Review – Book of Fire

Time to get around to doing this.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I don’t intend to spend a lot of time reviewing the actual product but want to get into what I think the product should have been.

To be fair, a lot of RPG supplements don’t end up providing as much of what I’m looking for as they could.  I look at some of my old supplements or adventures or whatever for RPGs and see lots of stat blocks and specialized game mechanics that are nowhere near as useful to me, as a GM or even as a fiction writing player, as detailed and interesting descriptions of the world.

Book of Fire is in the same vein as Book of Air and Book of Earth.  To jump ahead, I’d say it’s better than Earth and worse than Air, but it’s the format that I think has problems, even though the material in this series is mostly the detailed (and sometimes interesting) descriptions that I get more value from.

Art

I like the cover.  It’s the same piece of art used for another L5R product, but that’s fine.

Introduction

The introduction sections of this series do a good job of pointing out where I think the intent is good but the execution is flawed or unsatisfying.  The subjects in the books might be perfectly fine but come across too much like student essays.

The Symbolism of Fire is fine, but what am I actually being told that I can incorporate?  Stepping back for a moment, the value in supplements can be broken out into what a GM would find useful and what a player would find useful.  Additionally, another axis of measuring value is to measure mechanical value and thematic value.

Combining these together, we get four areas of value:

  1. GM thematics – Inspiration for GMs to craft stories that incorporate the material, whether it’s plots, NPCs, locales, scenes, or whatever.
  2. GM mechanics – Stat me up some monsters or NPCs or resolution rules.  Etc.
  3. Player thematics – Inspire players to want to build characters or add depth to characters that use the material, to develop stories for their characters that use the material.
  4. Player mechanics – Make my characters badass.  Give me toys.  Enable me to make more distinct character sheets.

I believe the series is trying to do these things.  I just think that the books spend too much time on low yield topics and don’t keep the consumer in mind clearly enough for those topics that could be high yield.

This section goes into skills, but what about describing these skills changes anything I do as either a GM or player?  These descriptions are things that one should have gathered out of the core book.  There are no mechanical spins on using these skills differently or even advice on where the skills could be incorporated into play in ways I wouldn’t already use them.  My view is that no RPG should have more than 20 skills because the only mechanics that matter are the ones that get used and characters simply don’t use more than 20 skills often enough.  But, if you are going to have a bunch of skills, especially the openended macro skills – Artisan, Games, Lore, Perform, Craft, did I miss one? – then give me a reason to care about them.  Not every supplement needs to do this, but the point of the series is to highlight each of the five Rings, and Fire is the element of Agility and Intelligence, which are what many/most of the skills in the game usually use.

For instance, Lore is given two paragraphs.  Nowhere in those two paragraphs are “Here is why your character should have Lore: War (or Lore: Omens or Lore: Nature).”  Lore skills suck in 4e because there are no mastery abilities besides rank 10’s Free Raise, because of the increasing cost of skill ranks, and because Sage is so very much more efficient.

Then, we move into Advantages/Disadvantages and which are Fire-y.  Yet another opportunity to not just say something but give the consumer something that they can work with.  Book of Earth was terrible about simply describing Advantages/Disadvantages as being related to Earth – so what?  At least here, there is commentary about doing more with them, though too much of the doing more is making Advantages less useful, such as putting a burden on PCs to live up to Higher Purpose and Prodigy.

So, what would I want instead?  How about new Advantages/Disadvantages that relate to the element?  How about combinations of them that explain particular personalities or other sort of makeups?  How about mechanics that relate to them?  One big problem that I have, which leads me to really dislike Disadvantages in L5R, is that the point costs/gains are so very wrong for so many Advantages and Disadvantages.  Luck, since it annoys me greatly how every character should have at least two ranks of it at its core book cost, should be 7 XP per rank.  Permanent Wound means permanently tear up your character sheet; if you happen to not get into combat to where it’s not a death sentence, then it’s not a real Disadvantage and shouldn’t be worth anything.

Why do we need a long explanation of the Full Attack Stance?  Or, put another way, why are you telling me about it and not showing me how to use it?

And, that is a key gripe I have.  Stop telling me things.  Show me!

I find that RPGs do a terrible job of guiding players on how to build characters.  There are far too few examples of not only the end to end process but even of how different aspects of characters work.  They seem to assume that players learn by doing and learn from more experienced players.  That works when a group is committed to a game, but, you know what?  There are a lot of RPGs that have been printed and quick start on something that sounds good may just get more people to play.  And, I don’t want to hear from people about how character advice would not be value for their money.  Given how little of it there is, spending some time on it is not going to take away from whatever these people want out of supplements.  And, I routinely run across people who have played a RPG for years who don’t know basic things about character builds.  Nor do I find these veterans to be all that great at doling out advice to people new to a game.

