Welcome back! Today we’ll be taking a look at the mechanics that power this edition of Legend of the Five Rings. This is going to be a bit of a long one, so you might want to have some tea ready.
First off, yes, Legend of the Five Rings uses custom dice. I’ll leave the discussions on whether or not this constitutes a “cash grab” to the conspiracy theorists. My stance on this is simple, now that I’ve played it: The dice serve a purpose in the rules, and it’s not just some gimmick.
Meet the Dice
The new L5R Dice come in 2 forms: The six-sided, black Ring Dice, and a twelve-sided white Skill Dice.
As you may have noticed from the image above, these dice don’t have numbers on them, instead relying on symbols to relay results. There are four symbols on the dice:
We’ll get into how to interpret the symbols in just a little while, but first we need to talk about the Rings.
The Five Rings
Rokugani philosophers classified the world in accordance to five elemental “rings” that govern all things. This philosophy is expressed in all things from spiritual phenomena to describing people’s psyche. As such, the characters in the game themselves have Rings as opposed to the traditional attributes found in most games.
These elements are:
- Air: Grace, cunning, precision, subtlety
- Earth: Resilience, patience, memory, calm
- Fire: Passion, invention, candor, ferocity
- Water: Flexibility, awareness, efficiency, charm
- Void: Mysticism, intuition, instinct, wisdom
In the context of skill checks, the Ring is determined by the Approach taken to perform the action. This means that almost any skill can be paired with a Ring, depending on how the action is narrated.
A dance using an Air approach might be one that relies on perfect execution of a classical form, while a Fire approach to the same task would involve a much more experimental or scandalously nontraditional performance.
Characters have a rating in all five rings, ranging from 1 to 5.
Getting Things Done
Making a skill check in L5R requires a few steps. It’s much easier in practice, but to learn it, we’d need to break it down for a much clearer explanation.
- Declare Intention – Perhaps self explanatory, but this is where the player declares what their character is doing, as well as how they plan to do so.
- Determine Details – At this point, the player and GM work together to identify the specifics, such as what Skill is being used, the Approach that the player is taking to pull it off, and the TN difficulty of the task.
- Assemble and Roll the Dice – The player then assembles a pool of dice equal to the Ring and Skill value determined in step 2. To go back to our earlier dance example, a character with Air 2 and Perform 1 would assemble a pool of 2 Ring dice, and 1 Skill die and roll them together.
- Apply Modifiers – Some characters may have modifiers from Advantages and Disadvantages that could modify their dice pools. They apply those at this step.
- Determine Kept Dice – The player picks out at least 1 die, and up to a number of dice equal to their Ring rating in the roll to keep.
- Resolve the Symbols on the Kept Dice – Each of the symbols affect the roll’s outcome in a certain way:
- Explosive Success: For each Explosive Success symbol, the player may roll 1 extra die of the same type on which the symbol appears and choose to keep or drop it.
- Strife: The character receives 1 strife per symbol.
- Opportunity: Opportunity is spent to add story details.
- Total Successes: If total of Success and Explosive Success symbols rolled are equal or exceed the TN, the character succeeds.
In an interesting narrative aspect, the outcome of the roll are narrated by the player. With the outcomes limited to the confines of the intention declared in Step 1.
This becomes easier as you’ll find that you’re sitting on quite a bit of information from that one roll, all that’s left is to answer the questions in bold when describing the outcome:
- Does the character succeed or fail? How did it happen?
- How does this task affect the character emotionally? In what way?
- Can I add extra details to the story? What are they?
It’s quite a different approach from older editions as a single dice roll actually implies a load of detail as opposed to a simple Pass or Fail result that I’m used to.
You may also have noticed that the Emotional and Story Detail portions aren’t dependent on success. Player characters may spend Opportunity to complicate matters for an opponent, or make things easier for an ally even if they failed. We’ll go into Strife and Opportunities shortly.
In addition to the basic rolling mechanic, the book also goes into checks done with assistance from another character, resistance checks and contests where a character is not directly clearly resisting the other.
One of the most unique elements in the Legend of the Five Rings is the Strife mechanic. One of the key conflicts in this edition of L5R is the constant struggle to maintain the stoic ideal of a samurai versus one’s human desires. It’s a dominant theme in a lot of samurai fiction, and seeing rules for it in the game was something that really caught my eye in the early previews.
