Roleplaying Resources

Mysticism and Shamanism

Extracted from Imazine Rolegaming Quarterly.

ISSN 0267-5595
Issue 21 Autumn 1994
Editor: Paul Mason

This publication is FREEWARE. It may be freely copied and distributed on condition that no money is charged. A paper version also exists. All material is copyright the original authors. Contributions may be sent on paper, on disk (IBM formats, Mac 1.44Mb or NEC accepted), or even on CD-ROM. Modem capability is in the works.

imazine/Paul Mason, 101 Green Heights, Shimpo-cho 4-50,
Chikusa-ku, Nagoya 464 JAPAN

THE MASQUE OF GOD: religion in rolegames

This magazine exists to provide a forum for discussion and debate on the subject of rolegames. The limits set on this debate are, quite simply, those of the interests of the editor. My approach to rolegames is best described as the 'narrative' approach, by which I mean that I view rolegames as the creation of a story; or more properly, as a set of interlinked stories. I also favour games which emphasise role-playing. Finally, I prefer the experience of games which enable me to explore cultures other than my own. Thus the purpose of this magazine is to stimulate debate on how best to achieve the above objectives. This may be through game mechanics, other forms of rules, or any other aspect of the way the game is conducted.

For now, at least, the games which are of most interest to me are 'Tirikelu' ('The Empire of the Petal Throne') and 'The Water Margin', a game about China which I am designing myself. However, this need not exclude anyone who is unfamiliar with either of these two. What's more, 'Tirikelu' already has a fanzine dedicated to it 1), so there is no necessity for me to carry material for that game.

Some readers may remember imazine from its previous incarnation. The last issue was published in the summer of 1988, so it has been a little while since the magazine last appeared. It ceased publication at that time for a number of reasons, one of the most serious being that I ran out of money to subsidise it. I had become increasingly disenchanted with the administrative, commercial aspects of the magazine, which were raising increasing contradictions with the way I envisioned it. Now, thanks to the increased availability of cheap photocopying, and the number of people possessing computers, it is feasible to release the magazine on a freeware basis, so that I have no need to be encumbered by the irritation of shop sales, commercial printing and subscriptions.

Other readers may be aware of 'Inter*action' (now retitled 'Interactive Fantasy') and wonder whether imazine is being set up to compete with it. It isn't, of course. Instead, I hope imazine will provide a more relaxed forum for people to explore their ideas before, perhaps, publishing them in 'Interactive Fantasy'.

As in the past, imazine will attempt to avoid being too dry or earnest, and will enable people with views about other rolegaming publications and companies to air them in an environment which has no commercial ties or responsibilities. Since there is no debate in this issue, it will be rather thin. It will, however, contain a couple of rants from me, along with the third part of the Masque of God article, dealing with the portrayal of religion in rolegames. In future articles I hope to include discussion on rolegames, and submissions are welcomed from all and sundry.


Paul Mason concludes his series on injecting religion into rolegames with a look at the most intensely religious experiences of all: those of the shaman and the mystic.

In the previous two articles 2), I provided reasonably straightforward and structured detail about religion, and the manner in which it manifests in society. In this article I want to go more deeply into the concept of the religious, something which is ignored by almost every rolegame.

I'll do this by focusing on the most intensely religious forms: mysticism and shamanism. I describe them as the most intensely religious because I would argue that in these forms, religion pervades and directs the whole of life. The mystic is someone who dedicates the whole of his or her life to the pursuit of the infinite. The shaman is someone who represents the religious in a culture with primitive religion. (I don't use the term 'primitive' in a pejorative sense: I use it to indicate a society which tends to view the world in an undifferentiated, emotive, subjective, rather than a differentiated, scientific, objective manner.)

I will first of all offer a brief analysis of the nature of mysticism and shamanism. Following that I'll develop a few ideas on how to represent these features in a rolegame.

'Everyone is conscious of 'being at a point' or of 'having reached a point,' even if this be no more than consciousness of having reached a certain age. Mysticism begins with the consciousness that this point is on a radius. It then proceeds by what might be described as an exploitation of this fact, the radius being a Ray of Divine Mercy which emanates from the Supreme Centre and leads back to it. The point must now become a point of Mercy. In other words, there must be a deliberate realisation or actualisation of the mercy inherent in the point which is the only part of the radius which one can as yet command. This means taking advantage of those possibilities of Mercy which are immediately available, namely the outer formal aspects of religion which, though always within reach, may have been lying entirely neglected or else made use of exoterically, that is, considering the point in isolation without reference to the radius as a whole.

The radius itself is the religion's dimension of mysticism; thus in the case of Islam, it is Sufism, which is seen in the light of this symbol to be both particular and universal – particular in that it is distinct from each of the other radii which represent other mysticisms and universal because, like them, it leads to the One Centre. Our image as a whole reveals clearly the truth that as each mystical path approaches its End it is nearer to the other mysticisms than it was at the beginning.' 3).

'Zen is a technique by which a man reaches unity by bringing it to life. It brings into unity the whole of life as lived from hour to hour. It leads to purposelessness, spontaneous, fearless living in which one is freed from the tension of 'What ought I to do or to be?' It is a bird flying through space which has neither length, breadth, height or depth. It has nothing to teach …' 4)

'Only the religious virtuoso, the ascetic, the monk, the Sufi, the Dervish strove for sacred values, which were 'otherworldly' as compared with such solid goods of this world as health, wealth and long life. And these otherworldly sacred values were by no means only values of the beyond. This was not the case even where it was understood to be so by the participants. Psychologically considered, man in quest of salvation has been primarily preoccupied by attitudes of the here and now.' 5).

Three comments on mysticism, not necessarily contradictory, but certainly not on the same wavelength. Certain points emerge from them.

