Tuesday, January 3, 2017

D20-Era Reviews Tuesday: Legends of the Samurai

It's a new year, and time to try to renew my annual resolution to blog more.

Continuing with a "semi-trend" I started last year, I'm going to reserve Tuesdays mainly for a new feature on the blog, wherein I'll review an old D20-era product, mainly from the standpoint of how useful it is for gaming with any system, whether you prefer stuff like D&D (any edition), Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, or other systems of your choice.

One genre that's always fascinated me when it comes to fantasy RPGs is that of Asian settings. I remember how excited I was when I read in Dragon magazine that an Oriental Adventures book (the original one for AD&D 1st Edition) was coming out, and how thrilled I was when I received it as a Christmas gift from my mom later that year. That particular book, while it had its problems mechanically, did help open my eyes to all of the different possibilities of a fantasy campaign and how certain concepts could be slightly tweaked to accommodate a different genre or culture.

Today's book falls into that category of "Asian Campaign Settings" but it's really much more than that. The author does a great job of mixing historical Japanese culture along with notes on how to incorporate the more fantastical elements seen in films, books, and video games. Legends of the Samurai, by Charles Rice, was published by RPGObjects, in 2005, so it comes at the later end of the "d20 craze."

This is a 168 page book, 12 of which are appendices in the form of tables illustrating the stats of various NPCs from 1st through 20th levels. The end papers are used for maps (the opening ones are for a full-color map of the islands of Japan as of the 16 Century (one labeling cities, castles, trade routes, etc., and one that labels all the provinces), and the back end papers present maps of a typical Dojo.

The first section of the book provides a lot of interesting and informative detail on the Japanese gaming tradition, how to adapt the book for a historical or a fantasy campaign, and also how to adapt to an "action-based" or "intrigue-based" campaign. As noted in the introduction, "One of the goals for Legends of the Samurai was to make a purely Japanese setting for fantasy or historical adventures." Of course, I tend to just "kit-bash" my campaign settings to take the pieces that I like for my own home-brew campaign setting, so I grabbed quite a few ideas from this book for my long-running World of Samoth campaign.

The first chapter discusses some new concepts for the game, Bloodline and Honor. Bloodlines essentially take the place of races in a standard fantasy campaign. There are no elves or dwarves or even things like hengeyokai in this setting -all characters are human. To take the place of races, there are bloodlines - characters might come from a background of Artisan, Farmer, Merchant, Monastic, Noble, Warrior, or might be an Outcast. These are all related to social standing and each bloodline gives the character an idea of basic personality traits, how he or she might interact with other characters, physical description (including clothing and items), lands where they are most common (e.g., cities, ports, rural, etc.), religion, and why they might be adventuring. It also includes basic ideas on bonuses or penalties a character from this bloodline might have, along with the types of character classes they are most likely to focus on. The real benefit here for someone who wants to play in an Asian-inspired game is all of the background information on the different bloodlines - the information is presented in an easy-to-understand manner and it focuses on broad descriptions that a player or games master can easily grab onto in order to help define an Asian-themed area of a campaign to help set it apart from Western-inspired areas.

The next section on Reputation, Honor, and Allegiances is typically a main part of many Japanese-themed RPGs and Honor can tend to become almost like a seventh ability score that is tracked with a lot of numbers and benefits and penalties. Honor in Legends of the Samurai can provide a bonus to certain skill checks (and its opposite, Infamy, provides bonuses to completely different skills), but the main idea of this section is to illustrate what feudal Japanese culture considered important and how someone from the samurai class might act as opposed to someone from a lower class, and what the societal expectations are. Again, for those of us who grew up in Western cultures and mainly exposed to Western media, this is a very useful section to help provide guidelines for how a Japenese-themed character might act according to his or her culture and how that would be different from the societal expectations of a more Western-themed culture. I know this information, as presented in a clear and concise manner in this book, would have come in very helpful back when I was playing a Samurai style character in my friend Cal's game.

The next section is the longest in the book, at 31 pages, and covers "The Martial Classes" including eight base classes of Ashigaru (footsoldiers, typically drawn from the artisan, farmer and merchant bloodlines), Kuge (nobles), Ninja, Ronin, Samurai, Shokunin (master craftsmen), Touzoku (petty criminals), and Yamabushi (warriors of the monastic class). There are also nine Prestige Classes presented in this chapter, which include Censor (spies for the Shogun or the Emperor), Kensai (master of the blade), Martial Arts Master, Otokodate (greatly renowned warriors of commoner ancestry who fight with seemingly innocuous weapons and defend the weak), Sensei (martial arts instructor), Wako (pirate), Weapon Master, Yakuza, and Yojimbo (a warrior who has taken up arms in service of the people).

For those of you who don't like class-and-level systems, don't be turned off by the number of classes in this book. While you might not end up using the mechanics from this chapter, the background information on each character class helps to define the culture of a Japanese style game, including the types of adventures each class might take, their characteristics, honor, religion, background, honor, and role in the campaign. This is all very useful information regardless of whether you plan to use the actual stats for the classes presented. 

