Review – Adventures in Rokugan (New 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 enfranchised L5R players. But this review is for those new to Rokugan.

Dungeons & Dragons is more popular now than it has ever been, and for the second time we are seeing a really significant quantity of third-party content being built on the bones of the current D&D mechanics. It seems to be going better this time around – D&D 3E seemed to spawn a relative lot of low-quality supplements that were very much still in the ‘standard fantasy’ wheelhouse. The 5E explosion, however, seems to have attracted a greater number of high quality worlds built on the 5E mechanics but extending past traditional D&D-style fantasy. And that has included 5E versions of some venerable roleplaying games that previously existed using only their own bespoke mechanics.

Joining that last group is Adventures in Rokugan. Japanese-inspired Rokugan has been at the heart of the Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game for 25 years, going through five editions of its own, with the first four being variations on a theme and the fifth a complete overhaul when Fantasy Flight Games acquired the setting.

Setting

Rokugan, also known as the Emerald Empire, has lasted through a thousand years, including a variety of semi-catastrophes (civil war, attempted usurpation, a mad emperor, blood sorcery, legions of the risen dead, that sort of thing). Within Rokugan the Great Clans play their roles and vie for political influence, but the empire is also populated with minor clans, ronin, commoners, and outsiders both natural and supernatural. Southwest of Rokugan is the Shadowlands, a realm of taint and evil whose existence dates to the mystical founding of the Empire. Around the Emerald Empire are peoples inspired by other parts of Asia, and citizens from these lands may find themselves adventuring in Rokugan as well. Metaphorically (and perhaps literally) above, below, and around Rokugan are cosmological realms – and residents of these realms might join the party too. Now new threats to the Empire are emerging, and it will be up to heroes – like the player characters – whether Rokugan is able to make it into its next millenium.

Each of the human Great Clans was founded by a divine kami who literally fell to earth. The kami were the children of Lord Moon and Lady Sun. Lord Moon was jealous of his children and began consuming them. The youngest – Hantei – ultimately fought his father, and sliced open his belly, releasing his siblings but sending them falling down to Rokugan. There the kami created civilization and came to lead tribes of humans who were formed where the tears of Lady Sun mixed with the blood of Lord Moon. The kami held a tournament to resolve who would rule (the Dragon Clan Kami, Togashi, chose not to compete). The winner – Hantei – founded the Empire. But one of the siblings – Fu Leng – did not fall with the other kami. Instead he fell alone, and instead of landing in the mortal realm he tore through it into hellish lower realms. This breach in reality resulted in the creation of the Shadowlands. Fu Leng eventually led his demonic legions into Rokugan, and was defeated by mortals known as the Seven Thunders, who were led by the little teacher. This is an entirely human-centric mythology, known to be false because both human and nonhuman civilizations predated the Emerald Empire.

What’s Different About These Adventures?

Adventures in Rokugan may use the 5E mechanics, but it is not simply a magical fantasy game that happens to have feudal samurai instead of feudal knights. Sure, there are easy surface differences to pick out. There’s a different selection of armor, and shields are rare. Threats are more likely to be human, and when they’re supernatural they aren’t gelatinous cubes and displacer beasts.

But the important differences are deeper. There’s more of a spiritual significance to the world. For all that standard D&D technically has things like walking conduits to the gods walking around, that isn’t given much significance in typical play – whether it’s a cleric or a wizard or a bard it’s ultimately just another spell being slung. If Tiamat shows up she’s just a really, really powerful boss monster to cap off the end of the campaign. Adventures in Rokugan approaches this differently. It’s not just the view that the world is suffused with spirits. It’s that this matters to the characters – ritualists must seek the favor of the spirits to power their invocations. It’s not just that ancestors are venerated in theory. It’s that this matters – characters don’t loot the ancestral heirlooms (magic items) of their defeated foes (a respectful character would be expected to return such a prized possession to the family of the deceased); instead they must perform great deeds to awaken the spirits in the weapons inherited from their grandparents. The supernatural threats are not just another sort of monster – they might threaten a character’s very soul. And the other realms of Rokugan’s cosmology are not theoretical (or the subject of light-hearted space adventures) – they are considered in daily life, as exemplified by player characters who may hail from those realms.

