Building A Better Cult

Hooded sorcerer-priests clutching ceremonial daggers and invoking this week’s forgotten deity of Bad is a fantasy RPG staple. Tropes, even clichés. And with good reason – evil cults are fun, and they are full of drama and opportunity. They are efficient story machines, because they:

  • Antagonistic/evil by nature, and thus little justification is needed to start opposing them.
  • Involve an element of secrecy and intrigue, thus making uncovering/tracking the cult as much of a story vector as fighting them directly.
  • Are allowed to be irrational by virtue of them being, well, mad cultists in service of dark powers.
  • Allow for some Call of Cthulhu-esque investigation and quasi-horror in games otherwise about fantasy adventure.

All well and good, in theory. The actual execution of cults in fantasy fiction often leaves much to be desired, however. (Not uniformly, though, and there are some good, some great treatments of the subject out there too.) This post is meant to encourage you to think a bit about how you use them better in your game.

Madmen and Demagogues

One of the primary issues is that cultists tend to be portrayed either as raving, ecstatic lunatics clutching their dagger while they scream the name of their dark patron, or as Machiavellian schemers and demagogues who are into this because it gives them power, and whose supplication to the dark gods is merely a pathway for their own goals.

Imagine a kingdom-spanning conspiracy consisting only of these two types of people, and just how little it would achieve before either exposing itself foolishly or eating itself from within.

Cultists are still people. Certainly, some of them are mad, power-crazed people, but others may not be. Some may have been robbed of a choice of whether to join a not. Some may be there because they are coerced, threatened, or simply lied to. Because we tend to associate cults with fanaticism, we tend to want cultists to be fanatics. But even the most hardcore hood-wearing, dagger-clutching, scroll-holding cultist must have something to do, someone to be, when it’s not Sacrificial Tuesday at the secret temple.

Don’t be afraid to show cultists not yet in the deep end. Show us the curious academics who believe it’s all just a bit of friendly LARPing of the past. Or the spouse who joined out of obligation to their partner, and who is so far indifferent to the affair. Or the slightly naïve merchant who’s starting to suspect this business association may be more than just some friends meeting and discussing business.

Because this shows only of the truly evil thing about cults: They ensnare, they corrupt, they insert themselves slowly into people’s lives. The cult doesn’t care if you’re a fanatic or not, not truly – it cares for your service and your loyalty, and it will secure those slowly through its poisonous workings. Social puppetry, social control, is the tool of the truly insidious cult.

Excuse Me, Do You Have A Minute to Talk About the Great Old Ones?

The classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign The Enemy Within is a bit of a cult-o-rama. And in my opinion, it gets something very right about cults: It makes it clear why someone in this world might want to join one. People don’t join dark cults just because. They do it out of desperation, despair, decadent curiosity, or because they have been lied to. Especially the later is one rarely explored seriously, but Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay makes a clear point that most Chaos cultists don’t exactly know that they’re worshiping the Ruinous Powers. (Again, remember that cults don’t care about your genuine belief, they care about controlling you.)

In order for the promises of a cult to be enticing, the world needs to have problems. Big problems. But also problems that prospective cultists can feel and be affected by. In a strange way, The Enemy Within‘s focus on internal and civic matters in the Empire make people’s frustrations with incompetence and corruption so much more understandable. Periods of crisis and deprivation are opportunities for cults to flourish, as is periods of affluent stagnation and thrill-seeking decadence.

This is the fine line the ‘dark and gritty’ setting must always walk: Be awful enough to be genuinely dark, but not awful enough to induce complete apathy in players and participants. Cults are a good way of exploring this conflict; they are people who either make selfish or downright evil choices, or they are about how these evil choices affect others (and thus, how they can be stopped as well – enter the heroes!).

Cults of A Different Creed (Tables!)

Lastly, cults do not actually need to be about gods and deities. History have many examples of ideological or goal-oriented movements operating in essentially cult-like ways. Your game doesn’t have to be exactly like history (in fact, it probably shouldn’t be), but consider how any nefarious clandestine organization with odious objectives can, in principle, be your campaign’s ‘cult’.

So here are 1d12 Things For Your Cult To Worship That Isn’t A Dark God.

1A once-dominant ethnicity in the region.
2A prophecized warrior-king from the past, currently stuck in time-travel limbo; needs sacrifices and stuff to get free; cultists hope for courtier positions.
3Misotheism. The cult do not believe the gods worthy of worship, and so practice a kind of edgy nihilism.
4Technology. The cult has access to some lost techno-treasure or is a cargo cult.
5Political utopianism. The cult believes the land will be saved if only a certain, and probably arbitrary, change in government is forced through.
6Enlightenment. The cult is all about free-thinking, intellectualism, salon-style debates. That, and killing its perceived enemies gruesomely.
7Money. The cult is essentially a ground for wannabe oligarchs to concoct schemes in service of the sacred goal of Getting Richer.
8Another culture. The cult, for some reason, believes another nation or culture just has it figured out, and want to emulate their ways and trappings. Pretty cringe-worthy.
9Entropy. The cult may or may not be a social experiment conducted by a bitter entropic wizard.
10A dead faith. Not just “an old god once worshipped, now returning”. A faith that is extinct. The current cult just practices a poorly-reconstructed version of it.
11A fictional character. Some hero of a novel, or oral epic, whose tales struck a chord.
12A deceased artist. For some reason (mundane or magical), this artist’s work really touches people. And it has touched some a bit too much.

6 thoughts on “Building A Better Cult

  1. I love cults!

    Recommendation 1: real-life cults are great inspiration, and they don’t all have to be like Waco. The Vow, and Wild, Wild Country are both great to watch, even though they might not be the most objective.

    Rec 2: remember that through most of history, cults were not considered malignant. Read up on mystery cults, or what we know of them, and you’ll find people have always been into weird stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You say that cults full of ecstatic lunatics, schemers and demagogues don’t get very far, but speaking as someone who lives under a state run by exactly this sort of group, I beg to differ.
    I had to get that off my chest. More later when I read the rest of the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Some brilliant ideas for cults there!
    These ideas fit beautifully with the way real world cults function, by giving crumbs of esoteric “knowledge” out as adherents advance through the ranks. They also fit very nicely with the old Call of Cthulhu advice to write mysteries with layers like an onion. At the level of the first layer there’s just vaguely understood behaviour and some odd things about the town/village/organisation; even several layers in the oddities can still seem incoherent, unconnected, just like the incomplete picture cultists are given to keep them climbing the esoteric ladder.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Very good point – the cultists themselves might not all be in the know about the deeper workings of the organization. Much as in real life, people are manipulated in awful ways. I think that’s what’s most terrifying about cults ultimately. They are social predators.

      Liked by 2 people

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