Monday, 7 March 2022

Table of a Thousand Cults

I'm preparing a location for my next foray into actually getting players together. Kogo Hnennis, City of a Thousand Cults, City of a Thousand Rains. It's in a magical disaster zone which has two consequences. Firstly, every house in the city is covered in copper rain-pipes as they strive to collect potable water from the clouds. 

Secondly, the city is home to a thousand different cults. Partly just the temperament of the people, partly because life in Kogo Hnennis *motivates* worship, penance, and beseechment.

So here's a table for a thousand cults.

"Cthulhu Cultists" by Daniel Zrom

It leads to fun names. Here's a couple.

Turning the street, you run into a procession of...

* the Syndicate of the Purging Slaughter

* the Seekers for the Chthonic Swarm

* the Followers of the Blind Judge

* the Association of the Black Blasphemy

* the Temple of the Rotting Star

* the Companions for the Son of Spring

* the Bleached Hunger Mystery

* the Sisterhood of the Silver Birth

* the Mystery of the Lance of the Clouds

* the Order against the Deep Stranger

* the Seekers for the Dwarf and Return

* the Warm Fish Group

* the Covenant for the Sun of Dragons

I can keep making these forever but I'll stop here.

**HOW TO**

Basically, you need a d20, a d6, a d8, and a d10.

The cult name is GROUP + OF THE + X + Y.

For GROUP, roll a d20.

For OF THE, roll a d6. "reverse" here means that instead of the normal word order, the name will be X + Y + GROUP.

For X, roll a d8 + d10. The d8 is the first digit, the d10 the second, with 10 meaning 0. Rolling a 5 and a 5 is 55, rolling a 5 and a 10 is 50. If an X entry is "(of [something])" it comes after Y in the name.

For Y, do the same with the d8 + d10.

Happy culting!

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Some thoughts on law in fantasy settings

In this post I'm gonna tell you why you have to chop your player's hands off.

So if you start up Skyrim, you're playing what is called "fantasy". There's a lot of shit here that does not pretend to be real. In fact that's why people play it. There's dragons and trolls and there's magical powers everywhere.

There's strange peoples and customs and histories.

I've written before that "religion" in fantasy kind of shows that we take some things that really are arbitrary - such as the concept of "religion" as being belief in gods - as universal.

I argue that our response to a fictional world shows that we have two kinds of normal. 

The first is VISIBLE NORMALITY. This is the things we find normal but that we understand are arbitrary. For example, the clothing people wear in Skyrim is not something I'd ever wear, and the gods they worship are not gods I'd ever worship. My clothing is normal to me but I understand it is different for other people and *would* be different in an alternate, fictional world.

The second is INVISIBLE NORMALITY. This is things we find normal but we do not even know could be different. They are self-evident, taken-for-granted, hiding-in-plain-sight. So, understanding that fictional people in a fictional world would not worship Christ shows that we consider worshipping Christ a VISIBLE NORMALITY. But, the fact that all fictional religions revolve around worshipping gods shows that we think of "religion" as "worshipping gods" as INVISIBLE NORMALITY. We do not even realize that it does not have to be that way. We think that is universal, necessary. In Skyrim, I can play as a cat-person. But I cannot play as someone who is non-binary, for example. 

These are things that are normal to me and that I *don't* understand are different for other people and *would* be different in an alternate, fictional world.

Religion and gender in Skyrim shows that they are invisible normalities. When constructing the weird fantasy world, the creators just skipped over these because they did not see them, did not consider them candidates for potential difference or fantasy.

Moving on to what I was actually thinking about: law.

Consider now, if you will, the Whiterun Guard. And the Riften Guard. And the Solitude Guard.

I argue, dear reader, that "guards" in fantasy show how the police are an example of invisible normality. These guards function exactly like cops and seem not to have been subject to serious thought at all - they are transplanted wholesale from contemporary society. Of course there are cops. Cops are an inescapable part of reality. Skyrim has gravity, therefore it must have cops.

But the cops have only existed for like 200 years. Before that, law enforcement was entirely different. The town watch, for example, was much more about *watching*. They kept an eye on things and would alert others if necessary. They did not perform arrests, AFAIK. In Medieval law, the cry "stop thief!" was not just a cool thing for people in cartoons to yell. If you did that, every single person in the community had a duty to stop the thief. There were no designated thief-catchers like we imagine the cops to be.

In addition, people were sometimes put in groups of ten. If any of the ten broke the law, it was the responsibility of the other nine to take him to court.

So law enforcement wasn't a profession. It was something everybody did. It was a very social type of phenomenon. Communities policed themselves.

So why are all these fantasy settings crawling with "city guards" who are just modern day cops wearing armour? 

Where am I going with this? Well, obviously the intent here is to imagine more types of fantasy worlds.

Punishment after and trial were different as well. Judges travelled around for serious cases and had their authority from the king, and courts were set up by local lords. So whereas policing is communal, trial can be top-down.

Punishment, again, can be super small scale. Jail time did not exist. Prisons are modern. Sure, some castles had dungeons, but those weren't used for regular old punishment -- you had to be *really* unlucky to end up there. Punishment was either something physically painful or something terribly embarassing (or getting executed). Think about the stocks. The community is punishing you. There's a communal aspect both to the enforcement and punishment.

This is al leading up for a few questions to ask yourself when designing what will happen when your players nick something.

The thing is that there are no quick fixes here. Your law enforcement is related to your power structures and your law. There may be different laws enforced by different hierarchies. Take for example church law versus royal law. Or, different laws may apply to different people. In medieval Muslim societies such as in al-Andalus, Muslims were required to follow aspects of Islamic law that non-Muslims, though they lived under a Muslim state with a Muslim ruler, were not required to follow. But non-Muslims were required to pay a tax, for example.

So ask yourself:
* who is making laws? The king? The city-state? The tribe? The church? The guild? Some people very very long ago?
* why are they making laws? Keeping order? Religious reasons? Enriching themselves? Maintaining their own power?
* who do their laws apply to? Everyone? Their subjects? Only women? Only men? Only guild members?
* what do laws forbid? Crimes against people? Crimes against authority? Crimes against sacred things or persons?
* who are law enforcement? The community itself? Or paid experts, or semi-expert volunteers? Or informal groups, militia-like? Do experts have special status? Do experts of different groups compete?
* what are the duties of law enforcement groups? Do they apprehend; are they the muscle? Do they notify the muscle? Are they mostly deterrent or actually supposed to catch criminals?
* who does law enforcement deliver a criminal to? Informal authority in the community? Or formal village- or city-level authority? Royal authority? Church or temple authority? Guild authority?
* what are trials like? Are they quick and dirty -- "everyone can tell that he did such and such..." or drawn-out affairs with ancient customs like right to trial by combat, etc? Who presides over trials? Mayor, priest, chief, judge, king? Are there maybe oracles or rituals in trials?
* where does the authority of the judge come from? Is it the informal authority of the well-known and respected community member? Is it divine authority? Is it the authority of the king? The authority of the ancestors? Is the judge a political figure, or perhaps someone out of political hierarchies, like a feared and loathed shamanic figure who lives out of town, and whose legal authority derives from being so distant from it himself?
* what are punishments like? Do they emphasize punishment, retribution, safety of the community, or rehabilitation? Depending on these, they can be physical punishments, payments to the aggrieved party, a right to the aggrieved party to punish the criminal themselves, punishments of embarrasment or a decrease in honour, incarceration, exile, slavery, execution. A nomadic society will have no prisons. A clan-based society may seek retribution on members of the criminal's clan, with the punishment designed to prevent that from happening.

