My Monday evening gaming group has the various group members GMing games in 4 week slots (give or take a week here and there), and when his slot comes around one of our newest members is going to be starting a Legend of the Five Rings campaign using the 4th Edition rules. In preparation, I looked at some previews of the book and realised that a) this is a gorgeous, gorgeous book and b) this is quite an involved setting and system and it would be handy to have my own copy. This being the case, I picked up the core rules to give them a read-over.
Legend of the Five Rings is inspired by wuxia, martial arts movies, and a host of Japanese sources (not least the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa) and presents a distinctly non-European fantasy setting. There’s obviously a fine tightrope to walk here in terms of cultural appropriation when you’re dealing with a Western RPG publisher taking inspiration from other cultures, and to give them their due Alderac Entertainment Group seem to be well aware of this. Firstly, they provide a big fat health warning that the world of the game is not Earth and the empire of Rokugan is not and should not be mistaken for Japan, China, Korea or any of the other cultures that the game draws on; secondly, although the GM section notes that there’s nothing stopping your gaming group taking a lighthearted, superficial approach to the setting if you want to and provides pointers as to how you can accomplish this, overwhelmingly the game encourages participants to engage with the style and conventions of the source material as well as engaging with the setting. Ultimately, whilst cultural appropriation is a problem, equally under-representation of non-European cultures in fantasy RPGs – or shallow misrepresentations – are a problem too, and although everyone will draw the line on this one differently and it isn’t my place to give Legend a free pass on this front I think it is important that the occasional RPG out there which isn’t white-centric gets published and pushed in the Western market.
Indeed, whilst some pseudo-Europeans visited Rokugan in the setting once, they are believed to be extinct (presumably to evade players clogging the game with their totally unique and special Tom-Cruise-in-The Last Samurai characters) and you don’t actually have the option to play one. Legend is very much focused on playing someone who hails from Rokugan, a blessed Empire whose elite samurai noble caste (which all player characters are assumed to be a part of, unless the option to play a monk is included) must face both internal divisions and external threats – not least the corruptive evil of the Shadowlands. PCs all hail from one of the noble Clans that together rule the Empire, and the most “foreign” character concepts available come in the form of the Unicorn Clan – one of the original Great Clans who went on a great expedition beyond Rokugan and returned centuries later with some foreign habits. (They’re basically pseudo-Mongols.)
As I understand it, Legend was based on a collectible card game and previous editions had a metaplot closely tied to this, with the canonical timeline effectively being steered by the result of official CCG tournaments. For 4th Edition an effort has been made to change this and give more support to GMs and players who don’t want to follow the canonical timeline – an entire supplement of possible alternate timelines has been published, and the rundown of history provided in the core book gives enough detail to potentially set a game anywhere in Rokugan’s 1200 years of recorded history.
One thing that struck me in reading the book is that whilst in many respects it’s a very 1990s RPG – you have your Clans acting as splats, you have your very developed world background that is (or at least was) evolved through a metaplot, you have a rhetorical emphasis on storytelling – there’s a rather old school class system running disguised under the surface of the game. Although all PCs are of the samurai social class, as a consequence of the school they pick to be trained in during character generation some will be dedicated warriors, some will be courtiers, and some will wield magical forces; all can have some competence in combat, but even so that’s some very clear niche protection there. You even have optional classes such as the monk and optional multiclassing rules!
It’s looking like I will be playing a magic-user, and I’ve noted some neat wrinkles in the system for magic. Legend runs on a roll-and-keep system, where action resolution entails rolling a number of D10s determined in one way and keeping a number of D10s determined as a subset of those. Magic use is one of the few things in the game in which your Ring scores directly come into play in determining number of dice kept, so the higher the relevant Ring score is the higher target numbers you can achieve; each of the five Rings (tied to the five elements) corresponds to a physical trait and a mental trait and is equal to whichever of those trait scores is lower. In practice, this creates a powerful encouragement for magicians to seek a balance between the mind and body rather than emphasising one over the other, which instantly shifts things away from the standard Euro-American fantasy trope of wizards being body-neglecting brainboxes.
Legend was originally designed by John Wick; the only game of his I have previously played is Houses of the Blooded, whose system I found to be a little wonky (not least because it seemed to try to implement some mechanics of FATE like Aspects in a strange player versus player fashion which, at least when the Monday night group tried it, didn’t quite work). Something that I think may work better here than in Houses is the concept of Raises, whereby a player voluntarily accepts an increased difficulty level prior to making a roll in order to get extra goodies for success. In Houses I found that we didn’t often go for these because it was fiddly to work out your odds, but with the roll and keep system it is somewhat easier to assess the odds and make the judgement call.
That’s it for first impressions, anyway. The thing about Legend is that whilst its setting is very detailed, and the core book is absolutely stuffed with material, at the same time you don’t actually need to know everything and a lot of stuff in the book consists of extra optional snackies. In fact, you’ve got enough material in the core book alone to keep you going for a good long time, which I suppose is the best praise you can give a core book. I may post more later on once we have given this a play.