Runequest Thursday #62 - Greater Spirits and Spirit Cults, Part Three!

Clint Staples

Part Three – The Structure of a Spirit Cult, and some Examples.

In parts one and two of this series, we have examined why a GM might want to create one or more greater Spirits and cults, or at least adherents, devoted to them, as well as how to go about it, and the ways in which their addition to a game might alter the game, the region, and the metaphysical landscape. In the final part of the series, we will look at setting up a structure for a cult and provide three fleshed out cults of increasing complexity which you can toss right into your own games.


Structure of a Spirit Cult:

Different iterations of Runequest have employed various cult formats, so we have something to model spirit cults on. Whichever format you choose, it should probably cover the following:


  1. Name
  2. Mythic History of the Spirit
  3. Runes or Aspects [Remember Part One and the questions we asked]
  4. Holy Days and Place of Power
  5. Sacred Affiliations
  6. Relationships with other cults or powers
  7. Ranks of Devotion – each defined by requirements, duties and benefits
  8. Special powers, spells, feats of arms, or other benefits

To demonstrate the use of the above list we can go through the structure of three Spirit Cults of increasing power and complexity. Depending on that power and complexity, and other factors, not all of the above eight points will be used for each write-up.


The Non-Cult Spirit

Let’s start simple. The first one does not actually employ many of the strictures of a spirit cult, but it is the easiest to design and introduce into a game. It is little more than a structure in which petitioners can trade POWer for information, spell knowledge or some other tangible benefit. It also is the least work for the GM, and can be introduced with little or no preparation. And, should one or more PCs be drawn to it, there is no reason why it can’t be expanded on to become more of a true cult as time progresses. In my Brightwater campaign this is how the spirit cult of Jagrun Khan progressed.

1. Name – Ser Tizun

2. Mythic History – Ser Tizun was a potent Humakti Deathlord who died while heroquesting in replication of  Humakt’s conquest of the Hall of the Underworld in Hell – the place where devoted Humakti go when they die, to fight forever as they await the final war. Unfortunately Ser Tizun was slain by a hellhound during his quest. His spirit, partially consumed and confused, wandered the Hellroad, but could not find his master’s hall. Eventually, his essense returned to his mortal remains, which now reside as a potent ghost, at the mouth of the Underworld in the Moaning Caverns from which the cries of a thousand souls may be heard. Bereft of his god and of much that made up the man who was Ser Tizun, he remembers little of his life [having lost knowledge even of his family name], clutching to the remnants of his honor.

3. Runes or Aspects – Ser Tizun, as a Deathlord, is strongly associated with the Death rune, as well as that of Spirit. Aspects could include questing and honor.

4. Holy Days or Place of Power – Ser Tizun has not holy day, nor any worshippers. Should he desire, or gain, any, Godday, Death Week of Dark Season might be appropriate. His only place of power is actually not his mortal remains, but the sword he carried into the underworld.

5. Sacred Affiliations – Swords are the obvious affiliation, especially his own.

6. Relationships with other cults – Ser Tizun retains the fervent Humakti hatred of corporeal undead as abominations against Death. He would be kindly viewed by other Humakti, who might also be confused about why Ser Tizun has not found his eternal reward in the Hell Hall. Undeath cults and necromancer would doubtless revile him.

7. Ranks of Devotion – Ser Tizun has no devotees. His simple understanding of existence comprehends that he is slowly fading from it as he is pulled apart by the Underworld. He is willing to trade what he knows for the POWer of supplicants to sustain himself. He can teach the following Common Magic to any who give him 1 Permanent POWer per point of the spell: Bladesharp, Demoralise, Detect Lies, Endurance, Parry, Pierce.

8. Special Powers – Ser Tizun can immediately impart knowledge of the Feats of Arms: Half-Sword, Riposte. Supplicants must meet all Prerequisites for a feat of arms, and must dedicate the Hero Points to Ser Tizun to receive this boon.

