Review: Emerald Empire (L5R RPG 4E)

Emerald Empire is a supplement for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (4th Edition). Emerald Empire is a full-color, 302-page hardcover that retails for $39.99. This review will give a general impression of the book, followed by a more detailed examination of the separate sections. If you’re like me, you will purchase more roleplaying books for more game lines than you’ll ever have the time to do a campaign for, and so my opinion of an RPG book considers not only the perspective of a potential player/GM, but also the perspective of a simple reader.

The Basics

Fourth Edition is the latest version of Alderac Entertainment Group’s (“AEG”) long-running Legend of the Five Rings (“L5R”) RPG. It is set in Rokugan, a primarily Japanese fantasy-inspired nation that was originally created for the Legend of the Five Rings CCG. In L5R, the players typically take on the role of samurai – not only the bushi (warriors) that might most easily come to mind when thinking about samurai, but also courtiers and shugenja (priests and the setting’s spellcasters). Adventures in L5R are often described as encompassing some combination of combat, politics, and investigation.

Emerald Empire is primarily a setting book – it gives the reader an in-depth look at Rokugan, including its geography, economy, politics, war, society, legal system, religion, and the arts. Some of the most important material in Emerald Empire concerns the formalized social structure of the setting – it’s easy to play L5R without dealing with commerce, but the flavor of the setting is enhanced by exposing players to the particular social rules that govern the world of Rokugan, which permeate and infuse politics, religion, and war. The book is appropriate for players, gamemasters, and the non-playing reader.

Emerald Empire is a revision and expansion of the Third Edition supplement of the same name. It is longer, covers more topics, and goes into more depth on the topics that reappear. The original Emerald Empire was a quick sell-out, and was soon going for $100-$200 on eBay.

Layout/Graphics/Editing

Emerald Empire continues Fourth Edition’s high standard for layout and graphics. The layout and graphic design remain unchanged (at least to this reviewer’s eye) from the prior two 4E books – which is a good thing. The layout gives the books a bit of an Asian feel, without overwhelming the text or the plentiful artwork. There are numerous full-page or double-page images, as well as those interspersed throughout the text. The art will be recognizable to those who play the L5R CCG. The book perhaps opens with a bit too much art (8 of the first 14 pages are full page art), but the placement otherwise seemed good. The proofreading did not feel quite as good as the prior two 4E efforts, but perhaps this was due to my randomly noticing about a half-dozen errors in the first three chapters (at least double what I noticed in the whole rest of the book). The book has a fully functional Table of Contents and Index.

Contents

Emerald Empire chapters each tackle one broad topic. Most chapters also contain a single Basic or Advanced School. These schools are almost the only “crunch” in a fluff-dedicated book. It is, however, noteworthy that the “fluff” of Emerald Empire is meaty and detail-oriented. It may make the book less literary than some other fluff, but it conveys a lot more information.

Geography (~15 pages) – What you’d expect from a chapter titled “Geography,” you’ll get a rundown on the landscape (both generally and significant features), as well as a listing of what sorts of plants and animals characters might find throughout Rokugan. I know there are maps of Rokugan printed elsewhere, but this chapter felt like it could have used one for reference. The school for the Geography chapter is the Shinjo Bushi Basic School, the one of the two “standard” Unicorn Clan bushi schools that didn’t get to appear in the 4E core book.

Customs (~30 pages) – One of the most important sections of Emerald Empire, the Customs chapter provides extensive detail on the day-to-day life of a samurai in Rokugan – what a samurai is, gempukku (the samurai coming-of-age ceremony that is often used to kick off the first session of a new L5R campaign), marriage, gift-giving, privacy, dining, the game of letters (a courtly pursuit), and various clan-specific customs. The crunch in this chapter is the Minor Clan Defender Advanced School, a bushi school that is open to any minor clan character. It lets you spend Void to temporarily gain Status, and then lets you make more attacks in a couple of ways.

Social Structure (~10) – A lot shorter than the Customs chapter, but also a must-read to immerse yourself in the feel of Rokugan. Much of Rokugani morality is about knowing your place in the Celestial Order, and acting appropriately to your station. This chapter discusses the Emperor, nobility (the Kuge), normal samurai (the Buke), ronin, ashigaru/budoka (non-samurai who are allowed to bear arms), priests, the heimin (“half-people,” also known as peasants), and eta (hinin or “non-people”). The chapter includes the Imperial Scion Advanced School, a courtier school only available to members of the Imperial Families. It mostly focuses on being a pompous bully, and using your social clout to ruin people, so it’s more of an NPC sort of school.

