Torches flickered, high above his head, against the cold stone walls of the large round chamber. Was there a green tinge to the flames?  Now purple? Movement in the center of the chamber, someone in a dark, hooded robe extending their arms over a rough-carved stone altar. Flanked by two tall candelabra topped with dark purple candles that burned with a bright, deep, purple light. Impurities in the dark stone of the altar flickered and glinted in the candlelight, and now the robed figure stood motionless, and now a black, wavy-bladed knife was in his right hand.

And now the robed figure barks a single syllable and now other robed figures step toward the altar, out of the shadows in the perimeter of the room. A slow, sonorous, measured chant begins, filling the chamber with harmonic frequencies the secret watcher can feel in his bones.

I-a! Shub-niggurath. Preloží černou kozu lesa s tisícem mladých! 

Cult priest of the Elder Gods

Cult

Social Group

In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object or goal. This sense of the term is controversial and it has divergent definitions both in popular culture and academia and it has also been an ongoing source of contention among scholars across several fields of study. It is usually considered pejorative. (Wikipedia)

I am working on some Background Plot information for the Grimdark Greyhawk campaign. I thought it would be fun to have a couple of gods squaring off against each other, in the form of their followers. But not just any followers, a secret cabal within the established religion, a Mystery Cult with secret practices and hidden agendas.

Since I am also going to be working in some Elder Gods and other Cthulhoid shenanigans, I decided the god of stars might be appropriate for the Lawful side with some Death gods, maybe some humanoid gods as well, might be cool for the Chaotic side. 

As usual, I did a little research to find out what other folks are thinking about in this vein, and I found some cool blog posts. In fact, I just read a post by Joseph Manola at Against the Wicked City, about Cults and Cultists and their role in RPGs. I’ve been thinking about this for days.

I’m sharing some of the real meat of the article and Comments, but I recommend reading the whole thing (including the Comments, they’re great!) 

Why do we love cults and cultists so much? There are at least ten really obvious reasons:

  1. Tradition. Evil cults have always been a big part of D&D: as Gus L recently reminded us, Temple of the Frog is all about invading a cult temple, and that has a decent claim to be the first D&D adventure module ever printed. Other highly influential early D&D adventures, such as B4 The Lost City and N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, also prominently featured weird cults. 
  2. Influence. Evil cultists are the default enemies in both Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which have both been enormously influential on subsequent weird fantasy gaming. And they got the idea from weird fiction authors like Lovecraft and Howard, who also used a lot of cults as antagonists. 
  3. Moral clarity. It might not be OK to kill the barbarian just for being a barbarian, or the orc just for being an orc – but if someone voluntarily chose to join the cult of Skull-Fang The Planet-Fucker, then that’s on them. When you stab them to death in mid-ritual, you can legitimately say they had it coming. 

And:

…where do the zealots come from? Are the churches all running indoctrination camps? (Maybe they are!)

Reasons for following a cult leader (roll 1d10):

1: He/she is so cool and sexy! Whatever they’re saying *must* be true!

2: He/she is so powerful and dangerous! We have to do what they say or else!

3: He/she has done so much to help us! What’s the harm in joining in with the chanting once a week?

4: He / she has offered us power and glory and riches! Do what they say and we will become kings among men!

5: He / she has brainwashed and brutalised us into submission. Now we’re so traumatised that we don’t dare disobey!

6: He / she has us hooked on drugs that we can’t get anywhere else. We have to do what they say to get our next hit!

7: Everything’s fallen apart and we have no good options left. He / she is our only hope!

8: Members of our family / community / institution have always done this. What’s the harm in following tradition?

9: There’s something we’re desperate to accomplish, but we lack the power to do so. He / she offers us the power to accomplish our goals, and the ends justify the means!

10: What’s so wrong with feeding human hearts to toad-demons anyway?

There are also a few gems in the Comments, where astute readers added some great ideas of their own:

From Phillip N

Looking at individual motives is important for fleshing out NPCs, but I think its worth to look at cults from the top, as part of society as a whole.

1. Cults provide supernatural aid, or at least promise it. In a supernatural world this might even be a necessity (just look at the Warhammer universes). The more aid is needed or given, the more attractive a cult will become to individuals, as well as communities.

2. Cults are bound to power structures, either deviant or dominant. Those in power can use it as a means to secure their power, those who have nothing can use them to gain power.

