Creating Realistic Cults

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alex_greene
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Creating Realistic Cults

Postby alex_greene » Wed Nov 11, 2015 6:00 pm

I've got to admit, I've just had a load of fun creating a whole pantheon of deities for the writing project I've been working on for submission to Mongoose Legend.

The setting I've been working on has eight main religions - the ones you can open Pact skill and learn Divine Magic from. Each Cult has something of use to Adventurers beyond gaining Rank and learning cult skills, Divine Magic and Heroic Abilities.

More importantly, when developing the ideas which ended up as the Cults, I had to include one very important thing.

The religions had to have something to offer to the general public.

You might have guessed that, as a career atheist, I've often given gods short shrift in looking at designing settings. But this time, I've had to look at the whole Divine Magic thing, and thought of the Cults not only as factions but as religions - service providers to members of the general public. Help getting pregnant? Money troubles? Want to give your nearest and dearest a proper funeral? We have a god for that. Goddess, actually.

I've tried integrating these religions into a pantheon which works together, is people-facing, fulfils a public function, engages in political activities and carries secrets. I just hope I can get this thing in print, along with the other project which I finished a few weeks back - so you can judge for yourselves whether I have given the gods good measure.
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby soltakss » Thu Nov 12, 2015 7:20 am

I find that if you approach cults as worshipping deities that are real and provide tangible benefits then you have won half the battle.

Cults are support mechanisms for people, ways to give professions an identity, ways to gain magic and to provide a structure to life.

In game terms, sure, they provide magic, but they also provide a lot more. Two death cults can be completely different in how their worshippers behave, act towards others and so on.

For me, a cult is believable if I can see how their worshippers would act, how they would be different to members of other cults and why people should join the cult.
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alex_greene
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby alex_greene » Thu Nov 12, 2015 7:52 am

soltakss wrote:I find that if you approach cults as worshipping deities that are real and provide tangible benefits then you have won half the battle.

Cults are support mechanisms for people, ways to give professions an identity, ways to gain magic and to provide a structure to life.

In game terms, sure, they provide magic, but they also provide a lot more. Two death cults can be completely different in how their worshippers behave, act towards others and so on.

For me, a cult is believable if I can see how their worshippers would act, how they would be different to members of other cults and why people should join the cult.
It also provides huge motivation for outsiders.
A cult wants to finish building a Temple whose construction began a century ago. The all-call goes out for building contractors to come in and get the job done twenty years ahead of its scheduled completion date, which would have put it two years after the civilisation ends, at its current rate.
Two major construction Guilds land the chance to pitch their case to secure the contract. Sealed bids, hush hush. The High Priestess of the Santi Sagrede Temple is seen being wined and dined by both Guild leaders. She is clearly getting some pretty fine eating out of it, since both "dates" are at Tanazzo's In The Sky, the most expensive place to eat in town.

Two weeks later, a maid comes in and finds both Guild leaders and the High Priestess of the Santi Sagrede Temple dead in her bedchamber. The cleaning maid is one of the Adventurers' sisters. Suddenly, that's them involved in the scandal of the century.

Makes for a far more intriguing story than "oh, look, more ice zombies. The High Priest of Zadrossia must have got himself another pair of Necromantic Gauntlets of Ice Zombie Reanimation."
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Prime_Evil
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby Prime_Evil » Sat Nov 14, 2015 10:24 am

It's interesting that you should bring up this topic, as I've recently been reading John Scheid's "Introduction to Roman Religion" (Indiana University Press, 1985) and re-reading Walter Berkert's "Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical" (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 1985).

I've actually been thinking of these in relation to the way that RPGs depict religion.

Here are a few interesting quotes and observations from these sources and others that I've collected over the years that influence the way that I handle religion in my own games:

In the ancient world, cults were as much social institutions as religious institutions. They had no revealed sacred texts, dogma, or orthodoxy.

"Explicit expression of belief is kept separate from religious practice. Free exegesis and philosophical speculation takes place outside of religious life in the strictest sense of the term. In so far as the only dogma is an obligation to observe public rituals, individuals are at liberty to conceive of the gods, religion, and the universe however they please. The obligation to observe communal rituals is seen as a civic duty – it is perfectly valid to be an atheist who disbelieves in the gods but who attends public rituals for the social benefit to community cohesion. Speculation about the true nature of the gods is regarded as the domain of philosophy rather than religion."

"This does not mean that religion was always a “cold” and disinterested affair closed to intense spiritual experiences. Most of the public cults have a system of initiation that involves genuine religious ecstasy."

"Cults generally have no explicit moral code. Ethics is seen as a matter for philosophers rather than priests. Religion is ruled by the same moral code that rules social relations in the broader community. Membership in certain “evil” cults are prohibited to citizens because they are seen as incompatible with good citizenship, rather than due to transgression of an absolute ethical standards."

"The concept of piety has a wider frame of reference than just religion in the strictest sense; it covers the correct relations with parents, friends, and fellow citizens. Piety offers as a form of distributive justice, regulating an individuals obligations towards the Gods. It was a reciprocal social obligation, for the Gods also need to fulfil their side of the contract."

"Impiety is the opposite of piety. It consists in denying the Gods the honours and rank that is rightfully theirs, sacrilege (especially damaging their property by theft), or by neglect of religious observances. Impiety can be accidental or deliberate. For example, a traveller who accidentally cuts down a tree in a scared grove for firewood commits a religious offence, but not an unforgivable one. If one offends a deity out of genuine ignorance, the impiety can be excoriated by a sacrifice and making reparation for the wrong. Serious impiety requires greater acts of atonement, but the justice of the Gods is usually fair. But if impiety is deliberate or has malicious intent, the guilty person remains forever marked by the crime. The local community might perform a sacrifice to make good the damage, but the guilty offender is prosecuted as a criminal who has violated public law and placed the community at risk of divine retribution. In many case, the guilty parties are banished from the community as exiles. "

The concept of blasphemy is rooted in the notion that it involves an act of disloyalty against community cohesion as much as it involves a crime against the Gods.

