The Great Clans is a supplement for the Legend of the Rive Rings RPG (4th Edition). Great Clans is a 302-page, full-color 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.
Great Clans is a look at the 7/8/9 Great Clans of the Empire (all nine are covered, but a couple don’t exist or are minor clans depending on the time period) – history, families, outlook, and so forth, mostly flavor but with crunchy bits.
The layout for Great Clans has the same excellent format of the other books in this edition of the L5R RPG. However, there was at least one instance of overenthusiastic use of the “blood spatter” effect of the sidebars covering the body text so that I couldn’t make out some words. Other than that, the layout was as usual flavorful without getting in the way, and I didn’t notice any other 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.
The writing was good overall, although I found the Mantis chapter a bit flat and repetitive, and the Scorpion chapter didn’t do a great job in its efforts to tackle tricky topics (such as why the other Clans haven’t just wiped out a group that they all hate, or the mess that L5R has made of the “ninja myth”).
Each normal Great Clan gets its own Chapter, with the Spider given Appendix A (note that the Spider section does not really cover what happens past when the Spider actually become a Great Clan, which happened less than a year ago in real-time). Each Clan’s chapter covers the high points of the Clan’s history, looks at each of the Clan’s families, presents some heroes of the Clan, talks about five particular holdings, and has 3-4 unique topics about the Clan, how it fits into Rokugan, what daily life is like, or whatever. Each Clan also gets new mechanics, including schools, paths, kata (Strength of the X), ancestors, and the Clan’s ancestral sword.
- Heroes: Hida Osano-Wo (child of the Kami Hida and the Thunder Dragon; later became the Fortune of Fire and Thunder), Hiruma Mai, Kaiu Gineza (designed Iuchiban’s tomb), Yasuki Fumoki (pirate), Kuni Osaku (saved the Crab while the Wall was built), Hida Kisada (a great traitor later redeemed), Hida Yakamo (Crab Thunder), Toritaka Genzo (led the Falcon to join the Crab), Yasuki Taka (Kolat double agent),
- Locations: Shinsei’s Last Hope, Tani Hitokage, Fundai Mura, East Mountain Village, Watchtower of the East
- Discussion Topics: Siege Warfare and the Crab (including rules for siege engines and traps), Life on the Wall, Crab Naval Power: The Iron Turtle Ships, The Damned Berserkers
- Mechanics: Kaiu Engineer (basic school if you like crafting armor, weapons, and siege things), Kuni Witch-Hunter (anti-Shadowlands basic school with the Monk tag), Toritaka Exorcist (rank 2 anti-spirit path), Hiruma (ancestor who boosts stealth and attack rolls), Kaiu (ancestor who boosts craft and engineering rolls)
- Heroes: Doji Raigu (the Crane member of the Gozoku triumvirate), Kakita Wayozu, Daidoji Masahigi (the original Iron Crane), Doji Barahime (art critic), Kakita Rensei, Kakita Ryoku, Doji Hoturi (Crane Thunder), Doji Takihiro (a Kolat), Yasuki Hachi (Emerald Champion who almost brought the Yasuki back into the Crane)
- Locations: Niwa Shita no Kage Toshi (Garden Under Shadow City), Water Music Village, Yufuku na Heigen Toshi (Prosperous Plains City), Daidoji Training Grounds, Jurijin Seido, Giji Seido
- Discussion Topics: The Crane and Power Politics, The War of Art, Courtly Romance: How To Have An Affair in Rokugan
- Mechanics: Daidoji Scout School (basic school, includes new traps), Kakita Artisans (basic school), Kakita Jesters (Rank 5 path), Kakita Master Artisans (advanced school), Asahina (ancestor who boosts pacifistic pursuits for shugenja), Doji Hayaku (anti-Shadowlands ancestor who boosts spear attacks)
- Heroes: Lady Agasha (founder of the family), Mirumoto Hojatsu (son of Mirumoto and author of Niten), Agasha Daikoju (inventor of alchemy), Togashi Yamatsu (scourge of Iuchiban), Agasha Kitsuki (founder of the Kitsuki family), Togashi Mitsu (the original firebreathing monk), Mirumoto Hitomi (Dragon Clan Thunder), Tamori Shaitung (the first Tamori daimyo who didn’t become a Dark Oracle of Fire), Mirumoto Rosanjin
- Locations: Great Falls Castle, Morning Frost Castle, Mountain Summit Temple, The Hoshi Trading House
- Discussion Topics: Enlightened Madness, Kitsuki’s Method, The Dragon Clan Monastic Tradition
- Mechanics: Enlightened Madness (Disadvantage), Mirumoto Master Sensei (advanced school), Tamori Master of the Mountain (advanced school), Kitsuki Debater (Rank 3 path for Kitsuki Investigators), The Dragon’s Flame (Rank 4 path for Mirumoto)
- Heroes: Ikoma (founder of the family), Kitsu Chiyoko (the first Lion to develop their spirit realms magic), Matsu Itagi (Clan Champion exemplar of Lion brashness), Matsu Hitomi (tragic hero), Kitsu Motso (a rare Kitsu Clan Champion), Akodo Ginawa (hero of the Clan War), Ikoma Otemi (Lion on a boat), Matsu Kenji, Iweko Setai (consort of the first Iweko Empress)
- Locations: The Ikoma Plains, Toshi no Meiyo Gisei, Rugashi, Kenson Gakka, Otori’s Shame
- Discussion Topics: The Lion and the Art of War, The Deathseeker Tradition, The Lion and Ancestral Worship, The Lion Beastmasters
- Mechanics: Heartless (Advantage), Matsu Beastmasters (basic school for lion-tamers), Akodo Tactical Master (advanced school for mass combat leadership), Akodo Kensai (rank 4 bushi path for swordsmen), Lion Scout (rank 2 bushi path), Lion Paragon (rank 3 bushi path high-honor people), Kitsu (ancestor for matters related to the spirit realms), Matsu Hitomi (ancestor for resisting temptation, fear, intimidation, etc.)
