Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

Home Novels L5R Other RPGs Miscellaneous Writing About Contact

Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Schools, Techniques, and Kata Part 1

In the original 1st Edition core rulebook for L5R, each Clan got just two schools – Bushi and Shugenja – and only the Bushi got real School Techniques. The Shugenja got spells instead of Techniques, and their options there were considerably more limited than in later editions. (One of the things I liked about original L5R was that it was a fairly “low magic” setting by RPG standards, which gave it a realism and verisimilitude that D&D and its many imitators lacked.) A couple of Shugenja schools had very minor boosts – for example, the Agasha got a free Raise on Fire spells – but that was it. Ronin got no School, and Ronin shugenja could not gain more Spells by going up in Rank, but in exchange Ronin were given more points at character creation.

The concept of “courtiers” existed from the beginning, but this was a function of assigned duties rather than of School. Any character could be a diplomat or a courtier, and effectiveness in such a role was driven by Skills, Traits, Advantages, and role-play rather than by Techniques. Likewise, while Techniques made Bushi more effective at fighting, any character with decent Traits and Skills could be effective in combat or at dueling. The 1st Edition setting materials regularly make reference to famous duelists who were not Kakita or Mirumoto, with both Ronin and Shugenja depicted as being perfectly able to fend for themselves in these categories. The concept of Shugenja always being noncombatants with yojimbo to protect them and duel for them was initially confined largely to the Phoenix. All of this, along with the limits on magic, allowed 1st Edition L5R to avoid the trap of a D&D-esque “class-based” system and instead feel like a more realistic three-dimensional world. Samurai could and did serve their lords in whatever role their lord required.

The expansion books – primarily the “Way of the Clans” series – added more Schools, some of them more idiosyncratic or specialized, and including the first “Courtier” Schools: Bayushi Courtier, Doji Courtier, Ide Emissary, and Otomo Seiyaku, along with the idea that courtiers could have bodyguards to fight for them. However, this was not universal by any means, and most of the “non-Bushi” Schools such as Kitsuki and Ikoma were presumed to carry swords and fight for themselves.

(In relation to this, it is interesting to read the extensive fiction sections in the classic 1st Edition book Way of Shadow. The Kitsuki Magistrate viewpoint character is depicted as a capable swordsman and duelist. Isawa Ujina, destined to eventually become Master of Void, has no yojimbo and is depicted as fighting for himself with a sword, only occasionally making use of magic.)

Over time, as L5R evolved through subsequent RPG rules editions and CCG storyline writers, this fairly realistic depiction of the interaction between Techniques, other mechanics, and a samurai’s assigned role/duties gradually succumbed to a D&D-esque approach in which a character is defined and constrained by his School and Techniques. (In fact, the 3rd Edition “Burning Sands” hardcover straight-up called them Classes rather than Schools.) A number of factors drove this, including the creation and proliferation of Paths, the normalization of Multiple Schools and Advanced Schools, the increasing power and flexibility of Shugenja spells, the pernicious “fairness” myth that demanded all Schools have 5 Ranks, and the relentless overall power-creep that reached its apex (nadir?) in 3rd Edition. A side-effect of this was an increased burden on the designers, who had to come up with ever-more Techniques (we struggled with this in 4th Edition).

By 3rd Edition, Techniques dominated so completely over everything else in the mechanics that players increasingly came to view their characters as essentially single-role specialists –fighter, spellcaster, social. This in turn gave rise to demands for every Clan to have a “dueling Technique” and a Courtier school, resulting in setting-inappropriate Paths like “Ide Duelist” and the awkward retasking of unique flavor-oriented Schools like the Kitsuki, Yasuki, and Ikoma into being “courtiers.” It also led to the setting-absurd concept of “generic Schools” for Ronin, since otherwise a Ronin bushi was seen as too weak compared to a Clan bushi.

Amid all of this unfortunate evolution of Techniques and Schools across multiple editions, we also saw the emergence of two new mechanics, Kata and Kiho.

Kiho had originally been introduced into the card game as, essentially, “instant spells” that could be used by Monks and Shugenja. When they were finally added to the RPG in Way of Shinsei, they were primarily intended for use by Brotherhood Monks… but because the CCG had allowed them to be used by shugenja, the RPG did as well. This had the practical effect of making the increasingly powerful and flexible shugenja even more powerful and flexible.

Kata originated with the RPG but had a similar effect of making Bushi characters even better at fighting than they were already.

