Saturday, 26 March 2011

Way of the Unicorn

"We are the people of the wind."

The second splat book for L5R, Way of the Unicorn deal, surprisingly enough, with the Unicorn clan.

Again, my own copy is a second printing, so it may not apply to other printings.

The book, as usual in this series, starts off with a piece of fiction.

It's not bad, but, for some reason, it bothered me. I think the crux of it was the fact that Kamoko seems to think feminine women are man-pleasing doormats.

Maybe it's a particularity of Ree Soesbee's writing I didn't recall.

Maybe it's Kamoko's opinion, and L5R has Kachiko, and, to a lesser extent, Doji Domotai, to prove the opposite is true, but considering how frequently I've come across this posture in works of fiction and fandom as of late it starts to weigh on me.

So after this little misstart we get to the first chapter which provides us with points of view on the Unicorn writen as in-setting letters. Comparing with the similar section on the Dragon book it felt shorter, and not nearly as accomplished. While the shortness is probably only a result of the fact that Unicorn history is completely covered in the second chapter, while in Way of the Dragon it wasn't the case, the quality of letters is clearly inferior. The first two cover much the same ground, while the third doesn't add much at at all.

At this point I must admit I remember liking this book, and I became worried that my remembrance might have been the result of rose tainted glasses.

So onward to the second chapter, on Unicorn history.As usual in this series there's a series of sidebars with many random trivia like a series of travel poems or further explanations on the Unicorn mindset.

Unicorn history itself is told in a mix of fictional and factual tone. There is a clear undertone of selflessnes, devotion, and sacrifice in Shijo's depiction which is pretty much at odds with the current depiction of the Unicorn to my pity.

Another thing that jumps to my eye is that, like Togashi, Shinjo's true form is said to be a Ki-Rin. In my opinion this probably meant that at the time there were thoughts of making the kami spirits with their clan's namesake form. Of course the fact that the next clan was on the Crab might have put a damper on those plans...

This chapter also includes the family details, with the Moto and Ide getting their first description and the Otaku being expanded. One thing that surprised is that at no point are the Moto hinted as being direct descendants from the Ujik-Hai. Not even a little bit. The closest I could find was the Moto Soro ancestor in the Who's Who chapter.

On the sidebars, as usual in this series, there are the fmily mon, of which the I must admit the Unicorn ones are my favourite along with the Doji and Kakita.

All in all this section dispelled the fears that were growing on me that I remembered this book merely on nostalgia colored glasses.

The third chapter is that of character mechanics.

Four skills are introduced: Horse Archery, Animal Husbandry, Yomanri, and Lance. The same comments I made on the skills introduced on the Dragon book could be repeated here.

Horse Archery as an independent skill is redundant, Animal Husbandry (Horses) while not redundant is also a bit limiting. Yomanri flat out contradicts the rulebook and Lance also adds nothing new.

Basically, Yomanry, Lance and Horse Archery should have been maneuvers like those of Kaze-do in WotD or from 3rd Edition, not new skills. This is particularly grating because the advanced horsemanship rules make this perfectly logic and no further rules were needed. I have to wonder if this was the case of two different writer not working in communication with each other.

Two new advantages are also introduced, Gaijin Gear and Irreproachable.

Gaijin Gear is a bit redundant with Inheritance, but Irreproachable is ok.

The total of disadvantages introduced is seven; Adopted Blood, Gaijin Name, Greed, Lechery, the Moto Curse, Never Sat on a Horse and Overconfident.

I dislike the Moto Curse, both because it is mandatory without benefit, and basically because it's a redundant bad reputation outside the Unicorn clan. I wouldn't mind if, while being mandatory, the PCs weren't hit with the double whammy. I suppose it might be because the Moto family bonus is Void, but still...

I've said it before and I will say it again, why does a player need to be penalized for assuming a roleplaying challenge. If anything this actually increases character optimization if the player feels the need to synergize options to make up for shortcoming that the system imposed upon him.

