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.

Shut Up & Sit Down

This is going to be a quick post because I want to talk about something else altogether, but I can't blether about that until I've blethered about this: Shut Up & Sit Down, a boardgame review site run by two guys in the UK, Quinns and Paul. This site is so much fun! Please go over there and give them a bit of your time.

I've loved board games ever since the year dot, but I hardly ever get a chance to play them any more. I lack both time and opponents, but there was a day when something like Knights of the Air, Kremlin or Fury of Dracula consumed hours upon hours upon hours of my free time. I still have all three games knocking around somewhere, but the odds of them ever coming out of the box for a bit of fun are, alas, very low. Watching these two nutbars have a casual meltdown, grins plastered all over their faces, as they get deeply involved in yet another video review is very satisfying.

I will say this: their vids can be a bit too long. They cover a lot of ground, but unless you have half an hour or so spare watching one can feel like a slog, however funny it may be. They seem inclined to switch to a ten-minute format, probably to satisfy their Penny-Arcade audience.  I hope they stick with the shorter shows, as they're much easier to digest in one sitting.

Monday, 11 June 2012


I'm working on a larger project for Pelgrane, while at the same time juggling several smaller ones. It can be a struggle, at times, to keep everything straight, and to balance out the needs of one job with those of all the rest. The Pelgrane project should be in its final stages by the end of the month, which shall be a relief to me. I've enjoyed it immensely, but it does occupy a fair amount of my time, and there are other things I need to be getting on with. I've promised myself I'll have written the first three chapters of a novel by September, for one thing, and it's June now. So I have that to contend with, plus writing for the Escapist, and sundry other concerns. Always a struggle.

In Cthulhu roleplay, the element of conflict is ever-present. Without that tension, there'd be nothing to enjoy; without the life-and-death immediacy of it, there is no horror. Characters spend their time battling the Mythos in order to save some fragment of humanity, to restore order in the face of all-consuming chaos. They're like ants, busy serving the Queen even though the exterminator's already poisoned the nest. What often puzzles me, though, is why they do it at all, and that's something that often puzzles the players, too. Without motivation, why struggle? When I write, I do it out of fascination, and because it pays; not enough, by any stretch, but any paycheck's welcome. That's my motivation, but the average character may have little more going for them than a Miskatonic PhD and a willingness to do dangerous things for no material reward. Why even get out of bed in the morning, with only that as a spur?

Pelgrane attempts to solve this problem with the Drives mechanic. Drives are what makes a character tick, the very essence of their underlying humanity. They may be driven by Curiosity, Revenge, Arrogance, or what have you, and so long as they act in accordance with those Drives, the characters are rewarded. Alternatively, if the Keeper feels that the player is being less than proactive, their Drive can be used against them, to prod them into action. It's a neat mechanic, and one that's not always well understood. My players have only just realized that obeying their Drive can get them a Stability boost, which is a great benefit aroundabout mid-session, when a few Stability checks have been made and pools are looking a bit low. This despite the fact that they've access to the same rulebook I do, and have been playing for a while now.

The thing is, Drives are a mechanical solution to a problem that oughtn't exist, but does. So many of the early Cthulhu scenarios had, as a stake, Destruction of the Entire World, at least in part because without that kind of stick to beat the players with, nothing would get done. They'd find excuses not to go. Why, they'd ask, should I leave this cushy janatorial job at good old Miskatonic, Rah, Rah, Rah, and go off to darkest Africa in search of some ancient diety? Never mind that the day job can be boring as hell, and Africa's a good deal warmer than New England in the wintertime. With the Entire World to play for, the game assumes, everyone will want to get involved.

But is that really so? There are any number of actual, real-life crises right now, that threaten the world as we know it; everything from nukes, to terrorism, plagues, global warming, water shortages, oil shortages, and on and on, yet only a handful of people actually bother to worry about those things, or do anything about them. I don't think anyone tries to do something about all of them at once. I'm willing to be proved wrong, but I doubt I am. I'm as certain as I can be that none of the players I've had over the years flung themselves, heart and soul, neglecting all other concerns, into solving even one of those problems. Maybe that's an indictment on them, or me; I don't know.

What I do know is this: people are motivated, more often than not, by material goals. The Safety of the Entire World is an abstract, an ideal; it's the equivalent of the final boss on a level, you beat the thing not because you really want to, but because, if you don't, the game will never end. Getting paid for writing is a material goal, one that puts my butt in a chair more hours than I care to think about. Saving a friend is a material goal. In Bookhounds of London, the characters have nothing but material concerns to occupy them, and the game is the better for it. People care about the things in front of them, about their co-workers, their jobs, their families, their neighborhoods. Those are the things they focus on, because those are the things that occupy their day-to-day, that keep them busy, that stimulate them.When those are threatened, things get nasty quick.

Of course, the obvious objection, from a roleplay perspective, is, why care? Many characters don't have family, friends, or even jobs - at least, not jobs that they know much about, or have to deal with. Where's the motivation then? The answer is, there isn't one - which is why those elements have to be developed, over time. Way back in 2011, I addressed this point, but it bears repeating: the early sessions of any campaign are best if they're kept low-key, perhaps even without any Mythos involvement. That is when you develop the setting, and the mood; it's when you nail home to the players who their friends are, and their enemies, what their neighborhood is like, and what they do for a living. A little exitement is fine, but no need to go overboard. Better that they get to know their surroundings.

That way, when you tear them apart, there's more reason for them to struggle.