LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS (L5R henceforth), is a roleplaying game based on the popular collectable card game by the same name. As it happens, I have only thumbed through a deck of the cards and never played the game, so I am reviewing the RPG, absent any familiarity with its predecessor. Fortunately, knowledge of the card game is completely unnecessary -- contrary to my initial fears, one could easily have read this book and then been quite surprised to discover, in the ads on the final pages, that there was a CCG based on the RPG (and then been even more surprised to learn that it's actually the other way around).
The CCG apparently focuses on a major war that occurs five years after the time period where the RPG is set. I suppose that someone familiar with the CCG could transport an L5R campaign to the CCG setting. It's a good bet that if the RPG sells well, they'll eventually publish supplements intended to do just that. Right now, they are promising several expansions in the near future, and "New supplements every month". Being that this is a new RPG and a small company, I'm a skeptical, but I'm crossing my fingers for the success of this one.
Below is a more detailed review, but in a nutshell, I like it lots.
At $30, L5R is rather expensive for a core rulebook. However, the production values are excellent. It's hardbound, with a nice painting on the cover. The interior artwork is definitely above average (one of the card game's appeals is supposed to be its artwork, and they probably used the same artists), and the layout is quite good, with effective use of graphics, easy-to-read text, good design, and a couple of nice full-color sections in the interior.
Some of the highlights are an illustrated equipment list of mundane items, a color map of Rokugan, and floorplans for a variety of buildings, ranging from a castle to a tea house to a temple, as well as sample village and city maps.
To put it simply, L5R is Samurai/medieval Japanese roleplaying. If you liked FGU's classic game "Bushido", you'll like L5R. This is a swords & sorcery fantasy game set in medieval Japan....
Well, not. It's actually set in a mythical place called "Rokugan", and the inhabitants don't speak Japanese, they speak Rokuganese. Rokuganese, however, is filled with all kinds of familiar words like samurai, shugenja, ninja, katana, seppuku.... you get the idea. The designers make the point that this is not Japan (and I'll discuss some of the differences in a moment) so you're free to invent your own details without worrying too much about "historical accuracy". However, the background -- quite deliberately based on the real Japan -- is very well researched. I discovered a wealth of details I'd never come across before, and I've done quite a lot of reading on medieval Japan. Granted, one has to be a little wary about details that the writers may have invented for this "not Japan" setting, but virtually everything provided about daily life, technology and society is, as far as I can tell, quite authentic. What's been made up for the game has been blended almost seamlessly with a genuine foundation. I've been told the designers took great pains to research the real Japan and get their facts straight before writing the game based on a fantasy version of it, and this is readily apparent. It wouldn't be difficult to just chuck "Rokugan" and use L5R to run a samurai fantasy in a traditional Japanese setting.
Unlike Japan, Rokugan is not an island nation. Instead, they simulate the isolation that has been such a crucial factor in Japan's cultural development by making Rokugan a coastal nation surrounded on three sides by almost impassable mountains. Thus, the geography is almost identical to Japan, complete with frequent earthquakes.
A detailed mythology is provided, which integrates the traditional Japanese deities (such as Amaterasu and Susano-wo and Kitsune) with a unique Rokuganese creation myth. Of course it's not entirely original -- the founders of modern Rokugan were swallowed by their divine father, and then cut out by the eldest son, after their mother tricked him into swallowing a rock in his place....
But it works, and we wind up with an explanation for why modern Rokuganese society is divided into seven Great Clans. This is the part where Rokugan differs most with Japan, and the part where the CCG influence is obvious, since it's the role of the seven clans, naturally, that the card game players assume.
These clans -- Crane, Crab, Dragon, Lion, Phoenix, Scorpion, and Unicorn -- each have a unique clan history and culture and a different outlook on Rokuganese society. Besides the seven Great Clans, there are countless "minor clans", usually allied to one of the Great Clans.
There are established alliances and rivalries between certain clans, and this provides many roleplaying ideas. Yes, the "template" system of political factions made popular in games like White Wolf's World of Darkness and Steve Jackson Games' In Nomine is used here too.
Besides the perpetual politics and clan warfare to keep people busy, there are also the Shadowlands. This is an area just beyond Rokugan's borders, where all the dark, nasty magical beasties come from. Periodically, Shadowlands critters try to invade Rokugan, so even though the Clans are usually scheming against each other, they have a common enemy to unite against from time to time.
