Mechanics and Character Creation in Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying

The world of Rokugan is saturated in flavor, with untold detail illuminating a distinctive culture. And that’s what really draws people to Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying. But, once you have a character concept to fit in that world, it can still be important that your character concept is embodied in the numbers that are on the character sheet. It’s one thing to create a character who is bad at a certain activity because that’s your concept. It’s another to end up with one who’s bad at something on accident.

Some of the advice in this article is agnostic as to character concept. For example, if there are several interesting options for which Skill or Ring to increase by 1, it doesn’t hurt a character concept to consider the mechanical advantages of ‘stacking’ Ring and Skill increases during character creation. Some of the advice may assist in achieving a character concept, because it can help make sure that the character is actually competent at what the concept says they are – magistrate characters likely want the Government skill to to know the law, while artisan characters likely want a high Fire Ring in order to be able to create their art.

Rings

Unbalance the Rings. Characters start with a value of 1 in all Rings, and will get five increases during character creation (1 for clan, 1 for family, 2 for school, 1 free choice). This means an average Ring value of 2. There is also a maximum of 3 in any Ring at character creation, so the most unbalanced character will be 3/3/2/1/1. From a min-max point of view, there is an advantage to starting unbalanced. During character creation, the ‘cost’ of all increases is the same. Once experience points come into play, it is cheaper to raise lower rings. So starting with 3/1 will take 9 xp to raise to 3/3, while starting to 2/2 will take 12xp to raise to 3/3. Plus, even if there wasn’t an xp benefit to starting unbalanced (6 bonus xp for starting 3/3/2/1/1 instead of 2/2/2/2/2), a character who is unbalanced will mostly end off more effective than one who isn’t. They will naturally favor approaches they’re good at, and get to roll those 3s a lot more than they have to roll those 1s. Note that there are often limited ways to unbalance Rings for some character concepts. This is particularly true where Clan/Family/School all increase the same Ring. This forces the Family increase into its other Ring option, which leaves the character with a 3/2/2/1/1 spread, and thus only two choices (the Family increase and the second School increase) to end up 3/3/2/1/1.

Void is the least-rolled Ring for most characters – the Void approach is incredibly niche for most skills. And, while a higher Void allows a character to store more Void Points, it doesn’t generate more – so a lower Void Ring can serve as an encouragement to use them. After character creation Void acts as a limiting factor on the advancement of other Rings, so eventually it will need to be raised (with Void and something else at 1; you can’t raise any other Ring above 2). But at at character creation, it can readily serve as a ‘dump stat.’ Or, really, for most characters just don’t bother using your free choice on it, since few clans/families/schools give it a bonus (Phoenix and some shugenja). Void Stance can be handy in combat to avoid strife, but for the same reason it’s easy to dump Void, it’s hard to build it to three – very few clans/families/schools have it as a bonus. So, for most characters, going Void means a weaker roll.

An Artisan will likely want to start with a Fire Ring of 3. For the Artisan Skill Group, Fire is the approach to inventing a new piece. Without a high Fire, your character will not be very good at creating new things. I don’t know about you, but I will generally want my artisan character to actually be able to create stuff. Note that this limits the options for the classic Crane artisan, as only the Kakita family and Asahina shugenja provide bonuses to the Fire ring, forcing a non-shugenja into the Kakita family to start with Fire 3. Conveniently for the Crane, however, they very easily hit Air 3, which is probably the second most useful Ring for an artisan. Other than, that is, for a smith, where Earth is needed for repair and restoration. Helpfully, the paramount smiths in the world, the Kaiu, are locked and loaded, with a +1 Earth from clan, +1 Earth and Fire from school, and +1 of choice (so Fire) from family.

Courtiers (or anyone who wants to excel socially) have several avenues to cover. Even the most honest of courtiers, however, will have difficulty getting by without a solid Air Ring – deflection and concealing unpleasant truths are too commonplace. Water should also be a focus of most courtly types – unless the strategy is to not get along with people, Water’s going to come up. There’s a reason why most of the courtier families have Air/Water as their two ring boost options. That leaves Earth or Fire for a middling ring (Void, of course, should still be a 1). Clans that will be able to lead with Air 3/Water 3 with their ‘standard’ courtiers include Crane, Lion, and Unicorn. Typical Dragon and Phoenix courtiers will not be able to hew to this advice, because their spread of Ring options will force them to have a 1 in Water if they also want to follow the ‘unbalanced rings’ suggestion.