3. Cults provide community and a coherent world view. This can work as an entry point for the lonely and desperate and reinforces membership for those who are already into it.

In short, they do everything that regular religions (or wizards’ guilds) do, amplified by the actual existence of magic. The question then is, why does the “normal” religion fail? Is it oppressive? Does it give the “wrong” answers? Has it been destroyed or fragmented. Is it actually not very different from the cult? Are you born into the mess? And there is, of course, always the mind control / drugs option.

Then Solomon and Joseph came up with yet another exciting table, for WHY a cult is hiding out in a particular dungeon:

Why is the cult in the dungeon? (roll 1d10)

1: Archaeologists, tomb robbers, or dungeon inhabitants Dug Too Deep and unearthed something which took over their minds. Now they’re its dungeon-dwelling cult!

2: Cultists were unmasked in a nearby community and had to flee in a hurry. They took shelter in the dungeon to hide from their persecutors.

3: Local villagers are all secretly cultists, the dungeon is their holy site, the most devout of them go to live their full time.

4: Ancient cultists awakened from magical sleep in the dungeon, which is all that remains of their fallen stronghold, and are now trying to rebuild their religion while hiding from the outside world, plotting their next move.

5: The membership of the cult is scattered across many lands, but this dungeon is a pilgrimage site for them, and at any given time a variety of cultists will be in there visiting its shrines and relics.

6: The cultists are planning their ‘big push’ (probably some kind of coup or holy war), and are using the dungeon to train and prepare their warriors in secret.

7: The Inevitable Evil Ritual can only be performed in this particular dungeon, so the cultists have come here to perform it, possibly clashing with its other inhabitants along the way.

8: A relic of the cult was lost here centuries ago and now the cult have moved in and are ransacking the place in an attempt to find it.

9: Cultists are keen to secure an alliance with a dungeon resident – probably a lich, vampire, or similar – and have sent an embassy to try to bribe or convert him to their cause.

10: Cult has a sacred tradition that all new members have to prove their commitment by spending three years living in a dungeon.

This is fascinating, but I tried thinking of it in terms of the Grimdark Greyhawk setting, which is going to be a Points of Light-style environment, where all towns are walled, there are no lonely farmsteads, and dangerous monsters roam the fringes of civilization. A world where magic and gods are very real, where faith and belief supplant what we would think of as superstition. Because there are things people can do, Cleric, M-U, even your 0-level types, that have actual, observable effects.

What Motivates the Cultists?

Every mother teaches her daughter which herbs to use, and the pattern for arranging them, to create the Hexagram for “Blessing of the Hearth”. The new bride wouldn’t enter her future home with her Bridegroom at swordpoint without that  hex carefully positioned in the eaves. The Prophet had given a dire warning…

For the purposes of the Grimdark Greyhawk Campaign we are going to define a Cult this way:

A social group that is defined by its religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object or goal. A cult differs from a Religion in that a Cult only has one (or very few and likely divergent) congregation. Its leader may or may not have supernatural powers or contact with supernatural beings, yet is nonetheless considered a Prophet, Avatar or Chosen Representative.

When it comes to gods and religion, faith and belief are Power-sources in and of themselves. This Power is collected by the gods or channeled by the clerics to create the supernatural effects they desire. Thus the stage is set for Cults (mini-religions, really) to arise and spread across the land like dandelions. The populace is accustomed to prosaic, everyday magical and religious activities and are perfectly primed for falling under the influence of someone with visible god-gifted powers.

Imagine then, the fanaticism described in the Cleric Class rules for 8th level. How could these followers be anything but fanatics?

Behavior we (as players) may think of as being out on the ends of the bell curve are actually the Mainstream, while the Fantasy World’s extremists are really way, way out there.

Observing Holy Days

Sacrifices

Rules & Taboos

Restrictions & Obligations

All of these concepts are very important to the Common Folk as well as the Nobility. And seemingly rational, normal people will march straight to their death for something they believe in. In a polytheistic society, the layperson will commonly call upon more than one deity for various day-to-day needs and blessings. It is the Cleric who takes particular interest in pursuing or advancing the goals of a single deity. The Prophet or Zealot will have an even narrower set of goals and accompanying strictures. These goals may or may not be beneficial to the community or society at large. There could be a Zealot who creates a following of those seeking wealth, or power, or be a leader preaching peace, healing or a particular method of living. 

