Greetings, gamers of all types and temperments. Welcome to Make a Thought Check. My name is Ed, and I am not involved in professional game design in any way, shape, or form. I don't know game designers, I don't interact with game designers... hell, I barely even understand how statistics work.
But, I am going to pretend I know about game design long enough to, ah, design a bunch of games. Or at least ramble incessantly about games and gaming. This is my space to do this.
We're pretty early in the process right now. This might be what I'd call an open beta if, as I said, I was involved in game design in any way shape or form. Let's us just call it a rough draft at the moment, shall we?
I know, it feels like just yesterday that I set up this little site, but such is life. Tumblr’s alright an all, but honestly, I need a little more adaptability on a post-by-post basis.
…which is why I’ve set up Thought Check Games! It’s my site to… well… self-publish the stuff I come up with. Yeah, I’m monetizing my paradigm or something. At some point soon, I’ll start porting the stuff here over to there… right now, I’m just getting settled.
…I need to change my hosting. Tumblr is not ideal for my purposes. But until then, I’ve got a new game, an exercise in minimalism. Look for it right here, if you will.
It’s a dungeon crawl. Its my business card. It’s whatever it needs to be. Enjoy!
And boy, when I say one day, I mean I had the idea four hours ago and decided to plug it through the night so that she’d be done before Halloween. When I say one-shot I mean that the game ends when all the players are dead, insane, or worse. When I say one page…
… well, I mean in a cramped little font in two columns with thin margins, but honestly, that’s ten point there, so I had way more wiggle room than I have had in previous attempts at this sort of thing.
Listen, kids, I don’t even know if this is good right now. It might make no sense at all, but… well, I just crossed the writing finish line and wanted to show off what I had. It is inspired, clearly, by Marble Hornets and all its imitators, and by trying to think of a gameplay mechanic which would adequately carry forth the emotional beats of horror—the secret, and something I’m sorry I had to elide over for space, is requiring the player wait a tick and drop his or her bead, rather than showing it right off. It’s a slight moment of tension-mounting, with a visceral payoff that has instantly noticeable effects and the potential for someone to say “wait a second!” and make a side offer. I love it. Does it work in practice? Who knows. Enjoy, and happy Halloween!
EDIT: So, this is an after the fact edit, a day later, after I’ve had some sleep and gotten a change to look things over. This now links to Slenderman RPG version 1.5… it’s much like version 1, but the language has been cleaned up, the introductory text reworked into something which makes any sense at all, and the mechanics of adding beads to cups altered to be reactive, instead of mechanical. It’s still on one page though, so I will hold on to my pride.
I did it again. Or, attempted it again. I saw this informal contest, and though I was certainly too late to actually participate in this little bit of business, by a week even, I was inspired and compelled to take part in it. Sort of.
“Sort of” in the sense that Mr. Macklin was looking for a five hundred word gamelet and I just about tripled that. So, rather than forcing myself to conform to that arbitrary delineation, I chose to conform to my own arbitrary delineation. One day. One page. One shot.
(With some thanks to Paul for supplying the title. I should invest in a new rule that all future iterations of this have incredibly bad pun titles. Everyone should have a worse title than the last.)
So, give it a look! Then come back so I can talk about it a bit.
So, the obvious first question: did I succeed at my task? Did I make a one page long one-shot RPG in one day?
Okay, one day? YES. Give or take an hour, because I wasn’t really paying attention when I started, but you know… that’s the barest of technicalities, and if I were being tried, I’d certainly have been able to work the fraction of a second faster to beat the clock. So I’m calling that a resounding success. With… with the following caveat which might undo everything…
I’d already planned out the mechanics. Not exactly, because you can only take mechanics so far without some sort of theme to attach to it but… still, I’d been working on the idea for a while now. In fact, if you take a look at that dice shtick in my most recent post, you can quite easily trace the logical chain from the narrative-assist dice pool to the control of a hoard… oh, the narrative is lost, but the mixed die-type pool and the mix of attribute types and whatnot. So… does that undermine me entirely? If the idea predated the day? I’ll argue that no, because that’s how inspiration works, isn’t it? There’s no such thing as a blank slate, after all. But for what it’s worth, nothing had been typed beforehand. Success? Sure, why not?
