Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Spirit pacts for fun and profit!

In recent posts, I've discussed the spirit world of ATWC's setting, the shaman class which interacts with it, and the kind of spirit-bargaining in which everyone must engage from time to time, and in which shamans are especially adept. For the vast majority of people, such bargains (and the occasional strange dream or weird encounter in the woods) will be their only interaction with the world of spirits. Questions like 'what do the spirits want in exchange for sending more rain this season?' are urgent matters for them; but 'how can I persuade the spirits to give me magical power-ups?' is likely to be rather lower on their agenda.

PCs are not most people.

Spirit pacts are special bargains which exceptional individuals may make with a spirit (or a group of spirits), whereby they provide the spirit with some kind of ongoing service in exchange for an ongoing boon. A spirit will only enter into such a pact with a mortal who has already won their attention somehow: from their immortal perspective, the lives of most mortals are simply too ephemeral to be worth bothering about. To even get your 'foot in the door', as it were, you'll need to have done one of the following:

  1. Made huge offerings: sacrificing lots of animals, or offering up great wealth at a spirit's shrine, is a good way of getting its attention, especially if you do so without asking for anything in particular, allowing the spirit to regard it as a gift rather than a business transaction.
  2. Performed great deeds: Like everyone else, spirits are impressed by extraordinary feats of skill and courage. If you've performed such a deed in the area it inhabits, it may well take notice of you. (More powerful spirits tend to be harder to impress, though.)
  3. Performed a significant service for it: Stop a forest from burning down? You probably have the forest spirit's attention. Save a tribe from extermination? Their ancestor spirits are willing to see you, now...
  4. Won it over with flattery: Spirits are not easy to impress, so you'd better be ready to settle in for the long haul. We're talking about weeks, months, or even years spent composing and singing songs in the spirit's honour, praying at its shrine, and generally making clear in every way possible that you are totally its biggest fan.
  5. Seduce it: Most spirits enjoy romantic liaisons as much as anyone else, but with all eternity before them there's not a lot of urgency behind their desires, and many of them are quite content to go for centuries between mortal paramours. If you happen to be very good-looking, however, this may be the easiest route, especially if the spirit in question has a preferred 'type' that you happen to fit. (Local legends will often contain sufficient information to deduce their romantic and sexual preferences, if any.) You can seduce a spirit the same way as anyone else; loudly and repeatedly declare your love for them, sing them love-songs, offer them love-tokens, become sick from love of them, perform great feats for love of them, and so on. If it works - and some spirits are much more susceptible to this kind of thing than others - then they'll eventually manifest to see what all the fuss is about. (At this point the two of you probably also have lots of sex, which may be a bonus or a drawback depending on the spirit in question.)

Vasilisa the Beautiful gains the attention of Baba Yaga and the Riders of Day and Night. Lacquer box painted by Anatoly Shirokov.

Once you've won the attention of a spirit, you can ask it for a boon: the ability to breathe underwater, perhaps, or to speak to animals, or even to ride the winds. The gift must be within the spirit's domain - there's no point in asking a forest spirit to make you fireproof - and the spirit must think you're funny / sexy / cool / interesting / sycophantic enough to be worth rewarding. If it does, then the negotiations begin: these are just like the ones used when bargaining for ordinary favours, except the arrangement is usually in the form of an ongoing payment in exchange for an ongoing boon rather than a one-time payment for a one-off service. Some possible boons, and the spirits that might grant them, include the following:

  • Taiga Spirit: Speak the language of birds or beasts, climb like a squirrel, run like a wolf, feel no cold, move without sound, enhanced hunting ability.
  • Steppe Spirit: Ride the wind (it turns into a magical wind-horse when you bridle it), gain the vision of a hawk, enhanced horsemanship.
  • River Spirit: Breathe underwater, speak the language of fish, swim like an otter, enhanced fishing ability.
  • Desert Spirit: Survive without water, endure heat and cold, enhanced ability to find food and water, ability to tunnel through sand.
  • Ancestor Spirit: Enhanced hunting / singing / riding / craftsmanship / leadership ability (as appropriate to ancestor's skills in life), immunity to disease. 

In exchange, the character must make a daily or weekly offering to the spirit, of the kind it most prefers: equivalent to the payment for a small favour every day, or for a moderate favour every week. As usual, a shaman can persuade a spirit to be either less picky or less demanding when agreeing the terms of this offering, as per their class abilities. If the offerings ever stop, for any reason, the gift is immediately withdrawn until they are restored. (Particularly touchy spirits might also demand all the 'missed payments' before restoring the boon in question.) Canny PCs will want to exploit this fact when dealing with spirit-pact-using enemies: living in an underwater cave (because you have a spirit-pact which lets you breathe water) doesn't look so clever when your enemies disrupt your morning sacrifice ritual and you suddenly find yourself just as drownable as anyone else...

Now, for most people, this is already a pretty sweet deal: all you have to do is pour out a cup of blood (or whatever) to your patron spirit every morning, and it'll make you the best hunter (or fisherman, or horseman, or craftswoman) in your clan! Again, however, PCs are not most people: and, given the option of being blessed with the swimming ability of an otter, most of them are going to ask if they can get something that gives them a strength bonus instead. In such cases, spirits are likely to offer them spirit gifts: enchanted objects which provide bonuses to stats, to-hit, AC, and saves. (Indeed, such objects are by far the most common form of magic items in ATWC.) Such gifts only function for as long as their user remains on good terms with the spirit which granted them, and continues to make regular offerings, as follows:

  • Minor Gift (+1 total bonus): Offering as for a minor favour, made daily.
  • Small Gift (+2 total bonus): Offering as for a small favour, made daily.
  • Moderate Gift (+3 total bonus): Offering as for a moderate favour, made weekly.
  • Large Gift (+4 total bonus): Offering as for a moderate favour, made daily.
  • Huge Gift (+5 total bonus): Offering as for a large favour, made weekly.

So a wolfskin cloak which blessed its wearer with great agility (+1 to each of AC, Dexterity, and REF, +3 total) might require a chicken to be sacrificed (or more likely fed to it) every week. As usual, a shaman can try to negotiate better terms on these deals. You can only have one gift or pact at a time with any given spirit, and no combination of gifts can grant a bonus of more than +5 to a single stat. Spirit gifts which function as more miscellaneous magic items - like a skull which shines firelight out of its eye-sockets, providing spooky illumination and letting you zap people with skull-fire once per day - are also possible, at the GM's discretion.

Vasilia reaps the rewards of her persistence. Painting by Ivan Bilibin.

The net result of all this is that powerful shamans - and, more rarely, other individuals who have managed to attract the attention of the spirits - will often have all kinds of special powers and mechanical bonuses, all of which are contingent on them maintaining good relations with the various spirits who grant them. A shaman with five different combat gifts, each granting +1 AC and +1 to-hit, may be a monster on the battlefield: but she has to stay on good terms with five different spirits, and make five different offerings every day, or else their benefit will be lost. Taking on a very powerful and experienced shaman, who can be pretty much assumed to have almost every spirit pact and spirit gift available, will thus largely be a matter of working out how best to sabotage their offerings and relationships in order to make them vulnerable to attack.

One final note: if a spirit is in love with you (not just currently lusting after you - actually in love), then it will grant you its gift without requiring any offerings for the duration of your relationship. Don't even think about trying to see other spirits behind its back!

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