Game: The Quintessential Samurai
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Review Dated: 22nd, December 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 20
Average Score: 6.67
My first reaction to the Quintessential Samurai was an overwhelming “Eh?”. I hadn’t read it. I hadn’t even opened the book. I was wondering why on earth I was even looking at the Quintessential Samurai. Why would the Collector Series detour all the way to the Samurai? If you’re going to do an Oriental themed book then why not write about the ever-popular ninja? Surely anyone who’s likely to be tempted by the Samurai will already be playing Oriental Adventures or L5R? I don’t know the answers to these initial questions but having read the book now – I don’t think they matter. What matters is the Quintessential Samurai is a terrific book.
Samurai are just more interesting than generic fighters. Each chapter introduces something new, worthwhile and appealing.
Well. Okay. Character concepts aren’t new to the Collector Series; they’re a stalwart contributor and are often one of the strongest chapters in the book. This time round they’re as good as ever and covering a range of fantasy and traditional samurai concepts. There seems to be a devolving trend where character concepts are synonymous with character backgrounds. It certainly does seem to be the case here. The suggested concepts describe how and why the character became a samurai rather than what sort of samurai she is now. The latter gets turned into a prestige class. Dragon Family is a character concept, the character’s family is (believed to be) descended from a dragon and this affects the samurai’s honour.
It is worth struggling with the Oriental style font used in most of the flavour text in the book. It’s clear from these snippets of story that the author has no problem with female samurai or even half-orc samurai. Later on in the book there’s a section on how a samurai culture might rise or fall and this seems entirely appropriate to most fantasy settings. Sam Witt would easily make my short list of best Mongoose authors.
Before the prestige classes there’s a samurai core character class. On the surface it looks a lot like the fighter class. Character advancement introduces new feats every other level. There are bonus feats but also sword school and other specific feats. You can take a sword school feat as a bonus feat but you can’t ever take two sword school feats at once. The balance is right. The class manages to represent dedicated training of the samurai and also ensure the flexibility needed in a playable character. There’s no hint of Honour or Ki as the samurai levels up but the class uses both. As I said the prestige classes are used to show different types of samurai and perhaps as a result of that they’re all – every one of them – are 5 level PrCs. Sometimes the 5 levels are all that’s required. Take the Paragon and the requirement of a +15 or higher BAB, you’ll mostly likely be 15th level by the time you get that and so you don’t need more than 5 levels in the PrC. This isn’t the case for all the prestige classes though and that’s the same. If there were one genre that you could convince me would be fun to play at an epic level then it would be oriental. If I’m going to be sword fighting on the swaying tops of tall trees and parrying a hail of poisoned darts then it can’t be with these prestige classes; not if I’m using Epic Level rules. That’s a shame because they’re all pretty good. I dare say I’d start off with the core samurai class from here though. There are more than just better types of warring samurai in the prestige classes; the Delegate is that samurai who’s mastered the social tactics of court, the Information Broker comes with a quick set of dice rolling rules for planting rumours and the famous Ronin are included too.
The new feats are neither padding nor another drop in the ocean of feats already available. The feats are essential to the class and are used in a wonderfully refreshing way. For a start the feats aren’t just a collection of unimaginative power-ups for other special abilities. You have feats like Still Thought or Undying Defence. The choice of feats is vital to the samurai. Some can be worked into their combat techniques and others, the sword school feats, form the very basis of their fighting style. There are seven fighting styles and each is divided up into four tiers. The samurai needs to have to appropriate sword school feat in order to advance up to the next tier. Not only that but each sword school feat has a prerequisite and this is very often another feat.
You’ll often find Tricks of the Trade in a Quintessential X but the chapter will not often be as successful as this one. There’s more to the samurai’s way of life than just their sword fighting techniques. This chapter makes a start by giving rules for artistic competitions; in what context they might occur, the game mechanics for them and what’s in it for the samurai in terms of increased honour. The samurai can boost her honour by collecting trophies from defeated foes and bringing them back home. More often than not the samurai will be bringing back the head of an enemy. Then there are the Iaijutsu Duels. An Iaijutsu duel is one where two samurai try and kill each other in a single sword draw. It’s unlikely that either will die but these rules mean it is possible. It becomes a battle of ki and a dangerous game of chicken rather than just awkward damage and hit point manipulation. I think the rules for Martial Intimidation are only appropriate for PC to NPC intimidation because it’s inappropriate to tell a PC “He’s scared you. You decide not to fight”. They’re nice to have anyway. There are game mechanics for trying to get the samurai’s mount to dodge incoming fire. There is even the tricky manoeuvre where the horse rolls over and up after falling in a single action. This is risky but sometimes better than being left to struggle to its feet. There’s even a quick but decent rules for the meditation of The Void Within, tattooing and the way samurai can control their horses without making a sound. The chapter seems to struggle a little with mount or horse. There is always the chance in a fantasy setting that the samurai has an exotic mount instead of a horse and in that case the GM will need to tinker.
Tools of the Trade is another familiar chapter but once again the contents are far from filler. The samurai are famous for their exotic armour and with just a few short clips of rules there’s a wide range of alternations and styles with matching game mechanics. Unfortunately the magical armour qualities don’t pass a common test I apply but they’re pretty good anyway. The failure? The ability called the “Sun Streamer” magically produces a stream of light but the rules don’t explicitly say whether it counts (or is) sunlight. A petty test, I know, but such is the roll of a harsh reviewer! I’m particularly fond of the different arrowheads because they don’t get bogged down with too many rules. They provide just enough to make things interesting – especially the Demonslayers.
