The Imperial Herald
A Legend of the Five Rings Publication
The Imperial Herald - April, 2021
Welcome to the Imperial Herald for April 2021. This month we reflect on the worldbuilding of Rokugan with an interview with Katrina Ostrander, Head of Story for Fantasy Flight Games. We get to peek behind the curtain to learn how Katrina worked with her stable of writers to reboot Legend of the Five Rings, and how she is sunsetting the narrative of the living card game with the Heroes of Legend and The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow storylines. We also make some announcements about the Emerald Dojo in a post-FFG world.
Retail releases are spotty at the moment with covid and blocked canals wreaking havoc on global supply chains. My local game store currently has packs 5 and 6 on the shelf, but is yet to see pack 4. Under Fu Leng's Shadow is still scheduled for a May release according to its original announcement, but nothing more has been said about this.
It's also worth noting that a lot of L5R stock is currently discounted on the FFG website, so if you're looking to complete your physical collection now is a good time:
In the online world, packs 5 and 6 of the Temptations Cycle are now live on FiveRingsDB and Jigoku with some truly inspiring artwork :-)
As the various story arcs of the LCG come to a close we are seeing the payoff for much of the planting done by Katrina and the story team over the last several years.
The Heroes of Legend narrative is now complete with chapters 4 and 5 being published in April. Chapter 4 by Josiah "Duke" Harrist sees the Unicorn finally get some love with Shinjo Altansarnai facing Ikoma Ujiaki on the field before Otosan Uchi, while Chapter 5 by Marie Brennan features Mirumoto Hitomi confronting Bayushi Shoju himself in the Imperial Palace.
Both stories bring about satisfying ends to long-running character arcs, some of which can be traced to the launch of the game in 2017, so please check them out if you haven't already. As always, The Table of Yours podcast features audiobook readings of each fiction soon after they are released, while The Last Province Podcast includes recaps and analysis every month or so.
The Battle for Cherry Blossom Snow also draws to a close with Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 being published in April. Respect must be given to Robert Denton III who is writing this stories at very short notice based on the results of voting on FFG's website, yet each is a satisfying tale in its own right with Isawa Tadaka's quest in the Shadowlands mirroring the fight on the battlefield in Rokugan.
The final showdown looms between Shiba Tsukune and Katsuo the Peasant to determine who will (presumably) finish Akuma no Oni. Knowing the Legend of the Five Rings fanbase Katsuo will take this honour, but don't expect fans of Tsukune (and the Celestial Order) to take this lying down.
Interview - Katrina Ostrander, Head of Story
To learn more about how these two events came together, and to learn more about the narrative process behind Legend of the Five Rings in general, this month we have a great interview with Katrina herself. We're very honoured to have you take the time for this Katrina given all that is going on, and we thank you very much for your responses.
Hi Katrina and thank you very much for the interview. Perhaps we can start with you telling us a little about yourself and how you came to be Head of Story for Legend of the Five Rings?
I’ve been working as a writer, editor, and game developer within the tabletop games industry for the last eight years or so. In 2013, I started working in Fantasy Flight Games’ RPG department, where I was developing adventures for the Star Wars RPG line. Within two years, FFG was looking for an in-house fiction editor to develop a line of novellas, so I applied for and got that job. As it turned out, the fiction editor’s responsibilities extended to include curation and development of the internal reference materials for FFG’s proprietary IPs, including Android and Arkham Horror.
When Legend of the Five Rings became FFG’s property in 2015, I had already been a fan of the setting (my 2013 NaNoWriMo project was actually L5R fanfiction!). Between my knowledge of the IP and my regular job duties, it fell to me to begin work on a reboot of the setting, including the Living Card Game (LCG) storyline as well as the fifth edition of the L5R roleplaying game. That said, I wasn’t the only one making decisions on the IP—I worked collaboratively with the L5R LCG design team as well as the executives of the FFG studio. I continued working as fiction editor in a freelance capacity from 2018 to 2019, which is also when I wrote the RPG adventures “Wedding at Kyotei Castle” and “Winter’s Embrace.” It wasn’t until my promotion to Creative Director of Story and Setting in 2020 that I became responsible for FFG’s depiction of L5R and its other proprietary IPs.
When I’m teaching my English students we often focus on two types of writing: analytical and creative. With the former we spend a lot of time brainstorming and preparing before we start writing, while with the latter we often just put pen to paper and see what happens. How do you manage this balancing act between planning and spontaneity with Legend of the Five Rings?
Creative writing can also greatly benefit from brainstorming and preparing, and L5R bears that out. From the very outset of the setting reboot, we plotted out some rough storylines to correspond with the planned cycles of the LCG, and we developed an entire story bible to describe the story’s major characters and their intended arcs. Of course, you have to be prepared to ditch the planning when inspiration strikes, but in my opinion, you need to do that planning first in order to set up the conditions that create inspiration.
