Review – Enemies of the Empire (L5R RPG 4E)

Enemies of the Empire was the first supplement for the Fourth Edition of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. I picked up a copy at GenCon last year, and we looked at it back in Episode 006 of the podcast, but that was before I started doing written reviews, so it went no further. However, since it is AEG week over on the RPG section of The Geek, now seems like a good time to correct the lack of any review for it there. Enemies of the Empire is a 288-page, full color, hardcover book, and retails for about $40.

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.

Enemies of the Empire is sort of a Monster Manual for L5R 4E, but reading it is entirely unlike a Monster Manual. Yes, Enemies of the Empire is primarily a source of adversaries (and the occasional ally) for the PCs. But much of the book is taken up with text instead of just stat blocks, fleshing out secret organizations, strange worldviews, and ways that the GM might want to use them. Regardless, this is not generally a book to go to for PC options (except for the Ronin chapter), unless you’re running an unusual campaign focused away from traditional samurai drama.

Layout/Graphics/Editing

Enemies of the 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 4E book – which is a good thing. The layout gives the books a bit of an Asian feel, without overwhelming the text or the plentiful artwork. The art will be recognizable to those who play the L5R CCG. Unlike the later-published Emerald Empire, the chapter opens also continue that more minimal art feel, and there aren’t the frequent double-page art shots. At this particular moment, looking back over Enemies of the Empire, I like the more minimal art better, but I could see myself having a different opinion next week. Editing is solid.

Contents

Most of the chapters in Enemies of the Empire tackles a different sort of supernatural race (most intelligent) or spiritually corrupt human that the samurai of Rokugan might have to deal with at some point.

Bestiary (~10 pages) – Animals with stat blocks.

Bloodspeakers (~15 pages) – Bloodspeakers are spellcasters who use blood magic, an inherently evil act in the Rokugani cosmos. The chapter opens on a reasonably lengthy history of Iuchiban, the greatest bloodspeaker in Rokugani history (he was immortal, so he pops back up several times), and the cult he founded. The chapter touches on how bloodspeaker cults tend to function, and gives advice on how a GM can use bloodspeakers in the game. There’s a Path to be a bloodspeaker, about four pages of bloodspeaker spells, write-ups for Iuchiban and two other prominent bloodspeakers, Yajinden and Jama Sura.

The Kolat (~15 pages) – Unlike most of the other human featured in Enemies of the Empire, the Kolat do not have to be supernaturally gifted (there isn’t much in this chapter about some of the over-the-top goodies the Kolat have – magical cell phones, brainwashing techniques out of a spy novel, an uber-device that lets them spy on anyone anywhere; the Kolat are more interesting for their absence). Rather than a supernatural adversary, the Kolat are a political and spiritual one – they reject the celestial order, and seek to remove the influence of the Heavens from Rokugan (placing themselves on top of the new order, of course). The chapter gives four pages of history, and then spends an equal number of pages going into Kolat organization and the ten sects that make up the conspiracy (for the Rokugani historians out there, this is after the Kami Shinjo exposes the Kolat, but before the Scorpion smash them to pieces during the Vacant Throne era; this heavy emphasis on a period that’s only a few decades lock makes this chapter not terribly timeline neutral). There’s some more background info, tips for using the Kolat as adversaries – basically the PCs will be going up against these masters of conspiracy, possibly including one (or more!) of the PCs being sleeper agents. The chapter finishes off with three pages of generic Kolat NPCs (and one Kolat Master), plus three pages of assorted mechanics (Advantages, a Disadvantage, Paths, an Advanced School, some spells, and an item).

The Lost (~15 pages) – The Lost are humans who have fallen to the Taint, the spiritual corruption of the evil realm of Jigoku (Rokugani hell). After several pages on general history, including some prominent Lost (wrapping up with Daigotsu and the Spider Clan), the chapter launches into ways to use the Lost as adversaries – beating up your PCs, tempting your PCs with easy power, and making your players queasy with horror-movie gore. The chapter rolls out mechanics as well – a lot of new Shadowlands powers, the mechanics for Akutenshi (super-Lost), a Dark Moto basic school, and a Maho-bujin (Lost warriors) Advanced School. None of this is PC appropriate, except the Shadowlands powers after you get Tainted but before the GM takes your character sheet away. A few more NPCs, and you’re done.

