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[Let's Read] Oriental Adventures (1e)

MacBalance

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...its also TIME.
This was an issue in the previous read-throughs I've done from the 2e Historical series. The Rome book was similar, covering a complex history in a few pages. The Celtic book, too... Especially since it included a wide range of European tribal cultures, not just the typical ones people would expect from the term Celts.

Those two books had the relative luxury of a more leisurely view, I feel. I actually hadn't really considered comparing the 2e Historicals to Oriental Adventures before now: The Historical had the advantage of being explicitly supplements. I've mentioned before I feel like OA could act as an alternate Player's Handbook and it's mostly true, but the price is it spends a lot of page count on basic rules (stats, combat, spells, etc.) instead of building a setting. The Historicals didn't try to totally replace the classes (or provide alternate races) and accepted that "see the PHB" is acceptable for spells and such.

I do wonder if this was considered when the Historical were being developed. An interesting twist is the Historical are explicitly based around playing in the "real world" or a fantastic version thereof as the base, while Oriental Adventures is explicitly a fantasy world that sets its own history the same way other D&D material does.

Shou Lung seems like it might be modeled roughly on something like T'ang or Song China, Wa and Kozakura, along with pretty much everyone's ideas of Japan even today, seem largely based on Tokugawa era Japan, with some later period social ideas thrown in.
I think it was suggested earlier that either Wa or Kozakura could represent different eras of Japanese history, as Shou Lung and T'u Lung may represent different eras of China... Although in both cases we have a sort of interesting set-up as there's a "Lawful" version and a "Chaotic" themed version of each, depending on which fits the PCs and the DM's tastes best. In my opinion, Wa comes off as a bit totalitarian in this brief write-up. although it's probably the better place to live.

Actually, as I understand it the traditional Confucian theoretical social order was scholars/administrators>farmers>craftsmen>merchants, based on their perceived usefulness to society. Farmers rank above craftsmen because without the farmers the craftsmen starve, and merchants rank at the bottom because they don't actually produce anything.
That makes some sense from a cultural point of view... Less so from an economic point of view, in which there's usually some incentive to form a 'pyramid' with the most numerous social classes on the bottom. Do you think the Confucian order and the order here are intended as a sort of social order.. The closest analogy I can think of is a lot of Western philosophies at least consider the idea that humble peasants are important, even if they're not well-respected in practice.

Buildings
This is a good idea to cover. I personally feel that architecture can help tell a lot about a culture, and it's quite literally "setting the stage." In this case, we're told to divide buildings into three types by social class: Simple commoner homes, palaces of the ruling class, and temples.

Peasant homes are wood or brick and with a simple floor plan, possibly a single room. There's a lot of "options" which, as AbdulAlhazred said, is at least partially because the section is covering a huge area with diverse needs for climate protection and such.

Noble houses are much larger and more ornate, unsurprisingly. A good tidbit for a DM to add is the attention paid to grounds around a noble's home, which might include extensive landscaping, fountains, ponds, and similar. Nobles can also afford walls for security and privacy.

Temples are important to the setting, based on the classes with ties to temples and related structures. Temples are noted as usually being a cluster of buildings in a walled compound, resting on a raised foundation.

A final 'class' of structure is military structures. This includes castles, watchtowers, and other structures. They're noted as being aesthetically different, but tactically similar to Western designs, built to make it difficult for attackers to get in.

I'm paraphrasing, but this is good information in my mind: Knowing little details to help describe a scene can add a lot to a DM's descriptions.
 

MacBalance

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Religion

This topic gets four short paragraphs, or about half a column. I think it's a result of the way the material is laid out (setting-last), but you'd think this would be a bigger topic, with several classes having major ties to religion. Or perhaps there was an editorial mandate here to keep it sparse to prevent the book being accused of leading children down the path of less dominant religions?

Anyway, we get an intro stating that most people in Kara-Tur aren't regular churchgoers and tend to see all the religions as a sort of conglomerate. The religions disagree. We've discussed several major religious affiliations earlier, and there's not much more here than a list:

  • The Way
  • The Path of Enlightenment
  • The Eight Million Gods
  • Ancestor worship
  • The Cult of the State

Overall, sparse on doctrine, heavy on practicality. The religions coexist with each other in contrast to "those of the west" which I think is more of a real-world reference or perhaps an implied setting thing moreso than any of the D&D settings. Is worship of deities of the same pantheon the same 'religion'? I feel like at least in the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance there's often churches of the same general alignment that coexist somewhat peacefully.

