Review – Sword and Fan

Sword and Fan came out months and months ago.  Whoever was likely to buy it has probably done so.  So, why review it now?

Besides hearing myself write?

That’s pretty much it.  I’m going to try real hard to say something I haven’t said ad nauseam when it comes to L5R 4e supplements.

Conceptually, Sword and Fan is interesting.  Two areas of L5R that have difficulties with being run are mass combat and court action, if for completely different reasons.  Well, there’s one shared reason – investigation, party level skirmishing, and whatnot are the meat of most campaigns.

Mass combat requires a shift in perspective, from the individual action level to the army level.  Some games do that.  Lot don’t.  I keep using mass combat when I could say war, but I think mass combat does a better job of putting the focus on this perspective shift.  After all, wars have small unit action.  I can’t remember who says it, maybe Talon Kardde, but in one of the Star Wars novels, someone says that the reason the Solos and Skywalkers of the world go do the important stuff is because small groups are better at getting things done than fleets (paraphrasing a lot).

Anyway.  There are seven chapters and the all important appendix where the mechanics reside.  Four of the chapters are about warfare.

One of the things that I am compelled to state, relevant to both S&F and Book of Void, is that so much of what is written doesn’t engage me.  I know, that’s what I keep saying with the Book of … series, but the compulsion is to analyze the product, and the product, let’s stick with S&F for the moment because there’s some chance I might force myself to review the Book of Void, is dull.

Why is it dull?  Alternatively, would it be dull to someone else?

Chapter One: Strategy

What is dull to me about the beginning of this chapter is that it states basic things about warfare.  Now, one could argue that other people haven’t read as much about warfare as I have, though I haven’t read that much.  Consider the audience.  Not to get too far afield, but it’s important to know your audience.

Who is the audience for the first half of this book?  Maybe people who are interested in mass combat?  Maybe those people have an inkling how battles are fought?

Legend of the Five Rings has more history than any other RPG world I know of.  Maybe I just haven’t paid attention with other RPG worlds, but see Imperial Histories and Imperial Histories 2 for products that are not the norm.  Even if Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms or whatever has the same number of history books, I somehow doubt they will be as historical.  Now, of course, Middle Earth has ludicrous amounts of history, but I’m rambling.

The history of certain battles in this chapter bores me.  Besides the difficulty of applying this knowledge to play in a substantial way, the descriptions of the wars are just too brief to find them enthralling.  I’m actually kind of interested in the Mantis versus the Ivory Kingdoms.  I’m not so much interested in half a page covering it.

What is the point of thematic material?

One could argue it’s the same as mechanical material – inspiration.  Where mechanics inspire PC builds and what challenges to throw at parties, thematics inspire character concepts, settings, the reason why the challenges are what they are.

My memory is limited.  Off the top of my head, I can only think of Enemies of the Empire inspiring me thematically.  Mechanically, Great Clans, of course.  Strongholds of the Empire, maybe, for both.

Based on what I read on forums, others find the various supplements far more interesting.  That’s them.  I should get on with me, myself, and I.

Something I put some value on in this chapter?  Generals.  It’s strange.  While I don’t really care about a lot of historical figures in L5R in terms of them being used or what precisely they did, I somehow care about their profiles in a general sense of adding history to the world in a different way than descriptions of events.  I’ve never been much of a biography reader, but, maybe, I’m the sort that actually finds biographies interesting.  Certainly affected which sports teams I’ve favored to read about certain athletes.

Chapter Two: Tactics

This comes across as a much more cogent chapter.  For one thing, the explanatory style that permeates so many recent products is better served when what is being explained is how the L5R world does things specifically.  Then, there are actual mechanics in this chapter for helping a side win for less fighty types.  Then, the advice for personalizing mass combat scenarios goes to the heart of one of the things I find so frustrating in the Book of … series – it explains how an aspect of the world can be made relevant to play unlike the “here’s what a wildfire is” sections.

Chapter Three: Cavalry Warfare

Really?  A long, boring description of how everyone looks at cavalry?  Yes, maneuverability is the squirrel’s acorns of battle.  But, how relevant is this?  It’s like giving more monk techniques.  It might be a thing in the world, but the value to play is trivial.  It’s less relevant than a similar section on infantry would be.  It’s far less relevant than the impact of shugenja on mass combat.

