Some Thoughts Regarding a Legend of the Five Rings Campaign

So here I am, writing again about roleplaying games in my own small, nerdy way. I am once again working on putting together a campaign for the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) Roleplaying game, something I’ve done before. While I’m not (yet?) returning to that particular idea (who knows; it might go that way), the work does afford another opportunity for reflection and consideration.

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Now, one of the things that the L5R property made much of, particularly in its earlier incarnations, was the player-driven nature of its storyline. From its origins as a collectible card game, it used player performance to drive the narrative represented in updates and new releases of cards and sets–and, eventually, the roleplaying game through which I was introduced to the property while still enmeshed in the mistake of thinking that I’d be a band director when I grew up. As I’ve played over the years, I’ve done as much as I could to remain abreast of the storyline and its developments, following even when the story reset itself as L5R switched hands. (Though I may be pilloried for it, I think the new version does some things much better than the older one–much better, in a few cases.)

Roleplaying games are, fundamentally, storytelling exercises, collaborative in ways that others aren’t (as Daniel Mackay asserts in The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art), and such things do much to build community and fellowship, as Gary Alan Fine finds in several studies across decades. This is true for L5R perhaps more than other properties, given its explicit orientation. More importantly, though, it encourages motion beyond the “canon” of the game–it has to, really, since without the willingness to move beyond that canon, the players participating have decided limits on what they can be and can do. And while it may be the case that a lot of play-groups look for the gaps in the story that they can fill, it is also the case that cleaving to canon too closely means the surprise of a good story…isn’t.

Consequently, as I thought about setting up my own game, my own campaign, and got started working on it, I decided I’d…move away from things. It’s something of a fanfiction move, I suppose, or it seems to fit with that descriptor–I’ve not done a lot with fanfiction, as such, although I am aware of the (sensible) assertions that much classic Western literature is, itself, fanfiction. (The Arthuriana I study certainly fits the model, Malory having refined works that expanded on Geoffrey of Monmouth as he expanded substantially from Nennius and Gildas–and then add Spenser to the mix!) I’m taking my point of departure from before the climactic events of the “canon” in either older or newer (as of this writing, at least) L5R; the milieu-shaping event simply does not happen.

Yet, anyway.

Nope. Not happening.
Image is Drew Baker’s Second Day of Thunder, used here for commentary.

I am, as might be imagined, still in the process of development. I’m still working out how the setting will differ from the “standard” one–as it necessarily will, even before the players get to play in it. I have to know where they start to see where they can go, after all. I don’t know that I’m going to do the kind of thing I did in West of Rokugan, so many years ago; I don’t know if it’ll be needed or advisable. But it’s nice to have this kind of project again–among the many others I get to do.

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The threads are fraying
Knots tied to hold the tapestry together
Coming undone
And the loom where it was woven
Has long since rotted away
The wood getting wet where it was stored
And left unattended for too long

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How the warp and weft were ever brought together
Eludes now
Such skill no longer ready to hands
Stained with things other than the dyes
Whose hues are now faded
Among the tattering

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A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 329: Dragon Keeper, Chapter 14

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series

After an ostentatiously “official” note from Detozi to Erek, “Scales” opens on Sintara fighting her way to provided meat, gorging on it to the extent that she can even as she notices the close regard of the Traders surrounding her and the other dragons. She assesses her progress with Alise and Thymara, finding their attentions to other dragons annoying, and finding other dragons’ insistence upon the superiority of their own keepers no less so. The dragon Mercor forestalls outright conflict, reminding them of their destination of Kelsingra and beginning a call to head away that the rest take up, speeding upriver from Cassarick.

The valiant postal service…
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Meanwhile, Sedric, Alise, and Thymara attempt to provide medical treatment to one of the dragons who shows injuries healing poorly. The dragon’s appearance and condition are detailed, and treatment begins–with Sedric taking the opportunity to secret away some portions of the dragon’s flesh and scales. Tats offers assistance as the treatment continues, but it is interrupted by the dragons–including the one under treatment–starting their upriver race. The keepers and others involved in the relocation efforts follow as best they can–and Sedric considers how he can make use of the bounty he has secured from the dragon he has helped treat. Efforts to persuade Alise to leave off–allowing him also to return to Bingtown–are futile, and Sedric finds himself compelled to come along.