The idea that lower classes see religion as a sort of mix of different beliefs is an overriding one, though. Clergy might advocate for peasants to make a decision, but most accept that is not realistic as peasants will pick and choose as fits their needs. It feels very practical in many ways, especially in a D&D game where joining has serious connotations.

Note that as we're still in the 'drop-in' incarnation, there's no real work to deal with mixing this setting in with other settings. Nothing to deal with integrating ancestor worship or spirit worship into the Forgotten Realms where not picking a side can lead to an afterlife of torture, much less the closed-off worlds like Krynn.

I do wonder if there was an intentional mandate to keep religious discussion shallow to avoid controversy. As portrayed, religion in Kara-Tur seems less complex than the 'generic Fantasy' models that most D&D settings use. If you need help, most characters can either go to the temple they're attached to (Monks, Sohei, and others) or the nearest without prejudice.

Law and Justice

This topic gets about three times as much coverage as religion, which suggests which PCs might get more involved with. Kara-Tur has law, and on a scale most pseudo-Western settings likely do not: Shou Lung (for example) is a massive, sprawling nation compared to the 'city states' that I feel are the default for many settings.

Law courts are a thing and are controlled by magistrates. These might be nobles, civil servants who tested well, or political appointees. Remember how the nations were described by how they fill government positions? This is relevant here, and very important should a PC get into a legal dispute. I feel like the unstated difference is that many pseudo-western settings assume that the local lord serves as judge when needed, but it's a separate role here. There is a note that the magistrate's bailiff and constables "may hire outcasts as assistants" which sounds like a PC plot hook.

Magistrates are kind of a mix of law enforcement and judgement roles. They can have anyone arrested and need to be politically savvy. They also handle investigative tasks like evidence-gathering and can administer beatings to coerce testimony.

There is some mention of an often-overlooked aspect of fantasy gaming, which is how spells would impact legal proceedings. Specifically, a murder case could have a spellcaster summoned to speak with dead or other divination spells can be used to determine truth. No lawyers, but the accused and accuser do get to plead their case.

An important aspect, and one I wish was expanded, is that different social classed do fundamentally interact with the law differently. The given example (which was mentioned earlier) is that samurai in Kozakura can kill in several specific circumstances such as an authorized vendetta or a commoner who is not sufficiently awed and polite. However, samurai may be more harshly punished for gambling and drunkeness as they're held to a higher standard. There's no specifics, but I assume this is intended to apply to other social classes as well.

A note is that there is a legal code with fixed punishments. For samurai, there's a stated difference between an honorable death for lesser offenses and a public shaming for more serious offenses such as treason.

"Collective responsibility" is a concept introduced in which an entire family or even an entire village may be punished for the actions of a single criminal. The stated examples are a banished samurai being forced to take his whole family with him or a murderer hiding ina village causing the entire village to be punished. It's presented as harsh but effective.

Vendetta is the final topic discussed in this section. Basically, if a family member is murdered or killed in a duel, the family has a responsibility to kill the perpetrator. There's complex rules for this. Higher ranks can't avenge lower ranks, and those undertaking such a quest need to request replacement from their lord who may or may not allow it. Duels in a vendetta may have multiple seconds, so it sounds like to could turn into a party-on-party fight.

One thing missing is I'm not sure if it's intentional that any duel death could start a vendetta. I'd assume that a 'legal' duel would be exempt, but perhaps I'm wrong. If I am, it seems like the ultimate control on duels is the rulers applying pressure to limit them by requesting that the nobles not grant permission.

On the other hand, massive back-and-forth vendetta cycles would keep the population of militant young nobles under control.
 

Gemini476

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The whole vendetta thing is taken straight from real life, I think?


Also, it's probably worth noting that the Forgotten Realms don't become an official D&D setting until '87, two years after OA, and aren't really being considered for another year or so when TSR start looking into if there's anything more to that setting Greenwood is making articles about in The Dragon.

The only "official" settings out at this point, I think, are Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and The Known World? And Dragonlance is, like, just the books and modules at this point, with Greyhawk being the only one to get a big boxset treatment? I think?

