Monday, May 25, 2009

The Gods of Javarta

I had some time this weekend to develop some thoughts on the gods of the East this weekend. I haven't fleshed out a pantheon yet; I'll probably thumbnail something soon and then see how it develops over time. The komikai are my name for Japan's yōkai . I may go with the real-world spelling in the end, but for now am shying away from using real-world words like kami.

The Gods of Javarta
The gods worshipped in Javarta are largely the same beings worshipped in the Eastern Empire under different names. There are of course some regional variations based on local tradition. These beings are not, strictly speaking, themselves gods, any more than the celestials of the West are. They are rather members of the Celestial Court, created beings of great power who serve and worship the Great Celestial Emperor. However, in the mind of the simple peasant, such theological distinctions are rarely observed, and Sorako, Lady of the Tempest, and Bentaro, the Lord of Luck, are prayed to and worshipped as much as the Celestial Emperor.

Few gods have their own temples. Rather, several gods central to local life are represented by great statues (size indicating relative importance), placed either in a great central hall or in dedicated rooms. Rumiko, the goddess of the arts and comedy, is highly regarded in temples placed near urban entertainment districts and houses of learning, while she is eclipsed by Lady Sorako in fishing communities—or anywhere else, for that matter.

Members of the Celestial Court are organized and ranked in a complex bureaucratic order which is reflected in the human civilization of the Eastern Empire. It is said that one banquet attended by the entire court took a thousands years to begin, as all present worked out the proper seating arrangements.

The Komikai
Minor spirits known as the komikai are everywhere—in the forests, in the lakes and springs, under bridges, on roads, in rice fields. The komikai are not worshipped, but feared and respected. It is supposed that a truly great komikai can ascend to the Celestial Court; many of the mountain and great river gods are just such beings.

The komikai vary in power. Some might appear to be relatively weak with respect to humans while others are nigh as powerful as members of the Celestial Court. Some, like the fury-driven Well Girl of Mount Oshima, are unique. Others, such as the funa-yurei (ship-ghouls), while thankfully rare, have common appearances, powers, and habits.

At tempting as it might be to characterize all komikai as monstrous beings bent on evil, they are more ambiguous than this. Many are dangerous, some merely mischievous, and a few benevolent; all are forces of nature best avoided when possible and placated when not.

Traveling into the wilds ignorant of the methods of placating these beings can be perilous—just try to cross a rope bridge without paying homage to its spirit—and knowledgeable guides are crucial to any expedition setting out into the wilds. Unfortunately, many of the wilder types can’t be appeased by ceremony or incense; the only recourse available to travelers facing a hostile komikai is to stand and fight or run for their lives.

The komikami do not, as a rule, often show themselves in settlements dominated by Westerners—at least not in their natural forms. It is likely that komikai with the power to shapeshift walk among the colonials. Indeed, one cannot mention the name of Lady Anne Harcroft in Javarta without hearing the curses of those deceived into accepting a three-tailed kitsune into high society. The wily fox-woman delighted in using seduction to sow discord in the colony—seven died in duels or at the hands of their spouses before she was unmasked and beheaded.

Humans and other mortals living in lands occupied by the komikai have learned to placate their spiritual neighbors by showing respect. The most physical manifestation of this custom are the thousands of totems and idols carved into living bamboo or tall poles driven into the ground—pretty much wherever mortals live or travel. These idols are, according to the nature of the komikai depicted, kindly, grotesque, terrifying or benign in mien and depiction.

Another sign of respect are the festivals and superstitions that have grown up around local komikai. These vary from place to place, as one moves from lands dominates from one cluster of komikai to those claimed by another.

Design Notes
The komikai offer an opportunity to feature monsters and present challenges to the characters without placing the local ecology under undue stresses of implausibility. Most of them aren't monsters like orcs or giant spiders, but spiritual beings manifested on the material plane. It's a distinction with a difference. It means, for example, that I can introduce a Japanese unicorn to the game without making room for an entire species of them. Rinse and repeat…

I've flagged a few inside jokes I tossed in for my amusement. I'd likely kill them for a professional publication, but I'll let them stay for now, since this this is a hobby effort. Heck, an adventure featuring a D&D version of Sadako would be pretty cool to run.

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