This months RPG Blog Carnival, appropriately, features superstitions within your game world. It is being hosted by of Dice and Dragons. I was very tempted to look into making some and solidifying the thoughts of people in one of my worlds. My problem was that I haven’t really thought about it before. Sure Luxarrah has a whole way of thinking and religion and mythos, but I never regarded what superstitions might exist as part of that. For my entry I decided to share some of what I found in my research. The stuff that got me thinking and hopefully will get you thinking as well.
Numbers are common aspects to the superstitions of various peoples. For example, here in the United States, the number 13 is often unlucky and whenever the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday you can expect unluckiness to run rampant. Other cultures have other unlucky numbers. In China the number 4 is unlucky because the word for 4 is much like word for death. A similar superstition is held in Japan, except in this case it is the number 9. This word doesn’t sound like death, but like torture. In India the number 26 is unlucky because the number 8 is said to bring destruction. The two digits of 26 add up to 8, making the number unlucky and causing bad things to happen on the 26th of the month. There is also a belief that the number 17 is unlucky which is held by some Italians. The reason comes from the roman numeral XVII (17) which can be rearranged to spell VIXI. This, of course, is Latin for “my life is over”.
If you are looking for an easy superstition to slip into your world and game, numbers are a great place to start. There are many reasons from which the ideas arrive. Sometimes there is no bigger reason than coincidence, or association with one major event. Of course in a world with fantasy languages, why not have a number be close to a very negative word in that language? That would allow you to have certain numbers unlucky for those cultures. Perhaps the number 11 is unlucky for dwarfs because the dwarven word for 11 is close to the word rust! The options are limitless, but the idea is what will stick in player’s heads allowing you to just use the number to mess with the players. Or even warn them!
Another set of superstitions that exist in great number are those of ill omen. Cultures all over the world have things that they view as a sign of bad things to come. An example is the owl in Egypt. Seeing or hearing one is said to be bad because these creatures bring bad news to those who do. In a more active superstition, killing a spider is believed by some to bring rain the next day. In Senegal there is the thought that going on a trip should be kept to yourself, otherwise you will have a poor trip. Another animal omen is that of the black cat. When belief in witches was at its height, the cats were believed to be their familiars and seeing one was the sign that a witch was about.
Many of these have to do with animals and their associations, but others exist as well. These are another example of relatively simple superstitions to begin to work into your game. Any myths you have in your world or any old bad associations can be enhanced into superstition. The sight or sound of them may foretell bad luck, death, or failure. These are great ways to play up fortune teller or seers, as well as superstitious NPCs. PCs might be ill advised to begin a mission at a certain time or told to change plans for feel of destined failure. Again such superstitions can be used to simply raise the paranoia of the party or to foreshadow something bad happening.
Don’t Do It
There are lots of superstitions that don’t happen quite so passively. Many times cultures have rules and taboos to prevent us from invoking horrible demons to befall us or the like. Many common ones in the west include that hanging a horseshoe upside down will drain its luck, breaking a mirror will give you 7 years of bad luck, and something bad will happen if you walk under a ladder. Then there is the idea that stepping on a crack is bad luck. Don’t do it because it might also break your mother’s back! In Russia you should not carry an empty bucket because that, in turn is an ill omen. Doing so asks for bad luck or worse. Oh! And never kill a sparrow. Some believe that the sparrow is a goodly creature which ferries the souls of the dead. It may be bad luck to kill one, but if they really carry the souls of the dead you might also just be making more ghosts!
The great thing about these superstitions is that they are active and often a bit stronger in ramification than others. These are things people actively avoid doing. Rather than just utilizing it as a agent of fear, it might become a clear sign of contention between PCs and NPCs. Imagine a PC goes to do something and an important character knocks them over or knocks something from their hand. Or, perhaps, imagine the spilled salt trick. The PCs do something and immediately the conversation turns to doing the proper small task to remedy that mistake. Or maybe your characters has a superstition other do not and finds it difficult to not call out, yell at NPCs, or forcibly fix their mistakes. The possibilities are endless!
These are just a handful of example superstitions and there are many, many more. My goal here was to throw out a lot of ideas to get you thinking about them with regards to your own games. If you have some home brew or real life superstitions you would like to share I would love to hear them! Comment below or hit us up on Twitter!