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I am starting a new campaign in D&D 3.5 using Forgotten Realms, and the main antagonist of the campaign will be the Cult of the Dragon. I have been reading the "Daily D&D" by Ed Greenwood which has a lot of good info on the Cult as well as good info on many things in the Realms.

I have run many games in the past and I feel like my cults usually end up super evil and fanatical. I am trying to keep this game more realistic, so not every enemy fights to the death and not every cultist is a fanatic.

What experience have people had running realistic cults, and what made it a success? Should I be trying to flesh out the full hierarchy of the cult from the beginning, or just have some notes on key cultists? How rational/evil should average cultist be? I feel like normal people probably would not join something evil like the Cult of the Dragon.

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In addition to the excellent answers already posted, I recommend checking out a documentary currently floating around on the Netflix titled "I Survived a Cult". –  Sandalfoot Jul 17 at 18:37
    
I actually watched not just a little while ago and was partially my inspiration for using a more realistic cult in my game, those people are crazy pants! –  Animar Jul 17 at 19:44
    
cultinformation.org.uk/question_what-is-mind-control.html interesting link on cult psychology to add to resources on this topic. –  Aviose Jul 17 at 23:48
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@Robert The word "cult" and the world "cult" don't necessarily mean the same thing: note the differences in sense [2] and [3]. The common modern meaning is quite different from the common historical/fantasy meaning. None of these comments on modern cults are relevant to fantasy cults based on the historical concept. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 18 at 1:01
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Yeah I was going more for how to run a realistic cult in Forgotten Realms not as much taking a modern cult and putting it in the Realms but you guys have given me a lot of good info and ideas, thank you! –  Animar Jul 18 at 15:02

3 Answers 3

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Evil? We're SAVING the world!

No one thinks they're the villain. Outside of a few very adolescent power fantasy type cults, nearly every other cult is based in imagining it's doing something for either the greater good or at least the good of it's members, and has rationalized all the things it has to do in that regard.

Sacrifice a baby? The baby was evil & deserved it / by killing the baby we actually set it's soul free / the world would end if we didn't / the parents have wronged us and we're stealing the baby's power, they deserve it / it's not even a real baby anyway, this is all a test by (deity), etc.

Cults run on hope, but are backed by social pressure

All cults promise something. They promise something the general society doesn't offer, and most of the time it's some form of secret power, knowledge or salvation. "The rest of the world will fall like fools because they couldn't see the TRUTH. The truth only WE know. You and I? We'll be like gods, while THEY burn! You are wise to join us!" etc.

It appeals to the desperate and secretly greedy.

Once people are in, eventually more and more commitments are requested, and the way to keep people in is the social pressure. They try to cut people off from their families or bring the whole family into the cult itself and then cut people off from social backing outside of the cult (except when, say, they're using those same connections, like a politician or celebrity). They find out secrets, they threaten and blackmail, but it's always under the guise of having to fulfill their dream, the person being "corrupted by the world", or having to protect their own.

The greater the isolation, the deeper the fanaticism goes, and the more extreme the acts of violence and abuse become because people have become normalized to it and their lines of what's reasonable are further and further astray.

Leaders are charismatic

To sell this line of hope and dreams, and to rationalize all the abuse, the leaders are charismatic. Either they're the form of salvation itself, or they're the one everyone wants to be, or be with. These leaders are very good at playing people against each other, using social bullying, rumors, and lies to keep the cult busy and obeying rather than simply fact checking with each other and realizing they're all getting played.

As much as the sexual abuse might be enacted from the leader, there's also a lot of people who will throw themselves, or offer up their partners, or even children to the leader to win favor. It's pretty much the most horrific end result of transactional thinking applied to salvation.

Layered Membership

The cult you get when you first join is not the cult you get when you're in deep. The frontward facing side of cults focused on recruiting is often no different than many other religions. There may be a few doctrinal differences, but otherwise, it's a fundraising and general recruitment pool.

Those who seem especially dogmatic or eager to throw their energy in, or, those who are willing to buy their way in and meet higher and higher cash requests, will be recruited deeper in.

It's harder to say if the fanaticism is a requirement to push the more violent, abusive and bizarre behaviors, or if, even left with relatively normal, vague commandments, fanatics will just find a way to make it violent and abusive anyway. We can see extremists of any religion take it there no matter what the original values taught were...

