I love the Shadowlands. They're a wonderful resource. An infinite supply of adversaries, ranging from the comic relief (goblins) to the brutish combat scene (ogres) to truly dangerous and unique foes (oni) to subtle corruptive influences (bloodspeakers/ghosts/cultists) to horrors (undead). An infinite supply of adversaries who I can plausibly make as common or rare as I wish. If I want a game where ogres are roaming around and it's dangerous to be outside at night, then the Shadowlands are really active and the Crab are slipping. If I want a quiet game without silly wandering monsters, then the Shadowlands are quiet this year. The Shadowlands obey laws incomprehensible to man.
However...that's just the beginning of the potential offered by the Shadowlands. A few Shadowlands beasties wandering around Rokugan is one thing. A few Rokugani wandering around the Shadowlands is a whole other game. That's what I'm going to write about here - adventures set in the Shadowlands. Walking in the Lands of Hell...
I don't think we're in Rokugan any more, Toto-san
The Shadowlands isn't Rokugan. We all know that...but presenting the Shadowlands as just a nasty wilderness with the occasional ogre is a waste of the potential.
(Cue John Wick-style meaningful paragraphs).
Going into the Shadowlands is like hunting Aliens (yes, those Aliens).
When the Aliens are living inside the Chernobyl Reactor No. 3 Containment Structure.
And the Facehuggers are invisible.
And the aliens are serving Great Cthulhu himself.
And Great Cthulhu isn't an indifferent horror, He hates you and your family personally with all the venom of a thousand years of rejection and imprisonment.
That's the first thing to recognise about the Shadowlands. It hates you. It is a world created and maintained by hatred of the living. The Shadowlands wants you dead. When a PC leaves the Kaiu Wall, the player is essentially saying "Dear Mr. GM, I am begging you to hurt my character as deeply and as horribly as possible". The second thing to recognise about the Shadowlands comes from that statement - it's not about just killing PCs. It's about hurting them. An Oni with 20k20 to-hit and damage rolls isn't scary. It wipes out anything in one round, but it's not especially scary. It's just a lot of dice. To really drive home the nature of the Shadowlands, you've got to hurt the players, not the characters. You've got to drive home the horror, and dice just aren't part of that.
The Ingrediants of Horror
Description, atmosphere, and violation - there are the watchwords which you must observe.
Description means attempting to make the horrors as real as possible. The Shadowlands, despite some simularities, isn't part of the Cthulhu Mythos. The horrors here are part of reality. Samurai aren't driven insane by the sheer wrongness of most Oni. To be descriptive, try to use as many concrete images and ideas as you can. Don't say "it's a horrible oni", say "it's a horror with a face which looks like a fleshy spider, and a body that resembles a cat in shape and a farmhouse in size". You need to make the players see the things...and not just see. Bring all the senses in. Touch and taste, especially. These two senses are very personal, they require close contact. If the characters can taste a foul, bitter flavour in the back of their throat as they crawl through the strange fog, then it's more invasive and disturbing that just a fog that blocks line of sight.
That said, some monsters just can't be described...
Atmosphere means never letting the characters relax - and punishing them if they do. Journeys in the deep Shadowlands should be desperate, frantic passages through the valley of death. The threat of new, unimaginable horrors should be ever-present. Nothing should go right in the Shadowlands. Fires don't light, food spoils quicker, straps break, tiny imperfections in swords become critical flaws. You are in a land that hates you and wants you dead. Never forget that.
Violation...ah. The Shadowlands are wrong. They are the enemy. They are evil. Everything that is good, honourable, pleasant, sane...is reflected in a dark and foul mirror. There should be three reactions by players to anything in the Shadowlands: "ick", "argh", and a sort of strangled shout that comes from trying to say "ick" and "argh" at the same time. The Shadowlands should be disgusting, nasty and fundamentally disturbing. They should freak you out.
Have a look at the Oni of Unutterable Hunger. It's an Oni with a steaming breath. Anything touched by the steam vanishes, is destroyed, is annihilated. The demon looks like a giant starving child (an easily image to visualise), and cries out constantly for food, but it can't eat anything because the steam destroys the food before it reaches the mouth.
For me anyway, that's quite scary. The idea that someone could be gone, destroyed forever, just by touching a wisp of gas is really...disturbing. Fatal blows are supposed to be big, obvious things that are telegraphed a week in advance. Swords can kill you. Big teeth can kill you. Being vapourised by a little puff of fog isn't a normal idea of a fatal blow. It hits the way I think the world should work. The demon isn't just scary 'cos it's dangerous, it's scary 'cos it does something that shouldn't be possible. Find what freaks you out, what makes you say "ugggh, that just isn't right", then add 6k4 claws and a high Earth, and send it after your PCs.
