Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Book of the Yokai

While I love running in my own worlds some published settings click for me. They overcome my desire to create and GM something I’ve come up with: Star Wars, Fading Suns, Changeling the Lost and especially Legend of the Five Rings. Some object to L5R’s mish-mash, but I like its space for play and approach to mixing fantasy and samurai. Of course with a world this big and this many writers you end up with some contradictions. I’ve been hitting those in the recent elements series (The Book of Earth, The Book of Air, The Book of Fire). So I’ve been thinking about how to reconcile those problems and decide what my Rokugan looks like. Right now I’m trying to figure out what the Shadowlands should be in my campaign.

I love the concept of the Shadowlands. It gives a foe PCs can beat, but cannot truly defeat within a campaign. Because Fu Leng’s realm exists as a force of nature that doesn’t feel like GM fiat. Players accept it as an evil to be fought and re-fought. That repetition doesn’t make it any less scary. The Shadowlands contagious nature ought to terrify the PCs. They should dread entering the Shadowlands or even facing the most modest creature unprepared. Infection ought to be at the front of their mind- not only for themselves but everyone around them. They should hesitate after defeating tainted evil within a village: do they now kill everyone and burn the place to the ground to be sure? Any encounter with a Shadowlands creature ought to be uncertain, terrifying, and deadly.

But that presents a play problem for me. Legend of the Five Rings is a fantasy game as much as a pseudo-historical game. I have a group that likes investigation, problem solving, social interactions, and fighting. They’re less keen on more classic courtly set ups and problems. They can battle conventional foes: wild ronin, assassins, bandits. But because it is a fantasy game, I want them to fight monsters and the supernatural as well. They’ve battled a released oni and two Bloodspeakers groups so far. So they’ve run up against the question of taint which has several consequences.
  1. Fighting Shadowlands monsters isn’t a brave and bold task. There’s little or no honor in such battles. They’re non-samurai status opponents, but more importantly they’re unclean and full of contagion. Anyone ought to stay well clear of a known warrior against the Shadowlands. Taboos about cleanliness prevent the taking of trophies, but I’d like to see players defeat great beasts, gain accolades and be able to tell those stories.
  2. Shadowlands taint injects more modern horror and fears into the Rokugani setting. Classical Japanese monster and ghost stories have a mythic quality. They’re cautionary tales. Ghost stories often have a haunted mortal damaging themselves, rather than the ghost directly harming the victim.
  3. The Crab serve as a bastion against the forces of the Shadowlands. They take any breach of their defenses as an affront and insult. That makes constant tainted threats hard to square with a campaign set in the interior.

So I want more monsters that aren’t Shadowlands. The books offer some options on that score. Let’s leave aside standard animals and anything with a taint rank. Going from the core book, Creatures of Rokugan, and Enemies of the Empire we have:

Types: Gaki, Ghost (Yorei), Guardian Statues, Kappa, Nue, Orochi, Spirits, Tsuchimon, and Zashiki Warashi.
Intelligent Races: Nezumi, Naga, Ningyo, Zokujin

Races make less useful foes since they’re generally neutral or at least non-evil. GMs could pit the PCs against corrupt versions or use them “as is” with Rokugani xenophobia coloring their perception (not a great or fun choice). The Spirit type offers a better set of options with many interesting variants: Bakeneko, Baku, Houou, Kitsune, Spirit Hound, and Tanuki. That’s a pretty full roster, but these can easily be added to. Since Rokugan blends together many Asian cultures, I won’t feel bad lifting from places like Hero System’s Asian Bestiary
Essentially I want to put emphasis on another class of monster. I’ll use the term Yokai since it covers a lot of ground. I want these to be more common foes, connected to local superstitions, without the additional fear of contagion. That’s not a big shift or even a revision, but it does require some rethinking about the setting. I want a background of monsters and creatures closer to that in Usagi Yojimbo, Natsume’s Book of Friends, Dororo, Princess Mononoke, and Matthew Meyer’s The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons. In some ways that just means bringing some ideas forward, but it also means shifting some concepts.

