Legend of the Five Rings 1e: The Tomb of Iuchiban by EverettLO
PostOriginal SA post S-1: The Tomb of Iuchiban Part 1
Now I can finally get into the one module that I’ve been angling to do for literally years now. The Tomb of Iuchiban is an adventure module for first edition Legend of the Five Rings. It’s a box set that’s composed of two game books, a player handout of the journal of an NPC, an 11x17 foldout ‘map’ and cardboard cutouts of the rooms in the Tomb to be arranged and rearranged on that map. All of the components are very well made and the box itself is one of the sturdiest I’ve seen for the pre-2000 era. Alderac has a very good record for box sets, though, and the Second City box set made over a decade later puts it to shame. There is actually less art in this adventure than in most L5R products, so I'll be supplementing things with images from the card game and other L5R RPG products. The title image there, for instance, is actually from a board game AEG put out.
From a metagame perspective, the Tomb is designed in two ways that kind of work at odds with each other. The first is that the Tomb is the capstone adventure to your PCs careers. Frankly it only works questionably well at that. If they manage to pull this off there’s basically nothing left for them to do since they’ll have completed the most challenging thing on the planet. Objectively they’ll be the greatest heroes of their era. Unfortunately their exploits will never be public knowledge due to the Imperial gag order on all things related to the Tomb. They’ll inevitably be riven with Taint as a result of this adventure and so you have a handful of powerful characters who will never be allowed in public again. They’ll be shipped off to some Kuni-led monastery and given special tea to prevent them from being overwhelmed with Taint and fall to evil. I’m sure if they asked their lords would let them commit seppuku and cut to the chase. It’s a bittersweet ending – something like the choice faced by MIB agents in those movies. Really, though, it’s an interesting way to retire your investigators who are too powerful and no longer content with murders and run-of-the-mill maho practitioners.
The other design choice is that this adventure was intentionally designed as homage to The Tomb of Horrors. One of the designers explicitly stated this although I can’t find a link at the moment. It is an endless series of deathtraps that’s going to absolutely kill the shit out of your players. Realistically speaking, without significant GM guidance and softening, there is no way to complete this damn thing alive. I compare that to Tomb of Horrors which is something I also can’t imagine an unguided player completing. Secret door in the base of a pit trap that’s required to complete the full Tomb of Horrors? No player in the history of the fucking world ever got that shit without either reading the adventure in secret, being told by someone else or being given some very transparent hints by the DM. It was a tournament module and was intended to weed out players and by god it does.
The Tomb of Iuchiban does give you some tools to help survive the outer portion of the Tomb. They are insufficient in my mind. It provides no tools for the much deadlier inner portion. Unguided PCs are going to be killed. My point is that this adventure is at odds with itself since it both wants to be an amazing ending to your characters but also wants to be an old school dungeon that will kill them off ignominiously.
Right off the bat we can see that you’re only ever going to be springing this adventure on characters that have been around the block and are probably insight rank 4 or 5. For those who don’t know the parlance, insight rank is the L5R version of levels and goes from 1 (brand new characters) to 5 (the highest rank possible in 1e). The game suggests no less than rank 3. I believe that rank 5 is more appropriate but also wildly insufficient. There are very few combat challenges in the Tomb itself but you will need to be potent to survive long enough to get there. Once there you’re stuck with an endless series of death traps that rely on player skill rather than character skill. Those rank 5 skills and abilities aren’t going to help you last past the first room or two without some very on point players.
It’s hard to get mad at the Tomb, though, since they’re fairly up front about the sheer deadliness. The introduction does provide sufficient warning that you’ll probably kill your PCs and is clear on how competent the characters should be. There may have been a handful of people who bought this adventure and were surprised when it killed off all their players. I doubt it, though. Unlike other L5R adventures such as Twilight Honor, the deadliness is not a result of the writers having no idea how their own rules work. The deadliness is the Tomb working as intended.
Chapter 1: Friend in Need
And now we begin the adventure itself. Your friend from The Night of a Thousand Screams, Meishozo Nisei, has sent your characters a letter begging for their help. It seems he’s moved up in the world and is now no longer identified as a Kuni Witch Hunter but an Imperial Investigator. He’s run into some strange dealings involving maho (black magic) and a murder in the lands of the Crab and is at an impasse. He remembered how awesome your characters were at solving mysteries and is hoping you can help move his investigation along.
Nisei is a friendly sort. Much friendlier than his awesome looking normal self.
You’ll recall that Nisei is actually Asahina Yajinden, an absurdly powerful, deeply evil sorcerer who was the second in command to the titular Iuchiban. You might also recall that in the last adventure I said he had gotten his hands on the last special mask necessary to enter Iuchiban’s Tomb. I made a mistake there. That mask was actually number three of four. Now Yajinden is narrowing in on the fourth. His only problem is that he tracked it to a low level maho user but by the time he got there the mask was missing. Now he has no idea what to do and has decided to call in your help. Your players are famous magistrates by now and will surely be able to solve a nearly cold case. If you didn’t complete or even run NoaTS then Nisei makes a more formal introduction in his letter and asks for help based solely on your PC’s reputations.
