Honor, steel, and politics collide in the Legend of the Five Rings tabletop roleplaying game. Set in Rokugan, a world heavily inspired by traditional and mythological Japan (as well as other Eastern influences), players take on the role of a young samurai to craft their own collaborative samurai fiction in this role play heavy but mechanically interesting tabletop RPG.
About this Review
This review covers the contents of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG Beginner Box. The game is published by Fantasy Flight Games and is the 5th installment of the rules, but the first under this publisher. The focus of this review will be on how the game’s systems work, a summary of how the game plays, the usability of the rulebook provided, and how well the contents of the box mesh together to make an enjoyable tabletop experience for game masters and players alike. There will also be rating of the game on a scale from one to ten, ten being a perfect score.
Contents of the Box
The Legends of the Five Rings Beginner Box contains:
- A four-page introduction pamphlet to tabletop RPGs & Rokugan (the game’s setting);
- A 35-page staple-bound adventure book: The Topaz Champion;
- Four pre-generated player character folios;
- A large double-sided color map. One side is all of Rokugan, the other side is of Tsuma (the area used for The Topaz Champion adventure.);
- 10 custom dice;
- A 48-page softcover rulebook; and
- 59 double-sided punch-out card stock character tokens.
All the above items come packaged in a cardboard box and is sold at retailers for the reasonable price of $40 USD, a fantastic value for your money considering that dice pack alone costs $13USD. It should be noted that there are also many free additional official resources available to players, including a follow up adventure to The Topaz Champion called In the palace of the Emerald Champion. Furthermore, three other official character folios are available online if the four included in the beginner box aren’t to your liking or you have a larger gaming group.
While the rule book makes efforts to acknowledge that the setting of Rokugan is created to emulate Eastern traditions, mythology, culture, religion, etc. and has short cultural sidebars in its text to explain certain components of its inspiration, it should be noted that it does leave you wanting more clarifications. I recognize that as a western reviewer, I am not in a position to comment on what the system does and doesn’t address correctly and, more importantly, with respect. For that reason I’d like to point readers of this review to the 30th episode of the Asian’s Represent podcast: Reflecting on Legends of the Five Rings for more details on this topic.
Overview of Systems & Gameplay
In Legend of the Five Rings, players take on the role of young samurais seeking to prove themselves. They are specialized in one of 4 subgroups:
- The Bushi ( A warrior, soldier or body guard, etc.)
- The Courtier (A diplomat, bureaucrat or courier, etc.)
- The Shugenja (A priest that can speak to spirits & perform magic); or
- The Monk (A spiritual individual dedicated to monastic lifestyle) .
These subgroups represent classes that the characters take on.
These characters can specialize in a number of skills and approaches. The skills fall into one of five categories: Artisanal, Martial, Scholar, Social, or Trade. Unlike games such as Dungeons and Dragons, a skill is not tied to a specific attribute but rather players can tackle problems and obstacles in the game by using these skills coupled with an approach. These approaches represent the method by which the character confronts their challenges. Are they graceful and precise like Air, steady and grounded like Earth, direct and inventive like Fire, balanced and flexible like Water or centered and enlightened like the Void? This method for skill check allows players to be creative and lean into their strengths when confronted by a skill challenge. Another byproduct of this is that players by default will have to be more descriptive in their actions and the system really shines at a table where players like to provide these kinds of details.
For example, a character who tackles a social problem by ferociously commanding the adversary to conform and is direct in what they say would be using a command check coupled with the fire approach. A different character may choose to be thorough and realistic in the instruction their command, this would be the same skill but coupled with a earth approach.
The game is also defined by its custom dice that are used with a “roll and keep” dice mechanic. When players are faced with a challenge that requires a skill check, they role a specified number of dice and chose from the results a set number of dice. Only the dice kept are used to determine the outcome of the check. The dice themselves have a combination of custom symbols, many di faces containing both positive and negative outcomes. This creates interesting choices for players as they select which dice to keep to resolve the challenge. Additionally, this generates fun roleplay. A player’s choice might result in successfully resolving a skill challenge, but making their characters suffer strife or stress in exchange.
Overall, the system runs smoothly, but might be a little more demanding on players who don’t take an active role at the table. The mechanics offer interesting options and can generate wonderful inspiration for roleplay, but you have to be ready and willing to take it on.
How does it run?
