Legend of the Five Rings: Emerald Empire Review

Simply knowing the rules for Legend of the Five Rings is not enough; even passing your gempukku and earning your place as a samurai in the Topaz Championship will not truly prepare you for the trials ahead. If one is to survive, even thrive, in the land of Rokugan then one must know Rokugan: its places, its people, its customs and history and spirits. So it is that Emerald Empire, the first major sourcebook for the Fantasy Flight Games’ edition of Legend of the Five Rings, has come into being. What’s actually within its pages? Is it worth getting yourself? I’m going through the book chapter by chapter to find out!

Introduction

The introduction is actually a history overview chapter, written in-universe by Imperial Scribe Miya Chinatsu, covering everything from Lady Sun and Lord Moon and the creation of the world to the present day of 1123 IC. It’s much more comprehensive than Bayushi Kachiko’s story to Doji Hotaru in the core rulebook, detailing many of the major milestones in the history of Rokugan that created the Emerald Empire we know today.

As setting primers go, it’s a solid start. Interestingly, there’s also a sidebar that stress the fact that it’s an in-universe history, and thus possibly inaccurate due to everything from simple error to political spin. It’s an important note, to understand that there are secrets to uncover and masks to see through throughout the setting.

Chapter 1: Strongholds of Power

On the face of things castles and palaces are the primary subjects of this section. The book does go into quite a bit of detail about their construction, the different types of stronghold, the architectural and cultural details of castles and palaces (if you build a castle ten stories high, get ready to be killed for trying to put yourself on the same level as the Emperor), and several example strongholds. The castle at contested Toshi Ranbo, Kyūden Bayushi of the Scorpion, Kyūden Doji of the Crane, the Imperial Palace itself, and “Kyūden” Gotei of the Mantis are all featured, including facts of note, adventure seeds (that include a hook, the rising action, and the climax), rumors, and an example NPC. Looking ahead, we can see that all of the sample locations in the book will be similarly accompanied.

All of that is very useful stuff, giving us actual locations to work with that the core book lacks, but it actually all sort of comes in second in importance to the real gem of the chapter and, as we’ll see, the real focus of the book: treatises on the culture and history surrounding castles. As the eponymous Strongholds of Power in Rokugan castles and palaces are where courts are held, where governmental and military powers are based, and where both war and diplomacy often pivot. As a result this chapter spends a lot of words talking about life in the castle, including what various classes and types of people might find themselves doing day to day, and goes into detail on Rokugani courts and how they function, even across different regions. The Crab Clan deals with courtly matters during meals so that everyone can get back to their posts more quickly, for instance, which would be shockingly rude anywhere else in the empire, while talking about the weather is a bad idea in a Crane Clan court because of the recent tsunami. This is, in short, a courtier character’s goldmine.

As strongholds are often the target of military campaigns in Rokugan, this is also the chapter that talks about war in the Emerald Empire, from basic practices to the Imperial Legions to a number of the conflicts that have raged throughout the past millennium to the different ways each major clan wages war. If you’re planning to cross swords en masse in Rokugan, this is a pretty good primer on how it’s done.

Chapter 2: Centers of Trade

The Centers of Trade this chapter wishes to highlight are the cities of Rokugan, and to a somewhat lesser extent the large towns and harbors that are scattered between them. Several examples of each are featured, although you’ll notice a bit of overlap with some of the castles from Chapter 1. Otosan Uchi itself starts us off, but there are also the City of Lies and Khanbulak of the Unicorn for cities, Red Horn Village for a bustling town between three Great Clans, and the Mantis-controlled Gotei City and Imperial-controlled City of the Rich Frog for harbors. All of the specific example locations continue to have plot hooks, points of interest, and NPC presented for them.

A significant amount of general information on cities and towns is also presented, including several paragraphs each on what life in a Rokugani city is like for the different classes. Food, drink, entertainment, navigation, how and where cities and towns get built, architecture, government, and crime are also discussed in broad strokes, from which type of alcohol is preferred among which Great Clan to the extreme threat fire poses to most such settlements.

