Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

Home Novels L5R Other RPGs Miscellaneous Writing About Contact

Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

What's with these Shugenja, anyway?

Talking about the problems with shugenja, as I have in several of these essays, raises the question: Why does L5R have Shugenja at all? After all, there’s nothing resembling them in the history or mythology of Japan.

According to John Wick, when AEG designed the original L5R CCG they decided early on that they wanted to have spells and spellcasters in the game. So they put in spell cards with pseudo-Asian names (“Path to Inner Peace”) and borrowed the name “shugenja” and the associated concept of “elemental” magic from the old early-80’s RPG Bushido. Like all John Wick stories, this should be taken with a few grains of salt… but it does seem to be true that L5R’s depiction of “shugenja” as magical priests casting elemental spells came from Bushido.

(BTW, this explains why I once had a player in Heroes of Rokugan who complained bitterly whenever Rokugani politics affected the campaign – he hated Clan conflicts and metaplot, and said he was only playing HoR because it was “the closest I can get to a Bushido game.” I found this puzzling at the time, but it makes a lot more sense knowing that L5R magic was re-skinned Bushido magic.)

Where did that game come up with it? For a long time I thought they had created both the name and the concept from whole cloth, but it turns out that “shugendo” is an ancient sect of Japan’s syncretic religious tradition, and a “shugenja” is simply a practitioner of that particular sect. So the L5R convention that “shugenja means priest” turns out to be more-or-less accurate. Presumably, the designers of Bushido had a book on ancient Japanese religion and plucked the term “shugenja” from there. The “elemental” magic itself, however, seems to have been their creation, and was then copied by L5R.

Once the L5R RPG came along a couple of years after the CCG, the writers and designers did their best to make the spell-slinging Shugenja and their fantasy-elemental magic fit into Rokugan’s pseudo-Japanese world, history, and mythology. To their credit, they did a pretty decent job of it, although their efforts were gradually undermined by later stories and game mechanics that escalated Shugenja into a super-powerful wizard/cleric fusion.

There was a part of me, even when I was actively writing and designing for L5R, that wanted to dump Shugenja from the setting completely. They had become such an out-of-control story element, such a cheap answer to every sort of problem (e.g. the massive damage from the War of Dark Fire and the subsequent Destroyer War was repaired in just a few years, with Story Team explaining this as “because shugenja!”), and so unbalancing and plot-disrupting to the RPG that I secretly dreamed of reworking L5R into a setting more closely rooted in the mystical/religious world of historical Japanese and Asian history. Of course, I knew that was impossible – neither AEG nor the L5R fanbase would allow it – so my next-best option was what I described in the earlier articles here: scaling back the Shugenja magic as much as I could, to at least get back to something like the more low-fantasy feel of 1st Edition.

Now that I’ve moved into the domain of Homebrew, however…

So what would a truly setting-authentic version of magic look like for L5R?

For inspiration, I suggest watching a Japanese movie called “Onmyoji,” depicting a ritual alchemist/occultist in the Heian era. The protagonist, loosely based on a real historical figure from that time period, employs esoteric knowledge, mystical wards, and exorcism rituals – the actual traditions of ancient Japan’s “onmyodo” – to overcome various supernatural threats such as ghosts and demonic possessions. It’s a far cry from L5R’s spell-slinging Shugenja wizard-priests.

How would one represent Onmyoji and their powers in L5R? The previous discussion of emulating FFG’s new design and dividing L5R magic into “Invocations” and “Rituals” offers a quick-and-dirty solution: get rid of Invocations completely and only allow Rituals, which would be the domain of the Onmyoji.

(It may be noted that this approach would also mean getting rid of almost all Kihos, although Monks might be permitted in compensation to have access to Rituals, as well as to have martial-arts Techniques.)

A GM willing to put more detailed effort into the project could tweak and adjust the available Rituals to be closer to Japanese historical religion and mysticism. For instance, one of the striking absences from the L5R version of magic is exorcisms and other forms of spiritual purification, which were hugely important in ancient Japan (and are still a “thing” in Japan even today). I added the Toritaka Exorcist Path in 4th Edition specifically to try to counteract this somewhat. A more authentic Onmyoji-style approach to magic would put such themes front-and-center, with an assortment of exorcism and spiritual-purification Rituals of varying power and intent.

One of the things I like about this whole approach, aside from the greater setting authenticity, is how it would impact the game’s action scenes and, especially, the depiction of the Shadowlands. Samurai would take pride-of-place in fights, which they should, and the Onmyoji would have to learn Weapon Skills in order to contribute. Shadowlands opponents would become much more frightening when there are no convenient Jade Strikes – magical solutions to the Taint would now be elaborate rituals that take many minutes to perform, with the bushi guarding the Onmyoji in the meantime. And Maho – which is both quick and easy to use, and quite powerful – would be restored to its proper place as both terrifying threat and insidious temptation.