Friday, 27 October 2017

Cults, cultists and D&D

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This came up in response to my recent post on mapping generic OSR-land. When I drew the map, I covered it with cults until I started running out of map-space to put them in. Gus L's comment, on the associated G+ thread? 'Needs more cults.'

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. 
  4. Dungeon-Friendliness. 'It's an ancient tomb' is probably still the number one explanation for why an underground complex full of monsters, magic, and treasure is lying around in the middle of nowhere: but if 'it's a cult temple' isn't number two, then I'd bet it's pretty close. Cultists need somewhere to gather in secret; they need somewhere to perform their horrible rituals; they need somewhere to store their mundane and magical treasures; and they probably have both the motivation and the ability to create traps and summon monsters to protect themselves. Instant dungeon. 
  5. Appropriate Scale, Disproportionate Influence. If the city is being openly ruled by the Dark Warlord of Woe, then it's often going to be pretty tricky for the PCs to meaningfully take him on: storming his fortress, or fighting his entire army, are going to be beyond the capacities of most D&D groups. But if it's being ruled secretly, from behind the scenes, by the cult of the Dark Sorcerer of Shadows, then saving it is totally within the reach of a party of 4-6 homicidal lunatics. Those 20 soldiers you just hacked down are probably less than 1% of the Warlord's army, but those 20 cultists you just slaughtered might well be the Sorcerer's entire cult.
  6. Easy Excuse for Magic and Monsters. Why can the cult champion vomit rivers of boiling blood at his enemies? Because he's a cultist. Why can't the party wizard learn to do that? Because they haven't devoted their life and their sanity to Skull-Fang the Planet-Fucker. 'It's a gift from their dark patron!' is effectively an open excuse for giving your cultists anything from minor mutations to demonic guardians to actual world-ending powers.
  7. Scalability. Directly linked to 6, above. Unless there are whole armies of them, then 'drive off the goblins' is always going to be a low-level adventure. But 'destroy the cult' could easily be an appropriate job for level 1 novices or level 10 champions, depending on just how much evil mojo they possess.
  8. Easy Excuse For Violence. I personally hate enemies that attack on sight and fight to the death, especially if they're supposed to be intelligent humans. But if you really want some, then 'they're cultists' is a pretty good excuse. They attack on sight and fight to the death because they know that, if they don't, Skull-Fang will eat their souls.
  9. Cultists Love MacGuffins. The rituals and requirements of cults are so arbitrary that it's very easy to hang adventures around them. Why do your PCs have to defend the Jewelled Skull? Because the cult it's sacred to will do anything to regain it. Why do they have to retrieve the Ebon Dagger? Because the cult can't summon their monster-god without it. And so on.
  10. Easy Excuse For a Final Boss Fight. If you attack an army, then it's usually going to hit back immediately, with as much force as it can muster. But if you attack a cult temple, then there's an inbuilt excuse for the GM to save the worst until last. It's only when you finally breach the Inner Sanctum that the High Priest, enthroned in his place of power, is able and willing to summon the Horror From Beyond. And you have an easy excuse for making it a load-bearing boss, too: of course the rest of the cult will scatter when you hack their god to bits right in front of them!
Cultists, in other words, are easy to build D&D adventures around... maybe too easy. They're a narrative shortcut, a way to explain why the otherwise extremely unlikely combination of elements which constitute a generic D&D scenario should exist in the same place at the same time. But the shortcut only works if you assume the existence of a very odd bunch of people, namely the kind of people willing to behave like cultists in D&D adventures. Why, exactly, is Patricia the Priestess willing to sit in a dark room for twenty-four hours a day, on the off-chance some intruders wander in for her to stab with a sacrificial dagger? Because she's a cultist. OK. But why is she a cultist? What can possibly have happened to her to make her decide that signing her soul away to Skull-Fang the Planet-Fucker would be a good idea?

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A lot of adventures gloss over this stuff, and clearly expect the PCs to find it unremarkable that some random cult leader was able to round up ten, or twenty, or a hundred people from the surrounding community who were so impressionable or crazy or desperate that they were willing to act as his personal cultist army. And I'd buy that if the cult activities were a bit less extreme: if all that most of the cultists were expected to do was wear big robes, chant creepy prayers, and maybe intimidate people who persisted in asking awkward questions about exactly what happens at the old standing stones on the night of the new moon. But most D&D cults are hardcore, and expect their cultists to demonstrate fanatical loyalty even when their own lives and/or souls are on the line. Where is your average dark magician supposed to find dozens or hundreds of people like that?

