A while ago I had a bit of a hot take off the press. At the time I had played the Beginners Box for Legend of the Five Rings 5th edition produced by Fantasy Flight Gaming and then, in purely coincidental timing, played in a campaign of 4th edition that had been written by AEG. Excited, and with childhood memories rekindled, I ran to write up the differences I have seen between the two. So, why do I mention it?
It’s been a few years since that article was written, and the world proceeded to break time with the years of 2020 and 2021. With a slew of personal life changes, and with a need for incredible caution for social gatherings, my choice in games became dictated by what I could find online. Over the last two years, I’ve had a healthy diet of games run in 4th edition and finally had the chance to build characters and play in a campaign using the full 5th edition rules. As I reflected, I began to wonder: had I done a disservice by rushing to put something out? Sometimes we become too excited at a new prospect, and become so eager to champion it that we don’t get the full picture. There is also another element in play now as well: time. Back when I did my first crack at a System Split, FFG were the new kids on the block, with their hands on a shiny new property and some interesting ideas on how to freshen things up. Now, not only have they released the full rules and published several expansion books for Legend of the Five Rings and reorganized. EDGE Studio has now taken over the IP, and while books continue to be published, and the system itself remains mostly intact, I feel like it’s worth circling back and taking a deeper, more nuanced dive into the differences between the two systems. Overall, with some time and space, I have come to believe that FFG created their version with a firm eye on past editions, but there are noticeable differences that might sway both gamerunners and players in one direction or the other.
For those unfamiliar, Legend of the Five Rings is set primarily in a fantasy analogue of what we know as East Asia, combining aspects of multiple cultures within the region into a new geographic area, most notably with features of feudal Japan. Within the lore, the land of Rokugan was formed after the children of the Sun and Moon escaped from their father’s imprisonment and fled the heavenly realm of Tengoku before landing on the mortal realm. Most of the god siblings decided to wander the new place they discovered and returned to discuss what they had discovered (except for the one who fell too hard and crashed through another layer of reality into the game’s version of Hell, becoming corrupted), and chose to select their leader through a sword dueling tournament. The winner was Hantei, the youngest and most well-rounded of the gods, who became the first Emperor, while each of the other siblings married into the tribes of people they had met on their journey and took on specific roles to serve their new Emperor, selecting animals as symbols of their duty. Therefore, the wily Bayushi led the Scorpion to become the keeper of secrets, elegant Doji and the Crane became the diplomats, military minded Akodo and his Lion became the main military arm, and so on and so forth. Over the past millennia the stories have faded into myth. You could be forgiven for assuming the tales to be apocryphal and self-serving to justify the members of the Major Clans and Emperor to act as feudal masters…but there really are minor gods and spirits who wander the lands (and who can be talked into aiding priests with the gift to speak to them) and cross over from nearby realms. In the lands to the southwest corruption spills out, tainting the land itself and whatever living thing is unfortunate enough to fall into its grasp.
These aspects remain the same between the two versions in question, diverging for a simple reason: how to deal with previous versions and existing published material. AEG had held each edition of the RPG up until Fantasy Flight purchased it, and over a 13 year period…things happened. Dynasties rose and fell, secret factions were revealed, and there was contact with the greater world at large. And it is, to put it in the most charitable way, a lot. One of the easiest ways to lose interested players is to effectively force them to read a novel’s worth of background material before they can get into playing, even if it is good reading. (I have this same issue with World of Darkness games). Each edition tackles it their own way.
The Fantasy Flight version turns back the clock, setting the timeline before the events of previous editions. They provide challenges that each Clan is dealing with at the moment: the Crab have lost patrols in the Shadowlands, the Crane have been devastated by a tsunami and their ships keep being raided, the Phoenix shugenja (priest/mages) have noticed an imbalance in the Water element, the Unicorn have been effectively blackmailed into giving up secrets of their magics, and there are accusations that the Dragon are adopting peasants into their ranks, an idea anathema to those who believe in the mandate from heaven, and the divine right to rule. FFG has also set up campaigns for GMs to start at the setting of the Beginner’s Box, but with the option of self-made characters instead of pregens and a fairly structured boxes setting to act as a continuation from the Beginner Box into a full campaign. While there is room to lay your own tracks, every game I have been in has started from the conceit of what was run in the starting adventure. And I would say that is for good reason: it’s an excellently written start that helps people understand the system well before offering the chance to branch outwards.
