Imperial Histories is a supplement for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (4th Edition). Imperial Histories is a 310-page hardcover, and retails for about $40. 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 Legend of the Five Rings RPG(along with other games like the L5R CCG, War of Honor, and Ninja) is set in the world of Rokugan, a fantasy Asian/Japanese setting where characters typically assume the role of samurai from one of the Empire’s Great Clans – either the traditional warrior, a velvet-tongued courtier, or a spell-slinging shugenja (priest). Adventures most commonly include combat, social, and investigative challenges.
Imperial Histories is a look at ten periods of time from Rokugan’s past (distant and recent), including a couple of alternate realities (one past and one future). (Note: this edition of the RPG is intended to be timeline neutral, but I will take the “present” to be what’s going on now in L5R’s ongoing interactive storyline).
The layout for Imperial Histories follows the same standard of excellence that the 4th Edition of the L5R RPG has always had – it’s flavorful without getting in the way, and I didn’t notice any goofs.
The art continues to be very nice, as the L5R RPG has the luxury of being able to pull from the massive library of works developed on the CCG side of the house. On the flipside, the RPG only gets artwork from the CCG side of the house, and no longer commissions its own, so this means some anachronisms in the eras that are covered in Imperial Histories but were never covered in the CCG (or were covered, but had limited art available because of the ravages of time and rising standards of quality). The book does note this and, really, unless you’re into the CCG as well, you’d never know that the art in question was supposed to be depicting someone who lived in a different century.
The writing was good – each of the ten chapters was (I think) tackled by a different author, and I only recall one where I thought maybe the writing was a little flat (and I can’t remember now which one it was, so it couldn’t have been an actual problem). There were a couple of chapters featuring multiple instances of a randomly wrong word being used by the author. Oh, and someone ignored their spellchecker, and got “Sapphire” wrong in one of the chapter titles.
Each of the ten eras presented includes some common elements – an introductory short fiction, a timeline of events, a write-up of the status of the Great Clans (and other applicable factions) during that time frame, a few sections on how play in this era is different and how the PCs might fit in, write-ups of notable NPCs (note that there are quite a few references back to the Great Clans supplement for NPCs who already got write-ups there), and new game mechanics (schools, paths, kata, etc.). In addition to its primary timeline, each era has further “what if?” suggestions for GMs (what if another Kami had become Emperor, what if Shoju’s coup hadn’t failed, etc.). Each era gets a 30-page treatment.
The Dawn of the Empire: The Dawn of the Empire era covers the mythic pre-history of humanity in Rokugan (the rich backstory of L5R also includes even more nonhuman mythic pre-history before this time frame), starting with the Fall of the Kami (the gods who would go on to found the Great Clans and the original Imperial dynasty fell to Rokugan from the heavenly realms) and running through the death of the last of the Kami about 100 years later (years 0-102 on the Rokugani calendar). The primary events of this era include the Tournament of the Kami (where the fallen gods determine who will rule), the time spent by the Kami wandering the Empire and gathering followers, the First War against the Shadowlands and the Dark Kami Fu Leng (culminating in the First Day of Thunder where one chosen mortal from each Clan defeated the dark god), and the 70-odd years of empire-building after that.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Fair. The Dawn of the Empire setting is populated by lots of cool historical figures for the PCs to interact with and, other than the Tournament of the Kami, the Day of Thunder, and founding of Clan families (unless you really want to go off canon), there isn’t a lot of detail on the timeline to get in the way. On the downside, the setting itself at this point is very fluid – the standards of bushido and the religious foundations of the Empire don’t exist for most of this period – so this time frame loses some of its L5R flavor. Additionally, while there is some cool factor to rubbing shoulders with the Kami or other mythic figures, it also takes some of the shine off of those characters, unless you’re in a mood to let the PCs actually be able to match up well against them.
