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Killing In The Name


Mysterious cults are a staple element of horror RPGs in general (and CoC in particular) but they are usually presented as simple antagonists for PCs to overcome. This approach is a terrible waste of roleplaying potential. As this article will show, cults can provide GMs with much more than just cannon-fodder thugs.

The existence of cults is an established historical fact, from the alien-worshipping Heaven's Gate cult of recent years to the infamous Thugee of India. Even Christianity began as a cult. Such precedents display a wide range of potential ideologies which may be used by a creative GM.

The first requirement when considering cults is the raison d'etre for the existence of the cult. Historically speaking, cults are usually distinguished by beliefs in opposition to orthodox religious practices e.g. the Flagellants of Renaissance Europe. In these situations cult exists to promote these unorthodox beliefs and provide refuge for true believers.

In a gaming context cults may be formed for a number of reasons other than to simply worship demonic forces from beyond.

Spiritual beliefs are usually the major spur for a cult. Many Christian cults were formed during the Middle Ages by false messiahs or heretics who challenged the rulings of the Catholic Church. Most, including the famous Knights Templar, were suppressed by the Inquisition as potentially damaging to the fabric of Christianity. Notable exceptions include the Protestants and the Lutherians, both of which have become religions in their own right. In modern times the controversial Church of Scientology has begun to take steps to be recognized officially as a religion.

Mutual protection is another common motivation for the formation of cults, or more accurately secret societies. The Triads of China are said to have originated to represent the common citizen in opposition to corrupt Imperial forces. Vlad Tepes, the historical figure upon whom Count Dracula is based, was said to have been a member of the Order of The Dragon, a Teutonic order composed of knights and nobles allied for mutual political gain.

All cults should not necessarily be part of the sinister world conspiracy which aims to release Great Gozer from the 8th dimension. Similarly not all cultists should be sworn to die in defense of the sacred idol of _insert_your_favorite_deity_here. Also, it can be seen that is not inappropriate to consider political groups, secret societies, pressure groups, terrorists, interest groups et al as cults dedicated to socio-political ideals rather than religious ideals. A good example of this would be modern right-wing extremists who appear to utilize cult-like indoctrination techniques and seem to inspire cult-like fanaticism in their members. This has parallels with the pseudo-mystical dogma of the Third Reich, itself a staple villain of pulp fiction.

In modern times the so-called 'cult of personality' must also be considered. Forcefully charismatic leaders have existed since people banded together for mutual benefit. However, modern methods of communication / travel facilitates almost instantaneous communication between members. Scientifically-aware modern man is still prepared to die for belief in one person and his/her viewpoint.

The psychological factors affecting a cult member may be minimal or, as is more likely, very significant. Since cults are usually distinguished by non-standard sociological ideals, the rituals in which the cultist is required to participate serve to both isolate the cultist and to increase the bond to the cult.

Historically, drugs have been used by particular cults to assist in the integration of cult members. Where the Assassins' Old Man used hashish, and Charles Manson used LSD, to promote bonding and loyalty, modern cults can supplement their armoury with high tech drugs in addition to promises of heaven. Within dance club culture a very high percentage of MDMA (ecstasy) users report a shared bonding experience with other users. There is no doubt that ecstasy has contributed to the global success of the dance scene. A creative cult leader could make good use of the psychoactive effects of such a drug. Indeed, Japanese cult leader Shoko Asohara (of Tokyo underground nerve gas infamy) is reputed to have done so.

Initially cults with a sinister intent often require only a small psychological commitment from new initiates but as the cultists progresses through the ranks the requirements become much more extreme. A typical example is that of religions which, as a test of faith, require their members to proselytize to non-believers (e.g. the Jehova's Witnesses). The hostility of non-believers and the frustrations experienced serve either to weed out those who are not committed or to further bind the initiate to the cult. Such initiation activities may be found in all walks of life; military units (tattooing, blackballing, running the gauntlet), American fraternities (hazing ceremonies), and urban gangs (robbery, drug abuse).

