Here at EBR we love our RPGs, but we've yet to really review any of them. We've decided to rectify this with a review of the latest book from Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), Imperial Histories 2.
So, enjoy this review by Alan Bahr - screenplay writer, Warmachine aficionado, and L5R (both RPG and CCG) genius.
First, a disclaimer. I'm huge fan of Legend of the 5 Rings, Rokugan and everything associated with it. I also love RPG books, and I spend entirely too much money on them. But hey, everyone needs a hobby.
In addition, I would recommend everyone read the Strange Assembly Imperial Histories review.(http://www.strangeassembly.com/2012/review-imperial-histories) <-----That one.
The Legend of the Five Rings RPG takes place in an (heavily) Japanese setting called Rokugan. Characters generally take the role of samurai from one of the Great Clans. It's Japan with magic, and some other Oriental cultures mixed. The big thing about L5R is it is a constantly changing setting. The tournament results from the CCG affect the overall story-line and determine where the game goes, so the players have a say over their world.
Imperial Histories 2 covers several canon timelines or events from the CCG that have not yet been detailed in the RPG, or only detailed loosely. It also (this is my favorite thing) includes some alternate timelines that have never been detailed before. It's pretty great. The first one covered mostly existing timelines or reviewed already detailed timelines but with updated and new information.
Appearance and Stuff:
AEG turns out very high quality, nice RPG books, so this follows the same trend as the previous ones. The cover isn't as evocative as I've liked in the past, but hey, that's a minor quibble in the big scheme of things.
L5R pulls a lot (almost all) of their art from the CCG. It shows, because the cards have great art. I loved a lot of the pieces and felt they really showed the world well. A few pieces are dated from the early eras of the card game, but it's minimal and probably a complaint only a fan would make.
There were a few places where character names were wrong/spelling and grammar mistakes. Not many jumped out, but one was because they misidentified one of my favorite characters, so it stuck with me. If it'd been another character, I probably wouldn't have noticed it (I still love you Noritoshi.)
What's Under the Hood?
I'm pretty much cribbing my layout from Strange Assembly as it's probably the best way to address this book. The multiple timelines are divided into a roughly 20 page count per timeline (it varies a bit). Obviously your mileage of each section may vary based on preferences. I prefer darker, grittier samurai drama, so those chapters leapt out at me. Every chapter had something to offer, but as you'll see, I feel this book is at it's best when offering alternate timelines or events to drive the story. Break the canon!
The Togashi Dynasty:
This opening chapter is a great start to the book. It posits the theory that a different Kami wins the Tournament and becomes Emperor (specifically Togashi, mysterious and engmatic). It details how having an Immortal and farseeing Emperor effects the development of the Empire. Most the major clans we love don't adjust too much (becoming more spiritual and what not), but the biggest change, is what happens to Hantei? Well! The Owl Clan. A clan dedicated to learning about and preserving/destroying Non-humans in the Empire.
This new clan is very well delivered, with several new families, schools and backstory that really adds to the overall idea behind the setting.
Very playable. It's effectively a more high-fantasy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Rokugan, with wandering sword-saints, monks, and more.
The Reign of the Shining Prince:
This details an already established setting about the first mortal Emperor of Rokugan. This setting details an Empire in flux, as bushido, cultures, and customs haven't been established or allowed to mature. I think the most interesting part of this chapter is the part they didn't explore too deeply: the alternate paths of development (I was very intrigued by the idea of the Redemption of Fu Leng, and wish they'd gone more into that.). There are really no new mechanics in this chapter, and that's fine, as it's really just a chance to play in undeveloped Rokugan and help guide the creation of Emerald Empire.
It's playable, but several major and already established NPCs and events happen here. I think its value lies in the using it as a jumping point for an alternate timeline campaign.
The Iron Empire:
Let me just preface. This was my second favorite chapter of the book. The general conceit involves the advancement of technology in Rokugan. The advent of steampower/magicsteampower(TM) sorta clashes with real world history, but AEG steps around that nicely. It's easy to forget that the caste system in Rokugan is divinely appointed. What happens with trains and guns make samurai obsolete in spite of religion and very real deities that have an active hand in the lives of their followers? I don' t know, but this chapter explains to me that it involves samurai gun and iaijutsu duels on moving trains, so I'm pretty ok with whatever they throw at me.
The new mechanics here are interesting. Guns, and rules for them. Very well delivered, not overpowered, and the discourse on advancement, not westernization makes for some good reading when you want to run this campaign.
I love steampunk. I love samurai just as much. And I love the ideas behind this chapter. I'm probably gonna jump on running this one as soon as I get a group. Pretty sure there will be an iaijutsu duel on a moving train going into a tunnel, as ashigaru on horses chase alongside firing arrows. Hm...
Heresy of the Five Rings:
This is a chapter that's set in canon Rokugan. It brings up the idea of a heretical movement making some strong headway into the religious and social culture of Rokugan. It has some pretty interesting ideas about the cosmology (I use that loosely) and religious set up of Rokugan, and how people would react to a shift in that. It was good reading, and had some really good ideas. I haven't seen this era detailed before, so it was fun to learn about some of the early history behind Rokugan. (I think this was a fan submission, when they had a contest for the first Imperial Histories, but don't quote me on that.) The chapter really relies on pitting samurai and monks against other samurai and monks, but what it doesn't seem to cover was how Shugenja (the priests of Rokugan) fit into this puzzle.
It delivers on some interesting ideas, especially regarding the layout of the clans and how you address those issues inside religious conflict. Not my first choice, but not a bad one by any stretch. I felt it was a little underdeveloped and once the main conflict that the chapter delivered is over (which the chapter detailed very nicely), the players have nothing to do (and since NPCS seem to do all the heavy lifting, you'd have to insert the players in their place, and see what happens. Probably a change in the outcome frankly).
Rokugan under a psychotic paranoid tyrant. Torture becomes common, with hedonistic and depraved behaviors. The chapter delivers some great ideas for a resistance style game where the players have to fight against an evil and established leader of a powerful empire. I have to confess, I have always found the Steel Chrysanthemum to be a bit "handwavey" of a NPC in the game. He was sort of evil for the sake of it, but here, AEG delivers some wonderful ideas behind his villainous behavior.
The mechanics here are only useful in a specific setting, and if you played this all the time, you'd probably get pretty bored quickly. The players either have an uphill battle against a powerful enemy, or they're gonna end up playing "evil" characters.
The Eighth Century Crises:
This chapter details a lot of already established fiction that happened in one century in the past of Rokugan. This section has been pretty hashed out in other books/sources so I found it to be a lot of repeats regarding this area. The interesting part (again) lies in the alternate options they present in this section. Starting to notice a trend here...
On it's own, this section struggles. Without these alternate options, it'd frankly be a throw away section. They cram too much into one chapter, when really, each crisis deserves more details then it gets.
The Return of the Unicorn:
As the long lost Ki-Rin clan thunders across Rokugan, returning to their home, a thousand years after being gone, they encounter resistance. This section lays it out pretty clearly. Either you're playing as a Unicorn, or you are not. It's interesting in that it's a good section regarding how Rokugan reacts to outside influences, but it leaves itself hanging. Once the Unicorn are back, the primary conflict this chapter describes is over. The social conflicts only happen for the next...thousand years, and can take place in any of the more interesting settings.
Again, this chapter suffers from canon causing the interesting ideas behind this section to be buried very deep.
The Shattered Empire:
Oooooh. An alternate setting much like The Thousand Years of Darkness setting from the first Imperial Histories. A setting that deserved much more attention. This section posits that the Second Day of Thunder ends in victory for the clans, but all the Thunders die in the process, leaving the Empire bereft of leadership, and it's greatest heroes. As these heroes affect canon for the next 7 years of the CCG, and longer in the lore, it's a nice break from tradition. It's essentially a sengoku jidai era of Rokugan (or the period of a country at war). Without a unifying force, no one can take the throne, and the next threat that attacks the Empire will have easier pickings.
