Review – Path of Waves (Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying)

Path of Waves brings the most extensive set of new character creation of any supplement for Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying. The title (rōnin literally means “wave man”) and subtitle (The Essential Guide to Rōnin) make reference to the primary topic of the book, but it is broader in scope than that, with a significant chunk dedicated to the gaijin (especially those from the Ivory Kingdoms).

There’s a lot of description of the role of rōnin in Rokugan, the basics being that if you play things “accurately” being a rōnin involves an awful lot of misery and scraping by. There’s a lot of depth there is you want to use it, although my experience with the L5R RPG (and other L5R fiction) in its various iterations is that this is not the common play pattern for rōnin, where rōnin PCs tend to mingle with Clan samurai without a terrible lot of regard for the formal strictures of the setting (mostly because having everyone always treat your character like dirt isn’t fun for the players). So a decent amount of the ‘fluff’ in here, while well-written, will speak to a lot of rōnin player characters only in a background manner.

Although there is a bit of advice for the rōnin-in-a-mixed group, the non-mechanical material in Path of Waves is probably better suited for a campaign where everyone is a rōnin. This allows the campaign to better play up the distinctive themes of outcast samurai without singling out one player for deprivation. Here, characters may trade the usual duty-versus-honor/desire dilemma for a much bleaker honor-versus-survival issue. Committing seppuku in protest of one’s lords actions at least has an aura of nobility to it. Starving in the street because you don’t want to dirty your hands does not. However, while there are definitely differences, this is ultimately a variation of the core theme in L5R. Playing as rōnin can also give players the chance to be the (somewhat) noble underdog being put out by an unfair social system (Clan samurai, even relatively moral-by-modern-standards player characters, tend to spend so much time looking up at their lords that they don’t notice the people they’re stepping on). A band of rōnin might be the only people willing to fight for a village (certainly there have been enough movies made on that theme). Or they might be mercenaries given the task of being disposable vanguard troops while the glorious Lion samurai follow in their wake.

For the gaijin out there, there are about ten pages on the Ivory Kingdoms (the India-inspired country near Rokugan) themselves (apart from mechanical material or general gaijin advice), from basic geography to internal factions to their version of the Shadowlands (and those who oppose it). It could serve as some background for a gaijin who has made their way into Rokugan or, for the more ambitious GM, a short jaunt by a party of samurai into the Ivory Kingdoms. To assist with the latter, the new stat block section includes some Ivory Kingdoms beasts (alongside traditional NPCs, animals, and elementals).

There’s also a smidge of material on the Perfect Land Sect.

The big selling point, however, is additional character creation options to take gaijin and rōnin into account. As presented this starts off with a “new” set of 20 questions, but you may recall from my review of the core book that I don’t really care for that presentation (it’s just the mechanics and a bunch of background on the character that I don’t think is helped by this particular formalization). The main thing is that clan and family just don’t apply to rōnin and gaijin like they do to core book characters. So clan is replaced with region, and family is replaced with upbringing – different names, same function. However, note that most of the options are not really appropriate for what is probably the most archetypal sort of rōnin – a member of a samurai clan who has lost their status. Such characters would have the same origin as any ‘normal’ samurai (and there are rules in the core book for this sort of thing).

Like clan, region provides a ring bonus and a skill bonus, and dictates starting glory. Rōnin can come from urban, rural farmland, sea/river/lake region, forest, mountains, or a haunted region. Gaijin “regions” are different, identifying a society and an aspect of it. Here the options are Ujik of the plains of wind and stone (the gaijin who heavily influenced the Unicorn), Qamarists of the Cradle of the World (this is a region of the world inspired by Islamic Mesopotamia), Yodha of the Ghostlands (forces of the Ivory Kingdoms dedicated to combating their version of the Shadowlands), and the Sheelavaan of Bhavyatapura (citizens of a vast and cosmopolitan metropolis).

Like families, upbringings provide a ring and skill increase. Starting status is dictated by whether the character is rōnin, a peasant (pretending to be a rōnin), or a gaijin. Upbringing then modifies this starting point, and provides starting wealth.The options are craftperson, fallen noble, farmer, geisha house, hinin, hunter/fisher, law enforcement, military, rōnin family, organized crime, street urchin, temple, and tradeperson. I would anticipate that the most common option, by far, is the fallen noble, because it’s the one that represents a rōnin who used to be a member of a samurai clan (and the boosts from that upbringing are dictated by the family of origin). As noted above, most of the options are really aimed at characters who have always been rōnin (or are peasants who decided that calling themselves rōnin was a better option).

