Twenty Years of Memories : 1996
The year was 1996. L5R had been released the previous year at GenCon as demo decks and the company was working furiously to keep the momentum going and the game afloat in an ultra competitive CCG market. Imperial Edition had followed GenCon, and the first expasion, Shadowlands, had been released in the spring of 1996.
The year is 1127. The Crab armies have been repelled at the Battle of Beiden Pass by the combined might of the Unicorn, the Dragon, and Toturi's Army. While the Crab regroup and make a dark pact with the Shadowlands, the Lion and the Crane war within the Crane lands and the False Hoturi makes war on his brethren. Yoritomo gathers the minor clans together under his banner and the Phoenix in the north dabble in the dark arts of the Black Scrolls. Within the capital, Kachiko discovers a secret about the Emperor that will shake Rokugan.
Today we get the privilege of speaking with Ken Carpenter, the first ever L5R World Champion
How did you hear about or get involved in L5R?
I'm from California, raised in the North then transplanted to SoCal for college and never managed to move back.
I was working in Defense Electronics when L5R came out. I'd been writing for Shadis magazine, AEG's first product, for at least a year before L5R came out so I'd hear about it now again as I passed through the office. I even playtested a little, just a few games with Dave Williams. I'd recently given up MTG, so picking up L5R just seemed natural. I introduced it to a friend at work with whom I'd played MTG. We'd play at lunch in the cafeteria and other people would see us play and ask about it. Pretty soon there were 6-7 of us gathering everyday to play L5R at lunch
Do you consider yourself a clan loyalist?
Not at all... Crab is just better. If another Clan thinks it's superior to Crab, they simply have to be made to understand that they are wrong. We ARE the wall. My second favorite is Phoenix, because they have fiddly-bits and sometimes I want complicated.
What drew you to the Crab or what did you like about them?
I was drawn to the lonely feeling of duty that pervades the Crab Clan. No matter that the central clans, Lion and Crane in particular, were strutting around in their fine cloths, eating well and playing at their games of court - the Crab had a job to do and put that duty above all the petty politics of the inner Empire.
What was your first L5R tournament experience?
My first BIG tournament experience was at the AEG offices. They held a tournament there for several hundred players a few months before the first World Championship at GenCon in 96. The winner was to receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Gencon to participate in the worlds. The format was wacky, but awesome.
The first phase was sealed deck, so everyone received a clan deck of their choice and a few boosters. We only played a couple rounds of that, culling the number going into the second phase. They reduced the total participants to fill half a dozen tables or so with 6 or 7 players each. The second phase was multiplayer! I don't recall if players knew the tournament format prior to the day, but if I recall correctly, everyone was expected to play the same deck they brought for built-deck play (which was going to be the third phase). Mind you, there weren't many multiplayer specific cards at the time, only Imperial and Shadowlands had been released to that point.
I was at a table of seven players. To my left were two players who were friends, but nobody else knew each other. The two friends started helping each other pretty much right away. Nobody at the table said anything, but I think most of the players knew that one or both of the friends had to go... soon. I had a pretty good opening and my Fate hand was awesome, until the Shadowlands player's event made everyone discard and refill their fate hand - I lost my Clan Sword and a Tetsubo that way... grrrr.
Our table whittled down to three players. Myself (Crab), the Shadowlands player and one of the Lion players. The Shadowlands player had run out of Dynasty cards a few turns ago and I only had left the Dynasty cards face down in my provinces. The Lion player had been hit early on and was down to two provinces so he had a lot of Dynasty cards left.
The Shadowlands player was next to go, then Lion, then me. I'd done the math and the smart thing was for the Shadowlands player to declare on the Lion and invite me, then the Shadowlands player should under-commit, forcing me to throw in the majority of the forces. If the Lion was eliminated (and he would have been) then I would have straightened and it would have been a tight battle between Crab and Shadowlands (what could have been better?)
Unfortunately the Shadowlands player declared against me and invited Lion. As soon as he had committed his troops (too many of them), and watched the Lion prepare to come across, the Shadowlands player looked at me and said, "I screwed up, didn't I?" I nodded. Crab was eliminated by the combined forces of Lion and the Shadowlands (I always suspected some sort of backroom dealings between those two...), then the Lion straightened and crushed the Shadowlands. Don't get me wrong, I'm not dissing the Lion player, he was good, but the Shadowlands player handed him the game.
