Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Legend of the Five Rings: The End of an Era

             On September 11, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) announced that they had purchased the license for Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG).  For fans of the L5R card game, this was apocalyptic news.  The L5R CCG had been in production since 1995 and had built an enormous and devoted following thanks to its multiple clans – with which players would strongly identify – and its emphasis on a storyline that the players could affect through tournament play. 
            Two more products remain to be released for AEG’s version of L5R, Evil Portents the final expansion for the CCG and the Atlas of Rokugan for the RPG.  AEG’s sale of its L5R licenses represents a massive change to the gaming landscape.  The L5R CCG has remained unchanged since its release 20 years ago, even when it was owned by Wizards of the Coast (WotC).  However, the end of AEG’s production of the L5R RPG is of greater importance. 
            AEG has been producing RPG products since 1997, and over the course of the last few years, AEG has cut back on the development of RPG products.  L5R was the last RPG license that they were developing.  Now, L5R is gone, too.  Once they were a strong competitor in the RPG market with a large slate of great RPGs:  L5R, Brave New World, 7th Sea, and Spycraft.  They also produced licensed RPGs for Farscape and Stargate SG-1.  They even released a number of supplements during the D20 open license glut in the early 2000’s including the World’s Largest Dungeon and World’s Largest City supplements.

            FFG’s purchase of L5R is not the first time that the license has changed hands.  Shortly after it was first published, Five Rings Publishing Group took over the production and development of L5R as a joint venture of AEG and their publishing partner ISOMEDIA.  In 1997, Five Rings Publishing Group became a subsidiary of WotC until 1998 when WotC subsumed Five Rings Publishing Group completely. 
            The addition of L5R had an enormous effect on D&D 3.0.  Rokugan became the default setting for D&D’s Oriental Adventures campaign replacing Kara-Tur in the Forgotten Realms.  Under WotC’s stewardship, the L5R CCG’s mechanics and emphasis on story remained the same.  However, AEG re-acquired the property in 2001, and WotC released the Japanese themed Magic:  The Gathering Kamigawa block.  One might guess that once WotC sold L5R, they were stuck with a large amount of art for the game that they then re-purposed for Magic:  The Gathering.  (This is purely conjecture on my part but the sale of L5R in 2001 and the release of the Kamigawa block in 2004 certainly points to that as a possibility.  Perhaps someone with better understanding of Magic:  The Gathering’s history will correct me if I’m wrong.)

            L5R has had a tumultuous existence not even counting WotC’s purchase and sale back to AEG.  While owned by WotC, the original five interlocking rings logo used on the back of the CCG’s cards and on the covers of their RPG books was the focus of a lawsuit by the International Olympic Committee.  The IOC claimed that the interlocking rings infringed on their trademark and the settlement required that L5R change its logo.  They choose to use five coins instead.   The change occurred when WotC released the Spirit Wars expansion in 2000.  The change to the card backs forced players to sleeve their decks with opaque-backed card sleeves to avoid cheating.  WotC included sleeves in the starter decks for Spirit Wars as an apology to upset fans who didn’t want to spend extra money on card sleeves. 
            WotC’s ownership of the L5R RPG also led to the production of many L5R RPG 2nd Edition books which included the rules for both the D20 system and L5R’a original D10 system.  Both companies hoped to keep fans of the L5R RPG happy whether they preferred the new D20 system or AEG’s system.  Soon after AEG reacquired the license they released the third edition of L5R returning it to its D10 roots in 2005. 
            The L5R CCG, which many loved including myself, is no more.  FFG has announced that they will update the rules and begin releasing the game as a Living Card Game similar to Star Wars:  The Card Game and Warhammer Conquest.  In and of itself, this transition from random booster packs to pre-packaged expansions is exciting.  FFG has proven that this style of game is extraordinarily successful.  They have also shown that they are excellent stewards for licensed products.  Role playing games such as Star Wars: Edge of Empire, Star Wars:  Age of Rebellion, Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, miniatures games like Star Wars Armada, X-Wing, and board games like Battlestar Galatica and Eldritch Horror are all excellently designed and managed properties.  Star Wars:  Edge of Empire is the best Star Wars RPGs since West End Games Star Wars, Revised system.

            Although many fans of L5R are sad today that AEG and FFG have decided to end a game with 20 years of history, FFG is undoubtedly the best stewards for this license moving forward.  Yet, AEG no longer makes RPGs which is a great loss to the tabletop RPG hobby.  The mechanics developed for L5R’s RPG remain excellent and were great for representing the culture of a fantasy Far East medieval civilization.  These mechanics allowed players to create a variety of characters that could be sneaky, deadly ninjas, katana-wielding duelists, powerful magic-using shugenja or sharp-tongued courtiers.  All were equally playable and viable within the system.  The back story of Rokugan, the setting for L5R, was so well developed – both deep and broad – that game masters had an endless supply of eras in which to set their game, NPCs to introduce, and story hooks for adventures. 
            As sad as fans are about this change, no other company is better suited to restart and redevelop L5R as both a Living Card Game and an RPG.  FFG has scheduled the re-release of the L5R CCG for GenCon 2017.  Currently, they have not made an announcement regarding the re-release of the RPG.  However, FFG should consider keeping the current L5R RPG as it is and release an updated and improved edition without significantly changing the rules.  Unlike when FFG acquired the license for the Star Wars RPG from WotC, L5R does not need a completely new system.  Regardless of whether or not FFG changes the system, a new L5R RPG developed by FFG will be a must buy. 

1 comment:

  1. I was an avid fan of the CCG up until the Hidden Emperor release. The 'Rolling Thunder' expansion plan was just to much and it drove myself and nearly all local players away. Really was a great game back then but I never managed to get back into it.

    The RPG I liked in it's first edition as well. Never picked any of the later versions up. Almost got the new one but couldn't find a core rule book for sale anywhere that didn't cost an arm and a leg. That should have been telling when the AEG online store didn't have it.

    Interested in seeing what happens in the future. A LCG may draw me back in, while a RPG with funky dice and odd rules may drive me away.