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Saturday, 13 April 2019

The Rokugani Register

Emerald Empire – The Essential Guide to Rokugan is the second supplement to be published for the fifth edition of the Asian fantasy roleplaying game, Legend of the Five Rings, now published by Fantasy Flight Games. Its release offsets an issue with the core rulebook, the lack detail in terms of the roleplaying game’s setting of Rokugan. This supplement greatly expands upon what was given in the core rulebook, not only examining particular elements of Rokugan—geographical, political, cultural, and philosophical—but also supporting these aspects with examples, rumours, NPCs, and scenario hooks. Over the course of six chapters—‘Strongholds of Power’, ‘Centers of Trade’, ‘Heart of the Empire’, ‘Sacred Spaces’, ‘Paths to Enlightenment’, and ‘Wilds of Rokugan’—it looks at the Emerald Empire’s 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 little it knows about the various Gaijin peoples beyond its borders. Plus a seventh chapter gives new player character options.

Emerald Empire – The Essential Guide to Rokugan opens with an extended timeline covering the time before history and then the first thousand years of Rokugan’s history. A more detailed history than that found in the core rulebook, this is not a year-by-year guide with a list of all of the emperors, but more of a story told. This is followed by the seven chapters, each a lengthy essay which covers various facets of its subject. For example, the first chapter, ‘Strongholds of Power’ explores castles in Rokugan, what daily life is like in a castle for inhabitants, guests, staff, and servants; their construction, typical buildings, and where they might be found; and what role they play in Rokugan. The latter covers lordship and governance, a lord’s duties, as well as courts, their inhabitants, and more. This also includes marking the difference between shiro and kyūden—castles and palaces—the primary difference being that kyūden are capable of hosting the hugely expensive, annual winter courts traditionally attended by the emperor, but of course, the line between the two has blurred over the centuries. Castles are typically the place where a samurai’s gempuku—his coming of age ceremony—is typically held, so this is also detailed, as is the role of jesters at court, the duties of the all but invisible servants, and private speech. Besides examining strongholds as places of power, the chapter looks at how power itself is projected through war and diplomacy, the latter tying back to the discussion of how courts are organised and run, the former also looking at specific conflicts and how each clan handles war.

The detail and background in ‘Strongholds of Power’ is supported with game specific content. This includes descriptions of particular shiro and kyūden, such as Toshi Ranbo, a site of major Lion-Crane conflict; Kyūden Bayushi, the home of the Scorpion clan’s ruling family with its infamous Traitor’s Grove; Kyūden Doji, the seat of the Crane clan’s ruling family, famous for its plateau-by-sea location and gardens; the Imperial Palace itself; and more. In each case, the locations are accompanied by sample rumours, NPCs, and detailed adventure seeds, which the Game Master can bring to her campaign. This is in addition to the ideas in the background content which could easily be developed into scenarios and campaigns. For example, the description of the Imperial Palace includes the detail that whilst the emperor is away at a Winter Court, a group of samurai is accorded the honour of serving as caretakers whilst the Imperial Court is elsewhere. This lends itself to a duty to be assigned to the player characters and indeed, the adventure seed supports this campaign set-up.

This format is followed through the rest of the supplement. Thus ‘Centers of Trade’ covers Rokugan’s economy and commerce, towns and cities and the lives of those who reside there, harbours and lighthouses, crime and punishment, and so on. As well as some interesting examples, such as the City of the Rich Frog, contested by the Dragon, Lion, and Unicorn clans whilst the Dragonfly minor clan looks on, it also looks at the lives of those outside of the Samurai class. Not just the peasantry, but for the first time, the reviled gaijin or foreigners. It includes notes on playing both Emerald magistrates and Clan magistrates, and to that end, how Rokugani investigate crime and view evidence versus testimony.

Having visited Rokugan’s towns and cities, ‘Heart of the Empire’ takes the reader beyond them along the roads and rivers of the empire to wider settled areas, mostly held in higher esteem by the samurai class because this is where the peasantry carries out the honourable task of growing the rice that the empire lives on. Notably this highlights the relationship between the peasants and their samurai masters, subservient but rarely having to interact with them and rarely wanting to. 

