Review – Adventures in Rokugan (Classic L5R Players)

Adventures in Rokugan takes the classic world of Legend of the Five Rings and brings it to the fifth edition of “The World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game” (a.k.a., Dungeons & Dragons). Here at Strange Assembly we have a long history with both Legend of the Five Rings (we started as just an L5R podcast) and with D&D (I’ve been playing for [undecipherable] years now). So we have two Adventures in Rokugan reviews. There’s another review for those new to Rokugan. But this review is for enfranchised L5R players. It’s going to assume that the reader is familiar with prior iterations Rokugan and of Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying.

For me, from an enfranchised player perspective, the “bottom line up front” is whether Adventures in Rokugan is (1) a Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game that happens to use 5E mechanics or (2) a D&D game that uses the Legend of the Five Rings setting. That doesn’t mean that there’s a bad or a good answer, but I do think the answer is important. And my answer is that it’s more like a D&D game that uses the Legend of the Five Rings setting. That doesn’t mean it’s the same as playing D&D in the Forgotten Realms – it matters that the game is set in Rokugan. But the characters are fundamentally a straightforward group of adventurers out to (mostly) fight the good fight.

That the book uses that word – “adventurers” – ends up saying a lot. The game no longer really worries about how it is that all of these different types of people ended up working together. In general the insular nature of the Great Clans is not really a big deal like it was. This is, I think, less of a change in practice than it is in theory. The L5R RPG has always fought against this element of the setting. It’s why “we’re working for an Emerald Magistrate” was such a trope – it was one of the few ways to have a multi-Clan group of characters truly work with the setting. I think more often it was just hand-waved away. So I think it makes sense to downplay/remove that element.

So, with that basic question out of the way, let’s get into a bit more detail.

Is Rokugan Itself Different?

Yes. Adventures in Rokugan is set in something that resembles the calm before the Second Day of Thunder (it’s 1123, five years before the Second Day of Thunder, but I don’t know if they’re planning on having that be a thing). The baseline world is, I think, the Fantasy Flight version of Rokugan. All of the Great Clans are there. All of the minor clans too (maybe even a couple extras). There’s also a Perfect Land sect and an elemental imbalance and controversy over Iuchi name magic. The world maps are the world maps from the FFG Rokugan. And if you just looked at the humans of Rokugan, there wouldn’t be that big a difference. But what is really different is the non-Rokugani humans and how Rokugan feels about people other than Rokugani humans.

There is baked into Adventures in Rokugan a much more developed world outside Rokugan that is talked about a lot more than it typically was in L5R. There are sections right here in the core book about the Ivory Kingdoms, the Qamarist Caliphate, and the Ujik nomads. And they’re all adjusted to greater or lesser extent from what they used to be. There’s also material on Yun Feng Guo, a Chinese-inspired nation that sits directly to the north of the Dragon mountains, and is so integrated with the setting that Togashi and Fu Leng are children of Lady Sun and a Yun Feng Guo deity, and so only half-siblings to the rest of the kami. And the Isawa come from Saebyuksan, a Korean-inspired land also just north of Rokugan. The Yobanjin are no longer present. There are also no Senpet or Yodotai, and all of the European-inspired nations have been replaced (which may have something to do with how the rights to that part of the setting are tied up in 7th Sea ownership and licensing). So the Battle of White Stag still happened, but the traders were from the Myantu Alliance, Asturiam, and Vyzantari Kingdom.

The Battle of White Stag also didn’t have quite the same impact on the setting, as the xenophobia of Rokugan is turned way, way down. There are multiple non-human character creation options. There are mechanical backgrounds for bunches of non-Rokugani humans, and not just one per country either. These folks are presumably still uncommon, but they aren’t hated and feared. Although most of the non-human options do have magical ways to appear human (even the naga have such an ability, which they didn’t before). This also extends to the Unicorn – the issues with name magic are the only issue; there’s no lingering mistrust because of their ‘gaijin’ ways.

