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L5R live action combat: notes on combat rules.


Notes on general principles.


Obviously, we have to sacrifice realism to promote safety and accessibility of combat actions. We should, however, discourage actions that would normally be discouraged in a student of martial arts , and those that would spoil the mood of the game.


Note: here is a short list of annoying buffer combat traditions: “sewing machine” (striking very fast without preparation), head blocking, “contact poison” (making weapons with a huge striking area, and claiming that any contact with it does damage), “strike to the limb disables the limb” rule (stupid and historically incorrect: try and find a single historical reference to a fighter that was wounded in the leg and continued to fight on his knees).


Note: shields were not very popular in Japan, possibly because wooden boards and metal are expensive on the islands, so – no shields. Some of the Japanese swords are almost unreasonably light and long, so there should be no restrictions on weight\size of weapons. Japanese-style armor is a very rare thing among USA role-players (the best I can do at the moment is kendo bogu, and I have yet to meet a manic with a hand-made set). Japanese-style silk armor, horu, and “key-ring” mail are even more rare. So – no armor (except possibly as a modifier for the strength of virtual troops).


L5R combat should be highly individualistic. Major battles, in pre-Oda Nobunaga times, consisted of positioning troops (usually, grouped by type) against each other, and letting samurai break up into dueling pairs. It appears to me that even when the army was in formation, the purpose was mostly to interfere with enemy movement and make way for free repositioning of friendly units.


Active fighters should not be a majority in the game, so we can make any duel a rare and interesting event. A duel should consist of a few (5-30) swift (not necessarily lightning-swift) passes, one of which will end with the death of at least one of the opponents. There should be no close body contact – pairs that are within one sword-handle of each other must break up and start again.

It should look impressive. Ideally, dueling pairs should start at a decent distance, assume graceful stances, approach each other with clear and strong ki-ai, move their weapons smoothly, and control them enough to achieve precise, light blows.

Ideally, the killing blow will have to be clear enough for both opponents to notice it. A pass with an unclear outcome gets replayed. Unduly long duel will, however, be interrupted by the game master.




There are four kinds of “weapon-like things” in the game: exotic weapons, melee weapons, ranged weapons, and troop banners\drums\shields.


Exotic weapons are only intended for light contact. They include hidden knives, shuriken, blowpipes, war fans, choking ropes and so on. There is no direct defense against a character who has one and has the ability required to use one. The only thing one can do is to notice an exotic weapon as it is being used, and engage an assassin with a melee weapon. Exotic weapons cannot be used in defense against a character with a melee weapon.


Melee weapons are padded buffer weapons. To keep it simple, let’s divide them into three general groups: swords, spears, clubs.

Swords include all swords shaped “like a katana” (tanto, shoto, wakizashi, katana, nodati – straight or slightly curved, single sharp edge, small flat guard if any, any length) and “scholar” swords (basically, a tai chi sword - light, double-edged, up to 1 meter in length, small cross-guard if any). Gaijin swords of any other shape are officially classified as clubs.

Spears include spears of all shapes (there are all kinds of things you can stick on the end of a pole), some of which can also slash (like naginata). A spear with an unreasonably large striking area is classified as a club.

Clubs include: staves, hammers, maces, flails, and all other weapons that game-masters did not like.


Troop banner or a shield are not supposed to be used for hitting people at all. They indicate the number of virtual troops in battle. (Banner is better, you can easily tie ribbons to it, and it contributes to the atmosphere).


Iaido. Exotic weapons.


To use an exotic weapon, produce it, point at a target, and imitate the correct movement associated with it. You have to be close enough to touch your victim, but don’t do it – some people may be trained to kick you in the (skipped), if you try to cut their throat. Declare what happened. To survive, your victim has to either somehow interrupt your action (shout out in alarm, plead, jump away, whatever makes you hesitate), or to quickly use a sword. If you are under attack, you cannot finish using an exotic weapon.


Note: you don’t have to kill an assassin to defend from him. Lifting a sword above his head is a sufficient indication of his failure.


Note: you cannot defend from an exotic weapon with an exotic weapon. The best you can achieve is a “both dead” situation.


Kendo. Outdoors dueling and combat.


