January 29, 2015

My Blade Comes with Bells On

Visualizing your character’s arms and gear can add quite a bit to your game experience. You’ve a better idea of your character’s appearance. You can describe details that make him or her stand out. You can even describe details that say something about the character’s standing in society, wealth level, even particular exploits if that’s recorded somehow on the item.

And for Hari Ragat, a milieu drawn from a part of Asia that’s rarely covered by other RPGs, I’m sure players will appreciate more visual cues. Here’s a guide to customizing your weapons:

Heirloom Powers
Let’s get the power aspect out of the way first. If you want your weapon to be more effective, make it an heirloom item with a resident spirit. The nature of the spirit and its origins determine the power of the weapon.

Heirloom spirits are typically focused on a purpose, and will give benefits (Advantage, in the Vivid system) when used for that purpose. For example, a Kalis of the Justiciar only gives its benefit vs. opponents guilty of some crime that you know of. Want the Justiciar’s advantage vs. that enemy Datu? Find some dirt on him!

Feel free to craft a backstory for your heirloom weapon and how it came to you.

Kill Count
Some warriors have their kill counts engraved onto their blades. It can be in the form of simple lines or geometric figures, sometimes inlaid with silver, copper, or other fine material, or even the names of significant kills written in calligraphic Kudlitan script.

Blade Engraving
Blades, specially of noblemen’s kalis, are sometimes engraved with flowing serpentine designs that recall the power and sinuous grace of the naga. A finely engraved blade is a mark of great wealth and prestige, and may be applied to a weapon after it’s been recognized as a spirit-charged heirloom. The engraving may be enhanced further by inlay of silver, gold, copper or brass.

Kris with naga design inlaid; from the Viking Sword forum

Hilt Ornaments
The hilt and pommel of a sword, or the shaft of a spear, are naturally the parts that receive the most ornamentation because they’re always seen. The hilt designs of Vijadesan weapons follow a symbolic code derived from the gods and spirits they worship, and some families and regions have favorite designs.

Ornamental Banding
Ornamental bands of rattan, copper wire, or rings of copper, brass, silver or gold on the hilt of sword or spear serve a double purpose. They keep the pieces of the hilt together and reinforce it, and they also speak of the owner’s wealth and prestige. The more precious the banding material and the more of it, the higher the prestige. They’re usually arranged to create alternating patterns of color.

Kris with plain pommel, black nito palm fiber banding on silver hilt

A stylized cockatoo head (kakatua) pommel often ornaments the kalis or barong of noblemen. The cockatoo is considered a messenger of the god Galura and a symbol of wisdom, signifying one who speaks with divine authority. Kakatua pommels thus communicate social status. As such they’re often made of luxury materials like ebony, ivory, brass, or gold.

Maguindanao kris with kakatua pommel and silver inlaid dots along blade

Large, stylized gaping crocodile (buwaya) jaws are almost always used on the heavy kampilan, the long broadsword usually carried by battle champions and berserkers. Crocodiles symbolize power and fearsome aggression, feared and revered across the entire Janggalan archipelago. Thus a buwaya pommel is a statement that the wielder is a bad-ass.

Kampilan with buwaya pommel; from the Viking Sword forums

The bakunawa pommel design commemorates the titanic sea dragon that once tried to devour the moon. Like the buwaya, this symbol calls upon one of the deepest fears of the Vijadesans, and has a similar message. The bakunawa is sometimes shown just gaping, but often a ball or bell of silver or brass is placed in the mouth to stand for the moon.

Visayan tenegre with bakuwana pommel; from the Viking Sword forums

Visayan talibon with bakunawa pommel; from the Viking Sword forum

The rooster, specially the breeds kept for cockfighting, is also considered special to the god Galura and is a symbol of manly courage, and the flamboyant attitude of bravura a warrior should cultivate. Rooster heads or sometimes whole-body effigies of roosters are thus used in many pommels.

Other bird-head designs are also used by the Vijadesans: Bannog, representing the heads of hawks or eagles; and Kalaw, representing hornbill heads. Bannog designs commemorate the power of the bannog, a gigantic raptor, while Kalaw designs call to mind this bird’s place in mythology as a spirit guide, a favored form of visiting ancestor spirits, and for its devotion to its spouse.

The Maguindanao epic of Bantugan describes the hero dancing out of town on his way to exile, swinging his bell-studded kampilan over his head whose sound everyone knew. Bells are  a very prestigious decoration, being difficult to craft well, and they’re always used in sets of a dozen or more attached to the pommel by little brass chains.

They’re also pretty useless for stealth, which is part of their statement: I challenge you to open combat, I can take you without sneaking. Bells with distinctive sounds can become so recognizable that, like Orcrist and Glamdring in Tolkien’s stories, the weapon is instantly recognized by foes and held  in fear. (NB: That could be an heirloom power.)

Bells could also serve as kill counters, giving both visual and auditory advertisement of the wearer’s prowess.

T'boli tok with belled hilt; from the Viking Sword forum

Hair Tassels
Tassels of hair – usually horsehair, but sometimes the hair of slain foemen, perhaps in fulfillment of a vow of vengeance – may be added by warriors who have won significant glory. Again, these mark the warrior’s status and formidability. Brown horsehair or black human hair is the commoner form, but great heroes are given the right to use all-crimson hair.

Kampilan with tasseled buwaya pommel; from the Viking Sword forum

Shields may also be tasseled, and the significance is the same. 

Bagobo shield with tassels; from the FMA forum

The Vijadesans call anthropomorphic hilts or pommels nuno, ancestor, as these represent ancestor spirits. Vijadesan designs usually have a simple hilt with a stylized head as pommel, but some of the Iraya tribes of the highlands make hilts in the form of standing or squatting full figures.

Ilocano bolo hilt with sinan-kapitan pommel; from the Viking Sword forum


  1. Asteeeeeg. It helps when you're close to the game you're making. Doesn't get more legit than this :D

  2. Sorry for the offtopic, but Dariel, is there a way to access your "Role-playing Games as Collaborative Fiction" essay from 2003? I'm writing a paper on RPGs and I think a quote from it could help me a lot.

  3. Found it! Please use this link: http://www.oocities.org/aegisweb/9-Articles/91-CollFic.html


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