This article originally appeared in Pyramid #1
It is a quiet city.
Roleplaying Background for Magic and Horror
by Derek Pearcy
The adventurers, after their long journey, make their way into the church. Opening the heavy oaken doors so out of place in suburban Quebec, they hear choir music: soft at first, then building, echoing from the choir loft above.
They stumble down the aisle holding each other and the blond wood pews for support. At the front is a tall dark man, priestly robes hanging loose on his frame, swaying slightly to the beat of slow music. Behind him, Jesus Christ hangs eternally crucified, the most famous human sacrifice of all. The singing continues.
Thirty, twenty, ten feet to the front. Their breathing is difficult and their hair matted with sweat. The priest pauses from his reflections and looks them over.
"Father," says one, panting through gritted teeth, "we need your help."
"I know," nods the priest, and slowly reaches under the altar for other, more unusual, vestments.
When America invaded Haiti early in the 20th century, soldiers were exposed to a seldom-discussed religion that bears many of the trappings of Christianity, but is irrevocably rooted in the practices and beliefs of western Africa. It has been spelled many ways, but we call it voodoo.
The stories these soldiers brought back started the myths that we know today. They have been popularized in many forms, initially by the entertainment industry. From Serpent and the Rainbow (originally a book by the same name) to The Believers, Hollywood has taken millions of dark pictures of this religion, twenty-four frames a second.
This article provides game masters with background information on the subject, so they can integrate the voodoo culture into their game world, either as a sub-plot or a one-time encounter. GMs wishing to run a campaign based around voodoo are encouraged to do some research of their own, and look beyond their prejudices; the world of voodoo may seem dark and mysterious to us, but it is, for many, a way of life.
Voodoo has its origins in the religions of West African tribes, brought to Haiti and Jamaica through the slave trade. Initially, slave owners didn't care what their chattel did in their religious lives. But increasing concerns over saving the souls of the black people, and putting down their uprisings, led to the unilateral baptism of their slaves to Catholicism. This was to be the downfall of the slave market in the Caribbean.
African people -- who in their homelands warred against each other, spoke different languages and held to different religions -- were united in the fields under the framework of the Catholic religion. The slaves were able to preserve the oral traditions of their various religions, and adapt them to Christianity.
The aspect of Catholic Christianity that most helped the conversion was the worship of saints -- people who were recognized by the church as being particularly holy, and whose actions in life seemed particularly selfless and miraculous. Saints each have their own special area of expertise; there are saints for everything from Love to Nature to Destruction of Heathens.
Loa are spirits; many of them originated as West African deities, but were integrated into the Caribbean religion of voodoo. Most of the loa were people whose actions in life were so important that they were deified after their demise. There are a variety of loa, each having its own special area of expertise, from Love to Nature to Destruction of Heathens. You get the picture...
Using the saints as a guise for the loa, the slaves were able to appease their masters and covertly retain some of their heritage. The religion evolved over several hundred years as new loa were added. Many consider this newer generation of loa to be more powerful, merely because they are worshipped on territory they once physically occupied, versus the older, "imported" loa. The older loa, however, are considered far more dangerous to deal with. The old loa and the new loa are grouped into classes called Petro and Rada, respectively. The Petro tend to be the more passionate of the two groups, and easily moved towards anger. The Rada are generally more laid back and beneficient to their worshippers, using wrathful destruction only as a last resort to achieve their aims.
Voodoo contends that every loa is an aspect of a single greater god; this is the keystone in the arch that joins it with Christianity. The loa are all different facets of a jewel which defies description.
Loa vary widely, and they number in the hundreds. The loa can be grouped together into many families, almost pantheons, which may complement or contrast with each other.
Worship of loa comes in several forms, from group worship to individual supplication, much like the Christian invocation of saints. When a loa is summoned into a group, it will possess one of the people there -- not necessarily a participant! Researchers hypothesize that the chanting and beating of drums draws the person into a hypnotic trance.
