Preface to the Review
Before we dive into the review, I must take a moment to address the elephant in the room. In the past few years a handful of TTRPGs have been created without careful thought or consideration. Most notoriously Oriental Adventures and AL Qadim have shone like a beacon of what not to do when creating a fictional world. When a western author creates a work about a culture they do not understand, the end result generally comes off bigoted, ignorant, or even downright racist. With the two aforementioned titles, many consumers were justifiably offended as both works boiled down several distinct cultures into a collection of offensive stereotypes. I’m sure this was not the intent of the author/publisher, however, it does not change the fact no effort was put into addressing this issue.
With that being said, L5R was the first of my reviews that Krusk was clearly hesitant to publish on TTRPG Factory. It is his opinion that L5R contains some of these unintended offensive stereotypes, so much so that he has always found the setting too uncomfortable to play. I respect his opinion, and I have to agree that no matter how good the intent of the author, or functionally distinct a setting can be, there will exist aspects of a game that will push away potential players. It is my opinion that L5R has genuinely tried to not fall into the same pit as OA/AQ, but instead cherry picked aspects of historical Japan into an original setting created for a Western audience. Now onto the review…
I was introduced to Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) back in 2003. My friend, who also GMed the game, had purchased every supplement possible, providing enough printed material to fill a small library From its very inception, L5R stood out from the competition, and has evolved somewhat throughout the years. Most new players today may not realize that L5R began as a TTRPG, and instead may recognize it for the collectible card game, board game, novels, or more recent Living Card Game. L5R may have franchised beyond its humble origin, but today I want to review the most recent edition. So let’s get into it!
Background & Setting
Published by Fantasy Flight Games, L5R 5th edition takes some bold steps to distance itself from its predecessors. Think of this edition as attempting to do what 5th edition D&D has done for mainstream appeal.
Where this new edition shines is in the presentation and lore of the established setting. L5R takes place on Rokugan, a fictional empire ruled by a singular Emperor, but subdivided by various Clans. For those unfamiliar, L5R is a mix of Japanese history (in particular, the Sengoku Period of Feudal Japan), with a copious amount of Japanese mythology. The above mentioned comparison to D&D is truly apt, as the core of the D&D setting combines Western Mythology with Medieval European aspects. All in all, L5R is about 85% Japanese with another 15% Southeast Asian influence. Perceptive readers will no doubt spot the occasional Korean or Chinese influence throughout the book.
This is a game of warring factions, politics, duty and honor. L5R isn’t just a sandbox for players to walkabout, but encompasses a very rich and detailed lore. Playing a role within Rokugan comes with conditions of behavior and etiquette not found in Western RPGs. L5R places enormous value on the social and societal aspects of your players role, on top of everything else. Lastly, it should be noted that this edition has hit the hard reset button on the previous established lore, making it easier for new players to buy in.
To expand on this concept, players are made up of many component parts that help to flesh out not just who they are, but where they come from, and how those choices impact both how they are represented, and in many ways, how they conduct themselves. To begin, we have the aforementioned five rings:
The Five Rings – Each of the five rings are named for a singular element and problem solving approach. Each ring ranges from a minimum of one to a maximum of six.
- Air – represents grace and cunning
- Earth – represents caution and patience
- Fire – represents passion and drive
- Water – represents flexibility and perception
- Void – represents a spiritual approach that is not dominated by one ring or desire
Regardless of the type of ring value, players can use one type of ring in die rolls depending on the type of approach they take. Please note that this concept of the rings are clearly “influenced” from The Book of Five Rings, a text by the famous Samurai Miyamoto Musashi.
The Clans – This represents the character’s homeland, family and greater role in Rokugan.
The Major Clans:
- Crab – Their territory sits on the edge of the mysterious/dangerous Shadowlands, and they man the wall that keeps the horrors at bay. Think the Night’s Watch, but way less depressing. They are renowned for their valor, strength and direct nature.
- Crane – The Crane have a history of political aspirations, and are masters of social customs and etiquette.
- Dragon – Dragons live in isolation and practice unusual traditions. In many ways they are unpredictable, but very creative.
- Lion – The Lion clan are best known for a strong martial tradition as well as their courage and loyalty.
- Phoenix – Where a Lion has proven themselves in the physical, the Phoenix excels in the spiritual and mystical. They have an understanding of the arcane that other clans could only hope to achieve.
- Scorpion – They are well known spies, assassins and schemers. Despite their reputation, the Scorpion Clan act as the underhand of the Emperor and do what must be done in order to protect all.