One page? Yes! Well, with caveats, of course… eight point font, fairly narrow margins and very tight text. I’d say there’s no avoiding it, but the real and the true of it is that I’m mostly just a wordy and over complicated bastard. I could have skipped rules for autonomy, or complications for using the lich’s attributes… I could have done any number of things to trim and pare down, but you know what? That’s not my style. Honestly, there’s a lot missing… it’s a mechanical document, and not a thematic one… if I had another page to work with, I could have perhaps had a bit more fun with how liching goes. Like, how currency is unimportant, but there’s a thriving trade in infants within the liching community. Ah, but whatever. I guess it’s not too dang-old important… my only real regret is how dry the document turned out, which is a factor of how many rules I have going on. Hm. Maybe next time I’ll work on something with incredibly easy or just straight-up borrowed mechanics… I’ll steal the one-roll engine, which is effective enough, or FUDGE, and work a more setting-oriented page off of that. Who knows, maybe I’ll even be able to write my page in 9-point font.
Anyway, compared to Steam and Storm it’s a lot more comfortable on a single page… there’s a hint of formatting, minor appearances of white space, and on the whole a document which feels less like it was written during time period when a piece of paper cost upwards of a day’s wages. In part, however, that’s because…
… it’s not a one-shot. Now, that’s a vague description, but I use it to mean a game set up for a specific narrative, with some sort of an end game. There’s none of that here. The original outline was for a competitive game, which made the obvious presence of a phylactory on someone’s character sheet much more important, because all you liches were battling to be the last, but that didn’t work out… the idea still has merit (each lich would have been the GM in his or her own tower, essentially) but I couldn’t get it to work out quickly enough, and in trying to write around it I ended up converting things into a much more standard party-and-GM style. Which isn’t bad, but it’s certainly an indication that I can’t take the triple-one prize today, nor the ten-thousand dollar stipend which goes with it.
Still. It turned out okay, right? Right? I need your attention and adulation, people. And the character sheet, while not a paragon of graphic design by any means, seems a bit more lively than a dang-ol’ spreadsheet… it needs some art assets in those big-empty squares, of course, and a lot of restructuring for flow, but it’s got a tower. A tower! And a little space to record how many infant you have for dark rituals! And the alignment already filled in “evil”, but with enough space for you to pencil in “lawful” if you think you’re fooling anybody! So, yeah.
Long story shortish; I am pleased.
Ryan Macklin is an interesting fellow whom I’ve had the pleasure of playing with once or twice a few years back… he gave me a Fate Point for using the phrase “All’s fair in love and necromancy” after I created a chariot of dead former co-workers and my boss complained. Ah, good times.
ANYWAY, I mention this mostly because I think this is an interesting post, worth of perusal by anyone with even a modest interest in game design (which is to say, people like me). I won’t bother summing it up because, buddy, it’s less than a page, and honestly anything else you happen read accidentally on that site is also worth your while in some way or another.
So, while I was whiling away the hours of the day in leisure, as I do, I decided to start thinking about die shticks. Not with any particular purpose in mind, just that I might come up with something fairly interesting to put in my hat the next time I want to screw around with messing with dice and whatnot.
Enter a mechanic without a home:
The Narrative-Assting Dice Pool
Okay, what is this and how does it work? I presume you lot are familiar with a dice pool, yes? You’ve got Muscle 3 and Punchy 2, so when it comes time to hit a dude you roll 5 dice, and anything that rolls the right sort of number (for instance, 8 or up on a d10) is a success. An easy task needs one success, and the harder something is the more successes it needs… if you’re not very skilled, a particularly challenging task might need more successes than you have dice to roll. This isn’t a new idea… World of Darkness has ridden this train for decades now, and they certainly weren’t the first. But every well-worn mechanic needs a new twist, and I quite like mine.
