Bearers of Jade: The Second Book of the Shadowlands
Bearers of Jade: The Second Book of the Shadowlands Playtest Review by Darren MacLennan on 26/03/01
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Can a man write a review while suffering from sleep deprivation? Find out as I gush about how good Bearers of Jade is - probably one of the best war-against-horror supplements ever produced.
Product: Bearers of Jade: The Second Book of the Shadowlands
Author: Chris Kepler, Jennifer Brandes, and "Seikansha"
Company/Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
Page count: 152
Year published: 1999
Playtest Review by Darren MacLennan on 26/03/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Historical Horror Gothic Asian/Far East
Bearers of Jade: The Second Book of the Shadowlands is, for my money, the best book for L5R ever published.
A brief history: I've never been into L5R, for a variety of reasons. I'm not even a casual Japanophile, for one thing, and L5R's rigid stratification of the classes - peasants, samurai and nobles - never really appealed to me. I fully admit to not understanding either the code of bushido or the idea of seppeku, and I'm mostly familiar with both from World War II, where they were used as the rationale for treating surrendered soldiers like dirt. On the other hand, I am well aware that this stuff is quite popular - witness the recent petition to move Japan into America - and that L5R is a popular, popular setting.
So, one day, I was in my favorite comics store in the whole world - Comic Heaven, in Willoughby, Ohio - and noticed that the local storekeep had put the first edition of L5R on sale for about ten bucks, to make room for the second edition. This is one of the reasons why it's my favorite comics store in the world; when he has sales, he has _sales._ I read through it, didn't see anything terrifically interesting, and decided to shelve it for if I ever needed to play in the game. I liked the Glory and Honor systems, mind you, and I liked the idea of different swordsman schools, but it didn't really appeal to me. A week later, I'm trying to decide what I should buy, since I have money and am bored. Having read an excellent couple of articles on the Shadowlands on Gaming Outpost - one of them about Oni of Perpetual Hunger, the other about how to GM the Shadowlands - I picked up the second Book of the Shadowlands, hoping to get more of the same. You can find that excellent article at http://chrysanthemumroad.tripod.com/writing/HellWalk.htm; poke around that site in order to find a hell of a lot of good stuff elsewhere.
So anyhow, I read through it. And then I got hooked on L5R; or, more specifically, on the Shadowlands and on the Crab. The Shadowlands are a museum of cool ideas and horrific settings to inflict on your Samurai, and the Crab - whose real clanbook seems to be here, rather than in Way of the Crab - have their clan and their dealings with the Shadowlands described vividly enough to fuel an entire campaign. You can literally turn to any page within the book and find yourself reading about something new and interesting, whether it's a description of an item that was lost in the Shadowlands, or an account of what the seas surrounding the Shadowlands are like, or a discussion of Crab philosophy on treating mental illness.
I'm getting slightly ahead of myself. For those of you who aren't familiar with L5R, here's a quick rundown on the Shadowlands: in Rokugan's myths, the male god of the Moon had children with the feminine god of the Sun, got jealous, then, Saturn-like, chowed down on his own kids. One of the children escaped, cut his father open and the kids spilled out - except that one of them, Fu Leng, fell deep into the earth and was corrupted. While the rest of the children, called kami, helped the humans out, Fu Leng created his own twisted mockery of it - the Shadowlands. After a lengthy series of battles too complicated to detail here, a balance was eventually struck. Rokugan has the Kaiu Wall, Rokugan's answer to the Great Wall of China, as its defense against Fu Leng's Shadowlands. Every now and then, the Shadowlands barf up a hideous army of demons, ogres and goblisn to try to invade Rokugan, and the Crab clan tries to kill them any way that they can.
For me, personally, the Crab Clan are a godsend; they're the guys you play if you're not interested in dealing with the intricacies of Rokugan's samurai. They're utterly pragmatic, have almost no subtlety, don't work well with the etiquette of samurai or the courts of Rokugan, and don't put on any airs whatsoever. As the book portrays them, the cost of their defense against the Shadowlands is high - they live in an environment of constant battle against hideous monstrosities, all of whom are driven by a single-minded drive to tear Rokugan to the ground. Think of them as Call of Cthulhu investigators crossed with a Mongol version of Conan the Barbarian. On top of all this, the Crab also have cool tetsubos - Japanese war clubs. If you wanna hit something in the head with a club, the Crab are the way to go.
They get the first section of Bearers of Jade, as well as the title of the book itself. Opening the whole thing up is a two-page excerpt from a play about the fall of the Hiruma family's castle, and it manages to act as both a wonderful character piece, a terrifying horror story, an example of how people deal with seppuku (of a sort), and proof that game fiction doesn't have to suck. It begins with a woman and her two daughters realizing that the castle has fallen to the hideous forces of the Shadowlands and ends with the stage direction of stagehands tearing meat with their bare hands. Nasty, wonderful stuff. To be perfectly honest, I'd buy this book over the astonishingly lackluster Way of the Crab. There's more focus here on how the Crab actually live than on the signature characters that will, in all likelihood, never appear in your games, or the less-than-stirring war between the Crab and the Cranes. The Crab here are portrayed as essentially the macho sacrifical lambs of the Empire; they're tougher than hell, and more than willing to crush skulls, but they're regularly up against threats that erode their sanity and their bodies. Here's one idea that struck me as a perfect representation of how the Crab think, and how excellently the book portrays them: they actually have a measurement of time that indicates how long it'll take an invulnerable oni to kill a man. It's about three seconds, and they use it to determine stuff like how much time they'll have until the oni finishes with that squad and can come after them.