Increasingly, I find myself appreciating the side-narrative in the missives among bird-keepers. It’s a nice little bit of world-building, and it allows for commentary not only on events in the novel, but more generally. For instance, with the present chapter’s prefatory materials, I find myself put in mind of Fredalian bullshit, the idea of those in power giving lip-service to standards of politeness or outright using them as abuse, with which idea I’ve done some work; Detozi’s outright citation of “official capacity” comes off as a sneering rejoinder to Kim’s officious rebuke, and one not undeserved. Warms my cockles, it does.

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I Ought To

Do something useful
Not sitting and stringing lines together
To be fed into a fan and aimed at a wall
To see what sticks

Yeah, sure. Why not?
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Something that does not have me
Stare at the screen
Hours on end
Maybe flexing my fingers over keys
Though no music comes from them
Most times

Something that lets me be
Proud of me
For once
Because that does not happen often

Hubris is not the same thing
Although it is something
I have done
And done
And done
As many can attest
And many once happily

Be something I am not
And never was
And likely never will be

A bit of funding would help with that, if you’d be so kind.

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 328: Dragon Keeper, Chapter 13

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series

Coming after Kim’s response to Detozi’s imprecations, “Suspicions” begins with Leftrin waking happily aboard the Tarman, assessing his situation and his infatuation with Alise. Setting aside what he views as idle fantasy, Leftrin prepares himself for the day’s work, and he is disturbed therefrom by his liveship’s awareness of an interloper. Investigating, Leftrin finds a scroll in his stateroom, which he reads with unease, realizing it has come from Sinad and musing over the predicament in which he finds himself as a result. Leftrin muses, too, on how things could have differed, but he sets such aside infavor of addressing what confronts him in his now.

The world runs on them…
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Elsewhere, Thymara is awakened by the demand to escort the dragons away, joining the other keepers in some confusion and considering what others have told her and the implications of the same. She confers with her peers about the event, and she finds herself somewhat annoyed at the prospects of travel that face her. Her traveling companion, Rapskal, chatters away about his dragon, and Thymara marks Greft’s greediness–and that of his followers. Discussion of the dragons ensues, with several of the keepers agreeing to take on additional duties, and more of their backgrounds emerges in ongoing discussion.

Sedric, joining Thymara, finds himself in an uncomfortable situation, not least concerning Greft. He forces his thoughts away from Greft and Hest and confers with Thymara, learning of the condition of some of the dragons and offering to assist in treating one of them. Meanwhile, Alise considers her own lack of progress with the dragons, particularly Sintara, who, as Skymaw, rebuffs and deflects Alise’s lines of inquiry. Despite the misgivings, however, she purposes to persist in her work.

I remain convinced of the romance-novel tropes at work among the Traders. I wonder what it is about that particular part of the milieu that prompts such; perhaps it is that the Traders are not quite as engaged in existential crises as the Six Duchies, despite the threats from Jamaillia and Chalced…

The thought occurs that, if Bingtown and the Rain Wilds are stand-ins for the nascent United States–as I’ve suggested–then Jamaillia is necessarily a stand-in for Hanoverian England; what, then, is Chalced? I don’t know that I have a good answer, really–but then, I don’t have to have one. That there are correspondences that facilitate reading and analysis does not mean they must be all of one piece. At one level, they cannot be, simulation necessarily never equaling the complexity of the thing being simulated. At another, accuracy is…fraught, as has been noted by a number of people whose opinions I esteem (for example, Kavita Mudan Finn and Helen Young). There is a tension between being “true” and telling particular stories, and while there is peril in straying too far from “truth” (Paul Sturtevant speaks to it, for instance, and I’ve motioned toward it, at least), this is perhaps somewhat less true in fiction than in “nonfiction,” given that fiction admits it is not true…or factual, which may be a different thing.

So that’s where this reading of the present chapter leads me. Whither next, I do not know–except that it will be to the next chapter!

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A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 327: Dragon Keeper, Chapter 12

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series

Following a scathing rebuke by Detozi of the complaining bird-keeper, Kim, “Among Dragons” opens with Sedric seething at Alise’s conduct and actions. He plots their return, expecting that Alise will soon tire of the expedition, and his thoughts turn to Hest and to maudlin longing for him.

