Imperial Histories 2 is a supplement for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (4th Edition). Imperial Histories 2 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 Quick Take: A fun read on its own right, although it does not achieve the difficult task of living up to its excellent predecessor (but, really, what chance did it have of that? IH1 sets a high bar). A must-read for anyone who digs Legend of the Five Rings/Rokugan.
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 2 is a follow-up to last year’s wildly successful Imperial Histories, and like its predecessor, presents a series of historical past, possible future, and alternate-universe versions of Rokugan. While the original Imperial Histories presented ten time frames, IH2 presents 13, and there’s a bigger presence of non-historical scenarios (five out of the thirteen chapters).
The layout for Imperial Histories 2 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 (bonus: the RPG sometimes gives a glimpse of cards yet to come, as the RPG has access to the art to use even if the card in question hasn’t yet seen print). 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 (although you probably wouldn’t notice unless you’re a player of the CCG as well) and, for some of the full page pieces for each chapter, art selections that don’t translate that well to a full page.
Editing is OK, with a reasonably small number of typos, although there is one entire paragraph accidentally replacing another in one of the school descriptions. Oops.
Each of the thirteen 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 section or two on what’s distinctive about playing in this era, some NPCs, and applicable crunch (the quantity and nature of the crunch varies greatly from chapter to chapter). Each era gets a 20-page or so treatment.
The Togashi Dynasty: Imperial Histories 2 kicks off with a “what if?” chapter – in this case, “what if Togashi had won the tournament of the Kami?” (for those of you not steeped in the lore of Rokugan, this contest selected which of the children of the gods would become the first Emperor). It’s also different from the usual alternate history chapters in that it’s more of a series of meditations on what a GM might do with this scenario than an actual setting. There’s one timeline-ish description that presents possible takes on the big canon events, and another that goes into more exotic notions like a Naga-Nezumi war.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Hard to say, because it isn’t really a setting, just a collection of ideas.
– Game Mechanics: If Togashi becomes Emperor, then Hantei doesn’t, and so Hantei has to found a Clan like the rest of the Kami do. So this chapter presents the Owl Clan, which is heavily focused on dealing with nonhumans. Mechanics include the Hantei family, Yoshun family, the Hantei Bushi basic school, the Otomo Diplomats basic school, the Seppun shugenja basic school, a monk order called the Scholars of the First Dawn and the Sacred Weapon: Owl Blade advantage.
– NPCs Detailed: Togashi Hoshi (son of Togashi), Isawa Kusaeri (wife of Hoshi, creator of a mystical barrier around Rokugan), Seppun Yoshun (founder of the Yoshun family of the Owl Clan)
The Reign of the Shining Prince: The original Imperial Histories featured the Dawn of the Empire, and IH2 includes the immediately following time frame, which consists of the quite long reign of the second Emperor, Hantei Genji (about 200 years). As you might guess from the length of that time frame, this chapter is more of a general time frame setting than a particular series of events for the characters to play through. At the start of the time period almost all of the Kami are still around; but the time it’s done they’ve all died or left in some other way. This time sees the start of the rivalry between the Kakita and the Mirumoto, the Kakita and the Matsu, the genocide of the Kitsu, internal squabbling in the Phoenix, the resolution of core religious issues between Fortunism and Shinseism, the creation of the Mantis, the departure of the Ki-Rin, the codification of the Rokugani legal system, and the first war between the Great Clans.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Fair+. I said of the Dawn of the Empire setting “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.” That is basically true of the Reign of the Shining Prince setting, except everything is less extreme. Traditions and customs become more and more developed as the time period goes on. The Kami are less and less around and involved. So it’s better than Dawn of the Empire to play in if you want to go really ancient history with a campaign, but don’t want cosmic powers flying around, or if you want to give the characters a role in developing some early customs and traditions of the Empire (in canon most of that amounts to “because Lady Doji said so, and Genji deferred to her,” but there’s room to play with that).
