L5R Party Combat Guide

Edit:  Forgot this was my 400th post.  Pats.  If only there were more rewards.

My L5R Combat Guide has been one of my more popular posts.

It’s not that long.  It’s not terribly deep.  It omits a lot of things.  Let’s get to some of those things.

Oddly enough, I am rather rarely playing in situations where my PC faces off against a single foe.  Nor a group of foes.  Nope, I bring my guns (shugenja) to a knife fight (oni or whatever), and, after some Jade Strikes, Tempests of Air, Fires of Purity, or … Amaterasu forbid … Kami’s Strength.  It’s sake time.

Sure, not everybody plays L5R with six person tables.  My most common number, in recent months (we’ve had quite a break), is five PCs.  While there are plenty of strategy and tactics for even two PC parties, my focus is more on the 3+ range.


I got into this before.  Here’s the thing:  Initiative can be hugely important.  It just isn’t necessarily important for you, the selfish player, who wants the dicechucking repetitive stress injury.

The most common consideration with Initiative is whether the party needs a shugenja to get off a spell first.  That spell could be Be the Mountain, Fires of Purity, or even Jade Strike “3 Raises for four targets”, but these tend to be nonessential considerations.  Heart of the Water Dragon may be an essential consideration.  Summoning the Gale, less so.  Courage of the Seven Thunders, depending upon how a GM rules it (one hopes the GM allows for a new Fear roll, since it wouldn’t do anything otherwise), may be essential.  Earth’s Stagnation is a highly underrated spell for tilting combat to the party, as it should be easy to hit two targets and possibly easy to hit three or four.

But, it’s spells like Wolf’s Mercy, Hungry Blade, and Touch the Emptiness that address the “I really need one dude dead” scenarios, and the most common spell to lead things off, by far, is the “you all fall down” Tempest of Air.  Tempest is less good against maho-tsukai for obvious reasons, but, against meleers, success (which should be the case most of the time or you aren’t calling enough Raises) always causes lost attacks.

As parties get broken, trading Initiative to have a slayer go first can be an alternative to a key spell.  Of course, if the slayer is an archer, may have a high enough Initiative anyway.

Unlike one on one fights … which almost never happen, going late in a round has more consistent value.  Sure, if you are Defensegod, Master of Reflexiveness, then waiting for a horde to miss you before you do something is a tactic.  3e/3r often saw the advantage of a squishy sort going Full Defense on round 1 because there just weren’t that many ways to get a TNtbH high enough to not get hit.  4e doesn’t just have Defense Stance for shugenja, but it’s actually rather common to focus on ATN.

Anyway, going late.  See, when there are multiple PCs and often one PC gets more attacks than another, knowing how those PCs fare can affect tactics immensely.  I don’t play shugenja, so I’m not waiting around to Path folks.  I’m waiting around to figure out whether it’s “go time” or whether it’s “whoa time”, aka Guard time.

Concentration of fire should be the standard strategy.  Sadly, we lost the “spread damage around because it will totally matter” feature of 3e/3r.  So, another reason to wait around and see what happens is to see if Killer McKillsalot clears a dude or not.  Far better than overkilling a dude or spreading damage pointlessly, want to ace a face … to win the race.

While I’m a Guarder of Guardiness, there is a point to not waiting around if you know you are going “Defense Stance, Guard low REF shugenja and, uh, someone else.”  Get that ATN boost in before the slingstones rain down.  *Then*, you delay on round two to maximize Guard time.

By the way, it doesn’t matter whether I’m playing a high damage Sparrow Bushi with REF 3 or a low damage Usagi Bushi with REF 5, I still am constantly delaying to figure out where to apply maximum value.

The Face of Naughtiness

In my other post, I start off with threat assessment.  Why not this post?  Because Initiative is something you can control.  Antagonists are less predictable.

Huh?  I know what I’m fighting, unless the GM brings in a second wave.  Maybe.  Maybe this band of bandits uses tactics.

It’s really bad for parties when the enemy uses tactics, so I won’t go too much into dealing with intelligent foes, but, if for some reason the enemy acts like a PC party and does these sorts of things, you have to be prepared:  target shugenja, concentrate fire, Guard each other, use Knockdown or Grapple, cast nonstupid spells.

Targeting shugenja can be countered to some degree by Guarding or buffing the shugenja first.  Concentrated fire can be countered with timely Path or Force of Will or buffing more fragile targets.  Guarding is countered by attacking Guarders, though it’s amusing how often antagonists don’t use this philosophy against PCs.  High ATN counters Knockdown and helps with grapple.  Fires of Purity is an obvious antigrapple play.  Manipulating Initiative to “kill the Soultwister first” is the usual counter to enemy spellcasters, especially when you can get someone with high damage to go first and hope for some wound penalty action.

