Monday, 31 January 2011

Way of the Dragon

"I see nothing more than you do. You look the wrong way."

Way of the Dragon was the first supplement/splatbook published for the L5R rpg. This post will be based on my 1st printing copy, so it may not apply to any other of the three printings. However I always try to find clarifications and errata and will make note of that in text.

As an aside I will make a small comment on the publishing order of the "Way of..." books.

It was awkward. I mean Dragon, Unicorn, Carb, are hardly the meat and potatos of Rokugan. I suppose that by starting with the aberrant clans they might be giving themselves the time to hit a stride and focus they were confortable with, but Crane and Lion are pretty much the clans that define Rokugan.

Having said that, the Dragon clan is my favorite clan and I'm sure this book had much to do with that.

In tipical RPG fare it starts off with a piece of fiction, which is actually pretty good, altough to say it starts with a piece of fiction is a bit misleading as 1st edition material had a strong narrative focus and much of the setting material was presented from an in-world point of view.

Case in point, the first chapter, an oerview of the Dragon Clan is mostly presented through letter annd anedocts by characters.

One thing that jumps to the eyes is how something aren't yet defined or might have been writen in isolation. As John Wick is listed as the primary writer with the contributions by other writers well defined in the credits page I must assume it was part of the "biased history" angle JW claimed to be aiming at.

Still, particularly as this isn't outright stated, it is a bit awkward to see Agasha being adressed as a male several times, or the points where Mirumoto is said to have no sons and then being treated to Yojiro. This one is more telling because the source cultures put a tremendous emphasis in lineage so this kind of mistake doesn't seem very realistic.

The second chapter goes more in-depth on the specific families, starting with the Togashi. Another thing I found here, and dearly miss, is the existence of family mon. Currently I'm not even sure all the clan mon have been printed in the books (Oriole, Bat and Ox might be missing), but family mon, other than a showing in Death at Koten have been completely absent.

Mind you though that I'm not particulalry fond of Dragon mon. They're based more on a chinese aesthetic that clashes with what I expect a mon to be. However most family mon are a bit too complex for my taste. Dragon mon just more so.

Oh, there are also rules for non-Togashi to have tattoos. Yeah it's a sore point for me that this was the last place where this has been considered despite the fact that, in fiction, many characters outside the order have been shown to have received a tattoo.

After the Togashi come the Mirumoto.The initial portion is a discussion on the Mirumoto armies structure and organization. This has largely been superseded now (altough, only on a web supplement, if I am not mistaken). Frankly I somewhat prefer if over the structures proposed in Way of the Lion and Masters of War as it seems a bit more feudal (not much mind you).

I was somewhat amused by the notion that the Mirumoto daimyo's income is a mere 20 000 koku per year. To put it in perspective, if Rokugan had the kokudaka system, he'd have to supply 400 samurai and 4000 Ashigaru. Far from the 200 000 samurai the Dragon armies are supposed to number.

Chui are supposed to lead 700 men with an income of 30 koku.

I must now remind myself that Rokugan is not Japan. Too bad it often doesn't make sense either...

The rank names which range from the modern to the gibberish also rake a bit. For someone who claimed to have 3000$ of books on samurai in his shelves it a bit disconcerting to not see John Wick use the ubiquous Kashira. It was fun to see Nikutai used. It does mean corporal, just not as in the military rank but rather as in body...

From then we move to history, and a discussion on Niten, with excerpts from the text. Here it is atributed to Hojatsu rather than Mirumoto. I need to check if this is recurrent because I was convinced it was from Mirumoto himself, despite the fact that this way it actually makes more sense.

Niten is clearly inspired by Musashi's Book of Five Rings, and I found it awkward that Kijome's commentary reads as tranlator notes, including word choices. Considering Kijome is suposed to be a near contemporary he shouldn't sound like he was translating from one language to another.

After the Mirumoto we move on to the Agasha. Finally I start seeing Agasha refered to as a she, which had me worried for a while.

For the most part it isn't a very interesting section other than the fact that their history is quite entwined with that of the Kitsuki (something I'm alway fond of because it creates context), and the description of the Agasha "foundries".

The Kitsuki section closes the chapter. It's agood read but there is nothing that truly stands out. It might be the origin of the idea that Rokugani only value testimony though.

The third chapter is the chapter on new mechanics and character options.

Six new skills are introduced. Ichi Miru, Nazodo, Mountaineer, Kagaku, Craft: Tattooing, and Craft: Mitsugusuri.