This is stuff you can't really do quick and dirty or roll out on a table, because it is so intertwined with whatever political system and cultural values you may already have for your setting. Even if you think you don't, you just have a basic fantasy setting -- there is always the king, the mayor, what have you, and if there is a king he is probably not absent in law. Either he is the judge or the authority of the judge comes from him, or something. Then again, maybe it would be super interesting to have a setting where there is a king, but all legal powers are derived from somewhere else and the king has nothing to do with them. Go wild, I say.

One thing I ask of you. I don't want you to stop using 'city guards'. I do want you to think about why they're there.

BUT let's get to GAMEPLAY.

Of course it's fun to tinker out a world. But eventually people are gonna have to play in it. So what system is most fun to play? WELL. I'll tell you what isn't fun. Jail. Time skips are easily done but also kind of skirt against the fourth wall too much. It's abstract for your players. It doesn't mean anything. Maybe their skills decrease (like in the Elder Scrolls) but even that is just a number.

Here's an idea. What if the punishment for theft is having your hand chopped off. Yeah, your left hand. -5 DEX for life, bro. Oh sorry do you usually use a shield? Well, should have thought of that before stealing that necklace. Now that's punishment. That's something players definitely DON'T want.

Basically, from a gameplay perspective I think good law punishment would be something that attacks the character sheet. Remove a limb. Limit their health. Cripple their inventory. Ban them from buying at shops in that city ever again. Cut out their tongue. Cripple their ability to play the game. 

This has three goals: firstly, it really makes them want to avoid punishment, either by not committing crimes (which ups immersion and decreases murderhoboism) or by having to plan elaborate escapes before sentence is carried out (which is fun). Secondly, if they do get punished and are now missing a hand / tongue / eye, then you have at least put a dent into the player journey into invulnerability, meaning you actually invest in their fun. And finally, they'll have to think creatively how to function without those bodyparts. Making players think creatively is fun. Shit you might even throw in a quest hook about getting a magical artificial hand. 

All SOOO much better than being put in jail.

Sure, it's harsh. But that's the only language these players understand, dammit!

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

A concept for skills

So I run a heavily disfigured version of the GLOG. Running the GLOG is cool because it's simple and versatile.

But skills are not great in the GLOG.

In the GLOG pdf skills go from 1 to 6 and you roll 2d12 to test them, subtracting the lower from the higher. If the result is smaller or equal to your skill level, the thing happens.

This is not great because playing the GLOG is very improvisational.

If a player with no skill in horses says: I want to try to tame the wild horses, I might let them roll a d20 under their willpower (which is the same as charisma in my mess), maybe with a penalty because the horse is skittish and depending on how they describe their approach.

But if a player with a specific skill in horses in level 1 says, I say: ok roll your skill, which means that in many, many cases, having a skill in level 1 is actually WORSE than not having that skill, because the odds of a level 1 skill succeeding is 8%.

Part of the problem is that the GLOG says: you're adults, there's no skill list, just tell me what you want to be good at. It is improvisational. So if someone says: I want to try juggling this stuff, I can't skim down the list of skills to look up if "juggling" is in there and therefore required.

If I was more on my toes as an improviser, this perhaps wouldn't be a problem. But it is. A level 1 skill should be better than not having any skill, ever.

So here's my solution.

You can pick any skill you want.
Your skill rank cannot exceed your level.
You can have as much skills total as your intelligence / 2.

The skill you want starts out at rank 1. The maximum rank of a skill is 6.

When you want to use your skill, roll a d6. If you roll equal or lower than your skill rank, you succeed. Otherwise you fail.

HOWEVER, any action that can be done by a skill check can also be performed by a (difficult) stat check. 
This means that anybody can try to pick a lock if they have the tools. It's a Dexterity check with a heavy -6 modifier. More, if the lock's intricate.

If you fail in your skill check, you can try the stat check. If you fail in the stat check, bad luck. If you succeed in the stat check, you learn something and make a checkmark next to your skill.

(You can only learn something if you do this check in a real-life situation, not as a consequence-free training attempt).

When you have downtime in a city, roll a d6. If you roll higher than your skill rank, your skill improves by 1.

In this system:

  • a skill roll is never worse than an improvised stat roll
  • skills improve quickly
    • because a skill failure is a prerequisite to improving it
    • and because the improvement odds go down as skill goes up
  • a mastered skill always succeeds, but
  • skills take long to reach their max level
    • because a skill failure is a prerequisite to improving it
    • and because the improvement odds go down as skill goes up
Say your lockpick skill is 5. You have a 1-in-6 chance of failing to pick the lock. Then you have a random chance of succeeding the stat check. Then you have a 1-in-6 chance of improving your lockpick skill.
The chance of failing and then improving:

From 1 to 2 = 68%
From 2 to 3 = 44%
From 3 to 4 = 25%
From 4 to 5 = 11%
From 5 to 6 = 2% 

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Tomb of the Serpent Kings write up 2

Due to life events of myself and some of my players, we couldn't continue our playthrough of Tomb of the Serpent Kings until now.

Almost a year later.



This time I was a little less prepared - I had had less time to go over all the rooms and add "authenticating detail" and stuff. I was tired as well and I missed some things. But overall went well.


After camping at the edge of the chasm (I chose not to throw a random encounter their way since that would be punishing them from a decision from a year ago, and everybody knows your dog doesn't learn shit if you punish it now for chewing on your shoes five hours ago), the adventurers made their way to the right.

When they came to 22: Stone Door, they recognized that there was likely a trap. (I had recapped the previous session with them). Nobody agreed quite what kind of trap this would be. One Stoneling thief used her species' ability to talk with stone to talk to the door. The door described what room was behind it, but did not know if it was trapped (after all, it wasn't the door but the bar that was trapped, and the trap would destroy the door. Game idea: a friendly sentient door that has dreams and aspirations but that will be obliterated upon opening, knows it, and begs the players not to do it.). They looked at the ceiling, which they concluded probably contained a hammer just like the previous one. They did the same thing as before: people lifting it from the side so that they would not be hit by any swinging hammer. There was some suspicion that something else entirely would happen that would hit EXACTLY from the sides.

When they lifted the bar of the hinges, there was a click and a short interval of silence before the entire door exploded into debris and dust sailing straight into the chasm.

Several of the new RPG players expressed delight at how vivid they saw all the occurences here. Feels good man.

They went in.


They try to see if the wall hangings show something or if there is something behind them. Nothing. They take the gold leaf scraps.

Here they hear the rattling of the basilisk's chain. They found it pretty disconcerting. They found it hard to decide which path to take so mom used a light spell to illuminate the two hallways. They saw one of the petrified snakemen in the guarded hall which spooked them, but they went there anyway.


The wizards examined the statues and could figure out that while they weren't under a spell to bring them to life or anything, they weren't ordinary statues. One of them said: "maybe they're turned into stone". The goblin player used his racial biting ability to gnaw a hole in both their heads so if they came to life they wouldn't surprise them. This took a while and in that time a bat flew past them.


As they pushed open the door, the succubus started shouting for help. Some players were immediately suspicious whereas others wanted to help. Questioning the succubus through the door, they were suspicious about her claim to have been kidnapped by fungus gnomes (I went with gnomes because goblins are an intelligent, playable race in this set-up). The players hadn't actually seen any of those and thought that seemed like a poor lie.
Still some players really wanted to help and the curiosity of the suspicious players won out.
They spent some time clearing the rubble and in the time they did that, they were found by... a party of fungus gnomes. Surprised faces all around.

One of the players immediately wanted to become their king. One of the goblins ran off and came back a while later with the crown. So far, no one has asked what happened to the old king. Only my dad, who wasn't even playing, said: "Yeah he's dead of course", but nobody payed him any attention.

The gnomes said they hadn't kidnapped any woman, and that they never went into that room. They did not want to enter it, they said.

Players, of course, enter it. Goblin woman, innocent, shackled, asks for help. One player (not thinking) approaches. Shackle vanishes. She thanks him, says that actually she just needed him to step over that circle there. She gets closer. What do you do? Uhhh. She gets closer still, what do you do? I say: hey now... She tries to kiss you, what do you do? Uhh, I take a step back. She's really insistent, what do you do? Fuck it, I'll kiss her.

He survived but aged nine years.

Succubus grew big horns, tail, and wings, and flew off, winking at the kissed player.

Writing this I mishandled it in a couple of ways. She didn't try to isolate anyone, dropped the botanist act as soon has her binding was broken, and all in all wasn't as interesting as she could have been. But shit I was so tired running this.


The fungus gnomes had run off when the succubus left so the players carried on without them.

They pushed the statue the wrong way first; they all got gassed. Then they pushed it the other way (from a distance with a pole) and the gold came out.

One crow person character, in line with his motivation to hoard shiny things, ran after the shiny coins into the


He got hit for only one HP the first time and dodged the second time. After the second time I gave him a hint (get out) by saying that the entire wooden mechanism in the ceiling was starting to shudder and groan. He got the hint and tried to leave, but got hit by the swinging blade on the way back. It reduced him to -4 HP so I made him roll on a death and dismemberment table I got from somewhere (I think I got it from Arnold Kemp's GLOG but he wasn't the author. Should look it up.) and he got a massive slice; gonna be a thick scar, but he'll live.

THEN the whole thing crashed onto him. He had some lucky rolls however and rolling again on the death and dismemberment table, he managed to evade most of the chaos but got hit in the face by a massive bouncing piece of rubble that shattered a part of his beak (broken bone), bleeding, et cetera. The other players immediately got him out and gave him first aid. The nose part of his beak is still broken and dented and will give massive troubles if he is hit with it in combat later, but he can soldier on for now.

They decide to have a little break next to the rubble, eat some rations, get some HP up. As they eat, a fist-sized spider crawls past them. My mom refuses to eat any further.


They take the eggs. The wizards figure out what their deal is and one of my players immediately cuts his hand open and is disappointed when the egg "only" becomes warm. They still take them.
Then they went to the


They were immediately fascinated with the basilisk hall. They wanted to go in and examine those weird statues again.
When they did so, one of the wizards was still carrying the lantern she had cast a strong "light" spell on, so they could see much further into the hall than they otherwise would have. This meant that they actually glimpsed the basilisk in the distance. It's huge crocodilian head sliding out from behind a distant pillar peered at them. They all felt the sense of pressure of its gaze.

The immediately decided to leg it, with the basilisk in pursuit. They were so close to the end of the hall that I let them escape without a roll.

They were absolutely determined to cross the hall, did not want to take the other path. They wanted to know if it ended there or if there was more.

One brave player went in, thinking to stealth it (they had seen the visor and knew its vision was not great). But the sniffing sounds of the basilisk made him reconsider and he came back.

Then, the stoneling player had a bright idea: she was made of stone and therefore smelt of stone!

However, she would have to go without a torch because that would certainly draw the basilisk's attention.

I invented some darkness rules and I said: in total darkness you can only see one square around you, so to know what there is at the end of the hall, you need to actually go there and touch it.

I was reluctant to have her do actual stealth rolls, because this was a weird kind of stealth. It wasn't so much being hidden (as it was total darkness), it was being silent, but more than that: being silent in total darkness while traversing a room covered in rubble. That sounded like a Dexterity roll for me.

She moved from pillar to pillar, deftly stepping beyond the stones. I invented some rules for "random chance that the restless basilisk stumbles upon you" with a d8, an 8 being a direct run-in. I rolled a 7. I described how the feet padded towards her and how the huge bulk of the basilisk shifted just past her in the darkness. I rolled again to see if the tail brushed her, which would have been cool, but it just slided past her.

She was at the fourth pillar when people began to seriously question the wisdom of this idea.
The wizard cast light on one of the ranger's arrows and he shot it through the hall, straight into the hallway beyond (which I liked a lot). The reveal that the hall didn't end changed priorities. The logic was: either the stoneling would have to come back (dangerous) OR everyone would have to cross (dangerous).

Because they were treating the basilisk very much as a monster, I described another basilisk noise and instead of a hiss or growl or sniffing I made something half in-between a dog-like yawn or a cat-like purr. This totally made them reconsider the basilisk. One player said: maybe the stone eggs are the basilisk's eggs.

Another said: I'll go in and offer an egg, and so he did.

He got the basilisk's attention alright. I was quite happy with this creative approach and since the basilisk's hunting method consists of stalking and striking, I decided it would not be immediately aggressive, but be confused and guarded in the face of such open approach. This was not prey but challenge.

It came out from behind a pillar, cautiously, growling, all its spines erect. It roared at him and he had to save against fear.

Here I wasn't quite sure what would happen. Because the basilisk was not attacking and also actually looked at the egg, I did not have this player petrify (although I did have him feel the pressure). Then one of the rangers asked if he, as a ranger, an animal lover, could tell anything about the beast.

I said: it's hungry, it's on the hunt because it is hungry.

One player was so delighted by this news that she immediately threw a ration at the beast.

Unfortunately this was the stoneling player who was still in the hall behind the basilisk.

The sudden surprise of another intruder behind it made the basilisk aggressive. It swept around and roared at the stoneling. She resisted the fear, but she did not resist the petrifying gaze. She could not move. All players decided now was the time for action.

They took a pretty long time thinking things over whereas this was actually combat but they did have some interesting ideas.

Eventually the wizard cast a shield over the basilisk, trapping it, so that they could pass.

Writing this down, I realize I rolled initiative too late into this encounter. But I'm kind of happy about it. When you say "roll intiative", you say "get ready for battle". But with an animal things are more uncertain and unpredictable. So I'm happy I did it so late.

What I'm not happy about is that in doing so I basically gave the wizard free initiative, meaning that everybody started with a head start over the basilisk.

The players started running. I didn't know how to resolve this because whereas a chase is usually solved by rolling two Movement stats against each other, this time one of the chasing parties was trapped under a shield. Perhaps I ought to have let it bash against the shield as a reaction to the players running past? I just took the Movement number as the amount of meters you can run in a full sprint (seems a bit large now).

The basilisk, in its turn, tried to charge the player it had petrified and rammed into the shield, shattering the first layer.

(The way my shield spell works is: it's got two "layers"; the first breaks at any blow, the second has HP equal to the sum of the spell dice used to cast it. This is more of a mechanical thing than an aesthetic thing: I just want a shield to be able to withstand at least one impact no matter how much damage it might inflict.)

This player was no longer being petrified because the shield blocked magic. She could run to safety.
The other players made it past as well as the basilisk swiped at the shield, shattering it. It could not overtake them, however, and as they ran into the hallway to avoid its gaze petrifying them from the hall, it was forced to retreat into the hall.


They remembered the cylinder trap! They got the gold idol & stuff first, then the gnome warrens, then they got completionist and wanted to know what was on the other side and got stabbed by spear traps.

Some people were too disgusted to go into the warrens. But it was that or go back to the basilisk I guess so they went in. They dregged the guano for the shiny stuff. Then they went into


They realized it was something special and one player said that they used the halberd they found in the upper levels to pierce one of the sacks. I said that it ripped open and that a bunch of gross fluid and a half-formed fungus gnome came sliding out of it. Everybody was grossed out, it was great.

They left and went to


Here were 40 gnomes fucking about. They cheered to receive their new king. They found the backscratcher and realized it was from the fountain. They also payed close attention to the mention of the "real crown".

The gnomes offered their king a tour of his domain. He agreed. So they led them across the other rooms, including the secret entrance to the basilisk chamber, which made them go "ahhhhh".

In the gnome farms, they decided to dredge the whole thing and they were very happy to find THE CROWN OF THE SERPENT KINGS. The stoneling player said I PUT IT ON but managed to withstand its effects. A wizard also took some dungeon cucumber but did not use it.

Explaining that the guard goblin pushes skeleton jellies away threw them off because they had not yet encountered one or even realized... what it was. (Yes there is a skeleton jellie in a hallway they passed and yes it should have come there way but this is my lack of super deep preparation showing for this time).

From here they went to


Here they were attracted to the iron door of the treasure room. A wizard did two attempts at an Open spell, one of which critically failed, with the quicksilver jet of the spell exploding onto the door and splashing her robe in silvery dregs.

Our stoneling thief managed to crack it open.


Here I must confess my failure. Again lack of preparation, I was forced to INVENT a treasure. So I made some shit up about piles of gold and a massive golden kris-dagger (with as of yet unspecified magical effects). I think it made an impact (wow piles of gold and treasure) but it feels like a missed opportunity to add in some truly crazy shit. There's always next time.

Lack of inventory space was becoming a problem!!!

Although I had not prepared the village they set out from, I said: you can just go back to the village and we'll deal with that in a very global way.

They sold a looooot of shit. The wizards both bought a wizard's staff on the market (I think it might be funny to have them break at some point - never buy an alleged wizard's staff on some small-time market!), the thief bought a mysterious package and the crow with the smashed beak went to a healer.

At this point everybody was pretty burned out so we called it a day.

One interesting thing. When they looted the treasure, one player asked: "What kind of treasure did I pick up???"
I, having improvised already 5 different types of treasure there, said: "It's just a 10gp treasure."
She said, "no but what is it?"
I said, "Uh... It's an elaborately shaped perfume holder with a long golden snout"

It was funny. On our first session I added so much nonsense filler to every room, writing them all out in a kind of short-note style. I added fake grave goods to the fake graves, I added glowing algae to one room. I sometimes felt it was a lot of distracting filler, but the players never felt that way. But *now* they did sometimes feel as if it was not really real.

It wasn't like I was telling them how it was, but that I was kind of making it up. Which was true. In the first session, people were ever so slightly more immersed. They totally believed everything. Now, somewhat less - especially at this point. It's time-consuming, but not really a lot of work. If you imagine the room you're making easily gameable short-notes from - something like

17 | Tomb of Xisor the Green
Stench! -> roll CON or vomit
Rich wall-carving -> a great king on the right, a thousand tiny slaves on the left. Snakemen hieroglyphs
Coffin -> black stains dripping from the lid -> stench -> Black Ooze! HD 8 etc...

I stole this organization from some blog, I forgot which (sorry! It was over a year ago).

It works because it is easy: all the things that are immediately noticable are on the left. The arrows pointing right per thing indicates what happens when the players examine it or fuck about with it. This makes describing a room a matter of going from top to bottom, meaning you can easily throw in "huge cobwebs", "still water, it stinks", "wall hanging shows a battle scene against the ancient golden elves", "the skeleton has a baked clay seal with inscriptions on it on its head". I found that my players LOVE that shit.

In literature, they call this authenticating detail. It's the kind of detail that has no critical plot relevance, but it's the kind of detail that gives the whole thing believability. It has to be real. It authenticates it.

I didn't have any of that this time. It's hard to come up with authenticating detail on the spot.

It is very easy to do it when preparing such a layout as above. It basically writes itself. But you have to sit down and write it.

I'm definitely doing that for the final few rooms. I'm going to make Xiximanter the great finale of this dungeon crawl and he and his quarters will get some loving, loving authenticating detail.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Rethinking clerics and religion, part 2

The main thing I don’t like about clerics is that they are the only ones who can invoke the gods. I mean, this is also kind of setting-related, and a matter of personal preference, but for me; I don’t like it.

In Circassa, the gods, powers, and nameless structure of reality the different peoples believe in are relevant to everyone.

One solution to this is to remove clerics entirely and allow every character to call upon their gods, powers, et cetera. I don’t really like this solution. Rather, I’d like all characters to be able to call upon their gods, with clerics having a few special abilities in doing so. This post will be dived into two parts; religion - rules; religion for all classes; the cleric.

This system has the following effects:
  • Engagement with the gods is an optional part of the game for all characters for certain bonuses at the cost of certain rules.
  • A form of prayer-healing that can be performed by anyone and gets a bonus from the cleric just being nearby, to prevent the cleric from being the heal-monkey.
  • Clerical magic is entirely different from wizard magic. Clerical magic is a form of prayer in which the player asks for something to occur, the outcome of which is determined by a d6 roll modified by certain things (the player’s favour with that god, whether the prayer is related to the god’s portfolio…). If this wish is within the realm of possibility, the DM decides how the god will answer.
It's probably overly complicated. I might try to simplify it.


Part 1: Religion - Rules

All players start with one to three connections with a deity. Usually, these will be:

  • the patron deity of your class or (pre-adventuring) profession
  • the patron deity of your city or homeland
  • a family / cultural deity

“Deity”, here, can also mean an impersonal reality or force, akin to the Hindu Dharma, the Egyptian Maat, or the Tao of Taoism. See the end of this post.

Because I think a lot of what makes for compelling, mysterious gods is the absence of knowledge, I’d suggest keeping your players in the dark on these numbers and rolls. Normally I’m all for letting the players roll and be in charge, but I think the mechanics of deities benefit from obscurity.


This religion system introduces a new stat called Favour. This Favour differs per deity per player. It represents how likely the god is to help you. You can only track the Favour of up to three different gods. If you have a connection to two gods, your maximum favour for each is 2. If you have a connection to three gods, your maximum favour for each is 1.
If you are a cleric, your maximum favour is 4 for one god, 2 for two others.
The lowest amount of favour you can have is -4. But only positive Favour (that is, above 0) can be used for prayers et cetera.
If you wish to stop tracking your Favour with one god, all gods, or wish to switch to another, just tell the DM.


Favour goes down when you violate a deities’ Taboos and goes up when you act in accordance to their Edicts. 

If a player violates one of the Taboos, roll a d6. On 4-6, their favour is reduced by 1.

So, take your deities, give them names, territories (I interpret this as the area the god’s power works in; usually this will be “everywhere”), their portfolio’s (already decided), and holy sites. Then, going by their portfolio’s, give them Taboo’s (acts antithetical to their spheres) and Edicts (behaviour in line with their spheres).

