The article appeared in Oliver Dickinson's excellent Rune Rites column. Although it was intended for Runequest, it would be easy to adapt to any game system.
In order to develop real power in RuneQuest it is necessary to accept the restrictions and obligations of cult membership. Many Initiates and Rune levels chafe at being sent on this or that quest and look back wistfully to the hell-raising freedom of their adventuring youth. But there is another, easier, route to power...
Occupying a niche in the spiritual hierarchy somewhere between gods and man are the spirit lords. These are beings with a POW of 150 or so and a willingness to exchange a little no-strings Rune magic for permanently sacrificed POW. Some were once gods, torn and wounded and weakened by ancient battles; others are merely powerful spirits clawing their way up to godhood. A character who wants to get Rune magic from a spirit lord must first find one. It is easier to do this on the physical plane than in the spirit world, as spirit lords tend to linger around places of special significance -- a plain where an epic struggle occurred, perhaps or a ruined temple where they were once worshipped. The first step is thus to conduct some detailed research, unearthing rumours and then double and triple-checking these. This involves time, money, scholastic ability, and some common sense.
Having identified a location where a spirit lord might be found, the character has to get there. it could be just a matter of a few days' ride across pleasant country; most referees being what they are, however, it is much more likely to involve crossing mountains and marshes, travelling through deserts and jungles, to reach the spirit lord's lair.
If there are no special events (see below), it is possible to trade with the spirit lord for Rune magic. This is done in the usual way: the character sacrifices POW above 18, and receives re-usable Rune spells in return. Most spirit lords will only be able to offer a few 1- and 2-point spells. Usually these are from the standard list; they may be determined randomly by the referee or assigned on the basis of the spirit lord's Runic nature. The process is keyed to some arbitrary talisman or amulet — the character will not be able to use or regain the Rune spells except when carrying this.
Unlike gods, spirit lords do not care about devotional rituals; they do not want to have to use their powers too often, however, so that a character wishing to re-use such Rune magic must wait one full day and sacrifice 10 points of battle magic POW (temporarily) for each point regained. Also, the character must maintain his/her characteristic POW at 18+ or temporarily lose access to the Rune magic. This is similar to a Rune Priest, but none of the other benefits (better POW roll, etc) or disadvantages (reduced DEX-based skills, etc) of priesthood are received.
Whenever a spirit lord is contacted, there is 0-19% chance (roll 1d20-1d10; if the result is positive, it is the number or less that must be rolled on d100) to get a special event. This is some unlooked-for circumstance or reaction which should make things more interesting — if not necessarily safer — for the intrepid adventurer. The table shows a few possible special events; referees can devise tables for their own but keep these secret from your players.
Spirit lords can be introduced into Gloranthan-style campaigns, but can also be used as the sole justification of magic in other fantasy worlds. Spirit lords can be fitted into such a world as the djinns, demons, good spirits, spirit mentors, or whatever, from whom magicians receive their powers.
1. A local tribe worships the spirit lord. Their shaman doesn't want the god bothered by jumped-up adventurers.
2. A special summoning ritual must be performed before the spirit lord will manifest. This may involve human (or elf, dwarf, etc) sacrifice.
3. The spirit attacks with a view to possession. Assume a POW of 30+1-4d100.
4. The deal goes normally, but after 1-6 uses the Rune spells fail to regenerate.
5. The spirit lord is ready for godhood and wants a priest. If a character has at least three skills at 90% (and, of course, POW 18+), it will offer to make him/her a Rune Lord-Priest at once, on the condition that he/she devotes him/herself to organising the new cult. Many spirit lords cannot provide allied spirits, however; in this case, the character gets a free summon small elemental spell instead.
6. The spirit lord refuses to grant any Rune spells until the character undertakes some quest for it. It may wait until after the character has sacrificed the POW before mentioning this.
7. The spirit lord is Chaotic. Each time the character uses a spell obtained from it, there is a 10% chance of becoming tainted with Chaos and acquiring a Chaos or reverse chaos feature.
8. The spirit lord has no Rune magic, but is prepared to provide rapid teaching of a skill in exchange for permanent POW, at the rate of 5% per point. This cannot take a character beyond 75% in the skill.
9. The spirit lord has exotic Rune magic — that is, spells not included in the standard list.
10. The spirit lord is the hated enemy of an established cult (perhaps it was a foe of their deity in Godtime). Anyone who associates with the spirit lord will be hunted down.