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Shiba Bushi Love Letter / Shiba Guardian talk

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Hello! Shiba Bushi was always an important school for me - it was the first school I decided to pick up long time ago in 1st ED, and while I didn't play that many Shibas overall, I always was fond of their focus on blending Void and swordsmanship, as well as the most "cerebral" warriors presented at that time - they started with 4 intelligence and their fluff talked a lot about using their spiritual and mental prowess for martial arts! One of things I really liked about previous write-ups of Shiba Busi was the fact that while theme of being a Yojimbo to a Shugenja was present in the mechanics, it didn't take the central place, being more of a side perk that didn't define the school and wasn't critical for their core functionality as a standalone character. It wasn't hard at all to play a Shiba Bushi without Shugenja to protect - or, for that matter, to simply play a solo Shiba without party members at all. The school stood on its own two feet, with two clear themes - main theme of Void Swordsmanship, and secondary theme of Spiritual Yojimbo (and note that even then, these techniques often were also actually usable by the Shiba when defending against spells of an enemy, further making sure that they didn't need to babysit a Shugenja to use their full array of techniques!)

As a player, I've always enjoyed the core and iconic technique of Shiba - the ability to Void Burst a roll - because I'm the kind of player who enjoys burning bright, identifying the critical points, opportunity windows, 'shatterpoints' of an encounter, and tactically pushing them with limited bursts of unlimited power. Managing that power was incredibly fun - both in "managing the resources" gameplay kind of a way, and more of a "great power comes with great responsibility, use it wisely" narrative way. I'm the kind of a person who gets excited to play with abilities that supercharge my character for a few turns, and force me to squeeze as much efficiency from these few turns to achieve my goals; this style of gameplay is a fun challenge of my strengths and weaknesses, as normally I'm a very cautious and slow'n'steady kind of a person; this kind of power that basically forces me to work on a clock is just so out of my normal style that it simply excites me, kind of like a rollercoaster ride should do : P. 

Add the fact that I love the more mystical/religious/philosophical aspect of martial arts, and note that I aesthetically am not a fan of dual wielding, so fantasy presented by both mechanics and fluff of a Shiba Bushi - great restraint hiding limited, but overwhelming and explosive power rooted in philosophical exploration of self, universe and how to align them into harmony by following the way of the sword - and its easy to see where my love towards Shiba Bushi comes from.

By this point, I think it's fairly self-explanatory why Shiba Bushi was one of first schools I've wanted to check when beta came out, and the first that I actually playtested personally as a player (I'm mostly a GM). At first, I was really impressed by the design idea behind the ability - I adore the Strife mechanic and really enjoy the possibilities it offers - but after seeing it in actual play, especially after running other schools first as a GM (the only schools my players didn't end up trying out are Unicorn Schools, Kuni Witch Hunter and Togashi Tattooed Monk), it just...felt flat. It definitely didn't fit the fantasy of Shiba Bushi of previous L5R RPGs, but that's okay; after all, L5R Narrative RPG has every right (and sometimes, duty!) to redefine certain fantasies and archetypes. 

The problem is, though, that I couldn't really find *any* fantasy enabled by the ability in question. Narratively, there isn't much explained on how it actually works - is Shiba just such a calming presence? Do they have some sort of mystical ability that calm others? Narrating the use of ability was always somewhat unintuitive. Gameplay wise...it's effect simply wasn't fun to use. At first, characters were in danger of Outbursting, yes; but they had many generic, freely available tools that could deal with it better and more efficient than Way of the Phoenix did. Later, the efficiency of these generic Strife Control abilities was cut in half, but Unmaskings and Compromised made edging the line of Composure actually *fun*. We had really hard time grasping why the ability is once per scene, why it's effect is so limited, and why it can actually be harmful to the user (by removing bonus successes gained when using Fire Stance); it was a really hard sell to perceive Way of the Phoenix balanced when placed next to Way of the Lion or - specifically when comparing Strife Control utility - Heart of the Lion. 

