Legend of the Five Rings Beginner Game Review

The time has come for four youths to travel to the village of Tsuma, there to participate in the Topaz Championship as part of their gempukku to earn their status as adults and samurai of the Emerald Empire. Not everything in Tsuma is as it seems, however, and not all intentions are honorable ones. Proving your worth may be more complicated than you expected . . . in the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game from Fantasy Flight Games! I’ve got a copy of this impressive-looking kit and I’ve gone through the whole thing, so let’s see how your gateway to the land of Rokugan shapes up!

The Dice

I covered the dice in the Beta review, but for a quick recap you’ve got Success, Critical Success, Opportunity, and Strife. Critical Successes let you keep rolling dice, Opportunities can be used for extra narrative and/or mechanical effects, and Strife gradually pushes your character over the edge into an emotional Unmasking. There are five Ring Dice and five Skill Dice in the kit, and I gave them a bunch of test rolls to see how they’d work.

First of all, Skill Dice are MUCH better than Ring Dice. Ring Dice have a 1 in 6 chance of getting you a Success without also getting you Strife, and a 1 in 2 chance of getting a Success at all. Skill Dice have Strife-less success 1 in 4 times, and total successes 7 in 12. You can’t have more Dice for a Skill than your two lowest Rings combined, however, and (unless you’ve rolled Critical Success) you can’t keep more of your rolled dice than the Ring you used for the check, so how you do something is really important, and so is the character’s balance. Overall, I like them! They’re easy to interpret, stress the difficult choices aspect of the setting, and they actually play a lot faster than Genesys/Star Wars. I love the Narrative Dice System, don’t get me wrong, but I once had a player compare reading the dice to reading bird entrails to see the future. Not having to cancel out results, only having four symbols to worry about, and going for a Target Number greatly speed the process up.

Also, something to consider: if you get the Beginner Game, you probably don’t need to buy more L5R dice. The Star Wars and Genesys dice were hampered by the fact that a character could get more Proficiency Dice and such than a single pack held, and only having two Challenge dice? Come on. But it’s a very late-game L5R character who’ll even ever need all five Skill Dice and all five Ring Dice to make a roll. You might want to have more dice, and hey, I’m not one to try and cure dice addiction, but I don’t think you’ll need them, and I like that.

The Characters

The Beginner’s Game comes with four character portfolios that contain everything you’ll need to play through the adventure within: they have all the stats, skills, and so on that you need to play the characters, as well as a backstory complete with a couple different story hooks and character ideas that are largely independent of the central conflict of The Topaz Championship.

We’ve got a bushi of the Lion Clan, a monk of the Dragon Clan, a shugenja of the Phoenix Clan, and a courtier of the Crane Clan. These cover, for the most part, some of the more obvious/stereotypical archetypes of the setting, which is good ground for a beginner game to cover.

Overall the portfolios do a good job of explaining the setting and the Clans and the characters’ places in them, laying out the basics of the rules and the stats (such as the dice symbols, Glory and Honor, and how to perform a check), and providing (halfway through the adventure) ways for the characters to advance. I think this might have been a good place to explain how the different Approaches (how you’re doing something, which determines which Ring you use for a check) can interact with the different Skills/Skill Groups, though, instead of in the Rulebook. I also find it a little curious that the portfolios spent time/words/space on raising your Ring scores when no character will be able to raise their Rings until after the adventure unless the GM awards bonus XP at the midpoint.

The Adventure

This one is the actual game portion of the Beginner Game, the core of it if you will, The Topaz Championship. I’m going to try to keep things pretty spoiler-free here, so: the titular championship is a three day long competition for people on the cusp of adulthood to come and prove themselves as adults and members of the samurai class, and while there are many such competitions this is one of the most prestigious. The characters, all members of one Great Clan or another, have been invited to compete, but being PCs get some extra trouble dropped in their laps. Clan rivalries, old grudges, secret heritages, and some ghostly interference mean that even while they’re trying to prove themselves our nominal heroes will have some hard decisions to make about honor, glory, and whether or not to help their fellow prospective samurai.

The adventure eases players and GM alike into the game, gradually introducing rules over the course of the book’s scenes; the first scene doesn’t even bring the dice into it, and when the dice do come in for the second scene an entire page is devoted to explaining them. There is a lot of leeway in the adventure for what the characters can choose to do, particularly in how they socialize with their fellow contestants and other characters, and even in how they choose to deal with the secret conflicts bubbling beneath the surface of the competition.