As Chapter 1 was a boon to courtiers, Chapter 2 also has an L5R character type it can help a great deal: magistrates. As cities and towns have the populations large enough for crime to thrive in the margins, this section also focuses on crime and the punishment thereof. Seeing as how being magistrates, particularly Emerald Magistrates, is one of the common ideas to bring a party of otherwise disparate L5R characters together, this strikes me as a wise choice of subject to cover here. If you want to learn everything about Rokugani law from the hierarchy of authority surrounding the Emerald Magistrates to the Kitsuki family’s borderline heretical fascination with ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ as opposed to testimony, to what happens when a criminal has their day in court, this is the chapter for you.

Chapter 3: Heart of the Empire

Castles are great, and cities are bustling, but they’d all likely die on the vine without the many villages and farms that feed and otherwise supply them. Unsurprising, then, that those farms and villages are the focus of a chapter entitled Heart of the Empire. Practically every facet of rural life in Rokugan, which involves the majority of the population, is covered here: the dangers of natural disaster and war, agriculture, bandits, taxation, key buildings, the kind of travelers that pass through, and so on.

The example locations are a diverse lot, showing how villages tend to distinguish themselves via a particular role or resource. In the lands of the Kitsu one can find the sake-brewing Buzzing Fly Village. In the mountains of Senseki Province, Unicorn territory, is the mining settlement of Anbasukai Village, also home to the beautiful Earth’s Heart Shrine. The Crab Clan often find themselves reliant upon fishing communities like the Swirling Pool Village to sustain themselves. Finally, it is perhaps unsurprising to find the Kaori Tea Farm trying to carve out a section of Daidoji wilderness for itself.

For the cultural material, this chapter isn’t particularly beneficial to any single type of character; rather, it’s useful to all player characters because it focuses on the relationship between samurai and the classes of people beneath them in the Celestial Order. As much as some samurai would like to avoid doing so, at some point most are going to have to interact with the bonge, the burakumin, and perhaps even the gaijin. This chapter examines the relationship between these classes and the samurai, particularly as to how (and why) they interact with one another.

The chapter closes out on the nature of travel in Rokugan, which will be vital for any campaign that doesn’t stick to one location for the duration, including such things as travel papers and way stations. Some example routes and locales are provided including the River of Gold that runs from Scorpion lands (going straight through the City of Lies) all the way into Crab territory, the Emperor’s Road used for Imperial business that links together important holdings across the land of five Great Clans, and the way station known as Hyōseznhō that actually serves as an important staging ground for the Utaku Battle Maidens of the Unicorn.

Chapter 4: Sacred Spaces

This chapter is probably of greatest interest to shugenja, who have as much of a religious responsibility as a magical one, but it’s generally useful for every Rokugani. Everyone could use a way to get some help from the spirits now and again, after all, or at least a way to keep them from causing trouble.

The actual Sacred Spaces of Rokugan aren’t limited to Rokugan itself, though: this chapter actually starts off with the cosmography around the physical world (with another note that this is the understood cosmography, not necessarily the correct one). The Heavens of Tengoku and Yomi, the ‘beside’ realms of animals and illusions, and the various underworld realms of Jigoku are all featured. Next the book goes into detail about kami and Fortunes, with particular focus on the Great Fortunes and a few other notables.

Interestingly, because many of the Fortunes and kami in L5R are either based on real-world religious figures or actually are real-world religious figures, there’s a sizeable (most of a page) sidebar discussing how to portray these figures and religious beliefs in general in a respectable manner at the table. Nice touch.

Then it’s onto the sacred spaces that can actually be found on Rokugan itself: the shrines. Basic facts of daily life at a shrine, the importance of the various architectural aspects of one, the different practices of samurai and peasants, and common rituals like weddings, funerals, and festivals are all discussed. Several sidebars provide some of the most interesting tidbits when it comes to clan-specific superstitions, beliefs, and customs. Lightning is a good omen in the Crab Clan, for example. Scorpion weddings are always officiated by a Soshi (to let a Yogo do it would be unlucky), and the banquets are even open to peasants. The Lion believe in holding their funeral rites on the battlefield where the dead fell. There’s also general information as to how a supplicant should approach a spirit, and what is considered religiously prohibitive.

