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Friday 4 November 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Cults of Chaos (by the RPGPundit)

This is a review, sort of. More aptly, you could say it's "Designer Notes", for my latest rpg product: "Cults of Chaos".  Obviously, I have a complete and total bias as the author (or more correctly, co-author, as you will see) of this book; so take this review totally and blatantly for what it is.  I hope it won't come out as me shilling for my product and nothing else; though obviously I want you to buy it. More importantly, in this 'review' I want to give you a better idea of what's in it, and help you to know IF this is a product you would find useful. So, that said, let's go!

Cults of Chaos is an OSR supplement.  In theory, it is a supplement for my setting book, Dark Albion.  In practice, I think that you could very easily make use of the material here not only in Dark Albion, or in any OSR product, but indeed in any fantasy or historical-occult RPG where you are looking to make use of the sort of thing this book offers.  And what it offers, in brief, is everything you need to create detailed and realistic malevolent cults for a medieval-type setting (where the 'medieval' in this case is more authentically medieval than you usually get in Fantasy RPG products).

Cults of Chaos is a softcover book, written by myself (the RPGPundit) and Dominique Crouzet.  Published by DOM publications.  It is about 90 pages long, with a very nice full-color cover and back cover.  The interior is black and white, and absolutely riddled with impressive illustrations, mostly of authentic medieval and renaissance artwork. I should mention that all the layout and illustration selection was done by Dominique Crouzet.

Cults of Chaos is designed for a very specific purpose: to create complex and detailed cults, of varying sizes, for a historical/fantasy campaign. In the introduction, there's some advice on how you could make this a central feature of a campaign: by making the PCs a group of "inquisitors", working for a religious order or a secular authority, sent to investigate (and if necessary to destroy) groups of cultists, heretics, dark sorcery, demons, evil magical humanoids, witches, or other such menaces.  Of course, the material in the book could also be used in a more general campaign, making use of cults whenever you wanted to have them show up in your setting.

The Chaos Cults generated in the book are highly unique. I think you could use the methods in Cult of Chaos a hundred times and never come up with exactly the same type of group.  As you might expect if you already know my predilections in gaming (and game design), this is done largely by the use of random tables, which are arranged in a process of of multiple steps to create an entire cult from scratch.

By page 4, we get right into the meat of the book with the Chaos Cult Generation System. The first step, and one that marks the difference between this product and what others might be like, is to determine (by choice or random roll) the Social Class of the cult. This is an important element of design: if the goal is to create credible sects, in an authentic medieval environment, there needs to be a big difference between the structure and form of a peasant cult, vs. that of a city cult, vs. that of a priestly cult, vs. that of an aristocratic cult.

Next you determine the size of the cult. Again, it's by random table but of course any DM who wishes could simply choose an option at any stage rather than rolling it; so assume that's the case in all future tables (consider it the designer's 'permission' granted to anyone who has the book!). Sizes can vary from 1-2 cultists all the way to a sect with over 100 followers (though in the case of the latter, there will be a much smaller 'inner circle' who will be those who know the truth).

Then, you determine if the cult is exposed; that is, if people in the area of the cult's operations realize that there is a cult present, or if they simply think there's "strange goings on" but don't suspect the truth.

After this, you roll to determine the basic structure of the cult; there's a different table for the structure depending on each social class. Spread over the different classes, there's over thirty basic options. Examples include: a 'fake cult' that isn't supernatural at all (just a con job or criminal activity in disguise), a witches' coven, a cult based on some 'old god' of heathen origins, a religious heresy pretending to be a devotional movement, a cult that venerates the elves (which in Dark Albion are like a cross between the Unseelie Faeries and Melinboneans; in a non-Albion game where Elves are a PC race you'd probably want to rebrand this as some kind of Outsider cult), a cult based on some kind of powerful chaos artifact, a cult of the Frog-men (which could be adapted to some other kind of demonic race), a death-cult, a cult of rogue magisters dabbling with Chaos demons, a lycanthrope cult (of the Rat-god or Wolf-god), a demonic cult of hedonists, a cult based on the secret rituals of a trade guild or merchant company, a chaos cult infiltrating the priesthood, a sex cult, a Star Cult serving a race of extraterrestrial (or 'far realm' type extraplanar) beings, a cult used as a front for the collection of powerful relics, a cult of alchemists seeking immortality, a cult seeking to influence kingdom politics, a poisoners' cult, a cult of aristocratic ladies, or a cult of monster-collectors.

