Legend of the Five Rings Prediction: FFG Aren’t Going to Reinvent the Wheel

So, it’s been brought to my attention that the Legend of the Five Rings franchise has been bought out by Fantasy Flight Games. They’ve announced that they are going to convert the CCG to their “Living Card Game” model and debut the LCG version at Gen Con 2017 – probably a wise move, after all if the CCG were still the big earner it was back in the day AEG wouldn’t be letting go of it to begin with – but they haven’t said what they are going to do about the RPG beyond mentioning that they are mulling over their options there.

My personal prediction on this point is that it’s going to be a while before an RPG is announced – it seems fairly clear to me from the various statements made on this that the LCG is their top priority for the time being as far as this franchise is concerned – and when it does come out, it will likely be more of the same, rather than a radical redesign like we saw Fantasy Flight attempt for the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. which included all sorts of unique dice and components and fiddly bits (whose model has been repeated, in a somewhat more component-light style, for their Star Wars games).

FFG have gone the “fiddly components” route for RPGs four times; with WFRP3 it was hugely controversial and arguably killed the line (and at the very least schismed the fanbase to an extent which few games other than D&D 4E can claim to have done). The other three times it was for their various Star Wars RPGs, where completely changing system was less controversial – nobody expected them to reprint the old West End Games D6 version of Star Wars or either of Wizards of the Coast’s takes on the franchise, after all – and where the emphasis on funny components has been toned down compared to WFRP3. (So far as I can tell they use special dice and that’s it, whereas WFRP3 was so married to the fiddlybits that every single supplement and adventure had to be in a big chunky box too in order to incorporate the required components.)

Notably, they haven’t switched any of their Warhammer 40,000 RPGs to a fiddlybits system, even though they have had ample opportunity to do so. Even the first version of the Dark Heresy 2E beta, which involved much more radical changes to the system and a far greater willingness to deviate from past precedent than the version they eventually decided to go with, didn’t go in that direction. Had they wanted to introduce such components to Dark Heresy, they’d have brought them in at the first beta, so I can only assume that they decided at some earlier stage of the process that they weren’t going to take that approach.

In the case of L5R, I think FFG would be very reluctant to ditch the roll-and-keep system that its fans have gotten used to over the past four editions in favour of one of their fiddlybits systems; the backlash over the transition from WFRP 2E to 3E, combined with the objections to the proposed changes to Dark Heresy 2E, have repeatedly taught FFG the lesson that people want new editions of an existing game to be refined, improved versions of what has come before, not radical departures that completely reinvent the game.

Frankly, it shouldn’t have taken them that long to learn that lesson – after all, if a game has developed a fanbase of sufficient size then presumably it’s doing something right, and junking the whole deal just for the sake of making your mark on it runs the entirely predictable risk that you will alienate the game’s existing fanbase whilst not attracting sufficient new fans to make up for your losses. If a game doesn’t have that fanbase, then unless you really and truly believe you’ve identified the flaws in the present work that have prevented the game from finding its audience, making a new edition is a questionable move in the first place and feels like throwing good money after bad.

It’s a bit different if you are a hobbyist who happens to have acquired the rights in question and can spend the time and energy to produce and put out a new edition of a game for the sheer love of it, of course. However, if you are a big commercial publisher like FFG and need to consider the bottom line on the projects you take on, it doesn’t make any sense to churn out a new edition of an RPG that has already demonstrated a lack of commercial viability; even if you’re just as motivated by a love of games as the hobbyist, when you run a business you have to make decisions like this with your business hat on and the awareness that if a project is a major flop, then it can have a knock-on effect on the reputation and/or the viability of your existing product lines.

Frankly, I think there’s a very real chance that Fantasy Flight won’t even bring out a 5th edition of Legend of the Five Rings in the first place. They may decide that there’s sufficiently little money in the RPG that they can’t justify taking the development time to produce an all-new edition when they could just reprint the 4E range as and when existing demand merits it, and perhaps occasionally putting out a new supplement or adventure when plot developments in the Living Card Game merit it. They might even decide against doing even that modest amount if they don’t think the RPG will give enough return on investment.

 

Referee’s Bookshelf: Legend of the Five Rings 4th Edition

My Monday evening gaming group has the various group members GMing games in 4 week slots (give or take a week here and there), and when his slot comes around one of our newest members is going to be starting a Legend of the Five Rings campaign using the 4th Edition rules. In preparation, I looked at some previews of the book and realised that a) this is a gorgeous, gorgeous book and b) this is quite an involved setting and system and it would be handy to have my own copy. This being the case, I picked up the core rules to give them a read-over.

Legend of the Five Rings is inspired by wuxia, martial arts movies, and a host of Japanese sources (not least the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa) and presents a distinctly non-European fantasy setting. There’s obviously a fine tightrope to walk here in terms of cultural appropriation when you’re dealing with a Western RPG publisher taking inspiration from other cultures, and to give them their due Alderac Entertainment Group seem to be well aware of this. Firstly, they provide a big fat health warning that the world of the game is not Earth and the empire of Rokugan is not and should not be mistaken for Japan, China, Korea or any of the other cultures that the game draws on; secondly, although the GM section notes that there’s nothing stopping your gaming group taking a lighthearted, superficial approach to the setting if you want to and provides pointers as to how you can accomplish this, overwhelmingly the game encourages participants to engage with the style and conventions of the source material as well as engaging with the setting. Ultimately, whilst cultural appropriation is a problem, equally under-representation of non-European cultures in fantasy RPGs – or shallow misrepresentations – are a problem too, and although everyone will draw the line on this one differently and it isn’t my place to give Legend a free pass on this front I think it is important that the occasional RPG out there which isn’t white-centric gets published and pushed in the Western market.

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