– Game Mechanics: Clan Spells
– NPCs Detailed: Hantei Genji, Matsu Kiriko (bloodthirsty daughter of the original Matsu), Kaiu Norio (a Yasuki for when the Crab didn’t have Yasuki yet)
The Iron Empire: The second alternate history chapter, The Iron Empire starts with a “what if” scenario where the Battle of White Stag does not result in a dead Empress, Rokugan becomes more open to gaijin interaction, and this results in technological improvements, including the introduction of firearms. And, as it does in real world history, this results in social upheaval, most particularly including a threat to the superiority of highly-trained and heavily-armored guys with swords on the battlefield. The Iron Empire is set about 300 years after the Battle of White Stag, and the current Empress is going out on a limb by trying to invent the locomotive, build a railroad that services all or Rokugan, and making legal changes in order to make this process go more smoothly. Resistance to social changes, combined with a good old-fashioned political power grab, has pushed Rokugan to tbe brink of civil war.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Excellent. The Iron Empire hits a sweet spot with enough specifics about the “past” to really give the GM a handle on what’s going on, while setting up a sandbox with ready-made plot that the PCs can get involved in and influence. While I’m not terribly enamored with the pre-history of Rokugan’s samurai culture, I do think there’s a lot of room to play in settings that give the PCs all of that culture and then see how they handle its unraveling.
– Game Mechanics: Rokugani firearms of various sorts, including a new skill to use them
– NPCs Detailed: Empress Hantei Meisho, Seppun Tadaka (former Emerald Champion, now leads a breakaway city-state that is seeking to preserve traditional values), Hantei Kano (the Empress’s younger brother, who has been manipulating the situation and fomenting conflict in order seize power)
Heresy of the Five Rings: Like the Great Famine chapter in the original Imperial Histories, the Heresy of the Five Rings presents a historical, canon event that was created for the purposes of being a chapter in this supplement. Spanning about 20 years in the early fifth century (when there were six Great Clans), the titular heresy of the chapter is that there are five Rings/elements, and so there should be five Great Clans, and recent woes in the Empire have been caused by this imbalance (according to the heresy, the Unicorn left because they knew they were an excess clan of Water). In particular, the heresy asserts that there are two clans of Air, and so the Scorpion and the Crane must be collapsed into a single clan (the Hawk Clan). The heresy is helped along by leading figures in other Clans who see it as a political weapon against the Scorpion and Crane, and by the Emperor’s refusal to condemn the heresy. Violence erupts between some clans, and within the Brotherhood of Shinsei as the heretics grow bolder. The heresy comes undone after it is condemned as a False Path by the Brotherhood and its leader overreacts, resulting in the condemnation of the Emperor as well.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Not sure. On the one hand, there’s usually good fodder to be found in samurai adjusting (or not) to changes in philosophy and reality (The Great Famine, from IH1, was a good example of this). But The Heresy of the Five Rings seems so much more about Great Clan politics than tradition or religion.
– Game Mechanics: Order of the Five Rings (Brotherhood Monk school), Hawk Purists (Ronin Courtier path)
– NPCs Detailed: Gorinno (leader of the heresy), Isawa Amaku (Master of the Void who first supports the heresy, but later realizes the error of his ways)
The Reign of the Steel Chrysanthemum: This chapter covers the 20-year reign of Hantei XVI (the titular Steel Chrysanthemum) a brutal – and eventually paranoid to the point of insanity – Emperor whose reign of terror ended only when his Seppun bodyguards broke their oaths and killed him themselves (after XVI had ordered his head general to kill the Dowager Empress with his bare hands). This time is, in essence, a demonstration of how devoted the Rokugani are to their Emperor, in that it takes decades of brutal oppression and slaughter, acts that when committed by anyone but the Emperor would be blasphemous, and painful levels of mismanagement before anyone even tries to do something about XVI.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Depends on how much you want to make life grim for the good and/or honorable. Since the Steel Chrysanthemum’s end is set, the challenge presented here is whether, or how quickly, the characters will be willing to risk their honor and/or their necks to work against the orders of a mad Emperor.
