Mythos and Madness: Becoming a Cultist for Fun and Prophet

I had originally considered a few other topics for ‘M’. ‘Magic’ is way too big. ‘Making Mountains out of Molehills (well, using GIMP)’ was a possibility but it would be a beast of a post (and never mind that it’s Sunday, that one is going to take days to write the tutorial well). ‘Manor to Monarchy: Growing a Demesne in Seekers of Lore’ is one that I’ll want to think more before I start writing. I’ve started twice and gotten distracted by my research both times.

Elder Sign
Elder Sign as inspired by a description by August Derleth

When my brain jumped on ‘Madness’, then over to ‘Mythos’, and the rest of the title came to me, I knew which direction I was going tonight.

I have played several games, and read several more, that explore the idea of power that corrupts its user, and sometimes just those who observe it. I’d heard of the Cthulhu mythos (via Number of the Beast… by Robert A Heinlein — Zeb Carter enjoyed reading them and it came up during a conversation about multi-person solipsism; I’m reading the Lensman series by E. E. “Doc” Smith right now because of Number of the Beast…, in fact), but Ravenloft was probably the first RPG supplement I’d read with rules for it. I found Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu a year or so later in university, I believe some works from Mayfair Games’ Role Aids line touched on corruption by magic, Legend of the Five Rings long after that. There have been several d20/D&D 3.x-era supplements that go into it as well.

I have also read a fair amount of fiction that touched on the corrupting effects of power. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, L. E. Modesitt Jr.s’ Recluse series (which includes corruption by both Chaos and Order!), Greg Costikyan’s Cups & Sorcery books (might be hard finding them now, but wizards of different types over time were affected by the magic used, such as a fire wizard’s gradually increasing body temperature eventually raising the temperature around him and scorching or setting fire to things he touched, until finally he became a fire elemental), and I’m sure there are others that escape me right now.

I’m going to explore some of the common elements of tainted power, and the sorts of things I would look for in implementing such a model in a game.

Common Elements of Tainted Power

There are several elements of tainted power that come to mind.

Exposure to power can have effect on the one exposed to the power. The degree of exposure needed varies on setting premise and presumably on type of power.

In a Mythos-oriented setting, merely observing (whether by sight, or perhaps worse, without sight) a Mythos creature, artifact, or example of knowledge could be enough to cause distress and problems for the observer, including not only immediate loss of sanity, but possibly unwanted Mythos knowledge. In Ravenloft, horrifying or terrifying events could cause a temporary or permanent loss of sanity, but would be unlikely to cause a Dark Powers check. In Legend of the Five Rings it might not be necessary to suffer madness in order to become (or increasingly become) tainted; merely visiting the Shadowlands or being exposed to certain magic could increase someone’s Taint.

Almost always, deliberate action can cause taint. In Mythos settings, deliberately gaining Mythos knowledge (whether spells or not) would increase your Mythos score; casting spells, suffering sanity loss from Mythos creatures, artifacts, and events, and so on could all increase the Mythos score. In Ravenloft, committing horrible acts (deliberately or not, though deliberate acts were more likely to have effect) could cause Dark Powers checks that could move you from one stage to the next (and possibly skip stages altogether, if bad enough). In the Young Kingdoms setting (based on Moorcock’s Elric series) I am not certain you can be tainted by Law or Chaos passively, but your acts and decisions can certainly be taken to increase your allegiance to Law or Chaos (and yes, you can be connected to both). In Modesitt’s Recluse books, overuse of Chaos or Order (especially Chaos, and even more so if you ’embrace it’) will, slowly or quickly, disorder or order your body. Possibly to death.

This is probably an important point — Taint can be gained either passively or actively. If it is primarily an environmental worry there might be things you can do to protect yourself (in Legend of the Five Rings wearing jade can provide some protection; a finger of jade can protect you for about a week before it has blackened, weakened, and become useless).

However, Taint also often brings with it some kind of benefit. With Mythos knowledge, you may be able to understand (for some value of ‘understand’) the threats you face and find a way to deal with them. In Ravenloft, failing Dark Powers checks brings powers and curses together. In Recluse, increasing Chaos straight up gave you more power (but often made you unable to use or even perceive more subtle effects, and was likely to kill you early). In Michael Stackpole’s A Hero Born, being tainted by chaos would cause changes to you, which could sometimes be useful.

Taint isn’t necessarily undesirable, at least to some people.

