Top Shelf – Legend of the Five Rings

I have accumulated a lot of roleplaying game books over the years. A lot. As you can see, they’re back to fitting in my 5×5 IKEA shelf after I kicked out all of the Pathfinder Pawn sets. But you may also notice an unorthodox arrangement to the books. You see, I’m tall. I used to sort all of the books alphabetically – first by publisher, then by game, then by book title. Unfortunately, while this worked out well for the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game (published until this year by Alderac Entertainment Group), it meant that anything “White Wolf” or “Wizards of the Coast” was down near the floor (and, in particular, D&D 5E was a pain to get at). So, because I want my favorite books to be more readily visible and accessible, I sorted things into columns, and then within each column I put my favorite stuff on top (note: I reserve the right to change my preferences at any time without warning; this is just how the shelf is arranged right now). Dungeons & Dragons has a column, Legend of the Five Rings has a column, White Wolf/Onyx Path has two columns, and everything else gets put into the final column (at this point, the plurality of that fifth column is Pathfinder). The White Wolf columns are divided into two sections – modern age Vampire (Masquerade and Requiem) and everything else (the historical Vampire books like Dark Ages and Victorian Age, the similar-to-but-not-the-same Kindred of the East, other World of Darkness or new World of Darkness books, and Exalted).

In five Top Shelf articles, I will be taking a brief look at quite literally the top shelf of each of those columns – what are the books that I chose to put there, and why? Some of those reasons will be personal. Some will be more ‘objective’ (to the extent that any opinion on the better book can be objective). Part 1 covered Vampire: The Masquerade. Part 2 covered Dungeons & Dragons. This is part 3 (Legend of the Five Rings). Here’s what we’re looking at today:

As I noted in the first two Top Shelf articles, there is a limit on these articles in that this is an actual shelf of actual books – if I don’t own the book, it can’t be on the shelf. However, for Legend of the Five Rings, the only real limiting factor is that my copy of the new Fantasy Flight version is still en route – I don’t own every single L5R RPG book, but the other ones I don’t own would not make it on this shelf.

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game core book (first edition) – Something you might notice about this shelf is that there is only one core book (unlike Vampire and D&D, my first core book was the original, so it gets the spot). My love for Legend of the Five Rings is not primarily founded in the roleplaying game. Just like Rokugan itself, I started with the CCG, and from there into the story, and from there into the roleplaying game. It was, however, in the roleplaying game that a lot of the setting material first came from, which then fed back into the story and the card game. They aren’t on this shelf, because the material is scattered across many, many small early books, but there’s a lot of things that feel like they’ve “always” been part of the setting that were introduced in bits and pieces. But, after the first core book, the core books usually weren’t the place to do that. The Legend of the Five Rings RPG used similar “Roll and Keep” (RnK) mechanics throughout all of the AEG iterations (we’ll talk about Oriental Adventures later), and it got better in each iteration. So if you were going to play the AEG L5R RPG, I’d recommend playing with 4th Edition. And that’s a valuable thing to get from a core book. But, when you get down to brass tacks, the L5R system always had a conceptual hole in it – a game that (mechanically) had this combination of lots of crunchy character options about combat and then a rules set that completely fell apart if you tried to take combat seriously. So it’s the setting material that earns a book a place on this shelf, and that means the original core book.

City of Lies and Otosan Uchi (note – the City of Lies boxed set was like that when I got it, I swear) – These big box sets each presented highly detailed information on Rokugan’s two most prominent cities, and the only two with significant cross-clan population (at the time, anyway – Otosan Uchi was later destroyed and Toshi Ranbo became the new imperial capital). Because of those cross-clan populations, these two cities were pretty natural picks for early box sets (the third early box set, Tomb of Iuchiban, was more of a horror campaign). Not that they entirely eliminate the handwavium necessary for almost any L5R RPG tabletop campaign, but at least the characters be in the same place at the same time for an extended period of time without needing some extra justification. The two cities present opposing takes on the Rokugani metropolis – Otosan Uchi, home of the Emperor, tradition, and a thousand temples contrasted with Ryoko Owari, the City of Lies, the wretched hive of scum and villainy (and the hub of Rokugan’s opium distribution network). Each of these boxes came crammed full, especially Otosan Uchi, which not only had three books but also a couple of posters (one an artistic representation of the city and the other a more traditional map). For Otosan Uchi, one of those books was a gamemaster’s guide to the Scorpion Clan Coup, which had just wrapped up when the timeline of the CCG launched but had not yet happened when the timeline of the RPG launched (because the RPG was originally set before the CCG timeline, in a period of relative stability).

If you’re looking at more recent books, there was a similar boxed set, Second City, released for the fourth edition of the RPG. That one also provides a city where members of all clans can be easily thrown together. And it’s really the only sourcebook to cover the Colonies that were introduced somewhat near the end of AEG’s stewardship of Legend of the Five Rings. But the Colonies did only show up later in the game, and a lot of the time focused on the Colonies was a time when the L5R Story Team was severely depleted, there wasn’t much fiction, and what fiction there was tended to be in the service of story prizes that didn’t always make a lot of sense. So, while it’s a really good product, it doesn’t quite have the kick to get up to the top shelf.

