As a fan of Japanese history and culture, my friends in college were shocked that I had never heard of Legend of the Five Rings (well, outside of Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings). Better known as L5R, the game lets you play as samurai or magician-priests in a setting that is culturally Japan and a land-mass like China, making it a must-play in the eyes of my group. There was a quickly made plan, we met in the student union, and I was introduced to L5R, with the game culminating in the GM gifting me one of his spare copies of the first edition.
I played the game on and off during college, but I stopped after my stint in Japan. There was something about needing the right group for the game due to its lethality (both in and out of combat), the setting (heavily influenced by Japanese culture/history), and some of the mechanical quirks that just didn’t work for me. I stopped running it, played a few games here and there (third and fourth editions, run by a friend in college), and just moved on.
Once I saw that FFG had the rights to the franchise, I was a bit intrigued. Their product announcements for board games and card games were absolutely expected (as the L5R CCG was pretty solid), but I did not expect a Fifth Edition of the RPG to be added to the list. I was also doubly surprised to see that they were doing an open playtest for the game instead of the usual closed tests (like some of the ones I’ve been a part of).
Not wanting to miss out on this, I grabbed the files and put it on the docket for things to read. Now that I’ve gotten through the rest of the pile of early access/playtest materials, I can finally get around to sharing my thoughts of this for you.
==The Early Pitch==
Like V5, there isn’t too much associated with this pitch. The game is essentially a return to Rokugan, a world of samurai, monsters, magic, political intrigue, and a corrupted land held at bay due to the vigilant effort of one particular clan.
At this time, we are presented with the basics of Rokugan’s setting (namely necessary to interact/play in, but not history), as well as the elements of character creation (including the return of the major clans of Crab, Crane, Dragon, Lion, Phoenix, Scorpion, and Unicorn, with notes for the Mantis clan scattered throughout), combat (including duels and magic), and a blend of new mechanics with nods to the old.
In the game, you will play a character from one of these castes (namely Bushi/Samurai or Shugenja/Priest, but other options like Ronin and Tradespeople are available), exploring the world of Rokugan, participating in it’s intrigue, and living to see another day.
==How Does It Work==
Like the previous, non-d20/Oriental Adventures version of L5R, the game uses a Roll and Keep (R&K) mechanic. With the original, you built your dice pool the same way you would in 1st Ed 7th Sea: collect a number of dice equal to your Attribute and Skill rank in d10s, keeping a number equal to your Attribute, add them up, and see if you beat the Target Number. Simple.
This new version is keeping something similar, but with some changes.
In what is becoming typical FFG fashion, we are utilizing a set of unique, custom dice. Unlike Genesys/Star Wars, there are only custom d6 and d12, each with different potential results. Again, like the aforementioned Genesys/Star Wars, the symbols denote Success, Explosive Success (formerly Triumph), Opportunity (formerly Advantage), but with a new result: Strife.
You collect a number of d6 equal to you Ring Rating (Rings represent the elements of Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, and Void), and then a number of d12 equal to your Skill rating. Give them a roll, factoring in any Advantages and Disadvantages (re-rolls, mostly), and keep a number of dice equal to your Ring rating. Of course, depending on your Approach, you are using a specific type of Ring; Water is fluid and relies on mobility, while Void relies on pure instinct.
To give an example: say you are relying on instinct in a duel. You’ll want to roll your Void and your Martial Arts skill, keeping a number of dice equal to Void.
Unlike Genesys, you don’t have “negative” dice. Instead, all challenges have a TN of 1-8, and you may choose with dice you are keeping to help you reach that goal.
That said, there’s a new mechanic in place called Strife. Like the Strain mechanic from Genesys, every player has a number of Composure points that slowly get whittled down from certain circumstances, and going over this number causes issues, like an Outburst or further negative penalties.
The progression mechanic has also been revamped. We still have Ranks in place (which denote where you stand within your school and your general capabilities), but instead of specifically having a set Insight requirement, they are now based on XP expenditure with regards to progression, very much like how things were handled in Warhammer 40k.
Outside of the mechanical tweaks, we see a return of many elements from the classic game: we see some of the same spells (a favorite, Tomb of Jade, has returned), the same clans, families, and schools granting similar bonuses as before (just as Rings and not as Attributes), some of the same political elements (the Scorpion Clan, of course), and the obligatory return of Honor/Glory/Status with their own mechanical tweaks.
==Is It Good?==
As always, it depends on what you call “Good.”
If you are a fan of the samurai drama genre, then you really can’t go wrong with being excited for a new edition of L5R. Even with anything you can find fault in, if you love the premise, you’ll probably love the game.
This new version of L5R is a bit streamlined. Instead of eight Attributes (nine if you count the stand-alone Void Attribute within the Void Ring) and five Rings, we only have the Rings to track and utilize. The Rings are also used to determine approach, which is mostly just a narrative explanation as to how you are acting (with some mechanical benefits, of course).
Combat is still fast paced (as it should be), and we now have a proper social combat mechanic built right into the game. Wounds are easier to track than before, but actual Death is sloppy due to the return of the Critical mechanic (a pared down version of the one in Genesys; take a Critical when your Wounds are higher than your Resilience and for each hit thereafter, roll a d10 and add any mods). Granted, this version is simpler due to not being percentile and much more brutal (15 is death, weapons add 1-5, being incapacitated is a flat +5), but it is a bit awkward.
Combat also does suffer due to multiple checks and steps: you start with an “Assessment” check to grant Initiative bonuses and starting Stance/Ring, and Initiative “check” to determine turn order, a chance to set your stance at the beginning of your turn, and then your action (based on the Stance you are in). Additionally, nearly every ability (spell, kata, and even techniques like iaijutsu) has to be purchased individually, making it more stuff to track and purchase.
Honestly, one of my biggest nitpicks is simple: it feels like there’s a bit of recycling going on here.
The Rings as Approaches are a mixed bag. This reminds me quite a bit of FFG’s game Fireborn, in which you played a Dragon with elemental ties, and each element had specific action types that worked with it. It’s a bit of recycling while also nodding to games that have done it well already, and I’m not entirely sold on that and how it’s currently written.
The game also feels like a Genesys hack, to the point I wonder why we’re not just using Genesys for it. We’re seeing similar combat mechanics (Critical, damage, etc), similar dice systems, and only a few elements that could be easily included into Genesys. For having a new flagship mechanic in place to potentially power acquired franchises (as we’ve seen with Star Wars), I’m not really sure why we’re seeing this.
==The Early Verdict==
In the grand scheme of things, I’m not certain if I personally will be grabbing the newest version of L5R for any reason outside of a review (and that will be based solely on finances). While it’s a pleasant feeling to see the game return after all this time, I’m not entirely sold just yet.
With the playtest lacking many of the setting details, I’m not entirely certain where the setting will be once it is released. Without a setting anchor, I’d have to rely solely on mechanics, and while there are some fun ideas, it’s just not enough for me to jump at it, especially since some of these are clearly pulled/borrowed from previous games created by the company.
The final product might be much better, but for now, I’m looking at giving it a pass until we see more, and may end up giving it a pass in general. There’s great potential here, but it doesn’t feel like it’s reaching the level I would have expected.
If you would like to check out the playtest material, you are welcome to do so by hitting the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game Beta product link from FFG’s website.
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