I’m sure many of you have heard it before: “Japan is a superstitious society.” And indeed, while this phrase is an over-simplification, it is essentially true. Go to a specific type of shrine, and you can wish for success in business or school. You can even bless your newly purchased automobile, so as to have safe travels. These are pointed and purposeful charms and blessings — living, breathing social rituals.
These examples are true for contemporary Japan, but they are also relevant to early modern Japan. In fact, Edo period Japan saw a huge influx of superstitious activity when compared to the bloody previous era (the Sengoku jidai, or warring states period). Why? Well, first, shrines and temples were under new bureaucratic pressures to become regulated, documented, and made official. As such, many of these institutions began to devote their resources to specific practices or themes, and subsequently became famous for those practices. Additionally, a rising middle class resulted in a populist form of spirituality that explored issues relevant to people beyond the samurai class.
Yoroi-bashi, where the moving water was said to be sacred — and, in some instances, even haunted.
This wasn’t a new thing per se, but a lack of widespread war meant that other concerns could come to the foreground of society. Fire, famine, sickness … specific shrines or areas of a city became dedicated to confronting these terrors. There even evolved faddish kami dedicated to the treatment of warts, blindness, and other incredibly specific ailments. In Vagabonds, we group Edo era faddish kami with other types of popular kami. The resulting term is folk kami. I previously mentioned folk kami in this post.
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Folk kami, or hayarigami, don’t even need a name. They can be identified by the ailment of issue they confront, treat, or prevent, as well as the location in which they are found. Just to highlight some historical folk kami (or hayarigami), here are a few fun examples:
- Have a terrible cough? Visit the stone shaped like a woman in Kobiki-chō, an area that also houses popular kabuki venues (modern-day Tsukiji, for those of you who have visited Tokyo).
- Experiencing numbness or pain from the waist down? Visit a small shrine near the Tokugawa family’s temple Zōjō-ji.
- Suffering from smallpox? There are a few places you can go. Try the popular bridge Ryōgoku-bashi, where sumo tournaments take place. There’s a small kami inhabiting the area. You could also try Yoroi-bashi, where a kami is said to reside in the water surrounding the river’s famous ferries.
- Want to protect against burglary or thieves? Visit the Kumagai Inari Shrine in Honpōji. The priests there can provide you with an ofuda (a charm to be put in a house or location) or an omamori (a personal charm that can be carried around).
- Have a pounding headache? Visit the famous Nihon-bashi, where it is said that a headache-healing kami resides in the railing and posts.
, we mention these examples. More importantly, we provide the basis for the examples, so players can invent their own folk kami. What purpose do folk kami serve in the game, beyond setting detail? Well, in the context of kami rituals
, they could create powerful, albeit highly specific, allies. A character skilled in kami rituals might create a talisman (omamori
) to protect against injury. A player could then use this as justification for rolling an additional d6 when confronted with an Athletics trial in a natural environment. Or, perhaps the player could even use this as justification for temporarily increasing the character’s Vigor skill level.
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Lack of war also meant more travel. And depending on what kind of campaign you run, travel can be really, really important in Vagabonds. During the Edo period, an expansion of major thoroughfares resulted in a huge influx of foot traffic, and thus, amulets for safe travels, charms against evil spirits, and other such objects became widely popular. More travel also meant more chances for people to make pilgrimages to specific religious sites. This, in turn, provided those religious sites with increased traffic and popular renown. In this era of fast-spreading word of mouth, it was easy for a shrine to become famous for a particular type of blessing.
There was likewise a resurgence of onmyōdō, the yin-yang art of divination, which was officially regulated by a single family (the Tsuchimikado family). The shogunate even created an office of astrology to work with authorized diviners, resulting in a bureaucratization of something as vague and superstitious as reading the stars and predicting future events. This contributed to the establishment of a standardized calendar, as promoted by major shrines and religious/divination institutions. On the other side of this, there were, of course, “illegal” street fortunetellers, back-alley diviners, and desperate faith peddlers. Fun! In Vagabonds, abilities commonly associated with onmyōdō are included in the Divination skill.
Blessings vs. Fortune
So we’ve talked about all the instances in which individuals are able to, theoretically, “control” their luck. They can pray at a shrine, carry a talisman, learn the art of divination, etc., all with the aim of improving their odds. All of these instances represent an active attempt to improve one’s luck.
In Vagabonds, this kind of luck is very simply represented by skill levels and actions. We label them as Blessings, rather than fortune. This includes blessings from nature, specific kami, fellow PCs, NPCs, creatures, etc. All of those folk kami above are examples of entities that provide blessings to characters. The idea here is that the character actively seeks out a supernatural or spiritual force that will improve luck. Blessings are thus attached to and affect a specific skill or character element.
But what about fortune that cannot be sought out? What about the kind that is inexplicably tied to a character, and not part of any one skill or character element? What about fate? What about all those stories we hear of, where the mysterious hands of fortune reached out and carried a hero to safety amidst grave danger?
Introducing Shichi Fukujin, The Seven Gods of Fortune. I could write an entire blog post (or seven) just on these important figures of Japanese lore.
The Concept of Fortune
The spiritual scene of the Edo period is a perfect fit for the concepts we are trying to capture with Vagabonds — both in terms of setting and mechanics. Our inclusion of a fortune statistic for each player-character is not simply a neat feature we threw in for the heck of it. Rather, fortune is our conscious representation of the idea that vagabonds are characters inhabiting a superstitious, Japanese game world. Of course, in Vagabonds, we can’t really call it superstition. For all intents and purposes, good fortune provides a tangible benefit.
Sure, we could group fortune in with kami rituals, or even make it a skill. But, that wouldn’t quite capture the nuances of fortune. Fortune ought be something mysterious and unobtainable, in contrast to blessings. It should be out of a character’s reach.
Skills can be improved over time, including kami rituals. Blessings can be obtained by actively seeking them out and appropriately securing them. Fortune, however, is enigmatic and entirely external.
Uses for Fortune
While blessings affect specific attributes or skills of a character, fortune can be used in a much broader way. In the current iteration of the rules, fortune is primarily used to: 1) Prevent physical, mental, or social harm, 2) Increase action roll outcomes, 3) Decrease NPC action roll outcomes, 4) Sharpen a character’s senses, 5) Diminish an NPC’s senses, 6) Help a character avoid being pulled by the GM via hangups, and 7) Negate a misfortune found in the scene.
The caveat here is a necessity for narration (as with many facets of Vagabonds gameplay). Players don’t just spend fortune and call it a day. A player needs to narrate a highly unlikely situation — success despite the odds. Fortune is thus useful in tense situations, or trials in which a negative outcome seemed unavoidable.
At the beginning of a game session, each player rolls 1d6. The resulting number is the number of fortune the player has during the session. Fortune never refreshes. The number you roll is the number you will have for the entire session. As such, fortune is a currency that should be carefully spent. We want fortune to be a precious resource, not something that can supplement every other action. Having relatively low numbers of fortune encourages players to use it when it really matters.
In many ways, fortune can be seen as a shield of points surrounding a character. It can protect a character when activated, and is gradually used up during a session. Unspent fortune does not carry over to the next session.
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Note: The mechanics of fortune described here haven’t been completely finalized. We’re still playtesting, though the small numbers produced by a 1d6 have been more successful and meaningful than past iterations.