Review – The Way of the Shadowlands (L5R RPG)

The Way of the Shadowlands is a supplement for the Second Edition of Alderac Entertainment Group’s Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game. It is an early Second Edition book, before AEG started including both the L5R “roll and keep” mechanics and the d20 mechanics in all the books. The Way of the Shadowlands is a 136-page, black-and-white softcover. It retailed for $20 once upon a time, but since it’s a decade old now, that probably isn’t going to matter.

The Basics

The Way of the Shadowlands is the third of the Shadowlands books for the L5R RPG (the first two being The Book of the Shadowlands and Bearers of Jade). The first two were heavily focused on material for the GM to throw at the players. This third entry provides more potential PC options but, realistically, it is still primarily a GM/flavor book. As Way of the Shadowlands itself notes, it is quite difficult to run a Tainted character in a game of L5R – it is hard to integrate a lone Tainted character into a normal party (no one will want to deal with him unless it’s a secret), and an all-Tainted party is almost playing a different game. So I would say that Way of the Shadowlands is still primarily GM-oriented, but with expanded options for Tainted human NPCs, rather than a focus on monsters.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, in the historical timeline of L5R Way of the Shadowlands is set during the very early stages of the Clan War, after Hida Kisada and the Crab have started allying with their ancient foes.

Layout/Graphics/Editing/Writing

There’s plenty of art, and it’s of acceptable quality, but nothing exciting (this was a $20 softcover, after all, not today’s often $40-50 for a fancy hardcover of the same page length). The layout was solid, if unspectacular – the book doesn’t mess things up, which is really what you’re looking for in a supplement like this. The editing seemed quite good – on a casual read-through I didn’t notice typographical errors, misplaced sidebars, goofy line breaks, or any of the other common editing goofs that creep into some RPG books. All of the writing in Way of the Shadowlands was done by Shawn Carman (the current Story lead for Legend of the Five Rings, and one of the heads of the 4th Edition of the L5R RPG) and Rich Wulf (who was the Story lead before Carman) – so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the writing is top notch.

Contents

Introduction/The Eternal Shadowlands (~10 pages) – Like most L5R RPG books, Way of the Shadowlands opens up with a piece of fiction (concerning the destruction of the Badger Clan) and, after a half-page “how to use this book” break, that continues into the first chapter, which contains in-character letters about Shadowlands-related happenings. Obviously, this section is all fluff – but it’s good fluff.

Unredeemed (~30 pages) – The second chapter is a wide-ranging look at various Shadowlands-related topics: a bit of historical perspective, views of the Clans towards the Shadowlands, The Lost (who the Shadowlands likes to recruit, and who it needs to kill), an assortment of historical tales of the Corrupt (including the original origin story for Kyoso no Oni, plus the Anvil of Despair and some well-known battles), the ability of Jigoku to corrupt the denizens of other spirit realms and the non-humans from Rokugan, organizations that fight against the Shadowlands (inquisitors, witch hunters, the Damned, the Unbroken, Moto White Guard), methods of concealing the Taint, false paths of enlightenment, ogres, bog hags, Dark Moto, and other critters. *whew*

Character (~25 pages) – As the name might imply, this chapter contains character options relating to the Taint/Shadowlands, including new Skills, Advantages, and Schools/Paths. The Schools include The Damned Berserkers (Tainted samurai trying to die in battle against the Shadowlands), Nameless Ones (Void Shugenja whose magic has purged them of the Taint, with strange results), monks of the Temple of Onnotangu (corrupted by both the Shadowlands and the Lying Darkness), Moto Black Guard, and the Unbroken (ronin who seek to cure their Taint by killing Shadowlands creatures). The bulk of the chapter, however, is an extensive list of Shadowlands powers that can be granted by the Taint, symptoms of the Taint, a Heritage Table for the Lost, and “The Shadowlands School” (which is basically gaining more Shadowlands powers instead of a school Technique).

Who’s Who (~20 pages) – Again, contains almost exactly what you’d expect it to – a gallery of NPCs, including notables like Kuni Utagu, Togashi Kokujin, the Dark Daughter of Fu Leng, Yogo Junzo, Hida Amoro, those involved in the drama at the heart of the fall of the Badger, and others. This chapter also contains some Yokai, the Shadowlands version of Ancestors. I found particularly amusing the Yokai who costs negative points because he’s working against you.
Sample Characters (~10 pages) – I’ve never been too much of a fan of sample characters, and the ones here are explicitly just for use as NPCs, although they make sure to include versions that follow the character creation rules of the time.

Appendix (~25 pages) – I’m not sure why this is an “appendix,” but, regardless, it’s another motley assortment of topics, much like the Unredeemed chapter. There’s a little bit of psychobabble about being Tainted and the Shadowlands, the less-than-common/reliable ways to cure the Taint, the practicalities of traveling in the Shadowlands, background on Oni of various sorts, write-ups and stat blocks for the Elemental Terrors and a handful of other Oni (including the popular Pekkle no Oni), Free Ogres (still evil, still Tainted, just not stupid anymore; includes an Ogre Bushi school), some Tainted locations in Rokugan, a handful of dark magic items, some maho and anti-Taint spells, and a few dark kiho.

Summation

Way of the Shadowlands was a handy and insightful look at the subjects it covers when it first came out, but (as is probably true of most ten year old RPG supplements for game lines that have been continuously in print since them) is a pretty specialist book at this point. I’m fairly steeped in L5R lore, and it’s interesting to be reading an L5R book a decade after it came out, not being able to remember whether this or that bit of information was new to this book or not. I think the detail level of the material on the destruction of the Badger, some of the NPCs, and the Elemental Terrors are not available elsewhere. The general information on how the Taint and the Shadowlands works has since been superseded for later editions of the game, but if you’re running Second Edition Roll and Keep, then it will provide you with handy mechanical information on having Tainted humans in your campaign. At a minimum, Way of the Shadowlands makes for interesting reading material, and has some suggestions on what sort of Tainted human foes a party might encounter, and at probably something like $5 it’s a reasonable pickup if you’re into L5R. However, it doesn’t have the same long-term background info usefulness that some of the classic L5R books do, such as the normal “Way of the” books, or even the two Shadowlands-focused 1E books.

Leave a Reply