Taking it to fantasy

The big difference in fantasy is that religious elements are more immediately "provable". You can do magic or you can't. You can summon spirits, or you can't. This isn't a perfect set up, since, once you HAVE magic operating in your world, the reason WHY magic works and what it means theologically can be faked or rationalized a thousand ways.

A wizard with no ties to any deity or philosophy could easily pretend all their powers come from a deity and form a cult. A trickster cleric could pretend to get his powers from another god or power. etc. A ritual might always fail not because it's bullshit, but because "you haven't earned the god's favor, yet."

The other side of it is because magic is real, depending on how rare/common it is, how much people are desperate for that power or what it might promise, people are extremely motivated and possibly more vulnerable to a cult's offers.

If you have a game where magic cannot raise the dead, maybe cults form around seeking this. If you have a game where magic CAN raise the dead, maybe high end members regularly die and are brought back to "earn piety"!!!

All in all, if you're taking real world cults and putting it in your fantasy, just realize they mostly come down to money, sexual favors, and sometimes political push, such as ethnic supremacy cults. Even if the magic exists to (travel to another world, summon their god, etc.) most of the cults actually won't try to really make that happen, instead using it as a carrot to keep the cult itself wasting their energy while bleeding off on exploitation.

This also means that even jaded and well informed people will probably dismiss most cults as anything other than a minor social evil, outside of their abuse and occasional acts of public violence. So, if a cult actually DOES start tapping into real evil powers, just about everyone will be surprised by it...

(Also this means you will see violent fanatical cults supposedly dedicated to good deities as well, which sets up interesting roleplaying conflicts...)

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The specific Cult of the Dragon is very much about power fantasies: reanimating dead dragons to do one's bidding, and generally stealing draconic power. But that's at the top of the cult; I'm not sure how they present to their lay members, and I'm not sure canon has ever bothered to say. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 17 at 16:39
    
The Cult of the Dragon is definitely trying to do something evil and their leader is a crazy lich who used to be a chosen of Mystra. However the group is going to be dealing with a smaller cell near Baldur's Gate which is going to operate more like a realistic cult in which the cult leader is mostly trying to gain status and money for himself to improve his standing within the Cult of the Dragon. So the main villain for the first 10 levels or so is not a leader but more like lieutenant. –  Animar Jul 17 at 18:00
    
Here's an example of a writeup I did of Cults of Tiamat, that might be an interesting look at how evil cults rationalize and present themselves: bankuei.wordpress.com/2008/05/26/cults-of-tiamat –  Bankuei Jul 17 at 21:20
    
@Bankuei I really enjoyed the rationalization behind each head, especially the Ivory Head of Law which is the path of a tyrant! It makes sense as others have posted that they do not see themselves as evil they just "understand" things that others do not. I really like what you wrote up and it gave me a good idea for an evilish cleric that the PC's could encounter but would not have to fight but certainly could. I like having NPC's that are not good help the PC's to make them upset at liking an evilish character. –  Animar Jul 17 at 22:15
    
The interesting situation is that I wrote it all with the idea that many of these philosophies could encompass more than just Evil alignments depending on what you emphasize and how far you take things. Which then sets up some really interesting quandries - what DO you do when you have Good Clerics of Tiamat doing stuff? –  Bankuei Jul 17 at 23:10

Some random thoughts, based purely on half-remembered Wikipedia and magazine articles on the subject of cults. To be taken with a heaping helping of salt.

  • No one labels their own faith a “cult.” The term is always used by others to describe the group.

  • For the purposes of this answer, I assume “cult” is a relatively small group of people with beliefs not just strange compared to the wider populace, but also considered dangerous in some fashion. In Dungeons & Dragons, this typically will mean veneration of Evil powers.

  • It's fairly rare for humans to be self-proclaimed "bad guys." It's similarly very difficult to imagine a large group of people proclaiming a faith they don't have. The upshot here is that most of the cult is sincere, and has a moral and ethical standpoint consistent with their actions and belief. While detect evil and the like make this difficult, there are enough inconsistencies between “Evil” and “evil” that it’s fairly easy to imagine someone denying the evilness of their faith.

