I’m on the record as saying “break your canon” is my favorite role-playing game ideology, right? I’ve said it about the World of Darkness and now I’m going to say it about Legend of the Five Rings. If you aren’t familiar, Legend of the Five Rings is a game setting that takes its inspiration from Eastern sources, rather than Western ones; most crucially, feudal Japanese samurai stories. The Empire of Rokugan, where the stories of “L5R” are set, is richly developed, through a variety of sources, from collectible card games to published books, and much of it is fan driven. Imperial Histories 2 is exactly the sort of book I am looking for when I say “break your canon.” They smash Legend of the Five Rings wide open, exposing the guts, the nuts and bolts, proposing campaign settings like Miyazaki-like fables to steampunk samurai tales all the way to samurais…in spaaaaaaace….
“Imperial Histories” sounds fairly bland, as a title, but the book is anything but. Rather than just a collection of timelines, Imperial Histories 2 presents a series of radical options for groups wanting to play Legend of the Five Rings on their own terms. The campaign settings it offer fall into two camps: Rokugan in different time periods, at crucial moments in history, and alternate Rokugan settings, where a change in the game’s foundations create an entirely different world for the players, with entirely different assumptions. Neither approach is better than the other; there are some historical periods that are so fantastic or distorted that they might as well be another universe, and there are some alternate histories that are so believable that they feel almost like a glimpse of things to come.
The sections that shake things up the least are some of the historical settings. In these campaigns, key periods in Rokugan’s history are laid bare, allowing the players to either play through the margins of great historical events, or to take the stories off their rails by breaking the chain of history and doing their own thing. The sections have special rules, where appropriate, for houses and schools that are extinct in later times or that haven’t made some key divergence that later histories cause. The bulks of them, however, are in fact historical records; not bland keynotes, but charged moments that lend themselves to player interventions—or, if the PCs can’t be there, to the development of the metaplot.
Some of the sample historical sections include the return of the Unicorn, where a clan of samurai called the Ki-Rin left Rokugan only to return 800 years later, strangers much changed. Negotiating their new ways, and their new role in the empire, along with rising military threats, presents a challenge to a range of characters, martial, supernatural or courtier. The Heresy of the Five Rings deals with a religious—and of course, also political—schism in Rokugan’s history, and I couldn’t help but read it and think “I know how to fix this.” A good sign for a story.
The Four Winds is about the struggles of an Emperor’s children, would be heirs, battling for the throne; a great chance to the PCs to choose sides. The Age of Exploration is an interesting proposition, as well; in a game where contact with outsiders—gaijin—typically brings with it the threat of taboo, a chance to see the world beyond the Great Clan’s borders is tantalizing. If you play in the time of the Shining Prince, you can bump into the NPCs that everything in Rokugan is named after; all of the big mythical founders of the families are present. “Let’s adventure with Gilgamesh and Hercules,” the L5R way. The Eight Century Crises is a setting similar to the “modern” Legend of the Five Rings, with an array of threats against the empire, but different threats.
The time of the Steel Chrysanthemum, on the other hand, isn’t your typical historical period. No, the Steel Chrysanthemum is the Emperor who is basically the Pol Pot of Rokugan’s history—the Hitler, the Stalin, the Dai Li, and Lake Laogai, the paranoid deranged lunatic with the power of an absolutely loyal genius general who holds the known world in the grip of terror. Negotiating that web of politics strikes me as…intense. In fact, the only other period of history that is quite as terrifying would be the Destroyer War, when the goddess Kali-Ma and her hordes of demons—and, well, robots?—brought the Empire to its knees and almost destroyed it, but for a last minute deal with the devil. Sort of the literal devil. The war was just shy of being apocalyptic; I wonder of the PCs can do better, or worse?
Meddling with any given timeline seems natural, so it makes sense to include “What If?” settings. What if the world had changed at the Second Day of Thunders; what if instead of heroes returning from the climactic battle with the dark lord, no one came home? What if Aragorn didn’t live through the end of Return of the King? What if the time of the Four Winds ended up with a weaker heir claiming the throne, letting the wolves circle close?
The three most interesting settings are, for me, “The Togashi Dynasty,” which posits an alternate Rokugan where instead of the kami of Hantei becoming the first emperor of Rokugan, the Dragon clan kami Togashi did. Instead of a world of strength and compassion, of honor and duty, Rokugan becomes an altogether more magical place, a world where the story of Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke would fit right in. “Iron Rokugan,” or “The Era of White Stag” is the real deal—I currently run a weird fantasy campaign heavily inspired by Legend of the Five Rings, and this is closest to it—being a setting in which your samurai get guns and trains. The Pan-Asian setting and the advent of the industrial revolution really remind me of The Legend of Korra. Heck, if you wanted to play a commoner game, you could actually put the “punk” into steampunk, for a change. Last, but certainly not least, “The Emerald Stars” is essentially science fiction Legend of the Five Rings. The themes haven’t changed, but the pieces on the board have. Clans are still feuding over territory, but now the disputes involve planets. Strange outsiders still lurk on the fringes of the map, but they are aliens rather than gaijin.
Break your canon. It is like a piñata. Or, well, suikawari. If you hit it hard enough, all kinds of goodies will come out.