This article originally appeared in Pyramid #13

Places of Mystery

Designers' Notes: Places of Mystery

by Phil Masters and Alison Brooks

"Ritual Center"

One band of pillagers, slightly ahead of the pack, had found another building that looked worth plundering and if it proved empty of treasure, well, it certainly would be fun to burn it down. (Every invader carried a resinous torch as well as sword or spear.) They quickly battered through the brass-bound, cedar-wood doors, and then plunged into the vast pillared hall.

For a moment they were struck dumb by the sheer scale and intricate decoration of the place, but then they let out a ragged cheer of triumph. Even so, as their eyes grew accustomed to the flickering light of the place, they fell silent again as they saw its sole occupant.

He was a man of advancing years, but still tall and dignified. He carried no weapons, wore no armor, but even so his tone had something that made them attend to his words.

"This place is not for you. Leave it now."

The lead invader a swaggering clan-chief threw his shoulders back and sneered a response. "What's to make us, old man? The city is fallen. All the priests and curses and blessings were too weak. There's nothing and no one can stop us doing what we like."

The man shook his head. "The city is fallen, its power broken. But this place is different. There is a power here that is unlike anything you faced outside. I have mastered it . . ."

The barbarians laughed at that, then began to advance again, gesturing with swords and torches. The man sighed, then murmured an incantation. Immaterial energies focused through the very stones of the building, responding to his slightest gesture.

The wizard was a reasonable man. He had tried to warn them.

The Problems of Research

When Alison Brooks and I were researching GURPS Places of Mystery, a number of lines seemed to recur constantly in our reading:

"The Xyz conquered the country and burned the city to the ground." (The Xyz were generally "barbarians", and often "Mongols," but other candidates included "Egyptians," "Assyrians," "Romans," "Moroccans," "Aztecs," "Spaniards," and "British." For Jericho and a few others, the phrase becomes "the city was conquered and burnt to the ground nn times over the following xx years.")

"He rebelled against his father and murdered his brothers." (With special awards to the Cambodian prince who got his enemies to murder his brothers for him, and the Ottomans, who passed a law making brother-murder compulsory.)

"The irrigation system collapsed and the empire disintegrated." (Every time. That one became really depressing.)

"The truth, however, is more prosaic."

But when it came to the subject of the buildings themselves, rather than their history, the phrase that seemed to crop up most often consisted of two words: "Ritual Center."

This could sometimes seem like an archaeologist's cop-out. It appeared that, whenever they couldn't find a good reason for any site that they were studying, they labeled it a "Ritual Center." (Similarly, anything that didn't seem to have any practical use was a "Ritual Item.") It began to seem as though ancient peoples never built anything but places to conduct inscrutable religious ceremonies. Surely, we began to think, some of these structures were for holding town meetings, or playing games, or even, somehow, living in?

But then, looking at buildings whose function is known, the idea began to seem a lot more plausible. For example, one topic we covered very briefly was the gothic cathedrals of Medieval Europe, which were unquestionably built for religious use (and which are still used for worship today). In the 12th and 13th centuries, most peasants and townspeople were living in half-timbered cottages or squalid huts, and even castle design was still evolving; in any case, fortifications were built with heavy, solid walls and little decoration, for defense rather than beauty. And yet, the muddy streets and wattle-and-daub dwellings of those medieval towns were completely dominated by their "Ritual Centers" towering fantasies of carved and worked stone, supported by elegant "flying buttresses," and with pencil-thin spires reaching towards heaven. Looking at these, it became easier to imagine Stone Age tribes in Britain transporting four-ton stones from Wales to Wiltshire, or raising 60-ton monoliths at Avebury, simply to worship among them, and to encourage a proper sense of awe when the sun rose on some significant alignment. The major buildings of Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, may have been primarily houses, or grain stores but it's possible to believe that the Anasazi people who built them traveled there along their great roads for some kind of religious ceremonies. Even the idea that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built to provide a god-king with an eternal home from which to dispense divine power to his kingdom became well, reasonable, if not exactly comprehensible.

Ritual Center

Game Significance

The Pyramids and the Gothic cathedrals were huge, multi-generation projects, which must have dominated the lives of much of nearby society throughout the time of their building. And yet, in this era when an over-run of a year on a civil engineering project can be called a disaster, how often do roleplaying games incorporate such grand structures? Even historical campaigns tend to treat such things as background furniture, while out-and-out fantasy worlds sometimes seem to lack them altogether or to assume that each city has a few token temples, built long ago and maintained without visible effort. This means that a whole class of sources for scenario ideas is being, mostly, ignored. GMs should regard this as an opportunity.