  • Cult leaders are very charismatic: very empathic and understanding, very good at knowing what to say, and so on. Of all members of the cult, the leader is most likely to be aware that the cult is evil and/or is a scam, but that’s not necessarily the case; most cult leaders are probably also sincere.

In real life, most groups labeled “cults” happen when oppressed, or possibly more often, neglected, people are found by the cult leader or members. Often people who are down on their luck, lacking a social safety net, personal resources, or direction in life. Successful cult leaders are excellent at recognizing such people, and at knowing what to say, offer, and provide to engender a strong loyalty.

So, to begin with, cult members are often people who had nothing, and who felt ignored and down-trodden by society, and were embraced by a strong, tight-knit community who provided them with the things they need (note that this can also describe perfectly well-meaning religions that no one would ever label “cult,” of course). No matter what those people believe, the individual already has very strong bonds to them: they may be all that person has, and they may be the only ones who ever treated the individual with kindness and support.

The small size and potentially persecuted nature of the group also helps to foster this loyalty. Remember, to a member of a cult, when you criticize the cult or its members, they do not hear you taking issue with strange beliefs or practices. They hear you attacking their only friends or family. As such, they immediately get defensive, and any qualms or hesitation they may have had themselves about the beliefs or practices of the group are washed away by their determination to defend their friends or family against the attacks of “outsiders.” As such, for certain people, attempting to dissuade them from cult membership can actually cement their place within it.

At that point, the actual beliefs or practices don’t really matter. By remaining insular and cut off from others, cult members strengthen their bonds to the cult and eliminate their bonds with outsiders. Taken to extremes (and with a sufficiently charismatic leader and a sufficiently vulnerable person), even murder and sacrifice of outsiders can be justified, as outsiders are the evil people who ignored them before they found the cult and who attacked the cult that took them in. Add into this actual magic, where cult members are gaining substantial personal power by doing this, giving them the confidence, strength, and comfort to very literally take on the world.

So cult members that the players meet are unlikely to be very interested in listening to the players. As outsiders, their words are inherently distrusted. Sense Motive doesn’t even get rolled; they don’t have specific knowledge that the players are or are not lying, they just automatically assume it no matter how the statements sound.

But the cultists are also most likely neither insane nor actively “evil,” at least in their own minds. They have simply identified “good” as supporting the cult – those who took them in, their friends, their family, “Us” – and not caring about, if not actually opposing, those not in the cult – those who neglected them, their oppressors, “Them.” It’s entirely possible that a cult member simply does not recognize non-members as sentient beings deserving of their own rights.

The best way to get through is to consistently and frequently challenge their assumptions that you want to attack them and theirs. If you are never anything but helpful to them, that will wear down on their beliefs that all outsiders are not to be trusted, which may, eventually, lead to some actual dialogue and possibly some re-awakening of buried doubts they have about the cult itself.

But in D&D, there’s rarely enough time for something like that.

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Re: "no one labels their own faith a cult": that's not true historically, just in modern days. As I understand it, "cult" has just gotten bad connotations during the process of dominant religious practice shifting away from the cult-based multi-god pantheons to the church-based monotheisms. In a fantasy setting, "cult" could easily have no stigma attached to it, so it's setting-dependent. IIRC, the Cult of the Dragon is self-named. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 17 at 16:37
    
The Cult of the Dragon is self named and I guess would be more of an organization than a cult but in my opinion its a blurry line. The way that I am going to be running it though is that the Cult of the Dragon organization is broken up into smaller cells run by "lieutenant" and those smaller cells are more like a cult where the leader is trying to gain money and power to increase his own standing within the organization, if that makes sense. –  Animar Jul 17 at 16:49
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Interestingly, what you say is the best method to get through to them is typically the same way they are broken in to the cult, only with the opposite purpose. Challenge assumptions, prove loyalty, prove that you are trustworthy and others aren't, etc... –  Aviose Jul 17 at 22:32

I agree with the assessment by Bankuei, and I intend to simply expound upon it by focusing on cult recruitment and conversion, assuming we are discussing cults of evil. As was stated by SevenSidedDie, the term cult didn't always have a negative connotation.

Source - I have a friend that got sucked in to a cult, but was pulled back out by circumstance.

Initial Recruitment

It appeals to the desperate and secretly greedy.

