First I wanted to offer what I consider to be a helpful outlook on Rokugan. One important thing to remember is that Rokugan is very mindful of the past.
All children born to the samurai cast are told stories about the great deeds of their ancestors. The official religion of Rokugan (The Tao of Shinsei) is a mix of Taoism and Buddhism, it also incorporates ancestral worship. So most samurai see themselves not as a standalone beacon of individuality, but as a descendant of hundreds of heroes and an upholder of ancient traditions.
Storytelling is a staple of Rokugan society. Tales of samurai’s deeds are often spread very quickly. So duty and family honor is of great importance. Staining the honor of your family does not only cause strife for your living family members, but displeases your ancestors. And in Rokugan, ancestral spirits can sometimes even influence the living. Karma is also real. Children are taught that death is of minor importance, and that people are reincarnated after they die, and depending on their karma they can ascend to, or descend from the samurai cast in their next life. Yet if people are reincarnated, how can there be ancestral spirits? That is because people are only reincarnated until they have fulfilled their destiny, whatever that may be. After that they will ascend to Yomi, a place of great happiness.
Strife and Social Order
Now, different clans, different families, and even different individuals can all feel differently about what is considered honorable, what is upholding their duty, or even how much they care about their ancestors. In fact most of the strife that happens between Rokugani people are these differences of opinions, and who is to say? The Emperor perhaps? The Emperor IS the divine descendent of heaven, ruler of the Empire, but many emperors have had to come to the hard realization that they only have the power that is given to them by their people. If the great and powerful clans all turn against the Emperor, then there is nothing that can stop them. Corrupt emperors have been “replaced” before. (Like the emperor nicknamed “The Steel Chrysanthemum”, which in his case the heir was still a member of the Hantei family line.)
So while in theory the Emperor has absolute authority, and all samurai pledge unwavering loyalty to him (or her if it is currently an Empress), in practice it is a continual balance of power. So the Emperor will sometimes allow the clans to settle their own disputes and war with each other (to keep them in check and allow them to indulge their warrior blood). So minor wars and skirmishes are fought often and borders are redrawn, only to be redrawn again the next year. Often enough a great deal of the inter-clan struggles and shifting of power is played out in the many political courts. And as long as these disputes and wars are small enough not to put the safety or functionality of the Empire at stake they are often allowed.
This political environment helps to understand why there can be so much strife in what would otherwise be a very rigid and perfectly ordered society. People are still human, even when they are samurai.
Time Setting for the Campaign
If you are not familiar with the L5R storyline or don’t really remember it, that is fine, you don’t even have to read about it if you don’t want to, but if you do it is summarized at the beginning of the core rulebook. I’d like to run the game at a certain point in the timeline, and with a few adjustments. The point where I am going to deviate is at right after the Second Day of Thunder and the beginning of The Hidden Emperor Era. (That section begins on page 22 of the book [page 25 of the pdf].)
So the Clan Wars and the Second Day of Thunder have passed, just as it did in the storyline, Fu Leng was defeated. And we will be playing about 10 years after that day. The Scorpion Clan has been reinstated, the Mantis Clan has been elevated to Great Clan status. Many of the characters alive at the end of the Second Day of Thunder are still alive, but many have also perished in the past ten years.
Toturi was The Lion Clan Thunder who delivered the final stroke that killed Fu Leng. So Toturi was greatly celebrated and had taken the role as Emperor after that battle.
During those ten years is where I am changing things up a bit.
Nothing after the Second Day of Thunder has happened like the book says (except for the Scorpion being reinstated, the Mantis becoming a great clan and Toturi taking the role as Emperor). Meaning Toturi was not kidnapped, the Scorpion clan was not later banished to the burning sands, The Lying Darkness does not do a full out assault and Hitomi does not challenge the Moon (Onnotangu) to combat.