Character Options

Since you’re an existing L5R player, you’re presumably used to character creation involving choice of Clan and family and school. If this was more of a “5E implementation of L5R” then they might have gone with doing clan-family-school as race-background-class. But that isn’t how it went. Human is a species option (note: I personally tend to use “species” instead of “race” even when talking about standard D&D, but this isn’t just my personal word choice here; the book calls them species), and there are a variety of non-human species options as well.

The non-human species options include some obvious ones, and some new ones. Naga and nezumi are around, of course. Tengu are an option, now more just bird-people than something exotic (they are also more broadly birdfolk, rathe than ravenfolk). The new options include specters and mazoku. Mazoku are demon-like servants of the Fortune of Death. They can take on human form and wander Rokugan for unspecified purposes, although that form has some sign of their demonic nature. They seem to me to pretty clearly be an effort to capitalize on the popularity of tieflings. I’m kind of surprised that the illustration of a mazoku isn’t a blue girl. Specters are the lingering spirits of the dead, who are for the most part indistinguishable from the living unless they want to be noticed. Somewhere between old and new are animal yokai – not that they weren’t around in the setting before, but I think playing something like a kitsune or komori was thoroughly off the radar. Notably, although these non-humans are fully mechanically supported (including with backgrounds), the setting isn’t really altered to integrate them. So, sure, I guess there are villages of tengu out there somewhere, but it’s not like they’re a Clan with a larger role in the empire. There’s no big religious question about why there are demons and the spirits of the dead wandering the earth in human form.

Families are backgrounds, which means they grant proficiency in a couple of skills, one weapon (usually but not always the wakizashi), and a couple of extras (a tool kit, languages, etc.). Background affects some general character knowledge (e.g., all Crane family backgrounds know about politics), but for the most part this is it for what clan and family do in a mandatory mechanical sense. Everything about making a character feel like an ‘X Clan samurai’ is optional. The book does have suggestions – what classes to take to make a certain kind of character, what feats, what invocations, that sort of thing. But none of it is locked off. No feat, class, invocation, or technique is formally limited to those from a particular clan or family, although some are awful close (there’s one class that’s basically just for the Togashi Order), and feats are easier to access for a particular clan.

There is quite the long list of backgrounds. All of the Great Clans get one per family (even the Kaito). There are multiple options for the Imperial families. Every minor clan has at least one. Every foreign nation or people has at least two (so you might be from a specific city in the Ivory Kingdoms). There are ‘generic’ backgrounds like rural or urban. And every non-human species has at least one background as well. Background means a lot more from a story perspective than it usually does in D&D, but it’s not that much more of a mechanical impact.

Classes are very generic, compared to the usual L5R schools. Except for the Togashi, nothing is tied to a particular flavor or a particular location in the setting. The options are bushi, duelist, courtier, shinobi, ritualist, pilgrim, and acolyte. As I noted above, the acolyte is mostly just the Togashi, but that’s also how you’d make a character with Shadow Brands (those are the two sub-classes of acolyte, and you have to pick one of those two). (Note that while the Nothing is present, the Kolat do not seem to be.) Acolytes gain and spend inspiration a lot. And the Togashi, unsurprisingly, get to choose from a list of major and minor tattoos. Pilgrims, on the other hand, are where Brotherhood of Shinsei monks would fall (the “monk” title is taken by the 5E core class). They get extra uses for hit dice, and track their yin-yang balance while using ‘externalizations’ (basically spell effects). Pilgrims can walk the path of redemption, the path of harmony, or the path of justice. The pilgrim’s reliance on spending hit dice to activate their abilities seems like a weakness in general, and a problem in a setting that isn’t loaded with healing spells (the baseline healing invocation just lets you spend hit dice without needing to rest).

