During a L5R game, the players ended up in a situation extremely complicated from an Honor point of view.

While running after a suspected murderer, they stumbled upon the Empress' brother, buying firearms and powder from gaijins (highly illegal and dishonorable behavior). They have not been noticed yet.

They started struggling with what to do, as they can't find any course of action that isn't dishonorable. Which was great, as that was what I wanted them to feel. They then all turned towards me and asked "what would the honorable thing be?" Which is less great, as I have no idea.

They are mainly hesitating between attacking (not honorable), confronting (might be killed), running away (not honorable), or telling someone (might not be believed). I would prefer the question to not be completely specific to my current crop of PCs, but they are a Crane bushi, Mantis courtier and Dragonfly shugenja.

So, in this kind of situation - seeing someone from a highly superior rank doing a highly illegal thing and ready to kill to keep his secret - what would a L5R samurai do?


5 Answers 5


I don't know about bushido, but in Rokugan, the answer of what they should do is "nothing", at least by themselves. Now, let me explain:

Direct approaches are bad

The brother of the Empress is way too high in the social scale for most samurai to be able to deal with him in any honorable way, at least under normal circumstances. Possible outcomes of doing it the direct, unsubtle way:

  • If they try to take justice in their own hands, they will end bad. Challenging him to a duel, attacking him or arresting him can only end with them branded as traitors and executed as petty criminals, along their families and maybe even their daimyos. No honourable seppukku, but execution.

  • If they publically denounce him, it is for naught. In Rokugan, proofs have no value in law, no matter how irrefutable. Judges only take in account testimonies, and those testimonies must come from someone as high in the social scale as the denounced to have any value. Since we are talking about the Empress's brother, they will need no less than several clan daimyos to back them up, something extremely difficult. Not only that, but the supposed culprit may counter any accusation from lesser samurai with his own accusation, one of slander, against them, demanding their deaths as retribution to their daimyos. Most daimyos will obligue such demand.

The correct way to do things in Rokugan

In Rokugan, when one is aggravated or observes a dishonourable behaviour by one of superior social status and believes that something should be done, the politically and socially correct way of act is to go to one own daimyo and let him know of the facts. Then forget about it until their daimyo order them otherwise. He will then decide what to do, and if he deems it necessary, he will escalate the case up in the hierarchy. However the proper option is not really an option if you do not have the support of your daimyo, and can end really bad if you are in bad terms with him. If the later situation arises, the best adjective for a truly honourable samurai is screwed.

There is something you can still do

The proper way of resolving the situation is not available to samurai that do not enjoy support from their daimyo. For those samurai is such situation that want to address the problem, while remaining true to the code and the tradition, there are some alternatives:

  • As explained before, normal samurai cannot take meaningful actions against the empress's brother, and their word, against the word of someone of imperial blood, has little to no value. On the other hand, in the court, a samurai is his own worst enemy. If you somehow force him to make a mistake big enough and public enough, he will destroy himself. You will need to thread lightly, however, as he still has the advantage of status, and a careless approach may end with you suffering the consequences I mentioned before. This is good if you have high political skill or have very good, influential, friends (or better, both of them). It is an adequate option for Crane and Scorpion clan samurai.
  • Self-sacrifice can be very powerful in Rokugan. If you have no skill for politics, but you are a really honourable samurai and your sense of honor compels you to do something, you can make use of the right of every samurai to denounce her own daimyo by asking such daimyo permission to commit seppukku as a sign of protest against that daimyo's behaviour. The daimyo is free to allow it or deny it, of course, but refusing such petition is believed to bring bad luck to the house and displease the ancestors (and this is one of the very few instances where a samurai can openly disobey her daimyo). If a samurai decides to take this course of action, she would do well in making the request in a very public situation, to better attract the attention of the adequate persons to the case, persons that, unlike the samurai, have enough influence, resources and willingness to be able to actually do something about the problem at hand. Either if the samurai do commit seppukku or not (in which case, she will continue her live under the shadow of a probably vengeful daimyo), her attitude is irreproachable. This way of action is appropriate to very strict followers of bushido, like the members of the Lion clan.
  • Finally, for samurai that has no time nor patience for politics or other traditional or indirect ways of solving the problem, but they want to do something, there is the other way. The empress's brother may be out of your reach thanks to his status, but their gaijin allies and non-samurai underlings are not so lucky. While you cannot expose him directly, you can still clean the empire of the filth represented by his associates. The better part of this method is that, as long as you are sensible enough to never insinuate that there is a connection between that scum you are killing and the empress's brother, even the most spiteful daimyo would have to recognize that the law and the code are on your side. Of course, this way of dealing with the problem puts you at odds with a very influential enemy, which will probably seek retribution, even if he has to do it indirectly to avoid exposing himself. This may be the more appropriate solution for the less subtle clans, like Unicorn and Crab.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like your last bullet point - kill the gaijin, maybe even pretending to defend the Empress' brother from an alleged ambush. The Empress' brother is given the chance to save face and play along. There is of course the possibility that he will bear a grudge on the samurai afterwards and make their life quite miserable or testify that they were trading with the gaijin and only when they spotted him they "came to their senses", resulting in a quest for the samurai to restore their honour etc... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 7:25
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "In Rokugan, proofs have no value in law, no matter how irrefutable. Judges only take in account testimonies," A very important and often forgot piece of setting information \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 9:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Seppuku as a protest against a superior's actions doesn't require the superior's permission, which is what makes it an effective protest. This is an exception to rule about needing the superior's permission. \$\endgroup\$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 2:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MontyWild It is not strictly necesary, but it is still advisable to do it, because you want to attract as much attention as possible (you are doing it in public, right?), because doing it puts your daimyo out of his comfort zone, and finally because is simply the proper thing to do (courtesy is one of the tennets of bushido, after all). \$\endgroup\$
    – MACN
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 10:04

Don't solve your player character's moral conflicts

Telling your player what they should do is boring. They should confront their own moral conflicts, and take their own options and carry their consequences. All the samurais codes can't prevent any kind of situation, in the end, any individual must take the action that he thinks is less dishonorable.

I can't remember the name of a film I saw recently (help would be appreciated here), in which there was an evil emperor, and some samurais confronted other, as they were divided between the duty of serving the emperor and the duty of protecting the people. Neither side was more dishonorable than the other, they simply had different views about their greater duty.

There's also a legend, but I have also forgotten the name, about many samurais that faced the same conflict: should they follow their evil shogun, or should they rebel against him. Either choice were dishonorable and a failure to their duty. So they chose the only way they thought appropriate: they killed their master and then committed suicide. (I don't think your players would be happy with this option).

But don't tell them which option is best. Let them figure it out. Some people will understand them, and some will censure them. At the end of the day, who can say he has the absolute reason?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Unless there is an obvious answer that you know (and they do not due to lack of experience with samurai lore), this is not a question to ask you but a question they should fight with themselves. I think this is what Flamma is trying to say, and I agree. \$\endgroup\$
    – sergut
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 17:58
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Ok, I see. But yeah, they are not asking for me to solve their moral issue, nor do I want to do it. They are asking for info on what a character in that setting would think - in another game they would probably already have killed them and looted the guns - and I have to agree that I am not sure either. So yeah, not asking what they should do, what is the correct decision, but what the code says about this kind of situation. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 18:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Scrollmaster I don't think the code solves this situation, so the answer you should offer to your players is "The code tells you to serve your master, but it also tells you not to be part of unlawful acts. You must decide what to do". If they go for the suicide option, extra honour points! (but don't tell them). \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 18:37

This first thing to realize here is that there is no correct answer. It will depend of a lot of factors.

They obviously can't stay silent about this of course, but neither can they attack another samurai. After all, the Imperial might just be doing his duty, even if said duty isn't honorable. And ambushing a samurai is definitely not the honorable thing to do. So they can't just attack the guy on the spot. However, they can confront him.

