Legend of the Five Rings 2nd Edition
Legend of the Five Rings 2nd Edition Capsule Review by Myranda Kalis on 15/07/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Legend of the Five Rings 2nd Edition takes the Empire of Rokugan straight to Hell and its fans along for a thrilling, engrossing, engaging game.
Product: Legend of the Five Rings 2nd Edition
Author: Ree Soesbee
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Line: Legend of the Five Rings
Page count: 257
Year published: 2000
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Myranda Kalis on 15/07/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Asian/Far East
As anyone who knows me can tell you, I have many somewhat obsessive likes and dislikes. I love anime and manga; you had better keep that obnoxious "American manga" as far from me as humanly possible. I have a voluminous collection of "soft" sci fi, military fantasy, and quirky little novels that fit no categories I can describe; excruciatingly technical plausibility has no place in the fantasy world in which I live. I love roleplaying games, their supplements, and all the minutiae attached thereto; I passed on the whole Collector Card Game thing in order to prevent Wizards of the Coast from taking over the world. Now here I sit, reviewing the second edition of their roleplaying game Legend of the Five Rings, at least partially attached to a CCG, and I am forced to admit that I wish I had managed it sooner. I am normally a woman of two minds concerning games with strong metaplot components--either I like them (as with Heaven & Earth) or I detest them with a white hot fiery passion that will never die (as with The Forgotten Realms, Vampire the Masquerade, and, most especially, Changeling the Dreaming). Legend of the Five Rings' metaplot grabbed me by the ear, dragged me into the practice ring, and beat me stupid with a bokken, which means I at least find it useful and compelling enough to take into account when designing a story. I hope to conduct a playtest and subsequent review later this summer.
Legend of the Five Rings Second Edition consists of four chapters and extensive appendices. I'll cover them point by point below.
CHAPTER ONE: EARTH is LotFR's "setting" chapter--it contains both the ubiquitous "what is a roleplaying game" introductory statement, then swings directly into the history of Rokugan ("not Japan"), its people, and its culture. For those who were as only passing aware of LotFR as I was, the Empire of Rokugan is heavily based on medieval Japanese culture and Japanese mythology. A historical Japanese game it is not, nor should it be treated as one. Rather, it captures the tone and flavor of medieval Japan in its use of a kami-descended Emperor, noble families, samurai, the all-pervasive presence of gods and spirits, and the more delicate nuances of religion, politics, and social strata. This chapter is extremely information-dense as it contains an excellently detailed and well-realized description of a complicated world, one which feels at once familiar and alien. Covered in detail are: the history of the Empire of Rokugan, the major and minor Rokugani Clans, the class structure of the Empire, religion, politics, and culture. Most of this is engagingly well-written and informative. My one quibble with this chapter is that the section on the minor clans of Rokugan feels both tacked on and badly truncated; this is a problem that occurs throughout the book. Given their potential importance in the LotFR current metaplot--the Clan War--this is an unfortunate oversight.
CHAPTER TWO: WATER is the character creation chapter and contains everything even a LotFR newbie such as myself might need to generate a character. Well, okay, not everything, but the major bones of construction are there for one of the two most common occupations for LotFRs PCs--bushi (samurai) or shugenja (mage)--laid out in clear, easy to use, easy to reference fashion. Additionally, this section contains beautiful full-color reference pages for bushi and shugenja of each of the major Clans (and the ronin) with all the mechanical character creation information for a member of that Clan laid out at your fingertips. This is supremely useful and cuts down the amount of time one spends flipping around, looking up references. Once again, however, the minor clans get somewhat short shrift--you can create a character derived from a minor clan with the rules included here, but, unless you own another LotFR book ("The Way of the Minor Clans"), you will not have access to any of the specialty strengths, weaknesses, or techniques of the bushi and shugenja of those clans. A bit more of that information included in the core rules would have been useful.
CHAPTER THREE: FIRE is the mechanical chapter and contains detailed desciptions of the function of the Five Rings and their associated traits. Basic dice-rolling procedures are covered, as is combat of all types, duels, the process of awarding honor and glory, and the processes of spell research, along with statistics on various sorts of weapons and nonweapon combat. As I've not yet had a chance to playtest, I can't make in-depth comments on the utility of the mechanical system. I can say that it doesn't look like it'll require a graphing calculator and in-depth knowledge of algorhythmic design to resolve combat, which is always a plus.
CHAPTER FOUR: AIR is the "magic" chapter--it contains both detailed discussion of the Shugenja and their place in Rokugani culture, how the use of magic interacts with Rokugani religion, brief notes on other types of magic (maho/black magic, folk magic, and superstitions), and what the elemental magics practiced by the Rokugani can and cannot do. Mechanics and spell lists cover the three basic spells that all Shugenja possess and six levels of various spells in four elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water). It is noted in the beginning of this chapter that some spells and their effects have been changed between editions, but the specific spells are not themselves indicated.
The APPENDICES are among the most useful of any game that I currently own. Among them include a page that specifically details the changes between First Edition and Second Edition rules, an impossibly useful addition that EVERY game of more than one edition should consider instituting; pages detailing the most important "new" information contained in the major Clans' splatbooks (such as other families and bushi and shugenja schools within the major Clans); spell and weapon charts; and an extensive list of resources. Some of which I haven't even seen yet.
Here there be SPOILERS for the Legend of the Five Rings metaplot developments.
THE GOOD: The best part of LotFR 2nd Edition is, in my opinion, its quick and easy level of absorption, its extremely detailed and fascinating setting, and the fact that its metaplot, while pervasive, is also tremendously hook-laden at many levels. Even though I had no familiarity whatsoever with LotFR 1st Edition, I was sucked right into this game's world by the history, the nature of the Clans, and the liberally scattered flavor text, which details the current straits of the Empire of Rokugan--and, gods help me, actually inspired in me the desire to hunt down and read the LotFR novels. Characters leapt instantly to mind. Stories started writing themselves in my head. An evil smile came to my face. I started bonding with the Scorpion Clan. Using the basic character generation rules laid out on the Clan pages took me about an hour and a half to create both a bushi and a shugenja character, and the question and answer section at the beginning of the character generation chapter is actually quite useful.
THE BAD: If you REALLY want to play a member of a minor Clan, you're going to have to invest in "The Way of the Minor Clans."
THE UGLY: The state of the Empire in 2nd Edition. Set some years after the Scorpion Clan Coup, in which the Scorpion Clan attempted to save the Empire in their inimitable fashion, things have gone almost straight to Hell--the Crab Clan has betrayed its centuries- long trust and joined forces with the darkness they once opposed, the Lion Clan has been gutted by the loss of one of its premier families, the Scorpion Clan lies shattered by the aftermath of its failure to save the Empire, the Lions and the Cranes war like spoiled children for the Emperor's favor, the Dragon, Phoenix, and Unicorn Clans all face trials that they have never seen before, with the minor Clans and the common folk of Rokugan caught in the middle. The Clan Wars have begun--may you live in interesting times.
"Tomoe Gozen" and "The Golden Naginata" by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Two novels pertaining to easily the most famous of Japan's female samurai, Tomoe Gozen, and set in an "alternate universe" in which magic is real and samurai really can prove themselves to be the equals of gods and demons in battle. The books have been out of print for a number of years but you can still find them on the shelves of used bookstores and haunting the dealer rooms of sci fi and fantasy conventions (I found mine at Darkover '99).