Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 20 August 2010

Five Rings Get Their Fourth

The year 2010 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Legend of the Five Rings Collectable Card Game from Alderac Entertainment Group. To celebrate that fact, the publishers released a new, fourth edition of the roleplaying game based on the Collectable Card Game that was originally designed by John Wick in 1997, and to be honest, it was needed. Both the Legend of the Five Rings Third Edition and Legend of the Five Rings Third Edition Revised Edition had suffered from secondary mechanics that were too complex, from a lack of balance between the character types and their abilities, and physically, from the need for extensive errata. It was also tied to quite a tight timeline that meant that some of its background and its players options were different at different times during that timeline. The effort to rectify all of these issues has resulted in Legend of the Five Rings Fourth Edition.

Physically, the result is a quite lovely hard back with a nice simple cover and a clean layout inside with everything easy to find. The contents are also well organised, as in previous editions, into books or chapters that follow the game’s five rings theme. Thus the Book of Air details the setting; the Book of Earth the core rules and mechanics; character creation is covered in the Book of Fire; the Book of Water provides optional and more advanced elements that a GM can add to his game; while the Book of Void contains more background as well as advice for the GM. The artwork is excellent, split equally between ethereal pieces that capture the meditative tranquillity of life in the setting, and high action pieces that portray the harsh brutality of war and strife in the setting.

That setting is Rokugan, a land inspired primarily by feudal Japan but also by China and Korea. It is a land dominated by eight great and many minor Clans that vie for control and influence on the battlefield in Summer and at court during Winter, all the while still owing fealty to the Emperor. Below the Emperor are the samurai and below them, the many peasants that they govern. Samurai are what the players will roleplay in Legend of the Five Rings, but more specifically, they can play bushi, which are the warrior samurai that we think when we think of samurai; shugenja, priests who pray to the kami or spirits to cast spells; or courtiers, the politicians, civil servants, and diplomats of Rokugan who serve their clans’ needs at court. Whatever his role, a samurai adheres to the tenets of Bushido, though which tenet he favours will vary according to his clan.

The eight great clans vary quite widely, each having its own theme and attitude towards the other clans. No surprise there, since this is an update of a 1990s design. The Crab Clan use their strength to man the wall that protects the Empire from the Shadowlands, but are regarded as uncouth and ill mannered; Crane Clan are known as the Left Hand of the Emperor and are wealthy and influential politicians; The Dragon Clan remain aloof from most affairs in its mountain fast, but have sallied forth to aid the Empire several times; and the Lion Clan are the Right Hand of the Emperor, being devoted warriors. The Mantis Clan is the only clan to have been raised to major clan status and is known for its sailors; where the Lion Clan is known for its bushi, the Phoenix Clan is known for its shugenja; the Underhand of the Emperor are the Scorpion Clan, which revels in its villainous status and reputation; and lastly, the Unicorn Clan are Rokugan’s horsemen, who spent several centuries in the Gaijin lands to the West.

Characters inLegend of the Five Ringsare defined by the five attributes or Rings: Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and Void. Apart from Void, each Ring is comprised of two traits. For example, the Water Ring is made up of Perception and Strength. The value of a Ring is equal to the lower of its two traits. For example, Nioko has Perception 3 and Strength 2, so her Water Ring would be 2, equal to her Strength. If she undertook regular exercise and spent the appropriate Experience Points, she could raise her Strength and thus her Water Ring to 3. A character will also be defined by various factors such as Glory, Honour, and Status, but primarily by her clan, her family and her school. Apart from the minor clans, each clan has several families, one bushi, one courtier, and one shugenja school, plus a more specialised school such as the Lion Clan’s Matsu Berserker School.

To create a character, a player selects a clan, a family, and a school. Both family and school grant a trait bonus each, while the school will teach the character a number of set skills plus the first of several techniques that enhance a character's abilities and reflect the school's teachings. At this point, a character will be like any samurai who has attended that particular school, but each player receives a number of points with which to customise the character. These can be spent to add advantages and disadvantages, and add and improve skills to personalise the character, whether that is making a samurai a better swordsman with Kenjitsu, adding a hobby skill like Poetry, or having him Haunted by an ancestor. Some skills, especially those that will find favour with players in other games such as Ninjitsu or Anatomy, are regarded as being dishonourable skills and a samurai will lose honour if he is seen using them.

The following three characters model the three character types in the game. Apart from equipment – and Legend of the Five Rings is not a game in which money matters very much, they are ready to play.