In comparison, the AEG solution was to try to embrace all versions simultaneously. An official description was “Rokugan Your Way”, purposefully keeping the timeline loose. While details of the different events could be found, specificity was left up to the GMs and players to decide. While flexibility increased, a few things of immediate importance are introduced: there are two new Great Clans that had been previously recognized in other editions. In this timeline, facing an apocalyptic event, the leader of the minor Mantis Clan (typically seen as pirates) threw down a gauntlet: either the other major Clans would acknowledge his people as equals, or he would attack the gathered Clan armies himself. Impressed by the sheer audacity, and needing the help the Clan leaders agreed. In the aftermath, the Mantis became a conglomeration of other former minor houses and carved out a niche as Rokugan’s primary naval force, merchants and bounty hunters. In addition, there is the Spider Clan: those who have sought out and worship the corruptive powers of the Shadowlands, and have managed to control it to an extent. While this puts them as anathema to most other Clans, it does provide an interesting way to have a potential “villain” PC in a way that isn’t just the Scorpion.
There is also a plethora of greater geography that is revealed in the expansive splatbooks. The FFG material mentions lands beyond Rokugan (and offers the chance to play in a few in one expansion) but keeps it fairly localized to neighboring trading partners. 4th edition, with its greater breadth of time offers a window into the greater world at large with analogues to India, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, Spain and Portugal among others. AEG also included a conversion guide for an earlier edition of Legends of the Burning Sands, based in a city state bordering sprawling kingdoms all competing for dominance over one city state. Outside of the xenophobic borders of Rokugan the Renaissance era has begun. Ships built to withstand ocean crossings are being built, and gunpowder has changed from a curiosity to a growing (if expensive) military staple.
So, do you need all of these things to run a 4th edition game? Emphatically not. Might you want them? Possibly. Because 4th edition does not stress a single canon, it relies on the judgment of the GM and players to curate what they want to be included. While potentially overwhelming, I have seen experienced GMs use the expansive lore to fascinating effect: late Renaissance Age of Sail, space opera, the fall of the Kami…even retrofitting the 5E beginner’s box with 4E rules. So I would say that there are more options available. Whether that is an asset or liability depends on how much you want to stretch the core setting.
While at their heart there are a lot of similarities in concept, it is shocking how much they diverge from each other when it actually comes time to roll the dice. In both, the FFG and AEG dice systems work on a “roll and keep” model, where players amass dice pools and keep the results they desire. In both cases, the number of dice rolled are based on the character’s applicable attribute (lower case) and skill rank. Both games include a target number that players are rolling against to hit. And from there, the similarities end.
In 4th edition, dice pools are composed of d10s, with the total number of dice equal to the sum of the applicable skill you are rolling for and its applicable Trait (such as Strength, Agility, Stamina, Intelligence, etc.), and then keeping a number of dice equal to that Trait. If the character has a rank in that skill, the 10s are rerolled, with that reroll adding to the sum of that individual die: i.e. a die that reads 10 is rerolled and comes up a 7, making that new value a 17. These rolls are modified by other factors: purchased Advantages and School Techniques that can offer more dice or flat bonuses (more on these later), but the end question is mostly the same: does your roll meet or exceed the TN? If so, you succeed. Do you want a greater effect? If so, you can call “Raises”, where you increase the target by five. If you fall short? Well, you shouldn’t have tried to show off.
However, there is an additional feature of those Traits: the titular Five Rings. The Five Rings are symbolic of the Rokugani elements of creation: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Void. Two of each of the Traits make up each Ring, and each Ring will not increase in value until both Traits are raised. Attributes are grouped (with the notable exception of Void) in pairs of mental and physical to each ring based on a general theme. Sturdy Earth keys off of both Stamina and Willpower, and is used to determine the player’s wounds. Consuming and passionate Fire is comprised of Dexterity and Intelligence.
If you are doing the math at home, this makes keeping dice and flat number bonuses extremely valuable, which leads a lot of players to sink more into Traits rather than a specific skill, especially because skills are linked directly to a specific attribute. To offset this, some skills offer bonuses for investing but it typically leads to some fairly static builds. If you want to make a courtier, that you invest in Awareness is all but a given, as almost all social skills involve it to some extent. Similarly to an artisan or scholar, Intelligence is almost a given.