The possessed person is referred to as a "horse" that the loa is "riding." See the Voodoo Ceremonies section below for more details.
DuppyA duppy is an "evil spirit" that once inhabited a human's body.
All people have a duppy, an evil piece of soul that in life is restrained by the will. After death, the duppy is freed. It is almost universally unlucky to encounter one. Whenever bad luck befalls someone, it is blamed on the duppies (sometimes under the control of the bocor; see below).
Some duppies may only interact with people during certain times of year or times of day; others are always present, but may be constrained to a specific physical location. In a town with a large voodoo population, visitors may notice all manner of strange defenses against the duppies. For example, Jamaican voodoo lore contends that duppies make their homes primarily in almond and silk-cotton trees and thus one should avoid planting such trees too near a house.
Many stories about duppies are contradictory. In the book Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston, we read of a duppy named Three-leg-Horse, from Jamaica, who appears only near Christmas and only from one to four in the morning. He walks along roads, and chases travelers; the only way to escape, Hurston says, is to run under a fence. (If you merely jump over, he can follow.) Others believe Three-leg-Horse is harmful only to women, and will dance in the road with any man he runs across.
Every area has its own duppies running about. The trick is knowing where they are and the different ways to deal with them.
Voodoo tells of ways to prepare a corpse to prevent its duppy from returning. Tying the body down, with anything from rope and nails to heavy chains for the more powerful, will prevent that person's duppy from coming, unless summoned.
Most stories about duppies serve as warning fables, from the simple (don't stay out too late... or a duppy will get you!) to the elaborate (how to handle childbirth to protect the infant from evil spirits).
There is no real correlation between duppies and anything in Christian lore, beyond the "imp" of medieval fables, so they may not be openly discussed around people whose stand on voodoo might be unfavorable.
Mambo and Houngan
Group ceremonies are overseen by head priests, Houngan, and priestesses, Mambo. They are trained for decades in the art of the ceremonies, as the most seemingly minor deviation in ceremony may summon the wrong loa, with potentially disastrous results. They also have powers over duppies, and are the holders of knowledge concerning how to send duppies away. Note that sending a duppy away is the only thing any rational person would want to do to it!
Houngan and mambo might also be Catholic priests and nuns, as described in the introduction, but this is not required. In fact, serving a Catholic parish and a congregation of loa worshippers may make things more difficult for a houngan-priest. The voodoo congregation won't mind, but most modern-day Christians would have a decidedly negative reaction to the knowledge that their pastor leads a double life as a "pagan" priest.
The more selfish priests and priestesses, those who would use the power of the loa toward self-serving aims, are called bocor. Do not confuse mambo and houngan as "good" or "nice" and bocor as "evil" or "destructive." If summoning a powerful and destructive loa and performing what may be thought of as evil will serve the needs of the village, any self-respecting mambo or houngan will do it. A bocor, on the other hand, will look after his or her own best interests without considering of the greater good of the congregation.
There are few bocor, and even fewer that would admit to it.
This category is more of an insult than a position. It means "gray pigs" or "hairless pigs."
Voodoo parishoners believe in a simple lifestyle within their means. They feel that everyone has more or less the same base level of luck. There are still various status levels within a village, but these tend to be based on a person's position in religious functions (mambo, drummer, chanter, etc.) rather than on monetary holdings.
People, including bocor, who have extraordinary luck, or who are thought to conspire with duppies for their own personal benefit, are called cochon gris.
This phrase expresses anything from mere jealousy ("Damn gray pig has a new car," or "That's his wife? Hairless pig.") to suspicion based in fact ("The police raided everyone but you, cochon gris" or "My chickens are missing, little gray pig").
There is a secret society in voodoo lore: the Red Group, or Sect Rouge. Literature differs greatly on the nature of this organization, and to be sure they shroud themselves in mystery. There is likely more than one Sect Rouge, which would explain mixed accounts.
