In the Spirit of Things

by David P. Summers

Art by Dan Smith

The shaman settled himself down next the blood stain. These "city people" might be able to turn out metal weapons and armor, and their sorcery was impressive enough, but their knowledge of spirits was pitiful. Sure they had religious rituals for the dead, but it would seem that, every now and then, a soul would get "missed." When that happened, those the ghost haunted had little idea what to do.

Indar sighed; he would have to deal with the spirit that had been haunting the area since the murder. Not that he cared that much for what happens to this city, but he felt an obligation as a shaman to see that the soul got to it proper destination, even if it hadn't been one of his people. He laid out the lock of hair he got from the widow and his charms. Then he began to draw the proper symbols by sprinkling lines of cornmeal around them. The pigeon he had brought as a sacrifice cooed nearby. . . .

One of the staples of both the fantasy genre and of mythic tales is the shaman (and the spirits he interacts with). People have been interested in GURPS Voodoo because, in addition to its other qualities, it has a new and interesting magic system. Since the system is already based on spirits, it is especially useful for handling shamanic magic. However, there are number of differences between the TL 7 Shadow War setting described in GURPS Voodoo and a typical TL 3 fantasy setting. There are also some differences between the modern vision of spirits presented in the book and a vision that is closer to a medieval/historical one. This article is an attempt to guide those who might like to use this system to run shaman characters in a TL 3 fantasy setting.

Types of Spirits

Here are some types of spirits that could be used in a GURPS spirit magic campaign. This is not a complete list, and a GM may not want all of them to be present in his campaign. A GM is encouraged to pick those that suit him/her and to add others. It is suggested that a GM allow spirits to speak the language of the intelligent species that is dominant in the area, unless the GM wishes to either have a Spirit Language skill or give each type of spirit its own language. It should be noted, when GMing spirits, that they tend to be willful and mercurial. They often have little understanding of Physical reality. They may not understand that a 100 foot drop will kill a human.

Place: Any place that is "significant," and has been around long enough, can have a spirit associated with it. A spirit might inhabit a specific mountain. A lake spirit might be associated with a certain lake or a river might have a river spirit. Even a large significant rock or a waterfall can have a spirit associated with it. Generally, a place that is significant enough to be warrant naming (or would be if there was anyone around for places where there are no people) might have a spirit. Such spirits are found at the place where they are associated. Unlike other spirits, they will generally not seek to possess other beings (since they are tied to the location). They are also are more likely to materialize physically (e.g. the water nyad). They are dependant on the good condition and existence of their place. If it is destroyed, they are destroyed; if it is fouled, they are fouled. The lady of the lake in Arthurian legends could be an example of a lake spirit (albeit one that takes a peculiar interest in human affairs).

Disease: Spirits were thought to be the agents of disease in medieval times. They can be passed on from victim to victim. They can generally be found only in diseased animals and plants. They will not materialize and will either be in possession of a being, or looking for one to possess. The disease spirit represents a classic "evil" spirit. Possession by a disease spirit will cause the subject to suffer from a specific disease (there are different spirits for each disease).

Action: Spirits can be associated with action and motion. Rather than being associated with what the universe is made out of, they are associated with how it "acts" (see elementals below). You don't refer to "air" spirits, but a recurring type of wind (like the Californian Santa Anna or the French Mistral) might be caused by wind spirits. Similarly, a large and constant ocean current might have a spirit associated with it. These spirits might be found wherever the action is occurring, though if the action is spread over a large area, they may be hard to localize. The distinction between these spirits and elementals can get hazy, but generally the elemental represents the mere existence of some matter and the spirit represents a higher property, in this case how the element acts in the world. They do not possess beings and they do not materialize, but they may be induced or compelled to cause or (less likely) cease the action they represent. They use the Poltergeist effect for this purpose (p. 85 of GURPS Voodoo).

Animal: Any species of animal will have a spirit associated with them. This is especially true of a numerous species. This only applies to "animals" (racial IQ<8); "intelligent animals" have a soul. The spirits are associated with the species as a whole and not necessarily with each individual animal. Animal spirits do not usually posses someone out of malice, but a shaman may invoke them to take on a favorable aspect of the animal in question. They do materialize, but rarely.

Plant: Old and large plants may have spirits associated with them. The classic spirit here is the tree spirit (particularly in oaks). They are much like place spirits.

Ghosts: When an intelligent species dies, its soul can live on as a spirit. They are described in GURPS Voodoo (p. 55). Such spirits are sometimes found near where their bodies are buried or they were killed, such as in haunted British castles.

