The Good Stuff

You didn’t think I was going to leave off with only muzzy recollections and vague advice, did you? Nope, let’s dig deeper into the good stuff. I’d like to examine some of the decisions we made and how they evolved. So, let’s dive into the four great religions of the Niraih and how they work in our games.

This post is a continuation of my campaign retrospective.

CW: Extremely questionable fantasy world building decisions

Deity

In terms of the Religion subsystem as described in the Codex, the four gods are deities (as opposed to chief deities or minor deities).

Developing Spheres

The Codex invites us to divide the powers of our deities into three overarching categories or spheres: nature, the human condition and society. While we never did this formally for our game—since this material predates the Codex (and the Magic Burner)—we can apply the Burning Wheel system logic to them now.

Deity Nature Human Condition Society
Daeyang Water Luck Sea Travel
Daepoong Wind Justice Order
Keun Bul Fire Blood Sorcery, Surgery
Daegi Earth Crops Gates, Land Travel

These spheres naturally grew as the importance of these gods increased in our campaign:

Deity Nature Human Condition Society
Daeyang Water Luck, Resilience, Flexibility Sea Travel, Ships, Animals of the Sea, Sea Storms
Daepoong Wind Poetry, Speech, War Change, Chimes, Animals of the Air, Silk, Storms
Keun Bul Fire Blood, Health, Solitude Sorcery, Surgery, Cooking, Smithing, Persuasion
Daegi Earth Crops, Fertility, Sanctuary Gates, Harvest, Medicine, Roads and Paths, Animals of the Earth

You’ll note that the Wind god undertook the most radical shift in terms of spheres. The developments of Water, Fire and Earth were natural, but how did Wind go from the societal sphere of order to that of change? In fact, this shift was the first cosmological twist of the campaign.

We decided early on that, like Fire, the Wind religion was also banned or suppressed, though for reasons unclear to our young kensai hero. So, after many adventures, the kensai finally returned to the mountain temple where he was raised. He had many questions for his masters and they patiently explained: Lord Wind’s priests were driven out of the Niraih because they embody Wind’s truest calling: change (not order or justice as the player had asked for!). In fact, these great priests disobeyed the emperor and so he (and the Earth and Water priests) banned their religion.

This revelation upset the young holy warrior…and upset the kensai’s player! You might recall that in the early days of our campaign, I encouraged the young kensai to kick butt in the name of order and justice (his alignment was Lawful Neutral, afterall). Thus the philosophical shift from order to change was a shock, and it ignited our first serious disagreement about the direction of the campaign. He felt I did not take his contributions seriously. I felt that a twist was needed to tighten up the cosmology and his role in it. Eventually, I sold him on my vision and Lord Wind became the agent of change, and his followers along with him. Part of us coming to terms with my reveal was that I never wanted him to modify his alignment or stop fighting for society, civilization, order or justice. Once he understood that, he realized that the motive force of change gave him more opportunity to contend with a corrupt world. He could fight to change it!

I have no regrets about that twist. It has added tremendous texture to the campaign. And rather than disempowering our hot-blooded hero, the mantle of divine change only made his struggles against corrupt authority all the more poignant.

Developing Names

The names of our gods have changed as the campaign developed—both for diegetic and nondiegetic reasons. The names of Lord Water and Lord Earth we took from the map itself. On it, there is a port city named High and another metropolis named Cley. Cley makes some sense for the idiom, but High…well, we just rolled with it. And I was obsessed with Morbid Angel and they sang quite a bit about Abzu, so I adopted that name for our “evil” god—but later we had to change that when I did the smallest amount of research on the origins of the god of sweet water!

Mainly though, we wanted evocative names that felt good to speak aloud. We also liked that different cultures called the gods by different names. In addition to their evolving names, we assigned these gods their (de-personified) symbols and a set of colors.

Deity Early name Mid Name Current Symbol Colors
Water Hai, Hossar, Lord Water Hai/High Daeyang Three-spoked wheel Blue & white
Wind Four Winds Taepoong Daepoong Four-spoked wheel Green & gold
Fire Abzu, Lord Fire Kunju Hwajae Keun Bul Five-spoked wheel Black & red
Earth Cley, Lord Earth Cley Daegi Six-spoked wheel Ochre & saffron

The God Wheels

I love a good artifact, especially ones that grant power at a high price. In the early days of this campaign, I was reading Joe Campbell’s Primitive Mythology, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence and Moeller’s Shadow Empires comics. Mainly inspired by these three ur-texts I, as game master, decided to introduce four symbolic manifestations of the powers of these elemental forces. Drawing on the symbology present in those texts, these artifacts took the form of four god wheels.

