The following is an interview I conducted with L5R Designer Tyler Parrott on the last day of Gencon. Tyler was nice enough to sit down with me and talk about everything from his history with L5R, Dueling, Puzzles, and even some Japanese History. Please enjoy!
Onimaru: So, Tyler Parrott, all we know about you is that last year you were an intern and now you are running the game! So please, who are you? Where do you come from?
Tyler: I am a longtime card-game player. I picked up Magic: The Gathering back in 2002 and have been playing on and off ever since. And as we learned at this convention, like, 2 days ago, I also played the Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game by Decipher as well. I played it for a couple of years, didn’t play again for about 14 (years), and then all of a sudden a bunch of my friends are here who played the old game so we all just bought a bunch of cards!
I’ve been playing LCGs since the Lord of the Rings LCG came out. I was at a convention and it was the new hotness and I thought, “I loved that old Decipher game, I really want a Lord of the Rings card game in my life.” So I played it and I was immediately hooked. I was equally interested in the Call of Cthulhu card game, as Lovecraftian horror is something that I am very passionate about, but I just didn’t have the people in my life to play that game very often. Once I was playing those two, I ended up dabbling in every LCG that came out. The more and more I played, the more enthusiastic I got about the variety and complexity of the card games FFG makes.
Onimaru: So you’re a fan of the LCG model then?
Tyler: I am a fan of LCGs. And I AM a fan of the LCG model. As a more casual gamer, post-school and everything, the accessibility of the LCG model is a HUGE plus. I have played them all in some capacity, but I was a very competitive Star Wars: The Card Game player for most of the time that game was being published. When I set my sights on working at FFG, I joined the Lord of the Rings LCG playtest and contributed to that for a few years. I put a lot of energy into the LCG communities by writing articles, volunteering as a playtester, judging events, etc., so that when they needed a new card game developer they knew who I was and I was at the top of the list.
Onimaru: So, if you hang around FFG long enough they’ll just give you a job?
Tyler: Not at all! I got the job on account of the fact that they had 2 card game designer positions open and they needed to fill both slots, so I had a second chance. But even when I was contracting as a judge or volunteering my time as a playtester, which were things that I enjoyed doing anyway, this is something I was working towards. I ran a website that produced content Star Wars: The Card Game and a little bit for Lord of the Rings where I was trying to post weekly articles, which turned into every other week articles, which turned into “whenever the heck I can get them done” articles, as those things tend to do.
Onimaru: I recently put out a L5R Beginner’s Guide that I figured would take me about a week to make. Took me 2 and a half months just to hit the publish button!
(Editor’s Note: This article is being published over a month after the interview was conducted)
Tyler: To be fair, it takes time. Especially with something that ambitious. I also wrote a long article called “Teaching Star Wars,” which was all about how to teach Star Wars: The Card Game, which is a really complicated game, and therefore inaccessible to a lot of people. Oh my god, that article must have taken me about 2 months, like you said. It’s so much different from articles that just want to talk about the new pack!
So, L5R is also complicated to learn. Do you have any advice on how what to do when you are trying to teach a new player the step of the game?
Tyler: I strongly believe that learning the enthusiasm is more important than learning the rules. If they don’t learn a rule correctly the first time, it’s less important that they get it right and more important that they are having fun. A big part of having fun is the act of doing. Here’s how I learned this the hard way: The whole Star Wars article was about how I went and visited some of my friends in Seattle. One of them was a huge card game player. One of them was a huge Star Wars fan. I felt like it would be a great fit for both of them. I taught them both. We played a game. Neither of them were into it. And I was like, “What am I doing wrong?” Because this is exactly the sort of thing they should like. And what I learned was you can’t just sit down and say, “Here are all of the rules.” What you have to do is say, “This is what the game is about. Here is what the aesthetic and theme is. Here’s why it’s fun.” In L5R, it would be: “We are warring Daimyō. We are trying to defeat each other’s stronghold without running out of honor. Also, our characters are going to leave because mono-no-aware exists. Now, let me tell you about the concept of mono-no-aware and how interesting that is, both as a philosophy and for the game.”
My style for teaching the game would be to give them a deck, preferably one of a clan that they like, if they already know or are interested in learning anything about the clans. Or ask them what aesthetics they like, so if they say something like “I enjoy magic,” then cool, here’s a Phoenix deck. Teach them the game as they are playing it and leave out most of the details. When you play characters from provinces, maybe don’t even go into how putting fate on characters works. Just have everyone play their characters without fate for the first turn or two. During the draw phase, explain to them how bidding works and why honor matters. During the conflict phase, the most complicated phase, I have been giving people the little learn-to-play cards and one of the first things that happens is they get overwhelmed by how the rings work. One advantage to playing with no fate on characters is that you can ignore the Void ring until they learn which character they want to keep in play. Then you can bring in adding fate and the void ring later. If they are interested, maybe only introduce 2-3 of the rings at a time.
