Imperial Histories, the fifth and latest book in the Legend of the Five Rings fourth edition roleplaying game, owes its existence to the design team's dedication to timeline neutrality, a relatively new concept for the series. Previous editions of the game have been designed to fit with one of several eras in the history of the Rokugani Empire, with the core and supplements providing mechanics and timelines based on the developing story, as determined by the results of card game tournaments. While some attempts were made to provide alternate settings, both other periods in Rokugani history and diverging timelines such as the Thousand Years of Darkness, the information available in published books was sparse, and the necessary mechanical alterations left entirely to gamemasters. The expressed dissatisfaction of some RPG players, who felt that their games were unfortunately and unfairly tied to developing events they had little to no control over, led the writers to separate the fourth edition as much from these events as possible, presenting a more basic core book that could, with minimal effort, be adapted to fit into any era in Rokugan's canonical history, or completely original timelines developed by individual GMs. Imperial Histories provides much-appreciated support for games running across the twelve centuries of Rokugan and beyond, providing detailed timelines, in-depth perspectives on important events, and suggestions for taking games "off the rails" and into unique versions of the L5R world. It also reminds me why I hate the canon L5R history so much.
Let's start with the basics, though -- this is a beautiful book, exactly as I'd expect from the fourth edition line (and a vast improvement over the rather monochrome look of the third edition). The art, all taken from the card game, is superb and serves well to accent the topics discussed in the text, without ever dominating the text or feeling out-of-place. This itself is an achievement, as many of the eras discussed in the book had no corrolaries in the card game, so as the writers explain, artwork was selected that matched the tone of the text, if not exactly matching the events, and the art director Todd Rowland has done an amazing job here. A particular favorite of mine is the use of the "Gaijin Writings" card art (from the direct-to-player Test of Enlightenment set) with the discussion of Rokugani xenophobia in the White Stag chapter. Nothing could portray the fear and confusion of the era better than a picture of an incredulous (and possibly terrified) samurai holding a western-style bound book at a distance with a cloth, upside-down. There were a small number of editing issues that caught my eye -- a "Chapter On" in the index, and the misspelling "saphire" in both the index and the chapter title for the Heroes of Rokugan section, which I'll get into later. Still, these issues are limited in scale and not damaging to the text, so they can be easily forgiven.
Prior to reading through the book, I had been concerned that it would prove rather dry, as timelines can be, and I am glad to say I was proven wrong. While timelines do make up the majority of the book, throughout the chapters are scattered sidebars giving additional detail, explaining why some events unfolded as they did, providing potential plot hooks, and giving suggestions for diverging from the canon history. Each chapter has multiple examples of the latter, giving GMs enough material to begin from established canon events and alter them as necessary in response to player actions. For me, this was the most important part, as it gives me as a GM the freedom to grant player-character actions a high level of importance, rather than limiting them to the roles of also-rans tagging along behind the major NPCs. Furthermore, every campaign type can find a home in this book -- politically-oriented games, for example, might be set in the exceptionally dangerous and subtle courts of the Gozoku era, while gamers preferring a more military game will find all the battle they need in the Clan War. Each chapter is accompanied by mechanics allowing players to customize their characters to fit the various eras. While there's not something for everyone in every chapter, there's quite enough to reflect the major factions that were active in each era.
Information on the seven primary canon eras discussed in this book (the Dawn of the Empire, the Rise of the Gozoku, White Stag, Prelude to the Scorpion Clan Coup, the Clan War, the Hidden Emperor, and the War of Spirits) can be found easily and freely online -- I'd suggest l5r.wikia.com -- so I won't delve too much into these, save to say that they are presented in extensive detail, giving gamers a well-organized and complete depiction of those eras. What I do want to to spend some time on are the three other chapters, detailing settings largely undescribed in previous published works. The first of these is a new entry into the canon storyline, The Great Famine, as described by Jason Bianchi. Bianchi was the winner of a competition held by AEG in support of Imperial Histories, offering fans the chance to add an entry into the game's canon, describing a previously undeveloped period of the Empire's history, or presenting a possible future that lays yet ahead. The Great Famine takes place over the span of nine years in the seventh century, during which abnormal weather patterns give rise to an Empire-wide food shortage, a dangerous plague, and a trade war between the Crab and Crane clans that threatens to destroy Rokugan's economy. Aside from the latter conflict, the major focus of the era is on the rise of the People's Legion, a peasant army that rises against the tyranny and oppression inflicted by the samurai, and which actually has some success, even against the peerless tacticians of the Lion clan, before finally being put down by Imperial forces. Following the Legion's destruction, the Emperor proclaims that the event should not be spoken of again, leading to wholesale destruction of records, and explaining why it never got mentioned in previous works. This, I feel, is a problem. While the Great Famine provides a setting in which player-characters can rise to prominance as great heroes of the People or noble defenders of the Empire, it means that, in the large scale, their actions will be of absolutely no consequence so long as the game adheres to the canon storyline. Some may not mind terribly much, since how their character is remembered by later generations is beyond the scope of their campaigns and thus doesn't matter, the idea that my character's actions would be wiped from history would leave me rather unmotivated. Furthermore, it damages one of the campaign types made possible by Imperial Histories -- the generational game -- making the concept of using this era with such a game rather pointless. Now, I do realize that gamers interested in generational games may be a most minor minority, but I see no reason to discourage them thusly. No harm would have befallen the canon by omitting the Imperially-mandated forgetting, as the final defeat of the People's Legion and the assassination of their leader returned the Empire to status quo, so all in all it seems very unnecessary.