Abstract Ideals: There can be spirits associated with human concepts, emotions, and ideals, such as strength, healing, hatred, vengeance, etc. Often in stories, only the effects of these spirits (an angry mob, etc.) are portrayed, implying that they can't be localized. Perhaps this is because of the generality of the concepts. In other settings they are summoned and manipulated just like other spirits to gain their aspects. It is up to the GM if these spirits can be pinpointed in the physical world, or in the spirit real, and what the frequency is (if they exist at all). These spirits will generally not physically materialize.

Spirits vs. Gods

It is routine, in GURPS Voodoo, for initiates to invoke the presence of gods on a casual basis as a source of their power. However, in many fantasy settings the direct intervention of the gods is rare and shamanic magic is distinctly separate from divine magic. In fact, in many settings the cleric exists as the indirect agent of a god who can not act directly. Also, many of the spirits a shaman is often portrayed as interacting with in medieval stories are not present in the Shadow War setting.

The solution is simply to replace the manifestation of the gods with the appearance of the appropriate spirits. If one was running a campaign where gods manifested casually on behest of mortals (particularly where the line between "spirit" and "god" is a fine one), the spirits presented here can be used in addition to the manifestation of gods.

Spirit Stats

This brings up the question of how to come up with the stats for the spirits? One method is to pick out a manifestation listed in GURPS Voodoo that has the stats and power level that seem to be appropriate, take out just the game mechanic numbers, and then redo the description. Additionally, one can change the attributes using the attribute cost chart (the points from lowering one stat are used to raise another). The manifestations are classified as major, moderate, and minor, and this can be used to similarly classify spirits.

Another approach is to use the Ghost package (using the point cost for a ghost that can remain indefinitely) on page 55 of Voodoo. Many spirits have abilities that are a subset of the those in the ghost package. If a spirit doesn't have a certain power listed, delete it and reduce the cost. Dream Travel, Possession, The Poltergeist Effect, Altering Probability, the ability to be seen and heard, and Full Materialization are all considered roughly equal and reduce the cost of the package 20 points. (GURPS Undead has a somewhat more extensive treatment for modifying the point cost of ghosts, p. 52-54.) A correlation between a ghost's point total and the class of an invocation can be inferred from the rules for Spirit Ally on p. 61 of Voodoo. A 101-150 point ghost is equivalent to a minor manifestation, a 151-200 is a moderate manifestation, and a 201+ point ghost is equivalent to a major manifestation.

Elementals & Sorcery

Elementals are not considered spirits. Elementals are fundamentally, part of the building blocks of reality. They are the expression of the elements that make it up reality (Earth, Air, Water, Fire). That is why sorcerers, who are adept at modifying reality, can create them so easily. The idea that are something that can be created by "mere mortals" sets them a step lower than other entities. Conversely, spirits are independent entities with a measure self awareness and free will. In fact, some spirits are the souls of intelligent creatures who have died (ghosts and such).

Generally dealing with elementals will be considered primarily the domain of the sorcerer and spirits the domain of the shaman. This helps keep the distinction between shamanic and sorcerous magic clear. Similarly, it is recommended that the GM restrict some of the necromantic spells in GURPS Magic, GURPS Grimoire, and GURPS Undead that allow mages to easily control spirits (Sense Spirit, Turn Spirit, etc.). These spells could apply only to undead spirits (which makes more sense for a necromantic spell anyway) or be disallowed completely.

Encountering Spirits

In the Spirit of Things

The group glided silently along, looking for the raiding party. Five of the tribe's horses were gone already. They couldn't afford to loose more. But their foe was also skilled and so far they had come up empty.

One of the party, Indar, wasn't the best tracker. However, his reason for being along soon became apparent when he noticed "something" in a large oak tree they passed. There was a spirit in it. "Probably a dryad," Indar whispered and signaled the rest to stop. The rest waited patiently as Indar began his ritual, they had been through this before.

A beautiful young "woman" with green hair stepped out of the tree and looked around, eyeing Indar's fellows warily. "What do you want of me?" she asked

"We search for men, darker and shorter, who may have passed your tree recently," Indar explained. "We are at war with them."

"The conflicts of men are of little interest to me; why should I help you?" she replied disinterestedly.

Indar bargained: "Should you help us, I can heal the disease on that limb of your tree and pledge that none of my people will take wood from the stand of trees."

More bargaining ensued, but soon the deal was sealed. The dryad had indeed seen their enemy pass her tree. She had even remembered them. . . .