To be honest, I'm not sure how many of those settings would even have it make sense to have Eastern lands on the, well, eastern side of the local continent.
 

MacBalance

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The whole vendetta thing is taken straight from real life, I think?
There's definitely some basis. I also thought of Dune which had a formal vendetta system as part of it's Noble 'infrastructure' along with family atomics and such.

I'm just not sure it's intentional that losing an above-board, planned, and witnessed duel is grounds for vendetta, which seems like ti could elad to an endless cycle. On the other hand, if it was the Patrician from Ankh-Morpork running the show I'd consider it ight be an intentional way to get the less patient younger nobles to either rethink their stance or die trying.


Also, it's probably worth noting that the Forgotten Realms don't become an official D&D setting until '87, two years after OA, and aren't really being considered for another year or so when TSR start looking into if there's anything more to that setting Greenwood is making articles about in The Dragon.

The only "official" settings out at this point, I think, are Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and The Known World? And Dragonlance is, like, just the books and modules at this point, with Greyhawk being the only one to get a big boxset treatment? I think?

To be honest, I'm not sure how many of those settings would even have it make sense to have Eastern lands on the, well, eastern side of the local continent.
True. An interesting bit we'll get to in time is that the first adventure, OA1, suggests sailing west to Kara-Tur if I'm reading the map right. It's something of a "logical" map, though, for a mini-game for crossing the ocean, but it does suggest that the PC's ship leaves port and heads west to get to Kara-Tur, not hitting anything in the middle of note or taking a southern route.

Greyhawk was probably the only AD&D setting with any real definition at his point. Taking a brief look, it doesn't look like Kara-Tur con fits into the known Greyhawk world well at all.

This continues a weird trend: Oriental Adventures recommends playing it as a separate world, at least initially, but a lot of material focuses on mixing it with standard stuff.

Manners
Kara-Tur residents are polite, especially as rank increases. The really high-ranking ones will even smile, bow, and offer you tea as they're ordering your painful death. At least, that's my opinion. Manners show social class differences and prevent embarrassment. We get a paragraph on bowing (bow more to your superiors; kowtow to the really high-rank people) and another on watching what one says to avoid embarrassment. Finally, this obviously has a lot of hooks into honor. The DM is essentially given carte blanche to deduct honor for Monty Python jokes.

names
Names are somewhat changeable in the cultures discussed in this book. That's not including aliases. Here's the names a character likely has:

  • A 'true name of sorts, given at birth and known to the gods.
  • Childhood name; Usually of a different format from adul names, making one's status as a child easy to determine.
  • Adult name, replaces the childhood name in most uses signifying adulthood.
  • Hereditary name used with personal name and most common among nobles. May be seen as presumptuous if used by lower classes.
  • Clan or tribal name. Common and imprtant to abrbarians.
  • Place name used as a herditary family name.
  • Nickname.
  • "Substitute name for people of quality, craftsmen, or those working at unseemly or improper occupations." This oen confuses me a bit. I think it's intended that (for example) a Noble who has to work for some reason (even if ti's jsut because they're good at it).
  • Substitute name for artists to avoid undesired connections. Like a writer named 'John Poe' working under a different name to avoid being compared or assumed heritage with Edgar Allen.
  • Substitute name chosed to show conenction to a school or master. So someone might take the name John Powe because they're a huge fan.
  • Religious name taken by those in monasteries and temples.
  • Event names, basically titles based on deeds.
  • Posthumous name, to protect from spirits after death.

It's quite a list. There's none of the stuff I'd expect, like how names are presented or used, sample names, common prefixes, etc.

And that's it. There's a couple more pages, but that's the bulk of the text of Oriental Adventures!

We get two pages of useful spot maps for buildings followed by a page containing a half-page bibliography and the 'Family Chart' discussed much, much earlier. I think we discussed both of these months ago, so no need to re-hash them.

That's it.

I do feel like my original thesis holds: you could play the game of AD&D using this book, assuming the DM has the DMG (and probably the MM) albeit with occasional gaps and mis-steps.... But then again, playing AD&D with the PHB, DMG, and MM is going to leave you with some gaps and such at times, too. In many ways it's surprisingly underpowered from what I expected. Several of the classes are more restricted than the PHB equivalent, and then there's the Ninja which has some very odd special rules (the split-class thing) that were probably seen as vital balance tools but come off as just odd.

