Cultist: the Harbinger

World of Darkness. It’s a goofy friggin’ world. I mean, the official sourcebooks have vampires, werewolves, wizards, ghostly-dudes, frankenstinian monstrosities, fairies, and badass monster-stabbers all co-existing in a world which is nominally supposed to be ours.

Open up fan-made supplements, and you’ve got mad scientists, and alien creatures, and straight-up zombies, and who knows what else. It’s nuts.

… let’s add another one! I’m not making up a full-on splatbook, because… well, that sounds like a lot of work. But let’s make up a half-assed idea of one, shall we? Because you know what the world o’ darkness needs right now? That’s right. Lovecraftian cultists.

Not just dudes and she-dudes who are in a cult… those are straight-up mortals. At best, those who can use their mad faith to create minor miracles can be considered Hunters. No, a true Cultist with a capital C is someone who is in contact with, and to some degree a vassal for, an immense, horrifying power. Perhaps you are one of the rabble in a world-spanning secret conspiracy, or a young upstart with an old book and a free evening, or just a shmoe who glanced at the wrong rune. However it happened, you’ve been touched… given a glimpse of something infinite and incomprehensible, and shocked into a state somewhere between madness and infinite, horrible sanity. You’re still human, of a sort, but the power of an ancient one flows through you… on the one hand, it guides you to do things you can’t always understand, planting suggestions and compulsions in your head. On the other hand, you can tap into this power, granting you access to certain rites (read: cool cultist magic!) which give you incredible power, though at the risk of your own sanity.

The mood: Riding the wave. Whether she tries to guide her compulsions and powers to her own ends, or simply maintain her own mind as she conforms to her god’s will, a cultist’s life is a constant struggle to hold on to stability and sanity in circumstances which are conducive to neither.

Character creation:

  1. Start with a normal person, made with the normal rules, as is almost always the case. It is recommended that you roll up someone with decent social skills, and especially composure, but you know, whatever. Any old person can be a Cultist.
  2. Cultists are mad. There’s no two ways about that… you become a cultist by seeing something which has warped your mind and shattered your senses. The fact that you survived the experience has created something of a buffer… think of it as a callous on your brain. You get two extra dots of Willpower to represent this. You’ve got hidden depths.
  3. Select a god. There are five of them… more or less. It’s hard to tell because they’re inscrutable and amorphous. Still there are five major god-figures which can be considered playable (and innumerable minor aspects and evil aspects). Your choice of god gives you a favored rite, and it affects the visual/flavor elements of any rite you perform (while not, strictly speaking, limiting what it can do). Which is to say that it’s immediately obvious what god you follow when you perform even the most minor of rites. List of gods follows.
  4. Select your Mark. Every true cultist was been Touched by a god, and every Touch leaves a Mark… in this case, a Derangement, just as normal humans get for losing morality, except it is entirely permanent… it can never go away. However, each Mark also has a benefit attached to it. Your Mark is based on the circumstances of the Touch—a cultist who seeks out hidden knowledge and one who wants to destroy the world obviously work a bit differently, and their Marks will be necessarily distinct. The list of Marks also follows.
  5. Select your other favored rite, different from the one your god gives you access to. The full list of rites, surprisingly, follows.
  6. You’ve moved beyond human morality, so that meter no longer applies. Rather your karma-meter of choice is “Independence,” and it reflects the degree to which you have given up your sense of self into service of your god. A cultist with a 10 in Independence is, functionally, no longer a cultist. The lower you go, the more you give in to your god’s compulsions… at 0 independence, you are no longer a playable character, and become a mindless puppet of your god. You start at 7.
  7. You have two additional stats: Forbidden knowledge and Madness. Your Forbidden Knowledge runs from 1 to 10, and you start at one. Your Madness is a pool like Mana or Vitae or Mania… your maximum Madness is equal to your Willpower plus your Forbidden Knowledge, but you start the game with madness equal to 10 minus your Independance (which, if you have no merits or special rules altering that, would be 3). Madness, like Willpower, will be marked in both dots and boxes, to indicate maximums and present values.

In order to present the information fairly efficiently, let’s begin with the seven rites, then move on to the eight Marks, and finally the five gods, alright? It would be presented in reverse order in any book worth its salt but… come on. It’s just easier this way.

