The Elemental Party

Just as a side note about how people don’t know how to abuse RPG mechanics, someone who should have a lot of play experience commented about being underwhelmed by Fire shugenja combat options, mentioning a bunch of spells that suck and not mentioning Fires of Purity, which is the only Fire spell that is necessary to cast in most combats.

Why be all negative up in this house to start things out?  Would further derail the thread on the forums and I’m not inclined to start a new thread.  Yet, it bothers me the dumb that people spread.

Anyway.  Following up from my review of Book of Fire, I wanted to spend some time thinking about theoretical characters fitting together in a theoretical party.  First, let me list party roles, based on what I wrote in Samurai Squad.

Ranger (range control, not wilderness warrior)

This is hardly a scientific list.  I might also add:

Chasm Crosser
Food Taster

I am in fact not joking, so let me explain these a bit even though they aren’t at the heart of today’s post.


High Awareness.  Does the Courtier/Etiquette/Sincerity triumvirate.  But, also does AWA/Investigation (Interrogation).  Tends to be a massive information gatherer.  Convinces crazy/possessed/Tainted people/gods/creatures to surrender/off themselves/stand down/give the party cookies.  When people use the term “courtier”, what they usually mean is talker archetype as most courtiers are good at Awareness stuff.  For HoR play, this is one of the most important things to have in a party as various mods come down to one big talky roll (some have a combat option if talking doesn’t work but the combat option is so much more work).  For our Saturday campaign, we are talky weak, but that’s more easily handled in home play.


Perception/Investigation (Notice) is the most common roll outside of the likes of primary weapon skill rolls but could be the most common roll, period, for some characters.  Investigation (Search) is key to certain mods.  Hunting (Tracking) is hugely useful, in my play.  Given that the only other natively Perception-using skill is Battle, any character in this niche should have at least some Battle.


Lore skills, mostly through Sage since Sage is stupidly better than buying up Lore skills, but there are some Lore skills that might deserve more than a single rank.  Medicine, Divination, Calligraphy, Games: Go/Shogi/others, Craft, Commerce, Engineering, Sailing all are naturals for the brain, but the key is Sage and Intelligence just in case knowing stuff matters to some challenge.


Some fights involve pursuit.  Some fights involve fleeing.  The ranger is the one who manipulates ranges between the party and the enemy.  High Water (or effective Water, e.g. Usagi Bushi), ranged attacks, spells that affect movement are the tools of a party ranger.


For when the fight is ugly or needs to be won crushingly fast, you need to know who to drop Fires of Purity on and have hug the foes to annihilation.  High Earth is good for the Grappler.  Strength is obviously useful.  Agility isn’t that important in many cases due to using Full Attack to grapple, but some of the nasty foes, like Lost, may have high ATNs, so whatever a low Agility is for the party is not great.


For when the big bad is grappled, knocked prone, or about to eat a PC, you need the executioner to come in.  Also, murderers just speed things up immensely after a Tempest of Air puts random stuff on the ground.  Ono folks are naturals.  But, Kenjutsu 7 and a no-dachi or Heavy Weapons 7 and a tetsubo are fine.

Chasm Crosser

Getting more specialized, but I’ve been in a number of situations where the challenge was to climb, balance, swim, fly over an environmental obstacle.  Shugenja are best for this with their cheats, but a high Athletics (well, high Trait, which is probably Agility in this case, plus some Athletics) dude can tie off ropes and such.


As much as L5R isn’t supposed to be about money, it’s borderline hysterical how often filthy lucre come up.  While I detest shopping in most RPGs, that’s because you are shopping for useful stuff, where most of my shopping in L5R is for treats (I can’t say toys because “toys” often refers to major items in games).  How-e-ver, there have also been enough mods and home play situations I’ve been in where you simply buy yourself to plot victory that the shopper is a legit thing.  Plus, the beauty of the shopper is that you don’t even necessarily need anything besides Wealthy.  Sure, Intelligence and Commerce are good.  But, Wealthy has gotten me “plenty” of obstacle-defeating.

Food Taster

The least important of these roles, but having this role gives the high Earth PC something to do besides cast spells and grapple.  Basically, any time poison is expected, the Food Taster can try.  Traps and poisoned food are quite rare in my play, so this hardly ever matters – for example, I had an Earth 4 character with Jurojin’s Blessing who never once got to roll against poison/venom, even the one time he got poisoned.  Sad face.  Anyway, the other problem with this role is that a high Reflexes character might be better than a high Earth character for traps, as the REF character might just avoid a trap that the Earth character has to suffer through.

