sometimes you gotta sacrifice a human

What struck me about the cities of the West African forest is the archaeological evidence of their religious sacrifices. First, there were sacrifices of wild, not domesticated, animals (animal type unspecified). I’m more familiar with European sacrificial traditions where domesticated animals like oxen are sacrificed.

African Civilizations by Graham Connah

African Civilizations by Graham Connah

What kind of wild animals might be sacrificed in a D&D forest culture? Deer? What would it mean about a religion if they were to sacrifice a stag? Somehow it makes me think of a religion that reveres the stag, but sacrifices it as part of a spring/fertility ritual. That might tie in with Robert Graves-type sacrificial-king human sacrifice.

Human Sacrifice

Human sacrifice was practiced in some West African forest civilizations:

At least some [ceremonies] involved human sacrifices in which the victim or victims were asked to carry a message to the gods.

Human sacrifice is usually regarded in adventure fiction as the evil superstition of a barbaric people, a plot device to be thwarted by the hero. But in a D&D world, the beliefs leading to human sacrifice may well be right. Imagine if you can enlist help from your god by sacrificing a persuasive messenger. Or, imagine that a winter lasts unusually long – nine months, or a year – and the PCs track its source to a “Stag King” who refused to let himself be sacrificed to summon spring.


6 Responses to “sometimes you gotta sacrifice a human”

  1. dariel says:

    Hi there! I’m currently writing an RPG based on Southeast Asian mythology and epics, and the questions of how to handle slavery, head-taking and human sacrifice are also matters I’m trying to deal with in my game.

    All three were behaviors historically practiced by the cultures I’m taking as my inspirations, so now I’m in a quandary whether to include them in the game or not. Because if I do include them in the game, they will have a very real effect on the magic and combat systems. Would you include them in your game?

  2. paul paul says:

    Hmm… this question raises tons of interesting issues.

    Writing an RPG is different than writing an adventure. As a DM, you can probably guess whether your players are going to be OK with something. As a game designer, you hope to appeal to a lot of people you don’t know, which increases the possibility that your choices will make someone uncomfortable.

    On the other hand:

    If you say that slavery, head-taking and human sacrifice are evil things the PCs battle, you’re kind of saying that the real ancient Southeast Asian cultures are bad, and you’re allowing the PCs to be modern-age people in dress-up clothes who save the savages from themselves. That has a weird imperialist vibe. And if you leave real social institutions out of the game, you may be Disnifying a little. (Which may not be the end of the world. 1001 Nights has a lot of talk of slavery, but I bet Al-Quadim doesn’t.)

    I actually think that the slavery might be the aspect most likely to trouble modern players. Human sacrifice is challenging but its interestingness might outweigh its creepiness. Head-taking is actually not very different from the way that PCs normally act.

  3. Kensan_Oni says:

    Actually, Al-Quadim does mention slavery, including rules for buying slaves, and the status of slaves. Like Dark Sun, it doesn’t shy away from the topic, but unlike Dark Sun, it doesn’t emphasis it, either. Slaves exist, but are not the focus of Al-Quadim.

  4. paul paul says:

    Interesting! I guess 2e was the golden age of D&D slavery. Well, there you go – venerable precedent for slavery rules.

  5. Sean Holland says:

    It is a good point, in a world where the powers (gods, demons and so on) are active participants in the day to day events, ways to communicate with them are important. And what would show your commitment more than sacrificing one of your own?

    Yes, cannot see much of a problem either with headhunting in a fantasy RPG.

    Slavery is a challenge, I wrote some of my thoughts about it here:

  6. dariel says:

    Thanks for the replies! I’m still trying to get more inputs for a wider sampling of the gaming community’s thoughts on the matter. I have the al-Qadim books (battered, but still readable!) and got to read the TSR Vikings Campaign sourcebook. The former mentions slavery but not in detail, while the latter glosses over it.

    What do you think of these ideas:

    Slavery is debt-based. A debtor who cannot pay up becomes his creditor’s slave until the debt is covered. In war, a captive who fails to come up with ransom is considered to be like a failed debtor – he owes his captor the value of his ransom in slave labor. High-ranking captives are given a year and a day to cough up their ransom; low-ranking captives are only given a month.

    As for human sacrifice, I’m thinking there are two kinds, the vengeance-sacrifice and the propitiation sacrifice.

    Vengeance sacrifices are made over the graves or at the funerals of those considered to have powerful spirits – spirits too powerful to be satisfied with the blood of a pig or chicken. The sacrifice must come from the same tribe that killed the person being sacrificed to, or better yet it should be the killer himself.

    Propitiatory sacrifices on the other hand are sacrifices made to certain gods when the tribe is in very dire straits. The dreaded volcano goddess is the main recipient of these. In this case, the sacrifice must come from the community’s core members. Lesser gods and diwatas (nature spirits) are usually satisfied by the substitution of an animal – unless the community commits such a grave offense that the being demands a human!

Leave a Reply