Onimaru: In one of the games I tried to teach, I ignored the rings completely. Then, while playing, she flipped one of the Keeper Initiates that was still in the deck and I was like, “Sorry, I need to back a few steps!”
Tyler: Absolutely keep the Roles out and take Keeper and Seeker Initiates out! Off the top of my head, when teaching the game: Ignore roles and the Imperial favor. Ignore fate on characters right away, because that is an unneeded strategic choice at first. It asks, “Hey, which characters do you want to keep around?” and they are like, “I’ve never played this before! I don’t know which characters are good or not!” This way they don’t have to worry about it. I would ignore fate on rings, but if they are playing Dragon then they really can’t…
Onimaru: Well, if you specially construct a starter deck you don’t really have to build the most uber-complicated deck with all of the tools. Just make something that is very thematic to what the Clan is about.
Tyler: Yes. There was a time last summer where I asked myself, “If I were to buy two core sets and jam them together, and build some starter decks, what would those decks look like?” And they would very much be decks that leave out corner case rules and highlight things that are central to the clan.
Onimaru: Something Game of Thrones has started doing that I’d like to see in L5R is releasing starter decks.
Tyler: Intro decks?
Onimaru: Yeah! Because when I am introducing the game to new players, the first thing I talk about is the story and the interaction with the players. I have a very competitive playgroup that played a bunch in the old game. One of them is Jim Chatham, who had his own character Shosuro Jimen. Jim has this character’s art tattooed on his back! At any time you can go, “Hey Jim! Show us the tattoo on your back!” and he’ll just rip off his shirt right there and show you the art of the Emerald Champion wreathed in flames.
Onimaru: So, you were speaking before about your history with FFG and LCGs, what is your history with L5R specifically?
Tyler: So, I inherited the game from Erik Dalhman who was a longtime L5R player…
Onimaru: Kakita Kaezin?
Tyler: Exactly. And to a lesser extent, Brad Andres. I say “to a lesser extent” because he still works on the game, just not as much, and he played a bunch of the old game in a much more recent capacity. I have never played the old version of the game. However, I have always wanted to get into the lore of L5R. It sounded interesting to me, but there is just so much of it that I never had enough time to sit down and dedicate myself to it. Last summer, when I was an intern, the person I was primarily learning from was Katrina Ostrander. So the first month of my internship was data-dump: Learn all of L5R! And I thought it was great because I had always wanted to learn the lore anyway. So I just crash-coursed L5R and got up to speed on the world of Rokugan, and there are so many details that I am STILL picking out little tiny interesting details.
Onimaru: Absolutely. I’ll tell you my perspective on it: I got interested in L5R in high school but then ended up joining the Navy. So it wasn’t until 2009 when I came back and got really into the competitive scene and story. Flash forward almost 10 years later and I’m running an L5R website, running a Facebook group, etc. I eat, sleep, LIVE L5R, but even for me anything released before 2009 is a blank slate because it’s so dense. And even websites that archive the lore like Kaze no Shiro but…
Tyler: Well, there’s the wiki, but you have to use it like any other wiki which is as a guideline to links and resources.
Onimaru: And there is even Robert Denton’s Podcast, The Last Province, where he will even tell you, “Here is what the story was, and here is how it got changed, and here is where it was just internally inconsistent.”
(Editors Note: See how I just short change everyone else on that Podcast, including Daniel Tickle who is the actual host? I’m such a jerk!)
Tyler: I really appreciate all the work that Eric and Katrina did to lay the foundation of what our version of what L5R is going to be so that when I, a relatively new person to the IP, came into it, I could do so a lot more easily. And because most of the old lore is retained, I can still go and get a 1st edition Way of the Clan book and find that information to be super useful. On the other hand, we are forging into new territory with the lore. Some of it is going to be familiar and some of it is not. And because we are interested in telling very human stories, we have the opportunity to focus on the characters we really like.
Onimaru: A bit of an esoteric lore question: I am going to assume you are at least a little familiar with Japanese history. So you should be familiar with the Sengoku Civil War period and the post-war Ieyasu Period.
Tyler: The Edo period, yes.
Onimaru: So during which time do you think L5R takes place? Because if the Clans are fighting, that implies Sengoku era. But the Sengoku period did not have a strong central Imperial Government. However, L5R Clans are VERY loyal to the Imperial Government…
Tyler: L5R is drawing from a number of different sources and is not trying to be any sort of historical piece. For example, there isn’t a Shogun. There is an Emperor. And the Emperor rules by divine decree. And that has less to do with his martial skill than with his divine ancestry. That’s very Edo. And the bureaucracy surrounding that is very Edo. But at the same time, you need an excuse for the clans to fight each other, because it is a card game about clans fighting each other. So being able to draw only what we want from the historical reference points, yet not be bound by them, makes Rokugan more interesting and compelling on its own.
