After three days of play at Gencon 1997, the players remaining in the L5R championship event had been reduced to the final 16 contestants. We had decided long before the show that we would clear out our booth (at the time I think it was a 20 by 30 island) and play the finals right there on the floor of Gen Con exhibitors room. We had done it the year prior without much incident.
This was the last time Gen Con would let that happen.
Imagine a major CCG finale being crammed into a 20 by 30 booth in a convention hall. 8 player tables, judges, staff, and then the throng of people wanting to watch the finale. Heck there were 200 L5R players that had been eliminated from the event plus people who had been following the story. It was a madhouse from start to finish. We did not imagine that so many people would want to watch the finals of the event but the legend of L5R had grown and not only L5R players were there to see the finals. My continued apologies to the companies with booths around us that year. It was not cool to block the aisles all day Sunday. Well, it was cool, but we wouldn’t do it again.
All of the Major Clans were represented on the final day. We were prepared to put on a show. John Wick had prepared envelopes in the possibility of each Clan winning. After the first round of play a number of Clans were knocked out and John got up on a chair, and being the great story teller and GM he is, began weaving the tale of the final battle AND as he did so would rip up the envelopes of the eliminated Clans. It was very dramatic. In the round of 8, the final Shadowlands player was eliminated and everyone cheered. The Emerald Empire was saved. In the final 4 was Crane vs Phoenix and Lion vs Phoenix.
A Crane vs Lion finale was a dream finals scenario for us considering how prominent Doji Hoturi and Toturi were in the story. But before that happened the Shadowlands had one last word. You see, five Phoenix clan players had made a pact before the event began. They were each playing for one of the elemental masters of the Phoenix and some of them had turned to the Shadowlands for help. When the final Phoenix player was eliminated he jumped up and took off his Phoenix shirt and underneath was a Shadowlands shirt. He screamed to the crowd. “I played for Isawa Tadaka the tainted master of earth!!! If I had won Gencon…. There would be 1000 years of darkness.” A hush from the crowd and then another cheer. Holy crap you cannot make this stuff up. THAT is why the L5R story worked. Because that player believed that he had a level of ownership over the L5R story. And he was right! If he had won we would have plunged the Empire into the depths of the Shadowlands.
Then things got strange in only the way they can at an L5R event. Dave Williams Recalls that the he two finalist did not want to play each other. They just wanted to make sure the story ended the way they wanted. We literally and to convince them to play. After they agreed to play their match, they played as hard as they could until the final game where the Lion player had an overwhelming force to send to attack the Crane’s final province. He declared the attack, pushed the army forward and looked up at the Crane player.
“Is that it?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
They NEVER resolved the attack or ended the game. Everyone knew who the winner was, but they would NOT defeat each other. It had to be Toturi & Hoturi defeating the Dark Lord together. That’s all that mattered. In the end, the Lion Clan won Gencon but the first L5R story got a storybook ending in large part due to the players.
Rich Fukataki who was instrumental in bringing Pokemon to Wizards of the Coast was at the event and called it the greatest marketing event he had ever seen. How could we know that ownership of the story was so powerful. When L5R was at it’s best the players were the true masters of the story. The belief that if you were a champion or did something super cool for the community you would influence canon and become a legend yourself was as powerful as anything we have ever done.
At some point near the end of that Sunday, Ryan Dancey put his arm around me and said ”You were right Z. I’m glad we are continuing this game.”
At Gencon that year we looked like the king goose on the pond, and we were. What was surprising to us was that Wizards of the Coast had purchased FRPG that same summer and there was almost no news or talk about that at Gencon. L5R was already tied up in a very confusing partnership with AEG, FRPG, and Isomedia and many people felt that AEG was the publisher so for the first part of that time it was not big news. How it happened was as unbelievable a story as the ones we were weaving in our games. I’ll jump back to that story next.