Legend of the Five Rings is one of those games that holds special significance for many players. Since its inception the world of Rokugan has presented players with an approach to adventuring in sharp contrast to the traditions of D&D. To paraphrase a statement I’ve heard from multiple people
“Everybody is trying to play a paladin, except your moral code is in constant conflict with itself to the point that any solution to a challenge is simultaneously both the right and wrong thing to do.”
It’s a complicated (and often intimidating) world, built up over decades by AEG through both its RPG and CCG. So when Fantasy Flight Games acquired the licence, reset the lore and redesigned the system to use their custom dice it left many fans hesitant. After a turbulent open beta the first product in the new 5th edition line was the Beginners Game box set, released in 2018. I picked it up at the 2019 UK Games Expo and wanted to share my thoughts.
The beginner game comes with everything needed to introduce the world of Rokugan to a new group.
5d6 (ring) and 5d12 (skill) dice with custom symbols.
1 introduction to Rokugan pamphlet.
1 introductory adventure – The Topaz Championship
4 character folios
1 double-sided map sheet (1 large map, 2 smaller ones)
1 sheet of cardboard tokens
All of the above is provided in full colour, with extensive artwork that lives up to the expectations set by previous editions of the game and professional layout. There’s no other way to say this – this game looks great. Everything is also clearly labelled in terms of read order – with clear “Read this first/second/last” and “Only turn this page when told to” text blocks that help delineate sections.
The character folios are well designed, with clear background information and two double page character sheets. The first presents the character as they are at the start of the adventure, the second is blank and allows for players to spend XP following the adventures interlude. A particularly nice touch is the legend that explains the various sections of the character sheet, which will help avoid the all too common “where is X” or “how do I do Y” questions.
The Adventure and Rules
At the core of the box set is the introductory adventure – The Topaz Championship. This has been a staple since the early days of Rokugan and follows a group of young samurai as they seek to complete their gempukku, the coming of age ceremony that will mark them as adults. The 5th Edition write-up presented here has been cleanly repurposed not just as an introduction to the setting but to the mechanics. Rather than introduce everything all at once each scene layers on a new component, from basic dice rolls all the way up full combat. While the structure of the adventure is relatively straightforward it is generally well designed, extremely well presented and ideal for beginner groups. There is, unfortunately, a potential for the contests to devolve into a simple series of rolls with little roleplaying and new GMs could easily find themselves overwhelmed.
For more advanced groups there are a number of suggestions on how to expand the scope of the scenario, through extra encounters and intrigue. By the end of the Championship players and GM should have a good grasp of the base mechanics… to a point. A number of rules have been simplified requiring players and GM to relearn some mechanics if they continue beyond the initial adventure.
The rulebook included alongside the adventure is there for groups that want to go a little bit further and includes rules that are closer to those found in the full Core Rulebook. I say closer because a number of areas are omitted. There is no character creation or further options for spending XP. Disadvantages are absent, as are any rules for magic while only a partial and quick system is included for duelling. Without owning the Core Rulebook it is difficult to say what else has been omitted and how many systems have been simplified (I get the impression that the answer is quite a lot).
An extremely notable absence is the matter of death. With the exception of to the death duels there are no rules for when a character dies (and even then it is left to GM fiat). They can be incapacitated or rendered unconscious but that’s as far the text goes. For a system that has historically been associated with sudden character death this is a major omission and just doesn’t make any sense.
But what of the new system? Overall I have to say that I really like it. The new take on role and keep retains the flavour of exploding rolls without being as needlessly complicated as FFGs earlier take on Star Wars. Similarly the use of approaches and skill groups is a great way to limit a single attribute from dominating play.