You are somewhat limited as to the type of character you can play, since there basically just two "Professions" (i.e. classes) to choose from: you're either a Bushi (fighter) or you're a Shugenja (magic user). Note that either way, you are a samurai, as is anyone born into a clan. Peasants have a very limited role in Rokugan, as they did in Japan, so there are no options presented for playing commoners. There is some precedent for commoners becoming samurai, so with a little work, the GM could allow such a character, but such unusual PC options aren't covered in the basic rulebook. Likewise, there's no provision for playing non-humans (almost all of whom are hostile towards humans), and while ninja are touched upon briefly, and a future supplement that will cover them in detail is promised, the designers strongly recommend against allowing ninja PCs, for very good reasons.
PCs are usually assumed to be from one of the seven Great Clans, though they can be from a lesser clan (those aren't given much detail in the book, though.) You can also be a ronin, naturally. (Ronin get more character points to start with, but a lot of things are more expensive or forbidden to them.) Once you choose a Clan, each of the seven Great Clans has several major Families to choose from; you get a small attribute bonus depending on which Family you're from.
So, the most important factors in creating your character are Clan and whether s/he's a bushi or a shugenja. (Sidenote: L5R makes the obligatory concessions towards allowing female PCs by providing plenty of precedent for "non-traditional" women in Rokugan society.) Each Clan has its own bushi and shugenja schools, which give students of those schools certain techniques -- this effectively makes L5R a pseudo-class and level system, since you get new special abilities as you rise in Rank within your School.
The "class system" does tend to create characters who don't have a lot of outwardly distinguishing features, though there is some room for variation. Bushi can't learn magic, though shugenja can learn fighting skills. (They aren't going to be as good as a bushi, of course, without seriously reducing their magical abilities.) Depending on your Clan, a sneaky "thief-type" is possible, and it should be noted that shugenja are not just spell-slingers; their role is ambiguous, and they can be anything from religiously-oriented priests to combat-oriented battle-wizards.
Characteristics are based on the "Five Rings"; Fire, Air, Earth, Water, and Void. Traditional Traits such as strength, agility, intelligence, etc., are reflected by a character's Ring rankings, often in a rather non-intuitive manner, but it does give characters a somewhat Eastern feel. A flaw in the system, IMO, is probably another reflection of its card game legacy: Ring ranks only range from 1 to 5, with 2 being average. This doesn't provide for a lot of differentiation.
You then have 25 character points to spend on a variety of things, from skills to raising Ring ranks to buying special character advantages. (You can also get some extra points by taking disadvantages.) Skills are rated from 1 to 5; most of a starting character's skills are going to be 1 or 2, with only a couple of 3's likely. There are also some special characteristics like Honor and Glory. The character design system is reminiscent of White Wolf, which has its good points and its bad points. Shugenja get to choose their spells, everyone gets a pretty standard outfit, varying in quality according to your Profession and Clan, and the character is ready to go.
Like most new RPGs nowadays, L5R has a new mechanic for the dice-rolling part of the game. You may love it or hate it -- I'm still undecided. It's interesting, but it's not easy to calculate probabilities of success (though a chart is provided in the back of the book to help do this.) Basically, you roll X number of dice (always 10-sided), and keep Y. If someone has a weapon rated as doing "3k2" damage, it means you roll three ten-sided dice, and keep the two highest, discarding the lowest die. '10's get rolled again and the results added -- in effect, each 10 you roll gives you a bonus die to keep. This provides two ways of modifying rolls, since you can adjust both the total number of dice rolled, and the number that you get to keep. Damage, for example, adds the character's Strength trait to the number rolled, but not the number kept....so a person with Strength 3 hitting someone with a 3k2 weapon would roll 6 dice and keep the two highest.
For success/failure rolls, the GM sets a Target Number for whatever you're trying to do. 15 is considered an average difficulty rating. The character rolls his applicable Trait plus the Skill, keeping a number equal to the Skill. So, to hit someone with a sword, you add your Agility + Kenjutsu skill, roll that many dice, and keep a number equal to your Kenjutsu. If the total of your "keep" dice equals the Target Number, you succeed, otherwise you don't.
There are also Contested rolls, where your Target Number is equal to 5 x your opponent's Trait, and vice versa. If both fail, the contest continues for another round; if one succeeds and the other fails, the winner wins decisively, and if both succeed, the one who rolled highest wins marginally.
One interesting feature is that skills aren't absolutely linked to one corresponding Trait. The GM can assign whatever Trait is appropriate for the given task. So, for instance, riding a horse is Agility + Horsemanship, while evaluating the quality of a horse would be Perception + Horsemanship, and training a horse could be Awareness + Horsemanship.