Frankly I'm of the opinion that skills should be wide, mostly available to everyone, and I'm very critic of expanding skill lists beyond corebooks, so I'm not very fond of this section. Mountaineer just dilutes Hunting, Ichi Miru should be a fucntion of the Kitsuki school and otherwise dilutes Investigation, Nazodo has the same problem being another form of Investigation, with some Divination thrown in. Kagaku and Mitsugusuri are adictions that make sense, but Kagaku shouldn't be restricted and be a craft skill, while Mitsugusuri (actually Mizugusuri) should probably be a function of the Agasha school. Unfortunately the Agasha school had already appeared in the corebook, and paths are still a long way from being created.

So all in all, Tattooing is the only skill I don't have a problem with...

There are also new advantages, Elemental Attunement, and Noble Birth. Remember, in first edition Ise zumi are not automatically samurai, they needed to take Noble Birth to be so.

As for Elemental Attunement I think it should either be open to any character, or be a function of the Mirumoto School.

There are also three new disadvantages, Ascetic, Enlightened Madness and Vanity.

Vanity is a roleplaying disadvantage, basically being a free point.

Ascetic is a disadvantage I have mixed feeling. It's a obvious take for ronin, but I'm alaways leery of how it is supposed to work in other situation. I suppose it might work as some sort of temple membership...

Finally the Kitsuki and Ise zumi schools are detailed.

The Kitsuki school is quite cool, in particular because it is a dramatic departure from the schools in the corebook. It has issues. Rank 3 and 5 are automatic sucess techniques with Rank 3 being more worrysome because there is no suggestion on how to deal with opposed rolls. Rank 4 is a technique denial technique, which I alaways find too fiddly for my taste.

The Togashi school is harder to grasp. On one hand it is quite versatile, but on the other the tattoos are generally weaker than techniques, or at least have significant drawbacks, and the Ise zumi will need to spend 16 points to get two extra tattoos beyond those given by the school. Frankly I don't remember how tattoos felt in play. They don't seem overpowered (far from it actually), but a few seem no-brainers in relation to each other. Ocean and Crane come to mind and Mountain seems a better option than Bat.

The chapter finishes with the Heritage Tables. On the positve side only one entry which grants 3 extra Void points per day seems overpowered altough there are a few other entries that might be strong depending on the interpretation, but the dishonorable past table will fuck you up if you're unlucky enough to roll there. Quite flavorful though.

The following chapter, the Who's Who, details a few NPCs, and introduces Ancestors in the sidebars. In my opinion Ancestors should have been in the character chapter and here should have been some of the gneric NPC stats that were put in the sidebars of the second chapter, but what do I know.

As for the ancestors themselves their backstory is very good and for the most part they are not abusive. With one exception.


Priced at 15 points and it is still a bargain for a Mirumoto bushi PC...

The NPCs are writen in the crisp, vivid style of John Wick. They are quite cool just with an hint of special snowflake here and there. I could lie without that, but surprisingly I'm not in the least bothered by Yokuni lack of stats unlike others. Gaijutsu's, Hitomi's and Tamori's tattoos bother me a lot more because they are a lot better than PCs can get. Yokuni being a god and working by GM fiat is small potatoes compared to that, in my opinion.

After the Who's Who there is a sample of 5 example characters. Supposedly they are ready made characters for players to take, but I suspect they were more fodder for GM ideas than anything else. Hell, the 5th character is nigh impossible to fit in a party.

Finally we have the Appendixes. The first is on Dragons (the creature), the second is on Kaze-Do, expanding unarmed combat rules.

The third appendix is on Agasha magic, with a new spell, Transform, which I was always wary about, a few Kagaku items, including black powder, a few nemuranai, of which the Agasha seeds and the Twilight lanterns left me very impressed, and Mizugusuri recipes.

The fourth appendix has a few adventure hooks, including Togashi Okkio which seems a proto-Kokujin (at least I think he pre-dates Kokujin), and a rough description of the Dragon provinces.

Between this and the next appendix there's also a map of Mirumoto Castle. I still haven't taken a look at the other maps, but this one actually disappointed me.

Finally we have appendix five which is a couple of CCG decks...

I would seriously like to know if anyone found this section useful?

Because for me, as a roleplayer it certainly did not, and I suspect it wasn't that useful for the card floppers either, but why waste a good synergy for network externalities...

Closing the book there is a reference sheet summarizing the new options and some clarifications, as well as a few character sheets.

All in all this is a solid first supplement.

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