I'm running a single-player campaign which borrows a lot from Cultist Simulator, a video game I played a few years ago. It's my first time really GMing — I've done a one-shot or two, but they were all prewritten. I also have been the computer a handful of times for groups of friends playing Parsely. So while I've done a bit of game-leading, building a campaign all by myself is definitely a new project. Though intimidating, it's been something I've been turning over in my mind for several months now.
Most advice articles for first-time GMs say to shamelessly lean on prior works rather than trying to come up with everything on your own. I chose Cultist Simulator in particular for a few reasons. First, and maybe most importantly, to say that I enjoyed the game is an understatement. When I played it, I was absolutely obsessed. Secondly, the game comes with a rich world, with many named characters, sprawling lore, and varied mechanics. Since I wouldn't count world-building as one of my strong suits, having one prepackaged helps a lot. And finally, this game is known for its writing, which is vivid in its obscurity. The writing sets a strong atmosphere and can serve as a crutch if I ever find myself at a loss for words when describing something.
Cultist is set in Lovecraftian London, in an alternate universe where magic exists. There are eight (or nine, depending on who you ask) different branches of magic, each of which has its own spells and powers. Throughout the game, you play a human who studies the occult and gathers followers, with the ultimate goal of mastering magic to become immortal. There are around twenty named people you can recruit to your cult to do your dirty work, all while the Crown's suppression bureau investigates for the evidence to have you tried for practicing the arcane. During the game, you raid creepy locations for magical items or occult scraps, learn to practice rites and summon spirits, enter in a world beyond the mortal earth, and maybe engage in a frivolous murder or two. And of course: don't forget holding down a job or some other way of financially supporting your clandestine activities. Immortality is not cheap.
One of the key features of the game is that nearly nothing is clearly explained to you as a player, so you feel as though you are discovering the inner workings of magic along with your character. That feeling fits perfectly in a RPG setting, and was the main aspect I wanted to preserve. Thankfully, the ~vibes~ and text of the original game can translate nearly directly to the RPG context. Pretty much everything else needed to be simplified, though: the number of cultists, books, and expeditions especially. I decided that I would start with only one companion student of magic, leaving the option open to introduce more as we went along. I was going to downplay the role of books. Lore shouldn't be learned from books — it's too passive, while role-playing demands a heavier emphasis on action and intercharacter collaboration than the original video game. I decided that levelling up in lore would happen during key events or experiences.
Along the same vein, the RPG context focuses on storytelling: why is the player character getting embroiled in magic? What's the inciting incident? And why, of everyone, are they chosen? I thought a fun call to action would be Douglas approaching the PC for help closing down Morland's. The player character would slowly unravel the city's underbelly of magic, and possibly make the choice to go behind the detective's back and engage in it themselves. On the other hand, if they weren't interested, closing Morland's is a nice self-contained one-shot which should give a sense of achievement and plot resolution. Once I figured it out, a three-act one-shot quickly fell into place: first, the player meets and negotiates with Douglas; next, they visit Morland's and attempt to close the shop; finally, the player may discover that Morland has slipped them a message.
Meeting with DouglasDouglas has been assigned to investigate, then iron-arm a local bookshop into closing. He just wants to keep his head down and go to bed, however. Though he is aware of the power struggles between the suppression bureau and the underground studiers of magic, he isn't interested in participating. He wants help, to keep his hands clean and also minimise the amount of work he has to do himself. He has been watching Morland's and knows there's some kind of test or password at the door, but not what it is.
Douglas knows (but will not reveal to the player unless asked/forced to) that the arcane is real, there are different branches of magic, and there are practitioners both underground as well as in the suppression bureau (!). He doesn't know what the principles are.Douglas will promise the player access to the bookstore building if they successfully close the shop. He may also offer some gold if pressured. If the player agrees to help him out, he will follow them and act as a sidekick.
- class: bureaucrat
- skills: constitution, history, arcana, investigation
- languages: common and greek
- tools: forgery kit
- hp: 12
- int: +3
- wis: +2
- cha: -2
Morland'sThe bookshop is really discreet — you wouldn't have noticed it on your own. There's just a tiny plaque on a wooden door, which says Morland's in barely-legible print. If the player knocks, a small peephole slides open but the player still can't see the speaker. A voice asks: "is there something you'd like to say to me?"
The password is just to acknowledge any kind of interest in the Deep Magic.The door can also be forced, but then Morland will be harder to charm or negotiate with. If they give the right password, Morland is more trusting.
