Categorized | Reviews, RPGs

L5R: Strongholds of the Empire Review

Posted on June 12, 2012 by mazecontroller

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    Strongholds of the Empire had a long, strange journey to publication. It was originally intended as a book for Legend of the Five Rings Third Edition. Then it was going to be a free web supplement. Then it was going to be a transitional PDf between Third and Fourth Edition. The book finally realized its destiny as AEG’s pilot into print on demand. It is now available as a fully realized PDF as well as a physical book. Was it worth the wait?

    The physical book is 193 pages. It costs more than the other supplements for Fourth Edition. It also looks different. The outside is a solid glossy finish rather than the matte finish with gloss art highlights of the other books in the line. The paper is also different. Regular Fourth Edition books have a glossy paper but this book has a flat finish. There is also some art recycling from recent books like the Book of Air. This may not matter to people who want the information inside, but some collectors care about a uniform look on their shelves.

    Strongholds highlights a city or castle for many of the Great Clans in the setting. The majority of the clans get a single setting with two exceptions. The Lion and Crane share the same city in a discussion of Toshi Ranbo. These clans have fought over the city multiple times during the storyline with it ending up under each clan’s protection several times. The book also discusses Otosan Uchi, the formal capital city of Rokugan which is held by the Spider Clan in the current storyline. It serves as a stealth timeline update for that city which was featured in its own boxed set in an earlier edition. The book is rounded out by a few unaligned villages that can be dropped anywhere in Rokugan.

    The standout writeup in the collection is for Dark Edge Village. Dark Edge is currently run by the Unicorn, though it was once held by the Crane. It was a prestigious holding where duelling tournaments were held for many years featuring the top duellists in each clan. The return of the Unicorn put it into their hands and the city slowly fell out of favor once the Emperor moved all the prestigious tournaments away. The write up offers neat cultural tidbits from the Unicorn who are far less traditional than the other clans. It also offers a city on the decline which is a refreshing change from the other cities which are usual vital, thriving centers of something in Rokugan.

    Zakyo Toshi, the Scorpion entry, was the most disappointing. It exists in the shadow of the fantastic City of Lies boxed set, which is admittedly a hard act to follow. The history of the city does it no favors, talking about how the founders were trying to create another Ryoko Owari. All of the other cities in the book have something neat about them to set them apart from a typical city in the clan lands. Zakyo Toshi comes across as a generic city full of Scorpion who peddle drugs and already have tons of blackmail on the entire empire.

    The majority of the write-ups are very well done. The Scorpion city is the weakest but those unwilling or unable to seek out City of Lies will find it useful. Each clan gets a city to call home ranging from the newly built Mantis city on a volcanic island to the Dragon city built around a forge made from a dragon scale. GMs looks for a place to set their game or for somewhere to send their players on a road trip will find quite a few interesting locales.

    The long development period of the product makes it vulnerable to one of Fourth Editions big pushes. The timeline neutrality suffers in a lot of the entries. In some cases it’s minor in that the city’s history suddenly truncates at the end of a timeline. In others such as Toshi Ranbo or Otosan Uchi, paragraphs come out as a little too vague. One of the big ways that Fourth Edition plays with timeline neutrality is through sidebars suggesting different ears and ways to use things. Few of these sidebars exist outside of Toshi Ranbo’s write up but could be useful for players not concerned with when a city exists in a certain form.

    While this is primarily a GM book, there are elements that appeal to players. Each city contains a few paths for that clan, which seems to be the healthy way to expand school and character options without expanding into bloat category. The NPC writeups are also useful for character builds. It’s very rare to get characters that aren’t in the CCG or built up to huge levels to be a daimyo or a governor.

    Unfortunately, most of the mechanics aren’t interesting. Most of the character point options are an Advantage and Disadvantage relating to being from the city in question. The paths are okay but nothing spectacular. Players looking for new options would better be served picking up a different book for options.

    The Bottom Line: Strongholds of the Empire is an excellent choice for GMs looking for new places to take their game.

    Review by Rob Wieland

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