In our world, each wheel is unique and grants a series of simple, thematic abilities, as well as access to a serious amount of advantage dice for performing miracles or using sorcery in the idiom of the wheel.

I decided that some series of past catastrophes had scattered the wheels and now all were lost to the Niraih. So, in the mold of D&D’s heroic acquisitiveness, attaining a god wheel would require a quest.

In our second or third campaign, our heroes sought for and recovered the Wheel of Earth. I enjoyed this quest because none of our heroes particularly cared about Earth. To them it was a powerful, significant artifact, but not something they could harness or master themselves. That said, they did enjoy the benefits of carrying that wheel with them. It grants the bearer (and their companions) an easy journey on roads, paths and fields, causes plants to thrive in its presence and, most important, allows no gate or portal to remain locked against it. Bearers of the wheel of earth can be detected before they arrive as flowers will bloom ahead of their season and gates will swing open unbidden.

After enjoying these benefits for some time, our heroes performed one of the most unlikely acts of their careers: They remanded the Wheel of Earth to the Earth Temple and its priests—so that it could be used to defend the capital against the enemies of the empire during the coming war.

The yuanti sorcerer-priests possessed the Wheel of Fire—ostensibly given to them by Lord Fire itself. They wielded it to great effect during the war, but they were defeated and lost the wheel to our heroes. The wheel of fire grants the ability to ignite or douse any flame in one’s presence. And fires lit by the Wheel of Fire burn forever, unless doused by the bearer of the wheel or the equivalent the powers of another source of magic. However, due to its nature, the Wheel of Fire constantly burns whoever bears it.

From the beginning, I stated that the Wheel of Water was considered lost at sea, and so it remains to this day.

The Wheel of Wind was also lost but rumored to be many things or in many locations. It was recovered by one of our antagonists, the demon Belial (because the players sort of refused to confront him and take up the quest). Belial, following the instructions of the Pact, knew that the Wheel of Wind (now revealed to also be known as the Wings of Twelve) was one of the only means of reaching Heaven’s Gate and breaking the Pact to release the old ones. Belial has since been defeated by our heroes at the threshold of Heaven’s Gate and thus they now possess this god wheel…but they are trapped in time, unable to return home. The Wheel of Wind grants the ability to summon (natural) winds of any strength or direction or cause any wind affecting the bearer to fall calm. It also provides breathable air for the bearer and their companions so long as they can trace even the thinnest access to the sky.

The Religions

So how did these divine forces manifest in our adventures and campaigns?

Water

The first active manifestation was our Hsif priest, Sarch. He followed Hosar, the God of Water and Luck. And his presence on the southern coast, far from his home, invited us to ask an obvious question: What was he doing here? To answer it, we had to invent his religion. As servants of Lord Water, the priests of this religion traveled widely on sea-going craft. And they were always welcome guests, even if they could get rowdy while they were drinking and gambling. In fact, we decided to go a step further and incorporated this wandering period into the religion of Water: Its priests are required to go out among the people they serve for a number of years and attend to their trials and travails. We had also decided that the Hsif—the lizard folk—were longer-lived than the Niraih, and generally more easy-going. So their wandering priests would spend considerable time out in the world—often decades. Thus, we arrived at the conclusion that the presence of these journeying priests was rare but not unknown in the Niraih, and that their presence was welcome, even a sign of good fortune!

Later, we decided the Niraih water priests were pre-eminent in port cities, and that this religion maintained close ties with the Niraih navy, which created a powerful detente—the priests protected warships from disaster as the Niraih projected their (economic) power into foreign ports. The water priests became the de facto authority at sea, once our heroes began to travel across the map (and cause considerable trouble in their travels), they began to butt heads with these priests.

The main sanctuary of Water lay in the city of High on a massive island called The Greenery. There, Water maintained a vital trade hub and ship-building facility. Their priests are overseen by a Great Priest—Shing, iirc. He spent most of his days meditating in a small shrine built upon a rock in the bay of his city.

Earth

Earth, I decided, was the state religion of the Niraih. The main temple to Earth lay in the City of Cley, which acted as a religious sanctuary. Their preeminence made sense according to the geography of our map: Even with port cities driving a thriving sea trade, most of the Niraih lived on two large land masses. Most of their food came from crops grown there. Most of their travel was done on roads. Most of them lived in houses, protected by gates.

Following this logic, I imagined a land dotted with shrines to the Wheel of Six, where travelers could make offerings and say prayers for a safe journey. I imagined doors, gates and portals all adorned or surmounted with the six-spoked wheel. Even temples built in the round, their chambers radiating out from a central hub, at the center of which stood a Wheel of Cley.