Rites and Casting

The rites are, essentially, spells… off the cuff, think of them like Mage’s schools of magic, with which they share some similarities. The biggest difference is this: being a Mage is about subtle manipulation and control, and especially about not raising too many red flags. Being a Cultist is about pointing the firehose in the right general direction. More dots in a rite gives you access to more possibilities (though what precisely you can use them for is something you and the Storyteller work on together from general guidelines) but increasing dots is ALWAYS going to increase raw power and decrease fine control. Increasing Forbidden knowledge can help your fine control a bit, but only so much… rites are scatterguns, not sniper rifles.

Also worth noting, sometimes the penumbra of a rite is a bit wonky, and includes aspects which have some relationship but only a tangential one. The clever among you probably realize that this is entirely purposeful.

  • The Rite of the Mind’s Eye. That which exists must be observed, and therefor that which is observed must exist. This rite, then, teaches you to observe things which are not there, and in so doing, make them exist, so long as you can maintain the delusion… in short, illusions which are exactly as real as they need to be.
  • The Rite of Blood and Body. Learn about the horrible secrets left in your own genetics by beasts a thousand generations ago… and activate them. This allows you to mutate yourself to increase your skills or, especially, your fighting prowess. Higher levels turn you into an utterly inhuman abominations of indescribable power.
  • The Rite of the False Death. This is the rite which teaches you that the physical world is but a vessel for eternal forces, and that the vessel is meaningless. This knowledge is used in both your ability to protect and heal yourself and your capacity to raise undead servants, and at higher levels, twist the bodies of others.
  • The Rite of Light and Shadow. There is a special mysticism to edges, for they are also, of necessity, beginnings… to understand this is to understand that all borders are one, and anything can border anything else. On the vulgar end, this is the rite of transportation from one shadow to another, but at higher levels it allows the merging of objects into one another and melding of abstract concepts into physical objects.
  • The Rite of the Mortal’s Will. Know that free will is an illusion, and that all dance on the strings of the elder ones. Know too, that the trained can see these strings and pull them. This, then, is the right of commanding and controlling, but also of charming, of understanding what someone wants, of predicting their moves, and even observing them from afar by tracing the strings at a distance.
  • The Rite of the Great Tapestry. Time and space are meaningless concepts, of course, to one so grand as your god. This is the rite of abstracting them away by viewing the Universe from afar, stretching the warp and weft to bring distant points of space and even time together. You may even learn to weave creatures from distant lands into the tapestry.
  • The Rite of the Only Word. Is there anything so powerful as language? Is not the world as we know it a thing written in a cosmic book written in an unknown language? This, then, is the rite of understanding the words of that language which a human might comprehend; used to translate, track information, understand the unknown, and even alter the world with words of power.

You’ll note that none of these rites are explicit “battle” techniques. That’s because ah hah hah hahaha! They are all primarily useful for clock cleaning, though in different ways. They’re also immensely powerful… a Cultist at level one in a rite should be able to do as much as a Mage at level three or so in something equivalent. At level five, forgetabout it.

They are, however, extremely deadly. And dangerous. And maddening! Oh, so how do we cast?

First, figure out the rite you’re using, and the level of the rite you’ll need. This is going to give you a Base Madness Requirement (generally equal to the level of the rite). There are a number of effects to tack on (making a spell more reliable, or more powerful, or less likely to backfire) which increase or, rarely, decrease this requirement. Play around until you get the effects you want and discover the Modified Madness Requirement.

Now, though I talk about Madness as being the equivalent of mana or vitae, it’s not, really. Nor is it insanity the same way derangements are… Madness is the connection to your god, the degree to which your worldview is shaped by its understanding of reality. Performing a rite does not decrease your madness, because it brings you CLOSER to your god; rather, the requirement is how mad you must be in order to perform the rite. If you are too distant from your god, than the most impressive shows of your faith are simply beyond you… the power just isn’t there.

If you are mad enough, you can spend willpower to perform your rite… points in willpower equal to the Base Madness Requirement (barring a special ability or effect). Then we create our dice pool: your level in the rite + your Forbidden Knowledge + an Attribute (always a social one, thought whether its Presence, Manipulation, or Composure will vary on the particular application). If this is a Prepared rite or one where you can take your time, you can add a relevant skill as well, otherwise no. Other factors affect the pool, of course. Roll. Get some successes. As normal.

Of course, performing a rite brings you closer to your god. Every success you roll, you add one madness. Yes, if you roll ten-again and that is a success, both count when you add madness.