There’s another tactic, as rare as it is, that can grief a party – running away.  The standard for L5R combat is to fight to the death, for reasons mentioned in a different post.  But, there are also the “OMG, you killed Kenni-san” subordinates who flee in inconvenient patterns that might require some corralling.

I should probably use more headers, but a key consideration is figuring out how hard it will be to put an enemy down.  Giant piles of wet wood, aka Shadowspawn, are ridiculous to try to put down, as is going the beat down route on zombies and other things with high wounds and no wound penalties.  Oni may or may not be a problem.  Lost can be bad, very bad.  Whether you already know or you find out as you damage things, figure out whether something takes wound penalties pronto.  Nothing is worse than dealing 90 wounds to some dude and having it fight at 100% effectiveness when 30 more wounds were done somewhere else.

Any special defenses are something to factor in, as well.  Reduction can be crazy.  Invulnerability is so, so bad unless your shugenja have got it covered.  Spirit quality is insane.  Spirit quality, Reduction, and high wounds is “are you sure this is fair, GM-sama?” time.

But, fighting isn’t just about murder, it’s even more about not being murdered.  What’s the damage output like of the enemy?  Will they mess with your shugenja in some annoying way that they have to die even if they are doing like 4k1 damage?

May be wondering what this has to do with party combat and not just general combat.  Concentrated fire.  This will stop you dying by dyifying your enemies so, so much faster.  If you got dudes with Earth 3 and complex attacks and dudes with Earth 4 and simple attacks – probably have to take out the Earth 4 dudes, as tedious as that can be.  Just like any intelligent enemy takes down the Crab Berserker right after the shugenja, even if it’s a grind.

Concentrated fire isn’t any one thing.  Grapple + Feint should always be in mind for a party for tough combats.  Knockdown + Feint is another way to go.  Wolf’s Mercy + coup de grace is way better than Wolf’s Mercy + stand around and watch enemy do its thing.

As with the example of enemies where some have simple attacks and some don’t, varying enemies can call for division of PC resources.  Archers, “I hate Jade Strike” types, and whatnot may mean that you let the two shugenja in the party split Jade Strikes for a few rounds while you run off and Guard or Knockdown somebody or whatever.  Zombies might be left to the “I call 3 Raises with my no-dachi” dude while the maho-tsukai eats some Tail of the Fire Dragon action.


If PCs aren’t getting hurt, then the fights really aren’t that dangerous, and any sort of thought only matters for scenarios where you are trying to stop someone from running away or something.

So, let’s focus on PCs getting hurt.  Let’s start with nonshugenja/nonweirdoes.

Besides using grapple as a way to get out of TPKs, sometimes you can just have two beatdown PCs Guard each other while other PCs murder the enemy.  You may even have some ability to have a PC run aw- … around, avoiding attacks, while the others murder.  You may even get to get some use out of Full Defense!

Okay, then you have shugenja.  When is the right time to Path someone?  When they are in wound penalties.  Any wound penalties.  Now, sometimes you have to make choices, but the reality of the 4e wound chart is that being in wound penalties is next to being dead.  Even Down removes a PC from fighting, which may remove someone who can Full Attack + Grapple or Guard, even if otherwise useless.  But, dead kind of disrupts play for a player and is to be avoided.

Do you always Path?  No.  Be the Mountain might do more to keep someone alive long enough to Path the next round than Pathing this round.  Force of Will might be the techy play.  But, often, Path is a good call.  In 3e/3r, we didn’t have these choices.  You Pathed because wound penalties were ludicrously crippling much of the time and because you didn’t have Be the Mountain’s reduction around to buy time.

Don’t let shugenja get damaged.  Spells must go off or … fine red mist.  Wound penalties can slow down the 10k4 attack roll dude, but they suck for the 6k3 spellcasting dude so much.

I Ain’t No God

I didn’t split out magic because magic rules combat to where every strategy and tactic needs to consider what magic is going to do in the fight.  But, lots of people aren’t into playing gods.  They need some planning advice, as well.

So, you are just a courtier/artisan or just a bushi/weirdo who hasn’t gotten to simple attacks.  You don’t have no-dachi 7 or tetsubo 7 yet, either, in all likelihood because you decided that you had noncombat things to do.  You may be the only hope for the party.

You may be the damage sponge for the shugenja (Guard).  You may be the damage sponge for the slayer (Guard).  You may have to bleed a lot for the greater good (Full Attack + Grapple).  You may just have to be bait (Attack/Full Attack some scary dude to allow gods and slayers to do their thing).  You may have to bull rush (Full Attack + Knockdown).

Where gods can just sit in Defense Stance and ponder how they will prevent PC demise, you actually have to consider which stance has the most payoff.  Not mentioned above, but there’s one other role you may end up playing – hero.  Or, more specifically, as we are talking about strategy and tactics and not just chucking dice, Center Stance Hero.

