Friday, 14 August 2015

Spirits and Shamanism: the basics

The world of ATWC is alive. Everyone knows this. There are spirits in the rocks and spirits in the wind and spirits in the rivers and spirits in the clouds. Sometimes they take on human form, and go in search of wisdom, or sex, or entertainment; but mostly they remain invisible, lurking unseen beneath the surface of things.

People can become spirits too, when they die. Rather than passing on to the afterlife, they can remain in the world, continuing to inhabit the location where they lived in life or following their descendants from place to place. The distinction between nature-spirits and ancestor-spirits is fuzzy: the ghost of a sufficiently mighty ancestor could easily become the animating spirit of the mountain on which she died, for example. Then again, some of the mighty ancestors were nature-spirits to begin with: many clans trace their ancestry back to some spirit of the land who became the sire or mother of their people while wandering the world in human form. It gets confusing sometimes. Best just to leave an offering at the shrine and not worry too much about exactly what sort of spirit inhabits it.

Evenk shaman with a collection of shamanic objects,   including images of helper spirits, early 1900s.   No. 5659-120
A shaman of the Evenk people.

Followers of the book-religions in the kingdoms of the great road acknowledge that the spirits exist, and should be given due recognition; but they believe that human worship is best directed towards the great God (or Goddess, or Gods) in heaven, who rule over both the physical and spiritual worlds. The shamans of the steppe and the taiga view this as totally backwards. No doubt there are higher powers out there somewhere, but they are remote and hard to contact, like distant kings who rule from far-off lands. Much more sensible to deal directly with the spirits, who are right here, right now.

Unless a spirit has chosen to take on physical form, it can only be communicated with by someone in a state of trance. How to attain such a state is common knowledge - you sing and drum and dance yourself into total exhaustion, and then keep doing it, until something strange starts to happen in your brain and you begin to glimpse the world behind the world - but actually achieving it reliably is much trickier, and requires lengthy training and lots of practise. For any character who isn't a trained shaman, entering a trance state requires a roll of 10 or higher on 1d10, with the following modifiers to the roll:

  • High or low Wisdom: add your Wisdom modifier to the roll (or subtract it, if negative).
  • Very long drumming ritual (12+ hours): +1
  • Short drumming ritual (less than one hour): -1
  • Ritual preceded by extended fasting (at least 48 hours): +1
  • Ritual involves the experience of extreme pain: +1
  • High as a kite on mind-altering drugs and hallucinogens: +1
  • Ritual takes place in a location of great spiritual power: +1
  • Nearby spirits have something they really want to tell you: +1
  • Nearby spirits really want to be left alone just now: -1

Note that a lot of this - the pain, the drugs, the fasting - are basically crutches for amateurs, crude ways to yank your mind out of its normal path and into a state in which it might become capable of spirit communication. A real shaman can accomplish all this much more reliably, and without nearly as much fuss.

Once a character has entered a trance state, they will be able to perceive the local spirit world, and communicate with the spirits who live there. Spirits are an odd bunch, and the demands they make often seen strange and arbitrary to mortals, but they have certain constants: they like offerings, they don't like being ignored or insulted, and they have power over the local environment, which they may be willing to exercise in exchange for a suitable offering of tribute. People in ATWC accept this as just one of those things: if the river just keeps flooding, or the rains just won't come, then maybe it's time to try going into a trance-state and seeing what's upset the local spirits, and what they want in exchange for restoring normal service. Such missions are best undertaken by professionals, of course, but sometimes you just have to do these things for yourself.

Mongolian shaman w/drum
A Mongolian shaman with his drum.
Whenever a non-shaman enters a trance state, they have a 15% chance of contacting a lying, evil spirit instead of the true spirit of the place. These spiteful beings will offer completely incorrect information about what the local spirits want done: claiming that they want their shrine pulled down and replaced completely, for example, when all they really want is for someone to remove the dead body which is currently polluting their sacred lake. Following the instructions of such malicious creatures generally causes lots more trouble for everyone: fortunately, they always have some kind of 'tell' which gives them away, such as a wolf-spirit having the tail of a fox. Each PC has a percentage chance of spotting this equal to their combined Intelligence + Wisdom scores. If an evil spirit realises it's been discovered, then it will vanish and allow the true spirit of the place to come forth, instead. However, if a true spirit is accused of being an evil, lying spirit then it will be extremely insulted and vanish in a huff, so you need to be sure before you start slinging accusations around!

There are no spirits in the Wicked City. One rumour says that the Wicked King bound them all into his statue network, so now they can do nothing except report what they see and hear back to him; a second rumour states that he locked them into the foundation-stones of his tower, which is what lets it rise so high, and a third declares that he bound them into loaves of bread and ate them, thus winning himself immortality. Whatever the truth, entering into a trance-state within the boundaries of the Wicked City will not result in spirit communication; instead, the entranced individual will suffer nightmarish visions and hallucinations, causing them to beat and tear their own flesh in a frenzy of horror. Anyone thus afflicted suffers 1d4 damage per round from self-mutilation; at the end of each round they can attempt a WILL save to snap out of it, recalling nothing of their experiences except a sense of overwhelming horror and dread. At the GMs option, a few details from their visions - perhaps containing hints about what is really going on in the Wicked City - may come back to them in dreams and nightmares over the days to come.

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