Tsuruchi Tsuru, Mantis Bushi
Air: 2 (Reflexes 3), Earth: 2 Fire: 2, Water: 3 Void: 2
Honour: 3.5, Status: 1.0, Glory: 1.0, Insight: 132
School/Rank: Tsuruchi Archer, Rank 1
Technique: Always Be Ready
Advantages: Absolute Direction, Daredevil, Touch of the Spirit Realm (Chikushudo)
Disadvantages: Phobia (Fire) 2, Sworn Enemy
Skills: Animal Handling 2, Athletics 2, Craft (Bowyer) 2, Battle 1, Defence 2, Etiquette 1, Hunting 2, Investigation 2, Kenjutsu 2, Kyujutsu (Yumi) 3, Medicine 1, Lore (Bushido) 1, Sailing 1

Yasuki Oguri, Crab Courtier
Air: 2 (Awareness 3), Earth: 2 Fire: 2 (Intelligence 3), Water: 2 (Perception 3) Void: 2
Honour: 2.5, Status: 1.0, Glory: 1.0, Insight: 118
School/Rank: Yasuki Courtier, Rank 1
Technique: The Way of the Carp
Advantages: Voice
Disadvantages: Bad Eyesight, True Love
Skills: Artisan: Poetry 1, Athletics 1, Commerce (Appraisal) 2, Courtier 2 (Manipulation), Defence 1, Etiquette (Bureaucracy) 3, Intimidation (Control) 1, Investigation (Notice) 1, Jiujutsu 1, Kenjutsu 1, Lore: Bushido 1, Sailing 1, Sincerity (Deceit) 2

Kitsu Rihito, Lion Shugenja
Air: 2 Earth: 2 Fire: 2 (Intelligence 3), Water: 3 Void: 2
Honour: 6.5, Status: 1.0, Glory: 1.0, Insight: 133
School/Rank: Kitsu Shugenja, Rank 1
Technique: Eyes of the Ancestors
Affinity/Deficiency: Water/Fire
Spells: Sense, Commune, Summon; Path to Inner Peace, Reflections of Pan Ku, Reversal of
Fortunes; To Seek the Truth, Yari of Air; Jade Strike
Advantages: Inner Gift (Lesser Prophecy), Precise Memory
Disadvantages: Doubt, Epilepsy, Haunted
Skills: Battle 1, Calligraphy (Cipher) 1, Defence 2, Divination (Astrology) 2, Games (Go) 1, Etiquette 1, Kenjutsu 2, Lore: History 1, Lore: Spirit Realms 2, Lore: Theology 2, Meditation 2, Spellcraft 3, Tea Ceremony 1, War Fan 2

For its mechanics, Legend of the Five Rings still uses the "Keep and Roll" system. For any action this has a character roll a number of ten sided dice, select the ones that he wants to use and then add them up. The number rolled is usually equal to the governing trait or Ring plus skill with the number kept being equal to the attribute or Ring, expressed as “xky,” where x is the number to roll and y the number to keep. For example, Tsuruchi Tsuru our Mantis Bushi above is out hunting when he is ambushed by a trio of Bakemono or goblins. He already has his Yumi or bow to hand and quickly notches an arrow as the creatures scamper towards him. He has to roll three dice for his Reflexes and three for his Kyujutsu skill, but can only keep the governing trait value or three for his Reflexes. This is expressed as 6k3.

The total rolled is compared to a TN or Target Number, which in the case of the Bakemono is 15. If Tsuru wants or needs to do something more than achieve this target, he can make Raises, adding five to the TN for each Raise declared before the roll. The limit on the number of Raises is a character’s Void Ring. In combat, Raises can add to the damage dice rolled or kept, depending on the number of Raises. If a character has an appropriate emphasis for a skill, he re-roll any ones rolled, and if just has the skill, then results of ten can be rolled again and added to the total. Tsuru thinks he has a good chance of hitting one of the goblins and declares two Raises, increasing the TN to 25. Rolling the dice, he gets 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10. Since he has the Yumi Emphasis, he re-roll the 1 and gets a 3. Of the six dice rolled, he selects the 7, 8, and 10, re-rolling the 10 to add another 10, followed by another 10 and lastly a 1 to get a total of 56. This is well above the TN of 25, but since he only declared two Raises, he does not get the benefit of that really high roll! The Raises gets him an extra die to keep for damage, which is determined by the type of bow and arrow used. His yumi gives three dice, the willow leaf arrow gives 2k2, to which is added the bonus keep die to give a total of 5k3. The result is 3, 4, 8, 8, and 9, of which he keeps the last three and adds for a total of 25! This is enough to skewer one of the charging goblins who flops to the ground. Now for the last two...