Half-Sword – DEX 13, STR 11, Sword Attack at 75%

Cost: 5 Hero Points

Half-sword techniques teach you how to grip your sword by the hilt with one hand and part way down the blade with the other without hurting yourself. This, in turn, allows you to perform a couple of other techniques. You must have both hands free to use this feat, thus it is often performed with a longsword or greatsword.

  1. You can use a sword to more accurately thrust. State that you are attempting to thrust with Half-Sword, then roll to hit. If you hit, you may spend a Hero Point to use the Choose Location combat maneuver. If you roll well enough to gain levels of success, the first must be Impale.
  2. You can use your sword as a lever to Trip a target in melee as the Combat Maneuver. Make a sword attack normally, but if it is not blocked, spend a Hero Point to roll damage AND attempt to trip. If you succeeded on the sword attack roll with levels of success, you do not need to spend a Maneuver to trip. It happens regardless.


Riposte – DEX 13, Sword Attack 50%, Sword Parry 75%

Cost 5 Hero Points

On the Combat Action after you have successfully parried with your sword, or you have been missed by Defense, you gain 20% to hit that opponent with your sword.


Developing Ser Tizun – Ser Tizun’s sword bears the ghostly hero’s soul. At present, he would attack in Spectral Combat any who sought to take up the sword, destroying them utterly. However, should he be made more powerful, some of his ‘self’ might return to him. In such a case he might allow another to bear his blade in battle, return it to a temple of Humakt, even directly to the Death God’s Hall. There Ser Tizun could be restored to his glory as a Sword Saint of Humakt.

Using Ser Tizun – Reaching Ser Tizun by braving the Moaning Cavern all the way to the Mouth of Hell, is its own adventure. Ser Tizun provides a great opportunity for a Humakti or other death cultist, or even someone who is neither but who embodies honor and martial prowess, should they be in search of a unique cult that they can help pioneer. If you have a character like this in your group, you could change Tizun’s weapon from a sword to that which the character wields, or you could allow Tizun, on taking the character as an acolyte, to convert their current skill with their primary weapon to use of the sword. The type of sword Ser Tizun favored has been intentionally left vague so you can more easily adapt him for your use, Ser Tizun could simply be an ineresting encounter, with the possibility of trading POWer for ability, then never to be seen again.


The Partial Cult Greater Spirit

By ‘Partial Cult’ i mean that is somehow incomplete. This could be because it is unconcerned with certain things, or it might be that these will develop as its worship and worshippers grow. It might also be in search of a Place of Power or certain Artifacts that wold serve as such.

1. Name – Hasdrubaal the Seer, Master of the Smoking Mirror

2. Mythic History – Hasdrubaal was one of the first mortals, born before Time, weaned in its infancy, who grew to adulthood as Time came to understand itself and the concepts of cause and effect. Hasdrubaal, weaker and slower than his more robust folk, spent much of his time around the fire, gazing into the smoke that rose from the fitful blaze, eventually divining patterns in the wafting fumes, which he shared with his people, who prospered and became great. As Time grew old and strong, Hasdrubaal’s visions became weaker. He was unable to pierce Time’s armor, to perceive in the smoke what was to come, or had gone before. So he crafted the Smoking Mirrors, disks of black fire-glass that held the essence of the smoke, were born before Time, existed within it, and would outlast Her. With the Smoking Mirrors, Hasdrubaal was unassailable. He could see a threat before it manifested, defeat it before its perpetrated conceived of rebellion. But he could not be in all places. Eventually, his rule offended Time and certain gods, all of whom combined to throw down his Mirror Network. Then it was easy to dispatch their master.

3. Runes or Aspects – As seen in Part One, Hasdrubaal values Knowledge, Time, The Mind, and Stasis as his runes or aspects. To these we might add Power or Mastery, since that was part of his Mythic History. Truth may also be involved, but that will depend on how the cult is to be used. Hasdrubaal may be quite comfortable lying to his adherents to get what he wants.

