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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, spies)

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 Yojimbo: 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 pitied, 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. In game, there have been a few schools that can support this.

Demon Hunters: usually in the game, these are magistrates or members of the Crab Clan. In the broader samurai literature, they are often monks or priests, often madmen.

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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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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you go into more detail by what you mean when you say: clans are like character classes? That sounds really important. \$\endgroup\$ – tzenes Nov 23 '10 at 19:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$ – sprenge777 Nov 23 '10 at 20:18
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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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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1: There is far more depth to the process in L5R (more decisions to make), but it's excellent and on-point advice! \$\endgroup\$ – aramis Nov 23 '10 at 20:22
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Clans

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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    \$\begingroup\$ One answer with all your responses would be more appropriate \$\endgroup\$ – C. Ross Nov 23 '10 at 17:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Please use a single answer so I'm not bouncing around for data \$\endgroup\$ – tzenes Nov 23 '10 at 19:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fixed that, by the way. \$\endgroup\$ – Jadasc Nov 24 '10 at 18:53
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Martial fights are not central to L5R; The game is about conflicting social obligations.

In many Computer RPGs (and also in some tabletop RPGs), combat is the central theme, while social interactions, investigation, and being a member of society play only a minor role. In particular, CRPG dialogue is often option-based and the options are nearly independent of your character's attributes.

This is different in tabletop RPGs, even more so in Legends of the five Rings. The game draws heavily on the narrative tropes of the Samurai genre, which goes far beyond the good use of various tactics in fights and picking the right dialogue options to progress to one particular pre-written ending scene. The genre is not concerned with hard fights and choices with obvious context, and there are rarely very linear story lines.

The game is about conflicting social obligations, not about fights to incapacitate enemies, and all the things that confuse you should make much more sense when you keep that in mind.

The character “schools” – Samurai/Bushi, Shugenja (somewhere between priest and mage), Courtiers and Monks – are all members of the nobility of an empire. As such, they are bound by expectations and codes of conduct that govern their behaviour, and they have loyalities to different people – protect the weak, honour their ancestors, love their partners, educate their children, obey their various lords. The Samurai genre draws on the conflict between these different codes and loyalities, so the rules of L5R try to model them through various means.

One of the core conflicts in the genre is between doing what is best for you/your closest loyalities (winning battles, exposing traitors, gaining political power, surviving) and what the world expects from you (fight honorably, don't act secretly, own up to problems people higher in the command chain make you responsible for). The second bit is what honour measures. Unless you are playing a character who is explicitly put in place as a low-honour pawn of higher-ups who want to sacrifice him to protect their own honour (Scorpion clan essentially does this for the whole empire, but many other clans have people like this), you should care about your Honour value. It affects how you will be treated, whether you can expect others to listen to you, what will happen to you if you get caught doing something bad and so on.

The other big conflict is choosing between different honorable actions, or, more often, different dishonorable actions. What do you do if you find out that a high imperial figure has dealings with Evil? You cannot expose a high imperial, but you also can't let Evil be supported. Both options would be dishonourable. Solving the problem yourself would be even more dishonourable if it came out. Another instance of this type of conflict is between obviously honourable loyalties to different people, like if your clan daimyo requires you to act against the will of the Emperor or against the defenseless peasants. Both options are dishonourable, what will you do? This is where the Clans come in: A clan is a large group of politically and philosophically somewhat unified nobility. Clans have power, often about as much as the Emperor in their domain, and relatively unified interests, so the conflicts between clans drive much of imperial politics, and the loyality to clan vs. empire is a strong theme. Often a group of player characters will either come from the same clan and try to further their clan's interests, conflicting with honour, other clans and the imperial nobles; or player characters will all come from different clans, and the philosophical differences between the clans (how important are honour, fighting, ancestors, secrecy, loyality, etc.) will drive the conflicts.

This is where Courtiers come in: The usual samurai knows basic etiquette, but is not well-trained representing himself in front of the higher nobility. Courtiers are. They know how to tell a superior that things have gone badly without losing face and honour. They know how to phrase a request for aid without revealing the weakness and dishonour of the asker. They know how to move around in court without offending anyone. They know how to tell the family daimyo that you need to be relinquished from your duties to work for the clan daimyo. Courtiers may even be hardly able to fight, but often a fight will either be between samurai and badly trained dishonourable people, putting even a courtier at advantage, or between different honourable samurai (maybe even a duel), such that the courtiers would not be in danger – and often, fights make out less than half the focus of the game.

Other archetypes (you mention artisans and geisha; monks, ronin – clanless samurai –, ninja, and magistrates are other important archetypes) fall somewhere into this spectrum, as well. They all gain their place from the conflicts between various honourable, dutyful or loyal deeds. They may not be able to fight, but they are able to give other people incentives to act honourably or dishonourably and are therefore important to the setting.

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There are already a lot of great answers, so I will try to include what I didn't see here instead of being redundant.

I would talk to your GM as a starter If you GM has requirements or restrictions, that can at least narrow things down to what you need to know at your first session. Plus, no matter how much RAW you read, I haven't sat at the same era/setting of Rokugan twice.

Generic First Time Advice The 4e core book has some great advice in it, and that's to take Etiquette, Defense, Lore: Bushido, and Investigation at character creation. If your school doesn't have them, then tack them on, it's the cheapest way to spend points to buy a new skill.
I would take special notice of how aramis mentioned that you don't have to play a min/maxing stat cruncher, specifically the "thinking bushi". For the first venture into a new system, it is a personal recommendation that you make your character an intellectual. Buy advantages like "Sage" and "Perfect Memory", maybe even Blessing of the Seven Fortunes (Benten), because anything you as a player don't know to do, you have a safety net installed by your dice. Your GM should be willing to work with you in game. For example, I still have new players that say things like "I do the proper greeting and titles for everyone", because they are still getting used to what they actually are. When they roll Awareness+Etiquette, I describe the actions as I expect them - the depth of bows, the suffixes/titles, etc. as an in character narrative so they can start adding it reflexively. Which brings me to my next point...

Take Notes In Game You're learning a new system so it always helps to take notes on the way the GM describes things. You don't need to take super detailed notes, but try to notice mannerisms of characters. The funny thing about RPGs like L5R, is that for as varied as an individual person may be, the stereotypes hold in most cases. When the school gives a character bonuses for doing things a certain way, they aren't going out of their way just to be special most of the time. And one last segue...

GM Assisted Creation When I help new players make a character, I work with a funnel method. Instead of how the book says you should start with your Clan, then your family, then your school, I would start narrowing it down by how you want to get things done. If you say "I want to be a Columbo style detective", or "I want to be a healer", or "I want to be conniving but comfortable with a blade", a knowledgeable GM should be able to give you a couple of candidate builds to get you started. Just make sure you come to the table with at least an idea of how your character would solve their problems.

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