Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Schools, Techniques, and Kata Part 2

FFG’s new version of L5R displeases me in many ways, but it does have a couple of instances in which it comes up with a clever idea… and then fails to execute it properly. The “Stress” mechanic is clearly the best example of this (I so wish we’d come up with the idea of Stress when we designed 4th Edition!) but the other one that jumped out at me from the start was their re-working of Schools and Techniques. Essentially, instead of having a two-level system in which the top level is School Techniques and the second level is spells, kata, and kiho, they depict everything as Techniques, simply dividing them into several different categories – Kata (martial Techniques), Invocations and Rituals (the two kinds of spells), Kiho, and “Shuji” (Courtier and Artisan techs). A School awards you two starting Techs and a unique School-specific ability, and defines which categories of Techniques you may learn as you advance.

There’s some very interesting ideas here, to be sure. Allowing a School to offer some definition of permissible advancement but not confine you rigidly into being effective at only one thing is a good answer to the “Schools = Classes” trap that I discussed in Part One. It simplifies the overall mechanical structure by getting rid of secondary mechanics like Paths, Advanced Schools, and Kata (which are now just more Techniques). And making each Spell into a specific Invocation or Ritual is a very effective solution to the problem of shugenja being too powerful and flexible.

But… there are some issues.

To me, at least, it seems clear that there are too many “general” Techniques and not nearly enough Clan-specific ones. This weakens and blurs the distinctions between the Schools (and their parent Clans), undermining both the in-setting concept of Schools as ancient institutions maintaining secret wisdom and the mechanical concept of each Clan having a very distinctive style/flavor. Also, the Technique options for the Schools often seem weirdly broad – for example, the Kakita Duelist School and the Hida Bushi School both allow you to learn Kata, Rituals, and Shuji. Okay, the Kakita learning Shuji makes perfect sense given that Crane are generally courtly, but what in Jigoku’s name are the Hida doing with that option? And why are students of these Bushi schools able to learn mystical Rituals?

A lesser gripe for me is that FFG came up with an innovative idea for Technique advancement but then kept the concept of Insight Rank (as “Curriculum”). Basically, characters must spend a certain number of Experience Points in order to advance to the next Curriculum Rank and learn a new Technique. This was one of a number of areas where I felt the FFG design retained or added needless complexity and granularity in a design that in other ways seemed to be pushing (correctly!) toward a more narrative approach.


FFG put Maho into these rules as well. They turned Maho into Techniques that you learn as you go up in Rank.

Um… how should I put this…


So, all that being said… the basic concepts were quite clever and indeed inspirational. I very much like the idea of everything being a Technique -- it fixes that whole problem of too many sub-systems, counteracts the excessive flexibility of Shugenja, and eliminates the tendency of the game to include less-interesting Techniques just to fill in all the Ranks of every School. And I like the idea that characters can do at least some customization of their Techniques, albeit within the confines of their School’s traditions.

So how would I handle these concepts?

To begin with, I would drop the whole idea of “Insight Rank” or any imitation thereof, along with the corresponding idea that Techniques have a “Rank.” Instead, if a Technique is supposed to be more advanced, put Ring/Trait/Skill requirements on it. For example, a higher-power Crab Technique would most likely require high Ranks in Earth, Strength, and Heavy Weapons, while a higher-power Crane Technique might look at Fire, Void, Reflexes, Kenjutsu or Iaijutsu depending on its concept. In practice, this would produce the same general patterns of character advancement as in “traditional” L5R, with characters gradually raising their Skills, Traits, and Rings over time and focusing most strongly on the ones their Clan is known for. But it would eliminate the need to track extra numbers, whether that be calculating Insight under the old rules or totaling up XP spent under FFG’s new ones.

So, if there’s no Insight Rank, how do characters get new Techniques? They just buy them with XP once they meet the prerequisites. The cost could be based on what Rank they used to be under the old rules, and would be sufficiently high that acquiring a new Technique would be a real investment. In the absence of playtesters I can’t say what this cost would be, though off the top of my head it would probably be about 15 XP for a Rank 1 Tech/spell/whatnot, scaling up from there. Obviously, there should be a larger pool of bushi Techniques than in FFG’s rules, and the stronger and more interesting ones being Clan-specific (possibly even School-specific for really special elite stuff like Kenshinzen). The “Common” ones, however, would be taught throughout the Empire and thus would be available to Ronin and Minor Clan characters, much like I envisioned Kata in my 2013-2015 work.

By contrast, Social and Artisan Techniques – what FFG calls “Shuji” -- should be more tightly restricted in both numbers and availability. The world of the courts is far smaller than the world of the bushi or even that of the priest. There should probably only be a tiny handful of Common Techniques in this category – at best four basic Elemental-themed ones for court and the same for art. Everything else would be Clan-specific and would be skewed toward the Clans that excel in these fields. The Crab and Phoenix should not have just as many social Techniques as the Crane or Scorpion, for example.

I do like FFG’s idea of distinguishing between “quick” magic – what FFG calls “Invocations” – and the mystical/religious non-action-scene magic (“Rituals”), but letting bushi Schools grant access to Rituals seems inexplicable to me. The whole theme of L5R from the beginning has been that only shugenja, monks, and a few other “mystic-type” characters such as Tattooed Men and Kuni Witch-Hunters have any connection to the world of the spirits. One can think of a few specific Clans or Families where non-shugenja might justifiably have access to Rituals – the Falcon, for example, or the Asako. But such should definitely be the exceptions.