Chapter Four: Enemies

Good point for this section is that it covers some interesting things, like fighting gaijin.  Bad point for this section is that I’m a lot more interested in how the Imperial Legions function than some short thing on Imperial Legions vs. Great Clans.  Book of Fire had something about military service.  I barely remember what it had to say.

Disconnect.  This is the massive disconnect between what gets published and what I’m looking for.  I don’t care who the commander of each legion is, but I just don’t get how to use Imperial Legions in play, whether a campaign based around the party being part of one or having them be something relevant to the party.  The idea that anyone Rokugani would fight them seems ridiculous, except for ubiquitous bandits.  So, what do they do?  Why would they be good at fighting if they have so little reason to be in a fight?  Why don’t they help the Crab more?  (Why doesn’t everyone help the Crab and deal with the constant threat to the Empire?  Because.)

If it’s just ceremonial and political, then, sure, prestigious appointment to the United Nations Taskforce.  But, in theory, the Legions actually do something.  Where are they located?  How often do they move around?  How can they be made an interesting part of a campaign?

What makes the disconnect particularly problematic is that, because aspects of the world are superficially addressed in a book, there’s little hope that they get the in depth examination that would make them useful to play.

Chapter Five: Court and Civilization

I feel like Emerald Empire and The Great Clans covered enough of this sort of stuff.  The “language of flowers” and the geisha deep dive have play value, but I’m kind of bored with etiquette.  First of all, it has already been covered.  Second, it’s really not that interesting to dwell on in play.  It’s a good differentiator from murder hoboing in swords and sorcery worlds, but, after a while, it’s more fodder for fictions than for on stage activity.

The “language of flowers” is something that can be incorporated into play in a “show, don’t tell” way of displaying culture.  Geisha deep dive may not be any more important than heimin deep dive or eta deep dive or “what’s the typical samurai breakdown of a town, castle, other?” deep dive, but filling out geisha details can easily be relevant to play.

Chapter Six: Politics Through the Year

The title of this chapter just fills me with ennui.  Maybe it’s because I have read previous edition Winter Court supplements, but I just feel like this is covered ground.  I’m also not as interested in courtly NPCs, probably because intrigue doesn’t do much for me.  On the other hand, it’s funny how political machinations do water my orchids.  There’s stuff in here that can be incorporated into play.  I just find that too much of it is known.  Again, where other supplements might have rehashed previous edition material and still gave me happy feelings, I find that too much 4e material just rehashes without spice.

Chapter Seven: Outsiders in Rokugani Politics

I find this chapter strange not because I couldn’t give a Fabergé Egg about monks and ronin nor because of its length, which might be about right, but because there really should be something else to use a chapter on for court activity.  How about some mechanics a la the mechanics for affecting mass combat earlier in the book?  How about some examples of how a court may play out for a festival, a Winter, a visit by VIPs, or whatever?

To get off into my usual rant, there is a reason to state the obvious.  The obvious isn’t obvious if people don’t get told it often enough.  I just feel like there’s this very superficial way that content addresses things too much of the time.

Appendix

Besides kata, what I’m most interested in from new mechanics are advantages and disadvantages.  I find the city ads/disads a neat idea to further differentiate characters, though so many of them aren’t going to be relevant because your character would never come from that city or, alternatively, are going to warp backgrounds just to pick up something undercosted.

Only two new advantages.  There are a good number of new paths, some of which might even get used by PCs.  As much as other things can be better than proliferating paths, I’d actually happily use paths that addressed ranks in schools I’d want to replace, like Kakita Bushi 3 and Mirumoto Bushi 2, to the extent I’d ever play either.  (Actually, the recent forum discussion on changing the Mirumoto Bushi has me thinking of how to play a funny one, funny in a different way from my 3r Mirumoto Bushi.)

Summary

It’s a book.  It has some stuff that could be applied to play.  But, it was a much better concept than execution, really seeming to shortchange doing more about court play.  We spent a year and 33 sessions playing a Winter Court in a campaign.  I’m currently playing a pure court campaign around matchmaking.  As much as I like my courtiers to have Awareness 2 and as tiresome as I can find being beaten over the head with culture can be, I’m fond of court play.  I could use useful material on court play.  I could use my GMs having useful material on court play.

Grade?  I don’t know, maybe a C.  I find that both this and Book of Void are hard to get into, even though I keep trying to be able to give a review.

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