D&D/AD&D (or as we Pathfinder fans like to say, “the world’s oldest role-playing game”) was always been shaky on the subject of spirits. “Spirits” as a term is a lot more nebulous than, say, “faeries” or “angels.” (In the D&D Companion Set, spirits were a category of powerful possessing undead, including the druj, odic, and revenant. Spirits are also what elves have in place of souls, if you’re a Tolkien or Ghostwalk fan. (I’m both!))
In 3.0/3.5, spirits were gestured toward, but always pretty deep in Supplement Land—the Spirit World at the end of the Manual of the Planes is one example, or the spirit folk PC races in Unapproachable East and Oriental Adventures. They were there, but they weren’t exactly top of mind.
So I’m all for the kami, whether you call them that or not. When you need a spirit of nature that’s not a fey, not a treant, and not anything else, kami are the way to go. Technically they are outsiders, but many are noble reincarnated souls and other spirits, and anyway they long ago gave up the higher realms to become the guardians of this one.
And land kami, or jinushigami, are the most serious of the bunch, at a staggering CR 20. They cover big wards—forests, glaciers, volcanoes, etc.—and are big themselves (Gargantuan at the very least). They are nature writ very, very large…with +5 quarterstaffs to boot. And with powers like earthquake, true resurrection and manipulate terrain at your disposal (not to mention wards of up 78.5 square miles), they give you an opportunity to serve up cinematic, Princess Mononoke-style spirit lords for your players to encounter.
To raise a disintegrated comrade, a party of adventurers turns to the spirit of the woods, and ancient jinushigami. His price is high—they must restore a druidic stone circle, defeat a powerful div, and train his dryad daughters in wizardry. Should they fail or renege on their commitments, they must face him in combat.
From the time they were novices, a group of adventurers has heard of a local glacier referred to as “the Grandfather,” presumably for its long, beard-like profile on the horizon. Now the nation’s champions, they face off against a hellfire-wielding pit fiend on the slop of that very glacier, only now armed with an artifact that allows their own incendiary magicks to muscle through the devil’s immunities and defenses. But the indiscriminate fire-throwing rouses the ire of Grandfather Glacier, a glacier kami, himself. He aims to crush both sides in ice unless the adventurers can persuade him to check his fury.
Storms and tsunamis wrack a small country’s ports, and sahuagin and devilfish troops threaten the beaches. The country’s oracles believe that the spirits will come to aid the land, as they always have in the past. But their predictions are flawed. The country’s crown prince has actually been replaced by a water yai, and as long as he sits on the throne, the great reef kami will not life a coral finger to help.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 3 160–161
Since I mentioned Tolkien above, I also want to point to this rare interview his son did for Le Monde that made the rounds earlier this summer. Naturally, I loved reading it, though it broke my heart a little.
By pure luck, I’ve been lucky enough (here’s that name-dropping again) to run into some amazing Tolkien scholars. Wayne Hammond was my boss for a summer at a rare books library, and Verlyn Flieger was one of my professors in grad school, and instrumental in pushing me to get my Tolkien paper published. Both had really kind and respectful-bordering-on-reverence things to say about Christopher Tolkien, and that rubbed off on me.
And I completely sympathize with his desire to protect his father’s legacy, and the family’s struggles over the profits and control over the merchandising rights to the movies. (Pro tip: Always go for gross points, not profits, which Hollywood accountants and lawyers can make vanish in a flash.)
But it’s disappointing to read things like this: “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film. […] The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has gone too far for me. Such commercialisation has reduced the esthetic and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: turning my head away.”
(And while I don’t want to speak for Wayne, I don’t recall Verlyn being overjoyed with the first two movies either. And I guess my recollection is right.)
Naturally I sigh a little bit at this. To me, the Lord of the Rings movies, especially the extended cuts, were as beautifully done and respectful to the books as movies could be. (And to be fair, Verlyn speaks to that pretty well in the link above.) Maybe HBO might have done it better as a TV series, maybe Peter Jackson cannot ever quite resist the booger shot (he still can’t restrain his first impulse, from his days as a gore director, to look at grossness—orcs, goblins, Denethor—a little too closely), but as movies, they were near-perfect and exceedingly respectful. And what little they did alter (ditching Tom Bombadil, upping Éowyn’s screen time) honestly smoothed out weaknesses in the original book. Sure Galadriel sucked, sure Arwen played too big a role, but whatever. As adaptations, they were excellent. That’s key—they’re adaptations, not translations.
And the films will never drown out the books. No film ever beats the book unless the book a) isn’t that good, and/or b) is trying to do what a movie can do better (Trainspotting, Fight Club, Bambi). J. R. R. Tolkien is myth and imagination—Peter Jackson can’t top that, and Christopher Tolkien needn’t fret.
Okay, end rant.