30 Dec 2013

Table Top - Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition)

This is originally an article that I did up for the folks at Beasts of War but I never heard back from them. Either it wasn't what they were looking for or with all their recent issues my post fell through the cracks. Since it's been a while I figured I'd clean it up a bit more and throw it here.

Known for their successful Japanese inspired Collectable Card Game, the Legend of the Five Rings, Alderac Entertainment Group decided in 1997 to print the first edition of their role-playing game that took place in the same setting of their CCG.

Example of the gorgeous art
art by AEG - used without permission
Rokugan is a unique setting. Instead of drawing from European medieval styles and tropes, AEG looked at inspiration from medieval Japan with some influence from China, Mongolia and Korea. Like classic fantasy settings, players took on the roles of heroes who fought vile corruption, foul beasts that roamed the country, and participated in epic quests. Unlike those settings, it was not filled with armor clad Knights or eccentric and wise Wizards. Instead kimono clad masters of the Katana and elemental spirit priests were given as roles to the players.

Familiar and fresh all in one, the Legend of the Five Rings RPG became a hit. It won the Origin’s Award in 1997 for best game. They expanded the world with a collection of books for each clan, a series of adventure modules, and a pair of campaign box sets. With the world expanding the rules needed a clean up to adjust for some of the weaknesses in the rules.


Second edition was printed and paired with Wizards of the Coast. Rokugan’s rich setting fell under the banner of the Oriental Adventures for Dungeons and Dragons. The core rules and supplements supported two sets of mechanics; the d20 system and AEG’s roll and keep system. This divided the community but also exposed more players to AEG’s fantastic setting. Some long time players left the game but more came clamoring into the fold.

Third edition was a return to the sole mechanic reclaiming old players who left during the years of d20 while also laying claim to players who started at the table during the d20 boom and were looking for a more mature mechanic and setting. It was lauded for modernizing the mechanics while keeping the familiar roll and keep system. It won the Skryde Player’s Choice Award. The setting got a fresh and in-depth update, delving into details that were only sidebars in previous editions. The feel of the setting was being redefined and the quality of the products was high but at the cost of slow generation of material. Supplements were sporadic in release and sales suffered.

Recently in celebration of the 15 years of the game, AEG released a new Fourth Edition of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. When Fourth Edition was released at first glance I felt it took a lot of the flash from the last edition and replaced it with a focus on subtly. Third Edition felt bombastic and exaggerated as per Hiroaki Samura’s award winning manga, Blade of the Immortal. Fourth Edition feels trim and focused in the vain of Akira Kurasowa's films, his epic Seven Samurai (1954) and his most complex and colourful film Ran (1985).

Simple looking but complex and rewarding when explored. It may seem stark at first but the layers are there and it’s worth the effort to try out. If you're group is looking for a change or you've been inspired by works like Laura Joh Rowand's Ichiro novels. Take a look and enjoy the masterfully crafted world.

Characters
 
Bushi showing off some Katas (practice pattern)
art by AEG - used without permission
Players create Samurai of a family within one of the eight Great Clans. As members of the Samurai caste, players’ will chose to between various offered schools within their clan dictating the ‘class’ of their character. Bushi are the warriors. Akin to European medieval knights, Bushi are masters of combat and their respective clan’s distinctive style of fighting. Shugenja are the shamanistic priests that use formulaic prayers to manipulate the elemental spirits around them to create spell like effects. Courtiers round out the three primary ‘classes’ as the cultured and socially skilled Samurai who use words and information in place of their swords. They battle behind the scenes or within the various political courts found across Rokugan and are key to adventuring parties who wish to overcome the various social conflicts that are prevalent in the heavily ordered Rokugani society.

Players will quickly understand the role of each of the Clans by the flavor of their core schools. For example, the Crab’s Hida Bushi are heavy armored sentinels keeping an eternal vigil on the Kaui wall, the primary defense and border between the demon infested Shadowlands and the rest of Rokugan. The Crane clan focuses on mastering and making everything into art. Their Kakita Bushi are peerless duelists who are perfectly to support their Doji Courtiers. The Phoenix clan is known for its mastery over magic and has two choices of Shugenja schools for players to pick from.

Some Clans also have some schools in the other optional ‘schools’: Monks, Ninja and Artisans. The always-masked Scorpion Clan is rumored to train Ninja and Shoshuro Actors. The mysterious Dragon Clan is known for its many monastic orders hidden in their mountains. Ikoma Bards of the Lion Clan memorize heroic tales and use them to inspire others around them. Some players may also opt to play members of the smaller Minor Clans or Ronin, Samurai not of any Clan and thus with no master.

Fourth Edition has come a long way from the games First Edition. It’s more robust and balanced. Each major clan has a minimum of four basic schools with Courtier, Bushi and Shugenja represented alongside another option. Minor clans from past and present are given more space in the core book allowing players to explore life outside of the major clans from the start.

Conflict

Players are encouraged to role-play rather than fight their way through the various challenges presented. The lethality of the game supports this design and aggressive players have found themselves killed early in a campaign by relying completely on their martial abilities and ignoring the social aspects of the game.

Challenges facing players will range from users of maho (dark magic), restless spirits, Oni (deamons) and other beasts that roam the Shadowlands. Legend of the Five Rings will also make players deal with cultural and political machinations in court, dueling to keep face, and wrestling with the concepts of honor and status. Rokugan is not a united as it would appear. Players may even participate in open conflict between the various Clans, ranging from skirmishes to full out open war.

Legend of the Five Rings is also rewarding to role-play from the unfamiliar setting and background for players with a euro-centric background. Playing in an unfamiliar social establishment, players have found that they were role-playing rather then roll-playing. They worked hard to fit themselves in to Rokugan culture staying in character more often. Some players may be more knowledgeable with Japanese culture and others may feel they have a hand up in the role-playing aspect of the game. AEG addresses this by flatly stating that Rokugan is not Japan and the Samurai of Rokugan are “romanticized”. All players, those familiar and those not with the many Pacific Asian cultures should take the time before stepping into the game to read the cultural section of the game.

Game Masters are given lots of support to help change their style of gameplay with a robust Game Master section in the core rulebook, online support with the various forums and pre-made adventures, and a slew of campaign support in each supplement with ideas and tips. This support comes across the supplement books as unique detailed locations and adventure seeds for their campaign, and tons of pre-made non-player characters for a Game Master to add to their adventures.

Mechanics

Legend of the Five Rings is more then a Japanese inspired setting, it sports a unique set of dice mechanics throughout every edition. Named the ‘roll and keep’ system that is unique in two aspects.

Using only ten sided dice, players generate dice pools to be rolled but only keeping a specific number of the dice rolled. The total number of the kept dice must meet or beat the Target Number set out by the GM. Dice pools are shown like this: 4k2. In this example, a player will roll four dice and keep the two highest for their result. This mechanical system has always been with the game since its 1997 first edition. Over the years the system has been streamlined, refined and focused into a clear and easy dice mechanic.

Example of great scenic Lo5R art
art by AEG - used without permission
Players also control the difficulty of their Target Numbers. A player is able to increase or ‘raise’ the base difficulty by increments of five in order to generate special effect such as extra damage, defending an ally, or feinting to put an opponent’s guard down. If the player increases the difficulty and fails to make the new target number the action fails completely. Players are gambling success for these additional outcomes and this ‘raise’ mechanic is used with all rolls and not just within combat. It also provides a player generated level of risk - a player choice. Their failure truly becomes the player’s as they overreach but when it works out in their favor the results are very rewarding.

Most new players will need to be reminded of the raise mechanic as they play it safe it first. Once the players get accustomed to the raise mechanic they will slowly learn their limits and know when to push past those limits. The first time a new player goes all out and makes that difficult roll the room tends to light up with cheers and exclamations. That player owns that success, and it inspires the rest of the players to push their own characters and make their own heroic moments. This ownership of the actions is much more satisfying then having a high statistic or simply making a well timed natural 20. This is what can make Legend of the Five Rings such a rewarding play experience mechanically.
 
Conclusion

Legend of the Five Rings is a rewarding setting and a unique game that has won over the hearts and groups of many a gamer. Being able to explore and adventure in a uniquely Pacific Asian inspired world is worth a few evenings around the table loaded with dice, paperwork, and snacks. This Fourth Edition is looking like the best version to date.