Legend of the Five Rings RPG
Upon first glance the book is like many other primary RPG rulebooks. It's a thick, well-bound, hardback, with a picture of a samurai dealing death to some masked warriors. The art remains consistantly good throughout the book, but I must admit that I did not find some of the styles used throughout to my taste, and the majority of it I found to be unmemorable. The full color sections, however, were very nice, and I especially liked the map towards the back (although portions of it are illegible due to being too close to the binding), both for style and usefullness.
The setting is Rokugan, the Emerald Empire, a land of stalwart Samurai, powerful Shugenja (magicians), and hideous Oni (demons) from the Shadowlands (an area to the south corrupted with dark magics). Even to the casual observer the game is based on Japanese culture (with some other Asian influences mixed in for good measure), but Rokugan has some differences. For one thing, although nearly all in the Emerald Empire recognize the authority of the Emperor, there are seven "Great Clans" which each have their own traditions and philosophy, and generally are in a constant state of conflict with each other. The 7 clans are (sound familiar White-Wolf fans?) Lion, a family of proud warriors and generals, Crane,who are noble courtiers and artisians, Scorpion, who are masterful decievers, Tremere,...er Phoenix, a clan of powerful Shugenja, Dragon, a family of myterious recluses, Unicorn, outsiders recently returned from a great journey, and Crab, brash ruthless soldiers who protect the Emerald Empire from the incursions of the Shadowlands.
To be honest, I could spend weeks discussing the rich background of Rokugan and Legend of the Five Rings, but I don't have that kind of time. So, to be succinct, its very good, with a few flaws and inconsistencies (usually with later supplements) that can be forgiven.
Character Creation and System:
Character creation is very simple, and as such has both positve aspects and negative aspects. For one thing, it makes White Wolf character creation look like rocket science, and GURPS character creation like 5th dimensional particle theory (does that even exist?). Mostly, it is a simple matter of choosing a clan and profession, writing down the modifiers the above give you to your various traits, and the skills your profession gives you. Then, you get some extra points to buy up traits, advantages, or skills. There are also disadvantages that can be taken to give your character extra points, a feature that I personally like but find annoyingly ubiquitous in roleplaying games today. On the subject of "nifty stuff", a character in Legend of the Five Rings has "Rings", which ordinarily would cause you to see a doctor, but in this case are based on the Five Rings of Miyamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings": Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Void. Each Ring (with the exception of Void) has two attributes underneath it and is equal to the lowest of the two. Additionally, character advancement to the next "Rank" is based somewhat upon your Ring scores. Fluff, but cool fluff.
The down side of simplicity is that, at least with the main rulebook, people have a tendency to produce "cookie-cutter" characters, only diffentiated by the way that players roleplay them. This is aggrevated by basically only having the choice of playing a bushi (i.e. samurai warrior) or shugenja (i.e. mage or wizard). This is rectified in the Way of X series of clanbooks, where many new professions for each specific clan are detailed, but it can be frustrating at first.
The system is rather like Star Wars meets Storyteller with a twist. You roll a number of ten-sided dice equal to your attribute plus your skill, then keep (usually the highest) a number of dice equal to your attribute, usually trying to beat a target number or an opponent's roll. There are some exceptions and additions to this rule, but the majority of the time this is all you need to know. Combat is quick, large battles are fun (and made easy to role-play with some cool tables), and Iaijutsu Duels (a special kind of sword fight where both combatants begin with their weapon's sheathed) are a blast.
I like the system, but sometimes I doubt that the "drop y" part of "roll x+y, drop y" is necessary. While I realize that it was put there in part to de-emphasize the importance of skills, I think that maybe it might just be needless complexity. This is probably just a personal gripe though, and may not be shared by all
Overall, I would have to say it is a worthy buy, especially if Asian cultures happen to be one of your interests. On a side note, many of the problems or errors in this book have been corrected in the supplements, which I find to be of generally excellent quality.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)