Show me the characters, PCs or NPCs, that use Full Attack Stance and not just write up some generic Matsu Beserker because, amazingly enough, most people aren’t imbeciles and can do the obvious.  Or, explain a scenario where a character may switch into or out of Full Attack Stance as the combat shifts.  I did that in my L5R Combat Guide post.  Why am I, instead, getting a bunch of words that amount to “People who use this are aggressive and offensive, and there’s a defensive cost to using it.”  Um, that’s actually just describing what the mechanics are, which, um, I can get from reading the mechanics.

Then, the last section in the Introduction is Fire-Based L5R Campaigns.  These are always frustrating.  Where I don’t need paragraphs of explaining in different words what skills, Ads/Disads, and whatever do, I don’t want two pages of how to run more thematic campaigns.

Give me frickin’ 15 pages of this!

Write out sketches of entire campaigns.  Explain what sort of challenges there should be, including at the mechanical level.  Give me an idea of what NPCs would be well-suited.  Give me examples of what wouldn’t fit.  And, inspire!  This the Book of FIRE, the element of inspiration.  Get me excited about something, don’t just lay out a few principles.

Yes, two pages is two pages more than other games will write on this sort of thing, and it’s two pages in every book, so it’s 10 pages or whatever about how to do different styles of campaigns.  But, c’mon!  This should be the ubermeat of these sorts of books.  The sample campaign settings in each of these books are great (conceptually), but they can be too specific to use, such as the Book of Earth setting.  Give me more modular tools to get me, as a GM, to build a campaign with this element as a theme or, as a player, get me to want to play in this sort of campaign.

The Fires of War

Look, I like the idea of going uberdetail on aspects of life in what is a highly detailed fantasy world.  But, seriously, I don’t need to be influenced to care about kenjutsu.  Nor do I need to care at all about knives in a game about guys who have katanas.  Hitsu-do?  Sure, fine; at least this introduces something new that a player or GM could make use of.

With kenjutsu and knives, what should be here is what was in Book of Air for kyujutsu, which is what cool things I can do with Raises.  The reality is that a lot of PCs are very, very good at Kenjutsu.  What gets boring is “I call 2 Raises for Feint.”, “I call two Raises for Knockdown.”, etc.  I’m not a fan of detailed descriptions of combat actions because they come across as so empty of achieving the idea of making combat more interesting.  Some people always find combat interesting.  Other people will find combat more interesting not with flowery descriptions of jumping through flaming hoops on the back of weretigers but simply by having more mechanical impact to their “I stab the goblin.” actions.

The Life of the Swordsman at War, on the other hand, is what I’m looking for.  I find that a major omission from the copious world descriptions for L5R is simply what people do for their day jobs.  We get birth, gempukku, marriage, death, but how about:  what does my daimyo want me to do when I’m not saving the Empire?

Now, as an example of what I keep harping on – so, you told me about ashigaru, now write up some damn ashigaru!  I’ve found that statblocks are only occasionally useful as a GM, as I usually play a game enough as a player to get how to statblock NPCs or monsters (to varying degrees).  But, how about two or three examples of different sorts of ashigaru?  How about giving me a sense of scale?  Third Edition and 4e are quite different when it comes to mookish antagonists.  Where a Reflexes 3, Agility 3, Earth 3, weapon skill 3 thug in 3e might be fine, as it will be hittable and Wound Penaltyable, this same thug in 4e is a beast.  It will take forever to be rendered nonthreatening (in relative terms, obviously, a rank 3 Matsu or Hida is going to crunch one or two of these guys a turn).

All of the various subsections are good, but, to be critical, they could be better.  I just am not getting quite enough inspiration for wanting my character or my party to be in these situations.  Okay, another thing about this series.  L5R uses the CFS – Challenge, Focus, Strike – system of adventure ideas extensively.  They aren’t fully developed adventures but summarized ideas for the setup, the development, and the twist.  Why are there not a bunch of CFSs for this section?!?  Or, a bunch of these in every section?

The Fires of Magic

I already know the families and schools that have an affinity for a particular element.  So, I need something besides a description of how a particular family is oriented to a particular element.  Do I get more in this book?  Yes, but it’s still too much tilted to explaining things that are easily figureoutable on one’s own.

And, why is the Asako section in here?  Just because they are Phoenix?