Bushi and duelists are both straight-up warriors, although duelists are better one-one-one (including in duels) and bushi are better against groups (and have more hit points). Pretty much any character from a bushi school before is going to be primary in one of these, although a lot of the recommendations include multi-classing into something else as well. Both classes use focus points, martial techniques (which can be chosen off of a list), and combat stances, which do carry over some flavor from the FFG L5R RPG. The default bushi martial technique makes the character harder to hit and reduces incoming damage, while the default duelist technique increases outgoing damage. Bushi can gain more focus points, while duelists can try to drag specified enemies into duels. Like everything D&D, these classes have archetypes. Bushi can be samurai armsmasters (flexible bonuses, including more armor proficiency, more skills, better unarmed strikes), protectors (defense, including heavy armor proficiency), or vanguards (more attacks). Duelists can be blademasters (Kakita or anyone who focuses on doing a single weapon well), adepts (Mirumoto or anyone who wants more flexibility), or deathdancers (Bayushi, or anyone who wants to be intimidating).

Ritualists are what shugenja are now called. They do not use “spells” in a traditional D&D sense (nor do they use rituals, as that term is used in 5E). Instead they know a certain number of invocations and use favor points to use the invocations. Ritualists are pretty limited in what they can do with invocations – they get very little favor, and the lion’s share of invocations cost favor. The class is only saved from irrelevance because there are a couple of zero-cost damage dealing invocations. I anticipate a lot of calling of cinders. Mechanically I kind of picture them like 5E warlocks – sure, you’ve got other stuff, but it’s the ability to eldritch blast every turn that’s the class mainstay. If you want to stay true to traditional L5R elemental foci then some clans are pretty hosed, because ritualists don’t have anything good to do in combat other than use invocations. There are three ritualist archetypes – artisans, elementalists, and mediums. The non-artisans are pretty straightforward. The artisan archetypes is half a dozen in one, because it houses alchemy, charms, illusions, wards, and more. A big thing for the artisan is that they can awaken items. Staying true to L5R, this isn’t a setting where you just walk around and find random magic items. Instead, by performing particular feats with weapons and other items (e.g., landing the killing blow on a nasty enough opponent), items have the possibility of awakening. But that really isn’t something that you should need a player character to do, and I don’t know why a GM would punish players for there not being an artisan in the group. Overall, however, ritualists are fairly weak. They at least have something to do every round, but they don’t have the sort of top-end power that most 5E spellcasters do.

Courtiers … have a problem. The mechanics of 5E are very combat focused. Characters who aren’t combat capable just don’t work very well. So even courtiers need to be fully functional in combat. This shouldn’t be a problem. 5E products have made all sorts of concepts combat capable. But the courtier class is woefully underpowered. Every class needs a thing they can do every round. The ritualist can because they effectively have a cantrip invocation. Courtiers don’t. They have only simple weapon proficiency, terrible armor, and no every-round ability to do anything else. All of their abilities require using ‘intrigue dice,’ and they don’t get many per day. Your best action is to hang back, shoot with a simple ranged weapon, and use an ability to increase the damage that someone else will do if the hit by your proficiency bonus. Courtier archetypes include the diplomat and the investigator.

The shinobi class is for anyone who wants to do some sneaky-sneaky, including scouts. The archetypes include infiltrator and saboteur. I would think of saboteur as the default, while infiltrator focuses on social sneaking. Those who want to play someone sneaky who isn’t actually a ninja or a Daidoji Harrier may wish for a more generic option.

From a mechanical perspective, there’s a common theme of tying too much of the power of some of the classes into a resource and then giving the character very little of that resource and no meaningful way to get it back except for a long rest. The pilgrim, ritualist, and courtier all suffer from this (the bushi and duelist use focus points, but they generate them all the time in combat, so it isn’t an issue). I think this is probably the biggest impediment to introducing new players to L5R using Adventures in Rokugan – it’s hard to see many folks who know 5E mechanics being drawn to these (important) character archetypes when the mechanics for them seem so weak.

Sensitivity Reading

I was tempted to put this up front, because it seems to be such a huge thing to a variety of commenters, but ultimately I don’t think it’s that big a deal, so down here it goes. Yes, Adventures in Rokugan used sensitivity readers. Yes, those readers were fairly aggressive. For the most part, this is just word substitution. Like I mentioned before, “race” has been replaced with “species.” The Code of Bushido is now the Code of Akodo. The word gaijin isn’t around. That sort of thing. There’s also a general elimination of Japanese-language (or other Asian language) terms other than names, which you may have noticed above – the are no shugenja, the naga collective unconscious is not the akasha, and such, although the very basics like samurai, ronin, and ninjustu are still around. I think that’s in large part to help new player readability, but I imagine there’s some element of avoiding real-world cultural terms.

