Review – Secrets of the Empire

Secrets of the Empire was the product I was most looking forward to out of the L5R 4e line.  Sure, there were reasons besides expected content for this.  Earlier products, for instance, didn’t have as known timelines and/or as defined content.  But, the content covered for SotE was material I had been waiting a long time for.

Well, some of it.

Unfortunately, an awful decision was made on what to include.  Minor clans and imperial families get frequently ignored as the focus of L5R is supposedly great clans.  For some reason, 4e has taken the view that the focus of the game is great clans, ronin, and monks.  Not only is space wasted on material that is unnecessary and has little play value, but, on top of including yet more ronin/monk material, the book went further kitchen sink and tossed in spirit realms material as well.

I’m not in marketing for AEG.  Their marketing may say that they have to make some illogical decisions and providing content that isn’t actually useful still means sales.  As a consumer, here is what I would have wanted:

  1. Expansive content on minor clans and imperial families a la what The Great Clans had for the, um, great clans.
  2. If this book had to include ronin crap a la 3e’s Fealty and Freedom, okay, whatever.
  3. Have a book about spiritual/supernatural adventures that does an in depth look at spirit realms and includes stat blocks and images for the denizens of such realms.  2e had Fortunes & Winds as a complete book.  It had the suckiness of including D&D mechanics, taking space away from providing more useful content, like how things look in these realms.
  4. Just stop with more monks.  I’m a deep investment kind of guy when it comes to games.  When I invest in a game, I pretty much get everything for the game (eventually).  Irritating me doesn’t affect sales so much … except in one key way – I will make comments like the ones found in this blog about how you are irritating me by including non-relevant content and really failing to put content in the correct product.  Apparently, someone thinks monks matter to L5R – okay, fine, put all of that copious content into one book that goes into spirituality in Rokugan.  I can even see enough of a connection to put that in the same book as a spirit realms book, though it would irritate me to have a bunch of irrelevant monk crap taking up space that can go to useful material.  I will still buy the monk book, even though I’ll probably never use its material since monks aren’t samurai and L5R is a samurai game, something backed up, by the way, by every single one of my play experiences.  But, I will buy it knowing that I’ll get saddled with material I don’t really care about.  I feel like I keep getting bait-and-switched a la the Kolat book from an earlier version of L5R.

Okay, you should pretty much know what my review is, at this point.  SotE may have been the most anticipated product.  While hardly a surprise it was a letdown, given how much of a letdown the Book of … series has been, that I see it as pretty much useless to me makes it a colossal failure in meeting presumed goals.

Why is it useless?

Chapter One is a history/description of each of the minor clans (Mantis minors aren’t covered for obvious reasons).  Chapter One.  This same format was used for The Great Clans, except that was an entire book.  Actually, this same format was used for 3e’s Fealty and Freedom.  I happen to own Fealty and Freedom.  I don’t need a massive rehash.

One could say much of 4e is a rehash.  After all, monsters existed in Creatures of Rokugan, spells and magic items in Prayers and Treasures, etc.  Emerald Empire even has the same title as … Emerald Empire.  But, where EE 4e feels different from EE 3e, where there seems to be enough new material to say “sure, I’ll give you money for covering the same general thematic content as a prior edition and make no use of any new mechanics”, I’m just not feeling it with Chapter One.

For instance, how come there are zero writeups of members of the minor clans?  This is the single most mindblowing thing to me about the book.  Fealty and Freedom wrote up major figures.  The Great Clans wrote up major figures, and I thought that was one of the cooler things about the book, both because the history on some of them was unknown to me and because I never expected to see people like Ikoma written up.

Okay, so there’s only so much thematic material for minors.  Some of them have only been around a short time, like the Bat Clan.  Some of them are pretty boring historywise.  I guess I can get some value out of new mechanics.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, consumer.  You know that 4e doesn’t like proliferating schools and paths … except for all of the bizarrely narrow and useless paths we throw into supplements to have some sort of mechanics.”

I’m on board with that.  I might want more paths, though many of the paths I want would be ones not associated with a clan but with a job, but creating a host of paths just makes for twink characters, and new schools just leads to silliness.  You know, like Mantis Brawler.

What mechanics, then, did I want?

Kata.  The kata out of The Great Clans were immensely helpful for providing kata characters might actually spend XP on.  Ignoring arguments on whether it takes a hundred years or a thousand years to develop techniques, the design principles of 4e (to my recollection) include that you start with kata, move up to path, go to school.  Even if that isn’t true, why wouldn’t kata be the easiest thing to develop?  Why wouldn’t minor clans develop kata?  Getting into carping about how imperial families are treated in this book, why wouldn’t families with loads of cash (resources) and a thousand years develop kata?  If you want to say, it’s because two of the families are courtierly, there are still the Seppun and the Hantei and the Emerald hierarchy and the Imperial Legions and all of that other imperial structure.

Number of kata?  Let’s say I’ve complained about more chapters in the book so far than the number of kata.

Moving on to Chapter Two, we get the imperial families.  There is more relevant content to me here, as I knew jack about the Iweko and hadn’t seen a whole lot on the Hantei.  But, it’s all “history”.  There are no Iweko character writeups to drop in a modern campaign.  A common problem in recent supplements is lack of providing ideas for how to use material in campaigns rather than just reciting material – how do I use the Imps?