There's some neat ideas in here I wish had been better. I like the idea of mapping out PC families and wish it had gone further: I'd love to see a revision where players are incentivized to play members or allies of the same family or to play outsiders. Maybe combine it with the 2e Dark Sun "Character Tree" concept or the Ars Magica troupe play idea for a system where players are less attached to individual PCs but expected to manage a shared 'stable' of PCs.

The Honor rules are, as a guide, more interesting that alignment. They don't work for every culture, but they do provide a more mechanical way of judging a character's actions. I think in-play I'd expect them to be a bit more loosely defined. I.E. no fining a samurai for using the wrong weapon if it's in desperation... Although perhaps the intent is that a proper samurai would either die with honor or be willing to take the hit (and have honor banked) if stuck in such a situation.

The Events have some neat ideas for 'sandbox' style play. Having each year of a campaign start with the DM revealing a prophecy based on the year's random events sounds like a great intro to a long-term sandbox-style game!

There's many hints in this book of a different style of play than I feel like was "standard" D&D at the time. More political, less hack & slash. The inclusion of several spells based around mass combat is interesting as well. I am left wondering what kind of games Zeb Cook ran in this era.

I'll probably update this weekend if not earlier with a few more pics. Art in this book is a disappointment, overall. Most pieces are acceptable if not amazing quality, but art is very sparse and rarely adds much beyond the weapon/armor recognition pics.

I'll start looking at the Oriental Adventures adventures and the Kara-Tur box set early next year, I'd guess. Thank you for sticking through this, and I think I'm free of big lists like spells for a time.
 

The Fireballed Mage

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What I remember most about the World of Kara-Tur section, even on first reading, was how... unfantastical it seemed. It was more like a very broad over-view of Asian history as seen through western understanding. "Here's centralized China, here's warlord China. Here's Japan under the Shogunate, here's Warring States Japan. A bit about Tibet, and something that could be Korea. Oh, and the Mongol Horse Lords over here. Now remember about honor --and don't ever touch a ninja weapon-- and start playing."

It really came across as a Primer to Asian History... and then... you know... maybe some... dragons? Or stuff?

I don't know. In typical Tolkien-derived fantasy, there was usually an elf kingdom, a dwarf confederacy, etc. And the world-builder at least acknowledges places of darkness, of magical wonder. There was some interplay with the fantastical.

But Kara-Tur seems completely, utterly human-centric. Giant empires filling vast stretches of land... but where are the locales to adventure in? What evil needs butt-kicking? It certainly doesn't come across as a Points Of Light setting, to use the 4e terminology.

You've got the Celestial Bureaucracy built right into the setting... and it's not invoked in the description. How to use it in game, making peasants and emperors both seem part of a greater whole? Where are the forests guarded by foo dogs? Which hills are the realms of the oni? How do the Spirit Folk fit into the greater human society? Where would be a good place to drop in a dragon?

It seems weird now, but I think back in the day the setting may have suffered from "mysterious orient" overload. Why the need to add dragons, cloud giant brigands raiding towns from their thunderstorm citadels, or pools of fickle spirit maidens who grant poisonous wishes, when the 'Asian flavor' is mysterious and fantastical in itself?

In fact, I dare say the whole Oriential Adventures seems less magical and fantastical than a normal setting. It's almost as if they're afraid having a province in Shou Lung where the Spirit Folk are the majority and seeing how they live would take away from the awesomeness of playing a bushi. Or they couldn't think of how to integrate it so that the line between the Asian-semi-historical-stuff and the made-up stuff was obvious.
 

Gemini476

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Early D&D's always been more about the whole Law vs. Chaos thing, I feel - you've got the Civilized Humanocentric Lands, and the Barbaric Humanoid Wilderness. Some of those humanocentric lands are elven forests or dwarven mountainhomes or halfling hillsides, but for the most part they're just humans with rubber foreheads.

With Oriental Adventures, though, there seems to be much more of a focus on the actual Civilized Humanocentric Lands part of the game - you might go venturing out into the wilderness to drive away a tribe of oni or whatever, but there's also a lot more to do with court intrigue and whatnot.