So, for the cattle goddess I made in the previous post:

Name: Hentenao
Type: Deity
Culture: All Salori peoples (known as Hentahrahn by the nomadic Ura branch)
Territory: everywhere
Portfolio: Cattle, fertility, cattle disease, good marriages
By association: Faithfulness (in love, in business (cattle trading))
Symbols, images, statues: A cow, a woman with a cow head, two horns/a half moon/a half-circle.
Holy site: Home shrines for many farmers, temples and shrines in many cities, villages, great temple in Ennem Salor.

  • Theft
  • Cheating (in love or otherwise)
  • Animal cruelty (outside of food production or sacrifice)
  • Honesty
  • Faithfulness


There are multiple ways of gaining Favour.


Favour can be gained by acting in accordance to your god’s Edicts. Edicts should be treated like Convictions. As Convictions are there to inspire roleplaying in an interesting way beyond alignment, so are Edicts. You won’t get a plus 1 Favour with the cattle goddess for every cow you pat on the head. You gain Favour for following an Edict when it is gameplay wise not optimal. In other words, you only gain Favour when you follow an Edict at the expense of “murderhobo” gameplay.


You can make a vow to your god at any time. Write your vow on your character sheet. 
As long as you maintain the vow, your Favour cannot be reduced to 0, always remaining at 1. If you break the vow, your favour is reduced by -2. 
A vow can be related to your deity’s portfolio, but it doesn’t have to. Think about it as a sacrifice of effort. A vow of silence, a vow of going barefeet, a vow of poverty, a vow of never killing... A vow that will work for almost all personal deities is a promise of sacrifice should the god grant you favour. If you fail to actually perform this sacrifice upon return to civilization, your favour is reduced by -2 and you have a 1-in-6 chance of being Cursed.


You can sacrifice to your god at any time. If you don’t want to design specific sacrificial customs for your deity, assume that a sacrifice is food, money, flowers, and incense, sacrificed by burning.
There are three levels of sacrifices: improvised, simple, and lavish. The levels relate to the value of the things sacrificed, and the amount of Favour gained. Offering a sacrifice at your deity’s central holy site gives an additional +1 favour.

  • Improvised sacrifice
    • Site required: improvised / portable altar
    • Cost: 1 gp
    • Favour gained: 1
  • Simple sacrifice
    • Site required: local holy site (shrine, temple, grove)
    • Cost: 5 gp
    • Favour gained: 2
  • Lavish sacrifice
    • Site required: big holy site (city temple)
    • Cost: 20 gp
    • Favour gained: 3


Most personal deities have holy sites: shrines, temples, and one central holy site. These are important for sacrifices to be effective. They also give a +1 bonus to the success rolls of prayers performed there. However, shed blood or break one of the deity’s Taboo’s on the holy site, and you will lose -3 favour and be Cursed instantly.

Part 2 - Religion for all classes

These are religious “abilities” any player can perform.


At any time, players can pray to one of their deities for help. They can only do this once a day, but don’t tell them. If a player prays for something, roll a d6. If the result is equal to or less than their Favour with that deity, it succeeds, and their Favour is reduced by 1. If the prayer is related to that deity’s portfolio, add a +1 to the dice threshold.
Prayer is limited in two important ways:
  • The players must require help. The prayer mechanic cannot be used frivolously.
  • This is not divine intervention, nor wish granting, nor a miracle. Rather, a succesful prayer is an invitation for you, the DM, to start thinking about a way to give your players a helping hand. An answered prayer should be indistinguishable from happy coincidence.


  • So, if a player prays to get out of a cave unharmed, maybe add a -2 to the amount of enemies in the next encounter.
  • If a player prays to get out of a cave they’re stuck in, give them a tiny bit of help: perhaps they find a partially scrawled map two rooms over, or perhaps they can feel fresh air rushing by in the next passage.
  • If a player purposefully prays for something impossible, like to turn into a dragon, or for the big bad lich to keel over dead, you can roll a dice, but just do nothing. If they keep doing stuff like that, cast the god’s Curse on them. 


Once a day, you can invoke your deity’s power for any combat roll. Roleplay your battle cry of shouting their names, perhaps. The DM rolls a d6. If the result is equal to or less than their Favour, the roll succeeds, consuming the Favour. You can add +3 to the combat damage or spell effectiveness. If the deity’s portfolio is related to the combat action (battle, archery, magic, trickery), add an additional +2.


You can pray for the healing of your teammates as much as you like during any fight. You must touch them to heal them. Roll a d6. If the roll is lower than your favour + their highest favour (for any god) + the party’s cleric’s favour (to maximum of +2), they are healed for 1d6. This consumes 1 Favour of the person healed. You can choose to add more d6, but for every d6 added, you consume 1 of your own Favour.


Curses are a negative type of divine action. Curses are cast by the deity, not by people. The best people can do is invoke them. Curses can only be invoked on characters with a favour below 1 by characters with a favour above 1. A requirement for curses to be invoked is that it be cast in response to a deep, personal wrong. 
Curses can be cast by anyone, including that farmer whose house the PC’s just set on fire.
To call down a curse, roll a d6. You roll against the others Favour, - 2. So if their Favour is -2 and yours is 3, you must roll below 5 - 2 = 3. This means that only a curse by a maximally favoured cleric versus a maximally despised criminal has a 100% success rate.
You cannot decide which curse will be cast.

Curses cannot be removed magically. Only by appeasing the god (raise your favour to maximum) or the party who invoked the curse can it be removed.

I suggest you make up a number of curses for your deity’s portfolio. This is work, so I’ll probably make a general “divine curses” table later. For my Hentenao, though:

  • Cow head
    • You have the head of a cow. You can speak, but your Charisma is halved, and people will treat you like a freak. You must eat grass for one hour everyday or suffer a -1 max HP reduction per day. (It isn’t very nutricious).
  • Cattle hatred
    • Cattle, if it sees you, will go crazy in an attempt to attack you.
  • Infertility
    • You are infertile. Not just biologically, but spiritually. Any incoming XP is halved. Every day, you misplace 5 coins of the most valuable coins you have. Nothing you do quite succeeds.
  • Cattle disease
    • You are cursed with a cattle disease. Your tongue becomes purple and swells up, boils rise out of your face. Any cattle you come near to will catch the disease and die. They’ll run you out of town if they don’t kill you.

Part 3 - GLOG Class: Cleric


Starting equipment: robes, pilgrim’s walking staff (+1 CONS, 1d6 damage, 2-handed), deity’s amulet

Your maximum Favour is equal to your amount of Cleric templates.

A: Dedicated, Of the Cloth, Investiture
B: Prayerful, Oracle, The Power Compels You
C: We’re on a mission from god, Consecrate
D: Miracle worker


As a cleric, you have dedicated yourself to one deity. You probably recognize other gods as real and often beneficial, but your god is the only one you need. You can only track your Favour with one god, but you get a +1 on any skill check related to that god’s portfolio.


You gain +1 Defense and +2 HP for every template in Cleric you possess, provided you wear no armour.
If your chosen deity has battle / war in their portfolio, you gain +1 Attack for every template in Cleric you possess, but only if you wear armor.


Given a medium to work with and an hour, you can carve an amulet or statuette of your deity. This amulet confers +1 Favour to whomever wears it for one day. You already have one. Brandishing the amulet gives you a 1d6 chance to repel creatures with harmful intent, effectively causing them Fear.


Your prayers are more potent than those of laymen. 
  • Your prayers need not be born of dire need to be answered.
  • You can pray as often as you like, not once daily.
  • Whereas the prayer of a layman may be answered in small ways, indistinguishable from chance, your prayers can be answered within the realms of what would be possible with a basic magic spell.
  • You do not need to speak aloud to pray. But if you roleplay your prayer, you get +1 on your prayer roll.
  • You may take half an hour daily to contemplate. Roll a d6. On a 1-3, your Favour is restored by 1.


