A spirit is a typically insubstantial type of creature that resides in our world, or in some sort of parrallel Spirit World. Typical interpretations of the spirit world by cultures that consider such things are as "the other side of the mirror" or "underneath the water" - often those with the correct gifts or techniques will be able to percieve and interact with one world whilst remaining in the other, although some interpretations place a hard seperation between the two and require reality busting gateways or at the very least something like astral projection to move from one to the other.
Many spirits are said to exist in our world - usually invisibly - or can enter and leave it freely, whilst others must be coaxed to manifest (or at least to become visible), via a form of magic known as Invocation. Some spirits may be able to manifest a partially material form (sometimes made out of ectoplasm) or otherwise effect the material world and some are able to communicate with the living in one way or another - whether they have control over these activities or carry them out reflexively or by rote varies immensely. Opinions vary as to whether invisible spirits are in the material world and invisible or in the spirit world and hidden - both may be possible. Where spirits are unable to manifest or communicate, specially gifted individuals may be able to see, touch or interface with them or they may need to be granted a physical body such as a fetish or construct or be allowed to possess the body of a living creature. Those spirits that live in the material world may well inhabit specific things - the recognition and veneration of such indwelling spirits is usually termed animism. Note also that when a spirit is visible, that visible presence may be purely illusory and lacking in any concrete reality - expect it not to obey normal rules of visiblity: not everyone may be able to see it, it may look radically different depending on the viewer and it is highly unlikely to reflect in mirrors or show up on photographs or on electronic media. Audible communication from spirits may also turn out to be hallucinatory in character and likewise hard to record.
Spirits are sometimes said to desire various things of the living - desires which can be used to appease, bribe or pay them depending on the circumstances - these may include behaviours (such as worship, specific favours or observing of specific social codes), life energy (often expressed as blood), food, drink or recreational drugs (or sometimes the smell, vapour or smoke thereof) or the loan of a body to experience what it is to be alive. A manifest spirit may or may not be able to indulge itself fully - unless the manifestation is extremely complicated, it may lack a lot of functional parts that it requires and the spirit itself may not know (or remember) how to perform basic life functions.
Where spirits are not desired, a variety of measures have been attempted to get rid of them and keep them out - exorcism and various forms of ritual purification usually serve to drive them off, whilst keeping them out is the function of ward magic - since they are immaterial physical barriers can be expected to have little or no effect. Symbolic barriers, on the other hand, such as lines of salt or the threshold of a home, may well be a lot more effective.
As beings of "pure concept" (so to speak) spirits seem to be more easily manipulated by magic and similar things, and are traditionally far more influenced and defined by their name (if any) than a mortal creature (which is usually more defined by its physical form). They are also quite likely to be subject to peculiar restrictions, taboos and compulsions, lacking what might be called "the mandate of physical reality". This also extends to symbolism - as noted in the example of barriers above - not for nothing do we refer to "the spirit" of something as opposed to its "letter" or reality. Of course this can also make spirits very stubborn, bloody minded and obsessive - if you are literally an embodiment of the abstract concept of something then acting in a manner contrary to your nature ain't going to happen; expecting a spirit of conformity (for example) to do something spontaneous and outlandish would be like expecting a human to suddenly have wings and fly. Some spirits may find concepts outside their remit completely unintelligible, or even harmful.
Working with spirits is the normal business of the shaman but other workers (especially witches and necromancers) may also see a lot of them. Many forms of Theurgy involve spirits to a greater or lesser degree as well, but depending on the magic system in a campaign setting all kinds of magic may use them. For a rule of thumb, it may be assumed that the (animist) priest approaches a spiritual entity as a superior to be worshipped, the shaman approaches it as an equal to be bargained with and the wizard as a tool to be used or an inferior to be subjugated. Obviously the wrong approach with the wrong type of spirit can be … counterproductive.
Many entities that simply come from a different dimension are called spirits, and "spirit" is often used as a catch-all term for numerous different supernatural entities.
Spirits can originate in a variety of ways, including the following:
- Uncreated and older than the world
- Deliberately created by one or more deities
- Accidentally created as a by-product of creating the world
- Remanants of a deceased being
- Created as a side effect of a magical working
- 'Echo' of a living being created during astral projection or bilocation (arguably a special case of the above)
- Personification of a concept imagined into existance by collective belief (like a mythago)
- Deliberately created by a magical working
- A specific piece of personified knowledge (as in the "spell spirits" of Runequest and similar systems).
Any or all of these may be true at once depending on the spirit. They will also vary in power, sapience (or even sentience) and attitude. By some definitions most, if not all, deities would qualify as spirits.
In some settings, those with the appropriate powers may be able to consume spirits - this may be fairly routine, or may be an atrocity that causes all sorts of trouble. Who does the consuming may be a factor (this may be how spirits normally kill each other, but if a mortal does it…) and/or the type of spirit may be important (just like there is a cultural step between eating sapient and non-sapient animals).
- Spirit World
- Spirit Ally - exactly what it says on the tin.
- Soul - effectively a spirit with the freehold on a mortal body.
- Ghost - a spirit formed from the remains of a deceased mortal.
- Fairy - in some interpretations a form of materialised (or semi-materialised) spirit.
Game and Story Use
- As the main article points out, a shaman PC is going to deal with spirits a lot.
- Note that a campaign setting which takes the world of spirits seriously is going to be a very interesting place.
- Spirits of various origins may be very unlike one another … as may spirits of the same origin…
- Depending on your system, spirits may be irrelevant, incidental or integral to the magic system. The three modes will all feel very different.
- Regarding spirits and "spell points" (per system) … spirits may be literally made of spell energy, but alternatively, despite being inherently magical they may accumulate magic really slowly (perhaps because they barely make more than it takes them to survive under normal circumstances) and are greatly attracted to the surplus energy given off by a mortal soul. A spirit may still have massive reserves of power (imagine it as being really fat) but still accumulate at a fraction of the rate even of an untrained human. Under these sort of assumptions, humans, especially those with magical training, can pay spirits easily by sacrificing their current spell points to them or - if they can successfully bind a spirit - use it as a store of power, stuffing it like a honey ant when they have spare points and sucking it dry when they need to tap the reserve. Expect the spirit not to enjoy this except in a few, very rare cases. Shamen may be able to make less efficient, but also less abusive, arrangements with a spirit ally.
- The "spirit eating" thing may be of great use - for example, it may be something sorcerers do routinely (presumably by trapping spirits in some kind of matrix and then ritually consuming them), making them hated and feared.
- Obviously, this gives shamen an immediate source of conflict with sorcerers - friends, allies and business contacts of the one are short lived, single use power-ups for the other.
- Where this is normally a time consuming ritual, demonstrate the power of an NPC by having them simply seize a hostile spirit "out of the air" and gulp it up like a snack. Do not do this lightly to a PCs spirit ally, but if, having seen your warning demonstration, he still insists on sending it in - fine him for his stupidity. If you want the PC to live, have the NPC laugh and walk away as the fool writhes in sympathetic agony.