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Jan 21

Legend of the Five Rings – Our Experiences and Insights

At Lothian Gamers we’ve been playing Legend of the Five Rings for just over three months now so I thought it was a good time to share some of our experiences and things we’ve discovered through playing that might be of interest to anyone thinking of playing or running L5R.

 

Long campaigns and starting XP

Long campaigns are certainly possible and levelling up too quickly isn’t something that you really need to worry about – I’ve been giving out 5/6 xp per session on average (plus bonus xp for good roleplaying, interesting ideas, etc) and we’ve only just reached the point where 3 of the 5 characters have reached insight rank 2. I’m planning to slow it down to 4/5 per session from now on as it’s been intended as a long campaign but wanted them to diverge a little more with their rank 2 school techniques and so they have experience of what it’s like to go up in insight rank. As you’ll have heard from Mike on the podcast so far the party have gone through their gempukku (the Topaz Championship), investigated a village that had been taken over by Maho-Tsukai and zombies, become magistrates and assisted in securing Friendly Traveller Sake (best in all of Rokugan) for the Emerald Champion while having to prevent the revenge of a splinter family of the Daidoji from a centuries old civil war. Then they travelled up the length of Rokugan visiting temples and minor clans on their way to Shiro Iuchi to take a cache of spell scrolls to the Setsuban Festival at the Shrine of the Ki-Rin in the Phoenix Mountains.

So far there’s been hints of the main overarching story but it’s still to come to the fore and that’s about to start in the next few weeks with some familiar enemies and the fun of the character’s first Winter Court so there’s still a good amount of L5R gaming to come!

For a lot of new people to the system, one big question is what to spend their starting experience on. Mike’s playing a Kaiu Engineer, meaning he started with intelligence four while most characters started with two stats at three and the rest at two. By coincidence, games were one of the events in the Topaz Championship and despite not having spent any experience on games, Kaiu Ichiro was one of the best there comfortably beating competitors with three or four ranks and intelligence 2. Having no ranks in a skill means that the dice can’t ‘explode’ on a ten but because all rolls are “roll [stat+skill]number of dice and keep [stat] number of dice” Ichiro-san was able to keep enough dice to win most contests. Having a high number of ranks in a skill makes you more reliable but keeping a large number is what makes you able to hit the high target numbers easily. Generally, stats are more important than skills and now most of the group are saving up for stat increases rather than skill improvements (though the skill masteries at rank 3, 5, 7 and 10 do give extra incentive to improve skills, it’s really only to reach those masteries that players are taking many skills), unless it’s to avoid penalties for being unskilled.

 

Stats and skills are still important!

Stats and skills also have a big impact on a characters Insight score, which determines the insight rank of the character (and the number of spells shugenja know and the school techniques non-shugenja have access to). Each ring has two stats that determine it and ring scores and stats are what makes up the insight score. Rings give a big amount of insight for their rank (ten per ring rank) while skills are one per rank (through some skill masteries add to insight as well) meaning that two characters with the same amount of experience can be very different in terms of insight score/rank depending on how they’ve spent their experience. There are also other things characters can spend experience on – kihos for shugenja and monks, bushi can acquire katas that give small bonuses if they meet the requirements and spend a few experience on them. Kiho/Kata have a small drawback though – none of them increase insight, meaning the character has spent experience but is no closer to reaching their next school technique/spells.

 

Combat is deadly!

L5R has a reputation for having deadly combat and I can’t disagree. We’ve only had two deaths in the party so far, but if it wasn’t for the Dark Fate disadvantage (you’ll do something that will greatly harm the empire but once per session until that happens a killing blow leave you with 1hp) we’d have had one in the introductory scenario! Because a decent hit can leave a character at a point where they have wound penalties (a higher target number than usual for all rolls) a single foe is often harder to make a challenge for the whole party even if they’re one or two insight ranks higher than the party. Big boss bad guys need mooks to distract the party, tie them up for a while when the bad guy uses his abilities to make things more difficult and dangerous for the party. Some of the harder fights the party have had have been foes with a half decent chance to hit them but the numbers to make it happen once a round. ‘Action Economy’ is a phrase used often with regards to D&D, Pathfinder et al. and it refers to Big Bad Evil Guys/Bosses as being easy to take down for one simple reason – for every one action they get, the party gets four. So if the BBEG swings his sword and takes half the fighters health away, the fighter attacks him back, the rogue sneak attacks, the wizard casts a spell to do damage, debuff or create a tactical advantage and the cleric heals the fighter’s damage, assists or boosts the party in some way.

This keeps happening so even though the BBEG has tricks up his sleeve, lots of hit points and more levels it’s still going to have problems. It’s the same reason the Mystic Theurge is much maligned – it’s a spell level below a pure wizard, a spell level below a pure cleric and even though it has more options and both sets of spells it can still only cast one spell per round just the same as a pure wizard or cleric. L5R is a hard lesson in action economy – if your enemy has more attacks than you and those attacks can make it even more difficult or impossible to strike back it’s going to be a very, very bad day and put you in an impossible situation very quickly. For any starting GM for L5R, I’d suggest start with groups of enemies of one or two, roughly half the party’s number. Then try experimenting with a shugenja, or higher rank enemy in place of one of them. Build up, give them an opportunity to fight an equal number or higher number of enemies that doesn’t put them at any real risk (friendly skirmish perhaps?) and get a feel for what the party can deal with comfortably and give them fights that sometimes aren’t fair, will be tough but they can win. Even if it’s just by remembering a ronin or a bandit wants to live to see their next meal and they can wait for an easier target.

The most important actions in combat in L5R are the ones that start inflicting wound penalties or ones that let someone ignore them for a few rounds (or healing them with shugenja spells even) because they really change the face of combat.

I hope that gives people a bit more insight into L5R and ideas of how to run or make effective characters (remember, stats are useful but skills help a lot as well. Balance isn’t a bad idea) and why combat starts to get deadly, especially with a large group of enemies.

Good luck, happy gaming and roll well!

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