They weren’t kidding when they said that Rokugan was a land where “Honor is a force more powerful than Steel.”
One of Rokugan’s most defining features as a setting is the fact that the world operates under different societal rules as compared to western fantasy. From a newbie’s point of view, Rokugan’s social structure and byzantine rules can be scary, but GMs should be relaxed in their enforcement of the harsh social consequences of L5R.
When dealing with players new to the setting, never use the “You said it, therefore it happens, now you’re screwed.” approach. We’re all here to have fun, and it’s perfectly fine to assume that the characters, if not the players are doing their utmost to remain polite. Of course, it’s possible for people to be deliberately rude, in which case the GM’s resort is to always ask the ever helpful, “Are you sure?”
Here are a few rules of thumb to consider when playing in Rokugan:
- Forthrightness is not a virtue - While this may seem counterproductive, it is considered polite and a sign of good breeding in Rokugan to phrase oneself indirectly as opposed to issuing imperative commands. Of course, common sense reigns, so don’t try and pull off a “Forgive me for my insolence in interrupting your august discussion my lords, but there is currently a conflagration that is threatening to destroy both this wondrous castle and your esteemed lives if we do not make haste this very instant.” when “FIRE!” will do.
- Gifts are good – In the same way that bringing pizza money (or drinks) to a gaming table is always welcome, bringing gifts when visiting someone important is a good way to stress that you honor them. Pay attention to your gifts though, and try to consider what gift would suit someone. Rokugani can get passive-aggressive regarding gifts, and will attempt to interpret what a gift means when they receive it. Gifts can be an insult as well as a complement, so think twice before giving a Crab samurai an expertly carved wooden bath basin.
- Evidence takes a back seat to testimony - Sorry Grissom, but this is one setting where evidence just doesn’t work as well as it should. As a rule, Testimony from a high ranking individual is worth more than evidence. This can prove to be horrendously frustrating to those used to thinking along the lines of CSI. However, a slight tweak in mindset will help. If you know person X did it, then it becomes necessary to either find a higher ranking individual to testify on X’s guilt, or to get him to confess in front of a superior. Psychological manipulation may be necessary here.
- If you can’t say it… SING it – One of the less accentuated social rules of the game is the fact that a performance can be used to convey emotion. Are you accusing someone of murder? Construct a play that tugs at his guilt until he weeps publicly and decries his crime and commits seppukku on the spot. Need to tell someone that you’ve got the hots for her? Sing about a maiden with her features, and win major points doing so. Seriously, if you’ve ever wondered why there were so many art skills in L5R, there’s your answer.
Note that these are not absolutes, and since social situations are fluid and ever shifting, there are always exceptions to these rules. However, it’s good to have them in mind especially if you’re new to the setting.
One of L5R’s greatest draws to me is the fact that people have to be careful about how they act if they expect to last longer than a few sessions. It’s this careful attention to detail in terms of social interaction that makes L5R stand out among it’s peers and why it still remains as one of my favorite games in my entire gaming career.