4. Holy Days and Place of Power – Hasdrubaal has attracted enough adherents who feel as he does about Time and her secrets. The Cult of the Smoking Mirror has perceived through he single Smoking Mirror they possess that they should make offerings to Hasdrubaal in Truth week to reap the most benefit. Hasdrubaal has as his theoretical places of power any Smoking Mirror. In practice, only one is currently in the hands of the cult. Others have been destroyed. Some are known but have not yet been reclaimed. How portable the Smoking Mirrors are, as well as their powers, are left to be determined, but should probably focus around the seeing of things distant in place and time, potentially even travel to what is seen.

5. Sacred Affiliations – Mirrors are significant part of cult ritual, so each member must own a mirror, the greater the rank of the member, the more precious the mirror. Certain magical components that are burned such that adherents may inhale their fumes, are also used in divination. Many in the cult affect the use of the pipe. Heavy raiment was unknown while Hasdrubaal was alive. The wearing of armor is this discouraged because it interferes with Perception and Vision.

6. Relationships with other cults or powers – Few know of the Cult of the Smoking Mirror, as it has not really acted on the knowledge gained by its membership yet. That will change when Hasdrubaal decides what he wants the cult to do. The nature of the cult would suggest that its membership might well include some sorcerers. That will prove powerful when the cult is challenged, but might also cause trouble, if rival sorcerers seek to control the cult, the Mirrors, or the Spirit. The Smoking Mirror may become popular with pilgrims, and thereby better known, and wealthy, if the cult can provide useful visions and predictions to those who plead for them. 

7. Ranks of Devotion – The Cult of the Smoking Mirror has two ranks at present.

Apprentices must swear an oath of Secrecy and Devotion to the Membership of the Smoking Mirror and donate 2 weeks per season in labor [they may donate further time to gain more training according to the same ratio].

In exchange apprentices gain training in a single Knowledge or Lore skill or 1 Point of Common Magic from the following: Bearing Witness, Befuddle, Countermagic, Countermagic Shield, Fate, Second Sight, Understanding.

Apprentices must also obey the orders of the Masters. Some Apprentices chose a particular master to serve, but this is not required by the cult.

Masters must possess 70% or higher in three Knowledge or Lore Skills, have served faithfully as Apprentices for at least three years, and must have ‘Received a Prophecy’ from Hasdrubaal.

In exchange for 1 Permanent POW per rank, they may learn the following Divine Spells: Consecrate, Meditate, Mindlink; the Sorcery Spells [which they may cast as Sorcery, or as Divine Spells using Theology as their casting skill] Augury, Perception, Vision.

Masters control the cult, following the ‘prophecy’ given to them by Hasdrubaal, advancing his cause in the world.

The nature of that cause has been left for individual GMs to determine for themselves.

There may also be a final penultimate rank of cultist – The Visionary, the greatest of the masters and the only receiver of successive visions directly from Hasdrubaal. The Visionary must possess 90% in five Knowledge or Lore skills, one of which must be Theology, another Sorcery, and must have ‘Received a Prophecy’ as any other master.

8. Special Powers:

The Smoking Mirrors: These are powerful artifacts from the dawn of Time. They act as potent aids when casting any of the Divine or Sorcery spells that Hasdrubaal teaches. Casting through a Smoking Mirror grants 2 bonus ranks in the spell being cast and increases the Manipulation Limit of the caster sufficient to cast the spell at this level. If this Limit would not normally be within the caster’s ability, she will, after the spell is over, suffer terrible headaches for a number of hours equal to the difference between her Manipulation Limit and that required.

Books of Lore: The Cult values written lore and could well be a repository for it. Members have access to this library.

