Tuesday, October 13, 2009

RPGs I Like: Legend of the Five Rings 1e

RPG Items I Like: Legend of the Five Rings (First Edition)

I think we're living in a golden age of rpgs. I mean that not just from the new and interesting stuff being produced today, but because we now have easier access to previously published game materials. We can hunt down out of print supplements through online retailers or buy them in pdf form. "Dead" game systems and settings really aren't dead any more. We can more easily pick and choose from existing material, with reviews to guide us and either play in the original system or rework it to something new.

That's why I want to go back to take a look at one of my favorite games, Legend of the Five Rings. But I want to focus on the first edition of that game. In some ways the "setting" of Rokugan has shifted dramatically in each edition. I think L5R 1e presents the best and most playable version. I want to look at this edition overall as a prelude to going through and reviewing some of the individual lines and materials. Alderac has made some odd design and marketing choices with this game over the years. Some parts of it work better than others. I'd like to give someone coming in cold to the game an idea of what to expect and what to buy to best reconstruct the game. I'm going to focus on source material and ideas, rather than the mechanics the game presents. But to do all that, I have to begin with a partial outline of L5R's history.

The Context of First Edition and History of the Game Line

The meta-story has shaped the evolution of Legend of the Five Rings over the various editions. Other game lines have used the meta-story to drive forward a line, but rarely has it really rendered previous products problematic or completely shifted the line. White Wolf ending the World of Darkness line and rebooting comes closest to what's gone on with L5R, but that's a complete sense of closure. To get a sense of what's gone on I have to digress and provide some real world/game world history.

Legend of the Five Rings originated as a CCG, which it still primarily is. It had three big selling points when it debuted. First, it would cover a fantastic oriental/samurai setting, which hadn't been done before. Second, it would have a strong, connected and evolving story. Other CCGs had built some backstory, but the idea of the various new card sets of a CCG changing characters and moving the plot forward would be central to L5R. As well the results of various games and events at conventions would have an impact on the course of the story. Third, the game itself would have a beginning, middle and an end. There would be only the specified number of sets and then the game would be done. Of course, that last part didn't exactly happen.

The original CCG set, which can be called the Rise of Fu Leng or Seven Thunders set, but I'll refer to as the Imperial Edition, covered the rise of a great evil-- well more than one-- the subversion of one of the great clans, the battles for power and finally the changing of the Imperial line. The game itself suggested events of the time before the CCG, a long history stretching back for generations.

When Alderac decided to create an rpg in this setting, they made the wise move of setting the base-line for the campaign world before that of the CCG. They set it before the major event which had undercut the status quo, effectively eliminated one of the clans, and changed everything. For those familiar with the L5R mythos, I'm talking about the Scorpion Clan Coup. The rpg set itself earlier, but how much earlier remained vague. Characters from the CCG appeared in the L5R 1e rules and supplements. Hints at what was to come hung over the game.

Oddly another couple of things would put pressure on the rpg. Alderac published Clan War, the miniatures game set in the L5R world. Timeline-wise the game was set after the rpg and the SCC, but before the events of the Imperial Edition of the CCG. As well, with the completion of the Imperial Edition of the game, Alderac went back and produced a set specifically covering the Scorpion Clan Coup. Then they decided to move forward with the Jade Edition, a new story arc taking up from where the Imperial Edition had left off. It should be noted that around this time Wizards purchased the intellectual property for L5R the ccg, allowing AEG to continue publishing the rpg. The miniatures game pretty much tanked around this time as well- despite having some interesting miniatures, the system itself was a mess.

The odd part comes in the later rpg publications for L5R 1e-- attempts to reconcile the rpg and the ccg, as well as moves to bring the rpg line forward a little timeline-wise. The problem being, of course, that doing so meant throwing away a good deal of the earlier L5R background material. AEG produced Legend of the Five Rings (2nd Edition) which brought the timeline up to the start of the Imperial Edition CCG (so later than the miniatures game). The new edition split the core book into two parts and revised the basic system in a way that a number of players disliked. It, honestly, whitewashed some of the problems with moving the metastory of the rpg forward-- keeping the Scorpion Clan as a playable element and so on. Later they would produce Winter Court: Kyuden Asako which tried to bridge some of these issues. Then they published the Time of the Void, a sourcebook covering the whole of the Imperial Edition story arc.

The situation and problems with tracking the story become even greater once AEG tries to integrate L5R with the d20 system. TSR reworked the old Oriental Adventures product into a new d20 version, with a weird mish-mash of L5R elements and non-L5R elements put together (Oriental Adventures). This was closely followed by the Rokugan sourcebook which focused exclusively on the L5R side of things. This book moved the timeline up towards the Hidden Emperor arc of the CCG in a convoluted fashion, trying to take into account oddities from the CCG like the Spirit Wars. AEG produced a number of supplements set in this era and produced a parallel volume to the Time of the Void-- The Hidden Emperor, which attempted to make these things clearer. Throughout the various supplements the metastory moves forward, trying to keep in line with the current arc The Four Winds or Gold Edition arc. Then AEG reacquires the L5R property and we move forward to L5R 3e with more movement forward of the story arcs and...

Well, let's just say it is more than a little confusing. I honestly have trouble seeing how a new person coming in cold to the second edition would be able to make sense of things-- there's too much investment in the backstory and unclear set up of playable game structures. I can't comment fully on Legend of the Five Rings (Third Edition), as I gave up when that began. I bought a couple of supplements and found myself irritated that earlier items, good products, had been rendered obsolete.

Samurai Games

Legend of the Five Rings certainly wasn't the first samurai rpg. Arguably that honor belongs to Bushido from FGU. Other game companies tried to produce game lines for fantastic pseudo- (or not so pseudo) Samurai adventures before AEG did. Avalon Hill's Land of Ninja for RQ3, TSR's original Oriental Adventures, Ninja Hero for Champions, Land of the Rising Sun from Yaquinto, and Steve Jackson's GURPS Japan all came out before L5R.

What I think really separates Legend of the Five Rings from these earlier attempts was the development of a consistent and complete fantasy samurai setting which liberally and loosely borrowed elements from various Asian cultures, although primarily Japanese. Most earlier products had been firmly rooted in history, although combined with some magic and fantastic elements from the culture. TSR's Oriental Adventures stood in exception to this, but it ended up too generic. Even the later created setting of Kara-Tur felt tacked on, and placing it in the Forgotten Realms was a move best...well, forgotten. OA allowed players to play a variety of classes, but with little distinction between members of those classes-- and so it seemed just like AD&D with another module set atop it.

But Legend of the Five Rings setting of Rokugan has a rich history, interesting places and focuses on the culture as part of the storytelling experience. White Wolf had really paved the way for a certain kind of game with the establishment of the idea of what I'll call 'splat types'- in Vampire, the various Clans, in Werewolf the Tribes, building a history and culture into what would be simply "class" choices in previous games. L5R borrows from that structure.

L5R's Strengths and Weaknesses

Players choose to be either a bushi or a shugenja, with the bushi covering samurai, but also a number of variations on that, such as courtiers, artists, and scouts. But what those types look like differs greatly between the clans, seven presented in the core book. So a Unicorn bushi has a very different approach from a Scorpion clan bushi. Each clan has a number of different families within it, each granting a certain bonus and possessing their own outlook on the clan's purpose. These options would then be extended by the Way of the Clans series, providing new options, families and paths for each Clan.

The setting has three important features: accessibility, core ethos, and sustainability. Legend of the Five Rings is easy to explain-- at least the surface of it is. You don't need to know Japanese history, you just have to have perhaps seen a movie or read a manga about samurai. There's verisimilitude but no focus on accuracy, at least at the start. Players can easily understand the roles and personalities of the seven clans and keep those in mind. Having only two actual "classes" with some variation among those classes also makes it easier for players. Part of the trick here is that this initial accessibility covers over the richness of the background. You don't need to know the codes and history at the start, but a good GM can draw you into those ideas later. Legend of the Five Rings lifts from Japanese history in the same way that Deadlands lifts from American history-- i.e. You can play it at purely a surface cinematic level. Later the GM can begin to introduce some of the deeper conventions, which the game does a great job of laying out.

Players can quickly grasp the concepts of bushido and the bushido virtues. The game describes the Clans, and families within those clans, in terms of how they see and interact with those virtues. Which do they see as most important? How does that affect their behavior? In what ways does that differ from the readings of other clans? Bushido serves as a core concept which all players can communicate through and about. A good game gives players information they need to see how their character sees the world. Not a list of behaviors, likes and dislikes, but a means for filtering decisions and ideas. That's rare in games. I can think of few parallels except Glorantha, one of my other favorite settings. The centrality of religious cult membership in that game serves as a unifying core concept for players. Glorantha's technique of "What My Father Told Me..." tales answers the basic questions a person living and interacting with that world.

Finally the setting-- political, cultural, religious and otherwise-- of Legend of the Five Rings 1e feels sustainable. The clans interact, feud, trade, war, and ally but the Empire feels stable. At the same time it doesn't feel static. You have the threats of Bloodspeakers within the Empire, the dark power of Fu Leng outside it, and various conspiracies and groups operating across the clans. Things can change and players can make a difference but nothing seems balanced on the edge to tip over. The clans all make sense and their roles fit together well. Beyond that you have the Imperial structure which both interacts with and stands somewhat in opposition to the interests of the clans. The setting works- but I have to say my impression has to be colored by the fact that later editions and the metastory break down that stability and have clans and events that don't seem to make sense. At least for me, when I read the first edition source material, I rarely have moments when I go "Huh?"

While I think Legend of the Five Rings 1e presents a great setting, I do have a few quibbles with it. There's an uneveness to the products-- some are great and useful, while others end up being useless. Even within some of the stronger books you can find some bad stuff. Some background material is directly cribbed from history books with no apology or citation, but I think instances of that come rarely. The books also make weird choices about the presentation of GM vs. Player material, something I hope to cover in reviews of some of the series and items. Another weakeness comes from less than adequate discussion of the complexities of having a party come from different clans. The default assumption for a game often seems to be that players will be serving as magistrates, a role which overcomes individual clan alliances. But what about other kinds of campaigns? How do they look? How does a samurai moved into another family or clan behave? Those questions could use further treatment. Also, you can see some artifacts in the game setting from its original form as a house rpg campaign-- mostly notably in the Kolat, a concept which feels awkwardly out of place with the rest of the game.


I've enjoyed running in this setting, and my players over two separate campaigns have enjoyed playing in it. They're pretty reluctant about moving forward in the metastory and given the nature of the later material, I sympathize. I think there's enough richness in the first edition to sustain many campaigns and a balance which you don't find in the later versions.

Building the Basic Library

If one were thinking about going into L5R cold and trying to put a campaign together (regardless of system) here is what I would recommend picking up:

Crucial Things to buy: Legend of the Five Rings- the core book, Walking the Way- a magic supplement, and L-1: City of Lies- a module I already reviewed here.

Probably Necessary in the Long Run: The Book of the Shadowlands, The core Clan Books for the seven major clans

Good and worth picking up: L-2: Night of a Thousand Screams, S-1: The Tomb of Iuchiban, GM's Survival Guide, Bearers of Jade, The Way of Shinsei

Optional: Various Modules, O-1: Otosan Uchi, Unexpected Allies, The Way of Shadow, The Way of the Minor Clans, The Way of the Wolf

To Be Avoided: The Way of the Naga, The Merchant's Guide to Rokugan


Moving L5R over to another game system can be a good deal of work, depending on the system you're moving it into. Second edition has some guidelines and conversions if you wanted to move to a d20 or better yet True20 based game. I ran this in both Rolemaster and Storyteller, doing fairly full conversions for both. That ended up being a good deal of work. There are a couple of more recent samurai games that L5R might be converted to- Sengoku (if you like that system, which I don't), Usagi Yojimbo Role-Playing Game (OOP but pretty basic rules), or I think Wushu has a version now. Converting to something really detailed like GURPS (Fourth Edition) or HERO System (5th edition) seems like more of a pain in the ass than it would be worth. If I run again, I'll probably convert this over to HeroQuest (2nd Edition), which has elegance and simplicity on its side.


  1. Nice review. I just picked up about 15 books today for 1st edition. Why is the Merchant's Guide to Rokugan a bad pick up? its included in the pile I got.

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