Back in my university days, I had a lot going on RPG wise. During Fresher’s week, I discovered the University’s roleplaying society and the Star Wars RPG’s joys.
A trip into one of Glasgow’s Virgin megastores – a hallowed metropolis of roleplaying goodness! It led to me discover a locally produced game called “SLA Industries” that completely blew my mind and led to a campaign spanning many years. Years later, their “Karma” product still sticks with me as one of the most stylistically clever sourcebooks I’ve ever seen produced for an RPG. It might sound like I’m being guilty of donning the old rose-tinted specs here, but I’m not hyperbolic when I say that I don’t think I’ve ever got as much out of any other system’s supplement as I did out of this one. It was probably for this reason – the fact that the content was causing a near meltdown of my fragile little brain – that caused the book to self destruct into a pile of loose pages after only a few read-throughs.
A subscription to the beautiful “Valkyrie” magazine introduced me to a little-known (ha!) company called White Wolf, which resulted in a buying frenzy that some might have dubbed obsessive and a desire to own every new book and system they produced. Somewhat embarrassingly, it also fuelled a desire to run a crossover campaign; wouldn’t it be so cool to get all these supernaturals together in one game? Thankfully – mercifully – that never happened. I realised what a horrible idea this was and pulled the plug before this monstrosity was spawned.
None the less, I ran games of Vampire, Mage and Wraith, and ended buying up other books that this renaissance of “darker” games birthed. Kult and Nephilim were two of my favourites. After one abortive attempt to run the latter, I realised how something could be good on paper and extremely impractical, complex and unwieldy in execution.
However, competing for my attention – and the contents of my wallet – was a little something called the collectible card game craze. Like most gaming junkies at the time, I started with Magic but quickly moved onto Vampire: the Eternal Struggle – or Jyhad as it was known back then. Honestly, I can’t conceive of a poorer name for a gaming product, and I wonder how many CCG message boards, chat rooms and fan sites have been flagged for “attention” by the NSA and GCHQ for that reason alone…
I enjoyed both games immensely, but, as Inquest magazine showed me, the market was filling up with hundreds and hundreds of games. If these two were good, why not check out the others? This is where the deceptive lure of CCGs is so insidious and so clever. Compared to investing in a new RPG, the entry footprint of a CCG is relatively small. A couple of boosters and a starter – at least back in the 90s – would set you back around a tenner. It was once you got hooked that they got their claws into you, and things started to hurt. None the less, I embraced this new hobby with gusto. In addition to Magic and Vampire, I dabbled in Star Wars, Star Trek, Illuminati, Rage, Middle Earth, Mythos, the X Files….the list was fairly long.
The dangerous thing though?
I enjoyed them all. And because of this, I wanted to COLLECT all of these games.
Yeah – that could be COSTLY.
Thankfully, another game came to my rescue and resulted in me becoming SO focused on it that I ignored all others…
Back in the late 90s, my “main” CCG was Star Wars. I was – and still am – a HUGE fan of the expanded universe, and after the first few expansions, the CCG had begun to hit its stride and was doing a great job of capturing the feel and theme of the films. It chimed nicely with the West End Games’ RPG that I was playing at the time, and besides, there was nothing quite like that feeling of opening a pack and getting one of the main characters in your rare slot…
Depending on how you looked at it, I was also very fortunate as one of my friends owned a shop that primarily dedicated to collectable card games and RPGs. It was a great spot for hanging out, too; we did most of our gaming there – a wise move on the owner’s part as he knew full well that none of us could resist the urge to impulse buy a couple of boosters for whatever CCG we were currently playing.
It was there one Friday evening that said owner came over to me – I think I was just finishing up a game of Star Wars – and asked me if I was interested in a game called “Legend of the Five Rings”, or L5R for short. I had seen a few of the guys in the shop playing that game but had never paid much attention to it. The whole samurai thing had never really done much for me, so I had largely just written it off as another fantasy game. He explained that he was running a sanctioned tournament in a few weeks – which was very dramatically named “The Day of Thunder” – and he was hoping to have a player represent one of each clan – the name of the game’s main factions. There was one clan that nobody was playing, and he made me an offer – he’d sell me a starter set and some boosters at “mate’s rates” and give me a whole load of cards for this clan that he didn’t use on the proviso that I entered the tournament. Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth and forgetting that old drug dealer adage of “the first one is always free”, I acquiesced. I had, of course, completely disregarded the fact that I had a week to learn a game that I had never played before to compete in a tournament full of guys who played this game religiously.
