Finding Your Spirit
The Sword and the Spirits Novella Is Now Available
The Sword and the Spirits, the first novella set in the world of Legend of the Five Rings and written by Robert Denton III is available now from your local retailer or our website!
The novella is over 100 pages long and includes a full-color insert detailing the history of the Phoenix Clan and two extended-art cards for Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game! The story within centers on the Phoenix Clan’s investigation into a mysterious elemental disturbance and the secrets of a vassal family deep in the mountains. Sent to investigate a murder, Isawa Tadaka and Shiba Tsukune stumble upon an ancient conspiracy.
Read on for an interview with author Robert Denton III in which he discusses the process of crafting The Sword and the Spirits!
Finding Your Spirit
Fantasy Flight Games: What’s your background as a writer and with the Legend of the Five Rings setting?
Robert Denton: This may surprise some (or maybe it won’t, haha), but I’m a self-taught writer. I didn’t study writing in school and didn’t write anything professional until I was 28. I did read a lot. And I wrote in my free time, but it was just as a hobby, mostly silly stuff for my friends and my local roleplaying group. I had vague aspirations about one day publishing a book, but I considered that to be a pipe dream. I never thought I would write professionally.
Legend of the Five Rings changed that. My first experience with the universe was playing the first edition of the roleplaying game, way back in 1998 (I think?), and I fell in love with the setting right away. In 2002, my brother introduced me to the card game, which was during Gold Edition, and that cemented me as a fan. I started participating in the online community, frequenting clan forums, attending kotei and Gen Con events, playing in online play-by-post RPGs (even both of the official Winter Court events!), writing fan fiction, cosplaying… all sorts of embarrassing fan stuff!
Then in 2011, I entered a fan fiction contest on the old Crane boards, which I unexpectedly won. That got the attention of Fred Wan, the L5R Continuity Editor at the time, who reached out to me about the possibility of joining the Story Team. I became an official Story Team member at Gen Con that year, which was an unexpected and wonderful surprise. I’ll always be grateful to Fred. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have a career!
FFG: What drew you to the world of Rokugan, and what are some of the challenges and rewards that come from writing in a setting with such an intricate social structure and cosmology?
RD: I’ve long been a fan of samurai movies. Period films directed by Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Hiroshi Inagaki, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kaneto Shindo were endlessly fascinating to me. The heroes of these Chanbara films are stuck in place while the changing world moves around them. Some are warriors walking an obsolete path in a world that’s left them behind, but without knowing any other way to live, they must continue regardless. Others live in poverty and must do things that are beneath them to survive, while at the same time maintaining some facade of dignity. They have to make tough choices between their warrior codes and personal obligations, and their desires and what they feel is correct. These are tales where a warrior can win their duel and defeat their enemy, but still lose in a greater sense of the word. I find these sorts of stories very compelling.
The L5R roleplaying game was the first that captured that “Chanbara” feeling for me. Legend of the Five Rings as a setting is very anachronistic, but it’s purposefully so, because so are samurai films. They present this idealized version of ancient Japan that didn’t strictly exist. L5R is deliberately crafted to put characters into similar situations as those in Japanese period dramas. Secrets are weaponized, alliances are tangled, priorities are in conflict, and what is “right” isn’t the same as what is “correct.” The chance to re-enact those sorts of stories, to experience them firsthand, is what really drew me to Rokugan.
FFG: What do you find most interesting about the Phoenix Clan? What were some of the themes and setting elements you wanted to highlight in this story, or which were the most fun to write about?
RD: The Phoenix are one of the most fascinating clans in Rokugan. They’re the only clan whose leadership is run by a council. They are run by a sect of aristocratic priests whose job is to balance the physical and spiritual worlds. At the same time, one of their biggest families embraces almost-heretical beliefs in the form of the Path of Man. They only have one samurai family whose emphasis is on complete servitude. Not even their champion can contradict them! More than any other aspect of the Phoenix, more than their mystical ways, pacifistic philosophies, and amazing powers, I find the dynamics between the clan’s families to be the most interesting part of the clan.
