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Legend of the Five Rings – 3rd Edition Review

Posted on December 2, 2007 by Flames


Available at RPGNow.com

Introduction
I ran a very successful and very fun (if a little unconventional) L5R game across first and second edition, diverging from the official plotline because I allowed the characters in my game to determine the course of some of the events, skipped over the whole d20 version mess and have now picked this version up largely for reasons of nostalgia and curiosity. I do not follow the card game, or the war game and while our campaign (by chance) tied in with some of the events of the ongoing metaplot it was by no means all. Thus some of the updates in 3rd edition came as combinations of delight and shock.

Still, I have very fond memories of the game and this was a great way to catch up.

Overview
This is a solid, but slim feeling (for the price) hardback book and forms the corebook of the new edition, back to a single hardcover rather than a player’s guide and GM’s guide seperate as with the last edition. It is thinner than the first edition and, I think, slightly thinner than the second edition corebooks. It is, however, crammed to the fucking gills with information. Somehow they’ve managed to squeeze in most of the additional material from the sourcebooks of the previous editions, give you a comprehensive overview of the history, cover magic, the Shadowlands and everything else all in the one, slimmer, book. All things considered its a pretty damn amazing feat and I was very, very surprised.

Artwork
While the overall presentation is pretty good there is something lacking in this version when it comes to visuals. There are a few standout pieces but when I come away from the book I’m not remembering the iconic pictures of the first or second edition so much. Instead I’m sort of tightening my lips and thinking of the less good art (and less of it) in this edition. The layout itself is nice, the simple, graphic style cover (another re-emerging trend that I like) is striking but it just, somehow, lacks the flair of the earlier editions. If I hadn’t already known Rokugan forward and back I think I would have felt a little more disappointed than I did.

Writing
A huge amount has been sacrificed in this edition for the sake of content. There is very little frivolous fiction (a plus for me!) but this has also impacted – it seems – on the art allocation and it feels as though the budget has also been tightened a notch. The writing is dense, which can be intimidating, and it has been ‘crunched’ together somewhat, meaning you flow from information on one clan to another on the same page without necessarily having a really clear distinction where one part ends and another begins.

This does mean you get a hell of a lot of bang for your buck, but it does make it a difficult read and a lot to take in at once, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the setting. Otherwise I have no complaints, clear, explanatory – especially in the rules – but also concise and to the point.

Background
Rokugan is an alternative Japan, attached to land – apparently on the south-east of an alternative Chinese continent, where magic, demons and intrigue intermingle with samurai swordplay, complex oriental manners and courtiers. For me Rokugan is preferable to playing in an historical Japanese setting as, while the complexities to the social order are still there, one can be a bit more forgiving (allowing women to take stronger roles for example).

Rokugan is threatened – to the south – by a despoiled land called The Shadowlands, where evil oni, ogres and dark sorcerors plot the downfall and overthrow of Rokugan. It is threatened to the north by barbarians and internally by blood magicians, secret societies and intrigue and war between the various samurai clans.

You can hop into Rokugan at just about any level – with a bit of tweaking – from bandits and peasants all the way up to imperial court level intrigue. It is focussed, however, on the middle tier. Samurai who belong to clans, operating together at the behest of their lords or the Emperor and forming part of the lower ranks of the ruling caste of the setting.

The timeline has moved on from when I played the game, quite a lot (I believe the Crab clan were just turning traitor just as I stopped paying attention to the metaplot) and so a lot of the new developments listed in the timeline didn’t make a great deal of sense to me, so I’ll reserve comment on that part of the game other than to say that the new edition seems to have restored a sort of open equilibrium, much as existed in the first edition, but has retained a great many of the options that became available through the expansion of the original game.

Rules
Nothing drastic has happened to the rules, you still have rings and attributes and skills. To perform a task you roll a number of dice equal to the appropriate stat plus skill (d10s) and keep a certain number of dice. So you might roll six dice, keeping two, keeping the highest and adding them together to try and beat a target number. Rolls of a ten ‘explode’ meaning you get to roll them again and add on.

Characters get access to special clan techniques, spells and combat moves, which helps to individualise them, as do the advantages and disadvantages. There is an an abstracted mass combat system incorporated into the main book which makes staging character-led warfare fun rather than a drag.

While its another dicepool system the roll-and-keep and the exploding dice seem to focus people’s attention on the game pretty well and make rolling the dice unpredictable enough to be exciting. Combine this with ‘raises’ (extra risk for extra effect) and the mechanics fairly naturally lend themselves to skilled characters using a bit of flair and expertise rather than simply hacking away.

I like ‘em.

Upsides

* Jam packed solid with so much information you’d think the chapters would collapse under their own weight into a form of alphabetical neutronium.
* Brings you up to speed on the state of the world very well.
* Brings together options and expansions from years of the game in one place.

Downsides

* Artistic presentation not up to par with previous edition.
* Intimidatingly dense for new players.
* Anime/Fantasy style approach may annoy genuine Japanophiles.

Score
Style: 3
Substance: 5
Overall: 4

Reviewer: James ‘Grim’ Desboro

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