Third phase was built deck, double-elimination. I didn't get to participate, but Steve Swarner was the winner of the tournament. He'd come all the way to L.A. from San Francisco with his Lion deck to be in the AEG tournament. We spent a bit of time together at Gencon and became friends - he is an awesome guy and a great player. We actually faced each other in the finals and the match was epic.
Do you have a favourite story or quote from the fiction?
There are too many great stories in the fiction to pick one - with John Wick (curse him forever for my 'story reward' after the Worlds), Ree Soesbee and Rob Vaux working on the fiction, how could it be less than stellar? But for quotes, of course I would have to go with "The Crab do not defend the Wall. We ARE the Wall."
What is the best memory or experience you had playing L5R or because of L5R?
Well, the 96 World Championships were an incredible, intense experience, but ultimately I'd have to say it was the opportunity to design Clan War, the L5R miniatures battle game that led to some of my best L5R memories. I'd been a miniatures gaming enthusiast, columnist, and reviewer for many years so when AEG decided they wanted to do Clan War, they asked if I wanted to lead that project. They didn't have to wait for an answer.
Do you have a favorite deck that you built or played?
You'd think I'd have to go with a Crab deck here, but I think my favorite fun deck of all time was a Phoenix deck that I built after Anvil of Despair or Crimson & Jade was released (not absolutely sure of the time line). It was a fiddly-bits deck with lots of spells. There was a 4 honor Phoenix Shugenja that reduced the cost of spells being attached to her by 8, then you could use a courier pigeon to move the spells around. It was a great honor runner, but ultimately wreaked havoc through a myriad of deadly spells. It had only one Dragon, but several Black Scrolls... It won militarily more often than through honor. I guess the Phoenix Clan corruption comeuppance was partially my fault...
Do you have a favorite Arc?
The Clan War arc (Imperial through Time of the Void) because the story was so tight, with so many epic characters and awesome plotlines. I certainly enjoyed the later arcs, but I supposed the first arc was my first 'L5R love', and you never get over your first.
Tell us about the leadup to the GenCon 96 event. How did you prepare and how did you decide on what deck to play?
Wait... there are other clans besides Crab?!? Well, not for me at the time. I had to play Crab, it was my go-to deck. Training was almost daily - with seven people at work to play with at lunch, I'd get in a couple games pretty much every work day, and friends would often come over on the weekends, so we'd get a game or two in then as well. By the time I got to Gencon, I didn't play the deck, it played itself. Decisions about play had been ingrained because they'd all been made so many times already.
This is the first L5R tournament at GenCon as recorded by the Jade Hand, was it the first one they held or can you recall earlier ones?
Actually AEG had held tournaments at several regional conventions around the US and possibly other countries through the earlier months of '96. In LA they had tournaments at Orccon (Feb) and Gateway (May). Later on they started holding 'Strategic L5R' tournaments, with daimyo in one room moving forces around on a map, sending orders to their Generals in the other room (people playing L5R decks to resolve combats on the larger map) via a Karo. Those were wildly popular and fun events!
Can you recall any details of the final match or any intense moments throughout the tournament?
Early in the final game against Steve I took a huge risk. I announced an attack and didn't send any attackers. Sometimes I look back and don't even remember making that decision - it just sort of came out. There were a lot of gasps around the table at each step of that battle, so you have to imagine 50-60 people crammed around the table making involuntary noises each time one of us played a card or passed. Steve's Lion deck, of course, played Counterattack. He came across with his two characters, not enough to take the province, and I placed no defenders. I had two characters, but couldn't afford to lose anyone to Lion Clan trickery! (And in case he won.)
I had the first option to play (you could back then, even if you didn't have someone at the battlefield), and passed.
He played Charge, making him equal to the province strength. I passed again.
He played another Charge, giving him +3 on my province strength.
I slowly reached out to my Stronghold, The War Fortress of the Crab, and added +3 to my province strength. Steve watched as I bowed the Stronghold and wilted a bit.
He had no other action and passed. The Lion army went home without destroying my province. He later told me that, in his excitement, he'd forgotten the stronghold ability. In similar circumstances, I probably would have, too.
I'd taken a risk, and without hindsight I'm not sure it was wisely calculated. He just might have had something to give him another bonus (Frenzy, Strength of Purity, another Charge)... but he didn't, and he'd wasted three cards that might have been critical later on. I'd only lost the 4 gold my Stronghold would have provided that turn during Dynasty phase.
You alluded to the the story reward from your win earlier. The story prize for GenCon was advertised as “A member of your clan receives the Ancestral Sword of the Hantei.” Kisada ends up “receiving” the sword of the Hantei in a pretty surprising way when he confronts the Emperor and gets stabbed in the gut.