The approach of encouraging players to use of all the rings even carries over into combat as each of the stances is tied to a specific ring. This forces players to consider whether they want to use their best ring or the bonus effect associated with a particular stance. I haven’t had a chance to stress test combat and assess how lethal it is but the mixture of fatigue and critical injuries makes a lot of sense and I could easily see characters being quickly incapacitated thanks to the multiple ways in which fatigue can accumulate. It is worth noting that I have seen posts online suggesting that the core rules may take a different approach to damage (though it is possible these were referring to the beta rules) and until I buy that book it will be difficult to really appreciate how combat plays out.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention during the beta was the strife mechanic but I think it may be one of the best additions to the game. Representing inner turmoil with mechanically helps to not only make the characters more human but to normalise the idea that they will slip up on occasion and drop the emotional mask that society expects them to wear. There were complaints that it took away player agency but to me that’s missing the point. Emotional outbursts are all about losing agency, whether they are screams of pure anguish or raucous laughter from a joke that shouldn’t be funny. You’re not in control and the mechanics highlight that. What’s especially nice is that they provide you an option to grit your teeth and pretend everything is ok but doing so prevents you from keeping dice that roll the strife symbol.
All in all the system does well to incorporate more modern, narrative based approaches to roleplaying while retaining a traditional core and so long as you are happy with the limited character progression (and lack of magic) you could easily use this introductory rulebook to run your own adventures.
There is a lot to like about the Beginner Game and I really want to say that I love it. Unfortunately there are just too many issues that detract from the set as a whole. First up are the mistakes. The booklets are littered with typos and sentences that don’t quite make sense. Most prominent is in the character folios, where the description of how to spend XP includes this glaring error:
That’s right, it says that to increase the ring costs 2x the new value and then uses maths that implies it is 3x. As an experienced gamer I can use my judgment and be fairly confident they meant 3x but this is a set aimed at new players, who might not be so sure. Given the retail price of ~£30 (making it more expensive than many starter sets) I would have expected proper proofreading from FFG. This appears to have been amended on the bonus online character folios so is hopefully something that will also be fixed in any subsequent printings.
Then there’s the choice of contents. Of the three maps (Tsuma village, the Emerald Champion’s castle and Rokugan itself) only one is actually used by the included adventure. The castle map requires that you download the free followup adventure, while the map of Rokugan would be better included with the core rulebook or GM kit. Next are the tokens, which are pretty much useless in my opinion. The game doesn’t use a combat map and while it does suggest you could use them to indicate where in Tsuma village characters are that just feels like an excuse to include them. How often will the party be separated to such a degree that you have trouble remembering where they all are? How often will you need 10 goblin tokens?
I just don’t see the point and would have preferred it if FFG had included the additional character folios from their website (you get only 4 while 3 more are available online). It’s also worth noting that if you wanted to print out additional copies of the included character folios you’ll need to purchase a digital copy of the beginner game. There is a standard, art free character sheet available online but it omits the useful explanations and background information that is present on the introductory folios.
Speaking of the characters – who on earth thought it would be a good idea to include a shugenja with no spells? Yes, you heard me correctly, one of the characters is a magic user but lacks any actual magical abilities! They can purchase a relatively limited spiritual technique during the interlude but that’s it, for most the adventure they are essentially just a scholar. I get that the characters are all young and in the process of completing the coming of age process but seriously? Magic is the whole point of being a shugenja and you couldn’t include even one basic spell? If the rules for magic are that complicated then just omit the class and include a note that it will be included in the core rules.
I have to admit that when I first opened the Beginner Game box set I was apprehensive. The open beta had left me with mixed feelings, the rules were too raw and felt like they had been rushed, as evidenced by how much even core mechanics changed during the course of playtesting. But I have to give FFG credit, they did change them and for the better. Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition is shaping up to be a solid game, with all the style and character of the previous editions. Which is why I wish I could rate this product more highly but ultimately the rules and presentation are let down by one too many small issues. Typos and errors, a magic user that doesn’t cast magic, tokens and maps that aren’t actually needed by the included adventure.
So would I recommend purchasing this? I don’t think so. In many respects it is a great introduction to the setting and system and is an excellent way to ease an entirely new group into the world of Rokugan. But it’s an expensive introductory set (mostly due to the requirement of including FFGs custom dice) and I just don’t see many people new to the hobby picking it up. I think it would actually work better if it were slimmed down even further to a shrink-wrapped magazine like format including just the adventure, character folios and dice, sold for just a little bit more than the stand alone dice set. That would put it in the impulse buy territory for both new and old players.
For more experienced tables my advice is simple – buy the core rulebook and club together for a set of the dice.
All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.