Pyramid #3/38: The Journey of the Dead

This is one of those interesting oddities that shows up in Pyramid from time to time. A truly systemless article that’s useful for any GM in any system, as well as being a trove of information to be mined

I’m going to give away the ending, and note that this was far and away my favorite article of this issue. 
The entire premise of the work is to dig into the journey that the newly deceased must take to get to the afterlife. It notes how similar the journey myths are between the Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, and the Norsemen. She then explores different aspects of this myth.
The writing is extraordinarily good, and both the content and presentation drew me in from the start. The opening vignette is very, very well done, and you could see it as either a great example of how to deal with this topic in an RPG, or as an excerpt from a good piece of fantasy fiction. It is, of course, both.
The Death-Touched Character

This short block provides a small (very small) amount of directly GURPS-related advice. It’s effectively a short touchstone of skills, advantages, and disadvantages that anchor the concepts presented to the GURPS system. The implication here is that this sort of thing (dead men’s journeys) is primarily narrative, with just enough plot hook in the form of character traits to serve as a reason for what’s going on.

The Hero’s Decent

Another short section describing a bit about who takes the journey (everyone), and then gets to the meat of it – characters may very well want to take a road trip to the underworld in order to get one of their friends back, or for some other purpose.

This can be, in a word, tricky. Not the least of which is finding a physical door to the underworld, which must be appropriately creepy as well as mystically connected to the land of the dead, one presumes. That’s not really in the article, but again, the writing is such that it evokes these thoughts easily and naturally.

Omens

A much longer section, Ms. Ward spends a full page-column on the subject of omens. A few famous legends (Achilles and Sleeping Beauty) are mentioned. Also mentioned are using omens as a response to divination spells – a nice bit where the GM can say “OK, great . . . you cast divination” and then get the plot moving along, and have the results of that not be a core dump on the player group saying “here are all the answers you need.”

This is nice not just because of the naturalness of how the information is given, but because players can surprise the GM with questions or “OK, here’s the spell!” and if the GM didn’t have that planned out ahead of time, he’s either going to have to wing it totally, or stop play to think. Or he may give out too much information, short-circuiting his plot or mystery.

Letting the information/divination leak out bit by bit is a nice way to put some space, and plot, and time for other characters to get some spotlight time in between the casting and the answer. It also lets everyone else play by giving the entire group a chance to make Hidden Lore, History, Occultism, or other rolls when these omens appear. An entirely elegant solution.

And just in case your Omen Fu is weak, she lists a bunch of them. That’s a good omen for future success.

Also in this section is a bit on psychopomps, entities that are tour guides on the road to hell. But in a nice way. Valkyries? Looking at you. Also mentioned in passing are the kinds of challenges heroes might face – and avoid – in trying to bring ’em back alive.

Gateways

A gateway is a great symbol of the beginning of a journey and the boundary between two places. It’s both a symbolic and physical marker of realm and journey. The article touches on how to know what places are reputed to be (or known to be) gateways, as well as some warnings about how to conduct yourself on the journey. This section is over a page long, and takes about some common features of such journeys, including rivers, gates, the Hall of the god watching over the underworld, and the journey out of the underworld, since it’s rather unlikely that the denizens of such places will be happy to let you go.

Ever.

Guardians

Finally, she spends a page on those who guard and protect the gates, the paths, and the destination. This includes reference to a couple of monsters, with GURPS stats (though not in stat-block format, for which I’m somewhat grateful). This section is sprinkled with actual game references, though few mechanics (no loss there, really), as well, so GMs will have a notion on how to handle some of these challenges.

Style, Writing, Execution [-2 to 2 points]: Recall that a score of 0 means “didn’t get in the way,” and doesn’t represent a bad score. As mentioned in the main text, this may be the best-written systemless article I recall in Pyramid. My own commentary above, frequently launching from a concept she brings up, show how easy and natural it is to springboard from her writing to game ideas. 2 points.

Background, Inspiration, Epiphany [0 to 4 points]: These concepts would fit well and make good consideration for fantasy gaming from generic fantasy and even (or perhaps especially) Dungeon Fantasy, where “oh, look, our friend died, let’s hie off to the underworld and bring him back” is a viable decision. This article could also inform the background mythology of a well run Monster Hunters campaign. It would play well with concepts such as +Christopher R. Rice‘s neat treatment of Thresholds, which are so important in the Dresden Files. Each section has ideas and concepts that can be mined and developed to taste. The article is one solid bit of inspiration, background, and epiphany from start to finish. I’d give it more points if my scale allowed, but since it doesn’t . . . 4 points.

Drop-in Gaming Utliity [0 to 4 points]: While this is system-lite, really – there are a few GURPS concepts (skill rolls, a mention of HP for Harvest Demons, etc.) this is not a mechanics-heavy article. Nonetheless, many of the concepts themselves are drop-in or easily ported to the appropriate game setting.. 2 points.

Overall: 8/10. A very strong offering, and a vastly entertaining read.

Would I use it? Yes. This gives me something very, very tangible to think about for any sort of fantasy or modern campaign setting that involves (or might involve) the mystical and life-after-death as a plot element.

Note to my readers: There seem to be many Kyla Wards on Google, and I couldn’t link to her as I’d have liked. If one of you could help draw this review to her attention, not only would I like her to read it, I’d love to invite her to a Firing Squad interview! Maybe +Robin Laws could help!

One thought on “Pyramid #3/38: The Journey of the Dead

  1. When a PC dies in one of my fantasy games, I'll occasionally add a bit of color by describing a long line of people stretching out to the horizon before and behind them. If they ask someone where they are, they learn that they're in The Line, for those of insufficient faith, and they have a 200 year (or so) wait until they get judged.

    Typically, every PC in the game finds religion immediately after. The fires of Hell may be scary, but apparently a queue is worse.

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