In contrast, the FFG went off and did its own completely different thing with dice. Instead of a purely numerical system on the dice, FFG took notes from their own Genesys dice system, and replaced the number values on dice with symbols that you add up to make your final result. When players roll, the die faces may be blank, or can include Successes, Bonus successes (which explode, rerolling and adding the second result to the first), Opportunity, and sometimes Strife (typically paired with one of the others). While the pure success or failure of what you are trying to do depends upon hitting the target number, Opportunity can be spent to get something else or on top of your dice roll. Strife, typically paired with a success or opportunity, is a cost to keeping that die, representing the character’s composure as they deal with something difficult. Each character can take a limited amount of Strife before they make a scene, committing a social faux pas to the horror of those around them. If a bonus success is rolled, players have the option of keeping a success and rolling again. However, the more times you roll, the better odds that you rack up strife in the process.
Assembling the dice pool is again similar, but takes a serious departure. The FFG version focuses entirely on Rings: Air, Earth, Water, Fire, Void as a character’s attributes. Players assemble these dice pools by taking their Ring’s score and adding an equal number of d6, and then adding the Skill Dice (d12s) equal to the appropriate ranks. While you keep a number of dice total equal to your Ring, the d12 has much higher statistical probabilities of coming up with Successes and Opportunity, meaning that there is more of a reason to invest in skills.
More importantly, the FFG goes against the grain of the idea of using a specified ring for any one skill. Instead, the ring you choose represents how your character goes about trying to do something. Trying to convince someone to offer you a lower price on some goods by being charming would rely on your Water ring, while standing there looming over them as you politely mention how nice a workshop they have and it would “be a shame if something happened to it” could still be a Commerce check, but you’d be leaning into Fire. This feature, of all the tools the system offers, is the most significant to me. A lot of early gaming instinct when I began was to try to use a specific skill such as “I try to charm the guard”. One of the advantages of more narrative systems is to ask players how they try to achieve an objective, getting them to roleplay out what their character is doing, and only then setting the check. Having characters with specific traits does lean players into a bit of metagaming , as the player knows what their character is good at, but doing so also means that they begin to see the world as their characters do, which in my mind helps with immersion into the game.
That isn’t to say that there are not favored approaches to using a skill. Characters take Advantages and Disadvantages as part of the character creation process which can help with rerolls on dice depending on that specific trait. There might not be a specific Ring designated for Commerce, but Advantages typically list a specific ring to which their benefit or detriment applies to, which leads to a gentle nudge to a preferred direction. Furthermore, GMs are able to assign variable difficulty. Trying to outstubborn a bureaucrat using Earth might be a difficulty 4, while charming them would be easier. Sneakily picking a lock using Air might have a lower set difficulty than brute forcing it open, but maybe that’s how your character is.
I would say that the most visible effect this has on the system is in how combat mechanics function. In the AEG version, attack rolls are always assigned to a specific attribute depending on the weapon you use, with close quarters attacks based on Agility and ranged weapons on Reflexes. Weapon damage is also extremely high compared to a character’s wound ranks, meaning that a single hit can begin to spiral a combat out of control. Because of this, a player who wants to make a frontline character is almost locked in from the start to invest in Earth and Agility ranks, even before they begin looking at what whatever else they wish the character to be.
In contrast, the FFG version instead allows players to use any Ring in the combat, but it reflects their approach and sets a benefit depending on the one the character chooses. Speedy Air makes it more difficult for an opponent to hit you, adaptive Water allows players to make more than one move, aggressive Fire adds extra damage onto a successful attack, solid Earth makes it far more difficult for an opponent to land a Critical Hit, and centered Void prevents the character from taking strife as a result of their action.
As a result, there is no more need to build around specific Rings in order to be somewhat competent in combat. Even the reedy scribe can possibly get a good hit in, though school abilities and starting gear provides boosts for combat oriented characters that artisans, courtiers, and priests lack.
The difference caused by allowing players to effectively choose their primary combat stat is especially apparent in how duels, an essential part of Rokugani culture and law, are performed. With 4th edition, duels come down to three standardized rolls: assessment, focus, and strike, each relying specifically on a single skill (iaijutsu). Focus determines who has the chance to strike first, which essentially ends most duels because the target numbers to strike an unarmed opponent is rather low in comparison. As a result, the duel essentially comes down to which player can jack up the highest dice pool on a single roll, and with plenty of ways to optimize this means that a non-dedication duelist will almost always lose to someone who has specialized.
In contrast, 5E builds out duels as a specialized form of standard combat, with matches won on who manages to land the first critical strike, which can be done with a successful hit with two Opportunity or overloading the physical endurance of their opponent with solid strikes. While many builds I have seen have many similar traits, they are by no means exclusive paths to victory. The 4E method is certainly more streamlined, and easy to resolve (especially in a Play by Post game), but 5E opens up more avenues for players to try. It is a trade off that depends on the gamerunner’s situation, and in my opinion is not a gamebreaker for either version.