Onimaur: And L5R, as well as historically accurate samurai, are nothing if not contradictory in nature. Sometimes Kisada is manning the wall to protect the Empire from the Shadowlands, sometimes Kisada allies with the Shadowlands to wage war on the Empire!
So, I know you mentioned this in a stream, but what is your favorite clan? And keep this in mind: as soon as you say it out loud you will draw the ire of pretty much the entire rest of the community.
Tyler: Everyone has to have a favorite. And I am sure some people will be unhappy that I did not pick them, but that’s how it goes.
Onimaru: Well, last year when the game re-launched, Steve Horvath came in with a Dragon Clan shirt on and dropped the mic!
Tyler: As a person, if I were to live in Rokugan, my values and ideals would lead me to join either the Unicorn or Crab clans, depending on what time of day and what the situation was. I made the comment about Unicorn being a puzzle that….
Onimaru: THE MILLENNIUM PUZZLE!!!!
Tyler: Right? And here I was, with my brain sitting totally in Elemental Cycle land, and I’m like, “Unicorn is a puzzle,” and everyone is like, “LOL, what are you talking about, Unicorn are bad.” But I knew, just you wait until that Master of the Swift Waves comes out, and THEN the puzzle begins.
Onimaru: So yeah, now that the Elemental Cycle is out, tell me what you think of it? This is the first Cycle that you have been a part of from the ground up, so ….
Tyler: I worked on about the last 3 weeks of the Elemental Cycle. I came in right at the tail end, so I wouldn’t say “from the ground up.” I did help playtest the set…
Onimaru: So Hawk Tattoo is not your fault!
Tyler: I’ll get to that! So, as just a volunteer, I playtested the Phoenix pack and the Elemental Cycle. And then during the development of the Elemental Cycle is when I took over for Eric. At that point, a lot of my effort at the end of the Cycle was focused on the Unicorn clan, which hadn’t turned out as internally expected. So we needed to give them a good ol’ adrenaline boost. They were really lacking some staples. We needed to give them Shinjo Shono! They really needed their big-stats, gonna win, beat stick. We also wanted to encourage their swarm theme. I think we did a great job with the Unicorn in this cycle. And I do think that all of the clans got interesting tools in this cycle.
Are there things I would like to change retrospectively? Not in mechanics. There are some templating situations I would like to change, because this is a competitive game and the templating has to be very precise. It has not always been the most consistent and I had not been working on the game long enough compared to where I am now to write abilities on cards in a way that they are consistent and work in a way that everyone easily understands. Not just so that it works when you put the card and the rulebook together, but also so that it works the way you expect when you read the card for the first time. What I really hate about complex, competitive games is the angle-shooting and how, when you read the card and the rules literally, it works a way that somehow doesn’t feel right. I want cards to read in a way that feels right.
The biggest miss, of course, is Hawk Tattoo. It was something that, because I had a) such a focus on Unicorn, and b) in the decks I was putting it in, I was using it as intended, and c) there was so much shakeup during the Elemental Cycle, that it just sort of slipped through the cracks.
Onimaru: So, how do you feel about the balance of the clans in general? For instance, Hawk Tattoo aside, the Dragon Clan is often cited as being very overpowered, not fun, and yet I’ll be the first one to admit if you look at Kotei records, that is not being represented. I can sit here and say Dragon is incredibly hard to play against, and then turn around and see only 2 Dragons made the cut this weekend. On the other hand, most Crane players will tell you we came in this weekend with our heads held low, all of our good cards are in the last 2 packs and aren’t legal at this event, and we have like 80 Cranes in the final event. I went 5-2 this weekend and I am one of the worst Cranes to show up this weekend!
Tyler: Good Job!
Onimaru: Thank You!
Onimaru: But how do you feel about the overall power balance of the clans?
Tyler: Overall, positive. Caveat: we’ll see how Unicorn end up at the end of the cycle. I feel very optimistic and confident about bringing Unicorn up to be competitive with the other clans, but obviously I don’t want to say that was successful until I see them with the full cycle. Other than them, I feel like all of the clans are reasonably balanced. I feel like some individual cards and mechanics draw a lot of ire and happen to belong to certain clans. I think that control as an archetype was a little too strong out of the Core Set and Scorpion decks are the best control decks. Therefore, if control is the best, and Scorpion is the best control, then Scorpion is the best deck. I think that as more proactive strategies become viable and more effective, then the Scorpion will become less dominant than they have been so far. I think that a lot of the ire that has been drawn against the Dragon Clan revolves around their role. Being able to field both Feast or Famine and Restoration of Balance is very powerful and not FUN to play against, but that otherwise the Dragon Clan is pretty on-par with everyone else. Interestingly, I think Dragon is a very subtle Clan. I think it has a very high ceiling but it’s very hard to get there. I think the Dragon win yesterday proves that. The Dragon Clan has not traditionally been a strong faction, but if you get good with that faction then you can make it really really good. I am very excited that Phoenix made it to the finals. I think that Phoenix got a lot of really neat stuff out of the cycle and I am glad that it wasn’t overbearingly so. It was not, “Here is this cycle all about shugenja and spells and elemental rings. I guess the Phoenix are just gonna win now.”