The other example is a bit more complex, and I'll tell it in the form of a story. I'm quite proud of this one.
A group of samurai are in the Shadowlands. They're on a muddy plain with lots of huge broken rocks sticking out of the mud, with the occasional chasm or cave. The skies darken. A few drops of rain fall.
GM: A drop of rain lands a few feet ahead of you. Where it landed, something's appeared. A small round white thing.
PC: Appeared? How?
GM: It just grew up out of the ground in an instant after the raindrop hit. It's an eye.
PC: What do you mean, it's an eye?
GM: Where the raindrop fell, a human-sized eye has grown up out of the ground. It glistens wetly amid the mud. As you stand there staring, it looks back at you with a strangely pleading glint. Oh, by the way, the sound of the rain is getting louder. It's about to pour.
PCs: <second of thought.> AARRGH!!! We run back to that cave!!!! I'm spending void!!
Anyway, one NPC with the party flubs an agility+athletics roll, and stumbles into a little chasm. He falls. The PCs run on without him, and take refuge in a cave. One PC only barely passed his roll. I describe how a few raindrops struck his armour and packs, and how eyeballs have grown up on the wood and leather. The eyes are alive, and are looking back at him. Meanwhile, the rain outside becomes a downpour. Wherever the rain falls, living eyeballs grow like mushrooms. The PCs find themselves standing on rocks as the water level rises.
Finally, the storm ends. The shaken PCs emerge onto a white plain which squelches and spurts underfoot. A billion eyes turn to look at them as they pass. They gingerly walk back to the chasm where their companion fell. It's half-full of rainwater. As they approach, a hand entirely covered with living eyes rises from the surface of the water. A low and choked moan from a mouth filled with eyeballs is heard...
The Rain of Eyes is as evocative and fucked-up as I've got in any rpg, even Cthulhu or Unknown Armies. It's a disgusting and freakish and vile idea, and I don't like the way it feels in my imagination. I got very wierd looks from the players after that session. That was a good session.
Icky Horribleness, Divided into Manageable Sections
Next, I'm going to nick stuff from the Shadowlands books and go through various locations, flora and fauna that you might find in the Shadowlands. Oh - capsule reviews of the two Books of the Shadowlands. Kuni Mokuna's Guide: Gee, that's pretty. Gee, that's short. Bearers of Jade: Good stuff, but there should have been more on the Evil Angels.
The Wall: is the biggest and most impressive fortification in the Empire, and should be treated as such.
The Lands Themselves
The area within about a day's march of the Kaiu wall should be stable. Restraint is important - not every bit of the Shadowlands is a complete and total death trap. It's not Fu Leng's Cavalcade of Gory Death. If your players expect everything to try to kill them, you lose shock value. The Shadowlands should be quiet and tense, even dull sometimes. Anyway...the area around the Kaiu Wall is stable, and something like a WWI battlefield. There has been a lot of fighting here. However, if it's been quiet for a while, the area becomes covered with grasses and rushes similar to those on the far side of the Wall.
Deeper into the Shadowlands, the lands change. Basically, the territory becomes whatever harsh and foreboding terrain you think the characters would like least. Insect-infested marshes, stony grey plains, treacherous rocky hills, blasted heaths, steep mountains...whatever takes your fancy. Don't make the terrain too extreme - vast sandy deserts don't fit. Sure, you can have incredibly hot areas, but flat deserts don't fit. The Shadowlands should be able to change just over the next hill.
Beyond the shifting lands, I usually put a barrier of some sort. A river or chasm or cliff are all good. Pass this barrier, and you're into the region where the mortal realm begins to give way to the demon world. The Shadowlands ceases to be a harsh wilderness, and becomes a hideous mockery of Rokugan. This is the oni realm on Earth. Few people should ever reach this place. The vast majority of Shadowlands encounters should be in the first two regions.
There are a few unchanging things in the Shadowlands. The basic geography of the place is stable - if there's a particular twisted hill four days south of the wall, that hill should be there, although it might be covered with thorn bushes on your way out and be surrounded by still, stagnant floodwater on the way back a day later. The various rivers are also unchanging - so too are landmarks like Hiruma Castle.
Just because the features are permanent doesn't mean you can safely navigate by them. That twisted hill might stay still, but if you find an identical twisted hill a few miles away, which is the "real" hill?
