Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) [Fourth Edition] takes place in a setting heavily influenced by feudal Japan, liberally sprinkled with elements of other Asian cultures. It contains a variety of fantastic elements, including spell-casting, otherworldly creatures, several planes of existence, and, my favorite, kung fu monks with magical tattoos that let them breath fire. Players assume the role of members of the samurai class and take part in a variety of adventures, from ranging out beyond the Kaiu Wall in search of Oni to slay to maneuvering through royal courts full of honey lips hiding dagger tongues.
It continues to use the Roll and Keep system for action resolution. Whenever a roll is called for, a trait and a skill are selected and their values added together. That many d10s are rolled. The player then selects a number of them equal to the trait, discarding the rest. The faces of the selected dice are added together, giving you the total for your roll. It’s flexible because traits do not have specific skills associated with them; they can be mixed and matched as the situation calls. For example, you might roll Intelligence and Athletics to determine the best way to ascend the cliff and then Strength and Athletics to do the actual climbing.
I highly recommend Legend of the Five Rings, and not only for the fire-breathing monks, to anyone interested in exploring a less European and less Hack-n-Slash style of gameplay or storytelling. The setting is rich and stimulating while preserving room for player and game master invention, the mechanics are simple and cover a wide range of situations, and you get to kill things with a katana.
Publication Quality: 9 out of 10
The L5R 4th edition core book marks the beginning of a new direction in cover presentation for Legend of the Five Rings. It is grey with minimal detail, in contrast to the third edition books, which were red and usually included a picture, apart from the core book. The art used within the book itself has shifted tones; it is still card art, but when combined with the whitish background it gives the book a much more ethereal feel than the previous edition. I found the fonts and spacing to be unremarkable, except those of the table of contents and index, which I found hard to read. The layout has remained largely the same and will be familiar to anyone who has looked at a previous L5R core book.
It is divided into five chapters each titled after one of the five rings from The Book of Five Rings, each corresponding to a different aspect of the game, setting, general mechanics, characters, advanced mechanics, and game mastering. One thing of particular note is the improvement in editing, especially over the L5R third edition revised book. My one major critique would have to be the character sheet. One of the objectives of fourth edition was to be able to play your character entirely from the character sheet, without consulting the rules. True, there is space to write everything mechanical down, and space for writing down information about NPCs, but the character sheet can run up to 6 pages. At that point I’d rather use a note pad for major stats and note cards for things like spells. Overall, I would say the book is well-made and laid out in a consistent fashion, allowing familiar players to easily transition to fourth edition and allowing new players to learn the game with minimal fuss.
Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The core mechanics, as well as most of the other general mechanics, remain largely, if not entirely, unchanged. One of the most obvious changes is the lack of large static bonuses and free raises, which will probably be lauded by people who remember the Ikoma Spymaster/Voice/Courtier/etc. builds. The only major downside I was able to find to the rules tweaks was that they require an especially fine read by veteran players to find the few important changes that have been made.
Balance has been improved significantly over the previous edition; Mirumoto Bushi, I’m looking at you. Much has been said about Maho and the Spider Clan schools regarding their balance, mostly that they are too powerful. That said though, they are in the Book of Air separated from regular player character mechanics. Additionally, the theme of the edition is “L5R Your Way,” meaning each group should feel free to change things as they see fit as well as use or ignore whatever parts of the book they like. One potential mechanical pitfall that still remains is what to do with social skills. As in previous editions, there is a certain murkiness when it comes to deciding how to arbitrate social rolls. Overall, I would say again that the fourth edition of L5R is an improvement over the third edition; many balance issues have been fixed and a lot of excess bells and whistles have been trimmed out.
Desire to Play: 10 out of 10
L5R Fourth Edition gives people familiar with the brand more of the same gameplay they’ve had for years, but tighter. It gives new players the opportunity to experience a fantasy setting that is a departure from the traditional European medieval, and possibly Renaissance, world that is so common. The theme mechanics force players to make moral decisions that aren’t strictly black and white, which is a staple of Samurai Drama, and have great effect on how players are treated by the world around them. Additionally, the alternate rules allow groups to model the style of their Rokugan on things from their favorite Kurasawa movie to their favorite Anime.
Overall: 9 out of 10
I initially got into Legend of the Five Rings because of the fire-breathing kung fu monks, but it’s much more than running around and lighting things on fire, although there should definitely be some of that. A single campaign in Rokugan can cover so much ground; you might start out chasing bandits, discover they belong to a rival clan, argue in front of the emperor for the legitimacy of the war you want to start, learn that it’s all a conspiracy led by someone high on the food chain being controlled by an evil demon, and end up confronting them deep in the Shadowlands as the fate of the empire hangs in the balance. Legend of the Five Rings provides you with the opportunity to adventure in a world where Honor is a force greater than Steel and the highest achievement is not to doing great things, but being remembered for the great things you have done.
[5 of 5 Stars!]