The Spiritual Journey in Roleplaying

Many amazing stories revolve around spiritual quests. Some roleplaying games (RPGs) have such journeys built into them: White Wolf’s “Wraith: the Oblivion” has Harrowings; “Mage: the Ascension” has Seekings. Spiritual journeys can make for wonderful, character-changing plots. They can be subtle or profound. They can shake a character’s very faith in the universe.

Spiritual journeys tend to be filled with symbolism and allegory. If they take place in a dreamscape or spiritual landscape of some sort they can allow you to wreak havoc with your game world for a little while, and still return to an almost-normal world the next weekend.

Spiritual journeys can be tricky, though. If things go right your players won’t be able to sleep the next night as they puzzle over all of the amazing information they took in. If things go wrong you’ll have an awkward, confused evening where no one’s quite sure what they’re supposed to be doing. Such plots require a little more planning than some others. Here, then, are a few tips for running spiritual journeys — quests that will hopefully guide, teach, inform, entertain, and give you plot hooks to play with for weeks to come.

What Are You Trying to Teach?

The hallmark of many spiritual journeys is that the subject is there to learn something. In order to begin working on your spiritual journey, you must know what it is that’s being taught. And in order to figure that out, you need to know who’s doing the teaching. Is it a spirit guide? The universe itself? Someone else?

The lesson doesn’t have to be a shiny-happy moralistic one, from a teacher who has the character’s best interest at heart. It can be anything at all. It doesn’t have to strictly be a lesson, either. An enemy could have arranged for the party to end up in this place so that he could “teach” them that they should give him information, or do something for him. An entity could need the player characters (PCs) to achieve some agenda for it.

Provide Something for Everyone

Even if only one of the characters is there to learn something, there needs to be something for everyone to do.

Some games encourage you to give the other players different parts in the drama rather than their usual characters. This is great in theory, but tricky. If it works it can be a wonderful experience. Remember, however, that while you can tell people what you want them to do, you can’t improvise through their mouths. This means that your players have to have a very good idea of what you want them to do. They also have to be capable of improvising it themselves, or you have to plan things out precisely and carefully (which usually assumes that the player at the center of things will do exactly what you expect him to do–this is rarely a good assumption to make).

Either way, talk to your players a lot. Plan things out in advance and tell them very clearly what you want them to do. Don’t just slap something together in five minutes and set them loose–this rarely works.

Or you can put the entire party through the experience, and just make sure that there are things for all of them to do. Use them in your drama. Affecting a character’s loved ones, friends, and coworkers can be a very effective teaching method. Or give them their own hints and allegories. Let the landscape offer each of them a few bits of insight, prophecy, or memory as well. If you make the journey a longer one, perhaps taking several game sessions, you might give each character a portion devoted primarily to them, but in which everyone takes an active role.

If you truly want to deal with only one character, you might run the journey as a solo adventure in-between regular sessions. Some very simple one-character spiritual journeys can even be handled via email.

Location, Location, Location

Choose your location carefully, and start asking questions:

  • Is this location a dreamscape of some sort? A spiritual realm?
  • What’s possible there? What isn’t?
  • How can the characters affect the place? Where and how far can they go?
  • How surreal can the place get?
  • Can people “die” there and come back? If they die there do they die permanently? What about injury?
  • Can you bring random non-player characters (NPCs) into things? Are those NPCs real or “copies,” images of their real selves? If they’re copies, how much will they be like the people they’re based on?
  • Does the place follow natural laws? If not, what laws does it follow?
  • Who’s in charge and what can they do with the place?
  • Does the location reflect the PCs’ experiences or thoughts in some way?
  • Are the characters trapped there? What’s keeping them trapped?
  • Can others reach the PCs from the outside, and are they likely to do so?

Most importantly–how does the location relate to and further the lesson that’s being taught? The landscape of a spiritual jorney is rarely random.

Work with Themes and Variations

Use themes and variations within your spiritual realm. This helps you to maintain a consistent feel, and it gives your party things to speculate about and recognize and puzzle out. You might play with architecture, allowing the buildings in each part of the journey to reflect something of what’s really going on. You could work with any sort of symbolism or allegory.

This is one place where a deck of tarot cards can be a helpful game master (GM) aid. Draw a few cards ahead of time and see what sorts of symbols or concepts inspire you. Keep notes on these with you during the journey.

Remember What You Have to Work With

Don’t just concentrate on your lesson–work in other material as well. The more surreal and mutable the landscape the easier it is to do this. Bring back traumatic or touching moments, or NPCs the party hated or loved, and turn them into something new and interesting that furthers the lesson. Hint at plots to come. Drop a few interesting tidbits that will mean something later (you don’t have to know what each one means right now).

This is another thing for which the tarot is useful: draw cards ahead of time and figure out how to work in some of the quotes or scenes they present. Use song lyrics for the same thing. Remember that in these landscapes, things often aren’t what they seem. If you keep notes on what happens (or someone else does), you can draw on these things for plots for months to come.

