Set in the land of Rokugan the world is essentially that of a fantastical take on feudal Japanese Samurai with heavy influences from both Japanese and Chinese belief, myth and history. The Celestial Order of society is in place with the Emperor at the top, samurai lords below that and so on down the chain until you get to the eta or unclean at the bottom of the ladder.
The premise is that society was created by the Kami, children of lady Sun and father Moon who fell to earth after a battle in the heavens. Of the nine Kami who fell to earth, one became Emperor and seven founded the great clans (Crab, Crane, Dragon, Ki-rin (later Unicorn), Lion, Phoenix and Scorpion.) The ninth Kami was Fu-Leng who fell far from his brothers and sisters to the south and down into Jigoku the realm of evil. The great clans, along with the Emperor, set about establishing the feudal samurai society of Rokugan while Fu Leng crawled his way back out of the festering pit to Rokugan. By this point Fu Leng was a twisted version of his former self, corrupt and evil while holding animosity to his siblings. His evil, along with that of the realm of Jigoku spilling into the world, created The Shadowlands on the southern borders, and has been waging war against the empire ever since.
The great clans all have their own unique flavour and capabilities and all have a role to play in the Emerald Empire.
- Crab Clan: Often seen as brutish they generally have no time for the niceties of the other clans and their political games. The Crab are tasked with holding the southern border of Rokugan against the forces of the Shadowlands, a task that they take seriously and one which has cost them countless lives.
- Crane Clan: The richest of the clans, the clan with the ear of the Emperor and the political movers and shakers of the Imperial court. Also home to the deadliest duelists in the empire.
- Dragon Clan: Often aloof they hide in their mountains and contemplate the universe. Generally inscrutable in their mystical leanings. Their monks are often tattooed with ink containing the blood of their Kami that grants them additional powers and their bushi are the only samurai to have mastered the style of using both blades in combat at the same time.
- Lion Clan: The most martial of the clans the Lions are almost the military arm of the emperor outside the Imperial Legions themselves. Masters of battle their armies are rarely defeated. Their honour is also beyond reproach and they stick most diligently to the tenents of bushido.
- Phoenix Clan: The Phoenix have more shugenja (magic users) than any other clan by a large margin. Experts into study of the five elements they are more in tune with the spirits than any other clan.
- Scorpion Clan: If there is a play or a story, then the Scorpion are always the bad guys. A Scorpion almost always wears a mask and they are the masters of subterfuge and clandestine tactics that other clans consider dishonourable. Often more at home in the shadows they are also masters of political wrangling and trickery.
- Unicorn Clan: For the first 800 years of the Emerald Empire the Ki-Rin clan wandered the world searching out threats to Rokugan. When they returned they returned with a culture different to the rest of the empire. Riding on massive war horses the Unicorn are descendants of those who left in the Ki-Rin clan who have bred with gaijin over the centuries. Their cavalry is feared and their tendency to eat meat is looked down upon.
Within the empire the great clans play their games among one another. Minor military actions over land, political maneuverings among the courts of the clans and the emperor, subtle dishonourable shadow actions against one another always looking for the edge. Add to this mix a healthy dose of magic (prayers to the spirits that inhabit the world and other realms), fantastical creatures such as Oni (demons), ogres, kappa, naga and many others out of Japanese and Chinese myths and you have a great setting for adventure.
The background covered in the rulebook is sufficient to get an elementary grasp of the setting, but isn't sufficient in my opinion to a long term campaign. Thankfully there are other books in the line that are more than capable of taking up the slack.
Several games in the past have tried to put the players in the role of samurai but none have been as successful as the Legend of the Five Rings line. Other games prior such as Bushido and Sengoku held to such a rigid structure that it made it difficult to justify a roaming group of PCs, and the strict tenents of bushido made normal player roleplaying difficult. L5R has solved this problem by relaxing the tenents of bushido ever so slightly while also creating a fantasy version of Japanese society that allows for extra flexibility. Coming out of this are several methods of getting the PCs interacting with the world in the manner or a more regular adventuring party such as as magistrates roaming the land ensuring the Emperor's laws are upheld, cross-clan groups put together to fight the various evils that inhabit the world, courtiers at court trying to gain favour for their clans etc. This allows greater player freedom while still retaining some of the controls of a feudal society that works really well. Yes there is a small learning curve for players to adjust to gaming in the setting, but it is a learning curve that pays great dividends down the road.
As for the 4th edition rulebook itself, one of the most common things said about it is how beautiful the book is. The book is filled with wonderful evocative art, much pulled from the large library used for the CCG, that doesn't take over the book but enhances the sections and provides a great consistent feel and sense of world building. Flavour text throughout the book serves to draw the reader into the world in a subtle way, and is useful to introduce you to the society of the game. This is put together into a full colour high quality paper hardback.
One criticism I have personally of the layout of the book is the font is unnecessarily small. My eyesight is fine and it isn't an issue for me personally, but it's definitely a few points smaller than most RPG books. It could be said that small type just allows more to be squeezed into the book, which is normally true but on most pages the side borders are excessively large and filled with whitespace (well not whitespace due to the beautiful background images on the pages.) In layout they could easily have increased the font a point or two and taken an inch or more from the page edges and maintained the same page count.
The book is generally well laid out with the usual sections; background, rules, character generation, gamemastering etc. Despite the fact that the ruleset for the game is relatively simple it can be difficult to find what you are looking for at times. Often the rules will refer to another rule (such as the rules for dual wielding weapons) that haven't been brought up yet, and aren't even found in the main rule section (the dual wielding rules are found in a sidebar tucked away in the equipment section rather than main rules section.) This can lead to it being a little frustrating while trying to get a sense of the overall system, and there are several examples of this.
As for the rules themselves, the fourth edition is easily the most streamlined and well rounded ruleset that the game has had yet. The basic mechanic of roll X d10s and keep Y remains unchanged from previous editions, and continues to work well while being enhanced slightly. Balance seems to have been a big consideration in bringing this edition together and they've done an excellent job with it. The schools from different clans all provide unique advantages, but no one advantage is overpowering or capable of dominating all aspects of the game, with there being methods of overcoming it from other angles. Sometimes it feels slightly like a rock paper scissors approach however it's much more of a rock paper scissors lizard Spock plus 11 more possibilities set. This means individual techniques are good against a lot of opponents but sometimes you'll come across someone with a skillset that can undo yours, but not the rest of the party. It's just enough to make it interesting.
A callout has to also be made to the introductory adventure in the back of the book. For a violent feudal society the fact that the adventure is not combat orientated deserves a special mention. It is a great introduction as to how the society actually works in Rokugan and the challenges of participating in the battlefields of the political arena. Added to those challenges is a murder mystery in a land where physical evidence doesn't necessarily matter as much as the honour of individuals and their sincerity leaving players always in the eternal conundrum of doing what is right, or what is proper, something L5R is good at.
Overall this is a great product, beautiful to behold and it's unlikely that you'd regret the purchase. Be warned though if you purchase the PDF it is a whopping 148mb file. I've only viewed it on an iPad where it renders perfectly well even on a first generation in Goodreader, though you need to zoom in to read the text.
Definitely recommended, even if you own previous editions.