Sunday, 18 July 2021

Genius Loci — Linking Encounters, Hazards and Reaction Rolls

This post is a sketch or a collection of notes... or maybe a starting-off point. It is an attempt at addressing a self-imposed problem: that of making an environment that is also a character, not just a spirit of the place, but a spirit-as-the-place.

Photograph of a Roman Fresco depicting 3 figures, the central one being the spirit of the place. There is a snake at the bottom of the picture.

The Genius Loci

The words are latin: "genius" = spirit (hence genie, which was also used to translate the Arabic word jinn) and "Loci" = [of the] place (locus).

I never came across it until I was studying landscape architecture, when we were introduced to the English landscape garden, the picturesque and cultural appropriation ("chinoiserie" and "orientalism") in our singular design theory module in the first year. This introduction came via Pope, who was a garden designer as well as a poet:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

...and through an unnecessarily complex process of backwards and forwards engineering, learned that the term originally meant a Roman guardian spirt but has come to mean the ambience/character/"personality" of a space in contemporary architectural discourse.

I preferred the original definition, but also didn't really see much of a distinction.

Before we brush this aside, I just want to add a nice design quote form a former teacher of mine:

"The genius loci must be consulted... but it does not have to be obeyed..."
- Tom Turner

Spirits of Place in PARIAH 

I like to think I've put some thought into how the wilderness works in PARIAH, and that the process of designing this game feature is evolving and iterative. What has come to be of increasing importance to me is the sense that the environment the pariahs navigate is alive: not just in a purely biological sense, but in a spiritual or teleological sense. Perhaps what I'm really saying is that the environment is sapient.

The spirit of place embodies the environment (conveniently, the six-mile hex the pariahs are traversing) in all aspects and vice versa. This means:
  • Encounters
  • Weather
  • Hazards and mishaps
  • Foraging
...are all dependent on the relationship (or lack thereof) that the pariahs have with the hex's "ruling" spirit.

A Note About Ruling Spirits

I think I've described spirits sort of fitting into something akin to a feudal hierarchy, but really that's only shorthand... a ready frame-of-reference for RPGers to comprehend the nature of this fantasy animist world. In my ACTUAL imaginary reality I picture them more like one giant organism, in the same way that you exist as part of a larger ecosystem and might be viewed as a marginal component by a greater intelligence, just as you don't really think of your own blood cells as being individuated (though they might have other ideas).

Reaction Rolls

The most obvious place to return to is the reaction roll table. I feel I don't need to add any further qualification to that sentence, although I will add that it grants us a graded series of bands but can also be divided into 11 individual parts:

2           HOSTILE
3-5        AGGRAVATED
9-11      CURIOUS
12         FASCINATED
  • The GM makes a reaction roll in lieu of and as often as they would make an encounter roll.
  • Under ordinary circumstances, roll 2D6.
  • If the pariahs have damaged or disrespected the environment in some way, roll 3d6 and keep the lowest 2 dice.
  • If the pariahs are favoured in some way, roll 3d6 and keep the highest 2 dice. 
  • Modify further if required (no more than +/- 2)

...and because I like to keep things varied, I'll make an additional die roll to randomise the encounter variety that occurs  at each step (1d8).


The pariahs' very presence has angered the ruling spirit. the sky darkens, the air cools (or gets dramatically warmer) and the environment grows quieter. 
  • It materialises, demanding they leave immediately and tells them not to return.
  • Refusal to comply is met with violence., but offers of tributes may ameliorate the spirit. 
  • Weather worsens (max 2 steps) until the pariahs leave the hex. 
  • Foraging yields nothing of value.


The pariahs have annoyed the genius.
  • Weather worsens (max 1 step) until pariahs leave the hex.
  • Chance of getting lost increases by one step.
  • Foraging is disadvantaged or somehow penalised.
  • Reaction rolls with non-human entities is at -1.


The spirit of the place is either unaware or unconcerned by the pariahs: there is no noticeable change to the weather or atmosphere in any way.


The atmosphere lightens. A feeling of positivity pervades the environment. The spirit is interested to see how the pariahs will respond to this elevation: if their gratitude is not expressed on their next visit, the consequences could be dire.
  • Weather improves (max 1 step) until pariahs leave the hex.
  • The chance of getting lost reduces one step.
  • Foraging is at advantage
  • Reaction rolls with non-human entities is at +1.
  • Reduce the chance of being surprised by an encounter by one step.


The spirit has taken a shine to the pariahs, perhaps one particular (determine randomly). In addition to the above effects, the spirit manifests in an awesome display and wants to communicate the importance of their [hex] to the party/band. It may provide them with a special quest or gift (see below).


