The Book of Fire is the third in the elemental series for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (4th Edition), following on the Book of Air and Book of Earth. The Book of Fire is a 200-page, full-cover hardcover that retails for about $40.
This review will give a relatively detailed rundown of the contents, with some opinions interspersed and more detailed judgments at the end. If you’re like me, then you’ll end up owning far more RPG books than you could ever fully use in campaigns, and so my opinions on the book will not only cover the view of a GM or player, but also a reader.
The Legend of the Five Rings RPG (along with other games like the L5R CCG, War of Honor, and Ninja) is set in the world of Rokugan, a fantasy Asian/Japanese setting where characters typically assume the role of samurai from one of the Empire’s Great Clans – either the traditional warrior, a velvet-tongued courtier, or a spell-slinging shugenja (priest). Adventures most commonly include combat, social, and investigative challenges.
The Book of Fire covers a variety of aspects of the L5R setting with a thematic bent towards the element of fire. This includes thing that are literally fire, things that are linked mechanically with the Fire Ring and its Traits (Intelligence and Agility), and things that are conceptually linked with the the Japanese/Rokugani element of fire (such as drive, passion, focus and change). For the Book of Fire, this translates to a lot about kenjutsu (swordfighting), crafting and libraries.
As with the prior elemental books, The Book of Fire includes a chapter on war (bushi stuff), a chapter on magic (shugenja stuff), a chapter on ‘peace’ (courtier stuff), a chapter on philosophical matters (monks), a survey of some elements of the world that relate to fire, and a potential campaign setting/location that relates to the concepts of fire in the book.
As is usual for the L5R RPG fourth edition, the layout for The Book of Fire is excellent – flavorful without getting in the way. Likewise the art, with the luxury of drawing from the CCG, is great as usual (for you L5R nostaligia hounds, you will get to see more old school L5R CCG artwork in here than you’re probably used to in the RPG).
Editing is OK, I guess. It’s not bad or anything (L5R is still a big boy quality RPG), but I definitely noticed more typos and other goofs (repeated sentences, accidentally leaving a Book of Earth header in when re-using the template) than I’ve seen in prior 4E books.
I continue to love the decision to put all of the crunch at the back of the book for easier reference later on.
The Fires of War (~25 pages) – Kenjutsu is the central combat skill of L5R (yes, yes, you can do more broken things with jiujutsu and kyujutsu, but that’s because those skills are niche enough that they didn’t bother to adjust the combat system to properly account for them), and that’s the first thing that this chapter touches on – history of kenjutsu, kenjutsu training and kenjutsu schools in all the clans. There are also sections on knife-fighting and hitsu-do (an aggressive martial art). There’s also a nice section about life at war, including practicalities like mustering, training, foraging and sickness.
The Fires of Magic (~25 pages) – This section covers … the Asahina? And the Moshi? What? OK, then it covers actual Fire shugenja from the Isawa and Agasha. There’s content about the Phoenix’s Firestorm Legion and one of its sub-units, the Inferno Guard, creating minor temporary magical items (which I guess is how the Asahina made it into this book), a Togashi subgroup called the Transcendent Brotherhood, who focus on enlightenment through pain, and the College of Clarity, a Moshi group that promotes clear thinking. There’s a lengthy section on ways to use your Fire spells, and we finally get official fourth edition taryu-jiai rules (magical duels between shugenja). The chapter closes off with information on interacting with the Fire kami (handy, because of Commune spells) and information an elemental imbalances involving fire (useless).
The Fires of Peace (~20 pages) – This chapter revolves heavily around lore and libraries, since both of those are Intelligence skills (and, therefore, Fire skills). This singles out the Asako (loremasters and Loremasters), plus the Ikoma “Historians” (would you like the public official history that is knowingly and consistently biased in our clan’s favor, or would you like the secret true history that shows how our official histories aren’t just biased, but a deliberate pack of lies? Oh, and I did mention we’re the super-honorable clan?). Also covered a bit are the Otomo (especially the historians and the matchmakers) and the Kitsuki, two groups of courtiers more associated with other elements (the Otomo were already covered in The Book of Earth, and one presumes the Kitsuki will get more treatment in The Book of Water). The courts covered are Morning Glory Castle (home of the Asako), Kyuden Ikoma (home of the Kitsuki … just kidding) and Shiro Sano Kakita. There’s a section on libraries – the Asako Libraries, the Izaku Library (jointly kept by the Phoenix and Dragon), the Otomo Library, the Ikoma Library (and its counterpart, the Shosuro-Ikoma Library – see prior snarky aside on the Ikoma), and the Kuni “Library” (a.k.a., there are Kuni hanging around, and they tend to know things about the Shadowlands).
The Fires Within (~10 pages) – This chapter leads off with monastic orders, including the Temples of the Thousand Fortunes, the Order of Rebirth (devoted to Shiba Tsukune, the Fortune of Rebirth), Tengoku’s Fist (founded by some former Crab who thought that going out and bashing skulls would do more to help the Celestial Order than sitting in your monastery meditating about it), and the Temple of Heavenly Wisdom (an order patronized by the Doji). Finally, there’s a list of thoughts on the Fire Kiho and coverage of the Keeper of Fire and the Book of Fire.
The World of Fire (~30 pages) – This chapter covers natural disasters (volcanoes, drought, wildfires), an extensive section on swordsmithing (including coverage of Kaiu, Ashidaka, Agashi/Tamori and Tsi), charcoal (??), glass crafting, an extensive section on poetry, celestial beings associated with Fire, supernatural creatures associated with Fire, and a variety of magical swords (including the Bloodswords, the Celestial Swords, the Five Swords of Legend and the Shameswords – also, if you’ve been wondering why a Wyrmbone Katana is so brutal in the CCG, well now you can find out what a Wyrmbone Katana is!).
The Hundred Stances Dojo (~40 pages) – This chapter describes a dojo of indeterminate time and location, so that you can drop it into any sort of campaign or, potentially, set a whole campaign there. A samurai on musha shugyo mastered the Hundred Stances, a method of conceptualizing kenjutsu that could be applied to any Clan’s style and make it better. His writing were lost, but were later found, which resulted in several clans going to war over who got to control the dojo based on those writings. This was settled by a Seppun adjudicator, who decided that the Seppun would administer the dojo, but that each clan would have the opportunity to be head sensei, based on kenjutsu duels. So, basically, you become head sensei and cut off full access to the teachings to anyone who isn’t from your Clan until whenever you are defeated by one of your students (who you let in even though you didn’t have to, and who then beat you even though you didn’t teach him the good stuff), and the new sensei does it all over again. So you essentially end up with a dojo where all clans can send students, and where any clan might be in charge of instruction at any given point in time. You can then pour your PCs into this isolated soup of multi-clan politicking and backstabbing (metaphorically, anyway – most of the actual stabbing is done from the front). The chapter gives you the history and layout of the dojo and its environs, full write-ups for a sample student from each Clan (and a Ronin) and the Seppun administrator, a story that one might run as a single session or perhaps several, and a half-dozen story hooks.
New Mechanics (~20 pages) – The new mechanics include Crab Knife-Fighters (Crab bushi path), Hojatsu’s Legacy (Dragon bushi dueling path), Mantis Whirlwind Fighters (R4 Yoritomo Bushi path for dual-kama fighting), Shosuro Assassins (Advanced Path for ninja), Ujina Skirmishers (alternate knife-fighting path for R2 Hare Bushi), Hitsu-Do (R2 alternate path for monks), several new kata, Asahina Fire Sculptors (R2 shugenja path – not restricted to Crane), Transcendent Brotherhood ( R2 Tattooed Monk alternate path), College of Clarity (any school R2 alternate path), Agasha Alchemists (R3 Agasha alternate path), Inferno Guard (R3 Isawa shugenja path), rules for counterspelling, rules for taryu-jiai, 19 new spells, Ikoma Historians (R3 path for Ikoma Bards and Lion’s Shadows), Asako Scholars (R3 alternate path for Asako), Order of Rebirth (Brotherhood basic school), Tengoku’s Fist (Brotherhood basic school), Temple of Heavenly Wisdom (Brotherhood basic school), three new Kiho, the Volcano Tattoo, Basan (a kind of supernatural rooster – no, I’m not making that up), Elemental Terrors of Fire (greater and lesser), Wanyudo (a sort of tormented undead), night herons and roosters (yes, actual roosters).