Both of these secondary mechanics reached a peak of abusive absurdity in 3rd Edition, where “combos” between Techs/Kata and Kihos/Spells became infamously broken.

In 4th Edition’s initial design, I advocated for making Kiho into a Monk-only mechanic and dropping Kata altogether. Although I did not win that argument, both mechanics were sharply scaled back in power – especially the Kata. Still, the basic problems continued in 4th Edition, being merely less egregious than in 3rd Edition. Techniques and Schools were still powerful enough to be seen as defining a character’s identity and effectiveness. Moreover, 3rd Edition’s insistence on rigidly defining Schools as Bushi, Shugenja, Courtier, or Monk carried over into 4th Edition, which actually intensified it by adding “School Tags” as an official game mechanic. And Kiho and Kata remained specifically tied to School types, making those Schools better at what they already did, and leading inevitably to calls for “social Kata” so Courtiers could be even-more-specialized as well.

During my design work in 2013-2015, I tackled all these problems head-on. I wanted to go back to the original concept that Schools were in-world institutions (rather than just “character-classes-by-another-name”) and therefore could have anything from 2 to 5 Ranks depending on their age and prestige; for example, I planned for the Ikoma Bard School to have only 4 Ranks. I also intended to drastically reduce the number of Paths and to get rid of Advanced Schools completely, replacing a few of the most setting-legit ones with “elite Paths” that could be either Rank 5 or Rank 6. (Rank 6 was my new cap for Insight Rank.) Kiho would become Monk-only. But the most notable change I planned was for Kata.

A major goal for me was to break the “only bushi can fight well” paradigm and restore the feeling of 1st Edition, where shugenja and magistrates and courtiers were just as likely to be capable swordsmen as the bushi. I also wanted to provide a mechanical in-game justification for the existence of so many independent dojo all across the Empire, something that was regularly depicted in the setting yet has seemingly no purpose. Did they all really teach nothing but Skills? Were countless sensei needed to impart Skills while only a handful taught Techniques?

My solution was to make Kata tied solely to having higher Ranks in martial Skills, and to make them mechanically stronger than the old Mastery Abilities (though not quite as strong as Bushi techniques). They would be purchased individually with XP. Under this model, most of the weapon skills had Kata available at Skill Ranks 3, 4, and 5, with XP costs set as a multiple of the Skill Rank. (I initially planned for 5x cost, so a Skill Rank 3 Kata would cost 15 XP, but I considered 4x as well.) Skills for weapons that were widely used had multiple sets of Kata with elemental themes, while lesser-used Skills had only one set. So for example, Chain Weapons got one set of Kata (Ranks 3, 4, 5) that boosted defense and helped with knockdowns and entangling foes, while Kenjutsu got four different paths of Kata – the Fire path boosted aggression and Full Attack, the Earth path boosted Full Defense, etc. Also, the Iaijutsu Skill got its own set of “Void Kata” that boosted dueling.

(Side note: Heavy Weapons did not get Kata. This was done for setting-authenticity reasons – there’s no “kata” involved in crushing someone with a sledgehammer – but had the side-benefit of counter-balancing the appeal of a Heavy Weapon inflicting 3 Wounds instead of 2.)

Kata under this model were available to any samurai, not just to Bushi. I did include an option for some of the Bushi Schools to award a slight discount on the purchase of certain Kata, e.g. Kakita got a discount for the Void Kata and the Mantis got a discount for the Knives kata. Aside from that, however, there was nothing to prevent a courtier, Shugenja, or other unconventional character from buying Kata and becoming a highly capable martial fighter; I even considered having a non-Bushi Advantage that would make Kata cheaper. In addition, the Kata also became my vehicle for incorporating a lot of different aspects of martial combat that previously had required either Techniques or special rules. For example, the “dual wielding” rules for knife-type weapons and jo staffs were now depicted with Kata.

This approach to Kata let me eliminate a host of finicky mechanics from earlier editions – Mastery Abilities, most of the special weapon rules, and the endlessly-ramifying oddball Paths – while solving the same problems those mechanics had sought to resolve. Within the constraints of what I was doing with the L5R design at the time (I could only change so much of the fundamentals without generating opposition from Brand), I was very happy with it.


The new FFG design for L5R, while displeasing to me in many ways, has a very interesting new approach to the construction of Schools, Techniques, and secondary mechanics such as Kata and Kiho. It has inspired me to consider a much more radical re-working of all these concepts. That will be in Part Two…