19 January, 2011

Game Mechanism of the Week 2011: 2 – Legend of the Five Rings 2nd Edition Core Mechanism “Roll and Keep”

The version of L5R that I’m most familiar with is 2nd Edition. I’ve played a bit of 3rd Edition, so I know that a lot of the fundamentals are very similar….as for other versions I’m not as sure.

The basic system for the core mechanism is fairly similar to the structure I described for the percentile system, but there are enough differences to make it worthwhile examining…especially the fact that it allows players to take a bit more control for themselves when the GM is using the system correctly. It should also be noted that a GM can use the system incorrectly, and when they do this it is barely any different to the basic percentile system. I’ll describe this later.

The basic system follows 4 steps:

1. Scene is set for the action. Target number is determined, along with a pool of dice to roll based on the attribute and skill to be used in the task.

2. You may choose to raise the difficulty to gain an added effect from the action.

3. Dice are rolled, the best are kept (the number kept depends on the skill of the character) and totalled, the total is then compared to the target number.

4. One of two results occurs

a. You beat the target number and you either gain an advantage or avoid a penalty (if you applied any raises, you get the benefit of these as well).

b. You fail to beat the target number and you either suffer a penalty or don’t gain the advantage.

It the addition of that new second step that makes this system more interesting; it integrates the idea of player choice into the action and allows characters to be more dramatic in their actions. Any time a player decides to introduce a raise for their character, they make a conscious choice regarding the events at hand. Such a choice is grounded in the events at hand; with certain options provided by the skill being used, others becoming available through certain character advantages, and some possibly being made available by the GM to reflect the specific circumstances of the scene.

A raise invokes the possibility of a new event node. It might create an additive filter to provide extra advantage to the character at a later time, it might alter the velocity of the story (giving the characters extra time to prepare, or reducing the time for a nemesis to ready themselves), it might open a diverging lens to take the story in an unexpected direction, or it might allow players to avoid an upcoming mirror. Each of these options is a wild card, and an open GM will often be able to run with the choices provided, while a closed GM will simply say something along the lines of “No, you can’t make that kind of raise in this situation” or they’ll simply ignore the effects of the raise. I’ve ranted about this type of “GM shut-down” in L5R games before. Without the subtly of the raise, you might as well just be playing with a percentile system (or a “beat the target number” system).

A basic diagram of the system shows how this added step provides a new degree of complexity into proceedings.

(I could draw up a half-dozen permutations of this flowchart, some where the player introduces different types of raises, others where raises are not added in, then I could vary whether the specific actions has positive filters resulting from successful actions, or negative filters resulting from failed actions, but by this stage you should get the general idea. If an action has a potentially beneficial effect, then the positive filters apply; and conversely if the characters are caught in a potentially bad situation then the negative filters apply.)

The important thing to note about these charts compared to previous charts is the outlined diverging lens. This is where a deliberate choice is made by a player. In L5R this inclusion in the mechanism has a reflection within the setting. The players portray heroes (and villains) of the setting; they are the active agents who make the change within the world. Without them, the masses of peasants and honour bound nobles would become locked in stasis. If a character doesn’t make a conscious decision to go beyond the call of duty, they will not make their mark on history and they will be forgotten. Anyone can take the safe route, engaging the standard target number and accepting the standard conditions of victory or failure. Once you step up and start pushing for your own thing, things might get harder, but the success is all that sweeter.

Another interesting thing to note about the basic system is the lack of additional penalties when the raises are invoked. In some systems, the offset for a more spectacular success is a potentially more spectacular failure; but in this system, the offset for a more spectacular success is simply a higher difficulty. If there is no penalty for failure when undertaking a given action, it’s often in your best interest to throw down a couple of raises.

It’s this synergy between mechanisms and setting that make games more interesting, and that’s the sort of thing I’m trying to focus on in this series.
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