Setting up camp – Altars and Shrines

The rituals from my childhood D&D games fascinate me. Setting up camp was one of them.

  • Was this going to be a place where we made a last stand?
  • Was this going to be a place we abandoned because of an attack we couldn’t defend?
  • Would we be meeting and welcoming a new friend, patron, enemy or deity by the fire?

The structure was familiar and comforting, even though the world all around our characters was dangerous and unknown.

The Travel Shrine

The travel shrine or travel altar can be a tree stump or an actual stone shrine, a folding table or just a clean bit of carpet with holy inscriptions laid out over dry ground. When you make camp for the night, before setting up watches, lighting the fire or eating, you set up your shrine. Everyone contributes something.

One could contribute an icon depicting a deity or saint. They might contribute a piece of vellum with a prayer or holy phrase or even a whole book or scroll. If they have lost someone important recently they might put one of their belongings on the shrine or an item commemorating an elder or ancestor.

The travel altar offers an aegis of protection. If a fellow traveler should offer their own icon on the altar should violate the trust of anyone else who has put down an icon it inspires the ire of every power invested. Being god-cursed is a terrible fate, though some bandits and thieves have been known to do their best to survive with a fell mark against them. Even refusing to sit and robbing those who have contributed to a travel shrine is known to bring about the anger and retribution of the icons represented.

Every character says something short about what that piece means to them. Over the course of the night one might talk about how two pieces on the shrine might interact or ask questions about an icon, remembrance or text. Discussions occur about how the different ideas interact. In this way, travel shrines and altars help mythologies become woven into one another as travelers talk under its aegis and make sense of one another’s ideas and traditions.

Of course this gets complicated. When larger retinues or even armies meet on the road. When larger groups meet before a traveling shrine there will often be a spiritual leader who represents each group. In these cases, sometimes this leader might put down several icons to represent the factions within their group or put down more remembrances if they have lost comrades on the road or in battles. Sometimes armies will put icons down for units who took heavy casualties or an icon for the unit or army’s patron saint. Sometimes an army that has been routed or a group of adventurers who have been decimated put down an icon for an incarnation of death.

Among smaller groups it is often a less complicated endeavor. Travelers have been known to use discussions around the shrines and altars to celebrate their comrade’s heroism or to take a moment to remember those who have fallen. It can be used to remember where they are going and why or what they learned from where they are coming from.

Around the shrines and altars powers have been known to offer visions and dreams; sometimes there is even a disguised or direct visitation.

Things to do at the Travel Altar:

  • Ask each other questions about your homes, backgrounds, families and cultures
  • Relate a story about the powers on the altar and how they relate to one another
  • Seek forgiveness from a comrade
  • Air a grievance before higher powers and your fellow travelers
  • Seek guidance from those around you and from higher powers
  • Remember a dead comrade

Icons

There are many different types of icons for the various deities, saints, elemental lords, devils, demons, angels, and more alien powers worshipped in these lands and beyond. If someone’s icons are lost, often they will search for material to make a new one, often taking the material they first find as a kind of calling towards that power.

The Spring Maiden (also known as the Spring Queen in some areas)
Made of corn husks and fresh grass.

The Winter Matron (also known as the Winter Queen or even the Death Queen in some areas)
Made of pine needles, oak roots, raven feathers and winter roses.

The Empress with Five Crowns (part of the dragon pantheon, you know Her name)
Made of five different minerals of varied local meaning.

The Platinum Emperor (you get the idea)
Made of copper, brass, silver, gold or even platinum – sometimes a cheaper mineral that seems like any of these colors.

The Arch-Mage
Made of intricately folded vellum into an origami wizard with arcane theories written all over it.

Patron Saint of Apprentices and Squires (often given a common name to that village or area)
Made of a scrap piece of leather or a carved dagger.

The Imperial Emperor (a Hobgoblin icon)
Made of melted down Hobgoblin coins.

The Eight Legged Empress
Made of spider silk and dried mushrooms.

The Devil-God
Made of a slim piece of black basalt with a crown on top.

Froghemoth
Made of a slimy frog-shaped rock.

Notes

I wanted an in-game reason for characters to set time aside to palaver, discuss their deities and saints, celebrate each other’s heroism and toast the sacrifice of the dead. Inspired by the hero quests in Glorantha. What if myths changed in a more mundane way? What if myths were altered by people sitting around a fire in dangerous places talking about how their deities might interact.

Please let me know if it is helpful at your table.


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If you liked this blog post you might like the pdf linked below about the Raven Queen warring with the Ghoul King.

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