I want to like this edition but I keep finding things about it which draw my attention away from the good parts. Let me be blunt. There is a lot to like about the system. Roll and Keep is intuitive and it gives the player a degree of control over the outcome of things which is sorely missing from many others. The designers went out of their way to give more material than their previous efforts and did their utmost to make as much of it easily playable. And the amount of setting given in this book should give anyone willing to read through it ideas aplenty for their own campaign. Yet in spite of all of this wonderful work, I keep getting tripped up by the few metaphorical runs in the rug.
The following review is broken down into three major sections. Character, Skills, and System representing a brief dive into those areas. I will be concentrating mostly on the changes with respect to the Third Edition rules and an overall impression from the material presented in the book. I have not yet had a chance to run or otherwise use the system but have done several simulated dice rolls with a computer dice program.
Character Creation remains unchanged, which is both good and bad. It is good in that those already familiar with it will be able to jump right in to trying out the new, redesigned Clans and Schools. It is bad in that L5R characters tend to be even more cookie-cutter at the start than any other game I have thus far encountered. Thematically, this fits in well. Rokugani culture is not the Western culture of the Individual. Vary too far outside of what is expected, you may end up like the fence post and pounded on until you do fit in.
In any case, the schools of each clan are what you would expect and don’t vary much from Third Edition. As for the claim that has been repeated by the designers that these Schools and Clans represent an “Iconic” version of them. I am not so certain. Iconic to my mind would mean to stray a bit from having the same set of schools for each Clan or possibly changing out the current schools for something from the Advanced list which deeply embraces the “concept” of the Clan stated succinctly only a few pages before the rules start. If the Crane are so good at diplomacy and intrigue then why is there only one Courtier school available? And why does it lack the charismatic oomph the Clan is famous for?
Advanced schools and alternate paths are an interesting addition but after having examined them I am left wondering what the point was. The Advanced Schools strike me as only half-completed and could have easily been turned into another full school to be included with the rest in the Clans section. Alternate paths seem more like a scattering of ideas which didn’t fit in with anything else and that the designers didn’t want to throw away. Would it have been too much to see these ideas congealed into full blown Schools and placed with the Clans? As it stands, it leaves me with the impression that this was a halfhearted effort to bring some choice to an otherwise dull character system.
Finally, would it be too much to ask for a graphic walk through of character creation or an example of a finished character? There may be caveats that character creation depends on the campaign but having a completed character from each of the character schools (Bushi, Courtier, and Shugenja) would certainly help smooth out many of the conceptual hiccups that those who are unfamiliar with L5R and Rokugan are inevitably going to have.
Skills have undergone a reworking of their core mechanics. Skill Emphasis and Mastery have been changed to remove many static bonus to rolls. Also gone are the Insight bonus given for reaching the higher ranks. In a more positive vein, characters are no longer dinged for having only a single rank in a skill. Buying a skill Emphasis now gives you the ability to re-roll 1s once per skill check instead of adding the rank of the skill to the roll. More about how this impacts the game statically below. Masteries vary but have been standardized to occur at ranks 3,5 and 7. However, their usefulness to characters is questionable at best. Overall, the change to skill rolls is a step to a previous editions. There is little reason for players to invest in their character’s skills beyond buying the initial rank and possibly an Emphsis, if they have the experience to spend. Instead, it appears that players are supposed to be hoarding the experience earned to spend on raising Rings, which now have the greatest impact on all parts of the game.
Masteries also feel restrained in what little bonuses they grant. Many give a token 1k0 bonus, usually at rank 3 or 5. None give any free raises and only a few grant a 0k1 bonus at 7. A couple, exactly two, give an insight bonus. Otherwise, that’s it. Mechanically, this leaves the skills lacking a bite and conceptually hollow. Take the Defense skill, for instance. The rank 7 mastery gives the character the ability to use a simple action while maintaining their defensive stance. Except it can’t be used for an attack. It seems to me that this is less a reward for dedication to the skill and more like an afterthought. If a character gets so good at defending, or looking like they’re defending that it creates the opportunity to attack I fail to see any reason for not letting them do so. I’m not saying that it has to be free of a mechanical penalty, but to specifically call out specifically useful actions as being verboten, as this system does often, it does something to the player’s mentality. I think it makes them want the obvious use more and forces them to seek ways to get around the arbitrariness of the rules.
Worse, I think it causes the careful, thoughtful GM to question the rules they were handed. Forcing them to spend time retooling things which they shouldn’t have to deal with.
