Review – The Book of Air

To a degree, I’m not really sure about the basis for reviewing every L5R 4e product that comes out.  While I’m a huge fan of reviews – I love reading movie reviews for movies I’ll never see, for instance – I’m not obsessive about going into detail then editing my remarks for improved readability.  Plus, at some point with a RPG, you either tend to buy everything or nothing, with the exceptions being easy to call out with a simple sentence along the lines of either “great line, but this book sucks, skip” or “not a great game, but this book rocks the Casbah and can be used for better games” and everyone can move on.

I suppose the value for me is that I get practice in for when I may need to do an important review.

Way to sell this post.  I’ve already essentially said that this review isn’t important.  Why isn’t it?  L5R is very strongly about its world.  So are a lot of other game lines, but then, a lot of game lines aren’t.  The Book of Air exists deeply within a context of the L5R world.  That’s true of Emerald Empire and The Great Clans, as well.  Where Enemies of the Empire and Imperial Histories are both products I can see someone stealing ideas for for other games.

The question is whether The Book of Air is an outlier.  Is it so awesome that you can’t afford to skip it, even if you are broke?  Is it sucky?  The product line for 4e is very strong, assuming you are into L5R or fantasy Japan to where you use L5R for assistance.

… maybe I should actually say something about … The Book of Air.

Bottom line:  If Emerald Empire interests you, then The Book of Air is essential.  TBoA has more mechanics and, as many have said, by putting them all in one place makes them vastly easier to find than earlier supplements, but it comes across more to me like a deep dive on the nature of Rokugan, obviously focused on one fifth of the total material that will be covered by the entire series of The Book of …  I wouldn’t buy it just for the mechanics, most of which aren’t relevant to characters I’m interested in playing; even someone who cared far more about the mechanics could probably find out what they are from someone else.

Cover

The cover has the same pop that the other books in the series have.  No, that’s not quite right.  It has a hot Crane chick with one green eye and one blue eye, so it has even more pop.

General

The book looks short.  At 200 pages, it’s over a 100 pages shorter than Emerald Empire, The Great Clans, and Imperial Histories.  It’s 88 pages shorter than Enemies of the Empire.  I read another review where not only this was mentioned, but that the book felt like it was reaching to just hit this page count.  I’ll comment on that.

As said, the mechanics were all moved to a single section in the back.  While that may be the best way to go, the real problem with earlier books is that the table of contents would give the pages for new mechanics but not say what they were.  The index would give a name but you wouldn’t necessarily know the section.  If you didn’t know the first letter of the mechanic you were looking for, for instance, you might have to jump around.  At least when mechanics are all in the same section, it’s fast to find things and the chance of missing something is greatly lessened.

While we all say that all of the mechanics are in one section, that isn’t precisely true.  All of the character design mechanics are in one section.  How to handle things like a kite fight(!) are in the related section.

Introduction

The most notable thing about the introduction chapter is where it talks about using Air as a theme for play style.  While kind of hokey, I really like the idea of having a theme that cuts across the panoply of elements to the game.  The gist is that the “Air style” of playing L5R is to be flexible, should be interesting to see whether The Book of Earth talks about a rigid style of play.

Winds of War

Just going to list the chapter names.  This chapter starts with how the clans represent Airness.  It’s kind of weird.  Crane and Scorpion are obviously the most Airy (great) clans, but somehow, the Crab get talked about rather than, say, the Phoenix or Unicorn.  Still not seeing how the Hiruma are terribly Airy compared to a Shiba or a Battle Maiden.

Anyway, after the strange section, we get articles on Iaijutsu, archery, spears, and the Air style of unarmed combat.  I actually find it hard to wade through how spears get used; this is something I’d be more inclined to care about on a mechanical level.  But, I was just amazed at what I didn’t know about Iaijutsu in L5R.  I had never thought about Kakita being some barbarian tribesman before Rokugan came into existence.  It’s nice to have a lot of commentary about dueling all be in one place even for those who have heard much of the material.

Another reviewer commented about not needing to know the eight steps of loosing an arrow.  But, you know what?  When I go to write fictions, it’s precisely the excruciating detail of a common action that I can use to give my fictions gravitas.

The chapter finishes with another section on how to play in an Air style, in this case when it comes to having combat seem more fluid.  While I sympathize with efforts to get away from “I attack.”, “I dodge.”, “I move 5′ and attack.”, and the like, when a combat system is interesting and fast, it’s not a big deal to be only concerned with mechanics; plus, getting too deep into description, has problems and can get really annoying.

Winds of the Courts

I don’t have much to comment upon here.  I like the descriptions of certain locations most.  It feels like it should be longer.  Especially the GM toolbox section at the end!!  Why this is so short I have no idea.  Advice to create long lists of NPCs and a single paragraph on “Scheming and Indirect Goals” just seems bizarre to me.  If I had to pick the greatest annoyance to my players when I was running HoR2 mods, it was mods with long lists of NPCs they had no interest in interacting with.  Far better to go into a lot more examples of how to get PCs to give a damn about NPCs.

