Human Cultist

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Generic Human Cultists in their natural habitat...

Origin: Generic Human Cultists: They've been around since the dawn of human history - or, at least since the dawn of the pulps....


"Cult: A small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous."
- Merriam Webster dictionary

"...I thought the room and the books and the people very morbid and disquieting, but because an old tradition of my fathers had summoned me to strange feastings, I resolved to expect queer things. So I tried to read, and soon became tremblingly absorbed by something I found in that accursed Necronomicon; a thought and a legend too hideous for sanity or consciousness. ...The old man came back booted and dressed in a loose antique costume, and sat down on that very bench, so that I could not see him. It was certainly nervous waiting, and the blasphemous book in my hands made it doubly so. When eleven struck, however, the old man stood up, glided to a massive carved chest in a corner, and got two hooded cloaks; one of which he donned, and the other of which he draped 'round the old woman... Then they both started for the outer door; the woman lamely creeping, and the old man, after picking up the very book I had been reading, beckoning me as he drew his hood over that unmoving face or mask...."
— H.P. Lovecraft, "The Festival"

"I travel the world and the seven seas, and everybody's looking for something. Some of them want to use you, some of them want to get used by you; some of them want to abuse you, and some of them want to be abused...."
- Eurythmics, "Sweet Dreams"

At his (or, sometimes, her) most basic, the typical human cultist is a mindless question, wrapped in a faceless shadow, wrapped in a cloaked-and-hooded enigma, dedicated to a random ominous deity (roll dice to pick one at random, or, better yet, beat your head on your keyboard, and use the randomly-"typed" letters that result for the name of your own, home-made deity!) They are typically found lurking in shadows, holding ponderous old books and waving daggers, or circled around bonfire sacrifices near standing stones by night. The primary purpose of the generic human cultist is to provide satisfying soft targets for the obligatory best-defense-by-offense by those investigator enemies of any sort of super-villain - anything from your run-of-the-mill cult leader, to an actual Pulp criminal mastermind, to guys who summon Tentacle Monsters for a living, up to genuine followers of a random tentacled Great Old One.

Types of Cultists

Here's how the "sausage" of fictional cults is made:

Extras: "Cultist #9"

"Extras" are stock characters who provide set-dressing and atmosphere for the story: they rarely interact directly with the main characters, almost never have speaking parts (or, at least, significant, individualized speaking parts), and almost never have names, personalities, or an important role in determining the story's outcome. The primary role of Cultist extras is to lurk in the shadowy halls of ominous temples, or to chant anonymously in circles around sacrificial bonfires, wearing strange costumes while generally looking weird and menacing.

Every fictional cult worth the name has a handful of Extras (perhaps referred to as "mooks", "dupes", "stooges", "flunkies", "cultists"), so you'll want to be sure to provide a few identical, disposable NPC cultist characters for those moments where the investigators want to shoot first, and ask questions later.

In RPG game stat terms, extras will, at best, have generic stats copied from a template, perhaps with identical default stats (rolling individual stats is harmless, but perhaps futile) - this is perfectly OK; they don't need motives, names, or personalities to do the job you need them to do: dress the set up a little to make it look like a cult compound instead of an abandoned warehouse, and provide some crunchy cannon fodder for investigators to shoot at. Cultist Extras need little more than a generic theme (generally, a costume, something to chant, and something to chant to) to do this job (see Cult Themes, below.)

You might want to prepare at least one Bit Player among the Extras by individualizing one of the cultists a bit; this promoted extra will be the guy the investigators interact with, should they take a prisoner, speak to the mooks' leader, etc.

Bit Players: "Bookstore Cultist", "Eye-patch Cultist"

"There are no small parts, only small actors." - Constantin Stanislavski
"Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead." - Dabbs Greer, bit actor

"Bit Parts" are promoted stock characters: their role is still stereotyped and vague, but Cultists playing Bit Parts will have a better opportunity to distinguish themselves from the crowd of extras by having some short lines to deliver, more individualized costumes and makeup, and consequential actions to take in their own, unique way: they might deliver a threatening message to the investigators, act as "officers" leading other cultists, provide a public face for the cult that the investigators might latch onto, etc.

For really small cults that won't be explored in any detail, "Cult Leader" could easily be a bit part, and might even be the only bit part. Cults that play a larger role in a scenario might have two or three bit parts, while a cult that plays a central role in a campaign might have even more (though such a campaign might be better served by promoting such Bit Players to Supporting Cast members!)

