Saturday, October 1, 2022

L5R 4e Primer

This is a short primer I wrote for my current Legend of the 5 Rings 4th Edition campaign (you can find the megapost here), in case any of you are interested in running this system or introducing it to your friends. 

The Primer

You are a samurai. You live, fight, and die in the empire of Rokugan, a fantasy mashup of East Asia filled with magic. The gods and spirits are real, some might be your ancestors. Heaven is a place you can fly to (if you go without permission you will be shot down) and your soul is trapped in a cycle of reincarnation. Demons are also real, and there’s a whole land of them just to the south which are barely held back. Good luck. 

Your character, mechanically and RP-wise, can vary a lot, but a few things are constant. Honor and Glory matter to you, as does the code of Bushido, whether you follow it or defy it. A samurai’s life is marked by five events: Birth, Graduation, Marriage, Retirement, Death. The three in the middle are expected but not absolutely necessary. 

You live in a society full of ritual and history, where it’s easier to justify murder than an insult, and where the wrong word can be the difference between eating like a king or begging for scraps on the roadside. You are part of a hierarchy, with lords you obey and peasants who are utterly terrified of you. Figuring out how to get what you want while dealing within the system is difficult, but it’s part of the fun. In D&D terms, you might be Good, Neutral or Evil, but you’re definitely Lawful. If you can’t navigate Rokugani society, you’ll be a pariah at best, hung from the nearest tree at worst. 

Basic Mechanics

You roll pools of d10s. When you see XdY, it means roll X d10 and keep the best Y d10. You will never keep more dice than you roll. Usually, you keep dice equal to your trait, like Reflex when rolling attack, or Fire when casting a Fire spell. For example, a player with Reflexes 3 and Archery 2 would roll 5 dice and keep 3, and the sum of those 3 dice is the total of the roll.

Dice explode on a 10, meaning that you get to reroll and add the result on top of the 10, unless otherwise noted. If you roll another 10, they explode again. This can get crazy. 

When you fail a roll, you can sometimes roll a second time at a +10 penalty. Wanna try again to climb that tree? Go ahead. Obviously, this doesn’t work for attack rolls and most mental skills. And there’s no third shot. You just ain’t climbing that tree. GM has final say. 

Other, more exotic rolls like Cooperative rolls and Cumulative rolls also exist, don’t worry about them just yet. 

Rings and Traits

Why is this called Legend of the 5 Rings? The 5 Rings are Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Void, representing your alignment with the four fundamental elements of the world and the voidness that unites them. Each Ring is associated with two Traits, one physical and one mental:

Air: Reflexes and Awareness
Earth: Stamina and Willpower
Fire: Agility and Intelligence
Water: Strength and Perception
Void is not associated with traits, but Void Points, which can be spent to enhance rolls. 

All PCs start with these traits and rings at 2, though by the end of character creation you’ll have a few raised to 3.

Your Ring is equal to the lower of the associated Traits. For example, if you have 2 Agility and 4 Intelligence, you have 2 Fire. If you improve your Agility to 3, your Fire goes to 3 as well. 

Traits and Void can be improved directly. To improve Traits, spend XP equal to 4x the next rank: increasing Agility from 2 to 3 costs 12 XP. Void is improved for 6x the next rank. 


You also have Skills, which are ranked from 0 to 10. These include the usual suspects, like Archery (Kyujutsu) Stealth, Animal Handling, and so on, but also things like Dueling (Iaijutsu) and Artisan: Flower Arranging. Not all skills are equally useful, but none are useless. Even Flower Arranging. 

Skills are increased by spending XP equal to the next rank. You can also spend 2 points to get Emphasis in a skill. This means choosing a subspecialty of a skill, like Heavy Weapons (War Bat) and when you make a Heavy Weapons check using a War Bat, you get to reroll and replace 1s, but just once. 

If you have 0 in a skill, it is Untrained, and it has some limitations: mostly, dice don’t explode, and you don’t benefit from Raises. 


Raises let you gamble with the dice. Say the Target Number (what we call the DC ‘round these parts) is 15, and you’re confident you can beat that. You can call a Raise, which raises the TN by 5 to 20, with a benefit, like dealing extra damage. If you fail the roll, you get nothing, even if you beat the old TN. You can do pretty much anything with enough raises. Want to disarm the enemy? 3 raises. Want to prevent your rival from realizing you’re the one who spread that nasty rumor? 2 raises. Want to expand the duration of your spell? 1 raise. The amount you need varies from situation to situation, GM has final say. 