Obviously, adding madness means you can now cast more complex rites, but there’s a trade-off: you have a max madness. When you have reached this max (any madness beyond that is discarded) you have gotten too close to the light and the power of your god fills you, taking you over. Effectively, this is the “Frenzy” or “Death Rage” event. First, roll to lower your Independance. Also, take an aggrivated damage. No, really, the light of the gods burns. Until your madness lowers, you will be a Harbinger… each god has a different sort of Harbinger, and what you can and cannot do varies, but generally speaking you become something inhuman, and must roll your willpower to do anything that does not directly contribute to the will of your god. Your form becomes horrific, you will probably be attacked, and every time you try to use a rite you spend no willpower, but take another aggrivated damage instead.

A Harbinger is a powerful form: you get +1 to all physical attributes, and ignore bashing damage entirely– you still take it, but it confers no penalty nor do you need to roll to stay conscious. When you have filled your last box with lethal or aggrivated damage, they are treated like bashing with this caveat: if you fail your consciousness roll, you immediately pass out, exiting the Harbinger state, but your god gifts you a measure of stability: your rightmost health box, whatever kind of damage it would hold, is reduced to bashing damage, which will be healed in fifteen minutes. Assuming nobody kills you in the meantime.

The Mark of your god

So, as a Cultist you have been Marked by a god. The manner in which you were Marked is, for want of a better comparison, your bloodline… it’s unchangeable. The god which Marked you is your allegiance… it IS changeable (though not easily). This seems a little backwards but… well, two factors. First, new WoD is pretty keen on this lineage/allegiance dichotomy, so we had to work it in somehow. Secondly, this makes it easier to incorporate a horrifying pantheon; different aspects of the varied gods treated as separate entities. A little willful confusion about where one god ends and another begins. PCs are those who recognize the minor pantheon as somehow on equal footing, and are willing to work with Cultists of other gods to serve shared ends. NPCs are those of less tolerant sects, or servants to darker gods indeed. And of course, we have to let the players invent their own gods. To not give them the option would be OBSCENE.

So. The Marks first. When you are Touched by a god, you are given access to its power and it gains access to your mind. This process permanently stamps you… how you are affected depends on your mental state when the Touch happened. Essentially, the blow to your mind, by letting you act as a conduit to ancient power, caused a little screen burn-in. The results of this are threefold:

  1. You gain a derangement, which will be written on your character sheet at Independence 10. It will not go away unless you completely throw off culthood. The derangements I’m using here are mostly taken from the sourcebook, some I’m making up or ad-hoc-ing… I’m not going to go into great detail about how they work mechanically… even those I’m making up should be fairly obvious. Just know that they are considered “minor” derangement, which basically means they require particular stimulus and carry a temporary effect. This is one of the ways you affect your Madness… resisting your derangement reduces your Madness, failing to do so increases it. As a Cultist you can also deliberately give in to this (or any additional) derangement as a means of increasing your Madness significantly.
  2. You gain a discomforting affect. Not as bad as a Promethian’s Disquiet, not by a long shot, but still, a visible marker of your having been touched, usually relating to the god in question. The particulars of the aspect are left to the player and storyteller to hash out, but WHAT, physically, is affected is determined by one’s Mark.
  3. You gain a means of channeling your madness. Once per scene, you may reduce your madness by one, if you are making a specific sort of action, in order to gain +3 (as if you spent a willpower). You cannot do this is you are currently a Harbinger!

The Marks are as follows:

  • The Furious are those who sought out eldrich power as a form of vengeance against a person or particular institution, particularly with destructive ends. Their derangement is suspicion, they feel others want to do them wrong, Their Mark appears on the back of one or both hands, often as a tattoo of an unknown rune or pictogram. They can channel madness into Brawl or Weaponry rolls.
  • The Lost are those who were taken in by a greater cult, often in times of personal distress or destitution. Their derangment is autophobia; they fear being alone or self-reliant. Their Mark appears on the neck, often as a scar in a suggestive shape. They may channel madness into Stealth or Subterfuge rolls.
  • The Learned are those who pursued the eldrich for entirely academic reasons and got in over their heads. Their derangement is obsession; they have difficulties letting ideas go. Their Mark appears along the forearms, often as unreadable writing. They may channel madness into Academics or Science rolls.
  • The Spiteful are those who were fed up with the universe and turned to darker powers. They have no specific outlet for thair anger (except, perhaps, God), but they are angry all the same. Their derangement is defiance; they cannot stand authority. Their Mark affects their eyes, often changing their color to a slightly unnatural hue. They may channel madness into Survival or Intimidation rolls.
  • The Hungry are power-seekers, pure and simple. Their only goal is power, and the only goal past that was more power and the freedom to flex it. Their derangement is narcissism; they need to be the most important guy in the room. Their Mark appears in or on the mouth, often as notably pointed teeth. They may channel madness into Politics or Persuasion rolls.
  • The Saviors are those who really, truly, want to create a better world and somehow think that serving an elder thing will do this. They are often (if not always) fools. Their derangement is depression, tied to any failure to better the world. Their Mark appears on the torso, front or back, and often looks like a wound (though it causes them no damage). They channel madness into Empathy and Medicine rolls.
  • The Surprised are those who never planned on getting involved in the eldrich at all, or didn’t believe in it, or just got Touched entirely out of the blue. Their derangement is a phobia, generally related to the circumstances during which they were Touched. Their Mark appears on the upper arms. They may channel madness into Socialize or Streetwise rolls.
  • The Apathetic are those who were raised in the worship of a dark god, who believed in the cult on the weekends but lacked that particular fire prior to the Touch. Their derangement is avoidance; they try to eschew problems rather than deal with them. Theit Mark appears on the cheek or forehead, often as an intricate design. They may channel madness into Occult or Athletics rolls.