Note that the reaction of the Genius does not dictate how any monsters, beasts, humans or other encounters will respond to the pariahs: make a separate roll, though note sometimes this should be modified to reflect their awareness of the land's impressions of the party.

Mishaps, Hazards, Discoveries, Fortunes

Among the potential encounters are several alternatives to the conventional monster/beast/NPC. These are divided into four types:
  • Mishaps are strokes of bad fortune that can strike individuals or the whole party (usually a result of not honouring the spirit-of-the-place) such as item loss, food spoilage, fatigue or minor illness.
  • Hazards are the wilderness equivalent of traps: these could be closely linked to the natural environment (falling rocks, crevasses, quicksand etc...) or more supernatural in nature (haunted trees, spirit-rings, temporal loops etc.)
  • Fortunes are minor strokes of good luck that can might befall individuals or the whole party.
  • Discoveries are unusual, strange but on the whole beneficial (or at least neutral) discoveries in the wilderness, ranging from the mundane (an enormous beehive, abandoned altar) to the unusual (lost cities, meteor craters) to the magical (healing pools, portals to other realms, alien space ships, tombs of sleeping gods etc.).

1Food spoilage:
A random pariah's rations succumb to jungle mould.
1Sinking Bog:
Wide expanse of sinking mud, clearly visible, but adds hours to circumnavigate.
2Item break:
Random item is damaged during journey, will require time and resources to restore.
2Impasssable undergrowth:
Hack through with edged or bludgeoning weapons but speed halved.
3Item loss:
Random item is dropped without the pariah's knowledge, most likely lost forever.
Stumble upon the lair of a predatory creature. Is it sleeping? Is it away?
4Venomous Creature:
Next time a pariah retrieves an item, they will be met by a tiny venomous creature in their gear.
4Carnivorous plant:
Seemingly innocuous plant attacks a pariah by surprise.
A wounded pariah attracts a fell spirit. Cannot fully heal until it is coaxed out or destroyed.
Tree, rock, cursed shrine or some other landscape feature is haunted by a spirit of the dead or other malevolent ghost.
Random pariah is assailed by a malevolent spirit, manifesting as a debilitating disease.
As above but the haunting manifests as a time-loop/ spatial warp/ portal to the past or similar mind-bending/ reality-altering hazard.

1Lucky find:
A random pariah spots a clutch of eggs in a nest, or a clump of herbs or a really useful rock.
Hive in a tree with lots of delicious (and valuable) honey.
2High Spirits:
Highest CHA pariah regains a lost hit die.
Humans (or others) have built an altar to the genius loci. Roll 1d6: 1-2 Table 3-4 Decorated tree 5 Statue 6 Combination of all 3.
3Abandoned cub:
A pariah happens upon an abandoned cub, chick or foal. It immediately takes a liking to the pariah.
3Mushroom Grove:
In a damp grove 2d10 mature shaman shrooms are growing, ready to be picked.
Random pariah will pass all saving throws while in this hex.
Large clearing reveals a large pool of crystal clear water. It is good to drink, but roll 1d6:
1- Full of docile, delicious, stupid fish
2- heals 1d6 HP
3- Removes curses (if pariah fully submerges in the water
4- Home to a water spirit who falls in love with a random pariah
5- 1d20 precious stones can be retrieved from its bottom.
6- Roll twice more and combine.
5Wounded Creature:
Random pariah spots a defenceless (and possibly delicious) creature, wounded but clinging on to life.
5Golden Idol:
Glistening, golden statue of a forgotten (or sleeping?) spirit. It's too heavy for them to move alone, surely... but if they built a shrine around it...
The band find a trail/ stream/ pass that leads them right to the next hex (they can mark this trail to return to it later).
6Ancient Complex:
Hidden behind the jungle vines and undergrowth is an ancient city/ temple/ fortress of some forgotten (pre-human? culture.

This could make an excellent place to camp... or it could be a treasure-filled adventure site.