- Heroes: Kaimetsu-Uo (founder of the Mantis), Moshi Azami (founder of the Moshi), Gusai (got the Mantis recognized as a minor clan), Kitsune Ryosei (leader of the Fox Clan during the Clan War who rejected Yoritomo), Tsuruchi (founder of that family), Yoritomo (Da Man), Yoritomo Aramasu (former Scorpion who led the Mantis), Yoritomo Kumiko (Clan Champ),
- Locations: Kaimetsu-Uo Seido, Maigosera Seido, Village of the Grand Song, Quiet Stream Village, Matamori no Tokoro
- Discussion Topics: The Mantis and the Heimin, Piracy, Pirateers, and the Mantis Navy,
- Mechanics: Mantis Brawler (basic school for drunken louts), Tsuruchi Bounty Hunter (basic school), Yoritomo Shugenja (basic school), Moshi Guardian of the Sun (shugenja path), Kitsune Ranger (rank 2 bushi path for sneaking and noticing), Moshi Azami (ancestor that protects from the sun and fire), Osusuki & Akomachi (kitsune spirits who serve as ancestors and let you speak with animals and always find food and water)
- Heroes: Asako (founder of the family), Shiba Gaijushiko (one of the leaders of the Gozoku), Shiba Toriiko, Isawa Ujina, Isawa Tadaka (Phoenix Thunder), Shiba Tsukune (Clan Champion and later Fortune), Agasha Gennai (led the Agasha from the Dragon to the Phoenix), Isawa Hochiu, Isawa Ochiai
- Locations: Shrine of Champions, Jurojin Seido, The Shrine of Uikku, Orange Flame Village
- Discussion Topics: The Phoenix and the Yojimbo Tradition, Samurai Pacifism, Reincarnation and the Phoenix,
- Mechanics: Void Versatility (advantage), Asako Henshin (basic school for Phoenix monks), Asako Inquisitors (advanced school), Elemental Legions (rank 3 bushi path), Order of Chikai (advanced yojimbo school), Dance of the Winds (kata), Isawa (ancestor who gives additional spells), Naka Kaeteru (ancestor to let you regain spell slots)
- Heroes: Bayushi Nissho, Soshi Saibankan (creator of Rokugan’s “what, me, lie?” justice system), Shosuro Nodage (creator of the “ninja myth”), Soshi Takasho, Yogo Itoju (founder of the Kuroiban), Bayushi Ogoe (king of the “lose on purpose” strategy), Bayushi Kachiko (Scorpion Thunder), Bayushi Baku (vengeful spirit), Shosuro Higatsuku,
- Locations: Fortress of Blackened Sight, Hidden Moon Dojo, Nihiai Tower, Painted Village, Toshi Aitate
- Discussion Topics: The Scorpion and Necessary Villainy, The Ninja Myth,
- Mechanics: Shosuro Actors (basic school), Yogo Wardmasters (basic shugenja school), Kuroiban (anti-Taint shugenja path), Yogo (ancestor who boosts ward magic), Soshi Saibankan (ancestor who boosts Perception and Law rolls)
- Heroes: Shinjo Kemuri (first leader after Shinjo herself), Shinjo Kochamon, Ide Tadaji, Iuchi Karasu (the Doomseeker), Otaku Kamoko (Unicorn Thunder), Shinjo Tashima, Moto Gaheris (the first Khan), Horiuchi Wakiza
- Locations: Daikoku’s Golden Wind, Egami Mura, Mizu Mura (Lake Town), Seikitsu Pass and the City of Night
- Discussion Topics: Strangers in a Strange Land, Unicorn Justice and Compassion, The Unicorn and the Kolat
- Mechanics: Meishodo Shugenja (basic school), Moto Vindicator (anti-Shadowlands basic school), Ide Trader (rank 2 path for courtiers), Moto Fanatic (rank 4 berserker-ish alternate path), Utaku Horse Master (rank 2 stablehand alternate path for Utaku men)
– Spider (Appendix One)
- “Heroes:” Daigotsu, Michio, Suzume Sahara, Chuda Ruri, Goju Asagi
- Locations: Black Silk Castle, Temple of the Forsaken, The Fanged Temple,
- Discussion Topics: Daigotsu’s Ideals and the Spider: The Dark Mirror, Villains as PCs? The Spider Clan in Play, The Spider Clan and the Forces of the Nothing,
- Mechanics: Chuda Necromancer (rank 2 alternate path), Eternal Unrest (maho spell), The Art of Ninjutsu (kata), Chuda Bikimi (ancestor who boosts stealth), Yogo Junzo (ancestor who gives bonuses for having Forbidden Knowledge)
There are another couple of appendices past the Spider one. Appendix two covers a giant stack of vassal families. Appendix three brings back Heritage tables.