Characters

Backgrounds

The “typical” character in Adventures in Rokugan is a human (species) and a member of one of the families of a Great Clan (mechanically the character’s background). The determined Crab hold the line against the Shadowlands. The artistic Crane set the standards for Rokugani culture. The enigmatic Dragon bide their time in their isolated mountains, occasionally emerging and intervening for inscrutable reasons. The vast Lion provide soldiers for the Empire. The spiritual Phoenix are masters of elemental power. The sinister Scorpion achieve their goals and the Empire’s no matter the cost. And the well-traveled Unicorn link Rokugan to the rest of the world. Within each of these clans are families that focus on martial combat, diplomatic graces, spiritual harmony, or more esoteric roles – the siege engineers of the Crab, the tattooed order within the Dragon, the Lion who can call forth the spirits of their ancestors, or the Unicorn who harness the power of name magic.

That’s already over 35 backgrounds, each one saying a lot more about where this character comes from than just being an ‘outlander.’ Even human characters native to Rokugan aren’t limited to these – there are Imperial family members and a dozen Minor Clans, each with there own background, again saying something meaningful about where this character came from. (Don’t worry, there are more generic backgrounds for characters who are from Rokugan but not members of the samurai class).

Humans from outside of Rokugan might have journeyed from the Ivory Kingdoms, the Qamarist Caliphate, the great Plains of Wind and Stone, the Kingdom of Clouds, Saebyuksan, or various islands. Each of these is not a one-note location, instead each has a couple distinctive backgrounds (or the option to use a more generic background).

Species

While Rokugan is human-dominated, humans are not the only player character options for Adventures in Rokugan. Three of the six options are mortal creatures of Ningen-Do (the mortal realm) – naga, nezumi, and tengu. The naga are half-serpent in appearance, naga either come from the Ivory Kingdoms or from the Shinomen Forest within Rokugan, where a contingent of naga has been sleeping for hundreds of years and is only now beginning to awaken. Mechanically naga are fast (and have a swim speed), with multiple sensory bonuses (based on smell, thermalsight, and a lesser sort of tremorsense).

Nezumi (sometimes known as ratlings) are ratlike humanoids. The ancient civilization of the Nezumi was destroyed when Fu Leng fell into and through the mortal realms. Nezumi – who are immune to the effects of the Shadowlands – may live there, or may reside in the outskirts of the Shinomen Forest. The Nezumi are short-lived, and this colors their perspective. They venerate their tribes’ Rememberers, sages who have access to the Realm of Dreams to keep the past alive for modern Nezumi.

Tengu are typically depicted as ravenfolk in other fantasy sources, but in Adventures in Rokugan they can have an appearance similar to any sort of bird. They are often seen as messengers of the gods, and some of them are. But mostly they are just people. Mechanically Tengu get very little other than the ability to glide, which may be disappointing in light of other official 5E species that have fly speeds.

Finally, there are a trio of species representative of those other realms above, beside, and below Rokugan – specters, mazoku, and yokai. OK, maybe I’m stretching that characterization a bit with specters – they are ancestors who are supposed to have gone on to Yomi (or some less pleasant afterlife), but instead stuck around to deal with unfinished business (note: they have nothing to do with the typical D&D specters). Under normal circumstances, a specter appears to be a typical human, but have the ability to disperse their corporeal form as needed. This dispersal is the specter’s only mechanical benefit, allowing some very limited one-per-short rest damage resistance or walking through walls (if they’re less than an inch thick).

From beside Rokugan are the animal yokai, various spirits who have an animalistic appearance in Senkyo, the Enchanted Realm (the other realm beside is Yume-Do, the Realm of Dreams), and tend to take on a human appearance in the mortal realms, although they can switch back and forth. There are three types of animal yokai presented – kitsune (fox), komori (bat), and kawauso (otter). In addition to the ability to shift into their true form and fly, swim, or whatever it is that a fox can do, each animal yokai has perform one specified invocation once per day (see the discussion of the ritualist class below).

From below are the Mazoku, underlings of the Fortune of Death – demonic in appearance, but primarily celestial bureaucrats who help judge and process the dead. So primarily in the Realm of Waiting, rather than something more sinister like the Realm of the Hungry Dead or the Realm of Slaughter. But sometimes Mazoku are sent to the mortal realm, where they appear almost entirely human, except for a singular starting feature (I can’t help but think of them as Rokugan’s answer to the popularity of tieflings). Mechanically the mazoku gain darkvision and the ability to, once per day, transform into their true form for a few rounds, gaining bonuses that vary from mazoku to mazoku.

Note that all of the species have the flexible attribute boosts like in Monsters of the Multiverse, but several of them are reduced to only two +1 boosts instead of three. Mechanically, none of the new species match up with the humans’ free feat or +1 to everything bonus (and even the humans are powered-down, because losing all the extra attribute bonuses only gets a feat, not a feat and a skill proficiency). This overall power-down isn’t a big deal if everyone is still balanced (well, everyone but the humans), but I find it a surprising move just because it makes the options seem less exciting for players coming from standard 5E.

Classes

Adventures in Rokugan introduces seven new character classes. Although formally compatible with your standard 5E classes, some of the resource systems used mean that combining them may not produce fair results. So I’m just evaluating these in relation to each other. The seven new character classes are the bushi, duelist, courtier, shinobi, ritualist, pilgrim, and acolyte.

Bushi and duelists are your straight-up warriors. Duelists are better one-on-one (including in literal duels), while bushi are better against groups (including getting more hit points). Both classes use focus points to power martial techniques, and regain focus points (while getting other benefits) through the use of stances during combatSome of the distinctions between the classes can be seen in the default everyone-has-it technique for each class – the bushi’s technique reduces incoming damage, while the duelist’s technique increases outgoing damage. Each class has multiple archetypes, of course. The bushi’s archetypes represent three levels of aggression. On one side the vanguard gets more attacks when faced with multiple foes, while on the other end of the spectrum the protector gains access to the heaviest of armor (the only class/archetype that does so in Adventures in Rokugan; none of the base classes has more than medium armor proficiency). In between is the samurai armsmaster, who gains access to the lower-end heavy armor (lacquered armor) and more flexible bonuses like more skill proficiencies and better unarmed strikes. Duelists can be blademasters (heavily focused on Rokugan’s traditional single-weapon, single-strike dueling style), adepts (two-weapon fighters with greater flexibility), or deathdancers (who extensively employ intimidation).

Ritualists are the closest thing to a traditional magic user in Adventures in Rokugan, and they aren’t all that close (note that, despite the name, they do not use ritual magic as that term is used in 5E). Ritualists are able to call upon the spirits in the world around them, using invocations to ask those spirits to perform particular tasks, spending favor in the process. The class is, however, fairly limited by the low number of favor points that it gets each day, and ends up feeling reliant on the small number of zero-cost invocations. While the scope of possible focuses for ritualists is broad, depending on the spiritual tradition the character comes from, I suspect that in practice ritualists will feel like warlocks, repeatedly using the one good damage-dealing invocation that doesn’t cost favor. The three ritualist archetypes are the elementalist (who care more about the element of their invocations, naturally), the medium (connecting with ancestors), and the artisan. There’s a lot of sub-archetypes in the artisan – alchemy, charms, illusions, wards, and more. Artisans can also help awaken the spirits within items (e.g., your sword that you used to slay a mighty foe), but I would anticipate the GM making NPCs available for that anyway.

Shinobi are the sneakiest of Rokugani characters, although I think it would be a mistake to think of them as “Rokugani rogues” – they just do sneaky in a substantially different way. Basically ninja, they get a lot of use out of ‘ninja tools’ – caltrops, smoke screens, poison, and the like. I think the standard archetype is the saboteur, while the infiltrator focuses on being socially sneaky.

The existence of the courtier class is emblematic of the traditional importance of social navigation in Rokugan. Their abilities rely on the use of intrigue dice to fuel fuel rhetorical flourishes (the one that everyone gets lets the courtier increase someone’s AC or saving throw by a die roll as a reaction). The one repeat-use power that the courtier gets is, when they attack, to grant the next character who hits a damage bonus equal to the courtier’s proficiency bonus. Unfortunately, given the thematic importance of the courtier, that’s really it for them in combat. It’s not that they don’t have combat abilities – plenty of rhetorical flourishes are combat-focused. It’s just that they all cost intrigue dice, the courtier doesn’t get many intrigue dice, and there isn’t a good way to regain intrigue dice short of a long rest. With terrible AC and only simple weapon proficiencies, courtiers are going to spend a lot of time hanging back and shooting crummy ranged weapons. They feel too much like a depowered bard. Which is a shame. The two courtier archetypes are the diplomat and the investigator.

The pilgrim will most commonly be a wandering member of the Brotherhood of Shinsei, an order of monks who stand outside of Rokugan’s usualy samurai-dominated social structure (they would probably just have been monks, but that class name is already taken). They have two primary mechanical schticks. First, they use their hit dice to fuel power. Much like the ritualist and the courtier, this means that they rely a bit too much on a limited resource that they don’t have a good way to renew (although not nearly as much as those classes do) – especially because there is no Rokugani equivalent of a cleric throwing healing spells all over the place (the basic version of the basic healing spell just lets the target immediately use a hit die, for example). Second, pilgrims track their yin-yang balance. By default being on the yang side of things makes attacking stronger while the yin side makes healing better. But the appropriate yin or yang state is also required to enter the pilgrim’s forms of enlightenment (which come with significant bonuses) or use externalizations (projecting the pilgrim’s power outside of themself). The three pilgrim archetypes align the character in different ways on the yin-yang scale – redemption (yin), harmony (balanced), justice (yang).

Finally, there is the acolyte, which is conceptually the narrowest of the classes. While the other classes can represent wide swathes of Rokugani society, the acolyte represents two specific groups – the tattooed Togashi Order of the Dragon Clan, and the tiny number of members of the Scorpion Clan who have been marked with Shadow Brands (a sign of the primordial Nothing from which the universe sprang, and which now seeks the unmaking of what it created). The base acolyte can gain additional inspiration, and has different ways to spend it. But much of the class is found in the two archetypes. The Acolyte of Togashi gains major and minor tattoos, each with its own magical power. The Acolyte of Shadows gains Shadow Brands which, unsurprisingly, each also have their own magical power.

Bringing It All Together

Rokugan is a richly developed setting, and if you play Adventures in Rokugan going over the character background options is one of the best ways of seeing that. Backgrounds are way more important in Adventures in Rokugan than they are in standard D&D. I think a lot of players just pick D&D backgrounds for the proficiencies, but even if you’re looking for flavor the flavor is fairly generic. Backgrounds here are the very opposite of that. Looking over each background says something about the role of that clan and family in the empire. There are no mechanical restrictions in Adventures in Rokugan, but players who want to lean in to what’s typical for members of a certain clan or family will find detailed suggestions on how to embody that mechanically – what classes might be used, what options in those classes, and also what feats (most of the feats are categorized by Clan, although there isn’t a hard mechanical gate on the feats). Rokugan is a setting with a real sense of place, and I think you get the most out of it when leaning into that sense of place, even where the rules permit you to combine your own personal hodgepodge of mechanical options.

Wrapping it Up

Of course, there’s more to Adventures in Rokugan than I can readily talk about here. There are dozens of feats, plus things like the martial techniques and invocations that power some of the classes. There’s gear specific to the setting (like an entirely different array of armor options), rules on awakening characters’ items, a significant gazetteer with maps, NPC stat blocks, and an introductory adventure (if you like Adventures in Rokugan, you might want to pick up some of the more recent non-5E Legend of the Five Rings supplements, which have full poster versions of some of the regional maps and the maps used in this adventure).

I will admit to being a biases source here – I’ve been playing both Legend of the Five Rings in various versions for more than two decades (D&D as well). So I’m inherently inclined to think that it’s cool to see the chance for this setting to ride the 5E wave and get into the hands of new players. Rokugan is just so packed full of cool aspects to explore, with every clan and family and species highlighting a different cool element of the empire, and then the way those elements interrelate to each other to build this bigger tapestry. I like that there’s a built-in way to make getting more powerful gear about telling an epic story instead of just finding a new thing and throwing out your old one. My main qualm about Adventures in Rokugan are the power level issues. The mechanics of the species are underwhelming. This mostly isn’t a balance issue (although some species are more underwhelming than others), but it does make the choice of species less exciting than it might be. More concerning is the power variance in the classes, with key Rokugani concepts like the courtier and ritualist saddled with subpar power sets while front-line combatants have strong class options. Sure, you can explore Rokugan and just stab bad guys in the face, but the full experience of the setting needs to involve trips to court, nefarious plots to unravel, and the wonders of an animated natural world. I would consider nudging those classes up a bit to make them more compelling picks.

Ultimately, I still love Rokugan, and I would suggest checking out Adventures in Rokugan to any 5E player who’s looking for something that’s still feudal fantasy, but from a different perspective, or just interested in a richly-developed setting that’s been exploring for decades the wider array of concepts (like horror and mysteries and social investigation) that D&D has only been warming up to for the last few years.

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