Summary: an excellent introduction to L5R 5th edition, with enough interesting moments and encounters to overcome a slightly dull story
My biases: longtime DnD player, rarely ever play any other RPG system (and never L5R), attracted to the concept of L5R (low fantasy, focus on honor and duty), enjoy medieval-based “swords and sorcery” settings, skeptical about “social conflict” and how that works, nervous about DM skills translating
Where I Come From
I’ve been playing DnD for almost twenty years now (good lord), almost always as DM. I also enjoy playing, but I enjoy DMing more, and my group of friends seem to love my adventures, and so here we are. I’ve enjoyed every edition of DnD since second (yes, even fourth), and we’ve had and are still having a great time with it.
Legend of the Five Rings, as an RPG, is always something I’ve admired from afar. I flipped through many cores, sourcebooks, adventure modules, etc. over the years. In fact, I bought the Second City module at Half-Price Books years ago just so I could read it. But, I never quite could pull the trigger into jumping into another RPG system, especially since the last time we did it (Shadowrun), it went so poorly.
But, while my group finds DnD5 passable, we don’t find it particularly inspiring. Or, maybe I’ve just run out of stories and surprises. Either way, I picked up the FFG L5R Beginner’s Box almost on a whim. I read through it, liked what I read, and ambushed the group with it. The response was measured, but evident, enthusiasm.
A Whole New World
Of course, this is very different from the stats and figures they are used to seeing. The fact that there are no basic physical attribute stats blew their minds. Since I wanted to get this first adventure done (or mostly done) in one session, I wasn’t going to bother with a “Session 0,” in which I explain all the clans and all the stats. In fact, I think this intro adventure sort of nudges you in that direction.
Tip 1: To the degree with which your players can tolerate it, don’t explain everything all up front. Explain the bare bones and answer questions along the way, but it’s fine to just jump right in, even if you are new to this system. New to RPGs? There is an additional flier you will want to read aloud, but it’s worth it.
We had a little trouble getting to agree on who would play which pregen character. I didn’t realize FFG had additional folios for free download until after the adventure was completed, which was especially painful because one of my players would have LOVED and been PERFECT for the Scorpion. Instead, he was “stuck” with Isawa Aki, which would be a problem later.
Tip 2: Download the additional pregen folios. Giving your players maximum options, especially when using pregens, is important.
All the Live Long Day
As I am new to the system entirely, I felt it necessary to stick with the adventure just as it is written, with little embellishment. My players are used to a world custom-made for them, so this was a little unnerving for them at first, but I think getting lost in this new system and the new culture masked much of that problem. As I got more confident in this system, I improvised more.
It wasn’t until discussion with the players afterwards that I realized the structure is intentionally repetitive. You see, the structure of the skill tests is essentially the same, and you do it 11 times in all. It’s broken up by some (much needed) fighting, and the dice themselves may provide some interest, but really, it’s just 44 skills tests.
But, by Day 2 of the tests, we were all very comfortable with the system, and so we could play around with the narrative more. I wish the Box would have given the GM a little more guidance around this (it does give some). Before the fight at the end of Day 1, I felt like I was on the verge of losing my players to boredom, but we all agreed that, in hindsight, the structure really helps beginners get comfortable with the core mechanic of the game. For some players, you may need it make it plain that there is a risk/reward system at play
Tip 3: Don’t be afraid to use the Opportunity dice to customize the narrative. Allow your players and yourself to use the Opportunity dice to come up with all kinds of different things. If you have GM skills, you can tamper down the effects later if needed.
The Aki Issue
My group saw Isawa Aki as a “wizard without spells.” Yes, this is a gross oversimplification. Yes, she has just as much of a chance to shine as the others do (maybe more, actually). But, it just so happened that she also struggled at her trial, which led to some hard feelings from that player.
The Aki player is also very competitive, and didn’t just want to pass, but wanted to be the Topaz Champion. As she only accumulated 3 points by the end of Day 1, the Championship was out of reach, and even graduating was at risk. Therefore, she changed from using the “correct” approach to just using Fire every time, to increase her odds of passing. Although I know much of this was brought on by unlucky rolls on Day 1, it was somewhat deflating for this player, who guessed the correct approach unfailingly, to not be significantly rewarded for it. Better GMing would have fixed this, but again, I was too nervous in this new system to deviate from the module in any substantial way.
Also, I see from other review/reports that Isawa Aki does not perform consistently worse than any other PC, so it is clearly not a balance issue. I’m still mad at myself for not downloading the Scorpion PC folio, because that would have fixed all of this.
Tip 4: If you have a player that loves keeping track of stuff (maps, names, clues, conversations), give them a table with all the competitors and how they are doing, and have that player keep track of the points.
The finale was rather chaotic for us, which is entirely my fault. It took us a while to understand range bands, and then applying that to battle. We got several things wrong, and so the gameplay was inconsistent. But, in the finale, the Aki player went from threatening to use her veto power and we would never play L5R again, to giving it another chance. You see, her dice came alive in the finale. She did a ton of damage to the bad guy herself, stringing together Explosive Successes on multiple turns. She even used her Void Point to Seize the Moment, which got her another Explosive to finish off the battle. It was like being at a craps table. Two of the players actually stood up and raised their arms in victory.
Components: top-top-notch. I LOVE the art. It is of exceptional quality, and we think it’s the best art we’ve ever seen in an RPG. I even love the map, with its mountains just being dark smudges, as a contrast to the vibrancy of the covers and the folios. If the art is the reason the MSRP is a little higher than their other Beginner boxes, I’m completely happy with that. Dice are great, although the black die faces with multiple symbols may require some squinting, since Success, Explosive Success, and Opportunity look very similar from a distance.
Writing/Structure: good quality. Very tiny, inconsequential proofreading mistakes. I felt like some of the judge’s descriptions were a bit on the nose, but clearly, mileage varies on this, and it’s better to err on the safe side since this is a Beginner’s game. Layout is very good. We are also board gamers, and have always liked FFG’s “Read This X” style of introducing rules. The narrative was predictable, but the structure works so well for a first adventure. Difficulty is, again, perfect for a first adventure. There will be some missed rolls that sting, but they have almost guaranteed that your players will feel accomplished.
System: works, passable, but far from perfect. “Narrative dice” is a new concept for us, but establishing the tone that the players are helping to tell the story really brought out some of the best roleplaying we have done in a while. In fact, they were more willing to do something to their character's detriment (honor loss, for example) since they control what that looks like. However, I can see this also being the reason why many groups would not like this game. It’s definitely not a tactical game. Combat is swingy and the steps to resolve combat (or conflict) feel like they can be streamlined. Those two things are probably linked—because it is not a tactical game, its conflict resolution is not streamlined.
I’m still not all that confident I could run my own L5R. I feel like I need to see some more examples of the game in action before I start crafting my own story, so we will run the free DLC adventure that continues from this one. But, we’re off to a great start.