First, it’s a simple and clear version of Legacy. It has a more straightforward and obvious economy. Only one of the House playbooks has changes to the basic engine of the game. Second, it has a theme and a framework. Other Legacy games require intense player world building without scaffolding. FFTY has lots of building, but there’s a shared basis to work from. Third, FFTY has clearer objectives for the players. If you’re not sure what to do, you can engage with the Arbiter’s project. That provides a goalpost for competition and development.
Note: this hack requires some knowledge of Free from the Yoke or at least Legacy (and why aren’t you trying that out? I also toss around some of the L5R backstory without fully explaining it.
Stripped down to the bone, Free from the Yoke has a basic premise. There was a unified state (nation, country, empire, etc). A crisis occurred which disrupted that state for a long period of time (invasion, occupation, ongoing war). That crisis has ended in greater part due to a leadership figure and their associates (called the Arbiter). The Arbiter now rules and sets the agenda for the land. Players take up the role of factions of the original state. They want to have the land thrive, but also pursue their own agenda. At the same time they also have to obey the Arbiter (at the moment) because of the power they wield.
This simple structure’s adaptable to several existing settings. You could easily do an Arthurian or Great Pendragon Campaign, following Arthur’s claim on power. Alternately, Fading Suns could be good—and would require coming up with some cool space travel and management systems. If you’re into Runequest, there’s Dragon Pass after the rise or Argath or the various Lunar Territories after the defeat of Sheng Seleris. But the one I immediately began thinking about after my first FFTY campaign was Legend of the Five Rings.
Rokugan appeals to me as someone who started with the card game, wrote a set of miniature rules to play out skirmishes (twice), worked through most of the editions of the rpg, and ran games set there but always with homebrews. I like the concept of a high fantasy game which borrows samurai-era tropes.
That’s not to say L5R isn’t problematic. It’s a mish-mash that ignores cultural and historical differences over a multiple ranges. It fetishizes aspects of the culture. It gets the details wrong in too many places (like the names). Asians Represent has done a great overview and read through of the most recent edition of L5R. See here: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLbQUmmaVBxqrHrVZFBiuGSHBYx-KlhmAU
My adaption then borrows the large scale, more high fantasy concepts—especially since I want folks not familiar with the source material to play. It will echo L5R but not simulate that. Within that, two elements were hugely important to me, especially because the gameplay moves between high level and character play.
1. Regardless of how the various groups, clans, and institutions present it, honor is a social construct and not concrete. It is not an absolute and has no existence outside of society. In fact it is a tool used to support the existing order and constrain challenges to it. The different clans value different things and use the idea of honor as a means of enforcing that. While many might claim to adhere to the codes, honor is a concept that changes to suit the whims of those in control. It is a weapon of social control and power.
Mechanically this means that being “dishonored” is purely a social status imposed on persons. It puts persons as a disadvantage for social interactions.
2. Likewise the “Celestial Order”-- with its system of castes and hierarchies-- offers another method of control. It is not an absolute thing. Even if we accept in the fiction that it came from the Kami themselves, that does not make it true. It makes it a mythology that the potent Kami established to gain and cement their role. Like honor, what the Celestial Order is depends on who is invoking it and what they need in that moment.
The hack is set following the Second Day of Thunder, a big event in the long timeline of Legend of the Five Rings. That’s the immediate aftermath of the very first CCG cycle from the mid-1990s. The Empire has finally thrown off the yoke of the Dark Emperor, Fu Leng who held the throne for several years. The Shadowlands and corrupted forces which overwhelmed the land have been thrown back.
A new Emperor, Toturi I, has taken the throne in the aftermath. He represents the start of a new Imperial Dynasty and oversees the process of rebuilding. There are eight major clans. We keep the general feel and theming of them but not the specifics. Some of that shapes the history questions for the clan playbooks. I reference specifics (like family names and places) sparingly. The full history of L5R doesn’t matter—instead players have a decent starting point and can build their clan as they like.
History questions revolve around customs (rule, others see us as, but we are); the Time of the Void (during the clan wars); and After the Day of Thunder (the recent aftermath)
- Several of the clan themes map fairly directly over to L5R. The Mantis are the sailor house; the Unicorn are the horse-riders; the Phoenix are the church. In some cases like the Crab, Crane, and Lion I had to make some major tweaks and swap moves around. In a few cases I modified moves from other Legacy games.
- For the character playbooks I added a couple of new roles. The Shugenja and the Priest/Monk share elements of the Loremaster. The Magistrate and the Daimyo have the largest changes.