Schools are schools, even for rōnin and gaijin (and this is where a former clan rōnin can really start delving in, if they want to have the simplicity of just having one school, instead of rank 1 in a clan school and then trying to develop a new school). The options are:

  • The Wandering Blade – Your standard rōnin bushi, the Wandering Blade gets a lot of flexibility and power. They get free choice on one of their rings. They get a new Void Shūjii to clear fatigue/strife (and access to a new shūji to clear strife/fatigue from someone else), and their choice of elemental kata. Their school ability lets them pick a weapon type of choice, get an extra die when using that weapon type, and get to suffer fatigue to turn their dice to successes. It’s way more straightforward and versatile than many of the clan bushi schools.
  • Student of the Talon – Sneaky bushi/shinobi who specialize in striking from a distance, the talons can increase or decrease the severity of ranged critical strikes.
  • Treasure HunterOther than having the commerce skill, I’m not sure what about these courtier/bushi says “treasure hunter.” But they get static boosts to vigilance and focus, which is not at all shabby. The ‘paying attention’ theme continues with immediate access to the Tactical Assessment kata, with the ring boosts coming to Air and Water.
  • School of Leaves – These shinobi/courtier lean a lot further in on the sneaky part than the Student of the Talon, getting early access to multiple Ninjutsu techniques at character creation (although I keep wondering why the School of Leaves doesn’t  start with the Rustling of Leaves shūji). Their school ability, however, functions only when they are obscured, limiting their versatility.
  • Voice of the Wilds – These rare rōnin shugenja (most non-clan, or even non-samurai, shugenja are adopted into clans when their talents are discovered) get flexibility at a cost. They get rings of their choice, and a school ability that lets them effectively change the invocations they know each day. But aside from that school ability they don’t get general access to invocations until rank 4.
  • Artisan of the Roads – Because even rōnin need artisan tags. The Artisan of the Roads really leans into the whole rōnin-need-money thing, with a school ability and early access to a shūji that are about getting paid early or not needing to pay for craft supplies. Their commerce abilities are useful outside of that context, but they still join a lot of artisan schools in being of narrow applicability.
  • Mystic of the Mountain – Not really rōnin, the mystics of the mountain are a conceptually flexible school – a character who wanders and gains wisdom can be readily crammed into many a situation or party.
  • Ujik Diviner School – Leading off the gaijin section are these non-shugenja spellcasters (they only have the Sage tag because their magic does not work in the same way as Rokugani shugenja), who are great and channeling and get a lot of earth/water magic to start out.
  • Qamarist Shield Bearer – Rokugani don’t generally use shields, so here’s your chance to port the shield bash action over from D&D.
  • Qamarist Alchemist – These sages are all about the rituals, with early access to all rank 2 rituals and a school ability to pile on the opportunity. Small surprise then that the ritual section includes a number of Qamarist alchemical creations.
  • Ivory Kingdoms Sage – The mystical side of the Ivory Kingdoms pair, their sage focuses on kihō, gaining broad access to them and able to suffer fatigue to pass their benefits on to others.
  • Ivory Kingdoms Dancing Blades – Doing their best old-school Mirumoto Blender impersonation, the Dancing Blades can (once per scene) use one action to take a shot at every single enemy in range. Starting at rank 2 they gain early access to the option to wield astras, bonkers-strong weapons of the gods.

And if those aren’t good enough, there’s a breakdown of how to build your own school – what the ring bonuses should be, what skill options are available based on tag, how to build a curriculum, and so on. This includes generic school abilities for those player/GM pairs who might otherwise argue about what’s mechanically appropriate.

There are more fine-grained mechanical options as well; the usual advantages, disadvantages, techniques, and so on. The Ardent Leader distinction could come in handy for a player who wants a character to stand a better chance persuading with passion instead of precise phraseology. The kata includes a relatively high proportion that work with less-valued weapons such as axes. There’s a plot-hook-on-a-stick ritual that lets rōnin meditate at a crossroads to determine things like which way to go for money or conflict or friends. Many of the new weapons are aimed at the Ivory Kingdoms, but there are an array of improvised weapons. I’m not sure I need to know the mechanical difference between using a scrolls case as a weapon versus using an umbrella as a weapon, but I did like the inclusion of “boat oar” as a nod to Mirumoto (and his real-world inspiration, Miyamoto Musashi). New titles include the fairly generic “in service to a lord” (for your rōnin who hope they are on the rise) and Perfect Land sect member.

Path of Waves has the expected GM/campaign advice section, but it also spends about 50 pages presenting a generic-feeling village and a generic-feeling town. These could, potentially, be used as a starting point or encounter location for any campaign, but they are particularly suited to rōnin campaigns (especially the village) because traditional clan samurai just aren’t going to be getting involved with helping out peasants and merchants, sometimes for pay. They probably serve most easily as an initial ‘home base’ for a group of rōnin PCs, with the GM able to lean on the write-ups for initial ‘quests’ and local color.

The layout/graphic design continue to be great, and the deep pool of L5R art continues to serve the RPG well. But proofreading seems down here as it was with Courts of Stone, with things like multiple spelling errors that should have been caught with spell check (e.g., “sucha  check” or “rangd”).

I think that Path of Waves will be most-loved by the narrower groups (and especially their GMs) who want to tell a more “gritty” rōnin story, but will find a broader audience for any player who wants a rōnin character or wants to be able to create their own school (e.g., decent generic Scorpion bushi school).

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