Many people consider the cochon gris to be a splinter group of the Sect Rouge, whose enemies have degraded their name to a social insult.
They tend to deal mostly with the older, more dangerous breed of loa, the Petro, and this has given them a reputation for selfish destruction. Some Haitian authors liken them to the Mafia, in that everyone knows who they are and what they do, but no one will talk about it. And for good reason -- the Sect Rouge is said to hold the secret to that most frightening aspect of voodoo, the zombie (see p. 41).
Voodoo towns tend to be small, isolated areas of civilization, with a low level of technology and a high sense of community; in Haiti and Jamaica all small towns are, really, voodoo towns. Larger cities like Kingstown and Port au Prince, Galveston and New Orleans, which have a large voodoo underworld but little public practice, have elements of the typical voodoo town.
In these larger cities, cult members are more secretive. Non-worshipping inhabitants may be more tolerant than most religious outsiders, merely because they know the voodoo practitioners as real people separate from their religious lives -- as teachers and doctors, co-workers and friends.
The Balm Bath
In Jamaica, the most central feature of a voodoo town is its balm bath, the center of their religious lives. The houngan and mambo who run this shop set the practices for the rest of the village in childbirthing, raising children, consummating marriage, retarding aging, and preparing the dead.
Their expertise in herbal medicines so defines the way the villagers live that its importance cannot be overemphasized.
Herbal medication, in conjunction with steam baths and something similar to acupressure, is the most common form of treatment. The people running the bath house may charge for their services, but the village they serve usually supports them.
These baths may exist in the outside world, run from someone's home or under the auspices of New Age pop philosophy.
A village's local balm bath embodies the sense of community.
The practice of leaving lit candles and specially prepared food out for the loa is a symbol of respect. This is similar to the Catholic practice of lighting candles for saints or in remembrance of deceased loved ones. Other ways to attract loa will be explained in greater detail below (see Voodoo Ceremonies).
For example, during an early morning beach walk in Galveston, Texas, you will see any number of small candles, still burning, in front of flowers and plates of cold food. The clever investigator will know what this means.
An old standby of Hollywood is the local voodoo shop, where cures and curses may be bought for pennies. This is not too great a fabrication -- in the real world, nowhere more openly than in Lousiana and Mississippi, there are small stores dedicated to selling herbal medication, very much like that which one would find in a balm bath. Whether there is any real truth to their claims of love and revenge for sale is up to the individual GM. See the rules sections below for more campaign suggestions.
The typical voodoo ceremony starts quietly -- on a Saturday afternoon, if possible -- as the participants disappear one by one into the brush.
Voodoo ceremonies are designed to summon loa for a particular purpose. Loa may be summoned for any seasonal reason (fertility rites, etc.) or for special occasions, like generating power for a rebellion. These ceremonies do not usually happen every week, like Christian church. Though some groups may perform their ceremonies and rituals every day for the tourists, the sacred instruments are not used and no loa appear.
The head drummer begins the session just after dark. The mambo or houngan clears out a space in the center, and draws a veve, a symbol related to the loa being summoned, in the dirt. The veve will later be reinforced by other things familiar to that loa, to draw it to the gathering.
The dancing started an indeterminate time ago. Boys circle around, looking for people who aren't in the spirit of things. They strike the lazy ones with sticks; their sluggishness is said to "cramp" the energy of others.
The dancing builds. The head drummer leads the rest in a distinct rhythm, specific to the desired loa. Clothing, food and drink are brought forth, things special to the loa being summoned. The drumming builds.
As the dancing reaches a peak, the head drummer breaks the established rhythm with a series of quick, abrupt changes. This has a jarring mental effect, though the dancing continues. Within moments, the loa, if properly summoned, will take over the body of one of the dancers and join the party. The person will act like that loa for the rest of the evening, with its trademark personality.
