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Saturday, 31 March 2012

Your Rokugani Primer

Emerald Empire is the second supplement to be released for Alderac Entertainment Group’s Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition Roleplaying Game. It replaces one of the most sought after supplements for the third edition of the RPG, also of the same name. What it sets out to provide is an extensive guide to Rokugan, the setting for Legends of the Five Rings, expanding upon the information given in the core rulebook. Over the course of eleven chapters and two appendices, it explores and details first Rokugan’s physical geography, and second, various aspects of Rokugani culture. These includes its customs and social structure, its politics and arts, how it maintains law and order, its religion, how it educates its people, its attitudes towards money and how it conducts commerce, how it goes to war, and its attitude towards and what it knows about the various Gaijin peoples beyond its borders. It not only goes into depth about these aspects with regard to Rokugan as a whole, but also Clan by Clan, including not only the eight major Clans, but also some of the minor ones too.

Essentially then, what we have in Emerald Empire is a series of lengthy essays. Just as with other supplements for Legends of the Five Rings, each chapter is preceded by a piece of short fiction that illuminates the contents to come. In this case, it follows the education of a student of Clan Scorpion at his dojo as he discusses each of the chapter’s subjects with his sensei. It is very enjoyable flavour text, and although what follows is more informative and much drier in tone, it is rarely less than useful. Alongside the main text, sidebars explore other aspects of a subject being discussed. For example, the section on law in Rokugan that discusses the usual Rokugani reliance upon testimony during criminal investigations is accompanied by a sidebar that examines the method of relying upon evidence employed by the Kitsuki family of the Dragon Clan. Throughout the volume, regular sections illuminate aspects of the Imperial Histories, such as how the first Emperor came to choose his wife, how the minor clan known as the Fox came into existence and who for example, has owned Ryoko Owari, the City of Lies, throughout its long history. Other sidebars provide adventure seeds – though these are few and far between; excerpts from noted works; monastic ranks; and many other elements of the setting.

For all of its background information, Emerald Empire does not ignore the mechanical aspects of Legends of the Five Rings. Rounding out most of the chapters are new mechanics to add to a GM’s game. These include new basic schools such as the Shinjo Bushi school for the family that once ruled the Unicorn Clan and the very practical Ikoma Lion’s Shadow Bushi school; new Advanced Schools like the Bushi Minor Clan Defender and the Courtier Imperial Scion; and Play-Aids such as tables that allow “Random Events at Court” or “Random Dojo Events” to be rolled for. Not all of these are new of course, but rather they are new for the Fourth Edition of Legends of the Five Rings.

Rounding out Emerald Empire is a pair of appendices. The first of these is an expanded glossary, one that replaces that included in the core rulebook. The second appendix provides a set of new rules for player characters taking on important stations such as Governor, Merchant Patron, or Warlord. Once a character has been appointed to one of these positions, he can begin to grow into the role and to call in favours and make improvements to all that comes with the new position. Thus, an Ambassador will gain Iron Will and be able to endure the turbulent arguments that go with court life, whilst a Governor can improve the Accommodations, Defences, Monuments, and other features of the area that he administers. In game terms, these improvements and advantages are known as Features and must be purchased using Duty Points granted by the new advantages, The World of the Daimyo and The Daimyo’s Path.

All six of these higher station roles are accompanied with new optional mechanics of their own. For example, the Court Battle System allows an Ambassador to engage in the battle of wits regularly engaged in at court, much like skirmish rules given the core rulebook. Similarly, a Keeper of the Temple can create new spells and kiho, Master Sensei can create new kata, and with the Army Battle System, a Warlord can command larger and larger units of troops, using them in conjunction with the Mass Combat rules in the core rulebook.

In places, these new rules do feel a little brief and also left undiscussed. There is certainly enough information for a GM to take this game to a new level, and he should be able to extract numerous roleplaying challenges from these rules. Yet, what advice there is, feels all too brief, and there is quite possibly a whole new supplement to be got out of this aspect of the game. As welcome as these new rules are, they do feel disappointingly slight when compared to the rest of the book, but then the rest of the book more than compensates for this relatively slight disappointment.

Physically, Emerald Empire is another stunning looking book, in keeping with the rest of the line. The layout is clean, tidy, and attractive, and the artwork, which is excellent throughout, never feels less than appropriate.

There is so much to be got out of Emerald Empire. Its pages flow with detail and flavour, and it does not matter in what period a GM’s game is set nor what the players prefer in terms of Clan, there will be something in the supplement of use to them. For example, adherents of the Mantis Clan will appreciate the chapter devoted to commerce, the Crane Clan the chapters on court and the arts, and the Crab and Lion Clans the chapter on war. It is also easy to extract details and bring them into a game. For example, in our Lion Clan game, I not only read up on the Clan’s birth customs, but also Crane marriage customs for a scenario I wrote. Each of these selections nicely complements the further content given in the game fourth supplement, Great Clans.

Emerald Empire is superb supplement. Its contents are incredibly useful and can add so much to a campaign. Whether that is in the form of an idea for a scenario or for a whole campaign, or in the form of a small detail that will help bring a game to life, the supplement is a wealth of information. It also helps with another aspect of the game, the fact that Legends of the Five Rings is a culture game, and the details contained in Emerald Empire do support this. This makes Emerald Empire, along with Enemies of the Empire, the two key supplements to purchase after Legends of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game. Above all, Emerald Empire brims with detail and flavour that will help a GM being Rokugan to life and give a player a greater knowledge into which immerse his character.