Okay, with that out of the way, it’s time to talk about what I wanted to talk about, which is unbalanced, from a Ring perspective, PCs.  The rules are thus:  the PC will have one Ring at 5, a second Ring at 3, and the other three Rings at 2; Rings will not be split (e.g. no 2/3’s or 2/4’s); I will try to talk about non-shugenja more than shugenja.  One more “rule”, I’m going to be guyish about things, feel free to gender flip, as appropriate.

Earth 5

Start with the hardest or least useful PC.  I am an Earth-lover, but that’s because I like defense, resilience, resistance, persistence.  None of these help get crap done.  There are no meaningful skill uses for Stamina or Willpower.  Being the PC who makes your Fear checks all of the time only matters if you can murder whatever Feared the other PC(s).

Obviously, a shugenja with Earth 5 is awesome because there are so many quality Earth spells.  For what second ring to go with for the Earth shugenja, Water 3 for Path to Inner Peace and to be better at grappling (movement + STR 3) is best.  Fire 3 would be a wade into melee and get hit a bunch play, which is good if you drop Fires of Purity on yourself and run around Full Attacking.

For the bushi, Earth 5 Guy is your Shadowlands/Maho-Tsukai murderer, though lots of Maho has no saving throws, so this isn’t necessarily a great plan.  Fire 3 would be the best for actually being able to hit the enemy and, maybe, for a Lore: Shadowlands or Lore: Maho roll in the middle of combat to glean knowledge useful for attacking a weakness or avoiding a strength.  This would be a pretty boring character to play, however, as E5G would be pretty bad at skill rolls.

For the courtier, this is just a joke with exceptions for random things like Yoritomo Courtier running around Intimidationing everyone into compliance.  While I think optimal Ring action in 4e play, when other bases are covered, is Air/Earth, that’s AIR … and a 3 Earth, not EARTH and a 3 Air.  Non-talky courtiers, like shoppers, investigators, brains, also don’t gain much from only having a second Ring at 3.

Fire 5

This is an interesting character.  Maybe not a long lasting character.  But, this is totally a “doer”.  You do Horsemanship, Kemari, Perform: Dance, stab/pound/wrap/etc., Stealth.  You are the obvious brain, dropping knowledge on all things Sageworthy.  The question is what your second Ring is.

Air and Earth both help with survivability.  While Air is generally better, I’d be inclined to Earth 3 as being more consistent.  Also, will suck a lot to fail Fear when you might be the only PC with a good enough attack roll to hit some ATN 45 threat.  Water 3 is funny – I can see a cowardly pure offense PC who runs and hits enemies.  A grappler who never expect counterattacks could try Fire 5/Water 3, but I don’t see that being realistic.  Noncombatwise, I’d rather match brains with talkiness than brains with perceiving.

Fire 5 Guy is the dude I see being a massive showoff and being a liability in combat, so it’s actually a good courtly way to go.  Own go/shogi tournaments.  Dance the babes into your bedroll.  Humiliate the stupid in Trivial Pursuit, Rokugani style.  Antidote those poisons.  Craft non-crappy crap.  Win that yacht race.  Take advantage of those who fail at arithmetic and net present value calculations.

But, for all the fun that sounds like, keep in mind that you can be easily taken out in combat.  Either E2 or A2, which means either fall over or always get punched.  Even if we break the rules of this game and have a F5 with all 3’s in other Rings, going to seem much more powerful than actually are.

Speaking of seeming more powerful than actually are, I view Fire spells as the weakest, both in terms of versatility and power.  Outside of Fires of Pure Sleaze, I can barely get excited.  The Raging Forge should just repair items.  Tail of the Fire Dragon has some hotness.  Hungry Blade I’ve seen be crazy, but that could have been good die rolls.  Sure, when you can Light of the Sun, you seem supercool, but cool is not always hot.

Water 5

While a lot of GMs/mods have investigations use Awareness for certain rolls and, arguably, Intelligence should be good for investigations, you are the crimesolver (ignoring that shugenja just solve crimes by casting Commune with raises for clarity of pretty much any element).  You are the cluefinder, the evidencefinder, the ambush-noticer, and, of course, the tracker.

