Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Review Round Up: Legends of the Samurai Mystic Handbook

Legends of the Samurai: The Mystic Arts

Reviewed by: Wayne Tonjes

Legends of the Samurai: The Mystic Arts v1.0 by RPGObjects is a new d20 supplement of their Legends line. At present, this product is only available as an electronic PDF file through RPGNow.com or the company directly. It comes with a choice of formats, although RPGNow only provides the on-screen, landscape version. As such, acquisition of the alternative, print version requires a visit to the main product site.

This volume is the second of three designed to create a semi-historic setting of feudal Japan for the d20 System. This installment addresses the various magic options for this particular setting.

The first volume, The Bushido Handbook, provided the more martial classes, along with numerous underlying aspects key to recreating a relatively realistic Japan. The third book will subsequently provide game master information for a campaign.

The general setting concept is quoted here from the product websites: “Travel to a world of blood, loyalty, and honor with the second installment of RPGObjects’ Legends line of d20 fantasy supplements. This d20 sourcebook features new classes and mechanics to bring the world of medieval Japan to life in your game and blends our popular spell point, nobility, fate, and martial rules to create an Oriental game experience like no other.”This summary provides some hints to the mechanics that will be offered in all three volumes, and this one handles the spell point and fate systems while the first handed the martial rules and nobility details needed to reenact traditional Japan.

The book contains just two chapters, starting with the four main magic wielding classes. These classes provide the major sources of magic items with the exception of the arms and armor, which are the sole province of the shokunin class given in The Bushido Handbook. These new classes are evenly split between arcane and divine spell casters. The arcanists consist of the kensa, true masters of the elements, and the more subtle mahoutsukai, despised masters of illusion and enchantment. The senkensha and shukke are the available divine casters, with the first gaining assorted divination talents and the latter monastic training benefits. All of these classes have some dependence on mechanics presented in the first volume, particularly the Bloodline, Honor, and Allegiance systems. As such, this volume cannot be used simply as a standalone product without a fair bit of creative modification. To get the most out of this volume requires it be used as it was intended as the second part of the Legends of the Samurai trilogy.
The second chapter could readily be divided into three or more chapters, with a minimum of one each on basic mechanics and information, spell lists and descriptions, and mystic items. The latter two divisions of spells and magic items are fairly standard for a d20 sourcebook and can be easily summarized. There are only three new spell domains, fifty-two new spells, and six new weapon or armor qualities. All other entries are merely modified to account for the new creation rules or the altered selection of spell casting classes. Unfortunately, there are some slips, like one magic item that still uses its core rule spell requirements for creation despite those spells being excluded from the setting or the Importune Kami spells that aim for flavor but fail to give any real benefit. Overall, these are a fair selection, although the basic details of mystic item creation are somewhat obscure.

The first part of the chapter is far more varied, with the new magic rules, skills, feats, Japanese religions, and fate and destiny mechanic. It starts with the magic system, which switches from the daily spell slot system to a more flexible, constantly renewing spell point system. This is the same system as was presented in Legends of Excalibur, although there is slightly less emphasis placed on beneficial locales in this setting. Spells are assigned a spell level based spell point cost that gradually decreases as the caster rises in level. This is a tested system that works.

Unfortunately, how high ability scores add spell points is unfortunately not provided, leaving it to assumption that the normal skill modifier is simply added to the caster's total.

The other basic mechanics include six subskills, nine revised metamagic feats, six new feats, religions and deities of historic Japan, and the fate system. The skills are rather abbreviated, to the point that a seventh subskill was accidentally excluded and it was never stated explicitly that the craft subskills replace the core d20 magic item creation rules with the standard craft rules. This shift has some impact on the availability of magic items, as player characters are less likely to have the time to invest in their creation. While the requirement to take specific feats and spend experience points to make magic items is removed, the corresponding greatly increased creation time and rather hefty number of requisite skill check rolls may be more than many players care to play.

The revised feats are more thorough, despite nine of them only offering a slight modification from the core rule definitions. If there is anything lacking from this section, it is a table of all the feats instead of just the eleven metamagic feats. The new options mostly offer enhancements to spell point totals, either in their recovery, alternate sources, or metamagic alterations to reduce spell casting costs. The distinct new feat, Ancestral Weapon/Armor, is more general, required by any class to simply harness the powers of a specific magical weapon or armor. This feat, more than anything, imposes the limited magic of the setting, as a character requires a separate investment of this feat to acquire any bonus from each magic weapon or armor owned.

Furthermore, it requires, in essence, another possessor of the feat to just hand off one owned magic armament for a better one. As such, any magic weapon or armor is typically going to have been a specially ordered, unique piece, enhanced to the best of the owners' ability. Simple +1 weapons are going to be created only as a temporary step towards greater items.

The listing of religious details and the fate system are both good. The religious review includes overviews of Buddhism, Christianity, and Shinto. Of these, only Shinto has a selection of individualized deities with unique domains. Fourteen of the Shinto gods are provided. The fate system is a somewhat optional system that allows a character to spend fate points to modify assorted checks in the pursuit of some important goal. In exchange for these positive modifiers, the character accumulates destiny points, which can be used by the game master against the character at appropriately dramatic junctures. It is a nice mechanic for adding both the undefeatable resolve and inevitable, epic destinies typical of Japanese legendary heroes.

The volume layout and art are in the same style as the first book of the series, with a good use of color for text highlight and a decent collection of ink style portraits and small action scenes. The product, as mentioned, currently only comes in an electronic form, with separately downloaded format options with a landscape layout for onscreen viewing and portrait print friendly version.

The print version makes less use of background color, although it still uses enough to keep the titles and labels distinct. The volume is still using a version number, suggesting an intention to update. As RPGObjects traditionally welcomes feedback on their products and have already revised The Bushido Handbook to version 1.1, this is an opportunity for readers wanting some particular aspect of historic Japan developed to put in their two cents.

The Mystic Arts v1.0 presents the basic magic classes and system needed for a Japanese based campaign, but it needs a bit more work. In general, there is a mixed approach to the level of magic within the setting. Parts of it, particularly the historic nature, crafting rules, and feat requirement for fully using magic arms and armor, indicate a low magic level. However, the fact that spellcasters can still wield fireballs and lightning bolts, and even do so more flexibly than the core rule wizard, is more of a high magic feature. Similarly, the attempt to make magic item creation more limited by the shift to class or skill requirements really just shifts the cost around a bit without making it particularly harder. Hopefully, the next revision might address the disparity by making the aims of the magic system a little more explicit along with catching the assorted lapses. Take a look now and see where the magic of historic Japan, really is.

For more details on RPGObjects and their new d20 supplement, Legends of the Samurai: The Mystic Arts v1.0, check them out at their website http://www.rpgobjects.com and at RPGNow.com.

The original review can be found here:


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