Everyone knows about the Samurai—honorable warriors from ancient Japan who commanded great armies and dueled fiercely in the name of their leaders with their iconic weapon—the katana. They inspired countless works of fiction and remain one of the most instantly recognizable historical orders to this day. They have been seen in many RPGs to date, but have rarely been the focus of game-play until now.
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
System: D10 pool
Complexity: Somewhat complex
This review is about the 4th iteration of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. Taking place in the same setting as the well-known trading card game, L5R is a game about battling dark forces and maintaining your honor in a fantasy-feudalistic Japanese setting.
The art in the book is stunning, with many vivid colours that emphasize the beauty of the game’s setting, Rokugan. The gorgeous art pieces are quite common, with another illustration every three or four pages, ensuring you’re never just reading pages full of text.
Rokugan is a fantasy setting based on feudal Japan. You have several unique clans with various themes (the Crane clan are skilled duelists and the Mantis have a powerful navy, for example). Though they may fight among themselves, a greater threat lurks beyond the borders: the shadow realm. Here, oni, ghosts, and other terrible creatures plot the downfall of Rokugan’s people. Which conflict will your story focus on, the political intrigue of the clans’ courts or the extraterritorial menace that is the shadowlands?
L5R uses a d10 pool with a “roll and keep” system. Simply put, you put a number of 10-siders together based on your attributes and skills and get to keep a number of those rolled based on your attribute. You then add the kept dice together to get your result. What I really like about this system compared Shadowrun, is that difficulty is a static number that varies depending on the obstacles in your way. In other words, nothing affects your dice pool except your statistics, so there’s no time wasted on calculating your base chance, adding modifiers, subtracting modifiers, etc. Just one static number to beat; roll your dice and go. Interestingly, this system also applies to weapon damage, so your standard katana’s roll-four-keep-2 ends up being particularly nasty, let alone larger weapons like the lance or greataxe.
There is a large number of options available to players in L5R. You have the 8* great clans, ranging from the duelist Cranes to the underhanded Scorpions, and a further 13 minor clans. Each clan grants their own unique bonuses in the form of ability score increases. These are further divided into the major families that belong to each of those clans and several schools located within the clans, which could be either Bushi (Samurai), Shugenja (sorcerers/mages), Courtiers (diplomats), and a final school unique to that clan (for example, the Scorpion clan gets ninja, the Dragon clan gets investigators, etc). [* Editor’s note: The CCG has 9 great clans, a slight difference in timelines as well, but a great source for props when role playing]
Character creation is fairly simple: you have 4 pairs of stats, each linked to four of the five “rings” (Earth, Fire, Air, Water), with a final 5th stat simply being the ring of Void itself (these act as your “hero points”). All of these start at a value of 2 and can be increased with the starting 40xp each character gets. These may be further modified by which family you belong to and which school you attend. These also give you a repertoire of starting skills, which may also be bought or enhanced with experience points. On top of all this, there is an advantage/disadvantage system that allows you to further personalize your character. By the end of character creation, you will have a unique and capable character all your own. It’s almost impossible to have two characters be exactly the same. The lesser houses have fewer options available to them (fewer families, usually only having one school available to each), but including them was a good idea, giving you the opportunity to see the world of Rokugan from the point of view of someone less privileged than the great houses, yet still bringing enough skill to bear to stand on equal footing with the rest.
A very handy section of the book is the East vs West storytelling paragraphs in the GM’s chapter. This describes the thematic differences between the kinds of stories you’d see from a classic Samurai story vs your western knights, that being the difference between a story where the hero breaks away from society to accomplish his task, being the rogue, the renegade, the morally-grey loose cannon, or one where the hero saves the day while upholding his society’s values and working within the bounds of the law. In my opinion, it’s a great for people who want to tell a Samurai story but aren’t quite sure where to begin, as it gives several summaries of eastern films as examples.
Legend of the Five Rings is an excellent book for anyone wanting to play a game in Feudal Japan. No western knights mixed in, no culture clashes, just pure Japanese inspired roleplaying. Even the monsters in the back of the book are straight from Japanese mythology. The dice system is easy to grasp and there are a lot of character creation options available to the players right out of the gate, which is great. For anyone looking for a game inspired by Seven Samurai, Ran, or even Rashomon, Legend of the Five Rings is what you’re looking for!
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