Twisting & Betrayalby Anituel
Twisting & Betrayalby Anituel
"The definition of a religious ceremony is an act of ritual magic that doesn't work."
What's this crap, then?
Who is this joker?
I've got a number of articles planned for the near future, some to be used for good, and some for eee-vil. In this article, I'll be tackling the facts about witchcraft, and some ways you might like to use it in your games (fantasy, horror and historical). If you have a particular system of magic, aspect of occult thought, or any such thing you'd like to see analysed for your games, go ahead and drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also stop on by my blog at http://www.livejournal.com/users/fraterachdae/ to read all of my various insane ramblings.
Twisting & Betrayal
In today's article, I'd like to give you some facts about historical witchcraft, and some ideas on how to incorporate it into your game. In a future article, I'll do something similar for the modern religion of Wicca, which is loosely based on witchcraft. Let's get this party started.
What's a witch?
Historically, witchcraft was a method of magic found in Europe (though parallels can be seen in various cultures across the world; more on some of these will be forthcoming in future articles) which relied mostly upon natural objects, and tools commonly found around the house. Thus herbs, seeds, stones, pine cones, brooms, knives, sickles and the fireplace were common tools in witchcraft.
This form of magic centers around what anthropologists (and, now, many magicians) call 'sympathy'. Sympathy, or 'sympathetic magic', runs on the principle that physical objects can be connected in meaningful ways through either physical contact, similarity or metaphor. Thus, a pine cone which has not yet released its seeds might be a symbol of a woman's ovaries for a fertility spell, while a broom could be a phallic symbol due to its appearance, or a symbol of cleansing and purity due to its actual purpose. Additionally, a piece of a person's clothing, jewelry or body is still thought to be connected to that person via sympathy.
Sympathetic magic can be a dramatic element in any game, but especially in horror or realistic (but still magical) game worlds. Imagine the suspense of villains getting hold of a PC's hair, and the PC group having to track them down, all the while fearing possible magical attack with it. Additionally, PC investigators might explore a magical laboratory or temple, trying to piece-together what magic was being made there based on the possible metaphor built into all of the implements left in the magical circle in the middle. Just like in Dungeons & Dragons, PCs themselves could start whole adventures by journeying to find spell components, or trying to get the blood of an enemy to use in binding that villain's magical power so that once capture, he can't use his magic to escape again.
Witchcraft & Religion
For many centuries after the rise of Christianity in Europe, most commoners still practiced some form of their older pagan religion, and had not yet converted to the dominant aristocratic faith. Thus it is often thought that witchcraft is a holdover from those older pagan traditions. This theory neglects the fact that magic of this sort is older than paganism, going straight back to the dawn of pre-religious shamanism all over the world, as well as the fact that in pre-Christian Greek and Roman society, as well as many Norse, Germanic and Celtic clans, magic was illegal except to a very specific group of high initiates in mystery religions such as the Runemasters, Druids and Dionysians.
Witchcraft's place in society
Of course, the aristocracy and the Catholic priesthood (and please note that I'm not attacking the Roman Catholic Church with any of this history; the Church has definitely grown since these days!) didn't really appreciate the common person's community sorcerors. To them, it undermined their political power, and empowered the peasantry dangerously, whether in truth or only in psychology was of no consequence. Most witches likely didn't think of themselves as being revolutionaries or countercultural agents, but that's the role many of them played nonetheless.
Witches in your game
On a more local level, what about those few who do abuse their magical powers and their local clout by extorting their fellow peasants, threatening to curse them, and so forth? A trusted member of the community, apart form any religious or political station, is whittling away at the safety and sanity of an entire town or village. If we combine these two dramatic situations into a single campaign, imagine the conflict of deciding whether to bring in the tyranical authorities to do away with the abusive wise-man, or to try to undermine their own culture by doing away with the witch themselves, not to mention the fear of dealing with the witch's (real or imagined) formidable power. If the witch's place in society, and the fear of the tyranical church and nobles, are well-established in the game-world this can create quite a connundrum for the PCs to solve.
Let's bring it down to a personal level. Could a player have a witch as a PC? If you allow it in your campaign, why not? Let's just remember their knowledge, abilities and importance to a community. If in a fantasy world, witches might not have as much raw magical knowledge and power as wizards and other focused magicians, but they'll certainly have enough other skills to make up for it. The Hedge Wizard occupation in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or the Psychic Healer class in Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying Game are perfect examples. Not only do they have the magical (or psychic) ability to treat injuries and illnesses (and more, in the Hedge Wizard's case), they also have plenty of skill in herbalism, poison-making (and curing) and quite possibly some other practical trade, such as tool-making or even proficiency in a few small weapons. Additionally, witches would have a lot of knowledge about the geography and history (and/or folklore) about the local area immediately surrounding their home village. Thus a witch can be a fairly well-rounded adventuring character, if designed properly, or a very effective healer and guide if skills are chosen specifically in this direction.
In a non-magical setting, witches would still have the benefit of their herbal, historical, folklore and geographical skills, as well as a psychological edge due to their own belief in their magic, and the beliefs of those around them in their potential power. This allows them a place, at least, as a mysterious and helpful NPC.
Where do warlocks come in?
Probably due to the political need to put-down magical practice of any sort in the common people, the Church began using the term to refer to witches and other magic-workers. The rationale, such as it is, was that by doing these heretical things the magician had betrayed God and Christ.
If we are to use 'warlock' as a term for a magician of any sort, then, it could be used in a fantasy setting to refer to any magician who is not affiliated with the religious orthodoxy, or perhaps one who has betrayed his or her magical order or guild.
In a darker, more realistic, or horrific setting, a warlock might be a person who has become something slightly other than human (or seems to have, if in a non-magical setting) by practicing magic not condoned by the dominant God(s) of the 'good' religion in the world. Slightly, but bizarrely, mutated necromancers or chaos sorcerors (especially as seen in the Warhammer setting, for example) are great examples of this character type. In a grim heroic game, these make perfect villains behind the scenes, and can make good tragic heroes in psychological games (Vampire and Mage).
The medieval Church's witch
In a fantasy or dark medieval world, an evil cult could easily form around such a performance, and perhaps some of the more 'devout' amongst them could even have some interesting magical or psychic powers (or perhaps awakened from their latency) as a result.
Stay tuned, 'cause next time I'm going to be discussing Voodoo and Hoodoo, and their many dramatic possibilities in modern and gas-light roleplaying games.
May you live in interesting times,