You can ask your deity for a vision of any time. Gods do not speak in words. The wise way is to ask for guidance in a dream. Roll a d6. This consumes Favour.
Say we ask: where can we find the girl abducted by pirates?

  • d6 Under your Favour
    • A clear vision dream
      • A small flower blooms, caged in driftwood. The waves of the sea flow between trees, you hear the call of swamp birds and you smell the rotting bog. (In a camp in the swamps)
  • d6 On your Favour
    • A confusing vision dream
      • You hear the ocean and the creaking of wood, the wind rustling in the trees, frightened breathing and the smell of alcohol. (The ocean? Or the forest?)
  • d6 Above your Favour
    • An ordinary dream
      • The king has given you the keys of the city for cleaning up his room.

You can of course go to an oracle and ask them to do it. Pro’s: it’s always the clearest, doesn’t cost you favour. cons: it’s expensive and you’ll likely have to go to the central holy site.
If time sensitive you can also ask for a vision in waking life; you’ll need to focus and prepare for a few minutes. This vision works if you roll Under Favour or On Favour, but on On Favour you must make a save or suffer a seizure and lose 1 Wisdom. The voice of the gods is hard to bear.


You can banish hostile beings with your amulet. Roll Wisdom + Favour. Treat this as a Fear mechanic. If used on magically animated beings such as undead, or on incorporeal spirits, has a 1d6 chance of instantly dispelling 1d6 of them. Costs 1 Favour.


You’ve received a vision in which your god gives you a quest. It requires some interpretation (in other words, let players in on deciding the quest). From now on, you can overrule charisma or intimidation checks by saying “we’re on a mission from [deity]” once daily. Roll a d6 under your Favour to succeed. Complete your divine quest, and you will receive a permanent +1 to your prayer rolls.


Using your amulet and one substance from your deity’s shrine (water, sand, oil), you can consecrate objects and area’s. Consecrated objects are slightly more effective in whatever they do. Weapons or armour get a +1 to their stats when consecrated; +2 if used against evil magical beings. Consecrated area’s cannot be crossed by evil magical beings and have a 1d6 chance of repelling creatures of ill intent in general.


A miracle is an act of god, a shift in reality.
A miracle can only be asked for once in-between lavish sacrifices or retreats to holy sites. Roll one d6 for all your Favour points. 
If the total is above 9, the miracle occurs. (Depending on how crazy the request is, the DM can up this roll by up to 5.) Your favour is reset to 1. If the DM says the roll is more difficult than 9 and you decide to go along with it, any double numbers rolled means that your maximum Favour is permanently lowered by 1.
If the total is below 9, the request is treated as an answered prayer. This consumes 1 favour.
A miracle can also occur spontaneously, when a cleric or the party is near death. This costs nothing but can occur only once, ever.

A miracle is extremely powerful magic. But there are limits. A fist-rule about miracles is that they should be *occurences*. A cleric can’t ask to be miraculously immortal, unless he ask it for just one day. A second rule about miracles is that they can’t effect an area larger than a city.


For impersonal forces comparable to the Tao, the Dharma, or the Maat, create Taboos and Edicts just the same.
You can still have holy sites as well as sacrifices, but see these as a way to balance your position within the Tao/Dharma/Maat.
Instead of “favour”, the cleric of the impersonal force has “attunement”. Attunement can only go up to 2, but it is not expended by prayer or other uses.
Instead of “prayer”, the cleric of the impersonal force tries to meditate and contemplate to more clearly allow the impersonal force to flow through her, to become closer to it. In doing so, a solution offers itself. In other words, the DM offers a way to solve the problem in response to the meditation.
The cleric of the impersonal force loses attunement if they lose their calm. If the cleric does act and roleplay calmness in their actions, they get a bonus to their stat rolls equal to their attunement.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Rethinking clerics and religion, part 1

This was to be a post about clerics and religion, but it turned out I had much to say on religion in the first place. Clerics will come later on.

Theoretical stuff

This may surprise you, but in daily life I'm doing my master in religious studies.

Now, the most surprising thing to come out of religious studies in the past decade or so is the discovery that "religion" actually doesn't exist. It cannot be defined.

Certainly the things, places, people, and acts that we call "religious" exist. But there's nothing that connects them all that can clearly be called "religious".

Religion, for example, isn't "belief in a deity" -- Buddhism doesn't make that cut. Even if some types of Buddhism do, those deities are so irrelevant it seems misleading to make that the criterium. It also isn't "worship", because what does worship even mean? It also isn't "ritual behaviour", because state ritual is something we don't call religion. It also isn't "emotional or ritual ecstacy", because then we would need to include music performances.

The concept of "religion" as we use it today has its roots in Christian belief and in colonialism. Before the colonial era, "religion" could not be pluralized. It always meant Christianity. The pluralization of "religion" into "religions" and the universalization of the concept -- the notion that all peoples have "a religion" is actually a way of mapping a Christian view of the world onto non-Christian peoples. For more info on this read The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa.

In other words, "religion" *actually* means "kind of like Christianity but something else". Christianity is the model of all things called religion. But Christianity may very well be extremely weird, a historical outlier, not something universal (I think this is the case).

Despite my society (and yours probably) being highly secularized, the concepts we use to think our way around the world - such as good and evil, but also this category of "religion" - are lifted wholesale from post-Enlightenment Christian thinking.

We really do believe there is such a thing as "religion" and that it has primarily to do with faith in Gods. But what is faith? I *believe* there might be some beers in the fridge. I *believe* I'm gonna wake up again tomorrow. But those aren't the kind of beliefs we're talking about. Religious faith is belief that is strongly and proudly affirmed.

Except for a large part of humanity, that isn't true. In many types of African and Asian ancestor cults for example, the ancestors aren't an article of faith, or supernatural. (The supernatural is another post-Enlightenment Christian idea.) The ancestors are just *there*. They believe they are real. But this belief is on par with the belief that there may be beers in the fridge. It isn't an emphasized kind of belief like faith.

In light of this, our fantasy religion needs reworking.

The cross has been used as an apotropaic symbol
in almost all Christian contexts.

Religion in fantasy

Granddad Tolkien never wrote much about religion in Middle-Earth, which is odd considering that he was a devout Catholic. Faramir and his boys do some praying to the "Lords of the West" before dinner and one time Sauron got an entire civilization to worship Satan but that is about it.

D&D type religion seems largely based on pre-Christian Mediterranean religion. As in, polytheism. (Also polytheism and monotheism is one of those fucky terms. I mean in what way exactly is Christianity polytheism if you've got three gods who are one AND EVEN if we want to overlook that one you've got a whole bunch of angels, saints, and demons. Just because a deity is evil and dangerous doesn't mean it isn't a deity!)

But I kind of suspect D&D doesn't really understand what Roman and Greek polytheism was really about. 

If we look at how religion is treated in D&D we see again a very Christian focus on *belief*, on intellectual things. Who is this god, what is their sphere (which always makes sense), and what is their symbol. Ok, so now we know some things, okay. And all these gods have organized cults and temples and priests and attendants. All these gods are real and all these gods can be supplicated to.

But its too neat. Look at actual polytheistic history. In the time the early Old Testament stories were written, deities had a very strong ethnic/national character. Sure, your god is real. But my god can beat up your god! But the reality of this god also implied that if you were in *that* god's land, you would have to sacrifice to him/her for good fortune and safety in those parts.

