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Animism and The Spirit World


Alex Greene

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This article is about spirits, and animism, and animists, and about animists in a Mythras game.

Here's what the Mythras Core Rulebook has to say about animism.

Animism is magic worked through communion with spirits and the spirit world. It is the magic of shamans and spirit walkers. Such practitioners do not treat with gods or learn their abilities from books or tomes; instead their powers come from the myriad spirits that inhabit the spirit realms, and interact occasionally with the mundane world.

As far as Adventurers go, what ever is the point of animists? They take up to an hour to get into the right trance state, they just sit there chanting while everybody is fighting, and when they bring back a spirit ally it's an invisible, intangible presence which might as well not be there. What good is an animist if they can't pick up a sword or fire off spells?

World of Spirits

To an animist, the whole world is sacred. Every part of the world - rocks, plants, the sky, the rivers - is alive, and their souls are the spirits. An animist has only two powers, to speak of - Trance skill, and Binding skill. Unless they also moonlight as sorcerers or Folk Magicians, or they also worship a deity as theists, an average animist has no access to spells.

Relationships and Connections

Animists' power comes from the connections they make with the spirit reflection of the earthly realm. As intermediaries, their job is to bridge this world and the other one; to intercede between people and the spirits. They are medicine people, because most of what they bring to the world is medicine - cures and healing of physical, emotional, and even mental ailments, injuries and wounds.

The animist makes connections with the spirits. They know the spirits by name. Their traditions allow the animist to call upon those spirits for aid, or for divination, and so on. This is important enough to describe below.

Animist Traditions

Every nation has its own animist traditions, and examples of such include real-world animist practices such as shamanism. The word "shaman" possibly comes from a Tungusic word saman, meaning "one who knows."

In Mythras, animist traditions can be created which bear a resemblance to real world animist traditions such as Shinto, and hopefully these analogues can be created with a little cultural sensitivity so as not to offend people for whom their local animist tradition is of real cultural significance. Real world animist traditions have often very different mythologies, ways, practices, and taboos. It is not as if every animist is cut from the same cloth, all around the world.

Strengths

An animist's power comes from their relationships and connections with the spirits. The strength comes from the understanding that the spirits mark aspects of the world - the winds, tides, water currents, mountains, storms, fires, animals, plants, and landscape features of nature, and the hearths and streets of human cities.

Nature's Power

The power of spirits can be called up to attack the animist's enemies in the form of storms, tsunami, rip tides, animal attacks, curses and diseases, spirits of a location (genius loci) attacking interlopers, crop failures, infertility, and technological failures, failures to communicate and even financial disasters in the human realm.

The most versatile abilities of spirits include Comprehension - the ability to converse with creatures associated with the spirit, such as wolves to a wolf spirit, or cats for a cat spirit; Demesne - the control of a spirit over a location with which it is associated, such as a natural glade, a street corner, or a hearth; Domination - the ability to command all associated creatures; Passion - the ability to infuse powerful emotions, usually in people; and Puppeteer - the ability to possess and manipulate a body, usually a person's body.

Echoes

In a city, the reflection of the spirit world can take on some of the features of the original nature spirits which it replaced. A street built over what used to be a meadow can acquire some strange characteristics from the original meadow spirit which used to dwell there. The street might be known as Meadow Street; there might be a florist on the corner; and the locals might all have gardens full of brightly coloured flowers, or flowerboxes hanging over balcony railings. A bend in the road which is notorious for accidents might have hungry death spirits lurking nearby to feast off the corner's deadly bounty. They may not be the cause of the black spot, but the locus itself might be generating a large, deadly spirit of its own. 

Possession

Spirits may also, in some cases, possess a being, occupying their bodies overtly or covertly through Covert Possession or Puppeteer. Spirit possession may allow the spirits to communicate to the people either through the body of the animist who channelled them, or through someone whom the spirit possessed, in order to utter prophecy or to communicate.

Exorcism

The animist can be called upon to remove a possessing spirit from a person, by discorporating and entering the spirit world, then engaging with the spirit in combat. This is one way that an animist can help solve a possession - the other way being to use a bound spirit to do the job for them, such as a fetch, or a Medicine Spirit to attack a Disease Spirit.

Animists In Game

An animist can do their best work if they can call upon the spirits of an area to help out. An animist can ask for help from a spirit of nature, who can guide them to safety through a hazardous environment. They can ask the spirits to help in the hunt by channelling a wolf spirit, permitting the animist to think and hunt and track like a wolf. The spirits of medicine can possess the animist, granting them the spirit's healing abilities. Ancestor spirits can be brought in to help bless a family lineage; spirits of a specific beast, such as a beast of burden, can be brought in to a farm or similar establishment to bless the herd with fertility during the breeding season, or the spirit of a wild beast summoned to aid an animist against their enemies by driving those animals to turn and attack the animist's enemies.

On the street, a spirit of humanity (street spirit, park spirit, hearth spirit, business spirit) can help provide an urban animist with knowledge of the area - which street corners see the most accidents (usually marked by clouds of death spirits hanging around them); whether an area is good or bad for a business (animism could be verging on a kind of feng shui); and whether or not a business is entirely legitimate or has some secrets in its back rooms.

Animists work best with the environments they are passing through. And if a local spirit is not handy, animists can still help out, by bringing in spirits bound into fetishes to unleash upon the area, causing such strange events as fish falls from the sky, odd animal sightings, unexpected business collapses, or even extremely localised fires or flooding. A swamp spirit released from a fetish into a field on the eve of battle could turn that battlefield into a deadly mire of soft mud for any cavalry and infantry advancing through the area. A fire elemental could wreak havoc for that enemy, who would be sitting targets unable to advance or withdraw due to the cloying mud underfoot.

The Animist As Protagonist

A movie, The Emerald Forest, focused on a non-local American boy who became involved with an animistic tribe in the rain forest. The movie explored the boy's gradual learning of their customs, ultimately to the point where he brought down a dam by causing an intense rainstorm to build up the river's levels beyond the dam's ability to hold back the waters.

Animism in the real world may not have such profound effects (we can only wish), but in a fantasy game the power of animism can do incredible things. As a player of an animist, you just need to know how to respect and venerate your spirits, and the land which creates them.

Animism In Your Game

As a Games Master, you get to choose what the local spirits are in the environment, and where they can be found. If every place has a soul, the animist can call upon their Trance skill to see the spirit echo of the material world, and to call upon them and petition them for aid. From helping them with Locale, Navigation, and Streetwise skill checks, to obtaining knowledge they could not obtain through Perception alone, an animist can make themselves valuable assets to the adventuring party. More than being able to scout out a battlefield or to attack the shadows; given enough time to prepare, the animist can marshall those shadows and turn the very battlefield itself against the enemy.

Just give the team's animist time to get a feel for the lay of the land. That is all the adventurers need to assure victory.

Edited by Alex Greene

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A great summary Alex, not only for Mythras, but should give RQG shamans ideas on how to play animists. 

I like some of the ideas about spirits and cities.. and reminds me of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series... and how it could be incorporated in games.

I have used animists in my Saxon Campaign which has a very low magic content. The players are terrified of them, hate them but seek out their help with spirits and their enemies. They are also aware that they cannot kill them as they will end up in Náströnd, a place they have glimpsed in trying to find a lost soul and do not want to be sent after death.

Much food for thought

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