The land of Rokugan first burst onto the scene in 1995 in the form of the Legend of Five Rings Collectible Card Game. But the Emerald Empire was first thoroughly explored two years later (in October 1997) with the release of the first edition of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game (it turns out that there is a whole lot more room for flavor text in a book than on a card). Based on the “Roll and Keep” system, the L5R RPG was published by Alderac Entertainment Group through a fourth edition released in 2010. When Fantasy Flight Games acquired the Legend of the Five Rings universe and games from AEG, it seemed inevitable that they would launch a fifth edition of the roleplaying game to go along with the immediately-announced living card game.
Twenty years after the initial launch of the L5R RPG, Fantasy Flight made good on that expectation when they dropped the beta version of the Legend of the Five Roleplaying Game (Fifth Edition) in October 2017. One year on, we’ve got the published version in our hot little hands.
The Quick Take: To my mind, the most distinctive aspect of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game is the use of the five rings as the basic attributes, forcing players and GMs to think about the characters in a radically different – and very flavorful for the setting – way. This use of the elemental rings provides a fresh take on the Roll and Keep system, and makes the new L5R RPG well worth checking out for old fans and those new to the setting. Also L5R is still awesome.
The World of Rokugan
Legend of the Five Rings presents a fantasy take on samurai drama, drawing heavily on Japanese history, philosophy, and mythology, but also including concepts from other Asian cultures. Rokugan is ruled by an Emperor of divine heritage, and is served by the samurai of the seven Great Clans (whose ruling lines are generally also of divine heritage), a multitude of Minor Clans, ronin, and those further down Rokugan’s strict caste system. But the current Emperor is weak, supernatural threats are becoming more pressing, conflicts between the Great Clans are heating up – and some wonder whether the Imperial line can hold the throne.
Of great significance in Rokugan is Bushido – as they say, Rokugan is the land where Honor Is Stronger Than Steel. In addition, Rokugan is a land of great spirituality, where the spirits (kami) inhabit all objects, should be treated with respect by all, and may be interacted with by a chosen few (the samurai priests known as shugenja).
None of the seven Great Clans is a monolith. Each Clan has multiple families and multiple schools. However, there are certain themes that animate each Clan:
- The Crab: The Crab stand atop The Wall and guard Rokugan from the horrors of the Shadowlands. The archetypal Crab is burly, tough, heavily armored – and does not particularly care for social niceties;
- The Crane: The epitome of culture in Rokugan, the Crane are elegant, poised, and have a wide network of allies fostered through positive social interactions;
- The Dragon: The Dragon have often stood apart from the rest of Rokugan, secure in their mountain strongholds. Their ranks include tattooed monks, their clan is more permissive of individual choices than others, and they are probably the most philosophical of the Clans;
- The Lion: If the Crane are the velvet-gloved Left Hand of the Emperor, the Lion are the steel gauntlet of his Right Hand. The Lion are the epitome of the honorable martial samurai;
- The Phoenix: Blessed with many, many more shugenja than any other Clan, the ranks of the spiritual leaders of the Empire are swelled by the Phoenix.
- The Scorpion: The Scorpion are the dirty Underhand of the Emperor. Lies, blackmail, poison, ninja – the Scorpion use all of the tools available, regardless of the cost to their honor.
- The Unicorn: Wanderers ‘recently’ returned to the Empire after centuries of wandering, the Unicorn find themselves strangers in their own lands, tugged between a desire to stay true to what have become their own traditions and the need to conform to Rokugani standards.
For Classic L5R fans, note that when FFG acquired Legend of the Five Rings, it rebooted the setting as compared to the AEG days. Temporally, that means rewinding the lock to just before what would have been the Scorpion Clan Coup. Obviously, things diverge from that point in time. But additionally the past is not exactly the same either, in ways that continue to be revealed. The broad concepts and thematic strokes of the world remain the same (although there are eight great Fortunes now).
What Do You Do In This Game?
Characters in the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game are samurai of Rokugan, typically members of the Great Clans.
- Balance their personal desires with their duties to their lords;
- Decide between expediency and upholding Bushido;
- Attempt to navigate the social complexities of Rokugan while according themselves appropriately (for example, without displaying emotion), earning glory and status;
- Seek to advance the interests of their Clan;
- Investigate mysteries both mundane and supernatural;
- Defeat foes in deadly combat;
- Engage in complex social gambits;
- Fight duels of honor with katana;
- Importune the kami to assist them.
In a typical game of Legend of the Five Rings, the players should expect to engage in investigation, social conflict, and combat.
Note that, although groups of samurai working together in Rokugan would “realistically” tend to be all members of a single clan, most games of L5R feature characters from many different Clans.