Also, you can only benefit from called Raises to a maximum of your Void Ring, so pump that number up. Luckily, some abilities give you Free Raises that don’t count towards that. They can either give you effects for free, or lower the TN by 5, your call. 

Clans and Families

Unless you’re a Ronin, you belong to a Clan. There are major and minor Clans, but we’ll be sticking to major ones. Each Clan contains multiple families, and multiple schools. You can mix and match family and school, though in most cases you will be educated inside your own clan, unless you’re part of a hostage exchange.

Your school trained you as a Warrior (Bushi), Cleric (Shugenja) or a Courtier. There are also Ninja and Monks, but we’ll be sticking to the big three for this campaign. All Clans have at least one school of each, but different clans have different specializations. 

These influence your starting Traits, Honor, equipment, and the techniques you can acquire. They also affect how the world treats you. 

If you’re a Ronin, time to get hustling, because you’re outside of the system, nobody is going to protect or feed you, and if you offend or scare anyone too much, nobody will go looking for your body. 

School Rank

This is the system’s equivalent of Level. Going up in school rank grants you extra techniques, access to better spells and kata, the works. 

Going up in Rank depends on your Insight score, which is a combination of your skills and Rings and some other stuff. Just put XP in places that make your character more effective, you’ll be fine. 

Combat and Actions

The basics are similar to D&D. You have Initiative rolls, you can delay actions, and at initiative 0 there’s a Reaction stage where status effects get resolved. At the start of each round, you take a stance: Attack, Defense, Full Attack, Full Defense, and Center, with their own effects on what you can do. Attack is the default, with no restrictions or benefits.

You have Free Actions, Simple Actions, and Complex Actions. In any turn, you can either do 2 simple actions or 1 complex action, plus a bunch of Free Actions. Refer to the table:

Damage in this system is called Wounds. There are various thresholds, depending on the game’s difficulty and your character’s Earth, that make things more difficult as you get injured. 

This Campaign

Without a doubt the most respected group within the whole empire are the Emerald Magistrates. They are the Emperor’s own lawkeepers, with the whole of Rokugan within their jurisdiction, warranted to act with great leeway anywhere that the empire’s laws against banditry, heresy or subversion are threatened and wherever the individual clans cannot deal with problems on their own. Groups of Emerald Magistrates bring together samurai of many clans and backgrounds, and with enough distinction any samurai can join their ranks and become a wealthy and high-status agent of the Emerald Throne. 

You are not Emerald Magistrates. Yet. 

You are young samurai in your late teens and early twenties, some only recent graduates of your schools, others with a few years of duty to your clan under your belts. All of you have distinguished yourselves, whether by personal action or your connections, and been accepted as trial members. You will serve as the bodyguards, assistants and spiritual advisors to a newly minted magistrate for the space of one year, and if you prove yourselves to him within that time, you will join the ranks of the exceptional. 

Your boss for this year is Akodo Torokai of the Lion clan. He is not intended to be a DMPC or a damsel in distress, but a superior interested in accomplishing missions, upholding the law and testing your abilities at the same time. His role in most sessions will be to provide an example of a very orthodox samurai against which to define your own characters, provide the framing and setup for adventures, and handle the bureaucracy and ass-kissing so your characters can do detective work, demon-fighting and conspiracy-unraveling you came here for. Buckle up, because you’re about to have a very eventful year.

Character Creation

You will begin by choosing a Clan, then a family of origin and a school within that clan. These will give you bonuses to two of your traits, the first rank in several skills, and your starting equipment. You also get 40 experience points to use as you wish, with which you can raise your traits more and improve your skills. I usually recommend spending 24xp to raise two more traits and spending the remaining 16xp on improving your main skills and picking up the first rank of some new ones. 

You also have Advantages and Disadvantages, which help you define your character. You spend xp to gain Advantages, and you can also select Disadvantages to gain xp: for example, if you spent all your xp on traits and skills, you can still pick up the disadvantage Bad Health, which gives you back 4 points. You could use these to pick up the Absolute Direction (1 point) and Precise Memory (3 points) advantages, or spend them on skills, or any combination thereof. 

