Sunday, 10 April 2011

Is It Just Me, Or Do Ronin Kind Of Suck?

Actually it's not me we're talking about, but it is the name of the thread at AEG's boards, and the original poster is certainly not alone in his feelings.

I just don't want to login into my account and rant about some of those design decision or deal with Dace's arrogant dismissiveness.

Basically, minor clans and ronin characters were designed to be inferior to their great clan counterparts. Mind you that Shawn Carman as stated at least a couple of times that he doesn't feel Minor Clans are inferior to their Great Clan counterparts, but considering what everyone else says, including a playtester, and my own appraisal, that is not true.

To be fair to Mr. Carman he designed mostly shugenja in the rulebook and, like I stated in my review of that book, shugenja and Courtier schools suffer far less from this problem.

However, Enemies of the Empire introduced a series of higher rank Ronin paths to complement the rulebook, which in general are even less powerful to the the point that some of these techniques seem inferior to the starting techniques, escalating this problem even further.

At this point it's probably abundantly clear that this is a design decision I despise, but let's go over it again.

The standard justifications for making ronin and, to a lesser extent, Minor Clan characters, "suck" are the following:

  1. They should suck because they are underfunded, and lack clan support.
  2. Most schools have 1000 years of refinement.
  3. It's in keeping with setting flavour.
  4. Ronin aren't a major part of the setting.
  5. Being cast out as ronin is the worst punishment in Rokugan.
  6. Ronin are not intended as PCs.
  7. Ronin "sucked" in previous editions, so they should suck in 4th as well.
  8. Being outside the social structure is an incredible advantage.
  9. Ronin that don't "suck" are "special".
  10. Ronin are for those that want to play underdogs.
  11. Contribution to the team is not dependant on techniques.
Now let us look at those reasons one by one.

The first thing that comes to mind is how 8 is denied by 1. Surprisingly I've actually seen those two resons used by the same person. I believe there is also one such example in the thread I linked.

Personally, I have an incredible time figuring out how being outside the social structure can be advantageous outside the rare punctual circunstance. Certainly not a huge enough advantage to compensate for the mechanical disadvantages.

Reason 1 however is harder to debunk. For me the fact that players shouldn't be mechanically punished by setting circunstances is justification enough why this reason shouldn't be used, and I would further state that the design of L5R with an Advantage/Disadvantage system that give the player character points for taking disadvantages supports my view.

For a more setting related explanation of why I think reason 1 still doesn't hold water we can look at the Minor Clan and Imperial schools. Imperial schools while arguably superior to their clan counterparts, were never mechanically so (they were supposed to be in 1st Edition, but 1st Edition varied a lot from supplement to supplement). Further if we are going to use financial resources as the reason why schools should be better, then Crane, Unicorn, and Mantis schools should be the absolute best schools in the RPG.

I don't think that's true, and I doubt anyone thinks that is desirable.

Even if we argue that financial resources translate in better schools, the fact that the Great clans support a much bigger number of schools means those schools might not be receiving their full attention. Example, the Kuni family supports two full schools and a few paths. Can they really devote more resources to them than the Kasuga family to their single school? Or the Hiruma that at some point depended on the Shinjo to train them?

This also takes us to another point. As financial resources do not map uniformly from Great clan to Great clan they don't do so from the Great to the Minor clans either, or from Minor clan to Minor clan.

When the Mantis absorved the Wasp and Centipede and became a great clan did their resources become so great that they could create an extra technique for their bushi school and create courtier and shugenja schools? Were the Fox only capable of capable of supporting one shugenja school, despite their age, and their closeness to the Hantei to the point that they often served as their enforcers?

Another example is the Yotsu. They had lands (which pretty much made them not ronin) and strong Imperial support. Why did the Monkey easily develop a five rank school but they didn't?

The Dragonfly also served as Dragon courtiers before the creation of the Kitsuki and kind of mantained that role after that as well. Further they had strong support from the Phoenix beyond that of the Dragon. Again why where they never able to create extra schools?

So as you can see clan financing and resources don't justify a simple Great Clan> Minor Clan> Ronin structure. Resources vary a lot within those tiers and it's not universal that the higher tiers have better resources than the lower tiers.

Reason 3 is also easy to counter. There are a lot of cases of notable ronin in the setting, and if you look far enough there was even a ronin faction in the CCG, Toturi's Army which is also a counter to reason 4. Ronin might even not be a major part of the setting now, but they were once.

When 4th Edition claims to be timeline neutral, not giving ronin strong mechanical support on this count is, I think, counterproductive.

And, again, players shouldn't be mechanically punished by setting circunstances. Whether you believe in PC exceptionalism or not there is no reason to force a player to play a mechanicaly inferior character than the rest of the group.

