This article originally appeared in Pyramid #30

Of Gods, Kings and Swamp Gas: Acquiring Respect in GURPS Discworld

by John M. Ford and Phil Masters
Illustrations by Paul Kidby

It is a peculiarity of life on the Discworld that the local magical field just loves to literalize metaphors and concretize beliefs. If people believe in the Tale of the Choking Doberman, big dogs are going to be coughing up fingers all over the place. If enough people talk about a person's being "chased by his own shadow," he better not turn around on a sunny day.

And if people start to believe that someone is Born to Rule, then with time more people will start to notice how regal he looks, and sooner or later he will probably be raised to the leadership of something, even if it's just Scout Leader of the Badger Patrol. If they begin to believe that someone is Touched by the Power of the Gods - well, it takes a lot more belief to get any practical effects out of that one, but don't be surprised if Dreams are Dreamed and Visions are Seen. Most Discworld divinities started out as Small Gods who got either smart or lucky - see GURPS Discworld for details - but it should be theoretically possible to acquire divinity of a sort from another starting point. There are certainly plenty of human prophets who are assumed to have god-given powers.

This can have an interesting application for game purposes, if the GM and players are prepared to run with the peculiar consequences of a character's acquiring an Aura in the public eye. Such effects can be permanent or temporary; of course, if they are permanent, they represent a character advantage:

Aura of Majesty/Divinity     10/15 points/level

Acquiring an Aura advantage requires some kind of special event in your past. For Majesty, this is usually not "royal birth," or the equivalent thereof. But someone being in the right place at the right time - preferably but not necessarily with some level of Charisma - was the foundation of a lot more Disc monarchies than the official records like to admit. (See the ending of Wyrd Sisters.) Divinity generally calls for something miraculous, or perceived as miraculous - a savage beast became calm when you appeared, a thunderstorm seemed to dissolve at your presence. It is not necessary that these events be miraculous. It is not even necessary that they really happened. The important part is that they are believed to be so, by a sufficient number of people.

"Sufficient" is a highly flexible term - one person, with absolutely pure faith, has been sufficient to keep a god alive, if not mighty. For a general rule:

One level of Aura = 100 or fewer believers

Two levels = 100-1,000 believers

Three levels = 1,000-10,000 believers

Both types of Aura should be limited to three levels for PCs. For the benefit to be permanent, the followers must be permanently attached to the character; unless they are an especially unimpressive crowd, at least some of them will qualify as an Ally Group with a high frequency of appearance, and must be bought as such (and when they aren't around, the Aura may vanish or dim). Others are very likely to qualify as Dependents (worth Disadvantage points).

For every 10 points in Aura of Majesty, you get one level of Charisma; you also gain Leadership skill of 12, plus bonuses from Charisma. If you have spent points on Leadership skill, or have a default level higher than 12, then it gains the Charisma bonus, and an additional +2 per level of Aura. You also gain a temporary increase in Status equal to your Aura level, and Savoir-Faire at IQ, both only apply when your followers are present, or with people who know about them; admired leaders are perforce treated with respect. And you gain a bonus equal to your level of Aura to resist spells, psionic powers or use of skills that are being used to make you do anything that diminishes your monarchical dignity, humiliates you or clearly threatens the interests of your followers.

An Aura of Divinity allows the wearer to perform miracles - small miracles, their actual power depending on the number of believers and the strength of their belief. Note that most believers will probably not think that the person with the Aura is literally a God in human form; they imagine that he is a person temporarily inhabited by Divine Power, or a prophet given certain Divine gifts.

The possibilities of miracles are so broad, and this advantage so easy for a player to misuse, that the actual power granted must be determined by the GM to fit the storyline. As a guideline, for each level of Aura, the character has one die of magical energy points per day. These may be used all at once, or spread out in little 1-point thunderboltettes. Major miracles, like making a single order of Klatchian takeaway feed a multitude, would use up at least a full day's power, and probably "burn out" the avatar for the next several days. Like intelligent spellcasting, the power may be used in creatively efficient ways. Diverting a river might be beyond one's direct power - but triggering a talus-slide that was about to happen anyway, so the rocks block the river and force it to seek a new course, might not be.