Like Extras, Bit Players generally don't need much in RPG terms to do their job: the same generic stats copied from a template is all you'll need to add to the specialized (but relatively insignificant) role in your Cult's organization that the Bit Player needs to fill (say, "Cult Recruiter; last to see victim alive" or "Cult Heavy; makes threats and leads goon-squads"). A name/title, description, and sketchy personality (unique role-playing notes) are optional, but help to elevate a "small actor" to a candidate for bigger and better things later on!

You'll probably want at least one or two Bit Player cultists statted up for your cult - simply copy an NPC character sheet from an Extra, individualize a couple stats, add a personalized skill or two, give the Bit Player a Bit Part to play for the cult, and perhaps sketch in a unique description, basic personality to role-play herm with, and maybe even a title or name.

Supporting Cast: Mildred, the Distressed Cultist; Doktor Klaw the Cult Leader

Cultists in the supporting cast are there for the investigators to interact with more directly. They might be promoted Bit Players that the investigators have interacted with a few times, or they might have been planned from the beginning to be someone that the investigators would interact with later on (the Millionaire Heiress that the investigators were hired to rescue from the cult, perhaps, or the charismatic Cult Leader who acts as the investigators' arch enemy through a campaign.

A cult that will be explored in some detail will probably have one or more Supporting Cast members (a campaign built around a cult might have several supporting cast members!) At the very least, a significant cult will have at least the Cult Leader in this role. In a long-running campaign, many of the "Bit Players" who survive long enough to interact with the investigators a few times will begin evolving into members of the Supporting Cast, by earning names and developing their own personalities and histories with the investigators.

A member of the supporting cast benefits from an individualized NPC character sheet, complete with a deeper personality, complex motives, a name, relationships with other characters, a history, tailored stats, perhaps a portrait, etc.

Supporting Role: Typical "Real Life" Cultist

"People who end up in cults are normal people. They are usually intelligent, open-minded and honest. They're willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of the group. They're interested in self-improvement and in the improvement of the world. The best kinds of people, in a way, are targeted by cults. Their very decency makes them desirable as cult members."
- Dr J W West, Professor of Psychiatry, University of California

In "Someone Like Me: Anatomy of a Cult Member", a former cult member describes a real world cultist in this way:

  • Seeks to belong to something bigger than one's self. "Finally, I BELONGED." (Perhaps implicit in this characteristic is the cultist's belief in his/her own insignificance, and awe and devotion to anything that seems more significant than the cultist in the hope or belief of catching some of that significance second-hand.)
  • Low Self-Esteem - effects cultists in more than one way: the attention and sense of belonging to the cult boosts the cultist's self-esteem, while the cultist believes he/she deserves any abuse the cult and its leaders inflict on the cultist (the article doesn't mention it explicitly, but I suspect the uniformity and abuse inflicted on other members also helps to soothe a cultist's self-esteem).
  • Lack of Critical Thinking - cultists are satisfied with accepting the explanations, orders, and situations as they are given, without question, objection, or possibility of alternatives.
  • A Blind Follower - "All followers follow, but a BLIND follower follows at ANY COST...."
  • An exaggerated sense of rules and regulations. (It seems the rules and structure itself gives cultists comfort, completely separate and divorced from any reasons behind rules and structure.)
  • Focus on Performance - it seems that cultists believe that they must perform to measure up and succeed, and are always willing to work just a little harder and sacrifice just a little more for the cult's approval.

Please note that a cult in "real life" is NOT the same thing as a cult in Weird Fiction, where people may be motivated to join and work with cults for very different reasons, and appearances can be deceiving: just because the authorities or an unreliable narrator calls a group of people a "cult" doesn't mean that they are right, and when alien monsters and technology and mind-altering knowledge of the Mythos get involved and "gods" (or at least aliens using super-science technology indistinguishable from magic) are real, calling the unexplainable behaviour of a group of people surviving the best they can under the circumstances "cult activity" is probably the best explanation anyone on the outside can use to describe what is happening.

