Centerra is the setting. It's sort of a secular setting, even though it has plenty of religions. It's a fantasy setting where atheism makes a lot of sense.
No one has ever been to the "plane of heaven". No one has even been to the "plane of hell". And although there are lots of things called "demons", they usually aren't interested in eating your souls (or any of the other nonsense the Church claims they do). There might not even be such a thing as a soul. Certainly, no one has ever returned from the dead.
If there are gods, they are quiet ones. No god has ever appeared before a crowd of people. No angels have ever appeared to give aid to a hero. There has never been a verifiable miracle. The sun has never stood still in the sky, and the sea has never been parted. Nevertheless, most people still believe in these things.
Of course, the different religions still have complex cosmologies, with hierarchies of angels, and different circles of hell. It just isn't relevant like it is in most settings.
Most of the "civilized" world is part of a monotheistic religion called Hesaya. They're The Church. They got to their continent-spanning level of power by crushing hundreds of older religions underfoot.
Another interesting thing about Centerra: No one has any fucking clue what happened more than ~1200 years ago. All we know is that everyone on the planet was insane, and most things were on fire. That's where the calendar starts. With the end of history.
The Radiant Maiden
So, no gods walk the earth. Nor demons, nor angels. . . except, perhaps, for one.
She wears only white cloth, to symbolize purity. But she also wears a black veil to symbolize what has been lost. She only exposes her face during her sermons, and all can see that she is a creature of ineffable beauty and power. Although she is undeniably feminine, no one has ever gazed upon her with lust. She is pure and calm. He eyes shine with benevolence and goodwill. It is impossible to look upon her and not be at peace.
And her powers are undeniable. In a world where "divine" cures are difficult and imperfect, she shines as a beacon of healing. She touches a man's forehead, and leprosy leaves his body. She breathes on a woman's eyes, and her blindness leaves her.
And the light! All around her, torches shine brighter. Even starlight becomes bright enough that a forest path feels safe. The living dead slouch back into their graves and tremble. The foul creatures of the night retreat back to their black grottoes. The wolves cower in their thickets, and even barking dogs fall quiet.
And the Madmen Became Gods
The Radiant Maiden preaches, and she tells of the time before. Of how the people of the world were strong, healthy, and wise. Even the meanest of humans was six feet tall and as strong as an ox. There was no sickness, and even the feeblest members of our race lived to be two hundred years old. Everyone was clever. Everyone was wise.
The benevolent creator of the universe was called Jessai, but that isn't important anymore.
The liar and the destroyer of the universe was called Raku Ghaal, but that isn't important either.
And the Radiant Maiden was once an angel within this cosmology, but that is the least important of all.
She tells of how Raku Ghaal succeeded in turning the mortal races away from their creator. How the world sank into sin and depravity, through trickery and exploitation. How the Great Deceiver raised an army of a million million souls, and laid siege to heaven. Of how Raku Ghaal had grown so fat and strong that he was able to kill Jessai. And by doing so, all the goodness left the world.
When Raku Ghaal killed Jessai, he also killed himself, for Evil cannot exist in a world without Good. And so both the great gods were no more.
A new generation of gods was born, elevated from among the ranks of the victors. Raku Ghaal's generals, hedonists, and madmen. These twisted creatures would rule over the next world.
Which is, of course, the current one.
The Radiant Maiden always weeps at this part.
You will never know what a pitiful world this one is, she will say. You will never know how much you have lost.
And in the audience, heads will be nodding.
The Radiant Maiden will tell them, with a voice trembling with compassion, that they were never meant to suffer this much. Our human souls were never meant to bear the weight of disease. Our bodies were never meant to endure old age. And nothing could be more unnatural than death.
The people will remember all the newborns that they have buried. How their bones ache on winter mornings. How much it hurt to give birth. How much their parents suffered at the end, when their lungs fill with mucus and their body rots around them. A lifetime of misery. A history of suffering.
And then they will all put their heads together, the angel among the serfs, and weep for their lost Eden.
The Cure for Cancer
And so, seized with grief and righteous fury, they will talk of how best to cure their world of its horrible affliction.
The Maiden will explain that it is like a cancer. Insidious, constantly growing, and impossible to heal. But there has always been a cure for cancer, although we might not like to discuss it.
By definition, a world cannot be reborn while it is still alive. The ultimate goal, then, is the death of every single sentient creature on the planet.
The death of sentience is a large goal. Many are not even sure it is possible. But it is one that is always in mind. Something that is always worked towards. A direction, even if there is no destination.
Hastening the Dawn
Along the way, it is good to kill as many people as possible. After all, life is suffering. Happiness lasts only a moment, but misery is the base condition of every human.