You're right, Kisada received the 'gift' of the Sword of the Hantei, in the gut, as a result of my win. John Wick thought it would be a cool twist. I wasn't happy at all, since Kisada was the heart and soul of the Crab and the story team hadn't really done much with Hida Yakamo yet, so he was the coolness yet to be. The forums blew up. People were angry, and worried what sort of 'reward' their clan might get after winning a storyline tournament - it really made the whole storyline aspect of the game bittersweet. That was the first and last time the L5R story team punished the Clan of a storyline event winner, that I'm aware of, at least.
How did that outcome make you feel about your win? Was it still satisfying that it made a good story or did you feel slightly cheated that your win resulted in a mortal wound for your champion?
I felt very cheated, honestly. I was later told that the Crab Clan had receive the holding 'The Great Bear' as a reward, but that didn't lessen the pain. Sure, that was a great 'moment' in L5R, but it was not at all critical to the story or plot. It's like the moment in Raiders of the Lost Arc when Indy finds himself facing a swordsman in the marketplace. The swordsman swings his sword around, demonstrating his skill, then Indy shoots him. We all laughed. Great moment, right? But if it wasn't there, would the movie have suffered? Not really. It was just a cool moment.
L5R used to put much more stock into how “corrupt” a deck was and how that would affect the story, do you think the construction of your deck played a factor in how that turned out for Kisada?
You know, I can't say. While I did use the Shadowlands Yakamo in the deck, I didn't run any other tainted cards at all. At no time did anyone on the story team mention corruption as a reason, that I can remember. 'Corrupted' decks didn't really become an issue until later, when Phoenix was using a lot of Black Scrolls. I think that 'house cleaning' was really the first big slap for corruption.
Are you still involved with L5R at any level or just casually?
When I joined AEG as staff in late '98, they didn't allow employees to compete in tournaments. We could play in a tournament, but had to pull out before the quarter finals or semi-finals (I forget which). I was too competitive at the time to be happy with that, so I continued to play, but not as often and only casually. I'd like to believe I'm less competitive now. Most of my kids learned L5R pretty young. My oldest, now 28, was only 8 or 9 when I was playing competitively and she would help me sort cards, before the younger kids knocked the stacks over and we had to start over. By the time they were 10, every one of them knew how to play and had picked a favorite clan. It was very disappointing when my oldest boy went with Scorpion (*sniff* I still bear scars - emotionally, anyway). It had been several years since we played when, about a year ago, we all picked it up again and played it pretty hard for several months. It was great. It's harder to find time now, since my oldest 4 all live out of state, but when we get together we sometimes play the RPG or CCG.
Anything else you would like to tell players today about the game in its infancy, or anything else you want to share to bring back some fond memories for old school players?
I've played a great variety of CCGs (excuse me... TCGs) but I have to say that the players of L5R are different than those of all the other games I've played. L5R players have a loyalty, to the game and their Clan, that exceeds anything I've seen in other games. MTG players follow the power - despite the attempt to superimpose a story over the game, the players are all about winning. The same is true virtually every other CCG I've played. L5R players are drawn to the values of the Clans, their sense of honor (or complete lack of it), and the fact that, even when they lose, their clan is recognized. That is possibly one of the best decisions any company has ever made - AEG instituting a 'best in clan' story effect for major tournaments - even if your clan's power level isn't at its peak during a certain arc, you can still make decisions and earn rewards for your clan just for making the best showing at the event. In my opinion, it's the players that make L5R successful. Not because they buy cards, though that certainly helps, but because they are invested. They are passionate. When they talk to other people about the game, those people can't help but feel it. All my kids have played L5R at one point or another and, though we don't play often, anymore, if you ask any of them (or myself) a question about L5R, you will get a passionate answer. Once an L5R player, you will always be an L5R fan. Lastly, I've never met a group of people that cared more about their product than the people who worked on L5R at the onset. From the very beginning, it was a labor of love for those people. I saw them sleep under their desks to meet deadlines, and put hours and hours of planning into each set – not just the mechanics, but the story and art as well. Kudos to Dave Williams, D.J. Trindle, Matt Wilson, John Wick, John Zinser and Dave Seay for building something so vast and so immersive that it may very well outlive them all! And thanks to all the story writers, artists and designers who have added their imagination to the setting over the years.
Thank you to Ken for doing this interview, for your passion for L5R and sharing these stories with us.
If you are interested in seeing Ken's Decklist it can be found at the Kolat Informant
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