Review – Way of the Open Hand (L5R RPG 2E)

Way of the Open Hand is a monks and martial arts sourcebook for the second edition of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game.* About half of the 96-page book (softcover, black & white) is about the Brotherhood of Shinsei (including some mechanical content), and about half concerns the martial arts of the Great Clans (which is heavily mechanical content).

(* For those who don’t keep track of older RPG editions, this is the era where Rokugan became the default location of the Dungeons & Dragons Oriental Adventures campaign setting. Wizards of the Coast published the core campaign setting book, but nothing else. AEG published a lot of other material, including a sort-of-core campaign setting book (Rokugan) that heavily modified and supplemented the content in the WotC-published Oriental Adventures. Way of the Open Hand, like the other AEG-published L5R supplements of this era, includes mechanical content for both the d20 system and the traditional L5R Roll and Keep system.)

From a flavor and world perspective, later-published material blows away Way of the Open Hand for in-depth information on the Brotherhood of Shinsei (indeed, the earlier-published Way of Shinsei is also a better source for general information on the Brotherhood). It’s not that the information in Way of the Open Hand isn’t useful background (covering the history of Shinsei and the Tao, the Brotherhood, Seven Fortunes monks, monks of lesser fortunes, and monks of the great clans) – it’s just much less detailed that what’s out there. However, this might be the only place to find some of the flavor information on the “martial arts” of the great clans (and ratlings and ronin and gaijin), although that information is limited. If you want as in-depth a look as you’re going to get on martial arts in the clans (except Dragon), this is it.

From a mechanical perspective, there are a lot of options for monks, and a couple of sets of options for each great clan, although it’s questionable whether some of the great clan options are really “martial arts.” For example, one of the Lion technique sets is Magari-yarijustu – maybe I’m in a minority here, but when I think about martial arts in the context of a fantasy RPG, I don’t think about random weapon-based techniques. I say “sets” of options because much of the mechanical content is focused around particular martial arts styles. For the d20 system, these are chains of feats. For the RnK content, they are chains of “titles” that require specialization in that style and the expenditure of experience points to purchase. Major style chains are five long, minor style chains are three long.

The martial arts styles covered (with both mechanics and fluff) include:

  • Tasaii-do (Shinsei monk major style): A style based on flexibility and quick reactions, tasaii-do interacts heavily with combat feats that involve lowering your attack bonus (d20) or calling raises (RnK).
  • Sebun-do (Seven Fortunes monk major style): A passive style based on evading and redirecting, sebum-do grants bonuses when fighting defensively and attacks of opportunity (or the RnK equivalent).
  • Tenshido (Mikokami monk major style): A movement focused martial art based on defensive moves like throws and joint locks, tenshido focuses on non-damaging attacks (e.g., trips, disarms, grapples, knockdowns).
  • Kobo ichi-kai (Crab Clan major style): A risky, violent style (no meditation here), kobo ichi-kai increases damage and makes it easier to initiate a grapple.
  • Sagasu-do (Crab Clan minor style): A style employed by Kuni Witch Hunters, sagasu-do provides bonuses against the Shadowlands.
  • Mizu-do (Crane Clan major style): A style originally designed to be visually appealing, mizu-do grants bonuses that help avoid being hit and bonuses when foes miss. Also double damage in a grapple at the master level.
  • Resplendent Crane Yarijutsu (Crane Clan minor style): As the name indicates, this combat style uses the yari. It provides flat attack or defense bonuses when using the yari.
  • Kaze-do (Dragon Clan major style): A defensive, unpredictable style, kaze-do provides bonuses against opponents who have attacked you and on grapple checks.
  • Magari-yarijutsu (Lion Clan major style): An aggressive style using the yari (yes, I know you could guess that just from reading that it was Lion Clan and had the word “yari” in the name), magari-yarijutsu provides bonuses when charging.
  • The Art of the Sword (Lion Clan minor style): This style allows unarmed strikes while still holding onto a katana.
  • Drunken Mantis (Mantis Clan major style): A style based on unpredictable movement, the drunken mantis grants dodge bonuses, opportunities to fall prone, and then bonuses when prone.
  • Himitsuheiki (Mantis Clan minor style): A style focused on improvised weapons, himitsuheiki provides bonuses related to their use.
  • Kinenhi (Phoenix Clan major style): A hard style focused on powerful strikes and blocks, kinenhi provides flat bonuses to AC (or TN to be hit) and improved odds of a critical (or increased damage).
  • Ninjutsu (Scorpion Clan major style): A style focused on speed and accuracy, preferably when unforeseen by the opponent, ninjutsu provides bonuses against flat-footed enemies and enemies advancing on the ninja.
  • Marumojutsu (Scorpion Clan minor style): A heavily defensive art designed to look like the user is lucky, rather than skillful, marumojutsu improves full defense and then grants progressive bonuses when the practitioner is not attacking and/or managing to avoid being hit.
  • Bariqu Wrestling (Unicorn Clan major style): This seems to be a sumo variation, primarily practiced as a recreational sport. Mechanically, the style gives a variety of bonuses when grappling – bonuses to hit, shoves, extra subdual damage, re-rolls, and (temporary) Strength damage.
  • Shiotome-do (Unicorn Clan minor style): As you might guess from the name, this is a Battle Maiden fighting style. It is intended to allow its female practitioners to use their smaller, lighter frames to gain advantage against (usually) heavier foes. It provides bonuses to initiate a grapple, the ability to trip during a grapple, and then big damage bonuses when attacking someone tripped in this way.
  • Mochatchikkan (Ratling major style): Previously presented in Way of the Ratling, but with all new mechanics here. Unlike the mechanics described in Way of the Ratling (which include things like bite and tail attacks), humans can learn mochatchikkan, although with difficulty. Mochatchikkan presents as a chaotic, frenzied style, giving bonuses when charging, to attributes/traits, and for attacking the same foe repeatedly.
  • Nagai Michinori (“Ronin” major style): This style, created by the then-former Dragon Clan monk Kaelung, was designed to combine elements from multiple styles. The style chain makes it easier to acquire other feats/styles without meeting prerequisites.
  • Chisaijutsu (Ronin minor style): This tessen-based style was developed to allow local in Toshi Ranbo to keep in line the various Lion and Crane samurai who occupied and battled over the city. It provides bonuses when fighting with a tessen.
  • Sainika (Gaijin major style): Originating in the Ivory Kingdoms, sainika grants varied benefits such as dodge bonuses, bonuses to attack of opportunity, and extra movement.

In addition, Way of the Open hand includes seven new kiho, three kiho representing the favor of the Dragon Clan monk order founders (Togashi, Hitomi, Hoshi), four new advantages, and the Brotherhood Wayfinder prestige class (gets bonuses to help themselves or others make skill checks, saves, and attack roles)

Way of the Open Hand avoids one of the problems that have sometimes been caused by the desire to give something mechanical to every clan. Sure, everybody gets a ‘martial art’ – but for the most part they have no significant flavor impact on the setting. There’s no “hey, look, now the Crane have ninja” pieces – just different fighting techniques. Some of the d20 mechanics are way too good (for example, the initial kinenhi style feat giving a flat +2 AC), but that’s par for the course with the AEG-produced L5R d20 material – randomly overpowered feats, prestige classes, and such are pervasive throughout the game line. So I don’t consider this a situation like Art of the Duel (for Third Edition) where the overpowered mechanics actually mattered.

All told, the most useful content in Way of the Open Hand to the current-day reader is probably the flavor information on the martial arts of the Great Clans. I don’t see a lot of use beyond that, except for us completionists.



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