This is a roundabout way of saying that I'm going to be talking about cults again, and going along with that is +Joseph Manola 's post on cults and how they should be given a better narrative treatment than "crazy people worshiping evil gods who want to kill."
So, through the power of public radio and enlightening documentaries, I have collected shared traits of real-world cults that should be applied if one wants to make more story-potent cults in their games. I'll be using Heaven's Gate as the primary example: the podcast did an excellent job at presenting the cult members in an empathetic light: here is what they believed, why they believed it, how they came to believing it, and how those beliefs changed over time and eventually led to their final tragedy.
1. The cult comes from somewhere
A cult's beliefs, however outrageous or novel, will contain traces of pre-existing belief systems. It might be in-name-only lip service or superficial symbolism, but there will be some sort of trace of what came before. It's rarely one source - elements of multiple belief systems both foreign and local will be synthesized with whatever new elements are introduced.
2. It offers knowledge of a secret truth
People are attracted to religions for all manner of reasons, but this is the most important for cults: it offers an explanation to those who find themselves unsatisfied with the explanations they've received from other sources. Now, this is something that all religions do, but the truths a cult will espouse will sit far outside the cultural norm and seperate from the parent religions of step 1.
This is to say, people don't join cults because they're crazy, and they don't join because they're stupid. They join because the message clicks.
3. It has a charismatic leader
Someone needs to both sell the goods and keep things together. Idea guys are easy to find, you can scrape together a cult from any given room of clever people, but a face is needed to get the ball rolling. Someone who triggers the "follow" switch tucked away in the tribal parts of the brain. They will claim some sort of high status unique to them: a prophet, a reincarnated deity, whatever link between the mortal and the divine they choose they will be the only one.
The real test of a cult is if it can survive the death of its leader. Without a rudder, the group might dissolve, find itself ideologically changed by whoever fills its place (for better or worse), or in conflict with itself over how to proceed. Consistent continuity of leadership quality should be considered a freak outlier.
4. It's self-reinforcing
The cult's behaviors will be reinforced through a variety of means. Again, the uniquely cultish thing is not the methods themselves, but how extremely they are used.
- Social Pressure - Shame's a powerful motivator. It'll be used in full force to squash dissent and doubt, or the cult might attempt to gently bring the questioning back into the fold through reassurance that they're correct.
- Ignorance - This is a tricky one - people who join cults do not do so because they're stupid, but they will be more vulnerable to joining a cult if they don't know how to challenge or disprove a cult's claims. Poke the belief system with a stick and it falls apart, but that's for people on the outside, without the reinforcement that keeps anything to challenge one's ignorance at bay. The leader of the cult might completely believe what they're teaching, or might be a snake-oil salesman. Both are common.
- Fear - The cult will give you something to be afraid of, and then offer a way out. Not just a way out, but an exclusive way out.The only way out.
- Secrecy - The cult offers to reveal the truth (the way out) after they get something from you. It's the bait on the hook.Want to get out? You need to get in, first.
- Isolation - Contact with the outside (ie, anything or anyone that might inspire doubt, remove ignorance, or disrupt fear) is severed. Outside connections of friends, family, or anything else, are treated as dangerous (which they are, they could lead to people leaving). The exclusivity of the group and its leader is put front and center.
Gameable Example: Cthulhu Cult
Standard stuff: a group of spooky guys in hoods and robes who go out and perform blood sacrifices upon the moon-lit hills. Let's say it's taking place in modern America, somewhere out west.
Where does it come from?
Millenlialist Christianity would provide the lion's share of pre-existing lore - the gigantic evil beast emerging from the sea to rule the world in Revelation 13 is ever popular, and fits Cthulhu like a glove. We can throw in some new-age stuff too with trying to elevate one's spirit to a coming cosmic age, and some gnosticism too, with Cthulhu as the mad demiurge that created the world and blocks humanity off from the true godhead.
What are they offering?
They know the Beast (Cthulhu) is going to rise from the sea and the entire world will devolve into mindless chaos. There's no way to escape this, but the cult can offer a way to thrive in the age of the Beast: spiritual exercises and practices that can keep the spirit safe, while the mind and body are twisted by the presence of the Beast. When the Beast departs or is defeated, they will return with new bodies and rule over the world anew.
Who is running the show?
The founder is dead: the constant nightmares from which he learned of Cthulhu and his already fragile mental state lead to suicide. This was used to his successor's advantage, who introduced to the cult the idea that the most potent method (and the most dangerous, for the ritual must be just right) of escaping the Beast is to die now, so that your body and mind will not be submitted to its influence, and you will return afterwards as luminous beings of pure spirit.
How is it self-reinforcing?
Fear of what Cthulhu will do to you and your loved ones if you stop or leave would be a really good motivating factor to remain in the cult, and to keep up the ritual murders. Lack of a better option would be another. The cult's basic beliefs are founded in ignorance of what Cthulhu waking up actually means, and they have no means of learning the actual truth (alternatively, Cthulhu doesn't exist - either way, the deaths are for nothing). Finally, the whole ritual human sacrifice thing means that secrecy and isolation need to be a given, lest the government (agents of the Beast, clearly) come and break them up.
And there you have it
With just a little bit extra, we've got a cult that can fulfill all the game needs that cults can fill, but isn't just bags of meat to kill. All of these cultists are, by day, members of the community doing their best to try and save it (and themselves) from the threat they perceive bearing down on them. There are beliefs you can question and investigate, purpose to their actions, and ways of infiltration.
I guess what I'm saying is just steal the basic format of Heaven's Gate and apocalyptic Christianity for your cults and you'll do just fine.