…or, Ten Ways to Fix the Horse Clan
For awhile there I was a bit obsessed with mummies; now I’m on a “Legend of the Five Rings” (“L5R”) jag – I hope you can bear with me. This too shall pass.
Most writing does not spring whole and complete from the void. It has sources of inspiration and earlier works which inform and direct it. In the world of genre fiction, this is especially true, and in the world of gaming – most of which takes its lead from genre fiction – it’s even more the case. This is why, when looking at a game like “L5R”, it’s possible to see very clearly what has inspired the author(s).
For those who aren’t fans, “L5R” is a game published by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) based in a medieval analogue of Japan – Rokugan – ruled by an Emperor and divided among seven noble houses, or clans, of samurai. Magic exists, as well as monsters and ghosts. Like “Bushido”, the earlier roleplaying game that had similar goals, it appeals to ‘samurai-tragics’ (like me!) everywhere – fans of “Shintaro” and Kurosawa – and offers broad scope for good storytelling. A strong core for both games is that they are based on a fascinating and diverse cultural foundation with well-founded and easily researched principles. The main difference with “L5R” however, is that it started life as a collectible card game and branched out to have a roleplaying and tabletop version as well.
The main creator of “L5R” is John Wick who, like Mark Rein(dot)hagen before him, let his authorship run away with his ego, resulting in some unpleasantness. What he forgot is that nothing of this scope is accomplished without many people driving the wheel, and without writers like Ree Soesbee and Rob Vaux, and a plethora of toiling artists and game designers in the background, things would never have gotten as far as they did. This is not to diminish the vision that Wick brought to the table, or the fact that he managed to bring the whole project to fruition; but all it takes is one dummy-spit to tarnish the gold that is a worthwhile endeavour. Many of Wick’s later contributions to the game are weak in the extreme and left the fans scratching their heads in bemusement – prime among these is the Ninja splat-book which was just wrong-headed and dumb; but Wick’s attachment to it and his ‘I can do no wrong’ perception of himself saw it go to print regardless, amid a chorus of disapproval.
Getting back to my main point, the elements of “L5R” are clearly inspired by works that have gone before and this is seen nowhere more clearly than in the seven Great Clans. Each clan has its own defining traits and specialities, a character which underscores its temperament and general behaviour; this enables players to build player characters (PCs) around a stereotype which provides much of the basic foundations for those personae. The natures of the clans, with a couple of exceptions, are clearly based on well-known fantasy and historical tropes, grafted together with various other elements, to provide a basic template. The Crane Clan, for example, are Tolkien-esque elves, overlain with elements of extreme Japanese courtly manners and philosophy; the Scorpions are Middle-Eastern, “Arabian Nights” fare, with a solid whack of Machiavelli, plus a dose of Michael Moorcock; the Crab Clan are Spartans, with elements of siege mentality borrowing on a selection ranging from the Crusades through to Stalingrad. The Lion Clan takes its cue from Japanese military history. The Dragons and the Phoenix Clan are highly problematic: of all the Clans they are the least based on any outside motif. The Dragons are ‘like the Crabs but with magical weirdness’; the Phoenix are ‘like the Cranes, but with archery and pacifist intentions’. Both of these units feel vaguely formed and unfinished.
Which brings us to the Unicorns. If you’re trying to create this kind of world, it makes sense that you’d include some kind of Mongol analogue to take advantage of the effectiveness of horses in medieval warfare. Looking at what Wick and crew have come up with, I wonder, was there some concern that there would be litigious trouble from Robert Adams’s “Horseclan” series of novels which the Alderac people fought to minimise? There is a solid historical justification for a society of people centred around horses, from the Mongols and the Manchus to the Japanese themselves, and yet the Unicorn Clan has been thrown together (wait for it) from the following: American western films, Anne McCaffery’s Pern novels, “Elfquest” and “My Little Pony”.
Now, I know that Americans are fearful of legal brouhahas, but surely they couldn’t have been so scared that people would confuse their product with a series of science fiction, post-Apocalyptic pot-boilers that they would effectively neuter an aspect of their creation which promised to solidly round out their universe? Apparently they did. (It’s actually kind of worrying that they would assume that the punters would see ‘Medieval Japanese horse-riding analogue’ and immediately think ‘Oh, a Robert Adams rip-off’ rather than ‘Oh cool! Mongols!’; but maybe America is that kind of place.) Anyway, I’ve decided to scrape off the glitter-frosting scunge from the Unicorns and provide something that’s a bit more meaty and rooted in the real world of history, for those who are interested. The following notes are arranged in no particular order, so work with me here.