Making Things Horrible
Rokugan is a fairly clean place...almost sterile. Most PCs never get dirty - they've got servants to deal with the messy stuff. When they do have to chase some ronin through the mud, then there are always bath-houses and castles and inns. Samurai are, to one degree or another, part of the aristocracy, and are priviledged. L5R is rarely about icky things.
The Shadowlands is one big icky thing. It's full of rot and corruption. To make your players' skin crawl, you need to get under their skin. Rotting flesh works. Insects, especially giant ones, work as well. Once, when characters were hiding from a gigantic oni...thing, in a ravine, a giant furry centipede (about two feet long) crawled out of a hole and across one character's face. I started describing the character's hiding place while standing at the top of the table. As I started talking about the centipede emerging from the whole I walked over behind one player, and as the centipede ran over his character, I gently walked the tips of my fingers across his face...
Players love seeing their characters in hazardous situations, as long as they look cool. They don't mind the danger as long as they get the Glory. Describe a PC standing amid the fallen corpses of his foes, drenched in blood, his many wounds bleeding through the gashes in his armour, his life fading...and the player is lapping it up thinking "I am soooo cool". Put the character in the Shadowlands, digging grubs out of his leg with a knife, and rubbing stinging Jade powder into the wound in the hope it doesn't fester - that's not so cool. Taking away the security blanket of heroic death will make the Shadowlands a lot scarier.
Oh - a note on the Taint. Yes, it's a major element of the Shadowlands mythos, and should be played up at all times...but every player will load up on as much Jade as possible, and will keep track of it. Never say "oh, yeah, your Jade just ran out". If you're going to threaten the characters with Taint, do it properly, and fairly. Let them know how much Jade they have left. Never corrupt a character without giving the player at least a chance to avoid it. For many players, the Taint is the worst thing possible that you can do to their character. I know several players who'd rather see their character lose a limb than get Tainted, 'cos being maimed fits their conception of the character much more than being Tainted. Then again, some players love the idea of the Taint, wearing it as a badge of honour (for some Crab players), or 'cos deep down, they want to be evil. I'm going to go into more detail on this sometime later, but keep in mind that the Taint is a Big Thing, right up there with Honour in terms of how it defines a character. Be careful with it.
Oni and Ogres and Goblins, oh my!
The Shadowlands is fully of nice friendly creatures. Goblins will never inspire anything other than amusement and bloodthirst in players. Good players may roleplay their characters being worried about the hordes of goblins, but inwardly they're going "ha! Goblins are useless at everything!". Unless you're running a game so obscenely deadly and low-powered that it's basically Warhammer FRP in Rokugan, then goblins aren't a good threat.
Goblins are flavour, they're local colour, they're occasionally plot points. 5 goblins isn't a threat. 50,000 goblins isn't a threat to the PCs either, at least not directly. If the characters encounter 50,000 goblins, they're not going to charge them - they'll run back and report the goblin army to the Crab, and you'll have a clash of armies on your hands. Goblins can be used as comic relief, and this is possibly their best use - if the Shadowlands are unrelentingly dark and nasty, the impact of especially dark and nasty things won't be as great.
Ogres are, to be honest, dull. Yeah, you can do interesting plots with them, but ogres themselves are big thuggish brutes. They hit things hard. Anecdote time: once, long ago, I was a D&D munchkin GM. I read somewhere that you should never use the real name of a monster, 'cos that reduced the monster to just a name and a collection of stats. I had a dungeon full of ogres. Rather than call them ogres, I decided to be an enlightened and imaginative GM, and called them "tall, mud-coloured humanoids, wielding a fearsome club". Not a bad description. Of course, the dungeon was still a dungeon of 10x10 squares and pit traps, and 20 combats with tall mud-coloured humans is just as much a wrist exercise as 20 combats with ogres. The point of the anecdote: don't try hard to make Ogres interesting. They're not. Make the plots and settings you put Ogres in interesting instead.
Ogres are good threats, though. Even high-rank characters can't dismiss Ogres out of hand.
Oni are wonderful. Oni have all the horror and twisted nightmare features of the happier Cthulhu beasties, while still being capable of engaging in witty repartee with the PCs (a vital aspect of any good minor villian). Oni get to break all the rules. They can be as wierd as you like, 'cos you don't need to fit them into an ecosystem or work out why they haven't taken over the world. I tend to create oni around a sort of theme - the oni of Unutterable Hunger is a good example. Oni are spirits given material form, not natural creatures, so they shouldn't look or behave like natural creatures. They're offences against heaven, and should act the part.
