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Ben Riggs

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  1. "It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai." -Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure Monday night, I ran a playtest of the L5R beta test rules. I've played or run every edition of L5R, and I'm going to say it's my favorite RPG. I really wanted these rules to be good. I'm even okay with FFG's funny dice, but these rules are problematic. They seem unattached to a simulating a physical reality, and are the most complex ruleset I think I've ever attempted to run. I say that with some hesitation, as I like the folks over at FFG, and I want them to succeed in this, but by gum, there are a number of deep and abiding issues with the rules. For example, skill rolls. Skills have been around since RuneQuest, and there are a number of clever simple skill systems around. But in FFG L5R, to make a skill roll there are likely charts you must consult, and the GM has to make a ruling on it. In this ruleset, you roll your skill plus your Ring (Air, Earth, Fire, Water, or Void) and keep a number of dice equal to your ring. Sounds simple, right? Figuring out how to climb a hut took 10 minutes. Why was this so hard? First, there was no skill that easily applied itself to climbing. No Athletics, no Climbing, etc. Secondly, the Rings are not intuitive or concrete. Is climbing a wall by relying on the cracks a water ring roll or an air ring roll? In other systems, I could revert to Strength or Agility depending on the "approach", but because L5R's core attributes are unmoored from physical reality, we were left adrift. The missing skill, okay, that could just be a lacuna in the beta. But the abstract nature of the rings, plus the fact that the GM has to rule on the ring for every single roll makes checks vague and burdensome. Also, it's a thing players can argue about. In the 21st century, I am looking for games that move work away from the GM, not on to her back. Combat is equally cumbersome. In the first round of combat, there are seven, I counted, SEVEN STEPS to figuring out who hit, and how much damage they did. Admittedly, three of those steps only take place on the first round of combat, or on the round an NPC is struck down, but given that short combats are more common than long, it is another burden placed between a group and enjoyment. To show you what I mean, the steps are: Assessment: This is a roll to figure out things about your opponent or your situation. There are a number of issues with this mechanic. First, the check is different depending on whether or not you are in a duel, skirmish, mass combat, or social scene. The roll varies again depending on which Ring you use to make the check. Lastly, this is a core mechanic of all conflicts in the game which, near as I can tell, is meant to simulate looking your opponent up and down before fighting. It is incredibly complex, and is meant to simulate something incredibly simple. Again, looking at how other games handle this is illustrative. There would be a Notice roll, and the GM would tell the player what they notice. Compare that simplicity to a) remembering what to roll based on the 4 types of conflict, b) remembering what is produced depending on which fo the 5 rings is used. This ruleset is too complex! Initiative Combat proper begins Set stance: Character has to take one of five stances, again based on one of the five rings. I would point out that literally, this means the GM needs to remember 15 data points before we even figure out who has hit in L5R beta combat. The stances aren't bad, but after the complexity of assessment it is simply stacking more complexity on this system to add stances. Perform Action: Depending on what a character wants to do, there are mini-systems to follow. There are seven mini-systems here for a "skirmish", and they aren't individually problematic, but they mean we are now at 21 data points for a single action in a skirmish. (I would add that this is not counting fact that a number of these mini systems have unique rewards for rolling 2 opportunities, which again adds complexity and slows down the table.) If the player chooses Strike, and gets 2 successes, they hit. Target takes Wounds. (This step only happens when a PC or foe is dropped.) If Wounds exceed Resilience, a critical strike is incurred. The character is essentially out of combat, and a table is consulted to see what terrible things happen to them. In summary, to hit and resolve once in the first round of combat, if the hit defeated the foe, there would be 7 steps and 25 data points involved. Let's compare that to GUMSHOE briefly. In GUMSHOE, in the first round of combat, there are three steps (Initiative, roll to hit, apply damage) and 4 data points (The target number, the bonus to the player's roll, the damage value, and the NPC's Health.) In the 21st century, there have been so many innovations to gaming that solve problems like the complexity of combat, etc. But L5R seems to ignore them, and run with a design philosophy that more is more. The game seems to ignore all indie game innovations that makes games easier to run. It is especially hard on the GM. Tracking damage is a chore, NPC management is a chore, etc. In a world where 13th Age and Dungeon World exist to show us how to make combat fast and fun with NPCs that are a breeze, It pains me to say it, but this is the most disturbing thing about the ruleset to me. It takes long-standing solutions to problems in RPG design and rolls them backward. Since Gygax and Arneson, people have used physical attribute stats at the table, and they've worked. The use of skills has been a problem solved in interesting and creative ways in countless dozens of games. This ruleset takes these established solutions and rolls them backwards. The use of rings instead of attributes makes play harder, not easier or more fun. An Apology: Cruel to be kind Lastly, I want to say I know good and smart people are working on this. I love FFG games, and I deeply love L5R. Like I said, it's my favorite game. But this ruleset establishes problems for play at the table. Therefore, I believe if released in its current form, it will not produce the L5R renaissance I was hoping for when I heard FFG acquired the IP. Those are my two cents, and I hope the game is simpler, and better, when finally released.
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