Which brings up something.  While it’s not appropriate to spend a lot of time on particular clans associated with each element, since clans get covered plenty in other supplements, it is appropriate to spend some productive time with the most relevant clans, including minor clans and including imperial families.  That seems to be the intent, though how in the world Otomo got so much content in Book of Earth, when it’s such a non-Earthy family, is beyond me.

In keeping with the show, don’t tell, philosophy, write up some Fire shugenja, not as statblocks or even as the normal writeups that L5R does but as “Here’s how a GM or player might go about building an Asahina Fire-Sculptor.” with what XP expenditures would make sense and what archetypes would be normal or weird for the schools.

Contrast the descriptions of families and the ways Fire is used in magic with the sidebar of Tsangusuri.  There are no mechanics in the sidebar, but this is hugely useful to GMs and players because it gives examples, because it gives details that people playing the game can easily incorporate.  My recollection of Book of Earth’s heavy weapons section was that it spent a bunch of time explaining meaningless differences in the use of the weapons, meaningless because there were no mechanics to go with the descriptions and because we already had descriptions of the weapons.  This sidebar describes what we don’t already know.  Spend more time on what we don’t already know!

One of the more obnoxious things the series does is explain how to use spells in exactly the way that people are already using the spells.  Give ideas for creative uses of spells!  Give ideas for spell combinations!

I played in an AD&D 1e campaign long after it was new.  The group was perfectly fine with munchkin play.  My magic-user/thief’s SOP for combat, shared by the other m-u/thief was to Polymorph Self, then Invisibility, position for backstab, turn into a storm giant, then backstab with the +12 damage modifier for having the strength of a storm giant (24, +6/+12), which got multiplied by backstab into oneshotness.

Given that that campaign was a hack and slash, dungeon crawl campaign, nothing wrong with that.  The point isn’t to bring munchkinism into L5R, the point is that players tend to always use the most effective spells, which are the most effective because creative uses of less straightforward spells are often undiscovered.  Let’s discover some interesting uses for the spells nobody uses, which may only be in combination or with specific builds, but that’s better than never seeing them used at all.

Nor does adding drawbacks to popular spells count as encouraging less common spells.  Sure, Fires of Purity is horribly broken.  That doesn’t mean you should punish players who use it with arbitrary “Fire kami no likey your excessive use of their most powerful spell.”  You punish them by spraying oil all over them as often as possible.  On a more serious note, I would very much rather see time spent describing situations where Fires of Purity isn’t the best Fire spell by far in the game.

Of course, one reason that supplements don’t go into strategy and tactics more is because the writers don’t necessarily know good strategy and tactics.  In my review of Conan d20’s The Warrior’s Companion, there was advice for what weapons to use which was insipid.  The L5R equivalent would be saying that a Bayushi Bushi (or other bushi who can Simple Attack with them) should use a katana rather than a no-dachi.  Because you can’t just blow away any enemy with the most pathetic of weapons in 4e, like you could in 3e, no-dachi are ubiquitous because players like their characters to be effective.  Yet, I don’t recall reading anything about the no-dachifest of no-dachiness that is 4e play (or how you drop your no-dachi for the far superior tactic of grappling when in a tough fight).

Something each of the books in the series has done is talk about imbalances of elements.  The question is:  why?  How does it impact play?  Oh, sure, you can describe people in different ways by what elements are stronger, but, really, who spends time describing a bunch of mundane objects by how they are more brittle or whatever?

While I think my series on astrology got old, as evidenced by the fact that I haven’t kept up with the Eastern astrology series, elements are a huge part of astrology.  Why not go into depth on a substantial list of personality types, not with astrology brought in, but with the “Fire over Air”, et al?

The Fires of Peace

So, I read about the Ikoma-Shosuro-Otomo alliance.  That’s fine.  I must admit I didn’t spend much time on the rest of this chapter.  Glancing at the library descriptions, please give me specific details on how each location looks different!  The one thing that I discovered when I started GMing more is that descriptions are crucial.  Maybe the players don’t care, but I need to be able to visualize locations in order to distinguish them for adventures.  I still don’t know how to describe Caribbean islands well enough, in case I ever get back to running Solomon Kane.

The Fires Within

I am so tired of material for monks.  L5R is a kitchen sink, even if it doesn’t seem like it on the surface.  It’s not just a samurai game, but, really, the point of it is to play samurai.  Not Naga, Nezumi, Kenku.  Not peasants.  Not monks.  Monks aren’t impossible to fit in, but they exist in a different world than the samurai PCs.

