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You Wanna Fight?

Cults

Bryan Jonker
January 8, 2002  

Introduction

In 1993, the Branch Davidions held off the ATF for 51 days. Heaven's Gate members committed mass suicide, thinking that the spaceship behind the Hale-Bopp comet will pick their souls up, transporting them to alien heaven. We (the sane, non-cultist people) look at these people and think, "you have to be odd to be in one of those cults." We see the final product (the cult members) - what we don't see is the process on how they became cultists.

This is unfortunate, for both real life and the game. The main game reason is we have the chance to introduce and develop more plots if we look at what really happens in cults. This article looks at cults; we can see why cultists make such great enemies, and turn that stereotypical cult into a three-dimensional, non-cliched organization.

Word of warning: the topic of cults is touchy, and I hesitated on burdening Sandy with the potential backlash. The term "cult" itself is a loaded word, conjuring images of saffron robes and dazed expressions. Please respond through e-mail if you want to talk about the rationale of "Catholic Church as Cult" or "Scientology is a religion, not a cult." Being an article about gaming, conversation should focus on the game. Accordingly, I've pulled my quotes not because of specific organizations, but because those quotes highlight a theoretical "cult behavior."

What is a cult?

That is a difficult question to answer. A pat answer would be a cult uses psychological intimidation to change the way the members think, but that would include almost any organization. True, cults don't encourage questioning or doubt, but there are a lot of groups that discourage questioning. For example, the U.S. Marines uses similar methods. Are the Marines a cult?

No. Cults, unlike U.S. government organizations, are not accountable to any authority, and will often break the law to further its own goals. Cults have a hidden agenda - the bait-and-switch. They promise spiritual enlightenment, and they give you slavery. Non-cults are more forthright in their promises. When cult members do meet with society, they are never alone. Because of this, cult members often are forbidden to talk with their family.

Because of this estrangement, family members are one of the first to know about the cult. Remember that these cultists have mothers and fathers and siblings; a possible introduction is the family member hires the PCs to find their son. Also, family members will constantly be on the periphery of any investigation; many family members make their own search for their lost sons and daughters.

Cults also have a "us-versus-them" mentality, which means the cult members are usually isolated from society. Often, the cult leader is seen as a messiah, and the cult members are charged with saving humanity or some other lofty goal. This makes them ideal enemies - it creates a good-evil dichotomy that will prevent the cult members from negotiating. This has been exploited in countless films and TV shows, and to some degree, it works.

Cult Members

In my opinion, one of the best books about cults is from an ex-cult member: Peter McWilliams (not to mention it has one of the best sub-titles: What To Do When Your Guru Sues You). His book Life 102 goes into detail on how he entered the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), and how MSIA...well, he says it best himself.

I was looking for one thing and I was sold something else before I even knew it. Once I bought it, it became a part of me: my ground of being shifted; my inner compass was recalibrated. I did not become a walking zombie selling flowers at the airport - I used every bit of my own intelligence, creativity, education, and common sense to follow the programmed direction. (italics his).

His experience shows how to play cultists. They don't look brainwashed. They don't lose their skills when they enter the cult - a skilled writer like McWilliams continues to be a skilled writer. If a cult influences high-level characters, those characters still have all their skills. If PCs attack those characters, they're not going to simply roll over or forget their skills because they're in a cult. If anything, they may fight harder - after all, they now have something to fight for.

However, there are different types of cults, and different types of cultists. Not all cultists are mindless followers of the cult. Eileen Barker noted that, in 1979, less than 4% of the people that attended a Moonies' overnight program became involved in it for two years or longer. Most left after a single session, but others stayed with it for a few weeks, but later left. McWilliams talks about members leaving MSIA, members that stayed with MSIA for years. Something just snaps.

