Oriental Adventures Capsule Review by Alan D. Kohler on 10/10/01
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
The new incarnation of D&D's Far East sourcebook is graphically gorgeous and mechanically sound, and brings with it a new buddy that you may have already met -- Rokugan.
Product: Oriental Adventures
Author: James Wyatt
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Line: Dungeons & Dragons
Page count: 256
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Alan D. Kohler on 10/10/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Asian/Far East
Fantasy RPGs have long flirted with the fantastical notions associated with the Far East. Samurai and ninja have appeared in a variety of computer and tabletop RPGs, and a few games have been totally based around settings drawn from historical and mythical references in East Asian cultures. FGU presented a fantasy RPG based on ancient Japan called Bushido. TSR came up with its own version of a fantasy East Asian themed setting and rules with the Oriental Adventures book for 1e AD&D, and the subsequent Kara-Tur boxed set. Perhaps the most popular such RPG in this vein is the Rokugan setting for the Legend of the Five Rings CCG and RPG.
Years later, Wizards of the Coast owns the rights to Dungeons & Dragons and to Legends of the Five Rings. When it announced that a new Oriental Adventures would be published, many old fans of previous AD&D material expected a re-appearance of the Kara-Tur setting. Alas, this was not to happen. As WotC owns the rights to Rokugan, it made little sense for it to promote a relatively obscure setting over a well-accepted one. The "sample setting" in the 3e Oriental Adventures is, therefore, Rokugan.
It's not all Rokugan, however. James Wyatt promised us that one of his influences was the Dragonfist game, inspired by Wuxia, fantastical Chinese martial arts epics, as well as the old Oriental Adventures hardbound and other sources.
A First Look
Oriental Adventures is a 256-page hardbound book. The cover is somewhat unconventional for a WotC hardbound, in that it does not match any of the existing cover schemes. For example, the Psionics Handbook had a brown cover in the style of the Player's Handbook, and the Manual of the Planes had a blue cover matching the style of the Dungeon Master's Guide. The Oriental Adventures book, on the other hand, has a cover with the appearance of beige monogrammed paper with a cloth back and a depiction of a samurai-like warrior wielding two swords (and carrying a third), all done in a very classical Asian style.
The interior is illustrated with full-color art - and outstanding full-color art at that. Artists contributing to the book include Wayne Reynolds, Raven Mimura, Arnie Swekel, Matt Cavotta, Larry Dixon, David Martin, Darrell Riche, Richard Sardinha, and Brian Snoddy. The book's borders are made to resemble wood building material. This combines to make this easily the most attractive hardcover for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition that WotC has published to date.
The text density is fairly high, using a font size and spacing similar to other non-core D&D 3e rulebooks. The overall price is a somewhat painful $34.95 US, but this isn't too surprising in contrast with other WotC full-color books.
Characters from the Far East
The Oriental Adventures book is divided into twelve chapters and three appendices. The first five chapters cover character creation. The introduction also sets up a convention that will be used throughout the book: a "Legends of the Five Rings" logo is used to denote parts that will be used in the Rokugan setting. Much of the book is not used in Rokugan. For example, there are no Hengeyokai, Wu Jen, or Sohei in the Rokugan setting.
The first chapter covers character races. It introduces five new PC races:
In addition to the new races, the chapter discusses how to integrate existing core D&D races to an OA-style campaign. In the case of humans in the Rokugan setting, clan determines the character's bonus feat and favored class. The other races have a few notes on how they can be made to fit with the elements in the OA book. For example, elves can pick wu jen instead of wizard as a favored class, and dwarves have their combat bonuses expanded to some creatures in the OA setting and can choose fighter or samurai as a favored class.
The second chapter focuses on core character classes. This includes tweaks and guidelines for using existing D&D 3e classes, as well as five new character classes specifically for an East-Asian themed setting.
Several classes from the PHB are as a default not used in the Rokugan setting: bard, cleric, druid, paladin, and wizard. Of course, in homebrew settings, the DM may have different ideas about what belongs and what doesn't.
Of the existing classes, most of the changes are minor. For example, fighters only add a few new feats introduced in the book to their list of feats, and most classes revise their list of known weapons to include some of the existing weapons. The biggest change is the monk. In OA, monks add knowledge (religion) to their class skills and may trade some of their virtual feats for other martial arts feats. In addition, the ill-conceived rule that monks may not advance after they multiclass does not apply in OA - which sounds like a good general rule to me.