For example, a fantasy town might indeed have a substantial working temple or two but it might also have another such half-built, with wealthy individuals and groups vying to provide it with the finest decorations, and the home of an older cult decaying away outside the walls. Some religions, such as Japan's Shinto, encourage continuous building and rebuilding processes. Adventurers might be hired to escort loads of fine materials from distant lands to a building site (or amoral PCs might raid such loads of goods), to locate suitable artists to decorate the new building, or to investigate (or conduct) campaigns of sabotage against the work. Old, decaying temples might hold mysteries and secrets, and their priests might have bizarre concerns of their own (or they might be dangerously crazy).

One example; in an "Arabian Nights" campaign, the PCs find themselves in a Persian town, where a few Zoroastrian believers survive, despised by their Muslim neighbors but not yet physically attacked. A new sultan has just gained power in the area; he may be planning to increase the taxes on unbelievers, or perhaps his vizier is a secret sympathizer. Some of the Zoroastrians want to emigrate to India, but the older or more stubborn members of the community disagree. They may be interested in employing mercenaries to protect them on the journey, or to save them from the brawling Ayyar (street tough) gang in the town. A few Muslims may still regard the Zoroastrians as protected "people of the book." Their enemies know the significance of the sacred flame on their altar, and may attack it. Through all of this, the old Magian priest is acting as though there is no problem. Is he senile, or does he know something no one else does?

PCs with the status of priests (and for some reason, roleplaying games have a great tradition of "clerical" characters) should definitely have to think about their places of worship. Even "nature cults" with an active aversion to artificial buildings have their "Places of Power"; the ancient Celtic druids had their sacred groves, while the aborigines of Australia had their Songlines and such locations as Ayer's Rock (Uluru). GURPS Religion introduces the idea of "Sanctity," the theistic equivalent of Mana, which modifies the power of divinity-given magic in a specific area. Constructing a temple or the like on a site should usually enhance the Sanctity of the location but this should not be a trivial process. GMs might like to assume that it's the years of dedicated activity that either sanctifies an area in itself, or draws it to a divinity's attention so a building must either be constructed with great effort and skill over a long period of time, or used for devout worship over an even longer period. Of course, some areas may be "sanctified" without the world's knowing about them, perhaps because a local group of believers died out but the divinity hasn't forgotten the place, perhaps because some saint or holy hermit has spent a long time there. (Or perhaps some gods are just plain whimsical.) These sorts of places can be discovered and turned into places of pilgrimage a suitable quest for a religious PC, and potentially the source of further adventures. There are several stages to such a process; finding the site (by accident or as a result of exhaustive research and looking), obtaining property rights to it, protecting it from rival cults or blasphemous criminals, publicizing its existence to the faithful (without drawing too much attention from rival cults or blasphemous criminals), and then assisting pilgrims in their travels to the location.

Rolling Your Own

PCs of either a priestly or a sorcerous frame of mind may show an interest in acquiring their own "Places of Power." However, this is a substantial advantage in game terms. It also tends to encourage PCs to settle down in one place and defend it fiercely, rather than going off adventuring at the slightest hint of anything interesting. GMs may or may not be happy with this, and so should feel free to ban the idea of a PC acquiring a "Place of Power." (For a fantasy game in which the PCs are magically powerful and based in a carefully chosen location, but which still allows and encourages adventuring further afield, see Ars Magica, now published by Wizards of the Coast.)

GURPS Places of Mystery includes some rules for PC Places of Power, especially the idea of "Location Linked" Magery; the idea could easily be adapted to GURPS Religion's "Power Investiture" Advantage (especially if the GM doesn't want to use "Sanctity" note that combining the two makes clerics very powerful on their home turf). However, it's possible to take the idea further; we would like to thank the Rev. Michael "Moriah" Sullivan for suggesting the following additional rules for GURPS.

Building the Pyramids

Unusual Background: Place of Power

If a player wishes (and is permitted by the GM) to obtain a Place of Power for a character, this is an Unusual Background Advantage (see p. B23). The GM and player will have to work out a description of such a Place of Power, its Mana level, and any other features of the place. There are two separate "costs" for purchasing such a Place of Power. The first is with money, to justify the PC's ownership of a valuable piece of property. (Of course, money above and beyond "normal" starting wealth has to be purchased in character points through the Wealth advantage.) The second cost is paid in character points for the Unusual Background.