Politics (~30 pages) – The Politics chapter is a primer on court – where wise bushi fear to tread. The chapter lays out the basics of different levels of court (Imperial, Clan, provincial) how to behave at court (including Clan-specific variations), including the ever-important Art of the Insult (try to avoid letting this turn into “I can take anything you say as an insult if I really want to”). The Politics Chapter also goes into detail on many high-level Imperial positions, including the Emperor’s Chosen and the Jeweled Champions (the detail on these personages is an interesting read, but probably less important to GMs/players, unless squabbling between the Emerald Champion and the Shogun on who exactly has what authority over the Imperial Legions is likely to come up in your game). The school for this chapter is the Ikoma Lion’s Shadow Basic School, a Lion bushi school. The Ikoma Lion’s Shadow school focuses on low skills, being dishonorable to gain bonuses, and bonuses to contested rolls, and seems to be a fairly potent addition to the Lion options.

The Arts (~10 pages) – An entirely new chapter from the prior version of Emerald Empire, the Arts chapter gives into on dance, ikebana (flower-arranging), gardening, painting, poetry, sculpture, storytelling, tattoos (which includes the odd pairing of the mystical tattoos of the Togashi monks and various kinds of gang tattoos), tea ceremony, and theater. Although not as necessary for routine gameplay as some other sections of the book, many Clans believe that there is supposed to be something more to a samurai than the three feet of steel he carries around, and the arts are one way to round out a character. They can also give the GM ideas to round out a season in court, as high level courts have frequent artistic entertainment, and not everything is conducted in open court or in secret chambers. The Arts also gives more background on the artistic traditions of the Kakita, Shiba, and Ikoma. The new crunch is the Shiba Artisan Basic School, a Phoenix school. The Shiba Artisans are really focused on their art, which might leave them having a hard time finding a “role” in a typical party, unless the campaign is very social.

Money and Commerce (~20 pages) – Since a proper samurai doesn’t acknowledge the importance of money or commerce, it often plays a minimal or non-existent role in L5R campaigns, once you get past performing guard duty on a merchant caravan. But if your campaign/character does care about that sort of thing, then this chapter will bring you information about how non-samurai use money, trade routes, and what sort of thing is produced where in Rokugan. The crunch in this chapter includes charts for modifying item price/availability based on where you are, as well as the Kobune Captain Advanced School (a Mantis bushi school). The Kobune Captain gets bonuses to Commerce/Merchant skill rolls, plus a crew to man his ship. Like the Shiba Artisan, the Kobune Captain is fairly narrow and may not fit well into many campaigns.

Law and Order (~20 pages) – Although the Rokugani legal system may not come up in every campaign, a party of magistrates or other investigators is a very common way for a GM to get a party from disparate Clans working together, and the Law and Order chapter will be invaluable for that sort of campaign. The chapter brings you the history of the legal system, different kinds of law enforcement officials – peasants (doshin), deputies (yoriki), and actual magistrates – a thorough rundown of the role of Emerald Magistrates (the Empire’s top cops and, given their cross-border jurisdiction, a common sort of superior to have the PCs assigned to), crimes, punishment, and types of criminals. I could have done without the “GM’s Toolbox” of ruffians, since they seem so brief as to be unhelpful (space better used for more extensive discussion of the Kitsuki Method, says this Dragon Clan-fan of a reviewer). The Law and Order chapter contains two Basic Schools – the Doji Magistrate (a Crane bushi school) and the Soshi Magistrate (a Scorpion bushi school). The Doji Magistrate focuses primarily on martial arts – unarmed combat, non-lethal ways of winning fights, and being hard to it. The Soshi Magistrate focuses on Intimidation and disabling foes in combat. Contrary to what you might think from the school titles, neither has any bonuses regarding investigation.

Religion (~30 pages) – Like many fantasy settings, Rokugan is a world where the existence of the gods is a fact. Unlike many of those worlds, however, religion is an integral part of the setting and, because aspects of that religion are animist, religion can be pervasive. The Religion chapter details all aspects of Rokugani religious thought – the powerful and singular gods (Kami and Fortunes), the lesser kami that inhabit the universe, and the more-human philosophy of Shintao. The chapter goes into detail about the individual Fortunes and Elemental Dragons (but not the Kami), the history of Shintao and the Brotherhood of Shinsei, how the monks of the Brotherhood typically live, shrines/temples/monasteries, the rare occasions where gods have died, and the empire’s religious calendar. The chapter includes a new monk school, the Shinmaki Order, a bizarre sect of the Brotherhood, and a new Spider Clan monk Advanced School, the Dark Paragons (a confusing title, since in the CCG the Dark Paragons are samurai, not monks). The Dark Paragons gain Kiho, can use their Theology skill in rolls for other skills, and can use the Taint or lose honor to power their Kiho.

