RPGs to Read (and Play!) to Make Your L5R Game Better
Good GMs create, and great GMs steal. There is an incredible trove of RPGs that offer great resources for Legend of the Five Rings, and are absolutely worth checking out. The best way to make your own games great is to learn about other systems, adapt what works, and include them in your own games.
It should be noted that this list is by no means comprehensive. It is simply composed of RPGs that I am familiar with personally, and should not be viewed as anything but my own opinion.
If there are other RPGs that you feel are worth checking out to make your L5R game better, please feel free to let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I can, I’d love to update this article over time with more recommendations.
Pasión de las Pasiones
Magpie Games official site: https://www.magpiegames.com/product/pasion-de-las-pasiones-ashcan-edition-print/
What to steal: The GM Moves
Pasión is a Powered by the Apocalypse game meant to emulate telenovelas: Latin-American soap operas. I have often said that I think L5R is at its best when it’s played like a soap opera, and this game offers tons of resources for that.
In Pasión (like many PBTA games), when a player gets a partial success or a failure on a roll, the GM makes a Move. These Moves are often events, themes, or revelations that are improvised in the fiction. Many of these GM Moves would be perfect for high-drama, court-focused L5R games. Whenever your PCs make a blunder in court, expose a weakness in front of a courtier, consider having an NPC take these actions against them. These moves don’t have to come from NPCs directly, however. Consider throwing a twist in your own story, and remember: these GM Moves are meant to keep the drama moving forward on a failure, and create new interesting situations whenever the story calls for them.
Some of my favorite GM Moves from Pasión that would be perfect for L5R include:
Put people together or pull them apart
Cross a boundary between public and private spheres
Let the wrong person know what’s going on
Lean on a secret
Demand they play their part
Check out the full book for more GM Moves and soap opera goodness.
Mouse Guard RPG Site: http://www.mouseguard.net/book/role-playing-game-boxed-set/
What to steal: The Seasons
Mouse Guard is an RPG (based on David Petersen’s fantastic comics series) about mice out of their league. They are small folk, at the bottom of the food chain, trying to survive, thrive, and follow their beliefs in a world that is mundane in its hostility towards them.
Part of the danger and the flavor of life in Mouse Guard comes from the seasons, something it shares in common with the world of Rokugan from L5R. The seasons are inextricably linked to life as a mouse, and they must always be taken into account. Travel, hazards, wildlife, and work are all dependent on the seasons, and a journey undertaken in the dead of winter, or the torrential rains of spring, can be formidable adversaries in themselves.
Even if you don’t use the overland travel mechanics from Mouse Guard in L5R, reading up on how seasons affect the world your PCs play in is well worth your time, and can help ground and immerse your players in the world of Rokugan.
Reflections on Third Act Publishing’s Site: https://thirdactpub.com/reflections1/
What to steal: The Three-Act Story
Reflections is a game about dueling samurai. It says that right on the box. So there’s probably tons of stuff to steal for L5R about that, right?
Well, not really. Reflections is much more focused on the “how” of the duel - how did two characters get into a situation where only the other’s death will end their story? The game takes a really clever approach to this, and mechanically enforces the players to roleplay out a three-act structure to the story. There are the scenes of setup, the scenes of confrontation, and culminates in the duel: the scene of resolution. It gives you concrete examples of how to create scenes that conform to this three-act structure, which is key to a satisfying story at the tabletop. The best sessions allow the conflict to brew, build, complicate, and resolve in an explosive climax, and Reflections is a great game to play to teach yourself how to make those scenes happen.
Hillfolk on Pelgrane Press’s Site: https://site.pelgranepress.com/index.php/hillfolk/
What to steal: How to make drama work at the table
Hillfolk uses the DramaSystem framework to solve the age-old problem of drama in tabletop RPGs: PCs never back down.
In television, literature, and film, we see dramatic scenes all the time. Any scene where one character wants something, and the other character wants something else. And yet, the scenes where the characters kill each other over this are relatively rare. Why? Because characters give up, and “lose” the scene, so to speak.
In real life when arguing with someone, there is a point in which you will back down and let the other person have the last word. Hillfolk makes that a mechanic: you can concede an argument, encounter, or scene to your opponent, and in return you get a Drama Point that you can use later to make things easier for yourself.
This is easy to adapt as a house rule for L5R 5e! Maybe something along the lines of “You can concede an Intrigue encounter at any time, and let your opponent achieve their social goals. In return, gain 1 Void Point.” This little carrot and stick incentivizes PCs letting their rivals win a few scenes, but gives them the tools needed to eventually set themselves up for a win. After all, the best stories are the ones where the protagonists struggle, right?
What to steal: The Random Tables
Kaigaku is a game that takes the retroclone system of the Black Hack, and adapts it to East Asian fantasy. Obviously, you could simply use this system to play in Rokugan, but there are great ideas in it to take to a proper L5R game.
One of the great things about old-school games are the random tables. Random encounters, random weather, random everything. These almost serve the same role at the table as a GM Move from a PBTA game: when the players look to you to see what happens, consider rolling on a random table.
Where lots of old-school games rely on random tables for treasure, or wandering monster encounters in dungeons, Kaigaku offers a few that are great to use in L5R. Some of my favorites are:
1d6 table of urban thug appearances
1d6 table of dishonorable thug special abilities
1d6 table of “what does the courtier have to offer me”
1d6 table of “what does the courtier want from me in return”
Simply glancing these random tables over can give you inspiration for making your own random tables for L5R. When you don’t know what to do next, or you need to flesh out an encounter, give it a roll!
Older Edition L5R Books
Okay, this one might be cheating. But you’d be surprised at the great resources available in older editions of the L5R RPG, that are evergreen sources for inspiration and story hooks. There’s lots of great stuff, and in the interest of keeping it brief, I’ll just list what I consider to be highlights for me personally:
The GM’s Survival Guide:
Flora and fauna, raw materials
Basically the whole last 20 pages or so, full of awesome random tables like “d100 gifts” or “What is this village’s specialty?”
The “Way of…” series
Seriously, if your game is going to predominantly feature a certain clan or clans, read the whole book for that clan. There’s so many hooks and ideas for inspiration!
Game Master’s Guide
In-depth descriptions of settlements and regions of Rokugan
Random encounter tables for each clan’s region
Natural disasters (by element/ring)
A separate adventure hook centering on each and every skill, advantage, and disadvantage in the 2nd Edition L5R RPG
Designing a village
Constraints for adventures
Loads more random tables at the end
Way of the Thief
For a general how-to of making criminal organizations in Rokugan
For what I consider to be the definitive Random Name List for Rokugan (it’s near the end of the character creation section)
The “Masters of…” series
For in-depth looks at how the three spheres of samurai life function: Court, Magic, and War.
Imperial Histories (1 and 2)
For a ton of great, thought-provoking “what-if” scenarios for alternate universe Rokugans.
The “Book of…” series
Each has tons of adventure hooks, and are great at getting across the theme of each element in storytelling.
The Atlas of Rokugan
What I (and many others) consider to be the definitive, in-depth gazetteer at various locations in Rokugan.