Review – Book of Water

I considered calling this post by other names, like “All Wet” or “Down The Drain”.  After all, there’s no point to my reviewing Book of Water.

Book of Water is just like the other books in the Book of … series for 4e L5R.  It is full of words that aren’t actually useful.  The mechanics are esoteric.  The descriptions of many things are obvious, redundant, and/or boring.  The number of missed opportunities is high.

The one feature that I think might be highly useful is the new campaign setting, but I don’t read these too closely as I don’t know when someone else may run a game with me as a player in the setting.  I suppose that doesn’t matter that much, since every GM would adapt and modify.  Actually, there’s another reason I don’t read these too closely, probably the main reason.  I have a reluctance to use other people’s material when it comes to creative ventures.  “Isn’t character creation creative?”  Well, not to the same degree.  I’m not going to build someone else’s character, build someone else’s world (my takes on the worlds of Camelot, Solomon Kane, Feng Shui, and whatever were different from anything I’ve seen).  Certainly, to a point, I need to take the flavor and details of the world.

One poster on the AEG Forums in the Book of Water Products thread said that the books just keep getting better.  Nope.  Book of Earth may have been the worst, but I might consider Book of Water the worst.  Really, there are two sublayers for the series.  Book of Air and Book of Fire are kind of C/C- to me, where Book of Earth and Book of Water are D+/D to me.

I don’t blame the writers, whom I’m sure worked hard and provided what they were supposed to.  I blame the nature of the series, which produced a low value format and extremely low value content … relative to other products in the 4e product family.

Enemies of the Empire is a great supplement.  Why?  It breaks up a monster manual into coherent sections, unlike Creatures of Rokugan, and it gives explanations for HOW TO USE the monsters.  The “how to” is what is so painfully lacking in the Book of … series.  What is the only real drawback of Enemies of the Empire?  It needs to be supplemented with more monster writeups.  The Book of … series has loose “this is in theme for this element” sections and statblocks.  I don’t know that the series is where monsters should live, Secrets of the Empire’s spirit realms section should have been extracted out of that book and blown out with numerous monster writeups, including images.  But, if it’s going to have it, why the “not really saying anything” sections and not HOW TO USE sections for the new monsters.  Great, mongoose.  Um, so?

The Great Clans is a great supplement.  Why?  Because it has writeups of notable NPCs, something sorely lacking in the awful Secrets of the Empire supplement.  Because it has interesting articles on such things as “HOW TO have an affair” and other articles that aren’t as interesting but try to highlight important aspects of the world of Rokugan, like “Necessary Villainy” to try to justify why the Scorpion make any sense.  What is its major failing?  It doesn’t go into incorporating its information into building characters; it doesn’t give enough space to the locations it mentions to flesh them out better for GM use; the family descriptions could go another level of “HOW TO play a member of this family”.

Emerald Empire, 3e, was overrated.  But, 4e is better, and I’m good with saying it’s a great supplement.  Why?  The biggest problem with the 4e corebook is that it’s dry and leaves out a lot of the flavor that the 3e corebook had to draw someone specifically into Rokugan.  EE:4e does a better layout job than EE:3e and covers the same “here’s a whole bunch of stuff about the world”, it’s basically the “Rokugan Sourcebook” supplement.

Back to not reviewing Book of Water.  Book of Water even leaves out a section that I considered one of the most intriguing in prior books and one that should have been blow out to 25 pages or so, instead of the 1-2 pages in the previous books – campaigns in the style of the element.  These sections in previous books really showed that the concept of what the series should be was not clear with how paltry they were in comparison to how much more useful they could be than explaining what environmental features might be more one element than another and the like that just doesn’t go anywhere.  That BoW doesn’t even bother really shows the conceptual failure of the formatting of the series.

Sure, AEG could have considered the series to be aimed at providing something different from what would actually be useful.  The concept could have been to drone on for a while on filler material about how various mechanics have some thematic connection to certain elements and then focus on long-winded descriptions of esoteric groups found in Rokugan that could be turned into esoteric mechanics that are hardly relevant to PCs I see played.  Meanwhile, the idea of providing players with constructive advice for how to flesh out characters that are more one element than another and give GMs constructive advice around themes that are more one element than another was not the intent.

I get that the series doesn’t get into mechanical analysis, except for Book of Earth’s grappling section that has some ideas for how to fix the brokenness of grappling (while offering other ideas for making it more broken).  That I think RPG supplements should get into player advice for HOW TO build characters is not something RPG companies seem to rate.

Book of Water is not any more offensive or less offensive than the other books in the series.  It’s just more of the same.  The same mindblowing three new monk paths.  The same explaining different weapons and their skills without actually relating to how this affects play.  The same pointless explanations of what advantages and disads are more one element.  “Wait, doesn’t that suggest how to build a character more around an element?”  To a degree.  Mostly, it’s just stating the obvious.  If the series wanted to have a sidebar with two columns of “This column is for advantages that a character of this elemental focus would take and this column is for disadvantages a character weak in this element would take.”, I’d be much happier than taking up a bunch of words basically just giving that same information.

