Legend of the Five Rings Review

(Summer 2001, for jinzoo.com)

The following is the full text to a review of the L5R main rulebook that I wrote for a friend's webzine. It doesn't cover all aspects of the game, but it may provide a quick look into Jen's favorite system.

Courage, loyalty, honor, before all else. My Emperor, my lord, my clan, before myself. For I am samurai.

Alderac Entertainment Group's Legend of the Five Rings brings the roleplayer to a world tangled between honor and duty, where players dance on the strings of ancient clans, and where the Emperor's word is the final one...

Legend of the Five Rings - Alderac Entertainment Group

Japan has always held a mysterious draw for the Western world. Not the Japan of today, with salarymen in sober suits bustling through the crowded streets of neon-lit Tokyo, but the Japan of old, with armies of samurai rumbling across the land, Shinto spirits speaking from every rock, and delicate brushes whispering across paintings of geisha. Legend of the Five Rings allows the roleplayer a taste of that mystery, leading players far from the well-trodden paths of medieval Europe to the hidden tracks and trails of Rokugan, a world that is not Japan, but rather an amalgam of Eastern cultures, with Japan the obviously prime influence. While the cover of the main rulebook depicts a male samurai hacking wildly at masked warriors, Legend of the Five Rings' themes range much farther than simple combat, reaching tendrils into court intrigue, murder mysteries, romance, and yes, the occasional war.

The rulebook for Legend of the Five Rings is split into five sections, each corresponding to a "Ring," drawing from Miyamoto Musashi's famous book of warcraft, Go Rin No Sho, or "A Book of Five Rings." Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Void, each section deals with different aspects of the game's world and system. The sections all open with a piece of well written fiction set in Rokugan, introducing concepts, beliefs, and ideals. Beautiful and distinctly "Asian" black-and-white art adorns nearly every page, with a few full-color inserts making an appearance (sadly, the color inserts don't seem to have been bound as well in many of the books, so I caution owners to treat their books carefully).

The Book of Earth

The first section, Earth contains the "Gaijin's Guide to Rokugan," a brief rundown of the history of the world the player is stepping into. The author pulls deeply from traditional creation myths across the world, blending them with a distinctly Japanese twist (no matter how much the book protests that its world is not Japan, it's close enough, and could easily pass for Japan given the chance). The seven Great Clans are introduced, Crab, Crane, Dragon, Lion, Phoenix, Scorpion, and Unicorn, all supporting the imperial Hantei family. The social order is discussed, including a refreshing attitude towards women. While perhaps not the most historically accurate, women are included in Rokugan to the extent of anything that they wish to do, though they may not be totally accepted. Not only is there at least one female-dominated family, there are even set traditions and precedents for female warriors! Speaking as a female gamer, Legend of the Five Rings presents one of the most equal opportunity faces I've ever seen. If a man gives a female samurai guff, she's fully expected to beat him down to restore her honor. If she can't do it, then she deserved everything she got.

The Book of Earth also contains the "quickie" version of the rules (think, oh, three pages), including what I consider the best rule of all: "If the rules ever get in the way of having fun, ignore the rules."

The Book of Water

Water is the art of character creation. From beginning to end, this Book details (very plainly, with well explained examples) how to bring into existence the samurai to be played.

The main book only allows two choices of occupation within the samurai class - bushi (warriors) and shugenja (magic users, something of a cross between mages and priests). While other professions are introduced in each Clan supplement, it would have been nicer (and cheaper for the players) to have included them in the main book, instead. Thankfully, a samurai's official profession does not necessarily define what they spend their lives doing. Bushi flitter around the courts, gossiping and plotting, as well as screaming into battle; shugenja are just as likely to ride into a war with fire spirits crackling around them as they are to huddle in a library imploring the kami (spirits and gods) to share their wisdom.

Players are given the choice of representing a member of one of the seven Great Clans, or taking their chances as a clanless ronin (ronin receive far more character points to spend, but the disadvantages inherent in lacking the backing of family and clan, as well as the social disdain towards their circumstances, make playing one a risky business). Crude and pragmatic Crab, delicate and political Crane, enigmatic and quiet Dragon, fierce and proud Lion, intelligent and studious Phoenix, cruel and sneaky Scorpion, curious and foreign Unicorn, each Clan has its own strengths, weaknesses, and points of view. Each Clan's bushi and shugenja learn different spells and military techniques, with different emphasis dependent on their histories.

