These guidelines are in the form of twenty questions to help the game master formulate a cult for use in their settings. This guide is designed for use with any genre, and is not limited to fantasy settings. While originally designed for groups outside of the normal religious channels, they can be easily adapted for use in creating full blown religions. For game purposes, cults are usually small, secret, religious organizations with affiliations to archaic or obscure mythos and the various cultural or fictional pantheons game system. Cults don’t have to be evil, though they may be categorized as dangerous or destructive. Examples of cults would be a group that worships Cthulhu, or the Church of Dionysus.
1. What is the name of the cult?
This question is one of the most important tools in creating an cult. While there may be an idea for the cult, without a name, it’s just an idea. This step allows you to begin the basis for all steps for all other aspects of the cult. However, sometimes it’s difficult to come up with a name for the cult without defining some other aspects of the cult, so don’t fret if you can’t think of one immediately. Also, many cults have nicknames that are used to identify the cult and/or its cultists.
2. When was the cult started, by who, and why did they start the cult?
Not everyone is going to care about this little section of information on the cult, however, by answering the question, you can get a good feel for the cult’s various policies and history and the how and why of the cult.
3. What is the cult’s history?
Since this can be unknown, even to the cult itself, it’s not as important as the other factors, but it does let you add some flavor to the cult by giving it a background within the setting.
4. What are the beliefs of the cult, who or what do they worship?
While not all cults worship someone or something per se, they may revere particular objects or worship someone
5. What does it take to get into the cult?
This covers the rites, rituals, or sacrifices which must be made for entrance into the cult.
6. Where can the cult be found?
This would include the cult’s headquarters, if it has one, but primarily applies to where the cult operates and can be found. Additionally there may be holy places, sacred lands, places of power, and strongholds of the cult.
7. What is the cult’s symbology?
Symbology includes apotropiacs, insignia, markers, and vestments specific to that group. Many cults have apotropaics (holy symbols, fetishes, amulets, talismans and the like) which represent them and are worn by most or all members. Insignia are distinguishing badges worn by members of the group, and may include crests, badges, sigils, seals, coats of arms, roundels, ensigns, flags, badges, cockades, patches, emblems, icons, symbols or logos. Markers may include unique hairstyles, tattoos, war cries, distinctive pronouncements, and/or ritual scarring. Specific vestments or costumes, along with other accouterments may also be worn.
8. Does the cult have any notable literature?
Notable literature includes books, artwork, and specialized languages. Holy Books can include a canon or bible, hymnal, prayer book, scroll, magical manuscript, ancient codex, pictorial incunabulum, accounting ledger, astronomical almanac, technical manual, as well as advertising brochures or flyers or informative pamphlets. Artwork includes paintings, sculptures, statues, tapestries, drawings, mosaics, figurines, as well as other odds and ends. Specialized languages may include an argot, cant, or liturgical language.
9. Does the cult have any artifacts?
Artifacts can include relics, magical items, magical weapons or armor, or other items of interest or special meaning to the cult.
10. What practices does the cult have?
This question covers the doctrine, rights, ceremonies, sacrifices, customs, duties, rites, rituals, and restrictions specific to the organization. Doctrine is the principle position of that system of belief. Rights are the abilities and powers gained as a member of the group, particularly the rights to perform spiritual guidance, enact marriage ceremonies, oversee funerals, engage in omen-reading, the right to a trial by the church instead of civil authorities, coronation of nobles and royalty, the ability to collect tithes, as well as other such activities. Ceremonies are formal acts prescribed by convention, protocol, or ritual. Sacrifices are the destruction or surrender of a service, object, or being as an act of worship, the most common forms include abstinence, animal sacrifice, effigies, enslavement, fasting, human sacrifice, incense or oil burning, labor, libations, votive or monetary offerings, self-mutilation, and labor to the organization. Customs are common practices among the group, in this case, primarily social interactions and physical acts on the part of the members of the cult. Duties are those obligations which members of the organization must perform. Rites are ceremonial activities performed by the cult members. Rituals are ceremonial observances performed in a precise manner. Restrictions are limitations on the activities of the group members or specific requirements in their behavior and/or appearance.
11. What is the composition of the cult?
In many cases, cults are composed of specifically limited membership. This can include gender limitations, racial limitations, as well as limitations based on social or economic status.
12. Is it a known cult, or is it secret? If secret, why?
Secrecy plays an important part in deciding several factors of the cult. Cults that are secret tend to keep their activities hidden and the cultists are more constrained by the need for secrecy. Known cults do have secret operations and activities, but they also perform a more visible role in achieving their policies and goals.
