Imagine the Japan that you have always thought existed - noble samurai, villainous villains and mysterious creatures. A world where honour and loyalty are valued above all. That is the world of Rokugan, the setting of Legend of the Five Rings - a world that combines the history and mythology of Japan alongside elements of China and Korea to form an evocative world that has been the setting of card games and role-playing games for thirty years.
If, like this writer, you hold Rokugan and its history dear to your heart, you may be somewhat disappointed at Fantasy Flight Games’ (FFG) decision to reset the story to a point where Rokugan first began. However, this should not stop you from experiencing this amazing role-playing game.
In the RPG Core Rulebook, players take on the roles of samurai from one of the clans of Rokugan- the seven major clans - who take a role in governing and defending the Emerald Empire from threats both within and without. Whether players want to delve into courtly intrigues, investigate heinous crimes or fight against the dark hordes of the Shadowlands, the versatile game system allows for a range of play styles.
Whilst players are samurai, they are not all warriors (or Bushi as they are termed in the game), some will be wily courtiers, others the mystical Shugenja (priests who ask the elemental spirits to create wondrous effects) whilst a few will be spiritual monks or shinobi (though, of course, ninjas don’t exist).
The system re-implements a version of FFG’s narrative dice system first seen in their Warhammer Fantasy RPG, then in their Edge of the Empire (EotE) and finally in Genesys. This system strips out negative dice altogether, favouring a narrative approach - players roll dice based on their Rings (the five defining elements of Rokugani spirituality) and skill ranks, choosing a number to keep up to their Ring Value.
This is not always an easy choice; some dice sides contain just successes, others just opportunity (used for extra effects), whilst some feature success and opportunity, explosive successes (that add an extra dice), and some also add in a Strife symbol (a bit like the Strain of Genesys and EotE that saps your character’s ability to remain calm and composed). The need to balance success with Strife leads to players having to carefully consider how much they want to succeed at actions as well as describing exactly how they succeed (and why they might gain Strife in any situation) and really plays to Rokugan’s narrative and story-led background.
The RPG Core Rulebook contains information about the history of Rokugan, the seven major clans and the Imperial family, as well as rules for crafting samurai from all seven clans, at least four of their component families and four schools for each clan (essentially classes that provide special abilities).
In addition, the Game of Twenty questions that grounds in character creation helps you to generate backstory and points of interest for your character and your gamesmaster. Characters choose from ranks in 20 core skills as well as over a hundred techniques (that grant new options for actions in-game) that cover combat, social situations, rituals, Invocations (calling on elemental spirits), Kiho (channelling elemental energy) and ninjutsu (‘ninja’ techniques), meaning that characters can be very different from each other.
In addition, the book features rules for four types of combat: skirmish, duel, mass battle and intrigue as well as statistics for a range of enemies. The one feature lacking from this book (that features in the EotE rules) is a starter adventure, but there are free downloads on the FFG website.
Just like other RPGs, Gamesmasters present situations and players respond. Dice rolls may be called for, forming pools of six and 12-sided dice and deciding which (if any) to keep. Conflicts range from simple skirmishes with bandits, to full battles between armies or even honourable one-on-one duels. For the more socially minded characters, there are rules for running social conflicts, all using the same neat system.
Accurately reflecting the world of the samurai of both history and legend, combat is deadly, duels and skirmishes can easily end in the deaths of characters (in our last session our duellist sheared off the face of an enemy commander in a duel)- the lives of samurai can be short but glorious.
RPG Core Rulebook - Final Thoughts
Whilst there might be areas where this game falls down (some of the rules require a lot of interpretation, there are typos and omissions from the first print-runs and duelling can be too deadly) my gaming group hasn’t been abuzz like this for a long time. The rich world, deep opportunities and narrative nature of the system truly gets everyone involved.
You Might Like
- A samurai world filled with honour, duty and oni!
- The rich history and information you can find online and in older books.
- The ease that old adventures and characters can be shifted into these rules.
- The range of options available.
- The encouragement of narrative play in the system.
You Might Not Like:
- You realistically need custom dice or the app (both with an associated cost).
- The fairly free-form rules.
- The lack of background information in the book.
You Might Like
A samurai world filled with honour, duty and oni!
The rich history and information you can find online and in older books.
The ease that old adventures and characters can be shifted into these rules.
The range of options available.
The encouragement of narrative play in the system.
You Might Not Like:
You realistically need custom dice or the app (both with an associated cost).
The fairly free-form rules.
The lack of background information in the book.