The Great Clans is a fantastic resource for establishing your character in Rokugan – not only additional crunch for any Clan, but also an additional understanding of how your character’s Clan will affect the character, and what sort of background he/she is from. I still think that Emerald Empire is the more important book for getting to understand Rokugan (the basic cultural distinctions of the setting are, IMHO, more important for establishing flavor than the particular outlook of each Clan; this is not a random western medieval setting where different groups are just variations on well-known culture). However, as a great resource for a newer player, the fluff is less of a resource for the L5R fanatic – unlike Imperial Histories, the super-fan is not going to find a lot of rich new detail here, as it’s covering pretty standard stuff (exception: the vassal family appendix, which I guarantee will have stuff you never heard of or had forgotten). The crunch is still pretty vital for any player who wants a full range of basic archetype options, however, including such staples as the Crane artisan and the Phoenix Henshin. If you’re playing L5R in 4th Edition, you definitely want Great Clans to go along with your core book and Emerald Empire.
Random other thoughts:
The section on each family describes the family’s mon (sigil), and the significance of the imagery. But it doesn’t have a picture of the mon. I know that images of the mons have been published elsewhere before, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be to include discussions of these images without the images themselves.
Great Clans has some additional examples of what is, to me, sloppy design/wording. For example, the Kaiu schools replaces the usual +1k1 bonus when spending a Void point with a +2k2 bonus, and the Kaiu ancestor replaces the usual +1k1 bonus with a +3k1. What happens if you’re a member of the Kaiu school who has the Kaiu ancestor? No way to tell except by going on the internet and asking the designers what they meant to say. This would mostly be fine (it’s hard to be crystal clear about everything in these sorts of products), except there always seem to be proponents of the notion that, rather than a minor bit of sloppy, this is perfectly fine and is just an example of “L5R Your Way.” Giving me different options for rules or eras is letting me play a game “my way.” Writing ambiguous rules that I have to just make up the answer to is not a feature. I say this as if every game doesn’t have a few fanboys with annoying tics.
If you aren’t familiar with heritage tables, they’re basically optional random character background/crunch generators – you get to roll some dice and see what happens. I’m not personally a big fan of them, because (1) I just don’t like this level of randomness in character creation and (2) there’s a decent chance that your roll with produce a major change in your character, so they don’t mesh well with pre-thought-out character concepts. With that said, some people like them, they’re a throwback to old L5R, and so I don’t have any heartburn with seeing them in an appendix to some supplement. What I do dislike, however, is that one of the nine Clans gets a vastly superior set of tables to the other. For all of the “normal” Clans, you have a 30% chance of getting something bad, a 40% chance of getting something good, and a 30% chance of getting a mixed blessing. The Spider, on the other hand, don’t have a bad outcome on their chart. You have a 30% chance of a good result, a 50% chance of a “mixed” result (where the downside is nothing more than a story hook disadvantage), and a 20% chance of an even better result. I do not like mechanical systems that are deliberately skewed for or against one type/class/whatever of character. So this rather annoys me.
On the bright side, there is finally, a path to replace the Rank 4 Mirumoto bushi technique (that I hate)! And with lots of crunch options, including rounding out some basic concepts that go beyond the four basic schools in the core book, there’s a reasonable chance there’s something you’d like for a character as well. It will also make a fun read if you’re just interested in the L5R setting.