We have grown used to our deplorable state, much like a prisoner becomes comfortable sleeping on the floor, eating insects, and living in his own filth. After enough time, the prisoner no longer misses the sunlight, or even remembers it. But although the prisoner thinks that he is happy in his cell, he is deceiving himself. The prisoner will only be happy outside the cell, among the light and his family, where he belongs.
This is the truth, and all who deny it are liars or fools. While a common man, with his vision clouded, might look at children playing and imagine there is good in the world, a Herald will look at the same scene and see only filth and ignorance. Those children will only grow to be as despoiled and as diseased as their parents. All flowers will someday rot in the ground; all songs will someday be forgotten. There is no beauty in this world.
And since no one belongs in this world, it is good to kill them now so that they may be free to live in the next. Better to leave it now, than be stained by further exposure to it's unnatural foulness.
How to Save the World
The Immaculate Morning is not insensitive to the feelings of those that they kill. They prefer to do it painlessly, if possible. The victims won't even realize that they are dying, ideally.
The Maiden can free a trapped soul from its body with a touch of her hand. And in fact, this is the kindest thing to do. But those brave souls--the Lightbringers, the Defenders of the Light--who choose to endure this world that they might hasten the next, are not killed, but left alive to fulfill their onerous duty.
Because mourning for loved ones is a kind of pain, the Maiden is sure to kill the families of liberated souls as well. The Lightbringers sometimes must kill other people in the performance of their duties. When this happens, they are careful to seek out all the relatives of the deceased and lay them to rest. They do this as painlessly as possible, since it is mercy that guides their hands. The dead will thank them in the next life, when all eyes are opened.
The Maiden's most glorious act was perhaps when she caused a luminous fog to come in from the Saltsea. She sent the fog into the city of Gastleton, and all 3000 souls in that town were saved that day.
But although the Heralds of the Immaculate Morning are known for their more direct acts of salvation, they know that sometimes the best way to save a soul is to prevent it from being born in the first place. Towards this end, the alchemists of the Immaculate Morning have devised an ingenious tincture from the silphennic root that affects the womb. Ingestion unfortunately causes a few days of pain and bleeding, but the sterility that ensues is blessedly permanent.
Let in a Little Light
The Immaculate Morning recruits by approaching people and offering to tell their fortunes. The fortune that the recruiter gives is always bad. After the fortune-telling, the recruiter will try to talk to the person about the evils of the world, and what a horrible place the person is. Pretty much everyone in the world will agree that the world is far from perfect, and then they are invited to their first meeting.
Staring into the Sun
The Maiden and her Lightbringers cast a lot of light spells. Supposedly, this is light from the First Dawn, the daybreak that will potentially come if they are successful.
Fighting the Light
There's quite a few differences between the Immaculate Morning and your average doomsday cult:
- They donate money to disaster relief.
- In combat, the usually try to use methods that are non-lethal and/or painless. Their warriors deal non-lethal damage (with no penalties). Their alchemists favor knockout gases. Their mages favor sleep spells. Their clerics favor things that blind or immobilize you. Then they slit your throat.
- They bless you as they die. A cultist's last words might very well be, "I forgive you. . ." or "I'll pray for your soul. . ."
- They have no problem with suicide. In fact, it's a common tactic they use, sometimes to generate a public effect.
- They have no problems with killing each other, too. It's common for the Maiden to make one of her faithful kill their spouse and children, especially if the spouse or child were suspected of not being fully devoted to the cult. They also kill each other in big ceremonies as a reward for "freeing the souls" of a lot of people.
- A lot of them are civilians. Sure some of them wear the white robe and the orange sunburst, but most of them hang around because they want something to believe in. (And the Maiden can heal you when you get sick.) For this reason, their "hidden temples" are full of women sewing and children learning to write.
- The women and children will resist you non-violently. If the Maiden is summoning an Elder Abomination from the Outer Darkness, the women and children will link arms in front of the door and sing songs together. Some of the smallest children will toddle forward and try to put flowers in the warrior's scabbard. That sort of shit.
- Although they are totally fine with letting Elder Abominations into this world, they detest other doomsday cults (and other bad guys in particular). They may even aid you against such organizations, but it just isn't their highest priority. And you may owe them a favor or two afterwards.
- The Radiant Maiden is probably one of the closest things that the setting has to a god.
- This one's sort of a secret: the Radiant Maiden isn't the only "angel" in the cult.
This article has a sequel. Read it here.
You might be squeamish about using women and children as human shields against your PCs. That's good. You should be. It's a fucked up idea. But if your players are bored of "normal" death cults and/or you want the good guys to feel like bad guys, you might be interested in the Heralds of the Immaculate Morning. Actually, if you have a really messed-up campaign (+Logan Knight) you might want to make them the good guys.
This article has been inspired by (1) my hatred of cliches, (2) my love of cliches, and (3) +Patrick Stuart's most excellent article with similar ideas. It's close enough that I can see it across the street, so you should have no problem going there after you finish reading this one.