Never know what's next.
This was a submission from last year during our Race for the Throne event. This article is long, but a great read for those who may not be familiar with Legend of the Five Rings and why it has such a grip on its players.
Girl Converted into Magical Samurai Cultist after Five Years' Resistance: Film at 11
by Victoria Joyner
My introduction into L5R came about in a period of mourning. Following Warlord's demise in 2008, a game in which I had kicked much booty, I was in a fit of postmortem depression. I needed to fill the void in my life where my competitive cardboard habit used to be, at least until details of the rumored Warlord: 4E surfaced or Open Warlord tournaments had a miraculous popularity surge (update: it didn't.). Tom, my more responsible half, had been looking for sneaky ways to get me interested in Legend of the Five Rings, his alma mater of card games, for months. He finally wore down my resolve in May, and I decided to give the magical samurai business a fair chance. In the beginning, I admit I was prepared to hate the game. I had no intentions of liking it or attempting to like it, and I arbitrarily blamed it for the death of Warlord, which did nothing for my perceptions. (I suppose I was still working through that pesky 'anger' stage of the grieving process.) It's been several months now, and lately I've written fanfiction, participated in the RPG online and offline, read more of the official L5R story than I ever did of my old English assignments, and prepared a costume for my next major event. Clearly, something went awry in my original plan, because I broke the cardinal rule: I fell in love. No game before had ever managed to appeal equally to my cutthroat competitive side and my flights of creativity.
It didn't happen on a whim, though. L5R had to impress me, and it had to do so on an uphill incline. There were a lot of things I objected to and claimed were insurmountable, but over time my perceptions have changed. I decried the game's lack of randomization for months. My years in table-top and MMORPG gaming had taught me that balance was a lie, and the die was the only equalizer. Playing without it was strange, as I had to convince myself that every game wasn't preordained based solely from who sat down as my opponent. I've grown to not only accept it, but embrace it over time. While I'll always have good and bad match-ups no matter what I play, it's a lot easier to swallow defeat due to facing a strategy made to counter mine rather than blowing the whole game because my die-fu misbehaved in the finals. This acceptance has not only made more cognizant and appreciative of player skill and improved my timing and bluffing skills, but has also spared many a naughty die from the radioactive fury of my microwave.
When I started attending tournament play, the one-game rounds really threw me. I'd gotten used to best two out of three, and one forty-five minute game when I first started playing usually found me enmeshed in a bushido brawl trying to understand my opponent's cards and making play mistakes left, right, and center. It bugged me that my whole day could get ruined by a single off game or a play mistake, but I adapted. First, I quit making play mistakes, (I'm flawless these days. Really.) and then I realized that playing in single game rounds all day made me a whole lot less fatigued. I was no longer going into late rounds with a headache and a desperate urge to set my cards on fire.
The biggest issue I had to get over, though, was the preconceived notion of L5R being 'that samurai game' I'd heard about for ages. I had no driving passion for anything involving katanas, bushido, kimonos, or tacking suffixes onto everyone's name, so I figured L5R had absolutely nothing to offer me from the standpoint of personal interest. That impression lasted about as long as it took me to get formally introduced to the Shadowlands and the Spider Clan; some poring over lore occurred, and I gained appreciation for the depth of the storyline and the setting's flavor. It's true that my research led me to the conclusion that the Great Clans were all just too darn silly for my taste, and I'd rather just mess with their heads (or eat them with an oni), but at least it caught my interest. Something for everybody!
Seriously, though, it's the personal stake in L5R that makes the biggest difference for me. The process of deciding what clan I wanted to support was the most revealing factor of this aspect; the fact it actually mattered, even in some small way, who I wanted to favor was a new experience. In studying the clans to decide my loyalties, I learned a whole lot about exactly how different each clan is. It wasn't just the same team dressed up with different mascots like I thought. There's something special about every clan, and as much as I rib about them, there's no clan that doesn't fascinate me in at least some part. Even if it's in a morbid kind of way (“Time for Isawa's Maho Rehab Facility holding yet? Anyone? Anyone?”). I like hearing about how the clan families interact. I like seeing cards specifically aimed at them, or noticing a trait they seem to hold the biggest sway over. It lends to the distinctive feel garnered about each clan through reading the fiction.
I've realized there's a wealth of psychological data available based on what clan players support, too. I'm sure of it. Forget Jungian doctrines, just find out if they favor Crane or Crab and you'll have access to everything you need to know. Go a step further, and ask who their secondary option will be, and the implications are limitless. For reference, I favor the Spider first, but the Lion come up in close second – work that one out for a while.
The influence of players on the game is something I've heard praised, and for good reason. The sheer range of avenues for involvement in the Race for the Throne mega-event floored me when I started looking into it, and my only regret was not being part of it sooner. I never expected a CCG to care whether or not I could write, make a video, scribble a poster concept on a napkin, or mail in a ridiculous number of paper foldings. I especially never expected a CCG to care in the least about my bizarre theme deck concepts, as the attitude of “be the winner, or lose with everyone else” prevailed in most arenas. Finally, an outlet for my just-for-kicks ideas with a more tangible reward than the bemusement of my peers.