What HAS happened in these past ten years is that Otosan Uchi is no longer the Imperial City of Rokugan…
The last of the Hantei family line is gone, and so too is the bloodline of the Son of Heaven. The Water Dragon was displeased that a non-descendant of heaven (Toturi) had claimed the rights of the emperor and so The Water Dragon stopped protecting Otosan Uchi from the Great Sea Spider, Kumo. Kumo wove a web of shadows across Otosan Uchi and forever cast it into darkness. Otosan Uchi has been abandoned now and has become a haunted ruins trapped in shadow- meaning that during the daytime those within Otosan Uchi see the sky as if in deep twilight, but it descends into a moonless and starless night once the sun sets. Evil spirits find their way into the mortal realm easily within Otosan Uchi, and while they are not usually Shadowlands entities, they are still very dangerous and all sane humans avoid the former Imperial City (as well as it is guarded by a new minor clan The Nightingale Clan).
The Imperial City has been relocated to Toshi Ranbo. And with the resources of the Empire at its disposal the people quickly constructed an imperial city that rivals what Otosan Uchi had been (complete with an inner “Forbidden City” like Otosan Uchi had).
While the turmoil of Kumo and Otosan Uchi was happening, there was also a sharp rise in banditry and crime throughout the empire. Other than by imperial forces, the problem was partially kept in check by groups of samurai that would show up briefly to stop the bandits and quell rebellions, they called themselves The Spider Clan. No one knew much about them, but they seemed to take an interest in the welfare of peasants and began winning the hearts of the common people. Despite this, there was still a general unrest amongst the peasantry and even amongst the great clans. While even though Toturi was a great hero in the eyes of the Empire, he was only that… a hero, not a Son of Heaven. It was rumored some of the great clans were considering usurping the Jade Throne from Toturi, for if they were great heroes too, and could perhaps run the empire better (they assumed) would it not be right, or even their duty to do so? Without divine authority it seemed that the strongest would attempt to rule and great wars would soon be fought.
Toturi saw what was happening and despaired. He went to a great temple secluded in the Spine of the World Mountains and meditated in hopes of finding a solution. Lady Amaterasu spoke to Toturi, telling him to hold a Celestial Tournament like the tournament held at the dawn of the empire between the Kami Hantei and his siblings, and whoever won would be granted divine blessing from her. She also told Toturi that he would not be allowed to participate. Toturi obeyed.
So a great tournament was held among the champions and heroes of the clans. One of the grandest tournaments the empire has ever seen. At the end, the Dragon daimyo of the Kitsuki family won, Kitsuki Iweko. So she renounced her Dragon Clan loyalty so she could serve the Empire directly, and she was granted divine blessing. She has now created the new imperial family line “Iweko”.
As she received the blessing, she was gifted with several visions. These visions informed her of the Spider Clan and their true intentions, to conquer Rokugan and put a Shadowlands tainted person on the throne. Many of the Spider Clan had secretly infiltrated the other clans, and she learned of their identities through her divine visions. Iweko had the infiltrators executed, but some got away. The Spider Clan had caused much of the crime in the empire the past five years and even had paid the bandits to attack only so they could swoop in and look like the heroes. Many of them were tainted by the Shadowlands, including their leader Daigotsu, who wants to rule the empire, or at least put his son (Kanpeki) on the throne. Their stronghold lies within the Shadowlands but there is evidence to suggest they are also operating out of the great forest (The Shinomen Mori). The Empress has decreed that anyone with affiliation with the Spider Clan is to be executed on sight, and so the remaining Spider Clan members keep their affiliations secret.
There are whispers that some of the player characters have probably heard, whispers that any samurai may swear fealty to Daigotsu and the Spider clan, and in return they get to keep their mind and human form from being taken from them by the Shadowlands Taint. While many Spider Clan samurai have the taint, not all of them do. Some samurai who join the Spider wish to subvert the empire and give in to the selfishness of the dark virtues, a set of beliefs in stark contrast to Bushido that the Spider Clan follows.
This is the history and state of the Empire that I’d like to set the campaign within. Fu Leng’s rise and fall is still relatively fresh in the minds of Rokugan. Toturi has retired to the monastic life and retreated to the mountains in the Spine of the World. And the Empress (Iweko the First) has been in power for the past five years and recently given birth to her first child, a boy she named Iweko Seiken.
