Released hot on the heels of Shadowlands, Mask of the Oni aims to provide L5R RPG GMs with an adventure to help put their players through all of the nasty things they just learned. Whether it succeeds at that task … well, you’ll mostly have to skip right over that spoiler warning below to find out.
But the player-friendly version is that the most appealing parts of Mask of the Oni might be the parts that aren’t the adventure. There’s a swanky double-sided map. One side is the map of the Shadowlands and Crab lands, as depicted in the Shadowlands book. The other is a map of Daylight Castle (look, I get that technically it could be a spoiler that there’s a map of Daylight Castle, but come on it literally says on the back of the product that the samurai have to go to Daylight Castle). As a game aid, the map is something only the GM should be looking at, but once the adventure is over it could be nicely displayed, as this is not your typical two-dimensional grid map of a castle. I mean, I’m still planning on biding my time until I can use the normal map side to help form some sort of massive Voltron-style super-map in combination with maps released with later L5R Roleplaying products, but you do you.
There are also 55 circular tokens for use in depicting combat or other scenes in your L5R Roleplaying games. Most of these are Shadowlands creatures (this include a half-dozen Nezmui, for the Ratling fans out there), but there are also 15 or so tokens that could be used by player characters or as Rokugani NPCs. Because L5R Roleplaying is not as battle-focused (and when in battle, not so map-focused) as something like Pathfinder, I don’t have the same level of unconditional adoration for these that I do for Pathfinder pawns, but they are still pretty handy – tokens with quality at the least give a visual reference for players, and they are way more reasonably priced than miniatures.
As for the adventure, the non-spoiler review is that it is really focused on producing some individual scenes that give off a Shadowlands vibe, but not as great at producing a narrative. It’s mostly walking the players through someone else’s story, and making the GM do a relative lot of work in the process. More details below the Spoiler tag.
So, Mask of the Oni is a story of the players discovering what happened during the fall of Shiro Hiruma (aka Daylight Castle), and presumably making sure that some lost Hiruma spirits have an honorable ending. As noted above, it has some atmospheric moments, but ultimately manages an unlikely combination of being relatively short on defined encounters for the GM and still being almost entirely on rails.
Mask of the Oni works most naturally as a follow-on to the Dark Tides, the adventure that came with the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying GM Kit. This is because the bad guy who gets away at the end of Dark Tides is the same one that the player characters will be pursuing into the Shadowlands in Mask of the Oni. Unless the GM wants to make an entire separate adventure out of it, this results in the PCs getting a report of a new crime committed by the villain, and the PCs are able to follow her trail to the Wall. At the wall, the PCs meet a handful of Crab, who exist mostly to remind the players that they can’t just randomly wander into the Shadowlands, and also provide them with some fingers of jade.
The characters then need to get from Point A (the Wall) to Point B (Daylight Castle). Of course, this distance is within the Shadowlands, and this adventure is supposed to be about the Shadowlands, so one can’t simply let them walk on unmolested (one also can’t mess with them too much, or else they’ll be wrecked before they get to the more interesting part). How this is done is somewhat unorthodox, because there is no particular path for the characters to take and no particular quantities of encounters for them to handle. It is, instead, entirely left up to the GM’s discretion. Further, of the one-fifth of the adventure that this section consumes, much of it does not present specific encounters, but rather background ambiance information on the Shadowlands. I suppose that if there was no other sourcebook on the Shadowlands, this would seem useful. However, since they just published the Shadowlands book, it felt out of place to have this adventure talking about things like how the Shadowlands affects the elements. It seems like basic information on the Shadowlands could be found in the Shadowlands book, and that the page count in this supplement could have been better spent with more development of the specific encounters suggested for the PCs in this adventure (as is, these only occupy two of the six pages for this section).
The remainder of the adventure takes place in Daylight Castle itself. There, the players have to learn what happened when the castle fell, get three key objects or bits of information, and then stop the villain. Because this isn’t a D&D castle, it should not be expected that there will be much, if any, combat until the final confrontation. Rather, the rooms in the castle illustrate the dangers of the Shadowlands (e.g., don’t touch anything; unless it’s one of those things you have to touch, anyway). In theory, the PCs are trying to gather the three key items so the villain can’t perform her ritual. In reality, the PCs can’t stop the ritual. Rather, the villain has no real way to get any of the keys items – but if the players leave one behind she automatically gets it, and when there’s only one left she automatically gets that. On the bright side, the individual rooms are interesting, and the players won’t know that the villain was allowed to just *poof* the third key out of somewhere she couldn’t possibly have gotten it, so their experience doesn’t have to be so affected. But it makes me wonder why the story was written so that the villain needed any of the keys at all. Couldn’t the players just have needed to get all three, and then they have the final confrontation?
The GM is given the option of having the players run into the villain before the final confrontation – but since she has to get away in order to preserve the adventure, it’s unclear what the point of such an encounter would be. Barring that, their encounter with the villain will be triggered when all three keys have been found (probably because the PCs got the second one, thus handing the third to the villain). How many keys the villain has will determine how close she is to completing the Evil Maho Ritual. She’ll probably only have the one (I can’t fathom how much the players would have to screw up for her to have all three), which means that the players basically have an indefinite amount of time to kill her minions, at which point the ritual will fail and they can fight her directly.
A wild card in this, in more ways than one, is the demon she is working with. It is a wild card for the GM because there are no defined rules for when it shows up. It is there from the start? Does it show up later? If so, when? If the oni doesn’t show up, then there really isn’t much of a chance of anything bad happening fro the ritual. If the oni does show up, and works directly with the villain, then the party will likely get crushed. The book posits a third option of the oni working up and not working with the villain, but I’ve got to say that this option makes basically no sense. The oni stands to gain a massive amount of personal power if the villain succeeds. There’s no reason for it to do anything other than help, except “because oni.” This makes the final confrontation a fraught balancing act for the GM. I’m not sure what the right solution is, and I couldn’t even say what the authors think the right solution is, because they just don’t say how the encounter is supposed to be run.
When all is said and done, the players will have saved the souls of a bunch of Hiruma or have ended up as corpses in the Shadowlands (the third option of staying alive but not saving the Hiruma doesn’t seem terribly likely). Ultimately, I didn’t really find Mask of the Oni a compelling adventure. It’s got some good ambiance scenes, but there’s so much of it that’s either delivering exposition to the players or just cutting the GM loose with vague notions of how to run certain sections. Unfortunately, Mask of the Oni is probably the weakest adventure (for sale in print or the PDF downloads) so far for Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying.