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Gamers' Grimoire

Twisting & Betrayal

by Anituel
Jan 13,2005


Gamers' Grimoire

"The definition of a religious ceremony is an act of ritual magic that doesn't work."
--S. Jason Black & Christopher S. Hyatt

What's this crap, then?
The idea behind it is simple: real-world magic and occultism make wonderful inspiration for roleplaying games! Many systems of occultism provide some extremely dramatic and entertaining possibilities to be explored in mystery, horror and fantasy games. I hope to bring a number of them to your attention during the course of my stay here in the hallowed halls of Gamerdom.

Who is this joker?
You can call me Anituel, for the purpose of this column. I'm a real-world occultist, myself, which at the very least gives me the authority to tell you how you might like to use this stuff in your games. I've been involved with roleplaying games for a number of years, as well, and have run all manner of games, from fantasy to horror, realistic and gritty to bizarre and surreal. In the process, I've also figured out what I think are some fun ideas for using occultism, folklore and magic from this world to spice-up those ones.

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 nickemergencymail@yahoo.com. 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?
While the answer to this question seems obvious, it's surprising to me how many people who purport to have knowledge of such topics really don't seem to have a clue. The word 'witch' means somebody who 'warps', 'twists' or 'shapes' something; the link to magic is obvious, but witchcraft is a more specific type of magic.

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
Unlike modern-day Wicca, witchcraft was not a religion to most of its adherents and practitioners. It was simply a way of getting things done for most, and a way of connecting with the world around you for some others. In any case, many self-proclaimed witches considered themselves to be faithful members of whatever faith was dominant in the commoners of their area and time, including Christianity, and did not see any conflict in it.

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
In their communities, witches generally served not only as sorcerors and diviners, but also as wise men and women, herbalists, teachers and midwives. Their fellow commoners almost always had a great deal of respect for them; the fear only came with the few who used their magic harmfully, or who abused their stations in the community.

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
If you look back over much of the historical background behind witchcraft, there is a great deal of dramatic potential mixed-up in there. Imagine a tyranical aristocracy, or a too-strict theocracy, being subtly undermined by the work of a few elderly people and their apprentices. These people are (mostly) doing philanthropic work, acting as doctors and therapists for their friends, family and neighbors, yet they're vilified by the most powerful parts of society. Fear sets-in amongst the common people as, generation after generation, they are told each Sunday the dangers of these people they are taught by tradition to trust with their lives and those of their spouses and children.

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?
The word 'warlock' has gone through a few definition-changes in its history. Originally, it was a defamatory term used by the early Catholic Church to mean 'betrayer'. Anybody who betrayed his or her faith, the Church, or his family and neighbors was branded a warlock.

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
According to the ideas spread by the medieval Church, witches were men and women who sold their souls to the Devil for magical power and knowledge. Often, they were said to hold 'black masses' or 'black sabbaths' in the woods on full and new moons in which they would have sex with a goat, or summon-up the Devil himself for this purpose. I'll explore the roots of these myths in other articles (later articles on diabolism, demonology, black magic and others), but for now the legends themselves are the important part.

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.

Witches & Warlocks by Philip W. Sergeant
The Magician's Dictionary by E.E. Rehmus
Earth Power by Scott Cunningham
The Magical Household by Scott Cunningham

Storm Front by Jim Butcher
Practical Magic (the movie)

Mood Music
Serpentine Gallery by Switchblade Symphony

May you live in interesting times,

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