For reason 5, have I said that players shouldn't be punished by the circuntances of their characters? It's also another counter to point 8.

Reason 6 is harder to counter.

I would say that ronin are intended to be PCs. There are no disclaimers otherwise in the game, and clear rules and guidelines are given, If anything the only thing missing is any indication that ronin are not intended to be played along clan samurai.

If ronin were not intended to be played as PCs there was really no point to make such an extensive section in the rulebook leaving it to EotE. Even in EotE there are in my opinion more paths than necessary if the point was only to give a few special abilities to ronin NPC opponents.

Pont 7 is easily dismissed on the fact that following tradtion for the sake of tradition is no justification to do anything. In fact considering that during 4th Editions launch much was made of the willingness to slaughter sacred cows this argument on its own has no merit.

Argument 9 is possibly the most disingenuous and fallacious of the lot. Even for those that are not proponents of PC exceptionalism it reeks of player disempowerement.

Basically only those that are special may escape the constraints set out by the mechanics.

Brilliant!

Now who decides who is special and who isn't you jackasses?

Want to play a Kaneka, Dairya, Toku, Fusami, Otoya, Mokoto, Utagawa, Yotsu, Kazumasa, Tawagoto, Masakazu, Naoharu or Takuan? Sorry, you can't, you're not special enough. Well, unless you are actually playing a character from the Spider Clan, that is, because the thought of a ronin is court is trolling, unless the CCG character has a Spider Clan tag on it.

What's worst is that this filter can be applied to Great clan characters as well. For each Yoritomo, Shoju, Tsuko or Kisada there are countless anonymous Lion, Crane, Scorpion or Crab samurai that get slaughtered by these big name "special" samurai. Fortunately for the idiots that sprout this justification no one makes the claim that the PCs should be this kind of cannon fodder.

Just to make it clear, I don't agree with the other reasons given in this post, but I can understand them. Those that justify not giving mechanically sound techniques to ronin because ronin that don't "suck" are "special", are complete and utter morons.

10 is another argument that is hard to counter.

Again I would say that the social/setting disadvantages of playing ronin and Minor clan characters don't justify the mechanical hurdles that have been imposed to them as well, and that a player can, by his own mechanical choices, play an underdog in a game with equally balanced choices while the reverse isn't true.

Concomitantly this makes the "L5R Your Way!" motto of 4th Edition harder to achieve. For example before Emerald Empire there was no published school for the Shinjo bushi. However it was perfectly reasonable to use the Morito school as a placeholder. Unfortunately the design decision to make Minor Clan schools inferior to their great clan counterparts meant that those using such measure would find themselves less capable than remaing party member.

Another example, now from enemies of the Empire, is the Claws of the Wolf that could easily represent an organization like the Mondai Ketsu (Imperial Enforcers and Troubleshooters) but presents no incentive to be taken as such. In fact I would further and say this technique is very bad at representing the group it is supposed to represent. The Shadowed Steel path whose description makes it a perfectly plausible Shosuro path, until you read the actual technique is another example.

The same can be said of the Wolf Legion technique that is the worst rank 5 technique in the game that I can think of, and is probably weaker than quite a few rank 2 techniques. I expect many will house rule it into a rank 2 path but this is a technique that many Imperial and Monkey samurai must have learned and yet presents no kind of interest from a mechanical point of view.

Finally we have justification 11 that claims that contributions to the team do not depend on techniques.

That is factually true, but that's actually not an argument that justifies making same rank techiques have different power levels. It just a statement of fact, and given two equally creative and experienced players, intent on playing a similar character concept, with the same amount of points, guess what will be their distinguishing contribution to the group?

So I think arguing against technique balance, on the count that contributing to the team is not dependant on techniques, is disingenuous.

Techniques have an impact on the contribution a player can make to the game. Sure a bad player won't be capable of making any character interesting while a creative one might make even the most gimped character fun, but the reverse is true as well.

There is no pint in making players jump through hoops to play a fun character.

Ultimately though, it will be the market to decide if this approach continues or not, and it has worked since the RPG came into production.

Those that like ronin will continue to buy books despite the fact it doesn't support their games and homebrew re-skin what they need, or they will move on to a game that supports their playstyle.

Those that don't like ronin won't be bothered by it, at least until the point where they may start to feel they are paying too much for content they have no use for.

Finally there are those for which this model works fine and will keep buying the books.

As long as the losses from groups from the first and second group are not serious enough to affect AEG's margin it's unlikely for things to change.

I just hppen to think designing the schools with parity in mind would produce better commercial results. AEG disagrees, apparently due to results from 3rd Edition, but I would argue that the problem with 3rd Edition was the execution, not the objectives, and that, sadly, they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

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