RPG Review: Legend of the Five Rings, 4th Edition

Most people who’ve been in the gaming hobby for a while have probably heard of  this game, an RPG set in the pseudo-Japanese fantasy realm of Rokugan.  Created by John Wick and first published by Alderac Entertainment Group back in 1995, Legend of the Five Rings (or simply L5R for short), has been AEG’s strongest and most recognized brand, consisting of both a collectible card game, a role-playing game, and even a very brief miniatures game.

If you recall my review of the 7th Sea RPG, one of the big elements with that game was that it had very fleshed out storyline, and L5R was literally where it started for AEG in terms of over-arching metaplot.  Rokugan has a very rich history, starting from the earliest days when the Kami (actual physical gods) fell from the Heavens and laid out the foundations for what would become the Emerald Empire all the way up to “current times” as reflected in the CCG.  One element that helps set L5R apart from other RPGs, particularly back in the day, was that players of the card game and the RPG could both influence the overall story, changing the course of the story in ways the developers would never have anticipated.  This hasn’t been without its problems or detractors, but it does make things interesting and keeps the game’s main plot from being entirely at the whim of only a small, select handful of people.

L5R was naturally the first game to feature AEG’s “Roll and Keep” system, with players rolling a number of 10-sided dice equal to their trait plus skill (capping at 10 dice), and keeping only a few of them to determine whether you succeeded or failed.  L5R also had the Raise system, where you the player can elect to make a task more difficult by increasing the base difficulty in increments of 5, making your success that much more impressive.  The mechanic is quite simple to pick up, and as everything is based on d10s, it cuts down on the “what die am I rolling?” issues considerably.  Of course, you’re not obligated to always keep the highest dice for your total, and there may even be instances where you may want to intentionally have a low result.

As I mentioned before, the setting used in L5R is a pseudo-Japanese fantasy one, meaning that it is most certainly not historical Japan, with quite a few elements added from Chinese fantasy and adapted to fit a slightly more modern sensibility.  And while this Asian-fantasy melting pot is one of the game’s greatest strengths, it can also be a hindrance, both to gamers unfamiliar with Japanese culture in general (though this isn’t quite as much of an issue as it was in the game’s early days) and to those all too familiar with Japanese history (something that still persists to this day, unfortunately).  One early myth I’d like to dispel is that L5R is not an anime-based RPG, so if your notions of samurai come from various anime series such as Rurouni Kenshin, Inuyasha, or Samurai Champloo and you’re expecting more of the same, you’re going to be rather disappointed.   L5R owes much of its setting to feudal Japan, and while there are certainly fantastical elements such as spell-casting priests and demonic abominations, most characters are going to have slightly more realistic limits on their capabilities, and there’s very little in the way of calling out the names of your attacks Characters will most definitely not be able to soak up massive amounts of damage with little to no consequences.  It’s been said that a samurai lived their life three feet away from death, and L5R takes that saying and runs with it.

While the core rulebook gives a good overview of Rokugan’s culture, covering both the similarities and the differences between its real-world counterparts, every edition has had a supplement titled “Emerald Empire” that is devoted almost entirely to expanding upon Rokugan’s history and culture, with a lot of the focus on the Great Clans that dominate the setting.  The Clans themselves range from the refined Crane to the warlike Lion, the pacifistic Phoenix to the devious Scorpion, and even the nomadic Unicorn, who have more to do with the Mongols than Japan these days.  Though the core rulebook certainly does an admirable job of giving a new player the basics of each of the Great Clans, there’s plenty more information to be had in the many supplements that have been produced, with 4th Edition putting much of that lore into the Great Clans book.

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Players in L5R take up roles as members of the samurai caste, each belonging to one or more of the Great Clans, each with their own outlook, history, and values.  As was the case in feudal Japan, the PCs are part of the ruling nobility, generally being freshly graduated from their training and in service to one or more higher-ranking lords in their respective clan.  Said training takes the form of Schools, each one embodying the beliefs and methods of their respective Great Clan, providing ranks in a selection of skills and a special technique that is unique to each school.  While the first edition limited players to either Bushi (warriors) or Shugenja (spell-casting priests), by the time of 4th Edition, the options available to each of the Great Clans have expanded to include Courtiers (social experts) and a fourth school that plays to certain aspects of its parent clan, such as the Scorpion Infiltrator (aka ninja) or the Dragon Tattooed Monk or the Lion Berserker.  As befits the settings roots, the players are given a starting outfit as part of their school, consisting of the weapons and other items they generally need to perform their duties, all provided by the lord to whom they owe fealty.