The Shrine of the Ki-Rin, last stop of Shinjo herself before she journeyed beyond the Empire, leads off the example locations. Benten Seidō, shrine to the Great Fortune of Art and Romantic Love, is a frequent stop for ‘enamored pilgrims and muse-seeking artisans’. The Shrine of the Willow-Healing Kami is in honor to a kodoma who saved Clear Water Village from destruction by entreating the Fortune of Pestilence to stop his assault.

The chapter actually closes out on a darker note: forbidden beliefs and practices, and the places and rituals that fuel them. Shrines that have been corrupted, haunted, or outright created in service to Jigoku are discussed, as well as the blood magic, curses, and name-trading used by mahō-tsukai and oni alike. No additional rules to go with, but still interesting. Suffice to say that campaigns and characters focusing on fighting this sort of thing, like the Kuni Purifiers, are going to pay particular attention to this section.

Chapter 5: Paths to Enlightenment

Unsurprisingly this section of the book is going to quickly draw the eyes of monk-type characters . . . although oddly enough not as much for the monk-type schools from the core rulebook. The Kaito are more akin to shugenja in their practices, and the Togashi are typical Dragons, standing out from the crowd; neither are precisely orthodox followers of Shinsei. Still, there’s a lot of generally useful information here when it comes to seeking spiritual enlightenment, and this chapter will be of special value to two schools we’ll see in Chapter 7.

A large part of the chapter is about Shinsei, the Little Teacher who taught even the first Hantei Emperor about the all-encompassing nature of the Void, the cycle of reincarnation, and the path to enlightenment that would allow one to escape the cycle. It also discusses the conflicting perceptions of Shinsei, how he is considered by some to be a philosopher, some to be a hero, and by some to even be a god. The Tao of Shinsei’s place in the larger religious framework of Rokugan is explored, and several orders of monk are featured, including ones that both purely follow the Tao and those who are devoted to the Fortunes.

Next comes the basic facts and daily life at the monastic temples and monasteries: how they’re supplied, how they defend themselves, their nature as scholastic centers as well as spiritual ones, the rituals that take place there, and even the complicated relationship that monks have with the Celestial Order and the rest of Rokugan’s class system. Notably there’s another ‘Real-World Touchstones’ sidebar, just as in Chapter 4, discussing respectful ways to portray monastic beliefs and customs at the table.

Examples temples are 1)  Shinden Kasai, dedicated to the Fortune of Fire and Thunder and where many of the monks are retired Crab samurai, 2) The Temple of Listening Ghosts, a focal point for the Kitsu family of the Lion and built in honor of the kitsu race that preceded them, and 3) The Four Temples that stand at the corners of Kyūden Seppun, each dedicated to a different aspect of Shinseism: introspection, understanding the world, mastering body and mind, and spreading Shinsei’s wisdom.

Example monasteries are the 1) High House of Light, home to the Togashi Order (here’s your Dragon information, including the nature of the Order’s tattoos), 2) the Silent Ones Monastery in Scorpion lands that serves as a repository for secrets of all kinds, and 3) the Plains Wind Monastery, dedicated to the Fortune of Agriculture to help support the Unicorn . . . sometimes with strange and foreign ways.

Chapter 6: Wilds of Rokugan

Pinnacle of civilization it might be, according to the Rokugani at least, but much of Rokugan is actually wild and unsettled territory only nominally claimed by any clan or authority, and sometimes not even that. The chapter starts with some basic facts of life in the wilds, including the reasons why anyone from samurai to gaijin might find themselves traveling through or even living there. The rest of the chapter is then divided into four broad categories of uncivilized land: mountains, forests, ruins, and the coasts. Each category details the resources that they can offer, things like the dangers that are common to them and how traveling through them works, and sometimes who might be dwelling within them before going into examples.

For mountains we get to look at the Jade Mine of West Mountain Village, a crucial but deadly source of the jade that the Crab Clan needs to fight the Tainted monsters of the Shadowlands, and the Dragon mountains themselves. For forests we visit Kitsune Forest, home to the spirits that give it its name, and the primordial and often dangerous Shinomen Forest, where the best friend you find just might be the humanoid rats known as nezumi. For ruins one might spend a night in the Temple of the Burned Monk to commune with the spirits there and seek Enlightenment, or perhaps instead be forced to struggle against the siren call and ennui of the Forgotten Village of Wasureta Mura. If you’re sailing along the coast you should probably avoid the Cave of the Stone Children and the grief-mad couple that dwell within, but the marshes and reeds of the Summerlands could conceal everything from a city of half-snake half-human people to a band of Mantis Clan pirates waiting in ambush.