Your PCs end up traveling to a small Yasuki village known as Kami no Okasan to meet up with Nisei. When they meet him he is polite and friendly and introduces the players to his two travelling companions. The first is his bodyguard, a taciturn woman named Shinku Kamiko. The second is a Phoenix Clan investigator named Isawa Kakusu-Sakana. The murdered man in this case was a Phoenix shugenja named Isawa Kinto who apparently kept a summer home in a poor, backwater Crab Clan village halfway across the Empire. Kakusu-Sakana has arrived to investigate for the Phoenix Clan while Nisei is running an Imperial investigation. Since their investigations could potentially be at odds with one another there is a low key rivalry between the two men punctuated by snippy comments and one-upsmanship.
A lot of clues are relayed to the players but the thrust of the case is that the local villagers noticed that the Phoenix Shugenja was murdered and a child servant of his is missing along with several valuable items. In the process of searching the shugenja’s house, investigators found a small shrine to the dark god and suddenly the case took on a more dire tone. Since the servant boy is missing along with several items, it is assumed that the boy murdered Kinto in the process of committing a robbery. The problem is that Nisei has absolutely no idea where to go to find an underclass boy on the lamb.
One small aside. This adventure uses the word ‘eta’ liberally. The boy you’re searching for is called that as well as everyone in the entire slum that will be our next location. I’ll be switching to burakumin in this review since the word used in the adventure is a slur.
The players have time to collect clues and interview the local peasants. The peasants are able to tell you that the servant boy was named Mikato and very little else other than a rough timeline of when the murder might have been committed. Everything seems to point to Mikato murdering Kinto, though, and no real disparate clues present themselves. To your players this probably seems like a strange case. One the face of it, you have a normal murder/robbery and the problem is tracking down the suspect. The addition of maho use seems like a red herring. What’s really going on is something different and far more insane.
Yajinden actually tracked the last mask down to the murdered man, Isawa Kinto, who didn’t know what it was but knew it emanated dark magic. Yajinden and his bodyguard went to collect the mask but when they arrived it seems Kinto had lost it. It turns out Mikato did actually rob Kinto shortly before Yajinden arrived. Yajinden didn’t exactly believe this coincidence, though, and tortured the Phoenix to death in an attempt to get the truth. When that didn’t work, he similarly interrogated everyone in the village. Literally everyone in the village has been viciously murdered. How did your players walk into an apparently functional, prosperous village then? How did they likely interview several villagers and inspect the area without noticing everyone has been violently killed? Magic.
Eventually Yajinden realized that he fucked up and that the mask actually was stolen, so he decided to call in some help. He used his incredible magical power to cast illusions throughout the entire village. All the cleanup of bodies and broken doors, plus the villagers themselves are illusions maintained by Yajinden. The PCs aren’t given any way to notice this because the adventure tells you that with 500 years of practice, Yajinden is just too good and a normal samurai is never going to pierce his illusions. In addition, both Yajinden/Nisei’s bodyguard and the ‘Phoenix Investigator’ are working for Yajinden. The apparently rivalry among investigators is all for show. You have no way of noticing this, though. It’s all extremely railroady.
Your investigators probably do find a clue Nisei/Yajinden missed, though. If they pass a Perception + Investigation roll at TN 25 (which is entirely reasonable for investigators of their caliber) then they notice some scraps of paper the boy was using to practice his writing. He was writing the name of a slaughterhouse over and over again, so it was likely something that he saw every day. The nearest place with a burakumin community large enough to support a slaughterhouse is the city of Sunda Mizu Mura a few day’s ride away. Your players and their new investigator companions head off.
Sunda Mizu Mura is one of the larger cities in the Empire and the main trading port in the Crab lands. A lot of unnecessary information on the city is included. One important event happens before the players can continue their investigation. As they move through the crowds toward the underclass ghetto, an old man in a gray robe offers to read the fortune of one of the PCs. If Nisei is around, he shoves the old man aside angrily. The old man then begs the PCs to come see him in his nearby shop when they are alone. One way or another the PCs probably eventually end up getting that fortune read. The fortune is an ominous one about how the PC should not trust anyone as nothing is as it seems and how the future is very dark indeed. Before the PC leaves, he presses a huge pearl into the hand of the PC and tells him to keep it safe but never let anyone know of it. The fortune teller also says he may be seeing the PCs again.
Our fortune teller.
Back to the investigation. When they arrive in the slum they quickly find the slaughterhouse and also find a flophouse right across the street from it that has a great view of the slaughterhouse’s sign. If they go in and ask for Mikato they are told he has a room there. The PCs are led up to the room and find Mikato without any more trouble. Mikato is scared but not much more so than any burakumin talking with imperial investigators. He quickly comes clean about the theft but explains that he didn’t feel it was wrong since, as a maho practitioner, Kinto was a just target.
When either the PCs or Nisei informs Mikato of the murder he is obviously and genuinely shocked. Mikato pleads his innocence but it seems like a fairly open and shut case. If the PCs aren’t careful then Mikato makes an attempt to flee. In the confusion, Nisei/Yajinden ransacks his room and finds the last mask. If Mikato doesn’t manage to run away then the PCs and Nisei find the mask and Nisei makes a case for his taking it since he dealt with the last one. Nisei/Yajinden is supposed to end up with the mask and it shouldn’t be too hard to convince the players of it. The fate of the boy is sealed regardless of the outcome, but it’s no longer important.
It's a decent detective tale but definitely a dull start for the capstone adventure of your players career. It picks up a bit in the next section.