The Game of Twenty Questions

Legend of the Five Rings Character Creation Impressions

an ongoing series of articles highlighting the GM side of the FFG Legend of the Five Rings Fifth edition beta. For a player perspective check out Feldia’s articles.

After reaching out to some of my gaming friends I had assembled a group of four players that were interested in exploring L5R. Interestingly none of them have any experience with any of the tentacles of the L5R beast but were all on board for what I pitched to them as a fantasy samurai drama game. After furiously creating a Google Sheet for a character sheet with two of the players we internet met to do character creation. The game of twenty questions is one of those institutions in RPGs that persist through editions. It gives the players a good idea of what this game is before they even play and helps them build out the skeleton of a stats-only character into a fun person to be, which is what the goal of a character creation system should be. That doesn’t necessarily mean a happy person, some people just want to watch their character burn. L5R is a game for those people.

Hearts, Souls, Minds

The sweet spot of L5R for me is highly emotional stories with supernatural backdrops and maybe some investigation or courtly intrigues. The beta very capably provides the tools I need here and the starting adventure (though it has its issues) sets you off with a fine beginning to jump off from.

Heading into character creation I want to encourage bridges to the focal points of the story I want to tell which I know includes a lot of demon fighting and maho shenanigans with a side order of court and duels. I told the players that party composition is more flexible in this game but in general they wanted to fill the niches of bushi, shugenja and courtier. I also let them know that duels were going to happen and if at least one of them was good at them they would be in a better situation than otherwise. Without really any further instruction I set them loose on the beta document and after a few hours of work they came out with the following.

Bats – Artist, Scientist, Designer, Renaissance Bat – Asako Hiroshi

Like the rest of the group Bats was completely unacquainted with the L5R franchise. Bats has played in a few of my other games and while being quite literally the smartest person I know has had problems figuring out exactly what to do in those games. Most notably D&D. However with this game was quickly able to latch on to archetypes and motifs that are very present in the fiction and create a very cool character. Bats wanted to make a character that revolved around honour, both their character’s own perception of it and that of others around them. A Phoenix bushi, trained in the Shiba school with a ridiculously high Theology rank. Taking the Paragon of Bushido Tenet – Courage and Curiosity advantages and the Blindness, Dark Secret and Battle Trauma disadvantages.

I clearly had a lot to work with here. Mechanically Bats ended up building the mêlée defender if not tank and primary duelist of the party. With a decent Meditation and Void rank as well as Iajutsu, Asako has a good chance of overcoming their blindness, especially in duels. Curiosity is good for murder investigators and all the psychological disadvantages key off each other. I could already see the conflicts forming just from the character sheet as well as ways I could connect any one of the disadvantages to my overarching plot ideas.

Feldia – DLZ game reviewer and writer, definitely not a weab – Daidoji Matoko

After making two test characters with Feldia, this was the cleanest of the process. Feldia has been the most on board throughout the setting up of this campaign and very quickly latched onto the game and its concepts as well as the type of cool stories to be told here. Building a classic ‘torn between clans’ character Daidoji is a Crane trained in the Shinjo Outrider school. A decent rider and an excellent bowman Feldia took Quick Reflexes and Travel as advantages and one of the wildest packages of disadvantages I have ever seen. I ruled that to have the training of a non Crane school he would have to take the Scorn of the Crane disadvantage, after that he added Haunting, Momoku and Meekness.

Grabbing up mostly the techs useful for ranged combat (which are disappointingly few in the beta) and balancing out to a well rounded character if not a true generalist. There is a lot of anime inspiration going on with this character and while Feldia explained what he wanted to do with the character and the playspace he wanted to inhabit it became clear to me that travel would be a sub-theme of this campaign. Feldia had a fun roll on the Ancestry chart as part of creation, creator of a fabled weapon. It was decided that an ancestor that Daidoji has not ever even heard of created a Naginata of legend that was lost long ago. Daidoji has dreams of a secluded glade where it lies but has no idea where it is. This connected everything perfectly for me and gives me more than I need to work with as a GM.

Ivannorr – 72 hour event person, DLZ godfather, Guild Lands head DM – Bayushi Yuki

I had tossed around the idea of running a L5R 4e game to Ivannorr and Topiary Rabbit a few scant months before the beta so they had some passing familiarity. After giving a brief rundown of the setting I told Ivannorr he would undoubtedly pick Scorpion because they just fit his play style and were the most badass while being the most fabulous (eat it Crane). Like everyone else he unknowingly built right into the classic Scorpion archetype in so many ways. With Dangerous Allure and a Passion for Fashion, the courtier was shaping up to be good at their job. The Disadvantages of Sworn Enemy (Matchmaker), Delusions of Grandeur and Irrepressible Flirt rounded out another character that is perfect for the world of L5R.

