Embers kindled bright
Fire bursts in conflagration
Flames Roar, Phoenix Soar
As I write this, GenCon is just around the corner, and more importantly, it is less than 3 weeks before the ‘Honoured’ preview event for Europeans, which I am fortunate enough to have been invited to. I’ll be representing the Phoenix clan for this event. We’ve had most of the clan previews, and as Troll5R have stated, the hype train just is only building up speed.
I didn’t have any more than minor interaction with Old5R, despite a long and sordid history with lifestyle card games in general. Even for someone with limited engagement with the franchise, it is abundantly clear that Clan Loyalty is a big deal. While Old5R players have long history with their particular Clans, those of us that are new to the game have an opportunity to forge an attachment and identity within the world of Rokugan. I’ve found that most players of card games gravitate towards a particular play style, and this is often supported by particular factions in FFG’s games. When I played Conquest, I predominantly played Eldar and Dark Eldar. When I played Thrones, I almost solely played Martell. In Netrunner I was more flexible, but primarily played Anarch and Shaper on Runner Side, and NBN on Corp. I forged an identity as a player who clamped down hard on the opponent’s fun. There is no denying this facet of my personality, and understandably the clans I am drawn to in L5R are Phoenix, Crane and Scorpion. Phoenix look similar to Martell, in that they play the core game slightly differently to the other factions. Thematically, Crane suit my personal nature as an aesthete, whilst providing the tools to make the opponent miserable, whilst Scorpion look to leverage hidden information, something that was sadly lacking in AGoT, and interesting and important in Netrunner. I’ll be playing Phoenix at the Honoured event, though I can’t guarantee this will persist. I suspect my final allegiance will shake out over the first 6 months or so of the game, but I can’t see myself straying from one of those 3 Clans.
While the gameplay of L5R more closely relates to AGoT, the deckbuilding more closely resembles Netrunner (this is a good thing). The influence system is ripped pretty much from ANR, though looks a bit more constrictive, keeping faction character staples (anything in the dynasty deck) segregated, and removing the freedom to splash the best cards from every faction by limiting your influence spend to only one clan. The strongholds are functionally identical to Netrunner’s identities, providing a perennially available effect, controlling the shape of your deck as you build it.
FFG Organised Play has broken with its past model in quite spectacular fashion for L5R, and at long last. Since I started playing FFG’s games more competitively, there has been a steady degradation of the Organised Play support. The restructuring of the GNKs led to a severe reduction in value when playmats were removed, and led finally to the dross that we’ve been receiving for AGoT over the last year or so of play. Token sets with only a third of the tokens required to play the game, which match up very poorly to the third party options available, puzzling choices of alt art cards, giant air fresheners, I’ve discussed this in more detail elsewhere, as have countless other players, so there is no need to repeat it here. I don’t know how much the licensing requirements have held FFG back, but it certainly looks like they have made a fresh start with L5R. For a start, recognising Europe as an important market (and of course one with a higher calibre of play) by even running a launch event is a huge victory for those of us who have felt fairly neglected for quite some time. For this event to provide free stock is almost unheard of. It shows a high degree of long term thinking by FFG, ensuring that the product makes it into the hands of community influencers, organisers, veterans, and passionate new players alike to build momentum with game demonstrations before the actual launch. I very much look forward to meeting these fellow enthusiasts in September and building links in the community. From a personal perspective, I know quite a few people who have been invited to the event from other games, and will enjoy challenging them on a different field of play, as well as just catching up.
While the mere fact that FFG is taking the launch of the game this seriously is cause for heavy celebration, the rest of the reveals of prize support for the inaugural events was where it appeared that they had truly turned the corner:
The amount of prize support for these events is more on its own than was provided at last year’s World Championship. It also provides significant incentives for players to maintain clan loyalty, without penalising those who play purely to win with the best deck available. It seems well thought-out to appease veterans, as well as draw in new players. Hopefully FFG will maintain this going forward, as I can’t imagine people are going to be particularly happy to go back to the current levels of GNKs after this. Perhaps in time, this level of support may be introduced to the other LCGs as well. The L5R licence was a huge purchase for FFG, and they are not shirking from committing what is necessary for the game to be the success it deserves to be.
I’m extremely excited to be able to be at the forefront of this game, and look forward to bringing you all some content and coverage from the European launch event. I will enjoy opening the box and trying to build a deck with minimal experience, then testing that deck against what other players believe is strong. I hope we’ll see a variety of clans present at the event, and finding out just what sort of tricks those clans have up their sleeves. I’ll be playing one of the more tricksy clans for sure, but even in the couple of test games I’ve played so far, the back and forth of the conflicts has been very engaging, as has balancing the investment of fate onto characters. I’ve had a lot of fun, even when fumbling through the very basics which is a great sign. I’m certain it’s going to be a great event, and look forward to participating in creating some new history for Rokugan.