The Core Mechanic
The Fantasy Flight version of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game incorporates the familiar “Roll and Keep” concept from editions past, but pretty much everything else is new.
Characters are rated in each of the eponymous five rings – Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void. These are the ‘attributes’ of L5R – there is no statistic that directly corresponds to something like strength, dexterity, or intelligence. Rather, the applicable Ring is determined based on the approach the character takes to the task. The Air ring represents grace, cunning, precision, and subtlety. The Earth ring represents patience, resilience, memory, and calm. The Fire ring represents passion, invention, candor, and ferocity. The Water ring represents flexibility, awareness, efficiency, and charm. The Void ring represents mysticism, intuition, instinct, and wisdom.
They also have ratings in particular skills. Skill are divided into five groups – Artisan, Social, Scholar, Martial, and Trade (with four to six skills in each group). These five groups are significant because the skill group provides more concrete meaning to the Ring’s approach. For example, restoring an existing work of art is an Earth approach to an artisan skill, while the Earth approach to a martial skill is to withstand an attack. Inventing something new is how Fire approaches an artisan skill, while in martial conflict Fire seeks to overwhelm its foes.
The way that rings work means that there is no simple ‘dump stat,’ although some characters will favor particular rings depending on the type of character. The Scholar group, in particular, has solid uses for all of the approaches. However, one imagines that many players will be more interested in the Fire approach (invent) than most of the other Artisan options (restore, adapt, refine, attune), but the Fire approach in social setting (incite) is less broadly useful than some of the other options (reason, charm, trick). In combat, the effect of stances (discussed below) will be a major factor pushing what sort of ring a player might want to emphasize.
When a character attempts an action that requires a check, the player rolls dice based on the applicable ring and skill values, and then chooses a number of those dice to keep equal to their skill. Depending on the Target Number (TN) of the task, a certain number of successes are required. Rings and skills each use their own type of die – rings roll six-sided dice, while skills roll twelve-sided dice. As one might expect from a Fantasy Flight RPG, these are custom dice (although there is a table included to translate normal d6 and d12 into the custom results). Skill dice are firmly better than ring dice.
As one might also expect from custom FFG RPG dice, these dice have more than simply “success” or “not success” on them. Rather, there are four symbols (three positive, one negative) – success, explosive success, opportunity, and strife. Successes are self-explanatory. An explosive success counts as a success, but then allows the player to roll (and, if they wish, keep) an additional die. Opportunity is used to generate a variety of effects – some are always available, some depend on the element being used, some depend on other characteristics of the check, and some are specific to certain weapons or techniques (a good place to start is pages 328-29, which is a two-page chart of possible uses of opportunity). Strife represents the character’s loss of emotional control. When enough strife has been accumulated, the character is compromised – they can no longer keep any dice with a strife symbol showing on any check. The character can purge all strife by “unmasking” – allowing their calm face to slip, displaying emotion (the exact nature of which will vary depending on the circumstances, but may well result in the loss of glory or honor).
Basic Character Creation
Character creation in Legend of the Five Rings is done in the form of a game of twenty questions, but most of these ask for the creation of some background for the character, and then give a mechanical aspect. But for these purposes I’m going to focus on the mechanical basics (we should have a more detailed look at how to make an L5R character, including a discussion of the clan families, posted in the near future).
The most fundamental choices for a character in Legend of the Five Rings are clan and role. The Clans, discussed above, are the primary political and social units of Rokugan. A character’s clan defines much of their existence – even if a character departs from the stereotypes of their clan, the clan still forms the backdrop they stand out from. Additionally, from the first thing a player should have a general idea of whether they want to be a bushi (warrior), courtier, or shugenja (priest). The artisan schools are also somewhat common, while the monk and shinobi roles are rare.
Mechanically, a character’s Clan gives bonuses in two rings (characters start with a 1 in each) and defines starting Status. A character’s family within that clan (each clan has at least four) gives another ring bonus (out of a choice of two), gives two skill bumps, and defines starting Glory and wealth. Families do a lot mechanically, but they are much less important as far as character creation goes. While the default tends to be that members of a particular family go to the school for that family, the setting allows for easy cross-pollination, players can use this to get their own unique concept (or to get exactly the rings they want, as the case may be). However, the same is not true of family – except under highly unusual circumstances, a samurai of the Lion Clan will attend a Lion Clan school, and so forth.
The biggest bundle of mechanics is tied up in a character’s school (each clan has four schools covering bushi, courtier, shugenja, and something else). Schools increase two rings, increase five skills, set starting Honor, provide starting techniques, define what sort of techniques are available to the character, grants a starting school ability, awards starting gear, and guides on the character will advance over the course of play.