The second "new" era is one that has actually been around for quite some time. The Heroes of Rokugan setting was developed for an extensive collection "living campaign" events, spanning from 2005 to 2010. The campaign is set several centuries after the current canon date, in a timeline in which the Toturi dynasty did not collapse under the challenges it faced, but rather survived and thrived. The gaijin of Merenae and Thrane, last seen in the White Stag era, have returned, and the chaos they bring with them ignites intrigue, war, and the possibly complete collapse of the Empire. These events, along with the broadening of horizons resulting from increased trade with gaijin nations, means there's something for every campaign to be found here. The machinations of the Three Old Men serve as a perfect backdrop for political campaigns, more military-minded groups might decide to fight against (or for!) the maddened Akodo Gintaku during his quest for power and godhood, while others might find interest in throwing their group into Otosan Uchi's walled-off foreign district, or might even treat their players to visits to the strange and exotic lands. As should be quite obvious by now, I really really like the Heroes of Rokugan era. The influx of new ideas and the development of a more modern, open worldview forces the Empire to grow up, in a sense, leaving behind old concepts and conflicts and taking its place on the world stage, with all that entails. It means that the sky really is the limit with this era -- anything can (and will) happen, and anyone could become a hero. While the multitude of plots and events that take place over the century described in this chapter may be intimidating to some, they are nevertheless sufficiently separated, allowing GMs to bring some events into the forefront while pushing others into the backdrop without harming the developing story. My only real complaint here is the quick and off-scene dispatching of the Spider clan (made up of the followers of the fallen Kami, Fu Leng, and his servant Daigotsu). While this was made necessary due to the time in which the original Heroes of Rokugan modules were written (the Spider didn't exist as a clan until a few years into the run), I was rather disappointed that there weren't any "alternate path" sidebars suggesting ways to include them in events, especially given the influence of the akutenshi Moto Yoshi on Akodo Gintaku's insane quest, as well as the fanaticism of the heartless khadi Miya Shiken. Either could have easily been converted into Spider infiltrators or agents, and in a book that is otherwise filled with alternative developments, the failure to include this one is a glaring omission.
Finally, there's the Thousand Years of Darkness, the original alternate timeline. KYD, as it's often called, is the result of a divergence during the Second Day of Thunder, in which Dragon clan Thunder Mirumoto Hitomi rejects her destined role in the defeat of Hantei XXXIX, who has been possessed by the fallen Kami Fu Leng. What unfolds is the story of an Empire ruled by darkness and fear, forcing samurai to choose between their duty to serve the Emperor and their duty to resist the forces of Jigoku. This is presented as a primarily military campaign, with options given for serving in the rebellious forces of the Shogun Akodo Kaneka, sabotaging the reign of Fu Leng from within with the suddenly heroic Kolat conspiracy, or even following the former Dark Master of Void Daigotsu, who rejected Fu Leng following the death of his lover, Shahai. While it's possible to construct a political campaign in this era, especially using the saboteur concept -- one can only imagine that the cutthroat politics of Rokugan have only become more literally lethal under Fu Leng -- to do so seems to miss the point. This is presented as a time when the absolute battle between good and evil is front and center, and samurai are called to decisive action for or against the Dark Emperor if they're to make any difference at all, or even to survive. The collapse of some factions (like the Bloodspeakers) that were active in the correlated canon eras of the Empire, and the forced alliances between other factions that would otherwise be at each others' throats (such as Kaneka's Legions and the Kolat) do serve to limit the types of stories that can be told in this setting. While I don't dislike the era due to its limitations, I will say that it will probably take a very creative GM to develop the variety of plots necessary to run an extended campaign in the time of the Dark Emperor.
It's important to note that not every major event within the Empire is detailed in Imperial Histories. The first and second rise of the Bloodspeaker Iuchiban cannot be found here, nor can any story developments after the resolution of the Spirit War. Luckily, information on the former can be found in the second fourth edition book, Enemies of the Empire, and the latter events from the Four Winds era to the rise of Empress Iweko I can be found in the third edition supplements The Four Winds and The Vacant Throne. The Bloodspeakers, then, are ready to go regardless of which uprising a GM might choose, while later events might require some mechanical tinkering to convert them properly to the fourth edition ruleset, but at most such alterations should be rather minor. There are no RPG resources, to my knowledge, available for events following the Celestial Tournament, including the War of Dark Fire, the Plague War, the Destroyer War, and the current Age of Expansion, but one will hope that we'll eventually see a book detailing these events and introducing any new options gamers may need to tailor their campaigns to fit these epic events.
