In other news, I've finished the new L5R book (third edition).
Like most reviews we'll start with superficial things and work our way deeper, and what's more superficial than judging a book by its cover? Well feel free to judge the new edition by its cover. Contrary to the previous edition's (note the singular; I haven't read the first edition book) almost cartoonish, action-packed cover, the new one is the height of simplicity. The cover is mostly red with black side panels. At the top is the L5R logo-ed title, and in the middle is a katana in a black scabard bound by a red obi. It is very simple, elegant, and sends a message of power and refinement. I think it will appeal to people who know L5R but will not attract new readers. In fact, this seems to be the design philosophy of the entire edition.
A quick sidenote: they made the obi (which wraps around the entire book) glossy. While this is not something you notice when looking at it, it greatly enhances the feel of the book (the physical sensation arising from touching the book, not the general impression one has of it), which in my mind makes the book a pleasure to read. This isn't really a selling point but it's kind of cool and, since AEG probably spent several thousand dollars so you could get this gloss, try to give it its due.
Going deeper (but not too much deeper) into the book we encounter artwork. There are two main places one encounters artwork in this book: book headings and within the text. Each book (like previous editions the core is divided into five rings: earth, water, fire, air, and void, which deal with setting, character creation, game mechanics, magic, and GMing respectively) begins with a beautiful full-page portrait of some aspect of Rokugan. I cannot express how beautiful these are. Sadly they do not seem to have any connection to the books which follow, which is a shame since they would have been a great way to establish tone, but they are a treat nonetheless.
The other art is the normal inserted art common to RPGs. These are of much higher quality than one normally sees in RPG books. Once again the semi-cartoon quality of the previous edition has been scrapped in favor of a more adult style. I recognized one or two that come from the L5R CCG, but since I don't play the CCG I can't say if the rest are original or recycled. Sadly none of the artwork is signed. In either case it doesn't matter; they're still breathtakingly beautiful and evocative, but they are exceedingly rare, especially in the Book of Earth and Book of Water. The result are pages of text, broken only by section headings, which results in a mixed feeling about art: this is not an ugly book by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it particularly beautiful. That said, I don't know anyone who's ever made a decision to buy or not buy a book solely on art, but if it is going to influence your decision, I'd say art is a very, very minor positive.
On the inside cover there's a map of the empire. It's been rendered a bit more than the previous edition, whether by hand or computer I can't tell, in an attempt to give it an antique-feel. Instead it seems to hearken back to the cartoon-style of the previous edition, contrast heavily with the cover, and in gneeral disrupt the just-established feel. I don't like the map. That said, it's perfectly usable.
Credits take the next page which I'm going to copy here because this book is so well-done. Please skim this so you can begin to recognize your favorite writers. artists, etc. These guys are mega-talented and deserve some name recognition.
Writers: Rich Wulf, Shawn Carman, Seth Mason, Brian Yoon.
Editors: D.J. Trindle, Katie Yates
Additional Work: Rob Vaux
Creative Director: Mark Jelfo
Art Director: Jim Pinto
Graphic Designers: Nate Barnes, Mario Rivas, Rodney Saenz
Cover Artist: Nate Barnes
Interior Artists: Christopher Appel, Steve Argyle, Matthew S. Armstrong, Drew Baker, Beet, John Donahue, Al Eremin, Carl Frank, David Hudnut, Llyn Hunter, Hugh Jamieson, April Lee, Michael Kaluta, Michael Komarck, Malcolm McClinton, Tony Moseley, Lee Moyer, William O'Connor, Jim Pavelec, Brad Williams
Cartographer: Bertrand Bess
Chief of Operations: Maureen Yates
Brand Manager: Raymond Lau
Production Manager: Mary Valles
Original Concept: John Zinser
The credits are followed by a wonderfull detailed table of contents. This stretches over two pages and makes it easy to see how the book is organized (or in some places, how it isn't organized). Moving on.
Overall the rest of the book looks decent. It weighs in at 348 pages, of which 1 is an authors' page, 2 are table of contents, 5 are an index, 2 1/2 are a glossary, 1 1/2 are character conversion from previous editions, 2 are an appendix of suggested readings/viewings, and 5 are artwork. That leaves 329 pages of solid game material. Text density is good (looks to be size 10 font), margins are a bit large, and headings are a bit small, giving a good content-to-page ratio. That said, working at Fast Forward I learned first-hand how hard it is to compare perceived wordcount to actual based on these factors. The book feels full, and while important material has been left out (see below) that seems to have been due to a lack of space. That most likely means that the first round of supplements will contain a lot of high-quality material by the original writers (rather than disassociated freelancers). The only noticably lacking information is information on playing a Nezumi or Naga. I know that Nezumi make poor PC choices, but they are still viable ones, and that most Naga are asleep, but enough are awake to remain options for players. Hopefully we'll see supplements correcting this soon, whcih would normally bother me if the book wasn't so chock-full as it was. Editing is tight, though there's generally at least one typo on every page, but nothing significant. There are some rules conflicts that should have been spotted, however, but they seem easy to house-rule.
