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Friday, 17 August 2018

Five Rings Get Their Fifth: A Starter

It is a curious thing, but the latest iteration of the Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game is as much a descendant of John Wick’s 1997 adaptation of the collectible card game as it is the Fantasy Flight Games boardgames, Descent and Doom. Of course, as soon as it was announced that Fantasy Flight Games was going to be publishing the new edition, we all knew that it would be a major redesign rather than a re-implementation of the mechanics seen in the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Editions and we all knew that it would eschew standard numerical polyhedral dice in favour of a proprietary design marked with symbols particular to the roleplaying game, not just in terms of its mechanics, but also as an intellectual property. After all, it is exactly what the publisher did with both Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Third Edition and all three iterations of its Star Wars roleplaying games— Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, and Star Wars: Force and Destiny, as well as a Beginner Game for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Thus, Legend of the Five Rings, Fifth Edition does use proprietary dice and it is a thorough redesign, but the setting remains very much the same, the five elements—or rings—have been more tightly integrated into the mechanics, and the core ‘Roll and Keep’ mechanic remains.

The setting for Legend of the Five Rings, Fifth Edition is Rokugan. It is similar to feudal Japan, but with influences and elements of other Asian cultures, as well as magic and mythical beasts. Known as the Emerald Empire, it has been ruled for a thousand years by the Hantei emperors—the current emperor is Hantei XXXVIII—who have divided between seven Great Clans. These are the Crab, Crane, Dragon, Lion, Phoenix, Scorpion, and Unicorn clans. Although each is comprised of Samurai—the bushi warriors, mannered courtiers, and shugenja, priests who pray to the kami, or spirts, for aid, each is different in character. The Crab Clan use its strength to man the wall that protects the Empire from the Shadowlands, but its members are regarded as uncouth and ill mannered; Crane Clan is known as the Left Hand of the Emperor and has many wealthy and influential politicians; the Dragon Clan remains aloof from most affairs in its mountain fast, but has sallied forth to aid the empire several times; the Lion Clan is the Right Hand of the Emperor, being devoted bushi; the Phoenix Clan is known for its shugenja; the Scorpion Clan is the Emperor’s Underhand and revels in its villainous status and reputation; and lastly, the Unicorn Clan is Rokugan’s horsemen, having spent several centuries in the Gaijin lands to the West. Notably missing from this list is the Mantis clan, which was a Great Clan in some previous editions of the roleplaying game, but essentially, Legend of the Five Rings, Fifth Edition resets the timeline to before it was promoted from a minor to a Great Clan.

As with the Star Wars roleplaying game, Fantasy Flight Games has released a starter set ahead of the core rulebook. This is the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game and like the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire – Beginner Game before it, it consists of a large box in which can be found several booklets, a map, a sheet of counters, and a bag of dice. These consist of a ‘Read This First’ booklet, an ‘Adventure Booklet’, four player character folios, a ‘Rulebook’, a map, and a sheet of full colour counters. These are presented in this very order as you pull them out of the box, though of course, being in that order, you really do wish that the box had a lid and you could take the contents out of the box, rather than having to pull them out of the top. Altogether, the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game is designed for several hours of play in the land of honour and steel by four players and the Game Master. Further characters are available to download, increasing the number of players up to seven, as is a sequel scenario set after the events of the scenario in the box. Everything in the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game is presented in full colour, on glossy paper, and feels professional—but then Fantasy Flight Games has done this before and you would expect nothing less than that.

The starting point for is Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game is the ‘Read This First’ booklet. Although it provides a quick introduction to roleplaying and an introduction to Rokugan which sets the scene for the ‘Adventure Book’, this primarily gives an example of play which showcases what the players and Game Master are going to be doing. The ‘Adventure Book’ is clearly marked ‘Read This Second’ and is the introductory point for the Game Master. It takes her step-by-step through what is in the box, how to run the game, and how the mechanics work, along with a little advice before going straight into the adventure itself. An experienced Game Master—especially if he is familiar with previous iterations of Legend of the Five Rings—could run this more or less out of the box, a read through of the ‘Adventure Book’ would probably be enough to run the given adventure. A less experienced Game Master is probably advised to read through it with a little more thoroughness and possibly read through the ‘Rulebook’ too. The adventure itself is ‘The Topaz Championship’. This of course, will be familiar to long time players of Legend of the Five Rings, a version of the scenario having first appeared the core rulebook for Legend of the Five Rings, First Edition back in 1997. The Topaz Championship is the most prestigious gempukku—coming of age—ceremony in Rokugan and the Great Clans send their brightest and best to compete, for to graduate following the competition brings great honour to both participants and their respective clans, let alone the honour and prestige which is bestowed upon the winner.

