Review – Imperial Histories

I finally got my copy of the latest book for 4th Edition Legend of the Five Rings.  My review of the previous book can be found here.

Unlike last time, I have read a substantial review of this product on a gaming site already.  David Giles wrote one for rpg.net there.  So, some of my remarks may be in response to things he wrote.

I’ll just go quickly through some areas I mentioned with the previous review.

Aesthetics

Typical of the line.  David brings up that the art is from the CCG.  While I think the art in these books is decent to great, I do feel like certain images are overused and there is art that I’d like to see more of – cleaner images of people interacting with the world mostly.

Outline

There’s an introduction that speaks of how to use each chapter.  Some may want to focus on canonical stories, others may want nothing to do with knowing what’s going to happen, while some may want a different spin on the familiar.  Different eras may suit different desires better.  And, so forth.

Each era gets an explanation for how it can be used.  Then, you get a chronology with notes.  The status of clans and other factions, such as Shadowlands, is detailed for each era … one can easily forget that the Unicorn are absent for almost all of the first nine centuries of Rokugan … for reasons that I will get into.  There is some discussion of theme for the era.  Important characters.  And, a few mechanics that may or may not be relevant only to the particular era.

Fiction

I quickly grew tired of reading it.  While arguably not the same as the chapter heading fiction, I did read some of the sidebars with Ikoma’s comments about The Dawn of the Empire era.  I just didn’t feel like Ikoma was saying them as they lacked a worldliness to them.

Meat

The meat of each chapter is what challenges are going on during the era.  These are all done well enough, I suppose – I haven’t really thought about how I would use the information to run a campaign.  That I’m not really looking at the material as someone eager to incorporate one of the eras into a new campaign is a bias that should be taken into account, of course.

Clear effort was put into explaining what sort of campaigns the eras would be good for, and I have a lot of respect for that.  Not every group wants a political campaign.  Not every group wants a survival campaign.  Etc.

I do question, a bit, how four of the eras are all within a century of each other.  David and I may have different views on specifics – he wished that Heroes of Rokugan did more with the Spider Clan, I wish the Spider Clan had never been conceived as it’s insipid, we seem to agree that L5R, the RPG, is overly tied to L5R, the CCG.  Sure, 4e is the first version of the RPG to aim for timeline neutrality rather than setting in where the CCG currently is, but Imperial Histories reminds us of how influential the CCG is by having era after era that starts with the era when the CCG was originally set and continues forward from that point.

There is certainly value in providing info on such eras for someone like myself who doesn’t follow the CCG at all.  The current HoR campaign, in fact, picks up right after one era and draws upon the following era, so I get to learn more about important NPCs, the background, and possible, related events.

It’s just that one might expect more on eras that we know little to nothing about.  Heroes of Rokugan II gets a chapter.  I, of course, know all about it.  David thought it was more what the product should have been about.  He is far more concerned than I am with the repercussions of events in Rokugan, with evolution.

Everyone seems to agree that The Great Famine chapter is awesome.  A contest was held to have someone contribute an era to the book and Jason Bianchi’s entry won.  For a game largely driven by its CCG, this sort of supplemental material only for the RPG that does no harm to the CCG is perfect.  Well, maybe not perfect.  David’s complaint is that in order to not mess around with future history everything needs to be swept under the carpet, expunged from “official” history and forgotten by later generations.  That it makes one feel like nothing you do during that time matters.  Though, as I would never have a campaign where the future is already written, I don’t see the issue with having a campaign in the 7th Century and diverging at that point in history.

My greater concern with the eras set before the 12th century is that so many elements of L5R I’m familiar with don’t exist.  Numerous minor clans won’t exist.  Schools won’t exist.  In The Dawn of the Empire, obviously, a lot of the schools won’t exist.  Families won’t exist.  The Unicorn aren’t even present for three of the eras and partially present for one.  HoR2, with its “take everything you know, assume that not much has changed except that we aren’t doing the same events as the CCG anymore” tactic is the most comfortable to me.

