Dear Design Team,
I have no idea if anything posted here ever makes it your way, so maybe I'm spitting into the wind, but I feel I have to try. As the Elemental Cycle has been previewed, my concern about the current arrangement with roles has grown steadily. Every single L5R podcast I've listened to lately has included many minutes of complaining about the situation as well, so if that's any sort of representative sample, the concern is broadly based. For others reading this please do feel free to express your disagreement (or agreement). If I'm wrong and most people like the current arrangement, then so be it. I suspect, though, that the concern is pretty universal. So what is my concern?
Put simply, I believe that in pursuit of two laudable goals, locking clans to a single role is strangling the growth and vibrancy of this game we all love so much. My understanding is that role locking was an experiment designed with two purposes in mind. One, it would restrict the card pool available to any given deck and thereby put guardrails around the power creep that is an inevitable part of this sort of game. Two, it would provide a highly attractive prize for success in certain organized play events. So far that was just Worlds last year, but I understand there will be others coming soon. Both are good goals, and both have been successful so far. For example, Feast or Famine is a brutally overpowered card that I don't think would have been printed at all without a role restriction, but it could be printed with "Fire Role only" without breaking the environment (it's degenerate alongside Restoration of Balance, while alone in Lion it's difficult but manageable). And if role locking remains in place, choosing roles will be a highly charged decision at Worlds this year. Fair enough.
These goals, however, ought to be secondary to the vibrancy of the actual play environment. Vibrancy depends on the collective enthusiasm of the player base, and that enthusiasm has many different factors that can fuel it's ebb and flow. There's lots of enthusiasm about L5R, of course, but I believe that role locking is acting as a "drag" on it in several key ways. In any card game, enthusiasm is dependent on some combination of product, competition, variety, and culture. Role locking is interacting negatively with each of these factors.
You guys have designed a fantastic game, and each pack that comes out continues to offer a variety of cool new designs to get excited about. However, many of the "oohs" and "aahs" are immediately dampened on the element-restricted cards by the realization by most players that they can't play it now, and may never get to play it at all. For example, Jurojin's Curse is a super cool card from the most recent pack which, without role locking, I'd already be thinking about how to build a deck around. Instead I read it once, got annoyed at the role restriction, and won't think about it again. My clan isn't void now and I have no way of knowing if it ever will. Maybe I'll get void based on some random vote, or a random hatamoto's choice at Worlds, but I have no part in those decisions and can't plan ahead for it, so it might as well be never. So a card like Jurojin's Curse could easily have been a "+1" in my L5R enthusiasm meter, but instead was transformed not just to neutral, but actually to a "-1" due to being "deprived" of it. I know I shouldn't feel deprived, and I have no "right" to any particular card, but this is basic human psychology at work. Judging by the reactions of my fellow local players as well as all those podcasts, this reaction has been pretty consistent across the community. That's many thousands of "+1" opportunities turning into "-1s," and that all adds up to a big drag on our collective enthusiasm.
Competition is also harmed by role locking. Most players want to at least feel like they have a fair shot from a competitive standpoint. Of course there are going to be times when some clans are stronger and weaker, but the full card pool gives people plenty of outlets to tinker and at least feel like they have some control. The full array of cards and interactions for each clan means there is no one thing to point to as cause for an uneven playing field. Locked roles change that. The economic benefit of Seeker roles is undeniable, and Seeker of Void is particularly strong due to the excellent provinces in Void. Of the Keeper roles, I would argue that Earth is the strongest since that ring effect is always useful, so you're never having to decide whether to pursue a low (or no) value ring in order to trigger Keeper Initiates. And of course Seeker of Fire is a huge boon for Dragon right now. Scorpion, Crab, and Dragon would definitely be good even without their locked in roles, for a variety of reasons. Maybe they would even have won all the Koteis anyway. The problem is, with locked roles there's no way to know. No one can test the competitive impact for their clan of choice. Unicorn and Lion are clearly struggling right now, but what if they could play Seeker of Void? Phoenix has been very middle of the road lately, but would they take a leap if they could run both Shameful Display and Senpuku Seido with Seeker of Fire? We'll never know, since the card pool will change significantly by the time any of those clans have a different role. Again, there's basic psychology at work here. Locking certain clans into specific (strong) roles, with no way to test out the alternative, creates an easy sense of "unfair" competition. No one is deciding to quit L5R over this one thing, and many players may not care at all. But again, judging by discussions in my play group and conversations on podcasts, this factor is creating a lot of "-1" feelings in the collective enthusiasm meter.