1: Ditch the name “Unicorn”
Much of the sparkly nonsense that surrounds the Clan comes from this term. I’ve written and illustrated for this game, and played it both as a player and a referee, and I’ve seen repeated efforts to try and dodge the rainbow-coloured silliness that the word “unicorn” provokes by replacing it with “ki-rin”, the name of a mythical Japanese creature which is vaguely horse-like with horns: it doesn’t work. Just bite the bullet and use the word “horse”; it will get you much further. Once you do, I guarantee that you will feel a great weight rise up from your shoulders…
The problem with names isn’t limited to this though. It seems that, having been saddled (heh!) with the unicorn brand, later writers just fell in with the silliness and compounded the problem. One of the major families in the Clan is called the Otaku family: this term is a pejorative one in Japanese – a vague equivalent of “geek” – which translates literally to “junk boy”, and refers to those with a fannish collector’s habits. Then there’s a training school for mounted archery in the Unicorn territory called the “Yomanri” school, a bad (and obvious) pun on the English word “yeomanry”, a Saxon-derived term which refers to a body of landed gentry. Why? Why would they do this? In later editions they swapped “otaku” for “utako” (which is, as far as I know, meaningless), so it’s obvious that these issues were a matter of embarrassment for the designers as well. My advice? Get rid of it all. These guys are Mongols; let them BE Mongols.
2: The Problem with Shinjo
According to the literature of the game, each of the Great Clans descends from one of the many children of Lady Sun and Lord Moon, who created earth for their children and then gave them humanity to play with. Shinjo is the patroness of the Horse Clan and led them from Rokugan out into the world to see what was going on Out There. The canon material has her living alongside the Clan for hundreds of years and taking them across the deserts and out to other empires. In a broad nod to Paul and Wendy Pini’s “Elfquest”, she transforms into a horse and gives birth to horses and humans from whom the Clan families and their horse lineages descend. This is all very well – and we are talking about a magical universe here – but I would prefer that this material becomes less literal and more metaphysical: when the Horses talk about “Shinjo” doing this, or saying that, they mean the “spirit of Shinjo”, not the literal person. When “Shinjo” leads the Horse Clan to victory, it is as often her guiding spirit as it is her corporeal being (meaning, of course, the collective members of the Horse Clan).
If you’re not familiar with “Elfquest”, it’s definitely something you should look into. It ran throughout the 80s and concerned the elfin populace of a distant world, in particular the tribe led by the work’s hero, Cutter. It has grand themes, a pleasing narrative and addresses many real-world issues as it moves towards its ever-darker conclusion. That being said, it is – itself – a hodge-podge of watered-down Amerindian spirituality and myth with a Middle-American sensibility; once you’ve read it, you will see exactly where the bulk of the published “L5R” Unicorn Clan comes from.
3: Horse Magic
As stated, magic is alive and at work in the land of Rokugan. Players get to adopt the roles of either samurai, or shugenja, “L5R’s” magic-users. Some time is spent in the canon material defining what magic is in the universe and how it works; then it goes and breaks the rules. The magic of the Unicorn Clan is “different” from the magic used in Rokugan, derived as it is from the clan’s time away from the Emerald Empire; however, so are the magicks of the Dragon Clan, the Phoenix Clan, John Wick’s Ninjas and Maho, the country’s so-called ‘black magic’. So it’s not really “different” at all, in the larger scheme of things, and since the mechanics are just the same as every other clan, it seems pointless to even mention it. (This loose descriptor, when applied to the Dragon and Phoenix Clans is just another instance of their nebulous, unfinished quality, but that’s a topic for another day.) There is a way to make this work, however, in reimagining the Horse Clan:
Horse shugenja are actually shamans; I imagine that their magic is more like early Taoist mysticism: their worldview is that the cosmos is composed of a structured hierarchy of spirits, all working to keep Reality in place. The Horse shugenja capture, bargain with, trick, and coerce various spirit entities into doing their will. In order to do this, the written word – the creation of talismans, and the drafting of contracts – is fundamental to Horse magic. Essential to Taoism is the notion of the written word embodying the physical concept, and given that the Horse Clan script is quite a bit different from standard Rokugani writing (more below), this ties in very nicely. Horse shugenja are shadowy and reclusive; they are often prone to trances and speak in cryptic conundrums: much of their craft is divinatory and less elemental (although there is a fair whack of that) and their mystical bargains tend to take horrible tolls upon them. Other Rokugani shugenja often sneer at Horse shamans, regarding them as “primitive”; however, as in so many other fields, the Horses catch on quickly and assimilate much that they encounter. This all ties in very nicely with historical shamanic practises from Japan all the way across to Finland: if you want “different” for your Horse people, I’d suggest that this is the way to go.
