Sunday, 24 June 2012

History In The Making

Right! Let's talk Trail for a moment or two and, as I often do, I'll be referring to Bookhounds of London in this post. Today the topic is cults: how to generate them, and what to do with them.

Bookhounds has a very useful section on the kind of cults that the setting favors, and why they might be interesting antagonists in a game that, technically, isn't about humans per se but about the monstrous entities of the Mythos. "The gods, titans, and aliens of the Mythos may consider humankind little more than ants scurrying beneath their notice. Perhaps. But some of those ants have dug deep and brought up strange things. And eight million ants may be worth crushing underfoot, or burning out." But the Keeper may wonder where he's going to get the inspiration from for all these crazy cultists. What do they want? What will they be up to?

When in doubt the Keeper should always turn to the history books for his fiction needs. Mankind has spent the last few thousand years more or less inventing religious myths, and I can guarantee that somewhere buried in a reference book there will be something you'll find outre enough for your campaign. Speaking personally I prefer the older texts for this sort of reference search, since the authors generally assumed a greater comprehension on the part of the reader and so didn't spend a lot of time going over familiar territory, repeating something that had been said a hundred times before by as many authors. Instead they went straight for the weird stuff. This time out I'm using Robert Graves' collection of Greek Myths as a guide. This is the kind of thing that's constantly in print in one form or another, and can often be found for cheap on the second-hand market. There's also a Folio Society edition which, for whatever reason, can often be found for silly money in second-hand shops in the UK, but the information will be the same whether you're using a battered Pelican - as I have - or something more swish.

The myth I'm borrowing today is that of Deucalion, which is number 38 in Graves' first volume. His is one of the many Flood myths, in which a vengeful god - Zeus - destroys the world to wipe out the sins of man. In this instance the sinners are the sons of Lycaon, whose father - the hero who civilized Arcadia - impiously sacrificed a child in Zeus' name. The sons of Lycaon, who may have numbered as many as fifty, were transformed into wolves for their crimes - cannibalism, among other things - and Zeus tried to wipe out the entire race of man in a flood. Deucalion and his wife were warned by Deucalion's father Promethus and fled just in time, but returned to the now seaweed-strewn shrine to discover that they were the only humans left alive. They pleaded with Zeus and the God, in recognition of their devotion, allowed them to recreate mankind by throwing 'the bones of your mother behind you' which they correctly interpreted as throwing clods of Mother Earth over their shoulders. From each lump of soil sprang either a man, if Deucalion was the thrower, or a woman, when it was his wife Pyrrha.

Thus the earth was repopulated, but even after all that the sons of Lyacon had the last word. 'To this day a boy is sacrificed to Lycean Zeus, and his guts mixed with others in an umble [ie offal, tripe] soup, which is then served to a crowd of shepherds beside a stream. The shepherd who eats the boy's gut (assigned to him by lot), howls like a wolf, hangs his clothes upon an oak, swims across the stream and becomes a werewolf. For eight years he herds with wolves, but if he abstains from eating men throughout that period, may return...'

Plenty of food for thought there, and in this case I'm going to use it as fodder for two cults: a werewolf-worshipping sect, and the Children of Deucalion, who are trying to stop them.

Lycaon's cult ties itself to water. The prospective werewolf has to swim across the stream, suggesting both a baptism and a fundamental change from one state to another. The association with water suggests a watery Mythos connection, and that brings me straight to Cthulhu. Moreover it seems fairly clear that the cult members themselves aren't too quick to become wolves in their own right; they push that state on other people, by feeding them a human sacrifice.

So here we have the Sons of Lycaon: a group dedicated to keeping the ancient rites alive, in celebration of their deity Lycean Zeus, which Mythos scholars can correctly identify as an ancient term used to describe Cthulhu 'the chief of the Great Old Ones associated with the element of Water'. Their rites are tied to the ebb and flow of the Thames, and their sacred sites can always be found by the riverside. They believe that they can strengthen their God and atract his favor by creating werewolves - creatures which they claim are divinely inspired - and unleashing them on the unsuspecting masses. Each time they do this they then wait and see if the Messenger of the Gods returns to them - an event which takes eight years - or if the unfortunate soul is lost. If the Messenger returns they think he will bring them the teachings of Lycean Zeus and possibly other, greater magical favors. So far - and they've been doing this for a long while now - each time they send one out, the Messenger does not come back.