Legend of the Five Rings has aspects of both a skill-based and a level-based system; while skills (and the traits they're based on) are most prominent, each level (or "Rank") teaches the character a new special Technique. The "Rings" of the title refer to a somewhat overly complicated system of trait organization (for instance, Agility and Intelligence fall under the Fire Ring, while Perception and Strength fall under the Water Ring). A Ring is always equal to the lower of the two traits associated with it (one mental, one physical), which, when combined with the fact that Rank advancement is based on Ring values, motivates players to create and play characters that are loaded neither towards physical nor mental extremes, a nice touch.

The Book of Fire

Nearly a hundred pages into the book, the rules are revisited. Legend of the Five Rings uses 10-sided dice exclusively, with rolls being made by rolling, say, Investigation+Perception, keeping a number of dice equal to Perception, to look around a murder scene for clues. While occasionally exceptions become convoluted, it nearly always comes down to a simple x+y, keep y. The kept dice are added up, hopefully exceeding the Target Number set for the feat. 10s are re-rolled and added again, allowing for extremely high totals if one is lucky.

Combat rules for skirmishes are simple and deadly. Speed is key; the character who rolls the highest Initiative gets to listen to what every one else wants to do, then go before all of them. A single wound can very nearly incapacitate a beginning character, and two are a near death warrant. Moral of the story? Fight only as a last recourse, and no matter what, make sure you win. Iaijutsu dueling is introduced, being a standoff of samurai, measuring each other up with sheathed katana, until they move with blinding speed. One still stands, and the other is either down or suffering from a nasty scratch. While the iaijutsu rules might take a few readings to absorb, they're essentially understandable, and provide for a guaranteed adrenaline rush. Large-scale battle rules, however, leave something to be desired. By simplifying the mechanics of a war down to randomizing rolls, the game designers created a battle system where individual prowess really, well, doesn't help much. Many of my acquaintances have remedied the situation by using the battle rules in Alderac's Clan Wars minatures game, but it is lamentable that the rpg fails to produce.

Glory (renown) and Honor are described here, but far more interesting, in my opinion, are the last pages. While most other games I've played end their Japanese weapons at katana (if they even start), Legend of the Five Rings contains a veritable arsenal of medieval Japanese weaponry, ranging from the die tsuchi war hammer to the tonfa, a peasant weapon derived from the handle of a millstone. The weapons are all illustrated beautifully, accompanied by accurate depictions of medieval Japanese armor.

The Book of Air

Air is the Book of the shugenja. Religion and magic stride hand-in-hand, since spells in Legend of the Five Rings revolve around appealing to spirits and ancestors to do one's bidding. Air contains a great deal of cultural information on Rokugan's theology and superstitions.

The mechanics of casting a spell are discussed in fair detail. Spells in Legend of the Five Rings are cast by reading them from a scroll (though eventually characters may memorize certain spells, and there are ways for beginning characters to do so). Once again, the rolls come down to x+y, keep y.

The spell list covers nearly 14 pages, with a variety of types, though non-combatant spells are heavily represented. There are different spells for every Ring, saving Void.

The Book of Void

The Book of Void contains GM-only information, ranging from "What is a Game Master" and how to run a campaign, to suggestions for running flashbacks and parallel plotlines, to selections of NPCs (the NPCs in the main rulebook should all be familiar to players who have also played the Legend of the Five Rings collectible card game), to discussions on enchanted items, creatures, and ninja (who everyone knows don't exist).

Throughout the Void section, sidebars contain suggested adventures, giving the GM a wealth of bare-bones brainstorm fodder. Near the end, a full-scale introductory adventure is suggested. While the adventure covers many of the concepts in Legend of the Five Rings, it has been complained that the author were too heavy handed in assuming what players would and haven't allowed for enough variation in what the players might do instead of what the author assumed. (This is all hearsay—I've neither run nor played The Topaz Championship, so take this with a grain of salt.) Even so, even the detractors of the adventure have enjoyed it.

Ending the book are some aids; a probability chart, floorplans of buildings from castles to geisha houses, and an absolutely beautiful full-color, two page map, followed by an extensive key of locations. Unfortunately, the map gets a little hard to read towards the binding of the book, and the liberal usage of Japanese characters will go over the head of even some Japanese-studying players (read: I couldn't make head or tail of most of them, and the ones I could tell didn't say what the author said they said). Still, it's gorgeous and useful, and has since been reproduced on the separately-available GM's screen.

The index, and weapons and spell lists at the end could stand to be rewritten to be made actually useful, but that should not detract from what is, overall, an extremely well-written and interesting book, not to mention a fun, simple, and exciting game.