So, I love to buy RPG manuals. Just love it. And when I’m working on a game, especially when I feel rudderless on a new project, I turn to those manuals to help me understand what’s gone before, and what I love about the games I love.
Heroic Chord was no exception. I’ve been pretty open about the influences of Scion and other classic White Wolf games in the mechanics. But, the open beta of the latest Legend of the Five Rings was huge. So, I thought I’d open this “review series” with this gorgeous game.
What I love most about this game is how daring it is. The newest edition re-did all the stat and skill systems, replacing the old nine-stat system with just five: the titular five rings. A character no longer has a Strength stat, but has a Fire stat, which lumps Strength in with other factors, like inventiveness and courage. To be honest, it’s a little arcane; there are tables in the book that help players determine which Ring to roll, but it’s not very intuitive.
And if you wanna talk unintuitive, boy howdy do I have some dice for you. As a rule, I’m opposed to custom dice – I think they’re a barrier to entry in a format that thrives on having as few as possible. And unlike a good old-fashioned polyhedral set, d6 cube, or pile of dramatically-colored d10s, they can only be used for one game. The custom dice for L5R come in two types; 6-sided Ring Dice and 12-sided Skill Dice. The subtle difference in the dice means the odds of success are more heavily weighted toward skill and training than toward innate potential. It’s a lovely sentiment and execution. It helps that the (paid) dice app also includes other polyhedral dice and can be used for multiple games. I use it for Sword of Symphonies, actually.
The other problem with the dice is that Success and No Success aren’t the only possible outcomes. There are also Strife outcomes, which push your character toward their emotional limits, and Opportunity outcomes, which allow you to modify the situation. The game offers a lot of tables to explain how these complex outcomes can be resolved, but in practice, my group always found ourselves unmoored here. The action slowed to nothing as we struggled to choose an interesting option. I’m not sure if more familiarity with the system would have eased this awkwardness.
When reading this manual, I absolutely devoured the Advantages/Disadvantages section. Every single one has a little chunk of flavour text. Not a full story, but enough to let you picture the kind of person who has this trait. The section is just a kaleidoscope of beautiful and interesting characters of varying ages, sexualities, and abilities. It’s difficult to build an inclusive game on a property that has in the past been Orientalism: The Game, but the creators of this game have put forth a valiant effort. From acknowledging the use of caste-based slurs in prior editions to showcasing diverse characters, the creators of this latest edition have worked to build a Rokugan that is distinct from its real-world counterpart while still preserving the tone and struggles that have made it a favourite through the years. I mean, it’s still anchored in a samurai-movie fantasy of ancient Japan, and a person would be totally justified in being extremely uncomfortable about that, but there’s new, serious effort being put into matters of respect in this edition that may tip the scales for some.
Long story short, if you’re a fan of the series, this is absolutely worth a look. It takes some versatility not just in roleplay, but also in the rules and their interpretation, so some people may find it unexpectedly challenging. Character creation is so easy as to feel completely natural, and as usual for L5R, the lush world makes it irresistible to imagine characters and struggles.
What did I take from this one? It should be obvious – L5R 2019 was the biggest inspiration for Heroic Chord’s stat system. I didn’t lift it, obviously, but this was the first time I’d seen a non-storygame take such an abstract view of stats, and it made a big impression on me. I tried to do something a little less mysterious, but after weeks of struggling with stat systems, the idea that I could jettison the stats I thought I “needed” was a revelation. So, thanks Fantasy Flight!