Building L5R Characters – Skills

I keep saying there’s not much to say about skills.  Let’s see whether I forecasted well.


The newb character is actually quite odd.  Consider this, Batman.  If you start with 40 points, as many a campaign do, and you receive 4xp per session as many a HoR mod does, then you are doubled up after 10 sessions.  That may seem far off, for HoR that’s about a year of play.  So, let’s scale that back some.  After five sessions, you are a 60xp character.

There’s a mighty difference between 40xp and 60xp, like somewhere around 50% difference.

Point being that you shouldn’t be a newb very long.  So, there’s quite a bit of thought in how to build a newb character that doesn’t dai tsuchi itself in the foot when advancement occurs.  To a certain extent, this is true with any newb character when GMs either don’t allow or make more expensive advantages after character creation, but advantages was a different post, let’s get back to skills.

Don’t pay for skills, newb.

That’s the general rule.  Nothing should be above R-1.  Now, yes, there are certain skills that all characters must have, your character must have, or whatever.  Investigation is the obvious skill to spend 1xp on if you can’t get it out of your school skills.

Before going into the “okay, I’ll splurge for 1xp to get this non-school skill” skills, let’s take a moment to talk about buying skills above R-1 in the newb world.  Don’t do it.

With a couple of exceptions.  The primary exception is when you plan on participating in the Topaz Championship, then R-2 in Iaijutsu is warranted so that you cheese your initial character build to victory (note, if you aren’t Void 3, you aren’t going to win).  Another exception is if you don’t plan on playing the character much.  A HoR alt, for instance, might start with R-2 in some skill to give it mechanical personality, maybe even Battle 3 for a PC intended primarily for Battle Interactives.  A character who will only do one thing that doesn’t involve combat, like a Medicine character I built, can move into a specific skill at higher ranks, but these characters are often not that functional and not that interesting.

What about combat skills?

Yes, Jiujutsu 3, Kenjutsu 3, or Kyujutsu 3 are options.  The second is more likely as the need to get to R-7 in Kenjutsu is so high that you were going to spend XP on it rather than Traits, anyway.  Kyujutsu 3 is for the mastery ability, under the assumption that you don’t magically have your bow strung all of the time.  Jiujutsu 3 has elements of both wanting the mastery (more important than +1k0 damage with swords) and planning on spending those XP anyway, assuming a Jiujutsu 7 build.  If not a Jiujutsuist, then no, cannot waste 5xp on Jiujutsu in newb world.

Defense 3 might have been essential in 3e/3r, but the mastery in 4e is pretty meaningless.

Okay, back to additional skills.

Essential skills for the Awareness 3 newb:  Courtier, Etiquette, Sincerity.  Animal Handling and various macro skills, e.g. Artisan: Poetry, are your flavor Awareness skills.  If you aren’t in a courtier school, have to spend precious XP.

Essential skills for the Perception 3 newb:  Battle, Hunting.  Investigation is an essential skill for every character …  Battle isn’t that useful, but, hey, maybe it will come up, and it’s a wasted opportunity to not have it.

Essential skills for the Intelligence 3 newb:  Calligraphy, Medicine.  All Lore skills were taken care of with Sage.  Divination is kind of a cheesy skill that I rarely see used.  Commerce is virtually required, if you want to have fun.

Essential skills for the Agility 3 newb:  Horsemanship, Stealth.  Athletics?  Athletics is another skill required to all PCs.  Stealth may be out of character, but it’s so important that you might as well bite the fleshcutter and get it over with before you forget.

Essential skills for the Void 3 newb:  Iaijutsu, Meditation, Tea Ceremony.  How do you think I keep winning duels with Tattooed Monks …

Essential skills for all PCs:  Athletics, Investigation.  Add in Courtier, Etiquette, Sincerity unless you are a masochist.


Besides R-1 in about 15-20 skills pretty quick, what actually matters to play?  Mastery abilities, first.  Later stuff, later.

Because I play as much HoR as I play, I just assume every character will go to Courtier 3 and Etiquette 3 quick (when not sandbagging).  So, it’s kind of interesting when I play in games where R-1 skills give Insight and the payoff of 6xp for 6 Insight is far less important.  Meanwhile, Courtier 5 and Etiquette 5 are hardly necessary – far better pumping Awareness repeatedly.  R-7 in either is kind of interesting from an Insight perspective and potentially very funny with an Awareness 2 character, but it’s a massive waste in effectiveness.

