WIR-S1E02–Do Ut Des

A good Roman character swears by the Gods.

Salve, caniculae!

As I promised in the first episode, this post presents the second “prime set” for Cortex Primus: When In Rome (WIR). The Polverine’s instructions for picking prime sets were as below.

“In a WIR game, PCs and GMs should try to put themselves in Rome’s inhabitants’ sandals as much as possible. The prime sets should help with that roleplay without asking players to do a ton of research to create their PCs. Ideally, after character creation, they should know enough or near enough to play an “authentic” Roman character.”


Distinctiones Romanorum, from Episode 1, fit that description quite well. And I have just what you’d need for the next prime sets: a good Roman character swears by the gods, a lot.

By the Gods

Beyond their name, little was more personal to Romans than their relation to the gods—by which I don’t necessarily mean worship or prayer, however. Romans did not pray to their gods the way most modern folks do.

  • Worship was res publica (public affair). Temples were repositories for sacred objects, and worship occurred outdoors. Priests came from politically prominent families and often held public office (C. Julius Caesar was pontifex Maximus before becoming consul). 
  • Religion was everywhere, in every form. Rome’s calendar had more “sacred” days (fasti) than non-sacred ones (nefasti); festivals featured public sacrifice and prayers (prex) but also games (ludi): mock hunts (venationes), chariot races, or theatrical performances (ludi scaenici).
  • Foreign gods were welcome. There was no “religious fundamentalism,” and as Rome expanded territory, foreign gods were given spots alongside Roman ones (beginning with merging them with the Greek gods).

Some worship occurred in private, like mystery cults, but entangled with the social structure, and that is for future episodes. Houses had private altars dedicated to lares (guardians) and penates (ancestor) deities, but crossroads had lares altars, too.

The private relation to the gods stemmed from vows and oaths binding one to a godvota and sacramenta. A votum was a promise to honor a god, either with a gift (also called votum, by extension) in exchange for a favor or with conduct upholding values the god embodied. A sacramenta was more serious: an oath-breaker would become sacer, “given to the gods” to do as they pleased.

Do Ut Des

Behind Roman’s understanding of religion is the principle of do ut des, literally: “I give so you (can) give.” And thus, there’s a possible votum for every occasion, to a god who could take interest. Accordingly, I propose that When In Rome use do ut des as a prime set—in practice, a list of gods with domains under their purview.

  • Ianus: beginnings and endings, duplicity, transitions. 
  • Iuno: hearth, family, connections.
  • Iupiter: power, trust, the Roman state.
  • Mars: war, life force, the land.
  • Minerva: wisdom, justice, strategy.
  • Vesta: Roman spirit, fertility, memory.

Every PC and major GMC starts with do ut des distributed in either of two ways, illustrated by C. Crespus Scorpio and Cispia Peregrina in Fig. 1 (online Cortex Primus character sheet creator: https://tamas-rabel.github.io/cortex/sheet.html). The distribution of Do Ut Des depends on players’ choices made during pathway creation and will be covered in future episodes. 

For every Do ut des trait, players should compose a votum—mechanically, a trait statement (CPGH:65) Fig. 1&2—beginning by the ritual formula: “I vow to [god or goddess]” and relating to one of the goddess’ or god’s domain. Initial wows are picked at key steps of pathway creation, that future episodes will cover, together with vota “in gameplay” rather than in abstract.

Addendum in parvis litteris

Gods-as-traits were inspired by Eagle Eyes, a world of adventure for FAE (Fatum Accelerata Editio, or Fatum Acceleratum; how English speakers can tolerate the ambiguity is beyond me). Gods re-skin FAE’s Approaches, a category with no “official” equivalent in Cortex Primus but often used in homebrews. Mechanically, do ut des traits are intentionally left ambiguous. You can view them as Affiliations, each to a god (CPGH:48); Attributes, each one capturing one god’s main characteristics (CPGH:49); or Values the individual gods stand for (CPGH:60). Feel free to pick the interpretation that makes the most sense to you. Future episodes will return to Do Ut Des, their interpretation, and how to use them to roleplay Roman citizens—do not worry, it works for non-citizens, too. Note that a votum is not a sacramentum, and can be altered after being questioned. At a later stage, we will introduce sacramenta, as part of the Growth options.

Compared to Eagle Eyes When in Rome substitutes Mercury and Pluto with Vesta and Ianus. Vesta is the protector of Rome: her templum on the forum was not an actual building but a shrine. It harbored Rome’s eternal flame until Christian emperor Theodosius snuffed it in 394 CE. The eternal flame was tended by the order of Vestal Virgins, involved in several high-profile scandals. Ianus bifrons (“two-faced”) was revered on a par with Iupiter, until Iupiter gained prominence thanks to his identification with Zeus in the interpretatio graeca, which has no counterpart for Ianus. Iuno, Iupiter, and Minerva, who probably need no introduction, form the Capitoline Triad, whose temple (Aedes Jovis Maximi Capitolini) predates the establishment of the Republic. Mars had a consecrated area outside of the city limits (the Campus Martius), that represented both his warlike aspect (identified with Ares) but also his link to the land, and agriculture (which Ares does not share at all).

Conclusio: duo fiunt, unus relinquintur

With Distinctiones Romanae and Do Ut Des traits—irrespective of their interpretation, at least for now—When In Rome has two out of three prime sets, the minimum for a playable outline in Cortex Primus.

This would not have been possible without the contributions of @Qualia (she/her) and @Lynn Jones (he/him) in the #when-in-rome channel on The Dirty Window. Specifically:

  • @Qualia (she/her) suggested Vesta and Ianus, as typical Roman deities;
  • @Lynn Jones (he/him) suggested a set of domains to the gods, to help with trait statements;
  • together, @Qualia (she/her) and @Lynn Jones (he/him) proposed the current list of domains.

In Episode 3, I will cover the remaining prime set, which will anchor the characters in the social structure of Roman society, with Affiliations. In the meantime,

Valete, caniculae!

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