Obsidian & Ivory
Structure of the Game
The Second City (and surrounding environs) is a busy place. There’s a lot going on at any given time, and I am representing this by a system of and .
Stories are big plots, the kinds of movings and shakings that require the group to be unified in their efforts in order to maintain a meaningful presence. This will not be railroaded or scripted, but be aware that Stories will progress off-camera if PCs are not involved (though generally at a somewhat slower pace) and will shape the landscape of the game. Choices PCs make involving Stories may have far-reaching consequences.
- The Shadowlands probing the city’s defenses and working their way up to a siege
- Artifacts of untold power that are buried in the ruins of the Ivory Kingdoms
- The political climate of the Second City and who is gaining influence over whom is a Story that will likely go on forever – well, until the siege, that is
Players will rarely be responsible for Stories – especially as relatively new characters – but do not underestimate the group’s ability to change the direction of Stories by their involvement. The world will not end because you were pursuing other Stories and failed to stop the assassin from killing the Unicorn Ambassador, but it will be different as a result, and I will have been doing my best to ensure that things were structured in such a way that 1) you had a clear opportunity to be involved in that Story, and 2) had you been involved in that Story, you’d have been capable of changing the outcome.
Though there will likely be opportunities to impact multiple Stories at once with particularly clever maneuvers, the group will generally only have the bandwidth to pursue one Story at a time.
The Campaign is essentially equivalent to the game. The only way we end the Campaign and progress with the same game is if people want to start a whole different party in the same world – very likely in a different piece of it.
The Campaign is made up of Stories/Adventures. There will be a number of these going on at any given moment, and I wholeheartedly encourage you guys to poke the backdrop if you feel so inclined. Some of them I will have spun up in the background to make the setting a living, breathing place, some of them will be created in advance based on what kinds of experiences fit the group specifically, and a select few will be created entirely on the fly as consequences of PC actions. All of them will be set up with a state of equilibrium – a default progression/outcome, in case the players don’t care to engage with them at all, so the group shouldn’t ever feel shackled to stories that don’t interest them.
Stories are made up of roughly 3-5 Acts, which are driven by landmarks in the particular Story. The end of an Act, if done properly, should feel like a corner has been turned for better or for worse.
Example One: Perhaps the PCs suffer a mild disgrace and are politically blackballed out of the capital – this would likely be the end of an Act, while the Story continues into the next Act with the natural questions of “What now?”
Example Two: On a more uplifting note, the moment that the party successfully obtains the information/McGuffin/training they’ve been seeking (that is needed to overcome the villain once and for all) is also the end of an Act. Setting things in motion to put the newfound tool(s) to use marks the start of the next.
It is my sincere intent to use Acts and Stories as the stopping points for handing off GM duties, so the above sections are the important ones to you guys. In my head and in my notes there are a few more structural classifications, but they will change rapidly in response to the actions of the player characters, so it’s best to think of them from small to large:
Scenes work much like a movie scene. As in film, when there is a screen wipe and a time/location skip, that usually marks a scene break. If the party splits, or if the story dictates, there may be multiple scenes running concurrently. Scenes are also very likely to occur independent of a particular Story the characters are pursuing – or perhaps even any established Story at all – and that’s expected.
Encounters in Legend of the 5 Rings are a whole different beast than most of you will be accustomed to. I recommend having a glance at a few of the Challenge-Focus-Strike style hooks that have been written for the system, because that will give you an idea of how Encounters are structured. They are much more than just a simple fight, but if the story is too long to brag about over a drink then it’s probably not a single Encounter. Like scenes, Encounters aren’t limited to the larger on-going Stories, and can be found and interacted with as one-offs, if the group wishes.
I anticipate the group will resolve roughly 1, maybe 2 Encounters per Session, which should be a self-explanatory term.
Finally, Chapters are sets of Encounters that represent logical steps of progression within an Act, and honestly they’re the least clearly defined of all. They’re mostly just an organizing tool to help me keep the pacing appropriate, as well as providing flex points in the story for when you guys throw me curve balls.
In contrast to Stories, Threads are far more personal. Threads are character-driven plots that represent goals or struggles that don’t require the skills or attention of the group, are unlikely to have world-shaping consequences, and/or will generally wait (maybe not forever, but at least awhile) for the character to come back and take the next step when they aren’t otherwise occupied. In addition, Threads can also be advanced (within limits) between games.
