Legend of the Five Rings (popularly known as L5R) was a setting first published in 1995 by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG). It was a roleplaying game, collectible card game, and has also had boardgames, a miniatures game, a Live-Action roleplaying game, and a series of tie-in fiction novels produced over its lifespan with AEG. In September 2015, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) announced they had purchased the rights from AEG and would be looking to initially produce a card game under their Living Card Game (LCG) umbrella, which we have been covering. If you're new to Legend of the Five Rings, or roleplaying games (RPGs) in general, then you should start with the L5R RPG Beginners Pack and then look to progress to the full rulebook after.
The L5R setting is based on oriental mythology, legends, and fairy tales, with samurai from a variety of clans fighting for dominance through military and political might in the setting world of Rokugan. There are seven major clans of the Crab, Crane, Dragon, Lion, Phoenix, Scorpion, and Unicorn. Each clan has its own role in the universe, such as the mighty Lion clan, masters of tactical warfare, or the stoic Crab clan, who defend the Empire from Oni (demons) and other evil beings from their defensive wall.
I've been an L5R fan since the late 90s. I originally played the collectible card game (CCG) and then the RPG. I've played through all editions of the RPG and have been playing FFGs L5R LCG since its release (you can read my thoughts on all of the L5R LCG products here on TechRaptor). I've also been thoroughly involved in the L5R fiction lines, owning all the original novels that cover the history of the L5R setting, as well as keeping up with the developing story under AEG and now FFG. I'm a huge fan of the setting as well as FFGs handling of it since they acquired the license.
The L5R RPG Core Rulebook looks incredible throughout. The layout and the colors for the pages are done very well, and the artwork is incredible, as it has been throughout FFG's L5R product line so far. The included artwork is a great blend of stark colors and bold lines and also light sketch-like drawings that are full or motion and feeling. The page coloring is also very well done and makes the text really pop, making it very easy to read. The page colors are the same on every page, all except the Ninjutsu skills page, which is a full page artwork of a dark night, with the text in white. It might sound like a minor thing, but it's incredibly thematic. In standard society, shinobi are a myth and considered deeply dishonorable, at complete odds to the rest of the setting. The flipping of colours on those two pages reflect that societal shift and it subtly reinforces the theme. Making the Ninjutsu skill page that color a conscious thought to really push the theme. This level of minor detail adds an incredible amount of theme and is carried throughout the FFG L5R products.
The basic system of the L5R RPG is roll and keep (as it has been throughout the various editions of the RPG), which entails the players gathering a collection of special dice into a pool. There are Ring and Skill dice, which represent the skill for the ability your character is attempting, and the approach your character is taking, which we'll cover later. The dice are pooled together and rolled, then the players select a number of dice equal to the Ring dice they rolled to keep. For example, if Akodo Toshi, a Lion clan samurai was attempting to convince a crowd to disperse, he might use Command and Earth. Toshi has a Command skill of 2 and an Earth of 3, so Toshi's player would roll a total of 5 dice, and keep any 3 of the dice rolled.
In the example above, Toshi is using his Earth ring as their approach. Earth is grounded and their attempt at command is to use reason to disperse the crowd, but he could have easily used Fire, to try and incite the crowd with their emotions, or Water, in an attempt to charm. Different approaches will work for different tasks and for different situations and players will have to decide which approach to take, which might not necessarily be their highest ring value.
The dice themselves have a collection of symbols on them representing successes, opportunity, and strife. The different symbols do appear complicated to start with, but a few rolls in and players will be interpreting them quickly. The different symbols give players and Games Masters (GMs) a chance to show that they've not only succeeded or failed a task, but also if they've been affected by personal strife, or discovered opportunities, which happen regardless of the dice roll result. Opportunity can be used narratively or for an in-game bonus, an example could be that in our test above, Toshi failed to convince the crowd to disperse, but by using Earth and trying to reason with the crowd rather than using his status or violence, the crowd may not disperse, but members of the crowd will be more inclined to help or listen in the future. Strife can be received during dice rolls, or narratively if a character is doing something that might cause them personal strife. For example, Toshi's emotions are aflame at having to try to reason with the rabble who won't disperse, but he knows that as a lone samurai, an aggressive or violent approach wouldn't do any good, so he tries to center himself and use reason, but his character earns some strife in the processes.
Players re recommended to purchase a set of speciality dice in order to play, it is possible to use ordinary dice and a conversion table, but it will slow down play and hamper the experience. The two types of dice, skill and ring are D6s and D12s.
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All characters have a composure value, worked out by adding together their Water and Earth rings and multiplying by 2. If they ever have strife points over the value of their composure value, then they are compromised and at their emotional limit. If Toshi had become compromised during the above example, he may have started pacing, clenching and unclenching his fists, or maybe holding his sheathed swords tightly as he tries to contain his anger. Maintaining composure in the samurai society is important and breaches of etiquette can have an adverse effect on characters and their clans.
Players who want to play games of the L5R RPG should be ready to enter this unforgiving society where any breach of etiquette can be punished through violence. FFG has done a great job in introducing the setting in the Core Rulebook as well as bringing players gently into the rules and background. It is very much a feudal Japanese setting, with all that entails and while there are monks, shugenja (magic users) and the threat from the Shadowlands (demons or Oni that live in the wastes outside of the Empire), it is very much a world of samurai and courtiers and players should know that going in. There are of course a wide variety of settings and game types available within the L5R setting. Want to play a purely political drama, or as a pack of half-mad drunken monks, or maybe as a team of elite investigator-scouts, deep in the Shadowlands, or as a team of shinobi, trying their best to travel across Rokugan undetected? Then the L5R RPG will let you do that. Obviously, games are as deep as the GM wishes to run, but the rules are very much built around honor, glory, composure and your characters approach to situations. And if you're willing to get into the setting and your character, it is a deeply rewarding experience.
The Core Rulebook is made up nearly entirely in character creation and the huge amount of options available. In the Core Rulebook, there are details for the seven great clans (and also the rules for Ronin, samurai without a clan). Each great clan has several family options and also four or five school options. There are also a huge amount of skill, advantages/disadvantages, techniques and equipment options. A full 2/3s of the Core Rulebook are dedicated to character creation, with the rest providing an introduction to the setting, the core rules, a fantastic section on different types of scenes and conflicts, a concise and punchy GM's section and a sample section for NPCs.
The focus for the Core Rulebook is very much bringing players into the world as well as giving them and GM's the tools to play in it. The setting is deep and involved, with a huge history inside and outside of the rulebooks, and FFG has approached it with care and attention to the details that make L5R what it is. The Core Rulebook is enough to get players started in the setting and if FFG expands the L5R RPG with as much passion as they have with the L5R LCG, then we should see some incredible growth in future supplements and player options.
L5R RPG Game Master's KitReleased at the same time is the L5R RPG GM's kit. The kit contains a beautiful GM's screen of a very high-quality card as well as an adventure set in Slow Tide Harbour.
Slow Tide Harbour is a secret smuggling port run by the Tortoise Clan and a few pages of the GM's Kit booklet are dedicated to details about the port town and its history. There are also full rules for creating a Tortoise Clan player character, with minor clan rules for the clan, details of the Kasuga family and also the Kasuga Smuggler School.
We don't want to spoil any details about the adventure, so we will simply say that is very interesting and well laid out well, with details provided for the GM to introduce the characters as their first adventure, as veteran characters or directly following on from the adventure in the Beginners Game.
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The Bottom Line:
The L5R RPG won't be for everyone. If the samurai setting does nothing for you, then this probably isn't the game for you. It is fairly open for different groups, a band of roving monks, or some investigators or hunters deep in the shadowlands, but everything in the setting is driven towards the colorful and violently beautiful feudal Japanese setting, which it does very well. Rules for combat and social interactions are solid and the different approaches through the rings provide an interesting roleplaying experience. The dice symbols can be initially complicated, but by the end of your first session you will be interpreting and picking your own roll and keep dice. The layout of the book is fantastic, the artwork throughout is very well selected for the pages they feature on and it shows the level of care and attention the design team have dedicated to the product. The L5R RPG Core Rulebook has been released after a period of open beta, during which FFG have been very responsive to the community and it shows with this stellar product.
You want to roleplay in feudal Japanese setting.
You want a deep setting, with lots of history and lore.
You want a rewarding roleplaying experience.
You loved earlier editions of Legends of the Five Rings.
Avoid this game if:
You’re new to roleplaying or Games Mastering, start with the Beginners Pack and build up to this.
You want don't want a deep feudal Japanese setting.
This copy of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook and Games Masters Kit was provided by Asmodee UK.
Have you played any of the previous editions of the L5r RPG? Which was your favorite and why? What do you think about the latest edition and where FFG are taking it? Which is your favourite Clan? Let us know in the comments below.