The new core character classes introduced in OA 3e are:
Notably, there is no ninja core class. This may take some of you by surprise. James Wyatt had this to say in an interview about his reasoning:
Different people -- whether they are historians, fantasy authors, filmmakers, or gamers -- have different ideas of what ninja were or should be, and as a result their abilities are difficult to define in the terms of a single class. Are ninja martial artists, magicians, or charlatans? Different sources portray them in different ways.
History and fantasy both suggest that ninja are born into ninja clans and trained from childhood, which might suggest that a base class is appropriate -- but they're trained from childhood to a variety of different tasks. Thus, instead of a single ninja class, Oriental Adventures suggests that members of ninja clans start out in whatever class is most appropriate to their particular role within the clan -- whether that's rogue, monk, fighter, or a spellcasting class like shaman, shugenja, or wu jen. From that point, a ninja can multiclass if he wants to: fighter/rogues, monk/rogues, and monk/spellcasters all make interesting ninja. Then, in order to get the unique and powerful ninja abilities, a character can adopt either the new ninja spy prestige class or the good old-fashioned assassin prestige class from the DMG.
The chapter on prestige classes is loaded with ideas for advanced careers and organizations for an East-Asian themed game. The list is impressive, but there are even more in the Rokugan chapters. Many of them have applicability beyond that of OA games. In brief, the prestige classes are:
The skills sections offers new specialties for skills appropriate to an OA campaign, and new uses for existing skills - including a very wuxia-esque list of new uses for the Tumble skill. The book also introduces a new skill: iajutsu focus. This skill is useful primarily in an iajutsu duel, in which the duelists attempt to strike each other starting from a position with swords sheathed. If you strike an opponent flatfooted, an iajutsu focus skill roll can result in increased damage to the opponent.
The book also introduces a number of new feats. Most of these are sorted into two categories: ancestor feats and martial arts feats. As you might expect, martial arts feats provide new combat options for characters. Ancestor feats are primarily aimed at the Rokugan setting but can really be used for any Japan-themed campaign. They provide bonuses to the character based on the abilities attributed to a legendary ancestor. For example, if an ancestor was a noted diplomat, the ancestor feat great diplomat gives a bonus to the character's Diplomacy rolls and Leadership score.
The book provides a brief system for honor. Unlike 1e OA, the system for honor is not numeric. A simpler system for honor that divides honor into five ranks is provided. In addition to this system, the suggestion is tendered that you can use honor in the place alignment in your game.
Then next big chunk of the book is the new equipment, spells, and magic items available to characters in OA campaigns. The list is long enough that I won't attempt to enumerate all of the particulars, but instead hit a few high points.
The description and equipment chapter includes a variety of Asian weapons, armor, and other items. As was the case in Sword & Fist, the katana is treated as a masterwork bastard sword. Technically, the katana is smaller than a bastard sword, but the convention works well enough. The way it was wielded resembles the way bastard swords are handled under D&D mechanics, and it is a much better approach than promoting the katana to the "super-weapon" that it was under 1e and 2e.
As you might expect, a few ninja gimmicks like eggshell grenades are available. The ninja-to is treated as an exotic weapon, however, which struck me as a little odd since it is basically a (crappy) short sword.
In the realm of spells, many spell lists are provided for the new classes, and many of the existing spells in the PHB are referenced. Many new spells are also provided. Some of these are simply rearrangements of existing spells. For example, the shugenja have access to the spell protection from taint that operates much like the classic protection from evil.
Many other spells are brand new, though, and very interesting additions to a campaign. One very cool spell is snake darts. This spell requires snake tattoos on the caster's arms as a focus. When the spell is cast, the snakes fly out and strike a target, and bite the target (inflicting poison on the target as well).
For fans of the old 1e OA will recognize many of those spells here in 3e format, such as lightning blade (which was enchanted blade in 1e) and fire shuriken.
Likewise, many magic items were updated from the previous edition. Unfortunately, it appears that the author did not choose the Complete Book of Ninjas as a resource for magic items, a book with some interesting items that would have made good additions.
