Secrets of the Empire is a supplement for the Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) RPG. Secrets of the Empire covers five distinct topics – Ronin, the Minor Clans, the Imperial Families, the Brotherhood of Shinsei, and the Spirit Realms. Secrets of the Empire is a 250-page, full-color hardcover, and retails for about $40 (it’s also available as a PDF).
The Quick Take: Secrets of the Empire joins Emerald Empire and The Great Clans as a must-get book for any L5R RPG player or GM. While its topics are not as central as the topics covered in those two books, Secrets of the Empire covers pretty much all of the parts of Rokugani society in which the Great Clans operate. Even if you never play a PC who isn’t a member of a Great Clan, the world the encounter is much richer for a more full and nuanced picture of the world that PC will be encountering.
For those who haven’t played it, 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.
Secrets of the Empire is strictly divided among its five topics (ronin, monks, minor clans, imperials, spirit realms), with each standing alone. With the exception of the Spirit Realms, the other four topics get treatment similar to those that the big boys received in The Great Clans, with coverage of history, families, and outlook on the world. As is standard for L5R books of late, all of the crunch is in the back (instead of interspersed throughout the text) which makes it a lot easier to reference later on.
The layout and artwork for Secrets of the Empire continues the L5R RPG 4th Edition standard of excellence, including lots of big full-color art from the . The editing seems improved after a bit of a slump in the last couple of books, and I didn’t spot any noteworthy goofs.
The Way of the Minor Clans (~100 pages) – Essentially a micro version of the treatment that the big kids got in The Great Clans, this chapter presents information on the history, lands, holdings, vassal families (if any), and customs/traditions of the Badger, Bat, Boar, Dragonfly, Hare, Monkey, Oriole, Ox, Sparrow and Tortoise Clans. The mechanics section at the end of the book presents paths or schools for six of the ten: Ichiro Pass Wardens (rank 3 Badger Clan bushi path for thrown weapons), Dragonfly Advisor (rank 3 Tonbo Shugenja path that helps divination and etiquette), the Fuzake Shugenja School (basic Monkey Clan shugenja school), Ox Clan Vigilant (rank 4 Morito bush path for magistrates and anti-Kolat), Suzume Storytellers (rank 2 Sparrow Clan bushi path that boosts courtier rolls based on storytelling), and Tortoise Killers (rank 3 path for the Tortoise Smuggler). There are also a variety of Minor Clan Ancestor advantages to choose from – Ichiro Fureheshu (Badger), Komori Iongi (Bat), Hida Heichi (Boar), Tonbo Kyuyden (Dragonly), Usagi Reichin (Hare), Toku (Monkey), Tsi (Oriole), Morito Garin (Ox), Doji Suzume (Sparrow), Agasha Kasuga (Tortoise).
The Imperial Families (~20 pages) – This much shorter chapter presents the history of the three families who directly serve the Emperors (the Seppun, Otomo, and Miya), as well as the three families of the Emperors themselves (Hantei, Toturi, Iweko). The Otomo section also includes information on the Imperial Bureaucracy. The crunchy bits part of the book has some mechanics for the Imperials as well – Satoshi’s Legacy (a rank 4 path for Miya heralds who want to fight), the Seppun Hidden Guard (a range 3 Seppun Shugenja path for using wards and defensive magic), and Ancestors of Otomo, Seppun, and Miya.
The Way of the Ronin (~25 pages) – Enemies of the Empire provided some coverage of the ronin, but they pick up more here. Probably the most significant thing for ronin fans is back in the mechanics section, where they finally went ahead and just made a ronin basic school for bushi (no more random hodgepodge of paths). Other mechanics for ronin include the Legion of Two Thousand and Disciples of Sun Tao Advanced Schools, the Order of Isashi and the Order of Five Weapons (rank 3 and rank 4 ronin shugenja alternate paths, respectively), and three ronin ancestors (Sun Tao, Chiroru and Miyuko). The fluff on ronin covers ronin in Rokugan’s history (Sun Tao the Yotsu, Nanashi Mura, Toturi’s Army, and the Legion of Two Thousand), and some other ronin groups to round out the fluff aspects of those mechanics. There’s also an in-depth look at how each of the Great Clans tend to view ronin, and a look at how ronin live day-to-day.