This summoning is the first of many in an evening, building up to the finale. The calling happens in degrees of power, from the lesser to the greater, each one practice for bringing the next down to the party.
At the end of the evening, with all the loa present, the party may turn decadent, and eventually die down as morning comes. The participants file away one by one into the brush, quietly congratulating each other, to dress for Sunday morning church.
This is what happens under the best possible conditions. All the loa are summoned and everyone has a great time. This does not always happen.
Sometimes one or more loa do not make it. Either they were "held up" in celestial traffic, couldn't recognize the signs that the party was being given for them, or were just displeased with the ceremony.
This rarely stops the party, but it will reduce the general energy level and, depending on the reason for the failure, will make it more difficult to summon the next loa.
These suggestions are provided to give the GM a way to implement the voodoo background described above. Feel free to alter them to the power levels in your own campaign.
Non-Magical Voodoo Campaigns
The GM has decided that, in his game world, voodoo is an elaborate cult with devout followers, but there are really no such things as loa and their derivative magic. Rather, its power is effected through the use of powerful herbs, potions and the subjects' belief in magic.
The houngan or mambo must make a Theology (Voodoo) skill roll to successfully draw the veve correctly and begin the ceremony. This also reflects their ability to use the "correct" chants and perform the right actions that will whip the crowd into action. If that roll was successful, the drummer must then make a skill roll against Musical Ability (Conga Drums).
The leader of the ceremony and the drummer are hypnotizing a victim of their choosing; roll a Contest of Skills between the subject's Will+2 (Will-2 if the victim is a strong believer and a willing subject) and the average between the mambo's Hypnotism skill and the drummer's Hypnotism skill.
Beyond that, the hypnosis works as described on p. 56 of the GURPS Basic Set. The hypnosis lasts for 1d6+2 hours, during which the subject will act, dress and talk like the loa being summoned. If the victim was a PC, the GM should ask him to roleplay it!
Another thing that has puzzled many real-world researchers has been the existence of zombies. Individuals declared legally dead with witnessed burials have turned up days later in a mostly mindless, lethargic and emotionless state. Researchers eventually came to the conclusion that the zombie state is caused by a toxic powder whose secret is held by voodoo practitioners.
Anesthetic to some, a weapon to others, this powder is the fuel which has fed a thousand stories about the zombie.
In game terms, the powder must be either blown into the face of the victim or mixed with the victim's food or drink. When the powder is delivered by blowing it at the victim, the victim must immediately make a roll against HT. A failed roll means the powder takes effect. Holding your breath the turn before, during and after the attack will keep you from being affected; this is usually only possible if the victim has plenty of warning! When the powder is diluted by food or drink, the victim must finish the entire serving, and then roll against HT+2 to resist.
Anyone failing the roll will begin to feel tired after 1d6 minutes, and his head and chest will feel very thick. After a number of turns equal to the victim's Health, he will be overcome with dizziness and collapse. At this point the victim will appear to be completely dead. He will see and hear everything around him, unless someone closes his eyelids, but will be completely paralyzed, with vital signs so incredibly low that only a critical success on a Diagnosis or Physician roll will reveal that the subject is still alive.
This death-like state will wear off within 24 hours, and with any luck the victim won't have been buried yet. After this state wears off, the victim will feel slow and disoriented (-4 to both DX and IQ) and will lose two levels of Appearance. This dulled state is usually permanent, but in some rare cases (such as when it concerns a PC, wink, wink) it only lasts a matter of weeks. Roll once each week against HT - a success means the penalties have been reduced by 1. So after the first week, if the victim makes a successful roll against HT, he will only be at -3, and so on. The levels of Appearance may return or not, at the GM's discretion.
The GM may also allow a cure to be available - an adventure in and of itself. See Adventure Seeds below for more hints.
Typically, the victim is buried and exhumed in the middle of the night by his tormenters, and forced to work as a slave in a field for the rest of his life. Needless to say, the victim would acquire several new Disadvantages.