Again, I like the new setting.  I liked the Book of Air’s setting and the Book of Fire’s setting, to the extent that I care that much about settings.  I think the Book of Water’s island setting is probably better than either of those in concept and seems like it may be better developed than either of those.  Book of Earth’s setting is just so specific.

As the others have come out, my respect for Book of Air has risen.  I still consider it a low value product.  But, I don’t think it’s the cover art that makes me respect it more.  I feel like Book of Air was the experiment that tried the hardest to be relevant.  The other books just copied the format and didn’t learn anything from the problems with the Book of Air, besides such things as putting spells in rank order rather than alphabetically.  I feel the themes the strongest in Book of Air for how they could be incorporated into my characters.

The mechanics are still weak in Book of Air, but, at least, it gave us HOW TO-ERS something relevant with what Kyujutsu Raises might mean.  Sure, Book of Earth came up with grappling nonsense that wasn’t “just don’t use the grappling rules, they suck”, but those obviously weren’t useful to me because I’d just not have any grappling rules rather than try to fix them.

The logic in Book of Air to what to speak to also made more sense to me, with an obvious exception.  Iaijutsu, Kyujutsu, Spears – these are all skills I can see relating to Air.  The one fail was Sailing.  Then, Book of Water also gets into Sailing.  Why is that a problem?  Because Sailing is a FIRE skill, people.  It requires either Agility or Intelligence as the default Trait.  Does that fail thematics?  Hellfire, no!  Sailing isn’t swimming or breathing water, it’s defeating Water.  Fire defeats Water.  Okay, in reality, sailing is a lot of using the wind to do things, so trying to justify the thematics is kind of pointless.  L5R elements don’t just map that easily.

You know what’s missing from Book of Air?  How about more Miya and Otomo material.  Somehow, the Otomo keep cropping up in other books, including the Book of Earth.  But, seriously, the Crab get three, THREE paths in Book of Air and the Miya and Otomo get nothing!?!

That theme of not giving material to obvious clans/families just runs through the whole series.  I mentioned how the Monkey got nothing in Book of Earth.  Do the Monkey need help?  Well, if you want variety, which seems to be the point of supplements.  If you want depth and flavor, which seems to be the point of supplements.  Power?  No.  But, then, so many of the paths in the series have awful mechanics.

I started thinking about what I’d actually be enthused about enough to maybe someday use, in play, of the mechanics from each book, ignoring spells which are one of the few things these books provide that affect my play.  I got kind of bored with that.  I think I got through Air and Earth.  Air was Hiruma Sniper, Kyujutsu Raises, maybe one of the two kata, Kitsu Spirit Legion.  Not everything appeals to everybody, but the amount of goofy mechanics is amazing.  Reduction in duels?  Getting fewer Tattoos?  Being better at banishing Air Kami?

At least Book of Earth includes five kata, an area of the game I think has been really poorly developed both in terms of variety for minors and imperials and in terms of usefulness.  May not want a billion kata in the game.  I guess any clearly better kata that gets made makes the clearly worse one irrelevant, which is a problem and more likely the more there are.  I still find that my characters have problems finding any kata they want to use.

Book of Water, like the others, just spends so much time on description and so zero time on how the description relates to playing the game.  Every book has a court section.  So, why do we have discussions on what Sword and Fan should include for social mechanics and social play rather than having Book of Air point out how to make more use of the holy triumvirate of Courtier/Etiquette/Sincerity and the unholy duo of Intimidation/Temptation?  How come Book of Fire can’t get into the rules for games that aren’t explained elsewhere, HOW TO make playing Games in the game interesting, why so many NPCs have Games skills when there’s no idea of HOW skill in Games translates into being awesome?  BoF also could have gotten into Perform skills for instruments, where BoA could have gotten into Perform for talky stuff.  Speaking of Games, why didn’t BoA explain Fortunes & Winds and why it’s an Awareness Game rather than an Intelligence Game?

It’s not that I don’t want thematic material.  It’s that I want thematic material that gives me, as a player or GM, ideas for how to change how I PLAY.  Book of Fire’s best section is the poetry section.  It’s the one section I can remember every time I think of the book.  There are no mechanics there, but, unlike the tedious descriptions in other sections throughout the series, this section actually gives me something to work with when PLAYING the game.

Because I have been reading through Book of Water, I could tell you it has sections on naval combat, chain weapons, and whatever.  I will probably even remember some of these topics.  But, within those topics, there’s nothing memorable.  I just don’t care.  I care that Kakita was a barbarian whose style got popular because he won and he was shacking with Doji.  I care about the format of different poem types and how you may write a death poem ahead of time or do it spontaneously.  But, I don’t care to be told that swords are popular, that knives are quick, that heavy weapons smash, that staves are cheap and don’t look that weapony.

