Review – Book of Earth

Before getting to the Book of Earth, I have had the Second City Boxed Set for months and wanted to make some comments.

I can’t do a full review of Second City because I plan on playing in a campaign of it, which means there are things I can’t look at.  I have, in fact, nothing really to say about its value for a campaign besides the obvious – if you want your L5R in Rokugan, a campaign that is mostly outside of Rokugan isn’t likely to be your thing.

So, what is there to comment upon?  Second City retails at $80.  That provided a bit of sticker shock when I first heard it.  Would I consider this product if all it gave me was a campaign set in the current timeline that means nothing to me?  Homey don’t play that.

But, it doesn’t just have materials for a setting/campaign.  It has bonus goodies.  It has a solid GM screen, CCG sized cards for school techniques and stances, dice and dicebag, packets of character sheets, and premium character log booklets.  I’ll take these separately.

  1. GM Screen – Fine.  I used to not care a whole lot about GM screens, but I’ve found the importance of hiding things to be high, so a solid one is better than not.  I don’t tend to look up info on them, so I don’t know how useful L5R’s (flimsy or solid) is.
  2. Cards – I really like this concept.  Where I find with CCGs, that there’s a lot of room for promotional product that are cards that represent game elements, like Magic’s token creature cards or V:TES’s Anarch/Corruption cards, RPGs could theoretically take advantage of similar promotional representations.  There are plastic pieces sold to represent things like Stunned, Poisoned, etc.  Why not leverage your CCG production abilities to create cards to represent things in the RPG?  Unfortunately, I don’t find them that useful.  First, with school techniques, that info should be on your character sheet; carrying around cards for redundant information isn’t helpful.  And, I’m ignoring the misprints with the cards, where there is at least one technique missing.  The better concept was stance cards.  For reasons unclear to many of us, it’s not defined the timing of stance declaration – not when it happens during the combat but how it resolves between combatants.  Simultaneous stance declaration is a headache that could be solved by choosing a card and revealing the cards simultaneously.  In practice, everyone needs to use the system for this to work, which my F2F group didn’t seem all that keen on, mostly because it’s not that important.  And, that’s the bottom line because Stone Cold said so – these cards just aren’t important.
  3. Dice & Bag – Also not important.  I have to admit that some dice matter to me:  Immortal RPG d10’s with the dreaded Null; foreign language dice; astrological dice.  But, really, more dice isn’t a thing any RPGer already playing a game should care about.  Also, the dice are really lightweight, which is weird when holding them.  Bags are similarly useless.  There are those who talk about graduating from Ziploc bags, but I find using a Ziploc bag is vastly superior to opaque bags with drawstrings or bulky things, like boxes.
  4. Character Sheets – I don’t use standard RPG character sheets for my characters, given a choice.  I find them to be hard to read and hard to find information with.  I create my own computer files and print out my character sheets.  That being said, when you need something right away and don’t have a printer available, there is a use for extra sheets.  Much use?  Eh.  Any use if you have one sheet and a photocopier handy?  No.  While I can see the benefit of including these, the vast quantity of them doesn’t make them rise to a level where I’d put much value on their presence.
  5. Premium Character Logs – Again, I create my own files that are easy to read.  I include information that is relevant.  I’m not interested in flipping through a book to find information nor using up something fancy when character history/info changes constantly, which is handled far better electronically.  I can see someone using one of these just out of laziness.

So, in the end, I was quite disappointed with the bonus materials.  If I figure that no RPG product is worth more than $60 retail, then the bonus stuff was the other $20.  I have next to no use for character sheets, no use for Logs, no use for more dice or a dice bag, and found that the cards weren’t as functional as they sounded.  I already had a flimsy L5R GM Screen, which was adequate, so a solid one is hardly worth $15 or so to me.  The bonus goodies seem more like collectibles than things that actually matter.

What would matter?  Sixty dice might matter where 10 don’t, since 60 would cover a group better.  I’m not sure what cards would actually see use since this isn’t a crunchy game where you need to track a lot of conditions, but I can wish that cards would have some use just because I favor the concept.  Actually, you know what?  I’ve been thinking about ways to physically track Honor changes during sessions.  Cards for each of the tenets of Bushido with number values, both plus and minus, would be a way to go.  I was thinking different color poker chips.  The reason why this is important is because Honor changes are hard judgment calls, and it becomes very easy to forget at the end of sessions.  Having a physical representation helps regulate being fair about changes, e.g. “That’s a crazy stack of orange chips I just took from you, Chuda-san.  Maybe went a bit overboard.”

