Review – Celestial Realms (Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying)

Consistent with other Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying supplements, Celestial Realms provides information on the title topic (spirit realms), associated topics (religion), and one clan (Phoenix); a new minor clan (the Centipede), a batch of new schools covering all of the great clans, a few locations, a few new items (in this case, the Ancestral Swords), and some sort of GM advice in the back. Another notable inclusion in Celestial Realms is the introduction of void magic. If you’re interested in the spirit realms, the Phoenix, the Centipede, or Ishiken, you’ll want to pick up Celestial Realms.

The celestial realms part of Celestial Realms provides more information on the cosmology of Rokugan, from the highest planes (Tengoku) to the lowest pits (Jigoku). While there is some support here for actually adventuring in some of these places, that’s pretty ‘out there’ for Legend of the Five Rings (although the adventure that was released along with Celestial Realms does take place entirely in the spirit realms), and I look at these mostly as background reading material (which is fine; background reading material on Rokugan is a thing that interests me). Wandering into the one of the animal realms? Sure that’s a thing that might happen. But I have a hard time picturing player characters trying to fit in at a celestial court where the actual kami hang out – it would just take away the majesty and the mystery. Probably the biggest takeaway I had from this part of Celestial Realms is that the Rokugan’s cosmological system is broken because the higher planes are just hanging out while Emma-O slowly but surely loses control of Meido, rendering the process of judgment and reincarnation only semi-functional.

Probably more directly relevant to player characters is a little information on shrines both large and small, including several location write-ups – the urban Shrine to Hantei in Otosan Uchi, the much more distant Cliffside Shrine (which you should recognize from The Sword and the Spirits), and an unnamed lost shrine housing a spirit angry at being neglected for so long. There are also a couple or write-ups on religious cults, in this case cults of Lord Moon and Bloodspeaker cults. This was a little disappointing, as I would have preferred a look at more ‘normal’ variants on Rokugani religion, which would seem more useful in standard play. There were a few interesting observations on the bloodspeakers if you wanted to use them as antagonists, but not much ‘there’ there on moon cults (certainly not multiple pages worth). There’s even several pages back in the GM section with considerations for creating a religious group – but, again, no examples to life and use. It made me wonder if the book is suffering a bit here from a hesitance to say too much on the more standard faith variations in the empire, given how much of Rokugani religion is based on real-world religions (there are, to the best of my knowledge, no actual cultists of a crazy Onnotangu to offend).

As expected, the section on the Phoenix Clan details each of the families (Shiba, Isawa, Asako, Kaito), their lands, reputation, values, traditions, and views on religion, as well as current concerns. The Path of Man (a way to apotheosis for all mortals, which the Asako claim was given to Shiba by Shinsei) is referenced, but I wish there was a bit more information.

The Centipede minor clan presented in Celestial Realms is a version of one from the original iteration of Legend of the Five Rings. The Moshi are a matriarchal clan devoted to the worship of Lady Sun, Amaterasu. Indeed, the influence of Amaterasu results in a drastic gender imbalance in the population of the Moshi, with 75% of children born there being female. They are distinct magically in that they can use fire magic to heal. I’m glad to see the Moshi back and, for those of you too drenched in the old setting, I’ll note that I’m glad that the “Moshi Death Star” does not seem to be present.

Of course, with a new minor clan and new family, you need new rules. Unsurprisingly for a clan that focuses on worshiping the Sun Goddess, the Centipede get a boost to their Fire Ring, and the Moshi family gives a boost to Fire or Air. The Moshi Sun Sentinel school (one of multiple schools in here who are both bushi and shugenja) get +2 Fire. So a Moshi has to really work at it to not start with a 5 in their Fire Ring. However, the Sun Sentinel’s school ability seems fairly hindering. Sure, you can use fire magic to heal, but you can’t use it to deal damage, at least not to non-Tainted humans.

Each of the Great Clans gets a school:

  • Crab: Kaiu Architect (Artisan/Courtier, Earth/Void) – You should know the drill by now – it has an artisan tag primary, so it’s really good at what it does, but what it does is generally irrelevant in a typical L5R game. In this case, it’s good at erecting fortifications and redecorating.
  • Crane: Asahina Envoy (Courtier, Air/Void) – Specialists in performing (non-magical) rituals, such as tea ceremonies, wedding, and funerals.
  • Dragon: Agasha Alchemist (Shugenja, Fire/Water) – Make lots of potions.
  • Lion: Kitsu Realm Wanderer (Shugenja/Bushi, Void/Water) – Their school ability lets them draw a spirit realm closer in your current location, which will typically have the mechanical effect of making the area Hallowed towards the applicable element (or make things rather nasty, if you choose to draw one of the lower planes close by). They eventually can wander to another realm, but not until rank 6.
  • Phoenix: Kaito Spirit Seeker (Bushi/Shugenja, Earth/Water) – The spirit seeker can invite an elemental kami to inhabit their body, boosting rolls made with the applicable ring, but penalizing rolls made with the opposing element. In flavor terms, this is supposed to let the spirit seeker help the kami get to a better location (which seems like a pretty narrow concept, frankly), but in practice this ability is ripe for abuse and may require GM monitoring – I can already see players planning on just semi-permanently housing a kami as a way of min-maxing, just avoiding rolls of the the opposing element entirely.
  • Scorpion: Shosuro Shadowweaver (Shugenja/Bushi/Shinobi, Air/Fire) – They ignore darkness, are better at attacking or scheming against those in shadow, and can summon darkness. Some battlefield applications, but its best applications fall squarely into that problematic Scorpion area of “things that player characters in L5R games don’t usually do” (like assassinate people).
  • Unicorn: Utaku Stablemaster (Bushi/Sage, Air/Water) – Can ignore strife results  when engaged in animal handling. Can also randomly “find” combat ready mounts. I’m a little confused about that last one – what about being a stablemaster lets you summon animals out in the field? And I’m used to Unicorn stablemasters being folks who stay back at the stable, the last place on earth they would need to use an ability like this. I get that “I stay at the stable” is generally a terrible player character concept, but I wish the ability didn’t seem so at odds with the flavor. This seems like it’s just Utaku Good-With-Horses, rather than having anything to do with the Utaku Stablemasters.
Cover art by Mauro Dal Bo

Looking those over, I find myself disappointed with the school selection here. Some of that is personal – I don’t like potions, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with them, and now there’s a school for that. And if the Utaku Stablemaster had a different name I would think it’s fine. But it feels like too many schools that are too narrow or too hard to fit into a typical campaign.

But, in addition to the above, there’s also an Ishiken Initiate School (shugenja/sage, Voice/any), which effectively means the character is currently Phoenix, but could be anything, given how the Phoenix hoover up anyone who might be able to do void magic. Although the school carries the shugenja tag, Ishiken are not really shugenja – their magic does not come from the spirits. Instead, they draw upon the void to alter reality. As such, they do not have invocations, but instead a new type of technique called inversions. Inversions mostly use Theology (Void), but some use other skills (e.g., Sentiment, Meditation, Martial Arts). Rank 1 inversions include allowing people to communicate telepathically, rewinding time to get a “do-over” on an action/choice, summoning a void-knife, and finding the breaking point for an object or situation. Higher levels might distort distance and simultaneity, remove something from reality, or undo your own death. Inversions have a new mechanical concept called magnitude. The magnitude of an inversion is the number of blank dice results kept. For the effects of a given spell, a higher magnitude is generally more potent. However, there is a universal ‘cosmic strain’ magnitude effect that damages reality if an inversion has 3+ magnitude and the ishiken keeps any strife results. Ishiken Initiates can receive fatigue to alter their void magic dice to or from blank sides, which vastly powers up their inversions.

There’s also the usual smattering of other mechanical things – new distinctions, passions, anxieties, adversities, and techniques (mostly invocations, but there are also rituals). Being famously kind is really handy for convincing people to let you into places you aren’t really supposed to be, although I’m a bit confused how interacting with a woodland creature is a situation “for which you need to leverage your reputation.” I want to like the Kabuki passion, although it gives me nightmares of players engaging in all of the worst D&D bard tropes. Religious study – now there’s one that’s easy to trigger and doesn’t give me an anxiety attack. The most notable thing on the negative side is a full set of elemental deficiencies.

For items, the main attraction is the Ancestral Swords. These were a Big Deal back in the day, because in the original L5R CCG, they were potent fixed cards in the starter decks for the original base set of the game, and then not reprinted later. From a flavor perspective, they were generally a sword wielded by the founding kami of the clan, passed down through the centuries. Mechanically, each of the swords lets its wielder use one of the Void inversions, but rolling something other than Theology (still using the Void ring though). Most of the blades also have solid stat profile – high damage, high deadliness, or some other ability (e.g., can breathe underwater). The Ancestral Swords here are definitely not just remakes of those original concepts. Some are similar (the Ancestral Sword of the Lion is still a sword that Akodo never used, because he broke his own sword after the end of the war against Fu Leng because he had been forced to draw his own brother’s blood with it). Some are completely different (there isn’t really an Ancestral Sword of the Dragon, it actuality it’s a koan that unlocks the potential of the student, which is an extremely cool concept).

The remainder of Celestial Realms is GM advice on designing supernatural encounters or spirit realms adventures. Note that the latter doesn’t just mean going to the spirit realm – Yomi, for example, could be involved if there’s a blessed ancestor who wants to meddle in a PC’s affairs. And, of course, there are a few pages on the virtue of righteousness.

The highlight aspects of Celestial Realms are the treatment of the spirit realms (even if you mostly use it for background purposes), the introduction of Void magic, more detail on the families of the Phoenix, and background and rules on the Moshi/Centipede Clan. I also really liked the new treatment of the Ancestral Swords. The religion-focused material, while welcome in theory, is too esoteric to be all that helpful – I wish we instead had received something like variations on more mainline Shinseism/Fortunism, which seems like it would be more useful in a campaign. And I was not blown away by the new schools. Still, worth picking up if you’re interested in the subjects covered by those highlight aspects.

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