With the fifth edition of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game bearing down upon us, I sat down to read the last L5R RPG fourth edition book I hadn’t yet read – The Book of Water. If you’ve read my full history of reviewing L5R RPG books (and, if you have, congratulations on staying with me for seven years), you’ll have noted that it’s mostly been big ups (most of the books), but with a definite downer (the elemental books). Indeed, while I wrote reviews for stellar tomes like Emerald Empire, Imperial Histories, and The Great Clans, I only penned reviews for a couple of the elemental books (specifically The Book of Air and The Book of Fire). This was in no small part because I just wasn’t excited about seeking them out and reading them. While I eventually read The Book of Earth and The Book of Void, I didn’t review them. Well, I finally got around to reading the copy of the Book of Water that’s been residing on my ‘bookshelf of shame’ (unread books). And this time, I did feel like writing a review, so here we are.
I often like to provide a catalog of the contents of roleplaying books before I provide my opinions, but here I’ll just skip to the final opinion bit – I can’t say I’m a fan of The Book of Water, but I liked it more than I thought I would (yes, I am aware that this judgment is even weaker than “faint praise”). Why was that? Was there something better about this one, or has absence made the heart grow fonder? Or was I just quicker to briskly skim over the parts where I started to get bored?
In general, the flaws of the elemental books remain in the Book of Water. Taken together, they are a really detailed survey of certain aspects of Rokugan, but dividing a lot of that content up by element wasn’t really a helpful organizational choice. And there’s too much content that’s too much of a stretch – things like way too much detail on minutiae of some aspect of feudal Japanese life from a Rokugani perspective (here that’s things like non-magical divination, sake, and how certain weapons work), content that could be interesting but is really shoehorned into the elemental concept when it shouldn’t be (rather than learning something new about, say, the Daidoji family, there is a presentation on how the Daidoji embody courtly water), and content that wasn’t going to be interesting no matter where it was (e.g., multi-page efforts to tie elemental imbalances into how people feel, endless discussions trying to tie advantages/disadvantages into the elements, and tips on how to use spells).
Similarly, the best (fluff) parts of the Book of Water are probably the same parts as the best parts of the other elemental books – the story of the Keeper of that particular element (here that’s Doji Jun’ai), and the new elemental-themed location (complete with NPCs) created for the book (always conveniently including reasons for every clan to be there). The new location for The Book of Water is the Eternal Danger Islands. There’s a long backstory, but suffice it to say that there once was a Naga city that got smashed beneath the waves, and now the shattered remains of that island (shattered enough that most of it is gone, and only the smaller pieces now remain) have returned about the waves. Rokugan was quick to claim these islands, which are full of curses, ruins, naga remnants, and maybe a little bit of the Lying Darkness. In addition, the whole place is relatively suffused with magic, allowing each island to be its own distinct adventure to explore.
In addition to the usual suspects, the Book of Water has meaningful content on seafaring in Rokugan – one place where I think more could have been presented, even though at 10+ pages it’s already getting a lot given the state of seafaring in Rokugan (although I’ll grant that presenting something other than overwhelming dominance by the Mantis would not be consistent with the overall setting). I liked the Isawa Acolytes of Snow, who turn a fixation on snow maidens into some distinctive water magic.
The Book of Water also benefits from the excellent decision made by AEG to put all of the mechanics at the back of the book. It wasn’t a decision I wasn’t sure about when they first did it, but it makes the books so much more user-friendly to just be able to pop to the back of the book when looking for character creation content. The content here is the usual mix of lots of alternate paths and spells, plus advantages, kata, tattoos, weapons, and creatures. Of course, as a Dragon generally (and Kitsuki specifically) fanboy, I was happy to see the Rank 6 Kitsuki’s Eye, just in case your Kitsuki wasn’t already perceptive enough.
Finally, the graphic design, layout, and art in The Book of Water remain excellent, as they did throughout the L5R RPG 4E books (the proofreading could use some work though). The art greatly benefits from being able to borrow from the digital assets generated for the CCG. Not only was there some really good art to draw on, there enough of it such that (unlike some recent 2E books I’ve been reading) there is generally art to be had that is fairly directly illustrative of what’s being discussed in the text.
And with that, it is on to fifth edition.