Techniques are divided into seven categories, although most characters will only use three – kata (martial techniques), shuji (social techniques), and rituals (everyday spiritual practices). In addition, shugenja may use invocations (spells), monks may get kiho, shinobi get ninjutsu, and if a character later goes the way of evil they may learn maho (evil magic).
Even after setting school, the character has lot more individual bits to fill out on the page. Characters get a free boost to any ring and a free boost to any skill they didn’t already have. They can get a boost to honor, or forego that to get a skill increase in a less-respectable skill. They get a free piece of gear. There’s also a die roll to nudge glory/honor/status a bit and (usually) give another skill (although, if you know me, you may recall that the chances of a game I’m running actually involving randomness during character creation are about zero).
The character will also receive a distinction, an adversity, a passion, and an anxiety. Each of these is a mirror image, mechanically. Distinctions allow the player to re-roll two dice when applicable. Passions allow the character to recover strife when applicable. On the other hand, adversities require the player to re-roll two dice that showed success, while anxieties grant strife. Each of these characteristics has a flavorful title, a circumstance under which the mechanical benefit/drawback kicks in, and some other effect tied to the flavor. For example, the adversity of Jurojin’s curse forces the player to re-roll when making a check to sustain themself (resisting a critical hit, or trying to live in nature), and also doubles the recovery time for diseases. The Brushwork passion, on the other hand, allows the character to automatically recognize schools and individual artists, and to remove strife after activities such as examining a painting or writing calligraphy.
The player must also choose a giri (a duty) and a ninjo (desire) – a character’s responsibilities (assigned by their lord) and their personal desires may or may not conflict (but traditional samurai drama has them conflicting quite a bit).
A character’s school shapes advancement by provides a list of options at each school rank. While a character may spend xp on anything – rings, skills, techniques, etc. – the character’s ability to rank up in their school is enhanced when xp is spent on items on the school list. For example, at a given rank the character might get enhanced credit for buying any martial skill, the command skill, any kata, or one of two specified techniques. Note that rings are never on a school list, so (while they are probably attractive to buy) they do not get enhanced xp credit.
Although there are downtime and narrative scenes in L5R, conflict is where the rules get heavily involved, so let’s talk about those. There are four kinds of conflict – intrigue, duel, skirmish, and mass battle. Each type of conflict has some structural components in common, but there are (of course) quite a few differences.
For all conflicts, characters first make an initiative check (the exact roll for initiative varies based on the type of conflict). This check is significant not only for initiative, but because the ring the character chooses for the initiative check defines the stance (Air/Earth/Fire/Water/Void) the character will begin the conflict in. The Earth stance protects against the use of opportunity (such as critical strikes), while the Air stance makes it harder to effect the character (either with martial or social rolls). The Fire stance rewards passionate aggression, generating success from strife, while the Void ring prevents the character from gaining strife from their own dice. The Water ring allows an extra action (so long as that action does not require a check isn’t a repeat of another action). Characters then take turns until the conflict has ended (a character can change their stance when their turn comes up).
Intrigues are (unsurprisingly) the least mechanical of the conflicts – there are a handful of basic actions, but in no small part this comes down to the use of social skills to generate successes and then using those successes to assess whether and how effectively NPCs have been influenced.
Duels pit samurai against each other one-on-one. While there are variations in what sort of duel the two will have, the rules here are really designed to simulate the classic iaijutsu duel (either to first blood or to the death). The primary rules framework that makes duels different is the staredown and the finishing blow. The staredown is a constantly escalating imposition of strife – one in the first round, two in the second, three in the third, and so on. Then the very instant that a character is compromised by their strife (or unmasks), the other character makes a finishing blow (interrupting any action the first character was taking; thus it is possible for a character to acquire strife in the middle of a roll, trigger the finishing blow, and never get to take their action). A hit with this finishing blow is likely the end of the duel. While waiting for their opponent to accumulate too much strife, a character can use actions to slightly reduce their own strife, center themself to store up good die rolls, predict an opponent’s stance to inflict strife, or strike – inflicting a critical strike on this attack ends a duel to fist blood as surely as a finishing blow, but the critical strike is not automatic. Outside the realm of iaijutsu, duels generally still feature the mounting tension of the staredown – even if the characters are actively battling, the possibility of a finishing blow hangs out there.