It never occurred to me that dominating a major tournament would ever mean more than taking some shiny prizes home. Not that extra incentive is really needed, but having permanent impact on a game you play is pretty awesome. The storyline prizes, when I first heard about them, definitely made my ears perk. Seeing story choices honored in fiction and in card form, even in the face of player options taken in the interest of giggles rather than logic, just warms the cockles of my geeky little heart. Having personal investment in the future of events, from great impact to small, makes a huge difference between experiencing a game and merely playing it. I care about my cardboard, darn it. Or, at least, the ideas that cardboard represents. I mean, paper's paper.
In the dog-eat-dog realm of the Internet, especially from the perspective of a gamer, it's unthinkable to be accepted into the fold of a far-ranging community without first paying your dues in the form of raising your post count to prove your 'net credentials. Being embraced into the warped, tainted bosom of my clan from the get-go was a remarkable experience, and I hope everybody feels as welcome in their clan choices as I did. L5R is my first encounter with a game that can claim team-based content. It's remarkable to see a clan work together to bring about something amazing (see: the retrieval of the Tao, the aforementioned ridiculous number of paper foldings, and so on.) Honestly, I really do feel like I'm a part of a grander scheme, like working on a community project. (If said project featured oni, magic, horse-riding amazons, and Emperors with truncated lifespans, but I digress.) For once, I don't feel like my involvement is based solely on the factor of what my pocketbook can provide. Not that I've deluded myself into thinking that financial support isn't the most important support in any game, but it's nice to not be constantly reminded. Unlike certain computer games I could name which convince me I won't need to harvest organs to stay competitive, then pull the rug out and show me what I could do for the low, low price of one of my kidneys.
The clincher of my conversion into a fan came down to the game's complexity, though. L5R has something of a steep learning curve, with some bewildering concepts for a new player even coming from a gaming background as I did. Instead of getting frustrated, though, I took it as a challenge. Maybe when I master the thing, I'll get bored, but that day's a long way off. I haven't even begun to delve into the possibilities granted by the whole idea of multiple win conditions. Where I come from, it was either play smash-smash-smash until someone cries, or... well, be the one doing the crying. Not that I object to smash-a-thons in my gaming (I collect oni for a reason) but it's nice knowing I can, at any time, confuse people by playing Lion Enlightenment or Spider Dishonor. I'd play Maw and spit out courtiers if I thought I'd get a laugh out of it.
Fact is, making a deck in L5R really made me think, and not even necessarily about stupid, ineffective stuff, either. Deciding on the clan and the win condition was the easy part; deciding how I'd make it work was when the fun started. Mastering the art of creating synergy between Fate and Dynasty decks is hours of entertainment. It's awesome being able to tell during play which deck received the most attention; when I hear nothing but “Pass” three-fourths the game, I know the Fate deck didn't get a whole lot of love. When I'm watching endless holdings or pricey Personalities get flushed, I know someone's in need of Dynasty help. And I know when I'm sucking down six action card triggers while simultaneously fending off an army in turn four that my opponent has got it juuuuuust right. That's what I wanna be when I grow up.
Any game that gives me fifty ways to kill a man will always have a special place in my heart. That's another part of deckbuilding I enjoy: the multitude of ways I can accomplish the same task. If I want to bow someone, do I want to get honor for it? Do I want to dishonor them if they don't? Do I want to get a force bonus out of it? Give them a penalty? Humiliate them in public? Demand their firstborn child? Their lunch money? The options are endless, and even though there are definite power cards that everybody wants, I'm not required to use them to get the effect I need. Besides, all the proliferation of power cards means is that I get to tell someone who has been playing much longer than I have what my cards do, for once. Sometimes it even works out for me.
I know deck copying is inevitable. People want to win, and there's no shame in sticking to what works. On the bright side, though, it doesn't seem L5R players suffer from the cookie-cutter syndrome quite so badly as in some environments. While, of course, deck concepts are repeated and certain key cards included, it's more like there is a winning framework on which players hang their own decisions. For any given deck, there are variations of Holdings, Personalities, and Fate cards that change it just a little without losing focus. Further, even with winning decks being mimicked, I find plenty of original builds. Some are workable, some make me giggle in delight, and some crush my face with awesometech.
There's things I dislike about the game, naturally. There's things that drive me freaking insane (like the inability of card wording to apply any form of Earth logic) but they're minor concerns, in the end. Obviously, or I think I'd be spending my time talking about why I don't play L5R. Or not, since I hopefully have enough things to keep myself occupied, were that the case. As it is, I think I've been just about won over into being a long term player. I just can't say no to a game that encourages slaughtering my opponents so I can bask in my victory in the form of a delicious story prize for later.
Should there be rough times, though, what will keep bringing me back is this sacred bit of L5R knowledge: listening to players argue, straight-faced, about being for or against the Taint will never, ever, ever stop being funny.