Runequest Thursday #61 - Greater Spirits and Spirit Cults, Part Two!

Clint Staples

Part Two - Greater Spirits and Spirit Cults

By now, if you read Part One, you might have a Greater Spirit worked out, at least in rough form. Now we can look at how it can fit into the game, and what it can do in, and to, your setting. In Part Three, we will look at the structure of a spirit cult.


How do Greater Spirits and their Cults fit into the Game?

To some degree this will be different depending on the type of game you are running, or playing in. If your group is a wandering band, a static center for your Spirit might limit its utility. On the other hand, it might be the catalyst for a change in the gaming experience, creating a reason to settle down, or at least wander more locally. If this doesn’t serve the needs of the game, a portable shrine or idol might be the answer. While it might not be possible for a god to inhabit a single idol, a spirit could well do so. This would allow your players some access to the Greater Spirit even when distant from the place they first encountered it.

But a Greater Spirit can provide many role-playing opportunities and motivations. Since it has likes and dislikes [as shown in Part One], it could easily have an agenda based on achieving what it wants, or destroying what it does not. PCs that are devoted to the spirit, or who hope to benefit from it, might be called upon to advance its agenda – essentially performing quests or missions to please it. And since the spirit is far less remote than a god, the devotees can experience the god personally, in conversation, when it manifests from its Place of Power.

Note to Players: If you are a player who would like to interact with a Greater Spirit or a Spirit Cult, you should talk to your GM to see if that fits into her plans. If so, she might want to have greater or lesser control over the creation of it, and you should work together to determine your involvement as well as how your character will interact with it. Fortunately, you both have this handy write up to guide you.


Place of Power

Every Spirit, great or small, should have a place of power – a place where it is at its best. This could be a ritually significant spot for any number of reasons: maybe the spirit was once a living creature that died there; or it might have fought a great battle, survived a great trial, or invested the place with its essence; In Part One, when you went through the process of establishing the defining characteristics of the spirit, you probably gained insight into the sort of place or thing that it would prefer. For a spirit with elemental connections, a place that contains the appropriate element is a natural spot. For a nature spirit, or one that takes the form of an animal, a suitable environment could be remote, or reflective of the spirit.

Whatever you decide, there should be some focal point for the spirit. For Jagrun Khan, one of the examples that I used in the first part of this article, the focal point is the massive idol of Jagrun Kahn, occupying its own island in the Great Bog of the River of Cradles. Conveniently, this is about 7 miles from Brightwater, the settlement that is the focus of my players’ characters. A few have interacted with the Storm Tiger, and one, Wyrmhere the sorcerer, has taken up the role of acolyte to Jagrun Khan. He regularly travels to the island, working to clear away the debris of the ages and reestablish the ring of standing stones that once surrounded the idol, boosting the power of Jagrun Khan. He has attracted a number of followers and is currently in the process of creating a cult of Jagrun Khan.

But let’s look at the other spirit I used in Part One. Hasdrubaal, Seer of the Smoking Mirror. His place of power could be the Smoking Mirror, which could be placed anywhere you want. Ideally the place of power will be somewhere that suits your game. It could be hidden, lost, or the focus of a rival cult or spellcaster, requiring a quest to claim it for Hasdrubaal.

If required, it could also be, or be made to be, mobile. That way, once claimed, it could be kept with the characters, and referred to as required. Or it might be more in keeping with your plans to make the Smoking Mirror a place that must be traveled to, even defended. This can limit access, and provide an ongoing task for characters that want access. They must gain access to the Smoking Mirror to use it. This works well if they enjoy a more casual relationship with Hasdrubaal, trading POWer for Visions of the future, or spell knowledge. A cult of Hasdrubaal is likely to want to invest in defending its access, a possibly restricting availability to others.


How Will a Greater Spirit, or a Spirit Cult, Affect a Region?

Similarly to how it might change a game, a Greater Spirit, or a Cult for one, can cause a region to experience a change in relationships, alliances, and the balance of power.

In a game that emphasizes cult membership in the prevailing deities the way that a lot of Runequest play does, like Glorantha, a new cult can have a profound effect on an area. Even if the new spirit or cult has few adherents and little political power, it probably will be viewed as a metaphysical threat to the community. This will be exacerbated if the intruder is opposed in terms of goals or societal mores. In the case of a powerful new cult, it could lead to strife or war; in the case of a weak cult, to eradication.

A spirit that ‘sets up shop’ as it were, near a populated area, may also be subject to this, but will be less likely to cause upheaval if it is not actively recruiting followers. It is one thing for a community to turn against a cult that is antithetical in viewpoint AND that is vigorously searching for new adherents. It is another if the spirit is more palatable to the local taste and is not threatening to steal a sizable portion of local worshippers of other gods. Generally, the more different and the more aggressive, the more likely that change will occur, and the more likely that the intruder will be met with hostility.

It is also worth considering that antipathy may be one-sided. As an example, Jagrun Khan was said to resent other deities of Air and Storm. He might be quite hostile to Orlanth and Stormbull, even going so far as to prey upon the winged cattle that both gods hold sacred. But Orlanth, secure in his position as the head of the Lightbringer Pantheon, may feel rather fond of Jagrun Khan, a fellow creature of the outer air, and a strong opponent of chaos. The fact that Orlanthi tend to be a cat-culture [with the brother of Orlanth, Yinkin, as the patron of shadowcats, and lynxes and similar being the preferred binding animal for allied spirits] reinforces this. So Orlanth may not mind his folk attending services, even becoming members, and the Cult of the Storm Tiger could in time become an associated or subservient cult to Orlanth. Jagrun Khan may feel rather differently.

Stormbull may also approve of the air affiliations and the savage anti-chaos stance of the Storm Tiger. This would probably result in each cult mutually ignoring the other unless some affront were to occur.

It is also worth considering how smaller power groups might perceive the newcomer. A small cabal of sorcerers may not hold a great deal of secular power, but should they decide that the new spirit or cult is a threat or something to control, they could become dangerous foes. Similarly, wandering Humakti might investigate rumors of a spirit lord that is said to create zombies or to raise the dead. 

Of course, if the newcomer remains secret, and his following remains small, this will be less of a problem. Similarly, if there is no ‘cult’ but merely the occasional visitor content to offer POWer for spells or other knowledge, the impact on the region will be minimal – possibly no more than rumor of a strange spirit in the middle of nowhere that will trade magic for POWer. If the GM wants to introduce a new spirit or its cult with little impact on the established status quo of the region, this is the easiest way to do so.


That is all for Part Two. In Part Three, we will detail the structure of a Spirit Cult, and how the player characters can fit into it.