Chapter 7: New Player Options

Here’s the really crunchy part of the book on the player side of things: a new ‘clan’, three new families, nine new schools, a pack of new advantages and disadvantages, a pair of new techniques, and several additional titles. Let’s go through them bit by bit.

The ‘clan’ in question is actually the collection of Imperial Families, what can be considered the direct subordinates and cadet families connected to and directly involved with the Emperor themself. The families themselves are the well-traveled Miya, the political Otomo, and the protective Seppun. Together and individually they make up much of the core of Rokugan’s government, often having more power and influence than the Great Clans even though they have fewer numbers and significantly less actual territory they can call their own. Unsurprisingly these options come with a fair amount of narrative baggage they can put to good use.

The nine schools are divided between those belonging to the Imperial Families and then a quartet of oddities. The Miya Cartographer and Herald, the Otomo Schemer, and the Seppun Palace Guard and Astrologer help to manage the Empire’s maps, messages, politics, physical safety, and spiritual safety respectively. They’re a pretty varied bunch with some interesting abilities. Curiously, though, by their nature the Miya feel somewhat restricted to me in terms of the type of game they can play in. The ironic part of that is that unlike a Minor Clan character who has a narrow purview that you need to work into the game, the Miya aren’t fully playing to their narrative and sometimes even mechanical strengths unless you’re playing a campaign that involves traveling. If your game is focused on a single location then you’ll need a reason why the Miya is staying in one place so much.

The first two of the oddities are the Fortunist and Shinseist Monks, which doubles our total of Monk-type schools quite nicely (notably they do not carry wakizashi, narratively making them proper monks rather than the samurai/monk hybrids we’ve seen before). Both are interesting twists that 1) address different facets of the setting’s spiritual side, and 2) have mechanics that set them apart from the Togashi and the Kaito from the core book. The Fortunist has access to kata, ritual, and shūji techniques but also gains access to several invocations related to which Fortune they serve. The Shinseist has access to kiho like the Togashi, but their school ability allows them to gain school-level-determined skill ranks when they spend a Void Point to Seize the Moment.

The final two oddity schools are really odd: the Kitsune Impersonator and the Kolat Saboteur. Don’t think that the Impersonators are from the not-yet-statted-out-in-this-edition Fox Clan; they’re literal kitsune, fox spirits or at the very least humans with fox spirit ancestry, masquerading as normal humans and samurai. Consummate tricksters, the Impersonators nevertheless have to live by the same rules as the samurai they’re blending in with, even while being capable of changing form and revealing hints of their true self when Compromised. The Kolat Saboteur is more dire, less a trickster and more a criminal and a heretic; the Kolat conspiracy seeks nothing less than the destruction of the status quo and a humanity free of the Celestial Order. The only school that doesn’t have access to rituals, instead gaining access to ninjitsu through their curriculum, the Kolat are very likely to be a hidden enemy to most other player characters, or at best a very strange bedfellow. Unsurprisingly, these last two schools get called out by the book as being fundamentally different than the others, and that groups should make sure that they’re appropriate for the game they want to play.

Notably, they also introduce a new mechanical twist: they each start with a Disadvantage, specifically the False Identity Anxiety.

Speaking of Disadvantages, and Advantages, there are 8 Distinctions, 6 Passions, 6 Adversities, and 5 Anxieties. More of this kind of thing are almost always welcome (and the more I think of it, the happier I am that FFG!L5R doesn’t use Disadvantages to grant bonus XP like Shadowrun or GURPS or older editions of L5R), and it’s particularly nice to have more negative options that don’t involve a missing or maimed body part or the Shadowland Taint, which take up a large number of the options in the core book.

The techniques aren’t as universal, but they are pretty straightforward: an Imperial one tied into several of the Imperial Family schools to represent the political weight they can throw around, and a Kolat one that shows up in the Saboteur to establish more shadowy points of contact. Nice, but I wish there were more. There still aren’t any Void invocations, for instance.