(Lovecraft himself isn't very helpful on this topic, because - like many people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - he saw socially deviant behaviour like crime and cultishness as being basically genetic. If you have the wrong heritage, then you'll just naturally gravitate towards worshiping giant tentacle monsters. It's probably fairly obvious why that's a line of explanation I'm reluctant to make too much use of, though...)

I've often found myself thinking about this as I read D&D adventures, and Warhammer adventures and, perhaps above all, Call of Cthulhu adventures. Who are these people? Why do they do these things? Call of Cthulhu had a standard way of dodging this question, in the form of its concept of 'cultist-level insanity': Cthulhu Mythos cultists had Sanity scores of 0, indicating that their minds had been so shredded by exposure to supernatural forces that acting like cultists was now the only thing they were capable of. But that always struck me as a bit of a cop-out answer, especially as they often didn't seem all that mad in other respects: no delusional or irrational behaviour, just a rewrite of their life-goals to read 'summon Cthulhu at all costs'. 'They're all mind-controlled or possessed' is even more of a cop-out: at that point you're not really dealing with people, just with zombies who happen to still be technically alive. In fact, mind-controlled cultists come closer to the original zombie myths of Haiti than any modern-day undead shambler.

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If they're not mindless drones, though, then why do they do all this D&D cultist stuff? Brainwashing? Fear? Drugs? Desperation? Greed? Are they upholding an old family tradition? Do they think the ends justify the means? Do they have some kind of value-system so bizarre that they believe what they're doing is actually a good thing? Are they just hopelessly devoted to their leader, driven by the deluded conviction that if they just kill one more person, then their sexy, charismatic Dark Master will finally give them the attention and recognition they deserve? Whatever it is, it must be something pretty powerful, or they wouldn't be sitting in an underground temple someplace waiting for the PCs to break in and kill them all.

Regular readers of this blog will already have guessed where I'm going with this. Cultists who are cultists because they're cultists are narratively convenient, but they're also kinda boring: they can't be bribed or intimidated or reasoned with, so the only way to deal with them is through yet another commando raid on yet another evil temple. But if the cult leader has to rely on more mundane means to keep his followers in line, then the PCs can disrupt or exploit them: they can steal the drugs he has them hooked on, or engineer a situation that will shatter his illusion of omnipotence, or offer his desperate followers some kind of hope for the future that doesn't involve feeding people to demons.

I understand that sometimes the whole reason you're using cultists in your adventure is precisely because you want antagonists who are basically human zombies - foes who have organisation and intelligence and whatnot, but who will never say or think anything other than 'Die, infidel, in the name of the Planet-Fucker!' But if you're not, you can still get all the advantages listed above while still making them into actual people - with the added advantage of helping to differentiate each cult from the last one. A personality cult built around an charismatic leader and his adoring devotees is going to be very different from a conspiracy of ambitious, amoral individuals who worship demons as a get-rich-quick scheme, and is open to very different kinds of solutions, whereas yet another bunch of robe-wearing, dagger-waving lunatics is only going to be differentiated from the last lot by the exact kind of magic and monsters they have in their inevitable Evil Temple.

In my current Team Tsathogga game, the PCs basically are cult leaders, and it's been fascinating for me to watch the various schemes they use to impose and shore up their made-up religious authority. There's some good drama right there. Might as well use it, right?

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21 comments:

  1. Word. Cardboard NPCs are a crutch. As such, they do hobble good role playing.

    Dark Albion takes a stab at the question of "why?" with tables that might yield something like "cult leader fed us during a famine".

    I'd add an eleventh reason: Every name-level cleric is a prophet, complete with 50-300 staring, militant zealots. In a realm where most people live in villages with no more than a couple of hundred people, that mechanic puts a lot of communities under the thumb of this or that cult, whether benevolent or malign.

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    1. Fair enough. But 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?

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    2. Dig the chart. But I don't think D&D cults need indoctrination centers and the reasons above are all game-able, awesome, and undoubtedly super-helpful to a would be cult leader, but #3 pretty much is why not.

      Following the faith of the highest level local cleric has concrete material benefits. I think the zealots and the merely observant villagers are more or less inevitable as a result of the cleric's god-promoting activities. Call it "cleric push" religion, as opposed to something handed down by the divine in the form of prophecy, angelic visitation, or talking shrubbery ("god push").

