Way of the Ninja (Oriental Adventures/L5R)
Way of the Ninja (Oriental Adventures/L5R) Playtest Review by Andy Kitkowski on 30/10/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 3 (Average)
Way of the Ninja for Oriental Adventures/L5R is a classy book on some levels, but it's extremely limited as a guide to playing ninja outside of the L5R universe.
Product: Way of the Ninja (Oriental Adventures/L5R)
Author: Shawn Carman, Rich Wulf, Seth Mason, Aaron Medwin
Line: Legend of the Five RIngs - Oriental Adventures
Page count: 96
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Andy Kitkowski on 30/10/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Asian/Far East
L5R/Oriental Adventures: Way of the Ninja
Recently, during a gaming session, I came up with an Absolute Ontological Truth in gaming, which I now call the Kitkowski Certainty Principle:
Any RPG campaign can be made better by the inspired use of Ninjas.
It was this thought (plus about 6 RPG campaigns, from fantasy to sci fi to post apocalypse, where Ninjas appeared in some form or another) that led me to purchase AEG's Way of the Ninja for the Legend of the Five Rings d20 game. My group uses the d20 system about half the time we play, so between that and the nifty crunchy bits and goodies that this book promised on the back cover blurb, it was a must buy for me.
Note: I don't play the L5R game, but am very familiar with it (I used to own the game and every major clanbook). I also never intended to use the book as a supplement to an L5R game, but rather as a general guide to Ninjas using the d20 rules- Almost a reincarnation of the "Complete Ninja's Handbook", if you will. This is the viewpoint I'm hitting this game with.
The book itself is sturdy for a softcover, bound well and featuring 96 black and white pages with blue ink highlights, all wrapped by a very attractive cover. The layout of this product (save for the d20/L5R rules layout, which I'll address later) is superb. The combination of font sizes, spacing, colored ink, underlining and text boxes makes finding any bit of information within this book extremely easy. The layout of the art is also excellent. There are no "Why the Hell did they include THAT?!?!" pics, and what they do have are spaced out enough and set in the text well enough that they also serve as effective placeholders for quick reference. Can't remember where the equipment list is? Flip around toward the back of the book and look for the picture of the ninja kneeling in front of his enemies, swallowing poison.
The book itself, while well-written, was totally not what I was looking for. I was hoping for ninjas laid out d20-style, with plenty of feats, skills, and other crunchy bits. While there were some of these, the book was geared towards using Ninja solely in an L5R campaign. I expected a certain level of this: Things like having prestige classes, feats and skills that only made sense within the context of L5R. However, even that alone could be lifted, renamed, and made into your own campaign. However, 45 of the 96 pages of this book are completely useless to non-L5R campaigns (background of ninja orders in the L5R realm, major NPCs, etc.), and the rest is mostly heavily aimed at the L5R setting. So if you're running L5R and want to know more about the ninjas, this book has you covered. If you're looking for a general "d20 Ninja Guide" with L5R coloring, you'll be disappointed.
Having said that, though, I do like the treatment on Ninja customs, roles, and the last section of the book which dealt with nifty ninja tricks to use in-game (although I wish this section was expanded beyond 2 pages to, say, half the book). There are plenty of new skills, "ninja magic", and feats that are interesting, "kewl" (if you're into that. And if you like ninjas, you are), and could be used in ANY sort of d20 ninja game, not just an L5R game. Here are two example feats:
Delayed Sneak Attack - This lets you delay the effect of your thief-like sneak attack for a number of rounds. This perfectly emulates the classic ninja move of "Tap a lord with a poison blowdart, he goes into his chamber and in the middle of issuing orders slumps over, dead" or "Walk past a samurai, who continues walking on to the market. About 10 minutes later as he's buying some food at a stand, he looks down to see blood pool on his kimono. As he goes to wipe it off, his torso falls off his abdomen, as he was cut in half and didn't even realize it". Excellent work.
Lightning Stealth - You're really good at that quick but clumsy-looking "ninja ducklike stealth-walk", and can use stealth even while moving at high speeds.
In this book there are also abilities called "Kata"- The ninja enters a trance, and for an expenditure of a bit of time and some XP, a certain ninjalike effect is maintained for a long time: Things like "You get a bonus to your stealth rolls at a penalty to your damage rolls" or "kill an enemy instantly with an unarmed attack". These are great, and very reminiscent of the Esoteric Buddhism (called "Mikkyo") that these sorts of "Ninja Magic" techniques come from. Unfortunately, there are only four of these interesting techniques in this book.