Swords and spears are target weapons. To cause any damage at all (and, usually, to kill an opponent), you have to hit a specific target on his body. If you are not sure where your blow has landed, it does not count.


Sword and spear targets for slashing: shoulders and upper arms (normally, that would be head shots, so call it “men”), arms just above the wrist (“kote”), ribs (“do” – to make this one count you have to step from right to left or left to right and lightly drag the blade across the opponent’s torso… and go easy on the strength of this shot), legs just below the knees, in front or in the back (“sune”, also have to drag this one).

Sword targets for stabbing: just to the right and to the left of solar plexus (normally, that would be solar plexus, so call it “tsuke”).

Spear targets for stabbing: “sune”, “kote”, and “tsuke”


Clubs do damage no matter where they hit (head, throat, groin, wrists and feet are off-target, as usual). Any bushi armed with any sword, and many other characters are immune to damage from clubs. Clubs can do extra damage to Shadowlands creatures.


Note: if the purpose of the duel is to merely test each others’ skills and spirit, you don’t have to follow the rules strictly. All kinds of alternative contests are encouraged.


Note: duels and combats with more than two opponents must be broken up into groups of “one-against-one” and “one-against-many”, based on the initial intensions of characters.


Note: keep fighting until there is a clear outcome of a duel. Besides special abilities, the only thing that can lead to a draw is a GM’s decision, which will probably be “you are both dead”.


Note: to introduce spells and special actions into combat, a duel can be played step by step. The turn starts when characters are close enough to cross swords, and ends when they are twice that distance from each other. Announce special actions before the next turn starts.


Bushido. Battles and virtual troops.


Unless we are talking about completely virtual troops, it takes at least two characters to participate in battle: some will carry banners and use water-based abilities, the others will engage each other normally. Every time a fighting character dies, that stands for the elimination of a virtual unit he represented.

The rule about “20 characters getting together = battle” will have to be dropped – I disagree with it anyway. Getting twenty bored PCs to say they will draw swords is not exactly equivalent to gathering hundreds of men, providing them with food, clearing roads, etc.


Ranged weapons and fortifications in battle.


Ranged weapons can be used in battle only if there is a unit of archers to be represented. Units of archers will have to be given “ranged” battle strength – equivalent to the number of arrows the character can loose before “archers” have to draw swords and become demoted to infantry.

Ranged weapons can be used as a weapon of assassination normally – the arrow has to hit torso to have any chance to kill at all, and may be blocked by pretty much anything.

Fortifications - ? Hmm… I have no idea. This has to be decided together with the economics rules.


Live action version of “fire, earth, water” rankings.


To keep the game from stalling, effects of elemental ranks should probably be absolute, not comparative: for example, “if your water is 4.0 or more, you are immune to arrows”, not “compare your water ranks. If yours is higher, the archer has done no damage”.

Right now, the elemental rank is mainly a measure of your offensive strength. That requires constant comparison of numbers. We would have a make it a defensive characteristic, and introduce cheaper special abilities with a variety of rank prerequisites.


Generally speaking, having higher rank should mean that you are better prepared to survive. However, high rank should not make you absolutely immune to the healthy fear of death. I am intentionally leaving a possibility for an absolute novice to strike anyone down, if he goes about it in an honorable way (it has to be with a sword. It has to be made public. It has to be for a good reason.)


For example (this is just to give you an idea of the structure – I don’t really know whether 3.0 is high right now in the game, or how many virtual troops there are on the total):







Can lead 1 unit

Does not automatically lose to 2 opponents

Does not automatically lose to 2 opponents


Can retreat from battle

Can retreat from duel

Can retreat from combat


Can lead 2 units

Does not have to lose to any number of  opponents

Does not have to lose to any number of opponents


Immune to ranged attacks, including magic

Immune to exotic weapons

Immune to spears


Can lead any number of units

Can replay any kind of draw

Can capture 1 defeated opponent alive


Always survives battles

Can retreat from duel, combat and battle, and also escape from most usual prisons and traps

Can change a “both are dead” situation into a “both are alive” draw


Note: another optional rule. If you don’t want to fight, you can request the comparison of elemental ranks. Your own rank, however, will decrease by 0.5 for each opponent for the purposes of comparison.