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Review: Legend of the Five Rings Beginner Box

August 28, 2018

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First, a little history…

Legend of the Five Rings is role playing set in Rokugan, which is similar to Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate, but with fantasy elements.  The setting features noble samurai,  wise monks and mysterious shugenja (priests)  that wield swords, fists, and spiritual powers (respectively) to obtain honor and fame in the honor-bound feudal setting.  Each character derives from a powerful clan (Crane, Crab, Lion, Phoenix, Dragon, Scorpion, and Unicorn) each with  their own motivations and agendas.

The game got its start in 1995 with AEG, which released a role playing game along with a collectible card game that was fairly popular at the time (and which persisted until 2015).   Fantasy Flight has acquired the rights to this rich setting, and launched things last year at Gen Con with an oriental styled parade from the street through Gen Con itself, gathering quite a crowd.

Here’s a fleeting picture I snapped at the time:

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2017 Rokugan Parade

Fantasy Flight is doing some pretty impressive stuff with the property, including kicking off the new card game (which is about a year old, and I’ve heard good things, but haven’t played). But more importantly for Skyland Games readers, they have been working on a new version of the RPG rules which have been in beta testing for some time now.  You can download those beta test rules HERE.  However, smart money might just guide you to pick up the Beginner box which just came out.  I did, and I’d say on the whole it was worth it, unless you’re sure sure sure you want to play and can’t wait for the final rules to be released next year (TBD as of this article).

The Beginner Box: Contents

The L5R Beginner Box is an attractive set, coming with maps of the larger region, maps of a medium sized city / village, and a map of a large castle not actually featured in the boxed set itself (but available for some online content I’ll discuss later).

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It also features a full set of Legend of the Rings dice, which are unique to the system. As with FFG’s Star Wars beginner boxes, the dice are about a $13 dollar value, which begins to justify the total MSRP of $39.95

The game includes an adventure that presumes no knowledge of the rules or how to play, and teaches both game master and players how to play as the game continues.  While theoretically that would allow you to start playing almost immediately, in reality the GM is going to need to read through the entire booklet to grasp the concepts before sitting down to run.

Without giving anything away, the adventure “The Topaz Championship” is a coming-of-age ceremony for persons of the samurai caste, which includes in this case a Phoneix clan shugenja, a Dragon clan Monk, a Crane clan Courtier and a Lion clan warrior.  The adventurers find themselves travelling together and form an unlikely bond when strange events occur that unite them in a common purpose.

The adventure itself is not the strongest adventure out there, but does unfold the concepts nicely and provides a way to ease into more and more of the rules as you play.  It starts with introducing setting and role playing concepts, then evolves into skill challenges, then non-lethal combat, then lethal combat.  Each character booklet presented to each player gives a skeletal version of the rules, indications of what the symbols on the dice mean, and what various actions can be taken.  A small more detailed rules-lite version of the full rules is also in the box, which allows for more nuanced play outside of the extra-lite rules in the adventure itself.

The Rules

The Beginner box gives us a good idea, if not a perfect idea, of what the game will look like upon release.  First I should note that, though the system holds similarities to the Genesys game that is the framework for many future releases from FFG, it is not that system, which to me was a bit of a disappointment.  While I have no desire to return the the days of d20 where everything was a d20 system and rules became painfully bland, there is some lack of utility in being similar to but different than a new standard from the same company.  Presumably, the rules presented are tied deeply into the concepts of the whole setting in a way to will prove meaningful enough to justify a new play format.

First, players have stats that derive from the Five Rings, (as set out by Musashi in 1645).  Fire = Passion; Earth = Discipline; Water = Adaptability; Air = Precision; Void = Spirituality

These are your core abilities, rather than agility, strength, etc.  The characters also have skills, ranging from law, to martial arts, to courtesy.  Many of the skills are not what you would call your standard fantasy adventure game skills.