Onimaru: Especially following the Clan pack.
Tyler: ESPECIALLY following the Clan Pack, which was a little bit more like Unicorn in the Elemental cycle and not like Scorpion in their upcoming pack, in the sense that the Phoenix pack was intentionally trying to power up the Phoenix a little bit more out of the Core Set. They, of all the Clans, need more synergy pieces which you just don’t have until you have a larger card pool. Crane is in an interesting spot where I feel like I’m hearing people talk about how bad it is as a clan, yet it keeps doing well at tournaments, so something has to be working out.
Onimaru: As a fairly OK-ish Crane player I can tell you it’s weird because, Crane will dominate anything below the top 3 (Scorpion, Crab, Dragon).
Tyler: And then it will just stall out?
Onimaru: Yeah, kinda. Actually, we even have decent matchups against Scorpion because it’s just a matter of who gets their counters online first. For instance, we just had a matchup where Steve Palumbo dominated James Balthis, one of our better Crane players. There were strong plays being made but it was pretty locked from the beginning. The very next round, he plays Mike George who gets Guest of Honor out early, and that was a pretty one-sided game in Crane’s favor. So it’s all about who gets their counters on first. But Crab doesn’t play events. Dragon doesn’t play events. I can’t counter swords! So those matches become a hard wall where I need to be VERY lucky to win.
Tyler: The matchups are interesting. And especially silver bullet cards, like Karada District, because if you are Dragon then how do you beat that? Obviously we just gave Sabotage to all of the Earth clans to encourage people to go Earth, so that people have an answer if holdings are a problem. And there will be more anti-holding tools down the line. But, the idea that certain clans are good or bad against others I think is good for the game because you want the games to feel very different when you are playing against different people. You want some clans to be strong against one person so that you are favored (but not necessarily guaranteed) and against others you might end up struggling a bit.
Onimaru: Struggle, sure, but some of these matchups are almost impossible walls for each other. And that is probably something that will improve as the card pool gets more diverse.
Tyler: Definitely as the card pool grows you will see more answers to more threats, and more threats that you will need to find answers for. And they will all be different and varied. You’ll have to consider if you are going to have to run *this* kind of cancel or *this* kind of bow effect or *this* kind of character.
Onimaru: Right now, I have my eyes toward Tengu Sensei, who I feel is going to do a lot for me in the Crab and Dragon matchup. And I will NEVER buy him in any other matchup, especially against Phoenix. Because Uona is terrible! And I hate her.
Onimaru: I want to ask you one last Question. If I was fair I’d ask something about something relevant to all clans, but this is for the Crane Clan website so I want to hear about the Crane Clan specifically. Especially dueling! What can you tell me about that?
Tyler: Dueling is something that took a bit of R&D, I’ll say. So, here’s the thing about dueling: Dueling as a mechanic is hated for a few legitimate reasons. It doesn’t come across as interactive because the outcome is determined before the dials are placed. If I want to duel you, I am not going to initiate a duel I don’t think I am going to win. Either I am trying to win the duel, in which case I am just going to make sure my base stat is higher than yours, or I am trying to get honor out of you, in which case I am going to try to convince you to bid high to beat me. But how am I really going to do that when you are incentivized at that point to just lose the duel? That is the bully dueling issue. The other issue is Policy Debate, but that has more to do with Policy Debate than dueling as a mechanic.
The future of dueling is exciting. I have seen it! Just having more duels in the game period is going to hopefully lead to a world where honor is transferred more often, so spending honor to win a duel is less punishing. But the secret sauce of dueling is either: things that interact with the duel directly or things that encourage you to initiate a duel without caring about the result. So, if I initiate a duel for the sake of having a duel, you don’t know if I’m trying to win the duel or not. I might initiate a duel because I need to have a duel happen, but have lower stats than you. Now, you don’t know if I am going to bid high, because I am trying to beat you, or if I just want the duel to happen and I don’t care about losing. So now you need to decide if you need to bid high or not. That’s kind of where I am at with dueling at the moment. I am excited to see it have a different identity in the Dragon and Crane Clans, as they are the 2 dueling clans. But remember, Crane is not just about dueling. Crane is also about honor and control. And I want to equally develop all 3 of those themes going forward.
Onimaru: Thank you so much for your time, Tyler!
Tyler: It’s always my pleasure!