Monday, July 02, 2007

A Transfer of Luck.

Campaign ideas can come from various places indeed. In
"Greek Religion" by Walter Burkert (translated by John
Raffen, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985)) on
pages 82-83, we come across the following passage:

"In Abdera, some poor victim is bought every year as a
purificatory sacrifice, Katharsion; he is fed
royally and then on a certain day is led through the
city gates, made to walk the walls and finally chased
across the boundries with stones...On dire occasions
such as a plague, the people of Massalia-Merseilles
resorted to similar measures: a poor man was offered
pure and costly food for a year, then decked in boughs
and sacred vestments, he was led around the whole town
amid curses and finally chased away." (Pages 82-82,
"Greek Religion" by Walter Burkert (translated by John
Raffen, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

This, combined with my enjoyment of "The Lady or the
Tiger?" sort of scenarios does bring to mind a notion
for FRP purposes: One fine day our PCs are approached
by the city fathers of a community undergoing hard
times with a proposition. In return for participation
in a special ceremony the adventurers would be given a
year of luxary living and free training (Up to 50
hours a week since the city fathers do want the
characters to honestly enjoy themselves for the
purposes of the ceremony and deem that there are
limits to how much somebody could spend in training
and still be enjoying themselves). Something that the
adventurers would be told upfront is that the purpose
of the ceremony would be to transfer all the ill luck
of the community from the community to the
adventurers.

Now the reason that the players might want to look
twice at this is that this might actually be a pretty
good deal. In game systems like Bushido, GURPS,
Runequest 3 and Traveler where downtime and training
can provide relatively risk-free and significant
character advancement, a year of subsidized downtime
like this should be a relatively tempting prize. But
of course this brings up a theme I enjoy playing with
now and again - In a world where magic exists how do
you distinguish between what is magic and what is
superstition? A ceremony for transfering bad luck like
this isn't going to be on many of the standard spell
lists of any FRP if only because such lists are
designed with individual spellcasters in mind. But
does this necessarily mean that such a ceremony
wouldn't work? Even if the City Fathers themselves
think it no more than a device to boost the town's
morale does that mean the ceremony itself wouldn't
necessarily have the stated effect?

The thing to remember is that, even under regular
circumstances, a genuine transfer of the bad luck of
3,000 to 50,000 people to a group of 3 to 5
adventurers is not necessarily going to be a good
thing for the longterm prospects of the 3 to 5
adventurers in question (At the very least, using
GURPS mechanics, I would feel justified in awarding
them a level of "Unluck" or "Jinxed" as a disad), but
in a community resorting to this because of plague or
famine such a transfer of luck would be very dire
indeed. (In the case of plague giving the characters
who underwent such a ceremony the "Terminal Illness"
disad might not be out of the question). If you were an
adventurer who thought the ceremony would work for
certain would *you* undergo it? ^^;

And yet, an entire community would have a wide range
of skills and spells to teach; the larger the
community, the better the range. If you thought for
sure the ceremony's only effect was social could you
afford to turn down the power boost such a year could
give? Mind you, if it turns out the ceremony's only
effect is a social one this could still affect the
adventurers in their dealings with other people. How
eager would *you* be to deal with a stranger if you
thought he was a carrier of bad luck that might be
contagious?

To make this of interest to players and DM alike the
following conditions would have to be in place:

1. The characters must have been in action long enough
that the players have an emotional investment in what
happens to them.

2. The characters should also be low enough in power
and material wealth that a year spent like this should
seem desirable. Note, by the way, that this is offer
unlikely to occur to settled adventurers who have a
community that cares about them. :p

3. The campaign setting should be one the characters
feel a connection to and the players should be the
sort who care what the NPCs think.

4. Within the campaign itself itinerant adventurers
should be relatively low in social status. (My own
campaign is Hyborian-flavored so most of the NPC
adventurers are of the "Never had a plan, just
a-livin' for the minute!" sorts.)

5. PCs in the Jack Vance, Larry Niven, Robert
Heinlein, and Roger Zelazney "We are good
rationalists. We know how to take the smooth without
standing still for the rough" mode might want to take
the offer, spend 10 or 11 months in training and then
skip town ahead of time. Let them. If the curse exists
then it's easier for such a curse to find them and
affect them with greater severity if there's a good
moral reason for the town to curse them. For
ceremonial purposes the connection was established the
moment the town took them in and the year beyond that
was the town's obligation for their benefit rather
than to the town's benefit in any way. In addition
they now get the benefit of a reputation as welschers
and doublecrossers. In a profession where your word is
your coin this is going to be its own reward. ^O^
(And note also tht this effect on their reputation is
independent of any magical oomph the ceremony itself
might have. ^_~).

6. The players may want money for their effort.
Burkert's writing suggests this ceremony preceded the
days when metal money was known but the reaction of
the community fathers who bring this proposition will
doubtless vary based upon their own temperment and the
resources that their community may command. A village
asking this might not have much more to offer in the
way of money than a fistful of coppers. A thriving
urban metropolis might be able to offer "as much gold
as you can carry". If the city fathers are nice
however, they'll point out something the sapient
adventurer will already know - this is a greed trap:
When the time comes for the adventurers to be driven
forth from the community on pain of death the
adventurers will need to be able to move faster than
the community enforcers who drive them forth. This
won't be the case if they load themselves down with
treasure. Another problem for them, if the surmise of
Burkert is correct, is that since such ceremonies are
basically watered down versions of human sacrifice
ceremonies the community won't lose much if an
adventurer's greed caused him to die in expiation for
the curse rather than merely be driven off, no? n_n

In any event, the community fathers are here to do
their own community a bit of good through honest
commerce rather than to enrich a gang of
good-for-nothngs at the community's expense. They are
interested in a deal rather than desperate for one,
and if the adventurers either demand too much or turn
them down that won't bother them a bit since they're
sure that the number of fools who would risk blighted
lives in the longterm for high living and free
training in the here and now is one resource that
really is inexhaustable! T_T

The players in my group tend to be prudent sorts so
I'll always make a point of having other scenarios
prepared whenever I spring this one on them. But in
addition to being a nice little exercise in
cost/benefit analysis and a useful way to explore the
way the players think the first time it's used, it
also serves as a useful element to give one's campaign
a useful feeling of both societal and temporal depth
that serves to aid the suspension of disbelief that is
always a necessary element to good roleplaying. ^_~

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