As described earlier, a character can gain Strife from rolling the Strife symbol on checks. The interesting bit is that the Strife symbol never appears by itself, but accompanies Success, Explosive Success and Opportunity Symbols. This means that sometimes, in order to succeed, a player is compelled to take on Strife.
However, Strife can also be voluntarily gained by the player to reflect a particularly stressful situation, even when no roll is involved. The GM may also give out strife to reflect high-stakes moments.
But what does Strife do?
Strife is a measure of a character’s emotional balance or control. Each character has a Composure rating, which is an indicator of how much Strife they can take before they become emotionally overwhelmed, a state mechanically labelled as being Compromised.
The presence of Strife isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if anything, it’s a measure of how emotionally invested a character is, regardless as to whether that emotion is the pulse-pounding thrill of battle, or anguish at failing to save the life of an innocent.
However, if a character’s Strife exceeds their Composure, they become Compromised, and are unable to keep dice which come up with the Strife symbol until they’re able to lose the Compromised condition.
Thankfully strife can be mitigated through a host of safety valves in the game.
The most extreme is the act of Unmasking, wherein in a dramatic display, the character lashes out in a socially unacceptable fashion. Whether breaking protocol to lash out verbally against a superior officer’s decision, or losing it and declaring your love for someone just as their arranged marriage had been announced, Unmasking is a scandalous action that will have consequences to a character’s Honor or their Glory.
There is an upside to Unmasking, however, and that is you get to do something that you otherwise would socially be hindered from doing. In some instances, that emotionally charged lashing out is just what you need to get people to reconsider the situation. Maybe the superior officer has you caned publicly for your insolence, but decides to hold off on a potentially tragic decision. Or maybe your outburst inspires the person you love to forsake their marriage to try an elope with you.
In either case, the story moves (often dramatically) in response to an Unmasking.
Thankfully, it doesn’t always have to be so dramatic. Strife also goes down by 1 at the end of every scene, and the pursuit of a character’s Passions also reduces Strife as the player character finds emotional stability in their chosen activities.
I feel that there’s a TON of things I can still talk about with regards to the Strife mechanics, but I’ll have to set those aside for a future entry on this series.
The other set of information determined in a dice roll are the Opportunities. Think of these as a metagame currency that can be spent to add story details to the result of a roll.
In some ways, this is a reversal of the old “Raises” mechanic in the older edition. Rather than voluntarily raising the TN to earn perks, the rolled opportunities are spent to gain benefits.
These benefits are pulled from a fairly large list, with perks sorted by the Approach (hence Ring) taken for the action. These can range from the fairly generic, such as granting a bonus to another player on their next roll to attempt the same task, to specific ones like reassuring another character with your presence hence allowing them to reduce their Strife by 2.
Opportunities are perks that can’t affect whether a check succeeds or fails, but can at least be used in a failed roll to soften the blow or set up circumstances to enable other players to do their thing. In some ways it’s a mechanical implementation of failing forward, as even a failed roll can be described in more interesting ways than “You miss, nothing happens.”
This new L5R system brings in a new way of play that couches a more narrative style of play in a manner that I understand. As someone who can’t understand FATE enough to run it, this is a huge deal to me.
The basic skill check delivers more than just informing the player on whether or not they succeed, but also allows them to take a hand in crafting the method by which the event happened, and how it affected the character emotionally. I imagine that this is a huge cue for Method Actor and Writer type players who will wring their moments of success and failure for all they’ve got.
Passing the reins of interpreting the results to the players empowers them, while also encouraging them to think in-character. It’s a bit unsettling for those who are used to more control, but seeing a mechanical value for how emotionally unsettled your character is demands that you play it out appropriately.
The Strife mechanic overcomes a failure of traditional systems and social conflict: Players don’t voluntarily “lose” by flying off the handle in social situations. Multiple systems have tried it, but this is perhaps the one that works the best in my mind. I’ve seen games where player characters have gone against one another and spent two hours arguing back and forth and getting nowhere because there was no mechanical tipping point that could cause them to lose face. This fixes that with surprising grace.
On our next entry in this series, we’ll be checking out the elements that make a character. Unlike most of my other let’s study series, I won’t be doing a character creation walkthrough as I’ve already gone ahead and done so here for the sample character Kitsuki Yuyan, so feel free to check that out if you have time.