Monday, 18 January 2021

HEARTH SPIRITS: Neolithic House Ghosts

Discussing the etymology of hobgoblin on the discord server was a reminder that the idea of a "kitchen ghost" or "hearth spirit" is common to many cultures across the globe. Hob is used by a lot of British people to describe their stovetop, an evolution of the hot plate that once kept pots simmering on traditional stoves. Goblin, of course, was a type of fey creature rather than a rat-faced runt with green (or orange) skin and a selection of  pointy sticks. The hobgoblin was thus a kitchen-based domestic spirit and not the larger kinds [of orc], as suggested by Gandalf.

They used to be fun, now they're just another "proud warrior race" trope.

In protestant Europe (and in many of the lands the countries of that cultural sphere once occupied) belief in this spirit and the practice of honouring it has largely died out over the last few centuries along with many of that culture's folk traditions. The guilty party in this case being the religiosity of the reformation and the "rationalism" of the later enlightenment period. 

However, there are many cultures that have kept this simple observance alive, including many with a more syncretic approach to religion. My family in central Vietnam keep a shrine above the hearth to the Kitchen God, a figure of Chinese origin and found in both Taoism and Chinese mythology. Among his many duties is to report the behaviour of various family members (to heaven) every Lunar New Year. By family tradition his return flight to the heavens is on the back of a giant fish, though I'm not sure if this is a common belief outside of my wife's household. Throughout the rest of the year the Kitchen God is respected each day with the burning of incense and with votive offerings  on both his birthday and during Tet. In return the Kitchen God helps us to maintain an orderly home and family, the hob being representative of the preparation of the food which we share together.

But this is not an anthropological or sociological post, this is a blog about a fantasy adventure games. The preamble is to make the following (non-academic) leap of logic: given the widespread practice of folk traditions honouring a kitchen sprite, spirit or minor deity; given the long tradition of such practice within many disparate cultures, is it not unreasonable to suggest that our Neolithic ancestors might also have honoured a kitchen ghost?

Hearth Spirits & House Ghosts

Neolithic shrine, reconstructed: Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Not sure where their stove is but hey-ho.

The design goals of introducing house-spirits to Pariah:
  • Demonstrate the interactivity of the animist world.
  • Give players the options for developing the pariah band's culture.
  • Create additional options when seeking shelter in abandoned places OR when building permanent structures.
  • Provide additional flavour. 

The Nature of a Hearth Spirit

Hearth Spirits or House ghosts are invisible spirits of the Here & Now. They are intelligent, though it is an intelligence that is very different to that of humans. They do not speak but they can understand human language. Certain shamanic rites or entheogens might render them temporarily visible: they usually appear as small mammals (weasels, mice, opossums) , lizards (geckos and chameleons especially), arthropods (friendly spiders, mantises and isopods) or tiny 1' high elders.

They live in the homes of humans, usually beside the hearth: here is not just the physical warmth of the fire, but also the warmth of the family and the home. This is an environment that they want to perpetuate

The hearth spirit might be invited into a home, or it might have just materialised as a consequence of human interaction with each and materials in the creation of a living space.

Pariahs and Hearth Spirits

By definition, a pariah is one who has been cast out from their home, their family and their tribe.

In the PARIAH RPG these outcasts originate from nomadic hunter-gatherers, many of whom (though not necessarily all) might not build permanent homes and structures. They might not have any idea about the presence of a house-spirit... but in time, it will make it's presence felt.

In an Abandoned Home

Beside the firepit there might be an idol, perhaps blackened by soot from the flames to indicate how long it has been there. Or perhaps it is a miniature model of the dwelling, raised slightly on a supporting column or beam. It could simply be a drawing of an indistinct shape in a place close to  where food is prepared. In any case, the small bowls arranged neatly beside it show signs of the burning of incense or the offering of food or both: this alerts most to the idea that this is an altar or shrine, and an offering should be made.

The first time the pariahs make an offering to such an altar nothing happens... unless they intend to spend the night in the dwelling, in which case the pariahs have a particularly restful sleep. The following things occur:
  • Those at recovering lost HP or stat receive their hit die's full compliment. 
  • Those not recovering HP or stat damage recover ALL their hit dice. 
  • Those not injured and with a full compliment of hit dice wake up feeling especially optimistic: they receive one re-roll, to be redeemed before the following sunrise.
  • They will not be disturbed by any encounter during the night (at GM's discretion an NPC tailing them will be free to disturb them as planned: this "encounter waiver" covers random encounters only!)
The following night—if the pariahs remain in the house—they get no such special benefit.