In a horror gaming context a cult will naturally have more extreme final requirements in mind; violence, murder, cannibalism, whatever is appropriate to the cult in question. Once the initiate has taken part in a few of these activities, the ties to the cult will be so strong that the initiate cannot reintegrate into normal society.

Cult composition is the second key factor to successful use of cults in a horror campaign. Composition is often determined by ideology and/or the perceived benefits which membership brings. A cult which worships an ancient sea god is unlikely to be attractive to a Wall Street broker unless it can provide him with financial clout. The wharfsides of Manhattan are more likely to prove a fertile hunting ground for potential followers of such a cult. Note, however, that cults can and do cross social and ethnic backgrounds, and modern cult members are often psychologically infirm people searching for their place in life. It is true to say that cults attract weaker people and can make them stronger by giving them a purpose. The difficulty of 'deprogramming' rescued cult members is a testament to this fact. As a general rule, a well-motivated cult should be greater than the sum of its parts.

The third point to consider when defining a cult is organization. Members of cults with an outre religious purpose (e.g. releasing the aforementioned Great Gozer) will generally be subject to the whims of those who interpret the religious ideologies of said cult. The more crazed the belief, the more exotic the requirements of cult membership may be. Secrecy is also an issue for cult organization, particularly those with sinister goals. Advancement within a cult is often dependent upon achieving certain goals, spiritual or otherwise, so that new levels of understanding may be revealed to the initiate.

At this point it is appropriate to consider how the cult deals with the outside world. Do the cultists meet regularly? Where? Are the meetings open or secretive? Do they advertise their meetings to attract new members? Do they employ non-affiliated staff to tally the accounts, clean the lavatories, service the tour bus, dispose of sacrificed animals? How is the cult funded? What is the public profile of the cult? Do cultists lobby politicians for influence?

When used as a foil for gaming, cult organization will also determine how readily PCs can understand and deal with the cult. The Freemasons are a society who are reputed to take much of their ideology from the Knights Templar. However, their secretive nature means that even today their motives are not clearly understood by the man in the street. In contrast, the goals of the Amish sect are readily understood by anyone who cares to examine their beliefs.

A cult which has no real connection to eldritch forces can be just as dangerous as one which does. Players will find it as difficult to deal with a cult which deifies Charles Manson as the Second Coming of Christ as they will a cult dedicated to the demon Baal. If the cult fanatically pursues ideals to the extent of gathering arms and preparing for the Apocalypse then the players could have a real challenge. The extent of that type of challenge may be seen in archive video footage of the terrible events in Waco, Texas. Apocalyptic cults have been common throughout history. To date the Apocalypse has not occurred. What if those crackpot cult members are correct this time?

In CoC in particular the standard cult worships beings from beyond, seeking to release them from imprisonment and/or spread their message across the globe in exchange for power and salvation when the world ends. It is common to presume that the cultists are dangerously insane, often secretive and willing to die for their beliefs. This needn't necessarily be the case...

As an example, a modern cult to Mother Hydra, goddess of the sea, may have members comprised of watersports enthusiasts, fishermen, yachtsmen, sailors and suchlike from all walks of life. Members are of varying levels of education and wealth, and all are keen to speak of their spiritual experiences when at one with the sea. The cult canvasses for new members at environmental rallies, watersports tournaments and boat shows. Some members are New Age believers, and many sport fish-design tattoos and jewelry. One high profile member is a Californian rock musician who is a dedicated surfer. Infrequent meetings are well attended and members are kept up to date via Internet-based newsgroups run by local chapters. The headquarters is based on a private Hawaiian island where spiritual holidays are arranged for the faithful for a price.

The cult is a registered charity but also has an income from provision of certain services. They provide an insurance service for waterborne craft and teach watersports at their chapter houses. They produce expensive leading-edge watersports gear, sponsoring sports champions. Lastly they market fashionable beachwear and accessories at a lucrative profit, designed and made by income-deficient Pacific islanders.

Prospective members are encouraged to get out to sea to experience the power of nature and to attend a few infrequent beachfront services which resemble parties more than religious gatherings, although magical energy is harvested by cult adepts. A senior cult member observes their behavior discretely, and they are perhaps invited to a meeting at one of the chapter houses run by full-time religious counselors. Over a period of time the initiate is taught meditation, self-hypnosis, controlled breathing, marine ecology. The pseudo-religion appears attractive, even safe, as its few tenets include personal development, freedom of the spirit and oneness with nature. Unlike crackpot cults it does not require members to give up their lifestyle and money to the cause.

At this point the potential member takes part only in minor ceremonies which have had the appearance of innocent beach parties. If the member is keen and seems suitable, they may later visit the Hawaiian headquarters to delve further into the philosophies of the cult. At a beach party on the island senior members indulge in substance abuse (a natural drug) which the new members may try if they wish. Most of them will or they wouldn't be there in the first place. Those who don't are soon left behind as their uninhibited friends take to the waves or run through the surf. The non-users are escorted back to the house to leave their fellows to be at one with the sea.

The drug users' inhibitions are lowered and they experience vivid hallucinations; whilst playing in the surf they are visited by mermaids (or mermen) and sexual intercourse takes place. Waking next morning lying on the beach as the sun rises, they are not to know that they sported with Deep Ones the previous evening. Over late breakfast the drug users will share their common 'religious' experience and psychologically bond with one another. The non-users will feel as though they have missed something and will probably want to be involved next time.

True initiates of the cult are selected from those members who show appropriate mental traits. In a beachside ceremony the initiate 'weds' a Deep One mate and is then ritually drowned. A magical spell granting them the water-breathing traits of a Deep One is completed at the point of death. The initiate is reborn into the cult to serve Mother Hydra and Father Dagon.

Such a cult is unlikely to provide the typical violent opposition that PCs expect until they have isolated themselves on a Hawaiian island. 95% of the members will be unaware of the truth behind the public face of the cult, and more likely to offer violence to those PCs who drop litter on the beach!

How to hook PCs into a scenario involving this cult?

*Investigation of the death of a cult member who saw too much whilst in Hawaii. *Investigation of environmental activists targeting the proposed beachfront site of a chemical-treatment plant. *Investigating the death of the scion of a wealthy family, a surf-Nazi who kicked sand in the wrong (fish?) face.

There are at least as many potential cults for a GM as there are real cults extant today. The next time your players run into a cult make sure that they remember who or what the cultists are killing in the name of.


  • 'Black Aura' and 'The New Apocrypha' by John Sladek.
  • 'Bare-Faced Messiah' by Russell Miller (nonfiction).
  • 'Wetbones' by John Shirley.
  • 'Baal' by Robert McCammon.
  • 'Than Curse The Darkness' by David Drake (short story).
  • 'Rune' by Christopher Fowler.
  • 'World Famous Cults and Fanatics' by Colin and Damon Wilson (nonfiction).
  • 'The Ceremonies' by T. E. D. Klein.
  • 'The Call of Cthulhu' by H. P. Lovecraft (short story).
  • 'Return Of The Deep Ones' by Brian Lumley.
  • 'Off With His Head' by Ngaio Marsh.
  • 'Dagon' by Fred Chappell.


  • Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom
  • The Believers
  • The Wicker Man
  • Society
  • Conan The Barbarian

Peter Devlin, August 1998

Feedback encouraged to devlin@rpg.net!

All Bell Book and Candle columns by Peter Devlin

  • SF Horror Part 2 -- Everything Is Not As It Seems August 24, 1999
  • SF Horror Part 1 -- Hard Questions April 20, 1999
  • Killing In the Name August 25, 1998
  • Serial Thriller July 21, 1998
  • Campaign of Terror June 16, 1998

    Other columns at RPGnet

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