– Game Mechanics: Member of the Chrysanthemum Court (a Disadvantage in this era, because Hantei XVI might just randomly have you killed), Order of the Stone Crab (R4 alternate path for Hida Bushi), Chrysanthemum Conspirator (R2 alternate path for any non-shugenja opposed to XVI)
– NPCs Detailed (note: the Steel Chrysanthemum and his general, Hida Tsuneo, are detailed in the Spirit Wars chapter of IH1): Miya Karuo (hedonistic daimyo of the Miya who profited from his association with XVI, before falling to the paranoia), Shosuro Tsia (head of the secret police), Suzume Kirako (an innocent who unwittingly followed XVI, protested against his extensive use of torture when she learned of it and was, for her troubles, tortured to death and then named the Fortune of Torture), Otomo Kaoichihime (the Dowager Empress)
The Eighth Century Crisis: OK, this one isn’t winning any awards for most evocative chapter titles. But that’s probably because it doesn’t focus on any one event, but rather a half-century (700-755, give or take) worth of existential threats and other conflicts that the Empire faces over several generations. These include the wars that led to the creation of the Dragonfly minor clan, the assault of The Maw (an Oni lord who raises an army and almost destroys the Crab, before The Wall is created to stop him; this is where the Hiruma lose their ancestral lands), the arrival of Asahina Yajinden (one of the most dangerous Bloodspeakers of all time) and the return of Iuchiban (the Bloodspeaker).
– Suitability for a Campaign: Good. The Eighth Century Crisis is a time period that has some big events, but isn’t super-detailed. The big events themselves aren’t necessarily great for playing – although the return of Iuchiban could probably be tweaked to make the PCs instrumental in his defeat – but several of them had significant ramifications, and using the time period immediately after these events could provide a bit of variety as a sandbox for an otherwise standard sort of campaign.
– Game Mechanics: three nemuranai (The Ruby of Iuchiban, The Helm of Daidoji Masashigi, and the Ancestral Armor of the Lion), four Oni (Kinjiro, Kiri, Yattoko, Nikoma/The Maw)
– NPCs Detailed: Shimizu Gochoku (founder of the Akodo vassal family), Reichin (founder of the Hare minor clan), Kitsu Taiko (a Lion who ended up as one of the Phoenix Elemental Masters), Doji Taehime
The Return of the Unicorn: This chapter culminates in the two-year period from 815-17 that sees the Unicorn return to Rokugan from their centuries-long jaunt into the Burning Sands. After meeting initial hostility, the Unicorn eventually win over the Crane (which mostly covers you politically) and then earns the respect of the more militant by thwomping the Lion and the Scorpion (in the archetypal “Scorpion lose on purpose in order to hide their strength” moment, which has become L5R trope that is so annoying that if it never happened again it would be too soon).
– Suitability for a Campaign: Fair, maybe. This reminds me of the White Stag entry from IH1 – yeah, it’s a noteworthy event in Rokugan, and interesting to read about, but it’s defined by one event that doesn’t really leave room for the PCs. The Return of the Unicorn has some room if you wanted to make the PCs integral to getting the Unicorn into a position where the Crane can formally recognize them (and the chapter has some suggestions on that front), so it’s not quite as closed off as White Stag.
– Game Mechanics: Utaku Mounted Infantry (basic bushi school for Utaku men, who are not allowed the honor of fighting on horseback)
– NPCs Detailed: none
The Shattered Empire: Another alternate history setting, the Shattered Empire diverges from the normal timeline at the Second Day of Thunder, with Fu Leng still being defeated, but all of the Thunders killed … except for Mirumoto Hitomi, who is touched by the Lying Darkness and uninterested in taking the throne. The story then launches into a pretty spiffy mash-up/twisting of themes from the Hidden Emperor era and the time of the Vacant Throne, plus new elements. There is no Emperor, and the Scorpion remain disbanded. With Toturi and Yakamo dead, there are no witnesses to confirm their agreement that the Mantis should be elevated to Great Clan status, and so Yoritomo begins naval attacks to back up his claims. The Crab begin to seize territory from the Crane, and the Lion begin wars on multiple fronts. Hitomi, more and more under the influence of the Shadow, attacks the Phoenix (after the Kitsuki discover her secret and flee to the Phoenix). Eventually the Unicorn attempt to seize the throne, only to be stymied by the Lion, while a member of the Otomo proclaims himself Emperor. Further chaos ensues as the Lying Darkness spread its influence, and the official timeline ends thirty years after it began, with Hitomi marching an army towards Oblivion’s Gate …
– Suitability for a Campaign: Good. There’s a nice detailed timeline to work from, and enough going on that you could start a campaign pretty quickly after the Second Day of Thunder, or wait a little while. You could even have the characters come of age just as the Clan Wars are ending, and then age them during the course of Rokugan’s fall into chaos, and then be seasoned (and powerful) figures ready to serve as the final line against Hitomi and the Lying Darkness (although you could always just have Kaneka do it, if not letting you’re the sort of GM who hates his players and doesn’t want to let them be the big heroes). The main downside is that this era loses some distinctively Rokugani social norms as they there is no central authority and war is constant.
– Game Mechanics (aka, “I’m On A Boat”): Doji Marines (R3 Doji Magistrate/Iron Warrior path), Isawa Seaguard (R3 Isawa Shugenja path), Kaiu Shipmasters (R3 Kaiu Engineer path)
– NPCs Detailed: Hitomi the Dark, Otomo Banu (the Otomo who declares himself Emperor), Hida Kuroda (one of several Clan Champions the Crab go through),
The Four Winds Era: This chapter covers the two-year period between the assassination of Emperor Toturi I and the coronation of his youngest son, Hantei Naseru, as Toturi III (yes, the naming is a bit complicated if you don’t know the whole story). The two plot threads through this era are the political and other maneuverings of Toturi I’s four children over who will become the new Emperor, and the combined assault of the fallen god Fu Leng on the celestial heavens and Daigotsu on the Empire (together with a couple of new sorts of Shadowlands beastie). Note that there is basically no new material here, except for the 4E mechanics, if you already own the 3E book The Four Winds.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Fair. The Four Winds/Gold Edition is widely (and, IMHO, correctly) considered the best of the L5R plot arcs after the original Clan War storyline. And, like the Clan War era, that means that the storyline is jam-packed with events and heavily populated by big-name canon characters. There is arguably even less room to jam the characters into these events, as they are so defined by the Four Winds and Daigotsu that you really couldn’t just sub in the PCs even if you wanted to.
– Game Mechanics: The Unbroken (Ronin Path), The Tears of Lady Doji (nemuranai), the Onisu (these meldings of oni and dream spirits are created by Daigotsu, each dubbed the Nightmare of the X Clan),
– NPCs Detailed: Akodo Kaneka (The Bastard), Hantei Naseru (The Anvil), Toturi Sezaru (The Wolf), Toturi Tsudao (The Sword)
The Shadowed Throne: This chapter presents another alternate history, this time diverging from the end of the Four Winds era. In the canon timeline, Toturi Tsudao is killed, and Naseru becomes Emperor. In this timeline, it is Kaneka who is killed, and Tsudao becomes Empress Toturi II. Tsudao forms a more centralized military structure, Naseru proceeds to form a second Gozoku conspiracy, and Iuchiban takes over Daigotsu’s body and assumes leadership of the City of the Lost. Iuchiban is personally more powerful in this timeline, and the Rain of Blood more effective, resulting in a true army (under the leadership of Moto Chagatai) fighting for him. Although, Chagatai is eventually defeated, Iuchiban remains at large, the Obsidian Dragon emerges sooner and is not limited by a Jade counterpart (and Sezaru is his Oracle), the Realm of Shadows is created instead of the Realm of Heroes, and the Empress is not truly in control of her own Empire. The Shadowed Throne then sets this as the starting point for a sandbox setting.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Good. The Shadowed Throne presents a solid sandbox setting, one that is likely to present many of the same issues as a campaign during the reign of the first Gozoku, but without a canon resolution that takes far more decades than a character can reasonably be expected to deal with.