I hurried home with my bundle of loot and plunged into the starter box, boosters and piles of cards that my friend had given me. After a weekend of poring over all my new goodies – when doubtlessly I should have probably been studying – I came to one, inescapable conclusion.
Everything about L5R BLEW MY MIND.
It wasn’t just the game – which I bloody loved, as it was largely about the interplay at the table between multiple players – but the setting, the story and the history. Alderac Entertainment Group had created an absorbing and immersive world, with an evolving plotline and some fascinating characters. Each clan had a distinct identity and an equally distinctive playstyle, but the little bits of fiction on the cards helped players understand the broader tale being told. I began collecting cards just to piece together the narrative – this was in the days before online Wikis existed to summarise everything in one neat place.
Therefore, imagine for a minute my face when the self same friend who got me hooked on the CCG came up to me a few months later, grinning widely and holding up an L5R RPG.
He tapped the cover and then pointed at me before cocking his head to one side and raising an eyebrow.
Of course I’d play…
Entertainment Group – henceforth known as AEG – published the L5R RPG in 1997. It is a fantasy RPG set in the fictional Empire of Rokugan – a place heavily influenced by the legends and myths of Japan and other Asian cultures. However, this isn’t simply another “hey, aren’t samurai so cool with their honour and everything” type of setting. Yes, feudal Japan could make a fascinating period to set a game, but the Emerald Empire isn’t feudal Japan any more than the D&D’s Forgotten Realms are medieval Europe. It’s ultimately a fantasy setting, so expect to find a cast of trolls, goblins, spirits, animal-people, demons, dragons and undead alongside everyday humans!
One of the fascinating aspects of the rulebook is the time it devotes to describing Rokugani culture. This organisational decision helps make the point that this isn’t just “D&D with katanas”. Everything in Rokugan revolves around the samurai caste, and the samurai, in return, centre their existence around their honour-based code of bushido. Because honour is such a personal thing, Rokugani have to be VERY careful not to offend samurai because doing so tends to result in a duel (or being cut down if you’re not a samurai). As a result, a culture has developed that is painfully polite and extremely carefully spoken. Rokugani do not value honesty – they value people who appear sincere in what they say. Outbursts of passion are considered uncouth, and a samurai is expected to maintain a dispassionate, emotionless demeanour at all times. Needless to say, there are some characters who excel at needling away at this mask…. Indeed, a quick mind and a sharp tongue are just as deadly as a good sword arm in Rokugan, and the potential for courtly intrigue in this setting is huge. That being said, this unique culture does require some investment on the part of the players and the GM. It’s well worth it, though – as I said, without this backdrop, L5R can quickly just become a “generic fantasy game with an Asian twist”.
Unlike the CCG and its expansions, which forged ahead with the timeline of the Emerald Empire, the RPG is set before the main action of the card game – taking place a couple of years prior. The setting is vibrant – detailing everything from day to day life of the people of Rokugan, all the way to the creation of the world by the divine Sun and Moon. Players take on the role of samurai – the nobility of Rokugan – and they can choose to be either bushi – warriors – or shugenja – priests and priestesses who receive magical powers from the divine beings they worship.
Because of how much care and attention has been poured into the setting and its background, it’s possible to run many different kinds of story, from investigative, to courtly, to horror based. As we’ll see later on, AEG took this diversity to heart when writing adventure modules.
Character creation is points based, with players allocating values to traits – innate abilities such as strength, intelligence and perception – and skills – learned abilities that a samurai is taught throughout their life. Skills might be things such as swordplay, calligraphy or oratory – basically, anything you could learn. These were also broken down into high skills and low skills, with the former being courtly skills – the kind of things that samurai were expected to use in their day to day. Prowess with a sword, the tea ceremony, and origami – these are all good and proper high skills. Low skills, on the other hand…well…this includes things like poison, gambling and stealth. Things that are generally useful but considered beneath a samurai will probably result in the loss of honour if you’re caught using them…
Alongside these two numbers is the concept of rings and yes, there are five of them…. A ring is (with one exception) a pair of traits. For example, the ring of earth is made up of stamina and willpower. The ring’s value is the lower of these two values. The fifth ring – void or, more accurately, nothingness – represents an inner reserve of strength – and points – that a character can use to pull off great deeds in times of need.
