Judging by the buzz on social media (and the amount of “Toss a Coin” memes being passed around), Netflix’s The Witcher is a hit. The show takes its inspiration from Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels about a mercenary monster hunter, although most people are familiar with the setting and characters through the excellent series of roleplaying video games from CD Projekt Red. A second season is coming but the due date is currently unknown. While we wait for more information on Geralt’s continuing adventures, let’s talk about another fantasy game world full of brutal sword battles, terrifying monsters and courtly intrigue: the world of Rokugan.
Rokugan appears in Legend of the Five Rings, a tabletop game series first created by publisher Alderac Entertainment Group in 1995. It shares a lot of parallels with a fantasy world that would premiere a year later in a book called A Game of Thrones; both feature a kingdom where powerful houses battle with each other, a massive wall beyond which terrible monsters threaten everyone and heroes doing their best in a cruel world that takes no prisoners. While Westeros took a lot of inspiration from the War of the Roses, Legend of the Five Rings was influenced by samurai fiction, such as manga Lone Wolf and Cub and the films of Seven Samurai director Akira Kurosawa.
Legend of the Five Rings began as the background for a collectible card game that encouraged samurai clan loyalty through popular personalities. One of the key differences of the CCG was telling a story through the cards. Later sets included experienced versions of characters and offered storyline choices to players at big tournaments. The conclusion of the first storyline played out in a tournament at Gen Con in 1997. It was an epic story about heroes from each of the Great Clans standing up against Fu Leng and the Shadowlands Horde as the Black Scrolls that kept him bound were opened one by one. The fate of the game was determined at the tournament; whichever clan that won would guide Rokugan as the new Emperor. It is said that when the last Shadowlands player was eliminated, the entire tournament jumped up in elation as they knew that Rokugan would not fall.
This storyline, the Second Day of Thunder, is currently being replayed in the current version of the game. Keyforge, Arkham Horror and A Game of Thrones: The Card Game publisher Fantasy Flight Games purchased Legend of the Five Rings in 2015 and reset the timeline, rebooting L5R as one of its living card games. Unlike the original version, which started the game with the clans already at war and flashed back to the events that caused the uprising, the new version has been slowly building to those terrible events.
The revamped setting truly began to sing with the arrival of a new Legend of the Five Rings tabletop RPG set in Rokugan, released in 2018. The developers focused on a game system that highlights samurai drama, much of which clashes with expectations from society. There is no such thing as a perfect samurai and the questions players must ask about their characters bring out these drama points during play. Sometimes it highlights a character quirk, like a love of trashy romance novels. Other times it may bring out a sibling rivalry, or a conflict between what’s expected of the samurai and what they require to be happy in life. These elements drive good television and make memorable characters. Instead of making just a fighter or a level one wizard, every Legend of the Five Rings character is ripe with story hooks for the GM to use right out of the gate.
A key part of this element in gameplay is strife. Players roll and keep dice when they attempt dramatic actions in the fantasy tabletop RPG. Better results often include a point of strife, which represent the flashes of emotion that samurai are expected to keep locked down. Too much strife and a character can’t get much more than basic success on rolls because they are too emotionally compromised. Not only do these points help players think about their character’s emotional state and colour narration, they simulate the pressure of living in an impossible society like Rokugan. Players can get rid of strife slowly by indulging their passions and set up quiet scenes of samurai as warrior poets practicing their calligraphy or taking pride in playing word games. If strife builds up too much, players can choose to have an outburst to get rid of all of their strife. In exchange, they create a major breach of etiquette that can damage their standing, such as drunkenly starting a fight with a rival clan samurai or talking back to their lord. Ever wonder why characters on these shows made dumb mistakes when the logical path is right there? They are getting rid of their strife.
The Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game is available right now for anyone who wants to get a jumpstart on exploring Rokugan before Netflix or Amazon snatches it up. The characters in the game are richly drawn and offer motivations and surprises just as fascinating as Geralt or Yennifer to play out at the table through bloody duels or deadly intrigues. Even if a small-screen adaptation never comes, Legend of the Five Rings is a great setting to dive into while waiting for the next season of The Witcher or whatever great drama captures the attention of fantasy fans in the meantime.