– Game Mechanics: Tsudao’s Legion (Advanced School for highly honorable and skilled bushi), Agents of the Second Gozoku (R2 Alternate Path)
– NPCs Detailed: Estaban Cornejo (gaijin ambassador), Katsu, Doji Yasuyo
The Destroyer War: This chapter, which corresponds with Celestial Edition in the CCG, covers the three-year period during which the gaijin goddess Kali-Ma assaults Rokugan at the head of a vast army of metallic and animalistic demons. This culminates when Daigotsu destroys Kali-Ma and becomes a god himself.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Poor, unless (1) you want your campaign to consist of the PCs constantly fighting losing battles and holding actions until the two bad guys finish fighting each other and the war ends or (2) you want your campaign to consist of the PCs substituting in for the group of clan samurai who unwittingly help Fu Leng. Neither seems appealing to me.
– Game Mechanics: Ironclad Destroyers, Yuki no Onna (Snow Maidens)
– NPCs Detailed: Hida Benjiro (Crab general, one of leaders of the Rokugani war effort), Horiuchi Nobane (Unicorn general, ditto), Isawa Mitsuko (hunter of Dark Oracles), Daigotsu Susumu (Imperial Advisor, Dark Fortune of Lies)
The Age of Exploration: This chapter finally provides RPG information on what took place during the 25-year “time jump” between the end of the Destroyer War and the current active storyline. The Clans use this time to rebuild from the war, and to begin the conquest of the former Ivory Kingdoms (which were depopulated by Kali-Ma before she attacked Rokugan). While a great deal of information on the present status of the Colonies and their capital, the Second City, were presented in the Second City box set, this chapter presents a lot of previously unknown information about what led up to the present status.
– Suitability for a Campaign: Hard to say. OK, I guess. This doesn’t really seem presented as a setting to play through, however. That’s what the Second City box set is for. Not that there’s any sort of problem playing during this time frame, but (except for Spider-related matters) this chapter seems to mostly focus on information on the storyline, rather than on setting up campaigns.
– Game Mechanics: the Susumu (family), Naga Ancestry (Advantage), Fudoist Monks (monk basic school), Serpent Hunters (anti-Naga alternate path replacing a Simple Attack bushi Technique)
– NPCs Detailed: Kaiu Onizuka (advisor to the Emerald Champion), Agasha Kurou (family daimyo), Daigotsu Kanpeki (Spider Clan Champion)
Empire of the Emerald Stars: I was very pumped to learn that IH2 included a Rokugan in Space chapter – because, in essence, that’s what this is. Set a thousand years in the future, the chapter depicts and Emerald Empire that has spread across many worlds, with the Clans fielding fleets of Katana-class spacecraft. Different worlds are “close” to different spirit realms, and each planet is mostly under the control of one particular clan. Rokugan ethnically cleanses its home planet, shipping all gaijin off-world. “Radiant energy” powers laser guns, force fields, and energy-based melee weapons. Unfortunately, rather than providing more tools to help sandbox a Rokugan in Space setting (which would have been difficult in any event due to the space limitations), the chapter expends precious pagecount setting up the details of the beginnings of a plot about a rogue Emerald Champion (with multiple possibilities for who he might be), a space pirate (motives unknown), and the Third Day of Thunder. The general notion of there being a Third Day of Thunder on the way is great, but the rest isn’t really detailed enough to be useful to a campaign, while still being detailed enough to eat up pages. Ultimately, I wish this chapter had been completely devoid of plot (or just what was needed to set up the “here is an alien swarm, and oh by the way that’s the Third Day of Thunder), and just used what limited space it had to give a better sense of what these space samurai and their empire are like.
– Suitability for a Campaign: See above. Rokugan in Space is fun, but this chapter doesn’t do as much as it could to help a GM as one might hope.
– Game Mechanics: Some guns (which are deliberately kept at a manageable damage rating so that they don’t just overwhelm swords), and suggestions on new skills (e.g., Computer Use, Pilot, Firearms)
– NPCs Detailed: Akodo Tsuroi (Lion Clan Champion), Yoritomo Osu (the space pirate), “Togashi Jinsu” (an alien who bears information on the Third Day of Thunder)
Imperial Histories was, and is, my favorite 4th Edition L5R book, so IH2 had some big shoes to fill. IH2 isn’t as good as the original, but is still very nice. As with IH1, IH2 isn’t at the top of the list of most useful supplements, simply because your campaign will mostly likely never use any of these setting, or at most one of them, but it’s a must-read for fans of the setting.