While traveling on the Physical World, a shaman will come across spirits. As a general guide, when the issue comes up, a GM may roll 3d6. On a 9 or less the shaman is in the area of a minor spirit that he/she may sense according the rules in GURPS Voodoo. On a roll of 7 or less the shaman may be in the presence of a moderate spirit, and on a roll of 5 or less a major spirit may be encountered. Obviously a GM may modify or ignore these guidelines entirely. For example, a certain large oak that was center of spiritual activity maybe more likely, or even certain, to have a spirit.

Possession is still handled by spirit combat. Since spirit combat may be a turning point of a situation, it is expanded from one simple roll. Instead it consists of a series of attack and defense rolls until one sides attack get through the other's defense. Rolls are still made against Will+Initiation. Any attempt at "tricks," etc. are treated as Feints as per GURPS Basic p. 96. A character in spirit combat is at a -4 to defend attacks made against his corporeal body.

If the Shaman wins, he/she may automatically force the spirit to flee. Any control another shaman may have had over the spirit will be lost. Alternately, the shaman may now try to control the spirit by casting the appropriate ritual or instigating another spirit combat. Winning this spirit combat gains control as per the Mastery ritual. If a shaman looses any spirit combat, he is possessed as per the rules in GURPS Voodoo.

Spirit Realm

A shaman may wish to enter the spirit realm for a number of reasons; To escort a soul of a recently deceased to the afterlife, to find a spirit (either a specific spirit or a specific type of spirit) that he is unable to locate in the physical world, to gain a bonus in the conduct of his rituals, to gain visions of the future, etc. To enter the spirit realm the character must enter a trance as per p. 118-119 of GURPS Religion (for example, by meditating with drums, etc. for 10 min) or p. 59 of GURPS Voodoo (see AutoTrance). Entering the spirit realm gains a +2 to rituals (as per Auto Trance in Voodoo). Once in the spirit realm the character may encounter hostile spirits or may even, if he wanders around, get lost.

While the spirit realm does generally correspond spatially to the physical world, the land marks are completely different and movement doesn't obey the same laws. Consequently, knowledge of the physical world is of little help in navigating the Spirit Realm. Finding your way around the spirit realm requires use of the Navigation (Spirit Realm) skill (M/A, defaults to IQ-5). One enters the spirit realm based on where you are in the real world. A shaman escorting a soul to the afterlife must make a straight roll vs Navigation (Spirit Realm) provided he has done it before (e.g. someone has previously shown him the way). If he fails by 2 or less, he fails in his task but is not lost. In general, it will take roll(s) of Navigation (Spirit Realm) to find a place in the spirit realm and roll(s) of Navigation (Spirit Realm) +2 to retrace one's steps. To search randomly (say for a specific kind of spirit) will only require a roll to find one's way back (provided the Shaman hasn't been negligent in keeping track of where he/she is).

A lost shaman must either hope for rescue from a fellow shaman, find a friendly spirit that is able to understand that the shaman has a body in the physical word that he needs to get back to, or keep searching for a way back. To find a way back to his body, the shaman needs to make one roll (since he is lost, he doesn't retrace he steps, but seeks to find a direct path back) at a penalty for how far he has traveled, usually equal to -1 for each roll that would have been necessary to retrace his steps. Repeated attempts are at a cumulative -1 penalty. However, a shaman can always find his way back on critical success. The shaman is generally allowed one roll hourly for the first day and daily after that (though time can often move differently in the spirit realm). While the shaman is away from his/her body it will not eat or drink and will slowly waste away, see p. 128 of GURPS Basic. If the body dies, the shaman will become a lost ghost trapped in the spirit realm until he can find his way to the afterlife.

The odds of encountering malevolent spirits are left up to the GM. A straightforward task such a escorting a soul to the afterlife or conducting a ritual should be unlikely to cause such an encounter. A shaman wandering about (such as to get visions of the future or some other vision quest) will have a significant chance. The number of Navigation (Spirit Realm) rolls a character makes will be a guide to how much "wandering about" he is making (any measure of "distance" will be generally irrelevant). Specifically looking for spirits will increase these chances further.

Raising Initiation

To increase one's initiation level (or gain one of the advantages associated with initiation) should be require some sort of trial. This might involve a dangerous spirit quest to find something significant to the shaman or to appease a spirit. The GM is encouraged to have the player create an outline of where their shaman intends to go and who they will entreat, etc. Sacrifices can improve the odds. Such sacrifices can range from small (pain, fasting, etc.) to moderate (tattoos, ritual scaring, vow of chastity, etc.) to severe (loss of a limb, and eye, etc.). Of course the improvement in the odds will depend on the severity of the sacrifice. Alternatively, a GM may allow the points, or a portion thereof, generated by such a disadvantage to be applied toward raising initiation, gaining additional initiates advantages, etc.


