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Legend of the Five Rings reg; Roleplaying Game

Reviewed By Elton Robb

 

The Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game is based on the popular Wizards of the Coast reg; Collectible Card Game Legend of the Five Rings reg;. It is published by Alderac Entertainment Group and is probably the company's most famous roleplaying game. It takes its inspiration from Feudal Japan, a theme that has been often used and over-explored by RPG companies ever since TSR released Oriental Adventures. In this case, however, the theme is more realized than found in earlier RPG treatments of feudal Japanese culture (with the possible exception of GURPS Japan), since the whole game system is dedicated to recreating a world based on that culture. The world is somewhere out there in the universe, and it's populated by humans of every color and creed. The game focuses on just a small part of that world: a nation called Rokugan.

Rokugan is Feudal Japan in almost every respect. The government is in more direct control of the Emperor as there is no "Lord Protector" or Shogun to detract from his Imperial influence. So, to illustrate, imagine Rokugan as a feudal, oriental Rome. And, just as the Roman Empire had a vast sphere of influence, so does Rokugan in that it covers an area in size that rivals China.

BOOK OF EARTH

The game begins with the Book of Earth, and it gives the players and GMs details on the Society of Rokugan. It explains the creation myth, the heritage of the Clans, Daimyo and Samurai, Religion, the Caste System, the Society of Rokugan and what they wear, eat, spend, and how they greet each other; and finally Bushido.

The Rokuganjin believe that their myths and legends are actual history, and these are the beliefs that shape Rokuganjin culture. The Caste System is one cultural concept integral to their society, which is stratified into four major tiers, like steps on a ladder. At the top are the Kuge, or the Ruling Caste. Here is where the Emperor and the ruling families of the Imperial Court rule the land, although most of the court action takes place among the Samurai clans.

Below the Kuge are the Samurai, or "those who make war." During the late spring through early fall, the Samurai goes to war at times when a Clan's honor is at stake. During the winter, the Samurai retires from the field of hot war, and enters the courtly field of cold war politics. In the winter court, battles are waged differently. They are about who can arrange the best marriage, who can gain the Emperor's ear, and who can gain honor at the expense of other clans. Player characters are made in the Samurai caste, both spellcasting Shugenja and sword wielding Samurai.

The next caste is the Heimin: or half people. The hiemin are the artisans and the farmers. The farmers are considered more honorable than the artisans. It is the farmers who keep the economy going: they raise food for the people to eat so that they can work, politic, and make war. After all, koku, the money of Rokugan, is based on the rice harvest. The artisans are the people responsible for building Rokugan. Without artisans, there would be no bridges, roads, buildings, and palaces. The artisans provide art and engineering for all the people of Rokugan.

Hinin: the non-people. This caste includes the merchants, actors, musicians, geisha, charlatans, criminals and gamblers. Also included are the Eta. These include those who must touch dead bodies and animals in necessary professions. The unclean people. The ninja are strictly non-player characters who are included in the Eta. The ninja involve themselves in assassination, and are rumored to be spellcasters.

Another concept integral to Rokuganjin culture is Bushido. Bushido is the Way of the Warrior, a code which sets down rules that the Samurai follows. Like the knights of Chivalry, there are some Samurai who do not care about Bushido, and act beyond the bounds of the Code of Bushido. However, there are others who strictly follow the Code of Bushido. And most Samurai fall in between.

Bushido revolves around the "virtues" of Courage, Loyalty, Sincerity, On ("respectability" or "face"), Excellence, Dueling, Revenge, and Bragging. Each of these virtues are so important that a Samurai faithful to the Code of Bushido will sacrifice his life to uphold this Code.

THE BOOK OF WATER

The Book of Water gives details on Character Creation. In the Core Book, players are encouraged to play heroic Samurai or powerful Shugenja.. The game explains what these are: Samurai being warriors who are like the Knights of Feudal Europe, foresworn to a Daimyo; and Shugenja who are priestly spell casters. Character creation is based on a character point system: players get so many points to distribute among the Five Rings: Earth, Fire, Water, Air, and Void. What is left over is used to purchase skills and advantages and/or disadvantages (talents and flaws). The Way of the Clans series of sourcebooks expands on character creation greatly, adding more character types to play. I myself have two of these books, The Way of the Crane and The Way of the Unicorn.

There are some unique skills associated with the game. Such skills include the Tea Ceremony, which depends on the Void attribute to be successfully tested, and Lore, which includes lore unique to the Rokuganjin. Skills are divided into High Skills, which are skills used at Court and in various roleplaying situations; Bugei Skills, skills of weapons and war; and Low Skills, skills no Samurai will take the trouble to learn.

In the main book, there are some unique advantages and disadvantages. These advantages and disadvantages reflect the Rokuganjin culture. Here are a few:

Advantages:

Benten's Blessing: This advantage is an advantage of Charisma more than anything else. It's like getting a boost in presence, except that presence equates to a likable personality.