The Naga (~25 pages) – One of the two nonhuman races that one had its own faction in the CCG, the Naga are serpentine demi-humanoids (they have arms and usually human-looking heads, but are giant snakes from the waist down). Their civilization was great long before humans even existed but, as tends to happen to generally good guy nonhumans when human civilization shows up, they aren’t what they used to be. Unlike most of the other chapters, the Naga are given the tools to easily be played as PCs, although that only “makes sense” for handful of years in the history of the Empire, and a Naga PC in a lot of ways will be very alone in Rokugan’s strange and xenophobic culture. The chapter gives you five pages of Naga history, and several pages on how to use them in campaigns – humans encroaching on Naga holy sites (probably the most basic one), humans consorting with The Foul (Naga really hate supernatural evil), or humans getting caught in the crossfire as the Naga fight their ancient foes, all-Naga campaigns, or sticking one Naga in the party. Then you get all the goodies you need to make Naga PCs and NPCs – all of the bloodlines (the Naga version of families), tweaks to stats (Caste instead of Status; Akasha instead of Void), Naga-specific Advantages and Disadvantages, three Basic Schools, three Paths, new equipment, and a new kind of magic (Pearls). There are also write-ups for a few prominent Naga, and stat-blocks for Naga combat opponents.

The Nezumi (~35 pages) – The other of the two nonhuman races who had its own faction, the Nezumi are semi-primitive rat-men (they are more commonly known as Ratlings). The Naga are serious; the Nezumi are often comic relief. After the Naga empire fell, the Nezumi (who were previously mostly food for the Naga) developed their own great civilization, which was later smashed to bits when Fu Leng fell from the Heavens. Unlike the Naga, who as individuals are generally still as noble and intelligent as they once were, the Ratlings have fallen as individuals as well. Like the Naga chapter, the Nezumi chapter gives history and ways to use the Ratlings in campaigns – allies, having a Nezumi PC (hard to do while maintaining a serious tone), and the Nezumi as adversaries (basically all the reasons – hunger, theft, etc. – that Rokugani might come into conflict with rat-men who lack any sense of property ownership). Also as with the Naga, the chapter gives you all the tools to make fully-formed Nezumi PCs or NPCs – a 12(!) tribes (Nezumi version of families), tweaks to stats, Advantages, Disadvantages, four Basic Schools, an Advanced School, and two entirely new kinds of magic.
The Nothing (~15 pages) – Also known as the Lying Darkness, the Living Darkness, and the Shadow, the Nothing is a primordial entity that wants only to dissolve the universe into, well, nothingness. It is insidious and consuming. It can drive you mad, or strip away your identity, leaving only a faceless minion. Nothing-focused campaigns lend themselves to a Cthulu-esque feel – the PCs may make short term gains, but every new piece of knowledge takes them one step closer to insanity, and ultimately they can’t really ever win. Much of the chapter is taken up with history and GM tips, although there are also rules for Shadow corruption/powers similar to those for the Shadowlands, and some stat blocks for Shadow monsters.

Oni (~25 pages) – Japanese for “demon,” Oni are the default supernatural evil heavy hitters of Rokugan – low-level PCs may be able to clean up small fry like Goblins, but Oni are nasty. This chapter could come out of a Monster Manual, with dozens of enemies for the PCs to smash (or be smashed by).

The Ancient Races (~20 pages) – The Five Ancient Races (at least as old as the Naga) are the Zokujin (smallish lizardfolk), the Ningyo (basically aquatic Naga), the Kenku (birdmen, often sword masters), Trolls (before they became corrupted by the Shadowlands), and Kitsu (leonine guys). Each was tied to one of the elements. Like the Naga and Nezumi, they mostly aren’t functioning societies in this realm by the time humans show up in force (indeed, the Kitsu are wiped out by the Rokugani). The five races don’t get much attention, as almost half of their chapter is taken up by the Tsuno, twisted version of the Kitsu who came back to haunt the Empire a thousand years later (the Tsuno mostly don’t exist in the setting except for that one two-year period). The Kenku get a Basic School, plus the Tsuno get two plus a new kind of magic. They are not suitable for PC use.