Rather than a simple pool of ‘Attribute + skill,’ players create a pool of several characteristics, up to some sort of attribute-based maximum… for instance, let’s say your Shooting is 2, and you want to peg a dude with your shotgun. The shotgun’s got three characteristics: Stopping Power, Spread, and Knockback. Pick two of these characteristics… Power and Spread, say. Now, you’ll roll two dice; each die should be identifiable, for instance, Power is a red die and Spread is blue, or whatever.
As is usual, the more successes you roll, the better you’ve done, BUT there is a caveat! If you succeed, then the highest rolling die will determine HOW it is you succeed… was it the power of the shot which knocked your enemy down, or was it the spread which was able to catch him as he dived away? This isn’t a mechanical issue, understand… a hit is a hit is a hit. But the high die alters the tenor of the narrative… this is especially useful in a GM-less or otherwise especially distributed-narrative system. The player who hits won’t just say “I shot him,” but something like “he tries to dive out of the way, but he’s not fast enough to escape the wide spread of the blast.” Much more fun, yes?
Munchkins and power-gamers won’t care or be affected, but screw them. The rest of us get a fun little role-playish bonus to any given roll. Did I scale that tower with my natural athleticism or my military training? Did I spot that hidden passage because of my detective skill, or sheer dumb-ass luck? Yeah, you can rely on the GM’s fiat to determine this, or allow the dice to decide. Put a little fluff into the crunch, you see.
Of course, if we begin with something like this, we can go all sorts of fun places with it. We can make it a bit mechanical… different high rolls might be able to cause different status effects… power dazes, accuracy causes some bleeding effect. But that’s beyond the perview of an elementary summary of a shtick.
Okay, do you deserve a little more description of how last post’s House of Leaves RPG would theoretically work?
No. You deserve NOTHING. But I will give this to you anyway, because it is a “productive” day, and I am going to attempt “productivity” as measured by “talking about games on the Internet” because I’ve never been one for “proper definitions.”
The core idea is to replicate the interesting conflicts that the multiple layers of narrative create in House of leaves. This is as good a time as any to suggest that if you haven’t read it… you should go read it, rather than read this, because this will make little sense. Admittedly, HoL will make less, but that’s not MY problem. Anyway, HoL is a story with tons of narrators vying for attention in one way or another, from the obvious (Zampano, Truant) to the ancillary or overtaken (Johnny’s mother, Navidson) to the effectively invisible (The Editors, whoever they are). Nobody gets to control the story, they are all, in one shape or another, attempting to massage a sensible narrative in spite of the material they’ve been given.
RPGs are already toying with this… storytelling which is done by a GM and actors within the story is an exercise in narrative control. The GM, like Truant or to a lesser extent Zampano, is charged with imposing a greater sense of purpose and even meaning to a story which literally cannot remain under his control. He forces the story to make sense, while it attempts gamely not to.
How do we focus on this? It’s endemic to games, in a minor way, but in HoL it’s blown way up, so it must be the central conceit of this game. How to do this? The first answer is to add another layer… a GM’s GM, who attempts to control the GM’s world. This doesn’t quite double the trouble, since the GM is only one person… unless the GM isn’t. Unless everybody gets to play the GM!
This isn’t unheard of at all. GMless games are a dime a dozen, and Universalis has a pretty huge following, and that’s all about sharing GM-like narrative authority, while still maintaining some degree of a personal character. That’s cool; the main change I’d implement is mainly thematic: rather than sharing GM duties, each player shares a CHARACTER which acts as a GM. Because Zampano isn’t just a voice, he’s a person, suggesting he create a world in character isn’t too far out there.
(And of course, it makes sense… he is creating a world from scratch. And it happens to be a world where a blind guy wouldn’t be at a disadvantage. HMMMMM).
