Review – Courts of Stone (Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying)

I have to admit that, when I saw that the latest supplement for Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying was called Courts of Stone, I briefly wondered how the Crab Clan had managed to get a second book in a row. Of course, the Crab would never have the political pull for such a feat, and Courts of Stone instead covers castles/palaces, the Crane Clan, the newly-revealed Deer Clan, shinobi, and running a “winter court” game.  And, of course, new school options for every great clan. As usual for the L5R Roleplaying supplements, Courts of Stone is a 144-page, full-color hardcover.

After about 15 pages of background on the function and design of various types of castle in Rokugan before launching into examples of castles, mostly consisting of iconic fortresses – Last Breath Castle (also known as Shiro Matsu), Kyuden Hida, Shiro Kitsuki, the Seven Fold Palace (Crane smith training location), Kyuden Asako, and Kyuden Doji. For each, Courts of Stone presents a description, strengths and weaknesses, castle culture, and supernatural phenomenon (there is also a “what attracts visitors” section, but this label is a misnomer – these are usually just random tidbits, not anything that would lead a samurai to visit the place).

With two castles for the Crane Clan presented, Courts of Stone turns to the Crane themselves, presenting about 20 pages on the clan, its history, its families, and its lands. Subjects include the role of Lady Doji and the Crane in creating Rokugani culture, subtle and nuanced communication, how current events have affected the Crane, traditions and philosophy of individual families, just how far the Daidoji are (or are not) willing to go in war, Shizuka Toshi, and Musume Mura (Daughter Village). There are another several pages of material that is more generally about court tactics (favors, culture, duels, spying, the game of letters), with some extra discussion of how Crane benefit from these things.

The minor clan presented, the Deer, are new to Rokugan. They cover a relative lot of ground for a minor clan, but their central notion is to serve as matchmakers, and then use the access gained by that to further their hidden goal of preserving balance in the Empire (e.g., knocking the most potent Great Clans down a peg). In pursuit of that, they boast two distinct portions of the clan – the fortuneteller/courtier/matchmaker/spy shugenja and also their yojimbo (who are secretly shinobi). I personally didn’t have my hackles raised here, but I can see why some have criticized the Deer both for  cramming too many concepts into one minor clan and for doing something of what the Otomo already do (matchmaking and keeping the clans from getting too powerful; although the Otomo have a very negative connotation to their actions while the Deer are fairly idealistic). Personally, I did kind of roll my eyes a bit at the concept that a minor clan would have the resources to be constantly manipulating the Great Clans and never have the Great Clans catch on that the minor clan consisted of something other than naive matchmakers (the Otomo traditionally do these sorts of things and get away with it because they’re extremely powerful; everyone knows that they Otomo have an agenda). Don’t get me wrong, I think it could be really cool to play as a member of the Deer Clan – they’ve got some very old school Dragon-ish elements (mysterious prophecy-driven orders, a sort of noble-hearted willingness to play a little dirty). It’s just a lot going on for a minor clan. Note that the home of the Deer Clan, Kyuden Shika, is also presented in the list of examples of castles.

Mechanically, Courts of Stone includes the clan/family bonuses for the Deer/Shika, along with 10 new schools:

  • The Shika got their courtier/shugenja Matchmaker school and their bushi/shinobi Speardancer school. The Matchmakers technique is very on-point – there’s a new downtime ritual to find a good match (The Ties That Bind) and the Shika shugenja can perform it as a normal action. The Speardancers are good at trips and can spend opportunity to daze nearby opponents (their Shinobi content is found in the advances).
  • The Crane get two new options in the Daidoji Spymaster (courtier/shinobi) and the Doji Bureaucrat (a grumpier, knowledge-based courtier). Note that the Spymaster doesn’t just have that shinobi tag thrown on there for show – they have sneaking and combat advance options. Both of them give Crane players options in court beyond the usually make-nice approach.
  • The Lion also add a courtier/shinobi with the Ikoma Shadow, who are fairly straightforward dirty tricks types. A technique that lets you stake honor to try to get the job done? The Scorpion would be proud.
  • Speaking of which, the Scorpion pick up the Bayushi Deathdealer, which is nice because it gives the Scorpion a more straightforward bushi school option (they also have the shinobi tag).
  • And, if you aren’t all loaded up on not-a-ninja shinobi, there’s the Mercenary Ninja ronin school.
  • The Phoenix, believe it or not, get a non-shinobi school, the Shiba Artisan. Their school ability allows them to remove strife from others after succeeding at an Artisan skill check (whether it is a traditional performance art or something like a public sculpting demonstration). Alas, like many artisans, their skills are hard to make use of in a traditional L5R campaign.
  • The Togashi Chroniclers (courtier/monk) collect stories, tales, and lore, seeking to find the underlying rhythm of the world – their shuji of Honest Assessment and Truth Burns Through Lies (along with the Divination ritual) help convey their purpose. Their school ability lets them use social skills to gain the effects of kiho.
  • The Crab pick up the Yasuki Yojimbo, a pretty straight-up bushi bodyguard who is good at Guarding groups.

