I’ve said before that the setting for Legend of the Five Rings is really well-developed, such that you can have all sorts of fun messing with it. The most recent book for the fourth edition supports this in interesting ways; in addition to giving all kinds of historical info, it has sidebars scattered throughout, suggesting AU scenarios that might have resulted if events had gone differently.
One of those concerns the founding of the Empire. Canonically — for those who don’t know — nine kami, the children of Lady Sun and Lord Moon, fell to earth (and one of them fell through the earth into Hell, where he became corrupted). The remaining eight gathered mortal followers and held a tournament amongst themselves to decide who would rule this realm. Hantei won, and the other seven founded the Great Clans, and that was how Rokugan got started.
The sidebar in Imperial Histories asks, what if a different kami had won?
It gives a few sentences for each of the other kami, reminding you of their personalities, and outlining the general flavor that would have resulted if Doji or Hida or whoever had set the tone for all of Rokugan. The one that caught my eye the most was this:
If Togashi had been destined to defeat Hantei, he would have built an Empire far different from anything imagined by his siblings — a place of mystery and enigma, where religious contemplation and individual enlightenment were the highest goods. A GM who wishes to make Rokugan closer to the sort of mystical martial arts setting depicted in many Asian films might find a Togashi Dynasty suitable to the task.
Granted, I am playing a Dragon PC (a member of the Clan that kami founded in canonical history), and a Togashi monk to boot. But I think those lines would look shiny to me even if I weren’t, because I’m a fan of movies like The Bride With White Hair (which is the first example that leapt to mind). And so my brain immediately started playing with this notion. How could you redesign L5R for a timeline in which Togashi won?
I’m splitting this into at least two parts because the more I think about it, the more interesting notions come to mind. Everyone, and L5R geeks in particular, are invited to hop in with comments and suggestions. For this first part, I’ll start with the founding of the Empire and the Great Clans.
You have to start with the Tournament of the Kami, of course, to explain why it had a different result. I say, keep it almost entirely as-is, with one early tweak: before the tournament is suggested, Togashi recites a poem, which is enigmatic and meaningless to his brothers and sisters.
Things proceed along their normal course, with the kami all facing off (except Togashi, who is sitting it out). It ends, as in canon, with Akodo and Hantei, and Akodo realizing he was about to kill his brother, then throwing his sword down and kneeling to Hantei. All the other kami are about to follow suit when Shiba says, hang on a sec. Togashi predicted all of this. Because he’s thought back to the poem, and realized that its enigmatic comments were in fact descriptions of the very mistakes and flaws that caused each of the kami to lose their bouts. And, as Shiba points out, that means Togashi defeated them all, without ever raising a finger.
So the kami instead kneel to him — as Togashi had foreseen.
Now you need to sort out the Clans. The simplest answer is to just plug Hantei in Togashi’s place as the founder of the Dragon Clan, but of course that isn’t satisfactory; the whole point is that the Dragon style is now the style of Rokugan as a whole. You could treat the Imperial families as Clan families and vice versa, but that also doesn’t really work; the Otomo courtiers in particular, but the Seppun and Miya as well, are so very much designed around the Emperor and his court, that demoting them to mere Great Clan status seems weird. Better to ask, what kind of clan would Hantei found?
It’s hard to answer, because as far as “personalities of the kami” go, Hantei’s pretty much consists of “is the Emperor.” Take that away, and he doesn’t have much left. It’s more effective, I think, to ask what role his Clan could have in Rokugan, that isn’t already filled by one of the canonical Great Clans.
My first thought was to make them craftsmen. Steal a bit of thunder from the Kaiu engineers and the Kakita artisans (because really, do the Crane need to have the bestest courtiers and and the bestest duelists and the bestest artisans evar?), and say Hantei’s followers Make Stuff Real Good. It has the merit of being vaguely connected to Hantei’s personality — treating Rokugan as a thing he “made” in the canon timeline — but I came up with an idea I like better. If Togashi’s Rokugan is more mystical and weird, then it should probably feature a much higher degree of interaction with the non-human races, like the naga and the nezumi, right? Put Hantei’s Clan in charge of that.
(Yes, I know that’s a bit of an odd choice, given that in canon Hantei is the one who ordered the samurai to hunt down and kill non-humans, leading to the near-extinction of the kitsu. But it suits the flavor of the timeline.)
Call them the Bear Clan. (I don’t know if this is true of the Ainu, but I know the folklore of a lot of cultures sees bears as being almost quasi-human, which seems fitting here. I’m open to alternative names, though.) Setting them up as the people who deal with non-humans suggests what to do about their schools, too: steal the Kitsu from the Lion to be their shugenja tradition and have their bushi be the Kenku Bushi School from Enemies of the Empire. You’ll have to come up with some replacement shugenja for the Lion, and probably design from scratch a courtier school aimed at diplomatic interactions with the other races, but you’ve got a decent basis for a Bear Clan already. [Edit: On reflection, the Kitsu technique is too well-matched to the Lion Clan to take it away. I’d give them a new name, and not have them be connected to the kitsu race, but leave them where they are. For the Bear Clan shugenja, I’d instead steal the Kitsune school — heck, probably the whole family, and eliminate their history with the Unicorn Clan.]
On the Dragon-now-Imperial side, I’m inclined to keep a number of the Dragon families and schools almost as-is. You definitely still want the ise zumi, whom I imagine as being sort of weird special agents: monks with suitable tattoos get sent out on random missions for the good of the Empire, then vanish back to their trackless mountain home. (Is the capital of this Rokugan still Otosan Uchi, where the kami fell to earth? Or does Togashi move them to the northern mountains? Or did they fall up there in the first place? No idea. For simplicity’s sake, it’s probably easiest to keep the geography more or less unchanged, and put the Bear Clan in former Dragon lands. But give the ise zumi a suitable mountain to hide on.)
Keep the Mirumoto as an Imperial bushi family, but maybe buff up their techniques to be just a hair more powerful. Definitely erase their rivalry with the Kakita, because I like the notion that the niten style is reserved for Imperial bushi ONLY. Nobody else is allowed to fight with two swords at once. Ditto perhaps the Agasha, with their alchemical technique. Somewhere along the line — perhaps earlier than in canon — you could also get the Kitsuki Investigators, though obviously their method would gain acceptance much more rapidly, with Imperial backing behind it.
But in these early days, of course, none of that stuff is terribly well-developed yet. For the Imperial court to take its proper shape, you have to move forward to the Gozoku era. And I have a notion for how to keep that — a notion that springs from another alternate-history sidebar, where it asks what would have happened if Hantei had just kept on ruling, instead of handing off the throne to his son. For the tale of Rokugan under the immortal emperor Togashi, tune in for the next installment, whenever I get around to posting it. 🙂