As the scenario opens, four young samurai to be are making their way to the village of Tsuma in the Kakita Provinces of the Crane Clan where the Topaz Championship is held each year. The Emerald Empire is in turmoil, for the Emerald Champion, Doji Satsume of the Crane Clan, has died an untimely and mysterious death. The Great Clans eye each other with suspicion, wondering if the Emerald Champion’s death was more than an accident. Initially includes the player characters, but as events play out over the course of the three-day championship, they will learn to co-operate in the face of a mystery or two, some bullying ronin, and more, all the whilst competing against each other from one day to the next. Divided into eight scenes—with a break in the middle so that the players can upgrade their characters with some Experience Points—the scenario is designed to showcase as many elements of Rokugan, Rokugani society, and Legend of the Five Rings as is possible in those eight scenes. So there are interactions with the different levels of society, points of etiquette—such as gift giving, how to use skills, how to fight, encounters with the supernatural, a tea ceremony, good and bad manners, and more. It is quite a packed scenario, and that is before an experienced Game Master might want to add one or more of the suggested optional scenes (some of which will remind veteran players and Game Masters of previous iterations of this scenario). Overall, it is a good scenario and with the break in the middle should provide two solid sessions of gaming, perhaps more if the Game Master adds the extra scenes. Now if there is an issue with ‘The Topaz Championship’ it is perhaps that progress of both the player characters and their contestants could have been better tracked across the three days.

Below the ‘Adventure Book’ there are four character folios. They consist of a Phoenix shugenga, a Lion bushi, a Dragon tattooed monk, and a Crane courtier. Behind the full colour character portrait on the front, each introduces the setting of Rokugan, some information about the character’s Great Clan and its attitude towards bushido, a full character sheet, an explanation of the core mechanics—including what dice to roll and what the symbols on the dice mean, and a second character sheet with room for the player to note the upgrades and additions at the scenario’s half time. The character’s background is on the back of the folio along with a list of suggestions as to why a player might want to choose that character. All four character folios cover a lot of information, but it is neatly organised and easy to read.

Looking at the character sheet, there is much that will be familiar to veteran players of Legend of the Five Rings. Each character has five rings—Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void. These are his core attributes. He possesses various skills, which have been categorised into Artisan, Martial, Scholar, Social, and Trade sections. A character’s progress can be tracked by the familiar Honour and Glory stats, whilst Endurance represents stamina and willingness to fight and Composure is a character’s capacity to endure mental and emotional pressure. Attached to Composure is a character’s ‘Personal Marking’, essentially his reaction after having suffered to much stress—or in game terms, ‘Strife’. For example, when Strife exceeds the courtier’s Composure, she will break down into unseemly weeping. Another new stat is Vigilance, which represents a character’s awareness and perception and replaces the Awareness and Perception stats of the previous editions as well as the Investigation skill. Each character also has some equipment, an advantage which typically allows two dice to be rerolled when it comes into play, a school ability—a special ability learned as part of his training, and a note of his personal turmoil. The latter is primarily for roleplaying purposes. Also noted are the ‘Approaches’ a character can take and the type and number of dice the player rolls for each.

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying, Fifth Edition and thus the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game uses two types of dice. One type is the six-sided, black Ring dice, the other is the twelve-sided, white Skill dice. Both are marked with a mix of four symbols. These symbols are ‘Success’, which indicates a character’s effective at an action or skill; ‘Explosive Success’, which counts as a ‘Success’ and enables another die of that type to be rolled if the ‘Explosive Success’ has been kept; ‘Opportunity’, which provides positive, incidental benefits; and ‘Strife’, which are primarily negative effects on a character’s emotions. Where Strife can be accumulated until a character suffers an unmasking and shows his inner emotional turmoil, Opportunity can spent to remove Strife, to spot a particular detail, to perform the task in a pleasing fashion, inflict a critical strike in combat, and so on. Five dice of each type are included in Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game.

To undertake an action, a character has to do three things. The first action is to set an Approach—or ‘Stance’ in combat—but which one is determined by a character’s Rings. An Air Approach is graceful, cunning, and precise; an Earth Approach is steady, grounded, and thorough; a Fire Approach is direct, ferocious, and inventive; a Water Approach is balanced, flexible, and perceptible; and a Void Approach is enlightened, centred, and mystical. Each Approach indicates the Ring to use as well as provide certain advantages with conflict Stances. Further, in the scenario, ‘The Topaz Championship’ has scenes where certain Approaches are favoured by various NPCs. The Ring also determines the number of dice to be kept after rolling. The second action is to select the skill. For the most part, the combination of the Ring and Skill will obvious and this is listed for each skill in the ‘Rulebook’, but there is an intentional flexibility here too as there are benefits to taking different Approaches to the various skills.