So juicy sweeeeeet…
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Sedric is interrupted by Alise’s part of the conversation with Sintara and her request that he take notes of their conversation. He retrieves his writing implements, which are detailed, as well as specimen bottles he means to use in pursuit of his more clandestine mission. Sedric balks as he follows Alise out into the muck to confer with the dragons, and he feels the ire of the Tarman directed at him.

Sedric’s discomfort continues as he observes the dragons’ attendants working with them, and Alise becomes aware that he cannot hear the dragon’s speech as speech; he confirms as much with disdainful words. Thymara joins in rebuke of Sedric, and Alise dismisses him back to the Tarman, and she finds herself jealous of Alise, whom she sees as “Skymaw’s” preferred choice of keeper.

Thymara’s thoughts turn to Tats and rehearses the shape of her trip with the dragons so far. Disgusted on several fronts, she stalks off to hunt and fish. She spears one fish but almost falls, caught by Tats coming to assist her unexpectedly. As she regains her footing, she asks Tats after his intent, and he notes Sedric’s presence out away from the rest of the group, and Sedric explains his presence as having followed Thymara to confer with her. Introductions are made, and Sedric expresses surprise at the continued talk of conversation between the keepers and their dragons. He flatters her as he asks her to translate for “Skymaw” to him, and she begins to make arrangements to that end.

I’m not entirely sure what to write about the present chapter. I have to wonder, once again, about the tropes being deployed in it; for one, Sedric certainly does not come off well, and he fails to come off well in ways that ring of stereotypes that, although historically attested, are better left behind. Again, though, I feel as if I am coming up against the shrinking limits of my familiarity with the relevant critical theories and practices, being long removed from academe; I do not know that I have the language anymore, if I ever had it, to be able to speak to the matter in the way it really ought to be addressed. And it’s a frustration to come up against my own limits, knowing that they used to be further out, and not have the resources anymore to address the growing lack…

I’d be happy to put my talents to work for you; let me know what all you need written, and we’ll talk!

Recent Weather

Once again
I look with hope for the gray curtains to fall
And they do so
Draping my surroundings
Spiders leaving their trails behind them
For a little while
At least

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But I still stand under the bright stage light
And my makeup is flaking
How long I can keep the smile
Is not clear to me at all

The part still must be played
And I have no understudy

I’d be happy to put my talents to work for you; let me know what all you need written, and we’ll talk!

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 326: Dragon Keeper, Chapter 11

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

After another missive between bird-keepers in which one–Detozi–complains of earlier rebuke to the other–Erek–“Encounters” begins with Sintara struggling alongside the Rain Wild River, following along with the others with whom she hatched and musing in annoyance at her current status. Her attempts at grooming have been less successful than might be hoped, yet she persists in attending to herself as best she can.

Something of a namesake, even if not something normally visible?
Image is from the Smithsonian, here, used for commentary.

Sintara regards the other dragons with whom she travels and forces a place among them. Soon, the group is distracted by the arrival of their new tenders with meat, and the dragons fall to feasting. As Sintara sates herself, she finds herself addressed by Thymara, who suddenly recognizes the enormity of the task she has undertaken. As other tenders meet with their dragons, Thymara and Sintara confer, the latter haughtily rebuking the former for human presumption, and gaps in knowledge and changes to local geography are discussed.

Continued conversation goes awkwardly, and Sintara finds herself wondering why Thymara is not enchanted by her, searching her faltering ancestral memories for information and parallels. Testing her abilities, Sintara–“Skymaw” to Thymara in the absence of her true name–manages to get some service from her.

Meanwhile, Alise looks on from the deck of the Tarman, Leftrin explaining the arrangements that have led to the current state of affairs. He also comments on the employment of the young to tend the dragons, noting the Rain Wild propensity to kill such children by exposure. Sedric’s acerbic interjections are met with equanimity and more explication, and Alise reflects on the justifications for his aspersion. She considers, too, the effects of exposure to dragons on the people of the Rain Wilds, including Malta and Selden Vestrit, mulling over the connections among humans, Elderlings, and dragons. Her agreement to bring information back to Malta is rehearsed, as well, as is the tour of Cassarick that followed her striking that agreement–in Leftrin’s company.

Arrangements for Alise’s continued travel are made, and Sedric’s objections to the same are noted. So is Alise’s forceful address of those objections, and as the Tarman proceeds, Alise finds herself in unexpected conversation with Sintara.

