Emerald Empire was arguably the ne plus ultra of both the third and fourth editions of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game – so central that it was the only 3E book to sell out, resulting in a 4E version that was only a bit of a tweak. Indeed, the 4E version has a spot on the top shelf of my L5R RPG collection, one of the few non-storyline books from after first edition to make it there (you can even check out my review of the 4E Emerald Empire from eight years ago). So the new fifth edition version Emerald Empire has some pretty big shoes to fill. Is it, as the cover claims, “The Essential Guide to Rokugan?”
The short answer is “yes.” I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to read the rest of the review or just go buy it now.
Rokugan had literally decades of development under AEG. While that world was ‘rebooted’ under Fantasy Flight, most of the character of the world remains, which means there is an awful lot of detail out there about how Rokugan works as a society. And L5R isn’t just a set of rules, it is a setting. And not just a list of locations and people – it’s all the little details of daily life that are so different from our typical everyday (Western) experiences. You can homebrew the setting for most roleplaying games – Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t need to take place on the Sword Coast, after all. But I’m not sure if you can really play Legend of the Five Rings without playing in Rokugan. And if you’re new to Legend of the Five Rings with fifth edition, I can’t really imagine trying to truly get to know the world without Emerald Empire. And if you’re like me and already have Emerald Empire 3E and Emerald Empire 4E, you can rest assured that the new version is not just a tweak.
There’s one section of player options in Emerald Empire, which I’ll get to down below, but the heart of the book is over 200 pages of setting material divided into six chapters (there’s an additional 10+ pages of pure history up front).
The six setting chapters are titled Strongholds of Power, Centers of Trade, Heart of the Empire, Sacred Spaces, Paths to Enlightenment, and Wilds of Rokugan. These are not, however, always the most illuminating of titles:
- Strongholds of Power does cover castles, but is more generally a look at high-end samurai life, with a focus on court life and some aspects of military life (there are a half-dozen pages about war, a subject that consumed entire books in past editions, so don’t expect a detailed treatise on Rokugani army composition). Topics include the duties and powers of lords, court life and positions, servants, and war in the empire.
- Centers of Trade covers commerce, of course, but is more broadly about the cities and towns where much of that commerce is managed, whether or not it has to do with trade. This includes daily life (here, as in other chapters, there is real attention paid to the lives of non-samurai), crime and punishment, government, and ports.
- If Centers of Trade covers cities and towns, Heart of the Empire covers everywhere else – rural lands and the tiny villages spread throughout the empire. Here, the daily life section is usually very detached from samurai – samurai are, in a lot of ways, interlopers who the villagers tolerate and bow and scrape to, while hoping the samurai just leaves before they cause any trouble. Additional topics include taxation, agriculture, extended discussion on how samurai interact with non-samurai, and roads and river transport. Player characters will often deal with these things far more than the typical samurai, given their penchant for traveling the length and breadth of the empire instead of, say, pulling guard duty for ten years straight.
- Sacred Spaces is one of two chapters in a row devoted mostly to religious topics. This is where you get the cosmography of Rokugan – the realm of the blessed ancestors, the realm of trickster spirits, Fu Leng-dominated Jigoku, and others. Long-time players will not differences here that are sort of small and yet sort of huge, depending on how much weight you place on these things – the relation between Jigoku, Meido, Gaki-do, and Toshigoku is of particular note. Sacred Spaces is also the go-to place for spiritual topics that predate the empire – kami and fortunes, and the myriad shrines and rituals involved in religious observances related to them.
- Paths to Enlightenment, on the other hand, focuses on Shinseism. Of course, the philosophy of the Little Teacher and the pre-Empire Fortunism have been officially combined by Imperial edict – but they still exist very distinctly in a lot of ways. This chapter covers some history of Shinsei and his teachings, the Brotherhood of Shinsei generally and some particular orders within it, the daily life and practices of monks, and their temples and monasteries.
- Finally, Wilds of Rokugan covers forests (including the Shinomen and Kitsune), mountains, the coast, and ruins. The latter felt a bit odd, because I don’t really think of Rokugan as having much in the way of ruins (and what ruins there are were usually some sort of ‘hey, look, we discovered something that predates the Empire,’ not anything humans had left). Out of the six setting chapters, this is really the only one that is partially skippable.
In addition to the broad information in each chapter (which is itself peppered with small examples of specific locations, customs, people, etc.), each chapter includes about a half-dozen locations that take about two pages to cover, which includes an NPC write-up and an adventure seed). Some of these locations are ones of vast import in the empire (especially in the Strongholds of Power chapter). Others are simple farms or villages. The latter are almost invariably new to the setting, while the former typically are not – but that isn’t universal, as exemplified by the major Unicorn border city of Khanbulak, where steppe gaijin are rather welcome during the day.
Further, as mentioned above, there are new player options. The flashiest of these are a “clan,” families, and schools for the Imperial Families that directly serve the Emperor. “The Imperial Families” mechanically takes the place of a clan, granting a bonus to the Air ring and Government skill. The three families you’d expect to see are there – the Miya (messengers and cartographers), the Otomo (the Emperor’s courtiers, always making sure that the Great Clans are too busy squabbling to pose a threat), and the Seppun (charged with protecting the Emperor’s physical and spiritual well-being). And each of those families has at least one school to call its own – the Miya Cartographer and Miya Herald, the Otomo Schemer, and the Seppun Astrologer and Seppun Palace Guard.
But, although the Imperial Families will get the most attention, there are a lot of other schools as well – the Fortunist Monk, the Shinseist Monk, the Kitsune Impersonator (which means you’re not actually human, but rather a fox spirit in disguise), and the Kolat Saboteur. There are new distinctions, passions, adversities, and anxieties. There are also a whole pile of titles to spice up your school – advisor, clan magistrate (it’s like being an Emerald Magistrate, but less prestigious and more boring), daimyo (this one is really for NPCs, so GMs should feel free to tell players who want this to buzz off), gunso (a sergeant), monastic acolyte, priest (note: this is different from being a shugenja; most priests do not have the ability to ‘cast spells’), spy, yojimbo (bodyguard), and yoriki (a magistrate’s assistant).
Emerald Empire is vital to a good understanding of the ‘modern’ Rokugan. For the player new to Legend of the Five Rings, it’s an absolute must-have. For returning players there’s a mix of new material and familiar material presented in a fresh way – you aren’t just getting a rehash of what you’ve read before. From a mechanical perspective, there are a lot of relevant new options. Imperial characters and non-clan monks are the sort of routine player characters that the Great Clans are, but there’s still a lot of room for characters within those molds (especially the Miya and Shinseist monks) – plus these sorts of characters can be all over the place as NPCs. The broad new array of titles can also provide some extra spice for characters operating within the existing Great Clan framework.