The third action is for the player to roll the dice and decide which to keep—preferably those with the most Successes and Opportunities. If the number of Successes exceeds the Target Number, two being an average Target Number, then the character has succeeded. After that, the player spends any Opportunities rolled and totals up any Strife rolled.
For example, Akodo Chinatsu is on guard duty at a border crossing when she is attacked by a bandit. First, her player has to roll her initiative. This is a Target Number 2 Tactics check. Chinatsu has Tactics 1, so her player will be rolling one Skill die. Her player decides on Chinatsu’s Earth Ring of 3 as her Approach—steady, grounded, and thorough. He will be rolling three Ring dice and one Skill die, keeping three. He rolls two Successes and two Opportunities. He succeeds and ensures that the bandit cannot use Opportunities against Chinatsu and spends the Opportunities he rolls to inflict Strife on the bandit.
The bandit attacks, but because Chinatsu’s player rolled more Successes, Chinatsu gets to strike first. Her player continues to use her Earth of 3 as her Approach and combines it with her Martial Arts (Melee) skill of 2. He will roll three Ring dice and two Skill dice, keeping three of them. He rolls two ‘Successes’, an ‘Opportunity’ and a ‘Strife’, and an ‘Explosive Success’ and a ‘Strife’ twice—some faces of the dice have two symbols rather than one. Of these, he must keep three. This will be the two ‘Explosive Success’ and a ‘Strife’ result and one of the ‘Success’ results. He rerolls the ‘Explosive Success’ results to add one more ‘Success’ and a ‘Success’ and a ‘Strife’. The results are as follows: five ‘Successes’ and three ‘Strife’. This is increased to six ‘Successes’ and decreased to two ‘Strife’ by Chinatsu’s School Ability of ‘Way of the Lion’. The ‘Strife’ is recorded, Chinatsu concerned that she might fail in her first combat. The Target Number for the Martial Arts check is 2, so Chinatsu has succeeded and still have four Successes left over. These her player decides to apply to the damage Chinasu’s katana inflicts, which is four—so the bandit suffers eight damage and is not looking very healthy.
In general the rules have shifted towards a narrative style of play whilst retaining many of the elements intrinsic to the mechanics of previous versions of Legend of the Five Rings. Fortunately, they appear not to be a complex as those found in Star Wars: Edge of Empire et al or indeed, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Third Edition. The Rings, especially with the use of the Approaches feel better integrated into the game and are likely to offer some interesting nuances and wrinkles which will become apparent with play.

The last book in the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game is the ‘Rulebook’ and is marked ‘Read This Last’. The longest book in the box, this explains the rules, covering the rules and the elements of the character in more detail. It also details skills, equipment, and various NPCs and threats, both mundane and supernatural. This provides enough of an explanation and enough content certainly to play through ‘The Topaz Championship’ and its sequel. The last two items in the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game is a map sheet and a set of counters for use on the map. The map is double-sided. On the one side is an A3 map of Rokugan, which is attractive if not necessarily all that detailed, whilst on the other are maps of Tsuma, where ‘The Topaz Championship’ takes place and of the ‘Castle of the Emerald Champion’, where the sequel scenario takes place. These are much more detailed, the castle in particular done in almost isometric cutaway fashion. All three maps are done in muted colours and have a suitably period feel to them.

Fantasy Flight Games has plenty of experience when it comes to designing this type of starter box and so the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game feels professional  and well put together. Now on one level, with just ‘The Topaz Championship’ to be found inside its box, it does not feel as if there is a great deal of play value to be got out of just the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game—just two or three sessions. That though is not really fair as the sequel provides several more sessions of play and anyway, the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game is only designed to provide an introduction to Rokugan and its roleplaying game. Which it does very well—and more, given that it comes with the proprietary dice, the character folios, the maps and counters, which are not only attractive, but which can also be used with the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying, Fifth Edition core rules.

Overall, the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game is nicely put together package, which deftly introduces the setting of Rokugan and showcases the rules for new players, whilst deftly showcasing what is different with the rules for veterans as well as allowing them to replay ‘The Topaz Championship’ once again.

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