Runequest Thursday #60 - Greater Spirits and Spirit Cults, Part One!

Clint Staples

Runequest puts  a lot of focus on the cults and culture of the various peoples in the game. Many cultures, even cities, are actually named, or at least referred to, by the name of the chief god of their worship – the Orlanthi are named for Orlanth, Chieftain of Men, Master of Winds, Lord of Storms. The City of Pavis is actually named for its founder, who rewards his faithful with whatever tenuous security they now enjoy. The Lunar Empire is named for the Red Moon and the goddess who brought it forth. Even though individuals within those cultures may be devoted to one or more other gods, they are still known by their cultural affiliation.

But in a world with so many gods and spirits, there are also those Greater Spirits who have not attained full godhood. The reasons for this may vary, but the power of these potent spirits is still such that many adventurers, especially those who do not find themselves drawn to a traditional cult, find the offer of power for POWer tempting.


The Nature of Greater Spirits

So what makes a Greater Spirit distinct from a god? There has to be more to it than power, since some gods are far more powerful than others. In fact, gods gain and lose power over time, as the number, devotion and fortune of their worshippers rise or fall.

Gods are physically, and to a lesser extent, metaphysically, removed from their worshippers. They exist primarily on other planes of existence – the God Plane, the Celestial realm, the Underworld, or elsewhere. When they manifest to their worshippers, they often do so indirectly, such as via Divine Intervention, which is impressive and may alter, take or return the life of a devotee [among other things], but generally does not involved the direct appearance of the god in the world.

Why are the gods distant? Well they are busy doing godly things, and can only spare a portion of their attention for the mortal world. Gods have things to worry about that lowly mortals have trouble even comprehending, but we can draw comparisons between the mortal need for security, fellowship, and sustenance. The godly versions of these things may not be so mundane as our own, but they obviously exist – Gods congregate in pantheons, have enemies, require energy in the form of devotion from their followers, so we know that, at least to some extent, these equivalents are valid. And rituals, holy days, sacred items or vestments, all are advantageous to the god and devotee, because they are shortcuts between the two, increasing the ease, or the advantage of the contact.

So here is where the main difference between Greater Spirits and Gods lies. While gods are remote, Greater Spirits reside primarily in the mundane world. For any number of reasons, a greater spirit does not have much of its essence elsewhere, or if they do, the elsewhere is much closer than the god plane.

But Greater Spirits still require security, and sustenance, possibly even fellowship. So, some of them at least, appear willing to offer something in return for a form of worship, not unlike that which gods require.

Greater Spirits are a great way to offer a cultic experience to the outsider in a group of Player Characters. The exile from his tribe, the wizard, the runt of the litter, the dissatisfied worshipper, or the free ‘spirit’ who doesn’t want to be like the rest of his folk – any of these can benefit from a relationship with a Greater Spirit. You may also want to bring in a deity of your own devising, but don't want to have to rewrite a huge piece of the cosmology of your world. In the form of a Greater Spirit, you have the ability to add it with manageable consequences.


Setting up your own Greater Spirits

In the first part of this article, we will look at how to design a Greater Spirit, as well as how to assign it a personality, spiritual aspects or abilities, and what those will mean to your characters.

Firstly, there are a few details you need to answer when you are creating your own Greater Spirits:

  1. What is the nature of the Spirit?
  2. What are its powers, abilities and aspects?
  3. What does it want, like, hate and fear?
  4. What does it require of its devotees?
  5. What does it offer its devotees?



What is the Nature of the Spirit?

Hopefully, you have some ideas in this regard. Is your Greater Spirit the soul of an Ancient Sage, the remains of a god ravaged in a conflict from before time, the metaphysical manifestation of a concept like hate, love or loyalty, a great beast that ruled before the time of the petty, pewling gods, or something else entirely?

Whatever it is, it is worth considering its role in your game before you invest a great deal of time in developing it. Is this a concept that one or more of you players will warm to? If not, will it serve another role in your game – perhaps as a foil or the mastermind of an enemy cult or cabal. So consider the nature of the spirit and how it will interact with your players, or at least some of them.