What This Means

I see the following common elements:

  • Power can taint those who are exposed to it.
  • Passive exposure might have effect on the one exposed.
  • Active exposure, deliberate action involving the power, will more likely have effect, and possibly greater.
  • Taint caused by power brings power, at least sometimes, along with the negative elements.

I have considered several ways to handle this in the past.

  • Much as Call of Cthulhu, where you just accumulate a Taint score (or rather, lose Sanity) as you are affected by it. This may or may not bring power with it; in Call of Cthulhu gaining power decreases your Sanity, but so do other things, so there is no direct relationship. As I recall, Legend of the Five Rings fits this model best.
  • Much as Ravenloft, where your actions can cause a Dark Powers check as the demi-plane itself ‘rewards’ you for your actions and advances you to the next stage of effect. At each stage you gain some ability and/or curse. Young Kingdoms (Moorcock/Elric) might fit this one, but they allow for two types of taint.
  • Something like a ‘level-based’ system, where actions of different types provide ‘taint experience points’ that can advance you toward ‘levels’ like Ravenloft stages. Unlike Ravenloft (where more heinous acts increase the difficulty of avoiding the consequences of a Dark Powers check) you simply ‘gain the XP’, but less-heinous acts gain less experience than more heinous acts, mitigating their effect. It takes little for someone pure to become tainted, it takes something more drastic, or a lot of relatively minor actions, to move someone from a high stage to a higher stage. This might be a decent model for Recluse.

Right now I am leaning toward something modeled quite a bit like hit points as described in “On Hit Points and Healing“. Depending on the nature of the setting, a character has ‘anti-taint points’. In a Mythos game, this would be sanity points, and are likely calculated by whatever means you use for hit points, but using Wisdom in place of Constitution. The Sanity Die might be worked out on a class by class basis — I can see arguments for fighters having bigger Sanity Die than wizards, for example, and arguments why they wouldn’t be. If the taint has measurable effect, it is based primarily on the amount of ‘critical taint damage’ accumulated.

Depending on the setting, taint damage could be harder to recover from than physical hit point damage (and be inflicted less often, or in smaller amounts). Where the ‘hard to kill’ hit points recover when you take a rest (the actual physical trauma requires stronger measures, options including magic, overnight rest, and so on), perhaps taint damage requires that you take more time (recovers as physical critical damage would) or specific activity (purification rituals) or the like, and critical taint might require heroic measures to undo.

Example of Application: Mythos

In a Mythos-based setting, characters have sanity points, just as they have hit points. The ‘Sanity Die’ (analogous to the Hit Die) is the same size as the Hit Die; barbarians instinctively reject madness well; fighters are disciplined and do not use magic, minimizing their overall exposure; wizards are exposed to Mythos-related elements frequently and tend to be somewhat damaged; clerics are exposed to Mythos-stuff a little less than wizards but a lot more than fighters, but are protected by their gods. Or reverse it — wizards have the biggest because they develop the most tolerance, from constant exposure; barbarians are worn down more quickly because their world view is much more limited; and so on. I’m going with the first one for this example.

Being exposed to a ‘sample of Mythos’ (creature, artifact, etc.) can require a saving throw to avoid taking sanity damage. In most cases this will be no more than a single die of damage and will be ‘normal’ sanity damage. Seeing a shoggoth might leave you shaken but still able to act, and you will likely get over it. On a successful save you might be effectively unaffected. More powerful exposure might have a save make the difference between taking ‘critical sanity damage’ and taking normal sanity damage. Seeing Great Cthulhu directly is going to stay with you for a long, long time, and probably be a high-DC, high damage check at that (and if the damage is high enough, heads explode).

I’m going to say that there are no ‘Mythos spells’ per se, but there are Mythos rituals (the distinction being that anyone can learn and use them; they would be written up much like spells anyway). Mythos rituals need a certain amount of power to use. Performing them at the right time, making the right sacrifices, and spending enough sanity (regular kind, usually) by the participants can all help provide such power. Learning Mythos rituals, on the other hand, requires incorporating them into your being, and causes ‘critical sanity damage’.

I was tempted to say that the people performing the rituals often fail because the information needs to be correct, but I changed my mind — this information wants to be available, perhaps the rituals actually do have a will of their own and want to succeed — they were often created by the powers that are affected by the rituals, after all, in order to apply/spread/inflict their power.

If you are reduced to zero sanity points, you suffer a temporary insanity (determined by either the situation that caused the damage, or determined randomly). Further sanity damage could be applied directly as critical damage (possibly leading to increases in Mythos power and permanent insanity), but I’m going to say here that once you’ve temporarily snapped you’ve got enough problems and are temporarily numb, after a fashion). If you take more critical sanity damage than you have sanity points you are permanently insane.

