Tuesday 1 September 2015

Spirit-Bargaining for Beginners

So, the shaman class has the ability to persuade spirits to accept lesser offerings in exchange for their help. But what does that mean, exactly? What sort of payments do spirits normally demand from their petitioners, and how far might a competent shaman be able to renegotiate the deal?

Well, that depends on the spirit.

Spirits have very distinctive personalities. In the case of nature spirits, these usually mirror the thing that they're a spirit of (or it is the other way around?); so the spirit of a broad, slow-flowing river that seldom floods will probably be a pretty laid-back gal, whereas the spirit of a unpredictable torrent famous for flash-floods and drownings is likely to be, not to put to fine a point on it, a vindictive bitch. (This cuts both ways: if an enterprising shaman can manage to persuade the torrent-spirit to be nicer, perhaps by setting her up with a suitably chilled-out mortal lover, then the river might become much safer and easier to navigate.) In the case of ancestor spirits, it will be an exaggerated version of the personality they had in life: so the spirit of a famous warrior will be brave and bloodthirsty, the spirit of a wise man will be cautious and patient, and so on. The offerings they expect (and sometimes demand) from mortals will reflect their personalities, but they tend to fall into a few broad categories: food, drink, praise, wealth, and blood. If you have nothing in particular in mind for a given spirit, you can use these tables to find out what kind of offering it wants:

What does the spirit want? (Roll 1d10)

1-2: Food. Food offerings can be burnt, buried, thrown into water, or just left by a shrine; in the latter case, if the spirit accepts the offering, it will vanish as soon as no-one is looking at it.

3-4: Drink. Libations of alcoholic drinks (usually kumis, a drink made from fermented mare's milk) are poured out into water or onto the bare earth. 

5-6: Praise. Prayers, chants, and songs in honour of the spirit are recited, possibly with musical accompaniment, and/or shrines, totem poles, and temples are raised in its honour.

7-8: Blood. Blood offerings are poured out onto the earth or water, or spilt across the spirit's shrine. If an animal (or person!) is killed to provide the blood, then their body is burnt or thrown into water to feed the spirit.

9: Wealth. Coins or precious objects are thrown into water, buried in the ground, or heaped up around the spirit's shrine. (Stealing them is a terrible idea.) 

10: Something else, as appropriate to the myth and nature of the spirit: the spirit of a great peace-maker might demand that weapons be broken across its shrine, the spirit of a great musician might demand that live songbirds be released into the woods around their grave, and so on. If nothing comes to mind, reroll. 

How picky is the spirit? (roll 1d8)

1: Amazingly picky. It will only accept offerings of one, very specific kind: the blood of a black ram with curly horns, for example. It isn't interested in anything else.

2: Fairly picky. It has one, very specific, kind of offering that it prefers, but it'll accept something similar (e.g. the blood of any black sheep) as long as the offering is made a bit bigger to compensate.

3-4: Mildly picky. It has one sort of offering that it likes, but that category is fairly broad: sheep's blood, for example. It will accept something vaguely similar (e.g. the blood of any animal) if the offering is made larger to compensate.

5-7: Not very picky. It will accept any offering of the appropriate type (e.g. any kind of blood).

8: Not picky at all. It will even accept offerings of different kinds (e.g. food instead of blood) if the offering is enlarged a bit. 

Evenk shaman totems at the Village "Angarskaya" in Bratsk, Russia - photo by Alexey Trofimov (Alex El Barto), via Flickr; The outdoor Museum of Architecture and Ethnography consists of 2 sections: the Evenks sector and Russian village. Evenks are one of the aboriginal nations of Siberia. In the Evenks sector different types of dwellings, storehouses, sacred places, household articles are displayed.: Evenk shaman totems at the Village "Angarskaya" in Bratsk, Russia - photo by Alexey Trofimov (Alex El Barto), via Flickr; The outdoor Museum of Architecture and Ethnography consists of 2 sections: the Evenks sector and Russian village. Evenks are one of the aboriginal nations of Siberia. In the Evenks sector different types of dwellings, storehouses, sacred places, household articles are displayed.
Evenk totems. Leave your offering at the base, and the spirit will get back to you in due course. Probably.

