View Full Version : [Review] Legend of the Five Rings 3E

2010-01-18, 01:02 AM
It's possible that a similar thread to this one exists somewhere on the forums, probably even likely given the caliber of the people here... in any case, I didn't check. If I'm repeating things someone else has said, I apologize - but I'm gonna say my piece anyways.

As a bit of backstory, I was lucky enough to receive a Barnes & Noble gift card (or two) for christmas, and as I was looking around the sci-fi section I noticed in the roleplaying section there was a book that I had recently heard something about. As you may have guessed by the title of this thread, that book was Legend of the Five Rings - or Lo5R for short. At that time, all I knew about it was that it 'used a weird dice system' that was 'hard to determine probability for'. Since I am a total math nerd, I decided to check the game out, and also see if there was anything interesting in the story.

A few hours later, I bought the book.

Some of you, like the me of a few days ago, may wonder 'what is this Lo5R system anyways?' or may be thinking 'isn't that some sort of Oriental Adventures spinoff that got its own CCG and system?' (Yes, sort of.) This thread is for curious minded people like you (and also my own selfish desires (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?t=138829).)

The book is divided into 5 parts, based on the Go Rin No Sho (http://samuraiconsulting.ca/5rings/). Coincidentally, so is my review!

Review of Earth: What the heck is Lo5R about, anyways?

Quite a few people, when they imagine RPGs set in or about Japan, imagine a game like Exalted, BESM, or skip straight to the Final Fantasy video game series. Applying that image to the 5 rings would be dead wrong - the atmosphere essentially is similar to that of a story co-written between James Clavell and J.R.R. Tolkien, or possibly between Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts. It very aptly takes the image of Feudal Japan, a culturally exotic time and locale, and adds the element of the fantastic. The end result is as mythic as it is inspiring, and while the notion of playing samurai might not appeal right off the bat to every player, Lo5R has a sense of otherness and cultural immersion to it that is sometimes lacking in settings such as Forgotten Realms or Eberron. In FR, the attempt to show players something exotic sometimes manifests itself in something predictable, such as as flying cities and unusual monsters, with perhaps good-aligned goblins and evil elves; and while at its very best we have cases such as Salvatore's drow cities, it's comparatively unusual to have players feel immersed in a strange land.

In Lo5R, that cultural immersion is not only immediate but unavoidable, as players must very often choose between death, danger, and dishonor; where the murder of the lower castes by a samurai is mildly frowned upon but in no sense illegal, where meat is taboo and unclean, love a dangerous luxury secondary to duty, and where the realm of politics is as potentially life-threatening as that of combat. The sourcebook clearly and immediately attempts to bestow this sense of immersion into the reader...

by bludgeoning them over the head with 18 pages of Rokugan (the game setting) history, much of which is based on events from the collectible card game of the same name. And thus begins the pattern which will repeat itself for the entirety of my post. "I like this book a lot, but...." sadly the editors for this project really dropped the ball. While the material it's filled with is great, the book is overall clumsily put-together and quite difficult for a novice to make any headway into.

In any case, the book follows up the interminable history with about another 18 pages of customs and culture. This section is much more immediately useful than the history, and should have been placed at the beginning, preferably interspersed with some myth and folklore to give a general framework for the player's understanding of Rokugan.

The remainder of the chapter (a whopping 33 pages) is devoted to the Clans. It's a critical section in terms of understanding the game, and is lavishly detailed and overall simply fun to read. If I had any criticism of it, it would be that it contains elements necessary to character creation. So what, you ask? Well, the beautifully intricate setting has eight major clans composed of 4-5 families (on average) apiece, nine minor clans, three imperial families, four orders of monks, and two ronin families. Overall there are 61 possible choices for a starting player, or around 55ish if you disallow the evil clans and the extinct (or nearly extinct) clans. With each family taking roughly one third to one half of a page, that's a lot of reading for the prospective player who might just want to kill things with a katana to start, and figure out the rest as they go along.

The Review of Water: Character Creation

This chapter kind of skips around a bit. It starts with a 20-questions gig ("what is your character's greatest strength? Greatest weakness?" as an example), then gets into general mechanics, then a list of skills and their benefits, and finally into Schools, which are like Clans except with mechanical complications.

