If you’re new to L5R, you can get a bit more of a rundown of the setting by popping over to our review of the core book, but the basics are that the player characters in L5R are samurai in Rokugan, a fantasy setting largely inspired by Japanese history and mythology. The characters are members of one of the seven Great Clans of Rokugan. Those Clans are (mostly) united in service to a divine Emperor, but spend much of their time and energy jockeying for position (the most common concept for a group of player-characters is to effectively be working for Imperial law enforcement, giving a multi-Clan group a reason to be together, and a reason to travel around). Playing in a game of Legend of the Five Rings, you’re likely to encounter combat (mostly against bandits and other criminals), investigation, and courtly intrigue. Concepts of honor, glory, Bushido, and on (face) are of vital importance, and it is to be expected that the characters will have to grapple with how their personal desires and opinions on what is right conflict with their duties to their lords. Less commonly, characters may face dangers from supernatural corruption, lethal duels of honor, or outright war.
The Beginner Game is very much as advertised – a beginner game. It doesn’t assume that you know what an RPG is, or are familiar with Rokugan.
The adventure in the Beginner Game is a new version of the classic L5R RPG introductory scenario – the Test of the Topaz Champion (which takes place in the town of Tsuma). The coming-of-age ceremony in Rokugan is known as a gempukku, and the Test of the Topaz Champion is basically the most prestigious gempukku ceremony there is, with the best and brightest of all of the Clans being sent to see and be seen.
The Test of the Topaz Champion is used an introductory setting in part because the structure of the tournament requires the soon-to-be samurai to be able to display skill in a variety of areas. This gives the players a reason to explore different facts of both the game rules and of Rokugani society. Even before the Test itself, players will interest with a peasant, be thrust into an awkward social situation, and an introduction to the supernatural side of Rokugan. There’s a possible bar fight – a social situation and then a skirmish. There’s a formal social setting and an introduction to the concept of gift-giving.
The competition itself includes tests of sumai (sumo), heraldry, athletics (an obstacle course), horseback riding, etiquette, weaponry, poetry, law, go, archery, and hunting. Note that a character doesn’t need to ‘win’ all (or any) of these events – they just need to perform competently in most of them.
Of course, a straight-up competition would be a little dry, so the Beginner Game version of the Test of the Topaz Champion follows the usual course of throwing a few curveballs in there. There are political machinations … and things more sinister.
The player folios are information rich without being overwhelming. There’s some nice art of the character on the front, a blurb on the back to help figure out if this is the sort of character you want to play, two pages of background (e.g., a fluff description of your clan, school, view on Bushido, etc.), a two-page character sheet (that is, one page worth of sheet, but with lots of explanation of what everything is), and then a second two-page sheet to ‘level up’ to during the Tsuma adventure.
What’s In the Box?
The Beginner Box includes:
- A “Read This First” booklet;
- a 32-page Adventure Book (for the GM only);
- four 8-page character folios (folios for characters of the other three Great Clans can be downloaded on the FFG website);
- a rulebook that you aren’t really supposed to use except maybe for the In the Palace of the Emerald Champion free sequel adventure), because it’s for after you’ve played through the Beginner Game and if you liked it enough to play more you’re probably just buying the core book;
- a sheet of cardboard tokens, including but not limited to the player characters (these look nice, but I’m not sure if they’re useful);
- a poster map with Rokugan on one side, and the other side split between Tsuma and the Palace of the Emerald Champion; and
- DICE! Yes, you need custom dice to play the new L5R RPG, but you do get a set of them here, and I don’t see any reason why a single roll would need more dice than the 10 included (although of course that isn’t enough if every player wants their own set).
Good for New Players?
All told, the Test of the Topaz Champion isn’t a particularly complicated adventure – but that’s kind of the point. I know I’ve got a bit of nostalgia-colored glasses looking at the Test of the Topaz Champion, but there’s a reason that it’s come up again and again as a launching-point for the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game. It’s a very good introduction.
One downside is that only the four character folios were included. These are the “correct” four sorts of characters to highlight, I think. The first three (Lion, Crane, Phoenix) are a traditional honorable samurai with a military bent, a traditional honorable samurai with a political bent, a traditional honorable shugenja (a magic-using priest). That’s the three most straightforward character concepts in L5R. The fourth, a Dragon Clan monk, represents the most common of the ‘other’ types of characters (that is, anything that isn’t a bushi, courtier, or shugenja). But, even so, it would have been nice to see enough folios to cover a table with six players. That isn’t a big deal, however, because (as noted above) folios for characters of the other three clans can be downloaded.
What About Returning Ones?
So, if you’re a returning player to the L5R RPG, you aren’t really quite in the target zone for the Beginner Game. You probably already know all of the setting material being presented in here (although, of course, the FFG L5R is a bit different from the AEG L5R). You’re more likely to just be buying the core book regardless. But, personally, I always get a little kick out of starting things off with that Test of the Topaz Championship (especially if, while you know L5R like the back of your hand, not everyone at the table does). And the Beginner Game does come with a set of dice, so it eliminates the need to buy the dice pack (although I bought a dice pack anyway, because … yeah, I’ve got a problem, I know).