Review – Shadowlands (Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying)

The second major supplement for Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying (after must-have Emerald Empire) is Shadowlands. But you’ll find a much broader array of content than you would in a traditional Shadowlands splat book. It isn’t just broader than the front cover copy (which only mentions the Shadowlands itself), it’s broader even than the back cover copy (which also mentions the Crab Clan, the Falcon Clan, and some GM tips).

So, out of respect to that-other-person-who-has-been-with-Strange-Assembly-since-day-one (Jay Earle), I’m going to kick off this review by noting that Shadowlands is not only as close as you’re going to get to Way of the Shadowlands and Way of the Crab, it is also probably as close as you’re going to get to Way of the Ratling. I know, I know, eight pages is far from an entire book, but eight pages is just as much as the Falcon/Toritaka get (if you count their school). For those not steeped in L5R lore, the Nezumi (ratlings) are sentient anthropomorphic rats whose civilization was destroyed when Fu Leng came crashing down through Ningen-do (their capital once was where the Festering Pit of Fu Leng is now). Since then, they have eked out a hardscrabble existence in the Shadowlands, and while the rest of Rokugan considers them monstrous savages (to the extent they know of them at all), the Crab Clan has allied with the Nezumi (who are immune to the Taint) in their war against the darkness. The eight pages talks about Nezumi dream magic, several different tribes, and a little bit about their history, physiology, and daily life. It’s not a ton, but it’s a lot more than I was expecting our furry friends to get this early in the L5R Roleplaying lifecycle.

But what, you say, about the titular Shadowlands? Perhaps we could hear about them and the actual monsters living there? You can – I promise that this review is not as deceitful and ever-shifting as the domain of Fu Leng. There is the usual sort of material on history, land, and what passes for life. Shadowlands takes a moderate view of the place, eschewing the bonkers ‘the Crab should have all died in the first year’ take that some prior Shadowlands-focused supplements have presented. Notably, there is even an explicit demarcation where the area relatively near the wall is still semi-safe (or is that not-really-quite-as-dangerous?), while it gets really bad further out. This gives GMs a little bit of room to send the players out into the Shadowlands for a few days without everything necessarily going to hell in a handbasket, while still preserving more scary stuff further out.

There are quite a few monster stat blocks as well, with nine generic options (twelve if you count the Dark Moto) plus some unique ones associated with particular locations that significantly expand that total. Locations presented include some classics (the Forgotten Tomb of Fu Leng, the Festering Pit of Fu Leng, Fu Leng’s Laundry, what’s left of Daylight Castle), plus some new entries (False Lantern Grove, the Lost Library). In general, these locations follow the general rules of navigation in the Shadowlands, in that they aren’t fixed. So, while the Crab might think there are several lost libraries, there’s really only the one – the geography just isn’t static.

The material on the Crab Clan drills down to the family level, discussing their role in the clan, more details of history, and how they get along with each other and neighboring clans (there are definitely some seeds sown for internal political bickering). In addition, the Wall (aka the Carpenter Wall aka Kaiu Kabe) gets its own section, detailing the general arrangements of fortresses, towers, tunnels, guards, and other defenses. Noteworthy is the acknowledgment that it isn’t really possible to thoroughly garrison such a massive structure – even the Crab don’t field an army large enough for that.

The Falcon retain their traditional focus as spirit hunters, mostly working to appease those that plague their own lands. They have the one family (the Toritaka), and one school (the Toritaka Phantom Hunter). The clan bonuses focus on their role with spirits, the family bonuses focus a bit more on their lands, and their (water/air) shugenja school (unsurprisingly) focuses on spirits and Otherworldly beings.

Another aspect of the book, only obliquely referenced on the cover, is a new school for each of the Great Clans. Some of them really have a mechanical focus limited to dealing with the supernatural, but most only have a flavor element in that direction, while others have no particular relation to the Shadowlands. The Crab add the Kuni Warden to their options, a monk school who can inflict the Silenced condition with unarmed strikes (for the purposes of putting down their ‘patients’ or maho-users). The Crane get the Kakita Swordsmith School … and, if you recall my opinions on the utility of this sort of thing in a player character, you’ll understand why I must extend my condolences to the Kakita. The Mirumoto Taoist Blade join the Dragon, with the pretty nifty ability to used kiho to enhance their weapon attacks instead of unarmed strikes. The Lion get the Kitsu Medic, in case you wanted to play a non-shugenja Kitsu healer. The Phoenix receive the Asako Inquisitors (courtier/shugenja), who excel at detecting the supernatural. The Unicorn get the Moto Avenger shugenja school devoted to (among other things) taking down the Dark Moto; their abilities include getting to inflict fatique on hostile spell targets. The Scorpion, not wanting to fall behind in the race to see how many shugenja schools a Clan can have, add the Yogo Preserver school, which specializes in the use if shikigami, which are miniature paper servants who would never, ever, ever be used to deliver poison. Trust us.

Other new mechanical material includes a handful each of distinctions, passions, adversities, and anxieties. Many of these have a good way to tie in to a Crab or other character who has seen the Shadowlands, but they are generally not specifically limited. For example, the Dead Eyes distinction is a reference to a particular cadre of Crab warriors, but any samurai could be emotionally deadened from horrors they have seen. In addition to those, there are invocations, more Shadowlands powers, a few pages of weapons/armor/equipment, item patterns, Crab treasures, and artifacts of Jigoku. The artifacts presented include major items such as the Anvil of Despair and Porcelain Mask of Fu Leng. Jade and obsidian get expanded rules and applications. Finally, the mechanical options include a half-dozen pages of new maho invocations, demons to summon, and the like.

For the GM, Shadowlands closes out with advice on presenting different levels of Shadowlands involvement in the game, emphasizing that – due to the nature of the Shadowlands as an existential threat to samurai as individuals and Rokugan as a whole – having a decent amount of it can quickly overwhelm other aspects of a campaign.

All told, Shadowlands is a solid book, presenting a good look at the Shadowlands that will be actually useful to players and GMs (instead of being a good read that’s full of a bunch of material that can’t really be used in game outside of campfire tales). Emerald Empire remains a better choice as the first supplement to pick up, but Shadowlands makes sure to slip in something for everyone, not just the Crab player and the GM.

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