Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition Beta

First impressions. I’m confused. When the beta version dropped my weekly group were keen to take part in the play test. So we postponed the start of the Unkown Armies campaign and allocated a few sessions to this. Having just made my players devote a whole session to a UA cabal creations, I didn’t want to force them to generate their own characters, but I gave them to option to do so, or to take a pre-gen from me. Three players volunteered to make characters. One didn’t find the time in the end, but the other two said they found the process complicated. Hence my confusion. I don’t find the process complex at all. These are all experienced players, of a variety of RPGs, so I can’t understand what they are finding difficult. 

My conclusion is that it might be in the layout of the beta rules. One player complained about having to flick back and forth between distinctions, techniques and the 20 questions. But that sort of split happens in every rule book I’ve ever read, except PbtA games where it’s all in the playbook. We have played a lot of those recently, so maybe, in comparison this system of twenty questions seems a little … old fashioned? Actually my only “old fashioned” complaint would be that lots more games nowadays have character generation with a focus on links between the PCs. Given that one of the challenges I’ve often heard bout L5R is “why would these samurai from different clans be working together anyway?”, I’m a bit disappointed that some mechanic wasn’t attempted in this version to address that. Feels a bit like a missed opportunity- though given this is a beta, if enough people share my feeling, perhaps it won’t be missed. 

Back to beta layout, my only flicking back and forth annoyance was that guidance on giri and ninjo was in a separate chapter, and I think most of it could’ve folded into chapter 2. But I note I did have two copies of the PDF open – one on my pad and one on my screen alongside some formfillable character sheets a fellow fan hastily created, so maybe there are some layout issues the designers could solve (with some layout training myself though, I can’t see an easy solution). 

I’m not clear on whether there are discretionary XP to spend after the 20 questions. There are in the scenario but not at the end of chapter 2.  I went with not giving them any, with their agreement, partly because most of them didn’t know the system well enough to spend it anyway. This is one of the things also mentioned as confusing by my one of players. In fact, when we came to play that player hadn’t finished her character. She was the experienced L5R player, so I must say I was surprised. One of the things she had not done was choosing for advantages and disadvantages. I like the unified advantage disadvantage mechanics (I think, we’ll see how they work in play), but I think she was a little frustrated at having to have at least two of each. She had only selected one, a disadvantage. And I think I began to understand that her complaint about the complex nature of the rules was more about, in the beta version at least, not being able to create exactly the character she wanted. That and English being a second language for her. 
So I ran my first session of the beta rules. I used the intro scenario from the 4th Ed book, as I thought it made a better introduction to the world of Rokugan than the one in the beta rules. Most of my six players were neophytes to L5R, and I wanted to run a game that at this stage had minimal actual combat and introduced them to the complexities of honour, face and the class structure. The good news is we had loads of fun, they loved it and want to play again. I’m on vacation for a couple of sessions. So we’ll return to the game in a couple of weeks, when I’ll start the adventure in the beta rules. 

We have two Scorpions, one “openly” and the other masked as an ex-Hida Ronin, a Dragon Investigator (who quickly worked out Miramoto Rai was having an affair, but couldn’t prove his innocence), a Crab bushi, a Unicorn bushi, and a Phoenix shugenja, loyal enough to his clan to lie when the kami told him that a man in Phoenix colours stole Miramoto’s kimono. So there are some interesting team dynamics happening. 

Nobody (if I recall correctly) failed a single roll. (This even though many rolls were ring dice only, as they didn’t have the skill. QUESTION: Am I doing it right? I let them roll on their ring with no penalty as nothing appears in the rules to say they can’t, but I’m very willing to be corrected.) Maybe I wasn’t being tough enough with TN, but it felt “too easy” in general. I wonder if the probabilities are designed correctly in these custom dice. No fighting in this game, so I couldn’t test leathality. 

The strife rules worked well – the crab played comedically very well, especially during the Haiku competion where the player composed some excellently awful haiku, and earned loads of embarrassment (strife) on his dice rolls. Then tried to share his sake knowledge passion to recover some strife, succeeded in the roll, but in doing so earned another point of strife so raged out, knocking the sake cups everywhere. And again towards the end of the session, the Ronin/scorpion rolled to detect the Phoenix’s lie. Succeeded but earned strife enough to shut him down, so said nothing. 

Rules for custom xp spend at the end of character creation are missing. This was a feature of the 4th ed., and at the beginning of the scenario players are given 24 points to spend on their characters, but I wasn’t sure if that was meant to be standard or just to meet the challenge of that particular scenario.

#RPGaDay 14: Legend of the Five Rings

Day 14: Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

If only. If only I had the time, and some of us could have the commitment to the sort of regular session that enables a truly open-ended campaign. My first thought was “well, I wouldn’t be running it, that’s for certain”. But then, I realised that that might be the challenge. What is I was running an open-ended campaign? How would I do it? I’m a low prep GM (and player) now, how could I sustain a never ending story?

I’d want a world that I understood well enough to come up with stuff on the fly. I’d want a world where my favourite antagonists (other people) could reign supreme, but with capacity for monsters and dungeon-delving when the mood took the table. And that world exists. And its called Rokugan.

Legends of the Five Rings is an almost perfect game for open ended play, as it evidenced by the “living” nature of a game world that evolved over years of AEG’s custodianship of the game(s – there was a CCG as well). What I don’t want are lots of splatbooks, and they did make a few over the years, but the core book is complete enough that I don’t think you need any. I would recommend the Atlas of Rokugan though, for reasons I explain here. With those two books you could play for years and years and years. The mix of politics and action, the structure of clans and (can’t beleive I’m about to say this) levels and the prospect of marriage and generational stories, all lend themselves to open ended play.

In fact I do have an ongoing campaign, in my head.

I ran the third edition adventure, the Hare Clan, for a group at a university based club. It can be a bit railroady, but using the (I think lovely) battle rules in the 4th Edition corebook, we ran well and truely off those rails.  A lucky shot from a player character (lucky even to be able to take it, never mind the exploding dice damage) took out the Scorpion general, defeating the overwhelming army and saving the Hare clan. The players were keen to find out what happened next and so I took elements of the follow-up adventure Bells of the Dead, and to uncover a Rokugan wherein the scorpion were disgraced, Crane and Lion sharing governorship of their lands and out players uncovering Kolat plots to try and restore Scorpion honour. The Kolat had been identified and their champion defeated (at the cost of two PCs), but we never got to expose them to the Emperor.

There’s adventure to be had … one day.

The last L5R book ever?

I was a relative latecomer to Legend of the Five Rings (L5R). It came on the scene in 1995, when my roleplaying was limited to the very occasional game of Traveller, and a brief flirtation with Mage. And back then, L5R was just a Collectable Card Game (CCG). Back then I had a very low opinion of CCG’s. I had just watched Magic the Gathering pretty much destroy the roleplaying game industry. I had no interest in a version of Magic the Gathering with added Orientalism. I was thus able to entirely ignore the L5R roleplaying game when it came out in 1997. Occasionally I’d catch a glimpse of a book, mostly after the third edition came out in 2005. But I’d sneer at the poor graphic design and dismiss the whole concept, as a roleplaying game that had its roots in a CCG simply couldn’t be any good.*

A couple of years ago, the fourth edition of L5R was brought to my attention by the eternally excellent Happy Jacks RPG podcast. This crew of Californian gamers, about my age, filled their weekly podcast shooting the breeze about roleplaying, drinking beer, burping and reading out listeners’ emails. With L5R, they tried an experiment – recording their game, and podcasting it, unedited, occassionaly between regular episodes. There’s a whole genre of this sort of podcast, called Actual Plays, but the idea was new to me back then. To be honest, it spoiled me. Their L5R Actual Plays were somehow incredibly listenable, in a way that most of the others I tried listening to, from Happy Jacks and other podcasters, simply don’t manage.

I put that listenability down to the game itself. While it can be incredibly violent, much of L5R is concerned with working out what the right thing to do is, given the competing imperatives of personal honour, loyalty to your clan etc. Each game thus comes down to the players, in character, discussing the right thing to do, and those discussions can have all the dramatic tension of a scripted drama. As I type, I’m trying to listen to a Happy Jacks’ D&D 5th edition actual play, and it simply isn’t as compelling.
With the L5R podcast, the Happy Jacks crew were learning the system as they played, so much of the conversation was about how the rules worked. The “roll and keep” system the game employs was intriguing – the player rolls a number of d10s, and choses to keep a subset of what they rolled based on their stats. Most of the time, of course, they keep the top scoring dice, but not always. The ability to chose to fail is an important factor in a game where failing might well be the honourable thing to do.
By coincidence, DriveThruRPG.com was had a sale on L5R PDFs. The sale price was VERY good, something like 75% off, which I’ve never seen repeated, so on whim I decided to pick up the core book.

And fell in love.

For a start, the PDF was gorgeous, in the style of moku-hanga woodblock printing and kaiga painting, and illustrated (I assume) with the vast library of images created for the card game. All this is paired with excellent typography. Beautiful, evocative and clear, almost perfect RPG graphic design. So good, in fact, that I went out and bought a hardback copy as well.

The system itself is more complex than some modern games, like Fate and Gumshoe. It features classes (clans and schools) and skills, and character creation involves a deal of maths. Combat (both physical and social) involves more than a few rolls. But it works! And fits the world and the genre perfectly. I had no intention of running the game when I bought that PDF, but having read it through, I ran the sample adventure at the back game for a couple of guys at my local club. It was a perfect introduction to the world, and they wanted more. I had no time to create adventures so I scoured DriveThru for a couple of 4th ed scenarios and, when they were done, bought and adapted some third edition adventures. The group grew to eleven players at its peak. I wanted to play too, so badgered someone else in another group to GM. I was a convert to L5R.

Then, late last year, the publishers AEG announced they were going to concentrate on board-games, and were selling L5R to Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). FFG in turn announced that they there very excited about the setting, and would be releasing a new “Living Card Game” in 2017. They also said they’d “explore new possibilities for L5R in the roleplaying space.” I don’t hold out much hope. FFG have merged with the the North American arm of Asmodee, the European producer and distributor of boardgames. Already most of FFG’s output is boardgames, miniature games and card games (some very good ones, I love me a game of X-Wing), and their most successful RPG is Star Wars. I can’t see them getting round to L5R RPG for some time, and even then, I can’t see them retaining the roll-and-keep system which I have come to love.

It’s somehow fitting then, that the very last book in the L5R 4th Edition line, and possibly the very last book ever for any L5R RPG, details the setting of Rokugan, and in doing so charts the 20 year history of that setting’s development through card game and RPG as much as its millennia-long fictional history.

The Atlas of Rokugan has no mechanics, so ironically it’s not really a supplement for the RPG at all, but a general guide that works just as well for players of the card game. But it comes with the RPG brand, and so is just as beautiful as all the 4th edition books. Inside the back cover, you’ll find a folded map of all of Rokugan, 60x80cm, that is a million times better than the dreadful, frankly almost useless map in the fourth edition rule book. Every settlement and location is clearly labelled rather than the code numbers the rule book uses. Routes between the settlements are also marked.

The glue that keeps the map in the book is of the sort that temporarily fixes your new credit cards to the letters they send them with, so it’s easy to detach from the book. Sadly, the glue does leave a couple of greasy stains on the map.

Inside, sections of the map are reproduced at the beginning of each of the first eight chapters, to show each clan’s holdings. Each province is also reproduced within the chapters, often blown up to fill a page. This makes all the labels (some of which are impossibly small on the fold out map) readable. Key buildings and landmarks are often illustrated, and some buildings also get floor plans. The floor plans aren’t scaled for use in play, with figures, and they aren’t labelled in any great detail, so they act more as inspiration for the GM, than a useful tool for play.

There’s plenty of text in each chapter too. Giving a brief history of each place. This “travelogue” style history is something I love. I find deeper history and RPG fiction tiresome, to be honest. Something that makes Rokugan unique, is that it’s history is determined by players of the card game ad the regular tournaments that AEG ran. The winners of each tournament got to decide which way history would turn in the next few sets of expansion cards, and in the official history as represented in the RPG. Which makes for deep history, but also an overwritten one. That’s said the text in this book is enough to inspire, while leaving space enough for GMs and players to make the Rokugan of their imaginations.

The lands of the minor clan are all bundled into one chapter, as are unaligned lands and those run by imperial families and monks. There’s another chapter each for the Shadowlands and the Shinomen forest. Just glancing at the this last chapter inspires me to run an expedition there. The book closes with three chapters on the three great cities: Otosan Uchi; Ryoko Owari; and Toshi Ranbo.

All in all, this feels like the perfect last book in the line. It’s as though AEG have said “this is where Rokugan stands, at the end of our tenure as guardians of the story, do with it what you will.” There’s a certain elegiac quality to the writing, despite it being written for the most part in the present tense.

Should you buy this book? Well first of all, can you? I found it quite difficult to get hold of. It sold out pretty quickly at my favourite London game shop. It’s not available on line (except overpriced second hand editions) and when I asked my local store if they could order it, there was some sucking of teeth (though it arrived within a couple of days). So assuming you can find it, then should you buy it? If you fell in love with L5R and Rokugan like I did, then yes you should. I’d go so far as to say if you only buy one book apart from the L5R core book, then it should be this one.

* The honourable exception here is Feng Shui, which is fabulous, and incidentally, didn’t actually have its roots in the Shadowfist CCG. Feng Shui was conceived before Shadowfist, but Shadowfist came out first, because the publishers thought a CCG had more commercial potential than a RPG. Those publishers went bust by the way.