One might believe that reviewing RPG products would be something I’d be inclined to do. One might even believe it would be a natural fit. Yet.
There are a couple of obvious reasons I don’t do more RPG book reviews: I actually have bought very few RPG products in the last 10+ years as I realized at some point that I actually make very little use of RPG books; when I do acquire them, it’s typically long after they were published.
But, there’s another reason. I have a hard time reading them in one sitting. This is the complete opposite of how I typically read novels in one or two sittings. RPG books are things I keep looking for things that interest me greatly, keep failing to find them, and then coming back when I’m being less picky.
Not … The Great Clans
Fourth edition L5R has the mainbook, Enemies of the Empire, Emerald Empire (4e), and The Great Clans. I have some problems with the mainbook in terms of lacking fluff and 4e mechanics just being inferior in my mind to 3e mechanics, but it’s still a very nice book and is a far better balanced game. Enemies of the Empire seemed like it would be questionable with how it was so much fluff to go with monsters, but the fluff is awesome. I’m a huge fan of how it’s put together. Emerald Empire (3e) constantly annoys me. It annoys me because I hardly ever am able to find information that it should have in it. It doesn’t help that people constantly rave about it and its scarcity makes it the most valued 3e book as the raving just reminds me of how useless I find it. The 4e version is very similar, however I think it’s a much better book. Information is presented in a more reader friendly way, and the mechanics are more interesting. This version of EE is far more what 3e’s version should have been like.
Finally … The Great Clans
The aesthetics of 4e L5R books are fantastic. The covers might be kind of dull in the images, but the colors are excellent. The interior art always includes old art pieces, but that’s okay when there’s enough newer art, and a decent amount of the art is gorgeous. The Great Clans doesn’t fail in keeping up the quality of the look of 4e books.
The structure is to have a chapter on each of the great clans (shocking!) with three appendices. Within each clan section, we get fiction, clan history, additional family information, “heroes” with stats, import holdings, sections specific to features of the clans, and new mechanics.
I’m still reading the chapter opening fictions, but so far, I’m just not that excited. My recollections are that my favorite fictions are from the “Way of …” books and that the “Masters of …” were better. While not a major feature, L5R sells itself on coolness, or, at least, I sell it on coolness and it’s the only way I can imagine the CCG being so popular given how much I hate the CCG mechanics.
So, fiction should get someone pumped to play a character of the clan or, at least, get pumped about the setting. Overall in L5R books, I do think the fiction gets me more interested in the setting than reading about what some clan’s role is in the Empire or what happened to what’s-his-name in year whatever. Maybe, I’ll change my mind after reading some of the others, but the layout of the book actually doesn’t help the fictions stand out like the layouts of other books from various editions.
The clan histories are limited, but there’s not much you can do when you have to cover a timespan across the entire official timeline. It’s particularly interesting to read on what’s happening more recently in the official timeline since I knew next to nothing about the Iweko Dynasty and reading more on what the early centuries were like since there has always been so much focus on the Clan Wars and the 12th century. Reasonable might be the best word I’m looking for to rate the information presented.
More family information is often welcome. Sometimes, it gets hard to draw out why you would prefer playing one family than another thematically. I often choose families based on mechanics and, then, fill in the flavor after the fact.
Harping on my belief that all PCs should be unique, PCs should never be stereotypes, yet if you don’t know much about a family, you may strike the wrong note in achieving non-stereotypeness. Also, some families are more obscure. Unicorn have a lot of families in the mainbook, I’ve been considering having my third HoR3 character be a Horiuchi, a family I don’t really know a whole lot about. While bringing up certain key points in history for clans helps, knowing more about how the families fit in the clans is going to be more important to playing a character.
For someone like me, who has been getting up to speed on many aspects of the background, the heroes sections are the greatest value add. There are a lot of names in L5R and a lot of references, but often, it’s all about one thing that someone did and not the full story. Sure, plenty of supplements have posted notable individuals, but what sets this book apart is that it posts a large number of big names, not just major players, but the biggest players.
Ikoma. Not some Ikoma who was very important or clan champion at some point or something, but Ikoma! While providing statblocks for legends may have problems – “what, I have Iaijutsu 10, I could totally take this dude in a duel” – I quite like the statblocks for the big names just to get a rough sense of how the designers picture them in relation to each other.
Also, every character write-up also helps with understanding the history of Rokugan. Fortunately, statblocks don’t have to take up a lot of space or be dense for this game, so there’s plenty of room for the character’s story. It also seems to me that more was written about the characters after they achieved their major events than I’ve ever seen elsewhere.
I must admit I haven’t studied the “lands of the clans” sections much to this point. I think it has something to do with being very heavily interested in particular provinces/locales because of the daimyo system in HoR3 and for fictions I write for HoR, so I focus on those regions of Rokugan most relevant to me.
