D&D Ideas — Cults
Welcome once again to the weekly newsletter. This week’s topic is cults, which we discussed in our weekly live chat. We hangout every Monday evening at 8 p.m. EST on Nerdarchy Live to talk about D&D, RPGs, gaming, life and whatever nerdy stuff comes up. Speaking of cults in Enemy at the Gate a manipulative guard acts as the agent of some greater villain in your world, perhaps with their own cult of agents and followers… A deceptive oni makes life difficult for the heroes by stopping them at a town gate and disrupting their lives along with 54 other dynamic scenarios in Out of the Box. Find out more about it here. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy plus snag a FREE GIFT by signing up here.
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Delving Dave’s Dungeon
“One of us, one of us, one of us!”
It’s fun and meaningful to be part of something bigger than ourselves. This is part of the beauty of cults and their allure. Taking the cult and cultist trope and turning it on it’s head could be a lot of fun in a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons game. Think about introducing a cult plot slowly in a town or city where characters operate. Have them spend sessions meeting various denizens of the town or city as people first.
- Elina the half-elven blacksmith limps when it’s going to rain soon
- Cyrik Goodbrew the dwarven innkeeper always fights with Gertrude his wife about how to run the Three Legged Dog Inn
- Tomas Brightfellow the coach driver gripes about the miserly nobility
Make the citizens real people before making them simply cult members. A cult might do community outreach, run soup kitchens, give the homeless places to sleep and offer jobs to those who can’t find work. How do the players react to the cult that wants to bring forth elder evils into the world but at the same time are the only ones helping the commoners neglected by the ruling class?
You might consider going in a completely different direction. Instead of cults aiming to summon elder horrors and demons try a love cult. Seems fine but what if townsfolk go missing? Fathers, mothers, sons and daughters walk away from their lives and end up in a commune. Perhaps they sig over all of their worldly possessions to the cult. Normally super responsible people are going wild and ignoring their responsibilities. Are fey involved? Perhaps spirits of unrequited love are possessing people and having them act in strange ways. What is drawing the fey or spirits to this place?
One last idea — a cult that isn’t really a cult. Townsfolk act suspicious and skulk around. They quietly recruit others into their cult who begin participating in strange rituals performed at odd hours of the night. Maybe even a virgin or two goes missing. Turns out it’s all just an elaborate game some of the townsfolk who are bored began playing. Others who aren’t involved might recruit adventures out of concern. They can go through the normal routine of solving a mystery only to find out it’s a big practical joke to add some excitement to peoples lives.
If you want to make it a double red herring you could have them acquire real occult tomes meant to only be props. The next thing they know real cult stuff happens by accident and the faux cultists need rescuing from themselves.
From Ted’s Head
Cults are a fantastic addition to any roleplaying game. The great thing about them is they offer so many interesting options to play with. You get fanatic followers unwavering in their actions who place a moral quandary on the characters to decide whether they are worth saving and deprogramming them from their indoctrination. Cults make it easy to have some neophytes who have not been taken in yet and have a chance to be brought back much easier.
However you play it cults are usually made up of the local populace by an individual who rarely cares about the people but only the cause. The leader figure can even be a puppet leader so they can keep doing this in place after place causing mayhem and chaos. I would even say the individual message and cult need not be the same thing. A leader may only need to sow chaos to appease the being they serve. It would then be easy to make up a new being to follow and new rules to live by all based on what problems the commoners need solved in the new town.
This style of villain might be hard to track down. Be careful to make the game fun and interesting. Chasing a villain from to to town destroying cults might not be enough backbone for a campaign. If you incorporate other threats for the characters to deal with and every town they go to happens to have cults of one kind or another perhaps the pieces begin to fall into place and the real mystery of the game is finally revealed. This villain operates behind the scenes sowing dissension in the ranks of the populace, all for their own betterment of course.
Cults differ from religion as they are not always rooted in deity worship. They can be linked to individuals, powers, concepts and even monsters. Honestly if there is a concept out there, there can be a cult linked to it. All that need be done is figure out how and why you want to use it for your game. I have used cults numerous times over the years. Most notably was the cult of Gnar-Kee’Tis. The demon lord behind the cult was a great nemesis and wound up being the final big bad of the campaign.
If you are going to use cults the last thing I think you should take into account is uniformity. They do not all have to look the same or act the same but something needs to be the same. In order to get the eeriness across they need some commonality like the way they speak or look. Maybe it is the way each has an unblinking stare. This is a simple thing that weirds me out personally. Looking, acting or sounding the same are all great things to aid making players question who they have talked to and who they have not. It can allow the one they are seeking to easily blend into the crowd of cultists.
From the Nerditor’s desk
Cults are awesome as antagonists for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons and just about any other tabletop roleplaying game for the matter. In fact they’re one of my Top Ten D&D Monstrous Humanoids (it’s a flexible definition).
“Falling into the ‘inhumanly or outrageously evil or wrong’ category, cultists have long been a favorite humanoid. I consider it a triumph as a DM that my players hate cultists so much. Difficult to charm or frighten, wild-eyed and robed humanoids devoted to dark powers can pop up anywhere. The cult fanatic has the added benefit of spellcasting.
The chassis for either of these antagonists is profoundly simple, so changing them up for flavor is easy, too. Give a cult fanatic a different spell selection to reflect their particular madness, or switch the garden variety cultist’s scimitar for another weapon. Want to get really crazy? Dig up a copy of Dragon Magazine #296 for the article on monster cultists. Sphere minions, illithidkin, snake savants and wakers of the beast are cultists so devoted to beholders, mind flayers, medusae and the dread tarrasque that they start to mutate into weird versions of them!
Once your players develop a powerful hatred of cultists, and stumble upon a gathering of them with intent to unload their frustration…drive them nuts by making those robed figures a bunch of empty cloaks from Tome of Beasts instead. Cultists are the kind of faceless hordes that just don’t quit. Even if the characters wipe out a cult, there’s so many others out there.”
*Featured image — An unknown adversary causes problems for adventurers in Enemy at the Gate, one of 55 dynamic encounters ready to drop into your game in Out of the Box. [Illustration by Kim Van Deun]