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

Strongholds of the Empire is the first PDF release for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (4th Edition). Clocking in at 170 pages, it is available from DriveThruRPG as a PDF or print-on-demand, in softcover or full-color hardcover versions.

The Basics

Strongholds has presents eight cities/villages (sort-of one per Great Clan, with Toshi Ranbo serving for both Crane and Lion), plus three shorter write-ups on other settlements. Despite what the title might indicate, they are not castles and do not necessarily feature any sort of fortification.

Strongholds had a hard road making it to publication. It was originally slated to be released before the Fourth Edition core book, and be the first product compatible with 4E. It was also supposed to have the second basic Unicorn bushi class, the Shinjo Bushi. Some issues with maps, however, resulted in the book getting pushed back, the Shinjo Bushi going elsewhere, and a determination that a standard release of Strongholds was no longer economically viable. And so that’s how L5R came to take the plunge on a PDF-only release, although Strongholds has taken a while to bring to market because (I am under the impression) dealing with it always had to take a back seat to the standard releases.

Oh, and if you were wondering – I didn’t miss having maps at all.

Writing/Editing/Layout/Art/Assembly

With a couple of exceptions, these were all excellent. The ability of the L5R RPG to draw from the CCG art base really shined here, as there was not decline in art quality due to the PDF-only release. The layout was also the usual L5R 4E good stuff, without any goofs that I noticed. I also liked all of the writing – with all the authors, I’m guessing it was something like one author for each chapter, a process which can sometimes result in 1-2 dragging, but that didn’t happen here.

The editing was a bit vexing. On the one hand, the micro level editing was great – I recall only seeing one goof in the whole thing, a random reference to the non-existent maps that made it through, and I usually pick up on at least several in a normal read-through of any RPG supplement. So that’s pretty good. On the other hand, there were four really blatant macro-level things – two paragraphs that were repeated on a subsequent page, one section that just randomly stopped mid-sentence, and two Disadvantages on the same page with different titles that do the exact same thing (Imperial City Stigma and Trials of the Imperial City) . There’s going to be an updated version of the PDF (that will be made available to everyone who already bought a copy), which will hopefully fix these.

Also fixed will be a PDF goof where there’s some sort of error if you scroll all the way down to the bottom. This one seems to be a DriveThru problem, however, as they’re the ones who actually create the PDFs, not the publishers. This review is based on the PDF version, and I haven’t seen a physical one, but reports are that the print-on-demand hardcovers are almost as nice as the normal hardcover L5R 4E books, and those are very nice (I have heard nothing about the softcover POD version). The Strongholds So what are those 8+ strongholds anyway? Every city has a City X Citizen Advantage and a City X Stigma Disadvantage, so I won’t re-type each of those out below. The cities tend to skew towards “current” Rokugan, but a few are set in other times.

Broken Wave City – This Mantis city was built on a giant chunk of the seabed that was formed into an island by the Phoenix Master of Earth at the end of the War of Fire and Thunder when the Phoenix/Mantis stopped fighting each other to fight against the forces of the Corrupted former Mantis Champion (no, there wasn’t really any good reason why the Mantis ended up in control of the island). Unfortunately, Broken Wave City little no sense on a lot of levels. The place is massively built up, despite having no arable land and no fresh water. This requires that Mantis shugenja be used D&D style to just cast Create Food and Water over and over again every day – which is (IMHO) entirely out of character with how shugenja are portrayed in Legend of the Five Rings. Other than the results of its unusual creation, Broken Wave City mostly serves as a port town.
– NPCs detailed: Yoritomo Ninsei (governor), Tsuruchi Takamasa (chief magistrate), Shiba Sayoko (Phoenix ambassador who hates the Mantis), Watanabe Al-Zayan (harbormaster)
– Mechanics: Inheritance: Kobune (you have a kobune ship and crew), Kitsune Artisan (R2 path for Kitsune Shugenja; spend an Earth spell slot for a boost on Artisan or Craft), Tsuruchi Swordsman (R4 path for Tsuruchi Archers and Bounty Hunters; get your second attack with a sword)

Clear Water Village – This coastal city of the Crab Clan (it’s on Earthquake Fish Bay) is ostensibly run by a Hida, but is primarily a Yasuki merchant town with some massive Kaiu defenses in case the Crane try to seize it again. The walls include a tower used by the Kuni for interrogating those suspected of harboring the taint. Since the Crab are always on something of a wartime footing, there’s a lot of security even once inside the city, with movement between districts tightly controlled. This city is presented as it was in the “past.”
– NPCs detailed: Hida Matsuro (governor who wishes he was still killing monsters), Hida Utaku (captain of the guard); Yasuki Sumiko (merchant patron), Yasuki Funtaru (traitor), Hiruma Hotaro (sensei for new technique), Hiruma Genjuro (naval commander), Kuni Akiko (witch hunter who’s questioning the brutality of their methods), Bayushi Akana (Scorpion red herring), The Great One (a really big shark)
– Mechanics: Hiruma Yojimbo (R2 path for Hiruma), Yasuki Enforcer (R2 alternate path the enhances bullying for Yasuki Courtier or Hida Pragmatist) Black Pearls, tainted Puzzle Boxes, the Sea Dragon Daisho

