Saturday, August 5, 2017

L5R: Mantis through the SEA Lens (Compassion and Glory)



With +Jay Steven Anyong and Chester spearheading a Living L5R campaign here in Metro Manila, I have been tapped to GM the adventures of the Mantis Clan. It also gives me a reminder to return to this idea, so let's get straight to the task at hand!

To recap, the goal is to tweak the concept of the Mantis Clan by drawing more heavily on Southeast Asian (SEA) societies. The closest analogs would be the maritime, pre-Islamic mandalas of the 13th Century. Majapahit is a very good peg. But I am a biased Tagalog so I will likely draw as heavily (if not more so) from Filipino examples.

Unlike many western concepts of nobility, island Southeast Asia did not derive their powers from their ownership of the land tilled by their people. Rather, they were powerful because they were the masters of debt economics. They provided comfort and security for their people so that, in turn, they were indebted to them and felt morally obligated to serve them as masters. While this fits nicely with the Celestial Order of Rokugan, the SEA approach differs by drawing extensively on the concept of political pageantry. Given what we know of the ways of the Mantis, we can fit them into using this brand of political control, as well.

There is a limit to how much we can adopt from SEA culture, however. At the core, we don't want the Mantis to lose their identity as Samurai, or they will be too distant from what it means to roleplay in the samurai romance of an L5R game. One way to do this is to review and ensure the Mantis' continued adherence to the tenets of bushido - and as the rulebooks suggest, the core tenet of the Mantis is compassion.

Compassion as a necessity

The warmth and generosity of the Mantis Clan towards its heimin and eta are infamous. They devote significant portions of their trade income for the benefit of their people, they have a genuine concern for their well-being, and they make sure that everyone partakes in their lavish wedding feasts. This closeness is so vastly different from the rest of Rokugani society that even the Unicorn would be slightly uncomfortable at the mingling. 

But why is this the case? Some believe it is because the Mantis relates with the lesser folk, having climbed from lesser status, themselves. But this rationale is flimsy. Despite being a minor clan for a millennium, the Mantis have nevertheless always been Samurai descended from Osano-Wo, a station well above that of the common people. And even now, their infamous compassion does not forgive disobedience. The Mantis Samurai are the undisputed masters here, and claims to an affinity with the heimin is a romanticization, at best.

Another reason that gets thrown about is their status as a maritime clan. This seems to fit better, but not necessarily because of a perceived brotherhood borne from sailing together. If anything, a samurai taking command of a ship reinforces the divisions of authority even more. No - the compassion of the Mantis to its people stems from a different reality imposed by an archipelagic culture:

People are the scarce resource.

The Islands of Silk and Spice offer rich, volcanic soil, and it is ideal for growing crops. Its warm shores are ideal for schools of fish to thrive. Anyone can theoretically live an isolated life and live off the natural bounties of the islands. The conversation of deciding who will plant food and where to plant it, which is a basic concern in many other places, is moot here. On the other hand, the land area itself is not so vast, to say nothing of the uninhabited portions filled with dangers both natural and supernatural. Simply put, the islands are paradise, but they are ones that cannot sustain a large population.

In spite of this, the Mantis still need their heimin and eta. Rice and root crops still need to be planted. The unclean tasks still need to be done. And despite the dictum of the Celestial Order, the scarcity of the lower classes inspire the Mantis to instill a desire to stay within their charges. This is the core of the their tenet for compassion.

The pageantry of Glory

So how, exactly, do the Mantis make their charges desire to stay? Over their millennium of existence as a minor clan, they have perfected a lifestyle that intrinsically does just that. When they first moved to the islands and found the relative simplicity with which they can acquire their basic necessities, they realized that they are free to cultivate other, more luxurious products. Their wealth competed with the Great Clans in a way that their raw status could not. As the clan's wealth increased, so too did their ability to provide for their people. That and the warm relationships they cultivated made the people feel as if they shared in their lords' successes.

Sharing in their lords' triumphs and failures soon extended to mean sharing significant moments of their lords' lives. With every significant moment in a lord's life, from their gempukku, to marriage, to the birth of children, and sometimes even to their death, a feast of some sort is prepared. Extravagant food is prepared, gifts are given away, and lavish ceremonies and rituals are performed in these feasts designed to awe and inspire the lord's charges whether samurai or heimin. Naturally, the achievement of deeds that increase a samurai's Glory will also justify hosting similar feasts.


Other clans scoff at the Mantis for making fools out of themselves with their bouts of extravagance. They find the displays of ostentation highly distasteful as it combines commerce and what they see as wastefulness. Some will even say that what the Mantis do with their wealth is dishonorable. But paradoxically, their trading skill and their extravagance are manifestations of their own brand of honor. For their outlandish displays of wealth they declare that they are unafraid and skilled enough to protect what is rightfully theirs, and by giving their wealth away for their people they show their devotion to the betterment of their lives.

Next: WiP!