Legend of the Five Rings Beta Review

Fantasy Flight Games is at it again with their open beta tests, this time for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG! L5R, as it is often abbreviated as, was originally published back in ’95 by Alderac Entertainment Group, and is set in the feudal-pseudo-Japan setting of Rokugan, a land of samurai, shugenja, and courtiers fulfilling their duties and struggling amongst themselves in the Emerald Empire. The roleplaying game got through four editions under AEG before the property was sold to FFG in late 2015, and fans have been waiting to see what FFG would make of it since. Now that the beta version is in our hands (for free, thankfully), let’s see what they’ve put together!

A slight disclaimer: I have never played or ran any of the previous L5R editions, so I’m not qualified to discuss any changes that have occurred between fourth edition and this one, whether they pertain to the setting or the mechanics. You’ll have to go elsewhere for a System Split-like comparison. On the other hand, though, I don’t have any bias. L5R has been on the periphery of my radar for a while, but this is the first really good look I’ve taken at it, so at the very least I’m an ideal example of a new player FFG is looking to hook into the game.

The Dice Mechanics

Alright, let’s get this out of the way, because I know it’s a hurdle for some people: L5R is going to be played with custom dice. Given FFG’s recent practices, I don’t find that too surprising. What did take me by surprise is how custom they are; given their success with the Star Wars line and the carry-over from there to the upcoming Genesys, I honestly expected L5R to follow along. That’s not the case, and there are pros and cons to that.

The cons basically consist of not being able to use your Star Wars/Genesys dice for L5R, so there’s probably another dice purchase in your future if you want to play this game. At the moment they have stickers you can add to existing dice, and a little chart to convert numbers on normal dice to L5R results; the bright side here is that there aren’t as many different kinds of dice in L5R as in Star Wars/Genesys. That makes the conversion chart at least somewhat more palatable; I never managed to look at the Star Wars one without my eyes going in opposite directions. I buy loads of dice all the time (I can stop any time I want, no, really),  so the custom dice don’t bother me much, but I can see where it can rankle others. I’m hoping that there’ll be an L5R beginner’s game, as FFG did for their Star Wars lines, that’ll get us a set of the dice while also providing a good teaching experience and fun material. Aside from ‘hurray, beginner’s game’, that’ll take some of the sting out of the custom dice.

As to what exactly we’re dealing with: there are two types of dice, Ring Dice and Skill Dice. The Ring Dice are based off of the eponymous five rings of Fire, Water, Earth, Air, and Void, and are the equivalent of attributes or characteristics; they represent the character’s personality and core strengths, and use d6s. Skill Dice represent training and areas of expertise. Skill Dice are more potent that Ring Dice, and use d12s (always glad to see the d12 getting more work). Every die face on these dice are either blank or carry some combination of symbols: Success, Explosive Success, Opportunity, and Strife. Successes are successes, and Opportunities are additional options (think Advantage from Star Wars/Genesys) to notice something extra, enhance a success, or create a story aspect. Explosive Successes count as a Success but can then be re-rolled to try and generate more symbols. Strife doesn’t affect success, but actually accumulates over a number of rolls; either the character eventually gets to take a breather and reduce Strife, or they eventually lose their composure.

This is the big pro of the custom dice: one of the themes of the game and the setting is the constant pull between what the characters are supposed to do/how they’re supposed to behave and what they personally want to do/how they feel. This is now essentially built into the dice, because upon being rolled the player must choose which dice to keep to beat the Target Number for a roll; they can only keep as many dice as they have ranks in the Ring used for the roll. The players will thus often be forced to choose to keep dice that have both Successes and Strife, a nice mechanical representation of the narrative idea.

Character Creation and Play

Character creation is done through something called the Game of Twenty Questions, a process that the beta touts as being used for L5R since its first edition. These questions cover things like your character’s clan, family, role, school, responsibilities, fears, desires, etc. Many of these will have mechanical impact (clan and family affect Ring and Skill ranks, school is the closest equivalent of a class and determines how the character advances), and some are merely there for roleplaying and narrative purposes (although even these can have mechanical purpose through the acquisition of stats like Honor and Glory). Character creation is thus relatively simple, if requiring a fair bit of thought, as the answers to the questions take care of most of the details; only at a few points are you going to be making additional choices, such as which skill increases you gain from your school.

