Review: L5R “Enemies of the Empire”

The new edition of Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition, no relation to D&D) published by Alderac Entertainment Group has been out for a few months now and though I’ve been working pretty hard on planning a series of one-shot adventures to run I still haven’t gotten a chance to play it.

As much as I enjoy D&D, one of the niche settings that it doesn’t cover that well for me is the oriental/samurai/ninja setting that, if you know me at all, is something I absolutely love to play in. Despite having not played the game yet, I wanted to take a look at Enemies of the Empire, the first supplement book for the new edition that nearly doubles the amount of content you can use in your adventures. While the core book introduces the main samurai clans and a handful of enemies your samurai might encounter including goblins, oni, and white-masked zombies, Enemies of the Empire is nearly 300 pages full of cultists, monsters, spirits, ancient races, and ronin that your samurai can face off against or even in some cases play as one of those ancient races.

Overview

The 4th Edition books for Legend of the Five Rings display the highest level of production, design, and presentation that RPG books of today should be compared to. I had this opinion of the core book and it has been continued with Enemies of the Empire. Though you might expect it from the book’s title and description, it does not come off as a “Monster Manual” but instead it feels more like an encyclopedia detailing a collection of different races rather than monsters. Some of those detailed include a bestiary of ordinary animals (horses, elephants, etc), a cult called the Bloodspeakers, a secretive conspiracy group called the Kolat, serpent warriors known as Naga, the Nezumi rat-people, shadowspawn and spirits known simply as The Nothing, Oni, Kenku, Ronin, a slew of new Shadowlands Beasts, Spirits, and Undead.

The book contains 282 beautifully colored and designed pages that while you read through them practically teleport you to the world of Rokugan. The only downside I can see to either of the new L5R books is the price, with this supplement’s retail price being $39.99 it costs the same or more than most core books for other RPGs, however with the absolute quality of these books I’m not surprised and I have to say if you are a fan of Rokugan or of roleplaying as samurai you absolutely must check out these books.

The Nitty-Gritty

For me this book has just the right amount of fluff, the opening chapter starts with an engaging in-character story and there are tons of quotes from people of Rokugan throughout each chapter that add unique perspectives to each topic. More interesting than that is that almost every word in Enemies of the Empire is written in such a way that you can easily see it from the perspective of a GM reading about the game world but much of  it feels like something written by someone within the game world describing the world that they see. To me this book is an essential piece for planning, running, and playing in Rokugan, while the core book laid a solid foundation of the world Enemies of the Empire takes that world and populates it with a much wider variety of interesting creatures and characters that really makes the world eat, sleep, and breath the themes that permeate L5R.

The first chapter is the Bestiary and introduces nearly every type of natural animal that you’ll need for your game. A very nice addition is for players to be able to gain the advantage to have a trained falcon, which is cool enough for any RPG character but just think about it – a Samurai with a trained falcon! Badass. The animals described in this chapter range from Ape, Badger, Bat, and Bear to Octopus, Shark, Snake, Stag, and Tiger. The next chapter introduces the cult known as the Bloodspeakers, who not surprisingly focus on the use of blood in their magic. There is a lot of history presented for the cult including two of the biggest battles of good vs. evil known to Rokugan, a sample cult cell for use in your game (or to modify as you see fit), a new technique for casting spells in the Bloodspeaker style, and several pages of new spells usable with that technique. Though this is presented mainly for the GM, it is given in a fashion that I can easily see it being used by a PC if they really wanted to dabble in the more sinister style of spell casting. The end of the chapter gives us a handful of monster stat blocks to represent the cult, which is the typical format for this book.

The next chapter gives us the Kolat, a mysterious and very secretive conspiracy/syndicate that most of the populace is either unaware of or refuses to believe that it exists. The group is split into numerous sects (Jade, Lotus, Silk, Tiger, etc) that each have a main focus and describes what to expect of the typical agent of that sect. This is a very interesting concept presented in Rokugan because it is a group of people who favor power over honor, which goes against many of the main assumptions that come with the society of Rokugan. This is not a section of the book that presents strictly monstrous or evil adversaries, but rather a group of people whose goals simply come at odds with those of a group of PC samurai every now and then. The book mentions that using the Kolat can easily give your game an X-Files feel and add some conspiracy into the mix. The chapter ends with not only several stat blocks for Kolat agents but also new mechanics and spells  for spies, asssasins, and other agents of the Kolat.