The adventure included in the Beginner Box, The Topaz Champion, is written in a “learn as you go” format. The adventure is divided into 8 “scenes” that progressively introduce all the rules and subsystems of the game to the players (and Game Master). It does so in simple and straightforward manner. Each scene is outlined in a logical flow, containing details for the Game Master such as descriptions, read-aloud text, skill checks with target difficulty and results, rewards, NPC statistics, and, most importantly, the rules as they become relevant to the game. While this structure does force the narrative into a fairly linear path going from one scene to the next, the scenes themselves offer players freedom to decide how to tackle the issues in front of them while walking through a new system.
Upon completing the first read-through of the adventure, the Game Master will probably feel confident in their understanding of the game and would be able to run it without reading through the rule book. The adventure is fun and the challenges presented to the players are diverse. Each scene takes a little over half an hour to complete, including pauses to provide rule descriptions. . All in all, The Topaz Champion will entertain your table for approximately two game sessions, for a total of about 5 hours of play. Note that your mileage may vary based on your players’ styles and level of experience.
The rulebook found in the beginner box contains all the rules introduced in the adventure module. It also contains additional specifications and resources a Game Master may need to run a game of Legend of the Five Rings. Contained within the short rule book are a handful of equipment tables that outline special weapons, gear, and armor players might come across. It is without a doubt an abridged version of the 336-page core rule book, only being 48 pages long, but it flows nicely and covers all mechanics of the game. There is a section dedicated to breaking down the skills of the game, which included very helpful examples of how the different approaches affect the skills. Another section contains 14 new NPCs, equipped with descriptions, stat blocks, equipment, special moves, and tactics that come to complement the cast of NPCs found in The Topaz Champion adventure.
On the other hand, in order to abbreviate the rules some elements of the game needed to be cut from the rulebook. There are two criticisms to note on this front. The first is the lack of exposition and lore found in this shortened version of the rules. Legend of the Five Rings’ main setting, Rokugan, is clearly full of factions, places, deities, and people of importance, but they are mostly ignored. Bits of lore are scattered throughout the other documents of the beginner’s guide (notably in The Topaz Champion) and conveys the feeling of being in a fully realized world but, it does not equip the Game Master with enough context or information to deliver a fully immersive experience to the players. In the eventually that a player asks questions about specific NPCs, factions, or histories of the setting that aren’t central to the adventure included in the box, a Game Master would likely need to improvise their response, using the flavor of the game as inspiration.
The second criticism is that the rule book does not contain any player character creation elements or skill progressions. Instead, the players are to choose one of the pre-generated characters. These characters are detailed in character folios which cover character backstory, advice for playing your character, an annotated character sheet, and breathtaking character art. The folios are fantastic and do a great job introducing the character and their stats to the players, it’s just a shame that you don’t have the resources to make your own in the beginner box.
The rulebook does, however, do a wonderful job equipping the Game Master with handy summary tables. These tables condense the main takeaways of the rules and systems presented. These summary tables could easily be put at the back of a Game Master screen or be used as handouts for players. The downside is these tables are spread throughout the materials instead of being in one spot that is easily accessible.
How it all ties together
One of the big strengths of the Legend of the Five Rings beginner box is how easy everything is to navigate. The experience is very well-curated and content is marked with little warnings and instructions telling players and Game Masters which books to read first, second, etc. There are also indicators for any parts of the content that shouldn’t be read until prompted to by the Game Master. It almost has legacy board game energy. The material is also tied together by astonishingly beautiful artwork. I dare say it is some of the most attractive artwork I’ve ever seen in tabletop RPG material. The images are full of vibrant colors, inspiring characters, and relevant scenes illustrating the concepts explained in the books.
All the components really come together nicely and the map and character tokens are a nice added touch. They go a long way to help visualize the space and cast of the game and can be easily reused for future adventures.
Groups looking to fulfil their dream of wielding a katana in a samurai fiction story will find much to like about the Legend of the Five Rings beginner box. While the box is missing some components of the core game (character creation for instance) it makes up for it with a well-paced pick-up and play adventure, beautiful artwork, and a well-curated introduction to the system. The contents of the beginner box make playing the game feel easy to start and understand. The roll and keep mechanics of the game offers players more choice than other dice rolling tabletop games and generates interesting roleplaying opportunities for those who enjoy it. All in all, it is a great game and I highly recommend the beginner box to anyone who might want to spend a few evenings with their friends living in the shoes of a company of Rokugan samurai.
I rate the game a 8 out of 10 for great.
- Product: Legend of the Five Rings, the Roleplaying Game (5th Edition), Beginner Game Box
- Designers: Max Brook, Tim HuckleBerry, and Katrina Ostrander
- Cover Art: Mathias Kollros
- Art Direction: Crystal Chang, and Andy Christensen
- Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
- Release Date: 2018
- ISBN: 978-1-63344-337-2