I discovered Legend of the Five Rings several years ago, but in the past I have never had a chance to play the RPG system itself and instead have ended up playing Oriental Adventures version of D&D or other systems with strong Asian influences. That’s why I’m very thankful that Alderac Entertainment Group has provided us with the 4th Edition of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game core book, which is right off the bat one of the most beautiful RPG books I’ve ever seen. I’m an artist and a designer, so that’s always the first thing I notice and from front to back this book is exceedingly well designed and produced compared to everything else that’s out there on the market. The writing for both flavor and mechanics is well done and exudes the setting of Rokugan (the world that L5R is set in) at every turn of the page. I have been waiting to write this review until we were able to actually sit down and play the game, and thankfully two weeks ago we finally managed to get a group together to do just that.
Contest: Win the L5R Core Book!
Contest is closed and results are posted over at our Roll! tumblog, but if you didn’t win the contest you can still go there before January 5th, 2011 to get 20% off the PDF from DriveThruRPG!
First and foremost, however, I am happy to say that Alderac has provided us with a copy of the L5R core book to give away as part of a contest! The book itself is hardcover and 400 pages long, and you can pick it up at your local gaming store for $59.99 – or you can win one right now! All you have to do for a chance to win the core book is leave a comment on this post and tell me you’d like to be entered into the contest (please make sure you give a valid e-mail address as that is how I will be contacting the winner). The contest will run until the end of next Friday, December 3rd (Midnight EST) at which point I will roll a die or use some form of random number generator to determine who the winner is, then we’ll ship the L5R Core Book to that person so they can begin their adventures in Rokugan for the holidays. While you’re leaving a comment I’d love to hear your thoughts about L5R and this review!
Five Samurai Walk Into a Bar
We gathered around the table for some gaming and all decided that we really wanted to try out the new L5R, though I had read and prepared with the Free RPG Day adventure our friend Josh really wanted to run the game on the fly and so I decided that it would be interesting to see how the system and setting held up to a table of new players, a new GM, and an impromptu adventure all put together.
We sped things up by each picking one of the pre-gen characters from the Free RPG Day adventure, and though I’d already read through most of the rules I sat with the core book close at hand (passing it to Josh when he needed it for a GM question) for reference. I’m not sure how character generation goes because we didn’t get to create our own, but I will say that the system itself stood up very well to new players grabbing pre-genereated characters and jumping right in.
The basic mechanic of the game is the Roll & Keep System, which means that whenever you are attempting something that needs to be tested against your character’s or an enemy’s abilities, you roll a certain number of d10′s and then keep some of them to determine your degree of success. Every character has the titular 5 rings (Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void) and two traits are associated with each ring other than Void – Awareness and Reflexes for Air, Willpower and Stamina for Earth, Intelligence and Agility for Fire, and Perception and Strength for Water. Void instead acts as a more universal (and mysterious) resource that gives you a certain number of Void Points per day that can be spent for a wide variety of bonuses. Next your character has a good number of skills that they are trained or practiced in, and when you attempt to do something that falls within the range of one of your skills you roll a number of dice equal to your skill rank plus your trait rank, but you can only keep a number of dice equal to your trait (for example: 5k3 = roll 5 d10′s, keep 3 of them).
The skills range from normal actions such as Athletics, Defense, and Stealth to the very flavorful Etiquette, Iaijutsu, and Kyujutsu that help define the characters abilities within the L5R setting. Possibly the most important and defining aspect of your character is which clan they belong to, which determines the specific benefits of the different schools and training your character has but also flavors your backstory, upbringing, attitude towards other clans, and general outlook on life and events.
Beyond that your character can also take a number of advantages and disadvantages that flesh out your personality even more so, such as my pre-gen character that had the disadvantage Touched by the Void, which led me to playing him as a bit unreliable mentally and always seeming slightly off and really came to a head when I used it to gain specific knowledge about the bizarre creatures we were facing and nearly fell from my horse.
Though the game does not feature classes like many other RPGs, you can choose to play a Bushi (the typical warrior and soldier samurai), a Shugenja (a priest and scholar, also the spell caster of the game), or a Courtier (the diplomat and politician). For simplicity sake we all chose Bushi pre-gens, but after completing the session I was immediately interested in playing a Shugenja to see how different spellcasting is in the system and because our Bushi were limited in many ways that a single Shugenja could have easily offset. If you create your own character you have a wide variety of selections available to you even within each clan, as you can choose a specific family in that clan and also choose different schools depending on if you are playing a Bushi, Shugenja, or Courtier. There are also some schools that allow you to play a monk (or even a tattooed monk) for a slight twist to the normal samurai, and also there are some minor rules that allude to playing a ninja like character but in general it is downplayed as the core tenants of the game go against the concept of playing a veiled assassin. That said, the rules are there and it would not be a stretch at all to run a game of L5R with the players as a group of ninjas performing covert operations against nobles of the land and their samurai protectors.