Oni tend to fall into four roles -
Bushido spirits?, you ask. Well, Jigoku and the Shadowlands are reflections of the mortal world, just like the Celestial Heavens. The Emperor/Samurai/Peasants/Non-people hierarchy is a univeral truth (at least it is in my Rokugan). In the Dragonlands, there's the Celestial Dragon on top, then the lesser Dragons, then a host of spirits. In Rokugan, the Hantei, the samurai, and the grubby guys in the fields. In the Shadowlands - Fu Leng's the Emperor analog, below him are the Oni, and below them are the goblins and ogres. Oni are the Shadowlands samurai - and as such, some follow a twisted mockery of Bushido. What's more hurtful - a demon which comes after you waving a flaming sword, or a demon which sees you. And stops. And sheathes its sword. And bows. And falls into a duelling stance. You know it's faster than you are. You know it's going to win...so do you break the convention of the duel and strike it first?
- big fangy monsters who hurt PCs
- little nasty things which sabotage things and leave a trail of chaos
- evil Bushido spirits
- evil non-Bushido spirits
I like having parts of the Shadowlands look like a dark mirror of Rokugan. Shrines to dark gods, pagodas of human flesh, rice fields of tortured souls. Cheery stuff.
Oh - even if an Oni follows Bushido, it's still an evil spirit, utterly foul and irredeemable. Oni are evil. Always. This isn't a nice game where the bad guys are just misunderstood, or could be in the right if you see things from their perspective. Oni are always evil.
This could fall under the section on Oni, but why be so regimented? Remember the whole rant earlier about "violation of a player's sense of sanity and rightness"? The bit about the rain of eyes and other disturbing imagery? Well, Oni and similar Freaky Things are all that on 2 or more legs. Oni should disturb your players. Whether it's a suit of samurai armour containing a writhing man-shaped swarm of maggots, or a thing that looks like the heads of three wolves sharing a single staring eye, Oni should never be just fanged monsters. Fangs, tentacles and razor-sharp anythings don't scare people. You want to hit your players with the double-barrelled shock of the new and wierd in order to scare them.
As mentioned earlier, bugs - especially giant ones - can be good. I had one shadowlands beasty that was a 20' wide dome-like bug with eight short legs poking out of its carapace. One Crab got too close, and a sticky...thing shot out from underneath, and dragged him beneath the thing's shell. The eight legs were quickly drawn inside the shell too, and the thing settled to the ground. The other characters beat at it with tetsubo, but it was undamaged. Later, it stood and waddled off, leaving a few slime-covered bone fragments where it had eaten the Crab.
Undead are serious, unlike goblins. Undead have subtlety, unlike Ogres. And unlike Oni, which were always fundamentally "on the other side", every Samurai who looks into the empty eyesockets of the walking dead is looking into dark mirror.
Zombies are fun, primarily 'cos they're so relentless. If Mr. PC kills six goblins in two rounds without taking a scratch, he can reasonably expect the other little sqeakers to flee in terror. Zombies just keep coming...and coming...and coming...but fundamentally, there isn't a whole load you can do with zombies.
"Aware" or thinking undead, though, you can do a lot with. A great deal of the samurai philosophy revolves around death, and constant readiness for death. It's interesting to push that through the dark mirror of the taint, and realise that death isn't always an end to duty - or to suffering. You can run this in two ways. Firstly, you can have a noble samurai, who died fighting against his lord's enemies, now risen to fight a new lord. In the Shadowlands, Fu Leng is the Emperor. The undead owe fealty to him. Undead samurai who still follow the honour road and bushido, who serve the Dark One loyally, as a good retainer serves his master -that's a scary thought. All the dedication and fearlessness of a samurai, coupled with the endless strength and endurance of the living dead...
The other option is that the spirit of the Undead person is trapped within their body, forced to serve against their will. This lets you add a note of pathos to the undead, while still having the Undead do their nasty undead things.
Either way, Undeath is the fate of any samurai who falls prey to all the happy horrors and nice things I've mentioned earlier. Those who fall in the Shadowlands rise again. Every night, the Lands of Hell get a little bit darker, a little bit bigger...
Stumbling towards a Conclusion
This little essay could go on forever. I haven't even touched on messing with the players' sense of reality (what do you mean, we're still in the Shadowlands? We went back through the kaiu wall three nights ago, right? Right???), or using magic in the Shadowlands, or even reasons to go to the Shadowlands in the first place....but all that can be discussed another time.
The Shadowlands is not a gigantic wandering monster table. It's Hell on Earth. It is the Land of Evil.
Going there should be the worst fate possible, not a minor jaunt with more-than-the-usual-number of combat encounters. Make your players suffer, make your players sweat, make them cringe and make them weep. They'll appreciate the fresh breezes and shady fields of Rokugan all the more after they make it home...