Investigation.  Rank 3 is fantastic for the most used skill in the game (outside of possibly your primary attack roll).  R-5 is somewhat redundant as you would already have a strong dice pool by virtue of having R-5 in the skill.  I have yet to see R-7 – people don’t have that many XP to burn.

Poor Medicine.  It was actually decent healing in 3e.  It is the crap in 4e.

Meditation.  I’m down on Void in 4e.  Even when I don’t intentionally leave Void at 2, I have a hard time sinking points into raising Meditation, as it’s so not only campaign dependent as to whether you get to Meditate often but also player dependent to make sure the PC takes the time.  If you Meditate often enough, R-3 is huge, potentially large.  Higher isn’t important.

Sincerity has the problem that so many Sincerity rolls I see aren’t contested.  GM comes up with some TN, and you roll.  Even if you see more contested rolls, Awareness first.

Spellcraft.  The mastery ability for this skill is extraordinary.  Many players appear to think that Spellcraft 5 is necessary.  I think it’s a waste of XP.  Now, how often you importune matters a lot.  If you importune more than about every four sessions, I can totally see Spellcraft 5 (if you bother to increase this skill beyond R-2, you probably should just go ahead and go for R-5).  Maybe it’s because I’m iconoclastic, maybe it’s because I don’t plan on playing shugenja that long, but I’d much rather pump Traits than spend 14xp on a skill.  Increasing spellcasting rolls is more interesting to me with SR and higher Rings.

Tea Ceremony has a mastery not easily duplicated for the Meditation-challenged.  I just don’t see PCs having the XP, caring far more about Void 4 than Tea Ceremony 5, even if the effects are different.

Athletics.  Best masteries in the game for a nonattack skill?  Maybe not.  Still, R-3 is crazy worth it as Athletics is just a great skill to not suck in.  R-5 is less a thing.  R-7 don’t impress me much because unlike one forum poster, we don’t get bogged down in movement to the level where this matters often.

Battle 5 is an absurd waste.  Spend those XP on Reflexes if you care about Initiative.  For flavor reasons, my Hare PC thinks about Battle 5, but, mechanically, it’s only amusing for the absurdity that is having yet more Initiative Bonuses on someone with 10k5+8 Initiative (at times).

Defense.  Best mastery abilities for certain characters.  Specifically, every shugenja who doesn’t eschew Reflexes should get to Defense 5 as efficiently as possible.  Plus 8 + Air Ring to ATN to someone at all times in combat is hot.  R-7 is for those goofy Full Defense schools or even for Shiba types who want to be crazy “don’t touch this” while Guarding.

Iaijutsu.  So many see every bushi having Iaijutsu 3, or, at least, every katana bushi.  I hardly ever give my bushi Iaijutsu 3.  Does that mean I lose duels?  Nope.  I never get into duels to lose.  For those who love dueling, I understand why they cripple their other abilities to monomaniacally pursue a rather annoying activity.  After all, R-5 and R-7 are all about the arms race when facing other “really? what do you do in your off time?” duelists.

Jiujutsu.  R-3 is for punchers.  R-5 is when you have nothing better to do than overkill grappling.  R-7, punchers.  Considering how powerful grappling is and how punchy Tattooed Monks get, it’s understandable why one PC in every group would master this skill.

Weapons.  This is where most of the relevant/essential masteries are.  No dachi 7 and Tetsubo 7 are particularly important for annihilating your enemies, more important than pushing Insight for simple attacks (because psychology – people think Rank means more to combat ability than exploding 9’s on damage).  Chain Weapons 3 is huge, really the whole reason you are using a chain weapon.  Heavy Weapons actually has better masteries than Kenjutsu, as I never see anyone require someone to ready a heavy weapon, so it’s pure beatdown.  I do see where readying a sword has to happen all of the time, so Kenjutsu 5 is essential (after all, I didn’t buy Iaijutsu 3, plus I’m using a real sword – no dachi – anyway).  Kyujutsu 5 is interesting.  In home play, range has actually mattered to where it’s annoying to take range penalties.  In HoR, it’s just something to do to overkill your archer character – Reflexes 5 is way more important.