-Bankuei

This is especially true of the desperate. They find the people who are living in the bottom of the barrel in their own perspective (regardless of fact of situation). The cult finds those that are depressed, have a low self-image, or are otherwise disillusioned with the world and offers them a place to be part of a group that offers open arms. They will typically try to give these people such an open invitation that they meet with them every day (or close to), and offer them such a wide open friendship that someone with even the slightest desire for friends is likely to feel special because of the positive attention. At this point, the degradation of outsiders is limited to simply promoting the fact that the people in the cult-community are kinder and more helpful to them than everyone else they know. Most of this is a subconscious promotion of the new community. The promotion of the community helps to convert these people into slightly more loyal members.

This is the only stage that is likely to allow a member to leave quietly because you aren't weak enough mentally to be manipulated easily. They'll try to keep you in, but not so hard that it makes it TOO obvious, because most of your peers are close to the same stage of recruitment as you are.

Reinforcement

Initial goals of hatred are typically more innocuous and pointed at the obviously 'corrupt'. In a fantasy game world or something similar it will likely start as a criminal element of society or a specific race of evil humanoids (or other humanoids that are painted as evil by the society at large). These targets will expand to the less and less evil over time, eventually encompassing anyone who doesn't join them.

At some point, some of the recruit's old friends are going to begin to think that this group may not be healthy for them. It's common for the old friends and family, if they know about the cult, to try to pull the new member out of the cult (in my experience, this was about 4 months in, give or take). This is met with verbal insults of the members outside, insisting that they just don't understand, and are trying to attack the newer, better group of family/friends because they are blind to "the truth". Anyone who is outside the cult is spoken of in subtly negative tones, but these tones increase in hostility with more time and exposure to the cult. This is the point when those who show the proper propensity for zealotry, those who are beginning to show an incredibly strong attachment, are given promises of more access to the inner secrets and workings of the cult, thus embedding them even more into the cult.

Leaving the cult

As was stated before, only really early on are people allowed to leave the cult, before indoctrination truly begins. By the time the first few months of membership is over and people are more indoctrinated in the local cell, leaving becomes a crime punishable first by extreme ridicule, and later by outright violence and hostility. If the member had a mate in the cult, the mate is pushed quickly to focus on someone to keep them inclusive, or at least to exclude the person running away. In a fantasy environment they are even more likely to try to kill the person trying to leave the cult, so bad word of them doesn't spread, after all, if everyone thought the cult was bad, then they couldn't spread their 'good works'. They are painted as a villain that is trying to debase and defame the entire populace of work that the cult stands for, which instantly alienates the still younger members to feel like this person who is pushing members away from their new family are evil, and thus anyone outside is potentially evil. More reinforcement.

Deeper down the rabbit hole

Eventually, the primary reason that many stay in is either fear of reprisal or absolute fanatical zealotry. Some want out but know they are likely to die, and possibly watch their old friends and family die. Some fear the reprisal to their friends and push their friends to just accept, and some have simply turned in to maniacs by the end. At this point, the members will do anything that the cult asks, regardless of reason.

Charisma

All leaders, even the lower end leaders, will likely be extremely high in charisma, and be zealots, rather than fearful. They will be friendly to vulnerable outsiders to the cult, as a whole, but will be downright cruel and possibly dangerous to anyone perceived as trying to slow the progress of the cult advancing itself.

Hopefully this gives you enough information to truly simulate a believable cult. Your players would be mighty surprised if one of their own characters got sucked in to it and had to be the one to rescue the members from the inside when they realized how bad it is.

Post Script - As an aside, my friend only got out due to work obligations forcing him to leave the area for a month or so. When he returned he was treated as a pariah amongst the group because he 'abandoned them'.

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You gave me an idea, I think I will have a group posing as a well to do organization that helps people who are down on their luck get back on their feet be a front for the Cult of the Dragon. This way this front can keep a good front while finding good potential recruits to be indoctrinated into the Cult of the Dragon. This way they would be more likely to join because they are being recommended by a "friend" who has helped them out. This would also help make the Cult of the Dragon harder to track down since they wont be doing any direct recruitment. Also I'm glad your friend got out. –  Animar Jul 17 at 22:41
    
Glad I could help. :) –  Aviose Jul 17 at 22:44
    
I may have to use a cult in my next game too. –  Aviose Jul 17 at 22:47

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