Tag Archives: spirits

The Deep Blue Under

I frequently see well meaning critics demand that more writers should include their own “cultural heritage” in their works. To get more diversity in fiction, particularly in fantasy, als also share new ideas and perspectives with the global audience. Does this also apply if you’re a writer from Northern Europe? We have lots of cultural heritage here. I am sure there’s lots of people who would really be into fantasy inspired by vikings.

But to be honest, we do have a bit more history than that here in “the land between the seas”. (No, not Denmark. Schleswig-Holstein.) And it’s all about sailing and the sea. Some time after the Viking Age, L├╝beck became the gateway to Northern Europe and central hub of the whole Baltic Sea trade. While I mentioned once before the whole story of Margarete I, the Kalmar Union, the Battle of Visby, and pirates is excelent Game of Thrones level material, the history of the Hanseatic League is mostly a story of commerce and diplomacy, which lies somewhat outside of my own field of interest when it comes to fantasy. If someone would write it, I’d totally read it, but I’ve got other things to do with my own writing efforts.

But still, there’s the sea…

If you’d want to condense the culture of Schleswig-Holstein in just two images, it’d be dairy farming and the sea. Those are our things! (We don’t have anything else.) Including sea travel has always been a priority for me in my work on the Ancient Lands and it has remained so even after I gave the setting a tighter focus as a forest world. Forests and the sea, that’s the two worlds of the Ancient Lands. Today I was thinking about the role of sea spirits within the setting and I didn’t have a lot on my list. Mermaids that can shapeshift into humans and like to eat people with their shark teeth was about the full extend of ideas I had about it. That and Deep Ones, but those fishy friends are not actually spirits but more in the league of trolls and harpies. I had stopped worrying about sea monsters a good while ago, because when are you really going to have players fight those. I certainly don’t want to do fantasy kingdoms on the bottom of the sea, as throughout the past four decades those have always universally sucked. And when you’re on a ship, most sea creatures can’t actually fight with player characters. So what to do about the sea as an element of the Ancient lands?

Here’s where all the talk about cultural heritage comes into it. When you think about fantasy and the sea, you probably first think about pirates on tropical islands, and maybe Odysseus in the Aegean Sea as a distant second. But here up north, the image of the Sea is a very different one. The Baltic Sea is pretty tame (and boring), but the North Sea and particularly the North Atlantic Ocean are a different story altogether. There is very little romantic about how they are seen in local folklore and there aren’t any pretty mermaids in coral castles and friendly dolphins. The beach is a nice place to take walks and think about going for a swim if the weather were just a bit warmer. But the sea itself is a vast, black, cold void of watery death.

In Northern German folklore, the North Sea is given some degree of personalty, so you could think of it as a kind of spirit. But a more accurate word would be demon. Yes, the sea has always been a provider of food and the source of our wealth through trade, but that’s only as long as you stay above it. Below the surface there is only darkness and death. If the sea is worshipped, it’s not to ask for plenty or good fortune. It’s begging it to spare your life. The sea can swallow everything that floats on it or that is close to it, and what it devours is never heard from again. It is literally forever vanished from the face of the Earth. Only very rarely do things come up from below, and these are the massive corpses of things unlike any creatures seen on land or in the air. Things with no resemblance to what can be found in rivers and lakes. Below the waves lies a world that is not meant for people. A world in which people can not exist.

While I like the idea of shapeshifting cannibal fish ladies, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are actually much too human like for a place like this. Instead of making the sea part of the Spiritworld, I am going to assign it to the Underworld. It’s not the world of spirits that seem related to people, but the world of alien demons. I had not really decided on any details about the Ocean God yet, but going with Dagon would be a much more interesting choice than some happy dolphin god. Another interesting aspect of the sea in the Ancient Lands is that aside from the highest mountains, it’s the only part of the world that is open to the sky without any cover. For people used to life under trees, this would be a very alien environment.

Of course, there are still some major sailing peoples in the Ancient Lands and I am going to keep sea travel an important part of the setting, But sailors will be a much more odd group of folks. Even staying close to the coasts, they are always living on the edge to the Underworld, much more so than any other people. And their own culture should be influenced by this proximity to demonic influences. Discovering remote islands will also take on a somewhat different character. I have not thought of any specifics yet, but reaching such a place should have some traces of feeling like arriving in a different world after having passed through an alien and malevolent otherworld of the open sea.