In the Master and Servant chapter we look first at the rise of the warrior state, the role of the Daimyo lord, the early days of the samurai, the height of the empire and then the decline and fall. I love this stuff. This is the stuff you can build your own campaign world out of and tailor it especially to the classes available. That’s history. Then there’s a matter of honour. Okay. Great. The chapter looks at various ways the samurai can gain and loose honour and that’s all well and good. The point collection system is smooth enough. The real success here is the way that Honour is used to show how well the samurai is sticking to the very ethos of being a samurai and not simply just how honourably she is acting. A samurai without honour isn’t really a samurai; she’s a warrior in a silly suit of armour and she isn’t even a very good one at that. A samurai without honour can’t use her special abilities. A samurai can only use as much ki as she has honour and since both are mental structures this makes sense to me.
Way back in the feats chapter we saw the sword school feats. It will feel like “way back” because this 128-paged book really is rich read. The Sword Schools of the Samurai have a chapter all to themselves. Sword schools have four tiers and each tier has three techniques. It’s these techniques that come together to form the particular fighting style of the samurai. The techniques can be linked together to allow the samurai to complete a complex move in a single turn (in most cases). The resulting effect can be a powerful and devastating attack. There’s a cost in ki though. In addition, if the samurai’s style demands that the Darting Perch move is /always/ followed by Flying Fish then the samurai is committed to completing Flying Fish even if his foe crumpled to the ground – or dodged out of reach – during the Darting Perch manoeuvre. Each technique has penalties as well as bonuses and so a samurai committed to a series of impressive but pointless moves is vulnerable indeed. Now, I’m not a fan of the crunchy bits. I would ban the line “I’ll hit the orc,” from roleplaying games if I could. I love these techniques for just precisely that though. It’s wonderful to have game mechanics that suggest flavour and encourage roleplaying – even in the heart of the dice bits. Doesn’t “I’ll strike with Retributive Slice and Rebounding Slash from the School of Returning Fortunes,” sound infinitely better than “I’ll hit the orc”? I can only hope the playtesters worked hard because even if this was a playtest review it would still be impossible to have tested every possible combination of techniques. Another great success here is that players can invent their own moves; you don’t need to take techniques from the same sword school to build your manoeuvres, at a cost you can mix and match from other schools or even use appropriate feats like Whirlwind Attack or Improved Trip. The seven schools themselves are flavour rich too; each one really does manage to have a distinct style and ethos.
In the same chapter we learn how ki works. There is no ki attribute. Instead the samurai’s player simply keeps track all the ki she’s spent. Ki is inexorably linked to the samurai’s health and well-being. If the samurai’s hit points ever fall equal to or less than the amount of ki the samurai has spent then the warrior’s in trouble. There’s no ki stat and I treat that as a good thing. In theory anyone could spend ki but under these rules you can only spend as much ki as you have honour.
What about the social side of the samurai? What of intrigue and politics in the royal court? The Amongst the Courtiers chapter covers these social and political aspects of the honourable warrior, in part. I’m much more interested in clever political manoeuvring than I am in hitting orcs and here the “social combat” combines the two. Charisma and Honour combine to form social hit points. You leave yourself open to a social Attack of Opportunity if you make a terrible gaff instead of successfully pulling off a suitably tricky social tactic. These stages of social combat and the possible tactics are listed in a similar way as feats and class abilities often are. Direct Blackmail leaves you open to an Attack of Opportunity if you fail but Flirting doesn’t. They use different skills too! These rules aren’t so good that I’ll use them in favour over actual roleplay – and they never could be that good. However, just reading through them was enough to convince me that they’re all that I need to decide how successful intra-NPC tactics are. I think they’re even suitable for those times when a few dice rolls can be used to see how or if things change over the course of a campaign world winter that you’re not actually roleplaying out.
There’s already been a bit on weapons and magical armour but there’s a whole chapter for Mythic Katana. The sword, in its different styles, is described in detail. There are notes on how katanas are forged, about the folding of the metal (which we all know a little about thanks to the Highlander movie) and even about the hilt. This isn’t a simple collection of yet-more magic swords. Here the enchantments on the katana are linked to ki. You’ll find a table showing the samurai level, the enchantment bonus of the katana and the ki per minute required. A katana might be a powerful weapon in the hands of a honourable samurai or just another sword in the hands of someone else. My favourite way to do magic and enchanted weapons is to list the possible special qualities rather than specific weapons and this is the approach used here. Some of the special qualities are taken from the Dungeon Master’s Guide but they’re included so the ki cost can be added.
Shiro – Castles of the Daimyo is a chapter that discusses the ins and outs of (you guessed it) building and maintaining the sort of castles a samurai might live in. It’s common enough to find this sort of chapter at the back of a Quintessential X book and they clearly play to those high fantasy gamers who end up building their own empires. This time round, with the Quintessential Samurai, the inclusion of this sort of chapter does seem to be appropriate (compared to, say, the Quintessential Psychic Warrior).
In addition to a many paged character sheet there are about a half dozen pages of rule summaries and glossaries at the back of the book. The index is two pages of dense text. In a book as full as this one is that sort of index is a great assist.
I really liked The Quintessential Samurai. It’s a class that adds flavour to the game; the samurai will bring their own plot twists and turns. In many ways the samurai is a better choice of class for a Collector Series book than certain vanilla classes are. The samurai class is strong and stable and not overpowering. The fighting techniques are potent but not unbalancing, they’re so closely tied into the samurai class and the samurai really has to use them carefully and correctly that I think they’ll only add to your game. You know it’s a good class book when it makes you want to play that class.