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I got invited to a game of L5R (the role-playing game, not the card game) and I want to know enough about the game to be able to contribute instead of being hauled along. The biggest problem for me is I don't know what it is I don't know.

Now I've never played an RPG before (at least not one that didn't require a computer and further stipulated minimum specifications), but I did attempt to do some research and I even went so far as to acquiring a 4th Edition Rule Book (after first determining this was the correct edition).

Now I sort of understand the rules for their combat system, I get what they mean by keeping dice and exploding dice, and I sort of understand you have Warriors and Mages, but there are a lot of things that are very alien to me. For example:

  • The Role of Honor: How it's used, how it's gained, how I should treat it.
  • The Role of Courtiers: Both inside and outside of combat (especially outside).
  • The Role of Clans: I can tell there is a lot of emphasis here, but I don't really understand its purpose.
  • The Role of Artisans and Geisha: Are these "classes"? how do they fit in the game?
  • The Different Archetypes which are germane to the setting

I'm even more concerned about everything I should have on this list that I don't even know enough to know I'm missing.

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  • The Role of Honor: How it's used, how it's gained, how I should treat it.

It's a measure of doing what is right. If you're losing it, you're being a villain. If you're gaining it, a righteous samurai.

As a player, you don't use it, per se. As a GM, you inform players of whether they are living up to samurai morals with it.

  • The Role of Courtiers: Both inside and outside of combat (especially outside).

In combat: survive. That's it. Some may also be combat capable, but it's neither their giri (duty) nor their role. A few (Magistrates) might be combatants, but they are the exception.

Outside of combat: some are the face-men (talkers, con artists, negotiators, diplomats), some are artisans (which is good for duels of art), and some are information gatherers (magistrates

  • The Role of Clans: I can tell there is a lot of emphasis here, but I don't really understand its purpose.

You are part of larger groups. The family (more properly, sept, a division of a clan) is a sub-clan. You have multiple duties as a samurai: To the Emperor (The Daimyō of all), To your Clan's Daimyō, your Family's Daimyō, Your local Daimyō, your wife, your parents & siblings, your family members, and your clan mates. What ranking you put those into defines, in many ways, how to play the character.

Mechanically, Clan determines what schools are available to you, and what families.

Socially, Outside your clan, you're pretty much interchangeable with any other non-daimyo non-magistrate of your clan. Only within is your personal identity valued. And likewise, unless duty demands it, you should avoid members of other clans; they are not allies, per se... except when it comes to fighting Oni. Some GM's ignore this aspect, tho'.

The Clans can, in many ways, be thought of as nations within the Union of Rokugan. They often have fought wars with each other.

  • The Role of Artisans and Geisha: Are these "classes"? how do they fit in the game?

Artisans are there to win duels of Art. See Way of the Courtesan for more details on that.

Geisha are non-people. They are there to entertain samurai and to be spies, and as romantic plot objects. They are not, generally, suitable as PC's. (Historically, they bordered on indentured slaves.)

  • The Different Archetypes which are germane to the setting

The big archetypes of the Samurai Genre...

The Bushi's Bushi: the combat monster. Big, strong, tough, often not too bright. Honorable, but manipulated. If you phrase something as dishonorable, he won't do it; if you convince him Honor demands it, you won't stop him without killing him. High earth ring, high willpower.

The Thinking Bushi: A less combat capable bushi, but still quite lethal, he tends to avoid combats, but can hold his own. Experienced bushi of this type are often excellent captains and generals.

The sneaky bushi: not a skulker and hider, but a political creature. gets others to do his handiwork. Often a courtier, but not always.

The Yojinbo: the devoted bodyguard. Once assigned a charge, nothing, not even his own dishonor, will cause him to willingly let harm befall his charge. Often, this also involves thwarting the will of the charge....

The Wise Warrior Monk: dispenser of advice and, when needed, but-kicking. Often possessed of quite the temper, but it's long, slow, and when riled, unstoppable. Usually a retired samurai.

The Silly Monk: usually a young monk, who does stupid things, but learns from the experiences. Often comic relief, and often shares bits of wisdom without realizing it.

The quiet master of the Monastery: ancient, withered, and wise beyond reason. Not usually suitable for PC's. Basically, a living encyclopedia, but also one which, being retired samurai, is capable of delivery of rather surprising violence when absolutely needed.

The Magistrate: Tasked to keep the peace, and to investigate crimes. Half courtier, half warrior, and half spy... Subtypes include the Honest Magistrate (often played the fool), the detective (who has to then coerce confessions and witnesses), and the slayer (who figures out the guilty, then kills them while they "resist arrest").

The Geisha: usually a love interest. Always duplicitous in some way. And one who falls in love with her is doomed. Not samurai.

The Rōnin: Masterless, and honorless, he's either to be pittied, abused, or paid to be sacrificed in battle. The best are incredible, but often treachery or cowardice is how a Rōnin makes it to old age.

The Shinobu: the spy, the assassin. Hides in plain sight, pretending to be one of the above, or a servant of one of the above. Usually killed when exposed.

Fantasy Samurai Archetypes

The Shugenja: Healer, priest and wizard. Makes children nervous, and worries bushi. Unless, of course, he's YOUR clan's Shugenja. Then he just creeps you out until he blasts the goo out of that there oni, or glues you back together after a battle.

The Chanbara Monk: The guy making the 20m leaps and throwing monsters. Physics went out the window when he entered the room. Naruto, were he not a ninja.

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You will have two very important choices during character creation - what clan do you belong to? Do you use magic? As a new L5R player, these will shape the rest of your experience. It will be simpler if you make a character who doesn't use magic. This magic system involves a certain learning curve; it's not hideously complicated, but it's more than point-and-click spellcasting, and you'll have plenty of other things to think about at the table.

Things like clans. Which clan you belong to will have a major impact on how your character fits into the fairly rigid social structure of a typical L5R game. In a sense, clans are like character classes - people (players, NPCs, GMs) will make assumptions based on what you pick. If you're a Crane, you'll probably be seen as aristocratic and clever. A Lion is from the old school. A Crab brawls, yells, and has no patience with "true" culture. Talk to your GM and see if they have suggestions. Maybe it would be good to play a Unicorn, with your outlander's ways and your detachment from the game's mainstream culture.

Most important - have fun! If you think something will be cool or entertaining to everyone, do it.

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Can you go into more detail by what you mean when you say: clans are like character classes? That sounds really important. – tzenes Nov 23 '10 at 19:35
L5R clans, like character classes, are a way to say "this is how I intend to play the game." They aren't as restrictive as classes, exactly, but they set up certain expectations. Again, your Crane character is probably snooty, rich, and annoyingly good at things - whether a samurai or a shugenja, a Crane will be expected/assumed to act certain ways. Similarly, a Scorpion will presumably wear a mask, skulk around, and act shifty. That doesn't mean you have to do that, any more than a sword-n-sorcery fighter has to wield a big weapon and hit stuff, but it's the expectation folks will have. – sprenge777 Nov 23 '10 at 20:18

I can't give you much rules advice, having not played L5R specifically. However, here's a bit of advice that should be generally applicable (especially if L5R is somewhat like it's cousin, 7th Sea):

Familiarize yourself with the setting enough that you can come up with one or two top-down character concepts that sound interesting. By top-down, I mean create them from story concepts rather than mechanics and points (as though you were writing a character for a short story in the game's setting). This will speed up character generation tremendously if you have a bit of help from a more experienced player, because they can narrow down your mechanical choices before you begin.

Alternatively, choose a focus area or two from within the mechanics ("I want to use this kind of magic; I want to be a two weapon melee fighter; etc.). This will also help speed up character creation, although it's bound a bit more tightly to your understanding of the system.

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+1: There is far more depth to the process in L5R (more decisions to make), but it's excellent and on-point advice! – aramis Nov 23 '10 at 20:22


The main reason for clans — and other subgroups like them you'll find — is to give an idea of what kinds of characters are likely to be found in a typical game, and give you some inspiration for what kind of character you'd like to make. They offer some easy-entry stereotypes, some starting conflicts (Lion are rivals with Crane; Crab think the Scorpion are sneaky and untrustworthy while the Scorpion think the Crab are boorish thugs), and access to mechanics that are exclusive to the clans — a Dragon spellcaster will feel different in play than a Phoenix one.

Artisans and Geisha

They're not "classes" like character classes; they're social classes. You might enjoy playing one, but they're included as alternates to things like shugenja and samurai, which are more typical character types.

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One answer with all your responses would be more appropriate – C. Ross Nov 23 '10 at 17:30
Please use a single answer so I'm not bouncing around for data – tzenes Nov 23 '10 at 19:34
Fixed that, by the way. – Jadasc Nov 24 '10 at 18:53

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