Obviously, there were a lot of shinobi tags on those schools, and to match that the largest section of new techniques are ninjutsu and there’s a large helping of shinobi gear as well (the remainder of the gear is focused on court items, such as tea sets, fans, and makeup). Fans of the Games skill will find a half dozen shuji that make use of it. Other standard mechanical content includes a smattering of new distinctions/passions/adversities/anxieties. There are also nine new titles, which is quite the nice haul, although many of them will be more suited to NPCs than PCs. The new title options include Castellan (run the castle), Covert Agent, Dreaded Enforcer (a.k.a., assassin), Esteemed Negotiator, Kenshinzen (Crane super-duelist), Kyuden Asako Shieldbearer (so you can play sword-and-board, even in Rokugan), Master Artisan, Winter Court Champion (the character won one of the major contests at Winter Court), and Seven Fold Palace Acolyte (item creation).

Finally, there’s the GM-advice portion, which primarily focuses on political/intrigue heavy games. Topics discussed include making sure that players who aren’t great at these topics are still able to play characters who are; formalized ways of tracking the relationships between PCs and NPCs; some PbtA-reminiscent advice on getting your players to help fill in the details of what’s going on in court; and how to handle (or not) romance in games.

There’s a section on how to engage shinobi PCs, but I have to admit that it left me more convinced than ever that shinobi PCs mostly just don’t work in anything resembling a ‘normal’ L5R game. Two and a half pages of advice on how to make sure that the shinobi PC gets to do their thing is nice, but it doesn’t address the other side of the equation, which is that the rest of the players are just sitting there doing nothing while you’re running the not-a-ninja through their mission.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to Courts of Stone. The editing/proofreading was noticeably worse than I’ve come to expect from Fantasy Flight, with a variety of noticeable errors such as missing words in sentences, font inconsistency, and in one place a duplicate description where it was apparent than the text had been written, rewritten, and then both versions accidentally left in the book. Some of the early parts of the books dragged. I had a hard time staying engaged with some of descriptions of how castles and castle life might be arranged (and you need to stay engaged, as the book will have you flipping back to the introduction if you can’t remember what things like tenshukaku or ishigaki are). The introduction of the new fortress of Shiro Kandai ran aground on a failure to give enough background on the castle and town before launching into detail, providing almost a page of text before letting the reader know anything the significance of the place – I need something more than ‘it’s a Crane naval port’ before I find out what color the lacquer on the walls is, what kind of windows it has, or the one-story discrepancy between how many floors the palace has vs. how many it seems to have. I couldn’t help noticing that the Deer Clan section talks about how the clan’s yojimbo use a specific kind of specialty spear, but I guess none of the available art had anyone using such a spear, so there’s no visual depiction of the weapon, and for me ‘what does this weapon look like’ is a place where a picture is worth a thousand words.

Although castles take equal billing on the front cover, it’s material on politics where Courts of Stone does its best work. Indeed, the less military-focused a palace/fortress is, the more likely the details provided here are to be relevant, as L5R roleplaying games are much more likely to spend an extended period of time at one of these locations in a political context than a military one, and a court season at at Kyuden Hida is the sort of thing you trot out as an example of a punishment, not the sort of thing you actually want to play through. How life is arranged at Kyuden Doji is, by this measure, probably the most useful palace description in the book, although Kyuden Shika has some possibility as a fun time for young samurai or the site of secret negotiations. Courts of stone contains a solid batch of information on how Winter Courts are run, a more detailed primer on the Crane families (old players can scour it for minor canon differences in FFG L5R, while new players will greatly benefit), and some good information on the intersection between the two (because, in case you hadn’t heard, the Crane are the bee’s knees at this game they invented to play to their strengths). For GMs, the advice on running political games and on setting up a winter court can be handy. As to the former, there are a lot of landmines for a GM to navigate when combining common social skill use debates with Rokugan’s sometimes-arcane social rules, and advice is probably always useful. As to the former, there’s value just in getting the GM to focus on what matters – broad strokes, movers and shakers, factions and goals – or anything else to help reduce the initial life on bringing such an NPC-rich setting to life.

Mechanically, my favorite PC additions were the Bayushi Deathdealer (because the Scorpion needed another bushi school) and the Togashi Chronicler (another generically useful way to bring a Dragon monk into a party). If you want to introduce the Deer Clan, the Shika Speardancer is also solid. They work better as a PC than the Shika Matchmaker because of their broader concept and because being given tasks for uncertain broader purposes generally works better than being the character handing out the mysterious instructions. On the advantage/disadvantage front, there are several useful new options, including Affect of Harmlessness and Famously Neutral, both of which help ingratiate the character with others in appropriate situations. The passion of Decorum is probably extremely useful, although I must admit that as a GM I am a bit skeptical of the notion of getting to clear strife just for behaving in a socially appropriate way.

Ultimately, while it has some flaws, there’s enough worthwhile content to make Courts of Stone worth picking up.

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