Saturday, April 6, 2019

Have You Tried Using "Spiritual Bleed" In Your RPG?

"Are you sure you want to hold to this road?" Finar asked his companion. "It's just, well..."

Kegare smiled a little at Finar, though the expression looked out-of-place on the knight's face. Something hotter than fever burned in his eyes, and his lips were a little cracked. When he straightened, the tendons in his neck stood out in stark relief, and his pulse beat hard in his throat.

"Waiting will do us no good," Kegare said, with something like his usual, calm tone. Beneath it, though, simmered the rage. The fury that was burning through the good man's resolve as steadily as acid. "The bargain hangs round my neck. There's nothing to be done for it."

Finar was about to speak again, when riders appeared over the top of the hill. They bore down, weapons in hand and black masks across their faces. Kegare's smile grew wider, and a sickening pleasure flashed across his face. Finar had squired for the knight for years, and had always known him to be a kind, just man who placed words above steel. But as darkling fire raced across Kegare's fingers, engulfing his hands, he knew that his master was one step further away than he'd been even a moment ago.

Embrace the flames long enough, and you, too, will burn.

Spiritual Bleed: When Outside Forces Change You

If you've ever played an RPG before, then you're familiar with characters who draw their power from an outside source. The traditional cleric receives their magic from obedience to a divinity or a force, for example. A witch or a warlock has a patron they've been chosen by, or made a bargain with. Mediums allow the spirits of the dead to work through them, acting as gateways. Even a barbarian's Rage might be seen as tapping into some force beyond their own muscle and sinew, dipping into a well of power that turns them into a force of nature for a brief period of time.

Power often comes with a price, though. Because the more you tap into these powers, and the more of it that flows through you, the more it can erode who you were. A concept I call spiritual bleed.

It all began with a shark...
One of the clearest examples of this idea is something I set out for a Werewolf: The Apocalypse character of mine. For those not familiar with this particular White Wolf game, it's a modern fantasy setup where players take on the role of modern-day werewolves. These warriors exist to protect Gaia from the forces of destruction, and they've been engaged in a shadow war with the forces of the Wyrm for centuries. If they lose, then we all lose, and the world ends.

Into this setup came a cub named Tucker. An albino metis (a monstrous offspring of two werewolves mating, something strictly forbidden by their own laws), Tucker spent most of his life in a junkyard being raised by his grandmother's human kin (mortals who are in on the secret war, and who provide the backbone of support in fighting the Wyrm), and a familiar spirit named Gregor... a huge cockroach. When Tucker had his first change, he sought out other werewolves to help him reach his full potential.

Tucker was unusual among the garou, in that he was not a natural fighter. A mechanical-minded young man, he had a natural inquisitiveness that led his sharp mind down interesting and unexpected paths. But Tucker was also soft-spoken, retiring, and tended to fold in on himself when others were around. Scribbling notes in his book of blueprints and murmuring to himself while drawing back from the world around him.

Until his Rite of Passage, that was...

Let me hear you howl.
When a cub undergoes this rite, they are approached by powerful spirits which each stand as the heads of the tribes of the werewolf nation. Choosing which spirit to ally yourself with binds you to that tribe, and makes you an adult in the eyes of your fellow garou.

When the dust cleared, Tucker was chosen by Fenrir. For those of you familiar with Norse mythology, the giant-born colossus of power and ferocity you're picturing is exactly the spirit that Tucker is now bound to through membership in this tribe. This changed the character in some mechanical ways (access to certain powers, able to take an extra level of damage, etc.), but it also changed him in other ways. He stood straighter, spoke louder, and took up space in a way he hadn't before. He developed a presence that was bigger than when he had been a cub.

Then, when he was offered a place in a pack dedicated to Shark, another spiritual pigment was mixed into his makeup. Shark is a spirit who is swift, sure, and who shows neither pleasure nor remorse in the act of killing. When combined with the influence of the great Fenris wolf, the quiet tinkerer took on an almost uncanny focus, able to see, pursue, and complete his goals without hesitation.

Being tied to spirits, and accepting the boons they provide, rubbed off on him. Altered him. If those connections were severed, or their boons withdrawn, it would also alter who he is. Because when you accept an outside power, tying it into your being, then it colors you. And when it's removed, then that influence fades away as well.

It's an aspect of these bargains that sometimes gets lost when you're too focused on what bonuses they grant, or what rules you have to avoid breaking in order to keep your patron happy.

The Side Effects of Power

Spiritual bleed can be slow and subtle, or hard and fast. It can be disturbing, or it can be uplifting. The idea behind it, though, is that being in contact with forces beyond your ken leaves its mark on you. Especially if something from them is flowing into you!

It might mean that the warlock who wields a fiendish power too freely finds themselves becoming jaded, cruel, or even bloodthirsty. It might mean that the paladin who channels divine forces begins to lose touch with mortality, too caught up in the celestial movings of the world they glimpse through their connections to the beyond. It might mean that when a theurge makes a bargain with a spirit of the wyld that they find themselves wearing their wolf skin more and more, unwilling to put on the form of man unless they truly must.

But they reached that point (at least partially) because of a force that came from outside of themselves. Perhaps they bargained with it willingly, or perhaps they only reach for it out of desperation, but it's had an effect on them. It's changed them.

The question you have to answer is how has it changed them? And has it been for the better, for the worse, or simply in a direction you didn't expect?

Also, for more tips on how to get the most out of your warlock characters, check out my guide 5 Tips For Playing Better Warlocks. Or if you're a fan of Werewolf, and particularly the Get of Fenris, take a look at my latest supplement, 100 Get of Fenris Kinfolk!

Now get back to gaming!
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