Someone, and I feel like a heel for not remembering who, just did a very nice review of Legend of the Five Rings, 4th edition. I have a lot of conceptual love for L5R, though most of that love was fiercely beaten out of me by Second edition. Third edition looked very pretty, but was sufficiently errata-laden that I never made the leap to picking it up. 4e sounds a lot like a cleanup of 3e, and that's an admirable thing, but I genuinely don't know if the spark is still there.
But it might be. L5R has left a fairly profound footprint in my mind despite the fact that I never really considered myself a fan. At first blush it might seem like it's all about the Samurai. After all, while there have been a few other Samurai games, none of them have been nearly as successful (in large part because L5R is _not_ a historical game) so it clearly stands out in that light. But really? Not so much. I mean, I enjoy getting my Yojimbo on as much as the next guy but it's not a genre that grabs me the way that some others do.
No, what sticks with me is the fact that L5R is such a fantastically structured cultural game.
That's a big and somewhat unclear statement, so let me zero in on the pieces that make it up.
First and foremost, the system is strongly integrated into the setting yet still robust. You can re-use parts of it for other games if you want. You could even use if for another samurai game and it would work ok. But it works at its absolute best in Rokugan. This shows up in many places, from the application of specific skills for things like the Rokugan Tea Ceremony to character creation, where the character's house (with the specific social contexts that implies) serves where other fantasy games would use race, and is much better designed.
That leads to the next point: when you finish chargen, your character has a place in the world, even if it's as a context. You have a lord, You have family. You have the relationships between the clans to serve as a baseline which you may then personally proceed to deviate from. It's a small thing, but it goes a long way. In other games like FATE or Smallville, entire sessions are dedicated to creating that sense of connection, but in L5R, it came baked right in.
That was possible because of the third (and possibly most contentious) points. The setting really carries weight.
Setting in RPGs is a serious business, and by no means am I asserting that L5R had the best (or even most gameable) setting of any game ever. Many games had vastly richer settings, from Tekumel to Talislantia to Stafford's Shamanic babies. Some of those settings are deep, crazy deep, with the kind of cultural consistency that can only come of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
But they take some work to get into. And by some, I may actually mean "A Lot". The very things that makes them such compelling and rich setting also demand such an investment in lore that they're not necessarily friendly to step into. In contrast, Rokugan shamelessly steals from bad history to create enough identifiable elements that it's very easy to grasp.
Rokugan managed to strike an interesting balance between various directions of setting design. As noted, it did not have so much depth that it created a barrier of entry, but neither was it a simple disposable shell of "just enough setting to get you started" (like the default setting of 4e). In shamelessly treating history as something to abuse and plunder, it kept itself from being bogged down in details (Something which, I think, kept Sengoku from getting the love it deserved) while still being recognizable. It also had a fairly narrow focus, so there was no danger of it being a Kitchen Sink setting like the Forgotten Realms.
All of which combines to explain my initial assertion - it was probably the strongest example I've seen of a cultural game. A game where setting and system (and, to be honest, some of the elements of physical design) combined to create a complete cultural game.
This is on my mind as I think about the heartbreaker. Having that kind of context as a part of setup is pretty powerful. But that's easier said than done. There are ways for it to go impressively wrong, something I'll chew on tomorrow.
1 - And, despite investing a little in the cards, never got into the CCG either.
2 - Now, this may not seem like a big deal as virtually every 90's game had organizations with strong opinions of one another, and that's a fair cop, but L5R lifted itself above the pack by the fact that those relationships did not feel tacked on. To pick on Vampire, each clan was geographically and culturally diverse, and the idea that its membership could agree on what to have for breakfast was a stretch, to say nothing of having a unified view of another equally diverse group. The sterotypes made a nice shorthand, but they didn't have a lot of power to them. In contrast, the houses were an important part of the setting, with concrete locations and people of importance, and the perceptions of the other clans were an extension of the clan's dealings with one another. That is to say, they had real weight within the setting.
3 - That prize goes to Feng Shui
4 - Some of this is a function of good design, but some of it is - I suspect - a pleasant side effect of having a CCG as a foundation. A CCG needs clear, iconic, easily expressed ideas and groups which can be revealed to have depth over time. The clans work so well because they're designed to work well in a CCG, and they're really the foundation of the setting as a whole. Tellingly, I can remember exactly one piece of geography in Rokugan (the Wall) but I can easily recall the clans.
5 - Is that an unfair comparison? After all, the Forgotten Realms (and Eberron) are both quite successful and popular. Why not emulate that?
There are a couple answers, but the first is that it's a hard way to sell a game. D&D is a fairly open-ended game, and as a result it needs settings that can encompass the range of possibilities it suggests. This results in setting which are on one hand wonderfully diverse but lacking in focus. Most fans of these settings are actually fans of narrow slices of them. For example, I really dig Waterdeep, and I have a legacy fondness for Phlan, but I am mostly uninterested in other parts of the setting, except out of a sort of academic curiosity. When you're trying to cast a wide net over an existing group of players, you want the net to cover as wide a range as possible so that every prospective customer (and novel/tie-in buyer) can see something they like and get excited about.
If you don't already have an audience, that's a less compelling practice because you have no initial buy in. Even if you put something for everyone in your setting, you have no guarantee that they'll look to try to find it in the first place. To create an audience, you need to wear your selling point on your sleeve, so to speak. You want a setting that's about something that you can quickly and easily express. L5R was absolutely that.