Skirmishes are standard, small-scale conflict. On their turn, characters can move a little (like FFG’s other recent RPGs, L5R uses range bands, where close in the difference between bands is very small, but gets progressively larger as the characters separate) and get one action. Striking is the most obvious choice (standard TN of 2), of course, but characters can also guard (themselves or others), make another move, or challenge an enemy. Challenges are a powerful way to tie down an enemy character (who must lose honor and glory to refuse) – but they also prohibit the issuing character from doing anything else while the challenge is ongoing. A clash is essentially a mini-duel in the middle of combat. Once in combat, a character can be downed in two ways – through fatigue or through critical strikes. Fatigue works as one might be used to damage working in many RPGs. When struck by a weapon, a character takes damage based on the weapon, any extra successes by the attacker, and reduced by the character’s armor – any excess damage inflicts fatigue, representing the attacked character getting out of the way but becoming more tired. When fatigue exceeds endurance, the character is effectively out of the fight.
Characters take critical strikes when the attacker gets to use two opportunity on a Strike action, or when the character is otherwise unable to defend against incoming damage (perhaps the character would prefer to suffer the critical strike rather than suffer fatigue and become incapacitated; note that this cannot be done for free – instinct typically prevents a character from just standing there and taking a blow without even trying to dodge). Even after taking a critical strike, the character can make a Fitness check to reduce the severity of the critical strike. Critical strikes of low severity pile up conditions like damaged armor, lightly wounded, severely wounded, or bleeding. Higher severity critical strikes are mostly various forms of “you’re dead.”
How likely a loss due to fatigue or a loss due to a critical strike can depend on the weapons being used. The traditional katana versus the traditional lacquered armor is even on damage rating and damage negation. Bonuses successes inflict damage, but critical hits have a deadliness high enough that (if the severity isn’t at least somewhat negated by the defending character) a permanent injury will result. On the other hand, the tetsubo (a very large war club) has a base damage 3 higher, but a low enough severity that a flesh wound is the nastiest outcome.
Mass battles, which are less common than the other conflict types, are based around assignment of strategic objectives, each of which is achieved by a particular combination of actions and outcomes. Typical actions include assault, rally, and reinforce (the challenge action can also be used here, typically to attempt to tie down the enemy commander). Weaker armies are likely to have their morale broken but have what’s left get out relatively all right, but an elite group of samurai may stick around until it is crushed and routs, which is much worse for those involved (stronger armies may also have special modifications to the basic actions).
There’s some basic GM advice, but the more interesting L5R-specific guidance covers handling bushido, honor, status, and glory; and ensuring a good in-setting approach to the supernatural (most importantly the nature of shugenja as priests asking the spirits for aid, not wizards slinging fireballs).
NPCs (and also Shadowlands monsters) are split into two categories – adversaries (who function similarly to PCs) and minions (who are, well, minions). There are a set of sample NPC blocks with rings, social stats, skill group ranks (e.g., “Scholar 2, Social 1”), and advantages and disadvantages that apply much more roughly than a PC’s. Most NPCs have an ability or two. They also have two conflict ranks, to represent their anticipated difficulty in either a military or political conflict. In addition to these basic NPC stat blocks, there is also a page of templates, so that Seasoned Courtier can also be an Artist.
Adding opportunity on top of successes effectively requires a player aid, otherwise a lot of time will be spent trying to look up what all the possible uses of opportunity are. There’s a nice two-page chart in the book, but this does not encompass all of the possible uses of opportunity. Players are strongly recommended to have that chart on hand (or the pertinent parts of it for their character) as well as a list of all of the possible opportunity uses for their techniques, spells, or other options.
Fantasy Flight inherited a lot of art from AEG when they acquired L5R, and they’ve commissioned a lot more for use in the LCG, so the roleplaying game comes with a lot of built-in art assets (this will be familiar to fans of FFG’s Star Wars products, where the same images are used across games). This broad base gives the roleplaying game an almost universally high quality, and they were well-deployed by the layout team. The cover art (by Shawn Tan) is excellent and, although I’m not going to claim that this is a big deal, I really like the vibrant red spine, because it makes the new L5R stand out on my shelf.
I really like the elemental ring approach. Game mechanics warrant customization for the setting, and FFG’s willingness to just throw out the traditional sort of attributes is great for the Legend of the Five Rings setting and creates something to distinguish the L5R RPG from the other options on the market (along with the setting, which makes for gameplay that’s a lot different from a typical fantasy RPG). The book mostly ties down the approaches, but it will likely warrant some monitoring from GMs (for example, keeping in mind that depending on the NPC and situation, the TN to reason with the NPC may be much different from the TN to charm the NPC) – I’ve played enough roleplaying games to know that there will be players who want to pour as much as they can into a couple of rings and then try to justify why everything they do uses those two rings.
I come into any Legend of the Five Rings game already loving the setting. Combining that with the elemental ring approach really sells me on the new edition of the L5R roleplaying game.