Review – Secrets of the Crab (L5R RPG)

We’re reaching 15 years into the wayback machine today to take a look at Secrets of the Crab. The ‘Secrets’ series were the splatbooks for the second edition of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game (back when it was being published by Alderac, not Fantasy Flight). The book is a 96-page softcover, but in addition to hunting for reasonably-priced used copies, Fantasy Flight offers a PDF version through DriveThruRPG.

Second Edition and the Secrets Series Overall

Before I get into the particular of Secrets of the Crab, I wanted to throw a little bit out there about this era of L5R RPG books, so you generally know what you’re getting, distinct from how it’s implemented in this particular book.

The second edition of the L5R RPG supported two systems. One was the second edition of the traditional ‘roll and keep’ mechanics from L5R. The second was d20, because during this era Wizards of the Coast made Rokugan the new setting for Oriental Adventures (replacing Kara-Tur). This means that there’s a relatively high quantity of ‘crunch’ for an L5R RPG book, because it’s all repeated twice. However, while Oriental Adventures was fully synced with D&D 3.5, the AEG books are not. Rather, AEG modified things heavily enough (in the Rokugan semi-core setting book) and then distorted the power curve sufficiently (e.g., some of the feats and prestige classes are quite overpowered) that 3.5 and the AEG L5R d20 books don’t really play nicely together. Plus, fourth edition roll ‘n’ keep is pretty much strictly superior to RnK from this era. So there isn’t exactly going to be a lot of mechanical analysis of the crunch that’s included here.

Like all of the L5R books of this era, Secrets of the Crab has a gorgeous, well-constructed cover, but the interior pages are fairly thin paper and are in black & white (except for some blue headings and border treatment). While later editions of the RPG would get a glossier treatment and full-color interior art drawn from a library of high-res digital images created for the CCG, the art here is still B&W drawings that are vaguely related to the topic (e.g., all of the pictures are Crab samurai or Shadowlands beasts, but they don’t have any particular relation to the topic being discussed at the point where they’re put in the text).

The Secrets books, overall, focus in on a lot of fine-grain detail (contrasting significantly with the first edition “Way of” books, which were heavy on myth and world-building). There are a lot of specific locations and specific NPCs detailed, including a lot of things that will never be seen outside of the Secrets book. On the plus side, this means new stuff and unique content. On the downside, it means that the new content may not resonate as easily and can get pretty dry.

So, when you put all of that together, it means that, for me, second edition L5R was not exactly a high point for the game. And, while I would suggest the first edition “Way of” books as a great read for anyone interested in L5R (even the rebooted timeline in the FFG-published fifth edition), I would not make such a suggestion concerning the Secrets series. They are, I think, something that is mostly going to be of interest to the completionist and the hardcore L5R fan. With that said, since you’re reading a review of a 15-year-old L5R RPG book, there’s a reasonable chance you’re in one of those categories.

What’s In This Particular Book

Following the standard Secrets format, Secrets of the Crab is framed as part of the story of Miya Hatori, Otomo Taneji, and Fuzake Sekkou as they journey throughout the lands of the empire. Chapters are primarily focused on one family of the Clan at a time, and each opens with a tale of our little delegation meeting with the daimyo of that family (or, in some cases, trying and failing to meet with that daimyo.

During this time frame, that means that the perpetual Hida, Hiruma, Kuni, and Kaiu are joined by a fractured Yasuki (as half of the family joined the Crane and the heart of their lands are controlled by Akodo Kaneka) and the newly-minuted Toritaka family (formerly the Falcon minor clan). For each family, Secrets of the Crab details a couple of major holdings and several minor ones (sometimes very minor ones), associated NPCs (typically including the daimyo), a sidebar worth of information on highways, any vassal families, and a few ancestors and ancestral items. In addition, the Tower of Fear gets its own chapter. Plus there’s some extra content on the Kolat, given how intertwined they are with the Yasuki.

