s Tamori who can store their spells as alchemical potions, and when you absolutely, positively have to rip apart a demon with holy fire and jade, accept no substitutes for the Crab clan’s Kuni school.

How about something a bit less orthodox? The Dragon clan’s Kitsuki school trains Investigators, experts in finding clues and uncovering lies, even though the empire’s legal system is based on testimony rather than material evidence. The bards of the Lion clan’s Ikoma school are boisterous storytellers who bolster the spirits of their comrades, and the Yoritomo courtiers of the Mantis clan have raised bullying and intimidation to an art form. 

No matter your character concept, you’ll be able to find something that can make it work.

Language and Roleplaying

L5R games put a strong emphasis on immersing yourself in a fictional world informed by a lot of real world elements. The complexity of a game where you have to be careful and subtle with words and manage your character’s social standing is a big part of the appeal for many, but it can also be a stumbling block for new players or those who have difficulty with other languages. 

As an introductory campaign, the goal is to start small to build familiarity and raise the bar as people get more comfortable. We take the assumption that your character performs all the small details of courtesy and ritual automatically, and your words out of character reflect your intention while in the game fiction the actual words your character speaks are more flowery and cautious. As a new player, you won’t be put on the chopping block because you forgot to use the exact right honorific when speaking to your lord.

Likewise for language. Some Japanese words have become so familiar in English that we can use them without worry; if I tell you your samurai has to leave their katana outside before visiting a geisha, few will be confused. But it would be unreasonable for everyone to understand the situation when an otokodate from the mura is looking for a kuge with an Agasha mon and they’re about to smash a tetsubo into your heimin’s on. Until everyone gets properly settled, we’ll be translating these less common terms and introduce the more important, less easily translated or denser ones as we go along. 

This is not Anime

I know, I know, the kind of group interested in playing a samurai game has a large overlap with anime fans, but coming into L5R with expectations of character or genre based on that will lead to miscommunication and to a game experience that isn’t satisfying for anyone. 

If you want a feel for the setting and tone, look at the links below.


Here’s the Core Rulebook (Scribd, Anyflip). If you want to read the basic rules in more detail, look at pages 75-100. If you want lore and clan details, look at pages 13-70. If you want to define your character, look at the questions on page 100. 

P.384 of the Core Rulebook includes inspirations and resources. I reproduce a few here. 

Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), directed by Akira Kurosawa, clip
Seven Samurai (1954) directed by Akira Kurosawa, clip
The Last Samurai (2003) clip 
Book of the Five Rings (1644), by Miyamoto Musashi