Insanity should be harder to fix in this setting than normal damage. Hit points recover normally with rest, critical damage with longer rest or magic. Normal sanity points recover with full rest (a number of points equal to your level + Wisdom bonus per night [I house ruled long ago that a ‘day’s rest’ recovers level + Con bonus hit points]) and with sanity-restoring magics (analogs of cure wounds spells), but critical sanity points require stronger measures (spells comparable to restoration, and the target must fail a Will save against the spell for it to work at all — with a bonus based on how much critical sanity damage has been taken — and may not choose to fail the save). Just as sanity damage is harder to heal than physical damage, permanent insanity is harder to heal than death, requiring comparably more powerful spells (the sanity-analog of raise dead is seventh level and costs much as resurrection does, but with raise dead-grade effects).

Pursuing Mythos power is dangerous, dangerous stuff. A normal person might be able to handle learning a minor ritual or two, and even performing them from time to time if he can have a lie-down afterward. Someone a little stronger-willed (i.e. “can afford to be crazier!”) might be able to learn a more powerful ritual, and with the right preparations and assistants (cultists) and sacrifices actually perform it. Of course, he’ll likely be permanently mad, but he’s okay with that — you’d have to be crazy to have his job anyway.

Example of Application: Dark Powers

Each character has ‘darkness points’, just as they have hit points, based on alignment (d8 nominal base, -1 size for Chaotic or Good, +1 for Lawful or Evil, so ranging from d4 for Chaotic Good to d12 for Lawful Evil — evil characters are less affected by darkness because it suits them, lawful characters have the discipline to resist the lure, good creatures are easily damaged by darkness, and chaotic creatures lack the discipline to resist the lure). Heinous acts act as damage to your darkness points, with save DCs and damage done in a manner similar to sanity points under the Mythos example. If you take too much ‘darkness damage’ you suffer (insanity would be easy, but a curse of some sort could fit better). As you accumulate critical darkness damage you work your way through the stages of dark gifts, much as in Ravenloft.

Darkness is hard to get off. The normal kind can be removed via atonement activities (holy rites, purification rituals, and so on, at a rate similar to how critical hit point damage is recovered), but critical darkness is more or less permanent unless the character redeems itself somehow.

Example of Application: Chaos Taint (Environmental)

There is a region of the world where things have gone very strange indeed. Mad power has saturated the land and the creatures there, twisting and warping both. Those who cannot bear the onus of order flee the civilized lands to this place and settle in the chaos lands, and creatures from the chaos lands invade the civilized lands for… who knows why? They are destructive and would spread their taint if not stopped, so regular patrols police the borderlands between the two, and (fool)hardy adventures quest in the chaos lands to keep the chaos at bay.

Characters have ‘order points’ much as they have hit points, with everyone having an ‘Order Die’ of d8, modified by their best ability score modifier (there is no one ‘most orderly’ class or ability score; all classes have their ideals and all ability scores are likewise equally idealized). Alignment has little to do with it; a lawful character can better resist the effects of Chaos, while a chaotic creature can flow with Chaos and be unaffected.

When exposed to Chaos (which happens just by being in the Chaos Lands, though some areas are more dangerous than others, but Chaos Events and certain magics and actions and monsters and… etc.) characters can ‘take order damage’ (gain chaos points, whatever) if they fail a save. Often this has minimal effect; when the exposure ends (which means leaving the Chaos Lands) they can recover fairly quickly — a purification ritual can cleanse one of the damage in the time it takes to ‘camp’ (one night’s rest, basically). If a character takes ‘critical order damage’, however, the character will be changed, potentially drastically. Depending how much critical order damage has been taken, both cumulatively and since the last time this check was made, it might be necessary to roll on the ‘Chaos Effects Table’ to see how the character has been changed.

It’s not always good, and nobody has found a way to undo it. Sometimes the effects can be mitigated.

Closing Comments

At this point I am unlikely to use this for the Seekers of Lore campaign. I want to encourage the PCs to explore and poke their fingers and heads into places normal people would not consider. Having that be potentially harmful even beyond the normal dangers would, I think, detract from the game.

In other settings and campaigns, however, I can see this being a viable approach to handling madness and other taints. All three examples share a common structure to their implementation, but the exact mechanisms differ enough, I think, to keep them distinct. In all cases there can e temporary effects that can (eventually) be shaken off, but being tainted by stronger effects can have more lingering impact.

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