The value of rings are essential for several reasons, but two major ones stand out – the first is that they are key to advancing your character’s insight. This is a number made up of your total rings multiplied by ten, and your total points in skills. This unlocks more powerful abilities at certain thresholds – for bushi, this equates to powerful moves that can be unleashed in combat, whereas shugenja become better at spell casting.
The second use of rings comes down to magic – each spell is keyed to a specific ring; a shugenja will be using the value of the ring when attempting to cast a spell of the corresponding element.
Depending on what clan and role a player takes determines their honour and glory – two life facts that are of immeasurable importance to samurai. Glory can be thought of social rank. The Emperor – as the son of heaven – has the highest glory and everyone defers to him. Peasants on the other hand, have very little glory. Characters generally earn glory through great acts of derring do and courage.
Honour – on the other hand – is a character’s investment in the concept of bushido – the code of the samurai – and their belief in its righteousness. Characters with a high honour are seen as trustworthy and are generally treated better than characters with a low honour. However, they have to constantly live up to higher standards than a character with a low honour who can generally behave in a much more selfish manner. When put into situations where they could compromise their beliefs, honourable characters can fall back on their honour ranks to salvage the situation.
A system of advantages and disadvantages rounded out character creation. The former were good aspects of your character that cost points, whereas the latter were detrimental to your character and gave you points. One fun aspect of this was that particular merits were cheaper for certain clans. Crab clan samurai were more likely to be big lads, and therefore the Large advantage cost them less, whilst those pretty boys in the Crane found it cheaper to purchase “Benten’s blessing” – the standard “You’re good looking and charming” advantage.
When it comes to the system, L5R uses AEG’s roll and keep system – in short, when faced with a task, the GM gives the player a Target Number – or TN – and they then roll several dice equal to the appropriate trait and skill, and keep several dice equal to the trait. If they roll equal to or over the number, they succeed. For example, in combat, a character will roll agility and their relevant weapon skill to hit.
The system becomes more nuanced through the concept of raises. If you want to do something extra fancy, you can raise the difficulty by five. If you then succeed in your roll, you pull off a more spectacular victory. Magic makes excellent use of this to do things like extending the duration, range and effect of spells that are cast. Often certain acts of preparation – for example, aiming with a bow – allow a character to get a free raise – which is to say they get the benefits of a raise without raising the TN.
One other feature of the Roll and Keep system is the concept of “exploding dice”; every ten you roll “explodes”, which is to say you get to roll that die again and add the second number to the ten. If you get ANOTHER ten, you roll again and so on.
While the system is a lot of fun, it does mean that combat is pretty lethal – a reputation that L5R established reasonably early on in its run!
The great thing about the core L5R book was that it was a complete game – you had everything you needed to start running adventures out of the box. There was a complete guide to the history of Rokugan, an overview of life in the Emerald Empire, comprehensive character creation rules, two schools for each clan plus rules for Ronin – masterless samurai – for those angsty edge-lords out there, detailed skill resolution and combat systems, which included rules for skirmishes, duelling AND mass battles, more information on weapons, armour and equipment than you’d ever need, details on Rokugani religion, a magic system with a ton of spells, GM tips galore, a bestiary, some fun maps and a starter adventure.
Somebody took a leaf out of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s book!
However, with hundreds of the CCG fans clamouring for more, the folks at AEG did not sit on their laurels. Over the next three years, they released no fewer than thirty-five supplements. Foremost amongst these were the “Way of the Clans” series – splat books that gave a detailed overview of Rokugan’s great clans’ history, structure, and culture, along with expanded character creation rules. A particular fan favourite, which played nicely with the theme of ancestor worship, was the history tables, which allowed you to establish a legacy for your character’s family. Perhaps your ancestor was a hero, a villain or something else – regardless, these tables were great fun for players and GMs alike!
In a nice nod to the CCG, each clan book also included sample decks for each clan.
However, the most exciting thing in the clan books was the new schools they included. Schools were the “roles” the players chose for their samurai. In the core book, they were limited to bushi or shugenja for the leading families in a clan; the Clan Books allowed more variety. Why not be a diplomat, an engineer, a witch hunter or a courtier? These offered more variety for players and GMs alike and expanded the scope of what could be done with the game.
There were also extensive write-ups for prominent NPCs for each clan, and these, along with the substantive history chapters, helped breathe life into Rokugan. This is vital for a setting that wants to break away from accusations that its subject matter is entirely made up of idealised stereotypes. Having different characters with distinct personalities, motivations, and backstories goes a long way to show “Look! It’s not just some D&D samurai mash-up where everyone spends the whole time screaming about honour and killing themselves when they do something wrong.”
Of course, these books weren’t perfect – there was definitely a feeling of power creep, and that whichever clan had most recently received their clan book was “flavour of the month”.
Following these books’ success, “clan” books were released for the Minor Clans, Ronin, Monks and the Naga – the mysterious serpent people from Rokugan’s past. These broadened the scope of what could be played, but some players felt that they took away from what had always been the focus of L5R – the great clans and their families.
Fun as the clan books were, these weren’t the only products produced by AEG. A whole swathe of adventures, all dealing with different themes, were released between 1997 and 2000. Taking a leaf out of early D&D’s book, these were numbered and coded to give the prospective GM a good idea of what was covered. For example, the “S” series of adventures dealt with the Shadowlands, the “B” modules were themed around bushido, whilst the “M” adventures all revolved around magic. There were eleven modules released, with three dealing with the Shadowlands, two with Bushido, two with magic, one with the Imperial City, one with intrigue and two with the infamous City of Lies.
Three of these products – City of Lies, Tomb of Iuchiban and Otosan Uchi were large, boxed sets that contained multiple booklets and other goodies such as maps. These boxed sets are generally held in high regard – City of Lies, in particular, is frequently cited as one of the high points of the original L5R run.
This use of numbered modules and boxed sets was also a clever marketing strategy; in a day and age where the market was dominated by “storytelling” games and where supplements were more concerned with character-building than published adventures, the L5R products tugged at a chord of nostalgia. The way they were presented was similar enough to D&D that many gamers – consciously or not – felt a natural affinity with them.
Various other sourcebooks were published that were neither splat book nor adventure, but special mention must be given to the Book of the Shadowlands. Printed like an “in-world” document, the Book of the Shadowlands essentially relegates any game “crunch” to sidebars and instead provides a highly atmospheric look into one of the game’s darkest settings. As someone once put it, this publication was more like an immersive storybook that just happened to have RPG rules included. Rereading this book, you get the impression that there was an intention to publish many volumes in a similar style to this. Whilst some later books attempt this, none comes close to Book of the Shadowlands in terms of presentation.
Taking all of this into account, it should come as no surprise that L5R won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game of 1997.
So far, so good. However, AEG were about to introduce something that would divide fans. You see, in RPG circles, and especially in an established setting, there is one word that can cause hackles to rise – metaplot. In essence, a metaplot is an overarching story that affects all aspects of the game. White Wolf are the most infamous in this regard – they’d release things in one book that would affect all other books they were going to release and, by extension, your campaign. L5R and its players were no strangers to this; the card game had had a metaplot for years. However, the RPG publishers had made a conscious choice to stay away from it, preferring to centre their game in a period that pre-dates the CCG’s metaplot events.
For those unfamiliar with the CCG, the pivotal event that propelled the CCG timeline forward was an attempted coup by the Scorpion clan, which ended with the Scorpion being banished, a new Emperor in power and significant changes to the leadership of other clans. This sets the scene for a civil war in Rokugan and all the various events during the CCG’s arc. However, the RPG creators chose to put their game’s action before the coup – giving players and GMs a more durable canvas to paint on. After all, when one of the powerful clans is outlawed, and the other six are at each other’s throats, it makes it hard to conjure up a “…, and you all go on an adventure together…” premise.
AEG touched on the Scorpion Clan coup in their Otosan Uchi publication, which detailed the Imperial capital. In the third book in the box, The Scorpion’s Sting, a rough adventure framework is given for playing out the key aspects of that fateful event. However, it makes it quite clear that “not all gamesters, nor all players, will use this book”. The writers point out that this is a big event; it affects the entire Empire and, if you fancy it, you can mess around with it to have it fit your chosen timeline. It serves, if you like, as a bridging point between different points in Rokugan’s history, but it was never mandated in a White Wolf-esque “…and further supplements will take these events into account…” kind of way.
Then, in 2000, AEG released 2nd edition.
Now, it’s not strictly fair to say that 2nd ed was the first time AEG had played with the setting’s timelne – as mentioned previously Otosan Uchi included details of the Scorpion Coup, and several other later first ed supplements are set in its aftermath – but these jumps in time were fairly short and fluid – the coup itself is barely two weeks long. 2nd ed was when someone at AEG yelled, “FULL STEAM AHEAD!” and propelled the metaplot forward at a rate of knots.
The 1st edition was set roughly two years before the Scorpion coup; the 2nd edition is set around two years AFTER the coup. In addition, this is considered to be the default setting for the new edition. This caused some problems for 1st edition players who had quite happily been plodding along in their pre-coup timeline and were looking forward to 2nd ed products…which were now all set in a future that hadn’t yet happened in their games…. Likewise, for new players who picked up second edition and had to take in all these “well, such and such a clan is now in hiding, and this family has been dishonoured and this thing is now happening over here” it could all feel slightly overwhelming and a bit like that time I walked into a cinema half an hour after a film had started…
However, this wasn’t going to be the only leap in time.
One of the earliest releases was Time of the Void – a supplement that detailed the entire Clan War arc encompassing the first few years of the CCG’s existence. To put this into context, whilst the entirety of L5R’s first edition moved the metaplot on by maybe a year or so, this one book looked to tie up several years worth of meta plot including – spoilers by the way – a civil war between the great clans of Rokugan, a plot to poison the Emperor, the Crab clan’s abandonment of their ancient oaths and their subsequent alliance with the forces of darkness, doppelgängers, the return of the Scorpion, the invasion of the capital city, the emergence of the Naga, the revelation that the emperor is possessed by a dark god who is planning on taking over everything, the rise of a disgraced ronin, the ascendency of an alliance of minor clans, a war between the forces of darkness and the monks, the corruption of one of the great clans, the opening of “The Twelve Black Scrolls” – yes, that’s as ominous as it sounds – and a massive finale in the form of The Second Day of Thunder.
In short – it’s a LOT!
Hold on to your hats though, because we’re not done yet! The Hidden Emperor sourcebook, released not that long after, detailed the next stage of the metaplot. Set two years AFTER the events of Time of the Void, this setting – detailed in a single book – takes up another four years of game time….
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the stories being told were bad – quite the opposite in fact! The L5R storylines were rich in detail and flavour, and featured some amazing characters. The pace though… It was breathtaking – the setting had gone from being somewhere stable that you could set a campaign, to an ever changing landscape where the next supplement that came out might very well not be compatible with where you had currently set things.
It should be noted that the addition of rapidly moving metaplot wasn’t necessarily a misstep – I, for one, have always enjoyed metaplot in games, and I know plenty of others do too. The point I’m making here, though, is that for some people, it was far too much metaplot, far too quickly.
However, the biggest change to affect 2nd ed and arguably the game’s popularity was the change to the system. Previously, a player would roll dice equal to their skill and trait when making a skill test, and they would keep dice equal to their trait. In this equation, skill equated to learned proficiency and trait to natural talent.
In the new system, you only rolled dice equal to your skill and kept dice equal to your trait. In addition, skills were now capped at 10 rather than 5, and a lot of skills included specialisations. Whereas in the old system you’d learn to fight with edged weapons, in the new one you could learn that skill, but then learn specialities for different types of weapon too.
To this day, I don’t know why they changed from the old system to this “new” one. Indeed, given that they went back to the system of rolling trait and skill for third edition, I think that’s a tacit nod to the fact that this new system simply didn’t work.
Before we leave second edition, with its meta plots and added complexity, it’s important to note that it was during this time period that Wizards of the Coast – who had purchased the rights to the L5R card game – announced that Rokugan was going to be the setting for their “Oriental Adventures” line for D&D. As a result, aside from a few books released at the beginning of the 2nd ed run, most of its products were dual stat affairs – including D20 and Roll and Keep rules. D20 L5R didn’t survive for long, and I’m not sure its passing was mourned by many, but it was an interesting anomaly none the less.