However, for as long as they keep making regular offerings, they will receive one of the following benefits after the first week, then again after a continuous occupancy of one month, then again after a continuous occupancy of one year, and thereafter on the anniversary of their occupancy. Roll 1d6:
  1. The house-spirit provides protection against malevolent spirits(of 3HD or fewer): none may enter the dwelling without an invitation.
  2. Food will keep twice as long as expected, and rot will attract fewer pests.
  3. The spirit will attract helpful creatures to deal with prevalent vermin (cats to deal with mice; spiders to deal with flies; geckos or bats to deal with mosquitoes etc.)
  4. The fire of the hearth requires only half as much fuel as usual.
  5. Out of everybody who shares a meal and then sleeps beneath this roof, one (pick at random) will recover ALL of their hit dice when they sleep (as opposed to just one). If that person is already recovered, they receive no other benefit.
  6. The house-ghost will repair a broken or damaged item, as long as no one is awake during the night.

Benefits remain in place for as long as one of the pariahs (or an NPC member of the band) continues to make offerings to the hearth spirit. 

Forgetting to Honour the Ghost

If the pariahs continue to occupy a dwelling but neglect to honour the hearth spirit they lose any benefits they have gained, at a rate of one each night... until they have no benefits left. 

If they remember to make an offering, they will once again regain benefits in the same manner descried above. However, if they continue to fail to honour the ghost bad things start to happen. 

Roll 1d6 and add the number of days since they last made an offering to the ghost (maximum of 12). All effects accumulate.
  1. Dusty: no matter how hard the pariahs sweep, there's always dust everywhere!
  2. Strange noises are heard in the night, waking one character at random. That individual will not recover any hit dice that night.
  3. An object of minor importance (i.e. not magical, a weapon, tool or clothing) disappears. It reappears within the house in 1d6 days, or when the spirit is given its due respect.
  4. No one is able to sleep properly. No hit dice are recovered overnight.
  5. Broken: a randomly determined non-magical object breaks in the night. No one heard anything. It is reparable, but will take time.
  6. Any food kept beneath the roof of the house spoils overnight.
  7. Unlucky: someone (determined at random) will have -2 to all rolls until the following morning (at which point the hex will have moved on to someone else).
  8. No one may recover HP by spending hit dice after eating. Only magical healing may assist them.
  9. Vermin become attracted to the house. Any friendly creatures (geckos, cats, bats, house spiders etc.) vacate the dwelling.
  10. No one may recover attribute damage (i.e. heal wounds) by spending hit dice. Only magical healing may assist them.
  11. A significant object (a weapon or tool) disappears. It will not reappear unless an offering is made at the altar of the house ghost.
  12. Those seeking to rest and recover from wounds find their wounds have worsened by one point overnight. 
  13. Scratches: a random pariah awakens to find scratches all over their arms and legs. Inflict 1 HP damage.
  14. Horrible nightmare: a random pariah awakens in the night, paralysed. A creature is sitting on their chest (ask the player to describe what their character sees). The pariah receives 1d6 WIS damage. They recover no hit dice that night.
  15. Major apport: an object of great significance—perhaps an ancestral relic or magical item—vanishes, never to return (unless offerings are made and the home is put right).
  16. Disease: a member of the household is struck down by a slow wasting disease, deleting 1d4 points from a random attribute each day they spend in the house. Moving them to another site will halt the progress, but they won't recover until the house spirit is redressed (or destroyed, because by this point the party are going to be pretty pissed at it).
  17. Assault: a group of ghouls/blood-drinkers/elementals attack the dwelling in the night, bypassing even circles of protection to invade the haunted house.
  18. Death: a randomly determined pariah must save vs death or they won't wake up in the morning.
As stated, these negative effects accumulate, so it is possible for a party of neglectful pariahs to suffer multiple attacks in one night. However, all negative effects are removed as soon as the spirit is righted.

Of course, if things turn nasty pariahs are more likely to want to destroy the spirit (or the house), but that will lead us to the scenario below...

Hearth Spirits and New Dwellings

The hearth spirit is born when humans come together and enclose a space with walls and a roof: it is born of their combined spirits and will to create a warm and protective place.

But this spirit needs a proper shrine at which it shall be honoured, and if one is not made it will simply wither and die.

Instead, the restless dead will come and occupy the vacant place.

The effects will resemble those listed above, but they cannot be negated by making an offering: these are not house spirits, they are ghosts that sit between both the realm of the living and the dead, and they can only be placated by giving up the structure to them, destroying the structure, or fighting them in the Realm of the Dead itself.


  1. This would be a cool mechanic to use in a hexcrawl, I think. There's the initial mystery of the "first night" and afterward, either the opportunity of creating a little point of haven on the map or else the risk of seeding the landscape with malevolent spirits who are furious at your disrespect for tradition...

    1. Definitely- although I am working on something similar but different with Spirits of the Place/Genius Loci.