– NPCs Detailed: Doji Konishko (Crane Thunder), Chokusaku (a Yobanjin, one of the Rokugani who left the Empire rather than submit to the rule of the Kami), Shiba (the Phoenix Clan Kami – feel free to roll your eyes at printing a statistics block for a god)
– Game Mechanics: The First Oni (monster), Hatsu Suru no Oni (monster)
The Reign of the Gozoku: The Gozoku era covers a period of time when, basically, three Clans conspired to reduce the Hantei Emperor to a puppet. The Gozoku were a public alliance with a secret objective, and it was eventually broken up with two other Clans supported a strong Hantei Emperor, plus internal divisions in the conspiracy due to differing objectives (those who sincerely if delusionally believed that they were helping the Empire v. those who were just out for power). This era covers Years 375 to 436, as the Gozoku are formed, grab power, and are eventually defeated. The Gozoku era features a lot of crime and corruption, and can give the PCs the opportunity to fight to restore the power of the rightful Emperor, or possibly face tough choices if they are drawn into the Gozoku without knowing its true purpose. Due to its length of active plot, navigating this era may be a good place to employ a generational campaign.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Good. The Gozoku era is mostly defined by its villains, giving the PCs plenty of opportunity to affect events, including moving the soon-to-be Empress into the right place at the right time to reclaim her throne. The Gozoku era preserves the general feel of Rokugan, while forcing PCs to deal with a uniquely omnipresent and seemingly legitimate force of corruption – especially if some or all of the PCs are from the Clans forming the Gozoku alliance.
– NPCs Detailed: Hantei Yugozohime (the new Empress at the end of the era), Bayushi Atsuki (the Scorpion Clan Champion and one of the three heads of the Gozoku), Bayushi Minoko (the failed Scorpion Clan Champion who took over after Bayushi Atsuki), Seppun Gohoru (random magistrate)
– Game Mechanics: the Nasu family (a new Imperial family created by the Gozoku to subvert the existing ones), Imperial Scribe (Advantage), Agents of the Gozoku (a Path for any Rank 2 character), Agents of the Hantei (a Path for any Rank 2 character)
The White Stag: The Age of the White Stag follows immediately after the reign of the Gozoku, and lasts for only 3 years (440-42, with a couple of lead-in and aftermath years to pad it out). This represents the first serious gaijin contact with Rokugan, as the Merenae and Thrane (pseudo-Europeans with muskets) initiate diplomatic and trade contact with Rokugan. Some of the gaijin plot against the throne, the Empress blames all of them, negotiations go awry, and the gaijin attack the imperial city, resulting in (among other things) the death of the Empress via cannon fire (this is called the Battle of White Stag). This results in the expulsion of the gaijin and a hardening of Rokugani xenophobia. I think there’s a relatively lot of entirely new material here, as this short time frame (that wasn’t heavily populated by active storyline) has to get rounded out.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Poor. The era of the White Stag is, as its name implies, defined by a single event. It is short, and there isn’t much interesting for PCs to do other than meet some gaijin. The shortness isn’t a problem in and of itself, but a more drawn out time frame would let more develop. Instead the White Stag is really an era defined by two things – gaijin showing up, and the battle itself. The Battle of the White Stag, and the resulting increase in xenophobia, may have been an important era for Rokugan, but I see little attraction to trying a campaign in the era.
– NPCs Detailed: Matsu Mochihime (the Emerald Champion), Agasha Kasuga (founder of the Tortoise Clan, which is tasked with monitoring gaijin after this era), Gusai Mori (Mantis Clan Champion), Doji Usan (former Emerald Champion and Imperial Consort), Akodo Godaigo (tragic figure from a side plot who becomes a sentient undead)
– Game Mechanics: Gaijin Pepper (gunpowder weapons and relevant Skills), Tortoise Guard (Alternate Path)
The Great Famine: The first cool thing about the Great Famine is that it was a fan submission – AEG held a contest where players could create and submit their ideas for the tenth time frame to be included in the Imperial Histories, and this was the winner. The Great Famine lasts for about half a decade, from the years 660-64. It features some severe (but natural) weather turning into a disaster because of the incompetence and vindictiveness of Hantei XX, resulting in plague, famine, clan conflict, and a massive peasant revolt. The Great Famine allows play in an era where some of the fundamental underpinnings of samurai culture are undermined not by any supernatural evil, but by the samurai themselves.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Good. Can a character stay true to the virtues of bushido when his lord can no longer provide him with the rice his family needs to eat? How will the characters react when confronted with peasants who (correctly) believe that their samurai overlords have failed to hold up their end of the social order, and are no longer willing to simply grin, bear it, and starve? These are interesting dilemmas to face.
