In the last installment we explored the “living gods” of Dungeon World, and although we touched on the importance of their followers, we didn’t explore any of them in depth.
This time around, we’re going to take a hard look at just such a group of believers: the Cult of Phleebx.
A Cult Is Born
About five decades ago, at the tender age of eight, Malf Sertic had a vivid dream. In it, a constantly shifting shadow (perhaps better described as a levitating puddle of ooze) floated before him, and piping and burbling noises filled his ears. After a moment of confusion and fear, Malf realized that the shadow was speaking to him. Amidst the strange piping he began to discern words, then sentences. He conversed with the shadowy thing for what seemed like days.
The next morning, Malf told his father of the dream.
It’s worth discussing Malf’s day-to-day life at this point. Like most peasant children, Malf’s life was no picnic. Aside from the daily grind of working in the fields with his father and tending their animals, Malf had to contend with the ever-present threats of disease, famine, and the possibility of his village being raided. (It was just such an occurrence that had claimed the life of his mother and younger sister – along with a good number of other villagers – three years earlier. A mob of savage green-skinned creatures – goblins, he was told – had swept through the region, and many of the local farms were still recovering.)
Malf himself was a lean child, partially due to the physical labor and partially due to the infrequency of and lack of nutrition in his meals. A good portion of the family’s meager crops went to the local landowner, and most of their chickens and goats were bartered at market for other necessities. Malf and his father kept just enough to feed themselves.
Malf’s father was a hard, world-weary man. He cared for the boy as best he could, but he was by no means a pleasant person. The loss of his wife and daughter had only served to further sour his disposition, and although he didn’t take his anger at his station out on the boy, neither was he easy on him. His father was bitter, to say the least, and often said that the common folk of the world would be better off without all of its odd creatures, foolhardy adventurers, elves, dwarves, magic, etc.
It was with great interest that he therefore listened to the boy as he told of his dream conversation with the shadow-puddle-thing. Malf explained to him how the thing had told him that none of these things his father railed against regularly were natural. In its weird piping voice, the thing had told the boy that humans were the only true “race” and that the others were unnatural creations, as were many of the beasts that wandered the World. It also told the boy that magic was a sin against nature, and that its prevalence throughout the world was what caused all of the suffering he and so many like him endured on a regular basis.
Malf’s father, Sertic the Elder, knew that this had to be more than a simple dream. Surely, some higher being had spoken to the boy through his dreams and confirmed what the man had been saying for the last three years. He began to preach the shadow-puddle-thing’s words to the locals, telling all who would listen how the boy had been visited in his dreams.
Through his son, Phleebx – for that was the thing’s name – had shined a light in the darkness, and Malf and his father were to be its messengers to the World.
The Word Is Spread
In a world where the drudgery of everyday life is the most many have to look forward to, it’s not hard to find people to support a belief system that offers not only an explanation of why things are that way, but also offers a way out. The teachings of Phleebx stated that once the World had been freed of the “tyranny of magic,” humans would be free to live decent, happy lives. It was therefore every man’s duty to strive toward the destruction of magic and other unnatural things, and those who wield or support them.
For over a decade, the teachings of Phleebx spread through the region, with young Malf Sertic as the cult’s prophet. The cult was slow to grow at first, but as more followers joined and took up the war against magic, the more people began to listen. The cult’s supporters pushed the appealing message of human empowerment, and the farmer’s sickle became the symbol of their order.
The cult became the preeminent religion amongst the region’s farmers. The local villages shunned adventurers, magic users, and members of other races. Although no reports of violence against these groups were confirmed, several disappearances of the same were.
The Cult Is Dispersed
When existence of the new religion first reached the ears of Medicas VI, Lord Thornberg, ruler of the region, he discounted the Cult of Phleebx as just another “back woods cult worshipping fabricated god.” In time, he believed, it would lose its luster and fade away as so many others had during the course of his rule.
However, Lord Thornberg would not be able to ignore the cult for long. Thirty-eight years ago, on a misty midsummer morning on the road west of Thornberg, an elf merchant train on its way to the city was attacked. None survived and no witnesses could be found – the only evidence pointing to the identity of the attackers was the “No Magik” placard hanging about the bloody neck of each of a dozen elf corpses nailed to nearby trees.
Lord Thornberg was outraged. It didn’t take a genius to determine who had perpetrated the attack, and later that same day he issued a decree that the teachings of Phleebx were banned from the region, and sent messengers to nearby rulers urging that they do the same. Although only a few pockets of the sect existed beyond the lands of Thornberg, many of the nearby regions also banned the cult and its teachings.
For the remainder of the season, the cult was persecuted and many of its more ardent followers, among them Sertic the Elder, Malf’s father, found themselves wasting away in the bowels of Thornberg’s dungeons. Most of the followers – nothing more than simple farmers hoping to improve their lot – gave up the religion rather than face imprisonment. Within months, it seemed as though the cult may have been defeated.
