23 April 2012

Pen & Paper: Creating a World part 4 - Spirituality

My world-building series continues, this time we'll talk a bit about the spiritual world-order that the fantasy-setting I'm creating for my bi-weekly gaming group is like. Religions, spirits and ghosts are present and active in the world - what is that going to be like? Let's explore! (by the way, I am aware that I said I'd go for the recent world-history this time, that'll be up next - promise!)

So, this is a fantasy world. By now we have given it a geography with some basic notions of empires/cultures, as well as some non-human sentient species roaming about, doing non-human sentient things. As I have also started playing with my players, I can now start letting their ideas and thoughts influence the further details of the world they're in. One should always listen to the players, they take over a lot of your work as a GM if you play your cards right...

So, spirituality is this posts topic. For this to be a fantasy-world, there needs to be a supernatural element. This is something I find hard to balance, as too much magic tends to replace technology in any given setting and I usually don't like these settings. Say, "there are no airplanes but we can summon flying horses at will, there are no cellphones but we have speaking-stones, there are no robots but we have golems for everything - but everyone still fights with sword and bow..." - you already lost me there. You can use magic to replace technology, but that results in a sci-fi setting, rather than a fantasy-setting (see Exalted when playing in the first-age - it has the internet and even power-armor). So, nobody in my setting is going to throw fireballs or simply raise the dead when need be. Magic is primeval, mysterious, rare and scary. Supernatural creatures are even more so.

There are spirits in The World. Some are, as inspired by the grand Terry Pratchetts 'Small Gods' stationary little entities, enchanting, say, a weird tree or a crossing row or a pretty waterfall somewhere in the woods. Should they grow in power through believers (even if these believers aren't sentients), they may become minor gods, even taking an avatar for a corporeal form. At that stage, they may be the center of a religious movement too. Or be shunned and hunted as demons. Depends on where you are in the world. Three of the major religions in The World believe in a highest, a creator-god. These, basically stand-ins for Baseline Medieval Christianity, Islam and Ethiopian-Orthodox Christianity, have a more or less problematic relationship with lesser spirits. While the islamic faith accepts djinni, as they are considered there as part of gods creation, the christian churches shunn them to a certain degree. The non-centralized organization of the baseline church in the Western Empire prevents it from organizing any large witch-hunts but there are strong resentments against spirits and those who deal with them. The orthodox church of the empire of Mahliland actively tries to destroy spirits where they can find them.

Spirits in a non-corporeal form usually inhabit a specific place or are in posession of a host-body, which can grow to tremendous size and strength. As this only works on weak-minded creatures, there are no super-humans. There are, however supersized boars, wolves, bears, eagles etc. (think Princess Mononoke here). Now a local cult can arise and worship these low-level deities with sacrifices and prayer. This will sustain the gods lifespan and strength. The Naga Queendoms have an enormous snake as a patron-goddess, who will destroy any intruders who somehow manage to force their way too deep into the queendom territory. This snake is their literal protector, while also being their religion.

Small spirits can also be the ghosts of deceased humans or other sentients (or, in special cases, even animals). These can be called upon by specially-talented people to strike bargains with. Spirits may influence the material world or simply have access to knowledge that humans cannot get to. The latter, something that a lot of ghosts can do in exchange for small favors (such as sacrifices or short rides in a human host-body for eating tasty food or drinking alcohol), is often used by healers as a ghost may find out what exactly ails a patients body and how to make it better.

Local deities are the base of religions in the Naga Queendoms and Hindustan. Spirits are the base of religion in the ancestral cults thriving in the Eastern Empire and on the Emerald Isle. The other empires have monotheistic tendencies but aknowledge the existence of other spiritual entities (as it is quite obvious). Next up: History (short term) and thus also world-politics. See you then!

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