- Seeking promotion(Status), self-improvement(XP/Honor), or renown(Glory)
- Earning entry into a Path/Advanced School
- Winning over a potential ally
- Attempting to bed and/or marry someone
- Conducting private investigations/business
In addition to the difference in scale, Threads differ from Stories in the way I’m implementing them. Stories (as established) are pretty much entirely narrative-based – they involve no mechanical impact basically at all. Threads on the other hand, are going to be a mechanic. Your threads will appear on your character’s wiki page (though they may be kept secret) and the systems for interacting with them will be relatively standardized.
Activating a Thread is as simple as declaring that you’re pursuing a particular side plot or personal goal as a Thread. If the character isn’t already pursuing all the Threads they can, it gets added to the list. If a character is already at (or above) their maximum Active Threads, then they must either wait to pursue the new goal, or abandon one of the currently Active Threads. The abandoned Thread may usually be re-started at any time, but all progress on that Thread is lost, and the character must start over from scratch.
Each player character may only have 3 active Threads at once, plus any extras they gain from other mechanics:
- Characters with Ranks in one or more Schools that have the Courtier Tag gain additional Active Threads equal to their highest Rank in an applicable School
- Characters with the Servant Advantage may use their servant to pursue an additional Active Thread that falls within that servant’s area
- The Courtier Skill grants an additional Active Thread as a Mastery Ability at Rank 3
- Any/all characters that are 5 XP or more behind any other character in the group gain an additional thread, until such time as this is no longer the case (unfinished Threads may be completed, but new ones may not be started)
- Sometimes, the GM will inflict a Thread on a character. Some (but not all) of these will grant an additional Active Thread until they are resolved, effectively not counting against the character’s standard Active Thread count.
Making progress on threads is very simple from a mechanical perspective. When a Thread is activated the first time, I will set a number of Milestones relative to the difficulty of the goal being pursued. Any time a character has downtime, the player will be awarded with a number of attempts relative to the circumstances, which they may spend on any of their Active Threads. An attempt on a Thread will take the form of a brief Scene mapped out between the player and the GM and a relevant skill roll. Success on the roll advances the Thread one Milestone, while failure merely results in a lost attempt. Void may not be spent on this roll, but the player may choose to burn 3 attempts at once to automatically succeed at a Milestone. This represents the results of a character overcoming obstacles through preparation and focus, rather than inherent skill or talent.
Completion of a Thread clears it from the character’s Active Threads, and results in the character gaining the desired goal. This reward may be purely stat-based (such as an XP or Glory boost), purely story-based (such as information), or as justification for certain types of character growth (such as entry into a path, buying off disadvantages, training for very high skill levels, or obtaining new advantages). The exact reward will almost always be determined between player and gm at the time the Milestones are decided.
Especially in abstract terms, and especially especially in terms of samurai stories, this game will require you to think of failure differently.
To fail as a samurai almost always means you should kill yourself. Maybe – if you have the ability and directly actionable means – you should attempt to fix it first, but then immediately afterward you should ask the people who were relying on you if it wouldn’t be too much further inconvenience for you to kill yourself.
In that lens, failing a roll – or even a few rolls – will not generally equate to failure. Missing an attack roll is not a miss, it is a successful defense on the part of your opponent. A failed climb or jump check is unlikely to result in an embarrassing fall in this campaign, but rather an unfortunate consequence of success. For example, unexpectedly sharp rocks near the destination could inflict damage, or the noise of your actions could draw unwelcome attention.
In terms of tests that are based on continual progress, “failures” are most often going to be represented as setbacks. Your character(s) will still be able to move forward, but the destination will be farther away, and/or the path may be less favorable:
- You write a poem for the lady whose heart you hope to win – it’s perfectly functional, no one (who doesn’t already have it out for you) is going to point and laugh at some failure to grasp spelling and grammar – but it turns out that a relative of hers was recently killed in a duel by one of your clanmates…
- Attempting to translate a set of writings found in a strange ruin, you find that the transcription is incomplete – the expedition was forced to pack up in a hurry, and a large section has been irreparably smudged – but you are able to garner some information, and if you are willing to brave the dangers of the ruin yourself, then perhaps you can learn more by studying the writings in person…
In terms of tests that have a binary success/failure outcome, adjust to the idea that “failures” manifest themselves very frequently in the form of “You succeed, but…” such as:
- You successfully attack – you hold the katana properly and execute the blow as befits a samurai of your level of training – but your opponent ALSO succeeds at defending.
