Monday, 31 August 2015

The Shaman class

Any game set in any approximation of Central Asia is going to feature some version of shamanism, the indigenous religion of central and northern Asia. As I've discussed before, I'd rather avoid any attempt to directly mirror the actual religious practices of the Shamanist and Tengrist faiths; both are living religions, and deserve to be treated seriously, rather than having their beliefs travestied in some fantasy game. That said, the core ideas behind shamanism - that the world is full of (usually) invisible spirits, that a suitably-qualified shaman can make contact with them by entering into a ritual trance state, and that these spirits can be bribed or placated through homage and offerings - are eminently gameable. I've already written about the spirit world in general, and how non-shaman characters can attempt to interact with it; but for those who want to go a bit deeper, here's a character class for shaman PCs.

Shaman Mask circa 1770 Evenki people Siberia
Ritual mask of an Evenk shaman.
A shaman is an individual who, through some combination of natural talent and gruelling training, has learned how to project their spirit into the spirit world and commune with the beings that inhabit it. Their job is to act as mediators between their people and the spirits. If the hunting is going poorly, they try to persuade the animal spirits to send their tribe a bit more game. If someone has fallen sick, they try to bribe or threaten the disease spirits into leaving their body. If an enemy army is descending upon the tribe's position, they might beg the wind spirits to bog them down with storms and bad weather while the shaman and her people slip away. Spirits are weird and inhuman, and from a mortal's perspective their demands can often seem capricious and arbitrary, so there's no guarantee of success; but a skilled shaman will be a master of the art of spirit-manipulation, knowing just how to wheedle and flatter them into doing what is necessary for the good of the clan.

(Of course, sometimes a shaman goes rogue, and starts making other kinds of deals: helping evil spirits to perform acts of mischief in exchange for gifts of power and protection. Such corrupt shamans are usually driven out of their clans into the deep wilderness, where they can sometimes become extremely dangerous. Some people think that this might have been how the Wicked King got started.)

The shamanic gift of entering the spirit world in a trance state is primarily used for communicating with spirits, but it has other potential uses as well. In the spirit world, the shaman's spirit can change its shape, flying many miles in the form of a bird to spy upon distant events; it can whisper into the minds of others, and even step into their dreams. The most ambitious shamans can turn their gifts to even higher ends, attempting great vision-quests to the furthest reaches of the spirit world in search of wisdom, enlightenment, or communion with the great god(s) themselves. The spirit world is vast and confusing, and many of its inhabitants are not what they seem; many a shaman has believed themselves to be communicating with the Soul of the World, when in fact they have simply been misled by some petty lying spirit which has bamboozled them with glib illusions. For a shaman of sufficient wisdom and experience, however, it is navigable, even if the contents of its higher realms are likely to be beyond the scope of most games!

A Yakut shaman from the district of Verchne-Kolymsk. Note the fringe or veil obscuring the shaman's eyes.    Photo: Lissner - Man, God and Magic
Yakut shaman in full ritual regalia. 

To play a shaman, you must have a Wisdom score of 12 or higher. Game information is as follows:

  • You are proficient with all simple weapons, with bows, and with light shields. You cannot use heavy shields, or any armour heavier than heavy leather (AC +3).
  • You get 1d6 HP per level.
  • You gain a bonus to all attack rolls equal to one-half of your level, rounded down.
  • You can intuitively sense whenever there are spirits nearby which want to communicate with humans, although actually interacting with them requires you to enter into a trance state (see below). 
  • By spending an hour or so singing, dancing, and drumming, you may enter a trance-state in which you may communicate with the spirit world, as discussed here. If you are in your ritual regalia (outfit, mask, drum), then success is automatic; if you don't, perhaps because they've been taken from you, then you must make a Wisdom roll to succeed, with failure meaning that you must sing and dance for another 1d6 hours before trying again. 
  • While in a trance-state, your percentage chance of identifying evil spirits is equal to 50% plus five times your shaman level. (This means that a level 10 shaman can always recognise lying spirits for what they are.)
  • You are an expert at flattering, persuading, and haggling with spirits. If you can't or don't want to give them what they actually want in exchange for their aid, then you may be able to get them to accept an inferior substitute instead; so a bloodthirsty ghost which is demanding a human sacrifice might be fobbed off with a sheep instead, while a proud spirit that wants a temple built for it might be persuaded to settle for a simple roadside shrine. Your basic percentile chance of persuading a spirit to settle for less is equal to 30 + your charisma score + five times your shaman level. The GM may impose modifiers on this roll depending on just how close your offering actually is to what was originally asked for - getting a spirit to accept a sacrificial chicken instead of a human is much harder than getting them to accept a horse!
  • If someone is sick or injured, then by spending 1d6 hours singing over their body you may call healing spirits to aid them. If they are suffering from poison or disease, they get a new saving throw; if hurt, they recover a number of HP equal to your shaman level. Each person can only benefit from this ability once per day.
  • While in a trace-state, you can project your spirit out of your body in the shape of a bird, fox, or other swift-moving animal. In this shape your spirit can travel at 10 + (5 x level) mph, and can travel a maximum distance from your body equal to one hundred times your level in miles: so a level 5 shaman can spirit-travel at 35mph up to 500 miles away, while a level 7 shaman can travel at 45mph for up to 700 miles. Within the spirit-world, your spirit-body has Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution equal to your Charisma, Intelligence, and Wisdom, respectively. Wherever you go you will be able to perceive the local spirits (and other shamans in trace-states), and you will also get a vague, hazy understanding of what is happening in that place in the physical world; so you would know if an army was passing through your spirit's current location, but wouldn't be able to discern their weapons or insignias, and would have only a very vague idea of their numbers. You are immediately aware if your body is injured, and may make a WILL save to instantly snap back to your body; if you fail you take 1d6 damage from psychic feedback, but may try again next round. 
  • If you spirit-travel to the location of someone you know well, you will be aware of the presence of their spirit and may try to communicate with it. This is easiest if they are asleep: in this case you simply appear in their dreams (in spirit-animal form, naturally) and tell them whatever you want to say, which they will automatically remember when they wake up. (If they don't want you in their dreams, they can force you out by making a successful WILL save, preventing you from making any further dream-communications that night.) If they are awake you can try to whisper to their soul, but unless they are also a trained shaman they may well fail to hear you. They must make a Wisdom roll: if they pass they experience a brief vision of you in spirit-animal form passing on your message, but if they fail then they just feel kinda weird for a few seconds and you are unable to try communicating with them again for 1d12 hours.
Shaman Summary Table

Level
Hit Points
To Hit Bonus
Fortitude save (FORT)
Reflex save (REF)
Willpower save (WILL)
1
1d6
+0
14
14
14
2
2d6
+1
13
13
13
3
3d6
+1
12
12
12
4
4d6
+2
11
11
11
5
5d6
+2
10
10
10
6
6d6
+3
9
9
9
7
7d6
+3
8
8
8
8
8d6
+4
7
7
7
9
9d6
+4
6
6
6
10
10d6
+5
5
5
5

Starting equipment: Heavy leather and fur garments (+3 AC), ritual regalia consisting of a mask, drum, and decorated leather costume (+1 AC when worn), bow (1d8 damage), hatchet (1d6 damage), 2d6 bags and pouches containing various offerings for spirits (berries, dried meat, etc), 2d6x10 sp.

The rules above describe the basic abilities which every shaman possesses; but some shamans (and a few non-shamans) enter into bargains with specific spirits for additional powers. I'll discuss these in another post...

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