If you've played Fallout 4 or Fallout 76, you've probably seen the poster. An adorable white kitty stands at a podium in front of the American flag, wearing an astronaut's suit complete with a fishbowl helmet. This is Mr. Pebbles: the first cat to reach space in the Fallout universe, and depending on who you ask, the savior of mankind.
A role-playing group dedicated to the cat sprang up in Fallout 76 after a Reddit user who goes by Ronthorns penned a founding document for the Church of Mr. Pebbles. It offers lore that turns Mr. Pebbles' in-game story into something quite different. According to the post, "while he entered space a mortal soul, he clipped the wall of reality and ended up outside the Wheel of existence." When he eventually returned to Earth, it had been devastated by the nuclear apocalypse, so "he now guides us survivors in rebuilding a paradise."
Like in other games, such as GTA Online, people have been making their own fun in Fallout 76 by taking on personas. These can be anything from friendly NPCs to dedicated bounty hunters, and may be all-consuming or simply a small part of how someone plays. The Church of Mr. Pebbles is one of these groups.
Mr. Pebbles' acolytes aren't expected to devote themselves to the church at the expense of other fun to be had in the game. The major rule is to have one of those kitty posters somewhere in your home base (or C.A.M.P), which reflects the church's grassroots foundations. While crossing the game's wasteland, Ronthorns noticed that many players already had lit images of the furry astronaut. "I thought it was cool that all these people naturally were building shrines and whatnot in game," Ronthorns explains, which ultimately led to him creating a rallying point for those interested.
Other than that, the rules are loose and broadly kind. "You must help your fellow Vault Dwellers no matter their beliefs," reads one such rule. "Gifting resources to Vault Dwellers fresh out of the Vault is the highest priority of the church," says another.
It fits Ronthorns' general philosophy about Fallout 76. "I really think [helping new players] is the main responsibility of the community," he says. "Early on in the game I felt like it was us versus the broken game, and no one was going to stick around if you were dealing with griefers and disconnects."
The church idea sprung up after a free week caused an influx of fresh vault dwellers. "Since my camp is right near Charleston station, I always had new players coming in asking questions about my two shrines, so I'd drop them whatever they needed and told them it was a gift from Mr. Pebbles," he says.
A cute kitty is the perfect foundation for a positive faction. Reddit user KatsunaT, a fan of role-playing and creating backstories for her own characters, describes herself as "a crazy cat lady." It's not surprising that the two would go together once she heard about the church.
Another self-professed "crazy cat mom," is Ashley, who goes by orange_colored_sky on Reddit. "My passion for cats permeates every aspect of my life, Fallout included," she tells me. She doesn't just have the lit portrait of Mr. Pebbles that Ronthorns suggested. "My C.A.M.P. is splattered with kitties. The bedroom is bespoke with Mr. Pebbles memorabilia, cat paintings cover the walls, and I've got about two dozen Mr. Fuzzy plushies stuffed in my stash box. I even had cat topiaries for each of my three real-life fur children."
She explains that it's not really role-playing, just bringing her natural love of cats into the game. "The great thing about Fallout 76 is that you can truly make the game your own. If I want to have a crazy cat lady C.A.M.P., then I can have my crazy cat lady C.A.M.P., and stuff it full of all the cat paintings my husband would never let me have in our real house."
The church, in turn, spills back out of the game. One of its biggest goals is to be recognized by Bethesda and the Fallout 76 subreddit moderators. The final rule in Ronthorns' original post asks people to "petition" them for merch and a flair that will distinguish members within the subreddit.
That flair is a popular ask. A user called desertdaze86 tells me that he mostly goes back to the game to search for legendary weapons and armor, and "teaming up with random people around the world to explore the wasteland," but that despite not role-playing much in game, he wants devotees to be able to "proudly show we're with Mr. Pebbles" while on Reddit. Another Reddit user, longtrainrollin, said that he wasn't especially "serious" about the church, but that he still wanted the flair.
This lack of recognition has lead to rivalries with other factions, particularly the cult of the Mothman. Though this is an in-game group who worshipped the Appalachian cryptid before the war, some players have taken to continuing the tradition in their own role-playing. But Ronthorns points out that it's different from Mr. Pebbles, who has a more natural draw. "While I do love [the Mothman cult], it's being fed to us from Bethesda," he explains. "I saw the organic movement of Mr. Pebbles and thought I'd go the opposite of the doomsday cult, which led to this positive entity."
His Pebbles lore positions the Mothman as outdated. He was important as the Harbinger of the end times, the founding document explains, but now "his job is over."
User R3tr0M3m3s, who created a building honoring the Mothman in-game, obviously disagrees. "We do find it upsetting that they find Mothman as a threat and not a savior," he told me, insisting that "Mothman can be angered but if the rituals are done right then he will be passive." He had a few barbed insults to throw Pebbles' way, calling the cosmonaut a "stuffed toy," but ultimately tells me that "we cult of the Mothman are a peaceful group so we will not attack them."
With both sides keeping to a pacifist code, most of the rivalry plays out in jokey arguments online rather than becoming a serious rift. This tongue-in-cheek faction tension is something that Ronthorns also wanted to encourage as part of the church's creation, targeted toward another familiar animal in the game: Mr. Jangles the Moon Monkey.
"He Who Claps is pure evil," reads his initial post. "His avatars must be beheaded at any opportunity." But his elaboration to me is more jovial. "Many people started using Jangles as a mascot in contrast to the church, and I thought it would be funny when I said, 'be nice to everyone but hunt down anyone that likes Jangles with no mercy.'" Aside from a few mangled plushies, no one seems to be getting hurt.
Still, Ronthorn's desire to see his church legitimized resurfaces. "Bethesda has a Jangles player icon in the atomic shop but no Mr. Pebbles," he points out.
It makes sense that Mr. Pebbles supporters would want to be able to show their love both in-game and on Reddit. Role-playing communities like these like these often exist beyond the boundaries of the game, allowing people to play even when they are not strictly "playing." Discord servers allow some groups to coordinate, while many broadcast on Twitch, involving others that way. The church of Mr. Pebbles is acted out just as much, if not more, on Reddit than within Fallout 76.
Players were drawn to posters put there by Bethesda, but it was the lack of solid lore that inspired Ronthorns to found the church. Since then, it's existed in both spaces, an undirected movement that is made up of both the joke fights playing out in the message boards and the wastelanders creating shrines and helping out newcomers. "Players in Bethesda communities are always fantastic and engaging, so really they did most of the work on shaping the church," Ronthorns says. Of course all these cat lovers would want to be able to formally show their dedication to the fuzzy felines not only by using an in-game player icon, but also a Reddit flair.
But when it comes to what the church brings to Fallout 76 itself, Ashley puts it best: "By injecting ourselves into the game, we as players are helping to realize the in-game goal of resettling—and re-humanizing—post-apocalyptic Appalachia. Isn't that something?"