April 22, 2012

Animistic Magic in Hari Ragat Part I

Ana Feleo as a babaylan in Amaya

Once again, I turn to the Filipino TV series Amaya for my visuals, because they’re just so nicely done in terms of costume and production design.  Kudos to the Amaya team for doing this despite budget constraints.

In this post, I’ll  lay down the framework of the Hari Ragat magic system as practiced by its main  proponents, the shamans. 

The Flavor of Magic
First off: spells like fireball don’t exist in this setting.  There was no ‘point-n-zap’ magic in the epics which are my source mterial, so there’s none of that here.  Nor will either the Western four-element division or the Chinese five-element division be used – neither exist in the source material.

Instead, magic will be all about the spirits.  Spirits fall into two broad classes, nature spirits and ancestor spirits. There are also supernatural forces that can be inimical to mankind, such as nagas and the demonic laman-lupa or halimaw, which necessitate magical defenses.

Role of the Shaman
The main role of the shaman is to intervene on man’s behalf vs. the spirit world: to cure disease, to fend off death, to defend against hostile spirits and supernatural monsters, to help mollify offended spirits and court the favor of potentially friendly spirits.  They can also use their powers to make spirits do their bidding, though this is costly.

Instead of ‘memorizing’ spells, D&D style, the shamans rely on a body of lore – chants, gestures, dances, sacrificial rites – to make the spirits do what they want.  At the same time, shamans are very aware that spirits are eternal and indestructible.

This opens up a very interesting avenue of magic use: on-the-spot spirit bargains.  You want something to happen? You ask the spirits on the spot for it, but offer them something in exchange.  The price could be a sacrifice, the promise to make a sacrifice later, or even a vow to perform some quest or pilgrimage.  (I’d save the last for campaign games where the quest/pilgrimage can actually happen). 

If the requested price is a sacrifice, the desired offering may be quite expensive or exotic, or both: chickens are common, hogs are expensive, cattle really expensive, horses are through the roof, and sometimes a specific kind of wild animal or wild flower or fruit is demanded, leading to a dangerous foray into the jungle.

Babaylan, Katalo, Asog
There are four types of magic-users in the Hari Ragat setting: female babaylan, male katalo, and the cross-dressing asog. All three fall under the term shaman.  I’ll go into the fourth type, the practitioners of kulam, in a later post.

As you’ve probably guessed by my using different terms, the  shamanistic tradition has gender-based specialties.  The babaylan embodies fertility and purity; she thus enjoys a bonus at healing and at driving away evil spirits. 

The katalo, as his title suggests (it translates as ‘amicable’ or ‘compatible’) is specialized in smoothing human-spirit relations; he gets bonuses at making sacrifices, interpreting omens and visions, and finding out what the ancestors want.

The asog, which is a male transvestite, symbolizes standing between worlds by deliberately cultivating an aura of ambiguity.  Thus the asog stands between life and death, between mortal and supernatural.  This gives the asog bonuses to ‘call back’ the spirit of a dying character, to speak with the dead, and to ease difficult life transitions such as childbirth, or lay a troublesome ghost to rest with a funeral rite. 

Childbirth?! What kind of RPG gets anything to do with childbirth?! Imagine this scenario:

A rajah is under supernatural threat by an evil sorcerer (mangkukulam).  After the past few attempts have narrowly failed, the sorcerer decides to strike at the rajah’s posterity instead, sending evil spirits to attack the queen while she’s in childbirth. 

While our warrior-type heroes go off to track down the sorcerer, the party’s babaylan and asog team up to aid the queen, the babaylan fending off the evil spirits while the asog tries to keep the queen alive through a difficult birth …

For the two shamans, they’ll have an extended magical combat/magical contest running simultaneously with the physical battle at the sorcerer’s lair.

Some players will ask, I’m sure, whether an asog is supposed to be homophilic.  My answer: that’s a player choice! The source materials only mention that asog are tranvestites.

Shaman PCs and NPCs
Aside from personal preference, are there any guidelines for whether a shaman should be babaylan, katalo or asog? Loosely, yes: it depends on the community’s size and location.

Everywhere but the three major islands of Namaya, Irayon and Tundok, plus a few colonies ruled by members of the Bayahari line, babaylan are more common than katalo or asog.  This is because shamans in such communities are drawn from the Orang Dakila caste,  whose men usually become warriors or corsairs, thus leaving the shaman role to women.  There’s also a form of inertia and matriarchal tradition at work: since the existing shamans are women, they tend to recruit women apprentices to perpetuate power in the matrilineal line.

In the major kingdoms, katalo occur at about the same frequency as babaylan, or sometimes exceeding them.  This is in part because the shamans here are drawn from the newly rising Orang Pandita caste, an offshoot of the Orang Dakila caste that is growing into a professional priesthood.