Pliny the Elder describes that Rome had a Temple of Fever, a Temple of Bereavement, and an Altar of Bad Luck, where you could come to supplicate these forces and keep them away.

Shiva, one of the most powerful and awe-inspiring Hindu deities, is also a dangerous and unpredictable madman. He's covered in the ash of cremated bodies, and his name, meaning "the auspicious one", is actually more a desire than a description, an attempt to supplicate him. Back in the Vedic times, the distant past of what would come to be known as Hinduism, Shiva was called Rudra, "the screamer", and rituals to him consisted of throwing a gift into the woods in the hope he'd stay away.

Similarly, Jorg Rupke in his book Pantheon writes that early Roman and Greek religion didn't have clear conceptions of the gods as *people*. Rather, they had a *ritual infrastructure*, rituals they could use or resort to in order to address certain problems. Many of these rituals included gifts of objects or statues or animals - but to *whom* this gift was, wasn't clear in the early days. To some unseen, mysterious power that lived at that spot. Then came the naming. Then came the images and statues.

This kind of weirdness isn't caught by the neat, clearly identifiable gods of D&D.

Shiva and his wife Parvati as one

Doing religion reverse

What if, coming up with the religious world of our settings - and by extension the "clerics" of our settings - we don't start with the gods at all? What if we start with acts - with rituals? What if rather we start with what people *need* here? What are they likely to develop and use their *ritual infrastructure* for?

Step 1: What do they need?

This will determine your group's *ritual needs*. Broadly, this can be spliced up into these questions. Go through every question and note down the words in CAPS that apply to your group.
  1. How do they eat?
    1. Do they farm rice or grain or other crops? -> CROPS
      1. Do they depend on rain? -> RAIN
      2. Do they depend on the river? -> RIVER
      3. Are there crop diseases? -> CROP DISEASE
    2. Do they farm cattle?
      1. Are there predators eating the cattle? -> PREDATORS, CATTLE
      2. Is the cattle fertile enough? -> FERTILITY OF CATTLE, CATTLE
      3. Are there cattle diseases? -> CATTLE DISEASE
    4. Do they raid others? -> BATTLE, WAR
      1. On foot, by animal, by ship? -> WAR ANIMALS, SHIPS, WEATHER
      2. What weapons do they use? -> WEAPON TECHNOLOGY, WEAPON STRENGTH
      3. How do they feel about the other's gods? -> CONQUEST OF OTHER GOD
  2. How do they live with each other?
    1. Do they have a king or chief? -> AUTHORITY, OBEDIENCE
      1. Does the king demand huge respect? -> ROYALTY
      2. What gives him this power? -> ORDER OF THE WORLD, WISDOM, WAR...
    2. Are they sedentary or nomadic?
      1. If sedentary; see most of question 1
        1. Are they a city-state -> CITY, WALLS, PROTECTION, TRADE, STRANGERS
        2. Are they a state -> GOVERNMENT, STATE, LAW
      2. If nomadic -> PACK ANIMALS
        1. Are they dependent on oaths and honour in maintaining good relationships with other groups? -> OATHS, HONOUR, FRIENDSHIP, STRANGERS
        2. Are different clans in essence different nations? -> THE CLAN, ANCESTORS
    3. Is it important to have many children? -> FERTILITY, MENSTRUATION, SEX, PREGNANCY, BIRTH
      1. What tends to kill young children? -> CHILD DISEASE, PREDATORS, LOCAL CLIMATE, FAMINE, WAR, SPOILED FOOD
      3. Matrilineal or patrilineal? -> MOTHER, FATHER, ANCESTOR, ACCEPTANCE INTO FAMILY
    4. What determines social status?
      1. Honour in battle -> HONOUR, WAR, NOBLE DEATH IN BATTLE
      2. Place in feudal/caste structure -> ORDER OF SOCIETY, CASTE, BIRTH
      3. Learning and wisdom -> KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM, SCHOOLING, OLD AGE
      4. Wealth and money -> MARKET FORCES, MONEY, SUCCESS IN BUSINESS
  3. How do they live with the world?
    1. Are there earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, natural disasters, monsoons? -> GOING AWAY OF NATURAL DISASTER / WATER / FIRE, ORDER OF THE WORLD
    2. Are there forests, plains, deserts, mountains? -> SAFE PASSAGE THROUGH FOREST / PLAINS / DESERTS / MOUNTAINS, PREDATORS
    3. What are animals to them? 
      1. Dumb machines? -> SUPERIORITY OF HUMANITY
      2. Dangers? -> DANGERS OF WILD ANIMAL
      3. Mysterious other beings? -> MYSTERIOUS LOCAL ANIMAL

Step 2: What do they do?

Now take all the things you wrote down and consider which of the following rituals should address which *ritual needs*.

  1. Big, collective rituals
    1. These are rituals that concern things that are of paramount importance to the community at large. Feast days.
  2. Big, individual rituals
    1. These are rituals that concern things that are of paramount importance to a person or his family.
  3. Small individual rituals
    1. These are rituals that concern every-day things or that are done in reaction to something and can't have a big response.

Step 3: How do they do it?

Anything can be made ritual. A sacrifice is a ritual gift-giving. Ritual hunts are also a big thing. Perhaps oaths are a big thing in your society. Ritual war, ritual battle. Perhaps they mortify themselves, fasting or going away into the wilderness for a while. Feast days in which the normal structure of society is suspended in lieu of the theme of the ritual need. (Sex, for example).

Go crazy. If you have no inspiration:

Take the theme of your ritual need. Now put the word "ritual" in front of it. Now think about it. For some ritual needs it will make sense to have big collective (BC), big individual (BI), and small individual (SI) rituals; for others only big collective ones will make sense.

RITUAL [X] will in many cases already make sense, like "ritual hunt", "ritual war", "ritual fertility", "ritual law". But in many others you may be at a loss. Then a quick way of making something intelligible is to consider 2 big points: mimesis and exchange.
  1. Ritual through:
    1. mimesis
      1. Ritual for [x] by imitating [x]. Ritual for cattle by imitating cattle.
    2. exchange
      1. Ritual for [x] by exchanging [x]. Ritual for cattle by sacrificing cattle.
      2. Ritual for [x] by exchanging [y]. Ritual for cattle by sacrificing crops.
Now you might think: "wait, but this can't work for all. Ritual for child disease by imitating child disease?" So in ancient Roman religion you could sacrifice to Fever so it would stay away; similarly in medieval Europe people would donate a small silver imitation of the organ or limb that was cured after prayer/sacrifice (in thanks, after the fact). But in certain Native American cultures, if a baby was sick, you could hold a mock funeral for the baby, in order to trick the disease into thinking the child was dead. So imitating the death of a child can prevent the death of a child. This also has a bit of exchange in it, since you exchange a doll or fake child for your real child.

Depending on the ritual need, you might have these on individual and/or collective scale.

Here are some examples.

B C: The women of the village gather buckets of water from the well and go around the fields splashing them with their hands, singing songs that call the rain down.
B I: If a farmer is worried about the rain, he may sacrifice some crops or cattle as gift to the rain if it will come.
S I: If a farmer is worried about the rain, he may call down the rain through the same songs.