Finally there are the new titles, a total of nine ranging from the humble monastic acolyte all the way up to a daimyō. Each lists who can grant the titles (which includes rules for how many titles certain titled player characters can grant to their fellows), a status change for gaining the title, how much XP you need to spend to complete it, a small curriculum, and a title ability gained upon completion. They cover all sorts of roles in Rokugani society, from the military to the spiritual to the government to law enforcement, and act as both interesting reward for GMs to hand out and goal for players to aspire to. Solid all around.


So, if the preceding several thousand words didn’t get it across: there’s a lot of setting information here, as much of it cultural as it is about actual locations for your campaign to visit. Get yourself a comfy reading chair and your preferred beverage, maybe some snacks, if you’re planning to read it cover to cover, you’ll be at it a while. The good news on that front is that 1) it’s an interesting read, especially for a relative L5R lore neophyte, and 2) it’s actually a very well-organized book. Each chapter’s specific focus makes it easy to pick out what you need for a given character or campaign style. The sidebars, notes in the margins, and adventure hooks and NPCs are also as interesting as the rest of it. On top of all that Emerald Empire also delivers some interesting new options for players to try out, several of which really play around with the game’s basic expectations, which from a design standpoint is always gratifying.

Now, it doesn’t quite explore the particular depths I’d expected the first full FFG!L5R supplement to plunge in to. I expected more info on the movers and shakers in the Great Clans, for instance, or maybe some more Minor Clans, and player options for either, but if Shadowlands is any indication it looks like FFG will be doing that sort of thing one at a time across multiple books. So that’s theoretically another seven books coming down the pipepline, not counting their associated adventures. The seeming narrowed focus of those books gives me a good vibe: if you’re not interested in playing Crab or Falcon characters, then just don’t buy Shadowlands, and pick and choose accordingly which of the future supplements you purchase. But . . .

I’m not a fan of L5R going the D&D route and having more than one book function as the ‘core’ of the game; books aren’t cheap, and a large part of L5R’s appeal is the setting, which really does make Emerald Empire feel ‘Essential’. In the interest of fairness, though, there is the cheaper PDF version, and if they had combined the two books into one we’d have an Exalted 3rd Edition-sized tome on our hands. Seeing as how I’m pretty sure you could drop EX3 from orbit and cause an extinction event, I can see the reasoning behind splitting the books from a sheer mechanics-of-publishing point of view.

Most importantly, though: you do get your money’s worth (the fact that the book is nice to look at, complete with more of  Francesca Baerald’s maps, doesn’t hurt). If you’re looking for information on the Emerald Empire of Rokugan, this is the book for you. Just be nice and share it among your table for those who aren’t up for buying it.

As mentioned above you can find the PDF version of Legend of the Five Rings: Emerald Empire at DriveThruRPG, and can get the physical version through FFG’s site or at any of the usual brick-and-mortar locations.

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6 thoughts on “Legend of the Five Rings: Emerald Empire Review”

    1. So, I’m not super familiar with the previous versions, but: like I mentioned this version doesn’t really cover any of the big individual players, and it’s my understanding that that’s where most of the differences between the timelines have taken place, so the lore value is probably lower for those familiar with the setting already. Like using 3.5 Eberron books to inform a 5e D&D campaign, you’d probably be fine using older L5R setting info, with the understanding that if you cover any of the big events you’ll be on your own in terms of mechanics. Least for now.

      If the editions were more similar I’d say veterans could pass, but the different mechanics do mean there’s a good bit of new stuff. For players they’ll get a pretty solid chunk of new character options. GMs get 30+ NPCs to work with. Then there’s all the adventure hooks, rumors, and such.

      If I’d give it an A for a newcomer, I’d give it a B- for someone knowledgeable about the setting already.

      Like

    2. On the other had, I have a previous EE, and I thought that this was very useful. It slips in a whole bunch of things that show how FFG’s version is different from AEG’s and FRPG’s before eg the third Emperor is now a woman, the whole setup of the City of the Rich Frog has changed, and the cosmology also seems to have been modified.

      Liked by 1 person

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