Each type is described in basic detail, enough to explain the basic premise and any special details.  This includes who is likely to run the cult (and their expected level; note that this book presumes a setting where the average level of NPCs is fairly low, if you're playing in a very high-powered world, you'll want to amp this up a bit), their most basic motives, and core activities. Cults based on old religions, heresies, or other broad categories have sub-tables that will specify more particular deities or philosophies (these are all amply described in the appendix at the back of the book). Some entries (like a hedonist cult) will have sub-tables listing the possible main interests of specific versions of this type of cult.  The alchemist's cult has a full set of mechanics describing the process of attempting to discover and create the Elixir of Immortality, including the risky and gruesome side-effects.

After you've got the basic make-up of your cult, you can roll up some peripherals.  You have tables to determine the Cult's secret lair. You also have tables to determine the cult's special resources. These are both organized by social class. A city cult might be based in a local gang hideout, or the storehouse of a city merchant; and might have a group of street urchins in their employ as spies, or maybe the protection of a magistrate or guild leader.  A priestly cult might be based in a nunnery's offices or the bishop's manor, and have resources like a large church treasury (mainly in religious valuables) or a stable of undead they've collected from the graveyards.

There's also a large table of "Chaos Cult Complications".  These are twists to the situation that are going on when the PCs arrive on the scene.  For example, the cult might have been discovered by a cleric who they then murdered; or there may be a group of criminals (a city gang or country bandits) who have unknowingly targeted cult resources without realizing the cult's true nature. Or maybe a cult member recently died of natural causes, and his estate may contain evidence of cult-activities that the sect is desperate to get or destroy before these come to light. Or maybe the cult is being manipulated by a demon into opening a gateway into the infernal realms. Or it could be that a former (now deceased) cult member has gambled away most of the cult's immediate funds, and they're now desperate to get money quickly to further their plans.  Those are only a few examples; the table is two and a half pages long.

After this, there are a number of optional selections to help flesh out the life of a chaos cult. There's random tables for recognition methods among members, for cultist taboos and obligations, for cult rituals (with sub-tables regarding the timing, dress, and ceremonies), and a table of random reasons a cultist may have joined the cult.

Next, we get to another major section of the book: Mutations. Now, if you've played Warhammer, or Gamma World, or even some adventures in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or Call of Cthulhu, you might think you know what you're getting here. But the Cults of Chaos mutation tables are very different.  They aren't "Lovecraftian". They aren't about giving you superpowers either (though a few have certain advantages).  They aren't (mostly) about slime or goo or the type of body-horror that you see some LotFP books get all excited about.  Instead, they are a collection of changes to not just body, but also mind or spirit, that are inspired by medieval ideas. Medieval stories, legends, fears, superstitions or even art (you know, that strange or macabre art that you see, especially in the period between the black death and the dawn of the renaissance).

There's clear guidelines for mutations, where you can get them or how, what you can do about them. Generally speaking, it has to do with exposure to pure Chaos. So demons, chaotic substances, very powerful chaos artifacts, elves or extraplanar emanations.  Some of these guidelines are specific to the type of setting that Dark Albion is about; so they would make sense in a medieval authentic society but might not be as significant if you're running a game in Greyhawk.

Mutations are divided into three categories: minor, moderate or severe.  A GM can determine that a given exposure will create one of these types of mutations or he can roll randomly to determine severity. Each list also has a random table for rolling up the mutation (though of course the GM can always pick if he prefers).

Some mutations (particularly in the 'minor' category) can be relatively easily hidden: things like 'obesity' could probably be explained away, "small wings" can be hidden, and 'stench' is very easy to hide in a society where everyone stinks. One of these types of mutations is the classic "witch mark". Other things might have no obvious immediate visible traces but require change of lifestyle: a poison kiss, for example, or blood-thirst.

On the other hand, more severe mutations will often be very obvious: gigantism, large horns, changing color, claws, or cat-eyes, or serpent hair.  To say nothing of getting a second head, possibly in the form of an animal's. Some of the mutations may initially seem a blessing, like "hideous regeneration", which allows you to miraculously heal, but gradually turns you into a monster. Some of the Severe mutations simply transform you into an inhuman monster of different varieties.