B C: Cattle is sacrificed. Cattle must be given so that cattle will continue to be given to you. BUT ALSO: A ritual dance in which the men of the village imitate the fights of cattle in the mating season. 
B I: A farmer may draw a glyph saying "WOLF" on his cattle to keep the wolves away.
S I: The cattle looks sick! The farmer puts some earleaf herbs through their feed, since these leaves look like the ears of cows and is thought to be beneficial to them.

I throw some money into the sea so that the ship carrying all my trade goods will not be swallowed by the sea.
Here's a cow for you, wilderness, keep the predators away!
Here one man dresses up as a wolf and is defeated in a ritualized dance-battle by the young warriors.

Big and collective rituals are probably calendar feasts that occur every year.

Keep in mind that people do these things *because they work* either *actually* or because they are *effective in addressing those worries*. So people do them not out of doctrine or belief, but because they are effective. So people will do the rituals that they think are effective, perhaps because someone else did it - their neighbours, their enemies, traders from away...

This Maasai dance was originally part of a celebration for killing a lion

Step 4: Where do they do it?

This is dependent on *ritual infrastructure* and is probably decided by people imitating other people. Big collective rituals are likely to take place on some sort of central square. Especially in terms of EXCHANGE people will probably go to a specific place, likely associated with the power to be the receiving end of the exchange. The sea, the mountain, the forest, a weird-looking hill, a strange rock. This is where your temples will be.

Step 5: Who do they think is behind it?

Now you have a ritual need, a ritual, and a place where the ritual is done. Now it is possible that the forces behind the ritual are understood not as beings with a mind, but as some sort of hidden world order, like the Hindu Dharma or the Egyptian Maat. In a clan-based society, the ritual need of clan identity and success may very well be mapped onto the dead ancestors (not technically gods, but for all intents and purposes, yes). Perhaps these dead ancestors and local mysterious animal are mapped onto each other: bam, totemism. "Our ancestor is the owl".

But if these forces are understood as beings with a mind - THESE ARE GODS.

But be sure you know what a god is. The Norse and Egyptian gods were very much mortal and could be killed. In fact the Ancient Egyptian word for god is the same as the word for soul of a deceased person. It's fine if you want to go with "immortal beings who govern certain aspects of the world" that's fine, but keep in mind that all those things could be changed for your gods.

What do these gods do? Is the same ritual place perhaps used for different rituals? This is how you get real, muddy gods, not the thought-out, overly systemic gods of D&D. Treat the ritual needs addressed at this place as the portfolio of the god residing there.

Cheat it a little. Throw in a ritual need that is unconnected to the rest. Athena is goddess of wisdom... but also war, after all. Don't be afraid to give the gods paradoxical forces as well. You would go to the same place for cattle-ensuring rituals, but also to address cattle diseases. So the goddess of cattle might well also be the goddess of cattle disease.

So in keeping with all the cattle things we've been doing, my group might have a goddess of cattle, fertility, cattle disease, and auspicious marriages.

But also keep in mind that this goddess may well be *just* a goddess. It is a mistake to believe that every god has to be the god OF something. Thor is the "god of thunder", but what is Odin the god of? Nothing specifically, or rather: so much that it can't be easily said. He is the god of wisdom, cunning, trickery, the dead, war, the gallows, runes, magic. 

I already said that you should not be scared to give the gods paradoxical forces. But the gods can also be paradoxical in that they can be positive and negative at the same time. Shiva, like I said, is one of the most revered gods in Hinduism, but is also a dangerous madman. The same can be said for Odin. Odin's magic (seidhr) is even something that was considered feminine in this society, something that only an unmanly or homosexual man would engage with, strongly frowned upon for men. Yet Odin practices it and is perhaps the most important god. The gods are always far beyond the laws and attitudes of the society that worships them.

Then name 'em and stuff. Keep in mind that the name is pasted onto a mysterious force that is supplicated there, so there will be many different names, many titles.

Step 6: Do some association work.

Now comes the weird stuff. Say your society has a real problem with snakes. Snakes are very dangerous, but also kind of sacred because of their power (to kill, scare, transfix). The people believe that snakes live forever because every month they shed their skin. What else sheds its skin every month? The moon. What also happens every month? Menstruation. Now you have the framework for a lunar snake deity associated with (snakes and the moon of course) fertility, sex, and (in a male-dominated society, perhaps) the secrets of women.

That's a bloody weird god. But it is good weird. It has texture. I believe it.

So with your WIP deities (cattle, fertility, cattle disease, auspicious marriages), go back through your ritual needs and see what else could be mapped onto this deity. But live in *their* world. They don't understand microbial biology, gravity, or why some babies are stillborn. Interpret those things through the lens of association with your deities, but also the world they live in: the moon, the mountains, thunder. Perhaps the deity is a cow. Perhaps the deity is the mother of the great mountains to the south. This way she could be associated with the South in general, and people might offer her prayers or touch her amulets every time they travel to the South. Perhaps she is the sun, and the stars are drops of the milk of her udders.

If you live in a tent, your god also lives in a tent. A very big one, made out of clouds perhaps.
If family is most important in your society, then your gods are a family (or families). Perhaps they are YOUR family! (Ancestor worship)
If the king is most important in your society, then the gods have a king.
If government is most important in your society, then the gods have a government.

Step 7: A new ritual need

Now you have a new ritual need: communicate with the god(s). Is this done through sacrifice? Prayer? Are there statues or images of her? Perhaps you sacrifice those, giving them to her? Perhaps you must abstain from touching cattle for a week before invoking her? Do people wear amulets invoking her power?

Perhaps... you can get someone else to do all this difficult business for you. Voilá, the ritual expert is born. Call him shaman, priest, medicine man, godspeaker, oracle, sacred virgin; you now have to some extent organized religion.

Step 6: Iteration, and decide how far you want to develop this. 

Both in terms of pantheon and institutions you can stop anywhere you like.

Perhaps the gods are still nameless and mysterious. Perhaps anyone can engage with them as well as any other.

But if the pantheon develops onward; how does it react to foreign gods? The gods of other peoples? Are they both understood to be real, will people forever speak of two families of gods? Are they incorporated into it? Or do they forever remain foreign demons?

Does it remain many gods for many needs? Or do a couple of gods become so important that the others have more or less vanished except from the local theater - the god of the village, the god of this tree. How are their ritual needs subsumed into the other deities? ("War" was important in Medieval Europe, but the Christian God is hardly a god associated with war. So saint Michael the Archangel assumed the ritual need for war, and could be prayed to for battle.) Has perhaps *just one* become so important, thus laying the groundwork for monotheism?

Who has access to the gods? The ritual place develops because ordinary people imitate each other, but perhaps authority will develop. Is it the spontaneous authority of the knowledgeable and old? This is likely at first. Authority that derives from ritual knowledge. Your child has broken his leg? My dear, you must do such and such.

But perhaps authority becomes structured and institutionalized. Perhaps there are priesthoods, perhaps there is dedication to one specific deity. Perhaps such dedication is also expected of those who come for the ritual. You cannot serve two masters, one might say.

This is really a matter of taste. And there is much more than might be done. Perhaps the king is a god. Perhaps there is one god in many forms. Perhaps there are monastery orders dedicated to all gods, or to the god-above-god.

But that is all extra stuff, stuff that you can come up with because it's cool. This whole post was more about rethinking the basics of religion; letting the gods be born organically out of ritual and association, not pre-determining them as having sensible and intellectually determined portfolios.

I hope it's useful.

Table of a Thousand Cults

I'm preparing a location for my next foray into actually getting players together. Kogo Hnennis, City of a Thousand Cults, City of a Tho...