In the game I played, the ability soon turned into "I use it first time each scene I roll enough Strife to make full use of it, as timing is meaningless" checkbox that wasn't about fun or making it exciting; it was more about diligently making sure that I'm not wasting my resources; kind of like casting a small buff spell in a MMO every time it's off cooldown. It was basically a throwaway ability, a few extra points of Composure that sometimes could help save me from Bleeding or Dangerous Terrain. It wasn't a fun tool to use - it was really bad at deescalating conflicts, as it specifically needed an NPC to roll, and to be on verge of Outbursting/Unmasking for it to matter (and this could be done with Earth opportunities, too!), *and* the conflict had to be (de)escalatable by the amount of Strife placed on characters. It was tolerable, but not great; again, a few extra points of Composure. There are already many interesting tools geared towards deescalating conflicts - and they all achieve their goal in much more proactive and simply fun way than the roundabout Strife reduction of Shiba.

Soon, the ability received a buff - it finally removed Strife, instead of just preventing it from accumulating. It sill was pretty boring to use, and didn't invoke any sort of specific fantasy. It also was really, really bad in comparison to other Bushi abilities at actually being a Bushi; there is simply no competition with the powerfully reliably Akodo Commander, or precisely critical Kakita Duelist. Probably the most sad thing about Shiba Guardian was that Heart of The Lion is actually more powerful in fights than Way of the Phoenix is, as Ikoma Bards can really, really efficiently put "destroy the enemy psychologically first using a Shuji or two while dumping a big fat chunk of Strife on your opponent, and then knuckle fight them into a pulp when they suffer from massive debuffs" into the practice. The school got some buffs later, but they essentially amounted to the same thing - even more extra Composure.

And while extra Composure is good, it isn't really that interesting as an ability, especially if you focus on Void Ring - simply because Void Stance already gives you a lot of "extra Composure" due to its ability of ignoring Strife symbols on the dice. As Shiba setup seems to gravitate them towards high Water Earth Void builds, it gives them so many ways of managing Strife, that it feels actually like they lose any meaning! 

Then, a synergy between Shiba ability and Shugenja spellcasting mechanics were brought to our attention. And indeed, the interaction between Isawa ability and Shiba ability is spectacular...but that's pretty much still it. We tried it in practice, and my players actually really, REALLY disliked it. Why? The Shiba player felt like that discovery basically turned him into "Isawa Spiritual Backlash Prevention Bot", "forcing him" into reserving the use of the ability for Isawa spells. From the perspective of Isawa player, it robbed her of the excitement of having to choose between risking a Spiritual Backlash, delaying the spell, or casting a less powerful version of it. Shiba ability actively killed the interactivity for her, as it made the choices superfluous; there was no point in getting excited over the possibility of a Spiritual Backlash or having to choose between overwhelming power or cautious (and possibly as deadly) restraint, because Spiritual Backlash Prevention Bot was there to simply remove the risks and make one choice superior. The most fun thing about Strife is how it affects your rolls and how it creates a pressure valve (not unlike Dishonor in LCG) for overdoing yourself;  Shiba interacts with that system in the most possibly boring way possible - by turning it off. 

So, in a weird turn of events, my Isawa and my Shiba players ended up actively hating the interaction. Shiba - because it made him realize that his entire School Ability is basically designed to be a perk for another school, turning him into a glorified cheerleader and degrading him as a standalone character (nobody likes being an accessory to another school!); Isawa, because it made the point of actually choosing what dice to keep (one of our favourite parts of the system!) moot and uninteresting, robbing her of the drama promised to her by the mechanics of Spiritual Backlash. 

 

The fact that Phoenix unique Kata is only once per session is kind of a final nail to the coffin of Shiba Guardian - while it's effect is fun, the once per session restriction makes it rather meh in sessions that have multiple combat scenes, and the ability is actually a trap for not experienced character - because forcing enemies to focus fire you in this game is basically asking to get exploded! Honestly, if it was once per scene, it could actually be "real" School Ability of the Shiba - as it fits their theme of Yojimbo, can be used in Intrigues, Skirmishes and Duels alike; and it scales with their abilities using Opportunities. 