 ‘Sacred Spaces’ and ‘Paths to Enlightenment’ are really paired chapters, as both explore the sacred, religious, and cosmographical aspects of Rokugan. The first chapter takes the reader from ‘Ningen-dō’, the physical Rokugan, to the spiritual realms that sit above, below, and contiguous with the land, visiting each one in term, as well as examining the Kami and the Fortunes, shrines, religious practices and festivals, and sacred sites. The section on forbidden religious will probably receive particular attention by the Game Master, covering as it does corrupted shrines, curses, the practice of Mahō, and more. This is only an introduction of course and likely receive a fuller description in another supplement. The second chapter pays particular attention to the Emerald Empire’s two Imperially mandated combined faiths—Shinseism and Fortunism—and the lives of the monks who worship each. This will be of particular interest to players who wish to roleplay monks.

Penultimately, ‘Wilds of Rokugan’ goes beyond the civilised regions of Rokugan and the empire and into untamed nature. It gives reasons for going there—the coasts, forests,and mountains—and who might be found there, including gaijin as well as samurai. Notable locations include the great Kitsune and Shinomen forests, the former home to the Fox minor clan and famous for its fox spirits, the latter for its violent spirits. Lastly, the ruins section introduce the reader to some of the remnants of the civilisations which existed before the descent of the Kami to ‘Ningen-dō’. Again, this waits to be expanded upon.

Rounding out Emerald Empire is ‘New Player Options’. This introduces the Imperial Families, those which serve the Emperor directly, as player characters. They include the Miya, Otomo, and Seppun families along with the Miya Cartographer, Miya Herald, Otomo Schemer, Seppun Astrologer, and Seppun Palace Guard schools. For the most part their roles are obvious, but the Otomo Schemer actually works to maintain the power and authority of the Emperor, even at the cost of the great clans. These options tie back into the ‘Strongholds of Power’ chapter, as does the inclusion of new Titles—essentially new positions of power and influence—like Advisor, , Daimyō, and Gunsō (commander of a unit of soldiers); whereas Clan Magistrate and Yoriki (deputies to magistrates) link back to the ‘Centers of Trade’ chapter and the Monastic Acolyte and Priest (who unlike Shugenja cannot cast spells) are nods to the ‘Sacred Spaces’ and ‘Paths to Enlightenment’ chapters. Other titles, like Spy and Yōjimbō work across all of the chapters, as do two news schools which also break the rules in their own way. In Legend of the Five Rings and Rokugan, schools are well-practiced training paths and philosophies, but the two given at the end of Emerald Empire present outsiders trying to fit in for their own purposes. These are the Kitsune Impersonator Tradition and the Kolat Saboteur Conspiracy. Both require careful play if they are to be added to a campaign with any player taking either ‘school’ needing to work closely with the Game Master to make sure their roles are kept hidden. Rounding out ‘New Player Options’ is a wide range new advantages and disadvantages.

Packaged as a handsome hardback, physically, Emerald Empire is another stunning looking book, in keeping with the rest of the line. Although the book needs a much closer edit in places, the layout is clean, tidy, and attractive, and the artwork, which is excellent throughout, never feels less than appropriate. In places, there is some very clever use of the background artwork, much like the Ninjutsu Techniques being presented in the core rulebook across a two-page spread depicting city rooftops at night. So the section on mountains in the ‘Wilds of Rokugan’ is set against high, dark peaks, and the section on the coast in the same chapter is set against the rich blue of the sea sky over the sky. These are lovely touches that contrast with the standard buff-coloured pages.

As useful as the information is in Emerald Empire, some Game Masters may find it lacking in places. The timeline given at the start of the book is rather broad and any Game Master wanting specific dates will have to wait for another supplement. Similarly, elements such as lists of what major castles, cities, ports, shrines, and towns are to be found in what Clan lands will again have to wait for another supplement. Another issue is with the placement of the map in the book, just a few pages into the supplement rather than inside the front and back cover, makes referring to the map a little awkward.

Emerald Empire contains a wealth of information and background about Rokugan that the Game Master will find useful in bringing her Legend of the Five Rings campaign to life. Not just setting details, but scenario seeds and rumours, cultural mores and outlook, all of which will add flavour and feel to a campaign. Yet there is so much more to Rokugan that in places Emerald Empire can only hint at what is known about a particular location or a particular subject, so the Game Master will need to consult other supplements and sourcebooks that at time of publication are yet to see print. Nevertheless, Emerald Empire – The Essential Guide to Rokugan is solid introduction to the setting of Legend of the Five Rings and an integral companion to the roleplaying game.

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