Meanwhile, some weapon masteries are garbage.  The lack of offhand penalties thing is a joke with how the game words offhand penalties and how the masteries have been written.  War Fans 7 in 3e (or was it 3r) was so awesome.  In 4e, complete waste of XP to care about these things unless you have some school ability.  Readying masteries are also dumb, as I never see anyone require a PC to ready anything besides a sword or a small weapon.  First round masteries are terrible as combat so often doesn’t involve melee attacks in the first round.

Stealth.  Occasionally incredibly important mastery abilities.  Stealth is really the most forgotten about skill in my experience as it’s stupidly more often used than it should be in adventures to where a PC is given no other option.  Keep in mind that without the mastery abilities, your movement rate in stealth mode is pathetic.


While people often don’t pay close attention to what I say and assume I said things I didn’t, I’ll assume you read what I wrote in this post for no better reason than to write meaningless sentences like this.

Get to 15 skills ASAP.  The most effective buys in the game are R-1 skills for skills that see use.  The most character sheet flavorful buys are skills, even R-1’s.  Between the Awareness triumvirate, the Perception triumvirate, Medicine, the every-character skills, flavor skills, combat skills, and your often not terribly important school skills, should be at 15 skills in no time.  Sage does decrease the average number, as will Soul of Artistry: Artisan, Sensation, and Crafty (though Stealth is important enough to actually buy).

For comparison, my *alt* character in HoR3 has 26 skills beginning/bought (stupid lack of advantage to fake Games skills).  My main has 25 skills (I didn’t buy Sage for dumb reasons).  My R-5 Hare in our Princess Police campaign has 27 skills.  My original character in that campaign, who got to IR-2, has 20 skills (again, didn’t buy Sage for dumb reasons, though I was required to take two Lore skills at R-3 for a path).

I do not remotely understand PCs with less than a dozen skills after a couple of sessions and who aren’t at like 20 skills by IR-2.  But, then, I believe in mechanical flavor, so some of my buys are nonsense like Lore: Naga for my moron Hare.

Even in HoR, where R-1 in a skill is zero Insight, the power of one rank in a skill is mighty.  Besides, many PCs want to sandbag at IR-2 in HoR play to play low rank mods (or, in my case, to build up some in effectiveness to not be as useless to midrank parties).


There are, of course, stops along the road to no dachi 7 and Medicine 10.  But, that’s far less important than talking about R-2 skills.

In HoR, R-2 skills are going to be many of the things that push you up in Insight Rank.  I spend far more time trying to figure out which skills and when to pump them to R-2 than anything else about character advancement.

But, HoR isn’t the end all and be all of play.  Why R-2 otherwise?  Math.

If you study the probability charts (who doesn’t?) on R&K dice pools, you will notice that hitting certain TN levels is way easier when rolling 5k3 vs. 4k3 or 7k5 vs. 6k5.  For instance, TN 25.  5k4 gives you a 63% chance of hitting it.  6k4 gives you 77%.  Those sound like close numbers, both are between 50% and 100%.  But, I’m not a happy camper to have a 63% chance of success on something that matters when I’m keeping that many dice.  Let’s raise the TN to 30.  39% with 5k4 and 52% with 6k4.  +1k0 gets to a coin flip.  Let’s go lowlander and say TN 15, with 3k2 at 47% and 4k2 at 62%.

As with many numbers things, diminishing returns on more 1k0’s, which is why you don’t ever go above R-2 in a skill unless you are going for a mastery or you feel like some “reason” compels you.  Pile XP into Traits before considering the craziness of skills.

While you don’t have to go to R-2 to be more consistent at things, as, you know, only so many XP to spend and a Trait bump will make you far more likely to hit your TN, anyway, adding an average of 6.11 per 1k1 (it gets much funkier when you are adding 1k1 to some dice pool that doesn’t have an equal number of rolled and kept dice).


What about emphases?

Some are really, really good mon ami.  To the extent that rerolling 1’s is ever good.  After all, +1k0 or reroll 1’s?  +1k0.  So, until you get to R-3 in a skill, why bother?  Flavor, in my case.  I find emphases even more flavorful than buying up skills, especially for esoteric skills.  Anyway, spend 3xp for +1k0 or 2xp for reroll 1’s?  Interesting question that you can go run the numbers on.  Certainly, big difference between 4xp for +1k0 and 2xp for reroll 1’s in terms of what you can throw around.  The thing is is that the more rolled dice you have the more chances for 1’s you have, so buying up a skill and buying an emphasis has synergy … at sucking out your XP.

