Ravenloft: The Shadow Fallen
Rokushima Taiyou, meaning “the six islands of the sun,” would seem to be misnamed on two counts. The domain consists of four large islands in the midst of a poisonous, roiling ocean, surrounding an immense freshwater sea. The cloud cover, heavy mists, and dense fog rolling off the island’s many mountains make sunny days a rarity as well. Still, the eldest natives of the islands can remember a time when the name rang true—when there were six islands instead of four, and when the sun shone brightly every day.
The remaining islands are large and verdant along the coasts facing the Great Mirror Lake that they surround. The central portions of each island are dangerous mountains, a few of which are volcanic, before reaching the outer edges of the island ring, which face toward the Poison Sea.
The Great Mirror Lake is fed by clear mountain springs and frequent rain, its waters cascading down jagged slopes of coral and rock into the venomous depths of the Poison Sea. Only the westernmost inlet to the Great Mirror Lake is navigable, making it difficult for ships from beyond the Mists to safely make their way to the larger freshwater port cities. Most simply dock at one of the small islands lying beyond the straits, the only place where merchants from all four islands can come to do business anymore.
The Rokuma are slight in stature but blessed with trim builds and elegant grace. Their skin tone ranges from creamy white to ruddy brown, and both hair and eye color tend toward dark tones, particularly black. Men and women alike grow their hair long; women wear theirs in elaborate fashion, held together with wooden pins, while men tend to keep theirs in neat tails or knots. Both genders wear wide-sleeved robes belted at the waist with a sash, worn over long shirts or shifts, but men also include loose trousers or wrapped leggings while women’s robes nearly trail the ground. Wooden sandals or soft slippers complete the native look, with the addition of broad straw hats on the few days the sun shines or the many days it rains.
Homes in Rokushima are almost inevitably made of wood, with sliding doors made of thin paper on wooden frames. The elite of the land, the noble warriors and their lords, build mighty stone castles and palaces with multiple tiers and high walls. Serene shrines dot the islands in places of natural beauty; whether humble of magnificent, these shrines are typically marked by uniquely shaped gates known as torii, thought to be passages between the human and spirit worlds.
The local weather is a study in extremes. Even with the sun rarely seen, summers tend to be oppressive, hot, and muggy, with frequent storms. Autumn is a time of rampaging typhoons that can last for days on end, often damaging homes or even sweeping away entire unlucky villages with mudslides. Winters are brutally cold, burying the entire domain under snow that does not abate for weeks at a time. The one time of the year that the Rokuma look forward to is spring, which is all too short but very pleasant, a time when the islands are covered in the pale blossoms of flowering trees.
The Rokuma are a people who place great emphasis on the importance of family and knowing one’s place. Because of the Rokuma philosophy that family is more important than self, family names are given before personal names (so a man named “Akemi Ichigo” is Ichigo of the family Akemi). In theory, being a farmer or craftsman is just as worthy as being a warrior or ruler, as long as one does one’s best in that position. In practice, the warrior elite of the nation do as they please while at least publicly trying to seem compassionate and generous to those lesser than themselves.
Though the rulers of the four remaining islands are brothers, no love is lost between them. They constantly skirmish with one another over outlying regions of their lands, though it has been a generation since they battled one another in earnest. The death of two of their brothers, followed by the destruction of their islands in horrific earthquakes and tsunamis, has made them more cautious about direct confrontations. Each of them considers himself the only true ruler of all Rokushima Taiyou, with his brothers as mere pretenders.
The nation was once united under their father, a powerful and ruthless general, but they began to squabble over his empire almost before his body was cold. Though they publicly pretend to honor his memory and the ways of their ancestors, each is as cold, ruthless, and underhanded as he was, using the concept of honor to motivate their people while holding it in no regard themselves.
Rokushima Taiyou is a direct analogue to historical Japan, particularly the Japan of the Warring States Period before the unification of the country by Tokugawa. It can just as easily replicate any major period of Japanese history, however, from the classical Heian Era to the unified but still violent Edo Period. Rokushima is a place to tell samurai stories (or jidaigeki in Japanese), but more importantly it is a place for traditional kaidan-style Japanese horror tales.
While kaidan can mean nearly any horror tale in its broadest usage, it more specifically refers to old-fashioned “scary stories” that call back to historical Japanese folk tales. Stories of the kaidan type typically include eerie happenings, ghosts, omens, and elements of vengeance. These stories also often include water as a ghostly element, due to traditional Japanese cultural links between water and the underworld.
For good reference material, check out some modern or classic Japanese horror films or manga, such as Ringu, Ju-On, or the works of Junji Ito.
- The Code of the Warrior: Life in Rokushima is structured around rule by a warrior-noble caste known as samurai. Their complicated system of honor, glory, and obedience is known as bushido, the “warrior’s way.” Whether a warrior actually believes in it or not, his public actions are judged based on his adherence to its precepts. The strict demands of the code often come into conflict with the desires of the heart or the realities of life, which in turns generates situations of drama, tragedy, sorrow, and horror. It also leads to many warriors confronting the basic hypocrisy of their code when obedience conflicts with compassion, both important virtues to the samurai.
- The Spirit World: The people of Rokushima believe in a vast pantheon of spirits, gods, and demons, all of whom are thought to be observing mortals out of interest, curiosity, or mere boredom. Appeasing these spirits and avoiding their ire forms a good portion of the average person’s daily life. Ignoring the demands of the spirits can lead to being cursed, or even being stolen away by a particularly angered being. In Rokushima, the spirits are real—and humans ignore them at their peril.
- The Cycle of Karma: The concept of karma can be simplified to the idea that doing evil deeds inevitably comes back on their perpetrator. An evil person may escape punishment for a long time—even his whole life, perhaps—but the darkness in a human soul inevitably finds an outlet to bring retribution on that person. Someone who avoids mortal justice may find themselves trapped as a ghost, damned for all eternity to never know release from pain. Even those who struggle to avoid the punishment of destiny often find themselves building the circumstances for their own destruction without realizing it. Things run in cycles, and every beginning holds the seed of its own end. This also speaks to the idea of impermanence; the Rokuma believe that nothing lasts forever, and all old things must pass in time to make way for the new.