The entire chapter, in fact, is full of mechanical complications. Before I start complaining, first the praise: The schools are, flavor-wise, as well-written as the clans. In terms of setting material, it provides excellent insight into the history of the clans, the feel of the school, and in general makes a great read. Additionally, the book goes to lengths to ensure that playing a Crab bushi and playing a Crane bushi (for example) are very different things - even with different schools of the same family.

Okay? Hold onto that praise, because this chapter irritates me to no end from a mechanical point of view. It's quite difficult in many cases to figure out what some skills' use would be in an actual game, whether it be the fact that weapon skills and weapon stats are in completely separate chapters, or that the roll/keep/raise system is mind-boggling to try and look for comparative advantage in. Then there's a whole slew of schools, many of which offer compelling advantages, such as the ability to add the player's water ring to TN to be Hit, or to get a Free Raise in such-and-such situation. Without having read through the Fire chapter, a lot of that comes across as pure gobbledygook, even without the typos.

Oh, the typos. This chapter of the book in particular looks like it was edited while drunk. While errata exist, I had to dig around in the official forums for mine - they were in no way prominently displayed on the main website. The end result leaves a slipshod impression, like a flower arrangement with a stalk out of place (to use a system metaphor).

The Review of Fire: How does this system work again?

This section is probably the worst of the lot. Combat rules are followed by item lists, Glory/Status/Honor rewards, Katas, Mass Battle Rules, and experience. In that order. Charts are everywhere, explanations of rules are confusing, things have been randomly shoved into places where they don't fit - in short, it's a mess.

If this chapter has one redeeming feature, it is once again the flavor text. Reading about the Lion clan's steel war pipes which can be used to bash an enemy, blow blinding powders in their face, or smoke some relaxing tobacco after a long day, winds up being just plain cool. And the Mass Battle Rules, even though they belong in the GM section, have very cool and interesting 'twists' that can happen during a battle. I may even prefer this format to the Savage Worlds mass battle rules, which is saying something.

Still, this chapter is fairly frustrating to read, which makes it doubly frustrating once you realize that understanding it is probably your only way to figure out what constitutes a mechanically viable character that will do the things you envision it being capable of.

Review of Air: Magic!

My stamina is flagging as I write this, so to keep it brief, it's fine. Unremarkable, but fine. The breakdown is approximately Myths and Legends/Other Realms/Magic Items/Magic Spell Lists/Monk Powers/'Evil' Powers. Other than the fact that the villain material should probably be in the GM section and the Kiho (Monk powers) are somewhat bland, the chapter holds itself well. It's not exactly thrilling to read through the spell list, but that's unavoidable. Unfortunately, the book lacks a spells by level quick reference table, but the in-chapter layout is sufficiently clear, for once.

Review of Void: GM Stuff?

Disappointing! Scanty! Almost as few villain stats as the Feng Shui rulebook! No sample adventure path! A hard-to read list of locations in the empire, with only vague sample hooks! Maybe I'm spoiled, but my baseline for GM-friendly books has to be the WOD supplements. In comparison, this falls way short.

Overall review:

I've wound up bashing the book more than I intended. The truth is that despite its flaws, I really enjoy the book, and planning on starting a PBP game (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?t=138829) as soon as I can find players. My advice to anyone interested is to read the book before you buy it. If it hooks you, grab it and don't think twice about it - the book is practically worth the sticker shock on brain food and reading material value alone. If you're a little unsure, on the other hand, try checking out the forums (http://www.alderac.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=60). They have a lot of very interested, very helpful people, with threads that disambiguate a lot of the mechanical difficulties, and the terrific fan-created work might light a spark where the official work did not.

Anybody else who's read the book have comments? Let me know!

2010-01-18, 02:47 AM
Out of curiousity, is this the third edition, or the revised third edition that came out a while ago? If you're unsure, see if the fourth Crane school is the Daidoji Harriers or something else. The Daidoji Harriers were disbanded as dishonourable in the metaplot between the two editions.

Now, the book. Yeah, you're pretty spot-on. The editing is terrible, which leads into much mechanical confusion. This isn't helped by the fact that a number of the options are broken in either sense of the word (or so I hear, anyhow), and there are curious omissions. For example, there are no horses or rules for mounted combat in the text, which should be just the thing to spoil a prospective Unicorn's day. The rules for making a monk are also quite confusing, and I could swear the book gives at least two ways of doing it.

