The Architect DM: The Ise Grand Shrine

ise_shrine_naiku_grand_shrineI’ve sat through more hours of architectural history classes than seems reasonable for a human being, everything from the crude Dolmen tombs of early Europe to weeks of studying the various gothic cathedrals that all look pretty much the same. I never got the chance to take an asian architecture course, but one of the most memorable asian structures that I learned about was the Ise Grand Shrine.

The Shinto shrine complex located in the city of Ise in Japan features two main shrines, Naiku (the inner shrine) and Geku (the outer shrine), with 123 additional shrines in and around the city. The two main shrines are joined by a pilgrimage road, but access to both sites is very limited as they are some of the most important Shinto locations. The origin of the Ise Grand Shrine dates back to just over 2,000 years ago, and it was one of the few structures that really stood out to me during all of my architectural history classes.

Why am I talking about the Ise Grand Shrine here, in a series that focuses on helping you play in and run Roleplaying Games? I’m talking about it because I feel that real life is the best inspiration for your fictional adventures, and the Ise Grand Shrine is ripe with ideas to use in your games.


The two main shrines are dismantled and rebuilt on adjacent sites every 20 years. If you go and visit these sites now, you will see buildings constructed in 1993 that are the 61st iterations of the structures. This ceremony has many festivals that surround it and various celebrations at different dates leading up to the rebuilding based on necessary activities such as the carpenters preparing the wood for the next iteration of buildings. This rebuilding ceremony reflects the Shinto beliefs in the death and renewal of nature and impermanence.

One of the biggest reasons that I love applying this idea to RPGs is because it presents a very direct method for getting the inhabitants of a location to seek out the aid of adventurers. A ceremony such as the rebuilding of sacred shrines has many stages and various elements that the player’s may be able to help out with, or conversely any number of natural (or villainous) factors could impede the stages of the ceremony and cause the inhabitants to require aid.

Building Blocks for Rebuilding

Even though this example only consists of two main shrines (and a bridge) being rebuilt every 20 years, you can take this inspiration and apply it in any scale to your own games. Having an entire village that rebuilds itself every 100 years would be a very interesting place to explore, especially if there is a nefarious element such as a dragon that comes through each century that forces the relocation and reconstruction. Taking it in the other direction, you can have the residents of a town rebuilding a water tower or any other minor structure every couple of years.

Although the rebuilding of the Ise Shrines keeps them continuously new, it also serves to pass down the ancient design and construction methods from generation to generation. This ceremony is also a very interesting work around to the issue of historical preservation. While the buildings are never going to be ancient or historic in their materials or actual physicality, their design is preserved and every generation gets to experience them as they could have been experienced when originally constructed.

The key to  including these ideas in your game is to consider what materials are needed for rebuilding the structures, how often they will be rebuilt, and how long it will take for the civilization to rebuild them. Even if we’re talking about a time span of a hundred years, it is still a reasonable assumption that the structures will be wood instead of stone as they would most likely last longer and would not benefit from being rebuilt regularly if built using stone. However, if you modify the ceremony and have the structure being moved piece by piece rather than rebuilt with new materials, it would make perfect sense for it to be a structure made out of stone.

Legend & Lore

The Ise Grand Shrine is very closely linked with the Japanese imperial family and with Japanese mythology, and it supposedly contains a piece of the Imperial Regalia known as the Sacred Mirror although the lack of public access makes this hard to confirm. This is as close to real life RPG plot material as you can get, and is another one of the reasons that this is the first example of architecture history that comes to mind for me to write about here.

Combine these elements with the pilgrimage road between the two shrines, and the complex of hundreds of smaller shrines, and you have a very rich location to use in anything from D&D with some adaptation or if you’re running a game like Legend of the 5 Rings you can use all of this information as it really exists.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM series.