It isn’t as easy to say what the “right” Ring to emphasize is for bushi. Approaches don’t really matter for the martial skills, except for the stance they put the character in. Earth and Air are defensive – Earth prevents hits from becoming criticals, while Air can prevent hits in the first place. Fire is offensive, turning strife into successes. And Water allows greater flexibility, such as increased movement while still striking, or ‘healing’ while still attacking. For a bushi, which Ring to emphasize may come down to out-of-combat considerations. For example, a bushi who wants to be tricky (be that sneaking around or in social situations) will prefer a high Air Ring – while a character concept who sees such activity as distasteful will generally be willing to leave the Air Ring at 1. Earth is the Ring for logical, reasoned interaction and the Ring for raw recollection. Water is the Ring for being generally pleasant and figuring stuff out. Fire can be more socially restrictive, focusing on inciting emotion in others and coming up with new things – both of which can be frowned upon in Rokugan. All other things being equal, I believe that Water and/or Earth are probably the easiest Rings to employ in the broadest variety of situations outside of combat. As noted above, however, this choice is significantly influence by the Clan/School selection.

Skills

There isn’t a ton of flexibility in skill selection, but there are at least a few options. Note that, as with Rings, doubling up on skills at character creation is more xp efficient. Additionally, while the guide does not seek to advise on what the best Techniques are, it can be helpful to look at what Techniques the character starts with, and what Techniques they may learn early on, and ensure that the necessary Skills are in place to effectively use those.

Courtesy is by far the most important member of the Social Skill Group. Every character should take it as high as they can (which, I know, mostly just means choosing it as a school skill if it is one, or else choose it for Question 17). Every samurai needs to be able to comport themselves well in court – or, at least, avoid embarrassing themselves. The rest of the social skills pale in comparison, although Command can be more useful than you might think, because it often applies in interactions with non-samurai (in addition to military applications). Of course, if being something like a musician is part of your character concept, you’ll need Performance, but beyond that it will most commonly be used for tea ceremony (however, unlike the Artisan skills, Performance is featured in a variety of shuji). Games is generally to be avoided.

The Scholar Skill Group is broader than it might seem, with three skills  handy for most characters – Culture, Government, and Sentiment.
Sentiment is the defensive social skill (including detecting deception), and so can end up getting rolled a lot. Note that possible ‘lie detector’ approaches exist for Water (general intent), Fire (lies of omission), and Air (direct lies) rings, so there won’t be many characters who can’t generate a solid roll here. Government, bringing knowledge of the law and an ability to work with bureaucracy, is particularly important even if the characters aren’t magistrates. This is especially true for characters with a high Water Ring, as that governs identification of illegal acts, figuring out how to get things done, and recognizing when bureaucratic maneuvers are being employed against you. Culture, while less concrete than Government or Sentiment, covers a very broad range of topics – heraldry, geography, customs, etc., etc. This is another one that can fit with a broad range of Rings, too. Of course, if your GM doesn’t actually make you roll Government to know the law, or roll Culture to know what’s going on when the party visits a new province (or the game is set entirely in one province), then these skills will be of less use. Shugenja will want to raise Theology, as it is used in many, many of their Invocations.

The Martial Skill Group is fairly straightforward – make sure you take whatever skill covers the fighting style (if any) you’re going to be using (and doubled if you can). Fitness (Air) is used for sneaking, so it’s a must-have for shinobi types (or actual scouts). It can also be used for chases – burst speed (Fire), moving through crowds (Water), or long distance (Earth). A rank in Tactics doesn’t hurt, if only because it’s the skill used for initiative in conflicts, and hitting first isn’t shabby. Monks should look into Fitness and Meditation, as their Kiho typically rely on those two Skills and unarmed combat.

Many aspects of the Trade Skill Group will not come into play for many characters – most samurai have little concern for labor (seriously, don’t take ranks in Labor), for example, and only a handful of characters are concerned about seafaring (although if you do want to be a sailor, make sure to have a good Water Ring). However, one skill stands out – Skulduggery. Although this skill won’t be practiced by many characters, it can be highly useful for characters in the common magistrate role, because Skulduggery is used to detect and investigate a lot of criminal activity. When in doubt, choose a rank in Skulduggery in response to Question 8. However, if your campaign will involve a more time outside of cities than in them, Survival can be a good option, with applications across several elements – Earth (creating shelter), Water (foraging/fishing), and Air (tracking).

