The Art of Unmasking
Explore the Concept of Strife with Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Designer Max Brooke
Strife is one of the most unique mechanics in Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying. Representing your character’s inner turmoil, strife accumulates throughout a game and can lead your character to an outburst ill-fitting for a samurai. Strife reinforces the core ideas behind Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying—interpersonal conflict, the push and pull between duty and desire, and more.
Today, designer Max Brooke dives into the creation of strife as a mechanic, and its uses in a campaign!
Max Brooke on Strife in Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying
Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying has always rooted itself on a particular set of story ideas. The code that the samurai of Rokugan live by is demanding in the extreme. It tells a samurai to put the will of their sworn lord above what they personally desire, and even what they believe to be morally right.
On top of that, the iconic characters of the story have always been vulnerable in interesting ways. They are frequently uncertain—for all his experience at war and logistics, Akodo Toturi struggles with the pressures of rule at the Imperial court and the incredible responsibilities the Emperor puts on him. For all her brilliance and drive, even Doji Hotaru cannot foresee every outcome of her choices, so even she experiences doubts about the best path for her clan and the Empire. And the player characters are meant to follow in the mold of these figures—and protagonists of samurai genre stories within Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying and beyond. While the external struggles these characters face create the flow of the story, their inner struggles make them dynamic and engaging. Their vulnerabilities make them relatable, and their emotions act as the catalyst to fuel their development as people.
Emotions in Play
As the team sat down to design Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying, one major goal was to give the players tools that would help them grapple with the inner struggles of their characters as well as their external circumstances. We knew from talking to longtime players that many people saw subtle interactions, interpersonal drama, and the hopes and fears of individuals as crucial parts of roleplaying in Rokugan. After a significant series of discussions, we decided that this warranted a mechanic: something concrete, to provide a foundation for emotionally driven storytelling in the way that combat rules provide support for action-driven storytelling.
Strife grew out of this concept, and the idea naturally fit with another idea integral to Rokugan: choice and consequence. By placing strife icons on the dice, we sought to create a dynamic in which Roll and Keep had new weight. Instead of choosing the highest valued dice (or, occasionally, the lowest), strife allows the game system emphasize choice and consequences directly in its core interaction. A question a player must ask of their character is often “How much does my character want to succeed now?” rather than “Did they succeed?”
If the action is less important to the character, their player might consider letting them succeed less dramatically or even fail in order to avoid strife. By contrast, if the character is ardent in seeking something, they will naturally be more invested in the outcome—and more likely to accept the strife that comes with pursuing success at any cost. This engages the player to think about their character’s desires in all of their activities.
Strife in Development
Strife changed quite a bit during the early days of design, evolving from a stress-like concept to a broader, more multifaceted experience. It came to represent not just emotions like frustration or fear, but also joy, mirth, and a myriad other feelings. Just as fatigue helps you envision physical exhaustion that you are (hopefully) not experiencing personally, strife is a meter of the emotions your character is feeling that you might not always share.
Additionally, the consequences of strife evolved. While early versions called for outbursts when a character’s strife exceeded their composure, this was revised based on Beta feedback to a system for unmasking. Instead of happening to the character involuntarily, unmasking is always an intentional act, under the player’s control. This proved a much better fit with the system overall, and its focus on player choice in the way that characters’ stories develop.
How to Get the Most out of Your Strife
So, what are the benefits of a mechanic to help track your character’s emotions? People feel emotions at the gaming table already, after all. The answer lies in the fact that your emotions won’t always line up with your character’s feelings—but that disconnect doesn’t mean that understanding your character’s feelings is unimportant to roleplaying! Reflecting on how their emotions differ from yours is actually very important to roleplaying a particular character.
To think about it another way, consider why games distinguish between in-character knowledge and out-of-character knowledge. Creating a layer of separation between your character’s knowledge of the world and your own can help you better understand them as a person. Your character doesn’t know what you do about your individual studies or job—and by contrast, you probably don’t know nearly as much as your character about the specifics of Rokugani culture or the finer points of swinging a sword. When you look at your character's skill list, you see that they have strengths and limitations that are different from your own. This helps you imagine what it would be like to be that person, and how they would go about solving problems.
In the same way, creating a layer of separation between your character's emotions and your own with strife can help give insight into their existence. Choosing dice with strife can indicate that your character cares about something, and high levels of accumulated strife show that your character is reaching their emotional limit. Beyond that, it is often players, and not just the Game Master, who cast their characters’ fictional lives into ruin and disarray with disastrous choices or twists of fate. And this can be dramatic and fun (for you), but might well cause strife for the character. This helps you engage with the idea that your emotional state (excitement at a twist in the story) is very different from your character’s reaction (anger, surprise, or fear) to the events that you orchestrated. And, of course, this can be true for their positive emotions, as well—your character might be elated that they are near to completing their long-awaited vengeance, but you might understand that they will find no peace in bloodshed and feel a sense of sadness for them.
It also provides a mechanic by which to play out characters’ emotional reactions, which likely differ from your own. Part of the joy of roleplaying is considering unusual situations that vary from your daily life, and that can include roleplaying emotional experiences archetypical to the samurai drama, and emotions play a large part in that.
Other People’s Strife
Interpersonal conflicts aren’t only about one person’s emotions, and the way characters behave toward one another because of conflicting emotions is integral to many stories. Much as fatigue gives players a common parlance to discuss battlefield exhaustion and physical vulnerability, strife reflects emotional vulnerability. Learning how much strife a non-player character has accrued tells a player about their emotional state, and using abilities that inflict strife or remove it can affect that state.
In a game where intrigue scenes are so integral that they are listed first among types of conflict, we felt that it was important for characters to affect one another emotionally in tangible ways. The supporting words of a friend can bring someone back from being emotionally compromised, while a cutting insult can drive an enemy to attack at an inopportune time. Stoicism is an important part of samurai films, but so is emotional expression. These sorts of stories often turn on moments when a stoic character allows themselves to express some emotion—or when a smug enemy cracks and exposes their fatal flaw. Control over one’s emotions is founded on the idea that everyone has emotions, and these are the storm often brewing behind the calm façade.
Strife as a Resource
Ultimately, strife is a tool, and like most resources in roleplaying games, it helps the game system and the Game Master communicate more information about the world to the players. Strife conveys information that many games leave purely to roleplaying, because that information is especially important in the particular themes and motifs of Legend of the Five Rings. And even in Legend of the Five Rings, roleplaying still has a very important part to play in the emotional arcs of characters—strife is meant to enable this type of roleplaying and support it, not replace it, just as having a detailed combat system does not replace players narrating their actions.
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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