Book of Earth

Finally, the Rock has come back to … topic!

For those who put up with 900 words or whatever about a product I wasn’t really reviewing, I don’t want to get hopes up too high.  While I will try to give a similar treatment to BoE as I did Book of Air, I found BoE a much harder read.  And, of course, I haven’t digested every single thing in the book, even though I’ve had it for a month or more.

Size

The page count of BoE is slightly more than BoA.  One of the complaints of BoA was that it was significantly smaller than previous products.

Art

The cover of BoE is nowhere near as poptastic as the hot Crane chick with two eye colors on the BoA.  In truth, I don’t really like the image of the Tattooed Monk from behind, at all.  I would much rather see some nature scene of mountains, forests, and other earthy stuff.  Nor did the interior art grab me like it has for some products.

But, I’m also not a visuals guy, so this isn’t that big a deal to me.

Layout

Like BoA, BoE puts all of the mechanics in one section in the back.  This has been popular with folks.  Certainly, the way Emerald Empire did mechanics at the end of each chapter and without saying what the mechanics were in the table of contents has been a continuous irritant to me.

We get an introduction, a chapter on Earth equipment and fighting, chapter on Earth magic, chapter on Earth court stuff, monastic Earth, Earth nature/activities/creatures/magic items(?!?)/mechanics comments(?!?), an Earthy locale, and then the mechanics.

Why are magic items not in the magic chapter?  Or, why are they not in the chapter that talks about heavy weapons and armor?  I had the same problem with BoA in terms of magic items not being thematically in the right place.

As for comments on mechanics – talking about spell themes and such, why wouldn’t you put those in the mechanics section?  Or, if that breaks up the mechanics too much, why not in the relevant thematic section?  The book has uses of Earth spells in one section and Earth spell themes in a different chapter.

Introduction

After explaining the upcoming chapters, we get into using skills in an Earthy way.  This was disappointing.  I’m quite in favor of taking existing skills that see little use and broadening their applications.  Here, I just felt too much like using an Earth Trait with a skill that normally uses a different Trait is part of L5R GMing 101.  For instance, Stamina/Athletics should be a relatively common Athletics roll.  Athletics might be associated with Strength in the corebook, but I consider Athletics a “various” skill because it’s so often mixed with any physical Trait.  The focus here is too much on giving examples of how skills can be used with other Traits, which is obvious, than on making little used skills more interesting/useful.  Perform skills are some of the worst buys in the game, yet all we get is that you might force someone to roll Stamina rather than Awareness or Agility because the performance is long … z … z … z …

Then, we go to listing advantages and disadvantages that are Earthy.  And, that’s pretty much it.  I don’t need to know that Bland is Earthy.  If you are going to bother with this section at all, I want new spins on advantages and disadvantages.  I want the poorly defined Bad Fortune disad to have some Earthy variants.  I hate disads in L5R for various reasons, so how about suggestions for properly point balancing ones that are obviously broken – Permanent Wound is “rip up the character sheet and start over” for anyone who gets into combat.  Yet, we just get what a PW looks like.  Huge wasted opportunity for helping GMs with the mechanics of disadvantages as well as providing new mechanics.

Brief mention of Earth style play and how it differs from Air style.  In my BoA review, I wondered whether this would be mentioned.  Given that it didn’t really provide help to a group, I didn’t care that it did.

Stone And Blood

In BoA, I found it interesting that Iaijutsu was made popular by the barbarian known as Kakita.  In BoE, I can hardly get through this section.  It’s just so much of stating things that are obvious or meaningless.

It’s particularly bad when it goes into the differences between the heavy weapons when there are no mechanics for those differences.  There is a current discussion of this on the AEG Forums.  I don’t care for differences in weapons mechanically because I don’t like people being defined by their stuff, but then, why bother having fluff for differences?

In general, I have found that the “Book of …” series spends far too much time just stating the obvious.  The value they should be supplying is building upon what everyone can already perceive and taking things into intriguing directions.  While that happens with “new, new” mechanics.  I’d like to see a lot more with “new, old” mechanics where you take an existing mechanic and find variant ways to use it.  Conan d20 did a better job of this in supplements, things like new uses for junky skills.  That’s kind of scary given how much effort is put into L5R.

The armor section is better because it’s not just “a big axe might not be the weapon of choice for some dude” or “Daidoji Heavy Infantry uses heavy weapons”.  And, there are new mechanics, which the design team said was reasonable for the underdeveloped mechanics of armor.  Also, an occasional situation is the need to put on armor quickly for a fight, so it’s nice to get some guidance.