There are only a few changes in the rituals themselves. They seem generally balanced for most fantasy settings. New rituals should be based on what one can send a spirit to do. Effects should not be at the direct will of the caster, since he is not directly causing the effect. Instead they should assume indirect action through a spirit. For example, a spell that causes a victim to hallucinate or an object to move as a caster wills is primarily sorcerous in effect. One that causes things to occur according to the nature of a spirit, or as a spirit could be directed, is shamanic in effect.

Specific Rituals


See Voodoo, page 75

This one is a little overpowered for TL 3 campaigns. Basically it means that every member of a party with a shaman in it will be immune to the first hit. This will possibly work a bit better if the protection was not automatic. Apply an IQ roll for the spirit to see if it realizes it should act. For example, a spirit might not realize that getting an axe in the chest is bad for the mortal. Conversely, it might decided that it needs to stop that mosquito bite.


See Voodoo, page 75

Healing is fairly common in most fantasy settings so this ritual may need to be made more effective. All Initiates may use it as if there were fifth level Initiates.

New Rituals

Guide the Missile

Path of Movement-8

A spirit guides a chosen missile to its target. The initiate must call out the target and point to it (either with a hand or other object like a stick, wand, gun, etc.). This can be done as part of casting or firing and counts as a free action. The spirit can guide all missiles to their targets for a +4 to hit and can also speed up slower missiles (arrows, rocks, etc. but not bullets, blasters, etc.) for a +2 damage.

Guide the Weapon

Path of Movement-8

This ritual calls a spirit to help guide a chosen weapon. The effectiveness is limited by how well the spirit can anticipate the weapon's movements. Thus it is dependant on how capable the spirit summoned is. The modifier to your to-hit roll is equal to (margin of success-3). (Yes, this ritual can actually make it harder to hit.) The spirit cannot react fast enough to assist with parries. The shaman must make a ritual roll every minute to keep the spirit around.


Path of Movement-5

This ritual assists in the movement of a PC or his vehicle. The shaman gains a spirit with a ST equal to (margin of success x 5). The spirit will push constantly as directed by the shaman at the time of summoning for as long as described in the duration table on page 81 of Voodoo. The spirit may be released early, but will not change tasks without a new ritual.

Loyal Object

Path of Luck-4

This ritual seeks to return objects to the shaman. The ritual may be cast on any portable object and begins working when the shaman looses contact with the object and hasn't told it to "stay." When someone headed in the right direction passes by, the spirit causes him to notice the object and pick it up (to examine it, etc.). If he goes in a different direction he loses the object (it falls out of his pocket, he realizes he had no interest in it, etc.). This happens until such time as the object makes it back to the caster.

Passers-by will only move the object if it is convenient for them to do so. A pen or book will move quickly, since they are light and very portable, while a stone statue will likely stay where it is unless a group of blacksmiths with a cart happen to drop by. The ritual will not work on someone who receives or steals the object directly from the caster, and carriers get a Will roll, minus the caster's level of initiation, to resist carrying obviously dangerous objects, etc. Carriers will be unaware of what they are doing, and people who aren't carrying the object will ignore it entirely.

The speed with which the object returns to the caster is up to the GM. A piece of paper may make its way from one side of a major city to another in as little as a few hours, while a sword lost in the underbrush during a battle may take months or years to come to light, and just as long to make its way from a small village to the big city where its owner lives.

Bind the Spirit

Path of the Spirit-8

This binds a previously summoned and controlled spirit to a physical object. The spirit can be freed by the caster or by breaking the object. It can also contact/posses anyone touching the object. Unless you can get the spirit to agree before hand (not likely, generally a very good reaction or better), it will not be pleased. Any spirit so bound will automatically have a very bad reaction to the shaman when it comes out again.


Path of the Spirit-5

This allows a shaman's spirit to travel with an animal. Essentially the shaman leaves their body, goes into the spirit realm and attaches him/herself to the animal. (It is handy to be on good terms with the spirit the animal is associated with.) The shaman can direct the animal and can sense what the animal would sense. If the animal is killed, the shaman is dumped into the spirit realm and must find his/her way back to their body as if they were lost. However, the first roll is at a +2.

(Thanks to Pam Keller for trying this on her character and her suggestions.)

Article publication date: August 18, 2000

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