And there we have it! The ways you might be Touched. It… might be necessary to combine some of those (WoD likes fiveish, this is eight), in which case we could tack the idea of being Surprised into Apathetic and fuse the Hungry into the Learned, but I like what we’ve got here. So far, at least. Next stop: the gods! Finally!

Dark gods!

The gods go by many names, too many to track, really, especially since if they have true names at all they are utterly unpronounceable. As such they are referred to by broad, archetypal descriptions… these descriptions might encompass multiple singular entities, or one god might be approached through two or more archetypes. The fact is, from a human standpoint, it doesn’t really matter what entity you’re tapped into. You are like an ant: can you tell one human from the next if they act the same? If you see four fingertips, each towering a thousand times your height, can you tell that they belong to the same hand? The gods as Cultists understand them are ad hoc contextualizations for powers no mortal could ever possibly comprehend, ever. For ease of mechanics, we just treat them like individual, discrete entities.

Each god gives its cultist a different favored rite, different sorts of compulsions, a different Harbinger form, and a different flavor to any performed rites or Marks.

  • The Sleeper Beneath the Waves. Not Cthulhu, so don’t even suggest it. Except yes, obviously Cthulhu. The Sleeper Beneath is a creature on Earth but not OF Earth; he’s tied to creation and change and, of course, the ocean. He’s considered one of the most approachable of the gods if only because his goals are most relateable: he wishes to rebuild the world into a form which will let him wake and rise from the deep, though what his plans after that are… well, hard to speculate.The Sleeper’s influence on the planet precedes the arrival of humanity by millennia, and it is suggested at all living beings carry some of his taint, passed down the generations, diluted but undying. As a result, he favors the Rite of Blood and Body. His compulsions take cultists to the shorelines and encourage them to create… statues, relics, chants, or even less obvious things… a cultist might feel compelled to build a chair, confused but secure in the knowledge that it will, in some way, prepare the world for the inevitable Awakening. The Sleeper’s harbingers reflect a stronger strain of his taint… they are heavily mutated, grotesque fish-men; they can breath underwater and swim like champs, but they are visibly monsters. The Sleeper’s rites and marks always reflect water or sea-life in some way, if only by leaving the caster drenched.
  • The Watcher Beyond the Stars. Not Azathoth, do don’t go thinking that. Actually, the Watcher might not be planning the ultimate destruction of humanity… its motives are more inscrutable than most. It is an entity from beyond the galaxy, at the very least, which seems to need nothing, want nothing, more than to observe. Its eye (so to speak) is turned on earth, and no one’s quite sure what will happen once it’s seen it all.The Watcher’s knowledge and understanding of the universe is so far beyond mortal understanding that it cannot be expressed meaningfully, and most consider it to be the most objectively powerful of the gods. Because of its great knowledge and lust for knowledge, it favors the Rite of the Great Tapestry. Its cultists are compelled to experience new things, usually (not always) by going somewhere… not to do anything, just to experience and observe a new location. The Watcher’s Harbingers share some of its vast knowledge; they have a sky-high intelligence but no capacity to process it. Harbingers lose track of where they are, what planet they are on, whether it is the present or the future, what a human is… they know too much to know any one thing. Also they glow (think Dr. Manhattan). The Watcher’s Marks and Rites are angular figures in soft colors which seem to glow.
  • The Smiler Within the Shadows. It’s not Nyarlothotep, don’t think for a gods damned second that it is. The Smiler is the friendly, fun-time god who wants everyone to feel joy. Constant joy. Never ending, never ceasing joy as he tears you to shreds and cavorts with your entrails. The Smiler is, perhaps, the most personable of the gods and the most humanoid (it’s said that he has even walked the Earth!), but that does not make his ways fathomable, nor any less destructive.The Smiler naturally exists along borders… between the real world and the realm of his creation, between pleasure and pain, between joy and the horrible, horrible joy of death. All gods walk fine lines between madness and sanity, but none enjoy crossing the borders more than the Smiler. Naturally, he favors the Rite of Light and Shadow. His cultists are compelled to… help people, though often for an unorthodox value of help. Often this involves leading a celebration of some sort, and not letting it end. His Harbingers are dangerously joyful… they smile too, too broadly and constantly, and laugh at jokes only they can recognize. Wherever they go, there is a quiet song in the background which ingrains itself into people’s minds and forces them to join the party, which will never, ever stop. The Smiler’s Marks and Rites are inevitably sharp-edged and tend to have a dark, metallic gleam.
  • The Planner Behind the Door. Switching things up a bit, this is absolutely, positively, not Tzeench, and only idiots would think it is. The Planner exists in a reality that is influenced, perhaps even defined, by our own in ways we cannot properly comprehend. It has plans for our realm… big plans which require a hundred million infinitesimal steps which will snowball into something far greater than anyone could predict or imagine.The Planner likes people… they are perfect pawns in a game of its own devising (one in which only it knows the rules and in which it might well be the only player)… it’s not just that the Planner uses people, it uses organizations and entire countries as well to do its uncertain bidding, though it all boils down somewhere to the single mortal making the single move exactly as it planned. Naturally, the Planner favors the Rite of the Mortal’s Will. Its cultists are usually compelled to do seemingly minor things with incredible urgency… open this door before the day is out, find a rock within the next hour… though they often feel a call to meddle in organizations as well, never to a certain end. Its Harbingers are utterly given over to the strings of fate… they not only move in jerks and starts like a marionette, they are held aloft by the strings as well, hovering a foot or more above the ground. They gain an inhuman capacity to recognize patterns and predict any effects of a given cause, but lose the ability to effectively communicate, turning basic conversation into an exercise in riddles and prophecies. Its Marks and Rites lean towards the insectile and web-themed, as well as, for some reason, avian.
  • The Keeper Past the Graveyard. There are a number of fellows this is not, but mostly it’s not the Terry Pratchett-style Auditors. It’s not that the keeper is fond of death… she will have no destruction on her watch if at all possible. She’s just a fan of order. Complete order. The order which can only truly exist if everything stops moving forever. The keeper tolerates life, but only just, because it’s slightly more trouble to end it than to ignore it.The Keeper is not Death, she’s not a gatekeeper to the beyond, and she’s certainly not a psychopomp. She’s just an entity obsessed with perfection and order… she’s not opposed to motion, nor, strictly speaking, the ability to grow and prosper… it’s just the randomness she loathes. Because of her focus on the mechanics of life and living, she favors the Rite of the False Death. Her cultists are often compelled to garden, both literally pruning and planting and figuratively doing away with objects or entities which interfere with the smooth operation of the universe. Sometimes this means killing people, but usually only those who are destructive or dangerous. Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean she’s beneficial… the closer a location is to calm perfection, the smaller the margin for randomness and the more pruning gets done. Her Harbingers are living statues… they are humanoid, but with cracked and pitted skin of colored stone. They can be utterly still for hours or days at a time, and are implacable when in motion, but they are also ponderous and slow. Her Marks and Rites tend to be simple, solid, and often reflect stone or dirt.

There we have it. Add a bad guy god or two (not that they aren’t all bad guys but, eh… The Warrior on his Throne can be effectively Khorne the Blood God and The Advisor to your Side can be something like the Deceiver… folks who want to actually cause direct and purposeful harm with no positives or who cannot abide competition), and some minor gods the players make up, and we’re good to go.

Obviously, more would be needed… the gods get domains (alternate planes that cultists can visit but shouldn’t) and at least one form of monster illustrating what happens when their followers lose all Independence–deep ones for the sleeper, harlequins for the Smiler, et cetera. The cultists themselves get access to an altar of some sort (as the obligatory “resources” merit-sink) and other useful merits. If I were at a point in my life where I might be able to put together and playtest some hot cultist action, I might.  Until such a point though, I merely share and enjoy.

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