Making a check requires rolling black ring dice, in addition to white skill dice.  One for each point you have in the ring or in the skill.

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You may keep as many dice as you have values in the ring you are using.  The versatility of the system is that it allows you to often parlay the way you are approaching something to make it something you are good at. For instance, if you want to knock someone down, you needn’t use Fire + Unarmed Combat (charging at them), you could instead nimbly dodge their blows, striking only with precision (Air+Unarmed Combat) or use their own momentum to throw them off balance (Water+Unarmed Combat).  Some approaches are more effective than others.

Dice have four results:

  • Success:  You need enough of these to reach your target number set by the GM
  • Exploding Successes: You count this as a success and then roll the die again, opting to keep this next roll as part of the first, or dropping it.  These subsequent rolls can go on into infinity and aren’t counted against you as part of your ring limit.
  • Opportunity: This works, as far as I can tell, like advantage in Genesys or FFG Star Wars, but perhaps with more restrictions depending on the type of ring you were using.  Rules are skeletal here, and may be expanded on in the main book.
  • Strife: This is emotion or stress that causes you to lose your cool.

Unlike those other systems, there are no difficulty, challenge or setback dice.  Also, strife appears along with positive dice results (like success, exploding success, and opportunity) thereby baiting the player to take those results.

Strife isn’t the end of the world, but if it surpasses your Discipline result, you can become compromised, which precludes the character from using results that have strife on them (which really cuts your opportunities).  That character can try to handle their situation until they regain composure, or they can become “unmasked” and clear their strife, usually with some loss of honor from their unseemly behavior.

Pros & Cons:

The game seems to have some potential, but as a new player to this version of the game, getting used to the idea of justifying your ring choice presented a little bit of a stumbling block.  With some more play, I’m confident that the game will feel more natural. In some ways it encourages roleplaying the type of character you are to fit your actions, and rewards creativity.

Dice in these games are always an issue.  Many of my players immediately splurged on the dice app available on Google Play and Apple.  These apps help to solve the problem of keeping track of what you previously rolled when you get a good run of exploding successes and start to run out of dice.  With a game at this point in development, everyone would have to own a beginner box to have dice of their own, and that’s not going to happen.  So it’s either pass those dice or get an app (for now).

The setting itself is unique, and as a student of Asian culture, I love a lot of the details, though these might be a little cumbersome for the unintitiated.  I’m unaware if any fantasy history has carried forward over the past 23 years.  People have loved this setting for decades and might not want to let that history go… like this guy:

The game is more serious than a lot of other fantasy settings, as it deals primarily with the conflict between desire and duty.  As such, L5R is likely to be a subtle game, and is really going to be the best fit with experienced gamers, or players that are naturally more serious and have a flair for the dramatic and the setting itself.  Beer and pretzel gamers are probably less likely to enjoy the subtlety of the concepts and the balance required in the game play.

In the past, I’ve always found the game a little tricky to prepare.  The characters are almost by definition at odds where their houses are concerned, vying for influence in Rokugan, and that’s going to make things a little tense and maybe a little uncooperative.  For that reason, it’s not going to be the game for everyone and it may be hard to prepare an adventure yourself with a party so divided.  Fortunately, one can usually fall back on duty to guide the party to a common goal, even if they can’t agree on how to get there.

Fantasy flight has released a free downloadable adventure and additional characters, which I have heard good things about.  The map of the castle in the beginner box is for that adventure, and the characters are set to proceed with unifying purpose which originates in the beginner box, making it worth the quick playthrough.

Total beginner box playthrough time is going to take from 4 to 8 hours.  No word on how long the expansion material will take. This play time will be greatly enhanced by the GM reading the optional expansive rules book in the box and understanding those concepts before sitting down to play.

TLDR:  The Legend of the Five Rings Beginner Box teaches a subtle nuanced game to fans of the genre with minimal impact on players and GM alike, and is worth the price of admission for players who can’t wait for the full rules coming out in the months to come.

 

 

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