It starts of rather impressingly by describing the types of campaigns that can be made in Rokugan with a few suggestion. It falls into exoticism at times but nothing too serious. The type of campaing setups described, amongst others are the classic magistrate campaign, the Legionnaire campaign, Imperial Cartographers, the Rank 0 campaing where you play pre-gempukku characters. The main problem I have with this part is a nomenclature problem and an assumption problem on the part of the designers.
The nomenclature problem is that of the restritcted campaign. Taking a campaign style and then slapping it with a name that can be seen as pejorative is not exactly a great pitch. Calling it something like the household campaign would work. It also assume that the normal that campaigns where everything is allowed are the norm, which is something I have extreme difficulty to accept as matching reality. Further it gives no help on how to design such campaign it only tells it may be a "superior game". This drove the problems I had with how the Gentry advantage hadn't been dealt with back to fore. Space might have been a problem, but no atempt is even made giving advice other than the discuss with the group which applies to every campaign.
The other problem I had involved how Two-Player games and campaigns were described. The designers pretty much assumed that the normal group will have more than three players, which might be true, but I think is a dangerous assumption to make. One of the reason I hate games with heavy nich protection is the fact that they tend to render the game unplayable unless the GM takes extra steps to prevent it. Now, L5R isn't that narrow, so it generally works well with few or even just with a single player, but, more inportantly it isn't a pick-up game, so it is perfectly natural that even in large groups players will have for some reason miss sessions.
However the designers pretty much assumed that two-player games are an oddity and apparently didn't even consider the possibility of single-player games. Worst, some of the two-player campaign pretty much relied on disempowering one of the players. And when I talk of player disempowerement I'm talking about narrative disempowerement, not necessarily about any mechanical assimetry, which may be perfectly sound (The Student/Teacher campaign is an example where the player with the student character in no way loses narrative focus).
For example the Magistrate/Eta assistant is an egregious example of this flaw. Not only does the eta player receives a mechanically inferior character, but pretty much the setup used means the character must fade in the background.
Ironically while this setup is, in my opinion, horrible for a two player game, it would be great for a single-player game, independently of the character being played...
The rest is very sound GM advice. One thing I particularly liked was the discussion of Polti's Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. I knew Shawn Carman was an adept of this book and I think it was a great idea. I would have liked that there were CFSs directly associated to the situations, but further along the chapter there are quite a few of them so this is not problematic.
There is also a discussion on the differences between "Asian" and "Western" storytelling, which I think is naive, and sometimes outright laughable. One thing that particularly bothered me was the complete conflaction of Japanese and Chinese storytelling, and a narrow one at that, but that pales to the complete misrepresentation of "Western" storytelling. I couldn't help but get the feeling the authors were so enamored on how "Asia" is so different that they were like the proverbial blind men touching different parts of the same elephant. This was made even more jarring by the fact that in some other sections they seemed to be far more genre aware...
I really hate exoticism in whatever variant...
Another section that had me raise an eyebrow was the section on how to genre-shift a campaign, specifically the cinematic campaign part where they reference another AEG game, the now defunct 7th Sea.
It was at this point that I understood why I wasn't particularly enjoying this new edition. There were several moments were I felt the writers were going in some awesome direction only to stop just before they reach their destination and throwing us out of the car.
In this particular case what it bothered me was how Drama Dice and Brutes where so underexplained. In the case of brutes it took me merely a couple of minutes to create a working system, but I had the advantage of knowing 7th Sea Sea and I can understand that space limitation may have constrained the writers. However working drama die rules needed at most a couple of lines to create and integrate seamlessly. My guess is they remembered the Drama Die rules but then felt no need to follow follow up on it...
We then have poison rules, a very nice bestiary, in which the Nezumi finnaly receive their Void equivalent.
Finally we have the location Guide. As I said in the first part of this review, I really hate the new map, but the good parts first:
- Clan owned territory has been reduced, back to their 1st Edition borders. This allows space for GMs to use the unaligned territory, as Imperial, Minor Clan or just as plain disputed territory.
- There are fewer locations. Again this leaves more space for GMs.
- All entries were writen anew. There is no copy/pasting, no legacy items.
- All faction are represented, including all Minor Clans.
- It's a simplified map with bits that are even more non-sensical than they already were, suddenly disappearing features, and teleporting features.
- There are fewer location overall, but there are several new locations. This is not a problem per se, but considering the importance they had for the plot, not finding the City of Rich Frog or Nanashi Mura is a bit puzzling. To compound this problem a few of the new locations seem a bit bland or theme parkey.
- Even with fewer entries there are missing items on the map, and entries that contradict the map.
So at the end of the day what do I think of L5R 4th Edition?
I've got a lot of mixed feelings on this edition.
The Good: Clear writing, editing, GM advice, completeness, they managed to finally make me interested into kata.
The Bad: Lack of design transparency, legacy issues, wilfull design decision like mechanicaly impairing Minor Clan characters.
The Ugly: The map, the refusal to use inclusive language.
It seems plain better than 3rd Edition, and it is a very complete book. However, at no point did it wow me like 1st Edition did.
I think my main problem is the overabundance of sub-systems. It's certainly the main difference from the original game, but I suppose that at this point the designers have to worry if excising some kind of legacy system will drive away customers. In my case it doesn't help that I don't feel design is very tranparent. It might be that the time I've been out of touch with the system has impaired my ability to evaluate design intentions, but, for what it's worth, it's not a problem I've ever had before.
In the end what this means, is that, having two unplayed games in my RPG shelf (ok, L5R is in the hard drive), I'm much more interested in pitching and playing Mouse Guard than L5R, and with AEG's apparent stance on the use of inclusive language I'm not even sure I want to sent any money their way...