By Thilo Graf
This sourcebook from Rite Publishing is 39 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page advertisement, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving a rather whopping 33 pages of content for your perusal.
“Way of the Yakuza” considers itself to be a faction guide for the Kaidan Japanese horror-setting, but is far from system-specific – indeed, whether it is Jade Regent, Heroes of the Jade Oath or Rokugan, just about any Asian-themed setting that has a caste/class-system is predisposed to have a niche that is fitting for the Yakuza to expand into.
The sourcebook wastes no time and straight away introduces us to the history of the Yakuza as well as their modus operandi and the way in which their organization(s) work as well as to the necessity that bred them in the first place before delving.into the first tender crunchy bits by providing us with an assortment of 9 Yakuza-traits for characters born and bred into the Yakuza. Interspread throughout the whole book, mottos and laws of the criminal organization are presented in boxes, enabling you to better portray the tattooed criminals in your game as well as drawing you deeper into the subject matter.
After these neat and informative as well as useful bits, we are introduced to new, specially Yakuza-themed class archetypes. The Moso, a variant of the bard (who also graces the cover) is a blind performer with a kind of blindsight as well as the ability to dismiss outsiders and damage undead via his song of life, bringing one truly iconic trope to life – I just would have wished to see the archetype as a full-blown variant class. The Yakuza Bushi (Fighter) archetype is a rather simple one in contrast, focusing mobility and fast strikes, while the Bakuto (Rogue) archetype is the passionate gambler. While the fanboy of the class is speaking here, some minor access to luckbringer-like abilities rather than the very specific gambler-focused abilities would have made this particular one a bot more compelling to me – as written, the focus on gambler-abilities makes the archetype very specific and only attractive for a limited amount of players. Some gamble/fate-related powers would have gone a long way there. The second rogue archetype, The Kyodai, sacrifices some of his skill-versatility for a more enforcer-style role and comes with 3 new rogue talents as well as 2 new advanced talents. The final new archetype, the Horimyo (Wizard) is a superb blender of the arts of tattoos and magic and can summon tattoos from his body (as temporary animal companions – emphasis on plural at later levels), lash out with raw magical damage by sacrificing prepared spells and finally even use the tattoos of his foes against them. A neat and compelling archetype, especially when supplemented by 4 Wind Fantasy Gaming’s Inkantation sourcebook.
Next up is the Machi-Yakko-PrC, a leader among the Yakuza. The class spans 10 levels and comes with d8, 8+Int skills per level, medium BAB, medium ref and will-saves, 3 dice sneak attack progression and a set income via his gangs and communities. Oh, and of course they can choose from a selection o 14 magical tattoos during their class progression, all of which offer rather significant, neat permanent bonuses beyond the power of class features, but quite fitting for a PrC.. Again, further supplemental material to inspire any inquiring DM further to expand upon this PrC can be found in Inkantations and might make this PrC even more compelling.
Where there are PrCs and archetypes, there are feats and this book is no different – 8 new feats, including 2 magic item creation feats and several ones granting bonuses with regards to skill-bonuses related to smuggling, gambling and other illicit activities. When all’s said and done, none felt over-powered, but none felt truly compelling either.
Thankfully, the same cannot be said for the new pieces of equipment and spells provided in this pdf: Loaded dice, straw backpacks, tattoo-kits and spells, oh the spells: Especially the one that lets you steal a vanquished foes’ magical tattoos is pure narrative/story-telling gold and might make for uncommon rewards for enterprising PCs Have I mentioned the great tattoo-death-curse spell that might be straight from Fatal Frame 3? With all this tattoo-talk, we of course also get 8 new sample tattoos – from the classic “drawn weapon from ink” and “fire breath to the rather subtle shy maiden, that lets you change into a woman. One is rather powerful, though: The Phoenix-tattoo prevents death once per day by bringing the wearer to full health from below 0 HP once per day. At least for my conservative tastes, a full healing is too powerful here, especially for the rather modest price of 32500 GP. Oh yeah, of course the tattoos all come with their respective auras, craft information etc.
The next section of the pdf deals with the creation of a respective Yakuza-family and guides the DM, step by step through the process, including Yakuza statblocks, modifiers like honour, morale, lore and society, size, wealth levels, alignment etc. We could also let the dice decide via the numerous tables, btw.! Anyway, the role of both first and second in command determine quite strongly how such a family is run and which benefits they might expect: 30 different characteristics for the gang/leader and 3 roles for the second in command are presented, lending to maximum customizability from the most depraved individuals to noble resistance fighters against corrupt daishos. Multiple gang enterprises, Japanese names to make (or randomly generate) authentic Yakuzanames are presented as well. Of course, we also get sample Yakuza statblocks and, even better, the fully mapped village Zawaizumi, which is under firm control of some rather morally dubious Yakuza. The city is a stellar example of concise writing and manages to cram a lot potential and rather interesting adventure seeds in the space it has and comes with a statblock for the village, its Yakuza-family, a new cursed item and 7 fully developed NPCs for your perusal.
The pdf closes with a glossary that explains some of the terms used herein and can be used as a reference for DMs new to the Japanese culture.
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed some very minor glitches, but less than 5 on 39 pages is not enough to rate a pdf down. Layout adheres to the beautiful 2-column, full-color bamboo-lined standard RiP has set for Kaidan. The artworks are mostly Japanese stock, although the cover art of the Moso deserves special mention – it’s awesome! The pdf comes with extensive bookmarks.
First of all, let me say that I think there are not enough faction books out there and that, at least in my opinion, “Way of the Yakuza” is a great idea. The modularity with which the families and the creation-rules are presented makes it easy, almost required for the DM to create his/her own families. The ideas and takes on the tropes are great and touch upon seedy territory while remaining classy. The sample village and the hooks provided are plain awesome and make for compelling adventuring and the interspread mottos let the reader dive into the Yakuza mindset. However, not all is rosy herein: The archetypes uniformly fall at the wayside of their own potential – The Moso could have easily made for a very compelling base-class (perhaps a fusion of bard/oracle?) and would have alternatively benefitted from some heavier modification. The same holds true for the other 3 archetypes – the rogue/fighter archetypes are different, yes, but not in a truly astonishing or significant way and try as I might, I still consider the tattoo wizard better off as fully developed alternative class. The excellent ideas are obviously there, after all. The PrC is a great example of the rather concise design author Jonathan McAnulty can deliver. The feats, unfortunately, are uniformly bland and mostly useless for PCs. I said it once and I’ll say it again – I consider any feat that just delivers some lame skill-bonuses FILLER and bland and unfortunately, while the background of the feats was nice, their mechanics are just boring. The spells are neat, but I had some balance-concerns with one of the tattoos. Damn, I’m torn about this one. I love the faction book genre and think we should get more. The sample village/Yakuza creation rules are nice and there’s a lot of content herein, but several pieces just don’t excite me. The gambling aspect of the Yakuza especially is rather bland in this pdf: Why not integrate some luckbringerish style via a archetype/PrC? Magic dice? A Yakuza-dice game to play for strength, charisma, honor and ultimately the souls of the players? Summoners with tattoo-eidolons? Kaidan-wise, there is not too much setting-specific information, making this easily usable just about anywhere, but also robbing it somewhat of a bit of its identity. Seeing that the Yakuza deal in drugs as well, I would have loved to see some new drugs, smuggling techniques etc. Don’t get me wrong, this book is by no means bad – it just could have been so much more. Due to the accumulation of the plethora of minor gripes and the fact that many aspects of the book left me feeling that more and cooler stuff could have been done with them, my final verdict will be 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3.
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