- L5R Story, Game of Thrones, and Dragonlance story spoilers in this post.
Running a storyline CCG the way AEG did it is not an easy task. As I had mentioned earlier we looked at our storyline games as a hybrid card game/rpg. We created factions for players to identify with, and while there were thousands of characters over the life of the product the story revolved around the factions. In L5R these factions were the Clans of the Empire.
A lot went into building a clan that players might identify with. In this area, game play, story, and art played an equal role. L5R was a war game and each of the factions had a play style. The Lion were attackers, The Crab were defenders, The Crane were politicians and the empires best duelists etc etc. The clan colors acted as a uniform of sorts and the graphic design and art for each faction was unique. If you showed up at an L5R event wearing red everyone knew you were a Phoenix. The characters we introduced players to from each clan were reflections of our vision for that clan.
And then we layered in the storyline. The storyline was a framework of what could happen but how things would play out was left to the players as much as possible. The L5R story began with the Emperor of Rokugan being possessed by the dark god Fu Leng. The emperor’s word in all situations is law and to be Samurai means that you must show loyalty to The Empire and the Emperor above all else. This created a very tenuous situation in the Empire right out the gate.
Samurai stories are hard to tell. Everyone knows that Samurai and Ninja are super cool but the things that drive a Samurai to make the decisions they make are very different than in western fiction. To a samurai honor is the most important part of their lives. This is where the L5R tag line “Honor is a force more powerful than steel.” comes from. The emperor being possessed drove the entire Imperial Edition story arc and would put honor and what it meant to the test for all of the clans.
There are so many amazing moments in each arc of L5R fiction but for me the moment that stands out in the Imperial Arc (before the Day of Thunder of course) is the death of Matsu Tsuko. Lion Clan champion. The Lion clan had been split into two factions. The traditional Lion lead by champion Matsu Tsuko who had chosen to follow their ancient vow to the Emperor to the letter and serve him even though he may be possessed, and the rogue faction Toturi’s Army lead by disgraced Lion Clan champion Akodo Toturi who was fighting against the Emperor.
The L5R team were not just working on the game. They were fans and we all identified with the different clans and it was no secret that the lead Dave Williams was a huge Lion clan fan and Matsu Tsuko was HIS champion. Before we would begin work on each new set we would have a big meeting and discuss what was happening with the story, game play, etc. In one particular meeting we were discussing the marketing moments that were upcoming in the story. There was some cool stuff but nothing that really made us stand up and say wow and so we brainstormed more ideas. At one point in the meeting. I believe John Wick said. “We could kill Matsu Tsuko. She could commit seppuku to restore her honor and reunite the broken Lion clan.”
Seppuku is a ritual suicide performed by Samurai for multiple reasons but the most compelling is the idea of restoring one’s honor. It is a very delicate subject and was something I told the L5R team from the beginning that we would not throw around lightly.
When this was suggested. Dave went red in the face and just stared at us for a second and then he blurted something to the effect of. “No you won’t, NO you won’t!!!” For me that was enough to seal the deal. My understanding of samurai fiction was still in its infancy but I fully understand the reaction that we wanted players to have and this felt like the perfect penultimate moment to lead us into the Day of Thunder. For those of you not familiar with the L5R I would compare this to the death of Sturm from Dragon Lance or Ned Stark from Game of Thrones.
While that clans battled each other and Fu Leng for control of Rokugan an even bigger battle for the fate of the Empire was being fought back at our offices.
The first ad we ever ran for L5R had the headline: “The story ends at Gen Con 1997”. It was a bold statement and our intention when we started L5R was to build multiple storyline CCG’s and release them in story arcs. When one would end we would begin another. First L5R was just starting to gain momentum and second, we were having trouble designing the second CCG. Turns out that designing a CCG from the ground up is hard work and we were in no position to promise delivery of a replacement for L5R.
The options were: Keep the promise and end L5R as scheduled, or break the promise and keep making new L5R content after the end of the Clan War storyline.
The battle that ensued between Ryan and I was a knock down drag out affair that lasted weeks. We wanted to stay on plan and a lot of topics were discussed but the big reasons we decided to continue publishing L5R were, first L5R was just starting to gain momentum and second, we were having trouble designing the second CCG. Turns out that designing a CCG from the ground up is hard work and we were in no position to promise delivery of a replacement for L5R. Ryan finally conceded but it would not be until The Day of Thunder that he felt it was actually the right decision.
I think all of us that were involved with L5R in its early days would love to go back to the alternate universe where we shelve L5R after the Imperial story and do Doomtown or another game and sell the players on the idea of arcs like movies. Having done so many CCG’s I can see that players not only fell in love with the story but also the mechanics. We did get crossover from one CCG to the next but not as much as would have been necessary to make the original idea work. I guess we will never know but what we do know is that the decision to keep going lead to so many amazing moments and a lot of joy for a lot of people. We have 20 years of memories and I am only on year two as I write this.