They select their victim by lot, posing as a charity whose purpose is to feed the poor. Their soup kitchens are always well attended, but their agents keep an eye out for potential candidates. When they become aware that the previous Messenger has died - and they keep tabs on the Messenger so they know when one dies - they prepare another batch of umble soup, using tripes from a victim sacrificed for the purpose. They then slip their chosen victim the transformative elixir. The chosen Messenger becomes consumed with monstrous thoughts and a desire for human flesh, and the cult then drives the Messenger across the Thames - either by boat, over a bridge, or by some other means - where the Messenger is then left to survive as well as he can for eight years, at which point he can return. The Sons live in hope that one day a Messenger will go the full eight and come back to them, with the bounty of a grateful Zeus.

They face two challenges. The first is the most obvious: werewolves do not make the best Messengers. Often they get themselves killed, starve in a self-imposed vigil as they attempt to go without human flesh, or are arrested and sentenced to death. The second is the Children of Deucalion.

The Children of Deucalion is a name that a handful of Mythos-knowledgable investigators have adopted. Though they do not know a great deal about the Sons of Lycaon, the regular peak in werewolf activity has not escaped their attention. In an effort to save London from these horrors, every time a Messenger rears its hairy head they do their best to track it down and destroy it before it does serious harm. They usually have their greatest chance of success in the first two or three years after a Messenger has been created, when the poor unfortunate is just getting used to its new state and power. If a Messenger survives for longer than that, this usually means that they're cunning enough to be a serious threat. These werewolf hunters are often occult scholars with some magical ability, but few of them are really powerful occultists. They are volunteers, often recruited after a werewolf attack from the survivors of the carnage. Thus their actual ability and specializations can be a little random; a Child of Deucalion is as likely to be a publican or a street vendor as he is a scholar of magic. There are rumors that one or more Children actually are in the thrall of greater powers; the name of Hastur has been whispered, but so far it has never been proved that the Unspeakable One is carrying on a war by proxy with the Cthulhu-worshipping Sons of Lycaon.

A typical Son of Lycaon would have some power and authority, but ultimately their magical ability is limited to the creation and tracking of werewolves. They don't have direct damage capability; their best defence is anonymity. Policemen and members of charitable organizations, like the Salvation Army, are likely candidates - policemen because then they can force werewolves to relocate across the river as well as keep an eye on them through mundane means, and charitable folk in order to slip the Messenger his umble soup. Their best skills are Cop Talk, Intimidation and Occult, though several of them - the policemen in particular - probably also have advanced combat skills.

A typical Child of Deucalion is likely to be an ordinary Londoner, and their power and authority will vary considerably. Thanks to their regular clashes with Messengers some of them are combat trained, but they also include scholars and intelligence gatherers in their ranks. Their best skills are Streetwise and The Knowledge, for keeping track of unusual events, as well as combat oriented abilities like Scuffling, Weapons and Sense Trouble.

Meanwhile those poor unfortunate Messengers, being chosen by lot, can have odd ability sets. A great deal will depend on what their profession was before they became homeless, but as a general rule their Athletics will be very high (14+) as will their Scuffling (14+) and their Alertness modifier will be at least +3. They will have -1 armor in werewolf form, and do +1 damage with their savage bite. Their bite will not confer the werewolf curse, but might well transmit other diseases.

So, cults: they always have their own agenda, and it may not be one that's easily understood. Here we have one group - the Sons of Lycaon - dedicated not to massive rituals but to getting an answer to their oft-repeated question: what, great Cthulhu, would you have us do? Send us your teachings via your chosen Messenger, and we will do our best to obey them. Meanwhile you have another group dedicated to stopping the first one, but while their motivations may be pure there's always a suspicion that they might have other goals in mind. Are they as unselfish as they seem, or are the forces of Hastur secretly backing them? Agendas are critical; without a goal to achieve, a cult will seem formless and somehow purposeless. Even if their agenda is to raise R'yleh, that's at least something to work towards, but as with the Sons in this example it can sometimes be more interesting to avoid the High Purpose and aim for something a little more attainable: a Message from the Gods. Even if the Messenger does get lost along the way.

I hope you found that useful! Enough on this topic for a while; next time, something completely different.


  1. I really like this. Most cults in these games are generally just mindlessly violent but I can imagine the Sons reacting to investigators with offense and confusion. They're not sending the Messengers across to fail but to succeed, after all. There's a real sense of mystery to these Sons.