29 January 2019
Live by the code, die by the sword
This latest incarnation of Legend of the Five Rings is a shining example of how an RPG can commit so deeply to a setting and playstyle that it’s impossible to imagine one existing without the other. It’s a game utterly dedicated to tales of samurai, shinobi and the Japanese-inspired mythology of Rokugan.
This is both its greatest strength and most obvious weakness. While it makes for an incredible path into the game world and riffing on traditional tropes of honour and duty, it quickly breaks down if you try and prise it from its comfort zone.
If nothing else, that means every member of the party takes up the role of a samurai. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be running around as a half-dozen identical sword-wielding stoics in fancy armour, as the game is quick to remind us that samurai is a social class rather a job description. Depending on how you feel, and how the lengthy character creation process works out, you might emerge as a bare-fisted monk, a magic-wielding priest or even a skulking shinobi spy.
Once the party is assembled and outfitted from a dazzling array of equipment it’s time to battle monsters, scheme your way though political intrigues and fight ritualised duels. It says a lot about L5R that each of these is given roughly equal prominence when it comes to rules and focus.
On the subject of rules, the core mechanics will feel instantly familiar to anyone who has played one of Fantasy Flight’s recent Star Wars RPGs or the Genesys system. Like those, L5R is powered by sets of custom dice decorated with symbols representing successes, failures and various twists of fate and, while it can be irritating to shell out for enough sets – or proprietary dice roller apps – to accommodate everyone at the table, they keep the game zipping along nicely once you get going.
Whenever you try to achieve something tricky, whether that involves bisecting an oni or sneaking to a lover’s bedchamber, you roll and keep a handful of dice based on skills, attributes and a half-dozen minor sources. One of the unique aspects of L5R is that each character has five elemental affinities – the titular five rings – that correspond to different attitudes. How they approach a task impacts how many dice they add to their pool.
If you were trying to sneak down that dark hallway by cautiously taking your time and avoiding risks, you might get to throw a number of dice equal to your earth affinity, while making a break for it when nobody is watching would be linked to fire. This is a nifty little twist that makes players think about not just what they’re trying to do, but also how they approach it. The best thing is, even if people try and game the system by always acting according to their most powerful element, they’re essentially just roleplaying their character.
The characters themselves are probably the most rules-intensive part of the system, thanks to the countless ways they can be modified and tweaked. A samurai can have advantages, disadvantages, passions, skills, anxieties and more besides that, all of which confer bonuses and penalties. On top of this there are more than 50 pages of potential techniques for players to sift through, ranging from deadly sword strikes to a spell that summons earthquakes.
Combined with the fairly streamlined core mechanics this creates a system that can be incredibly broad but rarely feels bogged down in complexity. You’re unlikely to find yourself flicking through the rulebook in search for a piece of vital information, so long as the players themselves stay on top of their many abilities and attributes.
While the gameplay tends to be smooth, however, L5R can still be intimidating and possibly a little off-putting to some. The whole conceit of playing as samurai ties the characters into certain actions and attitudes that can feel stifling, especially if your group is moving over from a more traditional fantasy RPG.
If your interest in playing around with samurai starts and ends with dicing up goblins with a katana, you may be better suited to something like Genesys. But if you feel like leaning into a world where honour is more valuable than loot and identifying tea leaves is a character skill, you may well fall in love with Legend of the Five Rings.
The custom dice can be an unwelcome expense, but if you want to embark on classic samurai adventures there are few options as detailed or immersive.
Designer: Fantasy Flight team
This review originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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