There is a wonderful thing about cosmic horror: no one knows what’s going on. OK, some people know something is going on, but 99.99% of the people have no idea. Usually, the concepts fall into three categories:
#1 The vast majority of the mortals have no idea what’s going on. So what if a 3,000 years ago some ancient spirit/monster/god crashed into the world? If a person was lucky enough to survive to pre-adolescence and therefore had the ability to begin to consider philosophy and other big thoughts, they only have another 50 or so years to worry about. If nothing has changed (in their opinions) in 3,000, the next 50 look pretty safe.
This is the farmer who must worry about plowing, seeding and harvesting. He is not going to waste his time wondering if the chaos magic on the other side of the world might be a beacon to similar cosmic entities. He cannot see this affecting him. Oh, things are different if his neighbor sacrifices his daughter to one of these cosmic crazies and then hides the demigod-like thing in the barn, but other than something like that, he just doesn’t care.
#2 The intelligentsia have a habit of dismissing things outside their books. These folks have studied so they “know” the limits and boundaries of magic, and they refuse to think that something could work outside the rules that they have set in place. Substitute science for magic here, they both act similarly. Unless their professor told them it could be true, they are going to deny that it could be. They would rather be condescending towards those attempting to learn than accept that their understanding of how things work might not be accurate. (Please note the use of the term “intelligentsia” here. You may define this word differently than we do. We are not dismissing all scholars or scientists, just the ones with the attitude described here, and there are too many of those!)
#3 There is a tiny percentage of the people who, probably because of something absolutely horrifying happening to them, know that there is something out there and it is beyond dangerous. But even among these people, there are those who want to hide away from this knowledge, some who have been driven insane by it and are therefore no longer reliable sources of information, and a few who want to learn more.
These few trying to understand face enormous obstacles. Not only do the cosmic horrors often like to work in secret, but they may have secret cults who worship them, and these cults will act to keep the secrets. Add to this the concept that most mortal minds cannot fully grasp the magnitude of what the cosmic horror represents. As we see in so many stories, the more you learn, the less your grasp on sanity. (We aren’t saying reality here, because the insane just might have a better grasp on that than we’d like to give them credit for.)
Why does this matter? Because as a world builder, you can run dozens of campaigns in your game world without once drifting into the cosmic horror style, and then run a full-on cosmic horror campaign, and it makes sense. The PCs and NPCs in those other campaigns - They weren’t in the know. They had no idea and no glimpse of what was going on behind the cosmic veil. You don’t even have to retcon anything to make this work.
And if you choose to, once the cosmic horror campaign is over, you don’t have to make any future campaigns venture in there if you don’t want to. It’s tough to close that barn door once opened, and the players may be clamoring for more, but if the PCs aren’t aware of what’s going on around them, they don’t get to know. Besides, cosmic entities work in terms of centuries. What are the chances that multiple cosmic horror events would happen near each other in time? OK, they’re pretty high, because they are happening all the time, but the PCs shouldn’t know that.
But who are these entities? That is a much bigger question. Well, who can we compare them to? The best comparison is the gods. Both cosmic entities and the gods have incredible amounts of power - enough power to make miracles happen. Both dwell outside of the mortal realms. Both have worshippers on the mortal worlds. In fact, the cosmic entities are often called “old gods”. So, are they gods then?
Honestly, we’ll leave that for you to decide. The question we think needs to be asked is, “Why are you treating the gods that the religions of your world worship differently than the cosmic entities?” What makes the old gods mean and creepy, but the pantheon gods happy and helpful? Think that the “good” gods can’t be mean and spiteful? Read more about Hercules and Hera. She’s often considered helpful to humanity.
We think the point here is that the old gods are considered mysterious and unknowable, but the religions find their gods to be understandable and even predictable. Who’s right? Well, we think both styles of gods need to be mysterious and unknowable. That doesn’t change the assumption of the religious. They believe that they understand their god(s). They have communicated with these gods, and they believe they are on the right track and following the gods’ will. And maybe they are on the right track, but that has nothing to do with understanding the gods.
The gods are immortal beings of enormous power. A mortal cannot think like a god and therefore cannot understand one. A god’s plans could easily take a century or more to come to fruition. Over the course of that century, the god will have been revising and improving the plan. There should not be a means by which a mortal can foil it, unless another god has been interfering and arranged it so the mortal is in place to foil the plan. That’s perfectly understandable.
Would a god intentionally let a plan fail in order to position themselves for an even bigger plan a generation down the road? Absolutely! After all, they need to fake out their rival gods, and how better than to appear defeated?
But what do the gods want? We have made it pretty clear in a lot of our writings that the way we run divine beings is this: Divine creatures survive by consuming the adoration or fear of mortals. The concept of eating or consuming is probably just a mortal’s mental paraphrasing of what is actually happening, because we cannot fully understand, but in any case, they need this fear or adoration. Adoration comes from mortals sending prayers, love, awe, etc. One of the best ways they can receive this is to establish a religion and get tons of followers to send prayers. Of course, the gods usually need to help these religions or they don’t thrive, so it is a give and take.
But the bad guy divines live on fear. They too might have religions, but instead of happily praying to their god(s), they are making sacrifices in hopes of avoiding their wrath. This could be organized religions (think about the Aztecs), or demons pulling stunts, or cosmic entities causing fear simply by being powerful, scary and unknown. Let’s face it, the unknown is scary! If you were trying to install fear into a group of mortals, staying “unknowable” would be a good way to accomplish it. Of course, you can’t be so unknown that no one fears you, but there is a delicate balancing act in there. Plus - they don’t need to know what they’re afraid of for the being to gain.
Maybe you want your cosmic entities to be more powerful or more mysterious than your gods. That’s fine. But we really think that you need to make your gods a bit more mysterious than what has been used in some past RPGs. Once your gods have hit points, they have ceased to be the powerful beings they should be. You need them to seem a bit more cosmic horror than that!
This post was written as part of The World of Sylansse aka All About Highest Fantasy, the latest in our Small Bites editions. Each Small Bites book looks deeply at one subject, a character archetype, a race/monster, a style of questing, or some other role-playing/world building subject. This one is showcasing a world where nearly everyone has access to magic. No, not every sharecropper can cast spells, but they can hire rain makers or consult herbalists. And most of the adventurers have something more fantastical up their sleeves, whether it be magic or racial.
We hope we’re getting you interested. If you want to see the World Walker edition for FREE!! click the link here. If we’ve hooked you and you want to get the full 55 pages of content in the Game Masters’ edition, click here.