The actual competition is actually pretty comprehensive in terms of how much of the L5RRPG mechanics it covers; every character will have to roll pretty much every possible skill over the course of the competition, and those skills that aren’t tied into the various individual competitions at least have an opportunity to come into play in other scenes. While the players don’t have to use each of the five Rings to make their Approaches, the points-earning mechanic of the championship does incentivize players to go outside of their character’s comfort zone by having the judges prefer certain Approaches. One thing, though: it’d be easy for the different competitions (there are five on the first day, and six on the second) to become rote dice rolling, so it’ll be up to the GM and the players to roleplay through them and interact with other characters to make the events interesting.

The Rulebook

Rulebooks for beginner games are always a little strange to me. This is the last book that the Beginner Game wants you to read, meaning that if you’re not going to keep playing with these characters and just want to jump to the core rulebook when it comes out the Beginner Game rulebook is . . . not very useful. It is a good reference book if rules confusion comes up though, has some extra stuff for the GM to throw into the mix even in The Topaz Chamionship if they want, and of course describes how the different Approaches apply for the different Skill Groups.

Overall, it’s a solid start and it’ll serve you well if you find yourself needing it during The Topaz Championship or afterwards. It doesn’t have every rule that will come up during a full L5RRPG campaign (neither do the character portfolios, now that I mention it), but as a standalone it’s perfectly functional.

The Accessories and Extras

First, as with their other Beginner games, FFG provides extra materials you can download for free: three extra characters, and the follow up adventure In the Palace of the Emerald Champion, which serves as a direct sequel to The Topaz Championship. I gave them a brief look, and was overall impressed with the quality. The adventure seems to do a pretty good job of demonstrating how the truth of Rokugan is not always what the Emerald Empire needs to hear. ItPofEC then runs into a third adventure that will be in the GM’s kit.

Second, there is a sheet’s worth of character tokens available for use. While the Beginner Game and the second adventure don’t have a tactical map aspect to them the tokens can be useful for general placement on a map, are of good quality, and cover every possible creature and character in the portfolios, adventures, and rulebook.

Finally, there are the maps themselves, drawn by Francesca Baerald, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re worth the entire price of the Beginner Game, I would say they’d be worth buying on their own. You get a map of Tsuma, a map of the palace of the Emerald Champion to use in the sequel adventure, and a full map of the entirety of Rokugan. All of the other add-ons and materials you’ll eventually leave behind, but this map will be useful for every L5R game in your future, and they all look great.

Conclusion

Overall, I’d highly recommend the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game. It teaches the system well, it gives a good introduction to the setting and society, and there are plenty of interesting encounters and chances for the players to shine.

There’s one aspect of the Beginner Game that nags at me though, and it is expressly in comparison to the Star Wars Beginner Games (Edge, Age, Force Awakens) that I’ve run: time. The Star Wars Beginner Games start with our heroes right in the middle of the mess, giving them a single action before the bad guys stumble in and the dice start rolling. Specific times aren’t stated, but the games are basically assumed to take place over the course of maybe a day: you’ve got to escape Mos Shutta, take over Whisper Base, or get the intel to the Resistance, and the bad guys are bearing down on you right this instant, so get moving!

The L5RRPG version instead takes place over the course of several days, you don’t touch the dice until the second scene, and the ‘threat’ is much less immediate for the player characters (they just aren’t the primary target of the ‘antagonist’). There’s pressure, yes, but the pressure of time doesn’t seem to really press down (I’m also not sure you’d be able to play through the entire adventure in a single sitting, unless it’s a long sitting). I know ‘railroading’ is considered heresy in plenty of circles, but in my experience when you’re teaching a game/system it helps to knuckle down a bit to keep the players focused, and doing so with a ticking clock and hostiles on their heels works.

Now, we’re talking about very different settings here, Kurosawa influences on Star Wars notwithstanding. It does make a lot of sense for the much more complicated society of Rokugan to take a few more days to get through a short adventure than the fast-paced blaster fire of Star Wars. But the lack of time pressure, the open-ended sections of the adventure, and the potential for player characters to not be on the same page when it comes to their goals doubles-down on something I noted in the Beta review: this is kind of a deep-end game to throw someone new to roleplaying into. Now I’ve seen tons of newcomers to tabletop roleplaying get tossed into the deep end and thrive, with games that are even more challenging than L5R (like improv-heavy story games, for instance). I wouldn’t say anything to a newcomer to discourage them from taking the plunge. But I would put the GMs on notice: you’re probably going to have a bit more work to do, nudging players into how the setting’s society functions and what it expects of the characters. As always, that’ll come down to good communication between you and the players. Practice it and encourage it and everyone should have a good time.

You can find the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game at your usual FLGS, retailers, or the Fantasy Flight Games site. Hold to your honor, fight for glory, and start telling your own Legend of the Five Rings!

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