What are its powers, abilities, aspects?

A Greater Spirit is also defined by what it can do. Is it Jagrun Khan, the Storm Tiger – a primordial spirit of the Outer Air, who recalls vividly its triumph over demons in the god time, only to be betrayed during the rise of the gods of men? Or is it Hasdrubaal - Mystic, Seer of Portents, Master of the Smoking Mirror? Obviously these two are going to have different powers and abilities. Jagrun Kahn might be cunning and savage, able to ride the winds, hunting the winged cattle of the Storm Bull, lightning claws tearing its enemies – the creatures of chaos that poisoned the Outer Air in the Time Before Time.  Hasdrubaal, meanwhile, is more contemplative, hungry for knowledge rather than flesh, unconcerned about the passage of time, focused instead on the reading of its effects and causes in the Smoking Mirror – where All Time is One.

These two spirits are likely to appeal to different players, and offer different abilities to their worshippers [See below – The Pact]. Jagrun Khan might appeal to warriors, or at least those who are active and prepared to fight, or who value direct application of power – be they soldiers or sorcerers. Hasdrubaal is more likely to attract those who wish to grasp hidden secrets, to know the future, or see the distant past. Where Jagrun Khan might provide the magic of storms, the ferocity of the predator, Hasdrubaal teaches ways to slip the bonds of time and place, to view, even step beyond the Mirror, into another time or place.

  • Choose several aspects for the spirit – things that it is associated with. In Runequest these could be runic associations, but they might also be concepts, elements, behaviors, or goals. For Jagrun Khan, we might choose Storm, Air, Freedom, Ferocity, and Animalism. For Hasdrubaal, we might select Knowledge, Time, The Mind, and Stasis. There is no 'right number' of aspects, but it should probably fall somewhere between three and six.
  • These Aspects will be useful later in ‘What does it offer its devotees?’


What does it want, like, hate and fear?

Chances are good that if you worked through #2, you already have at least some of this one answered. If you need to fill in some blanks ask yourself those questions while you are inside the Spirit’s head. What does Jagrun Khan want? A return to the days of old, where it shook the pillars of heaven, hunted the half-formed servants of the Unmaker, roamed and lazed in the Outer Air – the freedom to move, act, hunt, as and where it chooses. What does it like? As a creature of storms it likes the wild, passionate things of life, it prefers movement over stasis, action over inaction, fighting instead of compliance, freedom over servitude. Jagrun Khan hates things that threaten to impose the opposites of these. Because of its storm affiliation, it might hate other storm deities, especially ones with larger cults. Because of its fights in the Time Before Time against the Unmaker, it might hate those things if they still exist [and they ought to since you incorporated them into its write-up]. What does it fear – The same things it hates for the most part. Jagrun Khan is a Spirit for the emotional rather than the intellectual. To be made slave would be worse that destruction.


What does it require of its devotees?

As you define the earlier questions, you will probably start to see the later ones getting easier.

  • Obviously any spirit is going to require a level of devotion. In Runequest terms this probably means regular rituals that involved the dedication of Temporary, and possibly Permanent, POWer. With more power, Hasdrubaal can better perceive through the Mirror, and might confer his growing wisdom, or part of it, upon his worshippers.
  • It may or may not require certain rituals. It might also simply benefit from them. Canny devotees will soon understand the value of conducting rituals at certain times or on certain days – in order to maximize the yield of energy to the spirit, and its ability to reward its supplicants. Hasdrubaal’s Holy Days probably will fall within Truth Week, for example. Jagrun Khan’s High Holy Day will likely fall in Movement Week of Storm Season. 
  • Certain actions may be pleasing to the Spirit and may garner greater favor from it, like Hasdrubaal’s proscription against wearing armor, or ‘ritualistic’ activity such as the re-establishment of the ancient ring of stones around the shrine to Jagrun Khan. They might also involve taking action: a spirit of light might require making war against the creatures of darkness; a spirit that values harmony and stasis might require that a devotee devote a certain time each day to meditation.
  • Generally a Spirit will not accept among its devotees those that it hates, or those who embody something it hates. Thus slavers or chaos worshippers are unlikely to be welcome at the shrine to Jagrun Khan, whereas hunters and wanderers and societal ‘outsiders’ are. This relates back to #1 and the nature of the Spirit. It will welcome those who are similar in nature, and shun those who are most dissimilar.
  • Note: A Greater Spirit MAY or MAY NOT require the actual worship of its followers. Some are more pragmatic, concerned with results and actions, others bother more with behavior or belief.