Ronin (~20 pages) – The ronin are out of place in Enemies of the Empire, since they are just another kind of samurai, and can serve a full range of PC or NPC roles like clan samurai can. The L5R RPG 4E core book only had Rank 1 Ronin Paths, and Enemies of the Empire rectifies this deficiency with Ronin Paths from Ranks 2-5. It also has the Ronin Shugenja Basic Schools. If you want to play a Ronin character, you basically need this chapter to function. The chapter also has a half-dozen pages of sample NPC stat blocks to use.

Shadowlands Beasts (~30 pages) – The catch-all chapter, Shadowlands Beasts is another raw collection of opponents, including bakemono (goblins), ogres, trolls, and an assortment of other baddies. It also includes two Basic Schools for ogres (which are, of course, unsuitable for PC use).

The Spirits (~20 pages) – About a quarter of this chapter is a description of the various realms of the Rokugani cosmos, and what one might find there. There are a couple pages on shapeshifter characters (basically spirits who spend some time acting like humans; NPC-only), and the rest of the chapter is write-ups for different types of spirits, some foes, some friends, and some in between. Some of the better-known spirits include kitsune (fox spirits), koumori (bat spirits), mujina (demon-looking trickster spirits), orochi (massive sea serpents), ryu (dragon-ish), phoenix, and the blessed ancestors your more devout PCs will spend time venerating.

The Undead (~20 pages) – Rokugani find undead blasphemously horrific, and the first appearance of zombies led to the usual practice of cremation. About half of the chapter covers the nature of undead, the way they are viewed by Rokugani, and how a GM might use them in a campaign. The other half is write-ups including the out-of-place Gaki, who seem like they should be back in the spirits chapter.

Summary

Enemies of the Empire is a solid book, providing a GM with a well-written expanded selection of adversaries for the PCs or (if he’s feeling nice) the mechanics to let “that guy” play a snake-man or rattling (you know, the same one who has to play a good drow in the D&D campaign; I kid, I kid!). So Enemies of the Empire is a really nice book for what it is. But what it is may not be that necessary for your campaign. One could easily run an L5R campaign for years without running into anything in here. The exception, of course, being ronin – both as PCs and NPCs. You’re going to need ronin NPCs for sure, and the “evil” supernatural baddies are handy for any campaign (oni, undead, bloodspeakers, shadowlands beasts) – even if you’re mostly working on intrigue, it doesn’t hurt to remind the players that there are things that go bump in the night. Many of the other chapters are the sort of thing you can build a campaign around, but you might not want to randomly throw in (Kolat, Lying Darkness, spirit realms, The Lost, Naga). Enemies of the Empire is worth picking up, but if you have to decide between Enemies of the Empire or a later supplement like Emerald Empire or The Great Clans, then most groups will probably get more mileage out of those later books.

4 thoughts on “Review – Enemies of the Empire (L5R RPG 4E)

  1. There are a few spelling errors in there (“good drown” ; “Gabi”), but good review. Agreed on the Nezumi, having one in my current game is interesting, but frequently detracts from the serious nature. The best way to rectify this is threatening children, due to the Nezumi predilection to protect them.

  2. Out of all the hilariously Japanese-English translated names in L5R, Jama Suru is my favorite. “You’re an annoyance”

  3. Good review Chris, aside from the aforementioned spelling errors & a slip-up on the name of the product being reviewed in the Graphics/Layout/Editing section up there (Enemies of the~, not Emerald Empire :-). I agree in your final assessment that many games will find greater value from Emerald Empire as a supplement, although I see that one being primarily something that can help drag the newer players up to speed with the complexity of Rokugani society. As a GM I suspect that I’ll be reaching for Enemies more often, but handing Emerald across the table more often.

    One for the players to buy, I suggest, as a group resource. Perhaps the players can chip in together to buy the impoverished GM his own copy of Enemies? Or do roleplaying groups not do that for their GMs anymore?

    Justin: but how can you go past Seppun Baka as an awful attempt to translate the Kissing Fool into something akin to Japanese?

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