There are 2 solutions I can see :

They confront the guy. If he attacks them, they can defend themselves. But if they kill him they might get into a lot of trouble. However, if the Imperial says this is not of their business and he acting for the good of the empire, there is nothing they can do about it. However the guy is now warned.

They could also report this to their superiors or to a magistrate of the lands they're in. If they're clearly outranked, the magistrate won't be able to act on their testimony though, even if they bring proof. Material evidence is nothing compared to the word of a high ranking samurai.

Asking the help of an emerald magistrate would be the better course of action. He will have the authority to organize a search and to condemn the Imperial if something is found. He will also have the necessary contacts to know if the Imperial actions are authorized or not.

However, if nothing is found, the PCs will be in a bad situation... the Imperial might pull a few favors to make life for the PCs very difficult (called back to their land, papers to travel or cross territories refused, etc).

To find your own answer, you should :

  • decide why the imperial is doing this. Is this for duty ? Personnal Profit ?

  • is he alone or is it larger than just him ?

If he's alone and doing this for profit, the emerald magistrate will be able to guide the PCs to a law abiding solution, finding proof and having the authority to deal with the imperial.

However, if the Imperial was doing this for duty... The NPCs will probably have a lot of problems.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The magistrate part seems appropriate, though I personally dislike having my PCs just relying on someone else. Unfortunately I can't give information about the Imperial's motivations, as my players are reading this. Also, the Imperial is very close from the Empress (her brother) and as such, would revealing publicly his behavior affect her reputation? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 17:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ If the Imperial is the brother of the Empress, this changes things. Even an emerald magistrate won't have enough status to deal with this. I would edit but MACN said everything already. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 22:41

It would be entirely in keeping with Honorable behavior for them to attack the man who is illegally selling the merchandise, but not initially involve the Empress's brother.

This could avoid many problems - they are not accusing the brother of the Empress, they are simply bringing a dishonorable gaijin to justice.

If the brother has plans, it may set them back, but is unlikely to foil them. They are therefore potentially aiding but not substantially impeding the legitimate business of the Imperial family (aiding if they slow a traitorous plot, not impeding if it is a legitimate reason).

The brother of the Empress will be a canny enough politician to have a reasonable excuse, especially if the samurai do not explicitly point out his involvement (assuming they can Honorably do so).

Then, of course, they will be obligated to report everything to their daimyo. It is then in his hands.


There's a less-than-direct way to deal with this that may provide a cleaner route of resolution, without the need for any significant dishonor at all.

Simply report up the chain of command that they spotted, but were unable to apprehend, an impostor wearing guise of the empress's brother, who was buying firearms and powder from gaijins. An attempt to dishonor one of such high rank simply can't be allowed, and could conceivably end up being reported as high as the empress herself.

This scenario allows the 'right' people to ask the simple questions of the brother, which he will (of course) deny, freeing them to hunt down the impostor. If caught after that point, he would have dishonored himself. It'll be tricky, but if played right the players could actually end up being the chosen agents to deal with the 'impostor'.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 This is fantastic! No-one would be willing to question the necessity of unmasking or eliminating an impostor dishonouring the imperial family, and this shows the characters' respect for authority with their (stated) assumption that the imperial they saw couldn't possibly be the imperial personage he seemed to be. This doesn't prevent the imperial from being vengeful if he is so inclined, however. \$\endgroup\$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 2:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, no. Technically, nothing prevents the imperial from being vengeful if he's so inclined. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 14:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I love it. Are you a Scorpion IRL or something? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 15:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually, other than a few games of the CCG years back, I've got no experience with L5R. I just have a lot of RPG experience that involves looking for low-friction solutions to problems. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 17:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ This method works, and is not dishonorable, but it's not really the honorable thing to do. Of course, it's a more efficient option for the PCs than just to commit suicide, but honor is not about being efficient. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 8:55

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