There are a couple of very special mutations: "Haunting Intelligence" and "Familiars".  "Haunting intelligences" are possessing-spirits of a sort, based on medieval ideas of planetary-spirits (from medieval astrology) and their relation to what we today would call insanities.  The Haunting Intelligence that only you can hear will give you certain gifts, but also struggle with you to try to fulfill certain obsessions, and in your moments of weakness (or if you are just mentally weak to begin with) you will lose control and go mad with what the spirit wants.

"Familiars" are a much more medieval twist on the D&D version of these.  In D&D it's assumed that the familiar is under the magic-user's control, and is a kind of friendly animal companion.  In Cults of Chaos, familiars go back to being what they were meant to be: 'demons' (chaos-spirits) that are in the body of an animal. They give power and aid to a magician or cultist, but are fundamentally there to try to corrupt the mortal toward chaos, to manipulate and control them.

The section on "Running Chaos-Cult Adventures" has a suggested step-by-step process for how you can make a cult-centered adventure with little to no pain. After creating your cult with the previous rules, and picking or inventing the important stats, you move on to the material in this section.  It includes a table to determine the cults objectives/activities, a table of 'plot hooks' that could be used to get the PCs involved in the situation: stuff like an abduction, strange goings-on like animal mutilations (or mutations!), a request for help from the local church, supernatural fires, the desecration of a holy site, etc.

The chapter goes on to give guidelines for how to make up clues. Or more accurately, to set up scenarios where various potential clues could be obtained. There's a decently-sized table with random clues you could integrate into an adventure. Then there's some optional but interesting rules for reactions to PCs interacting with NPCs to try to obtain clues or information. I'll mention that Dominique Crouzet wrote this part, so I'm not totally sure about how he came about it, but to me it's reminiscent and seems built on a combination the standard (old-school) D&D reaction-table mechanic and the classic "rumors" tables of many old adventures. But with added possible results; PC investigations may result in the cult trying to seek out retaliation, or the development of a new cult activity. There are further tables detailing NPC reactions, based on whether or not they're cultist.  Cultists may react in various ways to interrogation; as well as NPCs. There's also a decent D20 table for "petty or useless rumors" to act as your standard red-herring in the investigation process.

There's also a list of some fleshed-out NPC cultists. Not with stats, but with backstory.  There's 20 of these, ranging across the various social classes: you have a one-armed shepherd, a cobbler seeking revenge on the church, a housewife frustrated at her life who seeks out hedonism and perversion (but who has now been jilted as a lover by the cult leader), a pretentious defrocked monk who is now the second-in-command of a heretical movement, a duplicitous and arrogant knight who cares only for himself, and many more.

Then there are also some statblocks for standard NPCs: tables for random encounters in the different social classes, with appropriate stats (the stats being as generically OSR as possible, with options for ascending/descending AC and to-hit bonuses or ThAC0).  There are stats for zero-level commoners, cultists of lv.1-3, Fighting men lv.1-3, Magic-Users lv.1-3, Professionals lv.1-3, or Thugs lv.1-3.

The next section features the dungeons, and aside from being pretty awesome, it's got one other fairly unique feature from the design perspective.  Most of the sections in the book were almost entirely exclusively written by either myself or Dominique Crouzet, with only a few slight suggestions from the other person (you can find out who wrote which part in the "credits" section at the last page of the book). But this section featured the most collaboration between the two of us.  The main bulk of it was done by Dominique Crouzet; he created the visually amazing dungeon maps (just as he did in the equally-cool dungeons in the Dark Albion book), and the general outline of the theme and contents of these dungeons.  I provided advice to fill in some of the parts.

There are three dungeons in Cults of Chaos, one each dedicated to low-level, mid-level and high-level play. They're all fairly large, but able to be run in as little as one long session, or two or three short/medium sessions.  Of course, this depends on how slow-going your PCs are in dungeons.  The Low-level dungeon features a cult of hedonists, under a building in a town. The hedonists are up to some pretty weird and hideous things. Note that while there's some suggestions of salaciousness, nothing here is really explicit content; this isn't one of those types of books.