By the way, getting off on a rantgent, L5R is not about ronin, either.  Yes, ronin movies inspire players.  Yes, you can make a ronin campaign.  You can have a ronin be hired by a PC or by a party NPC.  They make good antagonists.  But, they live in a different world.  I’m not saying the game is all about its core, which is great clans, after all, I have no problems with minor clans and only mechanical ones with Imperials.

But, playing ronin or anything non-samurai is just alternate play that removes the heart of the game, which is the detailed samurai culture of the world.

I’m fine with monk mechanics.  Just put them all in one book that deep dives on theology.  Will it sell?  I don’t care.  I find it annoying to be paying for a bunch of monk schools and kiho that see less than 1% use in my play.

The World of Fire

I find the environment sections in this series to be strange.  Okay, volcanoes are Fire-y.  And?  Tell me how to apply wildfires in my campaigns in specific ways that are interesting, and I might care.  The intent is there, but the whole point of bringing these esoteric subjects up is to give solid ideas to GMs, not tease GMs and force them to spend a bunch of time thinking or researching how to make use of the material.  CFS that lava.

Charcoal?  Cool.  Glass?  Cool.  Poetry?  YES!!  This is exactly the sort of material that people who get into L5R’s world/culture can make tons of use of.  Poetry contests are quite common in my play.  Poets are quite common in my play.  I didn’t want to do research on Japanese poetry, so giving it to me here is perfect.  Now, if players did not create actual poems but just made a roll, well, whatever.  But, as much as I actually hate haiku, I create lots of them when I play a character who is skilled in poetry.

Supernaturals of the element.  Not enough detail!  What do these Fortunes look like?  What do their abodes in Tengoku look like?  What do they sound like?  What sort of offerings are they into?  What sort of prayers?  Just giving me a list and some general comments don’t help me incorporate them in play to the extent that a focused supplement like Book of Fire should.  (Emerald Empire’s Fortune section is actually one of my favorite sections, as I didn’t know about most of them.)

How are mundane creatures associated with an element?  Why does it matter?  Sure, I can have my Master of Fire like to hang out with roosters or something, but there’s just so little to be gained in this area.  The series trying to bring in mundane animals for each element just smacks of reaching.  Now, if instead, we got into dreams or sendings from gods that used certain animals symbolically for elements, I can see more going on there.  Sure, one can argue that including roosters means I just thought of having a message sent … into the mind … with a rooster repping for something that isn’t as unimportant as an actual rooster, but is this value given how expensive books are?

I’m not a fan of magic items, usually, but I’m totally fine with a bunch of nemuranai being in this book.  This won’t get used much by me, but I can see how these will get used.

The Hundred Stances Dojo

I really like the campaign seeds/settings that are in these books.  I didn’t like the Earth one, as I just found it too hard to see being the core of a campaign, but variety is the very spice of life.  Anyway, I see this material being what these books should be about and it’s good to see how many pages they take up.

New Mechanics

I’m just not a fan, not because I don’t like mechanics, which, as a player, I’m reasonably into, but because they are so often irrelevant to characters I would build.  Okay, people play different stuff.  People like different stuff.  So, whatever.  I’m just constantly in the situation of not being able to use the mechanics for my own characters, as a player, or not caring, as a GM.

I did use The Elements’ Fury for a NPC, but my players didn’t care, so it didn’t mean anything.  I do allow the spells to my players, so some of them do get used.

I just find that AEG spends so much effort on creating a lot of esoteric schools/paths that aren’t my type of esoteric.  And, there isn’t enough put into developing what needs developing, e.g. Seppun mechanics would make sense for the Book of Fire, over putting in weirdly low yield mechanics that may be updates to earlier edition mechanics that were probably just as weird and/or useless in those editions.

While not a big fan of kata, I do like more kata.  Actually, a major reason for wanting more kata is the core book kata are just so bad/irrelevant for my characters, and I tend to play bushi.

Finally, relating to new mechanics, as I harp on, explain how we should use these new mechanics!  Go through the character build process or a “how to spend XP/advance my character” process for using these mechanics!  What discoveries were made in playtesting the mechanics?  Why should I use this new spell/kiho/kata/tattoo over others?

I want to see in each of these books a detailed description of how you would build a [insert element] bushi, shugenja, courtier, other.  What makes them [insert element]-y?  Really, how many PCs tend to be unbalanced towards some of these Rings?  Sure, Air is awesome in 4e, but how about a Fire 5 dude with no other Ring above 3?  That’s a questionable build for a lot of parties, but it can also be exactly what a party needs.  Talk about this sort of stuff!  Or, not, and let me do some blog posts about how to build elementally balanced and unbalanced parties.

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