So all that said -- that the book is a solid and beautiful work providing much-needed resources to players -- why does it leave me so frustrated? The flipside to this otherwise shiny coin is the the tarnish of the occasionally poorly-executed development of the L5R story. While I speak only for myself, I can say that the book brought back to mind much of the confusion and distaste for certain aspects of the story. Many of the eras presented seem to lack a central theme, or possess one that is incompletely developed or damaged. An example of this can be found in the War of Spirits era, in which heroes and villains from Rokugan's past return to the mortal realm following a pitched (and only somewhat successful) battle against the universe-destroying power of the Lying Darkness. While this would seem to provide a perfect setting for a conflict between the old an the new, especially in a tradition-governed society such as Rokugan (and indeed the Spirit armies were a playable faction in the card game at the time), the possibility of this being developed as a real and meaningful problem was absolutely shattered by the choice to establish the completely insane Hantei XVI, the Steel Chrysanthemum, as the nominal leader of the returned Spirits. The original reign of Hantei XVI has been described as the closest Rokugan had come at that point to open rebellion against an Emperor, and indeed he was finally killed by his otherwise faithful servant Hida Tsuneo, who was driven to the act after following an order from the Hantei to kill the Emperor's own mother. This is not a man that anyone could realistically follow, and the proximity to open rebellion during his reign only makes it more difficult to believe that the greater portion of returned Spirits would sign on to follow him. Not only does this force the rejection of any point the Spirits may have had by anyone with any sense, it also edges toward Idiot Plot territory -- that is, a plot that develops only because the participants are idiots. I can't think of a better way to describe any character that would willingly follow an obvious madman simply because "he's the Hantei". Not even the excuse of tradition can cover this one. Likewise, events such as the utter collapse of the Gozoku (although there is a sidebar giving suggestions for their survival), or the aforementioned purging of the histories regarding the Great Famine result in the complete failure of the Empire to develop in response to these threats, thus nullifying the messages that the eras could have focused on ("how much power should the Emperor have?" and "could the actions of peasants affect the Empire?" respectively). Without these key messages, either of which could have had reprecussions lasting for centuries at least, the importance of the events fades, and my interest in them sadly wanes.
Secondly, the latter half of the book (which deals with events dictated by CCG results) highlights one of the bigger problems with plot developments in L5R -- the "monster of the day" approach. From the Second Day of Thunder onward, the conflicts faced by the Empire have largely been external forces, each with the capability not only to destroy the Empire, but to seriously upset the Celestial Order and therefore to damage the universe itself. From Fu Leng to the Lying Darkness, to the Spirits (who denied some people the chance to achieve their destiny, resulting in the neccesary development of a new Spirit Realm, that of Thwarted Destiny). In each of these eras, it is difficult to develop stories focusing on the conflicts between the clans, as the challenges force the Empire to band together in the attempt to survive. This makes for convenient scenario development, as it allows characters from different clans to be grouped together without necessary conflict, but this comes at the cost of the distinct missions and identities of the very different clans. Once these rapid-fire events kick in, there is little canonical opportunity for the clans to settle in and develop their own stories. Furthermore, the constant assault of these threats can cause player fatigue, as it risks generating the feeling that the same character is fighting the same war three or more times, just with a different face strapped on the enemy each time. Again, this proves damaging to the unique and interesting messages that could have dominated these eras, as players may not care about, say, the conflict between attachment to tradition and the need for change, as all it means is that they get thrown into yet another battle against yet another dangerous madman.
So if the L5R story can annoy me to the point of speechlessness (not that it shows here, thanks to a chance to process my problems in advance with our own Darren MacLennan), can I possibly recommend this book? The answer is a whole-hearted yes -- the story may get to me at times, but Imperial Histories is simply too good of a resource to ignore because of that admittedly personal problem. The multitude of alternate possibilities discussed in the book means that even gamers who can't stand the story as written can still use various events as "jumping off points" for developing a story that better suits their tastes. Those who love the story -- and I don't begrudge anyone that, as taste is ultimately subjective -- will find it a wonderful source of information on Rokugan's rich and colorful history, while those who like me have problems with the story can gleefully cut and paste, use and ignore, and build their own Empires with a minimum of work and fuss, using the information found in this book as templates to use in their own developments. It serves to prove the writing team entirely right in adding timeline neutrality to the design philosophy and is a very worthy addition to L5R fans' gaming shelf.
Style: 4. With only a few minor exceptions, the presentation of this book is aesthetically pleasing -- it looks great, and is presented in a manner that makes it a pleasure to read.
Substance: 3. The material found here is presented in the efficient yet detailed manner I've come to expect from L5R 4, but a handful of missteps and omissions may disappoint some readers.