Recently I was chatting with a friend of mine (hey Mike!) and the topic of cults came up. Yes, we have strange conversations. But it made me wonder about them in gaming terms. Should I be using them more often? How are they used well? And how should they be used?
What is a cult? Google defines it first as “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” But the second definition brings in the more modern sense of the word: “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” We see the word “cult” and I know I immediately think “bad” or “evil.”
As the discussion went on, a number of examples came up as far as cults that have been used in RPGs that left a significant impact (to the point where we remember it)… It was a fairly short list!
- The Cult of the Unseeing Eye in Baldur’s Gate 2
- The Universal Brotherhood in Shadowrun
- Brother Ptolemy & The Hidden Kingdom from Nevermet Press
- any of a number of Old Ones cults in Cthulhu-based adventures
None of these had good intentions. So it’s no wonder I think of cruelty, evil, and ulterior motives when I see the word “cult.” ☺
A Few Lessons…
But now that I’ve pondered these examples a bit, a few things have come to light.
- Well played cults and cult leaders can be truly frightening.
- It all revolves around dedication to the cause more than blind faith, but blind faith can also be terrifying.
- Cult goals are often logical with well-thought-out plans, even if those goals are misguided.
- Cult methods work best when subtle, corrupting slowly.
- It’s all a big sales pitch and you don’t learn the truth until it’s too late…
Introducing a Cult…
With these things in mind, I’m pondering how to use cults more often in my games and worlds. To do them well, the seeds should be planted well in advance of whenever the PCs encounter them. And it really has to be a very slow introduction.
Perhaps that introduction should be done in three parts:
- Meet the Public Face — See the good works being done and implant the idea that everything is as it seems. For example, good, wholesome work being done in the community aiding people in need…
- Get a Hint of the Rotten Core — At some point, start to hear rumors that well liked members of the community in this group may have a dark past or secret desires or a connection to some current mysterious tragedy…
- See the Truth — As the PCs dig deeper, they come to find that the rumors are true. And the once pure is seen as evil… [Insert evil laughter here.]
Hints, suggestions, and tips can be placed well in advance of the first part. Perhaps a series of gruesome crimes are taking place in town and the PCs have heard about the good works of this influential group, but the two ideas are disconnected at first…
Yes, I’ve been sucked into the Cult of the Gassy Gnoll… Ack!