Interesting Locales and Fast-Paced Action
The adventure that we played lasted for 3-4 hours, was entirely improvised by Josh much to his credit, and ended up being incredibly fun. Overall the system ran extremely well considering we were all learning it for the first time and with a GM that had never run it before. Certainly a large factor of that success was that Josh has studied a fair amount of Asian history and culture and this definitely aided his ability to improvise, but the system also presented us with several interesting options no matter what we were attempting as players.
A large part of the L5R game and the setting of Rokugan is the way your samurai interact with each other, commoners, and the nobles in the cities and towns that they end up journeying through. Honor, duty, and social status are some of the biggest factors in L5R roleplaying and it is well within bounds for a GM to have characters arrested or otherwise hindered if they do not show the proper amount of respect to many of the NPCs in the game. Both the clan and family that your character comes from also provide a lot of ground work for roleplaying, and when they are combined with intriguing interactions with NPCs and a sprinkling of otherworldly elements such as Oni, Zombies, and Demons the game really comes to life in a way that many other RPGs only rarely accomplish.
For our part, we set out from a town and found ourselves passing a merchant’s caravan going in the opposite direction. As we passed, one of the samurai noticed a suspicious symbol on the carts and I seized the opportunity to take action. After confirming with the GM that the merchants and their guards were in fact lower status, I swung my horse around and stopped in the road ahead of the caravan so that we could properly investigate the situation. What followed was a very exciting and tense interaction with the merchants, their guards, and the caravan itself as our group split up and attempted to get to the root of things that probably lasted for 30 to 45 minutes. By the end of it we were fairly certain they were smuggling something, and in the fit that I described above my character had a unique view from the void and realized that the guards were in fact some sort of goblin wearing human skins to disguise themselves. A fight broke out with the four of us quickly learning that taking even just one hit in L5R can seriously injure your character, but the same is true for landing a good katana strike on your enemies.
A Matter of Honor and Obligation (or Ji-e-toh if you prefer)
Dave’s Phoenix clan Bushi was injured the worst but still managed to hold his own in the fight, while the rest of us dispatched the guards and some strange hound creatures they had released from one of the wagons. By the end of it the merchants had managed to awaken a large brutish demon creature from a coffin hidden in the middle wagon, despite my efforts to drive the wagon away with the creature still aboard, and my wife Becky’s samurai was beaten and eventually devoured by the creature in what she was happy to call a very honorable death. It was down to Dave’s bushi being unconscious, with just me and Andrew’s bushis left standing, we decided (and were reassured by the GM) that now our duty demanded we return to the city and warn the nobles there of the impending threat of crazy-scary demon monsters. As we fled we managed to retrieve the body of Dave’s Bushi and the Daisho of Becky’s bushi in order to return it to her family.
After this quick adventure, which again was improvised and not a particularly meaty adventure but still well beyond what I would have expected Josh to come up with, we all pretty much decided that we need to play L5R more and even hopefully get a semblance of an ongoing campaign started. The system itself handled social interactions, both complex and mundane, pretty well and combat was interesting and very clearly a dangerous act to engage in when you can be dropped by just one or two good hits. Since we were new to the system and still learning we didn’t delve too far into many of the complex maneuvers liked called shots or extreme defensive/offiensive tactics but they are there and I think once we play more with the system we will make great use of them.
It should be fairly simple to know if you’ll like Legend of the 5 Rings, if you have even the faintest interest in playing an RPG in an asian setting with samurai, daimyos, ronin, spirits, oni, zombies, and demons then this is definitely a game that you have to check out right away. If you’re not a fan of that kind of setting, then this may not be the RPG for you, then again I’ve already brainstormed combining it with Dark Sun D&D and Mouse Guard and run it as Legend of the Dark Mouse Sun Five Rings Guard RPG which has come even closer to reality thanks to the first supplement book for L5R, Enemies of the Empire, which you can read my review of here. Also just now I’m brainstorming running a Wheel of Time game using this system, which is feeling more and more like a good fit (especially for an Aiel-centric game.)