Come 2005, a third edition was released, which included, amongst other things, an update to the storyline to bring it in line with where the CCG was at the time and a “Legend of the Burning Sands” sister game. In the L5R canon, the Burning Sands was an area roughly to the north of Rokugan, with its setting being a Gestalt of Near Eastern and European myths and legends. I never played this game – indeed, I bought a single starter for the spin off CCG and wasn’t too impressed – so I can’t comment on how it played. However, I think it could have worked as a sourcebook for another part of the world that Rokugan occupied but, then again, that took the focus away from the isolationist Rokugani and their drama.
Production of new material for the L5R rpg had slowed massively by this point, and in the five years of the 3rd edition’s run, it saw only ten supplements released.
However, third edition succeeded where second hadn’t, by returning to the system previously outlined in first edition, therefore making it compatible with the various excellent supplements released for that earlier version. Besides, the creators had put in some serious work to clean up some of the rules bloat that had accumulated over the first edition’s lifespan and clear up some of the “flavour of the month” power creep mentioned previously. The designers also made skills more desirable, with benefits for taking them at certain levels, eliminating the sometimes purely mathematical approach to deciding between traits or skills in the first edition.
When it came to character creation, the core book expanded beyond the first edition options and allowed for characters to be bushi, shugenja, courtiers, or one of a clan’s more specialist schools.
Just like first edition, the main rulebook was a complete product – you had everything you needed in here to run a game, AND you had rules for setting it in whatever point of Rokugan’s history you wanted without being tied to a constantly shifting metaplot.
In the run up to the fourth edition release in 2010, I stumbled upon the developer’s diaries that were put online cataloguing the game’s construction. By this point, L5R was something I had fond memories of, but which I was not actively playing. However, reading those diaries suddenly reignited my interest in the setting and the game! What was being described seemed to me to be the complete version of L5R! Not only did it include the cleanest set of rules to date – from everything from character creation to combat – it also was not tied to any particular part of Rokugan’s vast (and still developing!) metaplot, and instead provided advice for setting your campaign in whichever period suited your tastes best. This was a hefty book – over 400 pages in length – and it was simply packed.
I won’t go into the ins and outs of every section – the 4th edition takes the structure of the core books that have gone before and builds on them – but one section that stood out was the GM’s chapter. In this, there is some fantastic advice on writing all different kinds of adventures, but the part that I really loved was the piece explaining the differences in structure between Western and Asian stories. It’s great reading, even if you’re not planning on running L5R!
Is it perfect? Of course not, but it certainly feels more complete and more L5R than the previous two editions.
This was the last version of L5R that AEG would produce, and in 2018 Fantasy Flight Games bought the license. They have since released the fifth edition. I’ll hold my hands up here and say I’ve never played it – Fantasy Flight’s penchant for bespoke dice for everything they produce has put me off – but reviews I have read seem largely positive. It certainly seems to keep true to the spirit of the original, with a focus on the culture and drama inherent in the setting rather than degenerating into an outing of “Katanas and Kaiju”. Oh, and like most Fantasy Flight products it’s beautiful to look at.
So there we have it; 25 years after the CCG released, L5R is still going strong as an RPG. If you haven’t given it a try, I’d strongly recommend checking it out. If the Fantasy Flight version seems a bit pricey (who am I kidding, it IS a bit pricey!), a quick sweep of eBay should be able to net you a copy of the first edition and everything you need to get started telling stories in Rokugan. It’s a vibrant, immersive setting – just be prepared for you and your players to spend the time learning the Rokugani culture if you truly want to get the full experience. Believe me though, it’s well worth it.
Before long you’ll be verbally sparring in the winter courts of the Crane, delving into forbidden lore in the libraries of the Phoenix, foiling the machinations of the Scorpion, or fighting alongside the Crab as they defend the Empire from the encroachments of the Shadowlands. And believe me, you’ll love it.
After all, as a wise Rokugani saying goes, “We tell the tale of heroes to remind ourselves that we also can be great.”
Oh, and for those of you still wondering about that tournament that got me dragged into this whole thing in the first place, I ended up coming in second. Beginners’ luck, or a natural flair for strategy? You decide….