The girl shaded her eyes with her hand, as the sun sank low in the sky, and attempted to stifle a yawn. The trip from their village had been very long, and ‘Cranky’, the old mule that pulled their cart wasn’t young anymore, he had slowed down noticeably over the previous year. Neither her or her father had mentioned it, but they knew they’d need to find a replacement soon, and let him live out his twilight years in peace, munching on vegetable ends and grass; his irascible nature tolerated as a point of amusement. Still, they had arrived in good time, and father had treated her to some sweet delicacies that were unavailable back home for her good behaviour. Her father was tall, and upon his broad, yoke-like shoulders she was afforded an excellent view across the top of the solemn crowd. Father clasped mother’s hand tightly, though was clearly somewhat uncomfortable in his best finery, constantly adjusting and fiddling. Others would assume the fidgeting was an attempt to smooth the bunching at the shoulders caused by the presence of his daughter, sat like a imperious princess surveying her subjects, but she knew her father simply loathed the constrictive formal clothing. Without letting go of his hand, her mother fussed him and tutted quietly. The girl began to giggle at this one sided battle, as her father relented to the practised ministrations of his wife. Father silenced the noise with a quick, sharp rap on her calf, and she composed herself immediately. The long journey had afforded her parents the time to explain the sombre occasion they were to attend, and how imperative it was for her to maintain her best behaviour during the ceremony. She was a dutiful child, and would not shame her parents on such a day.
She realised that her father had identified the subtle movements indicating the ceremony was to begin. As the sun finally set beyond the horizon, the low hubbub generated by the orange and red crowd cut off almost immediately, and movement was curtailed, leaving the entirety of the stone courtyard eerily silent and still, considering the mass of humanity filling it. A moment of darkness in the warm summer night, and the girl looked up into the sky. The atmosphere was horribly close, and she instinctively knew it was going to rain. Lightning flashed, and at that exact moment the square lit up, what must have been two hundred lanterns lit as one by hooded figures in the red robes of the clan. A juddering moment of fear coursed through her 6-year old frame at the impossibility of what she had just witnessed. Her father gripped her ankle tighter with his reassuringly familiar calloused hand, and she calmed. A rehearsed gap opened in the centre of the crowd, and a procession of hooded, robed figures moved through it at a stately pace, each carrying a single glowing candle.
The corresponding crack of thunder rang out, following the lightning, shattering the silence. The roiling clouds opened, and rain began to plummet through the warm evening air. One of the figures close to the front of the procession quickly stepped to the side and knelt, carefully placing the candle on the grey flagstone. Both hands free, raised to the hood and it dropped back, revealing a pale, feminine face at the beginning of middle age. The woman stretched her arms wide above her head, her lips twisted in a slight, subtle grimace. The girl felt the air thrum slightly, and a disconcerting feeling in the pit of her stomach, like she experienced when her father used to toss her in the air as she dropped back into his waiting embrace when she was younger. She suddenly realised the rain had subsided and looked up. No, not stopped, not stopped at all! Above her the raindrops we stopping mid air, slamming into an invisible barrier, coalescing and forming streams, flowing outwards from a central point about 20 metres above the uncowled woman. The girl gazed in wonder as the water gushed out from this central point, tracing the shape of a flat dome, protecting the crowd and keeping it bone dry, flowing like a waterfall behind the furthest reaches of the gathered throng. Her father smiled wryly to himself, as his precious daughter observed for the first time the legacy of their clan.
The inopportune weather cowed, the procession continued without missing a beat, the kneeling woman remaining in position, stoically holding the barrier. A open bier came into view carried by six of the robed figures, and the girl could see a man dressed in clan finery, hands clasped on his solar plexus. She knew him simply as ‘The Old Man’. She had only met him a handful of times, when he had visited their village to observe harvest preparations, and speak to her mother. She understood he was an important figure, and the last time he visited, he had engaged her mother in a very deep, drawn out discussion, which ended in a passionate embrace, and a single tear falling down her mother’s cheek. He had ruffled her hair, given her a small, but ornate silver pocket mirror, bowed to her father, and ridden off with a group of armed and armoured men in a clatter of hooves. She remembered that visit vividly, as the mirror was her most prized possession, but she had also heard heard mother crying in her father’s arms when she had been supposed to be asleep in bed. She drew herself up to her full, diminutive height on her father’s shoulders, and suddenly felt a strong sense of loss, and an urge to cry that she ruthlessly buried.
The bier reached a slightly raised dais just off the centre of the square, where the front members of the procession had formed a concave line, candles held out in front of their stomachs. A figure towards the left end of of the line pulled back his hood, passed his candle to the figure to his right and stepped forward, summoning a scroll from the folds of his robes. The clan symbol , upswept wings clearly visible across his chest. He began to read. At first his voice cracked with emotion, but eventually boomed out loud and clear. The girl listened intently, but the more she listened, the more tired she felt, she desperately tried to remain awake, the shame on her family if she fell asleep at such an occasion, it didn’t bear thinking about. Her eyes closed one by one, try as she might to keep the lids from drooping, it was if they were weighed down by lead. Oblivion took her.