Form of the Genius Loci

Should the spirit-of-the-place materialise, it's form will be dictated by the terrain:

1Hyena QueenEyeless childGreat TreeGold Worm
2Dust DevilGiant BoarHuge tiger/lion etc.Eagle with Leaf Feathers
3Pillar of FireGiant with Elk's HeadHorsehead ManHowling Wind Spirit
4Plume of waterEnormous Bear4 Warriors of the WindsStone Giant
5Great LionMycelial NetworkSinging Sea of GrassRam with human face
6Sand titanAnimated TreeElephant DemonHuge snow leopard
1Writhing mass of vinesSleeping giantSea SerpentPolar Bear
2Two-headed apeA low rumbling noiseUberkrakenIce Titan
3Huge jaguarEmerald serpentTitanDemented Walrus
4Vast insect swarm (crawling)River of FireMilk-white whaleYeti
5Monstrous pythonMetallic RocEnormous JellyfishCreeping lichen
6Mycellial networkEnormous GoatThe Deep OneMastodon

Serving suggestions only.

Shrines & Altars

Any pariah can identuify a landmark as being sacred to the genius loci if:

  • They have previously visited that landmark
  • The landmark epitomises the site in some way
  • The landmark is easily identifiable (note: this can be achieved and/or augmented by altering the landmark i.e. tying a ribbon round a tree, leaving a statue by a rock, painting, etching etc.
This landmark is now a shrine.
  • Visiting this shrine prompts a reaction roll (roll 2d6). 
  • If the pariahs spend some time cleaning and/or decorating the shrine when they visit, roll 3d6 and drop the lowest die. Alternatively, the may make a votive offering: the shrine is now an altar. Note there is no quantifiable difference in PARIAH, just that the spirit will expect to be honoured with  such an offering regularly.

Fighting the Genius Loci

It's going to happen I guess...

Okay, it has 5d12 HP and regenerates 1d12 HP each round (it cannot regenerate damage from magic or metal) 

It makes 3 attacks each round, corresponding to its form. 

In lieu of any one conventional attacks, the spirit of the place may invoke a spell-spirit (max 3 a round).

In place of all conventional attacks the GENIUS LOCI may conjure an elemental appropriate to its own realm.

At the end of each combat round it makes an additional "environmental" attack, regardless of initiative order: 
  • Falling rocks
  • Geysers or lava plumes
  • Entangling vines
  • Carnivorous plants
  • Quick sand
  • Dust storms, blizzards or localised thunderstorms
In lieu of an environmental attack, it may summon a random encounter appropriate to the hex, which arrives immediately.

Instead of making an environmental attack or summoning local creatures, the genius loci may instead change form (choose another on the list), re-rolling its HP in the process (healing both magical/metallic and non-magical damage). It may not do this if grappled or magically bound in some way.

At 0 HP the spirit is considered subdued: the pariahs have the option to slay it, or re-negotiate terms on a more favourable basis.

Killing the Genius

Well done! You've murdered the environment.

For a time the hex is in utter disarray: 
  • Roll for encounters using 1D12, as opposed to 2d6.
  • Re-roll all encounters with spirits, or choose an adjacent mundane creature.
  • Ignore all environmental effects, positive or negative.
  • All creatures will flee at the sight of the party.
  • Forage as normal.
It will take 1d12 days for the hex to return to normal. 
  • If the party are still present during that time, the genius will petition them to return (see "becoming the genius", below) 
  • If the party have left, when they next return roll the hex's reaction using 3d6, dropping highest.

Becoming the Genius

Whether through violence or diplomacy there can be no avoiding the inevitable: ultimately, the party will "become" the spirit-of-the-place: it is but a manifestation of all the life that occupies the territory, human or otherwise. 

This is the bit that still needs development, but essentially there's the idea of stewardship or guardianship of an area: they might be summoned to defend the hex against a threat or unwanted interlopers; conversely, they might summon creatures of the hex to help defend it.

* * *

This post was mentioned in issue #18 of The Glatisant:

If you like this sort of thing please be aware that hard copies of PARIAH are available to buy from the following retailers:

You can obtain PDFs from the following online vendors:

...and there is, of course, a free edition available here:


  1. This is exciting stuff - it's like the spirit generator you did a while back, something about it/it as a whole lights fuses and touch-papers of the mind.

    Your former teacher appears to have leavened wisdom with risk.

  2. The trick, or so I've heard, is not to fear it...

  3. This is super cool! Very interested to see how this develops.

    1. Thank you. Just out of curiosity, did come to this post by way of the Glatisant?

    2. Really late reply, as I don't get notifications and forgot that I posted this:
      I can't remember if it was Ben Milton's newsletter that send me here, but seeing date I posted the reply I think I must have, as I do try to read up on the Glatisant whenever it comes in my inbox.

      Still very excited about this idea and I have tried to do something inspired by it that I will share in a blogpost pretty soon.

      If you happen to be interested, I'll be sure to share it in the OSR discord and the OSR reddit blogrolls.

    3. I've streamlined this idea somewhat, feedback appreciated: