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.

Star Wars One-Shots: The “Way” is Strong in These Ones

star wars rpgsTo celebrate Star Wars day, here’s a review of the options you currently have if you want to run a one-shot in the worlds of Ewoks and Gungans. Why would you want to do that, apart from the aforementioned furry/aquatic aliens? Well, firstly, Star Wars has really clear tropes and expectations of its heroes – redemption, fighting the good fight, and starting from humble beginnings – which make it easy to motivate a group of adventurers to carry out a specific mission. It’s also got an unknowably huge canon, with cartoons, comics, and fiction alongside the films – and lots of sources of inspiration. And finally, there’s  lots of space opera tropes in it – human-like but diverse aliens, survivable and fun space combat, big beasts and monsters… it could already be a D&D campaign, just with blasters and laser swords.

But what system to run it with? I’m going to attempt a quick tour of them …. although I think I’ll probably only scratch the surface of the options…

Edge of the Empire / Age of Rebellion / Force and Destiny 

Fantasy Flight’s big RPG offering with the license, these are high-production value RPGs (and they are three separate games, although sharing almost exactly the same system) with a pile of supplements and adventures to go with them. Personally, I’d skip the player-facing sourcebooks that focus on specific character classes, leave the adventures alone (apart from the starter sets) and look at their ‘proper’ sourcebooks, where there are some absolutely brilliant sources of hooks and adventures – Strongholds of Resistance, for example, details rebel bases and is full of mini-adventures – I ran a really fun one-shot on Hoth based on the details in this. Lords of Nal Hutta does a similar job with criminal enterprises – you could plot about a dozen great one-shot games from each of these books.

It can be a bit of a rabbit-hole to fall down, particularly as, yes, it uses weird funky dice, and no, you can’t use regular polyhedrals. The dice are, for me, just about worth it – they give a range of successes and complications that add depth to task resolution. This means that, although the game is still towards the trad end of the trindie continuum, there’s always exciting consequences of actions. Decent and quickish space combat, and although it’s been criticised as a money-grab, I actually like how the 3 separate core books can focus on different kinds of games. When I want to run Star Wars, I need a solid reason to stray from using this system. Sooner or later I’ll write up my Hoth one-shot and put it on here.

West End Games’ D6 Star Wars

One of the original RPGs that gamers of a certain age wax lyrical about, there’s no doubt that the original Star Wars game has aged better than most of its contemporaries – a straightforward d6 dice pool system and a neat archetype character creation system – which you could almost complete at the table, if you really wanted to – yes the PCs aren’t always balanced, and yes the Force rules are awkwardly funky to the point of being broken, but the core mechanic is great fun, and works well enough to still be inspiring games.

There’s now an anniversary edition out from FFG, but there’s also the entire original game line available from Womp Rat Press here – really useful if, say, you wanted to run one of the classic Star Wars adventures with a different system. Some of the old adventures even start with a ‘script’ for the players to read out – playing the roles of NPCs before the start of the game – which is a weird and funky way to start a one-shot today, let alone in the 1980s when these modules were written.

Star Wars d20 / SAGA Edition

Remember the d20 bubble? In the explosion of mediocrity that it brought to RPG publishing (including, to be fair, the odd gem) – Wizards of the Coast brought out a whole line of d20 Star Wars built around the 3rd Edition D&D system. This early-2000s line produced loads of supplements, and to be fair if you are a big fan of d20 and it’s associated quirks it’s an obvious choice. SAGA edition saw lots of rule changes that for me improved the game a lot.

With both of these game lines, though, if you’ve got them you’ll run them, and if you haven’t they’re really tricky to get hold of, and probably not your best choice unless you’ve been invited to run for a group of D&D gamers from 2001 and want to meet their sensibilities. Wizards lost the license in 2010, so the link above is to the wikipedia page – be prepared for a longer search of ebay etc if you want to get hold of the game, since it also dates from when Wizards didn’t do .pdfs.

Scum & Villainy

The first of the big Forged in the Dark games based on the Blades in the Dark engine (for more about Blades, see here) is space opera that is very Star Wars. For Blades-style play it works really well – ideally for a double slot, or a tightly-run training mission like this one – in play it feels so Star Wars that it’s easy to forget. I played a Mystic once and really struggled calling my powers “the Way” and not the Force. Great fun for a lower-prep player-driven one-shot, and the “heist” system works well for smugglers and low-lifes if you want the Han Solo end of the genre.

PBTA: Star Wars World / Streets of Mos Eisley

I’ll highlight two Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) options for your Star Wars one-shot – Star Wars World, by Andrew Medeiros (I’m not entirely sure the link above is to the latest version – I got it via another blog – please correct me if I have it wrong), is a full-blooded hack of Apocalypse World with a moves and playbooks. I haven’t played it but from a read through it looks great and Andrew really knows his PBTA stuff (having co-designed the brilliant Urban Shadows).

Streets of Mos Eisley is a simpler game, a hack of World of Dungeons which is a hack of Dungeon World, on of the first PBTA games (are you keeping up?) – it’s a tighter playset, with a much looser system. I think if I was running, I would favour Star Wars World, but for a more relaxed, system-lite game, SoME looks great.

Cypher System

This final entry is probably a little leftfield, but Star Wars has influenced a lot of RPGs, and hidden in the Worlds Numberless and Strange sourcebook for The Strange, are details for playing in the Rebel Galaxy recursion – which is, like Scum and Villany above, very Star Wars. Because Cypher is so easy to adapt (or even to busk), it would be easy to run a game using this, either with The Strange of the core Cypher rules, and it gives a significantly different playstyle to any of the games above.

At it’s heart Cypher is, like Gumshoe, a game that’s led by resource management to affect probabilities, and so I’m not convinced it fits the kind of action heroics I want in a Star Wars game, but if I was running a murder mystery, or a one-shot focused more on exploration than conflict, I would certainly be looking at Rebel Galaxy. Cypher is also a really good system for newcomers to RPGs, in my experience, so it might be a good starting place for them.

So there are your options. As I’ve said, for me it’s FFG (Age of Rebellion is my go-to style of play for one-shots) all the way – with an exception for D6 Star Wars and maybe for PBTA if I want that sort of game. It’s far from an exhaustive list, either – I’m sure there are people out there running Star Wars games with D100 (shout out to River of Heaven, D101 games science fiction game, which is pretty straightforward to hack into Star Wars), Traveller, or even The Code of the Space Lanes. I’m sure I’ve missed some, and it’s not like Star Wars to divide opinions – what are your go-to Star Wars games for one-shot play?