Posted on May 14, 2012 by mazecontroller
Available at RPGNow.com
Many of gaming’s long-lived members began as mash-ups of other media. Dungeons & Dragons grew out of a love of Lord of the Rings, The Grey Mouser and Conan. Shadowrun mixed Gibson’s cyberpunk with classic fantasy elements. World of Darkness grew out of Anne Rice and urban fantasy media. Legend of the Five Rings combined Asian fantasy elements like samurai, shugenja and oni with western mythology like Zeus that appeals to audiences that grew up on everything from Kurosawa films to Avatar: The Last Airbender. L5R, as it’s known by its fans, released a fourth edition of RPG rules to celebrate 15 years of blood, steel and honor.
L5R is unique in that it has a huge fanbase from two games featuring its name. It began as a CCG in 1995. The CCG’s most unique feature is the ongoing storyline. Tournaments don’t just offer prizes and bragging rights. The faction that wins a big tournaments will see that victory reflected in later sets. This inspires L5R fans to feature faction loyalty that rivals some major sports teams. These fans were jumping at the bit to play in this world the RPG was released in 1997. But the RPG also drew in fans for a setting that mixed the high fantasy and battles of D&D with the intrigues and scheming of Vampire.
The Emerald Empire, called Rokugan by its inhabitants, is an Empire run by an Emperor chosen by the gods called the kami. The Great Clans serve underneath the Emperor. Each is charged with a duty to the empire by the Emperor. Samurai are expected to do their duty while holding to the honorable code known as bushido. The clans don’t always get along, however, and the things a samurai must do for the good of his or her clan are often at odds with what bushido expects to be done. The clans themselves also have different ideas of what is honorable, offering plenty of great conflict points for roleplaying. For those who prefer monster slaying, the Shadowlands to the south offers plenty of terrible creatures as well as servants of Fu Leng, master of the Shadowlands, lurking within the empire itself. Rokugan is rife with opportunities for everything from courtly posturing to deadly one strike duels in a garden.
The 4th edition book is gorgeous. The company has 15+ years of card art to draw upon. Long time fans of the games will see a few old favorite pieces as well as see how far the art has come. Two page splashes separate each chapter break as well as evocative art inside each chapter. The full-color book also features sidebars and chapter breaks that offer an Asian feel without resorting to the same old tricks from older editions. Good art inspires players and lures in non-players more easily.
The rules are a simple dice pool system. Add a trait and a skill, roll that number of d10s, and then keep a number of d10s equal to the stat. Players can voluntarily raise target numbers to achieve better or more specialized results like called shots. The system is also level and class based. A characters level is based on insight rank which is a score derived from how many ranks in Rings and Skills the character has. Raising rings is a better deal for raising level, but higher skill ratings often unlock useful feat-like bonuses during play. Each character goes to a school that unlocks a new technique (or extra spells) upon a new rank. Each clan offers a variation on the three basic classes of bushi (warrior), shugenja (wizard) and courtier. The clans also offer a fourth school that is unique to their clan and its sensibilities, as well as paths and advanced schools which allow customization by swapping out techniques at different rank slots.
One of L5R’s greatest strengths – and weaknesses – is the 15+ years of metaplot. It makes the world feel more lived in and realistic, but it has built up a rivalry between some fans of the CCG and the RPG. Fourth Edition takes a much different tact than previous editions. The book is set up to play in whichever time period appeals the most to the play group. The 1e pre-Scorpion Clan Coup and the CCG fans turned RPG group looking to play in the most up-to-date setting will find useful ideas here. The game also has sidebars for those people who don’t care about adhering to the metaplot. Mechanical elements such as schools or clans created by the metaplot are presented in an alternate chapter with a brief explanation of where they fit in the official story.
The book is full of useful GM advice. In addition to sidebars throughout the book featuring things like how to adjust L5R’s notorious lethality up or down, a whole chapter is given to adjusting L5R to fit the play group. Suggestions for playing up elements are helpful to groups that want a more high-action wuxia or anime style. The book also suggests alternate ways to use mechanical elements in the book. Not everyone will want to have the recently-developed Spider Clan as part of their game,for example, but the book offers great ways for GMs to reskin and reuse elements of the Clan as Shadowlands tainted infiltrators.
Unfortunately, the area where this fresh approach suffers is in the organization of the book. The basic schools are in one place, but all the advanced school and paths are in a separate chapter. The index helps, especially on the hyperlinked PDF version, but figuring out where to start looking can be time consuming. The book seems to assume players are already familiar with a previous edition of the game. Even the character creation section is a bit scattered with guidelines hidden in the text rather than called out in an easy to use creation summary. Making L5R characters is not that difficult, but handing a new player the book and leaving them to figure it out will leave them frustrated.
The book also ends with an adventure. Adventures in core books feel wasteful. The motive behind the choice is noble – everything needed to get people started gaming in Rokugan in the same place. But with a world like Rokugan with so much to explore, once the adventure is used there’s a lot of space in the core that goes dark. This is compounded by the fact that there is already a free introductory adventure available on the web that was released as part of Free RPG Day (Legacy of Disaster) as well as one available as part of the GM screen bundle (Descent into Darkness). The adventure itself is okay, but it feels like a poor substitute for the Tournament of the Samurai adventure in the original corebook.
Review by Rob Wieland