However, on Harvest Even – one of the World’s largest human celebrations at that time – the cult proved that it was far from defeat. Devout cult members – led by young Malf Sertic, who had evaded capture – infiltrated the celebrations within the city’s inner keep. They fell upon the royal family and its guests in the midst of their Grand Harvest Even ball, slew them all, and disappeared into the night.
When the dust finally settled, so to speak, Lord Thornberg and his wife were dead, as were most of his advisors, and so were over two dozen dignitaries and wealthy merchants from around the region – human and non-human – and their guards. The only clue: a lone, blood-soaked sickle left lodged in the Lord’s back.
The Lord’s eldest son took power the next day, and even though he was only fourteen years of age, his actions were as brutal as they were decisive: All currently imprisoned cult members were burned at the stake, and all shrines or places of worship in the region were burned to the ground. Worshipping Phleebx was no longer a minor crime; it was now punishable by death if convicted, and any person caught spreading the cult’s teachings – whether as a believer or simply in casual conversation – would have his or her tongue cut out on the spot.
None of the organizers of the Thornberg massacre was ever caught, but Sertic the Elder was the first to be taken from the dungeons and burned at the stake in the days following.
The Cult of Phleebx Today
Today, the Cult of Phleebx exists – for the most part – as little more than a scary tale told to frighten youngsters. Of its many shrines in the Thornberg region, only ruins remain. (Although some claim that the Cult lurks in dark passages and chambers hidden beneath these ruins. This has yet to be proven true.) In Thornberg, the night of Harvest Even is said to be a night when angry spirits are free to walk the earth, and the once-beloved holiday is now usually celebrated by locking the doors and windows and spending a somber night in fearful vigilance.
No one claims openly to be a member of the Cult.
Malf Sertic – the Prophet of Phleebx – was never captured, and is said to still wander the region. It’s also rumored that the cult thrives in the shadows, and has spread to every corner of the World. Many refute these rumors as baseless speculation, but every now and then a wizard is found dead in his abode, or a demi-human is found murdered in a back alley – often with a farmer’s sickle still lodged in their bodies. Even more often, adventurers find that one or more of their magic items has gone missing – only to be found later, inexplicably drained of their dweomer.
Using the Cult in Your Game
Dungeon Masters should use the Cult as an enigmatic, lurking entity that poses a threat to a party’s wizards and demi-humans, as well as their magic items. “Attacks” by the Cult should be executed by only a single member, and in a place most advantageous for an ambush. If a Cult member is unlikely to be able to dispatch a party member, he or she may opt instead to pilfer one of the character’s magic items, which will be taken to a Blessed One (see below) awaiting at some secret location nearby so that the item may be drained of its magic.
On the exceedingly rare occasion that a Cult cell is encountered, they should be elusive and mysterious; the Cult has survived many years because its members have learned how to cloak themselves in secrecy. Should a party of adventurers encounter a temple (usually a location that bears no significant markings as such) they may run into a high priest, or – if they’re very unlucky – a Blessed One of Phleebx:
Blessed One of Phleebx
|No. Appearing:||1 (1)||Attacks:||claw/claw/bite|
|Hit Dice:||5***||Treasure Type:||None|
|Save As:||Fighter 5||Damage:||1-4/1-4/2-8 + spec|
|Move:||30′ (Floating – see below)||Alignment:||Chaotic|
A Cult member “chosen” by Phleebx, the Blessed One is an abomination. It appears as a mutilated human, floating about two feet above the ground, its lower half missing – innards and the remainder of its spine dangle beneath torn flesh. It moans incessantly as its flesh appears to melt from its body, dripping to the earth below, where it puddles and quickly evaporates. Despite this constant melting of flesh, its skin never seems to completely dissolve away. A character encountering a Blessed One must Save vs. Spells or suffer as if afflicted by a Cause Fear spell.
If a Blessed One successfully attacks a magic using or demi-human character, the character must Save vs. Spells or suffer a level drain (exactly the same as the attack of a wight). If a Blessed One’s attack misses, it still has a 30% chance of hitting one of the character’s magic items (if he or she has any). If an item is struck, it automatically loses one magical property (or one “+”) chosen by the DM.
The Blessed One is immune to all forms of magic (except a wish-type spell) and an attacker may count no magical bonuses or properties when attacking it with a magical weapon.
This bit of Dungeon World lore can be downloaded in .PDF form here.
Chris Brackett is a web monkey by trade, but in real life he’s a veteran gamer and author of several tabletop miniatures games. He spends far too much of his time working on his RPG-focused game blog, A Rust Monster Ate My Sword.