I’m terrible about remembering that Center Stance is a thing.  Sometimes, mister “sure my REF are 5, that’s only one higher than my AWA” has to contemplate his yumi for a round before unleashing a 5k4 fleshcutter.  Now, this can totally get you murdered if you time it poorly, as seen in an early HoR3 mod that I played in with a Kitsuki who did this to the enemy leader and promptly lost Touch of Destiny to a bunch of arrows.  But, the point is that you can sometimes disappear in party combats where you can’t in arena fighting.


It’s hard to explain a lot of things well without examples, so let’s use my Princess Police PCs for some examples.

Let’s first get a dumb example out of the way.  Back in the day, I played an Overconfident bushi with Earth 2 and Reflexes 2.  A typical first round might be:  “ronin” – Center Stance; Moshi Shugenja – Fires of Purity on self(!!); me – charge into enemy line; ninja – attack someone who gets close to shugenja.  One can imagine how this would lead to “please, for the love of Benten, cast some spell on me before the next guy attacks me” situations for my PC.

Okay, let’s start with the most common party configuration in the last year or so.  Shinjo Bushi (high offense – slayer, poor defense), Usagi Bushi (high defense, poor offense), Moshi Shugenja, Isawa Ishiken-do, Ninja (moderate offense, mediocre defense) are wandering around when they come across …


Bandits rarely have simple attacks but may have numbers and may have bows.  We will have most of the party with higher Initiative much of the time.

Moshi has highest Init.  Moshi isn’t feeling like all Jigoku will break loose and casts Oath of the Heavens targeting Ninja and herself.  That makes sense.  Get a buff out.  Now, Fires of Purity is the broken play on probably the Ninja as the Shinjo needs more defense and less offense.  Tempest of Air is also a possibility, well, the most obvious yet banal possibility.

Usagi is next and Guards the Moshi and the Isawa (having declared Defense Stance at the start of the round).  Why not delay?  Because bandits don’t tend to do anything particularly annoying.  If there’s a spellcaster, one hopes my yumi is out and I plink.  If there’s a party NPC, because I like NPCs, I might guard her.

Ninja attacks.  The Ninja actually has more decisions than the rest of us nongods because he has weird techniques that make different decisions plausible, but we will assume that he’s not in ambush mode, so he just pulls out a sword and knife and swings.

Shinjo may want to delay.  Depending upon Init, the Isawa might be going early enough to drop Be the Mountain on him, and he can Full Attack for extra Feintiness.  But, we will assume the Isawa is slow and doesn’t spend a VP on Init (she has Touch the Void).  Shinjo swings twice, engendering hate.

Bandits go.  Couple bandits swing on Shinjo and mess him up.  Couple might go on Ninja because he’s being offensive.  Bandits should be swinging on shugenja, which they may end up doing.  Once Moshi lost her Topaz Armor, she became more vulnerable, especially if we are in an armorless state, so figure at least one hit on Moshi, Isawa, or both if I wasn’t guarding them, but no hit because I am.  Bandit may go after Usagi, but my ATN when guarding two people is still 41 with armor on, and I might only guard one PC without armor to put my ATN down to 38 (we have really good armor), so probably not going to do much.

Isawa goes.  Options.  Be the Mountain is solid to set up Shinjo delays next round or Moshi heals Shinjo before he goes.  Path is fine but doesn’t solve the basic problem that the Shinjo is too easy to hit (if he’s wearing his Kaiu Armor, the bandits are much less threatening, of course).  Kharmic Intent is not so great at the moment, but allows Shinjo to burn another VP to reduce damage on round two and still have some left.  Attack spell is terrible.  Fires of Purity isn’t even all that at this point as it’s totally worth it to murder the Shinjo through the burn.  If the Shinjo wasn’t hurt, Earth’s Stagnation would make sense, but I don’t know that the Isawa even has it.  Force of Will would be techy but possibly premature.  Settles on Be the Mountain.  Why?

Next round.

Moshi Paths Shinjo.  Win!  Usagi delays.  More win!!  This is huge.  Not only does the low offense, attack sponge character continue to sponge for the more important combatants, I can switch actions after I see how the round goes.  Ninja attacks, maybe drops a dude (should target someone already hurt).  Shinjo attacks, dropping a dude or messing someone up enough that wound penalties matter.  Bandits attack (not in Full Attack or anything dangerous because, if they do this sort of thing, we are dead).  Usagi might take a hit but probably not.  Hit on Shinjo probably bounces off of Be the Mountain.  Hit on Ninja is a minor issue unless dice go crazy.  Isawa casts Path or switches to Fires from Within (not a good choice much of the time, but targeting a couple damaged dudes might make sense) or goes for Kharmic Intent or Reversal of Fortunes on Shinjo.  Reversal is pretty hot on the party slayer.  Again, Fires of Purity is broken stuff, though casting it on the Usagi is an awful choice, while casting on shugenja is unnecessary and messes with Path (in theory).  Usagi goes and sees that numbers are more favorable, stays in Defense Stance and draws nagamaki (takes simple action to do so), and guards one PC, possibly Ninja at this point as Ninja is most likely to be most heavily damaged.  Usagi might swing with nagamaki on later rounds to finish off some wounded bandits.