The Hida lead things off, of course, including Kyuden Hida as the first entry in the ‘how over the top can we make Crab defensive fortifications seem’ sweepstakes (even though, at this point in the story, the Wall is the only one of these super-fortifications to have ever been attacked, and half of it recently fell to Daigotsu). Also touched on are Koten (the ancestral hall that doesn’t really have any ancestors or ancestral items in it, because the Crab rarely have the luxury of recovering the body or taking a powerful item out of service). There are also several minor mining or trading towns, and the twilight mountains (notable hosting the once and future Boar Clan). The notable NPCs to make an appearance here are Hida Kuon (clan champion), Hida Reiha (who will later marry Kuon), and, in a distant third place, Hida Rohiteki (part of the worship of the newly-minted Fortune of Persistence, Hida Kisada). There are two new vassal families. The Kakeguchi were formed to honor two brothers who stayed behind when Hiruma, Kaiu, and Kuni got to go off on an adventure and earn big-kid families (Hida Reiha is actually Kakeguchi Reiha). The Moshibaru family was created to take in samurai admitted through Twenty Goblin Winters, and is split between Moshibaru who were born into the family and raw recruits who have yet to be found worthy of entry into the Hida family proper. Ancestors include Hida Ichido (who came up with Twenty Goblin Winters) and Hida O-Ushi (the Bully).

During this time frame the Crab have recently reclaimed the Hiruma provinces (lost to the Shadowlands hundreds of years ago), and so its unsurprising that the Hiruma chapter focuses heavily on these lands, from Shiro Hiruma to a few religious sites and some Ratling interaction. Notable NPCs include Hiruma Todori (at this point just a sensei). There are two new vassal families. The Endo are a very new family formed of Kaiu who joined the Hiruma to help rebuild and fortify Shiro Hiruma. The Raikuto are courtiers (from back before the Crab had the Yasuki).

The Kuni chapter has an odd sort of tone to it. There are repeated references to the family’s shame over Kuni Yori (the Kuni Daimyo who started working for the Shadowlands in the Clan War era). It isn’t odd in a vacuum, but it is odd in contrast to the tone of the Hida chapter and the book overall, which basically throws no shade whatsoever on Hida Kisada (the Crab Clan Champion during the Clan War era) or on the Crab as a whole for allying with the Shadowlands during the Clan War. Sure, Yori is the one who pitched the alliance to Kisada … but Kisada is the one who said yes. The Kuni are relatively light on holdings, in part because their lands are beyond inhospitable. Even Shiro Kuni is kind of irrelevant, because nobody really goes there. Notable NPCs include Omen (the first Oracle of Jade). Again, there are two vassal families. The Meishozo serve undercover trying to root out maho (and, from the description, getting counter-infiltrated half of the time). The Ugawari are the bushi stuck with the unenviable task of helping the Kuni capture and hold Shadowlands beasts for study. New mechanics detailed include rules for crystal (effective against the Shadowlands and even more effective against the Lying Darkness) and a new version of the Tsukai-Sagasu (witch hunter) prestige class.

It should surprise no one to know that the Kaiu have a series of really tough fortresses, including the Kaiu Wall (aka, the Great Carpenter Wall aka The Wall). The Kuni’s first vassal family is the Fundai, who are shipwrights (always an unforgiving role for non-Mantis). Their second is the Maisuna, who are stonemasons, responsible for (among other things) extracting the massive blocks needed to build the Wall. The Kaiu Engineers receive several new mechanics (feats for d20, Paths for RnK).

The relatively small Toritaka get relatively little content (sorry, no vassal families for the former minor clan). Tani Hitokage (the Valley of the Spirits) is their big draw, home to the plethora of spirits that allowed the family to develop their expertise in that area.

As noted above, only a fragment of the Yasuki are currently with the Crab during this part of the story. The highlight for Crab players will probably be Yasuki Jinn-Kuen being a jerk (and, distinct from this, a Kolat), but there are also details on notable locations (Yasuki Yashiki, Friendly Traveler Village) that aren’t under Crab control anymore (but will be again later in the story). The Yasuki do get a single, ancient vassal family, the Kano, who remained craftspersons after their family had mostly given this up, having been overshadowed by the Kakita.

The Tower of Fear is a bit hard to use. The whole point of the thing is that it’s supposed to be permanently corrupted, to the point that the Crab re-routed the Wall around it. But there’s a description of the interior, for any player characters brave/foolish enough to undertake such a thing. But mostly I think it’s here so satisfy curious players.


I’m not sure if it’s just because it’s been a while since I read one of the Secrets books, but the first half or so of Secrets of the Crab was more enjoyable than I remembered most of its fellow books being. Ultimately, however, Secrets of the Crab fits in the same niche as the rest of the Secrets books. Fairly dry, with detailed information on some places/people you’ve heard about, and a lot of places/people you probably haven’t. This makes the Secrets books indispensable if you want information on every scrap of Rokugan that’s been detailed (because a lot of the content is unique), but not that great if you’re looking for a fun read.

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