Roll and Keep

Designer Max Brooke on the Genesis of the Dice System in Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying


Join us today as designer Max Brooke examines the cross-section of narrative and mechanics in  Legends of the Five Rings Roleplaying for our very first Roleplaying Designer Journal!

Max Brooke on the Dice System of Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying

During our Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beta, one question we occasionally received was “Why not use Narrative Dice System of Genesys for Legend of the Five Rings?” And it’s a valid question: the Narrative Dice System has a strong track record, and obviously works well for many different genres and game experiences, from science fiction to steampunk to the Realms of Terrinoth.

When we sat down to design Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying, this was absolutely a topic we also discussed. Designer Katrina Ostrander and I had both developed books using the Narrative Dice System, and Genesys lead developer Sam Stewart was also a major contributor to the meetings—so the NDS perspective was certainly well-represented. However, we decided fairly quickly that we wanted to develop a new dice system for Legend of the Five Rings, for several reasons.

The Long History of Roll and Keep

Roll and Keep has been a fixture of Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying since its first edition. While we also quickly decided that we wanted to depart from the traditional numerical dice to streamline resolution and add richness of results, much of the appeal of Roll and Keep is not in the dice themselves, but in this unique way of using them. The idea of rolling a set of dice and then choosing a set of the results is fundamentally a very intriguing mechanic. It gives players an unusual amount of control over the outcome of their role, which helps to reinforce key themes of the setting. “Rokugan is a land of choice and consequence,” and we wanted this to continue to be an important mechanical theme in the dice system of Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying.

In earlier editions of Legend of the Five Rings, this was often illustrated in examples where players might actually choose to fail to preserve their characters’ honor—though this was a rare occurrence in actual practice. Still, even if it wasn’t often exercised, the fact that a player had to actively choose to succeed (or fail) gave them a certain ownership over their character’s fate.

When a bushi looses an arrow or a courtier spreads a rumor, they choose to set something into motion, and the consequences, even of success, are something the character and the player alike have chosen. We felt that this was an element we could explore even further, and so we set out to design dice that would encourage such moments of choice more often, giving players decisions that encourage them to empathize with their characters’ choices, even in a small way.

Different Mechanics Encourage Different Storytelling

Legend of the Five Rings owes a great deal of its roots to cinema—especially the films of Akira Kurosawa and other chanbara (samurai film) creators. However, in many of these films and the stories that inspired them, the personal moments and the subtle emotions that stir beneath are as important as the action and plot twists, if not more so. A look exchanged between two characters often bears vast weight of meaning. Internal emotion, external façade, and the significance to be found in the gulf between the two can be very important.

Of course, most of this will be expressed through roleplaying, but mechanics can serve as reminders and guideposts for roleplaying. Just as earlier iterations of Roll and Keep reminded players of the weight of their choices by making choice a key part of the process, the new edition’s Roll and Keep aims to encourage players to empathize with their characters and look deeply at their inner emotions.

Strife is therefore quite different from threat in Genesys, because it reflects the internality of the character rather than the narrative circumstances around them. Every time a player chooses a die with strife, they are interacting with their character’s emotional state. Their character might appear stoic to everyone looking at them—unmasking is always the player’s choice, after all—but their player can see the swirling emotions beneath in accumulated strife, and can incorporate it into their roleplaying as they think best fits the character.

Even opportunity is more oriented around the character than in the Narrative Dice System. While opportunity can be used to “add details,” in a similar manner to advantage and triumph, it is always a matter of the character noticing (or perhaps being the first to notice) an object, piece of terrain, or feature of a person. It is also linked to the Ring the character used, and gives different effects based on use. Therefore, like strife, it is also a reminder of the character’s individual perspective. A character who often uses Fire opportunity to add details will often spot absences or come up with wild theories—but fail to notice the patch of poisonous plants that another character later identifies by spending a Water opportunity.

The Role of the Five Rings

Another motive to develop a new dice system that we discussed in our early design meetings was to make sure that the Five Rings were appropriately central to a game entitled Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying. In Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game, the Five Rings have strong thematic identities, and when designing the RPG, we wanted to mirror this level of commitment to a core concept of the setting.

As a result, we decided that we wanted all five Rings to play a role in the lives of all characters. Instead of linking a character’s core statistics to physical qualities as past editions did (and as Genesys does), we wanted to explore the idea that a character’s Rings would reflect their aptitudes and tendencies in problem-solving rather than traits like Brawn, Agility, Intellect, or Willpower.

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying diverges from both its predecessors and from Genesys—each Ring relates to skills in terms of different approaches, and all Rings are useful for all types of character. A bushi (warrior) could specialize in their Fire Ring, reflecting a reliance on swift, overpowering attacks. Or, they might double down on their Water Ring, granting them a mobile and adaptable fighting style. There are circumstantial upsides and downsides to each approach, and some approaches will get little traction when applied to a particular problem. But overall, Rings do not determine which scenes a character can participate in effectively (battle, diplomacy, art, etc) as much as the tactics at which they excel. This goal required a different design for characteristics, skills, and the core mechanic than the ones used by Genesys.

Pacing and Checks

One final reason we settled on in the first design meeting for Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying was a matter of pacing. In our early design meetings, we already knew that we wanted more results on the dice than binary success and failure, as this played well into our plans to develop and enhance Roll and Keep, often pairing the best results with results a player might sometimes choose to drop. Checks in Genesys are very information-rich, but this also necessitates that they occur less often. As a result, Genesys is quite restrictive about what calls for a check—and it is extremely rare for a character to be allowed to make more than one check in a turn.

Katrina suggested that the pacing for Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying should be faster than Genesys, but still maintain a degree of informational richness absent from binary success/failure results. This came from her many years of playing previous editions of Legend of the Five Rings, and everyone agreed that it fit with our experiences in the long-running campaign she had run for us in the prior year. Compared with many RPG settings, it is much more common for PCs to undertake short activities solo—from duels, to minor intrigue scenes, to constant clandestine snooping on other PCs by the Scorpion character. However, with results as deep as the ones produced by the Narrative Dice System, it would be harder for GMs to allocate more than a single check for these sorts of micro-encounters. Sam Stewart suggested that a result (eventually strife) could result in resource depletion rather than more narrative results.

By having a lower GM load on each individual check, Legend of the Five Rings accommodates more rapid checks than Genesys, allowing for more back-and-forth in the sorts of micro-encounters that occur naturally based on the conceits of the setting.

The Right Tool for the Job

Each time a team sets out to design a new roleplaying game, they consider their options carefully. Even in games defined mostly by player imagination and shared fun, it is important to consider how a system runs, what behaviors it encourages, and how best these align with the sort of story it is trying to emulate. A system can be a very valuable guide for even experienced GMs and players. The Narrative Dice System and Roll and Keep are both systems that we’re very excited to continue to develop in years to come!

Max Brooke is a designer for Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying and a developer for roleplaying and miniatures games including Star Wars Roleplaying, and X-Wing™. His quest for new stories has taken him through medieval literature, giant robot anime, and countless games. It continues to this day.

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