      Going out on a philosophical limb, you could even say that a sufficiently powerful cleric's insane zeal creates the god, as a sort of tulpa. Which opens the door to letting a thousand cults bloom anywhere there isn't already a civilized source of theology with benefits.

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  2. The classic dagger-waving cultist in Red Riding Hood cloak is by now not just a hoary cliche but inseparable from camp. 30+ years on from the Satanic Panic (& attendant horror movies), Jonestown and Heaven's Gate, the idea of secret societies of powerful diabolists and the alleged quasi-hypnotic power of "charismatic" cult leaders don't seem to have the Psychic Power they used to (or maybe I just live in a self-satisfied intellectual bubble, either way). For all the reasons you mention cults make for a convenient outline to hang all the classic pulp fantasy tropes on, but now suffer from the cultural zeitgeist that animated Rosemary's Baby and the Exorcist having moved on--in 2017 we know that Ninja weren't real and anyone who claims to worship the Devil probably just wants to sell you a fake amulet.

    What works better now? We're more frightened of the all-powerful, panoptic State crushing us (part of the reason I think that in 3rd Edition+ Asmodeus and the Nine Hells as Evil Empire have gained increasing prominence as the Big Bad of D&D).

    Just disorganized thoughts had when I should be working anyhow.

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    1. I mean... *have* they suffered? They're *everywhere*. Most OSR adventures feature at least one evil cult. Most Pathfinder adventure paths feature at least one evil cult. Most of the D&D5 campaign books feature evil cults. (Princes of the Apocalypse was basically nothing but twelve 'raid the cult temple' dungeons strung together in a row!) And in WHFRP, Call of Cthulhu, and Shadow of the Demon Lord they're even more common than they are in D&D!

      I agree that in the culture at large, fear of cults is far lower than it was in its Satanic Panic heyday. (And it's probably no accident that so many of the crucial D&D, WHFRP, and CoC adventures which made cults such a big part of the genre were written in precisely that era!) But our usage of them doesn't seem to have gone down as a consequence. If anything, I'd say it's gone up, as they've increasingly replaced 'orc barbarians' as the acceptable targets of choice...

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  3. I love myself some cults. I've bee doing berserker-lycathrope cults for so long I'm not sure when I came up with the idea.
    Cults also make it easy for players to grok what's going on and to fit in big dance numbers ...errr...rituals that let clever pcs sneak about in ad conduct play in a differennt style from the more standard dugeoncrawl.

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    1. Yeah, sneaking into big rituals is super-convenient, and 'whack one on the head and steal his robes' is a classic. Honestly, any cult whose members go around in robes and masks might as well be hanging a big 'INFILTRATE ME!' sign on their temple door...

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  4. I think that Wizards did something interesting with the 3e version of the Red Wizards of Thay. They are an homage to the evils of Big Business. The players have to decide on if they will use products made by evil people or go without and potentially face foes who have lesser scruples.

    Those products could include dark rituals that are arcane in theme rather than divine or fiendish, thus providing the powers in point 6.

    The Red Wizards will always be looking for the next material component, ancient text or demon name that will give them the next big power up. (In this case the demon is used for information, not raw power.)

    And best of all, it is easy to construct similar organizations with the 2e book The Complete Guide to Villains. It may be the most useful book ever to come out of TSR and WotC.

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    1. Thing is, if your villains are modelled on a state or an army or a business empire, then they need to have resource bases and supply chains and all kinds of large-scale logistical support. It strains credulity that 4-6 hired killers could take them out all by themselves. Cults fit far better into the 'solve the problem by crawling the dungeon' model of play...

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    2. Who said anything about taking them all out? The advantage of a business empire is that the PCs can become the big bosses through various means. Unless the campaign goes in very odd direction, that isn't going to happen with a cult.

      Though it would be interesting to see a method or three for player characters to become patron entities.

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  5. 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.

    There is also hardly a way out: Likely you will incriminate yourself very early in your carrier and even if not, once people know you were with the Cult of the Great Planet-Fucker, noone in their right mind will ever want to be associated with you.

    There are other routs to go. You can come up with whole settings by just attaching "is also an evil cult" to any form of social system. You can declare cults to be the norm, either because the entire setting is fucked up or religion is so disparate, that an evil cult can easily fly under the radar. Or the evil guys won and "cults" are just competing factions in the emerging power struggle.

    So in a way, the setting has much more to do with why cults exists as individual motives do. The less "cult-friendly" a setting is, the more effort does it take to justify their existence and the more extreme individual motives need to be, especially for the Planet-Fucker kind of cult.

