Art of the Genre: Legend of the Five Rings

Art of the Genre: Legend of the Five Rings

I loved L5R and Chris Dornaus so much, I commissioned her to do line art for two of my characters in 1st Edition glory.
I loved L5R and Chris Dornaus so much, I commissioned her to do line art for two of my characters in 1st Edition glory.
Sometimes art pulls you into a game, sometimes its marketing, sometimes it takes place in a genre or storyline you like, but most times I find people get into games because of a friend. In 1998 my friend Mark bought three copies of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, trucked them eight-hundred miles to my house in Maryland, and forced me to play it. I’ve never been so happy about being bullied into a game in my life.

L5R was epic, a Matt Wilson cover making me sit up and take notice, and the mechanics of game play a fresh change from the D20 of D&D and the D6 of Shadowrun as L5R introduced ‘exploding D10s’. The setting, an amalgam of Asian culture called Rokugan, overwhelmed, and although my mindset is distinctly and irrevocably western, I still fell into this game head first.

I credit this addiction to two things, the absolutely incredible writing of John Wick, and the stellar black and white artwork of Cris Dornaus.

Let me first start off with John Wick. I know absolutely nothing about John personally, but my experience reading his RPG work leaves only one singular fact, he can write! If you’ve ever sat down to read an RPG, you typically get a good feel for the game, perhaps have a laugh, and come away educated on the subject. When you read L5R 1st Edition, you come away entrenched in a world so deep that you’d swear it had been around for decades.

No other games 'waste' pages on Family, but in L5R, honor demands it!
No other games 'waste' pages on Family, but in L5R, honor demands it!
Truly, I have no idea how Wick did it, and I’m a writer. I’ll call it a gift, period, and just be happy to have been let into his talent. Let me try to put this in perspective.

In 1987 I bought my first House book from FASA’s Battletech universe, House Davion. That text was by far the most in-depth thing I’ve ever read. The history of the Successor States from the perspective of just one of them was unreal, a timeframe running from 2107AD to 3024AD in a single volume. To encompass all 5 of the Successor States, FASA enlisted a dozen writers and that combined pool of talent made something truly special.

In the case of L5R, Wick produced the core rulebook, Way of the Dragon, contributed on Way of the Lion with Patrick Kapera and Ree Soesbee, and in my opinion created the single most impressive work of RPG writing ever, Way of the Scorpion. These works begin in the dawn of time and blossom into the age of Samurai, the Great Clans, and the shining Emperor.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, is as beautiful and dangerous as a Scorpion...
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is as beautiful and dangerous as a Scorpion...

Speaking of Ree Soesbee, here is another writer of note in the lineage of L5R. Ree certainly deserves a heaping share of credit for the 1st Edition RPG as well, her keen mind and full understanding of Asian culture fleshing out not only Way of the Lion, but also fully capturing the amazingly noble Way of the Crane, and co-authoring Way of the Phoenix with Patrick Kapera. Ree might actually be Robin to Wick’s Batman, but whatever the case, you’ll never have a better RPG read than L5R’s 1st Edition.

Ok, so with great writing, you need great art, and here is the kicker for me. I wrote Art Evolution for a reason, to showcase supreme artistic talent in the RPG field, but somewhere along the way my inclusion of Cristina Dornaus-McAllister became an afterthought for fans. Perhaps my own writing skills didn’t do her enough justice, but I’m here to rectify that.

Cris unequivocally knocked Rokugan out of the park, and unfortunately where most modern art is concerned she’s sidestepped because her work was done in black and white. B/W line art is a gift as much as painting with oil or rendering work on a computer, trust me, and what Cris did in monochrome to bring life to the L5R universe demands readers sit up and take note.

It's the only game where spell-casters, called shugenja, are also Samurai.
It's the only game where spell-casters, called shugenja, are also Samurai.

She was the catalyst for me, the reason I collected all the L5R ‘Way’ books, and only because of wanting to see her art did I have a chance to read the words of Wick or Soesbee. That is what art means to the RPG, and I will once again take up the torch for Cris in hopes that the art included herein inspires others to go back and see what they’ve missed in this beautiful game.

Cris is also the co-author of The Book of the Shadowlands, which hands-down has the best write-up on goblins ever [sorry Paizo, but it’s true]. I can’t attest as to what exactly she wrote inside the large supplement, but if she had anything to do with the ‘magic mud’ then she’s as genius as Wick himself.