Supporting Role: The Pulp/Weird Fiction Cultist

  • TO DO

The traits of real cultists can come in handy for sketching out quick Supporting Cast members, but note that in Weird Fiction, a "cultist" is as likely as anything else to be:

  • a victim of the cult, who has been terrorized into cooperation by all the horrors at the command of alien monsters and mad wizards
  • one of a group of scientists who has discovered Something Man Was Not Meant To Know, and is suffering the consequences
  • a group of investigators working in secrecy without the sanction of law to stop the Mythos at all costs
  • a government organization like Delta Green, the British Experimental Rocket Group, or Men in Black, perhaps sworn to secrecy and working to achieve mysterious goals
  • a group of alien beings that only look human, but act and speak like the Pod People they really are

Supporting Role: Typical "Real Life" Cult Leader

Assuming a typical cult leader is a narcissist or other "Cluster B" personality, characteristics of a cult leader (and his lieutenants) might include some of the following:

  • Often charismatic and superficially charming.
  • Typically deceptive and manipulative.
  • Disregards the needs, rights and safety of other people; tends to treat people as objects to be used for his/her gain.
  • May be hostile and aggressive, and may torment animals and people, and engage in bullying and intimidation.
  • Reckless disregard for property, such as setting fires and committing thefts.
  • May act on impulsive urges and may place him/herself in dangerous or risky situations.
  • Typically does not experience genuine guilt or remorse for their actions; apologies tend to be phrased as apologies for the victim's alleged shortcomings and wrongdoings rather than anything the cult leader said or did ("I'm sorry you did not understand what I said, but...", "I'm sorry you feel that was wrong, but...", "I'm sorry you made me hurt you, but...", etc.)
  • Typically does not take responsibility for their own actions, often blaming their victims instead.
  • May be dramatic, flamboyant, and theatrical.
  • Has a tendency to see things in terms of "all good" and "all bad", black-vs-white, all-or-nothing, us-and-them, good-and-evil, heroes-vs-villains-vs-victims (generally with the narcissist in either the hero or victim role, often both).
  • A tendency to refer to critics, defectors, critical thinkers, etc. as enemies, and a tendency to exaggerate or re-imagine the criticisms and actions of these "enemies" in far more dramatic terms than occur in reality (e.g., defectors do not merely leave the cult after a disagreement, according to the cult leader they are ejected from the group after conspiring with other enemies, committing terrible and exaggerated or wholly imaginary wrongs, and defectors are crazy, evil, incompetent, deceitful, back-stabbing, corrupt, jealous, drug-addicts, child-abusers, etc.)
  • Uncomfortable being alone, but generally incapable of truly intimate relationships.
  • General emotional expression may be vague, shallow, and lacking in detail, though exaggerated and bizarrely out of proportion to the context they are expressed in.
  • Driven to be the center of attention, thrives on isolating followers from any distractions from himself, and may become enraged by signs of distraction, boredom, inattention, etc.
  • Often driven by cultivating their image, and obtaining and maintaining the respect, admiration, awe, and fear of others, with a tendency to conceal weaknesses and failures and signs of being ordinary, while boasting of successes and constantly fishing for compliments.
  • Unable to bear criticism, disloyalty, disobedience, questioning of his word and instructions, etc.
  • Needs to be admired and and powerful, and fantasizes about unlimited success and power.
  • A grandiose idea of who they are and what they can achieve.
  • A sense of entitlement, believes he/she is special and deserves special treatment.
  • Does the least work, while demanding the most effort from others.
  • May be devastated or enraged by any realization of their human limitations.
  • May privately vacillate between feeling like they have unlimited power, and feeling worthless.
  • May be intensely and wildly moody, with an unstable sense of self.
  • A tendency to misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, with the misinterpretations tending toward the suspicious, cynical, and paranoid.
  • Trusts only relationships based on blind, unquestioning loyalty and obedience.
  • May feel a need to frequently test the loyalty and obedience of followers.
  • Exploitative of others, asking for money, property, and services of followers and their relatives.
  • Hypersexual, may take sexual advantage of followers, may require sex with adults and children as part of rites and rituals.
  • May refer to himself as a deity, or a chosen representative of a deity, may speak in terms of blessings, destiny, martyrdom, apocalypse, etc.
  • Enjoys watching followers compete for his/her attention, and enjoys doling out "secret knowledge", "sacred mysteries", and participation in "hidden rites" as occasional rewards for passing his tests of loyalty and obedience.

Please note that a cult in "real life" is NOT the same thing as a cult in Weird Fiction, where understanding the motives of an insecure and paranoid narcissist with little or no empathy is probably going to be less important than just providing a sufficiently scary, colorful, and over-the-top villain for investigators to oppose.

Supporting Role: The Pulp/Weird Fiction Cult Leader

The Cult of the Masked Horror - a generic pulp cult
  • TO DO; think Dr. Fu-Manchu, Count Dracula, Professor Moriarty, Doctor Doom, The Red Skull....

Cult Themes for Quick Cult Generation

  • TO DO

Heresies and Controversies

Keeper Notes

Associated Mythos Elements