Now, concerning setting, I have a bit of a gripe: It's very strict. You're always someone's vassal, and you always have certain duties you must uphold, which means you really can't just go wandering off in search for adventure, you have to find a fairly good reason for it. This goes double for beginning characters who are assumed to be fresh out of their gempukku and thus have no liberties whatsoever. I have yet to play the game, but this aspect of the setting just makes it feel like mixed-clan campaigns would be a bit tedious to reason. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I'm certain a good GM can make this feel completely natural.

Finally, if you desire for more GM support in the form of setting trivia, villain stats, setting trivia, adventure hooks and setting trivia (and don't mind spending a few koku more), I can't recommend the supplement Emerald Empire enough. It's pretty much 272 full-colour pages full of all sorts of background info on life in Rokugan. Sadly, it doesn't have horses either, and it doesn't go into as much detail on the daily life of the samurai as I'd like.

2010-01-18, 03:45 AM
Now, concerning setting, I have a bit of a gripe: It's very strict. You're always someone's vassal, and you always have certain duties you must uphold, which means you really can't just go wandering off in search for adventure, you have to find a fairly good reason for it. This goes double for beginning characters who are assumed to be fresh out of their gempukku and thus have no liberties whatsoever. I have yet to play the game, but this aspect of the setting just makes it feel like mixed-clan campaigns would be a bit tedious to reason. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I'm certain a good GM can make this feel completely natural.

Or you just play a bunch of masterless men who look for gaining a reputation and eventually join a clan, which is a valid concept for a lot more traditional group of heroes campaign. But if I just want to play a group of wandering heroes, why bother with the system at all?
I actually like the rigid social structure of the setting. For me, it is one of the games selling points. It feels authentic and gives a good framework for characters. I wouldn't bother with multi-clan groups anyway, which would make every party very similar and generic. A more focused, single clan party is often more flavorful, because all characters have the same traditions and customs to relate to and these can therefore be explored with a lot more detail and depth than several different clan traditions which all can only be scratched on the surface. As usual, quality beats quantity.

2010-01-18, 10:08 AM
I have the revised edition, I think. The only Daidoji school in it is their signature Yojimbo style.

Mounted combat and monks, yes, are also problematic. Both have the information about them buried in weird, obscure places, when it's mentioned at all.

I would agree with Satyr, however, that the prevalence of social structure as a force affecting character motivation is actually a good thing. The notion that your characters could be executed for not following orders, or expected to kill themselves for failure (for example) is a powerful force for immersing players into the world. Bushido is what separates the Lo5R system from other fantasy roleplaying settings, and that sense of the exotic and unfamiliar is arguably the strongest reason to play the game in the first place.

2010-01-18, 03:19 PM
I believe the usual solution to allow mixed-clan adventures is to have the PCs be a band of Emerald Magistrates.


The wide range of duties the Magistrates undertake means that the GM can justify nearly any type of mission. And, while they are nominally beholden only to the Emperor in their capacity as Magistrates, a samurai would be remiss in his or her duty if he or she didn't keep an eye out for things affecting the clan.

2010-01-18, 03:31 PM
I didn't like it. I'm not overly fond of any system that's so setting dependent.

Overall I give it a meh.

2010-01-18, 03:52 PM
I didn't like it. I'm not overly fond of any system that's so setting dependent.
Usually I would firmly agree - but in the case of L5R, the setting is the main selling point, and the rules do a good job to carry these; there was a brief period of a L5R d20 version, and that one was just plain bad. Despite the fact that D20 is usually the slightly more adaptable system.
The other fact is that the setting has a very strong and enforced metaplot, which has its merits and drawbacks.
If you are looking for a generic samurai fiction game, it might not be the first choice, but if you are looking for a decent setting with a working set of rules, and some nice features, it is not a bad idea.

2010-01-18, 08:41 PM
Systems that are setting dependent do tend to be somewhat limited, true... but the downside is that systems that are too setting-generic wind up being weak.

Would Deadlands, for example, be nearly as much fun if spell failure was determined by a D20 roll instead of a poker hand?

World of Darkness games lose a lot of their punch when the Morality table is ignored (as often happens in Mage, at least in my circle), but when it's brought to the forefront, such in Vampire, compelling stories seem to be told.

Certain mechanical systems become iconic enough that playing the game without them somehow doesn't quite seem the same.

2010-01-18, 08:50 PM
Exactly. This is why generic systems are usually tweaked for settings.