On top of that, the meta-GM to increase the conflict. And because we like this conflict, everyone gets to be meta-GM as well, and the meta-GMs are characters as well, and they can get fucked up by making changes, just like truant. Oh yes, there is sanity to be lost here. Delicious layers upon layers of narrative conflict.
Confused? Slightly? Okay, pop open this sheet and I’ll summarize more simply.
The “paragraph” section and the bit below that, with the squares and arrows, are for the first narrative layer: the Explorer. This is your basic PC. He adventures through the house like a boss. He gets a narrative write-up at first, but it breaks down into mechanics like any character.
Four attributes, measured 0-4 (seven points total). To do something challenging, roll a d10 and add the relevant attribute. Get high enough, and you succeed.
Four “traits” based on powerful memories. These are, at first, basic +2s to certain rolls. Freeform design, something like “running” or “smooth talking” or whatever. The arrows there indicate that they may be WOUNDED, however… when that happens, the trait turns into something negative. Not necessarily a direct translation… “a good runner” might turn into “bad knees,” “observant” into “paranoid,” whatever .
One “capsule summary”. This is your class, it’s the thing you most ARE, the role you most play. When you act to further that role, you roll 2d10 and take the higher. When you act in a way that defies it, you roll 2d10 and take the lower.
When you get hurt, you are either wounded, giving you negative traits, or crippled, lowering your attributes, or doomed. That’s the doom track there… it’s like HP in that it eats up damage, but doesn’t actually hurt your character’s effectiveness. At the time. At the end of the day, the more of those boxes filled, the higher your chance of seeing your Doomed Fate come true (which is a randomly generated sucky-ass thing to happen. Often this involves dying). The specifics of how you get wounded v crippled is up in the air, but getting doomed is a way to suck up any one source of damage in its entirety by ticking an innocuous little box.
Next, turn the paper sideways to the blue sidebar. This is the Recorder’s sheet. The Recorder is randomly generated by oracles… you draw cards, each of which relates to an evocative image about the person, the manuscript, whatever. As a group, you get an idea of the character based on these images… if there are minor disagreements, well, that’s good.
The paper is sideways for a couple reasons, but mainly to seperate the Recorder out in an obvious fashion. Everyone plays the role, but only one at a time, and while you are Recording, your other characters are meant to be passive.
The Recorder never uses dice. No, he has a small hand of cards and plays them to create things, hence the micro-oracle off to the side. Generally, 2-10 are directly created obstacles, which are considered to be about as effective as the number would imply for purposes of Explorers’ rolling. Face cards are “expertise” cards, representing outside quotes and explanations, and are used to transition scenes, make sweeping changes, or seize narrative control.
Aces are special. They go into the deck face up, with one always at the bottom. When they appear, there is an escalation. They mean shit gets real. The cops show up. The house starts killing folks. A player goes mad.
The Minotaur appears. Things of that nature.
Recorders can control other characters… that’s why Explorers have a “motivation,” it’s a measure of protection. Even the Recorder can’t do something that directly goes against a character following his or her motivation.
Flip the page back, and check out the numbered bit at the bottom, that looks like footnotes. This is the Observer’s section… this is where Johnny Truant lives.
The Obverver gets very little mechanical fluff… he’s almost all role playing all the time. The only “stat” he has is the five good things, and honestly, that’s nothing more than a fancy way of counting to five.
He doesn’t roll dice or draw cards, instead he has 25 tokens he will pull from a bag or other opaque container. They should all feel alike, but 5 of them are visibly different. The 20 are “footnotes”; these allow him to make a sweeping change of just about any sort, by pointing out an inconsistency. “I don’t know how Bob managed to punch out that ghost,” you say, “it doesn’t make sense.” Not the best footnote, but it establishes that Bob punched out a ghost, so the ghost is now punched out, no roll, no fail. You can even do it as a foreshadowing. You’re still beholden to the “motivation” restriction, but it’s still ridiculous powerful.