The character does not have to know any "spells," and can produce almost any effect he can think of and muster the power for. This is divine power we're talking about, after all. However, believers - the ones supplying the power - also have expectations. A fire god who does a lot of water tricks risks losing believers, and with them, power. If things go far enough, the congregation may decide that they should really be following the water god who's been doing all this good stuff for them, and where will the Prophet of Pyro the Mighty be then?

(However, kings and avatars have it easier than true gods, who can actually die if they lose their following, rather than merely possibly being killed for being a disappointment. Again, see GURPS Discworld.)

It is also possible to acquire an Aura for the very short term - a rumor of kingship, or wave of Belief, that lasts for the duration of an adventure, usually until a threat is over. (This is strongly recommended as the only way to deal with an Aura of Divinity.) Such an Aura is assigned by the GM as part of the plot of an adventure, and taken away when it ends. Such a temporary Aura costs no points.

Playing it Out

There are two basic ways for a character with an Aura to find life going; successfully and unsuccessfully. There are also two basic states of mind for them to adopt, willing and unwilling.

An unsuccessful character is easier for practical game purposes, of course; the GM doesn't have to worry about a PC acquiring ludicrous levels of power and authority. It is also easy to handle in comedy games, especially if the PC is all too willing to try and exploit his or her status; there's nothing easier than leading the overconfident into pratfalls. Unwilling monarchs and deities can also generate plenty of comedy; see the movie Monty Python's Life of Brian for illustration.

Really successful ascents to power are less blatantly funny, but generate a lot more complex plot possibilities (which can include comedy). Remember, this is power and authority based, not on ability or entitlement, but on others' expectations - and the higher the character rises, the more other people will expect from them. If they seem to be enjoying themselves, the GM can load them down with requests and demands from their followers. (The only snag with this is that it may make things hard for other PCs, who may not share either the power or the megalomania, but the roleplaying involved in keeping a friend or ally under control could be amusing.) Less-willing characters finding themselves turning into great leaders or prophets will also suffer stress, although they are less likely to deserve it; GMs should probably give such characters the chance to take occasional breaks, else authentic roleplaying could lead the character to crack up.

(Of course, even unwilling leaders can sometimes attempt to impose their own ideas of what is right or rational on their followers; as GURPS Discworld describes, the current king and queen of Lancre are unwilling but respected, and their attempts to modernize the place are achieving mixed results.)

Temporary Auras permit all of the above, but on a less permanent basis that leaves characters in a position to handle situations merely as best they can, and then (probably) to walk away. The following scenario seed is a case in point.

Scenario Seed: Deity for a Night

As a traveling PC party passes through an isolated village where there have been a series of monster attacks, bad enough that the coming harvest may not be brought in, an incident occurs that causes the villagers to believe that one of the travelers has divine (not plain ol' magic - divine) powers. This gives the PC a temporary Aura of Divinity (see above).

The nature of the incident can depend on specific campaign details, but for a couple of examples:

What really happened is that a spark struck from a stone by the PC's weapon ignited a puff of swamp gas. Now, the villagers know about swamp gas and open lights, and when the crisis is over, they'll remember this - but for now, they are desperate.

In reality, as the party will probably discover sooner or later, the innkeeper, knowing that the village desperately needs heartening, tapped the hidden keg of beer he had been saving for just before they all starved this coming winter. If the PCs figure this out early, the innkeeper will make the same point about saving the crops; if they don't want the responsibility, all he has to do is reveal the trick, and they can go on their way, and the villagers will either starve or be killed fighting the monster.

It's not like anyone said being a hero should be easy.

In either case, the power of the Aura should be limited to what is necessary to defeat the monster, with (this being the Discworld) some comic side-effects, like the real ability to turn swamproot tea into beer. The monster may be a real big-red-eyes-and-bad-manicure critter, or something scary but natural like a pack of rabid wolves, or a grudge-bearing villager in a monster suit (the If-It-Wasn't-For-You-Pesky-Kids Option). In Return of the Guns of the Magnificent Seven Samurai style, the idea of getting the villagers psyched to fight is probably more important than the actual supernatural stuff.

In any case, after the monster is defeated, the Aura of Divinity fades. If the players behaved heroically, of course, that's permanent - a permanent part of history.

Article publication date: May 22, 1998

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