My love affair with Rokugan and L5R was like many game fans in this modern age, obsessive, and unfortunately, as is often the case, that love can be exploited. Alderac Entertainment Group sold the license for the L5R RPG to Wizards in the late 90s, and in 2000 a 2nd Edition of the game was released with Soesbee at the helm. Yep, only three years after its release, and with a changed ownership, another edition ‘needed’ to be on the shelves.

Still, I went for it. I purchased this upgraded edition when it hit the shelves, but then Wizards was sold to Hasbro and by 2001 there was a new D20 edition of L5R repackaged as Oriental Adventures. What did I do? Well, as any true fan, I bought the D20 core book and all the newly updated ‘Way’ books now know a ‘Secrets’ books.

So in five years, there were three full editions of the same game. Remember, Advanced D&D is only on its 4th Edition [if you discount the 3.5 revisions] and has been around since 1974.

And don't forget the funny, like sour Lions being painted by a Crane...
And don't forget the funny, like sour Lions being painted by a Crane...

D20, however, never could recapture the magic of the original L5R. There was a crispness to it, a finality, and a truly deadly combat system that was so unforgiving a single wound could mean the end of a character no matter their level. Although I read the newest books for content, I couldn’t stay away from what the original L5R system meant, and in 2005 AEG reacquired the L5R license and distributed L5R 3rd Edition [which was actually the 4th, but who’s counting right?].

I was thrilled to be back in a world of exploding D10s, and I must tell you that 3rd Edition L5R is mechanically flawless. The art, which but for the confines of this article I won’t feature, is gorgeous and rendered in full color. A finer product you’d be hard-pressed to find in the middle decade of the new millennia, but still, without Wick, the true magic of it isn’t there.

Don’t get me wrong, I play 3rd Edition still, but I live in the world of 1st Edition, and I gave AEG every penny I could muster until GenCon 2010 when I discovered a 4th Edition release [which again is the 5th in thirteen years]. That, was finally the straw, but no matter what I enjoyed the ride.

Number IV
Number IV
I can also tell you this, the concept of ‘exploding’ D10s adds a level of enjoyment to the game beyond what you find elsewhere. There was a challenge offered by my DM, Mark, when he first got me into the game, ‘If you ever roll a 100 your weapon becomes magic’ he said. Well, for nine years I played and rolled countless dice and never got that 100. Then one day, with eight D10, I exploded up to 92 with a single D10 left to roll. My hand shaking, knowing I needed a 8,9, or 10 to do what all my friends now considered the impossible, I spun that gemstone and came up 101. It was like winning the Superbowl, Masters, and World Series all in one. I ran around the house like a crazed lunatic, fists pumping, screaming, until finally I fell to my knees with hands raised to the heavens. Yeah, it was that good, and if a game can get you to do that, I say pick up the dice and play, because life’s far too short not too.

Ok, so that’s L5R 1st Edition, but if you’ve come all this way looking for more of The Critical Hit, then Jeff and I will do our best to give you a laugh as well. Enjoy our tribute to Magic the Gathering.

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Wow, very interesting. I was totally ignorant of Legend of the Five Rings and I only vaguely remembered the piece on Ms. Dornaus-McAllister from last October. After going back and re-reading the article about her I realized you wrote about L5R then as well, but I didn’t take the time to investigate it. Sounds like a great game. And… I finally took the time to visit Ms. Dornaus-McAllister’s web site. Very nice.

I’ll be honest, I’ve only played a couple of games of Magic and that was almost 15 years ago, so it took a couple seconds for the joke it sink in, but once it did, it made me smile.

I really like the small details in the artwork. For example, the little flag on the helmet with “NPC” on it is wonderful.

Until next time, ~Z

John ONeill

Zachary’s not the only one, Scott. 🙂

Great art on THE CRITICAL HIT this month! Even if I’m not sure I really got it.


I would like to add, as someone who was there and knows how the dice significantly favor Scott, we all knew the 8, 9, or 10 was coming.

Everyone who reads these articles surely knows some players are just dice-poor, critically missing in the most critical situations with great consistency.

Scott is on the other end. If the party needs a 20, he’ll deliver. Case in point-

[Pinned down by a tank, low on ammo]
Scott: You said the hatch of the tank is open:

Mark: Yeah.

Scott: I have a grenade. What do I need to toss the grenade into the tank from here?

Mark: I’ll give you a 3% chance.

Scott: [rolls] O-Two

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