Posted on March 29, 2020
L5R: Family Matters
Welp, I’ve got plenty of time to sit around thinking about Legend of the Five Rings RPG now… After ingesting the fluff and checking out the game mechanics, I got into looking at what makes the characters work and how are they different from each other in a world where everyone is supposed to think and behave in a prescribed way, but also there’s no objective truth.
The heirarchy of loyalty in Rokugani society goes, from the top, Emperor/Clan/Family. But within each of these levels there is room for ambiguity: is everyone supposed to have loyalty to the Emperor or the Empire? Could those two things ever be at odds? Families have their own Daimyo and each Clan has their Champion, can those two authorities ever pull the player in two different ways? And how do more abstract values like the tenets of Bushido interact with these things? If honesty would hurt the Emperor or Empire, should you be honest and put personal integrity ahead of the Empire’s wellbeing?
There aren’t really right answers to these questions, only individual interpretations and that’s the source of so much conflict and drama, big and small, in L5R. I mentioned the Major Clans in the last post, but within each Clan there are several families. There are also Vassal families and Minor Clans, which players may interact with, but in the basic out-the-box game you can’t play these. FFG or Edge or whoever: RELEASE BADGER CLAN SOURCEBOOK NOW!
Speaking of out of the box, the pregenerated characters from the starter set are a spread across all clans. I’ve marked the schools of those pregen characters with *, so you know what’s in the box.
In a game where everyone plays a paladin, how do you differentiate, mechanically? Well, you’re all paladins, but you’re all Paladins from different families.
The schools – I was trying to think if there’s a western equivalent and I’m not sure there is – are a family secret thing. It’s popped up in a couple of stories that deal with eastern traditions that I’ve encountered, although I’m no scholar of Asian history or fiction tropes. The school represents the teaching of a family secret technique, jealously guarded and not just handed out willy-nilly. The teaching of the family speciality is tightly controlled and how to teach it is known to only a few, handed down through generations.
That doesn’t mean that ONLY people from that family can belong to that school, although there’s no open enrollment. Clans and families can make diplomatic arrangements to have their children go study at a different family’s school, but this has it’s own consequences. First, they’re basically hostages. Not officially, of course, but in reality they are leverage to ensure that everyone plays by the rules. This means the student is a political pawn, just by being there. Second, if you go learn at some other family’s school, you won’t learn your own family’s techniques or whatever. You’ll never be accepted as one of your host family and you’ll never be fully trusted by your own family; that loss of connection to family in such a family-centered hierarchy could be devastating. You could also go native, spiritually abandoning your actual family and joining your host family – either through strong bonds of friendship, marriage or adoption (although these last two have political considerations behind them too).
The core of each family, with the exception of the Phoenix, is the family descended from the Kami and who tend to lead the Clan. Most clans also have a family descended from one of the mortal Seven Thunders who defeated evil Fu Leng long ago (Mirumoto, Shosuro, Isawa, Utaku and Matsu).
The tough-gruff Crab Clan are ideal to play if you fancy adventuring in the Shadowlands, but even if you’re out of the Shadowlands, the southern threat is liable to be a looming shadow over Crab Samurai. And out of the Shadowlands the Crab are likely to be a little fish-out-of-water as everyone north of them is concerned with… things other than being killed by monsters. Every Crab family is a Bushi, with the exception of the imported Yasuki and that makes sense since the Crab are practicing total war against an enemy that is doing the same.
The Hida Defender* (Bushi) exemplifies the Crab clan’s role as monster killing bad-asses. The Hiruma Scout gives the clan a cool (Bushi/Shinobi) mix. The Shadowlands is kept at bay in large part to the engineering prowess of the Kaiu, so the Kaiu Engineer (Bushi/Artisan) isn’t too much of a surprise. The terrifying, face-painted Kuni Purifier (Shugenja/Bushi) use magic to pursue and cleanse the taint of the Shadowlands. Lastly, the formerly-Crane clan threw in with the Crab and the Yasuki Merchant (Courtier) is about as diplomatic as anyone gets in the Crab clan.
The Crane attend to the political health of the Empire (above the table, that is) and so they’re definitely focused on non-violent means of getting things achieved, although when violence is required, they’ve got two of the best Bushi schools, which is good because all those clever minds are going to need solid yojimbo. The Crane families are all really good at what they do, because that’s kind of the Crane’s thing. Crane have an excuse to be anywhere in the empire, really, as do the Scorpion, but they’re only going to get the nice tea set out for Crane.
The Doji form the diplomatic core of this politicking Clan and the Doji Diplomat (Courtier) is the bargaining, treaty-writing, tea-ceremonying epitome of that. If you’re going to put so many eggs in one basket through, you need some spine to make that work in the big bad world and that comes in the form of the Daidoji Iron Warrior (Bushi), elite heavy infantry who see service in the Shadowlands and the Kakita Duellist (Bushi/Artisan). Nobody strives for perfection like a Kakita, whether it is in the sublime stroke of a brush or the one-and-done school of winning sword fights. The Asahina Artificer (Shugenja/Artisan) rounds out the family schools for the Crane, they used to be a Phoenix family.