Sensei: Your character has an amazing rapport with your teacher. This is like having the mentor talent from Rolemaster's Character Law.

Disadvantages:

True Love: What would be an advantage in our culture is a disadvantage in Rokugan. Believe it or not, True Love is actually looked down upon. There is a part of a saying from an Indian visitor to the west when he explained the difference between East and West. "Your marriage is the end of a happy romance, ours is the beginning of a love affair." This explains the disadvantage of True Love. In Rokugan, marriages are arranged between clans or between families in a clan. A young girl and a young Samurai do not just go out together and build a relationship and then get married. Relationships are arranged, not made.

Vanity: This disadvantage isn't listed in the main book, but is found in the Way of the Crane. Vanity is defined as the Character being obsessed with his appearance or his own genius.

THE BOOK OF FIRE

The Book of Fire describes the Game Mechanics, which are simple and based on ten-sided dice. Players are expected to add Ability and Skill, and then roll dice against a target number, which can be as high as 50 or 100. There are no percentile rolls. The idea is that the GM gives the player a target number, typically 15, and the player seeks to roll a number that can equal or beat this target number.

Example: Doji Hoturi, the Daimyo of the Crane, goes to defend the honor of Bayushi Kachiko, a beautiful but dangerous woman who had her honor slighted. He is facing a Lion Samurai who reveals Kachiko's intimacies with the Emperor. The GM requires the player of Hoturi to make an Etiquette test.

Since the situation is tense and involves a Samurai of the Lion clan, the GM assigns a target number of 25 (Very Hard). The player combines Hoturi's intelligence, a 2, with his rank in Etiquette, 5. This equals 7 dice. Hoturi knows that he must score a 25. So he rolls . . . He gets: 7, 2, 1, 5, 6, 8, 10. A 10, so he rolls that dice again, getting a 4. 14. The total is 43.

The GM rules that Hoturi successfully navigated the situation with cool words and logic and the Lion leaves, planning to challenge Hoturi to a duel later. Kachiko is pleased that her honor isn't slighted and once again gives Hoturi her fan.

Even the mass combat system is simple, but since this is a roleplaying game, there is less emphasis on something like mass combat, allowing Clan War, the Legend of the Five Rings miniature combat game to take over.

THE BOOK OF AIR

The Book of Air is detailed next, and it comprises the magic system. The Book of Air gives more detail on the Shinto-esque religion of Rokugan. Details on the Fortunes and Ancestor Worship are given, all to give a basis for the magic system. The Magic System provides a good listing of spells to use by the righteous holy men known as Shugenja. The Book of Air also explains a little about evil magic used by Sorcerers called Blood Magic. Sorcerers in Rokugan use this black magic to cause havoc with the Celestial Order, like raising the dead from their slumber, consorting with demons, and other malicious acts.

THE BOOK OF THE VOID

Finally, there is the Book of the Void. This is the Game Master's section. It shows the game masters, both Fledglings and Veterans, how the game works and how to Master a game of Legend of the Five Rings. It also gives details on Rokugan's creatures. The creatures range from the ever popular Bakemono, or hobgoblins, to the powerful Oni, or eastern demons. I was disappointed to see that they elected to leave out dragons, however. Finally, there is an introductory adventure for the GM to introduce his players to the intricate, delicate Society of Rokugan, and gives them a chance to role-play in the adventure as Samurai and Shugenja should.

After the Book of the Void there is a Map of Rokugan, an explanation of its geography, and floor plans of various buildings around Rokugan. Even a small map of a Rokuganjin city is provided. In the very back is the customary and well-designed character sheet, something no roleplaying game would ever be complete without 

Impressions

I did have some difficulties after reading through the game. For example, in the Book of Earth, I was disappointed they chose to use the western idea of the geisha being glorified prostitutes, rather than as experts in the culture, as is the case in real Japanese culture.

Another thing I found not to my liking was the overall way the game mechanics were presented. They are really simple, but the rules could have been organized better. I found them to be diffused among the Book of Fire, making the real game mechanics difficult to find. However, a plus was the simplistic introduction to game mechanics in the book of Earth, and as well the writer provides an example of how battle works.

Overall, the game has great potential to provide weeks and months of play. Players will want to play in this strange culture of heroic Samurai and holy Shugenja over and over again, especially if they are familiar with the Collectible Card Game Legend of the Five Rings. The Roleplaying Game recreates the world of that CCG better than any other game could. However, since it is about one culture, on chance, you can drop Rokugan into any existing world system with little headache.

As for myself, I did find the game to be a good investment of my money. People who are in love with Japan will find the game a thrill to role-play in. I, myself, enjoyed reading it. And when I finally do get to play/run a game in Rokugan, I'm sure I will be satisfied doing so.

Editor's Note

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game is published by Alderac Entertainment Group.. Their contact details are as follows:
Alderac Entertainment Group
4045 Guasti Road, #212,
Ontario
California 91761
USA
Web: http://l5r.alderac.com/

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