Zombie slaves are kept in substandard living conditions, constantly beaten and drugged, and never allowed to recover from the initial exposure to the nerve toxin. Age rolls (Basic Set, p. 83) are made every six months from that point on, no matter what the subject's starting age.
This powder should not be made available to PCs, and cannot be bought. But perhaps, for the right cause, they could persuade a mambo to make some...
Magical Voodoo Campaigns
If the GM allows magic in the campaign, then there are entirely different ways of handling the same situations, and new situations as well.
To remain accurate to voodoo lore, consider the Caribbean as being a low-mana area.
Most colleges of spells beyond those in the Magical Voodoo Character Summary shouldn't be allowed, except for a few that a traveling mage might have taught to a local mambo in exchange for special favors. Very few magical items should be allowed, with the GM's discretion.
The ceremony will appear to all observers just like its non-magical equivalent, with the houngan or mambo making a roll against Theology (Voodoo) to draw the veve correctly, then proceeding to the summoning.
The remainder of the ceremony is a combination of the Planar Summons (see GURPS Magic, p. 65) and Possession spells. The first is cast by the person in charge of the ceremony, the second by the loa itself.
No specific person will be taken; as far as anyone can tell, it's random. Also, the possession does not limit itself to the people in the ceremony; innocent spectators with no knowledge of the ceremony or its meaning have in the past been ridden by loa. Anyone so possessed will fall into a trance and act like the summoned loa.
If the victim is not willing, he may make a Will roll. If the roll is successful, then the loa moves on to another person. If the roll fails, the victim's mind begins to fog and consciousness begins to fade. Now, he's being ridden by a loa.
This lasts for 1d6+2 hours, or until morning. Again, if the victim is a player character the GM should ask him to roleplay it!
Zombies in a magical campaign may work as described above - but rather than being based on an exotic nerve toxin, the powder is created by magical means. Still, don't let the PCs get hold of any easily, if at all!
In a magical campaign, the characters may have other tools at their disposal to help discern between death and a pre-zombie stupor.
Zombies may also be created from the dead by using the Necromantic spell in GURPS Magic, page 64.
Voodoo has been presented here as a group magic and a community event. This is not always so. As selfless and communal as voodoo has been depicted, it is can also be something very private, very personal.
Sympathetic magic comes in many different flavors. Television sit-com and cartoon veterans will be familiar with voodoo dolls: small effigies which enable the bearer to inflict pain on the represented person from a great distance.
Consider sympathetic magic as the making of a dedicated magic item utilizing any one of the spells Age, Pestilence, Steal Strength or Steal Health.
The sympathetic-magic spell Age is used like item type (a) on p. 65 of GURPS Magic. Pestilence is cast as a normal spell, but the victim need not be present. The magic item will become usable in one day for every ten miles away the subject is from the caster.
Modifiers may be applied to the creation of the item depending on how well the caster knows the person on the receiving end. If the caster has had intimate contact with the subject, the spell roll is at +5. If the caster doesn't know the victim's real full name, he will be at -10 to create the doll! Clever GMs will know what prices to make characters pay for critical failure.
When being created, the item, usually a wax doll made to represent the person being attacked, must incorporate something related to the victim. If it is a scrap of clothing or similar item, the spell saps only one point of ST or HT per usage. If the ingredient is a piece of that person, like hair or blood, then the usual three points are sapped.
Any normal voodoo worshipper will recognize an enchanted doll, and most will react negatively to its user. Though your cause may be just, you sink pretty low, cochon gris.
The spell is cast from the item by damaging the doll in some way, usually with pins or knives. The item's spell may be invoked once per day - or as often as the item's owner wishes, if the victim is in sight!
Keep track of how much damage is done, as a person can only take 10 points of damage (ST or HT) from any one voodoo doll. Piercing or cutting the doll casts the spell normally; removing a limb does double damage. Completely breaking or destroying the doll before its full potential damage has been inflicted ends the spell. A typical voodoo doll has a DR of 0 and 2 hit points.