I’ve seen some comments online saying the Phoenix are “hard to write for.” I disagree. I don’t think the Phoenix are especially difficult to write for at all. For a mystical clan with their heads in the clouds, they’re actually very relatable.
FFG: The Kaito family is brand-new to the FFG reimagining of the Legend of the Five Rings. Tell us a little bit about the process of creating this new family, and what key notes you wanted to hit with them.
RD: When Katrina Ostrander (former Legend of the Five Rings Story Lead) asked me to help conceptualize a new family for the Phoenix, I had a few specific points I knew we should cover. First, the new family had to be unique. They needed a solid role within the clan, a purpose that didn’t step on the toes of other Phoenix families. Not only that, but they needed to be different from other Great Clan families, not just within the Phoenix, but also without. They needed unique traditions, unique “magic,” and a unique worldview. And because Legend of the Five Rings thrives on inter-clan conflict, the Kaito way of life needed to be at least partially incompatible with several other Great Clan families. Differences between them and the next closest families had to be irreconcilable.
Katrina mentioned that the Kaito were going to be an archery-centric family, and upon hearing that, I got very excited.
My primary inspiration for the Kaito’s archery ways was an archery-centric religion called Daishadokyo, or “The Great Way of the Kami Through Archery.” This path was invented by a modern Kyudo Master named Awa Kenzo and is actually the subject of Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery.” In fact, Herrigel was under the impression that he was learning Zen through the ancient art of Japanese archery, something that all ancient Japanese archers practiced, but he was mistaken; what Awa was actually trying to show him was his own self-invented archery-centric religion. Daishadokyo puts a lot of emphasis on form because the archery itself is meant to be a form of meditation and way to further connect to a spiritual world.
There were other challenges for all of us too. The Kaito’s themes needed to be an elaboration of existing Phoenix themes, supporting the general message of the clan’s Identity, while also standing on their own. They needed a “hook” or “challenge” that faced the family, like rivalries or dark secrets, things like the other families had. Every Great Clan family has some shortcoming or downfall encoded into their lore, and the Kaito could be no exception. Finally, they needed to have a larger-than-life founder, someone on whom they could base their family traditions.
After collaborating with Katrina and other creators within FFG, I’m really pleased with what we all came up with. I think we hit all of those points pretty well. Now the Kaito are one of my favorite clan families, so mission accomplished I’d say!
FFG: If you had to choose a favorite character from the novella, who would it be and why?
RD: That’s tough. I honestly like all the characters. I think it’s really important for a writer to be a fan of the characters in their work. At least it is for me; it provides me with more energy and motivation when I like whoever I’m writing about.
I think my favorite might be Tsukune. That’s probably a boring answer since she’s the main character, but what can I say? I find her to be very relatable. I think we’ve all felt out of our depth at some point in our lives, and having to come to terms with her own self-doubt and everyone’s expectations is something I find really compelling. She’s the kind of person I really want to root for, someone I want to see succeed. I also think she’s funny. She’s got this sort of “Welp” reaction going on that makes me laugh. She was a joy to write.
But I also like Kosori. She’s basically a custodian with greater aspirations, dissatisfied with her job but having no other options. Again, something I personally find relatable. “Why am I working this dead-end job?” is a question a lot of people ask themselves. But what I like is that Kosori doesn’t let it drag her down, and that’s pretty admirable.
FFG: What was the biggest surprise to you when writing the novella? Such as a character that had their own story to tell or breakthroughs with the plot?
RD: There’s an Asako monk in the book named Asako Maezawa. He’s this unflappable old guy that speaks his mind regardless of who overhears and gives out this vibe like he knows more than he lets on. I originally envisioned him as a very minor character, but as I wrote him he sort of came to life, and I liked him so much that he ended up playing a bigger part than I intended. That doesn’t happen a lot in my writing, so I was pleasantly surprised when it happened this time.
From the Ashes
Join Isawa Tadaka and Shiba Tsukune on their mysterious journey in The Sword and the Spirits! What new mysteries await? And how will the Phoenix Clan be affected by the trials to come?
Find out with The Sword and the Spirits (L5N01), available now from your local retailer or our website!