The mid-level dungeon is the buried ruin of an ancient Arcadian (think 'Romans' for those who haven't got Dark Albion) temple. It's been rediscovered and put into operation by a cult of the undead. There's some interesting mechanics and twists in this one, but I won't comment on them here to avoid spoilers.

The high-level dungeon is an ancient Elven religious site with a number of powerful magical traps.  As with the others, an evil cult has taken charge of the temple and is up to no good.  Elves may or may not be present.

This brings us to the appendices.  Appendix I is all about the Elves of Dark Albion.  They were described in broad terms in the main Dark Albion book as very scary ancient eldritch beings, but here you get a much more detailed look at them. You get the whole story of the ancient Elven civilization that ruled Dark Albion thousands of years ago, how they became decadent and were overthrown by their human (Cymri) slaves. That much was covered so far. But in Cults of Chaos you also get their (very broadly stated) stats, their magical armor and weapons (including the soul-stealing swords that the elven aristocrats wield), magic items, the typical makeup of an Elven raiding party and their mounts, and their special powers.  The point here was to make elves much more inhuman than what a regular D&D player would expect, and for even an encounter with a single elf to be enormously dangerous to a low-level party.
There's also information on what happens to those humans who are taken by the elves through the gates in their ancient stone circles to the Fae realms.

Appendix 2 is a large (22 page) guide to the major sects of chaos cults.  20 different sects are covered here, detailing what makes them tick, their history, their typical symbols, their rituals and practices. Among those detailed are literal demon-worship cults, the bacchae, the blood god, various heretics (cathars, lollards, general gnostics, and others), the cult of Eros and Venus, the Frog-cult, witchcraft, the cults of local old-deities (the green man, Mannanan, the hawk), Woden, and more.  Two of the cults have some additional game material: the wizard-cult of Mercury details procedures that chaotic magisters can undertake to obtain additional magical knowledge or artifacts from demon-patrons, and various new chaos magic items are detailed.

Then there's the Star Cult. Typically managed by priests or magisters observing the heavens, followers of star cults get in to connect with 'star-gods' from distant planetary bodies through magical rituals. These incomprehensible beings engage them in collecting specimens for them from Earth, particularly humans (and often just human brains, removed and specially preserved).  In exchange, they offer star cultists wondrous devices and physical and mental powers.  The nature of these objects and powers are detailed in their entry in this appendix.

Appendix 3 is called "Sorcery, Visions and Chaos".  It contains a mix of additional material. First, a description of places of power, either holy (Lawful) or places of greater Chaos power, and how they enhance or dampen certain types of spellcasting. Some places of great chaotic power can cause other unusual effects, creating a great risk of spells potentially going haywire in unusual ways when cast there.  There's also material on cross-planar locations, those places where the veils between the worlds are frayed, and the risk of 'chaos backlash' with wild effects as a spellcaster loses control.

Also, there's a section on visions, which can come to player characters if they sleep in places of chaos, drink certain drugs used by cultists, inhale fumes, etc. This includes a d20 table of random visions.

The book closes out by giving a handy "cult design sheet" for a GM to record all the details of a cult in an organized fashion, short NPC stat-sheets for keeping track of cultists, and finally a Dark Albion character sheet for the Appendix P system.

So by now the goal of Cults of Chaos should be clear: it's a sourcebook with everything a GM needs to introduce a chaotic cult (or chaotic cults) into a fantasy campaign, particularly cults that have a strong element of medieval authenticity. There's tons of stuff in here that can be cribbed, in part or in full, for just about any fantasy campaign.  Most of it is strongly system-neutral, and you could say setting-malleable. You definitely do not need the Dark Albion book, much less to run a Dark Albion campaign, in order to use Cults of Chaos. Though of course, I'd love it if you did get Dark Albion and did run a Dark Albion campaign.

If you're interested in putting a more medieval bent into your fantasy setting, or to run an investigative dark-fantasy kind of campaign or adventure, or are looking for some cool tables and rules for generating a group of fantasy villains, or just some very different mutation tables, rules for alchemy, some chaos magic, weird effects, visions, a different takes on spirits or familiars, or even some creepy alien artifacts or low-grade psionics for your OSR (or other fantasy RPG) campaign, then Cults of Chaos will definitely be worth your while.


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