13. How wealthy is the cult?
This covers the assets of the cult, including both money and property. A poor cult will tend to rely on begging or donations to fund it’s activities and may not possess any property, thus being reduced to wandering. Inadequately funded cults may have threadbare clothing and paraphernalia, with run-down property in need of repair. Adequately funded cults tend to have basic clothing and property, with few embellishments. Affluent cults generally have higher quality clothing and property which is well-kept. Wealthy cults are embodied by rich clothing and property well decorated in precious metals and gemstones.
14. How large is the cult?
This covers how many members are in the organization. Denominations tend to be tiny organizations where all adherents agree on the beliefs and practices. Faiths are small groups devoted to a particular practice or institution. A sect is an offshoot of another religion which has one or more disparate beliefs which set them apart from the rest of the religion. Churches are large, generally public, religious bodies. Religions tend to be the major national or regional religious group, often the officially recognized religion of the nation or region.
15. Who leads the cult and how is it organized?
Who is in charge of the cult and why, and how is the cult organized (as opposed to composed, we’ve already mentioned who makes up the cult above, now we want to know how the cult functions as a group). Is there a sole leader, group of elite, law-based control, no control, or voting system. Is the cult organized on a cell basis, a religious/military/business/feudal hierarchy.
16. What is the cult’s agenda?
There can be many goals for a cult. Some cults seek nothing more than a tax break from the government. Others are devoted to the worship of a specific deity, location, or object. Altruistic cults pursue the goal of bettering people. Anarchists aim for the abolishment of external control by authorities over their actions. Some groups espouse the superiority of their race, gender, or creed. Engaging in criminal activity is the focus of some cults. Profit gathering, while present in most cults, does not always form the cult’s primary agenda, but it can. Certain charismatic leaders form cults in order to feed their own ego or desire for power. Doomsday cults, for whatever reason, cult believe that an apocalypse is coming, and they either want to help bring it about, or they want to focus on coming through the event better off than they were. Utopian cults spring up from the desire for a group of people to enter or create an idealized society. Many cults however, seek to gain power in some form or another, examples of which include gaining political or magical power, establishing theocratic control over a region, converting the religion they’ve splintered off from to their beliefs, converting everyone to the same religion, and gaining world domination.
17. What are the activities of the cult?
A wide variety of activities are performed by different cults. Overall the cult will have one activity which is it’s primary mission or function. Typical activities of cults include the following: celebrating particular events, eliminating foes, searching for enlightenment, proselytizing, providing spiritual guidance, ruling an area, judging the law, arbitrating agreements, summoning and/or worshiping particular entities. In addition, this question identifies the cult’s spectacular mission successes or failures, ongoing activities, past activities, and other activity.
18. Who are the cult’s allies?
Pretty straight-forward, are there any groups or organizations allied to the cult.
19. Who are the cult’s enemies?
Like allies, enemies are also simple, what organizations or groups oppose the cult and it’s works.
20. Who are the Non Player Characters worth note within the cult?
This is a final step after all other areas of the cult have been considered and the cult has been designed. Several NPCs should be created to help breathe life into the cult. The cult’s creator (if still alive), cult master or leader, and several supporting officers or officials should be created. Support characters include clergy with specific duties, security leaders, as well as other cult leaders, and possibly some NPCs for remote areas of the cult. The latter types of NPCs can be created for individual adventures, rather than at the start of cult creation.
While there is much more information of use in designing cults, I’ve specifically limited the information to allow game masters to develop these groups within their own system and setting.
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? Responses (12)
Everybody enjoys step-by-step how-tos, and this one is of exceeding interest to me. Nice work, Kuseru.
Well laid out and easy to follow. What CP said.
An excellent resource - now your assignment is to apply these all to your 100 Post Apocalyptic Cults :)
I have an automated, system-specific, generator for that.
All your submissions are so good.
Cults, obscene rituals, everybody loves a good cult in a campaign.
It occurs to me that a number of these questions are perfect for designing a religion as well. The questions, while good, are a bit cut and dry though.
A religion is a BIG cult that has got rid of nasty bits within it.
Pretty straightforward, needs some editing, but useful. Cults and cultists are always a fan favorite in any game I've ever run or played. It would be nice to see others design their own cults based off of this list and link them back to here.
This submission has been featured in RPG Tips Issue 477. Congratulations to its creator, beware of those cults!
Another Kuseru original. Fun read, and quite helpful for any gm contemplating cults.