Spells: In addition to the Divine Magic [from the Legend RPG], the following Sorcery is available:

Augury   [Rune/ Beast/ Man, Disorder]   Range – touch  POW check - No

Cost to Learn – 500L

Magnitude – Variable

Time to cast - 10 Rounds

Duration – 10 Rounds, special – see Magnitude

Through a variety of methods, a sorcerer may divine some clue as to future events. The sorcerer spends ten rounds inspecting entrails, watching the flights of birds, reading tea leaves, etc. and framing a yes/ no question in his mind, or one that can be answered with a word or two [such as a location or name], which the player repeats to the GM. The GM then makes a check against the Sorcery skill of the character. On a success, the GM will bestow a portent on the caster as interpreted through the augury method.

The first level covers only events that could occur in the immediate future [the next 10 Rounds]. Multiple levels may be used to ask additional questions, one per level, or to extend the duration of the period to be Augured.

If the caster wishes, he may chose to specialize in a single augury method, gaining a +10% with that method, but taking a -10% with all others. Casters who specialize may also use their Sorcery to ritually prepare items pertinent to their chosen method, adding 5% per item, up to their Manipulation Limit. Prepared items must be bought or made, and maintained, which costs 10L, and 1 Temporary POW, per week per item.


Perception [Mind, Light]                      Range – 60 Yards              POW Check - No

Duration – Instantaneous

The caster may specify one type of thing he is searching for, such as the nearest trap, secret door, gold, magic, stairway, unfamiliar thoughts, etc. This spell will then give the direction to the nearest such thing within the range of the spell. Each additional level allows for more than one searchable thing at the same time, or may double the range. Thus, the caster may wish to use a level 2 Perception to determine the closest two traps, or the closest trap and the closest secret door, etc. or the nearest chest of gold within 120 yards.


Vision [Mind]                             Range – 120/30 Yards                    POW Check - No

Duration – 10 melee rounds

The caster may see what is happening in any area within the first given range of the spell with which he is familiar. This gives full vision and hearing as if the caster were in the area. If the caster is physically next to any area within the 30 Yard range of the spell, he may put the spell into such an area.

Extra levels of the spell may:

  • Allow the caster to go back as much as a day to see what happened in an area.
  • Reveal the answer to a question from the caster that might be relevant, such as 'Was the Crown here then?' In such as case, no other viewing is allowed, simply a vision that shows the answer, if it can be answered in the time allowed.
  • Be used to touch an item and receive and vision of its previous use or owner. Each additional level used gives another use or another picture.
  • Allow the user a cumulative 10% chance of learning the activating word for a magical device. The user may only attempt this once for any one object until he gains an increase in skill with the spell.
  • Increase the Duration or the ranges of the spell.

If the location to be viewed is Warded or Countermagicked, the level of the Vision must overcome the level of the ward to succeed.

The caster may not use any other spell while using the Vision spell, or the Vision spell will cease.


Developing Hasdrubaal - Hasdrubaal's purpose has been left blank, so that a GM can better fit it into his world. It could be the acquisition of power, regaining the Smoking Mirrors, even the destruction of Time itself.

Using Hasdrubaal - Hasdrubaal is perfect for giving the PCs access to an oracle when they need information that cannot be gotten any other way. This could lead to membership in the cult, service to the cult, or even the cult throwing in with the PCs,de pending on the goals of each group. If you want to restrict access to prophecy and augury, then keep the Smoking Mirrors and the cult distant or otherwise difficult to access. If you want to provide your PCs with a way to jump around the world, let them work at getting the Smoking Mirrors up and running so they can be used as a network of portals - so long as they stay on Hasdrubaal's good side.

If Hasdrubaal's cult grows, he might be more direct in the control of his followers. Currently they must interpret his visions, but he could begin to tell them exactly what must be done, or bestow some greater spell that would give them more accuratcy in their foretelling.


That is all for Part Three! In Part Four, I will detail the full Cult of Jagrun Khan, and probably some other stuff, because this series just keeps expanding.