My one complaint with this chapter is that many of the Prestige Classes seem duplicative. Even in the text, the author points out that the Yojimbo is "similar to a Otokodate" and it's not clear why a Kensai isn't just a type of Weapon Master who has chosen to focus on the blade as his primary weapon. Even the Martial Arts Master and the Sensei could probably have been defined, with just a few options at each level to distinguish them rather than having separate classes. Although I am on-record for actually liking character classes, class bloat is one thing that a lot of people complained about regarding the d20 era, and having nine Prestige Classes in this chapter doesn't help that argument.

The successive chapters focus on skills and feats (including a separate section on martial arts feats), and equipment. This is pretty standard stuff, but the equipment section in particular would be very useful to anyone running a Japanese-themed game.

Next up, in an interesting choice of layout, is a section on the "Mystic Classes." The author actually made the choice of separating the Mystic classes from the Martial classes, and it's a choice that does make sense when you consider how the beginning of the book mentioned that there were two standard ways you could approach the game - as historical or as fantasy. If you plan to play a purely historical campaign, you can completely ignore the chapters on the Mystic Classes and the Mystic Arts (which covers spell points, mystic skills and feats, fate and destiny, spell lists; the only part of this chapter you'd actually need is for the Gods and Religions of Medieval Japan, which technically would be applicable even in a historical game and probably should have been presented in a separate chapter).

The mystic classes include the Kenza (master of elements), Mahoutsukai (master of sorcery or "black magic"), Senkensha (divine seer), and the Shukke (priest). The author wisely makes the choice here to have the Shukke class be applicable to all religions (including "mythic" as well as Christianity, Buddhism, and Shinto.

The spell system for Legends of the Samurai is not the standard d20 system of gaining spells by level, but rather that of using Spell Points. Although this is technically a completely new system, the book is able to explain its application in fewer than two pages.

Also included in the section on Mystic Arts is the idea of Fate and Destiny, which is a fun way for a character to pick a fate, and for the GM to also pick a secret destiny for that same character. There is an easy-to-use mechanic presented for the idea of "fate points" and "destiny points" which is a way to use some light rules to illustrate how, in Japanese media, many characters are presented as having destinies that they cannot seem to escape, no matter how hard they try. As an example, the author provides a scenario where a character might declare his fate to be "the greatest samurai in history," but unbeknownst to him, his destiny could be to end up facing his long-lost brother in a battle to advance the cause of his Shogun. 

The next section of the book is eight pages long and covers Gamemastering a campaign, providing tips and advice on running both historical and mythic campaigns, adventure locations, a timeline of Medieval Japan, and short histories of all of the provinces of Japan. 

The book wraps up by discussing monsters in a chapter of 16 pages. The first part of the chapter reviews monsters from the Monster Manual that are appropriate to a Japanese-themed campaign (and any modifications to make to those monsters) and then presents 16 new monsters, many of which are somewhat humanoid in type, such as Hengeyokai, Naga, Nezumi, and Swamp Goblins. There are details for quite a few of these monsters on how to use them as a Player Character race in the event that you want to add non-human characters to your game.

The artwork is all black-and-white pen and ink and is very reminiscent of the artwork from the 1st Edition Oriental Adventures book, so there's a nice sense of nostalgia to it.

This is a really great book to read and use if you're planning on running a Japanese campaign, or have a Japanese-type area in your game world, or even if you're just looking for some new ideas to add to your game world (e.g., you could take the concept of the "Bloodlines" but adapt them to your own campaign world to help differentiate the humans in your campaign, and you could grab the spell point system to revise the standard D&D style magic system, or even take the section on the weapons, re-name them, and use them as the weapons from a specific culture or race from your campaign).

As mentioned, this book came out at the end of the d20 craze, so it unfortunately was a bit under the radar, which is a shame given how well-researched and presented it is. Anybody else out there pick this up? What were your experiences with it?

  • Format. Originally collected three separate PDFs into one 168 hardback tome, with a color cover and end-papers and black-and-white interior. 
  • Where to Buy. This is long out-of-print but there are used copies available right now on Amazon, and you can also download the whole PDF from DriveThruRPG
  • Price. The original hardback retailed for $29.95 The PDF version is currently available for $8.95. 
  • More Information. There is very scant information available for this book. The publisher website has a listing but it basically just has a short blurb and provides the table of contents. Interestingly, the PDF is available slightly cheaper on the publisher website (currently at $8.00 versus $8.95 on DriveThruRPG). 

If you're looking for some more info to help with building your Asian/Japanese themed areas of your campaign, you can refer to my tag on "Asian Campaign Settings" and also my review of the Dark Horse comics adaptation of "The 47 Ronin."

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Blue Christmas (To Whom It May Concern)" by Miles Davis

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