Of course this in combat where you want to roll as high possible. Would there be situations when you might want to keep the lowest dice rolls? Possibly, such as when you are in a duel to first blood and want to pull the blow rather than deliver a killing strike. Although the mechanics get a little more complex with the secondary rules, they are at their heart easy to grasp, and in combat, they enforce just how deadly Legend of the Five Rings can be.

Beyond the character section, the book presents one other “major” clan and several minor clans that can be included in a campaign. The Spider Clan has not been recognised as a major clan by Emperor and its members are reviled for their devotion to the fallen Kami, the dark lord Fu Leng. Most of the minor clans do not amount to more than a single family and associated school, most being allied to a major clan. What is interesting in the treatment of the minor clans is that some of those listed have since become part of major clans, such as the Tsuruchi family of the Mantis Clan which was once the Wasp Clan. This supports one of the changes to Legend of the Five Rings in the Fourth Edition – keeping the core rules timeline neutral. Also detailed are the Imperial families and ronin, though the latter are only given cursory detail. Anyone wanting to play a ronin will have to wait for Enemies of the Empire for further information. Other optional rules cover mass battles, complete opportunities for heroic action; clan ancestors that can guide a character; alternate progression paths and advanced schools for characters; crafting rules; and Kiho, the sometimes near superhuman abilities of the monks.

Unless he is running a very strange game, the rules for Maho and Shadowlands Taint are really for the GM’s eyes only. Maho is the dark magic employed by the Spider Clan and other creatures of the Shadowlands, while the insidious and corruptive Taint seeps directly out of Jigoku, the Realm of Evil. Both are powerful and seductive, and the more you subject yourself to both the more likely that Jigoku will tempt you with interesting powers and mutations.

More specifically for the GM is the Book of Void. Much of this chapter is given over to describing the geography of Rokugan itself, detailing the places marked on the map inside the front and back covers. Flipping back and forth between this section and the end of the book is a pain, but this is a good read, full of interesting little particulars. The rest of the chapter is devoted to actually running the game, and includes an excellent section on storytelling that highlights the differences between Western and Eastern heroic stories; looks at possible campaign times, such as the ever reliable Imperial Magistrate based campaign to a Bushido orientated Band of Brothers style game; discusses how to run two player games – very useful in these difficult days of getting players together; and examines the thirty six plotlines used by some writers. These are supported with scenario seeds and plenty of good advice throughout. The bestiary itself is relatively short, no surprise given all of the possibilities and the lack of space in this core book.

Lastly there is the scenario, “Tournament of the Samurai,” a political and investigative affair set at a Winter Court. I am of two minds about this scenario, despite not having read it (and not wanting to read it since it might be run for me). In part I miss the original scenario from the game’s first edition, as that was a very good showcase of the game’s mechanics and setting. Yet that led off to the characters being appointed magistrates, and this scenario is more neutral in its conclusion. That said, something that shows off the setting’s political aspect and its very different approach to dispensing justice – Rokugan’s legal system favours testimony rather than evidence – is more than welcome.

So that is Legends of the Five Rings, but what are the changes between this the Fourth and the previous Third Edition? Thankfully these have been summarised at the book’s start for returning players and while my comments will be based upon that summary, they will be influenced by my own experience playing the game. The most notable are that skills have been streamlined, with Emphases no longer adding to a roll, but allowing rolls of one to be re-rolled. “Defence,” which allows spells to be cast and skills to be used in combat while still avoiding trying to be hit, and “Centre,” for preparing yourself for a duel have both been added to the Stances available in combat. Also, there are no Techniques that allow an extra attack per round, though some do change attacks from Complex to Simple Actions, allowing extra attacks to be made if desired. The main change though, lies in a general streamlining and balencing of the schools available to the characters. This has allowed the flavour of the school to be got to very quickly and very easily.

Legend of the Five Rings is a very different game to most available today. It is a “Culture” game, one that rewards the GM and his players immersing themselves in a setting that is unlike medieval fantasy. This is not a setting that favours the individual, a samurai being expected to put the Emperor and his clan before himself. This can be a challenge for anyone coming to Rokugan having been influenced by Hollywood, but if he can think outside of the western traditions, this a fascinating world. Above all, what Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition does is make both the game and Rokugan itself far more accessible. The rules have been made easier and in doing so, have allowed the setting to come to the fore.


  1. Very good review. I have been very pleased with the 4th edition of the L5R RPG as it is very clean and easy to use (3rd edition got cluttered quickly) and the timeline neutrality was an excellent call on the setting.

  2. I have been playing it quite a bit recently, and found it very easy, especially given that we were using our converted Rank Three characters. My GM wants me to run a short scenario next, probably the one from the Free RPG Day booklet.

    Anyway, thank you for your kind comments. I plan to review later releases as and when, and if AEG would like to send me copies!