Not all cults need be driven by dark intentions or to support the agents of Chaos and Entropy. Nor do they need to be devoted to a Power or Patron that is little-known. A Mystery Cult may exist within the context of a greater religion. Created to explore the inner or secret mysteries of a larger religious community, a Mystery Cult will frequently have a much more specific goal or purpose. This religion-within-a-religion would have a secret goal aligned with the larger context of the deity, but in a very particular focus.  The goddess Ehlonna, for example, rules the domains of Forests, Meadows, Animals, Flowers and Fertility. Her Clerics and Druids would likely be focused on the preservation and propagation of the plants and creatures in these environments. So, a like-minded group of gardeners could be swayed by one with a zealotry for a particular flower to attempt to create a perfect environment for growing this flower, and to collect all examples and varieties, with the goal of constructing the “perfect” flower garden for the glory of Ehlonna.

But, that is not really the stuff of adventures. In order to generate a cult with goals and practices inimical to those of the community or greater society, thus also an invitation to the PC party to fight against,  look to the following tables. The first features potential inspiration for a Zealot or Prophet, one that is interested in creating a congregation to aid and support them in the achievement of a personal goal.

The over-arching background plot of the Grimdark Greyhawk campaign is the desire of the Great Old Ones to return, and of the multitude of petty (or not-so-petty) clerics and magic-users maneuvering to make this happen. I suspect we’ll see lots and lots of cults of the Elder Gods, tucked away in the corners of cities, hidden in temples in the woods, even just beneath the surface of the churches of the established gods.

Regardless of the motivation of the Prophet, or the justification of the congregation, each Mystery Cult will have a form of each of the three following characteristics:

  1. A Secret Purpose, generally only known to the Prophet, possibly shared with the congregation. If this Mystery Cult is embedded in another organization it is likely the TRUE secret purpose is known only to the prophet, with a plausible cover story for the rest of the group.
  2. A Secret Sign, that that fellow Cultists may be able to recognize each other.
  3. Special, Signature Powers granted witch/warlock style to the Prophet by an emissary or avatar of the Usurper God.

What Inspires the Prophets and Zealots?

It’s time for another table. Let’s discover the Inspiration and Secret Purpose of the Cult. Roll 1d30:

  1.  A low-level cleric is tossed out of her seminarium for being stubborn and impetuous. She wants to take the knowledge she has and run, to get away from the cloying attentions and dishonesty of the Priests and Laymen, to share her knowledge with the unwashed masses that have not heard of her patron deity and their greatest power.
  2. A frightened/wounded/desperate person cries out to an unlikely god, when more traditional or familiar prayers seem to fail. The alternate deity sends an emissary to the unfortunate, seeing a chance to enhance their own power and prestige. “Go forth and do this miracle in the name of the One who saved thee!”
  3. A cleric faces madness and fails, becomes corrupted, and takes that new message to the people.
  4. An untrained person with the Gift or the Talent delves into/stumbles upon something better left alone. Mind control/corruption/vengeance ensues.
  5. A “Chosen One” has been born into an existing cult and, on her maturity, is sent out into the world to grow the faith. Probably with a handful of fanatic protectors/enforcers.
  6. A Changeling, feeling angry and betrayed by his inheritance, reaches for power and revenge.
  7. A noble or ruler is near death, so they invite a Prophet/Wise Woman/Seer into their inner circle in a search to prolong life.
  8. Someone finds/steals/liberates/recovers an artifact that corrupts their soul, granting strange new powers.
  9. Someone wants to find/steal/liberate or recover an artifact that will grant them new powers over their enemies.
  10. A cleric becomes drunk on piety and power after building their temple and attracting the fanatics. Megalomania 101.
  11. A search for lost knowledge leads to the Yellow King. Insanity is not far behind, but in the meantime she needs bodies and blood and souls.
  12. Not a human at all, but a visitor/exile/refugee from another time or dimension. Power must be accumulated to return to their home time/dimension in glory.
  13. A Gifted/Talented servant chafes under the tyrannical rule of their master. They plot and act to succeed the master and take the reins of power.
  14.  The one to become the self-styled Prophet has seen a portent in the sky, others can see, but it holds a special significance for the Prophet.
  15.  A calf/goat/sheep has been born with unusual markings, fulfilling a very vague prophecy. The shepherd becomes the Prophet of the ancient wisdom/curse/event.
  16.  A white (animal) has been spotted in the forest. The Prophet-to-be gave chase for days, finally catching the creature and getting it to reveal a secret…
  17.  The Zealot-to-be has fallen ill, is in the depths of a fever-dream, and calls upon a Power to heal her. A Power responds, requesting only that she provide a new, willing soul on each new moon.
  18. A child feels that they have experienced only bad luck and hardship since their parents turned away from the Old Gods to venerate a new goddess. The child finds some painted wooden tablets her mother had hidden away, deciphers the writing and calls upon a Patron of the Elder Gods to “show her the true Way”.
  19. The Prophet-to-be dreamed of a white ship, sailing through the clouds under the moon. He was invited to board, upon a bridge of moonbeams and stardust, to be taken to a glorious realm of Heaven. The Prophet must now coerce a group of people to help him build the white ship, so they can all sail to the Moonlight Heaven together.
  20.  Discovered a local enemy has a magic item, steals it from them in jealous rage. The Item was locked away for good reason, as it corrupts the soul of the holder. The new Zealot builds a following to bring about the predictions the item whispers into their mind.
  21.  A Patron-type Spirit or Being is trapped nearby, but not full helpless. The soon-to-be-Zealot is Charmed into providing sustenance in the form of a blood-letting ceremony, in return for gifts of magical powers.
  22.  A Prophet or Zealot has died, and a follower with delusions of grandeur is attempting to bring their Liege back to life. They have some gold, but not enough. They need gold and a way to contact the Patron spirit.
  23.  The new Zealot has found a small/young/larval monster, raising it to become a God.
  24.  The Zealot has a Knack for getting people to do things, and think the idea was their own (a limited, natural type of Charm Person).
  25.  Has a gift for Magic-use, and some magical/spell research has gone wrong! Zealot/Prophet is Possessed by the spirit of a Demon/Devil. The infernal being creates a cult to foment incivility and insurrection.
  26.  A magic-user has suffered a massive Spell Failure, and has asked their Patron deity to heal them. The Zealot is healed, but at a terrible price: collecting souls for their Patron.
  27.  A Prophet-to-be has found an old scroll with a partial prophecy that seems to describe the PC and indicates they will receive greatness and glory.
  28.  The soon-to-be-Zealot accidentally consumes a Larval Great One, which takes partial control of their mind. The Zealot  searches out more of the larvae and feeds them to other, unsuspecting members of their community.
  29.  An alchemist discovers a recipe for a Potion of Wisdom in an old library. The Potion actually causes euphoria and delusions of grandeur. In a spirit of magnanimity, she shares it with other that seem to need a lift to their spirits. The potion is highly addictive.
  30.  A child is born who truly is a Chosen One of (a deity), starts a spiritual community at a young age. But their older brother/sister is wildly jealous and concocts a plan to kill and replace their holy sibling at the head of the cult. The jealous rival convinces the PC party to help in the replacement scheme. 

The Secret Sign

Some, but not all, cults or mystery cults will be secretive. Those that exist within another religion, or those that may have been outlawed, for example, will likely hide their membership. In order for the cultists to recognize one another they will have some sort of secret sign, perhaps an article of clothing, a symbol on their mask, or a special feather attached to their phylactery. Some groups may be so secret they don’t do anything in public to display membership, and meet only fully hooded and masked to conceal their identities.

Choose a identifying feature or accessory that fits your campaign. Keep in mind that one of the PCs may accidentally display such a sign, which could lead to any number of “interesting” encounters.

The Blessing is Upon Me, and now, Upon You

Each Zealot or Prophet will have a signature focus with which they are able to convince others to follow them. It could be a sacred relic, a selection of holy writings, or magical/divine powers that prove they are who they say they are. The exact type will depend upon the nature of the cult’s origin and purpose.