There are enough similarities between the two editions at character creation that I have to believe that the writers at FFG were at least inspired by AEG. But from a similar starting point, the two studios took the act of making a character into two different directions, and the splatbooks from each studio kept pushing those directions apart.
Both begin with a player selecting a Clan for their character to hail from, each which has a number of Families within them, along with typical Schools that would be available to that Clan. The Family is the line that your character has come from, which typically carries its own social expectations (and corresponding attribute bonus), while the School represents specific training in the form of more attribute bonuses, starting skills and equipment, and a unique school ability that makes it special.
4th edition then moves all character creation and advancement to a point buy system, with the option of sinking points into Attributes, Skills and Advantages (which offer situation specific advantages), potentially with offsetting costs with Disadvantages (the reverse of advantages).This, perhaps unsurprisingly, has led to a lot of character optimization in the games I have participated in. I am not going to say that this is a bad thing, and I know a lot of players for whom this is an attractive quality. Furthermore, the fact that the setting inherently sets players as small fish in a big world, I have seen few cases (outside of the aforementioned dueling rules) where one character is so leaps and bounds superior that there isn’t real danger to them, and those who I have seen trying to be so find themselves inept when needing to navigate other areas of Rokugani life. I honestly have not seen any play disruptions due to players trying to optimize. I have seen multiple times in other games where this has caused frustration from other players or GMs, where GMs feel that they need to throw challenges far beyond the scope of their story to keep up with certain characters and other players end up overshadowed. In 4th edition, the fact that Clans have fairly specific roles, coupled with a wide breadth of customization options has meant that players in the groups have found complementary niches rather than butting up against each other.
5th edition goes at character creation and development from a completely different tact. Yes, you begin the process by choosing a Clan, Family, and School, but these are put forward as steps in the character creation process. Seamus previously discussed this when reviewing the beta rules, and overall the system has stuck with it. The questions are fairly pointed, such as “what distracts you from your duty?” and “what do you think of the customs of honor that dictate our culture?” There are mechanical changes based on your choices, but phrasing the choices in this way begins to set down who your character is a person, not only what they are good at. The final question “How will your character die?” does absolutely nothing for the mechanics, but it absolutely offers a direction as to how you expect the character to live out their existence.
As of the publishing of the Path of Waves supplement, FFG has also introduced a completely new set of twenty questions for a brand new type of character for those not born into a Clan: ronin, peasants trying to work above their station, and foreigners who have arrived in a land that does not appreciate them. In all honesty, the mix and match variations that I see here are interesting enough to me that I might prefer to run a ronin game over the standard out of the box setting.
As an aside, I think special interest should be shown to how the FFG version handles Disadvantages. For one, taking at least two of them (an Adversity and an Anxiety) are mandatory, as opposed to being a way to game out receiving extra experience points. Furthermore, it’s actually not a bad thing for your Disadvantage to activate in game. While having a Disadvantage invoked is not pleasurable in the short term for your character, having them invoked in game is one of the only ways to increase the character’s supply of Void Points, which act as a luck mechanic when players want to nudge a result. While players can hav number of Void Points up to their Void Ring, the count only resets to half of their score at the end of each session. Playing out the Disadvantages that your player chooses rewards them, and can encourage them to seek out Disadvantages that they expect to be triggered with some regularity while normally players go out of their way to do the opposite. While I appreciate the relative simplicity of a point buy, I believe that the end result of the FFG method delivers a character that is more than a collection of stats and skills on a page. It delivers, at game start, a person for the player to roleplay out.
In the end, which do I think is better? As much as it is a cop out to say, the AEG or FFG edition fit depends a lot on the situation that you intend to run it in.
If you are trying to convince a group of number crunching, minutiae-loving roleplayers for whom Dungeons and Dragons has been their bread and butter, I see AEG’s version as the easier sell, as it is closer to what they are experienced with. If you, as gamerunner, enjoy the idea of competing noble families jockeying for power around a hereditary autocrat but want to flavor it to European history, or similarly want to take the core concept and place it in another setting, I think that you would have a more enjoyable time tinkering around with the mechanics with 4th edition.
In contrast, if you are working with players who are newer to the setting, or newer to games in general, and are working with a smaller group I think there is something to be said for the more narrative storytelling of 5th edition. FFG has brought their touches well to both the character development and dice mechanics to make the game immersive, and if you play for the story I believe that you will have more fun working from this version.