Gossip is used all of the time in HoR.  Manipulation is solid for doing really, really important stuff.  Courtesy might save you on some occasion.  Honesty or Deceit, whichever you use is probably worth it if you have a meaningful dice pool already.

Notice is the most useful outside of combat emphases.  Search and Interrogation are both pretty sweet.

Antidotes – don’t leave an Intelligence 4 PC without it.  Wound Treatment is something, I guess.  Void Recovery is more meaningful than Fasting.  I don’t see spell research used, so Importune is better.

I keep being tempted to take Throwing for my Hare, but I never have that many XP lying around.  Climbing or Swimming are also flavorful, if obscure.  Horsemanship has easy emphases, in that you only need one.

Tracking is the primary use of Hunting.  Both Assessment and Focus for “those” players.  Grappling?  Sure, why not?

Appraisal and Mathematics are both interesting – see how often you can get a GM to allow you to use them.

Sneaking!  Maybe Spell Casting if you are one of “those” players.  Seduction … just doesn’t get used enough.


Hey, why not, here are some of my characters’ skills:

Usagi Kidai

Athletics (Running), Kyujutsu (Yumi), Polearms (Nagamaki) 5

Athletics is an obvious decision for an Usagi Bushi.  Kyujutsu 5 and Polearms 5 were necessary for an advanced school technique, bought up Kyujutsu before that because of the range issue and because I was getting kind of left behind combatwise as I built my character towards courtierdom.

Defense, Hunting (Tracking), Investigation (Notice), Courtier, Etiquette, P: Storytelling (Fantasy), Battle 3

Huh?  R-3?  Hypocrite.  Defense does actually have a mastery ability, plus I Guard all of the time.  With more XP, it would eventually be 5.  Hunting was to establish a group niche.  P: Storytelling and Battle were for flavor and to make the GM comfortable with thematic stuff the character has done.

Moshi Shigeo

Kenjutsu (Katana, No Dachi, Tsurugi) 7

Back to a more normal, I don’t have infinite XP, world, though I did have enough for a silly emphasis.

Engineering (Construction), Etiquette 3

See what happens when you don’t have a ton of XP but still want some mechanical flavor.  Shigeo has seven skills at R-2.  I’m likely to increase either Courtier to 3 and several skills to R-2 or five skills to R-2 in order to go to IR-4.

Hoshi Takumi

Courtier, Etiquette 3

Feel the power.  For a character who bought 19 skills to go with the starting 7, only four skills are even at R-2.  Of course, I’m not allowing this character to rise about IR-1, so I’m constrained in all sorts of ways in what I can buy.  In fact, I’m screwed at making the character combat functional, as Earth 3 or Reflexes 4 or Agility 3 or Void 4 would all put my character into IR-2.  Sure, I could go Heavy Weapons 7 and not rank up, but that would be … silly.

You can see how HoR does things to builds that home play doesn’t.  Next up, a home play build that might show some of the similarities.

Ide Najimi

Courtier (Manipulation) 4

Hunting, Investigation 3

Seven skills at R-2.  27 skills total.  This was a PC who had very little possibility of advancement after starting with 110xp and who was playing in a pure court game.  Also, this was a 110xp character who gained some XP who still didn’t make it to IR-2.


Bottom line.

Don’t buy up skills until you gain XP.  Skills are cheap.  Advantages might not even be an option after character creation.  Rolling Nk2 dice pools for skills sucks, as does Nk3 in something you are supposed to be good at.

Don’t buy skills above R-1 without reason.  R-2 is for being more consistent or for gaining Insight in HoR play.  R-3+ are for masteries (or thematics).  Do buy lots of different skills, unless you hate fun … and effectiveness.  If just a powergamer, can ignore the P: Storytelling (Fantasy) selections, et al.

Emphases are not necessarily good math, but they might not be bad math, so don’t forget them, plus they ooze flavor if you choose some goofy emphasis, like Takumi having the Non-human Lions emphasis for his R-1 Medicine.

Focus on Awareness, Perception, and Agility if you want to be good at skills outside of combat.  Intelligence probably doesn’t matter since challenges rarely involve outsmarting, but, hey, you took Sage for a reason, so go ahead.

Wow, for such an obvious and dull topic, 3000 words … ladies.


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