Cultural Game Design

Someone, and I feel like a heel for not remembering who, just did a very nice review of Legend of the Five Rings, 4th edition. I have a lot of conceptual love for L5R, though most of that love was fiercely beaten out of me by Second edition. Third edition looked very pretty, but was sufficiently errata-laden that I never made the leap to picking it up. 4e sounds a lot like a cleanup of 3e, and that’s an admirable thing, but I genuinely don’t know if the spark is still there.

But it might be. L5R has left a fairly profound footprint in my mind despite the fact that I never really considered myself a fan.[1] At first blush it might seem like it’s all about the Samurai. After all, while there have been a few other Samurai games, none of them have been nearly as successful (in large part because L5R is _not_ a historical game) so it clearly stands out in that light. But really? Not so much. I mean, I enjoy getting my Yojimbo on as much as the next guy but it’s not a genre that grabs me the way that some others do.

No, what sticks with me is the fact that L5R is such a fantastically structured cultural game.

That’s a big and somewhat unclear statement, so let me zero in on the pieces that make it up.
First and foremost, the system is strongly integrated into the setting yet still robust. You can re-use parts of it for other games if you want. You could even use if for another samurai game and it would work ok. But it works at its absolute best in Rokugan. This shows up in many places, from the application of specific skills for things like the Rokugan Tea Ceremony to character creation, where the character’s house (with the specific social contexts that implies) serves where other fantasy games would use race, and is much better designed.

That leads to the next point: when you finish chargen, your character has a place in the world, even if it’s as a context. You have a lord, You have family. You have the relationships between the clans to serve as a baseline which you may then personally proceed to deviate from.[2] It’s a small thing, but it goes a long way. In other games like FATE or Smallville, entire sessions are dedicated to creating that sense of connection, but in L5R, it came baked right in.

That was possible because of the third (and possibly most contentious) points. The setting really carries weight.

Setting in RPGs is a serious business, and by no means am I asserting that L5R had the best (or even most gameable[3]) setting of any game ever. Many games had vastly richer settings, from Tekumel to Talislantia to Stafford’s Shamanic babies. Some of those settings are deep, crazy deep, with the kind of cultural consistency that can only come of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

But they take some work to get into. And by some, I may actually mean “A Lot”. The very things that makes them such compelling and rich setting also demand such an investment in lore that they’re not necessarily friendly to step into. In contrast, Rokugan shamelessly steals from bad history to create enough identifiable elements that it’s very easy to grasp.[4]

Rokugan managed to strike an interesting balance between various directions of setting design. As noted, it did not have so much depth that it created a barrier of entry, but neither was it a simple disposable shell of “just enough setting to get you started” (like the default setting of 4e). In shamelessly treating history as something to abuse and plunder, it kept itself from being bogged down in details (Something which, I think, kept Sengoku from getting the love it deserved) while still being recognizable. It also had a fairly narrow focus, so there was no danger of it being a Kitchen Sink setting like the Forgotten Realms.[5]

All of which combines to explain my initial assertion – it was probably the strongest example I’ve seen of a cultural game. A game where setting and system (and, to be honest, some of the elements of physical design) combined to create a complete cultural game.
This is on my mind as I think about the heartbreaker. Having that kind of context as a part of setup is pretty powerful. But that’s easier said than done. There are ways for it to go impressively wrong, something I’ll chew on tomorrow.

1 – And, despite investing a little in the cards, never got into the CCG either.

2 – Now, this may not seem like a big deal as virtually every 90’s game had organizations with strong opinions of one another, and that’s a fair cop, but L5R lifted itself above the pack by the fact that those relationships did not feel tacked on. To pick on Vampire, each clan was geographically and culturally diverse, and the idea that its membership could agree on what to have for breakfast was a stretch, to say nothing of having a unified view of another equally diverse group. The sterotypes made a nice shorthand, but they didn’t have a lot of power to them. In contrast, the houses were an important part of the setting, with concrete locations and people of importance, and the perceptions of the other clans were an extension of the clan’s dealings with one another. That is to say, they had real weight within the setting.