Never sat on a Horse is also problematic. I see no reason why it should be limited to Unicorn, but frankly, depending on the way the GM interprets the reading it can actually be far more damaging to a Unicorn PC than its 1 point cost would suggest. After all, all Unicorn schools start with ranks in horsemanship, how does that work in conjuction with this disadvantage?

Following that there are advanced Horsemanship rules which I discussed above with skills.

Then come the mechanics of the new Unicorn families and schools. I've already discussed the Moto above with the Moto Curse, altough their school depending on the reading might be very powerful. The Otaku definitely are powerful at this point but mostly due to a godly fourth rank technique.

Finally we have the Heritage tables, which, frankly are all over the place in terms of both getting great stuff or getting royaly screwed over. Often at the same time...

The fourth chapter is the Who's Who of the Unicorn clan. We immediatelly start off with Shinjo Yokatsu, who Can't Lie...

Stupid CCG. Stupid Kolat. Must hold rage...

Other than that there isn't much that stand out. Most NPCs are interesting and have ready hooks with other clans, with Tadaji and Hanari being the ones that do stand out

This chapter also as ancestors in the sidebars. The ancestor mechanics is one I always had some trouble evaluating and this is no exception.

Chapter five has a series of pre-generated characters. Much like those in the Dragon book I see these as more of a source for plot hooks rather than good PC options altough they will do in a pinch. Unlike in the Dragon book none are clearly unsuited for a PC party.

Finally we enter the appendices.

The first appendix is on strategy and tactics of the Unicorn. I liked that it had quite a bit of emphasis on horse archery which I didn't remember, but then I'm reminded tht Unicorn schools aren't that archery based as they could be. More importantly though there are a few weird things like frontal charges with cavalry as the tactical doctrine... It's not terrible, but it is bogling. The difference between an offensive and defensive strategy is also puzzling as horse archer armies were notorious for not really needing such adjustment. In fact that is what puzzles me, at no point is the Unicorn army told to deny engagement. There are no feigned retreat tactics, no supply line harrassment. It's basically a set piece affair, but with cavalry.

Appendix II describes Horses and Unicorn specific gear. In relation to the horses I'll overlook the fact that they should have been in the corebook.

As a sidenote they go trough a lot of trouble in this book to tell there was no cavalry in Rokugan before the return of the Ki-Rin, but this kind of contradicts the City of Lies information on the leatherworkers.

Returning to the horses, three breeds are described, the Rokugani pony which is a very small pony, the Gaijin rididng steed, which is clearly a heavy horse, altough in the lighter side of those, and the Otaku warhorse which is clearly a scaled up Arabian or, maybe, a Barb.

After the horses we have the gear. Or as I like to call it, the land of the forty pound longsword. There are also rules for different quality equipment. This appendix also includes the Unicorn secret spells and Nemuranai.

These days the idea of secret spells is problematic for me, because, as prayers to animistic spirits the idea of a secret spell doesn't really make sense but that's a personal quirk of mine, and it is an extensive and interesting list of spells.

Appendix III is a miscellany including a few adventure ideas, a short description of Unicorn provinces and Meishodo.

Frankly, Meishodo rules add very little to the game, particularly as they make standard spellcasting more difficult remove the basic spells from the player's reportoire. As I'm of the opinion that Commune is one of the most important spells in the game this make meishodo a very unatractive option even when speeding spellcasting greatly.

There is also a map of Shinjo Castle, and, like I've said before, this is something which I would like to see done again.

Appendix IV is the blasted CCG deck section. I'm still not convinced of it's utility, and after seeing the Imperial heralds this could have been used to print some of that content instead.

Doubly so if these CCG decks weren't original and were being reprinted from somewhere else.

In the end I have to admit I enjoyed this book altough it's clear that AEG was still testing where it wanted to go with the line. I think Way of the Dragon is better but I much prefer the flavour the Unicorn had at this point than the one it now has.

I also have to reiterate that the Lion and Crane clan books should have been the first published, as a way to establish a baseline for Rokugan.

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