For example, Joe Muldoon posted a note on alt.religion.scientology: "One week I had missed some days looking for work and the Ethics Officer at the Co$ put me in a low Ethics Condition called 'confusion'. It so happened that on this particular week the Church had racked in a large amount of money and we all expected to make a good wage. But, by being in the 'Confusion' Ethics Condition, I received a check for $12 dollars." At this point, he packed up and left. What does this mean? Not all cultists are going to have their "inner compass" recalibrated. Others may be backsliding. As the PCs encounter these marginal members, the players may note that not all the cultists are acting with the same zeal.

Finally, it's good to look at the groups that can be manipulated easily. "People in transition" are usually easy prey, which is why cults recruit so heavily at colleges. People suffering from low self-esteem or depression are also easy targets; McWilliams talks about how John-Roger seemed to sense people who were depressed. People who leave one cult (or who are kicked out) will often find another cult to join; one poster at alt.religion.scientology says, after he was kicked out of Scientology, he started working at get-rich scams.

Cult Leaders

The cult leader has to have two things: the ability to attract a cult, and the reason to start a cult. Second things first: the reason. The big question a Game Master needs to ask is "Is the cult leader a member of his own cult?" That answer will determine the nature of the cult.

In the real world, if the cult leader believes in his own commandments, he is probably delusional. A realistic campaign could continue this thread. After all, the truth doesn't matter, as long as the belief exists. Harlan Ellison (can't find the quote, and this column is running too far behind, and anyway, all profound statements can be chalked up to Oscar Wilde or Harlan Ellison) talked about how it's the madmen that define our reality.

When the Branch Davidions were attacked, it was Koresh who dictated what happened. A more fantastic campaign could make the cult leader, literally, a god. This makes them good villains; the cult leader is convinced that the end (the end that the Game Master defines) justifies the means (threatening and trying to eliminate the player characters). Morals like pacifism and disgust for killing need not get in the way.

But why does a god, or even men who believe their gods, need people? The advantages can be useful. Devoted and talented workers mean income, which can purchase land and supplies to build churches (or battle stations). Money often means the cult leader can interact with the wealthy and powerful of the nation. The cult members also can act as the leader's will, policing each other, guarding the leader, and enforcing his will. Finally, people can preach and find other potential members - getting people for their own sake.

But, the cult leader that believes in himself is going to act in a predictable pattern - he will die for his beliefs just as the cult members will. In Heaven's Gate, everyone died, even the two leaders. The alternative, a cult leader that doesn't believe in his own statements, will be more chaotic but possibly more interesting. He could be a con-man, bilking the poor masses. He could be an idealist, trying to lead his followers using the only means he sees. He may be forced into that role by his followers. This option makes the leader less impressive, less "total-evil" and more human.

What does a cult leader need to start a cult? Surprisingly little. Charisma, a basic sense of psychology, and the conviction (or Willpower) to impose his will on others. T. Bone, in his GURPS page, states "Presence and Will are two sides of the same coin: force of personality. Presence is outward-directed force of personality to influence others, and Will is inward-directed force of personality to resist outside influences." In the case of cult leaders, Charisma and Will converge into the same statistic.

Extra powers are nice, but not necessary - skeptics will constantly look for the catch, while believers will take garden-variety trickery as real ("yes, he prophesied that I will die, isn't that amazing?"). Cults usually start small, with a few people creating the structure. Some cults die out quickly, while others hit the lottery, attract the right people, and become fads. Others become more. It all depends on who the cult recruits and how the cult is represented in the public.

Most cults are based on personality, and die out when the leader dies. A few hang on. Usually the larger and more disperse cults will have a chain-of-command and "sub-leaders". These types of cults can transfer power fairly easily, because cult members are used to not communicating with the cult leader. And of course, there can be internal conflicts in cults; one member can leave and start his own cult.

How to Start a Cult

As I mentioned, all that's needed is Willpower, some impressionable people, and bait (spiritual growth, instant money, or something else the masses like). More ominous cults in fantastic campaigns will use mind control or drugs. Next column will focus on mind control, a topic that goes hand-in-hand with cults. Until next time...

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Wanna Fight by Bryan Jonker