4: Horse Spirituality
In the world of Rokugan, the prevailing belief is called “Shintaoism” and is a mish-mash of Zen Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. In the canon material, it is codified by an ancient holy man named Shinsei (a Buddha analogue) who wrote it all down as the Tao of Shinsei, a holy book for the Rokugani peoples. This is kind of neat, as it captures a bunch of real-world belief systems together to back up the spiritual aspects of the game universe. However, in the game’s timeline, Shinjo led the Horse Clan out of Rokugan before Shinsei became a thing in the Empire, before his works were transcribed, disseminated, commented upon and those commentaries distributed. It makes sense therefore, that the Horse Clan would have widely divergent philosophies when it comes to matters of faith.
In terms of faith and, given their shamanistic leanings (as mentioned above), it makes sense that the Horses would be more animist in their beliefs. That is, they would be strongly turned towards ancestor worship and the belief of spirits throughout the world. Their views on faith would be less ‘intellectual’ with a lot less of the cunning wordplay that exemplifies Shinsei’s writings. In this regard, they might also be suspicious of, and largely uncomfortable with, the written Tao, not completely convinced about it, and the other Clans would think they were vaguely heretical as a result.
The next few points are ideas of my own which I have derived from historical fact and which, I think, make the Horse Clan a far better concept as a result. Use them, or not, as you see fit.
5: The Khanate
The Manchu peoples of Northern China were horse warriors and, like the Mongols, were organised into a khanate; that is, a political body ruled by a Khan. I see no good reason why the Horse Clan shouldn’t operate likewise.
The Manchus elected their Khan from among the noble houses which comprised their populace. These were called “banner houses” and were each ruled by an “orlok”, or “battle master”. The Japanese samurai also drew Imperial candidates from eight noble families, called the “hachiman” in their tongue. For the Manchus, the leaders of each of the houses were determined by their houses’ members and were put forward for selection as Khan whenever a new leader was to be appointed. Sometimes, the decision came down to a display of prowess, but mainly it was decided by a council of elders and orloks, based upon popular vote. This makes sense in regard to the Horse Clan and would probably be a feature. I would add that, whoever got chosen as leader, they would then adopt the family name “Shinjo” as an animistic nod to the Clan’s ancestry. They would then become Shinjo, ruling in her name and possessed of her spirit.
Further, like the Japanese samurai, the hachiman would have its own spirit and become a mystic entity in its own right. As people living in a world of spirits, sometimes the spirit of the people would come into conflict with the will of the Khan; Hachiman, the spirit, was a god of war to the samurai and would occasionally voice disapproval through the people if the decisions of the Khan led to bad results. Thus, there are political, religious-based, checks and balances on the powers of the Horse Khan.
6: Horse Clan Castles
The real, historical, Khans often bemoaned the fact that, having conquered the world, they then settled down, left the nomadic life, and lost their way. Both Genghis and Kublai - Mongol leaders of China's Yuan Dynasty - felt that the decision to adopt a fixed lifestyle took from them and their people their essential nature. If you look at the game map of Rokugan, the lands appointed to the Horse Clan are huge and therefore, there’s really no reason for the Horses to settle down at all. I imagine that they would continue living in their yurts, re-locating to the north in Summer and moving South in Winter, and chasing pasturage for their livestock.
In this reality, why have a Clan stronghold? To my mind, that castle is a front: whenever the Horses hold the Winter Court, for example, or if they have to host a political delegation from some other Clan, they would dust off this place and conduct business there, only to return to their semi-permanent villages afterwards. Let the Scorpions and the Lions waste time trying to work out how to capture a fortress that means nothing to the Horse Clan (apart from the fact that it puts all their enemies in the one spot): the khanate is not a fixed entity and cannot be attacked at set locales like the other Clans.
Given that the Horses would have a faux stronghold in which to conduct business with the rest of Rokugan, why wouldn’t they also have a faux Khan to conduct that business? According to the canon, the Horses are uncomfortable in dealing socially with the rest of Rokugan (apart from the Crabs) and any leader chosen by them would probably be just as uncomfortable also. To that end, why not appoint someone as proxy, with the requisite skills in diplomacy and tact, to stand in for the Khan? 'Makes sense to me.
In my game, only the council of Elders and the orloks of the hachiman knew who the true Khan was; the other members of the Horse Clan didn’t know either, although they all knew it wasn’t that guy.
And while we’re on this subject, why are the Horse Clan tagged with the notion of being gruff and undiplomatic? On the one hand, it’s because the Cranes are supposed to be the diplomatic experts and the Scorpions are the best in courtly manners, so the writers didn’t want to take anything away from them, but think about it: the Horses went out into the world to discover and make contact with every other culture on the planet – how does this make them diplomatic naifs? If anything, it should make them the experts: yes, the Cranes can dazzle when it comes to a Rokugani Winter Court, but I know where my money would be if the barbarians came to call…
8: The Colour Purple
Yet another thing that turns the canon Unicorn Clan into a sugar-coated “My Little Pony” extravaganza, is the decision to weigh them down with the heraldic colours purple and white. This is just adding insult to injury. Purple is a colour linked to indecision and here’s nothing about the Horse Clan that stands up as indecisive. I’ve seen it played down in some games and completely changed in others and this works with varied degrees of success. I’ve thought long and hard about what to do about it and I finally came to a surprising conclusion: embrace it.
