I was worried before I started that The Way of War was just going to be a dismembered reprint of 1st edition's The Adept's Way. Luckily, it wasn't. It was just a follow-up volume presenting very similar subject matter in a very similar style. That's awkward, because it's good (for people like me, who own very nearly every Earthdawn book) that this new book is not redundant with the old, but problematic (for the hypothetical people who started Earthdawn with second edition) that it often seems to be riffing on a conversation whose first half is missing.
The bad part isn't too bad, though, because The Adept's Way was largely setting flavor, and so this additional, non-contradictory setting flavor can simply act as an alternate starting point. We can figure out the difference between Gallant swordsmen and Bladesman swordsmen from context . . . probably.
So now that we've established that the book has a reason to exist (you're welcome, everybody), how is the actual content itself?
I'd say it's good, even if the book itself is a bit of a workhorse. I'm probably not the right person to ask, because The Way of War focuses on the combat-oriented Disciplines, and that's the part of tabletop roleplaying that I'm most ambivalent about. On the one hand, it's usually at the heart of a game's spectacle - and I'm a sucker for spectacle. On the other hand, the very process of getting in to combat usually involves someone (either a PC or an NPC) acting like a total jerk, and the consequence for doing it poorly is that a player might lose their character. Thus there's a temptation for me to dismiss this book as being about "people who hit stuff good."
But some of these guys are jumping out of airships and going berserk on whoever's near the landing zone. Some of them are swashbuckling fencers who taunt their enemies with cutting wit. Some of them are blind archers who use their attunement to the astral plane to target their arrows without sight. There is plenty of spectacle to be had.
I guess my final verdict is that I'm glad I read it, but I kind of wish that Earthdawn as a whole was more dialed in to the high ranges of the power curve. Even high level abilities are pretty subtle, and it's unclear, without analyzing the math, exactly how much of a strategic asset a powerful adept is supposed to be (eyeballing it, I want to say one 15th Circle Warrior is worth about 50 non-adept soldiers, but that may just be because I don't know the broken builds). The implication of both this book and the original The Adept's Way is that your PCs are not too terribly unusual in the context of the world, and that ultimately means that they are probably still operating on an individual scale, even if they reach the top level of advancement (normal caveats about spellcaster shenanigans would apply, but there aren't any spellcasters in this particular book). Let's just call it a mystery for later books to clear up.
I'm now looking through my notes for random comments to pad out the post length, but honestly, most of them are just individual things that I liked - griffin cavalry, windlings (faeries, basically) that ride hawks, a staff with a built-in flute that whistles as you swing it, the "Hard Glare" Talent Knack that lets you intimidate inanimate objects by staring at them so hard they break - there's a lot of fun stuff here, but not much that needs a ton of commentary.
We do get an entirely new Discipline, and with it some hints at a never-before-seen land outside of Barsaive. "Cathay" has been name-dropped a few times before this, and I know by reputation that it's going to be the subject of a problematic 3rd edition book, but this is the first time we see it in action. We're introduced to the Zhan Shi, one of Cathay's signature Disciplines, and they're more or less D&D Monks. Highly spiritual people who develop their bodies and minds to be able to fight unarmed.
I'd be lying if I said I had any great problem with its inclusion here, because the Monk has always been one of my favorite D&D classes, but it does hit a lot of the tropes. They're presented in a very mystical way that reads like an idealistic, but shallow understanding of East Asian religion, and it's entirely unclear why they couldn't just be Warriors. The one wrinkle is that the narrator here is someone who traveled to Cathay and then brought the Discipline to Barsaive and she's called-out, in-setting, for at least some of her Orientalism. Her section ends with comments from a couple of her readers remind us that many Zhan Shi do not live up to the narrator's high ideals.
I think the Discipline as a whole winds up feeling pretty unnecessary because it doesn't go nearly as far as the Ork Liberator Discipline in making unarmed combat viable, and it doesn't bring enough other powers to the table, soon enough, to give it a fun secondary niche (my favorite part of the D&D Monk, for example, is their traversal powers).
It also wasn't a cultural or thematic gap that needed to be filled. I guess its presence makes Earthdawn a bit more like the D&D 3rd edition core, which had just recently been released, but I'd be shocked if that were an actual contemporary concern.
Finally, I looked it up, and "Zhan Shi" does appear to be a real Chinese word, so that's something, but I have no idea what it might refer to. I suspect that this might be a romanization issue. My first google translate gave me a result of "exhibit," which didn't make sense, but that's actually "Zhǎnshì". On a hunch, I reversed the translation and typed "warrior" into the English box and got "Zhànshì," and I'm guessing that's what they were going for. However, it leads to a very weird polyglot sentence early in the chapter: "the Zhan Shi is similar to the Warrior."
"The [Warrior] is similar to the Warrior." You don't say? I'm starting to have some theories about why the Cathay book has such a reputation for being a hot mess.
Ukss Contribution: I'm trying really hard to figure out how "staring at objects until they're so intimidated they break" can be a setting element instead of a system element, but I'm coming up short. Let's go with Windling Hawk Riders instead.
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