Originally, I wrote a (quite long) post about the story of Rokugan. After I finished, and was looking at the 2000 words I had put down, I realized something: It read like a wiki post. Greatly informative if it is about a topic you are already interested in, but otherwise I expect it is quite dry.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what to do. On the one hand, I had spent a few weeks working on it. Shouldn’t I just post it, since it represented two weeks worth of working on content for my blog? On the other, everything I wrote about was easily available from different sources. As such, I really wasn’t bringing any additional value to the table. I was merely regurgitating information that is readily available.
After some deliberation, I’ve decided to hold back on everything I wrote for now. If it seems relevant later, I can always post it then. Instead, I have decided to explain exactly what I loved about the story Legend of the Five Rings created.
The Story (at the time)
One thing that I must convey is the state of the story at the time I became interested in it. One thing that probably isn’t immediately apparent is just how little of the story had been revealed. Players knew about some events, mostly those taking place during the game’s immediate time line, quite well. There were also a number of events that were known to have occurred due to references in card flavor text or other stories, but which very little was known about.
A prime example of this is the Scorpion Clan Coup. Early on, players knew that there had been a coup in the empire’s recent history which had largely set the stage for the current state of Rokugan. There were references to it in some flavor text, the former wife of the Scorpion Clan Champion had been married by the current Emperor, and some clans were identified as members of the Scorpion Clan despite that faction not being playable (and indeed, having officially been destroyed following the coup).
As such, players knew that there was a Scorpion Clan at one point, that the clan had been scattered after a failed attempt to overthrow the empire, and that despite officially being destroyed it still had active members (likely led by the current emperor’s wife). What wasn’t know is why the coup had occurred, why the Scorpion Clan had lost, and what their goals were now. In a sense, they mostly existed as the designated “bad guys” manipulating events behind the scenes.
Later on, they became a playable faction and more was learned about their current motivations (revenge, unsurprisingly). Then an entire set came out that focused on the Scorpion Clan Coup, and we learned the motive behind the coup (preventing a prophecy from coming true) as well as why they were defeated.
Now, add to this that the story team did something very clever. Room was left in some of the details players were given to allow for uncertainty. Often times, this is done as a way to hedge against future story conflicts (something L5R is not completely innocent of). Many things were left open-ended, however. In most cases there was an in-universe explanation that was generally accepted, however no definitive answer was given. Did that person who was never seen again accomplish their goal? Is this weird place in the corrupted lands really there because of them?
Add to this the way player actions during tournaments (by altering events depending on which clan the winner played or giving the winner a chance to pick which direction the story would take) and the end result was quite enticing. You feel as if you are in the middle of the story, learning more about things that happened or will happen as time goes on. However, because players have some amount of agency you also don’t feel like you are just an observer. On some level you know that player input can only have so much of an impact on the story, but that is still an empowering feeling.
This lead to the concept of bounties, where players who wanted to help steer the story would offer their own prizes to tournament winners if they could fulfill certain conditions. The winner might be required to pick a particular outcome, or win with a certain clan, or pursue specific victory conditions. It was even possible for a bounty to require that a deck include certain cards.
It was a brilliant result where everyone won. Bounties allowed people without the skill or time to compete to still feel like they were having an impact on the story. Tournament participants were given opportunities to win larger prizes by opting for carefully chosen outcomes. The company benefited as the bounties made the player base more excited and invested in the game’s world. And game play in general benefited as the bounties gave players a reason to experiment with styles of play that would otherwise be considered sub-optimal, helping combat the usual problem of an established meta from becoming too entrenched.