The Book of Earth
The Book of Earth serves as an introduction to Rokugan. Noticably absent is a description of what a role-playing game is or how to play one, or even how to play in Rokugan. I can only assume that not only was this book designed for experienced role-players, it was designed for people somewhat familiar with the setting. The two pages of introductions to the clans are well-written and feel like something I could give a first-time player without overwhelming him or her. The obligatory eight-page history of Rokugan (why does every L5R book have have a dry, dull, poorly-written history section) is dry, dull, and poorly written. I'll admit that since I know the history of the empire I skipped the majority of it. The history goes up to the Rise of the Gozoku (1166) which in metaplot immediately preceeds the Four Winds Era. I found this odd as several of the supplements that were released prior to this edition go beyond this point (I believe storyline goes up to 1168), though I could very easily be wrong here (feel free to correct me).
After history comes a description of Rokugani customs. These are well-written and evocative; if BSFFA runs L5R for LARP next semester I strongly encourage everyone to review this section of the book.
Earth concludes with a detailed description of each clan and its families. You now get a trait bonus for your family and your school so family trait bonuses are listed here, the first in a long sequence of out of place information (why was this not put in with character creation?).
The Book of Water
Water begins with a questionaire for players about their potential characters. This is well-done and guides players with examples to create characters who are more than just numbers on a character sheet. A brief introduction to the L5R mechanic follows (see Book of Fire below). Then we get in to skills.
I like the new skill system. For starters, insight rank (see below) is now determined by all your skills, not just your skills above 1 rank, allowing players to make characters that possess the diverse skill sets that are often seen in samurai stories. You also now get mastery abilities at certain ranks, giving players a motivation to continue learning skills rather than put all their experience points into traits in order to raise their insight rank. For example:
This is the art of hand-to-hand combat. Anyone can use this Skill unskilled without penalty.
Rank 3: You roll an extra die for damage in unarmed combat.
Rank 5: Your Wound Peantlies to your attack rolls are reduced by your Jiujitsu SKill when attacking unarmed.
Rank 7: You roll an extra die for damage in unarmed combat.
Rank 10: You keep an extra die for damage in unarmed combat. When attacking unarmed, 9's explode on damage dice as if they were 10's.
Many skills now also have emphases. Instead of dividing a skill up into a half-dozen different skills, you can buy an emphasis for a skill. Whenever you use that emphasis, you get to add your skill rank to your total. Courtier, for example, has the emphases Gossip, Manipulation, and Political Maneuvering. Kenjutsu has the empahses Katana, Ninja-to, No-dachi, and Wakizashi. I don't know why Jiujutsu has no emphases, but if they don't make changes in future supplements I'll probably house-rule it back to the second edition method (since I'm not reviewing second edition here, I will not describe it). Skills cost a number of points to raise equal to the new rank, so rank 1 is 1 point, rank 2 costs 2 points for a total of 3, rank 3 costs 3 points for a total of 6, etc.
Then they get on to insight. Insight rank is similar to level in d20, except it isn't simply a factor of experience. It is similar to Generation in Vampire, except it isn't simply a factor of role-playing or background points. Insight rank is determined by the following:
The sum of your elemental rings)x10 + (the sum of all your skill ranks) + any insight bonuses you have.
Characters start out at insight rank 1, progress to rank 2 at 150 points, and increase in rank every 50 points thereafter. More on this in a moment. Whenever your insight rank increases you can go back to your sensei (or potentially find a new one) and learn a new school technique (level up). Then you get the rules for starting character points.
In second eiditon starting characters got 30 points. In third edition they get 45. That's right, you can now start at insight rank 2 without even trying hard. I mean without even taking any disadvantages. I'm not sure how I feel about this yet. On the one hand, the game does seem like it's intended to be higher-powered than the previous edition (trying to compete with Exalted perhaps? This is pure speculation but it seems likely), but on the other hand these players would not have as many high skills or mastery abilities as 1st rank players. I think I'll see how this plays out before passing judgement.
We then get into advantages, which have been considerably streamlined from second edition, and disadvantages. Then we get into the meat of character creation: school techniques. I'll be honest, I mostly skimmed this section as there are nearly forty schools presented.
One of the best things about the new edition is that one can play anything. In the previous edition, characters were limited to bushi and shugenja, with a few courtier schools thrown in. Now one can play bushi, shugenja, courtiers, monks, ninja, and even peasants such as ashigaru. Two monk schools are presented in the school section (tattooed monks, which are actually three distinct orders, and Henshin mystics) and five more are presented in the Book of Air, an unfortunate case of splitting up relevant information. They also put the "school" for maho-tsukai (blood sorcerers, normally NPCs) in the Book of Air, but that is a more understandable decision.
Lastly they included heritage tables, random tables one can roll on to see what one's ancestors have done. These can give both good and bad results. Players can roll once on the tables for free, though they are not obliged to do so, and can pay experience points at character creation to get additonal rolls at the rate of 1 point per roll.