The Lost are something that I can only describe as infected demon-ghost samurai, but even that doesn’t do them real justice. You’ll have to pick up the book to find out exactly what they are, but I’ll summarize it as they are a very easy way to add a very strong horror element into your games in the land of Rokugan. The Naga chapter of the book is the first that introduces an entirely new race; these are half-human half-snake naga that have lived for centuries and put a strong emphasis on martial prowess. The chapter provides excellent background for the race and then describes how they can work as adversaries in your game, but it also presents a large section on campaign and PC options for if you have a player or an entire party that wants to play as a naga themselves. I absolutely love this part, because I’m so used to D&D where races are an inherent part of the game and presented in the Player’s Handbook but in L5R the base game is that everyone plays a human. As a result, when the option to play something other than a human is presented it feels extremely special. This leads me perfectly into the next chapter, introducing the Nezumi.

I’m not going to lie, one of the reasons I’m so excited about this book is because rules for playing Nezumi fit perfectly into my L5R-Dark Sun-Mouse Guard mash up campaign idea. That said, this chapter follows the same structure as the Naga chapter and does an excellent job of providing plenty of background for the race as well as detailing both how they can be used as adversaries in your game and as a potential PC race. The next chapter introduces shadowspawn creatures that are known simply as The Nothing. These creatures are the perfect other-worldly ninjas or stalking shadows that when combined with The Lost mentioned above allows you to very easily create a Cthluhu-style campaign of Legend of the 5 Rings.

Everything that I’ve described above is roughly HALF of this book. The following chapters expand upon and introduce a wide range of new Oni and introduce the Five Ancient Races including the Kenku (bird-people), the Ningyo (mermaid-ish creatures), the Trolls, the Kitsu/Tsuno (shapeshifters cursed into demon-like forms), and the Zokujin (goblin/kobold-like creatures). After those there is a full chapter each for Ronin, Shadowlands Beasts (including goblins, ogres, and demons), Spirits, and Undead. These last chapters seem to include more stat blocks for a wider variety of creatures than the early chapters, which I find creates a perfect balance to the book between providing interesting campaign ideas and a slew of new opponents for your samurai to face off against.

Enemies of the Empire is a book that cannot easily be categorized into the typical RPG supplement archetypes because it provides a wide variety of fluff and crunch for numerous different races, organizations, and locations that you will encounter around Rokugan as well as several new mechanics and spells that players will want to use to survive against those threats. Perhaps the best way to summarize it is that when combined with the Legend of the 5 Rings core book, Enemies of the Empire provides you with enough information to run interesting and exciting campaigns for as long as your characters care to stay in the world of Rokugan.

Comments

  1. I played a lot of 3rd and 3rd revised L5R as part of their Heroes of Rokugan living campaign. It was a pretty strong campaign, comparable to LG in some ways in terms of story (but without the steady experienced hands that guided most LG Triads – HoR had no idea how to run BIs and fell prey to extremely “clicky” behavior). The rules were very fun, but there was a ton of cheese that hurt the game’s play. 4th Edition seems to be a vast improvement and also has better design. It seems those in charge of the setting learned a lot from their negligent use of freelancers and at the same time retained the excellent setting feel (which i would compare to Shadowrun in terms of how well it is done).

    Readers may wish to know that a new living campaign is in the works. There is a Yahoo group here for any interested. http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/heroesofrokugan3/

    Anyone planning a home campaign may wish to check out the incredible collection of more than 60 adventures available for free from the recently completed Heroes of Rokugan campaign web site. Many of the adventures are really good and can be easily converted to the new edition. Banzai!

  2. TheMainEvent says:

    Is L5R 4th as lethal as its olden editions?

  3. I’ve gone back and forth on ever getting this game. I think I will. I think some one-shots would be perfect.

  4. HoR3 Admin Mike says:

    Thanks for the nod, Alphastream!

    There were some issues with the last edition that made running balanced Battle Interactives difficult, and that is something that the current group of Admins will be looking at very carefully before we try to run a large scale event.

    As for the “clicky” behavior, this is definitely another thing we hope to address, but any sort of social endeavor is bound to have some amount of bunching up occur. Our goal is to try and keep everyone involved in the various plots and storylines that take place at our LARP-style interactives, and encourage individual participation in many different ways.

    We are excited to begin this next chapter in the HoR Story, and welcome anyone who wants to check us out to do so! KC Gamefaire is set to be our Premiere convention, and we hope to have our website active fairly soon.

    Oh! And TheMainEvent – This edition is *at least* as lethal as earlier editions. The wound progression has been reversed, with the largest ‘pillow’ of wound points occurring at the top of the progression. This means that for most samurai, there is only a one strike difference between being Up and active (with significant penalties), and being dead.

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