Because of my involvement as both a writer and a fan for the game Legend of the Five Rings, I’ve spent a fair bit of time hanging out on their forums (or Discord or whatever the current venue happens to be). As is inevitable with any such group and sufficient time, certain discussions crop up again and again, as a newcomer asks a familiar question or a chance comment sets someone off on a well-worn rant.
One of the old standbys is the history of Rokugan, the setting for L5R. Specifically, the pace of change — or lack thereof — in that history.
Now, some of this has to do with the real-world history of the game. It was originally designed to tell the story of a climactic moment of crisis, so anything that happened beforehand was really just flavor text to prop up that story. But the game was successful enough that it kept going past the climactic moment, and it filled in its own history along the way. Since L5R is both a card game and a tabletop role-playing game, books for the latter supplied a lot of information previous centuries of Rokugan, the thousand or so years between the founding of the empire and the “present day” of the aforementioned crisis.
A thousand years is a long time, to be sure. And there are definitely things of significance that happened in that time. But what didn’t happen was any revolutionary change in the setting — any progress of the sort we tend to think of when we use the word, i.e. noteworthy technological development.
We take technological progress for granted, because we’ve seen such a huge amount of it in our own lifetimes. Twenty years ago, I still went to a store that had physical DVDs (or even VHS tapes) to rent a movie, instead of it streaming on demand into my TV from a hundred different services. I didn’t have a cell phone, much less a smart phone. Cars all ran on gas. Look further back, but still within my own lifetime, and there’s no internet as we know it now. My parents were alive for the first moon walk, the first satellite in space. As of me writing this essay, there is still one woman in Japan who was alive when the Wright Brothers made their first controlled airplane flight at Kitty Hawk.
Step beyond living memory, and you continue to find some incredibly dramatic shifts. The Industrial Revolution threw the pace of change into high gear, not just in obvious ways (steam power makes trains possible) but less obvious ones (mechanized cloth production makes cloth cheaper, which in turn makes it more feasible for fashion to change rapidly). The last few centuries of history have been dynamic enough that going even fifty years further back can mean highly visible differences in society.
. . . depending on which corner of society you’re looking at, of course. The common masses have always been slower to adopt changes, if only because they can’t afford whatever new fashion or new gadget has the elites so excited. But even if we take the society as a whole, the last few centuries have given us a warped impression of how rapidly things change.
That’s not to say there weren’t any changes between the years 500 and 1500, of course. There definitely were! Not just the thing everybody’s thoughts usually go to (gunpowder) but increased urbanization, the printing press and and increased literacy, developments in ship-building and sailing, changes in the ideology around kingship and government, and more. Take an English, Chinese, or Egyptian person from 1500 and put them in 500, or vice versa, and they will find the world very different. Still, the degree of difference is nothing compared to what we’ve seen more recently — and the differences between 500 C.E. and 500 B.C. may well have been smaller, depending on what region you look at.
The extent to which the same is true in L5R varies depending on what source you ask. Earlier versions of the game handwaved the relative lack of change by saying that Rokugani people are so tradition-bound, they never really felt the need or the desire to change what worked perfectly well for their ancestors. In reality, it owes more to the fact that there’s not a lot of gain from worldbuilding significant cultural differences throughout that sweep of Rokugani history, when probably all the players want is the ability to play the game they know in the context of different historical events. The more recent version of the game hasn’t poured much effort into describing the changes over time, but they at least acknowledge that things have changed; for example, the ancestral swords of the clans aren’t katana, because that ubiquitous weapon was developed later.
Where people really stick, though, is on things like the aforementioned gunpowder. It exists in the setting, but it’s largely used for things like fireworks. In the old version of the game, foreigners also used it in one battle against the empire, before they were driven off and not seen again. And this is a thing a certain type of player finds really annoying, because to their way of thinking, if gunpowder has been developed, then by now there ought to be firearms.
The great difficulty in addressing this kind of question is that our data set sucks. We know how our history went . . . but we don’t know what would happen if you ran multiple simulations with the same starting conditions. I recently read Pre-Industrial Societies by Patricia Crone, which in its last chapter addresses the question of the Industrial Revolution and why it happened where it did: was Europe simply the first to undergo those changes, and other regions would have done the same eventually, or was it on a different path entirely from the rest of the world? We can speculate, but we can’t know. Just as we can speculate, but not know for certain (yet), whether life is possible with different conditions than the ones that produced it on this planet.
It may seem inevitable to us that X technology will lead to Y development and therefore Z change within a certain span of time, because that’s how it happened in reality. But much of that thinking is rooted in another assumption, which is that progress always goes forward. And we have plenty of evidence to show us that isn’t necessarily the case.
We have lost technologies over time. The Antikythera Mechanism is an incredibly complex piece of gearing whose like didn’t appear again for about fifteen hundred years; the method for creating the pigment known as Egyptian blue was likewise lost for centuries. We have developed technologies and not applied them to other uses: the wheel existed in Aztec society, but was only used on toys, and the earliest steam engine was described by Hero of Alexandria in the first century C.E. Sewer systems are an ancient concept, as I mentioned back in Year Three, but despite their benefits to society, they weren’t adopted everywhere, and places that had them stopped using them.
I’m not going to say that L5R’s history necessarily makes sense, and that it’s plausible for them to go centuries without developing firearms when they have gunpowder and have seen it used in war. It isn’t a given, though, that people will always move forward with technology, and that culture will be radically different every century. People with firearms will not necessarily have an industrial revolution within the next four hundred years. Learning from history is useful, but we also have to keep in mind that how it played out this time isn’t necessarily how it would play out every time.