One of the aspects of L5R that makes the game both interesting and difficult to play is the concept of Bushido, which is taken very seriously by all but the most heinous of villains, making honor just as potent a weapon as one made of steel.  But for western players, particularly those coming from a more traditional hack’n’slash RPG as Dungeons & Dragons, this change in mindset can be difficult one; you’re not playing a rootless adventurer that answers to no authority but their own, but a cultured and educated noble with duties and responsibilities.  This is where having at least a passing familiarity with Japanese culture can be helpful, as it will help smooth the transition away from the traditional RPG approach and into the one required to really get the most out of L5R’s setting.

A character’s raw capabilities are determined by their Traits, which themselves are divided into five rings as per Miyamoto Musashi’s “the Book of Five Rings,” with four of the Rings (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) being split into a physical and mental component that plays into the Ring’s primary theme, while the fifth (Void) generally isn’t used for rolls but instead measures a character’s ability to change their fate, reflected mechanically in the concept of Void Points, which can be spent to roll and keep an additional die on any given roll or to activate various special techniques a character might have.  Thus, it is a character’s Skills that determine their proficiency in a certain area of endeavor, such as swordplay, social niceties, observation, education, and artistic pursuits such as poetry, calligraphy, and various games popular in Rokugani culture.  So when making a roll, the character would use a dice pool equal to the Trait Rank and Skill Rank that best matches what they are trying to achieve, rolling that many d10s, but only keeping a number of dice equal to their Trait.

L5R is also interesting in that it combines elements of level-based and point-based advancement.  A character can spend their acquired experience points to increase their Skills and Traits as they see fit, but their “level” is not such much a class level determined by how many experience points they’ve gained, but rather by their Insight total, which is calculated using the character’s ranks in both their Skills and their Rings.  If a samurai wants to advance into the higher ranks of Insight (useful for accessing those higher tier abilities of their schools), they’ll need focus on both the physical and mental aspects, a suitable reflection for the what a samurai should represent in an idealistic sense.   This helps to avoid the issue of “dump stats” that more than a few RPGs tend to suffer from.  That’s not to say that some players won’t choose to treat certain Traits as being a dump stat for their character and go out of their way to avoid squandering their experience points on raising something they view as worthless, but they are going to be paying for it, as raising one’s Insight rank by focusing purely on Skills is going to get very expensive after a while, leaving them stuck at lower Insight Ranks while a more balanced samurai is reaping the benefits of higher Insight Ranks.  As with many elements of a samurai’s life in Rokugan, it’s a balancing act.

L5R is robust enough to handle a group of mixed school types, so the players don’t need to feel constrained to play a group of all Bushi or all Courtiers or all Monks, and in fact the game works a lot better with mixed character types.  In fact, the campaign that I was playing in previously (and just relaunched quite recently) has a very eclectic mix of characters, each of us strong in one area so that we have a very wide array of talents to draw upon.  One element that has proven difficult for GMs in the past is a group comprised of multiple different Great Clan samurai, as not every clan is willing or even able to see eye-to-eye with members of other clans, with incredibly long-standing rivalries such as the Matsu family of the Lion and Kakita family of the Crane or the other clan’s general distrust of the sneaky and mischievous Scorpions being just two common examples.  There are ways around it, such as the PCs being assigned as yoriki (deputies) to an Emerald Magistrate or becoming a part of the Imperial Legions, so multi-clan parties can work, and in fact can work quite well in terms of bringing out some great role-playing as various views and philosophies come into conflict while the characters’ sense of honor prevents them from being openly disparaging of their fellow samurai.

Now while the setting is quite good, there’s also the game’s mechanics to consider.  First up, combat in L5R is quite deadly.  It may not be as deadly as it was in 1st edition, but a katana is a dangerous weapon in L5R and if you get hit, it’s going to hurt, and healing is a generally a slow process, so there’s quite a bit of emphasis on not getting hit in the first place, a stark contrast to the d20 system and its “gas tank of hit points” approach to damage tracking.  The core rulebook does provide a sidebar with options to scale the game’s wound system, going from the “fairly deadly” default to the “veritable juggernauts” range, allowing the GM to tailor things to suit their style of play as desired.  Aside from damage, combat is a blend of narrative and tactical approaches; a tactical map certainly isn’t required to play, but there are a lot of distinct measurements, both for character movement and ranged weapons.