Chapter Three ronin and Chapter Four monks.  More history for ronin.  I don’t really know what’s in the monk chapter since monks don’t matter.  If minors and Imps got The Great Clans treatment, this would be icing for those people who actually care about these sorts of characters.  As is, how about explaining how a Miya or an Otomo could ever fit in a party, given both thematic difficulties and their PC-awful mechanics?  How about pointing out that some minors are actually quite likely to be “adventurers” in United Nations style parties (the norm in my experience) – Dragonfly, Fox, Hare, Monkey, Tortoise – where others less so?  Then, focusing on what those PCs will be doing in the party?

Chapter Five we go off subject entirely and have a gratuitous toss in of spirit realms material.  I own Fortunes & Winds.  My takeaway so far, by the way I’m running a campaign where Gaki-do has been central to the campaign, is slightly better descriptions than the virtually nonexistent ones in F&W.  Pay for some art, people.  It’s not like these books are so cheap that recycled art for everything seems justified.  Give some monster stat blocks.  No, give a lot of monster stat blocks.  I want to see specific animal spirits from Chikushudo … one of the NPCs in my campaign is a wolf spirit.  Another animal spirit the party hasn’t found, yet.  Stat up more gaki, even though I’ve done a lot of that already.  Enemies of the Empire is a great book because it describes things I didn’t know about and isn’t just a statblockfest of statblockiness, like Creatures of Rokugan was more like.  But, that also means that EotE didn’t provide a ton of mechanics that a book like this could help with.

Perfect example of content failure.  I have more monster info out of a D&D product – not an Oriental Adventures product, a D&D product – than I do out of this book.

The Appendix includes mechanics.  Heritage Tables?  Useless to me, but I don’t have any problem with their inclusion.  It’s not like it takes either much space or much effort to include them.  Ronin advanced schools and paths?  Sure.

MC mechanics?  Well, in the absence of more useful thematics, mechanics are kind of a way to make up, plus mechanics are actually important not just to sales but to play.  Here’s the thing.  Hare got a path in Book of Fire, so they get nothing.  I’m playing a Hare – I get nothing.  I’m playing a Suzume Bushi, and there’s a path for Suzume Bushi.  A rank 2 path, rank 2 being one of their better abilities.  A path that is utterly worthless.  Sure, Suzume rank 3 is terrible, the main reason the school should get grief if not maybe the main reason it does.  It’s the same mechanic, only applied to a different skill and with the bonus coming from a different source.  But, um, let’s check those differences.  First of all, while Courtier might be a tier 1 skill, it’s a single skill, where Suzume-3 is all skills within two macro categories.  Second, Suzume-3 is money for nothing to the extent that you get Honor for free, and your Honor is hefty.  This masochistic path is a bonus to a single skill, that you were either likely to be really good at or not care that much about in the first place, based on buying up another skill that sucks.  Let me do a Little Dance of Sarcasm(TM).

Weapon forging rules.  Sure, whatever.  Wrong book for such mechanics and not terribly relevant to me, but HoR3 has crafting rules and I’m sure other campaigns may use them or adapt them.

So, Miya Heralds get a combat tech.  A rank … 4 combat tech.  Predicated on the Full Attack stance.  Wow.  Way to make up for the first three techs that don’t do anything in “normal” play (normal being defined by my experiences).

To rewind a bit, I’m kind of vaguely and noncommittally ambivalent on the generic ronin/bushi school.  I very much like the idea of there being samurai who train in bushi stuff rather than their schools that lack bushi stuff.  A five rank school is a bit weird.  It’s also not actually suited to PC play in certain ways, like some of its techniques sucking – third rank is immediately made irrelevant by the fourth rank.  I have a feeling that many won’t use it for, say, Miya and Otomo who go the fight path or Dragonfly bushi or whatever.  But, I guess having it proposed as an optional play is something, even if it does undermine the idea of getting something better.

Ancestors.  Not necessarily never going to see play, as I have played a character with an ancestor.  The ones I’ve read, though, are the junk.  Really, spend 3XP to get another rank of Luck?  Spend 7XP for a Fear bonus?  Who comes up with this stuff and who costs it?

School Index.  Loved by many.  It’s cool.  If I were to say that it’s the only useful bit of material in the book to me, would that be more or less pathetic?

If you own Fortunes & Winds and own Fealty and Freedom, I’m not sure what you hope to get out of this book.  A bit of imperial family info.  If you are into ronin and monks, though I fail to see why people are since both are a fail in the campaigns I play in, maybe you care about that.  At least ronin get some techniques, even if a bunch of them suck.

If you don’t own those earlier edition books, I guess it’s something.  But, value?  I’m really finding that an edition that had some great early supplements has gone downhill immensely in value with more recent supplements.

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One Response to Review – Secrets of the Empire

  1. Andrew Haas says:

    Can’t agree more with you on the monk stuff. Who over at AEG thinks that people are clamoring for more monk schools? Judging by the vast majority of the art in the game most people rightly understand that the game is really about samurai and the supernatural. However we still get junk like the Pure Song Monk path. Oh thank God! Now my rank three caroling monk has something to aspire to!

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