At this point, my Shiba player is seriously contemplating retraining to another school (Kakita or Akodo) as the School causes him nothing but grief and Real Life Strife, and I personally don't feel like playing a Shiba using a Shiba  school, too, especially after seeing how fun abilities like Heart of the Lion are and the incredible possibilities they offer to my toolbox oriented mind, or Doji Diplomats burst of diplomatic power, evoking similar "power spike fantasy" to Shiba of the old. My Isawa player actively asks the Shiba to *not use his ability because it makes the game less fun for her, even if it is less optimal this way*. 

I feel, personally, that the current ability of Shiba would make for fantastic technique - a Shuji or a ritual - possibly something that both characters need to possess to work in tandem. As a school ability, it just feels like it force-feeds me the narrative of Shiba Yojimbo and their Isawa Charge; something that might be interesting for a specific pair of characters, but simply flat out isn't fun for anything other than that. The ability just feels like it revolves too much balance-wise about a very specific scenario involving multiple player characters. While there are some uses of the Ability that are standalone - things like using it on your opponent when they score a massive Fire Stance roll to deny them Bonus Successes, or using it to prevent Fatigue from Bleeding - they feel like desperate jumping through flaming loops using system mastery to make the ability at least marginally useful and interesting beyond making it a few extra points of Composure.  My heart weeps in sadness, as the ability doesn't invoke the thing that made me love Shiba in the first place - their No-Thought, Void -based style of swordsmanship.

 

I contemplated buffing the Ability by making it restore 1 Void Point of the Shiba per-use, giving them back their identity of Void Point Masters; however, while this definitely allows the Shiba to use Void Points less sparingly, it feels like a somewhat boring way to do it.  The more I think about it, the more I feel the ability should either do something fun when you spend a Void Point, interact somehow with Strife in a way other than just flat out scraping it from the dice, or both. 

What are your opinions on Shiba Guardian? Have you playtested it? If so, is your experience similar to ours, or did you find the ability interesting, fun to use, or something else? If you homebrewed it, how did you do it? Do you have any ideas for alternatives for the Way of the Phoenix?

Edited by WHW

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I hate "once/session" timers. I can't think of any redeeming quality this kind of restriction on an ability has. Some of my groups only play intense 2-hour sessions, others set aside 6-7 hours, and I've also been involved in play-by-post campaigns that didn't have anything remotely comparable to a "session". Some groups play hard and fast and go through half a dozen encounters every session, others roleplay away and might go through an entire 6-hour session without even one. Some adventures are largely hack&slash, others are 90% social interactions. "Once/session" in practice really means the GM has to decide when the ability counter resets, it makes no sense otherwise. Now I don't have a problem with that kind of GM-based adjudication in general, L5R tends to have a ton of that anyway, but in this case that's silly. That sort of GM involvement should be aimed at tailoring the proceedings towards the players' characters (in return those characters should be suitable for the campaign the GM runs), it shouldn't make the GM a bean counter. It's also the sort of thing that turns players off. Nobody I know wants to be second-guessing themselves about whether or not to use an ability they have no way of resetting (short of packing up your things and coming back next time) whenever an encounter happens they can't know is the main one for that session. Shugenja have to manage their spell slots, but they at least a) have a bunch of them, b) can refresh some of them using a spell and c) can just decide to call it an in-game day and rest (circumstances permitting). The GM and the shugenja player can ake that a reasonable, working restriction. "Once/session" does no such thing.
 

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The Shiba Guardian was the first character I made for this Beta, since alongside the Toku Bushi they’re my favorite Bushi.

I tried and tried to like it, but in the end I didn’t because it didn’t felt like a Shiba Bushi. It is a Yojimbo, mind you and helping others is nice however it lost its essence of the Void manipulation that stood them aside from other Bushi, made them unique...