3 – That prize goes to Feng Shui

4 – Some of this is a function of good design, but some of it is – I suspect – a pleasant side effect of having a CCG as a foundation. A CCG needs clear, iconic, easily expressed ideas and groups which can be revealed to have depth over time. The clans work so well because they’re designed to work well in a CCG, and they’re really the foundation of the setting as a whole. Tellingly, I can remember exactly one piece of geography in Rokugan (the Wall) but I can easily recall the clans.

5 – Is that an unfair comparison? After all, the Forgotten Realms (and Eberron) are both quite successful and popular. Why not emulate that?

There are a couple answers, but the first is that it’s a hard way to sell a game. D&D is a fairly open-ended game, and as a result it needs settings that can encompass the range of possibilities it suggests. This results in setting which are on one hand wonderfully diverse but lacking in focus. Most fans of these settings are actually fans of narrow slices of them. For example, I really dig Waterdeep, and I have a legacy fondness for Phlan, but I am mostly uninterested in other parts of the setting, except out of a sort of academic curiosity. When you’re trying to cast a wide net over an existing group of players, you want the net to cover as wide a range as possible so that every prospective customer (and novel/tie-in buyer) can see something they like and get excited about.

If you don’t already have an audience, that’s a less compelling practice because you have no initial buy in. Even if you put something for everyone in your setting, you have no guarantee that they’ll look to try to find it in the first place. To create an audience, you need to wear your selling point on your sleeve, so to speak. You want a setting that’s about something that you can quickly and easily express. L5R was absolutely that.

10 thoughts on “Cultural Game Design

  1. gamefiend

    Everything you say is true, but for whatever reason I could not get into L5R like I really wanted to.

    Part of me suspects it is the fans. Every time I’ve tried to get into it, the people were so invested in what was there that it felt like we were just playing out stuff that had already happened somewhere else in the system’s timeline.

    Another part of me suspects that it is the rules. I have always carried a dislike for the rules tied to L5R. The rules seem to take more than they give.

    Regardless, I saw the latest edition (4th?) of L5R and I’m still again considering a purchase.

    Such is the power of strong setting.

  2. Cam_Banks

    My vote for strongest cultural game? Pendragon. I found that even more rich and baked in than L5R, but then I suppose I had an Arthurian bias and haven’t been a fan of the samurai genre either.

  3. Joshua Unruh

    Long time lurker but I had to chime in. I agree with so much in this post because these thoughts are exactly why I bought and intend to run an L5R game in the next couple weeks even though I haven’t thought about the game in just shy of a decade.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts dealing with the disadvantages of a baked in setting or if you even see them as disadvantages at all.

    What I mean is, I plan on running a multi-Clan group who, at least at the start and for some time, won’t have any specific set-up as far as spending time together. No shortcuts with Emerald Magistrates or anything like that, I will bring them together in-game.

    But there are some pretty obvious pitfalls there that I don’t think are insurmountable (or else I wouldn’t try) but are certainly present and due to the richness and texture of the setting. I’ve got some general ideas on how to deal with this, but I wanted to hear your thoughts as GM, designer, etc.

  4. Rob Donoghue

    @gamefiend The fan issue is an interesting one because there was a certain amount of schism between the card folks and the RPG folks, and like all geek holy wars, that was fun. Combine that with the fact that John Wick was being “The Wick” for some of that time and giving the fanbase a cue for how to behave…yeah. Not so much.

    @Cam I am utterly shocked to hear that. 🙂 But it’s a good point – Pendragon has many of the same advantages (and, frankly, probably a better system) but the tradeoff is it’s even more narrow in its scope. I know they’ve tried to expand that, but it always seems to be stepping away from what makes it good in the first place. But the rub is that the narrowing is absolutely double edged. It is a little bit easier for me to fit an oddball game idea in to L5R than it is into Pendragon. Which is not saying it’s better, just pointing to which is the tool for what sort of thing.