Use the vision quest’s resemblance to a dream. In a dream there are things the dreamer knows, without having to be told. There are things that seem normal even though they aren’t. There are liquid changes of scenery. You can imply volumes simply by having one location fade into another, seemingly unrelated one. Convey your lesson in the shifting scenery, the words of friends and enemies, even the weather.

Spiritual quests make marvelous precursors to high-epic plots, as they often relate well to prophecy and to the destiny of the characters. However, they can also be very personal and intimate.

Use Helpers

Plant characters within the dreamscape that can interject hints and help when necessary. While you don’t want to railroad your party into doing things exactly the way you want them to, neither do you want to leave them stranded. It’s impossible to predict exactly what your players will and won’t think of, pick up on, or try, particularly when you’re playing with allegory and symbolism. You always want to have characters around to slip extra hints through.

Don’t have them pop up just to deliver a clue and disappear, however; it’s often obvious and cheesy (unless it’s somehow a part of the plot rather than an obvious clue-dump, in which case it can be made interesting). This is why you want to plant helpers ahead of time. It seems much more natural to hear a suggestion from an NPC who’s been hanging around with the party, an NPC who’s already present as part of a plot, or an NPC the party seeks out.

If you plan to use NPCs to plant suggestions, then don’t just use them when you need them. Have them make suggestions at other times, too, and not always correct ones. If the party realizes that Joe the janitor always knows the right thing to do, they’ll just start asking him for the answers to all of their problems. If NPCs are wrong sometimes, or at least not entirely right, it makes it easier for you to plant clues without just solving the party’s problems for them. It’s still their job to figure out whether the NPC has the right idea, and to decide whether to take the suggestion.

Some spiritual journeys have a “guide” character within them whose job it is, in some way or another, to help the seeker without simply providing the answers. This is a convenient sort of helper to have on hand, particularly if the guide doesn’t see all and know all, and has to play by rules. However, be a bit careful with this–the all-knowing benevolent guide who conveniently refuses to share his wisdom with the characters is more than a little over-used, and often very unrealistic.

Provide Conflict

Too many spiritual journeys boil down to choices that the player can see easily within the first five minutes. Then his character can either say the right thing and succeed, or say the wrong thing and fail. Often the wrong thing is the most logical in-character thing to say, so the player has to choose between staying in-character and failing, breaking character and succeeding, or allowing his character to be smart and say the right thing without believing it — in which case the only thing the character has been taught is how to lie. Usually this isn’t what the GM or the journey is trying to accomplish!

In other words, many spiritual journeys end up being simple puzzles. While puzzles, riddles and mysteries are often a part of spiritual journeys, there must be more than that. There must be conflict.

There must be an actual teaching of the lesson, harshly if necessary. And the lesson need not be an obvious one. Think of it as a progression. Obviously the character starts out having the wrong answer, or the lesson wouldn’t need to be taught. So the point isn’t to teach him to say the right answer, which too many such plots are designed to do. The point is to cause the character to take the right action because that’s what he ultimately decides he must do. If you’re lucky, he may not even consciously realize he’s been taught something.

The key to this is conflict. Without conflict of some sort (someone to outsmart, something to resist, a choice of action rather than words) it comes down to outsmarting the quest–and that isn’t the lesson to be learned. The “answer” to the journey should come in action, not just word-choice.

Conflict is much easier to provide if characters come with good, detailed background material. Spiritual journeys are usually very personal things.

The Journey is Just the Beginning

Some GMs try to use spiritual quests as cure-alls. They teach a character a lesson and then everything is supposed to be better. The personality flaw is cured, the addiction is thrown, the character has learned his lesson. This doesn’t work for two reasons.

First, many players object to having their character concept forcefully and quickly changed out from underneath them without their consent. Some will resist it to the point of allowing their characters to die on spiritual journeys rather than make the “right choice.”

Second, in most cases it just shouldn’t work that way. People don’t usually change that much overnight. The lesson taught during a spiritual journey is a beginning, not an end. After the return to reality the character still has to try to change his actions in the long-term, which usually takes more than just saying “oh yeah, you’re right! I’ve been wrong all this time!”

Keep these things in mind and you’ll get plot fodder for weeks to come out of the repercussions that come out of your spiritual lesson. Entire stories can be had out of temptation back to the old ways, resistance, reinforcement of the lesson, and true attempts to change over time. See the journey as a beginning, not an end.

End-Points

Make sure there’s both a “right” and a “wrong” way to force an end to the journey (at minimum!). Otherwise you can end up in a stalemate — the character is unwilling to do the right thing, but you’ve tried to get the lesson across in all the ways you can think of, and the only way for the journey to end is if he does the right thing. So you end up sitting around the table with your players in an uncomfortable silence. Occasionally you come up with a way to reword things to try to hint to the player what he’s supposed to do, but he already knows what he’s supposed to do and has simply chosen not to do it. So he refuses, and you go back to that uncomfortable silence with no end in sight. When you finally do think of a way to end it, it’s obvious to everyone that you cobbled it up patchwork on the spot to get around the character’s choice, and everyone feels vaguely cheated.

