In broad terms, Shamanism is a religion that involves significant participation by shamen. Shamanistic religions are normally animist in character - since if everything is full of spirits it makes sense to have a shaman to mediate with them - but Vodou could also be truthfully described as shamanistic, as could several ancestor venerating traditions such as Shinto. Although frequently presented as a religious practice of primitive peoples, shamanism need not be - Japanese Shinto mystics are still regularly called in to appease local spirits before the construction of skyscrapers, just as forthrightly as a stone-age tribe would have its own holy-man invoke game animal spirits before a hunt.
Shamanists are likely to have a far less defferential relationship with their gods than many religions - whilst they still respect and worship them, they will also be tending to haggle a lot more over terms and conditions, and in many cases their gods will be of a much smaller scale: whilst a monotheist must, perforce relate as best he can to the supreme creator of the multiverse, the god of "that rock over there" is liable to be far more approachable. And possibly a lot less stable as well…
Game and Story Use
- A genuinely shamanistic religion is likely to be quite dissonant to your average player - although a Shintoist or Vodouisant may cope better - and will probably be a challenge to GM as well. Remember that you will potentially need an NPC spirit for everything, just in case the party shaman wants a chat.
- As a guide, a sorcerer treats spirits as tools to be compelled, a priest treats them as (representatives of) powers to be worshipped and a shaman treats them as peers to be bargained with.