    @Joshua Tomorrow I’m going to talk some about how you can set up the setting badly, but assuming you avoid those pitfalls then, to be honest, most of the problems with a strict setting are obvious enough that they can be easily addressed. 90%+ of them boil down to “This element in the canon is a bad match for my game”, and the fix for that is usually a straightforward “so I got rid of it or changed it”.

    It’s not a panacea. When you make such changes, you need to communicate them, but that’s not hard. There’s a danger that there might be some other elements that depend on the one you’re changing, but those can usually be addressed in a case-by-case basis.

    Really, the only serious problem comes when you have a live publication schedule where new information is released which is at odds with your change (or, worse, is at odds with the games own previously published information) but that is something that’s more daunting in theory than in practice. If the new book comes out, you use what you want, and you’re good to go.

    So, yes, there can be hurdles, but I think they’re easily enough addressed that if the setting excites you, they’re more than worth handling yourself.

  5. Reverance Pavane

    One problem with the early Japanese-style RPGs were that they were written by experts in the field (Bob Charrete for Bushido and Tony Bryant for Sengoku), which meant that, despite all the helpful advice, they were very simulationist and usually assumed a certain level of innate understanding of a very different cultural matrix. The game systems were also generally rather dense and described rather poorly. Frex, the original Tyr/Phoenix Games copy of Bushido was much cleaner than the later (and more readily available FGU one). And the final death knell was the complete lack of supporting adventures to give the uninformed a template to work from (two published adventures for Bushido and one for Sengoku).

    And a large filmography does no one any good if you can’t obtain them. And back then it was rather difficult to do so if you were not already into Chanbarra.

    L5R‘s advantage is that it stepped away from all that. So it had a rather poor reception from the Japanophile crowd* but was much more accessable to the average punter who just wants to have a good game of pretend samurai. It was also well supported, and AEG made an effort in investing the player base in the evolution of the world.** Add in different media (a CCG) and you have another avenue for player investment.

    If you are interested in a game that preserves the forms of the samurai culture without indulging heavily in the substance I highly recommend you look at John Wick’s new game, Blood and Glory.

    [* Of which I admit I am one (and had run a successful Bushido campaign for years, with all the difficulty that involved in bringing players into the culture).]

    [** Although apparently the company cheated at the end.]

    [@Cam: Agree about Pendragon. But I think a lot of that is that the genre is so readily accessible to the public already, immersed as they are in Hollywood movies and the like. So everyone knows already how to play a Knight of the Round Table before they sit down to generate a character. Even then, it contains sufficient depth that you can set it in any portrayal of the Romances. Or even go deeper into a historical rather than romantic portrayal. Setting the evolution of the story of Arthur alongside the historical evolution of the Arthurian mythos and medieval history was a brilliant masterstroke. The Great Pendragon Campaign deserves all the kudos it gets. And coupled with good writing (that only improved with each edition) and plenty of ready-made adventures for source material (and useful one-shots).]

  6. Andy K

    they were very simulationist and usually assumed a certain level of innate understanding of a very different cultural matrix
    Not so certain re “simulationist”, but they certainly were dry as shit. I’ve got Sengoku still on my shelf as one of my last “will not get rid of it, even though I won’t ever play it; it’s that good a reference” games. But it’s biggest flaw isn’t the amount of simulation required – The game actually assisted with this a lot. It was “…but what do I DO?”

    The game offered culture, occupations, Culture, setting and CULTURE… but it never told you what to do with it.

    The sample characters in the book were a great example of this: “So, a sumo wrestler, a noodle merchant, a geisha, and a farmer, team up together and… do what?”

    If you had focus and created that focus yourself (“lets all be ninja/samurai/farmers/merchants”) it was great, but the book didn’t tell you how to do so.

    On the other hand, L5R was reallllly spotty in the way that it borrowed from “The Orient”, but it pretty much tells you what to do and who to punch at every opportunity: The Shadowlands, other clans, snooty Crane, shadowy Scorpions. In that way, it shines.