There are a variety of new weapon enchantments such as honorable and dishonorable weapons, which are sort of a parallel of holy and unholy weapons in the DMG. The major difference you may notice is that many of the enchantments detailed here do not add to the weapon's effective bonus for the purposes of the market price, but rather have a direct price modifier. These enchantments are typically of the sort that does not give a direct combat modifier, but instead gives the user some sort of bonus. For example, a balance weapon gives the user a 8 bonus to Balance checks while carrying the weapon.
A new category of magic weapon is introduced: talismans. Nothing too new to see here - talismans basically operate like potions. Talismans are simply a different method of storing low-level spell abilities.
Finally, new special materials are introduced. Most prominent among these are jade and obsidian, which are useful against Shadowlands creatures if you play a Rokugan (or Rokugan inspired) game.
The combat chapter focuses on some aspects of combat that are not part of the basic D&D 3e rules, though they do fit well with the existing rules. Three areas are covered: martial arts, iajutsu duels, and psychic combat.
Martial arts is what seems to be on everyone's mind. Basically, the martial arts system builds on the feat system. If your character selects the correct package of martial arts feats, he receives (free of charge) mastery of that style. This gives the character some mechanical benefits. For example, if you have all the feats of the "empty hand mastery" list, your unarmed damage improves by one step.
I have to say that while I think this works after a fashion, I am really not wild about it. It seems like a pale shadow of the old OA martial arts system. 1e OA had a system whereby you could put together unique styles from component maneuvers. The new system offers nowhere near the flavor and variety. I feel it would have been much better springing off from the feat system into the prestige class mechanic (which seems to be widely used in other places in the book for "fighting schools"; I am at a loss as to why this wasn't done here.)
The iajustsu duel rules are largely an outgrowth of Rokugan, where these rules are very important. Basically, if two samurai face off and agree to an iajustu duel, they run a combat using the iajustu duel rules. When the duelists face off, they can try to determine things about each other's capability before the fight begins. If it is obvious that the opponent is superior, a duelist may cede the duel before it begins. Otherwise, the duel proceeds, and each combatant rolls his Iajutsu Focus skill as an initiative roll. The first strike is treated as a surprise round, so both are effectively flat footed and stand to take a lot of damage.
The psychic duel is not anything you would expect to find in the Psionics Handbook. Rather, it is a war of nerves, and rules for this originally appeared in 1e OA. In such a duel, the opponents basically stare each other down, and must make Will saves each round until one of them loses composure. The loser of such a "duel" receives a penalty in combat as if affected by the bane spell.
Monsters! Monsters! Monsters!
This section of the book is probably the most lavishly illustrated. Many new monsters are provided, most of them derived from Japanese myth or from Rokugan. Nonetheless, the creatures are very cool and you may be tempted to use them in your everyday campaign. Some may seem a little strange, like the "hopping vampires" that people seem to love or hate.
Two new type modifiers are introduced for monsters: spirit and shadowlands. Both modifiers' primary effects are for ajudicating magic. For example, certain spells operate specifically against spirits, and certain weapons have deleterious effects against shadowlands creatures. Spirit creatures are not necessarily incorporeal, as many "spirits" in East Asian mythologies were flesh-and-bone. Shadowlands creatures are primarily outsiders from the Shadowlands realm of the Rokugan setting.
Personal favorites in this section are the Oni and the Shadowlands Oni (they are different), as well as the Dokufu. In addition to the menagerie of new creatures presented in this chapter, the campaign chapter also provides guidelines for adapting existing creatures in the Monster Manual and Monsters of Faerun to an OA campaign.
One chapter is devoted to the topic of campaign design. The chapter ends up being more of a DM's miscellany and musings than rigorous guidelines for making an Oriental Adventures campaign setting. For example, some suggestions are given regarding what sort of fantastical elements would not fit if you were going to do a low-magic campaign based on historical Japan. Unfortunately, I felt that this chapter needed more guidelines on how things should fit together.
The chapter does have a few interesting and useful elements, including a list of alternate names for the largely Japan-influenced class names for campaigns based on Japanese, Chinese, and Indian culture. For example, a shaman might be entitled a so, itako, or kannushi in a Japan-inspired setting; a dang-ki or wu in a Chinese setting; and a Brahmin in an Indian-inspired setting. Of course, if you really want to remain faithful to the source setting, you may have to do your own research to determine how the classes fit into the setting. For example, a brahmin had a role in India that made him more prominent than the warrior caste, which was not true in Japan. I really felt this cultural list should have touched on other regions of Asia, such as Siam or Korea.