The whole yearly/monthly/daily events tables seem like the real meat of OA, to be honest, and probably the part of it that's most worth nicking for other games.
 

The Fireballed Mage

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With Oriental Adventures, though, there seems to be much more of a focus on the actual Civilized Humanocentric Lands part of the game - you might go venturing out into the wilderness to drive away a tribe of oni or whatever, but there's also a lot more to do with court intrigue and whatnot.
True. But take Legend of the Five Rings, where nearly the whole thing is Clan Intrigue. They managed to make the world feel mystical, and there are a whole lot of fantastical stuff happening. Feels... while not real, but adventure friendly. Certainly 3e's Oriental Adventures felt like a fun place to explore.

But I just hopped over to the Forgotten Realms wiki and checked out Kara-Tur. The whole section reads like a condensed historical take of Asia. As in: we simply grabbed a history book and changed the names to protect the innocent. And the most minimal amount of magic we could possibly get in a setting that uses D&D rules. At least when they made up the Western Realms they often included stuff like, "An army of orcs attacked in 1183. Then the city of Uptown was ravaged by a necromancer and his army of undead. The planned invasion of the neighboring country was scrubbed when a dragon burned the entire 8th legion." You know... background mystic junk.

The Kara-Tur write up is more like Asian-In-All-But-Name History 101.


The whole yearly/monthly/daily events tables seem like the real meat of OA, to be honest, and probably the part of it that's most worth nicking for other games.
On that, I agree. Some fantastic adventure generators there. And an evocative way to just breathe background and life into a game.
 

Sleeper

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The whole section reads like a condensed historical take of Asia. As in: we simply grabbed a history book and changed the names to protect the innocent.
You could say that about the whole book. I've mentioned it earlier in this thread, but there's a very distinct difference between how D&D treats Western sources, and how OA treats their Eastern counterparts.

D&D is a synthesis, a grab-bag. A mish-mash of whatever the authors thought was cool, with little care or concern for authenticity. It's ahistorical, wildly divergent from actual myths, and combines random pieces from everywhere as well as stuff made up wholesale, into a single package. Dungeon crawls and rust monsters have nothing to do with medieval Europe, after all; not to mention all the unconscious modernisms from alignment to social class, or the even less obvious imports like the Western frontier/expansionism motif. And that brutalization of its sources is its strength.

Whereas OA is the kid-gloves version, the hands-off respectful foreigners version. OA doesn't cherry-pick wildly disparate sources and integrate them into something new. It's a first-order adaptation, with spells and magic items and monsters and nations and martial maneuvers and even history more or less directly borrowed from specific inspirations like Hearn or Clavell or tales of boys and cats or bamboo cutters. Yes, it's an an attempt to be respectful, true to the source. But that means it's also timid, afraid, makes no intuitive leaps, and feels more like a lesson plan than a unique world.
 

Sleeper

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My previous post is probably misleading if taken in isolation, so I wanted to expand upon it. While I think the main reason Kara-Tur and OA's basic premise is less than enticing is that it simply adapts source material without transforming it, OA doesn't just adapt one or two texts, but a whole host of sources. There's a huge amount of stuff packed in those 144 pages, and much of it, from the spells to bequeathed tangibles and intangibles to the magic items, is evocative. It just needs that final squish and blur, that twisting synthesis, that would bring things like the Celestial Bureaucracy alive.

OA is also mechanically fascinating. The event system has been called out, and so has honor. But the family system; the martial arts and the maneuvers; the implied yet missing spirit system worked into the shukenja class, monsters, and many of the spells; the proficiency system (which is still superior to the later versions in the DSG, WSG, and 2e); and so on are all compelling, as well. The density of ideas, even if they don't quite gel, is amazing.
 
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MacBalance

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What I remember most about the World of Kara-Tur section, even on first reading, was how... unfantastical it seemed. It was more like a very broad over-view of Asian history as seen through western understanding. "Here's centralized China, here's warlord China. Here's Japan under the Shogunate, here's Warring States Japan. A bit about Tibet, and something that could be Korea. Oh, and the Mongol Horse Lords over here. Now remember about honor --and don't ever touch a ninja weapon-- and start playing."

...