I have been unenthusiastic about the elemental series, and the Book of Fire hasn’t changed that. Each of the books contains a number of topics that just do nothing for me as a reader, GM, or player – such as the one or two-paragraph looks at mechanical bits that consume multiple pages while not really conveying any helpful information (lists of skills associated with the element, lists of advantages and disadvantages, lists of spells from the element, list of Kiho from the element) or the conceptual consequences of elemental imbalance.
On the bright side, the fact that making and wielding katana fit within the Book of Fire means that the nitty-gritty material here is much more relevant to most characters – the katana is just that central a part of the concept of a samurai. So while I rolled my eyes at lengthy discourses on how you breath when shooting an arrow (The Book of Air) or the precise half-hour ritual for donning your armor before battle (The Book of Earth), sections on how one trains to use a katana or the forging process for a katana were more relevant and interesting to me (I also appreciated that the authors did not provide an extensive discussion of something like how one grips a katana). And the section on the practicalities of war will be handy for any GM who wants to make his characters remember that war isn’t all glory and flashing swords (now, if only they could stop talking about taking heads as trophies, something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen happen in any L5R fiction or any L5R RPG campaign).
Also, there are finally official taryu-jiai rules for 4E. Hooray! Also, there’s a replacement for the much-loathed (at least by me) Rank 4 Mirumoto Technique, and it’s even dueling! Double hooray!
The Book of Fire also kind of oddly stretches to get its subject matter and fit within the established format. There are only two Fire-focused shugenja schools, and both of them are Phoenix, so the Book of Fire has to spend time on a couple of Air shugenja schools. There’s another look at the Otomo (who were already in the Book of Earth) and a look at the Kitsuki (who will be in the Book of Water, one imagines). One of the courts covered in the Peace book is Shiro Sano Kakita, which seems more like an Air court (well, every Court is kind of an Air court, but the most noteworthy thing about Shiro Sano Kakita is that the Kakita Artisan Academy is there, and music and dueling were covered in the Book of Air).
I was a bit surprised at these stretches because there are a number of Intelligence/Agility skills that weren’t really covered in the Book of Fire, weren’t in the Book of Air or Earth, and wouldn’t seem to fit in the Book of Water. Some of those still aren’t good thematic fits (engineering and being sneaky, for example), but why a lengthy section on poetry, but nothing on dance or calligraphy? Or anything at all rather than a section on charcoal?
The section on the Keeper of the Element is, as with the Book of Air and Book of Earth, some of the best couple of pages in the book, telling an interesting bit of history (personal and societal).
As you can tell, I’m not super-enthused about the Elemental Books. They are, to me, definitely the last things you want to pick up from L5R Fourth Edition – they aren’t vital for gameplay or setting information like the core book, Emerald Empire, Great Clans or Enemies of the Empire, and they aren’t fantastic reading/story material like Imperial Histories and Imperial Histories 2. The information they present is all too often simply too narrow to be of importance for playing, and too textbook to be great reading material. With that said, the Book of Fire is better about this than the Book of Air or Book of Earth – in no small part because the katana material is both more important than the equivalent sections, while also (mostly) avoiding the sort of numbing detail that those books gave about archery and armor. And, of course, I did buy the Book of Fire having already read the Book of Air and Book of Earth, so it does get that seal of approval. So, lesser than other L5R RPG books, but still something I’ll continue to pick up as an L5R fan. Which I think is basically what I said in the Book of Air review.