With the release of the new L5R game, I've thought it would be a neat idea to try and plot out a campaign that could truly be an epic story. By epic here I mean grandiose in scale, not necessarily "the best game ever" though obviously that would also be amazing. I've run long term L5R games before, but in smaller and more episodic chunks rather than something that really went from A-Z with a big plan for everything from the beginning. However, RPGs and the nature of how they work make some of this tricky. Today I want to talk about the biggest obstacles I see, and key design elements that could hopefully address them.
New PCs Aren't Particularly Strong
One of the biggest differences between an Epic Fantasy story and an RPG is the power level where people start off. Sure, Rand Al'Thor may start off as a level 1 bumpkin (or whatever) but there are high level people around him. Same in Game of Thrones where the majority of the big names are already established, decently leveled characters as far as the world is concerned.
PCs Can, and May, Die
Books can have main/important characters die, but only at times when the narration calls for it.Main Character 15 may die like half the other MCs in Game of Thrones, but not until George R.R. Martin is good and ready for it to happen in the story. The same is not true in an RPG. In an RPG a random encounter, or a minor skirmish with some bandits, can end up with a PC dead. On the other hand...
The PCs May Turn Defeat Into Victory
Just as the dice can be fickle and murder a PC at a bad moment, they can also let the PCs win so hard that they turn a planned defeat into victory. Beyond this, the nature of Players and them not being bound by the story so they can act freely means they may not even be in the battle at all. They could go somewhere else, or being doing something else. And that's fine, it's how games work, but you have to be able to account for it.
L5R's Classic Structure Helps
In L5R's favor is that the classic structure of the PCs being a group of Yoriki to an Emerald Magistrate can be a big help. It allows the PCs to be part of separate clans, it also gives a central quest giver to keep things on track if a PC dies. It also gives a structure to the story that can work for the telling, while also addressing the three big obstacles I noted above.
A Tip From Mass Effect
The Mass Effect trilogy works well as an inspiration for what L5R can do. While Commander Shepard is by no means an inexperienced character in the world of Mass Effect, the story follows a solid structure. Shepard is investigating events that indicate something significant and large is going on, but ultimately the rest of the galaxy doesn't really believe. This keeps the information focused to the player, trying to find concrete evidence to prove their claim of what is going on as other matters happen. By the end of the third game, things have progressed enough to truly be a galaxy wide spanning event with everyone involved in an epic showdown with the fate of all sentient life at stake.
The same can work in L5R with the PCs involving similarly unrelated events that have a theme behind them. The Empire as a whole won't act on it, so it is up to them. At least until the PCs are strong enough, or have the proof needed, to reveal the plot and then everything can go truly wild.
Planning and Replanning
PC death - at least in the early phases, can be handled just by having another yoriki assigned to the mission. However, later in the game the death of a PC could prove truly significant, as can the PCs ability to turn fate on its heel and change what happens. In those cases planning and replanning is going to be needed. This means fundamentally understanding the players on the opposition as characters,and figuring out what their next move will be - as well as what resources they have to accomplish them.
That could prove to be a lot of work, yes, but the pay off I feel could be more than worth it.