By having an end-point that comes about even if the character makes the “wrong” choice, you keep this from happening. No matter what, things will eventually resolve themselves and the journey will come to an end, satisfactory or not. And by planning for the character to make the wrong choice or even no choice at all, you’re allowing him his free will–you’re allowing the player to retain control of his character and choose the direction he goes in. This can be very important to a player’s enjoyment of the game.

Note that end-points in a spiritual journey don’t always have to boil down to right and wrong. The characters could simply be in a position to make choices about what direction things are going in, without those choices necessarily being clearly good or bad.

Concrete vs. Conceptual Endings

Make the end-conditions conceptual as well as concrete. You can never be sure that the players will pick up on exactly the right thing to do, so planning only a concrete end-point may result in yet more uncomfortable silences. You think you’ve gotten across enough information and you can’t think of how to get it across more plainly. The player just can’t pin down what one specific thing he’s supposed to do.

If you make the end-points conceptual this becomes less of a problem. It allows more room for player creativity, and relies less upon the party thinking of just the right solution. Do have some idea of how the conceptual can translate into the concrete, however, or you may inadvertently leave your party with no solution to their problem.

Example: As an example of these last points, you might say: “Max, the party’s old enemy, is trying to convince the party to do this one thing for him. If they do it they fail because they’ve given in to his evil demands. If they find some way to outsmart him they succeed. A few of the ways in which they might outsmart him are…”

This gives them both a right and a wrong way out (outsmart him, or do what he says). It also makes the end condition conceptual (“outsmart Max”) rather than specific (“outsmart Max in this one way”). And it ensures that there do exist concrete, definite ways to outsmart him (“A few of the ways in which they might outsmart him are…”).

Do come up with a contingency plan however, in case the party doesn’t figure out a way to outsmart Max and can’t be forced to do his bidding — events in the realm or dreamscape should march onward, drawing things to some conclusion regardless of what does or doesn’t happen. Make sure the aforementioned conflict exists: will they have a reason to refuse Max? Your journey will end awfully fast if they look at each other, shrug, and agree to do what he wants when he first asks. Also, will there be sufficient pressure to push them toward doing what Max wants? If not, again, there won’t be a whole lot of conflict.

A Lesson Without Answers

The end of the journey doesn’t have to depend on PC actions. It doesn’t have to be the sort of lesson where an answer is required from the characters before it can end. The lesson can be presented, things can happen, and the party can end up back where they’re supposed to be whether they’ve learned anything or not. It’s up to them to decide what they take away from the experience.

What are the Stakes?

What does the seeker win or lose? Does he win freedom from the realm or from the attentions of an enemy? Does he gain knowledge? Does he lose a valuable ally? It’s always good to have some idea of what the stakes are in your little drama. Often you’ll want the characters to have some idea of the stakes as well; this can be the source of the conflict we talked about earlier.

Let Them Fail If Necessary

Not every spiritual journey must be completed successfully. It’s good to have helpers around in case you mis-plan things, but the party doesn’t always have to win. If anything, allowing them to fail once in a while just makes the sense of accomplishment that much greater when they do succeed.

It also keeps you from the temptation to railroad the party into what you want them to do. Allowing the players to realize that they’ll win no matter what leads to all sorts of bad situations. Characters do stupid things because the players know they can get away with it. Players pay less attention to the game because they feel they don’t matter. While it’s good to make sure the PCs have a decent chance at succeeding, it’s also good to make sure you aren’t forcing them to win.

There Must Be a Way Out

Don’t force the PCs to fail–that does just as much harm as forcing them to win, if not more. There must be a way to finish the quest unless your group doesn’t mind playing dark, doomed plots now and then (and even then it’s best to have a way out; just make it particularly difficult). So make sure to have those end-points planned out.

In fairy tales and legends, mystical things always play by rules. The more spiritual and the more powerful the creature or quest, the more firmly it must play by its rules. One of the strongest rules is always that there has to be a way out, and if the characters find it, they get to leave. So before you run your spiritual journey, think about the rules for a few moments. What rules does the realm operate under? What rules must the seeker’s teacher (or jailer) follow?

Spiritual quests and journeys can be incredibly moving in roleplaying games. They’re the kind of plots that your players can talk about for months after they happen. They’re rich with possibility, and they can be positively inspiring–both to you and your players. Unlike some other plots, however, they almost always need preparation and forethought. It’s all too easy to muck up a spiritual journey and end up with confused and frustrated players. So look through the principles above and play around with things a bit. If your players like to put some work and depth into their characters, I think you’ll find that the occasional spiritual journey can bring a valuable intensity to your game.

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