She awoke in a dark forest of evergreen trees, wearing no shoes, and dirty everyday clothes, rather than the fine kimono she had been bought for the ceremony. It was night, with a cloudless, starry sky. The moon was a sharp crescent framed in a break in the tree canopy, and the sound of insects buzzed in a low background hum. She felt the warm summer wind rustle her thin shirt, and as she took a step forward, the mossy ground gave way slightly under her bare feet. She began to move forward, looking around for any sign of a landmark, but all she could see was more trees. Trying to turn around she found it impossible to take a step backwards, she tried to raise a foot, but her muscles failed to respond. She could only move in one direction, and pragmatically began to walk. She walked for an indeterminate amount of time, and paradoxically, every step became easier. The girl swallowed hard. As she continued to move, while the ground was perfectly level, she began to occasionally stumble. It was difficult to describe, but she felt like she was moving down a slope, occasionally stumbling forward with the momentum she was picking up. Eventually she passed a stoney brook, the only distinct feature she had yet seen, other than the odd mouldering fallen tree. Thirsty, she attempted to stop for a drink, but her legs just kept moving, cool water splashing her ankles and calves as she began to drive her body into an uncontrollable run. This run continued for a few minutes, until she stumbled on a raised root and was flung, face first into the decaying foliage littering the forest floor, even this fall could not stop her momentum. She began to slide, and fall along the horizontal ground, letting out a high pitched wail of fear. Her legs picked up nicks and cuts and splinters, malicious bushes low to the ground tore her clothes, as her hands clawed in vain at the damp sod, unable to arrest her inexorable movement, until finally she was thrown to an juddering halt, in a moonlit clearing.
The girl wobbled unsteadily to her feet, pulling unidentifiable natural detritus from her formerly shiny black hair and attempting to get her bearings. She began to shake with fear. At the centre of the glade was a point. There was no other way to describe it. Everything was pulled towards it, she could see trees growing towards it as plants in the dark grow towards sources of light, her gaze was drawn to it, locked to it. Even the beams of moonlight breaking into the clearing curved impossibly towards it. Her left leg stepped forward and her body convulsed into a single sob of terror. The point drew her relentlessly in, and her legs obeyed it. As she approached it, juddering as she attempted to pull back with every fibre of muscle in her tiny body, the point suddenly expanded, reached out and engulfed her. She slammed her eyelids shut.
It felt like an eternity before she summoned the courage to open one eye, then the other. She could see the clearing, but the colours were brighter, more vivid, and the view was distorted with a curvature, as if through a thick lens. Her small frame felt under a huge compression, and she was forced into a foetal position by the relentless pressure. The pressure was uniform, crushing in on every inch of her skin, her scalp, her hair was plastered to her like a skull cap. Her jaw clenched, and her teeth ground against one another and she could feel her jaw muscles were about to pop. She struggled desperately to maintain her composure, but knew she couldn’t hold out more than another few seconds. In what she believed were her final moments, she thought of her father, feeding ‘Cranky’ a whole pear he had slipped from the table, she thought of her mother, teaching her her first letters, the look of pride as she made the correct, precise brushstrokes, she prayed to the Kami.
Suddenly the pressure relented, and she felt a presence behind her, helping her to bear the strain. She felt loved, cherished, and embraced, rather than this crushing vice-like compression. Instead, she merely felt the pressure of expectation, the weight of history, the stress of duty, and knew that she could bear all these things. The distortion of vision suddenly pooled in front of her like a liquid, and then rushed, impossibly fast into her chest, leaving a feeling not hot, not cold, just neutral and balanced. The glade began to fade away, and the last thing the girl heard were the words: “proud of you, child”, in a voice she felt she should recognise.
The girl snapped awake, lurching on her father’s shoulders, her mother glared at her disapprovingly. On the dais, the man who had been conducting the reading was hooded again, and back in line. The woman still knelt and protected the untouched crowd from the raindrops. Another of the hooded figures stepped forward, and with an inaudible word, flames sped and curled around the figure’s wrist and hand, leaving the silken robe untouched. A second figure presented the burning man with a candle, while a third prepared a paper lantern traditionally used in festivals. With a ceremonial flick of the wrist the figure used his arcane fire to light the candle. Simultaneously, the rest of the square was plunged into long shadows, as the other candles were extinguished in unison, the only light the solitary lantern at the centre of the proceedings. The girl, for all her many years to come would never speak of it, and could never be sure, but in the night, alone, she swore to herself that by the light of the lonely lantern, she could make out a slight satisfied smile on The Old Man’s lips.
The lantern was released from its point above the funeral bier, and rose mournfully into the sky, moving off to the south in the breeze, the rain had stopped, as if in a sign of respect. The light quickly disappeared in the square. Every figure watched the lantern’s dutiful flight in silent respect. Every figure bar one. Faceless in the night, in the line curving gently around the bier one of the hooded figures had the dark opening of the cowl fixated on the girl, across the distant side of the square.