The commonly held contemporary view of mysticism is that it properly belongs to the realm of the irrational. This is merely a product of our own culture. A consequence of the development of scientific and rationalist thought has been a clear distinction between two realms: the rational and the irrational. However, this distinction is a recent phenomenon. Societies in which religion is strong, and which have not yet developed rationalist thought, will not consider mysticism irrational. It is simply one response to the world. It is too easy to involve mysticism in rolegames as a humorous piece of irrationality. There is humour in mysticism (gags aplenty, in the case of Zen) but comes from within.

Mysticism is striving towards a form of unity. In this sense it resembles the primitive religion of the shaman.

'[This]…world revolves round the observer who is trying to interpret his experiences. Gradually he separates himself from his environment and perceives his real limitations and powers. Above all this pre-Copernican world is personal. Trickster speaks to creatures, things and parts of things as if they were animate, intelligent beings.'6).

If religion is a distinction between scared and profane, then the deepest forms of religion are those which attempt to make the sacred personal. As I understand Sufism, philosophical Daoism, Chan and the rest, the goal of mysticism is to enter an undifferentiated world.

To come at this from another angle, Stark and Glock suggest that 'religiousness' can be assessed with four dimensions:

  1. The belief dimension is the most obvious – concerned with an individual acknowledging the truth of the tenets of the religion.
  2. Religious practice consists of acts of worship, rituals and devotional behaviour.
  3. The experience dimension is concerned with the sense of contact, however fleeting, with a supernatural agency.
  4. The knowledge dimension refers to the possession of information regarding a religion's tenets.

It is obvious from this means of categorising religiousness that the mystic is someone for whom the experience dimension is paramount. Their behaviour is entirely geared to this. 'Traditional' religion concentrates on the knowledge and practice dimensions, with the belief dimension being a precondition. Most forms of mysticism suggest that the practice dimension is of worth only for the common people, and that the knowledge dimension is only of ancillary importance (or in some cases, it is regarded as an impediment). For example, in Sufism the Koran is considered to have two meanings: exoteric and esoteric. The exoteric meaning is that followed by most Muslims: a literal interpretation of the scripture and law. For the Sufi, however, the Koran holds an esoteric meaning which reveals the means of approach to the Ultimate. As more of this esoteric meaning is discovered, the exoteric meaning diminishes in importance. A Sufi mystic who has advanced along the road to direct experience of Allah may believe that he is no longer subject to Islamic law. The same idea also applied to the Christian bible in the early days of the religion, before the church ruthlessly stamped out all forms of esotericism and mysticism. Monastics who dabbled in mysticism rather than devoting themselves to the knowledge dimension were always treated with deep suspicion by the central authorities. It is interesting to note that in the last century or so there has been a resurgence in the concept of Christian mysticism, albeit in a variety of non-obvious disguises.

Similarly Chan (or Zen, as the Japanese call it) often involves the mystic striving to break down 'rational' knowledge-based thought processes in order to achieve a direct experience of the Ultimate. The stated conception of the Ultimate may apparently differ (in Islam it is Allah, while in Zen it is the immediacy of existence) but the mystic would probably argue that this is an inadequacy of language rather than a genuine difference: a difference that is only apparent at a point along a radius, rather than at the centre.

Shamanism represents a fusion of the experience and practice dimensions. The shaman lives in two worlds at once. He is a medium to the Otherworld, and performs rituals which connect the two worlds and allow others to experience the Otherworld. However, the discussion earlier should make it clear that the Otherworld is not simply a 'Land of Faerie', an alternate universe in which magic is the norm and supernatural entities dwell. The shaman has no concept of the supernatural because he has an undifferentiated view of existence. The members of the tribe respect the shaman because of his clearer view of an aspect of reality. He experiences the Infinite more vividly than anyone else.


Why bother? Because it's a challenge, and a rewarding one at that. If rolegaming is about engrossing yourself in a character, then a mystic represents an extreme. Role-playing a character who is engrossed in God has to be one of the most interesting experiences you can get out of a game.

It's all too easy to blow it, though. Any trace of a rationalist, cynical attitude will destroy a mystic. Mystics can deal with other people who have this attitude, but they cannot afford to have it themselves. So the first challenge is to rid yourself of your 20th-century programming. Forget simple causal logic. Forget the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. You could try a neat gimmick like meditating on Zen koan (such as the sound made by one hand clapping). It's one way of breaking through your ties to rationalist thought, but I'm not convinced of its efficacy in this case. What you really need to do is to try to recapture the attitude you had when you played as a child. Very young kids role-play, but their games are surprisingly dissimilar to rolegames. They have absolute power over their creations, in the sense that they can imagine anything. At the same time they are at the mercy of their fantasy universe. There is nothing that can frighten a young child so much as the creatures they create themselves, because a child still has a fragment of the way humankind once was – an undifferentiated view of the universe, a weak distinction between I and it. To the child, the fantasy is as real as reality, because the distinction has to be learned. If you can bring that feeling back, then you can play a mystic (or be a mystic, even!).

Obviously, a mystic doesn't have to follow a religion in the same way as a normal worshipper does. As I pointed out for Sufism, a mystic may appear to follow entirely different tenets. A shaman doesn't worship a religion with a clearly formalised set of tenets anyway. Since the shaman's world view is the society's world view, you won't get the distinction of belief. Or, to put it another way, a tribe believes exactly what their shaman tells them to believe.

[Note: this article was originally written in 1990. I never got around to finishing it. Any offers?]

'The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder', address given on page 8
imazine 18 and 19, photocopies available on request
'What is Sufism' by Martin Lings
Unattributed quotation in 'Zen Comes West' by Christian Humphreys.
Max Weber, in his book 'Sociology of Religion'
M. Douglas, in 'Sociology of Religion'