Their priests therefore seemed to have a similar need to the water priests—to be out in the world among their people—so we adopted their tradition of wandering priests. In this case, they came in a few forms: Priests of Roads and Priest Rangers. The Priest Ranger was the earliest incarnation of Earth priest that our heroes encountered. And these priests often traveled the Nirah with Oaklander apostates who had been trained to assist them. Our crew met such a pair early in their adventures (Ling Ho and Ericks, iirc). These two rangers became friends with our heroes, fighting alongside them up until the aftermath of the war scattered them all in different directions.

Fire

The religion of fire had been banned generations ago. The priests of fire were outlawed and driven out of the Niraih or hunted and killed. Practitioners of the Fire cult were few. In fact, the players did not meet a fire priest until many years into the campaigns.

However, one of our heroes—the demon bushi—was tied to them through his origins. During the Great War, he was able to leverage his nature in a simple, meaningful way: His resistance to fire allowed him to physically wrest the Wheel of Fire away from the yuanti who were using it to fuel their terrible rituals. Once he had the god wheel, he began to search for answers about the religion of Fire. In the Imperial archives he found copies of three books: Holy Scriptures of the Eternal Fire, Rituals and Incantations of Tang Lun and The Burning Wheel. But these were discoveries during our fourth year of play, not ideas we began the game with. Fire was meant to be a dangerous enigma to start—to mirror the demon-bushi’s origins.

And yes, that is essentially how the Burning Wheel got its name. I named the original rulebook The Burning Wheel as a joke for my friends.

The religion of fire was a mystical and solitary one. They had few temples and no priestly bureaucracy, but they were powerful and influential. They oversaw many rituals like funerals, purifications and, most significantly, the Imperial coronation.

Wind

Similar to Fire, Wind had no institutional presence in the Niraih at the start of our campaign. However, we did determine a few truths: 1) The kensai was raised in a mountain temple dedicated to Wind. 2) The city of Easter was once the home to the main Wind Temple. 3) When they were suppressed, these once great generals, priests and warriors developed an unarmed fighting technique in order to defend themselves.

Mainly, this emerged because our kenai player wasn’t interested in the “sword saint” aspect of the class. He wanted his martial art to be Tae Kwon Do. So we worked out a way to incorporate his punches and kicks into the religion. He even developed names for all of the maneuvers—each was related to a wind or weather phenomenon—which he would chant as he rolled dice. It was a simple trick to introduce lots of flavor without having to create a lot of useless backstory.

As for me, once we settled on this framework, I became enamored with the idea of Priests of Change bucking Imperial authority. In my mind, they were stubborn and rebellious, refusing to use their powers when they felt their acts contradicted Lord Wind’s will…despite the material damage and human costs.

During the War, I introduced a rebel general, Kim, who rose up in Easter and joined the forces of Lord Fire attacking the Niraih capital. He was an adherent to the Wind religion—and when he revolted in Easter, he raided an old temple archive and took with him the surviving records of the Wind priests. But that all came a bit later.

Go Forth

In relating these messy, incomplete origin stories to you, my hope is not that you will adopt our world or our cosmology. Rather, my hope is that you will be inspired to develop your own world in a rich, thoughtful manner. In the introduction to Burning Wheel, I note that I don’t think my world building would be as fulfilling as what you create for your own friends and I still believe that. I love what we’ve created—and I’m sure you all can and will do better!

12 Likes

I once correlated the four classical elements to the four cardinal virtues (because I’ll correlate any group of four things to the cardinal virtues).

I got…

Prudence → Water
Prudence is about identifying your values. It’s reflective and, like water, must adapt to suit its vessel.

Temperance → Earth
Temperance is about keeping your values in line. It structures one’s values and prevents the whole structure from collapsing in on itself.

Courage → Fire
Courage is about weathering the slings and arrows of the external world, it’s true, but it’s also about imposing change upon the world in accordance with your value. Fire conquers the world, changing the world into itself, and Courage does the same.

Justice → Wind
Justice – I’ll also use the term “Harmony” – is about bringing all values, yours and other people’s, into alignment. Just as all wind is movement within one system, so too does Justice seek to bring balance to the whole.

So I get the Wind-as-Justice thing. And the Wind
-as-Change thing. Even the Wind-as-Order thing – what is the wind of not the whole trying to right itself?

Also…

Yes! Yes I did, you aloof bastard! :joy:

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Bastard, yes…but aloof?
Aloof?!

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Release The Si Juk Cut!

BWHQ is a mysterious citadel, its mist-fallen surrounds rare seen by the outside eye…

Honestly, I’m just referring to your practice of letting play spring from readers’ interpretations, rather than browbeating folks with examples…

Which makes the glimpses we do get all the more mysterious and evocative!

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