Time of the Void, The Hidden Emperor, Four Winds, The Vacant Throne – While the launch point for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG was before the Scorpion Clan Coup, the game did start moving through time to keep up with the CCG. As noted above, the “prequel” story arc of the Scorpion Clan Coup was covered in the Otosan Uchi box set (there was effectively one expansion that was released after the original story arc, but before the start of Hidden Emperor, that covered the SCC). These books take the game through the much of its story. Each of them includes a detailed timeline of the events of those years, they are probably the easiest way to get a solid handle of the progression of the story (each core book includes a timeline, but they are of necessity a lot sparser than these are), in addition to specifically RPG-focused content. Time of the Void covers the original Clan War story arc (Time of the Void was the title of the final Clan War expansion; the name ‘Clan War’ itself was already being used for the L5R miniatures game). The Hidden Emperor runs for the duration of Toturi’s reign, but of course mostly the crazy time known as the War Against the Darkness, rather than the peaceful decades prior to his assassination (there is no separate book covering the single-expansion Spirit Wars, in part because of trademark reasons with the label “Spirit Wars”). The Four Winds covers the time period dominated by the four children of Toturi, from their struggle over who would inherit the throne, through conflict with Daigotsu and Iuchiban and  up until AEG blew them all up so that there would again be no clear successor. Which brings us to The Vacant Throne, which is basically Race for the Throne: The Book, running until shortly after Iweko was crowned. There are no more dedicated CCG plot books after that, so (again) the Second City boxed set is probably the place to go for plot information after that.

Way of the Crab/Crane/Dragon/Lion/Phoenix/Scorpion/Unicorn/Minor Clans/Naga/Shinsei/Wolf – These are the original “splat” books for L5R, and they contain what were at the time massive increases in the available information on the various factions. I know that this L5R isn’t the same as the current FFG L5R, but there is probably no better place to go for information on the core “feel” of a Clan than it’s “Way of the” book. Although one should be careful about going to these books for “facts,” because they’re all biased from the point of view of the faction in question, and a lot of little details were contradicted by more ‘objective’ later books. The Way of Shinsei (Brotherhood of Shinsei), Way of the Wolf (ronin), and Way of the Minor Clans were added a smidge later, but are generally in the same style, although their isn’t much in the way of clan bias. And I didn’t forget way of the Naga, which was actually part of the original Clan splatbooks (the Naga were added as a faction in the second CCG expansion, along with the Scorpion, who technically weren’t even a Clan at that point).

The Way of the Ratling/The Way of the Shadowlands – These two are in the vein of a clan splatbook, but I separate them out because, not only are they second edition, but neither of them is the original coverage of its topic – the Book of the Shadowlands was the first in-depth look at the Shadowlands and a first look at the ratlings. Despite that, it is (to my mind) these books that gave a solid, in-depth look at the ratlings and at the more ‘human’ elements of the Shadowlands. They are not, however, faction books like the ones above are, because (to me) these aren’t anything that covers playable characters. They are just further setting books that expand on antagonists (Shadowlands) or probably funny friends (Ratlings; because the players will always be more friendly to and accepting of ratlings than their characters would ever be).

Emerald Empire/The Great Clans – These fourth edition books are not unique. Indeed, there was a third edition book called Emerald Empire. But these are the best books for getting a rich, detailed look at Rokugan, especially Rokugan near the end of the AEG years. The “Way of” books give a good feel, but these are the books you want for ‘factual’ information about how Rokugani culture and civilization work, and how these things vary from Clan to Clan. Also, this is the era where you can actually go back on this site and read my reviews, because Strange Assembly may be way younger than L5R, but it’s older than 4E.

You may note a distinct lack of second and third edition book on this shelf – there are two early second edition, one second edition/d20 crossover, and two third edition books. And three of those are CCG timeline books. Well, one of the problems (from my point of view) that cropped up with the roleplaying game was that it reached a point where the broad strokes of the setting had already been covered. And then the nooks and crannies had been covered. And then you were left books trying to fill in micro-details that sometimes veered between the ridiculous and the banal. So, for example, while there’s a second edition set of clan ‘splat’ books (the “Secrets of” series), they were never able to capture the flavor as well – there comes a point where it isn’t as interesting examining micro-location after micro-location. So the best second edition books were the ones still covering new territory, which is why Way of the Ratling and Way of the Shadowlands are on the shelf (and the other 2E antagonists books are on the shelf below). Third edition is generally better than second edition, but suffers from an overlap with fourth edition. There were a lot of mechanics that went haywire in 3E, so when you have 4E coming in and presenting similar (but more up-to-date) sorts of information, in a similar style, with better mechanics … the 3E books get squeezed out.

Imperial Histories – With that said, we’ll close this shelf off with Imperial Histories, a fourth edition book that managed to be quite fresh. The general outlines of Rokugan history had been long known, but Imperial Histories was the first effort at making some of those prior timeframes playable (and also added a couple of brand new ones), as well as providing more new information.

It will be interesting to see what happens to these shelves as Fantasy Flight adds more to their L5R universe (I am assuming that the RPG will go past the core book and GM screen). With a revamp of the setting, everything old is new again – some things are the same, but many things are different. This soft reboot gives FFG the chance to cover the relative basics without it being the same old ground. Here’s looking forward to it!

For the curious, I’ve included below the contents of L5R shelf #2. I’ve mentioned a lot of its contents above – the Tomb of Iuchiban, the Book of the Shadowlands (and Bearers of Jade), the antagonist books on the Shadow and the Kolat (sorry, Kolat fans, they’ll always be antagonists to me), Second City, and all of the core books that didn’t make the shelf above. But I’ve got to say – is this the least colorful shelf or what? Even the Vampire shelf seemed more vibrant, and that’s just black and marbled green.

Stay tuned next week, when Top Shelf will go back to the World of Darkness!

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