These two tables will tell you what the spirit wants. How much of it the spirit wants will depend on how big a favour it's being asked for, how generous it is, and how much it thinks it can get away with. There's a fairly standard 'going rate', though, which is as follows:

  • Minor favour (e.g. asking a forest spirit for permission to go hunting in its woods): A crust of bread or a few grains, a few drops of blood or kumis, a brief prayer, a scrap of copper or brass.
  • Small favour (e.g. asking a river spirit to protect your boat from the dangerous rapids downstream): A handful of grain or a small piece of meat, a cup of blood or kumis, a long prayer, a couple of pennies.
  • Moderate favour (e.g. asking a storm spirit to please stop raining for a few hours): A whole meal's worth of food, several pints of kumis, the blood sacrifice of a small animal, hours worth of sung prayers, a piece of silver jewellery.
  • Large favour (e.g. asking the disease spirits to leave your tribe alone this summer): A banquet's worth of food, a whole barrel-full of kumis, the blood sacrifice of a large animal, the building of a shrine accompanied by several days worth of prayer-recitals, a piece of gold jewellery. 
  • Huge favour (e.g. asking the ancestor-spirits to back you in your attempt to become king of your people): enough food to provide a lavish banquet for several hundred people, hundreds of barrels of kumis, the blood sacrifice of dozens of large animals (or a few humans), the building of a temple accompanied by lots of prayers and praise-singing, a small fortune in gold and gems.
  • Epic favour (e.g. asking a river to permanently change its course): The blood sacrifice of hundreds or thousands of large animals (or scores of humans), the building of a large temple accompanied by continuous prayer-singing performed by teams of singers in rotation, a large fortune in gold and gems. Food and drink sacrifices at this level must always be of some special kind (e.g. bread baked with magical grains); no amount of ordinary food or kumis is ever going to persuade a spirit to perform a favour of this magnitude.

A spiteful spirit - or a spirit that just doesn't like you - can, of course, demand more than this; much more, if they feel like it. It's at times like these that it's handy to have a shaman. Note also that the spirit is under no obligation to do what you ask, no matter how much you offer it: offerings are payments for services, not magical compulsions, and if it just doesn't want to do something then you can't force it to change it's mind just by throwing offerings at it. (A good shaman, however, may well be able to guilt-trip them into it: 'Look at all these magnificent offerings we have given you! Will you still deny us passage? Would you have it said in the world of men that you are an unreasonable and ungenerous spirit?')

So we come back to the shaman, and their ability to persuade spirits to accept lesser offerings. In practise, this means that if they pass their roll, they can persuade a spirit to do one of the following:

  • Be less picky: So a spirit that is demanding the sacrifice of a sheep could be persuaded to accept a goat, instead.
  • Be more generous: A spirit can be bargained down to offering a 'half-price' deal: so a spirit which is demanding an offering of ten barrels of kumis could be persuaded to do the job for five.
  • Be more reasonable: A spirit which is making an unreasonable demand - insisting that it be given an offering of gold just for letting you cross its river without being drowned, for example - can be shamed into asking for a more reasonable payment, which in this case would be more like a copper penny.

As should be obvious, if you're going to be having a lot of interactions with spirits, a shaman is pretty much compulsory. Otherwise you're going to continually be at the mercy of whatever extravagant, excessive, or just plain crazy thing the spirits happen to be demanding today...

Next up: making spirit-pacts to acquire superpowers!

1 comment:

  1. I'd value human sacrifice higher compared to other kinds. Yes, to a tribe of nomads a score of prisoners might well be worth less than hundreds of their precious horses, but I think that you'll probably generate more "game" if a single human life is the ultimate sacrifice to a spirit, conceivably making it a meaningful decision for PCs.