From the Parallel Worlds Magazine archives.
PARIAH is a roleplaying game in ’zine format. Regular contributor Connor Eddles took it for a spin.
“PARIAH’s creators do not endorse ingesting psychobotanicals in real life. They do not not endorse it though, particularly if entheogens are a part of your cultural traditions or spiritual practices.”
It was this line which convinced me that PARIAH was worth playing. Never before has a game handled the subject of animism, hallucinogens and the neolithic period in such a nuanced, sensitive way. But let me backtrack a bit.
PARIAH is a game where you play as the Pariahs, funnily enough, of various hunter-gatherer tribes. You struggle against these selfsame tribes, nature, spirits, and the people building the first cities of mud brick and wooden palisade. As outcasts, oddballs and trailblazers, you will eke out a nomadic experience and hopefully end up with a prosperous tribe to provide backup player characters (PCs) when the first ones inevitably get eaten by bears. Or possessed by spirits. Or lost in the nether realms beyond rational thought.
Never before has a game handled the subject of animism, hallucinogens and the neolithic period in such a nuanced, sensitive way.
So PARIAH is high-lethality. It’s billed as an Old School Renaissance (OSR) game, and its subject matter is old-school enough to predate the idea of schools. But it’s also not really about the main characters. The rulebook even encourages you to think of yourself as the spirits guiding the PCs, so you aren’t too torn up when you have to write up a new one. You also create a Band, mostly of kids but maybe with a couple of priceless elders too. This serves as an excellent plot motivator, with early adventures usually revolving around securing enough food, fire and safety, and maybe picking up a few more merry outcasts along the way.
But then we get into the real meat of the story PARIAH wants to tell: there are other worlds than these. Evocatively named Here, There, Dawn and Dusk. There’s also the sun and the moon, presented in refreshingly non-western styles.
The rules of these places are seriously weird, usually involving some meta aspect that’ll fascinate some players and infuriate others. A spirit journey to the sun, for example, suggests you turn off the lights and play the superb Cthulhu Dark system for the duration of the quest. It’s all very psychedelic in the best possible way, and I found myself genuinely excited by the novelty I found there.
It’s not all glowing praise, however. The ’zine format PARIAH uses (it’s only volume 1 we’re looking at here) seems to have driven a preference for terse, brief rules descriptions that come off as a tad vague and confusing. While it’s in the spirit of the OSR to interpret things your own way, I’d definitely go through the rules and make my own clarifications before running this with any players.
There also seems to be a love of mini-systems within the system itself. I personally enjoy these ideas packed into a compact space, but quite a few players in my circle would disregard them entirely and just use the core mechanics to resolve everything.
But what a game this is. A truly original setting, with mechanics that are interesting to read, and gorgeous black and white art that puts you in a thoroughly psychedelic headspace. Highly recommended for lovers of spiritual settings, neolithic scholars who also play roleplaying games, and people who hate using metal tools in their games.