Recent free content on the Legend of the Five Rings Imperial Assembly website included a fiction (co-written by Robert “Spooky” Denton and, a rarity, Fred Wan) called Blood of Heaven, Blood of Earth. And I thought I’d try something a little different and talk/ramble in a little more detail about what I thought about a particular fiction, how it fits into the story, and what it says about the setting. If you don’t want spoilers of the fiction, you should probably turn away now.
Blood of Heaven, Blood of Earth covers the origins of the recent/ongoing Unicorn/Phoenix spat, which has been referenced in flavor text in A Line in the Sand and in The New Order. You may recall that in my most recent “ten thoughts” post, I had some harsh words for the Phoenix, describing their side of the conflict with the Unicorn as “xenophobic stupidity.” But one that probably struck anyone who has read both the flavor text and the cards is how different the two presentations are. The flavor text on the cards depicts the Phoenix position as one that’s a pretty straightforward “gaijin blood makes you more susceptible to spiritual corruption,” and the Unicorn just happened to be the ones who got mad about that because, well, lots of gaijin Moto were brought into the clan only a few decades ago. But in the fiction, the Phoenix position is specifically about the Moto and is not presented as something like susceptibility to spiritual corruption, but rather than the Moto bloodline is suffering something like aftereffects of a curse.
This is, to me, noteworthy because it is so radically different that it makes me think the L5R story team may have substantially reworked the story because of the lots of people (including me and lots of Phoenix players) who thought the Phoenix were just being dumb in this conflict. The story of this war had, to a real extend, flopped before it had even begun, and the story may have been changed in order to try and save it.
Not everything new in the fiction seems to fall into that category. For example, one thing that was not apparent from the flavor text, but is made clear in the story, is that the Phoenix are just right. Everybody, even the Unicorn, acknowledges that the Phoenix research into the matter is correct, and there really is a problem with the Moto bloodline. And not only are the Phoenix right, but they tried to approach the Unicorn about it diplomatically, and were told to shove off, so this wasn’t a situation where the Phoenix just started blaring about the problem without any quiet efforts beforehand. But this, I think we can conclude, was not just added in to help buttress the Phoenix, because this was something that was conveyed a while ago to players in Winter Court IV. So this point, I think, helps illustrate how badly (IMHO) the L5R story has suffered from the current lack of Story Team members, and the resulting inability to generate weekly (or bi-weekly) fictions – the story that’s needed to set the stage just isn’t getting out there. This fiction needed to come out around the same time as A Line in the Sand did, so that players (especially Phoenix players) had a clue why the Phoenix were tossing around accusations like this. My guess is that, despite this fiction, and despite what I perceive as changes to this story to make the Phoenix seem less dumb, that Phoenix players will never really get behind their Clan in the way that they might have, because their emotional perceptions of what’s going on are already pretty set. Once people think that Thing X is dumb, it’s really hard to convince them that Thing X is actually pretty cool. There needs to be more of an effort to make sure that storylines are launched in a way that makes them interesting in general, and for each clan involved in some way appealing to players affiliated with that clan, right from the start.
So, in a narrow way about this particular story, I’m glad that the Phoenix actually have a leg to stand on. It won’t change that the Phoenix appear to be headed for a total beatdown, but now they are basically the little guy speaking truth to power – there is a spiritual problem, the Unicorn know it, and rather than trying to fix it they’re just going to punch the guy who found out about it in the face until he shuts up. Not that it will do them much good, because even if the result of this war is that the Phoenix are deemed “wrong,” everyone will know that they were right, and it’s going to have significant diplomatic consequences for the Unicorn (for example, it is going to be rough for the Unicorn to arrange any marriages involving the Moto). I want to root for the Phoenix because, may, those guys just always lose, so now I can pointlessly root for them without feeling bad (it’s not that the Phoenix couldn’t easily be written to win a war through strategic application of magical power, but everything in the flavor text says the exact opposite).
But, perhaps more significantly, this highlights a massive hypocrisy at the center of Rokugani life. I know, I know, there are lots of horrid thing about Rokugan (as there are about any fantasy setting that retains anything resembling real-world cultural aspects like serfdom, caste systems, xenophobia, “justice” through violence, general brutality, and so forth). But lets really look at what’s going on here. A shallow look might say that this is just an example of Rokugan being concerned with face and honor more than truth – but what is there really about honor or face here? Saving face would have been the Unicorn letting the Phoenix fix this “little” problem without anyone ever acknowledging that there actually was a problem. Honor might be Moto committing seppuku to cleanse their family, or engaging in some sort of noble deed to redeem things, or some noble champion stepping in for the Phoenix. But none of that’s going on here – the Phoenix are saying something true, the Unicorn refused to deal with the matter quietly, and now they’re waging war to take vengeance for an “insult.” I scare-quote that because, really, what’s the insult? The Phoenix are talking about the aftereffects of a long-standing curse laid against the Moto by the Lords of Death – an older bloodline curse that never seemed to be taken as cause for offense (similarly, all blood Yogo suffer from a bloodline curse, and we never see anyone taking offense over that one). No one else seems to care that the Phoenix are right. No one else seems to care about the spiritual consequences for the Empire. No one seems to care which side is truly behaving honorably. No one will get involved to help the Phoenix because it would be inconvenient. The Unicorn are more militarily powerful, and no one is willing to go out on a limb against that because they all have too much to lose or (for the other strong military Clans like the Crab and Spider) because they’re already involved in wars of their own. Everyone is going to stand there and watch the little guy get his face kicked in, to the ultimate spiritual detriment of the Empire, and everyone is just going to stand there and act like they can’t get involved because it’s about “honor,” when really it’s just about the politics of “might makes right.”
So, come on, Clans of Rokugan – somebody stand up for the Phoenix!
Anyhow, that’s my two zeni.