One of the notable combat elements of L5R is the usage of combat stances, which range from a standard attack posture (no penalty to attack or defense) to , full attack (bonus to hit, but more likely to get hit in return), defensive (less likely to get hit, but you can’t attack), full defense (really hard to hit, but you’re not doing anything else), and the Center stance, which lets your character focus themselves to make their action the next round more likely to succeed.  Raises can be called for and then spent in this game to accomplish various combat maneuvers such as called shots, disarms, feints, and knocking your foe on their backside as well as just simply dealing more damage, so your list of combat options are limited only by how good you think you’re capable of rolling.  Combat is deadly and rushing in head-first will only get a character killed or crippled.

A subset of the combat rules is the Iaijutsu duel, which is truly a case of “one hit, one kill” and is not something to be entered lightly or frivolously; nowhere is the afore-mentioned saying “a samurai lives three feet away from death” more true than when one enters an iaijutsu duel.

Iaijutsu dueling has always been problematic throughout the various editions of L5R, often having the most questions asked about how it works.  Personally, I think 4th Edition has simplified the whole process while retaining a suitable degree of lethality.  However, it is worth noting that in the cultural context of Rokugan, a duel to the death is a very rare thing and generally cannot be entered without approval from one’s lord; after all, if you die, your lord is out one valuable samurai servant.  So most duels are to first blood, or in game terms by who is the first to take wounds.  You remember earlier where I mentioned that you don’t have to keep the highest rolling dice?  Damage rolls use the same Roll and Keep method, so an iaijutsu duel where you don’t want to leave the other guy crippled are a good time to keep those low-rolling dice; after all honor is served just as well by a minor cut to your opponent’s arm as it would be by just slicing the opponent’s arm right off, and the former may earn you a greater deal of respect and admiration, not only from the observers but quite possibly your opponent as well.

While physical combat is a major aspect of a samurai’s life in Rokugan, that doesn’t mean the courts should be dismissed.  If anything, a courtier whispering the proper words into the right ears can cause more trouble and harm for their clan’s enemies than a dozen katana-wielding bushi could ever hope to accomplish.  Truthfully, the courts of the samurai lords of Rokugan are an aspect of the game that frequently tends to get overlooked, which is a shame because there is really great potential for deep and rewarding roleplaying. The fact that every Great Clan has a courtier school of some type or another should give an inclination to just how important the social aspect of L5R can be.  From my own experiences, I’ve seen courtier characters, who might be otherwise useless in another RPG, be amazingly effective in L5R, resolving some very thorny issues with a blend of honeyed words and implied threats that a more militant character would have risked serious injury to deal with in a more direct and violent manner.

Three key aspects to all characters in L5R are their Honor, their Glory, and their Status, the combination of which determines a character’s place in the Celestial Order that dominates Rokugani culture.  Honor and Glory have been part of the game since 1st edition, with Status being introduced in 3rd edition to resolve some minor issues such as players having higher Glory ratings than the Emperor or the Clan Champions.   While each of these three values have a default value when players create their samurai characters, those values can vary quite a bit depending on what actions they take during play, and range from 0 to 10.

Honor is perhaps one of the most fluid, tending to settle somewhere between 4 and 6 for most characters, reflecting a samurai that is generally seen as honorable but has a few minor personal failings.  A character with an Honor of 2 or less is seen as being untrustworthy and without honor, while an individual that attains the lofty heights of Honor 9 or better is seen as a living paragon of Bushido and epitome of all that a true samurai should be.  Now Honor is not only useful a measuring stick for determining whether someone could be trusted or not, but also reflects a certain strength of character, providing the samurai with a bonus to resist temptations and various fear-based effects, things that can come in quite handy when dealing with the less-honorable or inhuman denizens of Rokugan.

Glory is a bit more static, in that it’s easier to gain Glory than it is to lose it, since a character gains Glory points for defeating opponents in a skirmish, performing notable deeds, and simply advancing in level, though a particularly heroic or valorous samurai will find themselves racking up the Glory points really quickly.  Where Honor is used to assess how trustworthy and respectable a person is, their Glory instead reflects how well-known the person is.  Most player characters start out with a Glory 1, reflecting that they’ve yet to accomplish anything of note, while a renowned war hero has a Glory of 7, and legendary heroes such as the Seven Thunders have a Glory of 10.

The last of these three key traits is Status, which is probably the most static of the three, as it reflects the samurai’s position within the Celestial Order, with the Emperor holding the top spot at Status 10 and the PCs generally starting out as Status 1; they’re samurai, but aren’t all that important yet.  Unlike Honor or Glory, Status generally doesn’t change as a direct result of your character’s actions, but rather by what positions they occupy in Rokugan; a magistrate for one’s clan has a Status ranking of 4, while the commander of an army merits a Status ranking of 7.