– NPCs Detailed: Akodo Kenburo (rude Emerald Champion and Lion Clan Champion), Tetsuken (Mantis Clan Champion), Rojin (retired Lion Clan Champion who helps the peasant revolt), Mirumoto Umeka (Mirumoto family daimyo who carries on an adulterous affair with the Phoenix Clan Champion)
– Game Mechanics: Tetsuken (Mantis Clan Ancestor), Asahina Koresada (Crane Clan Ancestor), Kenburo’s Way (Alternate Path for Rank 4 students at the Ruby Dojo), People’s Legionnaire (Rank 1 Ronin Path), Water Fever (disease)
Prelude to the Scorpion Clan Coup: The granddaddy of them all, the pre-Scorpion Clan Coup era was the default setting for the L5R RPG throughout the First Edition and into the Second. It is the original status quo for Rokugan, the norm from which the wild events of the ongoing interactive storyline departed. The official timeline in the chapter only covers a few years leading up to the Coup in 1123, but the setting is basically held static for about 100 years before that – the pre-SCC era is not about an event, but rather just about Rokugan being Rokugan (there is a reason why the era, although it includes the SCC itself, is called the Prelude to the coup).
– Suitability for Campaign: Excellent. There’s a reason why this was the default time frame for the RPG for so long. All of the original Great Clans are present (and the Minor Clans that will become the Mantis Great Clan are all active). Additionally, all of the First Edition adventure modules (many of which are now available in PDF even if you can’t get the hardcopy) can be used without any setting alteration. Indeed, much of what there is of a timeline in this era is simply chronicling the events that will happen in those adventures.
– NPCs Detailed: Akodo Arasou (Lion Clan Champion, elder brother of Akodo Toturi), Bayushi Shoju (the Scorpion Clan Champion who launched the coup), Doji Satsume (the Emerald Champion at the time of the coup), Rujo (a former Master of Earth turned ronin), Moto Soro (heir to the Moto daimyo-ship)
– Game Mechanics: Hiruma Scouts (a basic school representing the primary techniques used by the Hiruma family after they lost the ancient and later recovered techniques represented by the Hiruma Bushi basic school in the core rulebook), Scorpion Loyalists (Alternate Path for Rank 2 Scorpion), the Kitsuki Justicar (Alternate Path for Rank 3 Kitsuki), Soldiers of the Three Man Alliance (Alternate Path for Rank 2 minor clan bushi)
The Clan War: The Clan War was the first full story for the Legend of the Five Rings universe and kicks off several chapters of jam-packed action. The Clan War covers five years (1123-28) from the failure of the Scorpion Clan coup, the Crab Clan’s alliance with the Shadowlands, the all-out war that ensued, Fu Leng’s possession of the Last Hantei, through to the Second Day of Thunder. The Clan War presents non-stop action and combat against big supernatural evil.
– Suitability for Campaign: Fair. Like almost any era of time actively covered by the ongoing interactive storyline, the Clan War era is jam-packed with canon events and heavily populated by big heroes. While it can be a real cool thing for L5R plans to play through these iconic events, it introduces the obvious problems of how the characters can be meaningfully involved in those events without just displacing the canon.
– NPCs Detailed: Toturi the Black (former Lion Clan Champion, leader of Toturi’s Army, Lion Clan Thunder, future Emperor), Matsu Tsuko (Lion Clan Champion after Toturi is cast out), Shiba Ujimitsu (Phoenix Clan Champion), Kakita Toshimoko (Emerald Champion and all-around rogue)
– Game Mechanics: Scorpion Saboteurs (Advanced School for Scorpion Ninja), Daidoji Harriers (Advanced School for Crane “Ninjas”), ninja weapons,
Hidden Emperor/The War Against the Darkness: It’s hard to briefly describe this era, muddled as the story was, but suffice it to say that, having defeated the evil god Fu Leng and anointing a new imperial dynasty, Rokugan immediately proceeds to (seemingly) lose that dynasty and then almost get the world unmade by another, even more primordial supernatural evil (the Lying Darkness; GMs running a campaign in this era will need to pick up Enemies of the Empire to get more information on it). This era, which lasts from 1130-1133, also features two mortals (Hitomi and Hida Yakamo) killing and replacing the gods who are the Sun and Moon. The Hidden Emperor era presents the PCs with a Rokugan gone mad.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Fair to Poor. This era isn’t as weak as the White Stag as a campaign setting, but it’s jam-packed with events that largely exclude the PCs, and that were kind of garbled anyway as the interactive story kind of lost its footing here. The PCs could possibly do a campaign where they are the ones who discover that the Lying Darkness is behind things, and then “rescue” Toturi, but that kind of climaxes the campaign in the middle of the story, and I’m not sure where the PCs would fit in after that.