- Unicorn – Unlike the other Clans, the Unicorn traveled beyond the borders of Rokugan and came back with a wealth of foreign knowledge. Other clans now view Unicorns as nearly foreign, but cannot deny that the knowledge they possess is certainly powerful.
Players will choose both a Clan and major family within for a variety of stat bonuses.
Roles & Schools – Once a Clan is chosen, the player must now choose a school within. This will define the job/role of the player as well as any unique skills and abilities wherein.
- Bushi – Warriors, Muscle, etc.
- Courtier – Politicians, Artisans, etc.
- Shugenja – A subset of the Samurai who can wield mystical power
- Monks – Those who serve in a monastic order, but can posses great physical power
- Shinobi – Spies, Assassins, Ninjas
Players can also level up their school abilities for some truly unique effects and abilities down the line.
The Other 20 Questions
There are 20 Questions that must be answered in order to complete a character. Part of this is listed above, such as choosing a Clan. The remainder of the questions are a combination of smaller questions like personality, combined with a little history and ancestral background. Answering all 20 questions will grant additional bonuses, skills and the like. Overall, the 20 question approach helps to establish a fully fleshed out character with a solid tie into the greater land of Rokugan. When you create a character in L5R, you come out on the other side fully realized, not just another faceless warrior.
Honor, Glory & Status
L5R puts tremendous value on social custom and reputation alike. A character’s reputation can be as devastating as their weapons, and ultimately determines how the greater society views them. Every character will have an ever changing pool of honor, glory and status:
- Honor – This represents how closely a character holds to the Code of Bushido (defined in the book). The higher the number the stronger the connection.
- Glory – This represents a character’s success in the world. The higher the score, the more famous they are.
- Status – This represents a character’s social status and political clout. It’s mainly used to determine etiquette around others.
I personally like this system of social value because it immediately stops anyone from becoming a murder hobo. Can you still act that way? YES! Should you? NO! Also, it’s important to remember that having a terrible score in Honor doesn’t mean the end of a character, but rather changes how they can approach certain actions. For instance, someone who is considered dishonorable wouldn’t mind getting their hands dirty from time to time.
I cannot begin to applaud the effort that went into the visuals of L5R. Every image is striking and beautiful. In addition, the artwork helps to visualize the world of Rokugan for new players. The 333 pages are nicely laid out, and easy enough to navigate. On the nit-picky side, I’m not a fan of the heavy reliance on icons for everything. As someone who has been gaming for over 20 years I know how to read a core rulebook, and this one can be downright confusing at times.
There were more than a few instances during my initial reading that I had to go back in order to reference icons. I found myself asking questions like: “is that incense, or a cup of tea?” and “what the hell does this icon mean again?” I understand why the icons were incorporated, but at the same time they may confuse new readers and veteran players alike.
The gameplay of L5R relies on a proprietary dice system with special icons in order to resolve rolls. In previous editions, checks were resolved with a pool of D10’s wherein players would keep X amount in order to determine success. That core “roll and keep” idea remains, however, the special icons must be counted instead.
Now, the problem lies not only with the special die, but also the alarming amount of minutia that players must double check in order to see if they are granted re-rolls or the like. Some of these abilities are good, but sometimes you can even forget they are there. Similarly, the amount of die for a roll can change depending on the approach the character takes. So new players will also have to think about their approach and which ring rating to use. To say that is confusing for new players is an understatement.
I can only imagine the confusion at the table when a player has to ask, “am I swinging my tetsubo with unbridled passion or just in a rather nonchalant manner?” The natural inclination would be to use the most die possible, so I’m positive there are going to be arguments about how a player can use which ring to get the best results.
The setting of Rokugan is beautiful, vibrant, imaginative, and interesting. It’s something that I want to invest my time in. as either a gamer or GM. In addition, there are so many character options, it borders on decision paralysis… in a good way! Also, I like how the setting has been made more inclusive to new players, but familiar to veterans of previous editions. L5R may be the first setting that I have played where you truly have to adhere to a code, it just makes for more interesting gameplay.
Yet again I review another fantastic setting that must carry the enormous weight of poor mechanics behind it. Proprietary dice are unnecessary. Don’t agree? Take a look at this handy flowchart that I have made…
The game is playable (unless you cannot replicate the dice for an online game), but for new and even semi-experienced players, L5R may not move quickly, especially during the initial learning curve. So much relies on referencing and second guessing that I can practically hear the frustration of the players in my mind. Also, the retooling of the ring mechanics have made some gameplay less concrete becoming slightly more subjective.
Despite my misgivings about the mechanics, L5R 5th Edition has a a great deal to offer. This is a game for players who want something memorable. Give it a try!