The word replacement does produce a few rough spots. There are prominent references chivalry, which reads oddly, because chivalry is basically a western European analog to bushido. The notion of “chivalry” is out of place and less accurate to the values described in the book, including the gender stereotypes/roles that are built into the notion of chivalry but rejected in Adventures in Rokugan. The removal of “honor” (or “honour”) also makes the use of “chivalry” even stranger, because the concept of honor is central to the concept of chivalry. Also, because the word honor has been excised from the game, there’s the awkward phrase that “devotion is stronger than steel.”

More substantive changes are the removal of the Rokugan version of the Japanese feudal caste system and references to/glorification of ritual suicide. The removal of the caste system seems to be a particularly good idea. It’s not that you couldn’t make a game that employed those concepts and made players grapple with the gross injustice of the system – but Legend of the Five Rings never really did that. There’s still a social hierarchy with various ranks of samurai and then commoners below them. But the non-samurai are just merchants, peasants, etc. There’s a reason why you don’t see standard European-inspired fantasy games getting into the details of serfdom or the like. It doesn’t add anything to a game to infuse the characters with a participation in such an abomination of a system, and then just not worry about it. I’m glad to see that sort of detail go.

Wrapping it Up

I said up top that Adventures in Rokugan was more ‘D&D in Rokugan’ than ‘L5R with 5E mechanics.’ What isn’t present in the book is much about culture. There’s history and basic gazetteer information, but there just isn’t much cultural presentation. And I think that’s telling because that sort of thing was part of what made L5R be L5R. Sure, there was plenty of combat. But I always thought of that as one of the three pillars of L5R, along with court and investigation. Of course, 5E isn’t as mechanically built for those things anyway. But without the social backdrop for those interactions, it’s hard to see how a new player would pick up Adventures in Rokugan and incorporate that into the game. Sure, if you’ve got all of that in your head from existing L5R experience, then you can try to import it. But I think it’s telling that it isn’t there. I think it’s telling that Adventures in Rokugan adapts Mask of the Oni as an introductory adventure – it’s about going into the Shadowlands and fighting. And the adaptation excises some of the small amount of interaction with the Crab that takes place before entering the Shadowlands.

And I think that enfranchised L5R players will be frustrated by the difficulty in distinguishing characters from each other. I imagine that some players will want to make things more restrictive (like strictly limiting the clan feats to those clans). But there’s just no way to do that without rebuilding the classes or players choosing to hamper themselves by limiting what parts the characters use. The ritualist, in particular, suffers from this, because if you aren’t willing to throw fire damage every around then it joins the courtier in not having enough to do every round in combat. They could have kept more of a hybrid D&D/L5R feel by doing something like making clans into ‘races’ or having a lot more niche archetypes in the classes. Maybe the former would have been hard, especially given the current 5E design paradigm of making it easier for different ‘races’ to be whatever they want, instead of being strongly pushed into certain classes by ability modifiers. But – other than available space in the book – I’m not sure why they couldn’t have expanded on the class archetypes to get some more distinctive options in there.

Now, being something like D&D in Rokugan isn’t a bad thing. It’s just different. As noted above, it really does matter that the game is in Rokugan. The different classes matter. The backgrounds matter. The worldbuilding is still there. Getting more gold and magic items isn’t a common motivation. But it does mean that if you’re an enfranchised player and your goal is the play Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying, then there isn’t a lot of draw to Adventures in Rokugan unless you are specifically looking for the 5E mechanics. That is a significant “unless” though – the popularity of 5E is why this book exists at all. I know that the ‘differences’ focus of this review might make it sound negative, so I want to be very clear – I am glad that this book was made. I am glad that Rokugan is being brought to the wider 5E audience.

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