Winds of Magic

The reality is that I care about mechanics, at least when I’m a player.  I may care way more about story when it comes to playing than anything else, but during the time outside of playing, I do what most people do and think about how to build characters and the like.

I am quite a fan of how this chapter points out uses for spells that may be overlooked.  I wish it did more of that.  On the other hand, while I understand the importance of describing every variant character type that could be made, I’m really not as interested in a half dozen new character concepts.

One thing that I think RPGs consistently fail at is how to build PCs.  Sure, they stat block tons of NPCs, but NPCs aren’t PCs.  While a bit strange to do in this chapter given a chapter on mechanics, I would have liked to have seen several examples of how to build shugenja PCs – what spells to choose, what skills to care about, what mix of advantages works well/poorly, what impact certain disads would have.  I usually build lots of characters.  I usually learn pretty quickly how to make more or less effective characters.  But, I can always see the value in providing examples of character creation – note, not example, examples.  Plus, some people aren’t as mathematically inclined and could use help even with systems that aren’t overly complex.

Winds of Enlightenment

I don’t really get this section.  It’s very short and rather narrow.  My posts on Air signs of the Zodiac probably are more enlightening … by that I mean I’d rather see something said about what an Air personality is like.  How does an Airy person view an Earthy person, and so forth?  Sure, the clans touch on that with how they represent different archetypes, but they don’t really even scratch the surface of the connection between rings and personality.

The World of Air

“Air in the Natural World” is kind of odd.  Even when getting into weather, it’s odd, where I’m not really sure why heat gets talked about, except that I suppose you have to cover environmental conditions all in one book (it will be messy if it also gets covered in the other books).

“Air as a Tool of Man” is way more interesting and cool.  Maybe too brief.  There’s likely more that could be said on sailing.  I’m not terribly happy that kite-flying is encouraged with both the Games macroskill and with Reflexes rather than it being squarely a Perform skill and it being Agility.  My view, rightly or wrongly, is that Agility isn’t that great in 4e.  It’s almost entirely about attack rolls, which is obviously valuable, but it’s just rather narrow.  Perform skills listed in the mainbook that are physical are all Agility based.  Why make kite-flying Reflexes, instead?  Sure, Reflexes isn’t a bad choice, I just see Agility being a better choice, if only on mechanical grounds.

Similarly, it’s discordant to go into musical instruments when the game has playing instruments as an Agility thing.  I know, flavorwise, Air makes tons more sense than Fire, so this is easier to give a pass to.

Another reviewer pointed out that listing Fortunes and supernatural creatures that weren’t really Airy showed how much the book was stretching.  I just find the jumps in topics strange.  Why aren’t Fortunes listed in the Enlightenment chapter?  Why aren’t the magic items listed later in this chapter listed in the Magic chapter?

Winds of Adventure

The entire chapter is about a setting for courtly adventures.  I think it’s a great idea to have something like this that ties things together in an example format.  I haven’t read it through in detail, but it doesn’t seem like as much of the other material gets used, thematically or mechanically, as might have made sense, but there’s quite a bit of info on this setting and the characters.

Speaking of the characters, while those who haven’t played HoR2 may note the likes of Toku Irui, I find it amusing that there are other HoR2 characters present, as well.

New Mechanics

Just note a few things.  A lot of the mechanics don’t mean much to me because of how high rank they require, and I don’t mean just school rank.  The kata, for instance, require Air 4, which makes sense for The Book of Air, but I’m a known Air Ring hater (ironic for someone with an Air Sun Sign).  The called shots section for archery is a great help since called shots in the game are so vague and rarely used.  The spells I read didn’t excite me, but I haven’t read most of them.  Unfortunately for me, I think I’ll have to wait until The Book of Void to see a grand expansion on Tattooed Monk tattoos, though since two per book is not a trivial amount, something that catches my eye may certainly arise before the last book in this series.  There’s errata for the creature section up on the AEG forum.

Conclusion

I already gave my bottom line, in the middle, where it belongs.  In conclusion, I think there’s some really strong conceptual thinking in this book, but that the book doesn’t always deliver.

I rate this as *** – a product I’ll reference, if not necessarily regularly.

More than anything else, I think its value is in stimulating how to think about themes in L5R (or, in general for RPGs).  Too often, it seems like supplements get caught up in mechanical themes and don’t roll together thematic themes (yes, that sounds dumb) and mechanical themes.

I have a lot of hopes for the others in this series being as good or better.  I’m sure there are mechanics that will be more relevant to me, which makes them coming out later less fortunate, but what can you do?  People into Airy characters are going to get more value out of this than later books, while I’m still getting mechanical value out of it.  Should be interesting to see what non-mechanical themes get developed.  When all five books are out, I wonder if it will seem like they were brilliant when taken together as a collection of ideas covering the entirety of the L5R experience.

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