Variety is a pretty straightforward one. Most L5R players I know stick to a single clan. Role locking intentionally creates deck construction limitations. This would be fine if it were just that the cards themselves were locked, so I had to pick from different parallel pools. But since we're all mostly clan loyal, and roles are locked for many months at a time, there are a bunch of deck design strategies that I just can't pursue. Not everyone likes deck design and theory as much as I do, so maybe this doesn't create as many "-1s" as the previous two factors. But I do think the whole community benefits when people can try out as many designs as possible, and right now that's severely handicapped.
Finally, culture is a big thing in L5R, specifically clan loyalty. All three of the above factors interact with clan loyalty negatively because of role locking. Product design becomes a source of frustration when a cool in-clan card comes out that a player won't be able to use for the foreseeable future. Pathfinder's Blade is the best example of this. It was really frustrating for many Crab players when it was released, and remains a source of annoyance even now. This creates a tension between cool product design and clan loyalty, which is a very poor outcome. Same thing for competition. If a player wants to try out one of those "better" roles, they have to play a different clan. Of course this is always true when different factions are weaker or stronger, but the long term locking of supposedly "neutral" roles creates a perception of tension between competitiveness and clan loyalty. Finally, we've all been playing with the same role for 9 months. I think I speak for many in wanting to just try something else out (even if it's not the top tier roles!), but again in creates a tension between that desire and my clan loyalty. So far the clan loyalty has won out, but at a cost of minor annoyance at the game.
Before I move on to my proposed solution, there are two major counter-arguments that I want to address preemptively. First, FFG has repeatedly emphasized that role locking is only for competitive play, and players are encouraged to try whatever they want casually. I want to make sure you guys on the design team understand that very few people or playgroups do this. Theoretically these type of deck construction rules are "optional" in every card game for casual play, but everyone follows the tournament rules in every game I've ever played. It's never going to work otherwise, so pretending otherwise doesn't get us anywhere. Second, the risk of unlocking roles is that everyone will "cluster" in the few strongest roles and thus actually harm variety. I agree that this is a legitimate concern, but I'd argue that this puts the onus on you guys in the design team to make sure the "power" cards are evenly distributed across roles. Right now Seeker of Void and Keeper or Seeker of Fire would probably be the popular choices, but the recently released card Sabotage is exactly the sort of card that would combat clustering. Many people would play an earth role just for access to that card. A few more cards like that scattered across the roles would easily eliminate any serious clustering.
I realize that designing and releasing enough role-restricted power cards will take time, so my proposed interim solution would maintain some restrictions but allow plenty of variety and address the competitive and product concerns above. I propose that at Worlds (or wherever else roles are chosen), a single role is selected as primary. However, instead of a hard lock to that single role, it creates a soft lock to one or the other aspect, but not both. Thus if Keeper of Void is selected for my clan, thereafter I could use any of the seven Keeper roles (matching on the "Keeper" aspect), as well as Seeker of Void (matching the "Void" aspect). Or if Seeker of Air is selected, I can use any Seeker role, plus Keeper of Air. I believe that this approach would effectively prevent clustering around just a couple of roles, while also allowing lots of variety and competitive adjustments. It also addresses the two original goals of the role locking system. Everyone, no matter what clan, would have access to every card in the entire pool depending on what role they use, but due to role restricted cards any particular deck could not just play all of the most powerful. And the decisions as "prizes" would still be significant since certain roles will be necessary for specific cards or decks (e.g. Dragon would still want Seeker of Fire very badly).
As I said at the beginning, I don't know if anything posted here ever makes it to you all at FFG. If it does, I hope you will consider my reasoning and proposal. You have designed a truly great game, and I think this single change would do more than anything else to take it to another level. I know it's hard to see beyond decisions and plans that you've already thought long and hard about. I would encourage you to step back for a moment and consider this proposal as though you had no stake in the existing plans. I think you'll see that it would dramatically improve the game you've poured your blood sweat and tears into, while still maintaining the original goals of the role system.
P.S. Just to be super clear, I am not objecting to role restricting particular cards. Just the locking of each clan to one role (or even two, which would still be bad).
P.P.S. If any players know how to get something like this in front of the design team, I would be much obliged if you could pass it along.