I'm reviewing the 3rd Edition of L5R which comes as an A4 size hard back. It is full colour on a good quality glossy paper and runs to 318 pages.
The game is set in a world called Rokugan, with a theme that reeks of feudal Japan, with samurai etc, although it is not set in Japan, it is an entirely new world.
The world as presented in this book is totally enthralling and presented in a depth that I found amazing for a single book. I had expected the book to contain hordes of rules but the majority of the book is background material which I found a refreshing change.
The background contains not only samurai using swords but magic, monsters, gods and spirits all bound up in a cohesive background that is rich and appealing.
When I started reading this book I found it hard going. That's not a reference to the text because that reads very well, but the book opens with a history of Rokugan in seventeen and a half double-column pages. I found it a struggle. There was no introduction or overview to the world, but instead it opens with this detailed year by year break down of history. As I read through it was full of names and places I'd never heard off and I became a little downhearted. My impression was, "I'm reading 17 pages of history, not the current-world I'll be playing in, so what's the point." Only after I had got past the history and into the body of the book did this all start to make sense. When I had finished reading the book I actually appreciated having that kind of history, it gave the world such depth.
This game is not your typical hack and slash. Part of the reason that they have such a rich background is that they expect you to play court politics part of the time. To role play without waving swords needs to have that kind of background depth especially when you start.
And that is a problem with the game. If you are playing an in-court session and players don't understand the intricacies of the Clan relationships, that is, haven't read up on the history of the clans, they might be in trouble. As a games master you might set up a scene of delicate politics and in come your players with no idea of what damage they can do... It seems a little harsh to need your players to have read so much background material.
Let's chat about character generation....it took me a while to realise I'd been reading the char-gen for the previous ten pages. There's a long section in the book that details all of the clans and families there-in. It includes history, details of leaders and relationships. There is also a note about a stat modifier for that clan, it's kind of hidden.
And that explains an ongoing problem relating to char-gen in this book. It's split up across multiple sections, each section is drowned in background information. When you add to that, the simple fact that the section of the book specifically about char-gen does not include a table of these hidden modifiers, it comes across as really confusing. I didn't really know where to start. This is not a book you can hand around the table and expect the players to step through making a character, it's not coherent enough for that.
The rules system itself is very simple, achieving tasks is rolling dice and beating a set difficulty (or opponents defence value). You roll a number of dice based on stats, skills and situation but only get to keep a certain number of the die results ( roll six dice, but only count the best two results). It's a really neat mechanic. Having lots of dice is good, but after the roll you have to pick just a few. It is a neat way to keep a check on power creep.
Alas there is a proof reading oversight here. The book says "here's a table of example difficulties"...but the table is not in here. As a games master, I have no guide to what would be suitable difficulty levels.
There are the other usual items for a fantasy game, including a list of spells for magic users and a rather short unillustrated list of monsters. The game is not focused on smashing monsters and taking their treasure, hence most of the monsters here are intelligent beings. The games focus is on dealing with other humans rather than monster bashing.
So let me wind this up by saying, I want to play in this world, I'm excited about it. However, I don't think I want to do it using this edition of the rules. The poor cohesion of char-gen and the missing table make that too difficult.