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    1. I like the idea of grading settings by their 'cult-friendliness'. If you've got weak centralised religious authority (the 'Swords and Sorcery' set-up), or a world where cults grant magical powers to their followers and traditional religions don't (the 'Call of Cthulhu' set-up), then it's much easier for cults to flourish than it would be in most traditional D&D settings, where there are big, highly-organised official religions which also grant super-powers to their clerics...

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  6. A really big cult is likely to have the bulk of its members not really clued into the 'ultimate secrets' of the upper tiers. They're relative innocents that maybe thought it would be fun to join a death cult without really thinking through what that might ultimately imply. They're mostly there for the cool cult tattoo and Saturday night orgies...
    But when the PCs arrive loaded with weapons and righteous anger... they're just gonna run and hide... maybe call the cops... a few might even fight back... the real bad guys probably aren't inclined to engage and will sneak out the back door when the chaos begins.

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    1. Yeah, that's the sort of set-up I'm much more interested in, because those guys give you *options*. You can bribe them, intimidate them, convert them, whatever. You can't do any of that with the hardcore scream-and-charge robes-and-daggers I-willingly-give-my-life-for-the-Planet-Fucker guys!

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  7. One alternative motivation for cultists can be stolen from the Rat Queens comic:

    “Yeah, of course we perform hideous rites dedicated to the Planet-Fucker in order to produce miraclous effects. If someone doesn’t tap into that well of power on a regular basis he’ll accumulate enough energy to wake up and fuck the planet! We smite our enemies, the planet we live on goes un-fucked, everybody wins.

    (I mean, except the human sacrifices, but omelets and eggs, you know?)”

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    1. It's a bit of a contrived explanation - it's a funny sort of human sacrifice which leaves the recipient *weaker* than they were beforehand - but in a setting where magic is fairly scientific and well-understood, I can see a sufficiently well-informed bunch of sorcerers figuring out a way to 'rig the system', and ensure that every ritual actual drains out more power than it puts in.

      Cultist-engineers. Careful calibrations of sacrificial blood inputted vs. magical energy harvested to ensure that dangerously high power levels are never reached. There might be something in it after all...

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  8. I don't think there's really a circular venn diagram of 'secret society' and 'cult' here, and it's worth teasing apart the differences. In quick and easy world-building they're easily ignored, but you're talking about very different groups if you're talking about, like, "Skull & Bones, but serving an actual demon and so actually kind of a mafia" versus "the Manson Family in Mystara" or everyone's new fave, "Fantasy Sientology."

    One of the things that makes the Universal Brotherhood from Shadowrun a classic piece of material, IMO, is how it effectively merges real cult manipulation tactics with a nice body+insect horror literalization of what is scary (-and- narratively convenient!) about cults.

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    1. Yes, absolutely. The kind of cults which appear in D&D adventures are extreme cases - edge cases, really, which owe more to the Satanic Panic mythology of the 1980s than to most real-world examples. Cults which aren't just a small band of blood-crazed psychos in a temple somewhere are open to a much greater variety of narratives!

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  9. After reading the above I did start putting together some ideas for a table; not "Why is there a cult?" but "Why a cult in a dungeon?" Well, I haven't reached a nice round number, but in the interests of getting the ball rolling, here we go.

    The first few are almost straight out of horror fiction: A Well-Meaning archaeological expedition delves too deep and digs up something it should not; Villagers use conveniently cut stones from the old ruins and bring down something upon them.

    Next is something that else: during the War (just gone, or recent, or ongoing) a unit of soldiers used the dungeon as a fortified position. They were besieged there and so much blood has soaked into the soil that fell forces awoke. They do not now leave. This might be the 'Colonel Kurtz' option.

    The one I think best though is the 'hard times' option. The cult was doing the corridors-of-power, secretly-corrupting-people-in-key-offices routine when it was purged by an unusually successful and thorough inquisitor. Even if plenty of cultists got out, together with plenty of material, their faces are known and their plans thwarted. The dungeon is now a bolthole (perhaps as a planned last-ditch hideaway, or merely taken up to fit circumstances). Hence why Colin the Cultist and his merry pals are desperate and on the defensive - and willing to dig deeper into the eldritch lore than before.

    This scenario also gives the opportunity for sub-plots with the less central or less driven members of the expelled cult trying to get clear from the newly nightmarish state of affairs - how many of them signed up for this?

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    1. Good stuff. Let's get that table together:

      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.

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    2. A decent table - and a deal more pithy than I ever am!

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