For most of my L5R career (nearly a decade at this point) there has always been a tension in how to run court for me. How much power do you give PC’s? how do you insert them as visitors with meaningful stakes. (And in the case of most of the mega games, how do you keep players from being super horny?) 5e has in a lot of ways attempted to address this, introducing interesting things for courtiers to do, giving them unique strengths over bushi and shugenja, and filling in more of the social side of Rokugan. So I was really eager for Courts of Stone, hoping it not only would give me the social side of things, but also the political side more depth, the fictions follow the stories of the movers and shakers of all of Rokugan, and that makes perfect sense. However, my games are almost always ‘Alternate Universes’ where I remix canon to help make the campaign I want so the movers and shakers while interesting don’t really effect my games. Systems though, systems of governance, economics, military, spirituality? All of those definitely do. And to it’s credit while Courts of Stone didn’t give me my ‘make your own little minor clan and here’s how’ system, it did greatly expand on the Crane and the Courts and how things worked. However one of the sections I felt most conflicted on was the ‘Making your own Court’ section. Mostly because it seemed to be a return of the old AEG mantra of ‘Rokugan your way so we don’t have to actually make new rulings’ I know that’s unfair, but that was my first impression.
Now I am currently running an All Crane Game set during a remixed Gozaku era, where the Yasuki war is yet to happen. So naturally I have to make courts for the Crane, because that’s sort of their thing. Just as I would have to set up army camps for the Lion or temples for the Phoenix. So after finishing an arc set in the City of Remembrance (Nikesake in this game, because Matsu Hitomi hasn’t killed half the population yet for unspecified reasons) the players are going to Yasuki Yashiki. I decided that I should give the Making your own Court section another chance. So I took out a google doc, and opened the book, and began going through the steps. The rest of this blog post are my impressions at each step.
This step is actually both really good and also bad. Movers is a great way to define who you want to be the players in the court and I found myself easily sketching out my three big movers, and setting up their conflicting goal. However, since I already had npcs in mind for most of the Crane’s leader ship, I found myself putting names well before the book wants you to, and I think here is where I first hit a stumbling block. 5e is a negotiated game, the players are expected (And kind of have to) to have just as much narrative input as the gm when things are running, I like that, I encourage that. But since I’m used to just setting up the entire situation to begin with, rather than involve my players, I set it all up without them, and I wanted to do that because I want them to come in blind at least some of them anyways because they’ve been out of the loop for however many months it takes to get down from Phoenix lands to the south. So I find myself doing the later steps way to early here. But I still think as a guide the Movers step is actually really solid to put your thoughts in order.
Step 2: Seeds of Conflict
This step was an absolute treat for me, but I don’t think it works as written. See the step tells you to create conflicts between the ninjo and giri’s of the various movers. Which is good, I was able to look at my movers, look back to their giri and ninjo which I had written down a while ago, and set up some nice conflicts between them. However, the fact is that this step is in the wrong place. See I couldn’t have done this without already putting down the names and short hands for the movers, something that the guide doesn’t want you to do yet. More importantly, the secondary movers (Or secondaries) are in my mind absolutely vital for this spot. The movers can’t just act unilaterally, if they could they’d resolve the conflicts already, they need support, and because of that they need secondaries to create balances and shifting tides of the political landscape. I know that the intention is to bring in the players at a later step…but that just feels too artificial for me. All these people should already be moving when the players get there.
Step 3: Secondaries
As discussed above, I think this is in the wrong spot. The secondary movers should be made before you get into the seeds of conflict.
Step 4: Assigning Traits.
This is where I fell off the wagon of the court creation steps. I love my players, I want to be clear about that, they are dynamic, creative, intelligent and sometimes hilarious people. But I couldn’t bring myself to got to them and have them assigning traits and the like. Part of it was that I had a lot of these npc’s already designed. But another part was that I want their traits to reflect their position in a story, and I know, I know, the book says to tell the players their giri and position and allow them to flow from that, but I just couldn’t. I want to explain why by sketching out a secondary mover I made that’s related to one of my players.
