[Let’s Study: Legend of the Five Rings] Part 6: GMing and Review

And we’ve hit the final entry to this series. Today is a quick peek into the GMing chapter and a final review of the game as it stands.

The Game Master

The GMing chapter of the game is extensive, and covers a large number of significant topics that could be useful not only to novice GMs, but also to GMs who are new to the setting.

There’s some good advice on how to present the setting, as well as handling how spirits behave (especially when interacting with the Shugenja in the party.) The focus on choices and consequences as a primary theme in the game is something that made me a very happy GM as I’m fond of games that unfurl like history. The player characters act in the best interests of the present, in hopes of being able to improve the future. But sometimes, things don’t always fall the way they planned, and not everyone gets a happy ending.

Rokugan is a nuanced setting with a lot of moving parts, so being able to look over the various major components, such as the Social Attributes of Honor, Glory and Status in the context of the setting is valuable. I appreciate how each of the Clans’ philosophies affects how much they gain and lose Honor based on the various tenets of Bushido.

Overall, it’s got a lot of setting-specific advice on running a good game. While I feel that it doesn’t quite give old-school GMs a better understanding of Narrative games, newer GMs will likely take to this like a fish to water.

The Review

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”

– Bruce Lee

This game does not take on the same form as the old Legend of the Five Rings. Instead, it has changed for the better. Gone are old mechanical hangups, needless complexity, and even cultural missteps in the setting.

Guided by an appreciation for what came before, the designers exerted genuine effort to recreate what made it great by improving on what it was. In many ways, it was the change that we needed to bring the setting forward in a way that would remain relevant, accessible and fun for the next 20 years.

The rules are more narrative, and sometimes I can’t correctly map out the right Skill to use with an action, but that’s okay. What the new game loses in precision, it makes up for in spirit. It knows the themes and culture and tone it wants to be, and engages appropriately.

The Strife system is the trickiest to understand from a old gamer who never had to deal with stuff that was originally perceived as being part of pure “roleplaying.” But once it clicked, it brought a host of benefits to the game. Add the fact that it is also key to several other mechanics (most notably in Dueling) then you have a mechanic that says something about the setting.

Each of the subsystems has the seeds for great stories. Intrigues finally has a mechanical backbone to support itself, while Skirmishes, Duels and Mass Battles all make a return. While I have some small concerns about Intrigues and Mass Battles, they all do their intended jobs, and in the hands of a competent GM, can be used to spin off into some very interesting scenarios.

The new approach to schools is a welcome change in my eyes, and allows for players to build their characters to their personal vision. There has been some niggling about “sub-optimal” choices, but to be perfectly frank, if optimization is your thing, then this version of L5R is probably not for you. 3e and 4e are still widely available if you’re here to optimize builds.

Conclusion

This edition is all about the stories you can tell. About characters with strengths and weaknesses that will go through moments where you will want to tear your hair out as they make bad decisions, and cheer when they are able to rise above the challenges that face them.

Few games give me the impression that it can be used to run games with high emotional stakes, like a romance, or a tragedy, but 5e seems to be tailored to it. Strife, Anxieties and Adversities all act as signposts that can guide a samurai through a gauntlet of emotions that they can’t publicly acknowledge, leading to some particularly spectacular moments of catharsis when they finally unmask and let loose upon the unfairness of the world.

If there’s one tiny downside that I can think of, it’s that as a GM, it can be taxing. Each player can use a multitude of Approaches in a given situation, paired with any of the skills. Framing those, and working it into the story is a shared load between you and the players, but since it’s likely that you have more experience with it, you’ll be doing the heavy lifting.

If you’ve ever had any love for samurai imagery, eastern cinema, wuxia stories or even anime, then buy this book. If you were a fan of L5R prior, then buy this book. If you’ve never heard of this game, then congratulations and buy this book.

It’s not without the occasional mechanical hiccup, but with the host of innovations to both rules and concepts, Fantasy Flight Games’ Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game is a triumphant return of one of the best intellectual properties in gaming to the form that suits it best.

Art and Layout

It would be unfair to end this without a quick note to the absolute quality of the artwork of the book.

The layout of the book is easy to read with a subtle textured background that doesn’t tire the eyes or make it hard to read the text. The text is in a standard two-column format, with callout boxes and little sidebars that add context or options as needed.

The artwork is top-notch, and I’m happy to say that there isn’t a single piece of art in the book that I wasn’t happy with. Overall, stunning work by the art team to make the book into something that I’d be happy to display publicly.


If this sounds like a game you’d like to play, you can get a copy of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG on PDF over at DrivethruRPG for only $24.95

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