Education (~10 pages) – A character’s formal education is generally in their past (unless the GM makes the PCs roleplay going back to their dojo to gain a new Technique), so the Education chapter will primarily provide background information for most campaigns, rather than be something the characters are dealing with directly. The chapter talks about apprenticeship, dojos, typical education for bushi, courtiers, and artisans, and the gempukku ceremony. The crunch for this chapter is the Mirumoto Taoist Swordsman Basic School, a bushi school of the Dragon Clan. The Taoist Swordsman is harder to hit when unarmored, can use his sword in a grapple, and gets attack and damage bonuses when using a sword.

War (~20 pages) – Unlike most of the chapters, this one feels like a bit of a repeat, not because of the original Emerald Empire, but because the subject of war in Rokugan was pretty thoroughly covered in the 3E supplement Masters of War (and the web supplement to that book). The chapter covers typical military posts, some of the quirks in how the individual clans run their armies, the traditional army organization in Rokugan, specialized forces for each of the clans, the Imperial Legions, logistics, maneuvers, sieges, and martial arts (the 1 page on martial arts feels oddly placed in the middle of the four pages on sieges). In addition to some suggestions for using the mass combat rules for sieges, the War chapter includes the Hida Pragmatist Basic School, a Crab Clan bushi school. The Hida Pragmatist gets bonuses when fighting unarmed or with improvised weapons, and gets to make lots of attacks.

The World Beyond (~10 pages) – This chapter presents a brief look at some of the nations other than Rokugan (Rokugani are quite insular, and prefer to ignore the fact that there is a world outside of their borders). These groups include the Ivory Kingdoms (India), the Merenae (renaissance Portuguese/Spanish), Senpet (ancient Egypt), Thrane (England), the Yobanjin (steppes barbarians), the Yodotai (Romans), and Medinat al-Salaam (Arabia).

Glossary (Appendix One) (~20 pages) – A handy edition, especially for those not super-familiar with Rokugan, the Glossary/mini-encyclopedia provides short, handy entries on lots of subjects.

Way of the Daimyo (Appendix Two) (~25 pages) – This appendix presents an update on mechanical systems presented in the 2E supplement of the same name. Characters can gain Duty Points, which they may spend on different high-level Stations such as Ambassador (a courtier), Governor, Keeper of the Temple, Master Sensei, Merchant Patron, and Warlord. New mechanics are introduced that each station might be interested in, such as Court Battle (when you want to roll off who wins that argument), Spell/Kiho creation, Kata creation, and the Army Battle system (while the typical battle rules focus on the actions of individual characters in a broader battle, the Army Battle system is about the two army leaders rolling off). Unfortunately, the Duty Points system seems awkward, and I’d have a hard time using them as written even if in a game with characters who were taking on such elevated roles. The Court and Mass Battle systems could be handy if divorced from the Duty Point mechanic (or if you homebrewed the Duty Points a bit).

Summary

Although the “storyline” RPG supplements (such as The Four Winds or The Vacant Throne) will probably always be my favorites, it’s hard to argue with the notion that Emerald Empire (3E) was the most important 3E supplement for an L5R RPG player or GM to own. I’m guessing that the same will be true of the 4E version of Emerald Empire (although the upcoming Great Clans supplement may challenge it; 3E didn’t have a comparable book). It is full to the brim with the sorts of detail that can really help players and GMs bring Rokugan to life at the gaming table. If you’re playing (or planning to play) an L5R game, and you don’t have the 3E version, you’re going to want to get Emerald Empire 4E. If you’re just a fan of the Legend of the Five Rings setting and would only just read the book then, like most L5R RPG supplement, it’s still a solid pickup, with lots of interesting fluff.

What if you already have the 3E version of Emerald Empire? There’s no getting around the fact that this is not brand new material. But it is greatly revised and expanded from the 3E version, with more topics covered and in more detail (it’s also supposed to be more timeline neutral, in keeping with the philosophy of 4E, but that didn’t seem like too much of a change for a book of this sort). It didn’t really feel repetitive. I own the 3E Emerald Empire, and I would be willing to plunk down the $40 for the 4E version (if I didn’t have this handy review copy). Ultimately, I think that’s a personal call that each potential buyer will have to make based on their personal preference.

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