Speaking of Mikkyo: Granted, this book isn't realistic but cinematic, and it took liberties with research to provide an exciting set of rules to play with (which, in my opinion, is more important), but there was one skill in the book that didn't sit right with me: The Kujikiri skill. Basically, the Kujikiri is the gesture that is at the heart of Mikkyo and "Ninja Magic", and its effects (in movies, anime, and popular culture as well as "reality") work more like the Kata that are listed above- Using the Kujikiri, according to popular culture, ninjas can see the invisible or hidden, become invisible, become a killing machine, and do all sorts of other ninja tricks. However, in this guide the Kujikiri is used to "stun your opponent with hypnosis", rendering them immobile. I have never seen this effect attributed to the Kujikiri in any sort of cinema, comic, anime, or (of course) "real account". It would be like saying that Catholic priests use the Sign of the Cross primarily to create an invisible shield against projectile weapons or other such nonsense. A small point, I know, but this was the most glaring example of writers wanting to use something "authentic" but not following it up with actual research (I would have rather them call it the "Ninja Sleep Attack" or something than grab the name of an actual, real attack). The rest of the techniques in the book, though, are properly cinematic enough that they can stand up to comparisons in pop cultural references (movies and anime).
The L5R stuff takes up a majority of the book. I won't go into too much detail, but there are various ninja school and orders, each with their own leaders, goals and prestige classes. There are Uber-Ninja like the Kolat orders and the Goju (dark ninja), and of course the Ninja of the Scorpion clan are also heavily detailed. All in all, it was a fair and interesting read, but not much of use outside of an L5R campaign, unless you lift the entire Kolat or Goju structure, change the names, and set them all as-is in your own campaign.
I can't comment much on Ninjas in the L5R setting. Back in the first edition (which I had and read pretty thoroughly), there were no ninjas in the game. That is to say, there were, but only the Scorpion clan had them. In the L5R game, the "clad in black pajamas" ninja was a clever joke that the Scorpion used to confuse the other clans. Somewhere along the game line, though, this all changed- This book is filled with order after order of Black Pajama Ninja. Perhaps it was an evolution of the game line, or a lack of direction since the setting's creation. In any case, from what I remember of the first edition, it would be pretty hard to introduce the ninja orders into a long-standing L5R game, as all the information up until now has pointed towards the "There Are No Ninjas (save the Scorpions)" thesis.
Way of the Ninja, while pushing the L5R d20 line further, also contains all the rules necessary to use this book with the L5R Second Edition rules. I can't describe how clumsy the book looks because of it. In each section, right after the rules for one ability are described in d20 terms, the L5R terms are written in a dark blue ink. Other times, entire sections are written in d20 rules, which are followed by the L5R rules in the blue ink. While I really like the way this book was laid out aesthetically, this alone completely disrupts the reader. The d20/L5R rules writeups follow no logical pattern, and if you jump from section to section (feats for one group, spells for another, prestige classes, etc.) it can really throw you off. They should have come up with one Grand Plan and stuck with it. Perhaps they could have left out all the rules until the end, where they would appear side-by-side in d20 and L5R terms. In any case, layout modes switching in every rule description is very disruptive.
One last minor cute point which really won't mean anything to you if you aren't familiar with Japanese: In the "Enemies of the Ninja" section, there is a leader of a ronin brotherhood called "Kuso". They named a ronin/ninja master "Shit". How cute. Sure, he calls himself that because his group does "dirty work", but still, it's pretty stupid. "Kuso", in Japanese, is used more as an expletive (like "Dammit") than the actual word for shit. If they wanted to be really accurate, they would have named him "Unko"- But even that, while it refers to feces, sounds more like a child saying "poo-poo" or "poopie". Why couldn't they named him Doro ("mud" or "refuse")? Gomi ("garbage", "waste")? Oh well.
All in all, I'd say it's a pretty good reference for an L5R game involving Ninja, an average or sub-average reference for a general d20 game (or your own) involving Ninja, and not a reference in the slightest if you're looking for a historical guide to Ninja. If you're looking for cinematic, you may find what you're looking for here. If you're looking for historical, check out Shinobi by Gold Rush Games, and excellent source for historical or "semi historical but still kewl" ninja gaming (Warning- There's a lot of padding in that book, though, including almost 20 of its 128 pages as an INDEX written in a huge font!).