L5R is Different

As you can tell from the concept section, we want you to be aware of the different type of roleplaying experience L5R provides so you can dive straight in! Much of this is covered in great detail in the core rulebooks, but here are a few of the common cultural differences one should be aware before playing!

Here’s a quick rundown of things to remember that may be different from what you are used to:

Your life is not your own.
Wealth and coinage are seen as dishonorable, a currency of gifts is not.
A marriage involves one spouse serving the family, and one serving the daimyo.
Law is based on testimony, not evidence.
The face you show to the world is most important.

Here’s some more details on the concepts.

Loyalty Above All:

The first thiing to be aware of roleplaying a samurai is that your life is not your own. You have dedicated to lay down your life in battle for your clan and daimyo, with no other justification needed than they have asked you to do so. A samurai who cannot in good conscience follow an order of his superior can cleanse his honor through ritual suicide, protesting the act while still in penance for disobedience. The good news is this is the standard all your peers are held to as well. You are also indebted and thus loyalty to your family, who raised you, and your sensei, who trained you. An insult to yourself is meaningless, an insult to any of these to whom you owe loyalty must be answered, or your tacit approval means you agree with the insult and are thus disloyal.

Gift Culture:

Wealth and coinage are seen as dishonorable, a currency of gifts is not. Samurai do not haggle, and they rarely bribe. They do however, have long memories and customs regarding gifts. A classic way for a wealthy samurai to bully someone is to provide them a gift that they cannot repay in kind. Samurai appreciate art (or are supposed to) and gifts of high artistic quality are common, thus making artisans important political players in themselves. However, a gift with personal meaning will always trump a lavish and expensive one. A perfectly preserved cherry blossom from ones home orchard the moment they feel homesick, or a poem written in a moment shared together are regarded with great reverence.

Samurai customarily refuse a gift twice to allow the presenter to show their sincerity. Much wordplay happens giver gives the gift, and the receiver refuses, allowing canny samurai to use this to their advantage. It is not dishonorable to refuse a gift outright if the samurai truly feels unworthy of it, though one must tread carefully in how they phrase such a thing if they wish not to give insult.

Family Dynamic

Actual Sengoku era Japan was somewhat sexist, in that the men went to war and were rarely faithful to their wives, however, Rokugan is not Japan. (Say it with me, Rokugan is not Japan.) The actual structure of the Rokugani family unit does usually have one spouse serving the daimyo, and one spouse maintaining the household, but this can be of either gender.

Men who stay at home are not regarded as weak or cowardly, and women in the battlefield are not viewed as any less feminine. The loyalties of the family to serve both their lineage and their daimyo are simply divided. Usually, the spouse who maintains the household takes the name of the samurai in active service. It is not unheard of for both spouses to be in service, but usually this occurs in situations where the couple has borne no children.

The Power of Testimony

The legal system in Rokugan takes into account the social status of the accuser and the accused more highly than the evidence presented. If a low ranking samurai insults a higher ranking one, it is quite possible for the lower ranking one to be executed without a trial and a crime determined afterwards. Most samurai are honorable in this regard, but few tolerate insults from their lessers well. This is why many legal disputes among samurai are settled by duels, as a lower ranking samurai has a higher chance of survival than by trial, and it looks cowardly to refuse. Thus, powerful duelists (and the administration around duels) is an important part of the legal system or Rokugan.

Also note that as peasants are not allowed to have weapons and it would be insulting for a samurai to lower themselves into dueling one, samurai can essentially kill peasants at will. This is the primary reason that peasants are terrified of samurai.

The Concept of “Face”

The things the world sees of you are more important than who you are inside, because that is what your legacy shall be. This weighs on every samurai’s mind at all times, and the culture has been built up to both hold samurai to a high standard and protect them when they fall from grace.

Some examples:
- Words said behind a fan cannot be truly treated as insults, as the speaker did not put their face behind them. Also, everyone knows that people can throw voices, who can truly be sure? Better to not insult the samurai, or better yet, insult from behind a fan of your own.

- A person in a basket hat that covers their face has no identity. They can be wearing the same distinctive robes they have worn for years, talk to old friends in their voice, but if those friends are asked who they were talking to, their only response would be “I dunno, they had a basket hat on.”

-Murder is often seen as a lesser crime than the shame of someone seeing you do something dishonorable. This is especially true if the witness is a peasant, though most know better than to talk against a samurai.

- Geisha houses are adored by samurai in in Rokugan because there samurai can “drop their face”. A geisha who speaks of what happens within the walls will not be a geisha for very long, as their reputation depends on their secrecy. (Yes, there are male geisha in Rokugan.)

Hopefully all of this is not too overwhelming, we encourage you to come see a game being played if you are uneasy and you will see how easy it actually is to pick up. We’ll also be very forgiving of cultural faux pas at first as we know everyone is fairly new at this!

L5R is Different

Service In Sword and Quill MitchellSmallman