  1. A skull-goblet that transforms wine into ambrosia.
  2. A drinking horn that transforms water into mead.
  3. A chalice that changes blood into a crystal-clear Potion of Healing.
  4. A roughly-formed clay pitcher that endlessly pours forth a stream of cool, clear water.
  5. A brazier that never runs out of coals, and does not burn the hands of one who swears an oath to the Cult.
  6. A candle that lights itself when held by one consecrated to the cult.
  7. A fragment of pottery with an appropriate image on it, that glows with a soft, golden light.
  8.  A burial mask of _____  that allows the wearer to cast Charm Person.
  9. A holy symbol of _____ that allows the wearer to cast Charm Person.
  10. A dagger made of bronze that does not cut, but anyone “cut” with it is affected by Charm Person.
  11. A Robe of Protection that protects the wearer from any and all fire damage.
  12. A crystal-studded tiara that allows the wearer to cast Charm Person.
  13. A six foot tall wooden staff, carved with the likeness of a snake’s head on top, that can be transformed into an actual snake (and back again) at will. (DM choice on type of snake, it is docile and will only bite if provoked. Resumes Staff form after 1 Turn.)
  14. A four foot long wooden rod, wrapped with leather and silver wire, topped with a red crystal that looks like a ruby (but is not). Can shine as a Light spell, bloody red in color, for up to 2 turns, 2x per day, at will.
  15. An intricately carved wooden box, about three inches on a side, decorated with designs of fruit trees. Inside is a large, 2″ diameter, “walnut”. If one breaks open the nut and eats the meat inside, they will shortly fall into a deep sleep for at least 6 hours and awaken healed of 1d6+2 HP damage. Every time the Zealot or Prophet opens the box, there is another nut inside.
  16. An elaborate headdress, with a white cloth draping back over the neck, topped with two recurved bull’s horns. Between the horns, a golden disc. Whoever wears this headdress and speaks, their voice can be heard clearly for 100 yards and all listeners (without any form of Protection from Magic) will be very favorably disposed to any suggestion the speaker makes.
  17. A box of incense cones. When burned, any who breath the smoke will be moved to sit down on the spot, simply breathing the fumes for 1d4+2 turns. During this time the person exposed to the incense will achieve a trance-like state, with visions of achieving their most heart-felt desire.
  18. A stone tablet, about 12 inches by 20 inches, carved with runes that burn with a smokeless flame.
  19. A vellum scroll with holy writings vaguely describing the Zealot or Prophet and how conditions for the first part of a prophecy have been met (the DM will have a little extra work to do on this one).
  20. Several sheets of papyrus, upon which is a drawing of a young bull with a board attached to its horns. The text is a prophecy or spell for good fortune.
  21. A lacquer-painted metal disc, approximately 8 inches in diameter, with the rune for Fire on one side and Harmony on the other. Though if you keep flipping it over, it seems to have four sides, showing also runes for Earth and Wood.
  22. A harlequin mask of white ceramic with red leather thong ties. When worn over the face, the wearer’s face emits a pale blue glow.
  23. A harlequin mask of lacquered red metal, with black leather thong ties. When worn over the face, the wearer can cast a Scare spell once per day.
  24. A harlequin mask of tooled brown leather, with black leather thong ties. When worn over the face, the wearer can cast a Forget spell once per day.
  25. A Scaramouche mask of beaten copper, with white leather thing ties. When worn over the face, the wearer can cast ESP at 5th level, once per day.
  26. A crystal sphere, approximately 8 inches in diameter. Clouds seem to swirl within, glowing with a pale blue light.
  27. A round, silver amulet on a chain, approximately 3 inches in diameter, with a (color) crystal in the center. When worn by the Zealot/Prophet the crystal shines with a flickering light, as though a flame is inside.
  28. A pectoral of silver and glass beads, with geometric designs. A person wearing this will appear to be two feet taller than they actually are.
  29. A pair of copper bracers, inlaid with obsidian cabochons. Once per day the wearer can generate a ball of light, any color of their choice, that will rise to 10 feet in the air above their head and hover above the wearer for 3 turns. It generates light in a 10 foot radius.
  30. A codex of snakeskin covered wood, with vellum pages. (A magic-user’s Astrology book) The text is written in a magical language with many diagrams of celestial diagrams featuring constellations, movements of the planets, and a schedule of solar eclipses for a ten-year period (starting three years ago).

Now you have all of the basics for creating a Cult in your campaign:

  • The Leader’s motivation,
  • The reason the Followers join the group.
  • The symbol of the Leader’s power.
  • The reason why the cult is found in the place they are.

The only thing left is to determine the deity/power/being that is the actual/alleged source of the Zealot’s or Prophet’s power and you are ready to drop it into your game.

More thoughts on Clerics and their magic here: The Unseen Servant Part One

As always, C&C welcome.

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2 Responses to Cultists, Zealots and Prophets

  1. […] really, really want to take the idea of Dilettante Cultists and […]

  2. […] There are some additional thoughts on Cults and Cultists here. […]

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