Similarly, a weapon equivalent table is provided, which gives the closest approximations of a variety of weapons used in East Asia. Unlike the class table, the weapon table includes entries from a variety of East Asian cultures.
Race options are discussed, along with effective character level (ECL) modifiers for a number of monsters that may be appropriate for an OA campaign. The same system is used for ECL here as was used in FRCS and MotP. The author teases you with the possibility that you can line up the seven clans of Rokugan with the seven basic races of D&D, giving you elf cranes, dwarf crabs, and so forth . . . an idea that I must admit sounds like an interesting spin.
Some time is spent discussing how to incorporate other D&D supplements such as the class books (including some yet-to-be-published ones) and the Psionics Handbook.
A mere one-page discussion is provided discussing how to use the elements in the book, along with an intriguing (but incomplete) discussion of putting together a sample setting.
An entry is provided for the "spirit world" as a plane in the cosmology of an OA setting.
Some maps are provided in the chapter, depicting some possible locations that could play host to a Rokugan or other OA game.
Finally, a brief discussion is provided for departing from the prevailing D&D "treasure" method of rewards that is somewhat inappropriate in an East Asian-themed campaign.
Overall, I felt this chapter needed to be much larger. At least two or three pages devoted to each cultural model would have been justifiable as a baseline for DMs who wish to build their own OA setting.
Into Rokugan (and the Shadowlands)
The final two chapters give an overview and some salient details of Rokugan and the Shadowlands. The Rokugan chapter discusses the history and culture of Rokugan, the seven clans of Rokugan (and the minor clans), and how they theoretically fit into the D&D system. Each clan has a prestige class unique to the clan (but largely adaptable if you are not playing in Rokugan) and adventure hooks.
The Shadowlands chapter likewise contains a section regarding the history of the Shadowlands and mechanics dealing with the Shadowlands. This includes a "taint" mechanic that describes the supernatural corruption associated with the Shadowlands, and two prestige classes that represent those who fall under the sway of the taint: the Maho-Bujin ("blood warrior") and maho-tsukai ("blood sorcerer").
Not being too familiar with the RPG material for L5R, I can't comment too specifically on how good an adaptation this is. The ideas, however, seem neat and potentially useful for adapting to your own campaign, even if you do not plan on using the setting per se.
Visually, this is quite possibly the most stunning 3e supplement by Wizards of the Coast to date, showing a great deal of flare and artistic talent, and being well-organized and readable.
This is primarily a mechanical supplement. If prestige classes and feats do not serve to convey the feeling of a game to you, you may find this book insufficient. That said, this is a strong mechanical supplement, with most of the pieces that you will need to put together an East Asian-themed game. I do feel it needs more support for running those campaigns beyond the mechanics, though.
A case in point . . . in the statement by James Wyatt that I quoted above, he alludes to a discussion of what a ninja clan might look like in the book. If it is in there, I can't find it. The book is very short on implementation notes outside of Rokugan. In addition to spelling out how implementing some common elements of such settings might look like in the 3e rules, it would have been nice to see the book go beyond flagging stuff that belongs in the Rokugan setting and flagging elements that belong in a variety of culturally-inspired settings (e.g., Japanese, Chinese, Siamese, Korean, Indian, etc.)
I have mixed feelings about making Rokugan the default/sample setting of the book. On one hand, Rokugan and the Shadowlands contain a lot of neat ideas, and their mechanical implementations in OA were well done. The Shadowlands, the Taint, Rokugan Shugenja, and the Clans are all interesting elements for a game taken individually or together. In reading through the Rokugan chapter, however, I recognized one of the elements that kept me at arm's distance from L5R in the first place: the metaplot. Everything in the history seems like it is going on out of reach from the characters, and it seems as if everything important has already happened. I understand that Rokugan is a well developed setting, but I wonder if that space would have been better spent turning the book into a universal tool rather than a semi-slave to one setting.
Still, I consider this a strong supplement. It does the hardest work for the DM: the mechanics. If you want to make your own setting, you may have to do some research if you are not already familiar with the culture and folklore of East Asia. I have already heard some complaints that this book is somehow "unbalanced" with respect to the rest of the game. I consider this book to be much better than many WotC books on that score, and these complaints strike me as little more than the same old tired prattle about imbalance.
-Alan D. Kohler