The Dragon deviate from the norm (as usual) in that some of their families aren’t even families, but Monastic Orders. As befits the reclusive Dragon they have no straight up Courtiers or Artisans, but one of only two Monk schools.
The Agasha Mystic (Shugenja) school focuses on Elemental mastery, while the Mirumoto Two Heavens Adept (Bushi) have a unique style of sword play that uses both swords of the daisho at the same time, although both see their school as a path to enlightenment. The Kitsuki Investigator (Courtier/Bushi) school is more of your sleuth, unusually interested in physical evidence and revealing the ‘truth’ as opposed to asking everyone what happened and believing the most important person you ask, which is how crimes are usually handled in Rokugan. Lastly the Togashi Tattooed Order (Monk) are the Ise Zumi: shaven headed (not just the fashionable first quarter of the scalp) and tattoo-adorned martial artists, able to achieve incredible physical feats.
The warlike Lion is surprisingly not all Bushi or Bushi multiclass, only the Akodo Commander and Matsu Berserker (both Bushi). But all of the schools have an overtly martial connection. The Lion follow Bushido only, rejecting the Tao of Shinsei, but they’re very big into ancestor worship, which a I guess fills the woo void for them.
While the Akodo and Matsu (the largest family in all of Rokugan) are what most people would think of when they think of the Lion, because they’re the ones on the parade ground, the Kitsu Medium (Shugenja) have an amazing backstory (descended from shapechangers) and are intermediaries for the Lion Clan’s ancestor worship, in that they can talk to the departed. The Ikoma Bard (Courtier) is another interesting angle on a martial heritage in that the Ikoma record the history of the Clan and Empire and also perform it, with heavy emphasis on heroism and martial prowess (in which the Lion features heavily, obv.).
The Phoenix are NOT led by their founding Kami’s family. Very early on, Shiba bent the knee to Isawa, an amazing Elementalist and so the Isawa are the leading family. However, the Phoenix Clan Champion answers to the Council of Five Elemental Masters, which is another unique set up. The Phoenix are mainly pacifistic, being concerned with the other worlds, not this one; but they’re a Clan in turmoil since the Elements in Rokugan have become severely… agitated.
The Asako Loremaster (Courtier). The Isawa Elementalist* (Shugenja) is the flame throwing (or whatever) magic user featured so heavily in promo art because it looks dope. The Shiba Guardian (Bushi/Courtier) fulfils Shiba the Kami’s pledge to protect the pacifist (sorta) Isawa family. The Kaito Shrinekeeper (Monk) is the only other Monk in the basic rules and are a recent addition to the Phoenix, previously being an assimilated barbarian vassal family.
The Scorpion Clan families all excel in shenanigans because their mandate specifically asks them to do what other clans wouldn’t dream of doing for the good of the Empire. The Scorpions cynically believe that they’re just doing in the (slightly more) open what everyone does one way or another. It makes sense that they have two Shinobi schools, but no Bushi schools featured in the main rulebook. (They have Bushi, of course, they’re just not as prominent).
Bayushi Manipulator (Courtier) is the Star Trek Mirrorverse version of the Doji Diplomat; their goals and motivations may even be the same but the way they go about achieving their ends are very different. The Shosuro Infiltrator* (Shinobi/Courtier) is your more classic spy/assassin. The Soshi Illusionist (Shugenja/Courtier/Shinobi) is the only three-class school as befits these slippery buggers; can’t even be pinned down to a school. The Yogo were originally a Phoenix family, but because of a curse ended up with the Scorpion and the Yogo Wardmaster (Shugenja) specializes in defensive magics of use to the Scorpion (i.e. for nefarious, yet deeply loyal purposes).
The Unicorn Clan families look quite a bit different to each other and quite a bit different to other Rokugani and their schools emphasize their very different nature. The Kami- and Thunder-descended families (Shinjo and Utaku) maybe the most similar to other Rokugani, but they both ride around on their bloody great horses, so they’re not that usual. Given that the Unicorn do have so many great roles for female characters and a dedicated women-only school, I’m little disappointed that the pregen is a dude.
The Ide Trader (Courtier) specifically has experience dealing with gaijin and all their mendacious, uncivilised ways. The Iuchi Meishodo Master (Shugenja/Artisan) practices a form of foreign magic which flirts with heresy. The Moto Conqueror (Bushi) is a badass steppe-pounding warrior. The Shinjo Outrider* (Bushi/Courtier) is accustomed to ruling their lands from the saddle and the Utaku Battlemaiden (Bushi) is by far the best cavalry unit in the Empire.
The Imperial families (the Hantei, Seppun, Miya and Otomo) are not available to be played and I’d be surprised if they ever are in this iteration of the game. So what other options are there? FF adds schools with almost everything they put out, both schools for newly introduced clans (off the top of my head the Minor clans of the Mantis, Falcon, Turtle, Deer, and soon the Centipede) and more schools for existing families. They’ve also released Path of Waves which covers Ronin and Gaijin characters if that’s the way you want to take your game. Playing Ronin would maybe give you a more typical murder-hobo RPG though and… who wants that?