Speaking of ambushes, if the GM makes them more than just “you get surprised, -10 Initiative first round”, then think about how much Water can be used – detect the ambush, Battle your way into a superior position, outmaneuver your enemies with Waterpower, er, Waterspeed.

You crush the life and soul of your enemies through mighty thew grapples.

Investigation and Hunting have been so crucial in my play that every party should forgive any weaknesses of the Water 5 Guy.  Unlike the F5G, who is mostly doing his thing for his own vanity, the W5G is doing his thing to find your next victims.

Then, holy ay-carumba … Water shugenja.  Earth may have more spells I like than Water, but Path to Inner Peace.  While that was ’nuff said, there are also general gems like Reversal of Fortunes and undercast spells like Reflections of Pan Ku, Reflective Pool, and The Ties That Bind.  Also, water kami can be most picturesque in their Commune offerings.

But, what’s the second Ring?  Air 3 for less violent play.  Earth 3 for mucho violence.  Fire 3 for the thinker, “I perceive that the criminal is Small, Phoenix, and immensely strong.  Consulting my memory, that fits the description of the Master of Water.  Slay him, slay him quickly.”

Air 5

Not the One Ring, as that thing sucks what with Nazgul all over you and such.  No, this is the Best Ring, the Kaching Ring.  Not only do you get all of the Gossip, Conversation, Honesty, Seduction you can want, you get an ATN to frustrate your GM … *and* you get all the offense you need with yumi/fleshcutters.

Don’t notice your untied shoelaces?  Just AWA/Courtier to find out whether they are flopping all about.  Can’t read?  Just AWA/Sincerity your profound interest in having the nerd tell you everything you need to know.  Can’t fight except to win Initiative, shoot your fleshcutter in something’s eye, and skip around modest attack rolls?  AWA/Temptation folks to die for you.

If you do need a(nother) shugenja to get off a spell first, blow a Void Point and hand them your l33t Initiative.

To me, the obvious second Ring is Earth, just so that cheaty wizards who bypass your high ATN don’t drop you and because dice explode and sometimes you get hit … once.  As suggested above, you don’t need brains nor eyes – everyone else is your tool.  An exception I might make is for a shugenja who wants to have Water 3 for Path to Inner Peace or, sketchy as this is, Asahina Shugenja with Void 3 to keep the “This isn’t really the Hurricane Tattoo from 3e, but it’s just as absurd.” school technique up more often.

Void 5

I’ve saved the least relevant for last.  Other than a Hoshi/Hoshi or some crazy Hantei/Tattooed Monk or maybe a Brotherhood Monk, I don’t know who is going to waste XP on driving Void to 5.  I played a Shiba Bushi with Void 5, briefly, and it was lame – GMs only put up with so much Meditation time.

Sure, Ishiken-do is the ulticheese, and you can do whatever you want once you can cast non-kami spells.  But, let’s pretend these guys don’t exist.

So, you only care about dueling.  You can’t imagine that any activity would compare with dueling.  You solve all problems – your untied shoelaces, your idiocy, your lack of bedroll partners – by exploiting one of the most obnoxious elements of Rokugani culture and duel everyone into being your slaves.  Maybe Void 5 works for you.

So, the main question I have for myself in this exercise is how I can enjoy playing Voidmaster.  Earth 3 means being pretty much inept at all skills.  Water 3 only covers the Perception triumvirate and Athletics, if those.  Air 3 makes me a pathetic talker wannabe.  I think I’d enjoy being the showoff wannabe, instead, especially if I were a Shiba Bushi.  I use my modest Agility or Intelligence and 2 Void Points to be decent for a couple of rolls.  This does not make good party value.

Now, the Tea Ceremony Master does have some use to a party.  If you can con your GM into letting you also have Inner Gift: Prophecy or some such where you get to use Void rolls to gain plot knowledge, that’s something.  I just find that Void doesn’t do enough to make up for weaknesses elsewhere to justify its 4e cost.

Book of Eyesee

Was that profound for playing characters oriented towards a particular Ring?  How about:  that much coverage, if maybe not the exact “advice”, being what the Book of … series should be providing?  That may not generate the dollar, dollar bills in sales that new spells and new martial arts will, but it’s crazy better than explaining to me in different words but with no different content what game elements – skills, advantages/disadvantages, equipment – do.


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