– NPCs Described: Doji Kuwanan (butch Crane Clan Champion), Bayushi Aramoro (ninja, bodyguard, and hope of the Scorpion Clan), Isawa Taeruko (an Elemental Master), Kitsuki Kaagi (the “author” of the old Way of Shadow supplement, Kaagi was instrumental in uncovering the Darkness, but was lost in the process), Matsu Hiroru (Lion Clan ninja and former Kolat), Seppun Toshiken (Emerald Champion), Goju Adorai (the primary avatar of the Lying Darkness at this time)
– Game Mechanics: Nameless Ones (Alternate Path for Rank 3 Void Shugenja), the Hoshi (Dragon Clan family), the Hitomi (Dragon Clan family), Tsurui Zumi (a Dragon Clan Monk basic school), Kikage Zumi (another Dragon Clan Monk basic school)
The War of Spirits: No, wait, I don’t work for AEG, that means I can just call this “Spirit Wars” (there was some sort of ridiculous lawsuit by an online game called Spirit Wars against the use of “Spirit Wars” as an expansion title for a card game, the settlement of which I’m guessing prevents AEG from calling it “Spirit Wars” and also from commenting on why they can’t call it “Spirit Wars”). Anyhow, the Spirit Wars era is unique among the era presented in that it tells a story during the games’ active storyline, and that had an associated CCG expansion, but isn’t over-crowded with existing events. This is because the Spirit Wars took place during a “time jump” as the storyline was advanced 20 years (1136-1155) with only one CCG expansion about what took place during that time frame. The end of the prior War Against the Darkness era involved thousands of Rokugani ancestors returning to life, and the social turmoil that ensues. Of particular important is the return to life of Hantei XVI, a fellow so pleasant that his own bodyguards finally killed him – and who, of course, considers himself the rightful Emperor of Rokugan. A civil war eventually results, but it’s a slowly-moving affair that takes place over a decade.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Good. The difficulties integrating the returned spirits into modern Rokugan present interesting plotting possibilities. There’s eventually an ongoing war (that whole Spirit Wars thing), but it proceeds in fits and starts, giving the PCs chances to do other things. This era also doesn’t have its big heroic moments already staked out by canon heroes, and the PCs could be easily inserted into important roles in the final confrontation without messing things up.
– NPCs Detailed: Bayushi Yojiro (Scorpion Clan Champion who may or may not be playing both sides in the civil war), Hantei XVI, Hida Tsuneo (tormented general for Hantei XVI),
– Game Mechanics: returned spirits as characters, Moto Death Priests (Unicorn Clan basic shugenja school), Sodan-Senzo (Lion Clan shugenja Advanced School)
Heroes of Rokugan: Champions of the Sapphire Throne: This is the first of two “alternate Rokugan” chapters. It is also unique in that it was the setting used for the longstanding, player-run Heroes of Rokugan II campaign (“Living Rokugan,” basically). Champions of the Sapphire Throne presents an alternate future – the 1400s. Some major canon events didn’t happen in this setting (because the campaign kicked off before they happened in real life) – the Toturi dynasty remained in power, the Spider were destroyed, and Kali-Ma never seized power. After a long period of strong Toturi rule, the present Emperor (Toturi XII) is weak, and the Empire is stifled into a forced “peace” by Miya Shikan (who eventually goes completely off the rails). When conflict finally breaks out, it’s a crazy free-for-all, including various clans backing different possible heirs (which gets crazy when it turns out that half of them are illegitimate – but which half?), and the Lion just trying to take the whole thing over. Oh, and did I mention that the gaijin are finally back, and start trying to undermine the throne as well, hoping to make Rokugan into a puppet state and eventually, a colony? And it all wraps up with a giant evil guy that needs to be killed.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Stupendous. Seriously, go play it. First, it’s a big epic conflict sort of era that is specifically designed so that the PCs can be placed at the center of the action. It’s kind of like the Clan War (including lots and lots of detail if you want it), except the team that takes down the big bad is just empty spots for the PCs to step into. Second, you can go download something like 76 modules to play through this era (they’re available in the archives at www.heroes-of-rokugan.com). These give the players lots of little adventures to play through and slowly see the story evolve, although you’ll have to make up your own details for some of the big events, since those were done in large convention sessions, rather than modules. Third, even if your players are long-time L5R fans, there’s still a decent chance that they don’t have much, if any, idea of what goes on during this time frame, so the ending won’t be spoiled.
