Alternative Shadowlands taint mechanics for L5R by Adrianna Pinska
Legend of the Five Rings[1,2] is a Samurai-flavoured fantasy setting: the empire of Rokugan is supposed to be mostly like feudal Japan, but with a layer of magic and mixed East Asian sprinkles. Its resident Big Bad Supernatural Evil is the fallen kami Fu Leng. When he and his brothers and sisters fell from the heavens centuries ago, his more pleasant siblings landed somewhere nice and founded a bright, shining empire. His own landing created a crater which opened a hole to Jigoku, and something nasty started oozing out of it and corrupting everything that fell under its influence. This unpleasant, mostly incurable affliction is called the taint, and the large wasteland which it has created to the south of Rokugan is known as the Shadowlands. Unpleasant things lurk there—kept at bay only by the Carpenter Wall, built and patrolled by the armies of the Crab Clan. Jade is the most valuable mineral in the empire, because of its various mystic anti-taint properties.
In the good old days (the first edition of the RPG), the taint was hardcore. Player characters who got too much of it became unplayable. It made them become more and more crazy and grotesquely deformed, until they passed the point of no return and became Lost—meat puppets completely enslaved to Fu Leng's will. Corpses could be raised into this grisly state—which is why the Crab got into the habit of decapitating their fallen comrades, and cremation became compulsory throughout the empire.
The excellent first-edition sourcebook Bearers of Jade presents the perils of the Shadowlands as an almost Lovecraftian threat—a creeping horror from beyond which drives decent people mad, which is incomprehensible and on some level unbeatable—rather than a very large fantasy monster which has hit points and will die if you hit it enough times.
As the RPG setting and rules progressed the taint became less unfathomable and horrific and more ordered and well-defined. The Shadowlands gained a pretty human face, the Dark Lord Daigotsu, who gathered a city of Lost followers and eventually attempted to create a new Great Clan for them within Rokugan. While a token pocket of chaotic evil remained, most of the Shadowlands became a sort of dark, gothy mirror of samurai society, complete with an alternative life philosophy which perverted the tenets of Bushido. Now the Lost are less reminiscent of the insane cultists of Cthulhu, and act more like clerics of Cyric.
In the third edition tainted samurai retain most of their sanity throughout their taint gain; they just fall further under the sway of Evil (at least theoretically), while gaining really sweet magical powers and wearing a lot of emo eyeliner. I suspect that this is because lots of people like to play vampires, but nobody really wants to play a drooling zombie with festering sores. There are so many mildly tainted, not-too-crazy individuals running around and debating ethics that the impact of the taint has been reduced somewhat. Ostensibly the physical and mental disadvantages still exist, but they have been downplayed greatly in the recent books—and with the introduction of taint powers that essentially eliminate them, they can be avoided entirely. What was once a horrible curse is now a power boost with token drawbacks.
I would like to consolidate these two very different ways of being tainted into some kind of sensible framework. So, in the grand tradition of DMs everywhere, I have whipped out my +5 Chainsaw of Delicate Rules Modification, and attempted to create an alternative mechanic which suits the kind of games I want to run. Since I don't use the L5R system in my current game, I'm keeping all of this system-agnostic. Most of my proposed changes are to the interpretation of the setting.
There are some things I've never liked about the mechanics of the taint, even in its first-edition incarnation. A person can be tainted or not tainted. If he is tainted, he is to some degree under the influence of Evil, and although the extent of the affliction can be reduced—with difficulty—it cannot be cured. The taint thus has the potential to reduce complex questions of morality to a binary flag, much like alignment in D&D. Is he tainted? Off with his head! Yes, the Crab have tended to keep their infected warriors around for a bit longer, until they actually go nuts and go over to the Dark Side, but the rest of Rokugan isn't as tolerant—and with very good reason.
Taint is also an involuntary alignment change foisted on a character, in which the player has little say. As a character's taint increases, so does her susceptibility to being controlled by Fu Leng. The player is usually given the opportunity to resist these attempts with some kind of willpower check, but there's nothing she can do about the increasing slide towards Evil following further involuntary taint gain.
I propose an almost complete separation of a character's level of taint from her loyalty to the powers of Jigoku. She shouldn't get to have magical powers granted by Fu Leng unless she agrees to serve Fu Leng—the progression of Shadowlands powers as described in the recent sourcebooks should be reserved for those who have chosen to be evil. If a character refuses to give in to temptation, she should instead gain physical and mental afflictions as her level of taint increases, as described in the old-school Book of the Shadowlands: with each level of taint, either a Cthulhu-style phobia or a permanent injury or disfigurement, depending on what is most appropriate for the way she gained the taint. If she subsequently chooses to serve Fu Leng willingly, her afflictions can be replaced by an equivalent number of Shadowlands powers (or, if you prefer, she can choose to gain the power to conceal taint symptoms).