I don’t really understand the quartermaster section.  Okay, there are quartermasters and all the clans have them.  So what?

The fortress section probably isn’t long enough.  There’s a castles RPG book that I’ve seen reviews for recently that people raved about.  It’s not genre specific, so it has like one Asian style castle from what I understand.  Going into excruciating detail on Rokugani and Colonies castles would have made perfect sense as I find one of the more difficult things for me to do is visualize the different architecture of the Rokugani.

Sieges?  Okay.  Sumai?  Okay, but this goes on rather long for how little impact it will likely make.

Stone and Power

Fluff isn’t really fluff in L5R.  The setting is huge, potentially large, to most folks.  So, it’s really more thematics vs. mechanics.  I’m cool with trying to distinguish different shugenja traditions from each other because that sort of thematics is not a bad thing.

What I’m offended by, on the other hand, is just listing corebook spells and what they do.  I already got that from reading the spells in the first place.  I didn’t read every sentence to find out, but I have yet to read a single instance of using these spells in unusual ways.  This section should have been about how to combo spells, how to (ab)use spells in unconventional ways, etc.  BoA at least tried to bring up unconventional or non-obvious uses for spells.  I don’t even see the effort here.  And, someone really should get on how to combo spells to create synergistic effects.

Same sort of comments that BoA had about elemental imbalances in people and things.  Still a strange topic because it’s not clear how knowing more about it helps a group.  As I said in reviewing BoA, far, far, far more useful would be doing sample Earth character builds.  RPGs seem allergic to providing examples for reasons that are unclear.

Kami?  Okay.

Taint fighting?  The Taint section also annoys me.  I didn’t see anything I didn’t already know.  I find fighting the evil of the Shadowlands to be the most pleasing activity in L5R outside of tournaments and festival games.  I’d like to hear something more profound than “… outside of the Crab few samurai are eager to risk their souls and honor to face the creatures of Jigoku.”  Crab are paranoid?  Really?  Never would have guessed based upon how people usually play Crab characters.

So, what did I want?  After all, there is something on identifying infiltrators.  How about a discussion of combat tactics against typical Tainted foes?  How about breaking oni down into common, uncommon, rare for how often they are seen (within the context that they aren’t all that commonly seen in the first place)?  What’s different about ogre-bashing and troll-bashing?  How about going into what the Shadowlands is like to a greater degree than other books?

While I’m hoping for a spirit realms book (or section of a book), this was still an opportunity to try to give an idea of the geography of the Shadowlands.  Sure, it changes, but a GM would love to know a sample configuration for where landmarks would be.

Stone and Peace

I really don’t get how the Otomo – an obvious Air faction – is so Earthy.  There may not be a lot Earthy about Kitsuki, but the Dragon Clan is a very Earthy clan.

This was a perfect opportunity to not only have more than token remarks about the Monkey but to give different ideas for how the Monkey fit in different campaigns.  The minor clans and imperials, Otomo Earthiness an exception, largely get shafted in these books.  Considering how many pages I think are a waste of stating the obvious, getting into Monkey politics could have been fascinating.

Stone Within

Monk stuff doesn’t matter much to me.  While I’m perfectly fine with developing non-samurai thematics to understand better how PCs interact with the world, developing non-samurai (and ronin) from a player’s perspective doesn’t float my boat.

So, I can let this section pass with little comment.  Really, the only thing I have to comment upon is that it looks to me like kiho get the same, state the obvious treatment spells, ads/disads, skills got.

The Word of Earth

When describing locales, I think detail has value.  I have found as a GM that one of my greatest difficulties is providing a picture of what the players see, hear, smell, feel for a given location.  Same sort of thing when I write fictions as a player.  I want to know the specific trees and plants and how wide the paths are and how cold/hot it is and how often you come across a stream and on and on.

I do like discussion of farming and mining, just as I liked BoA covering sailing and kite flying.  I have skipped over some of the sections here just because it does get tiring reading about mundane stuff.

Earthy creatures?  Okay.  Magic items?  Kind of lot of them, but that’s fine since different GMs will use different ones, but I still don’t get why they are in this chapter.

Earth mechanics themes?  More stating the obvious from what I see.  This book could have used a content editor who asked “Of what use is this section?” for many, many sections.  I hate that it just seems like lots of filler.  There are ideas that could have gone somewhere useful but ended up more like someone doing a school paper copying out of the textbook – no value add thinking.