The Brotherhood of Shinsei (~30 pages) – This section covers the history of the Brotherhood, their organization and hierarchy, day-to-day life for a monk, major sects of the Brotherhood (Shintao, Fortunist, Lotus, Questioners), the major orders and which of those sects they fall into (Four Temples, Shrine of the Seven Thunders, Temple of Kamietsu-Uo, Temple of Osano-Wo, Temple of the Thousand Fortunes), 14 minor orders that include some really oddball entries (for example, the acolytes of the incorruptible strive to commit ritual suicide in a particular way, with the resulting mummification demonstrating their enlightenment), and heresy in Rokugan. Mechanically, the monks get several alternate paths for some of those minor orders (the Barefoot Brethren, the Order of Peaceful Repose, the Purse Song Shrine and the Silent Ones), and several Ancestors (Basso, Sakura, Mizumoto, Togashi Kaze).
Spirit Realms (~45 pages) – This section takes you on a tour of the cosmology of Rokugan, which includes 10 spirit realms (in addition to Ningen-do, the ‘normal’ world). This section includes descriptions of each realm, its place in Rokugani cosmology (especially with regards to the kharmic cycle and the eternal struggle between the Celestial Heavens and the Realm of Evil), what entities one might encounter there, and the mechanical effects that realm can have on those who visit (the most well-known, and severe, example of such an effect is the Taint, which is the influence of Jigoku). For those who want the skinny on the current storyline, this chapter also presents information on how Jigoku is structured post-Daigotsu.
Appendix – Where the crunchy stuff lives. In addition to the material I mentioned above, there are Heritage Tables for the Minor Clans (just one table for them as a group), the Brotherhood of Shinsei, ronin, and the Imperial Families. I personally have no use for heritage tables, but some people like them, so now even if you aren’t a member of a Great Clan you can randomly roll a past for your character and hope it doesn’t completely wreck your character concept. J There’s also an index with all the schools and paths, sorted by Clan.
First, if you’re wondering why this book is called Secrets of the Empire … I have no idea. Now, on to the real opinions …
As I noted above, Secrets of the Empire is a really useful book for L5R RPG players and GMs. I divide the L5R RPG books into three groups – the necessities, the histories, and the element books. While I know they have their fans, the element books are OK but not great – a diehard L5R fan like me will want to pick them up, but they aren’t great for a dabbler. The histories (Imperial Histories and Imperial Histories 2) are fantastic reads and my favorite L5R 4E books. But they are primarily reading material, rather than something that a player (or most GMs) is going to get a lot of in-game mileage out of (note: I don’t consider this to be much of a drawback – I’ve got way more RPG books than I could ever make serious in-game use of). The necessities are good reads and are chock full of information that will help players and GMs know the world that they’re playing in and the characters’ roles in that world (very important for something like L5R, where the setting is the biggest draw). Emerald Empire and The Great Clans are in that category, and I think that Secrets of the Empire joins them – basically, if you’re going to be playing or GMing L5R, you should own these books (if you’re going to be GMing you probably want Enemies of the Empire as well, but it’s mostly of interest to players if they’re going to be ronin).
If you want to play a member of the minor clans, or the Imperial families, then the material in this book is going to be invaluable to you. But the Imperial families and the Brotherhood of Shinsei are really important parts of Rokugan, and they wield a lot of political and spiritual influence. And the Minor Clans and ronin, while not “important,” are around a lot. Even if (like most players) your character is a member of a Great Clan, these are parts of Rokugan that your character has some knowledge of and opinions about. And they let your game world be populated by lots of distinctive groups – for example, Secrets of the Empire helps you flesh out what a typical monastery might be like, but it also provides you with a lot of options to make some of those monasteries stand out from the crowd.
The Spirit Realms section is less universally useful – most campaigns will never deal with it, and even if they do it’s GM material. But the rest is both good and very useful. Secrets of the Empire is absolutely worth buying.