Dark Edge Village – The host of the Emerald Championship for hundreds of years (starting with the first one, which was won by Kakita), Dark Edge Village eventually lost its responsibilities after the Unicorn returned – because the village was now in clan-aligned territory, it became a political issue, and was eventually moved to different unaligned territory. Now the village barely subsists on trade revenue, while struggling to maintain the dueling grounds and other facilities built for the Emerald Tournaments.
– NPCs detailed: Ide Oyunbileg (town administrator), Iuchi Masuyo (shugenja charged with tending to shrines and the dueling grounds), Moto Kenta (arbitrator of the few duels there still are here), Ide Makoto (sensei of the Calm Heart Dojo), Tonbo Yoshito (emissary from the Dragonfly)
– Mechanics: Calm Heart Duelist (R3 path for any Unicorn bushi that gives a boost in non-lethal duels and gives the second attack), Ide Caravan Master (R1 path for Ide Courtiers for merchant types)

Nikesake – Featured in what is probably my favorite chapter of the book is this scholarly city of the Phoenix that represents their long friendship with the Crane (going all the way back to the amicable resolution of the Isawa Asahina situation) and has become a diplomatic hub. The city features philosophers, a wide array of print shops, and an assortment of shrines. Also, they love hats.
– NPCs detailed: Shiba Ekken (came to be governor of Nikesake through a distant relation; hates hats), Shiba Seishisai (defender of the city, constantly prepares for a possible Lion attack), Isawa Kuki (rhetoritician, sensei, devii’s advocate), Chinone (head monk, super-pacifist)
– Mechanics: Inheritance: Asahina Blade (wakizashi that boosts the Guard action); Asako Philosopher (R2 path for Asako Loremaster; boosts contested Etiquette rolls); Provincial Guard (R2 path for Shiba Bushi; uses Etiquette to boost Void Points spent to raise Armor TN while fighting defensively)

Otosan Uchi – The former capital of Rokugan is depicted here in its post-being-smashed-by-Daigotsu state and (from what I can tell) before the Spider were condemned by the Empress/were awarded Great Clan status by the Empress (Otosan Uchi in all of its glory has previously been covered in the box set of the same name). The city is a partially-Tainted ruin with Yotsu ronin, some Spider, some Ninube, random low-level Shadowlands things, and wild animals running around. The chapter has a few interesting particular location, but is distinct from the rest of the book in that it presents what is essentially a combat-oriented location, rather than a social-oriented one. IMHO, this makes it less useful, as the level of detail needed to really use material like this is higher than what there’s space for in this book.
– NPCs detailed: Shosuro Meiyoko (one of the district governors from before the city fell), Yotsu Motoko (gunso)
– Mechanics: Stolen Identity (your probably Spider character finds the trapping of someone’s life, and can use it to create an alias), Daigotsu Scout (R2 path for Daigotsu Bushi; makes Stealth a school skill and removes some drawbacks to using it), Dark Path Sohei (R2 path for Spider monks; grants Kiho)

Water Hammer City – This city is located in Dragon territory, but was founded by a Brotherhood monk and has strong Mantis, Unicorn, and Scorpion presence. Water Hammer City is the home of new smithing techniques that use a scale of the Water Dragon as an anvil, and the entire city revolves around that center. The presence of large contingents of the non-Dragon Clans isn’t explained well, but it still serves to provide a city that’s different in that it  isn’t just mono-Clan (most cities) or a conglomerate of everyone (imperial capitals).
– NPCs detailed: Kitsuki Kadiri (governor; fire shugenja out to get some Bloodspeakers), Togashi Minoru (chief magistrate; rather eccentric; thinks the Kitsuki Method is useless); Kitsuki Asuko (yoriki to the Method-hating Minoru), Haru (master smith), Mirumoto Arimi (follower of Shourido and sensei for the Mirumoto Sentinels)
– Mechanics: Inheritance: Water Hammer Armor (grants additional Reduction), Mirumoto Sentinel (path for R4 Mirumoto Bushi or R3 Taoist Swordsman; builds off the Way of the Land advantage to boost skills and can reduce opponents’ movement rate), Water Hammer Smith (R2 path for any Dragon school; you may spend a Void Point or a water spell slot to boost all Craft skills for the day)

