I got exposed to the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) setting via the collectible card game (CCG), of which I was a casual player. I liked the setting of the CCG enough that I bought a PDF copy of the RPG core book when it was on sale. This massive 405-page tome is a breathtaking piece of work, and I’m very happy with my purchase.
For the uninitiated, the L5R RPG is set in Rokugan, a fantasy setting based in medieval Japan. Players portray samurai, which are akin to medieval knights, a class of nobles who serve their local lord through strength of arms. A "knight" (called "bushi" in this setting) is not the only type of character you can play, though: thankfully you can also be a courtier (politician/negotiator/diplomat), or a shugenja (priest/mystic). Of course, no Japanese RPG would be complete without the ninja as playable character, and there is also an option to play oriental monks.
The book is divided into chapters named after the aforementioned five rings: The Book of Air (setting material), Book of Earth (RPG mechanics), Book of Fire (character creation), Book of Water (advanced mechanics), and Book of Void (game master's chapter). I find this style is unique and very setting-appropriate, although I ran into some confusion when the chapters were referred to this way inside the book since I know that the titles of some of this game’s supplements are also titled as such.
The cover is very dark but is appropriate for the mood of the game: grim and foreboding. Life of a samurai is not easy – not only will he have to deal with “wandering monsters”, he will also need to act honorably and with courtesy. Indeed, as the tag line at the back of the book says, “Honor and service are valued more than magic swords taken from wandering ogres.”
A map of Rokugan is included in the inside cover of the book. The write ups for the locations are found in the last chapter of the book and it can be a bit annoying flipping through that chapter and the inside covers as you read the entries, most especially in this format. I would have also preferred to have the names of the locations on the map instead of just the key codes in their places.
Next, the table of contents is hyperlinked, and the introduction has a sidebar for owners of the previous edition.
The first chapter, the Book of Air, deals with the setting material. There is an in-depth history of Rokugan from its beginning up to the present timeline. Fans of the CCG will no doubt be familiar with this but for us casual players and newbies to this RPG this is heaven-sent. It does a great job of bringing anyone up to speed with the setting. Geography, culture and society are discussed next and I find that they are sufficient to bring you to the proper mindset when playing in this game. There is a discussion of the tenets of bushido, and some notes on everyday rituals. Most importantly, the overview of each of the major clans is here.
A thing that can be bothersome is the lack of glossary in this chapter. In a setting such as this where there are a lot of Japanese words used, you would think the writers would put in a glossary of terns but they leave it up to the readers to look up all those words in a Japanese dictionary or the Internet.
The Book of Earth is all about game mechanics. This chapter introduces the Roll and Keep dice system that is used in this RPG. Basically, tasks are accomplished by rolling a number of ten-sided dice based on a character trait against target number. A “10” lets you roll that die again and add the results. This mechanic is one of my main cons in this game as this style can be clunky and mathy during play, as the act of mentally adding up those numbers can be tedious especially during play where players can have more than a handful of dice to roll. One can see though that this system was designed with the setting in mind – the system allows your samurai to hold back, “pull his punches”, or intentionally fail, as failure might be the better course of action in a game where Honor is more important than winning a fight. The mechanics of combat (here called skirmishes), and most importantly, dueling, are discussed here.
The Book of Fire is all about character creation. Two styles are presented: a short style where you pick character your character’s stats, and expanded style involving answering questions about your character. If you are familiar with White Wolf’s storyteller games, the expanded style is very similar to the prelude. Casual players will find it easy to make characters while the expanded style option would be enjoyed by more serious roleplayers. The quick character creation involves just five steps: pick a clan (one among eight), pick a family (a minimum of four choices per clan), pick a school (minimum three options), customize your character (use 40 points to buy skill ranks, advantages and disadvantages), and lastly determined derived attributes (such as Honor, Glory, Status, and Insight ranks). There is a wealth of options to choose from, and although there are only basically 4 character types available (bushi which includes the ninja, shugenja, courtier, and monk), no two characters will ever be very much like another, even if coming from the same clan. An extensive list of spells for the shugenja is included, each ring with up to level 6 spells. Lastly, there is an equipment list at the end of the chapter arranged to be very helpful in creating new characters very quickly.
The Book of Water deals with advanced mechanics. For those who find the extensive character customization options in the previous chapter still lacking, there are more options here such as additional clans (Spider and 13 minor clans), families (including Imperial families), advanced schools for each clans, more options for monks (additional schools and spell-like abilities called kiho), and katas (fighting postures that grant bonuses). This chapter also includes mass battle rules that allow for individual actions during combat, the dreaded maho (blood magic) spells, and rules for ancestors. Whew!
Last but not the least, the Book of Void contains the GM information. Extensive advice for new GMs is included, containing tips on how to run this and any other RPG. Various styles of running games are presented, as well as advice on how to build your own adventures. There is even a sample adventure included, which showcase the breath of the system and serves as a reminder of the customs and rituals of Rokugan. Stats for typical monsters, rules for poison, the already mentioned location guide, suggested references and an extensive index round up the rest of the book (although this last one should have been hyperlinked for ease of reference).
All these aside, what ultimately made me give this RPG a five star rating is that it is complete: you don’t need any other book to run the game. It has its own extensive setting material, complete set of rules, expert rules, beginner GM advice, a variety of monsters, an introductory adventure and a blank character record sheet. Who could ask for more?
Fans of medieval fantasy Japanese will love it (although purists might be bothered by some details, like equality of women and existence of lions in the setting). Fans of the CCG will also be thrilled with the translation of their beloved game into this wonderful RPG. Highly recommended.