A draft for a magic system for stories

After quite some time I am finding myself drawn back to writing and one thing I quickly noticed when going over my notes again was that my ideas for magic were really not that interesting. I’ve been reading Elric and Hellboy and played a lot of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and one thing I really like about all of them is how the magical elements in them are windows into a much larger reality of alien weirdness and religion. I also think that the only topics worth writing and reading about are the basic existential questions of what you want, what you should do, and who you ultimately want to be. In a world dominated by immortal spirits that inhabit and empower nature and a single force that is both the source of light and magic, these two fields lend themselves to blending seamlessly together. To decide what you want to do and to be, you need to understand how you are connected to the rest of the world around you. And there really isn’t a lot to explore with a magic system in which sorcerers replace the natural instincts of animals and tendencies of plants and the elements with their own stronger will. It’s easy, practical, and reliable and doesn’t overlap in meaningful ways with philosophy and cosmology. There is nothing mythic about it.

So I went back to the drawing board to take the ideas about what magic can do that I already had and weave them into a more metaphysical framework of spirits and reality. The end result was a magic system with no spells. Elric and Hellboy have no spells where someone waves a hand and says a magic word and a bolt of lightning shots out or someone turns into a chicken. There aren’t spells in Kane or Thief, nor in Indiana Jones, and very few in Conan. Yet they are all full of magic. Slow magic and indirect magic, that often is tied to objects or spirits and doesn’t just jump out from a sorcerer’s mind.

The basic idea for magic is that all things in the world have energy, which is the source for both life and also magic. The most simple form of magic, if it can even be called that, is Alchemy. Everyone can do it if the right ingredients are known and properly used without any special power required. Alchemy is not just the brewing of potions but also the making and wearing of amulets that ward off various spirits simply because they are made of substances that these spirits avoid. Alchemy is the secret knowledge of substances that can be used to do miraculous things. There is no real line between occult alchemy and commonly known herbalism.

Life force and magical energy is in everything and connects everything, making the whole world with all its creatures, spirits, and landscapes into one. Spirits are automatically aware of these infinite connections but people can also learn to sense their presence. Through this awareness they gain moderate abilities of telepathy and precognition and a stronger ability of persuasion and dominance over others. How strong these powers of Perception and Persuasion are depends on the Personal Power of the person. Partly it is confidence, but since all things and beings are connected through their life force “power resides where men believe it resides”. Overpowering an opponent through combat, cunning, or any other display draws some of the opponents power to the victor and he gains even more power if his accomplishments are recognized by many people. But not only people can gain power. Beasts can too, as well as objects. Relics or the weapons of great heroes become powerful themselves and add their power to whoever is wielding them. Both those who lead and those who use magic greatly seek these Items of Power.

While these things and abilities are magical, the highest form of mortal magic is Summoning. Those who practice this high art are known as witches, shamans, and sorcerers. To summon a spirit, a person has to draw its attention through the use of alchemical substances and sacrifices and mentally calling out to it. Often considerable personal power is required to make a spirit come, and even greater power to subjugate it to ones will. Anyone can perform a summoning but the risk is great for those who lack the power and knowledge of alchemy to controll them. Spirits can be made to perform services for the summoner, but they also can do much more than that.

Once summoned, a spirit can grant a summoner its powers through Possession. Anyone lacking sufficient power and experience with spirits can easily fall under the complete control of the spirits they summoned. But those who are experienced and strong enough can control the spirit inside them and use its powers for themselves. The most commonly summoned spirits for possession are minor elementals that allow a summoner to breath fire, survive at the bottom of the sea, or open the ground beneath the feet of their enemies. Experienced summoners can summon such minor elementals in a matter of seconds and then release them again, but it’s always a considerabe risk and an exhausting battle of wills. Beast spirits can be summoned to allow a summoner to change his shape into that of the beast, but this can also be used against enemies who lack sufficient power to control the spirits and become permanent thralls to them, cursed to remain beasts forever.

As magic systems go, this one is pretty fuzzy and it is so by design. Mechanics and rules are not something I am interested in and it’s also a magic that is not intended for magical battles. Witches, shamans, and sorcerers are not people who throw around spells when convenient but are defined by their occult knowledge of the supernatural realm and mostly practice their magic in consulting spirits in hidden seclusion. It’s not what you’d usually come up with for a game, but for stories I find it much more interesting.