I’ve gone on for a while, so let me wrap things up.

Why would you get Book of Water?

You either want material I find to be boring, esoteric, and/or redundant.

Or, you are someone like me who is a completist when it comes to gaming lines.  Plus, someone like me gets some value out of ranting about the failings of these supplements in a bloglike medium.

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6 Responses to Review – Book of Water

  1. Azel says:

    Sounds like there’s a lack of flavor in this series. I’m currently collecting the old 1st edition Clan Books and note for their dearth of mechanics, they are chock full of mind set and attitude. Very much core stuff on how to take your average bushi and “clan it up” outside of their exception-based combat mechanics. (And that important because combat in L5R Rokugan usually does not take 75% of one’s game session like D&D 4e can.)

    So besides Living Rokugan, why are you trying to keep up to date with L5R RPG material? Only thing I found interesting so far outside of 1st edition was 3rd ed. Legend of the Burning Sands. Is the mechanical tweaking between schools, and the insane metaplot of Rokugan’s past 90 years of perpetual armageddon, really worth a another look?

  2. iclee says:

    I play the living campaign, I play a home campaign, and I run a home campaign. L5R kind of dominates my RPing these days.

    As to why it does, I actually quite like the mechanics of R&K. I prefer 3e mechanics to 4e mechanics, but they are mostly the same. I think the game hits the sweet spot in terms of heaviness of mechanics, and a lot of things work, including magic.

    Where Savage Worlds’s engine may be popular, I don’t feel the mechanics in any way, where I do with R&K.

    You seem to be focusing on why go 4e instead of 1e, but as for the world, it has its good points. When people focus on the fantasy and the humorous things that can happen due to the oddities of the setting, I’m happy. When it’s a mean setting or a setting of manipulation, I’m less so.

    As for why not 1e or 3e, that’s because other people want to play 4e. Also, 3e does have a lot of powergamer silliness. 4e books also give more info on the metaplot, which helps when being able to determine what sort of campaign should be played, though most folks seem to prefer the setting of 1e.

  3. Andrew Haas says:

    This post should be broken into two pieces at least. The review should be one part and the other should be your feelings after another element let you down. When you run them all together you get stuff like this:
    “These sections in previous books really showed that the concept of what the series should be was not clear with how paltry they were in comparison to how much more useful they could be than explaining what environmental features might be more one element than another and the like that just doesn’t go anywhere.”

    With the last couple of books I haven’t bothered to look at anything other than the mechanics before filing it away in my bookcase. If the mechanics for something aren’t interesting then I don’t care about the flavor, no matter how cool. “Oh look, a new elite spear throwing school. Hmmm, +1k0 on thrown spear attack rolls when I’ve got a spear in each hand…Why wouldn’t I just ignore this technique and use a No-Dachi, it’s nearly always better. And if I’m using a No-Dachi why would I even bother with this school? I’ll pass…”

    • iclee says:

      There are some things that lend themselves to being reflected in mechanics and others that don’t. The series keeps doing sections on obscure groups, which generally turns into some worthless path. I’m with you that once you look at the mechanics, you lose interest in the group. This, then, makes me wonder why the book couldn’t have spent time on something relevant, instead.

      On the other hand, I do appreciate things like uses of charcoal, musical instruments, etc.

  4. Azel says:

    I will be running L5R very differently soon. I am planning on reversing roll and keep, where traits merely add roll and skills add keep (skills are progressive in cost). Should diffuse skills into more diversity and reward training. Also thinking about dumping schools altogether and using social norms to really tamp down on willy-nilly weapon usage and duel fixations.

    The advantages is that your bushi is just a bushi; it’s your attitude, social standing, and clan support network that makes you stand out. I also intend on focusing on shadowlands and barbarian threats, so killing off schools and throwing dangerous hordes will shift focus to survival and grudging cooperation. Shugenja will still have the most dangerous weaponry, but with casting time that’s heavily mitigated in the face of the power of shadowlands monsters and sheer numbers from hordes.

    As for keeping up with where the players go, I totally understand. I beat my players into submission, personally (wanna play Pathfinder? Sure, but you GM!). But I get the give and take of indulging players and their want for new shiny toys.

    • iclee says:

      I don’t think skill diversity is an issue. My characters typically get to around 20 different skills. I think there are too many skills in the game, though, if you are using 1e, I don’t remember what the skill list is.

      2e made Traits less valuable and it was horrible. You can try swapping, but I think everyone just hangs at 2 or 3 in a Trait, which is boring.

      Nor do I see a problem with schools. The schools are flavor.

      I don’t know, 1e has some a different XP mechanism, where you don’t have increasing costs, that it’s hard for me to relate. 3e and 4e are nearly the same as a core engine, with a few major differences, like wound chart inversion, so I think in terms of the more recent editions.

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