The decision to turn evil should belong entirely to the player. The DM can attempt to have the voices in the character's head persuade him, or to have mysterious agents tempt him with promises of curing his decrepitude—but ultimately the player should have control over the moral choices of the character he plays, and such an important change should not be left to a dice roll.
Thus a character could be extremely tainted, yet retain her integrity, or be only slightly touched by the Shadowlands and yet be utterly corrupt. This would make the investigation of suspects a little more interesting. Any tainted person is a potential threat—but who is actively working against Rokugan, and who is trying to use her unpleasant knowledge and experience to hold back the darkness? It's impossible to tell them apart with a stick of jade or a magical spell.
Nor would lack of loyalty to Fu Leng necessarily indicate that a character is on the side of good. Practitioners of maho—forbidden blood magic—harness the power of the tainted elemental kami known as kansen. They thereby expose themselves to the taint—but most of them disdain Fu Leng, and avoid giving him his due for the powers they co-opt. They are known to employ various tricks to reduce their taint gain, usually by redirecting it to hapless peasants—and the gory rituals which they practice make them every bit as villainous as the Lost.
I do think that characters who have become completely insane should—as in the old-school rules—be easy pickings for Fu Leng. At that stage they are impossible to play in any case. It is up to you whether such characters could ever potentially be brought back from the brink by a combination of taint reduction and persuasion.
Just as a character can choose to become corrupt, a servant of Fu Leng should be able to choose to renounce him. I find irredeemably evil bad guys boring—I believe that having the opportunity to convert evil characters using one's social abilities makes for more interesting gameplay. A character renouncing Fu Leng would have all of his taint powers replaced with an equivalent level of unpleasant afflictions, starting with the return of any afflictions he may have had before turning to the dark side.
If, as a DM, you are concerned that your min-maxing players will abuse this privilege to get out of sticky situations, make sure that it takes more than a statement of intent to make the switch. Fu Leng is not a very nice entity, and is unlikely to take kindly to defection. At the first sign of a minion's self-doubt he might attempt to exert his influence, and cause the disobedient servant to go on a killing spree. If the minion manages to resist the compulsion, he might find himself pursued by a couple of angry oni. And if Fu Leng's displeasure wears him down, and convinces him that it would be a good idea to beg the Dark Kami for forgiveness and return to the fold, he will probably be expected to prove his renewed loyalty in some suitably horrible fashion.
Not that the good guys are likely to be more tolerant of an ally's betrayal, or more trusting of a professed convert to the side of light. The punishments and tests they mete out may not be as twisted, but they can be just as deadly.
Introducing these changes should not have very much impact on the system rules. All natural and magical effects which detect taint, hurt tainted creatures, reduce taint or mask the symptoms of taint should work on any tainted individual, regardless of her allegiance. No matter how loyal she is to Rokugan, her body has been corrupted by evil—jade will burn her as much as it burns a Lost samurai.
I would suggest putting some thought into how jade petal tea is going to work in your campaign. Canonically, it completely (but temporarily) removes all physical and mental symptoms of the taint, and also renders Shadowlands powers unusable. Its limiting factors are its great expense, and the stranglehold which the Crab Clan's Kuni inquisitors keep on its sale—the better to keep an eye on anyone who starts using it.
This is unsatisfactory for various reasons. If a character can completely eliminate his unwanted taint symptoms, of course he's going to want to do it. After the initial quest to find a (legal or illegal) source for jade petal tea, which can potentially be an interesting plot point, whether a character can continue to use it is basically reduced to a repetitive economic problem—roleplaying: the accounting! Assuming he can keep using it, any interesting plot points which may have been generated by his taint symptoms simply evaporate, never to return—unless you, the DM, keep finding contrived reasons to take the tea away; something which is difficult to do without nerfing the character.
Why not treat the tea like a real medicine? Make it imperfect, and prone to affecting different people differently. You could roll on a d100 table for each taint-related power or sickness a character has, to determine what effect the tea has on that illness or power: does it eliminate it completely, reduce it by half, leave it unchanged, or aggravate it? Does it cause an unrelated side effect? You can use a similar method to determine how the tea affects the character's observable level of taint, for the purposes of spells and the jade test. What you put in the table can depend on your personal vision of how horribly untreatable (or insidiously undetectable) you want the taint to be.
The tea doesn't have to work instantaneously—it could take days, weeks or even months for it to reach its full effectiveness. You can also vary the required dosage. You could be really evil and base it directly on the level of taint that a character has—first edition actually did this! My own house rule bases it on the level of visible symptoms: those strongly afflicted must initially take higher doses to reduce the symptoms to manageable levels, but thereafter can take a smaller, more affordable dose. If they fall off the wagon, however, it's back to a very expensive emergency course for them.
With only a bit of tweaking, you can convert the more dull and inflexible aspects of the taint into something which will provide a more interesting roleplaying experience—giving yourself more potential plot points, and your players more ways to get into trouble. There are other things that are open to creative interpretation—how maho magic overlaps with normal elemental magic, for example—but that's material for another article.