… but the nightmare tokens. See, you start with two in the bag. Every time there’s an escalation, you add another. You don’t know where they are, and if you pull one… you have a nightmare. As the Observer, you’re obligated to explain how your obsession with this manuscript is screwing you up, and cross off one of your five good things. If you lose them all, you go quite mad.
I’m not 100% sure what happens to a mad Observer, but it’s almost certainly bad. At any rate, it gets you knocked out of sensible narration, on this level at least.
So, that’s the general idea. Still playing around, of course, and I’m not sure how I’ll deal with different numbers of players and how that will affect card and token distribution, but you know. That’s a problem for another day.
Oh man, footnotes. Okay, so I am writing this with the assumption that people will explore the house, but it’s good for any sort of crazy exploration of the utterly inexplicable. China Mieville’s wandering roads? Lovecraft’s Innsmouth or Arkham? Friggin’… anywhere occupied by the Silents or the Stone Angels or something? All good.
I have these listed as “Crippled traits” at the moment. What can I say, I change my terminology on the fly. Part of the joy of talking here is setting things down somewhat. I’ll fix it in post.
Hey, here’s a thing.
So, I tried to do another iteration of one-day, one-page, one-shot and, well, failed. Utterly. Days later, the document has stretched unto the twelfth page with little sign of stopping. It’s a one-shot though, so… that’s something.
But in the interests of having a thing to show for it, I’ve made up a character sheet for House of Leaves, the RPG. And yeah, the game proper should be this confusing, if not more. You play three characters simultaneously! Explorers roll dice to do stuff, Recorders play cards to affect the world, Observers pull tokens to create drastic changes and occasionally have horrible nightmares.
I set myself a challenge the other day. A GAME DESIGN challenge.
By “one-shot,” I mean that I was to design a game meant to be played to completion in only one session… in practical terms, a game with a mechanically-derived narrative, rather than a GM- or player-constructed narrative.
By “one-day,” I mean that I would come up with setting, mechanics, rules, and fluff from scratch, and write it all down, edit it, and do whatever design and formatting I am competent at and able to do in Word.
By “one-page,” and this is my favorite of these riders I shall have you know, I mean that everything fits, legibly, on a single sheet of 8.5” X 11” paper. With one-inch margins. Now, you can use the back of the one page for a character sheet, but it can’t be a continuation of the rules! It’s just a reformatting and re-presentation of info which already exists on the front.
So, this was my challenge. How did I do?
Well, I did this.
Go on, give it a read. It’s only two pages. I’ve got some notes, but they can wait until you’ve had a look.
Okay, so, did I succeed? Sssssssssssort of?
One day? Well, 90% in one day. What few changes were made after the 24 hours were up were just that: changes. Minor alterations of wording and format, rather than new ideas incorporated from scratch. Also, both days I had other things on my plate… if one retcons the demand from “one day” to “one day’s worth of work” then I’m in like Flynn.
One shot? I ended up defaulting to the standard GM/Player binary, yes, but the core of the game is about one single event which WILL happen. Can’t say how long it will take, but by giving automatons the chance to be injured and no option to heal, I’ve assured their eventual doom. Plus, the plot is mechanically derived, even if it does boil down to “a bunch of crap happens and then you crash.” That said, while zany mode is likely to end rapidly, I could see serious mode stretched out, languishing in the futility and slow grind into meaninglessness. And in any case, the core PC mechanics don’t require the airship plot at all and need only add some Steam Capacity character advancement to be a long-term campaign so… uh… I’m calling this a win?
One page? Eeesh, barely. Eight-point font, cramped-in text, and even still it threatens to drop off the edge of the page. Yeah, I could have skipped the copyright notice to save a line, but everything else? Even considering that, I had to fudge my rule about the character sheets… the descriptions of components are pretty important, if only for intuiting their use, and the explanations of ship-parts and Major Disasters is, likewise, stuff which would be more helpful in the rules proper. Still, I technically fit, provided you look at it in the right sort of font. And I tried printing it out, and it IS legible, so there.