Modifiers also come in the form of "Raises". To achieve something beyond basic success, you have to declare one or more Raises before rolling. Each Raise raises the Target Number by 5. The system is rather vague in many places-- the GM is just told that, for instance, if a PC wants to hit a certain part of the body, he should add one or more Raises. Trying to put an arrow through someone's eye might be good for 4 Raises, adding 20 to the Target Number.
If you're into statistics, there's a slight problem with this, in that saying all Raises must be in increments of 5 means that a couple of Raises can double or triple the difficulty of an easy task, while not adding much to the difficulty of a task that's already pretty hard. The GM could just as well assign Raises in smaller increments based on the situation, but it would make things a lot more complicated. If you don't care that much about precision, this system works well enough.
The basis of Rokugan magic is very well described; on the surface, shugenja appear to be much like traditional fantasy wizards, carrying scrolls around from which they read off spells that do everything from increasing strength to turning the target into a jade statue. However, shugenja are really just invoking the favor of the spirits, who can be capricious. This makes them more priests than wizards, yet they are not necessarily a pious profession. There are other kinds of magic which ARE sorcerous, strictly forbidden dark arts.
The magic system uses the above rules, where Raises are used to do things like extend the duration of a spell, increase the damage, increase the speed with which the shugenja can cast a spell, cast a spell without a scroll, etc. Each spell has in its description a list of things which can be improved by Raises.
The spell list is fairly large, and interesting, if standardized. Each Clan is said to have its own list of jealously-guarded spells; these are supposed to be published in future supplements detailing each Clan, naturally. Shugenja are quite powerful; a beginning character can have some really potent spells. However, beginning characters don't get that many spells, and the disadvantages of being a shugenja tend to balance them out -- shugenja are perfectly viable as PCs, and should not overshadow the bushi, nor be left helpless without them either. Most groups will work better if there are more bushi than shugenja, though, and the assumption seems to be that the majority of PCs will be bushis.
The organization is not perfect, but it's very good, and for a new company's first effort, it's outstanding. The table of contents is good, though the index is a bit skimpy. Generally, it's not hard to find what you're looking for, though, and the book is broken up into reasonable chapters and sections. Character creation information comes right after the introduction and background to Rokugan, and it's well-organized. The charts and tables at the back of the book are useful (especially the spell list) though there could be more of them.
There is one erratum they apparently decided to add to the end of the book, rather than reprinting the book with the defective page fixed-- page 146 is reprinted on page 246, with the addition of a sidebar that is very important to shugenja characters. They really should have found a better way to draw attention to this.
There is a lot of useful information for GMs, covering plotting, pacing, style, setting the mood, handling problems, and so on. And the adventure seeds filling the sidebars in the latter half of the book are very useful. The introductory scenario is well-written, and is a good multi-part adventure for introducing players and characters to L5R's rules and Rokuganese culture. It does suffer from rather heavy plotting in a couple areas....certain things are assumed to happen, and no options are given to cover the possibility of PCs doing something different (and we know PCs would never do something other than what the GM expects, would they?) In fact, the whole group is basically doomed if they don't do what they're supposed to do at certain stages. For one such situation, the GM is explicitly told "If they don't do this, let them all die, then restart the scenario at the point where they blew it", explaining that this is a learning scenario, after all. The problem is, the PCs are very likely to do exactly what they're not supposed to do (the writers even point out that this is what the playtesters did!) Despite these flaws, the adventure is good for what it's designed for-- an introduction to L5R.
The writing is well above average. The fiction is good and illustrative of the game setting without taking up too much room (my pet peeve is RPG books that begin with 10-20 page short stories...if I want narrative prose, I'll buy a book or a magazine) and then they accompany it with a description of what's happening in game terms, along with the story, a nice touch and very well done. Rules are explained pretty well, and the rich background sections are descriptive but not too verbose. I didn't catch too many editorial mistakes other than the one noted above; overall, a very good job.
Obviously, I give Legend of the Five Rings a big thumbs up. If you're into Oriental roleplaying at all, you should definitely give this game a try. The mechanics may or may not be to your taste, but if you like "Bushido", the Tomoe Gozen trilogy, or Kurasawa films (or the Lot5R card game, no doubt), you will definitely like L5R. If you're waiting for the Japanese RPG that Gold Rush Games is supposedly going to eventually publish -- originally a new edition of Bushido, now apparently something called "Senryaku", though before then there's supposed to be an Usagi Yojimbo RPG using the Fuzion rules -- then L5R will more than tide you over until then.