For instance, I am playing in a home campaign, now.  I don’t know that I mentioned this previously.  Our home campaign is set in 1001.  No Monkey Clan.  No Jade Champion (was vacated hundreds of years earlier and reinstated a century later).  It’s not superweird – the Unicorn are back, for one thing.  But, it’s different enough to notice.  It does have the advantage, of course, of ignoring the Spider Clan, the Destroyer War, Iweko Dynasty, even The Four Winds era, none of which I’m all that enthralled by.

The other notable alternate timeline to HoR2 is KYD – The Thousand Years of Darkness, an era mentioned before and highly desired by some.  It provides an example of how to make a real mess of Rokugan.  Other chapters talk about how you could diverge immensely from canon.  This chapter is that divergence.  HoR2 ends up being a major divergence in what crazy stuff didn’t happen rather than what crazy stuff did happen, but it also predated a lot of the weirdness the CCG inflicted upon canon.

Imperial Histories 2 is a product that already sounds in the works for release maybe two years from now.  A number of people have commented about what they would want to see.  Some want to go animesque, sci-fi, modern, whatever.  After all, there’s only so many variations on The Great Famine, “fill in the gaps with secret history” style era.  And, yet, the Devil is in the details.  We all likely want our version of L5R, but it takes effort to come up with your own campaign ideas, so if someone is willing to go to the trouble of detailing the ideas, makes life so much easier, as we see by people using HoR2 for their own campaigns.

Mechanics

There aren’t a lot of new mechanics.  That’s not so unusual, as Emerald Empire didn’t have much, either.  Even more so than EE, though, I’m just not that interested in what game mechanics are included.  Some are time specific.  Most are far too narrow in scope.

The one thing most relevant to me – Tattooed Monk mechanics – weren’t even all that.  First, they are schools rather than paths or advanced schools, so I doubt the campaign staff for HoR3 would make any use of them.  Second, even if they were somehow relevant, the mechanics go in the opposite direction I want to go in.  While it’s claimed that Hoshi Tsurui Zumi care less about combat, the school still forces unarmed combat mechanics down your throat.  Why can’t there be a Tattooed Monk School where you get to choose not to be a martial artist archetype?

Bottom Line

I am of the belief that one buys every product put out until it becomes clear that the quality/effort drops.  It’s a trivial amount of money to keep up with about four products a year as expenses go.

Here’s my system and rating from my last review:

x Don’t bother if free.
* Don’t pay for.
** Look for if you must or buy at deep discount.
*** Worth buying.
**** 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 ****.

My system is showing its fundamental flaw, as Imperial Histories would still get **** due to being a worthwhile reference, but I would say it’s more like Emerald Empire and less like the more important The Great Clans.  I’d even put it behind Emerald Empire due to the mechanics being mostly meaningless and the ideas being more for an aspiring GM, rather than a player or someone already running a campaign.

So, new system.

x Waste of space, sell or toss if owned.
* A bad product that might have one thing you want.
** Mediocre to average product.  Usually limitedly useful.
*** Good product.  Gets looked at *or* key to specific campaign.
**** Superior product.  Regularly referenced.
***** Product that’s so good that you want to use it for other games.

So, this fits better as a ** or ***.  I might decide that it’s a good reference and gives me ideas for characters, campaigns, or whatever.  For the moment, it’s an interesting read that I think is necessary up to a point for consolidating various canonical storyline information but not a product I’ll need to look at all that often.  I don’t even look at Emerald Empire that often, which suggests to me that EE should be a ***.  Because of more important mechanics, I do look at The Great Clans often enough, but it’s also probably a ***.  Enemies of the Empire, for enlightening me to a great deal I didn’t know and for giving ideas for antagonists, would be more like a ****.

I mean, I do love the aesthetics of all of the new books.  They are so much more pleasant to read than other RPG books with a lot of evocative art.  And, if you play the game regularly, there’s no reason not to have the books, but some are just better than others.  And, I do think having more relevant mechanics is something AEG can work on.

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