You may not have more than 15 points each of advantages and disadvantages. 

Many dis/advantages only really make sense if purchased at character creation; it’s hard to justify your character growing half a foot after buying the Large advantage halfway through the campaign, or suddenly taking the Soft-Hearted disadvantage after you’ve already killed several people. If you think these dis/advantages describe your character, it’s best to pick them up early, though many, especially social or spiritual dis/advantages, may be purchased or awarded by the GM in play.

Sample Characters

With more than 30 basic schools available, finding the right setup for a character can be overwhelming at first. Here are some notable schools which might fit your character concept.

Want to be a duelist? The very traditional Kakita school of the Crane clan and the eccentric Mirumoto school of the Dragon clan both claim to produce the best in the empire.

Want to be a sly courtier? Between them, the secret-obsessed Baysuhi of the Scorpion clan and the ultra-refined Doji of the Crane clan rule the courts of the empire.

Who are the fiercest fighters? The matriarchal Matsu of the Lion clan charge into enemy formations without fear, the Hida school of the Crab clan fields heavily-armored walking tanks, the Tsuruchi archers of the Mantis clan are unmatched at range and the Utaku cavalry of the Unicorn have almost supernatural connections with their mounts, and while the Shiba warriors of the Phoenix clan are pacifistic, that just means they’ll cut you down while perfectly zen.

What about spellcasters? Nobody doubts that the Isawa of the Phoenix clan are the greatest generalist spellcasters, but don’t count out the Unicorn’s Iuchi school focused on speed, the Scorpion’s Soshi school who control the secret of undetectable spellcasting, or the Dragon’s Tamori who can store their spells as alchemical potions, and when you absolutely, positively have to rip apart a demon with holy fire and jade, accept no substitutes for the Crab clan’s Kuni school.

How about something a bit less orthodox? The Dragon clan’s Kitsuki school trains Investigators, experts in finding clues and uncovering lies, even though the empire’s legal system is based on testimony rather than material evidence. The bards of the Lion clan’s Ikoma school are boisterous storytellers who bolster the spirits of their comrades, and the Yoritomo courtiers of the Mantis clan have raised bullying and intimidation to an art form. 

No matter your character concept, you’ll be able to find something that can make it work.

Language and Roleplaying

L5R games put a strong emphasis on immersing yourself in a fictional world informed by a lot of real world elements. The complexity of a game where you have to be careful and subtle with words and manage your character’s social standing is a big part of the appeal for many, but it can also be a stumbling block for new players or those who have difficulty with other languages. 

As an introductory campaign, the goal is to start small to build familiarity and raise the bar as people get more comfortable. We take the assumption that your character performs all the small details of courtesy and ritual automatically, and your words out of character reflect your intention while in the game fiction the actual words your character speaks are more flowery and cautious. As a new player, you won’t be put on the chopping block because you forgot to use the exact right honorific when speaking to your lord.

Likewise for language. Some Japanese words have become so familiar in English that we can use them without worry; if I tell you your samurai has to leave their katana outside before visiting a geisha, few will be confused. But it would be unreasonable for everyone to understand the situation when an otokodate from the mura is looking for a kuge with an Agasha mon and they’re about to smash a tetsubo into your heimin’s on. Until everyone gets properly settled, we’ll be translating these less common terms and introduce the more important, less easily translated or denser ones as we go along. 

This is not Anime

I know, I know, the kind of group interested in playing a samurai game has a large overlap with anime fans, but coming into L5R with expectations of character or genre based on that will lead to miscommunication and to a game experience that isn’t satisfying for anyone. 

If you want a feel for the setting and tone, look at the links below.


Here’s the Core Rulebook (Scribd, Anyflip). If you want to read the basic rules in more detail, look at pages 75-100. If you want lore and clan details, look at pages 13-70. If you want to define your character, look at the questions on page 100. 

P.384 of the Core Rulebook includes inspirations and resources. I reproduce a few here. 

Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), directed by Akira Kurosawa, clip
Seven Samurai (1954) directed by Akira Kurosawa, clip
The Last Samurai (2003) clip 
Book of the Five Rings (1644), by Miyamoto Musashi

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