In fact, I dare say the whole Oriential Adventures seems less magical and fantastical than a normal setting. It's almost as if they're afraid having a province in Shou Lung where the Spirit Folk are the majority and seeing how they live would take away from the awesomeness of playing a bushi. Or they couldn't think of how to integrate it so that the line between the Asian-semi-historical-stuff and the made-up stuff was obvious.
You have a very valid point. I think this is because of the book's intent to be a book for playing in an Asian-themed setting, and Kara-Tur is just a possible setting, not the definitive setting. I'd argue TSR learned that this approach had trouble: Consider 2e's settings like Al-Qadim, Maztica, etc. that had a much firmer default setting (in the names, even!) instead of being a generic themed book and a tacked-on setting. The later works had a clearer goal of being part of the Forgotten Realms (which, as I was reminded, was not an official setting at this point) which carried a lot of implications with it: The demi-human races, the pantheons (even if they're at the edges), and an expected magic level.

...With Oriental Adventures, though, there seems to be much more of a focus on the actual Civilized Humanocentric Lands part of the game - you might go venturing out into the wilderness to drive away a tribe of oni or whatever, but there's also a lot more to do with court intrigue and whatnot....
I also feel like we might be getting an insight into Zeb Cook's preferred style. I kind of wonder if he ran games with more of a political focus, or at least where being non-human was 'exotic' in the sense described in the fiction as opposed to the common actual play of D&D where elves, dwarves, etc. are just another strategic option with the assumption of being available in a city.

As The Fireballed Mage said, it's quite possible to make a human-dominated world interesting. The OA races, to me, feel like they'd work well as classes, actually. Not for realism or anything else, but for the idea that being a Spirit Folk or Hengeyokai is the easy "one cool thing" for your character at start in the same way I'd want a samurai to be awesome, or a monk or wu jen.

...The Kara-Tur write up is more like Asian-In-All-But-Name History 101.
It does. I think it's the sparseness more than anything. At this point, as of Oriental Adventures, we're just getting a backbone. The adventures and box set will hopefully flesh this out a bit, but I know it may not go far enough.

...Whereas OA is the kid-gloves version, the hands-off respectful foreigners version. OA doesn't cherry-pick wildly disparate sources and integrate them into something new. It's a first-order adaptation, with spells and magic items and monsters and nations and martial maneuvers and even history more or less directly borrowed from specific inspirations like Hearn or Clavell or tales of boys and cats or bamboo cutters. Yes, it's an an attempt to be respectful, true to the source. But that means it's also timid, afraid, makes no intuitive leaps, and feels more like a lesson plan than a unique world.
This is an excellent observation. I feel like in the mid-80s Asia was much less "known" in pop culture (although it was certainly trending) with some of the worst stereotypes finally sliding into the bad-taste dustbin. Providing a base was necessary in my mind as people might have been inspired to run this book via martial arts movies, dramas, or many other sources.


But, as you said:
...It just needs that final squish and blur, that twisting synthesis, that would bring things like the Celestial Bureaucracy alive.
I feel like the Celestial Bureaucracy may have gotten better coverage in later works, actually. I know it was referenced in Spelljammer and a few other books. I feel like it would have been a great campaign-arc adventure book (similar format to The Great Modron March, for example) over in Planescape but I think it was mostly limited to occasional mentions.

OA is also mechanically fascinating. The event system has been called out, and so has honor. But the family system; the martial arts and the maneuvers; the implied yet missing spirit system worked into the shukenja class, monsters, and many of the spells; the proficiency system (which is still superior to the later versions in the DSG, WSG, and 2e); and so on are all compelling, as well. The density of ideas, even if they don't quite gel, is amazing.
I feel like a lot of the systems you mention are interesting first drafts. There's a lot of things that are almost awesome in the mechanics here. I feel a slight preference for 2e proficiencies, but that may be a bias on my part for the edition I'm most grounded in. Events feels mostly complete, and is a great example where too much mechanical detail might detract. I wouldn't mind some more clarification for events and perhaps some generalization or scaling, but I prefer these as vague ideas for the DM to fill in and expand.

Honor and Family would be improved with a bit more nuance, I think. Family would benefit from some guidelines to encourage players to make connections: I feel like the RAW encourages each player to fend for themselves. Perhaps I'm seeking something more akin to Birthright, though.
 
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