Yasuki Nobu is the son of Yasuki Kiringu the daimyo, but he is not the heir of Kiringu and naturally is kind of angry about that. His giri is to serve the hatamoto and heir Yasuki Toru. (All of these are related to one of my players) Now you would think this is the perfect place to let that player design both of those movers disadvantages and defining characteristics. But I found myself unable to do that. I know exactly what I need Nobu to do for the plot, I know that I need to give him the bullheaded DA from Path of Waves. I know what I want this character to be. So by the time I had gotten to step 4?
All the things I was supposed to give to the players, I had already done. In the process of Steps 1,2, 3 I had slotted all of these in. This isn’t meant to say that I don’t think my players couldn’t have really come up with something unique and interesting. It’s to say that while these steps are good for directing you, I’m just not the sort of GM who can give up that much control of the npcs. Which is arguably a failing of mine. But I think it’s one a lot of Gm’s who have been at this a while, are going to have.
I fully believe that rpg campaigns are stories told between players and the gm. I am more than excited to see exactly how my players bounce off these npcs, and set things in motion and are bounced on in turn by them. But, for me anyways, to have the npc’s in position to bounce? I need to design them from start to finish so I can place them as I go.
Step 5: Assigning Bonds
I’ve been giving my players free bonds per arc because I think they’re neat. I also think this step is kind of both necessary and unnecessary which seems like a contradictory statement so let me clarify. I think making it so that players are connected to the court is an absolutely needed, but I also think that they shouldn’t be going to court if they don’t already have a reason to go there. So in that sense it’s unnecessary, but from the layout of the book I absolutely know why they did it. They wanted to give people a reason to play with the new bond mechanics and that is something they needed to do. In my case since one of my players is the niece of Yasuki Kiringu (Long story) I could easily skip this step. I think it’s valuable if you’re going to be making a stand alone winter court campaign otherwise…eh? (As a side note, we absolutely need more bonds, that there’s no mentor bond is just…painful to me)
Step 6: Assign Personal Details.
Remember my spiel about needing to name the characters and design them? I had already done all of this by the time I got to this step. So um, my thoughts are that this probably needs to be set up after 4 if you’re going to be following the process completely, as bonds are designed by these things too. I wouldn’t expect a player who is interested in romance with a man to be very happy if it works out there’s only one man in the whole of court (The Light novel: Is It Okay to be the Only Man in an Entire Castle?! Will soon be coming to Bookwalker) That way you can have people have more compatible bonds as well.
Step 7: Retouch and Finalize
I’m doing this naturally, but since there’s no player input on my end this is more polishing on my part. Still a reminder to go back over and fix things is always good.
So having gone through the steps, and explained my feelings on each one. What do I think of the Courts of Stone “Court Creation System” ?
That it is a system of compromise. To be clear this isn’t a bad thing , compromise is important and we should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. However, in this case, the compromise made was between the gms and players, when it should not have been. I know space is at a premium and I have no idea how long or how hard they had to work to come up with this system. But to me at least it’s the best and worst of both worlds. The best because it provides a nice clear outline of how to make a court, how to populate it, and how to let players insert themselves into it. The worst because it then proceeds to say that this should be done collaboratively without somehow compromising the gm’s initial vision for the court all without letting the players meaningfully having a say in what the court should be about. So while they have agency, they don’t have enough for it to be truly collaborative, but the gm also isn’t given enough room to put pieces into place exactly the way they need to, rules as written.
All that said, I think it’ll be fantastic to use this to set up a Winter Court game. If I ever intended to run a short campaign based around winter court, I would definitely feel like I should use this. It would be tricky, particularly in a mega game, but it would be a good way to invest the players into the melodrama of it all.
So there are my thoughts, works for it’s own games, not for games that happen to be using it for a bit of plot. GMs who are better able than me to give up control of npcs, will definitely get a lot of use out of it.
Anyways hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on the system, depending on feedback I’ll write more at people’s request.
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