Creepy, no? The game fiction here is almost uniformly decent here, ranging from a story about visitng daimyo who pick the wrong place to screw around to the diary of a man who's decided to join the Crab clan on their wall. We get to see what the Crab are like from the outside and inside, ranging from their defenses to their customs to their willingness to use anything they can to keep the Shadowlands out, whether it's poison or peasant weapons. Rules for the spread of Taint. Rumors of various oni and the folk habits designed to deal with them. A lengthy treatise on madness, including the seperation of some familiar mental illnesses into different Rings - obsessive-compulsives are weak in Air, whereas the overly vain are too strong. (There's also advice on what to do if your son or daughter falls in love with a peasant or a Scorpion.) It's only a single chapter, but it says more about the Crab than the clanbook does.
The next few chapters are largely game fiction dealing with various aspects of the Shadowlands. Normally, I'd rather chew my own arm off than read a book full of game fiction; here, I read this stuff just for the fun of it. Rather than a single piece of fiction, each section has its own authorial voice and its own subject - finding jade in various Clan lands, or how the Shadowlands constantly shift. One of them's written by a Scorpion clan spy as a report back to his superiors about Crab jade mines. Another's the fevered ravings of a man stranded in a poison sea, greeting the arrival of ghost ships with ecstatic elation. My personal favorite is the account of a Hiruma samurai who's trying to reclaim his ancestral home from the Shadowlands, where the brilliant hatred of Fu Leng and his corruption slowly dying into stubborn acceptance as they're swamped by their opponents.
The book details fifteen magic items that have been lost in the Shadowlands, ranging from a lost school of swordsmanship to the abacus used to build the Kaiu Wall; and here, as always, the fiction is very, very good. Most of the items are interesting enough to base entire campaigns, or, at least, extended adventures around. Some of them are a touch weird - there's a mask that allows you to look like anybody to one person, but you wind up looking like an oni to everybody else while you're wearing it. I can't imagine how that'd be of use to anybody, human or Shadowland creature alike; perhaps somebody more imaginative than I could explain it. I'm also not sure of how much use the new swordsman school is, either. Then again, most of these items are meant to be cursed in some way or another - many of them are wonderful booby traps to throw at overconfident PCs.
The oni are almost uniformly cool. For example, one oni - described briefly, but chillingly - likes to kill children, but always looks like the mother of the person who's looking at her. This normally wouldn't provide too much of a challenge, but Rokugan's culture apparently forbids directly challenging your parents - it ties into their ancestor worship, I'd imagine. Others include an oni who throws flying scars, a language virus that once wiped out an entire clan, a dream grazer and various other hideous abominations. One description of an oni mentions how to chase an oni in lands that aren't Crab, along with what could be the signature line of the Crab: "You can only cut up so many Cranes in duels before the court expels you."
The Maho. Here endeth the gush, 'cause I really don't find too much interesting about them - I mean, yes, they're interesting, and the book does well in describing them and their practices, but I didn't get the same thrill of the new that I did with the rest of the book. If you're looking for a much subtler way of introducing the Shadowlands into your campaign, this is a good way to do it; but fighting Maho users almost feels like playing out a trial, dealing heavily with issues of honor, who's doing the accusing, and Rokugan's decidedly unusual criminal justice system. If you're playing a Scorpion campaign, or one that involves ferreting out a specific personality, this is your chapter...but for me, it just didn't set me on fire as much as the rest of the book did.
And then...well, then it gets weird. There's a lengthy fiction piece by Iuchi Karasu, who's apparently the nephew of a Unicorn daimyo who was utterly corrupted by the Shadowlands and who tries, at length, to break him. There's lots of neat, horrific imagery in this, but I found myself lost because of my lack of familiarity with the metaplot and because, as an in-game character suggests, the account is written in a muddled style that frequently jumps from time to time and refers to characters that I'm unfortunately not familiar with. It's not necessarily bad, but those who aren't into L5R - as I must confess to being - may have trouble here.
The appendix is kind of neat, more of a clearing house for information that didn't fit elsewhere; fortunately, it's a good clearinghouse, chock full of good stuff. Rules for sample Maho users. The same for the Akutenshi - the dark angels of Fu Leng. A Shadowlands conversion for the excellent L5R battle system, which emphasizes horror, uncertainty and panic over glory and dueling. Ju-jitsu for L5R - and while this is really cool stuff, I'm not sure how it'll fit into the rest of the game. (It describes a young, asthmatic - but very well-trained - young girl blinding and killing an ogre and about twenty samurai with her new techniques, so that may indicate that ju-jitsu is awfully lethal. Or it may just be for effect; I'm not sure which.) New Maho spells. There's a discussion of how to run a Shadowlands campaign in the back as well. Some of it is good advice, but I keep wondering if their approach to horror - a steady grinding-down of the player's defenses - is as effective as Call of Cthulhu's, where sudden, bloody mayhem interspersed with quiet stretches keep a rhythm going. You'd have to read it for yourself to decide.
Especially helpful for this book is the way that they seperate the rules information and miscellanous information into the sidebars in the book. I've heard complaints that the sidebars in L5R books are much too thick, which, at points, is true; here, however, the sidebars are absolutely vital. Stats are kept to one side, where they don't interfere, along with very useful bits of information - how to accuse somebody of maho use, a villain's inner psyche, the time that it takes for a man to rise in the Shadowlands.
In one sense, I wish that I could stop gushing about this book. Normally, even the best book has the occasional flaw, and this book is no exception; on the other hand, it's a rare book that can be filled with nothing but game fiction and be a pleasure to read. More experienced L5R players may draw different conclusions than I have, but I can say without hesitation that fans of Aliens, Call of Cthulhu and Wraith's Doomslayers will love this book. It's another entry into the a-few-brave-heroes-fight-an-evil-land idea, and hot _damn_ is it a good one.