What’s interesting to me about the gameplay, in mechanical terms, is how many different types are built out: skirmishes (basic combat encounters), duels, mass combat, challenges, and managing ‘resources’ like Honor, Glory, and Status. Exactly how well all these work is going to be up to the actual playtesting, but so far I think they’re all at least pretty well-explained: there’s a lot to read, but I never felt particularly confused or lost while going through the book.

One thing of note, however is that how you’re doing something is just as important as what you’re doing. Every action, skill, etc., has a number of different Approaches that correspond to a different Ring. For example, if you’re using the Martial Arts [Melee] skill to fight aggressively you’re using the Overwhelm Approach associated with the Fire Ring. Trying to fight subtly or attack indirectly? You’re using the Feint Approach associated with the Air Ring. However, if you’re fighting instinctively or without regard for your own life then you’re using the Sacrifice Approach associated with the Void Ring. So while the first thing to do is figure out what skills you’re using, the next thing is to figure out what Approach you’re using. Not only does that determine how many Ring dice you can use but, as mentioned earlier, it determines how many dice you get to keep after the roll. There’s basically a roleplaying aspect to everything you do that has mechanical impact, which leads into the next section pretty well.

Setting and Story

So here’s the good news about the setting and story: I don’t feel like I need to go back and read material from previous editions to get an understanding of what Rokugan is like and what the themes of the game’s stories could be, nor did I need to be particularly knowledgeable about actual fuedal Japan. I’m sure there’s a lot of little details, characters, and such that aren’t in this beta and might not be in the final version that an L5R veteran could tell me about (I’ve certainly been in that spot myself with Star Wars and the like), but I don’t feel like it’s a requirement. Over the course of a starting section that lays out the setting, the Game of Twenty Questions, the blurbs and sidebars about clans, families, kami, etc, and the adventure towards the end of the beta, I feel like I could play or maybe even run this with some confidence in getting the right ‘feel’.

There’s no bad news, as such, but there is a feeling: I’m not sure I would recommend this as someone’s first roleplaying experience. Mechanically I don’t think it’ll be much of a problem for a newcomer to the hobby; while it’s not exactly rules-lite neither is it overwhelming (the school advancement tables remind me a little of Dark Heresy 1st Edition, but without unnecessary thousands of XP, for instance). But it is definitely intense in a narrative way. Characters have many different influences pulling upon them, from the expectations of society to their sworn duty to their own desires to heat of the moment emotions. You’re going to be accumulating Strife, and that’s eventually going to lead towards an Outburst where the character is acting in a way that’s probably harmful to their goals, and that should be roleplayed out. All of that might be a little too much like the deep end for someone who has never roleplayed before. One of the Twenty Questions is how the character (thinks he or she) is going to die! That’s not something included in starter sets.

To counter my own concern, though, just like it’s not a good idea to take for granted knowledge that you as a veteran possess because a rookie won’t have it, it’s not really fair to assume that a newcomer won’t have the chops to really explore the stories here and have a great time. If a newcomer’s reaction to the elevator pitch is enthusiastic you’ll probably be alright. And again, if they create a Beginner Game, I probably wouldn’t even be worried about it in the first place.

Final Thoughts

If the setting sounds cool to you, and/or you’re really interested in getting into the heart and soul of your character, then I’d give the Legend of the Five Rings RPG Beta thumbs-up and recommend taking a look. It seems relatively easy to learn, provides some interesting challenges with a good sense of style, and obviously has several editions of pedigree that it’s eager to live up to. Of course, it is a beta, which means the most important thing anybody could be doing to improve it is play it and talk about it (the L5R section on FFG’s forums already has more posts than anything short of Star Wars, so there’s certainly some enthusiasm there). To help with that, next week we’ll have a Meet the Party for Legend of the Five Rings, just like I did for the Eclipse Phase open playtest! In the meantime keep to your giri, uphold your Honor, and give the Legend of the Five Rings Beta a look of your own!

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