Importantly it doesn’t mean eliminating the Shadowlands. I hope that this approach will actually make Shadowlands creatures and the Taint feel unique and dangerous. They will be the terrors that even monsters fear.

It only makes sense that monsters create panic. But fear of Taint brings paranoia, suspicion, and long term devastation. So the general populace must have a means and language to distinguish between the Yokai and Shadowlands. Some of that could come from local folklore. Village elders or local priests might read the signs. Those readings wouldn’t be precisely accurate, but enough to quell fears. More importantly, I’d need to establish to the PCs that this is a reliable method. They should trust locals’ broad assessments about something being Yokai (or Yurei). Beyond that, however, they don’t know much. A particular mineral or sign could offer a more concrete sign. Perhaps there’s a ritual to test for Yokai or a simple divination to assess (like copper dropped in water with a sample from a site immediately tarnishes). On the other hand, I could put the onus on the PCs or authorities- they have to investigate and declare that something’s non-Shadowlands. The practical play consequence would be a population fearful about monsters but not burning everything to the ground.

Mechanically I’d gather most of the non-Shadowlands monsters from the books and put them under the loose category of Yokai. To those I’d add creatures from other sourcebooks and anime- especially the sources I listed above. I could add perhaps a new school or two: Yokai Hunters or experts. The Toritaka used to fulfil this role with the Shinomen Forest. Maybe it could be the speciality of another minor clan? A monk order? A variant Shugenja path? I have to think about that. At the very least a Yokai Expert will make a cool NPC.

I want to put together a random table for generating Yokai. You’d generate basic physical details first: features (huge, furred, human face, multi-limbed, etc), special abilities (flight, shrinking, unusual scent), and attack type (enveloping, blood draining, fearsome visage). To that you’d also generate some kind of unusual behavior by combining a thing (windows, milk, laughter) and a reaction (howling, obsession, blindness). Finally you’d generate a particular sign or symbol by combining effect (uneven, dust, clotting) and placement (windowsills, weather, food). This last could be used as the core clue for PCs investigating an incident.

I could provide a general cosmology for the Yokai. For example they might at root all be Spirits or Kami transformed by an event. Perhaps they had manifested in this world when the original Kami fell from the Heavens. That event changed them and made them into other beings, the Yokai- partially spiritual and partial material. They have an imbalance to them. When destroyed they revert to an elemental state (rock, mud, air, water). That could be used as a means of proving that an attack came from a Yokai rather than a tainted source.

On the other hand, I could also have it that the reappearance of the Yokai connects to some event. That offers an explanation and acknowledges the change, but probably raises more questions than it solves. Maybe they’ve always been around but something has made them more active and numerous? It would probably better just to state the Yokai as a given to the players.

If I want something more mythic I could elaborate on the idea of a Yokai society- with hierarchies and ranks. Natsume’s Book of Friends (and other anime) suggests an organization. Perhaps it could look something like a Fey Court? Some Yokai could be exorcised, some bargained with, and even some allied with. I like this concept as it offers a group for the PCs to play off of. But I don’t want a broad group- i.e. covering all of Rokugan. That brings up the question of a set of spirits subverting the mantle of the Hantei. Instead any court would be local: covering a region, a forest, or a mountain range. I could play with some of the elemental alignments as well. 

I'll probably give this a try. If I put together those random tables, I'll post them. I like it because I can more easily have classic monsters and fantasy while being able to preserve the horror elements of the setting.  


  1. Good post! I touched on Yokai a few days ago on my blog, and am writing part 2 now. Dororo is a great source for this type of adventure. You've made me want to reread Lo5R and see what I am missing.

  2. There seems to be a bit of a yokai zeitgeist going around. I had a post on Heian Era horror last week. Now I need to track down _The Night Parade_.