Verdict: I’m calling it a mitigated success as far as the self-imposed challenges. But is it any good? Oh, that’s a question for YOU, gentle reader.
My questions are three, and if you would take it upon yourself to answer one or more, I would be much honored.
Does it make sense? After all, I know what I’m talking about, because my head fills in any missing pieces. If there is unclear minutia, or if the central concept is not as well-explained as I think, please let me know!
Does it seem playable? Now, if you were to actually sit down and run a game… that would be crazy-awesome. But even if you just look at it… do the mechanics feel right? The sense of narrative appropriate? Let’s face it, most one-shot RPGs are designed to be intellectually appreciated and never actually played, but it should still feel like a workable game. And if you actually play it, well then you are my king.
Is it awesome? I mean, steam-powered robots on a drifting, directionless airship… is this the sort of thing which only works in my mind? I hope not. Because seriously. Seriously.
Part II in a two part series (unless I feel like adding more parts, which I don’t intend to, but you know, whatever).
We got the basic run-through of Cultists and Rites, so what’s left? The Mark which defines a Cultist and… oh right, the gods. Here we go!
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 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 sects 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:
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.
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.
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 five, 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!
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 in an ant farm… you don’t recognize who’s dropping the food in, you just know a massive being is dropping food. 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 Only Word. 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 star-touched, and glow a pale light.
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!), 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 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. He 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 his own devising (one in which only he knows the rules and in which he might well be the only player)… it’s not just that he uses people, he uses organizations and entire countries as well to do his uncertain bidding, though it all boils down somewhere to the single mortal making the single move exactly as it was planned. Naturally, the Planner favors the Rite of the Mortal’s Will. His 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. His 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. His Marks and Rites lean towards the subtle and insubstantial, 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 Betrayer on the 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… not just Merits and special rules for dealing with compulsions, but mechanics for how Harbingers and Rites work, plus more bad guys to deal with, lots of fluff, pretentious quotes and plenty of story-time. I’m not going to do that, I think. This was the fun bit. Hope you enjoyed!
World of Darkness. It’s a goofy friggin’ world. I mean, the official sourcebooks have vampires, wherewolves, 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 the fuck 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 perhaps a young upstart with an old book and a free evening, or perhaps 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… one 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 he tries to guide his own compulsions and powers to his 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.
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.
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.
Select a god. There are five of them… or more… or less. It’s hard to tell. Still there are five major god-figures which can be considered “the good guys” (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 is attached to any given rite. List of gods follows.
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.
Select your other favored rite, different from the one your god gives you access to. The full list of rites, surprisingly, follows.
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, just a mindless puppet. You start at 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 or whatever… 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). It is worthwhile to mark your max madness in some obvious way.
In order to present the information fairly efficiently, let’s begin with the 8 rites, then move on to the seven 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.
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. 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 Time and Space. Both are meaningless concepts, of course, to one so grand as your god. This is the rite of abstracting them away; creating pockets of limbo, or pockets where days pass in minutes, or impossible geometries which intersect the world at angles which cannot be measured. At higher levels, this rite undermines math itself, and in so doing, undermines reality as it is thought to be known.
The Rite of the Summons. Perhaps the most straightforward of the rites, this one concerns itself with the beasts and horrors of the universe, how to find them, how to summon them, and how to gently encourage them to do what you want them to. At higher levels, it may even concern itself with how to banish them when all is said and done.
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? If so, then we should be able to read it, learn its language, and learn the universe. This, then, is the rite of understanding, of prognostication, and, at high levels, of writing and re-writing the world.
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 can 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 and kill you) 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, 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.
Man, that’s a lot of text there. Check out part two, with the Marks and, eventually, the dark gods themselves!