Bayushi fills the party face role, critically important in this edition of L5R as social combat has been codified into a mechanical subsystem. In social settings Bayushi can act as a striker, causing a lot of strife on the other side of the negotiating table. In real combat courtiers in the beta get an impressive suite of support abilities that actually have impact on Skirmishes and Mass Battles.

Topiary Rabbit – 72 hour game person, Guild Lands DM and Random Chart designer – Kuni Yoshi

Topiary Rabbit has a slight reputation for building the party snowflake. Hard to do in this group as we already have a blind swordsman, a Crane-icorn and a Bond femme-fatale. They managed somehow to persevere. Kuni Yoshi is a pretty textbook Kuni, brooding, quiet, spooky magic goth but there were some excellent choices that set her apart. It was decided that Kuni Yoshi was the black sheep of the family and only really got along with animals. This is in spite of a storied ancestry and prodigious supernatural gifts. Advantages were Sixth Sense, Blessed Lineage and Animal Bond. Disadvantages were Whispers of Cruelty, Ferocity and Phobia (Drowning). I really enjoyed some of the choices made here, this character lived in a dark and foreboding world already before the dice even hit the felt, connected to the maho and travel themes of the campaign and brought a different feel than the other characters did.

I thought I would have to offer some help here as spellcasting can be finicky to learn in any system but overall the relative restriction of choice made the process a lot simpler. This character invested heavily in rituals and invocations as well a buying strongly into Earth and Void rings. One of the more specialist characters in the party but not too overly invested for a shugenja.

Character Building

Almost all of my players remarked about how much they enjoyed completing the 20 Questions. Especially those questions that connected to Advantages and Disadvantages. The game that as a group we are all most familiar with is D&D 5e, a lot of comparisons were made. At the end of D&D character creation you have a pile of numbers and abilities and you wrote down that you were a beggar. Very very rarely will your beggarness come up unless your DM is really on point (or you are) it will fade into the background behind the real cool things you can do in that game, like shoot fireballs. The game is not mechanically built to support social interaction in that way from the ground up. Fundamentally many games are about tactical miniatures combat, they care about shooting fireballs, how far, how fast, how hard. In L5R the cool thing you can do may well be charging headlong into a surely deadly fight, revealing the conspiracy in a packed court or failing and having to pay the consequences. 

In L5R you can definitely shoot fireballs but what you really care about in play is if your fireball shooting was honourable enough to reflect well on your boss and family such that you don’t ruin your and their lives or get killed by demons. You aren’t fighting not to die in L5R like you are in so many other RPGs. A samurai’s duty and destiny are to die, you are fighting to die honourably and gloriously. This subtle change makes all the difference, this is a game where you want terrible things to happen to your character, you spend most of character creation building this horrifying Rube Goldberg machine of a life for your character that can’t help but destroy them. You get the agency here, you choose a handful of ways for the GM to hurt your character. It feels better than shitty DM kills favourite shopkeep for the feels. It feels genuine, you know your character is tainted or haunted or cursed. You feel excited for these things to come up. It makes your character special.

When you complete an L5R character you see a person, not a class or a race. They are more than a template on to which you can graft abilities they feel like a dramatic character, covered in potential plot hooks. Each of my players ended up making a character I could build a whole campaign around, several probably. The framing of character creation as questions about who you are instead of what you do is genius. Every time you get to increase a Ring the game encourages you to meditate on what type of person your character is becoming.


I can stop fawning over the system for long enough to discuss a few of the ways it could be tweaked. Most of these are minor but I think some of them are deceptively powerful. These are ignoring the many typographical errors and missing pieces that a beta is bound to have.

Roughly a third of the questions are kind of unanswerable to a first timer. My players had a lot of trouble with Ninjo, Giri and fleshing out their Lord. Eventually I just let them put Seppun Hirohide, the Emerald Magistrate from the starting adventure as their Lord and then decide what duty they were doing for him. The connection to another group or clan as well as choosing what is most striking about their character were hard for them to answer.  They didn’t seem to get a good idea from the beta document at least of what they could and could not set up in the world. Most of the questions that do not include a mechanical choice of some kind seem to be the most forgettable.

The Ancestry chart like most charts is fun unless you roll something useless, several of my players did not like that they rolled something useless

A great way to end character creation.

Question 20, the most fantastic and iconic of the 20 has been changed from 4e’s “How Will Your Character Die?” to “How Should Your Character Die?” This is nitpicking on my part but I really think this single word shift changes the delivery of this question from a hot tamale to a lukewarm hot dog.

The starting adventure suggests 3-5 hours to play including Character Creation. It took easily 3-4 hours to make characters, I cannot imagine how anyone could make characters and then play a full session in 5 hours. The adventure is complex and multifaceted and there are a lot of options to look through in creation. I had all new L5R players but still, I think it is a consideration.

Time to Play

The Twenty Questions model for generating characters is one of my favourite parts of L5R. I am excited that it is sticking around for the fifth edition. My players found it to be helpful and informative lattice to build a character over. Ending up with people instead of numbers that already feel like they are walking around in the narrative.


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