Asog are rare everywhere, and are often sought far and wide for their unique powers.

Shamanistic Rites
Here are some ideas for what your shaman PCs can contribute in adventures (Readers please note, all this is imaginary! They won’t work in real life, or if they do, they require knowledge and powers I can’t give you!):

Call Back the Spirit:
Administered to the dying (perhaps even the newly dead), this is an attempt to get the subject’s spirit to return to his or her body, and may involve intercession with the ancestors, specially recent ancestors who want to be reunited with the subject already, or a struggle against disease spirits, or even against the spirit of a hostile sorcerer who is trying to steal the subject’s soul. 

The rite consists of chanting the subject’s name and appeals for the spirit to return, at the same time proclaiming dire warnings against any entities who try to prevent this, or beseeching the ancestors to let go and let the subject live a while longer, and is best accompanied by a sacrifice.

Restore Vitality:
Cure Wounds, Hari Ragat style! The shaman beseeches the ancestors to give the subject strength to heal faster than normal, sealing wounds, stopping bleeding, causing flesh and bone to re-knit.  (An interesting possibility: what if the ancestors refuse?)

A darker version of this rite is also known, but its practitioners are feared and suspected of having ‘fallen’ to doing witchcraft.  In this version, the subject’s wounds are transferred to a victim, usually a large-ish animal like a hog or goat, so that the subject is restored to health.  It’s obvious that a human will do just as well for the purpose as a hog, which is why people fear those who use this rite.

The shaman draws a circle on the ground or floor using salt – a substance considered to have purifying and evil-repelling powers – along with invocations to the ancestors and the gods friendly to man, specially the sun god, to keep evil spirits out of the circumscribed area. The rite can also be used to imprison a spirit within the circle.

In a world where a lot of man’s ills can be caused by spirits entering the body, exorcism is a very important rite.  The Vijadesan version involves casting salt upon the subject while chanting prayers and abjurations.  If successful, the hostile spirits leave the subject.

The same rite is also used against demonic creatures, halimawHalimaw of most types will take serious damage just from being hit with the salt thrown in the rite, sometimes enough to slay the monster outright if it’s one of the weaker kinds. Used in this manner, though, the rite is very dangerous for the shaman because the shaman has to get close enough to throw the salt accurately.

Divining Bowl:
This rite is used to identify sources of supernatural disturbance. The shaman places consecrated water or oil, preferably the latter, in a bowl and chants invocations to the ancestors or the diwatas, and asks that the source of the disturbance be shown.  If the shaman succeeds, the spirits will show the answer as a vision reflected in the water or oil. 

This rite was used in one of our playtest adventures, where the shamaness Sri Minaya used it to identify the sorcerer trying to steal the soul of Gat Dulan, the datu’s son.

Speaking Trance:
The shaman prepares to go into a trance state while invoking a spirit to use him or her as medium to communicate with other people during the seance. If successful, the shaman is temporarily possessed by the target spirit and can speak directly to the séance’s other participants.

This can be resorted to when inexplicable events, specially accidents, happen during an adventure.  As often as not, the events will turn out to have been caused by some spirit which the adventurers offended somehow, and the séance can be used to have the spirit identify itself and reveal its  price for ceasing to trouble the party.

Spirit Surgery:
This rite literally lets the shaman act as a surgeon.  After invoking the ancestors and the god of healing, the shaman becomes empowered to plunge his or her hands into a living creature’s body in order to extract something troubling the subject: an embedded arrowhead, a cancer tumor, an infected appendix, etc. etc.  …

Fury of Heroes Past:
The shaman can only use this rite for himself or herself, or on a character related to the shaman by blood.  The shaman invokes one of his or her own heroic ancestors to fill the subject with the power to do battle, temporarily increasing the subject’s strength and fury.  It works only for the shaman and relatives of the shaman because ancestor spirits only give such gifts to their own descendants.

Prayer for Favorable Winds:
Exactly what it says on the box.  The shaman beseeches the ruling diwata of this part of the sea for a favoring wind, offering sacrifices in return. The rite will have to be performed anew when the voyagers reach another diwata’s domain.

Shamans learn the basics of all these rites.  None of them are specifically for babaylan only or asog only, or specific to a certain region or lineage.  However, the specific Assets taken by the player during character creation can make one shaman character more effective at some rites than at others.

Stay tuned for the next post, where I’ll talk about the various kulam traditions and the horrors PCs might face from it!


  1. I like seeing alternative takes on magic, and I do have a fondness for spirit magic too.

  2. Hi Simon! Any games that did spirit magic particularly well,in your opinion? I want to check my mechanics against other examples. Thanks!


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