What does it offer its devotees?

Greater Spirits, though not as potent as gods, are still beings of significant power. There are a number of things a Greater Spirit can offer – these might be termed blessings, benisons, grants, or marks. Over time, if the spirit gains power, or becomes better disposed to its devotees, the number and power of these blessings may grow. Think about what you have already established about the spirit under its powers, abilities and aspects.

  • Magic – Some Common Magic is available to devotees – at a cost of 1 Permanent POW per point of the spell. So Jagrun Khan might consent to bestow some of his renowned ferocity on a devotee by teaching her Fanaticism in exchange for 2 Permanent POWer. Choose spells that fit the ‘style’ of the spirit, trying to reflect the personality of the spirit [as determined by the aspects you chose for it] rather than ensuring that you offer a wide assortment of spells. Greater Spirits don’t necessarily have access to all of common magic, or they might simply not care to offer it. This is a great way to introduce your characters to a powerful spirit. While working out the exchange, you can play up the nature and aspects of the spirit, even allowing it to hint at greater power to be had by the right acolyte.
  • Note: This exchange of POW for Spells Knowledge is often the simplest, crudest form of exchange, at the beginning of a relationship between the Spirit and the devotee. It might also be the ONLY interaction, if that is what the player character wants, and the spirit can be convinced or feel similarly. Once a relationship, or the ‘structure’ of the Spirit Cult has been determined, it might be possible to learn spells in exchange for other things, like service or gold [See Part Two and Part Three, next week and the week after respectively].
  • Feats of Arms – A Spirit might have access to certain Feats of Arms that it might offer in exchange for devotion. The devotee must meet all the prerequisites of the Feat of Arms, and must spend the time required serving full time in the presence of the Spirit.
  • Other training or skills appropriate to the spirit. These are normally provided by other devotees, so if there are none, or no skills are available, this would not apply. Generally the cost is one week of training for one week of full time residence and work at the shrine [see Place of Power].Common cause and security through other devotees. This may or may not be available, depending on the particulars of a spirit.
  • The Pact – Greater Spirits, because they are tied to the mundane world, are not capable of sending significant portions of their power in the form of divine intervention. They can, however, intervene spiritually allowing someone to drawn on them after devoting the necessary POWer in a Pact.

Choose a small number of Rune or Divine spells that reflect the aspects of the Spirit. Hasdrubaal might provide Dismiss Magic, Meditate, Mindlink, and Mindblast; Jagrun Khan might allow Beast Form, Berserk, Crash of Thunder, Lightning Strike and Wind Soar. The supplicant can ‘devote’ personal POW to the Pact with her Spirit up to a total of ¼ of her total POW [round up]. These POW cannot be used to cast spells, or power items, etc; because they are sustaining the pact. They are not however, removed from the personal POW of the devotee. So someone with POW 18 could devote up to 5 POW to the Pact [20/4 = 4.5; round up to 5]. At any time, the devotee may invoke one of the Pact Spells, spending POW from the Pact to cast it. Any POW used in this way is exhausted until it can be replenished through communion with the Spirit.

The Pact provides a ‘pool’ of powerful spells AND the POW to cast them, but only while the POW is not exhausted. Devotees regain exhausted Pact POW by partaking of a ritual in honor of the Spirit, in which they must devote 5 Temporary POW per POW they hope to replenish.


End of Part One. In Part Two, we will cover fitting a Greater Spirit into a game, its Place of Power, and arriving at a structure for the devotees with possible changes and additions to the above as a Spirit Cult forms around the Spirit. Part Three will provide examples of Spirit Cults based on the structure laid out in this series.