If you want to run a civil war in Rokugan story-line, where the canon isn't present, this is our setting. The way they present all the clans at war would make it difficult to play a multi-clan party, but I'm sure an enterprising GM would figure it out.
The Four Winds Era:
This time deals with the four sons of Torturi who are struggling over the throne after their father's death. This section was detailed pretty heavily in the CCG sets that dealt with this story-line, so it's pretty chockful of existing details. Sad. And really this section presents very few alternate story-line ideas, so unless you want to play out a story with a set ending, or change canon (which seems to again, be a theme here), you're playing NPCs who have to affect powerful and major PCs. Ooor tie it to the next chapter...
It's an interesting section, but that's about it. No new mechanics. Established and known fluff. But, if you combine it with the next chapter...
The Shadowed Throne:
Aaaaah, this is more like it. As a followup to the Four Winds section, this posits what would have happened if a different child of Hantei had taken the throne and how their siblings would have coped. It's not a horribly different deviation from the established history, but the concept of a Shadow Court being established to help drive and support the new Emperor is a great idea and is very well established and delivered.
Rating: 6 and 8.
By itself a 6, but with the Four Winds chapter, easily an 8. You could use them to run a campaign in a setting the players new, but with some wonderfully subtle and radical changes.
The Destroyer War:
This chapter details the last edition of the CCG, the Destroyer War. An outside force attacks and destroys swaths of the Emerald Empire. The big benefit of this section is the idea of total warfare. Rokugan has never been at war like this, and they have to adapt and push against these unknown monsters and enemies. It also is the result of a new Champion of Jigoku and the creation of the Spider as a Major Clan. Heavy stuff in the canon, and well delivered here.
The idea of an Empire in total war mode, and a losing war at that against an opponent that's utterly foreign to them is compelling and well delivered.
The Age of Exploration:
This chapter details the current era of the CCG, the settlement and colonization of the Ivory Kingdoms by Rokugan after the Destroyer War. It's incomplete as the storyline isn't quite done in the CCG (ends in December of this year roughly). It presents the Colonies as this almost-wild west style area where honor is what you make of it, and with a struggle against nature and the unknown of the jungles.
It's not bad, and has some interesting new mechanics, but isn't really complete, and leaves out some of the more interesting parts of the Age of Exploration (the assault by Imperial Legions on the Second City, the almost civil war, etc.).
Empire of the Emerald Stars:
THIS! This is why I bought the book. Rokugan in SPAAAAACE! Seriously. It's a brilliant idea, and a great example of how a GM can take an established setting and push it to it's limits. Whomever wrote this chapter really stepped it up and delivered a setting that's so Rokugan, while still being alien and interesting to play in. Only complaint I had, was a lack of new mechanics. There were a few, primarily new/reworked skills, and some weapons, but I would have liked to see a few space related schools for each clan. Mantis Corsair. Isawa Navigator. Crane Gunslinger. Spider Colonist. Crab Engineer. They also didn't have rules for laser swords... or space katanas.
It's fresh and interesting. Well delivered. Just needs some more filling out.
Overall Rating: 9/10.
This book really delivered. Even the sections I didn't fall in love with have ideas and plots I'll gladly incorporate elements of into my other L5R campaigns. I feel this book really shines when it's pushing you to use alternate settings, or as the designers have put it: L5R Your Way. They really aim to help GMs realize they don't have to be shackled by canon and established fiction, and that you should go hogwild on your ideas.
Now, I need to find a group who wants to play samurai with guns and swords on trains...
--Review by Alan Bahr
From EBR, we'd like to thank Alan for taking the time to write such a detailed review of Imperial Histories 2. Here's hoping he'll do more for us in the future.
Here are your links to the L5R RPG books. You can easily get away with just the first one, but why would you want to?
Legend of the Five Rings 4th Edition RPG
L5R: Enemies of the Empire
L5R: Emerald Empire
L5R: The Great Clans
L5R: Imperial Histories
L5R: Second City Box Set
L5R: The Book of Air
L5R: The Book of Earth
L5R: Imperial Histories 2