Thursday, July 15, 2010


L5R 4E - Monks
Togashi Shinjitsu

"When you are gone" asked Hantei, "where will I find wisdom such as yours?"
Shinsei answered "In rice cakes."

Rokugani monks are social oddity.
They aren't Samurai, but they aren't truly Heimin either - In fact, many were once Samurai.
They are holy men, but they aren't Shugenja.
Many are experts at the martial arts, and yet at the same time embrace a pacifist existence.

For L5R 4E, evoking and maintaining that oddity was a delicate balancing act.

"It is difficult to master yourself, let alone others"

Too mystical, and the monk risks impinging on the Shugenja.
Too martial, and the monk might outclass the Bushi.

With this in mind, monks still needed to be given abilities that would make Bushi respect them, and Shugenja revere their connection to the elements.

Where do monks fit into Rokugani society, and the L5R game world?
There are many stories of an overly proud bushi being shown humility by a lowly monk, or a powerful shugenja marvelling at the ease at which monks work in harmony with the elements.

"Every moment has a lesson for you to learn. Learn to listen"

one of the simplest roles a monk then fulfils is one of a teacher. Their mere presence can be a means to teach Bushi, Shugenja and others that the world is more mysterious, more wonderful and more demanding than previously thought possible.

This was a big part of how monks were approached for 4th Edition L5R.

They needed to be different. They needed to be versatile and changeable, able to be a vessel for whichever lesson was to be learnt or taught. Yet they should not be able to outshine Bushi or Shugenja in their given fields of specialty.
So Monks couldn't just have Techniques, or they would just be Bushi. They couldn't just have spells, or they would be Shugenja.
The 'middle ground' that monks ought to occupy is accomplished by mystical abilities called Kiho.

Kiho have been present since 1st Edition L5R. They have traditionally provided powerful abilities that are unexplainable by shugenja, or even the monks that utilise them. Mastery of Kiho can provide momentary martial prowess to humble even the greatest warrior, or bring knowledge even the most accomplished Shugenja cannot fathom.

The task for 4th Edition was to find this balance, and ensure that the game rules were up to the task of limiting monks, yet providing them with versatility and mystery.

Many ideas were explored for the kiho mechanic. Plain old void expenditure, tweaked versions of the 3rd edition 'activation' methods, 'always on' ideas, triggered actions and a plethora of others all came and went.

"The simplest questions are the hardest to ask."

At some point, someone sat back and thought "What are monks about, really? What do they do best/most that nobody else does?"
and the obvious result was 'meditation and void'.
That's what monks do. That's their 'thing' if you like. They meditate, to become one with the universe, to harmonise with the elements, including Void. Some monks meditate in strange ways, and every monk's path to enlightenment is different, but all monk schools espouse the benefits of meditation and contemplation - even if it involves putting your fist through stone as a step along the way.

Finally, the 3-fold method of kiho activation was envisioned and revised.
A Kiho is now activated in one of 2 ways - As a Meditation roll, or with a Void point.
Activating via the Meditation roll is a Complex action, but if you are willing to accept a higher TN, you can do it as a Simple action.
If you really need that Kiho quickly, you can spend a Void Point to guarantee it activates, AND it's a Free action.

The most you can do in one round is get 3 Kiho up and running. 2 Simple actions, at high TN, and spend a Void for the last one. As you can only perform each type of Free action once a round, you can't blow multiple void on Activating Kiho in one round, but you can still trigger effects that require extra Void for kiho that are already active.

Situational penalties of any kind can really hinder a monk's calm - and therefore their ability to focus on activating Kiho. An injured monk needs to be quite good at meditation to activate a kiho without tapping into their mystical reserves.
This can be offset a little by taking the time to centre yourself. A neat use of the Centre Stance is to use the bonus it provides to aid your Kiho activation roll in the next round.

The trade-off becomes time vs Void. A monk with a long time to prepare can become a force to be respected, or they can spend much of their void to speed up the process.
In combat situations, time is limited, so a monk can rapidly diminish their mystical reserves if they try to do too much too quickly. If they take their time and focus on harnessing their inner being, much more can be achieved.

When asked the meaning of dreams, Shinsei said:
"If only men put so much thought into what they see when they are awake."

Kiho in previous editions have been seen as confusing, and potentially too powerful, stepping on both Bushi's and Shugenja's toes.
We were determined not to let that happen in 4E, but the possibility had to remain for an enlightened monk to humble the proud bushi, or to teach the arrogant Shugenja, or to open the eyes of the jaded courtier.

The testing and refining of Monks and Kiho was not a quick process. More than a year of dedicated work went into ensuring monks were 'fun' to play, but without pulling too much focus from other characters, and without making monks a dominant force in every situation.

They make effective 'second rank' characters, supporting and aiding both Shugenja and Bushi, but without overshadowing either.
For example, many martial Kiho inflict conditions, rather than damage.
This also makes them ideal antagonists, or 'situational teachers'. A proud and mighty Akodo can be rendered immobile by a Freezing the Lifeblood atemi strike, leaving the Bushi unable to escape or respond to the monk's quiet lecture on how foolhardiness is unbecoming in a Samurai - without having to reduce the Bushi to the 'Down' rank via damage.

The sheer versatility of Kiho was a considerable hurdle, as they are easier to combine than techniques, and less limited in application than spells. A lot of time was invested into making sure Kiho interact well, without destroying game balance or becoming too cumbersome.

Shinsei said "I am only the ladle and the Tao is the well. When you are not thirsty is your mind on the ladle or on the well?"

A monk in the group provides a chance to highlight the highly philosophical nature of Rokugani culture, without crippling the group's effectiveness. They give you a chance to bring eastern works of philosophy into your game, enriching the atmosphere and highlighting the struggle (or lack thereof) that is following Bushido and the Tao of Shinsei.

Monks in 4th Edition L5R are an essential part of Rokugan society, while not actually being part of it.

They can be made of glass, or hard as diamond.
As active as a forest fire, or as relaxed as a brazier's warmth.
As dangerous as a tornado, or as gentle as a summer's breeze.
They can be as changeable as the river currents, or as inexorable as a glacier's advance.
As easy to understand as breathing is.

I hope you enjoy playing them as much as I do.


  1. Excellent article. More so, it's so good I want to play a teacherish monk now >_<

  2. As a dedicated monk player, I love this insight into how monks were designed.

  3. I think Kiho are nice for the majority of monk schools, but the nature of atemi a bit cripples more sohei-oriented monks. I mean, very very very few of them cause damage at all (2 of them), and I dont feel like guarding a place or fighting bandits only placing funny ststus on enemies.

    I really hope for some adds soon.