03 October, 2012

A Spin on Community and Spirits

I’ve been thinking about the concept of characters interacting with the communities they meet. When developing a settlement, a pool of tokens is developed; this pool reflects the moods and attitudes of the settlement’s survivors. The original theory was to use the settlement’s token pool when facing unnamed mooks, lesser opponents and figures who don’t play much of a role in the story by themselves. In this way, these lesser characters are like avatars of the community, each reflecting a different way that the community might react to the wayfarers…a merchant, a peacekeeper, a scholar, a criminal. Those survivor characters who are specifically named get their own pools of tokens, they have enough integrity within the story to stand on their own, separate from the communities in which they stand.

I don’t see any reason to change this basic notion, but I can see ways to expand the concept. Particularly, communal spirits.

Spirits in Walkabout exist in a state of quantum flux, drawing stability in their form by channelling the beliefs of the observer (or the consensual beliefs of many). Why wouldn’t apply to communities? We see it in our world with tens of thousands of dedicated sport fans focused on a team mascot (often an anthropomorphised animal), comic book and pop culture fans idolising their heroes from page and screen, religions focusing faith in deities, demigods, angels and demons. Traditionally, tribal groups from all over the world have believed in totems that unite their people, Egyptian gods often began as communal protector spirits for different cities, as did the Olympian gods of the Greeks. Why wouldn’t there be community spirits in Walkabout?
The original version of Walkabout gave an idea for wayfarers to gradually transcend to a spiritual state of their own, or return to their original people with the knowledge from their travels. Perhaps they could return as communal protector spirits; each following fate’s path as a post apocalyptic Gilgamesh, facing the nightmares of a chaotic and magical world to bring order and balance before settling at home as immortal god-kings over their homelands. Just an idea…an idea for the ultimate Walkabout end game.

In Shinto, there is a belief that everything has a spirit. During my short time in Japan, I saw how deeply integrated this belief was n the every day. One night my hosts joined some other families to light some fireworks on the edges of some rice paddies. Before the first firework was lit, the group of us walked to an old shrine a few metres from the road, where the rice paddies stopped and forested hills began…even the most jaded looking teenagers among the group. In no particular order, some of the adults said something to the shrine and bowed, others simply touched the shrine and nodded. Some of the kids in the group left things on the shrine. The teenagers typically took a few moments in silence (whether respecting the shrine or simply respecting the beliefs of the others in the group). I was asked to join the ad hoc ceremony, and it was explained that we were being thankful to the local spirit for allowing us to use its fields, and we were apologising in advance for causing a disturbance. There was nothing formal about it, just the shared belief of a community.  

For community spirits, I’m thinking of something a bit like this. But in the tilted world of Walkabout, and the quintessentially Australian setting, there will be some tangible about the community spirit. Different communities will have different spirits appropriate to their settlements. The important thing here is that local people might not see the spirit as an otherworldly being, the 2011 Australian movie “Red Dog” comes to mind. In this movie a cheeky red cattledog appears on the outskirts of a mining community and he becomes a rallying point for the citizens. His presence leads people in unexpected directions, he resolves conflicts, and at the end of the movie he really brings the ton together. It’s based on a true story and there is an actual statue of the dog in north western Australia.

Using spirits in this way allows for some great storytelling and roleplaying opportunities. Let’s stick with the idea of a community’s spirit dog, manifest in the flesh. It belongs to no single person, and it seems that everyone knows (and loves) the dog.

How could the imbalance associated with this spirit cause repercussions in the community?

Perhaps someone doesn’t like the dog, the symbiotic relationship between the spirit and the community would ensure that this person was considered an outsider in the community. If they were to threaten the dog, there would be a subliminal defensive link shared by those with a positive relationship to the community.

Let’s look at a situation where the community took a turn for the worse, a riot due to a food shortage. The spirit dog would start getting vicious, possibly looking hungry and emaciated depending on how bad the food shortage had become. Healing the dog might see an improvement of the settlement’s fortune.

If the dog had been hit by a car, or was getting old, but veterinarians and scientists were keeping it alive when it should have passed away, the community might reflect this by stagnating. The dog might have to die before fresh blood can invigorate the town. Are the wayfarers willing to kill the dog to do this? Can they convince the survivors that the best thing to do is to kill the mascot that has rallied their morale for all these years?

This kind of spirit would work especially well in settlements where the belief in spirits is minimal, or where spirits are only viewed in an antagonistic light. Communities who hate spirits would be utterly confounded by the idea that a spirit had been among them for all these years, and it would be very hard to convince them that a spirit had been benevolent.

Other physical spirits of this nature might include dolphins who regularly visit coastal communities, orphaned children who wander in from the wilderness, an ancient tree at the centre of town, or a spider who weaves symbolism in its web.

Such spirits could have been associated with areas in the pre-tilt world. An example of this could be the southern suburbs of Sydney around Hurstville and Kogarah, where the Georges River reaches Botany Bay, the area is vaguely known as “St George”, and the area’s rugby league team is known as the Dragons. There is a great deal of other dragon imagery in the area as well, from the painted logos on the side of the taxi cabs, to the nation-wide bank that has its head office in the area, and numerous small businesses using the symbol. If a post apocalyptic settlement were going to develop in the area it would probably manifest in the form of a dragon, and being close to Australia’s only nuclear reactor, this would be a spiritual hotspot. The dragon would be a very real presence in the world.

More ephemeral spirits might visit their community in dreams. Remnants of church groups might focus their communal links on the saint whose name is shared by their local church, possibly hearing voices, seeing visions or having prayers answered.

Magnetically shielded super- computers controlling glass and steel arcology hives might seem to attain self-awareness, with scientists, politicians and military officers believing in the superiority of their technology over the chaotic manifestations of superstitious energy outside. Such communities would still focus around their procedures, protocols and computer derived laws, unaware that their “intelligent machines” are simply housings for one or more spirits who have infiltrated their operating systems.

The shamanic primitive groups and mutant outsiders would probably have a stronger understanding of the spirits at work in their communities. Perhaps being more inclined to accept mythic beings as their communal spirits, either worshipping them as deities, or manipulating their beliefs to create avatars specifically suited to their community’s needs.

I’m sure I could write an entire sourcebook for this game purely based on the concept of the community spirit.
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