– NPCs Detailed: Akodo Gintaku (sociopathic Lion Clan Champion), O-Doji Koneko (Crane Clan manipulator), Shosuro Hido (Shosuro family daimyo and one of the plotters against the throne), Kagekaze (ronin assassin)
– Game Mechanics: Ronin families (Kaeru, Tsi, Tsume, Yotsu), Tsume Pikemen (Rank 3 Ronin Path), Tiger Clan (new Minor Clan), Yotsu Bushi School (basic school)
The Thousand Years of Darkness: Also known as KYD, this was the original alternate L5R setting – “what if Fu Leng had won on the Second Day of Thunder?” Answer: bad times. Many of the Thunders die (or worse). Fu Leng’s forces eventually conquer all of Rokugan. The remaining Rokugani (mostly Unicorn and Mantis) end up setting up shop in the Ivory Kingdoms. The KYD timeline lasts for about 25 years, long enough to introduce many prominent post-time-jump (see the Spirit Wars section above) characters from the normal timeline. There is no emphatic ending to this timeline.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Fair, unless your PCs really want to lose a lot, or you want to go beyond the official timeline and have your characters support the KYD versions of the Four Winds. If playing during the active KYD timeline, the PCs will be restricted to minor/guerilla actions, punctuated by crushing defeats for the good guys. You might be able to make an alternate twist to the alternate timeline (possibly continuing a Clan War era campaign), letting the Thunders lose, but then later giving the PCs the opportunity to recover the 12th Black Scroll and be the heroes who actually do take down Fu Leng.
– NPCs Detailed: Hakumei (peasant ninja), Hoturi the Heartless (what you get after Fu Leng rips the heart out of the Crane Clan Champion, and then brings him back to life), Seppun Matsuo (Mantis general), Kuni Osaku (Earth shugenja prodigy)
– Game Mechanics: KYD Oracles, Enraged Kami (the kami are so mad at the whole Fu Leng situation that it is much easier for a pure shugenja to gain their assistance), The Acolytes of Thunder (Yoritomo Shugenja Rank 4 Path), the Ashura (monsters), Blood of Ashura (item), Tadaka’s Children (magical construct soldiers)
There is also a three-page index, including entries for particular years.
Overall, Imperial Histories is my favorite 4th Edition book so far. It provides a lot of new material and/or material that was only previously available scattered in snippets far across the various short fictions, novels, and RPG books that have been produced for the L5R setting over the last 15 years. It’s a great read, even for someone who is very familiar with the setting, as (even in the sections that aren’t entirely new) there will be new details and old details you had long forgotten about. If you’re an L5R fan, or you want to make sure your RPG books are a good read even if you may not get around to playing it, then Imperial Histories is great.
If you’re playing the L5R RPG, however, and are looking for the most useful book for active use in an ongoing campaign, then Imperial Histories probably shouldn’t be at the top of your list. Yes, it has obligatory crunch, but the nature of a book like this is that much of it isn’t going to be actively useful. Unless you are considering running a campaign set during one of the time frames, then you’d find Emerald Empire, Great Clans, and probably Enemies of the Empire to be a more immediately useful purchase (if you are a player, and your GM is considering running a game in one of these time frames, you might want to consider actively avoiding reading the chapter on that time frame). And, as noted above, while some of the time frames have great potential for a campaign, some of them don’t. I don’t think this is in any way an impediment to it being a great book, but maybe you do.
And, if my glowing commentary from above wasn’t enough, let me re-iterate that you will be doing yourself a favor if you pick up The Imperial Histories and play through Heroes of Rokugan: Champions of the Sapphire Throne.