The bookstore is so dark you can barely see anything. It's lit by candles only. There's a wooden desk at the front, behind which Morland now settles. He is watching you very carefully. The inside smells like old paper but also like there could be something foul. You aren't sure if it's just your imagination.Morland's keeps his books roped off, behind a metal railing and gate. He will instead ask how he can help, or what kinds of books the player is looking for.
If the player describes anything remotely related to one of the seven principles (lantern, forge, edge, winter, heart, grail, or moth), then Morland will go to the back to retrieve them a low-level book of that branch, with a little note tucked inside. If the player asks to do a perception/investigation check, they will notice someone is watching them from the shadowy bookshelves behind the railing. The player will be asked to describe what they see, which will help me (the GM) pick which cultist will be their potential sidekick. This person is the one to write and leave the note in the book!The player can fight, intimidate, or charm Morland into closing the shop. Douglas won't allow the player to kill Morland (too much paperwork), so will intervene when Morland is incapacitated.
- skills: persuasion, insight, arcana, religion
- languages: common and latin
- hp: 10
- str: +1
- int: +1
- wis: +1
Obscure scrapWhen the player opens the book from Morland's, they will discover a scrap inside. It's a message from the shadowy propsective sidekick who was watching in Morland's shop. It's written with strange symbols that the player character can't seem to place.
I can tell you have the Desire.The scrap can be decoded with a intelligence or wisdom check. It proposes a clandestine meeting at Morland's to discuss magic. Otherwise, if the player can't decode the message, the player character can just go back to Morland's at night. The cultist will be waiting for you there. They have been hanging out at Morland's in the hope of attracting other Believers, but they are starting to get nervous now that it seems the shop may be closed. With their time running out, they have no choice but to try reaching out to the player character for some reason (maybe the player speaks a language they need?). If the player agrees to help or study with them, they will reveal their identity, which the player can describe if they haven't already. If the two start a partnership, it begins primarily as one of convenience rather than trust.
My close friend, who is my only player, is playing a pretty charming but hopelessly stupid dragonborn called George. George got called over by Det. Douglas as essentially some hired muscle to help him close the illegal bookstore, Morland's. While George appreciated the offer of getting some free real estate in exchange for his help, what he really had his eye on was Douglas's cool detective hat. With a weary sigh, Douglas handed it over.
Upon reaching Morland's, the poor shop proprietor fell to George's charisma (though instantly distrustful of the aggressively mediocre Douglas). He still didn't let George go near the bookshelves to look at the tomes himself, but he gave George two books for free: Travelling at Night (Vol. 1) and De Horis (Vol. 1). Much to the annoyance of Douglas, George did not really seem to make a big effort to close down the shop — instead, poring over some weird scrap of paper that fell out of Morland's book. In retaliation, Douglas confiscated Travelling at Night (Vol. 1), gave him a severe warning that unauthorised study of magic is punishable by the bureau, and returned to work. Likely looking for a more reliable bit of hired muscle to try again at Morland's tomorrow. Little did he know that George received a second book from the shop's owner, and that the scrap was a message proposing a secret meeting at 1am.
Embolded by his cool detective hat, George set out to find a full London outfit. With his irresistable jaunty good looks, George convinced a store clerk to give him a discounted pocketwatch and a monocle. He may not be the smartest dragon, but he has the good manners to make sure he is punctual for his important late-night meeting. And he looks pretty fly too. Continuing his tour of the city, George visited Oriflamme's Auction House and noticed they also had a copy of Travelling at Night (Vol. 1). Unfortunately, it wasn't on auction that day — instead, George won the auction for A Collection of Essays written by the classic thinkers. He swears just reading it made him smarter.
Excited by his newfound intellectual success, George decided to head to the library. Though he'd lost his first Morland's book, he still had De Horis (Vol. 1), which he was now determined to decode. Still a tourist in this strange new city, he asked a passerby for directions to the library. Ever the charmer, though, he somehow ended up with the woman accompanying him herself ("what if you get lost?"). Though she knew the way, Dotty didn't seem like one to actually use the library all that often. Instead, she very much liked to sit at home with a nice English breakfast steeped with five lumps of sugar. Once at the library, Dotty was forgotten quickly. George was single-minded: he headed straight for the Latin section to translate De Horis (Vol. 1). Too bad he didn't know that translating from a totally unknown language word-by-word using a dictionary is very slow work. He had barely made sense of the book's title (Of Hours) when it was suddenly 1am. Time for his meeting.
There's a shadowy figure at the step of Morland's. He wants George's help in reading some books in draconic, but he is unsure if George is part of the suppression bureau. Can he be trusted? Well, the suppression bureau is breathing down everyone's neck anyway. The shadowy steps forwards, removes his hood, reveals his identity: Porter.