The Lair

I’ve skimmed through and quickly came to the conclusion that I dislike the setup.  Sure, a GM can make use of what is useful and change the rest, but I see these setting chapters being something that you want to be easy to modify.  The premise for this one is just so specific.  And, while it’s nice to give some minor clan love, how about giving the Monkey serious love in this book?  The Monkey Clan is far more important than most minor clans if you have a game set after their creation because their school is awesome, because Monkey are awesome.  And, if you don’t agree about the last, then I’d still argue that they are a minor clan better suited for PCs and more plausibly found throughout the Empire.

New Mechanics

Of varying interest.  As I despise the grapple rules in L5R, I would rather just dispense with them than add further complexity to the game.  I don’t like how kata are given to specific schools since many schools don’t get represented (Toku Bushi, anybody?, just to harp on the lack of Monkey love), which makes the kata impossible to qualify for.  I just don’t have time to get to a Ring of 4 in most situations and will never get to a Ring of 5 for a character.

Finally, the book has a picture of a Tattooed Monk on the cover (one assumes), yet we get a whopping one new tattoo?!?  Amazing lack of logic.  Then, I see it as being useless.  Stamina is pretty much a worthless Trait, only having value because it feeds the Earth Ring, which is obviously highly important for wounds.  Increasing Willpower does something because of various spells, Fear, whatever.  But, Stamina?  Sorry, don’t get poisoned that often, as in … never.  Strength is still not a good Trait, even if it’s vastly better in 4e than 3e due to grappling, knockdown rolls.  Higher Strength doesn’t sound bad until you realize that Tattooed Monks are very squishy in combat.  There’s no way I’d use this over Bamboo in combat – very important that people remember that only one tattoo can be active at a time.  Outside of combat, STR just doesn’t do a whole lot.  It’s nice to have a bodybuilder for those rare times you need to move a rock, lift a tree, climb.  But, that’s what the party water shugenja or Matsu Berserker is for.

TMs rely heavily on their tattoos, in my experience, to be useful.  Bushi get armor, making them better at fighting, and eventually get Simple Attacks.  Shugenja are broken.  Courtiers are goofy in how narrow they are so should generally be avoided, unless the campaign caters to it, the player wants a challenge, the player is much more experienced than the rest of the group, or the player just loves social stuff.  For a TM to be useful, need either to rise to the level of normal schools, like Crane Tattoo for social efforts or Ki-Rin for general abuse, or have a niche.  Plus STR is not a niche.

Conclusion

I rate this **, using either of the systems I mention in my review of Imperial Histories.  It’s obvious I don’t think much of it.  I’m now worried about the value of future books in the series.

I’m really just annoyed by how much the book states the obvious.  It makes reading every section a chore.  I’m inclined to believe that the rest of the series will just continue on in the same vein.  I dread having more lists of spells with no concepts of using them in a way I wouldn’t already use them.  Etc.

Sure, personal tastes affect interest.  For all that I’m a hater of the Air Ring in L5R, Airy stuff was much more to my tastes than the Earthy stuff covered here.  But, because I’m actually an Earth Ring lover, I’m that much more disappointed by the lack of cool, Earth things to do.  Stamina isn’t even a Trait – it’s just one half of your Earth Ring.  Give Stamina stuff to do.  Willpower is basically a saving throw – make it more general.  Have useful sections on fighting Jigoku.

As a player of characters who tend toward medium or high Earth, what would I use out of this book?

Pretty much just the kata.

I’m not talking about just mechanics.  The thematics just aren’t relevant to my characters like the BoA ones were.

That’s horrid value.

As a GM, I will make more use of locales, descriptions of things, creatures.  I’m still not going to use the new spells because I want to only look up spell details in one book.  I’m not going to use kiho since monks are really not important to normal L5R.  I’m going to avoid schools and paths that a player might find interesting because those sorts of mechanics just aren’t that important to GMs.

One might say that the value of any sort of supplemental mechanics is reduced for me since Heroes of Rokugan doesn’t use a lot of supplement mechanics.  To an extent, true, as I know one local HoR player who wasn’t interested in the book because of this.  On the other hand, I do play in a home L5R campaign and still wouldn’t use virtually any of the mechanics in here.

One might also say that spells are useful to people who play gods, I mean, shugenja.  And, so forth.  One might say that the BoA had virtually no mechanics relevant to my characters, either.

I would say that these books should be doing a better job of selling us on their material.  Get us to want to use the material by giving us better mechanics, more “new, old” mechanics, more interesting content in topics that can be interesting.

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