The King is Dead

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Month When There Are No Gods

I think Beedo over at Dreams in the Lich House has the right idea with his junkyard posts: when you’ve got an awesome idea but fleshing it out will disrupt your current campaign (or ongoing campaign development as with The King is Dead) then you just write out the fragmentary ideas you have and put them aside.  Perversely, just days after starting an actual The King is Dead campaign, I am distracted by thoughts of another setting.

The Month When There Are No Gods


from Onmyōji by Reiko Okano



October in Japan is known as “the month when there are no gods” because of an old tradition about the eight million kami gathering at the Grand Shrine of Izumo.  I get the impression that the Japanese don’t view this with any anxiety, but that haunting name and our own Halloween traditions call to my mind the spooky side of Japanese pop culture much more than the authentic Japanese tradition of the Obon festival of the dead in summer.  For people with stronger nerves (and stomachs), Japanese horror conjures images of “The Ring” and “The Human Centipede;” for wimpy, wimpy me, it means the Heian period.

The Heian period (795 to 1185 CE) is one of those remarkable, self-contradictory eras that so capture my imagination.  On the one hand, you have all the decadent pomp and circumstance of the Japanese imperial court at its height – bed-hopping polygamy, The Pillow Book, poetry, political intrigue, The Tale of Genji, tea parties – and on the other hand you have the fact that half of the imperial capitol was basically a deserted ruin, that burial practices essentially just meant trundling corpses off to a charnel ground outside the city and dumping them, and that outside the capitol the emerging warrior class was busy constantly raiding each other and making life miserable for the vast majority of the citizenry.  It was a time of beauty and squalor, of silk and steel.

It was also a time of terror and magic.

The Heian period is a perfect setting for a horror game.  Despite all of the luxury and refinement, the people of Heian Japan were convinced they were living in the corrupt Latter Age of the Law, the Third Age of Buddhism when the way was lost.  Ghosts and demons were omnipresent; it was even possible for an otherwise innocent person’s spirit to leave her body while she slept to murder rivals.  Buddhist priests were on call for exorcisms and an entire branch of the government existed to employ feng shui diviners – the Onmyōji -- to determine auspicious dates and times. 

The Savage Worlds Horror Companion has the perfect setting rules and new Powers to bring a haunted Heian setting to life.  Abe no Seimei, the most famous historical Onmyōji, is credited with binding and commanding monsters and spirits, shape-changing, and killing with a wave of his hand in addition to divining the future; adding the setting rules Chronological Phenomena, Rituals, Signs & Portents, and Wards & Binds to the usual list of Powers perfectly captures the feel of Onmyōdō.  I usually chafe at how specialized Savage Worlds characters have to be, but that would work great in the haunted Heian; will your character devote his advancements to monster-hunting or rising in political power?  It would be fantastic.

Maybe I’ll put together a Heian primer and/or campaign together after The King is Dead.  Robin and I have tried Heian fantasy before, but that floundered; we got too caught up in worrying about historical detail (a lesson I have certainly learned) and got bogged down in rampant sexism of the time.  These days, I’d either suggest we just make her character a cross-dresser or that we assume her abilities make her so unique that exceptions are made.  I think I’d rather do it as a group game, though, since that would enable us to play with the political dynamics a bit more. 

Oh well…

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