The GM should determine, in GURPS dollars, the cost of purchasing and maintaining the property, including any buildings, access ways to the place, or special "mundane" features. The PC should be able to afford to own such a place, not counting its special powers. Or, a PC may spend enough character points (with one point equaling one month's salary, see p. B83) to be able to afford such a place.

The GM should then set the cost of the mystical advantages gained through ownership of the Place of Power. As a base, it should cost 10 points as an Unusual Background. Then, for every level of Mana (or Sanctity, if appropriate) by which the Place of Power is higher than the game-world in general, add an additional 10 points. (See the sidebar on p. B147 for the effects of high ambient mana levels.) Other mystical effects (such as better or worse crop yields from surrounding farmland) are to be priced at the GM's discretion.


Secret Place of Power: If the Place of Power is a secret (only the PC and maybe a few trusted associates know it's a Place of Power), then multiply the Unusual Background cost by 2. The player must choose this enhancement or else use the limitation Known Place of Power immediately following.

Known Place of Power: If the place is generally known as a Place of Power, then its property value is increased at least 100 times and the PC must pay that extra cost (through a higher Wealth Advantage or in character points buying more months' salary) in order to purchase the Place! (If you don't think this is fair, let's see if you can purchase Stonehenge at the same price as the surrounding farmland.) This applies only to the financial cost of ownership of a Place of Power, not to its Unusual Background cost. If the player does not choose this limitation, then they must use the enhancement, Secret Place of Power, above.

Through roleplaying or plot accident, a PC who starts out with a secret Place of Power may voluntarily or involuntarily let others know about the mystical properties of their Place of Power. In such a case, they lose the advantage of secrecy and the Unusual Background cost is halved (with those advantage points simply being lost). At the same time, the property value of their Place of Power increases at least 100 times (GM's discretion). The PC may then have to ward off friendly (offers of money) or hostile takeovers of their Place of Power.

Indisputable Ownership: By multiplying the Unusual Background cost by 2, the PC can never lose ownership of the Place of Power (the PC still has to be able to afford the initial financial cost of the Place of Power). The GM and player will have to come up with a game-world rationale for this advantage. The simplest solution is to have the Place of Power be within a sovereign nation which will ensure the PC's property rights through law and force. Either this government should, in general, respect the rule of law and provide a reliable (and affordable) system of judgment, or the PC should be of a Social Status and general background that makes the law fully accessible to them. Note that property prices in safe, law-abiding, well-governed lands may be quite a bit higher than in the wilderness. Other forms of protection for ownership include the support of a powerful temple, wizard's guild, or the like (which might have to be taken as a Patron). Of course, through roleplaying, the PC can lose this advantage by selling (or gambling away!) their property. In such a case, the PC loses the Unusual Background points, but gets to keep any financial gain made through the transfer of the Place of Power (unless they lost a bet; then they're really a loser). Other than the PC wilfully handing over their property, no other PC or NPC can launch a successful attempt to take over the PC's Place of Power. If the PC was coerced into giving up the Place of Power, a court battle will render the transaction null and void and return the PC's rightful property.

Usable by the PC Only: Only the PC can use the mystical advantages of the Place of Power. This is better handled as Location-Linked Magery. What this concept implies is not really a Place of Power, it is an advantage peculiar to the PC. If the player wants to purchase the location, follow the rules for the financial purchase of a place as given above, but do not charge an Unusual Background as you would for a Place of Power (unless, there is something very extraordinary and unusual about the place like a swamp in the middle of New York City; then, of course, charge an appropriate mundane Unusual Background). The cost of the place may not increase if it is known that it is a Place of Power for the PC alone, since no one else can take advantage of it but wealthy enemies may push the price of the place up by over-bidding, given the chance, and sellers who become aware how badly the PC wants the site may drive a very hard bargain.

Booty! Exceptional Defenses: If a Place of Power even one that is only usable by the PC is especially defendable, this can increase both the money and point costs, at the GM's option. A mountain-top site probably adds little to cash costs of a "mundane" site, as it isn't especially advantageous for mundane purposes such as farming but it might add 5 points to the Unusual Background, because it's easy to fortify. A well-built fortified manor probably costs at least twice as much to build and buy as an ordinary house of the same size, as it requires much more stone and building work; it should also add 5 or 10 to the character point value, depending on location. A family castle, defended by massive walls, devious traps, and labyrinthine approach passages, is a major advantage for any character, implying a Wealth level of Filthy Rich and an extra 25 points of Unusual Background as well as special GM permission.

Article publication date: June 1, 1995

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