One element of L5R that I’ve not addressed is religion and magic, which in Rokugan are pretty close to being the same thing.  The spellcasters in this game are the shugenja, a blending of Shinto priest and fantasy wizard that calls upon the various elemental spirits of Rokugan, known as the kami, using specific prayers to create a magical effect that pertains to the particular element.  How many spells a shugenja can cast depends on their rank in the Ring that corresponds to that particular element, with Void being treated as something of a “reserve pool” by most shugenja.  Unlike many other fantasy RPGs were spellcasters go searching for more spells to add to their tomes of arcane lore, a shugenja instead receives their spell scrolls from their lord, and generally only gains additional spells when increasing in level.  It’s generally bad form to ask one’s lord for more spell scrolls “just because,” so any requests for additional scrolls need to be worded very carefully to avoid giving offense to the very person who’s been providing for your basic needs.  It’s also worth mentioning that casting a spell is quite often a very noticeable effect, particularly as most shugenja need to rely upon their prayer scrolls.  Like many RPGs, spells in L5R covers a wide gamut, but a character’s school determines which elemental spells they are most proficient at casting and which ones they’re not so good at, very much like a specialist wizard in D&D, though the shugenja generally doesn’t get much choice in their elemental strength or weakness.   Many times a shugenja that is strong in one element will be weak in the opposing element, such as having an affinity for Air spells, but being deficient in Earth magic, though this may not always be the case, such as with the Phoenix shugenja, who are the setting’s experts on magic, and thus gain an elemental affinity of their choice with no corresponding deficiency.

While the Great Clans are the major players in the scope of L5R, that’s not to say they’re the only players on the board, as there are a host of Minor Clans that have cropped up over the years, which are presented as an optional rule for players alongside the choice of playing a ronin.  However, unlike the Great Clans, the Minor Clans tend to only have a single school available, typically a bushi school, and the techniques they provide don’t have quite the same amount of punch that the techniques of the Great Clan schools have.  And as has been a common trend in L5R, playing a ronin puts you at a disadvantage both socially and mechanically, as ronin are quite limited in the techniques they can learn and those techniques pale in comparison to even the Minor Clan schools in many instances.  So if you have your heart set on playing a wandering ronin, be warned that it’s going to be a challenge, as you’re literally on the bottom of the social order and don’t have the sort of resources that Clan samurai take for granted.

One of the big setting elements of L5R is the presence of the Shadowlands, a region that is literally tainted by the powers of hell itself and a subject to the whims of a mad god.  Like previous editions of L5R, the Shadowlands is one of the primary antagonists of the setting, particularly with recent storyline developments such as the City of the Lost and the formation of the Spider Clan, a self-proclaimed Great Clan comprised of samurai who carry mild degrees of the Shadowlands Taint.  Although tied to the CCG, the Spider Clan is presented as an option for players, although the book does make note that in most instances, a Spider Clan character is going to be far more powerful than other samurai from a mechanical standpoint, and are likely to meet a bad end from an in-game standpoint given how Rokugani feel about those who bear the Taint of the Shadowlands.  The fact there are Great Clan schools dedicated solely to the discover and destruction of those with the Taint should provide a clue to most players about how the Emerald Empire feels on the matter.  Since it’s related to Shadowlands and the Taint, there’s also a section on maho, or blood magic, a forbidden practice that should leave any right-minded samurai ill at ease.  While maho is not big on direct damage or combat in general, most of its effects have a suitably creepy edge to them, making a villainous maho user a significant and insidious enemy to the characters.

The Gamemaster’s section has plenty of suggestions for running an L5R game, either as a sporadic series of one-shots or long-running campaigns, as well as basic plot ideas and discussions on the differences between a hero in a typical fantasy setting versus a hero in L5R.  There are also some suggested options to tailor the playstyle of the game, ranging from a grim realism to cinematic to downright animesque.  There’s only a small selection of NPCs available in the core rulebook, consisting of a few commonly encountered animals and a small selection of Shadowlands monsters from the common goblin to ratlings to the undead, so GMs will need to either create their own stats for regular bandits and enemy samurai for their players to face, or get stats from the Enemies of the Empire supplement.