Similarly, while samurai are supposed to care about the things covered in the Artisan Skill Group, these skills are not great for most characters (if your character is an artisan, the applicable skills will be necessary for the concept, of course). Aesthetics, composition, design, smithing – none of them will be used by most characters. Note that, if a campaign focuses on something like Winter Court, these skills can become more significant. A courtier cannot live on social skills alone, and they may be called upon to interact on these higher-minded subjects. Aesthetics is the most generally useful in such a circumstance, as it covers a variety of artistic topics (while composition’s conversational aspects are mostly limited to poetry). Shugenja, on the other hand, may need Composition to prepare invocations.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Which Advantages and Disadvantages to take is probably the broadest array of options available during character creation. And they are not created equal. If an Advantage is too narrow, you’ll rarely get to use it. If a Disadvantage is too narrow … well, if you’re optimizing, is there really such a thing as too narrow a Disadvantage? Just remember – your GM can always make sure that these come up as often (or not) as they want, so don’t think that just picking the ‘good’ ones means you’re going to escape unscathed.

Distinctions let you re-roll two dice in certain situations, and also provide a more story-based advantage. Strong distinctions will get to re-roll dice a lot, or have broadly useful story boosts. Note that many ‘strong’ distinctions are not strong for every character – but when they fit the character’s concept, they can come up a lot.

  • Strong Distinctions: Benten’s Blessing, Bishamon’s Blessing, Daikoku’s Blessing, Dangerous Allure, Famously Honest, Famously Reliable, Indomitable Will, Jurojin’s Blessing, Keen Hearing, Keen Sight, Quick Reflexes, Small Stature, Subtle Observer.
  • Weak Distinctions: Ally, Ambidexterity, Blackmail, Blessed Lineage, Blissful Betrothal, Famously Lucky, Famously Wealthy, Keen Smell, Kisshoten’s Blessing.

Passions let you remove strife when you engage in them, and also give a story-related boost. Strong passions are ones that make it easy to clear strife, and/or where the story boost is particularly handy. 

  • Strong Passions: Armament, Brushwork, Curiosity (if your GM is generous in supplying additional routes), Fortune-Telling, Gossip, Provocation, Tea.
  • Weak Passions: Daredevil, Enlightenment, Fashion, Sake, Secrets, Wordplay.

Adversities force the re-roll of successful dice, and also apply some story-related penalties. A ‘strong’ adversity is one where these situations will relatively rarely come up (if you never fail rolls and need your Adversity to generate Void Points, then you’re doing well). Whether an adversity is strong or not is dependent on what the character wants to do, but is less dependant than it is for Distinctions (partially because GM’s will from time to time make sure that your Adversities come up; this particularly applies to the variety of Adversities that apply physical limitations that might otherwise not be relevant, such as tiring easily or not being able to lift much). Similarly while many of the Distinctions that give extra access to a particular person are not that helpful (because they GM was probably going to have some way for the party to get what they needed anyway), the Adversities that involve specific characters holding something against the character are more problematic, because an attentive GM will make sure to insert that character in. In other systems, I would say that the GM making the enemies be your enemies is almost a bonus (because there are going to be enemies, so why not make them ones you care about), and would recommend this sort of drawback. But in L5R the adversary isn’t just showing up, you’re bad against them – not as fun.

  • Strong Adversities: Benten’s Curse, Daioku’s Curse, Disdain for a Bushido Tenet, Kisshoten’s Curse, Lost Memories, Momoku, Nerve Damage, Whispers of Poverty.
  • Weak Adversities: Blindness, Bluntness, Clumsiness, Cognitive Lapse, Deafness, Discomfiting Countenance, Gaijin, Haunting, Lost Arm/Hand, Lost Leg, Maimed Arm, Muteness, Shadowlands Taint (any), Whispers of Cruelty, Whispers of Treachery.

Anxieties hand out extra strife under certain circumstances, and also have some story-based drawback. ‘Strong’ anxieties are ones where the strife-granting situation is relatively rare and/or the story-based drawback isn’t that bad.

  • Strong Anxieties: Cynicism, Delusions of Grandeur, Fear of Death, Ferocity, Intolerance, Materialism, Painful Honesty. 
  • Weak Anxieties: Battle Trauma, Impatience, Meekness, Paranoia, Phobia, Softheartedness.

Wrap-Up

I hope you’ve enjoyed this wonderful trip through the rich tapestry that is the Emerald Empire. Maybe next time I can update this story-driven advice with the mechanical content from Emerald Empire. Until then, may your GM always forget your Adversities and your Delusions of Grandeur always lead to greater success.

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