Mentioning locales I’m not already familiar with and giving them far more detail than what may come out of an edition’s mainbook is welcome, even if I’m not that interested in some of the descriptions. Eventually, a lot more of these locales will become relevant to me as I continue to tell stories in the L5R world. It’s always nice to throw out some landmark in passing to remind people that there’s a lot of depth to the world.
My favorites of these sections are “Courtly Romance: How to Have an Affair in Rokugan” and “Strangers in a Strange Land”. But, whatever someone’s personal interests, these slice of life articles, which are the sort of thing you expect in Emerald Empire, are a major bonus since it’s so hard to grok Rokugan and its society.
Mantis = pirates. But, what does that really mean? Pacifistic Phoenix – how does that actually work in a warrior’s society? I see these things often get mentioned, but having a great deal more depth makes them more relevant. I don’t really see pacifistic Phoenix. I see fire shugenja who nuke things and Shiba yojimbo who itch to duel. I hear Mantis get called pirates, but most adventures aren’t near the sea, so it’s just an empty remark. I don’t really care about siege weapons, but damn, those things can hurt.
To my understanding, it’s a truism in the industry that you need mechanics to sell books. It’s interesting how few mechanics L5R books can get away with. It’s also so much more pleasant to have books chock full of flavor with some mechanics rather than the painful D&D, d20, etc. supplements where it’s just endless numbers.
Still I care about mechanics, too. I want to find the next weird path to take or advanced school to try to turbo into or obscure kata/advantage/whatever. I’m not that excited by the new mechanics here. There are enough of them, but I just don’t care about most of them.
Ancestors are a problem because they don’t apply to HoR, and I don’t like how they work, anyway. Yes, some of the ancestors are quite cool to where I’d like to have them, but I find there to be a fundamental problem with how ancestors work in that they don’t seem all that special if ancestors are common and they don’t seem remotely special when someone else has the same ancestor. I can see two characters in a party having ancestors and it still being cool. Also, they are so weirdly costed that I’m sure there are balance problems, even ignoring the idea of losing one.
Having clan kata is a good idea as I find the mainbook kata just mindnumbing in terms of how dry they come across. I’m not bothered by the “Strength of …” blandness, I just wish there were more clan kata. Sure, it got dumb in 3e and kata tend to be either useless or broken, but it’s possible to have cool kata that aren’t either.
There is a path that is relevant to one of my HoR3 characters. It’s hysterical because it would make my character strictly worse. Not worse. Strictly worse. And, it’s not the book’s fault that my other character belongs to a minor clan school. Actually, if this book had been out a lot earlier, he would have probably used one of the schools in this book. But, there are just so few paths and schools that make me want to build particular characters.
Matsu Beastmaster, sure, but then, I think about how it won’t fit that well in a campaign with a lot of social stuff. Lion stuff in general tends to interest me. But, like, how come there are no new tattoos for Tattooed Monks? That would have been way more useful to me, in theory, than Togashi Defender.
Why are the shugenja schools so odd? It’s actually not that easy to be able to pick the element of magic you want to specialize in. Maybe, that was true of earlier editions as well, and my aversion to shugenja caused me to miss it, but I feel like so many schools in 4e are weird, like how Tamori don’t interest me at all in 4e when they did a lot in 3e, that it feels incredibly constraining on playing the shugenja I might want to play. Get more odd schools in this book rather than “different element focus” schools. Now, of course, you can always be better at elements outside of your school’s specialty.
None of the appendices are of that much interest to me. I hate the concept of the Spider Clan, and it’s never going to be relevant to me as a player. Vassal families – I like having a list so that I know who they are since they will show up and it is something I could play, but this section is so much more “listy” than what I’m used to that it feels undeveloped.
Heritage tables are not something I play with, but I can see them being of interest to others who have home games where they want some randomness in character creation. The main problem I have with them is not that they aren’t balanced – people complain about the Spider being so much better – but that they aren’t so varied as to appear to give uniqueness. Random stuff that comes up often is just not distinctive.
I think all of the 4e books are must haves. It’s not a product line that has so many products that you can’t keep up or should have to worry about budget. I certainly don’t feel nearly as inundated with supplements as I did with 3e, which might have just been not buying products when they were newer.
Great Clans is solid. I don’t think it’s Enemies of the Empire in description (ironic for a “monster manual”). I think it could use some additional mechanics. But, I give credit to it for covering all of the major clans, something that was covered in earlier editions in single clan supplements and in three-clans-in-one supplements. There’s nothing really wrong with anything it provides (since it’s required to include the absurd Spider Clan). The heroes sections are a major plus.
I don’t know what system to use for RPG ratings, either. Let’s say:
|x||Don’t bother if free.|
|*||Don’t pay for.|
|**||Look for if you must or buy at deep discount.|
|****||Should have in collection if you play the game/genre.|
|*****||Should have in collection if you don’t play the game/genre.|
While kind of a strange way to measure things, since it will lump this book in with books I think are better, it rates ****.