Toshi Ranbo – This takes up the “slot” for both Crane and Lion in Strongholds, but primarily presents the city as it exists after it has become the Imperial capital (prior to that it was a point of conflict between the Lion and the Crane, especially during the “active storyline” starting with the Clan Wars, where it changed hands several times). This chapter focuses a lot on the way that the cities districts have grown and changed since it became the capital. Even though it is longer than the other chapters, it suffers because there is just so much going on in the city and there’s no way to cover enough of it in this format. This makes the Toshi Ranbo section an interesting read, and generally informative about the city, but I’m not sure how much it enables actually dropping the PCs into it.
– NPCs detailed: Bayushi Tsimaru (governor of the center of the city; unsurprisingly abuses his position), Ikoma Munoto (idealistic captain of the city wall guard, having difficulty accepting corruption), Seppun Madoka (obsessive and dedicated magistrate), Asahina Oniji (ikebana sensei), Sotaro (emissary from the monks), Toritaka Kadiri (magistrate who has given up on fighting the corruption – notice a theme?), Kakita Hogai (go master)
– Mechanics: Crane Elite Spearman (R2 path for Daidoji; when you hit someone with a spear, they have a harder time hitting you this round), Ikoma Warden (R2 path for Akodo Bushi or Ikoma Lion’s Shadow; boosts mounted combat), Lioness Legion (R2 path for several Lion bushi schools; grants additional movement), Doji Warrior-Poet (R2 Kakita Bushi path; enhances Void Point usage and Glory rewards in iaijutsu duels and poetry contests)

Zakyo Toshi – This city spent most of its history under merchant control (it was founded by commoners, not samurai), starting out as a trade hub and then becoming more of a center of crime in order to induce bandits to stop raiding the place. It has recently been taken over by the Scorpion, however. The city now has three power centers – the newly-minted Scorpion governor, the traditional merchant council rulers (membership is determined by profit during the prior year), and the street gangs. As one might expect, Zakyo Toshi features a lot of markets and a lot of geisha houses.
– NPCs detailed: Yogo Maiku (governor), Tamotsu/Bayushi Chou (Scorpion spymaster), Hayate (the ultimate leader of the gangs), Chisai and Iwao (pure pekkles who come into conflict with the gangs and anyone with the Taint), Nyoko (eta headwoman)
– Mechanics: Scorpion Weaponmaster (R4 Bayushi Bushi path; lets you use one Weapon Skill in place of another when making attack rolls), Shadow Blades (R3 Ninja path for Bayushi Bushi or Shosuro Infiltrator; grants second attack and boosts melee Ninja weapons, aka the ninja-to)

Seitou Tason – The first of three “unaligned settlements” included in the appendix, Seitou Tason serves the role of generic village. It includes one NPC, the headman, Danyu.

Porisuko – This town was founded by a ronin otokodate. They are a generally honorable bunch, and hire themselves out as guards.
– NPCs detailed: Shiba Kenji (newly-appointed imperial tax collector; seeks vengeance on a mujina who ruined his life), Meigumi (teenager, master swordswoman, and leader of the ronin)
– Mechanics: The Guards’ Wrath (R2 ronin technique; boosts the Guard action), Wanderer (Disadvantage that says you really shouldn’t try to Navigate anywhere), Bounty (Disadvantage that, well, puts a bounty on your head)

Kudo Mura – This city is the informal “capital” of the Minor Clan Alliance. It’s too bad it couldn’t get more space, if only to see write-ups of the various MCA ambassadors.
– NPCs detailed: Toku Kiyuko (virtuous governor), Kasuga Taisuke (Tortoise ambassador who was tasked with getting Kiyuko to marry a Tortoise; promptly fell in love with her), Yoshitaka (gang lord from before the MCA set up shop; benefits from higher population but is now at greater risk of being caught)
– Mechanics: Fireman Gang Lord (R2 ronin technique; uses Intimidation to boost all Contested Social rolls), Minor Clan Alliance Diplomat (R4 path for any Minor Clan school; grants a large bonus on social rolls against Great Clan samurai)

Verdict

Strongholds of the Empire provides some handy locations for PCs to visit and, for the most part, provides a sufficient amount of detail to make the place interesting and useful without drowning you in detail – even Broken Wave City, which I bash on conceptual grounds, is fine for a visit. As noted above, the two exceptions to this are the two Imperial Cities, which just can’t be adequately covered in one ninth of a supplement.

The addition of the Citizen and Stigma Advantages and Disadvantages also provides a nice way to encourage players to use these cities in their characters’ backgrounds.

The other crunchy bits are something of a hodge-podge – some of them link to the location presented and/or the NPCs there (such as the MCA diplomat or the Water Hammer Smith), but others seem to just be random aspects of the clan in question (such as most of the paths in Toshi Ranbo section.

If you aren’t going to use the cities in your campaign, Strongholds is still a solid read, although it won’t reveal any new mysteries of Rokugan, if that’s what you’re looking for (well, maybe the Otosan Uchi section, if you want to know what the corrupted versions of some of the city’s landmarks).

Promotional consideration was provided by the publisher in the form of a review copy.

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