Let’s say we don’t have the Shinjo or the Ninja but instead have our Kakita (one big glass cannonball coming up).

Usagi goes first and either knows Kakita is in Center Stance because we remembered to declare stances or delays until Kakita goes second.  Either way, Usagi guards Kakita and a shugenja.

Kakita contemplates sword explosion.

Moshi Jade Strikes.

Isawa Jade Strikes.

Oni does its thing.  On the plus side for the party, numbers are huge and the oni is in a heap of trouble.  On the downside, the PCs can’t abuse Jade Strike by splitting it among multiple targets.

Kakita jumps in Init due to Center bonus.  Sword explodes, possibly in Full Attack Stance, though this is not recommended unless it’s “go time”.

Usagi delays until after the shugenja go.

Jade Strike.  Jade Strike.  Usagi gets killing shot off with yumi if it was ready, otherwise Guards and waits for shugenja to finish off oni.

R-? Bushi!

Let’s say the party is our Taoist Swordsman (slayer), Moshi, Ninja, Shinjo.  If this is a four on four fight against R-3 bushi, this is going to be pain and should wipe the party.  Let’s say it’s two R-2 and two R-3.

Ninja is top Init.  Guards Moshi, preps weapons.

R-3 swings on Shinjo, Shinjo Voids and still hurts.

R-3 swings on Moshi, armor saves!

Moshi Paths Shinjo.

Shinjo swings on R-3.

R-2 swings on Taoist, some damage.

R-2 swings on Ninja (again, bad guys are stupid so that PCs live).  Misses.

Taoist hulks up and explodes with rage on …  Should be on R-3, especially if Shinjo’s R-3 is not badly wounded but has taken any damage.

Next round.

What should happen?  Is Shinjo not badly wounded?  What probably should happen but never does in my play unless I point it out is that the Ninja should switch Inits with either Shinjo-slayer or Taoist-slayer and murder one of the R-3s before they double attack.

Alternatively, if the Moshi cast spells she doesn’t typically cast, a Grasp of Earth, a Heart of the Water Dragon, Earth’s Stagnation split four ways, or a variety of other possibilities are something to do before the R-3s go.

While it’s not that common for us to have only one shugenja, note how only having one shugenja puts a tremendous healing burden on a single PC.  While the Shinjo and Taoist are burning VPs to reduce damage (not necessarily best use but both have low enough ATNs that R-3 dudes are going to hit probably anyway, since antagonists don’t call Raises – if they did, TPK time), they both want to be not so deep in WP that they can’t wreck a couple more dudes.

What the Ninja should do is get enough damage in to Hurt+ a R-3 dude, as the Ninja probably can’t take full brunt, either, even with a better ATN.  The focus should be on focus fire, and it should be on the R-3 dudes to remove simple attacks.


Usagi shoot Soultwister.  Shinjo shoots Soultwister.  Ninja throws knives at Soultwister.  Moshi spends VP to go before Soultwister, Fires from Within Soultwister.  Isawa Fires from Within Soultwister.

Ravagers attack party.  Beatings are taken, though Usagi might get missed.  Combat switches to bushi fight after Soultwister is dead.

Replace any sort of spellcaster for Soultwister.  Never allow a spellcaster to survive the first round.  Of course, this is what antagonists should do to PCs, but that’s antifun, just as Full Attacking bandits who all attack the same PC is antifun, yet the mirror of what PCs should be doing (except the Full Attacking part).


Range can play into things.  Tempest of Air slows a charge.  Yumi are that much more important.  Fury of Osano-Wo might be the go to spell due to its range.  In general, I don’t see a lot done with range.  Certainly, my Usagi can run around the battlefield to mess with people trying to attack me, but they will just turn around and attack the rest of the party.  Again, bringing up how party combat differs immensely from arena combat.

Steeds are amazing.  It’s incredibly easy to control a Unicorn horse in combat.  Get free moves around battlefield while totally doing whatever you want to do.  Now, I would rule that Fires of Purity on a PC will burn the horse because FoP is broken, but some GMs don’t even concern themselves with such.


I’ve run down on having things to say.  Hopefully, I addressed most key points to what party combat is like and more would be largely variations on the themes of:  coordinated fire, don’t let shugenja get hurt, manipulate Initiative to wreck your enemies, uses Stances and Guard to do things other than swing, grapple is win, knockdown may be win (but time it right!), spells own combat, kill the Soultwister first.


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