I am open to many different kinds of characters. From the major clans to monks and ronin. There is a limit to the extremes of character types. Like, I am not going to allow you to play a Bog-Hag (a Shadowlands creature that steals skins to wear). But bear in mind this would be our first game in 4th edition and playing over Skype, so it probably would not be a good idea to play a haunted, one-armed, epileptic ronin who is a member of the kolat. That is just a bit too much for me to try and keep track of. In fact, they have a particular mechanic in the rulebook that I am going to utilize. If your disadvantage impacts the gaming session then you are awarded an extra experience point that evening. Which means, it is more interesting to select disadvantages that will actually disadvantage you, and it will encourage you to help me make sure they have relevance. Reminding me of them when they might be applicable, ect… And we are cooperative storytellers here, so you are certainly welcome to make suggestions (e.g. you’d say “My character has settled down for the night and is still disturbed by his earlier failure to shoot the target at the competition, I think his ancestor haunting him might choose now to berate him.”).
Character creation begins on page 99 at the beginning of the Book of Fire (the third chapter in the core rulebook). We will be using the standard character creation process. You start with 2 in each trait and ring, you get your family and school bonuses to specific traits, you get the starting skills from your school, and you have 40 experience points to spend on increasing traits, skills, (Kata, spells, or kiho, depending on your profession) and purchasing advantages. You can have up to 10 points of disadvantages (these give you points instead of costing points).
I of course welcome any questions or if you want to talk about your character.
First, we are trying to create a story together. I am not going to be the adversary strictly speaking, though I am going to introduce drama and antagonists it will be in the hopes of making a more enjoyable story, it won’t be to “win” against you guys. Saying that, this is Legend of the Five Rings, there is a stronger likelihood that your characters may die, but hopefully you all won’t resist this outcome at all costs to who your character is (totally breaking from the character’s personality), and that it will enhance the story and be overall enjoyable if it happens. This is an historical asian style game, which means our attitudes toward death might be a little different. Asian stories usually glorify the person who sticks to his morals and principles rather than the individual who discards societal rules to do things their own way. That isn’t to say you can’t be human or an individual and think differently from society, we just should keep in mind the type of game L5R is and appreciate it for its own virtues. Otherwise we will just be playing a generic fantasy game with katanas.
While I am going to adhere to the game book’s rules as much as I can, I may make some adjustments on the fly if I feel it is in the greater benefit. If I am forgetting a rule, or your interpretation of something is different, you can certainly mention it and we’ll discuss it, but hopefully you will be comfortable with me making the final decision on the matter. My ultimate goal is to be fair and for us all to have fun.
As for realism, it is easier to immerse yourself in a story that seems more realistic than not, and while I prefer to strive to that end, I have realized that it can be very difficult to do and can even cause problems. The authors even admit in the core rulebook that the game is not completely realistic when it comes to game mechanics. Even though combat is very deadly in L5R, it still allows characters to survive things that would probably kill someone in real life. Arrows and katanas are freaking deadly. So, especially when it comes to combat, you generally have to adjust your expectations to thinking more in game-mode than utter realism. I recommend we all try to realize there will be some game like elements and mechanics that don’t seem completely accurate to life but are instead geared toward balance and ease of use, and that we should embrace it a majority of the time.
Coming up with a system that is both highly true to life in all situations and is also easy and quick to use is fairly impossible, so each RPG has to make its own compromises, but we still love them.
You all don’t have to be familiar with Rokugan’s storyline. You don’t have to be too familiar with the culture either. None of us are going to get it all accurate, and I won’t have dire consequences befall you if you forget to add “sama” to the end of a name, or forget to refuse a gift three times. I will point things out as we go along, so as to demonstrate the culture and help you come to understand and appreciate it, and I will give you the benefit of the doubt about things your CHARACTER would know that you don’t (e.g. what clan the family’s name Isawa belongs to [Pheonix Clan], your character would know even if you don’t and I’ll just tell you). Still, it is enjoyable trying to understand and act appropriately within the framework of the game so I certainly encourage it, I just won’t be penalize you if you don’t. We’ll have fun. :)
If you are familiar a little bit with third edition L5R then they have a nice page in the 4th edition book mentioning the differences between 3rd and 4th edition you are welcome to look at and get an idea of what the changes are. It is on page 11 (14 of the pdf).