- You successfully cast a spell, but the kami fail to respond. (Remember that “spells” in Rokugan are prayers, so at the end of the day there’s only so much a shugenja can actually do. You can literally get everything right, and the spirits in the area just… have a headache, or something)
- Making a Stealth check, you successfully remain undetected, but you are forced to take a different route toward your objective, and now the circumstances have changed slightly…
Many campaigns do not truly encourage running away. In fact, most seem to (actively or implicitly) encourage the PCs to blindly march forward into whatever happens to confront them. That might work out for “chosen heroes of Fate” type campaigns, but I prefer deeper worlds, where the PCs are clearly actors but are not the (implied?) center of everything. This requires a pond with both bigger and smaller fish than the party should plan on engaging.
Especially in the early parts of the campaign, if a situation looks hopeless (combat against vastly superior numbers, a public conversation with a hostile Ambassador) alternate options should be considered. DO NOT assume that just because a character has encountered a wall, I intend for them to attempt to knock it over with their face.
Players in situations that seem insurmountable should consider the following:
- Does your character’s Honor or Duty forbid them from withdrawing?
- Are there potential allies nearby that can be recruited to turn the tides?
- What advantages can be garnered from retreating?
- Would there be any talk of cowardice or failure if the PCs’ running from a massive goblin horde allows them to get warning to the city guard?
- Does this conflict have to be resolved this way?
- Can this combat be resolved by diplomacy? Can this diplomacy be resolved by combat?
Note carefully what I said up above, about characters not being responsible for Stories. The society of Rokugan and the Second City is comprised of a complex web of very tight social bonds. Your objectives are almost always shared by others who may be more able to carry this particular banner.
Then again, samurai making their last stand against impossible odds have been known to change the course of history…
aka “Blatant Favoritism”, aka “No, it isn’t entirely fair, but hear me out…”
Players who dig deep into the L5r lore will reap benefits. Actually reading the fluff and understanding all the finicky nuances of the social structure and polite interactions and expectations will actually grant advantages at the table. Sometimes these advantages will be subtle, such as having more precise control over your character’s behavior and the influence you want to have on others, but immersive role-play will absolutely garner both tangible story benefits and mechanical bonuses on rolls, as well.
Example: The PCs are attending a court function, essentially as extras to make their clan’s contingent look impressive and flattering to the hosts. The players of Kakita Joe and Agasha Kim both state their characters will be wearing formal wear as befits the occasion, and that’s fine. The player of Shinjo Mike has been reading everything he can get his hands on, however, and is able to mention that his character’s outfit includes an inner layer that matches the colors of the host clan – identifying him as a friend, as well as someone comfortable in court. This has many potential advantages for the character, especially revolving around initial dispositions and first impressions.
Consider this the carrot to the stick that is the Bad Kharma House Rule. If people are totally tuned out, there are in-game consequences. If people are totally tuned in, there are also in-game consequences. Interestingly, I have found that neutral people don’t tend to stay neutral – they get pulled along one way or the other, and this momentum dictates the tone of the entire session.
In addition to impacting the level of player involvement, it will also hold to a higher standard as the GM. Role-playing is a cooperative endeavor – if you guys are en pointe, that both requires and encourages me to step up the detail and quality of the content I’m reflecting back to you…
Example(cont): Since Shinjo Mike is going out of his way to send a subtle message to potential allies (or enemies), the GM is very likely to modify the encounter in subtle ways to respond. What may have just been a white-noise palette-cleansing Scene (shame on the GM) is now an opportunity to present NPCs that expect to interact with the players, which is a more interesting experience for everyone at the table.
The downside is that this policy is NOT perfectly fair. You guys won’t have equal amounts of time you can spare to recreational reading, or equal access to the books, or even equivalent experience with which to frame the Asian-style culture and philosophy in your head. I get it. And it sucks that I’ll be giving an advantage to some members of the group more than others, but it’s my experience/hope that it will – if used – raise the overall experience of the game for everyone.
Experience Points and Character Advancement
At the end of every session, I will award a blanket amount of xp to everyone, based on Story progress and overall quality of the session. Afterwards, I will open up the table for nominations. At this point, with some discussion, everyone has the opportunity to nominate one (or more) of the players for a bonus point of xp, based on their personal highlight(s) of the session. I am the final arbiter of whether or not the point is actually awarded, but I rarely veto a consensus.
This does mean that the PCs will be earning experience at a rate that isn’t perfectly distributed. However, the Legend of the 5 Rings system is maddeningly complex in terms of xp-spent-to-power-level math, so I will say with confidence that the power disparity within the group (regrettably, I guarantee there will be one) is going to have very little to do with raw XP totals.
I will also say that I have taken steps to keep the XP totals relatively close (see the Thread system, above), and that the circumstances you will find yourselves in over the course of the campaign will require different enough skillsets that no one character will ever be able to be clearly superior/independent.