When developing the story for the L5R LCG, we used these storylines and character arcs (as well as the cards being generated by the designers) to come up with the assignments that were given to authors, but the “how” of specific plot beats and sometimes the plot beats themselves were left open to interpretation by the assigned author. The next thing we asked authors to do was create a scene-by-scene outline of their short story, which would go through me or Tyler and the L5R story group for approval, mainly to avoid having to ask the authors to rewrite large portions of their story if the “how” or “what” didn’t work for whatever reason. It was during the outline stage that an author’s inspiration would cause us to start deviating from the original plan: sometimes because the author had a cooler idea, and sometimes because we realized the original plan wasn’t working.
The story prizes were extremely tricky to implement, especially in the beginning of the LCG when we put fictions in the dynasty packs themselves and tied the novellas to clan pack releases. This meant that the story was written six months in advance (or sometimes more), because that’s how long it took to translate and print and ship the packs to stores. The result was that story consequences lagged at least six months behind when the prize was awarded. Offering story prizes also meant that we had to keep our storylines and character arcs loose enough that we could go in more than one direction (or even seven different directions, as with the Kotei prizes that were awarded by clan). I think that by the third cycle, the story prizes had already piled up enough that the working storylines were significantly different than what we’d originally planned. We had to adopt a mindset in which ditching the planning you’ve already done in favor of spontaneity is okay, and even expected.
In my mind Bobby Denton puts his hand up for every fiction that is proposed, and then finds ways to include cats, teas, and obscure throwbacks or easter eggs that have a way of becoming canon. Can you tell us about how you work with the different authors (including Tyler!) to create the different web fictions and novellas?
When we were establishing the freelance writer pool for L5R, we asked authors what their favorite clans, characters, and types of scenes were. We tried to give out assignments based on those preferences, but sometimes the schedule meant that we’d simply email an author and ask, “this is the plot beat we need turned into a short story—do you want to take this one?” I think you can see this in the distribution of fictions, with Denton writing for a lot of the Phoenix characters, Marie Brennan writing for Dragon, D.G. Laderoute writing for Crane and Scorpion, and so on. Tyler and I would pinch hit by writing fictions when the turnaround time was unreasonable to ask of a freelancer (who often have to balance writing with their day jobs), but sometimes we would also take on writing for specific characters or plot beats that we’d come up with ourselves or were really invested in. It was different for the novellas, because in those cases, we would ask our freelance writer pool to pitch us their ideas for self-contained stories for a given clan; we didn’t say “these novellas need to feature the Thunders” or anything like that.
Otherwise, the process of working with authors went as follows: they would produce a detailed outline, a first draft that incorporated any story group notes on the outline, and finally, a revised draft based on our feedback on the execution of the first. Given the length of the novellas (30,000 words as opposed to 3,000 words for a short story assignment), those assignments would also include one more round of drafting, given the level of complexity involved. Things such as cats, teas, obscure throwbacks, and easter eggs might creep in at any point in the process depending on when inspiration struck the author, but sometimes Tyler or I or the story team would request the inclusion of specific details to better integrate the stories, since authors typically worked independently of each other.
The big exception to this was the Heroes of Legend storyline, when we actually set up a video call to host a “writer’s room” to bring together the different authors to collaborate and generate ideas with me and Tyler. Strangely enough, the shift to widescale remote work caused by the pandemic made something like a writer’s room feel more feasible than it had in the past, when the default expectation was that brainstorming happened in a physical room with a group of people.
You have mentioned before that you are a fan of Katsuo, and I like that we have a story told through the eyes of a heimin. I thought it would have been neat if there were stories following heimin like Katsuo, Sanjiro, and Tomoko in Rokugan because their stories are usually left untold. There could have been stories about how this trio misadventured through Rokugan as outlaws with Tomoko maybe succumbing to the taint. Do you have any of these “what could have been” ideas on stories that did not come to pass or did not work out?
When we first conceived of Katsuo, he was intended to be our “peasant hero” character, and I wish we’d had the storytelling canvas on which to see him grow between his introduction in “Kurosunai Village” and his appearance in “Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow.” However, Katsuo was one of those characters where I was hoping an author would “adopt” him and create a suitable character arc, so there wasn’t a lot pre-planned. I kind of envisioned that the Lost who destroyed his village would prove to be a recurring villain for Katsuo, and that his struggle against the predations of these Tainted samurai would go on without much help from the Crab Clan, who were preoccupied with defending the Wall. From that perspective, Katsuo was also meant to be a lens by which we could highlight the stories and struggles of ordinary people. However, because the L5R LCG gameplay is really about the conflict between the Great Clans, the stories about the Great Clan characters inevitably took precedence given that we had a finite number of resources with which to tell stories.
