First, you choose your clan:
- The Crab have defended the Empire's borders against the corrupt armies of the Shadowlands for a thousand years. Existing in a perpetual state of war, they have no time for such social niceties as politics, etiquette, or bathing regularly. Their hobbies include hard drinking, building fortifications, witch hunting, and beating demons to death with tetsubo.
- The Crane are the politicians and rock stars of Rokugan. Yes, they have pretty white hair. Yes, they mince around in sumptuous kimono of the finest silk. Yes, they are widely regarded as effeminate. They also have the best dueling school in the Empire and will be happy to cut you to pieces for that insult. You'd be surprised how effectively policy can be changed when its chief opponent is lying dead after an ill-chosen remark.
- If you prefer zen and meditation, then the Dragon are for you. Their warriors are practically monastic and their school is patterned after Miyamoto Musashi's philosophy of "Two hands, two swords." Their priests are cryptic and one of their samurai families is actually an order of magically tattooed monks. If they didn't spend so much time contemplating the mysteries of the Tao they'd be a force to be reckoned with.
- "Our chief weapons are honor, courage, and fanatical devotion to the Emperor" -- such is the code of the Lion clan. These guys adhere so strongly to the code of bushido that it's a wonder they can walk, what with that stick shoved so firmly up their asses. Of course, these professional warriors have the largest army in all the Empire and are second only to the Crane in terms of wealth and political power, so maybe there's something to be said for sphincter-lock.
- The Mantis clan, depending on which era of the game you use, may or may not be a major clan. They aren't in my game. Besides, they're just a bunch of honorless pirates and yakuza -- pay no attention to the fact that their family tree contains no less than two deities, I'm sure they won't amount to anything.
- The Phoenix clan are masters of magic. While this does mean they tend toward seclusion, it also means that if you absolutely, positively, need something smote from the face of the earth, these are the guys to do it... if you can convince them. And to convince them, you have to get past the Shiba, an entire family of yojimbo ready to die in their service. It takes a special kind of courage to die for people who despise you.
- There are no ninja in Rokugan. None. It's all peasant tales and superstition. And even if there were, the clan of the Scorpion would have nothing to do with them, because ninja (if they did exist) are criminals and traitors. No no, the Scorpion are the Emperor's spymasters. Truly. Would she lie to you?
- Sometimes you just want to thunder across the steppes on a mighty steed, wearing fur and leather and generally acting like a Mongol. The rest of the Empire regards you as barbaric but fuck them, you're a Unicorn, and your ancestors lived this way so it's honorable. Your clan has been to gaijin lands and came back changed, all in service to the Emperor. You're a misfit, and oddly that means you can get along with just about anyone.
- And then there are the Ronin, for people who like having the deck stacked against them when they play. Nobody likes you, everyone thinks you're dishonorable criminal scum, but hey, it's better than being a peasant...
- Finally, there are half-dozen minor clans, which I won't describe due to space and the tendency for them to come and go depending on which edition of the game you're using.
Then, you choose your school:
- Bushi: You whack things until they fall down dead.
- Shugenja: You cast spells based on the elements of Air, Earth, Fire, Water and, if you're a badass Phoenix shugenja, Void. (See character sheet for an idea of what effects elemental spells have other than the obvious; for example, Fire can make you more agile in addition to burning things.)
- Courtier: You don't just talk pretty; the Imperial Court is your battlefield.
- Other: This wildcard slot depends on your clan. The Dragon have a monastic order, the Crab have witch-hunters, and the Scorpion have
You then round out your character with what are essentially freebie points, to be spent on increasing stats or skills or purchasing advantages. You can get more point for taking disadvantages, yadda yadda yadda, if you've played an RPG within the past 10 years you know how this goes.
Now here's the neat thing: you learn the next rank of your school's technique once you have accumulated a certain amount of Insight. Now, insight is not XP; you don't get it from killing monsters. Instead, you gain Insight as you increase your skills. The effective upshot of this is that your big bad killing machine Bushi can in fact reach the next level of martial enlightenment by learning to arrange flowers. In any other game system this would be regarded as game-breaking and cheese-mongering, but in this pseudo-Japanese setting -- where a warrior is supposed to exemplify excellence in all things and be well-read and well-rounded -- it works.
Next: the Setting!