Some shamen are natural mediums whilst others use mind altering substances such as muscarine, ergotamine, peyote or datura to enter an altered state of conciousness in which they can perceive and deal with spirits. Some natural mediums use chemical enhancement anyway either to boost their powers or to enable themselves to alter their thought processess in a way that helps them understand those of the spirits. Authypnosis, fasting and the use of smoke lodges are also popular ways of attuning to the spirit world.
In general, a shaman works by bargaining with spirits rather than worshipping them - although praise, flattery and sacrifices may well be part of the deal. In some cases the spirit will be allowed to take temporary possession of the shaman's body - or someone else's - so that it can experience various new sensations in return for its help. Regardless, there will be a sense of quid pro quo which is absent from both true worship and from summoning-and-binding style magic.
It should be noted that shamanistic magic is rarely clean or pleasant to perform - most traditions involve self mortification to some degree or the other as noted above and the workings themselves are often painful and/or psychologically alien experiences.
And on the subject of "he" … it is not uncommon for a shaman to be a eunuch, a berdache, intersexed or gender-queer in some other way. Many shamanistic societies regard such folk as being dual-souled and thus better equipped to make contact with the other side.
Also, a shamanistic society may well have a number of people who are not full shamen, but have some degree of initiation into the shaman's mysteries and have been introduced to a number of spirits that they can contact in time of need. Such people may assist the shaman in major rites, deputise for them in minor ones or may have a separate role altogether (for example an elder hunter who can perform the correct pre- and post hunting rites without bothering the shaman … which may be important if the shaman has a blood taboo). Such people, unless basically apprentice shamen, are typically far less mad than a professional and will spend most of their time as normal - maybe even respected - members of society.
Game and Story Use
- Shamanism is generally ignored as a magical tradition in RPGs … despite being a popular source of "primitive magic" into the present day.
- When faced with problem spirits, these are almost certainly the people to go to.
- In terms of characterisation, a Shaman gives plenty of scope for quirkyness - as noted, they are frequently socially marginal to begin with and, once practicing, will spend a lot of time isolated from the rest of their community so that they can interact with the spirits in peace (and so that they don't cause too much nuisance when a spirit is borrowing their body). Expect a shaman to be a very odd person indeed, who is constantly interacting with things that no-one else can see or hear, likely to observe all sorts of peculiar taboos and occasionally subject to radical personality changes due to being temporarily possessed. To someone unaware of their calling they are likely to appear mentally ill - and conversely, mentally ill people may occasionally be mistaken for shamen. Probably great fun for the right sort of person to play.
- Of course a shaman needn't necessarily be a social misfit - your average Vodou or Shinto priest is typically a fully functioning member of society, much the same as most other clergy, and it's not hard to imagine even a "secular" shaman being a business suited "spiritual contract lawyer". Any of these are also viable models for PCs or NPCs.
- Given the breadth of shamanistic practices, you can probably be justified in loading virtually any skill set the GM will permit onto your character and calling them a shaman - as long as you have a congruent explanation for it.
- Shamanistic "magic" should have a radically different flavour to other types - a shaman doesn't mystically perceive someone's character after casting a spell, he looks at the spirits that follow them around and works it out (or asks one of them). He doesn't use magical scrying, but asks a friendly spirit to make a recce and report back. He doesn't kill his enemies with lightning bolts but sends a spirit of death and disease to attack them. In general, expect a much less flashy style than a traditional fantasy wizard and less power than someone with ultramundane gods to call on, but still a capability to achieve trully staggering results under the right circumstances.
Building This Character
- Any level. If the shaman takes part in local politics, he should be slightly higher-level than his peers because authority equals asskicking.
- Character Class
- A divine casting class like cleric or druid might be what you want. Or maybe you should make your own character class for him.
- Charisma is important, since you get your magic by making bargains.
- Some spirits will require you to injure yourself, so you want a decent amount of hit points.
- Willpower is useful if you accidentally call up something you shouldn't.
- Diplomacy, Haggle, and whatever skill covers knowledge of the spirit world, obviously.
- Intimidate for performing exorcisms.
- Depending on how spirits and the spirit world work in your setting, you will want Survival, Bureaucracy, Politics, Contract Law, Mythology, Xenopsychology, or something stranger.
- Since you are likely your people's storyteller, historian, doctor, and religious authority, you will want History, Perform, Medicine, and Religion.
- If your abilities require psychoactive drugs (in context entheogens), you should have Pharmacology, Alchemy, Botany, or something along those lines.
- You should have a combination of spontaneous and prepared casting. You can cast spells that find information on the fly, just by looking at the spirit world. Spells that remove status conditions should take a while to cast, but can be done without much preparation. Pretty much anything else should require you to have an appropriate spirit ally ready to help, but you can prepare any level-appropriate spell.
- You should be able to make journeys into the spirit world if you need to.
- Addictions, curses, possession, mental illness, and taboos are distinct possibilities - in fact, feel free to completely counteract the character's charisma (as far as it applies to humans anyway) with them … a shaman who is too deeply engaged in the spirit world may have difficulty relating to the living. Also the considerable nuisance value of a tribe of attending spirits in such matters as poltergeist activity, voices, phantom lights and the like.
- Flaws associated with the shaman's special role in society might include dependent NPCs or an obligation to avoid politics - or equally might derive from an entire tribe having a claim on his time and attention.
- Since a shaman is often a berdache, gender dysphoria would be appropriate, as might other psycho-sexual issues (although these tend to be roleplay unfriendly and better avoided or glossed over).
- Expect a range of taboos, duties and obligations related to dealings with the spirit world.
- Shamanistic initiates - with a few, limited powers or one big specialisation might be an option for someone wishing to dabble in the role. With the proper spin, berserkers and/or some forms of lycanthrope might be the result of shamanistic practice - or you may just be dealing with a tribal warrior who has a few buffs (like an improved sense, strength boost or stamina bonus) as a result of his bond to his patron spirit.