Historically, purple was discovered by the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean and became a closely-guarded (and money-spinning) secret. In fact, the word “Phoenician” comes from the Greek “phoinikes” meaning “red people”. The source of the dye was a gland from a species of shellfish called Murex and could produce a range of purplish colours from plum through to lilac (mauve wasn’t discovered until, the 19th Century). In my “L5R” campaign, purple dye was a secret brought back from Barbarian lands, known only to the Horse Clan until, in a fit of generosity some time after their return to Rokugan, they decided to share it with their fellow countrymen. In my game, the Horses were exempt from taxes imposed upon the dye and could not be forced – even by the Emperor – to pay their yearly tribute in the stuff, showing just how valued the stuff is. As an extra bonus, the peasant classes of Rokugan would even be afraid of the colour, giving the Horses an extra edge in battle. So: problem solved, plus added historical complexity to the game world.
But remember: purple. Not mauve!
9: Horse Writing
Another thing to take from the Phoenicians is that they wrote in a trading language that all people trading through Southern Europe, the Levant and North Africa adopted to make the whole process easier. It makes sense that the Horse Clan, on its travels, would also have adopted such a written format to ease their travels throughout the World Beyond Rokugan. This language would have to be able to code for a multitude of different spoken languages – something that Japanese plainly doesn’t do – in order to serve during many delicate confrontations with alien cultures. In fact, our own written language – the Roman Alphabet - derives from the Phoenician trade language, and is all that we have left of their culture, after the Romans took umbrage at them and wiped them from the map.
Looking into history once more, I discovered that there is a writing style that would serve the Horse Clan well. It’s called “hergen” (“letters”) and has three forms – “ginggulere hergen”, the standard script; “gidara hergen”, a semi-cursive form; and “lasihire hergen”, the cursive form (used mainly in military despatches). Historically, it was derived from the Mongolian script and adapted by the Manchu leader Nurhaci to be able to code for his native tongue. The form which he created (called “tongki fuka akū hergen” - "script without dots and circles") was later further refined by a series of diacritic marks to enhance pronunciation and to enable the script to code for other languages such as Chinese and Sanskrit; this form was referred-to as “tongki fuka sindaha hergen” ("script with dots and circles") and further modified by “tulergi hergen”, "foreign, or outer letters", enabling it to code for an even wider range of linguistic possibilities. The script is read from top to bottom and left to right.
In my campaign, the ancestor Iuchi Ogadai, rather than Nurchaci, was the one who codified the writing style and is venerated for this fact. Taken together with their shamanic magic, with all of its overtones of Taoism, an exclusive writing style gives the Horse Clan extra leverage in the Rokugani world. They can write texts which only other Horses can read and they can create magical talismans that work particularly well for their brand of “different” magic. Very few of the other Clan members know about this script: it’s not exactly a secret, but the Horses don’t make a song and dance about it, although they certainly frown upon any non-Horse Rokugani attempting to learn it. In fact, most Horses can read hergen while they can’t understand written Rokugani, giving rise to the other Clans thinking that the Horses are illiterate.
10: Barbarian Weaponry
Along with everything else, the Horses are criticised by the other Rokugani for adopting barbarian weapons and armour in their standard equipment. In many of the illustrations used in the game products, this has given the artists license to draw samurai wielding two-handed Crusader swords and fencing foils along with a whole bunch of other weirdness. Having the Clan kitted out with a patchwork range of miscellaneous hardware simply makes them look foolish, when, in fact, it makes more sense to have them uniformly armed and armoured – just not like the other Clans.
The Mongols were able to overrun the entire civilised world from Japan to Austria and they didn’t do it by picking up whatever came to hand: any notion of a superior fighting force must encompass uniform weapons and gear to co-ordinate training and the Horses need this too.
Above is a picture of Mongol weapons and armour. As can be seen, the style is enough like Japanese armour to fit in, but significantly different enough to excite interest. When the canon books talk about the exotic Horse Clan arms, armour and equipment, this is what they’re talking about. Put the claymore down, mister, and step away…
That’s about all I have to say on the matter at the moment, but I think I’ve painted a pretty solid picture as to how a poorly-conceived element in an otherwise cool game can be brought back into line. Something similar might well be done for the Dragon and Phoenix Clans, if someone has the time and wherewithal to bend a few brain-cells in that direction. Let me know what you think.