    As a Level 14 Japanophile (language and culture, not so much history) I gotta say that I liked L5R for a lot of reasons. But like others, the Japanese language mistakes are so crippling that I basically change the names of all locations and some people in order to run it without being in near-physical pain.

    I actually think 4e is a huge improvement on all levels, not just how it’s pretty, but how it ignores most of the complicated and intricate backstory. The GM advice is great, totally helps you make scenarios for it quickly. The supplement Enemies of the Empire is no Creature Catalog or Stats Splatbook, it’s a genuine resource for bringing in more horrors intot eh game (and step-by-step guidance on how to do so).

    Despite all odds, I am terribly, terribly impressed by the new edition.

    I still will likely hack it a little as I did 1e, to add a Tenra Bansho-style wound track and Fate/Fanmail system, but otherwise it seems really solid. Too bad they didn’t get it right with the 3rd edition, but eventually getting it right was worth 3e’s failure.


  7. Reverance Pavane

    The problem with the early chanbarra games is that they were written by amateur experts in the field and self-professed Japanophiles (Bob Charrette for Bushido and Tony Bryant for Sengoku). Which meant that they were very simulationist in nature. There was, despite attempts to the contrary, an innate assumption of knowledge or at least understanding of the cultural matrix. In other words they were already written for the converted.

    Add to that the rules were generally poorly organised (I much preferred the original Tyr/Phoenix Games version of Bushido for rule system clarity to the FGU one which was extremely impenetrable), and that there was little support material to give an uninformed gamemaster an idea of how to go about presenting a suitable adventure.

    And having an excellent filmography is little help when, pre-Internets, it was often very difficult to get copies of these films in the first place (and if you did know how to get them, you were probably already a convert to the genre).

    L5R‘s advantage was it sidestepped the issue and produced a non-simulationist and non-chanbarra game, with lots of additional support material. Which meant it was never popular with the Japanophiles*, but it was much more accessable to the uninformed. Furthermore AEG went to great effort to involve the players and gamemasters in deciding the subsequent evolution of the world. Which invested the players in it. Having a CCG helped too (less effort to invest in the matrix than an RPG). The advent of the Internet helped immensely as well.

    If you want a good recreation of the form of chanbarra without needless substance, then I highly recommend you look at John Wick’s new game Blood and Glory (which is a very unfortunate name).

    Also many of the recent one-shot story games, such as Kagematsu, Mist-Robed Gate, and The Mountain Witch are worthwhile, although they have the advantage of increased familiarity with the genre and a much more constrained path.

    [* Of which I freely admit I was one]

  8. Reverance Pavane

    @Rob: Sorry for the double comment. Blogger lied to me. But since one got replied to and the other suggest some other excellent games, I’ll leave it be.

    @Andy: Exactly what I was trying to say. They give you the tools to create the world but don’t provide any examples to animate it. One of the most powerful things about Land of the Rising Sun* was the little one-page story at the back of the rules which gave an example of how you could get characters together with some monsters and have an interesting adventure that was very much in the style of the genre.

    And there are lots of things that make me itch when I read L5R, much as you twitched about the language, which was the reason it never found much purchase with me. But then I already had an active Bushido campaign, so there wasn’t a great deal of incentive for us to change.

    But you are right. It was much more digestable and people could enter the game with a much greater idea of the stuff that was appropriate, without already needing to be immersed in the genre.

    [*Now that was a very simulationist game (in the RPG sense as well). Apologies for invoking a term that was already heavily laden with (in this case) confusing context.]

  9. Lisa Padol

    So, what did 2nd edition L5R do wrong? For those who’ve read it, what makes 4th edition worth buying?

    I started reading 3rd edition, and my eyes glazed over in the history section. I am guessing that a lot of the events were based on CCG tournaments. Whether that’s true or not, it read like “This happened, and then this happened.” History, not Story. I didn’t get a feel for the world, apart from “Chaos, people fighting, all that”. I don’t know if I was having a particularly short attention span that week, or if it’s a legitimate complaint.


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