What we got is a Yojimbo, can’t say it’s the best Yojimbo since we don’t have the other dedicated Yojimbo, the famous Daidoji Iron Warrior to compare him to... But it lacks the flavor of being able to manipulate the Void, while I see others that kept that essence that made them distinctive.

I thought about home brewing it, but I need more experience with the mechanics to get a balanced product. However I thought of using the VP in a fun way, maybe spending Void points to activate a 1 per session technique an additional time, I don’t know... 

Edited by Nheko
Forgot to add more info.

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We also used the "Fire Stance turn off" thing once or twice, but it felt really weak, especially when compared to other bushi school abilities. I would say it felt...incidental?

My group really feels that the "Shiba stopping Spiritual Backlash" thing should be a Ritual that allows two participating character to estabilish "a link, a bond" that allows them to use this kind of an effect once per scene, or that it should be just handled by Shibas spamming Assistance on their Shugnejas.

One homebrew we tried was adding "...and Shiba regains one Void Point" to the ability, which made it feel stronger, but still didn't help with it being boring; it just made Shiba spend a Void Point each scene during which he had full Void Bank.

I might try out one of following:
a) When Shiba spends a Void Point, she adds School Rank extra rolled dice 

b) ...she keeps extra School Rank dice

c) ...she adds School Rank extra rolled dice, and may use Void Ring's value to determine number of overall kept Dice if in non-Void Stance, and non-Void Ring when in Void Stance

d) When making a roll, Shiba may spend a Void Point for the following effect: Pick a Ring. Resolve the current roll as if you were using both Rings at once: use the better ring to determine the number of rolled and kept Ring Dice, gain the benefit of both stances (if appicable), and spend up to School Rank in opportunities for Ring-specific opportunity options belonging to the invoked Ring. 

e) School Rank times per scene, Shiba may activate an effect that would require a Void Point without actually spending one.

f) Once per Scene, spend a Void Point.  Pick a Stance. For next School Rank turns, you are considered to be in that Stance in addition to the Stance you choose at start of the turn. When determining Rolled and Kept Dice, use better of the two Rings. When sustaining an Injury, resolve it as if you were only in one Stance. 

g) As above, but: "...this effect ends prematurely if your Strife exceeds half your Composure."

h) As above, but the choice of "extra Stance" is fixed to be Void.

Edited by WHW

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Game needs to decide if it wants to be balanced around abilities useable every single turn (Akodo, Kakita, which can be pretty much translated to keeping extra dice of a specific type - Akodo is extra successes, Kakita is extra opportunities that can be only used to modify Severity, Mirumoto, Ikoma), or if it wants to focus more on big once per scene effects (Isawa Elementalist, Doji Diplomat). 

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On 1/3/2018 at 11:19 AM, WHW said:

Game needs to decide if it wants to be balanced around abilities useable every single turn (Akodo, Kakita, which can be pretty much translated to keeping extra dice of a specific type - Akodo is extra successes, Kakita is extra opportunities that can be only used to modify Severity, Mirumoto, Ikoma), or if it wants to focus more on big once per scene effects (Isawa Elementalist, Doji Diplomat). 

Having both of these is fine. At a very basic level they correspond to the two types of encounters or challenges you can be faced with: high quality low quantity and low quality high quantity. Nuke vs grind. Characters often have both these options regardless of school techs anyway, it’s just a matter of whether they can leverage them. It’s the once per session stuff that doesn’t work, simply because “one session” is not a clearly enough defined parameter.

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One other homebrew I'm going to test:

WAY OF THE PHOENIX:
School Rank times per Scene, Shiba Guardian may activate an effect requiring spending a Void Point without actually spending one. Additionally, whenever Shiba Guardian Seizes the Moment, instead of rolling a Ring Dice, you may add a rolled dice showing either an Opportunity or a Success. 

 

^
Versatility, Void Point focus, less "powerrful" than either a Kakita or Akodo in terms of a single roll, but instead it allows you to pick whatever dice you need for the current situation. I pondered about making it an auto Explosive Success, but that felt like too much.

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