This is the book of optional mechanics. Advanced Schools, Kiho, Paths, Minor Clans, Kata, Maho, whatever you name is here.
Spider Clan is first, not much to be seen here, altough I'm suspect because they on of the storyline points I dislike. Their schools seem to be ok.
Next up are the actual Minor Clans, Badger, Bat which have been mercifully been remade from the abomination they were in 3rd Edition (where they were essentially the Kitsu, Iuchi and Kitsune rolled into one), Boar (which has a rather fun school), Dragonfly, Falcon, Fox, Monkey, Oriole, Snake (THE ORIGINAL!!!), Sparrow (which lost much of their artistic ability and probably still are the worst bushi school), and Tortoise. These schools are, by design, supposed to be worse than than their great clan counterparts.
It's a design decision I despise. And they suceeded at it.
It's not so bad in shugenja schools, due to the meat of their strengths being in spell choice, or Courtiers schools which depend a lot of GM fiat, but amongst the bushi it is very much true. Apparently this is supposed to be a simulation of the setting, but the extent to which it has been taken is extreme to the point that it breaks verisimilitude. Worst of all is that in reality what it does is to remove narrative control from the players that choose to play a minor clan character. This wouldn't be so bad if all of these schools were inherently fun to play, but only the Usagi and Heichi bushi have mechanics that promote experimenting and fun. No playtester should gloat that they suceeded in mantainig the Suzume Bushi as the worst school ever.
Next up are the Imperials, including the now defunct Hantei and Toturi families. The current Imperial family is not included but in my opinion the Hantei bonus can be used without a problem.
After the Imperials come the Brotherhood monks. The main difference is that monks now have a trait bonus as well (altough due to an editing mistake they had also been included in 3rd Edition). Kiho came later in the chapter.
Ronin are next with 5 rank-1 path. It's kind of wierd that ronin paths come before paths are explained, but I suppose the mechanic isn't that complicated that it would cause confusion. It does make this chapter the more disorganized in the book
After this we have mass battles. Again there nothing new here, but there is a lack of provision for naval and shadowlands battles.
Also in the Book of Water we can find the Ancestor rules, which return in a form more similar to their 1st Edtion incarnation. Now, I had absolutely no problem with 3rd Edition ancestors, I think their only problem is that they were introduced and then promptly ignored with little atempt of integrating them in the line, but I have to admit these new rules look very cool. I only have two problems with them; 1) They are not transparent. It's not easy to assess the value of a homebrewed ancestor; 2) Ancestor are now very much a tangible setting element, an implication whose effect I'm not sure suit my taste... Kuni Yori is awesome though...
Following the Ancestor we have advanced schools and paths, which I feel should have come right after the Imperial families. Advanced schools work in the same manner they did so before, which is one of the reasons I'm not so sure the problem with shugenja has been solved. There is one school per Great Clan plus Spider.
Path however have suffered a make-over: They now replace the technique of the same rank. I liked how path worked but the new method is just as good, and for those who played 1st Edition they might remember that this was a frequent homebrewed solution in those days. I do have problems with some of the paths chosen and what they imply:
- Crab: Berserkers and Oni-Slayers. 100% support in turning the berserkers in a path, I'm more worried about the meaning of the Oni-Slayers. If they intend to drop the Kuni Witch-Hunter as a basic school and instead release the Oni-Slayers as one in a series of paths representing the variety of witch-hunter training I'm all for it. If not then I think we on our way to have the same bloat that plagued 3rd Edition. And I say this as someone that generally loves lots of schools and was a fervent admirer of the 1000 Schools of Rokugan.
- Lion: The Deathseeker and Bishamon's Chosen. These both scream bloat to me. That the Deathseeker in particular is considered a Rank-1 path chills me, but I will probably just use it as the Hayameru school. Bishamon's blessing seems to exist solely due to some simmetry rule that say one path should be a bushi path and other a shugenja path.
- Mantis. Can you say bloat? In fact most shugenja path seem extraneous. Yes, the tensai make sense, but the rest...
- Worst of all are the miscellaneous alternate paths. Yes, Emerald and Jade magistrate make sense, I can concede the Legionnaire paths, but the Champion paths??! I might convert them to something else but it does not bode well when the core book already shows some signs of bloat...
Incidentally this does beg the question why the designers are almost annoyingly insistent in saying samurai are not worried about monetary matters, but then insist on having price lists and basing crafting rules on them. Resource mechanics are not at the vanguard of RPG design these days and if you feel the pursuit of coin should be a background element of the setting they might actually be the best way to handle economics...
The next section is that of kata. Now in previous editions I hated kata with a passion. They were probably the only mechanic I saw no redeeming quality whatsoever. In 4th Edition I almost wish they replaced the schools. I am not convinced in the advantage of a few of them however and a few others like Breath of Wind Style feel a bit finicky.
After Kata come Kiho. Kiho have also been reworked, but it's been more a matter of streamlining and refocusing rather than outright reconstruction. Some Kiho don't seem very clear (Flee the Darkness, Way of the Willow), but again the design team seems to have done a good job of balancing things.
Finally we have the Maho and Taint sections. Thematically I liked how they were handled the rules being far more similar to the orignal 1st edition rules. Taint rules in particular seem to follow far more the original book of the Shadowlands rather than anything published since. I would like to see them in play to make a better assessment.