I’ve very much enjoyed the recent Heroes of Legend and Battle for Cherry Blossom Snow fictions. The former is a fitting way to end the ongoing clan infighting, while the latter is a satisfying climax for the Living Card Game. I imagine a large whiteboard with lots of arrows and sticky notes was needed to make this happen?
If by “whiteboard and sticky notes” you mean “several pages of Google doc where everyone could collaborate,” then yes. The storyline for Heroes of Legend went through many iterations based on budget and internal bandwidth considerations; ultimately, we decided to focus on wrapping up the conflicts and character arcs that had been introduced in the very first seven fictions for the L5R LCG, which is why Hotaru, Kachiko, Tsuko, Altansarnai, and Hitomi all feature prominently in the HoL stories. The storylines involving Kisada and his children as well as Tsukune and Tadaka were dealing with spiritual threats as opposed to political ones, and their arcs dovetailed nicely with the Under Fu Leng’s Shadow deluxe box that we know would be the final LCG product. The Crab and Phoenix struggle against the Shadowlands morphed into the single-elimination tournament as a result of the constraints we found ourselves in during the COVID-19 pandemic. With in-person events a giant “question mark” for the foreseeable future, how could we involve the entire L5R community in helping to determine the end of the LCG story arc? I believe the authors have done an incredible job of tying up myriad plot threads and story prizes, and while we couldn’t provide closure to every single character or arc, that just means there are still many stories left to be told in the land of Rokugan.
The storytelling has always been a big pull for me with Legend of the Five Rings: are you able to reveal anything about the future of storytelling in Rokugan, especially for players wondering about a Second Day of Thunder?
Unfortunately, I'm not able to speak to future storyline plans, but in the meantime, I think that the prophecies that Isawa Tadaka uncovered could make for an amazing RPG campaign premise, personally. What would the current generation of Thunders look like in your game? Who are they this time, and what must they accomplish further Togashi’s duel against the Ninth Kami leading up to the Second Day of Thunder? The canvas is yours.
I’m sure we are all blissfully unaware of just how much work goes into the lore of Legend of the Five Rings. Is there something you’re most proud of about this world and your involvement in it?
I think the thing I am most proud of is the level of characterization that was brought to the heroes of the LCG storyline. Growing up, the stories that resonated with me the most were what could be termed “romantic fantasy,” in that the relationships between characters and a character’s emotional growth arc were the focus of the story (as opposed to, say, pure action and adventure). Ultimately, I believe the stories of the Great Clans are stories about relationships (e.g. lord and vassal, ally and rival, enemy and lover, and so on). I was really glad that all of the authors were our allies in this endeavor—it really fell to them to sell the characters and their relationships on the page, and they continuously blew me away with their incredible work. Hearing people say that they loved Bayushi Shoju or Shiba Tsukune or Ikoma Tsanuri in this incarnation of the story tells me that we accomplished what we set out to do, and I have confidence in the authors that come after us to continue this work of character-focused stories set in the world of Legend of the Five Rings. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to be able to spend this portion of my career creating stories that seem to have resonated so well among the community. I want to say “thank you” to everyone who has followed along and been a part of this legend.
Thank you very much for your time, and for the many hours of enjoyment we’ve had curled up with a nice cup of tea and a good story!
The Emerald Dojo
Here at The Emerald Dojo we have a number of announcements this month.
First of all, you may have noticed that when we launched the 2.0 version of the site last year with its new Clan Meta Guides the Dragon were absent! I've been in contact with a number of Dragon players to try and get this written, but they are a mysterious lot and tend to answer in bizarre riddles when I ask them to complete a task. Ultimately, I wrote the Dragon Meta Guide myself, just in time for everyone to switch the Jade Edict. Regardless, the guide now exists and I would like to thank Suburbaknight, Arash, and PaddyOlly for their help in putting it together.
Second of all, as this iteration of The Legend of the Five Rings card game draws to a close we have also finalised our plans for The Emerald Dojo itself.
This site was always envisioned as a primer to introduce players to the retail version of the game and to help them find their way in the world of Rokugan. While the game will undoubtedly continue in new and interesting ways under the auspices of the Jade Edict and Jade Council, becoming involved in such versions of the game is beyond the scope of the site and so we are planning to sunset The Emerald Dojo at the end of the May.
This will allow us to complete 12 months of Imperial Heralds and close with the final retail release of the game (the Shadowlands box). Before that time we plan to update all existing guides to reflect the final card pool, and hopefully a final Imperial Law from Tyler.
The site will continue to exist will as both a shrine to the living card game under Fantasy Flight Games, and a continued primer for new players who are interested in the game in general.
That said, I would like to encourage anyone who is interested to take over as editor of the site once I have stepped down. There is so much more to come in the world of Legend of the Five Rings through fan-lead initiatives and I would love to see The Emerald Dojo continue to support these. Get in touch with me on Discord (paulofhallett#7086) if you are interested in this.
Until then, stay safe, pray to the Kami, and I will see you for one last Imperial Herald next month.