After using a computer dice roller to check some statistical calculations, I can’t say I’m happy with where players now stand. The lack of flat bonuses related to the Emphasizes resulted in many more failures than with. What’s even worse is that players are going to be guessing at their effectiveness. Without the flat bonus, you’re tied directly to the whims of the dice — no matter how much or how little the skill has been trained. The distinct lack of predictability strikes me as odd. Having characters who have bothered to train a skill and yet can’t know with any certainty that they are going to be successful? It’s not a good place to be as a GM. In my experience it make players less likely to engage in the sorts of risky behavior needed for heroics, or more likely to lie their way through encounters, or both.
If flat bonuses and free raises were a particular issue, and I’m not convinced that they were, then wouldn’t it have been easier to say that only X amount of bonus or N free raises apply to any given roll? As it stands, the bonuses were arbitrary and making a further arbitrary cutoff doesn’t require an extraordinary leap in logic or justification, the way taking them away does. The flat emphasis bonus also fueled a reason to invest in skills, making them a useful experience sink and gave players another way in which to make their characters unique. The insight bonus at rank 5 gave players a good bang for their experience buck.
The change in fourth edition doesn’t provide this same motivation. If anything, all it tells players to buy as many rank one skills as needed and save the rest to boost rings as fast as they can.
Were I to start a campaign today, I would have to fall back to the previous edition’s rules. This is not to say that 3rd edition skill rules were perfect but they achieved a good balance in the game. There was a motivation for raising them to the higher ranks and gave real reason for investing in more than a token Emphasis. They also gave players an alternate path to advancing their characters’ Insight rank. Despite its faults, that system felt more real and far more intuitive than the new one does. If this is the way to fixing some of the abuses that players used, I remain wholly unconvinced that it is a good, working solution.
Stances provides one of the more interesting aspects of this new version. You get five to chose from, each with a different set of bonuses granted for their use and a couple have restrictions. However, as with the skill Masteries, some of the bonuses seem stingy. For instance the Full Defense stance only gives half of Defense/Reflexes roll to TN to be hit and is pretty much the only thing that character gets to do. Actions have also been tweaked and now come in the standard RPG flavors: Complex, Simple, and Move. Rounds give you a single complex action or two simple with whatever free actions. This doesn’t mean you’re out of luck if what you want to do isn’t already defined in the rules. There are a few maneuvers to pick from which can be executed with additional raises, including another attack. But these come at a steep cost in raises. Again this idea that there were too many free raises or flat bonuses seems to have raised its ugly head.
The dice get a minor reworking as well. As with previous editions, only ten dice are ever used and that for ever 2 dice rolled beyond the first ten, you get to keep an extra. For example 12k4 is turned into 10k5. What is new however is when you already have 10 kept dice, you instead get a bonus of 2 to the roll for every 2 dice kept or rolled beyond the first ten. 12k10 turns into 10k10+2 and 12k14 turns into 10k10+6.
The good: If you liked the previous versions of the L5R system, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this edition as well. Characters can be easily converted as most of the same game is present from previous versions. The roll and keep system, the Clans both great and small, and their respective schools that you’ve had access to before are all there. Casting and spells have gotten a much needed upgrade in ease of use and focus. Combat is given additional depth with the new Stances.
The bad: Uniformity right down to the bonuses given in each school. A quicker attack at rank 3 or 4 for the Bushi. A 5k0 bonus for the Courtiers at rank 5. The exact same list of spells, varied only by element choice. At least the Phoenix gets to pick theirs. There can be such a thing as too much balance and this system blows past that point and heads for a whole new level. Beneath the veneer of flavor text, the Clans and Schools are the same with a lack of rulesy crunch.
The ugly: The new skills rules means that unless your players are good liars, they’re going to be failing more than they did with 3rd. Expect to see a lot of Rank 1 skills once players figure out the statistics don’t change that much with higher ranks and that experience cost to insight ratio is not good at all. With the greater weight put on primary attributes characters are going to look greatly alike and be equally effective no matter the Clan and School.
 Methodology: Assumed an “average” roll of 6k3 in both 3rd and 4th editions with an emphasis. Rolled this 15 times. It is of no surprise that 3rd edition rules produced higher totals, a higher average, and a higher median value. What is of particular interest is that of the 12 times that a 1 got rerolled under 4th edition rules, the total was increased only twice. In both times, it was increased by 1 — an 8 was replaced by a 9 and a 5 was replaced with a 6. In no cases did the 4th edition re-roll push the total past a 5 point TN marks. This is opposed to 3rd edition +3 bonus which did push the roll total over a 5 point mark 11 of 15 times. In fact, 6 of the 15 rolls under 4th edition rules came up 1 point short of a 5 point mark. This new re-rolling of 1s may reduce catastrophic failures but it also has the effect of reducing totals.