The Book of Fire
Fire begins with an explanation of the core L5R mechanic (a sidebar in the Book of Water touched on it briefly but here it is fully explained), which is whenever you make a check you generally roll a number of dice equal to a trait + a skill, and choose a number of dice equal to the trait to keep. The kept dice are added together and if the total exceeds a given target number (TN) then the action succeeds. There are numerous variances on this mechanic (rolling rings - combined mental and physical traits - instead of traits, using school ranks instead of skills, etc.) which are explained but the core mechanic is described well. The process of making raises to accomplish more difficult actions is explained.
I won't go in to too much detail over the specific rules presented here for combat, poison/disease, etc. except to say that they're well-done. Combat is largely abstract but all the different options available to players should keep it exciting. If you're familiar with second edition, except for some new uses for void points it appears to be largely unchanged.
Equipment is detailed. All weapons have at least two special abilities, at least one from their group (heavy weapon, peasant weapon, etc.) and at least one specific to the weapon type (bo staff, katana, etc.). Many abilities have been changed from previous editions (for example bo staffs no longer give a random bonus to intiative because they're big) but they all make sense and help to flavor the weapons. There also appears to be a larger emphasis on reasons a samurai might choose not to use his or her katana, a distinction many players who want individualized characters will surely enjoy.
Rules for glory, status, and honor follow. They're well-done and clear, if a bit long-winded. The rules for glory and status for monks conflict with the rules presented in the Book of Air, but it seems easy enough to house rule.
Then we get into katas. Katas are techniques which one can prepare prior to a conflict (either shortly before or by taking extra time at the beginning of the day) to gain the use of special abilities. Katas cost experience points to learn, and most are restricted to a clan and by weapon type. I skimmed over most of them, but they appear to be well thought out, though some are written rather confusingly.
Katas are followed by mass battle rules. These are well-done and allow GMs to include large-scale warfare in their games without turning the game into a Warhammer spin-off. Very nice, AEG.
Lastly we get into experience points. I'm sure these are nothing new for anyone who's reading this.
The Book of Air
This is the book about magic. It starts with a wonderfully written explanation about Rokugani religion, mythology, forms of worship, and spirit realms. Then we get into what most players care about: spellcasting.
L5R spellcasters are tough. You do not fuck around with these guys, and these spells show you why. Generally everything here is useful, though none of it grabs me as particularly creative. I honestly didn't read too deeply into the spells as I have no desire to play a spellcaster, but the rules are solid.
After the spell lists there are rules for playing monks. Yes, there were rules for playing clan-specific monks in the schools section, but here we have rules for monks that belong to orders that tend to go beyond specific clans. They're well done though I don't see why they weren't in the schools section. These rules are followed by kiho. Kiho are a type of magic unique to monks. It's unclear whether other characters can learn kiho too (the flavor text says that shugenja can learn them but the mechanics say only monks can). In either event, kiho are subtle (subtle at least compared to shugenja spells) elemental magics that tend to give power to unarmed attacks, allow incedible athletic acts, gain supernatural resistances, etc. Overall they seem useful though largely uninsipred. On the plus side it seems easy to come up with my own so I may do just that.
We then get into Shadowlands taint. Taint is a measure of a character's corruption by Jigoku, the realm of evil. Think Anakin Skywalker in Episode III. A number of things can give a character taint, usually being in the Shadowlands, being wounded by a tainted weapon, or using blood sorcery. Afterwards, comitting evil acts makes the taint worse but also gives the character nifty, though evil powers. *glares at Quady* These rules are very well-done, though they require both excellent role-playing and careful GM monitoring to make sure they're not just a ticket to easy power. Taint powers have a price. Along with taint powers we get the rules for blood sorcery, called maho. Not only are these well done, they're the most evocative magics I've seen in the game.
The Book of Void
The last book, The Book of Void, is about running L5R. It includes tips on running in the setting, getting a group of disperate characters to work together, and running a campaign. Rules are provided for various creatures/monsters/generic NPCs and different eras of play. Fourteen pages of detaild geography follow: informative but dull.
A page and a half of suggested reading details not only inspiration material (i.e. James Clavell's Shogun, Miyamoto Musahi's Book of the Five Rings) but also all previous L5R books. While I recognize this as a shameless plug, it's nice to know what's out there.
There follows a section on converting previous L5R characters. This is relatively brief as the system doesn't appear to have too many changes and those that do exist are largely self-evident. Lastly there is a glossaryt and an absolutely amazing index.
The Final Cut
Something Good: This is a very complete book. It is usable all on its own (choosing not to divide the core book into a players and GM's book is amazingly helpful) and does not require any supplements for anything a player might want to play (though supplements will certainly enhance some of the more obscure choices).
Something Bad: This needed another two weeks of editing. There are typos on nearly every page and several of the rules contradict each other. Layout should have put all the character creation information in one place.
Who Should Buy This Book: Anyone who's interested in L5R or Oriental roleplaying and doesn't have a previous edition.
Who Shouldn't Buy This Book: People who already own a previous edition. I recommend converting the game to third edition, but there's no need to buy a complete new core; just borrow a friend's for your charcter's mechanics and stick to the book for everything else.
By the Numbers
All ratings are on a 1 to 10 scale with 10 being the best.
Art: 8 (10 if there were more of it)