Review: Legend of the Five Rings Beginner Game

After writing about the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, I thought I’d look at some other starter sets to compare how useful they are for the one-shot GM. Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) is a ‘classic’ system of Samurai action, where warring clans battle against taint and shadow (and each other) while labouring under the demands of Bushido. It’s a complex setting, and one that treads a careful line between authenticity and excitement; in previous editions, combat was lethal and fast, with a very ‘trad’ take on the realism of action. FFG’s new edition takes all that and adds, naturally, funky dice, and a variant of the Roll & Keep system. Hard core fantasy samurai intrigue may not be your thing, but the L5R Beginner Game is really good at one thing – in that it presents a tutorial level for the game.

 

The box itself contains a Rule Book, an Adventure Book, four very pretty pregen booklets (another three are available online for free at FFG’s website, under Player Resources), a nice map of Rokugan (the land of L5R) and a card set of counters with 59 counters for PCs and NPCs from the game. There are also, of course, a set of the dice – black d6s and white d12s for Rings and Skills respectively.

The Fluff

It’s like Feudal Japan, but every clan has easily-interpreted animal names, have a history of war and rebellion where they all maintain their stereotyped positions as their fortunes wax and wane. There are shugenja, tattooed monks, and ninja. Magic is dealing with Kami and learning spells if you’re a goody, consorting with demons and Tainted Shadow if you’re a baddy.

The clans have a long and storied history of who used to be in charge and who is now in charge – I remember starting to read the previous edition’s history chapter before remembering that this all comes from a CCG – clan loyalties, powers and even abilities were re-imagined for every new release. I’d ignore it if I were you and concentrate on skewering dishonor with a well-hewn katana.

The Beginner Game tackles head on one of L5R’s setting conundrums – the game is clearly designed to have a mixture of Clans in each party, but also begs the question of why they would work together? Some Clans are allied, some are rivals – there’s a challenge inherent in the setting as to why, say, your Dragon Clan Agasha Mystic is throwing in their lot with a brutal Crab Clan Hida Defender. It does this by taking a staple of the fiction and using it in a very efficient way – the PCs are to compete in the Topaz Championship, a chance for young Samurai to test themselves against one another and the best of all the Clans. Of course, intrigue ensues, and there are additional supplements that detail how the PCs can end up as Emerald Magistrates – roving Mouse Guard-like problem solvers – but the starter adventure throws them together and gives them a reason to stick together.

The Crunch

Where the Beginner Box really shines is in using the Topaz Championship to teach the rules. There’s a minor roleplay encounter first, without any dice rolling, before a short encounter that can be resolved with a simple skill test. There are contests (the Championship itself) and then a low-stakes ‘brawl’ before the PCs “level up” to the strength of full starter PCs (replacing their training swords with katana) and have to deal with the real problems.

This is structured in such a clever way that it could be the blueprint for a crunch-heavy one-shot. In teaching the system step by step, it manages to introduce a fairly complex and unforgiving rules set in a manageable way. Along the way, it manages to teach parts of the setting, which – as you may have gathered – is a little complicated as well.

Without turning this into a full review of the system, there’s an awful lot I like about the new L5R rules. Strife, for example – it accumulates as a result of complications on tests, and when you hit your Composure total you suffer an ‘Unmasking’ and you break what’s expected of you. This might mean you lash out angrily with a hard word – each PC has a suggested Unmasking action. It’s a clever way of reinforcing the expectations of Bushido, and gives a mechanical way to let players rub against it in a dramatic way.

The gradual introduction of rules is necessary, I think – there are some parts of the system that take some mastery. Dice pools are assembled from an Approach- the Attributes of the game, or Rings – and a Skill (of which I am pleased to say there are a relatively small number). There is usually more than one way to skin a cat when you make a skill roll – literally, I’d say, in that case – it’s probably Fire + Survival as you wouldn’t normally skin such an animal, but a case could be made for Earth, Water, or even Void if you’re skinning it to placate a Kami nearby. I think the best way to play this is to be flexible to the players, letting them negotiate which to use if they can make a case for it while being wary of players rolling their best Approach all the time.

The One Shot

If you’re looking to teach the rules of L5R in order to put a campaign together, this is brilliant. If you’re looking for a convention game to offer where some players may already be familiar with the system (even from earlier editions) – this may not be usable as-is. Buy it and read it, though – this is an excellent example of how to structure a complex system in a one-shot (I did talk a bit about this in this post, as well).

It’s also great for showing how to structure a ‘contest’ one-shot – from medieval jousts to Quidditch championships, it shows how to structure a game around this that lets players both compete in the events and investigate what is happening around them. And it’s great to pick up the rules for L5R yourself, too – I sometimes wish more adventures were around that spelled out the rules as they are introduced – but that might just be because I’m looking at lots of Starter Sets at the moment.

Myself, for a L5R one-shot I’d use a similar structure, maybe starting with a low-stakes social conflict, and use full starting PCs – they have a deal more flexibility than the 0-level pregens provided. I’d probably limit my pregens to two or three clans, and try and highlight the differences between them – zoom in on the conflict and different approaches of the two Clans’ traditional approaches to the problem. When I’ve prepped it, I’ll post it on here. I’ve never managed to get into an L5R one-shot at conventions – if you’ve run one, feel free to comment below about it – for this or an earlier edition.

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