- Gear remains largely the same with additions and changes to some of the tags. The same with the resources for Needs & Surpluses. The Ritual rules have been tweaked to make it clearer how one learns and uses rituals. I increased the number of sample rituals and gave the Shugenja an advantage in casting these. These are big, potent spells and not things you throw around idly.
- The basic moves remain largely the same. I added a Duel move for use against NPCs and also a move for resolving PVP duels. This differs from the FFTY mechanics. I added a mechanic for Dishonor to make it clear it’s purely a social consequences. The basic House moves remain the same.
- Because I didn’t want to do too much work, I only went with one form of the Arbiter (as opposed to the three from FFTY). The projects remain mostly the same and the Arbiter’s Agents are just renamed versions with a couple of tweaks.
- You can see the character keeper with all of this here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/18ok5krSHXzQVLqzUAwUBWGBIaSrx5K2u3Ex0U_zimHI/edit?usp=sharing The Emperor Playbook here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1qhnGVseSDfPTKUaDEx_roetnNGfvnK72oFnUVqaUtm4/edit?usp=sharing The Emperor Project Playbooks here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/14iHcAdSe4cbMDIkH1iRcUw0Alnjp1853PoctoxaaBzg/edit?usp=sharing The Agents of the Emperor document here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1gT17qsdcMjMtEeWkvlXOidSnsAfO8Zv-5su42femapQ/edit?usp=sharing
We did eight sessions as a first live trial of this hack. We had four players who chose the Crab, Crane, Phoenix, and Unicorn Clans. The other Clans, as well as Imperial Houses and minor clans, served as NPC factions. In eight sessions we got through two projects. For the first they chose a grand project of building a series of bridges. This had tensions about where they would be placed and what kind of access they would offer. The second project involved the bringing of greater numbers of folks into the ranks of the buke and samurai. That was interesting as it added an ethical dilemma about the existing hierarchies.
The players chose the Master of the Masterless as the Emperor’s form, which implied the existence of a large body of warriors demobilized following the victory against the Shadowlands. They chose the Emerald Magistrate as the Emperor’s Agent. Players played this Agent twice in the Zoom Ins we did.
Overall everyone ended up happy with the play and wanted to return to it. Three of the players had experience with the Legend of the Five Rings backstory. The player with the least experience played the Unicorn Clan and made it their own. It felt right—and we managed to only go down the rabbit hole of lore a couple of times.
You can see a playlist with the session videos here: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLUKV1MEOXoTVvsVp9Qvc4Ku8_iQ0tZQW0
While I’m happy with the hack, there are some things which need fixing or tweaking.
- More Arbiter types—to expand the choices the players have.
- More Projects—this is actually more important to me than more Arbiter types. These are key to shaping play and I want more variety. I’ve done the same ones several times, because they’re easy to grasp (the construction one in particular).
- More and clearer paths for gaining and using Influence. The current default influence gain move for the clans are decent, but often get forgotten. It would be nice to make that sub-system feel more important, especially for the clans which have more social power.
- More options available for the Subterfuge move. Some additional consequence choices for the Claim by Force. One way, though it might be more complicated than its worth, would be to have clan unique costs and/or 12+ results.
- We never really tested out the duel or PVP moves in any meaningful way. Need to do more of that—also need to test out the Open Battle move. Despite having run the game multiple times, I haven’t really seen it used by players.
- Want to go through the Clan playbook moves and look for ones which are weaker, hard to trigger, or don’t come into play based on the way I run the game. We tweaked the “Know the True Nature of Your Partners” move for the Crane Clan in play. A few others felt like weaker choices. The “Trade Networks” move (Crab Clan) has the same problem that I’ve seen with it in the sessions of Free from the Yoke I’ve run—we tend to abstract things on the map, so this doesn’t feel appropriate.
- Would like to create an event generator to add some additional threats and wrinkles. On a related note, I would need to do a GM guide to the kinds of hard moves and reactions which are appropriate.
This was great fun--- both to play and to write. Free from the Yoke’s one of my favorite games. It has the advantage of PbtA in that prep is really about just reviewing the situation and looking over player requests from the last session. But it’s one of the most intense GMing experiences I’ve ever had. You constantly juggling things as you run.
This hack could easily work as the basis for an expanded fantasy game, samurai or not. I think you could easily file of the serial numbers from what I’ve got here. There’s lots of other Legacy family games which could be inspiration for that. I probably will do another pass on this and run it again, but I’ll also be thinking about a Fading Suns or Dune-like version as well.