The largest difference between the sympathetic-magic Steal Health and Steal Strength and their normal magic counterparts is that the caster receives no benefit, other than the somewhat dubious pleasure of knowing that someone, somewhere, is twitching violently.
Here are some adventure seeds to help you integrate the culture and magic of voodoo into your campaign.
Looking for information on their case, the investigators consult an old woman in a New Age herb shop. She gives them some clues about their current problem, and sends them on their way. But they get a feeling that, well, there was something odd about that woman. Maybe when they're through with their current problem, they'll go back and check her out...
This is a simple way to introduce voodoo into your campaign as an aside, to set up its existence in your world, to foreshadow some later involvement. No muss, no fuss. Also, this gives the GM time to figure out how he wants to run voodoo in the campaign.
Honey, I Cursed the PCs!
This scenario might end in the vignette at the beginning of this article. The characters have been cursed, and a short quest in search of help will lead them into the voodoo underworld they didn't know existed. Aside from the title, this should basically a serious scenario.
That Voodoo That You Do
The adventurers are on a "routine" case that turns into much more than they expected. The quiet waif with the rag doll, her stony guardian with the lisp, the twitchy librarian, the blowgun deaths... the PCs begin to think things aren't exactly normal around here. Then the disappearances, and reports of apparitions haunting suburbia. The players begin to suspect a voodoo conspiracy, with its own shrouded goals.
Though many clues may point to some powerful magic, the GM should develop this as a non-magical adventure. In the end, it's all smoke and mirrors. Powerful drugs, sleight-of-hand; no magic, just kidding.
Finally, It's the Real Thing
This scenario works best as a way to turn a non-magical campaign into ManaLand. It can easily develop into a campaign by itself.
Take it slowly at first, revealing only enough clues pointing to voodoo to goad the investigators forward. Don't ever confirm that magic really works, until the first session they try it themselves...
While the magical element is a nice surprise, the players may expect it, even if the campaign was previously non-magical. A great way to add a greater element of surprise is to make another conspiracy, whose aims are to expose the innocent houngan and his local congregation to an over-reactive media.
The true beauty of this twist and the scenario is that it plays off the players' biases about voodoo.
Voodoo has been translated to many times and places. It is both familiar to the players - everyone has seen at least one movie about "voodoo" - and frighteningly exotic - no one knows what it really is. If you are going to adapt voodoo to a fantasy or similarly foreign campaign, you may wish to change certain things about the way it functions, to provide internal consistency with your campaign, and also to keep the players on their toes if they've read this article!
For a brilliant example of taking the concepts of voodoo and adapting them to a futuristic world, we suggest you read (or re-read) William Gibson's Count Zero after digesting this article. It is the premier source for "cybervoodoo" material.
Voodoo is not an idea or a concept; it's a living culture born of a random series of circumstances. There have been many similar religions, but voodoo stands unique. Voodoo is what it is today; it was something else several hundred years ago, and will doubtless continue to change in the future.
Although many people in Western societies consider voodoo to be a mysterious religion, and attribute all sorts of evils to it, it's very similar to the standard religious practices of cultures from the cradle of Western civilization: they worship their ancestors, they fashion stories and create medicine from their surroundings and they do whatever they have to do to protect their young and themselves.
We can see what Western civilization became from its humble origins; who can imagine what voodoo may become from such a colorful present, if given the chance?
To create this article, a good deal of research was done into the culture and lifestyle of people who practice voodoo. But what stereotypes are true? Which rumors are false?
Whether or not you "believe" in voodoo isn't important. What matters is when you play your game, that you treat it with the dignity it deserves. We do hope that with some luck, and perhaps a willing loa, these games will bring a little magic into your life.
Article publication date: June 1, 1993
Copyright © 1993 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.