The present chapter, although well into the book, offers a fair amount of useful explication for the reader. And that makes sense; the Traders books make much of working at length with nonhuman intelligences, and it could hardly be the case that they would be understandable without extended efforts to lay out information overtly. That the dragons are recently returned from a long absence, long enough that records could decay, allows for an authentic setting for that explication, which is to the good.

The present chapter also returns once again to the issue of constraints on women’s behavior among the Traders, something with which the Liveship Traders novels are greatly concerned and which continue to be of no small moment not only in the presumed time of the novel’s composition but also of their ongoing reception. I remain convinced there’s quite a bit of work to do in pulling out an overall idea in this line, but I do still need to do more reading, so…

I’d be happy to put my talents to work for you; let me know what all you need written, and we’ll talk!

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 325: Dragon Keeper, Chapter 10

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series

Following an exchange of messages in which one bird-keeper rebukes two others for carrying on private correspondence at public expense, “Cassarick” begins with the Tarman pulling into the docks of that city after nightfall. Leftrin advises Alise and Sedric to remain aboard until morning, and, overruling Sedric’s objections, Alise agrees. She muses over Leftrin’s treatment of her and Sedric’s annoyance thereat, considering the prospect of being found attractive.

Yep, this again.
Source remains the same as last time; it’s noted in the text, thanks.

Alise reflects on information Leftrin gives her about the state of the dragons at Cassarick and the proposal to help them move upriver, noting some misgivings about his disclosure but relishing the experience of the upstream journey. Sedric’s attitude is quite contrary thereto, voices with some emphasis to her amid his imprecations of Leftrin, and Alise works to soothe him somewhat as she retires to her cabin.

Elsewhere, Sintara wakes, thinking of Kelsingra again and musing over the dragons’ manipulation of the humans of Cassarick to aid them in journeying thereto. Malta’s involvement in the discussion and negotiation of the effort is noted, as well, as she knows that the local Traders intend and that it will likely work to the dragons’ detriment. Sintara muses once again on what she should have been and is not, determining to travel onwards despite the known futility of doing so.

Alise wakes the next morning as Leftrin calls at his cabin, noting that the local Traders are hastening their arrangements and have summoned him as part of it. She determines to accompany him and dresses to that end, and as they proceed after breakfast, Leftrin extolls the Tarman to her, and Alise marvels at their surroundings. She also notes the appearances of those among whom she moves, marked by the Rain Wilds to varying extents.

Alise and Leftrin arrive at the Traders’ meeting, where Malta continues to wrangle against the local government’s machinations regarding the dragons. The local Traders inform Leftrin that they seek to hire him to assist the relocation effort, and Leftrin immediately begins to find terms and conditions, to bargain for best effect. Alise, having been present when the initial arrangement between the dragons and Traders had been made, speaks up, and, at Malta’s prompting, gives something of a lecture on the topic at hand. Her discourse confirms the existence of Kelsingra for the local Traders, and she volunteers to accompany the relocation efforts–though she is aware of hindering machinations as she does so. Leftrin and Malta both affirm the suggestion.

This is not the first time I’ve been put in mind of romance novels by Hobb’s writing, and I do not know that it will be the last. But the present chapter certainly is a time I’ve been put in mind of what my late grandmother read (and abundantly!), and some of the other work I do–I’m available for hire!–reminds me that I ought not to fall into the trap of genre snobbery. It’s clear that such writing meets needs, somebody’s needs; it wouldn’t keep happening if it didn’t. Too, I like to feel appreciated, to feel like I’m important and desirable for a number of things, and it’s nice to see that presented. So let the romance novel be! That it’s there doesn’t mean the rest of it isn’t, and back when I had students, one of the lessons I tried to impart to them was that the ability to sustain multiple discourses is one of the marks of artistic success…

I could really use your help right now!

Finding Poetry

I have always marveled at
Those who look at the world around them and
Find words to fix in verse therein

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The words do not come to me so easily as that
I must instead search for them
And that is all the harder to do when I must
Sit here for hours and days and weeks
One window that looks out onto the world to hand
And that with blinds drawn against the summer heat

I’d be happy to put my talents to work for you; let me know what all you need written, and we’ll talk!