As I noted earlier in this article, L5R, for most of its life, has had a running storyline.  Note the usage of “storyline” and not “metaplot,” as the story of L5R has been shaped by the results of various CCG tournaments, which has had repercussions both good and bad for the RPG, and, over the years, has drawn a number of complaints about how GMs might be forced to abandon the storyline in their games because of changes made solely based upon a card-game tournament.  4th Edition did something unusual for L5R, and has adopted the mantra of “timeline neutrality.”  That’s not to say that the ongoing storyline won’t be influenced by the CCG, but rather that 4th Edition L5R won’t force GMs and players to stick to the official storyline, particularly when it comes to mechanical elements such as alternate schools and paths.  So while there is a bit of a metaplot, a GM running L5R can now freely ignore it and still make use of much of the supplemental material published by AEG.  One of the big design philosophies for L5R 4th edition has been “L5R, Your Way,” a way of reinforcing that GMs don’t need to stick to the canon timeline, and can change whatever elements they want.  A common campaign option has been to follow the canon timeline up to the 2nd Day of Thunder and the start of the Toturi Dynasty, which capped off the Clan Wars period of Rokugan’s history, with everything else from the CCG simply being discarded, while another recurring campaign notion is the 1000 Years of Darkness, where the Big Bad of the setting actually won and Rokugan is not a very nice place to live for the average samurai.

Speaking of supplements, AEG hasn’t rushed a bunch of books out since 4th edition hit shelves in 2010, and there’s definitely more of a focus on quality of material than just sheer quantity.  Of the books released so far, the only ones that I would say are vital would be Enemies of the Empire, to provide a much broader range of NPCs for characters to fight as well as expanding upon options for ronin PCs, and Emerald Empire, which does a fantastic job of expanding upon the setting and culture of Rokugan while also providing additional Schools and alternate advancement paths.  The other books can be used or ignored as the GM sees fit, although the Imperial Histories supplement (with a second volume tentatively slated for next year) offers a number of options from which to launch your campaigns at different points in Rokugan’s history, including some non-canon ones such as the previously mentioned 1,000 Years of Darkness as well as alternate Rokugans where a different Kami became Emperor, each one reflecting a setting that matches up to certain campaign styles.

Now while the core rulebook does provide a sample adventure, there are a few other options available for GMs with major time constraints.  The first of these is the 2010 Game Day module “Legacy of Disaster,” which also provides a selection of pre-generated samurai characters for players to make use of, and enough basic rules that will allow a curious GM to try the game without having to commit any money to something they or their players may not like.  It can be downloaded for free right off of AEG’s own L5R website from the RPG section or by clicking the link above.  Also, a great resource for pre-made adventures would be the Heroes of Rokugan archives, the home site for a “living campaign” in much the same style as the RPGA Living Campaigns.

The adventures made available are to be found under the Heroes of Rokugan II Archive, however they were made for use with L5R’s 3rd edition, so GMs will need to tweak the NPC stat blocks a little and be mindful of the changes in skill names between the two additions.  Still, these are an excellent resource, and with only a little extra work the GM can weave these into a grand campaign set in their era of choice.  While the default era setting for the second Heroes of Rokugan living campaign is set centuries after the events of the current storyline, that’s actually a strength of the campaign as it frees GMs up from having to worry about the ever-evolving story changes, and by itself provides a grand campaign arc as the PCs are eventually called upon to save all of Rokugan.  The adventures themselves provide guidelines on how to adjust them based upon the Insight Ranks of the PCs, so they can be used for a broad range of characters.

Overall, the 4th Edition of Legend of the Five Rings holds true to its original roots as a flavorful alternative to the typical Western fantasy setting of most RPGs, greatly expanding the mechanical variety in comparison to its 1st edition while not being burdened by excessive mechanical variety like it was under 3rd edition.  There are a number of sidebars in the 4th Edition core rulebook advising GMs on possible rules variations that they may want to consider for their games, allowing the GM to tinker with aspects of the game to better suit their group’s preferred style of play.  The core rulebook for 4th edition is also very nicely laid out, a welcome change to the very haphazard layout of the 3rd edition core rulebook, and the artwork is thematically appropriate.  I don’t follow the CCG, so I don’t know how much of the art is recycled from the card game, but even so, AEG’s already paid for it and it works, so why not get as much bang for their buck as they can out of it?

So while the Legend of the Five Rings 4th edition RPG isn’t necessarily a game you have to play, it’s worth taking a look at, especially if you want a well-developed fantasy setting that’s not yet another rehash of the typical Western fantasy setting that Dungeons and Dragons has made so popular.  Given the changes in character mindset that this game requires, being a loyal vassal instead of a live-by-your-wits vagabond wanderer to say nothing of combat having a reduced focus on top of being fairly deadly, it may very well not be your thing.  But if you find Japanese culture to be something of interest and are willing to try something quite different than the norm that D&D has put in place, then Legend of the Five Rings might be just up your alley.


Character art from http://komarckart.com/index.html
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