Religious duties are imposed on individuals by citizenship. Citizens acquire civic religious responsibilities through birth or adoption. Outsiders granted citizenship – such as freed slaves or naturalised foreigners – are expected to change their religion. Foreign visitors have no obligations towards the local deities, although some choose to sacrifice at a local shrine or temple out of a sense of courtesy. Citizens might acquire additional religious duties as a consequence of membership in a specific social group, such as a military unit or guild of artisans.

"Religion is a social affair. It is closely linked to the community, rather than the individual. The aim of the religion is the earthly well-being of the community, not the salvation of individual and their immortal souls in the afterlife. The gods do help individuals, but primarily because they are members of the community and only secondarily as favoured individuals per se."

"It is believed that there is a religious aspect to every communal action, and a communal aspect to every religious action. There is no inherent distinction between the secular and religious aspects of life. Public cult practice inevitably incorporates political and ideological elements. "

Professional priests are regarded merely as specialists in religious matters – in the same way that a physician is regarded as a specialist in medical matters or a lawyer is regarded as a specialist in legal matters. Priests have no authority beyond their own shrine or temple. Individuals associated with wealthy, influential, or prestigious temples might be granted the title of High Priest or High Priestess. However, this is a title denoting community respect rather than a statement of hierarchical religious authority.

Foreigners generally recognise titles such as High Priest or High Priestess and treat the bearer with a certain amount of deference as a prominent local community figure, but are not obligated to ascribe religious authority to them.

A member of the priesthood who is corrupt or who does not perform their duties can be stripped of their title by a public assembly.

Generally, only the largest religious sites can support a professional priesthood. Many smaller shrines are maintained by a part-time attendant who is a member of the local elite. Some families hand down responsibility for a public shrine or holy site from one generation to the next. This is considered a great honour by the community.
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby alex_greene » Sat Nov 14, 2015 2:11 pm

Prime_Evil wrote:It's interesting that you should bring up this topic, as I've recently been reading John Scheid's "Introduction to Roman Religion" (Indiana University Press, 1985) and re-reading Walter Berkert's "Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical" (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 1985).
Then I'm on the right track with this project of mine. And I hope that the chapter I've just finished will do the Divine Magic fans justice.
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warlock1971
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby warlock1971 » Sun Jan 24, 2016 6:23 am

Hey Alex, when is the Cults book going to ready for release?
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby alex_greene » Sun Jan 24, 2016 11:21 am

The cults section is actually a chunk of a larger book.

However, if you want me to write a book on cults for Legend ...
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warlock1971
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby warlock1971 » Sun Jan 24, 2016 12:34 pm

I am keen on a book on Cults but happy to wait for the book in its entirety... unless you want to separate them, of course :wink:
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby Prime_Evil » Mon Feb 15, 2016 10:21 am

A book on cults is a hard one - a realistic portrayal of pre-modern religion has always been one of the strongest points of the various d100 games. The original RQ set the bar fairly high in this area, and with the new Chaosium edition on the horizon it will be very tough competition to beat. For my taste, the only other system that comes close in this area is Harn.
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby alex_greene » Mon Feb 15, 2016 2:51 pm

Prime_Evil wrote:A book on cults is a hard one - a realistic portrayal of pre-modern religion has always been one of the strongest points of the various d100 games. The original RQ set the bar fairly high in this area, and with the new Chaosium edition on the horizon it will be very tough competition to beat. For my taste, the only other system that comes close in this area is Harn.
I love Harnmaster, and it was inspirational - though not directly.
If the material I've submitted does go to print, I hope that the cults I've written will be inspirational to you, too.
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Re: Creating Realistic Cults

Postby Prime_Evil » Tue Feb 16, 2016 12:36 am

I hope so too.... :D

Harnmaster was a complex system, but it's treatment of religion was exceptionally good.

However, since the days of early Runequest, the various d100 games have tended to draw their inspiration more from the "real" polytheistic religions of the ancient world than any medieval model. Polytheism wasn't treated as mere window dressing as it was by D&D during the same period, but as a concept to be taken seriously and a unique perspective that could be explored and inhabited through gaming.

Keep in mind that attitudes towards religion in the ancient world quite different than those we are familiar with in the modern world - people were generally comfortable with a lot more theological ambiguity than modern faiths are. The fact that the people in the next city-state might worship different gods hardly raised an eyebrow, nor did the fact that their myths about the origin and nature of the gods might contradict your own. There might be an essential underlying unity beneath the apparent multiplicity of divine beings, but even when this was discussed as a philosophical possibility there was no sense of some ultimate "God" in the monotheistic sense. The identity of each deity was mediated by the local cult as much as by the body of shared mythology that surrounded each figure. Indeed, the traditional myths about the gods were often taken with a large grain of salt - there was no sense that you had to believe in the literal truth of the mythology to participate in the religious life of the community. It was more important to participate in sacred rituals that invoked the presence of the divine. And the public rituals were as much about community cohesion and solidarity as they were about their religious content - participation in the public activities of local cult was conceived as a civic duty. Indeed, there was far less emphasis on faith in the sense of abstract belief and more emphasis on direct religious experience mediated through a conceptual framework derived from a common body of tradition. Ancient religions tend to be devotional or votive religions, based on the exchange of gifts or offerings for the blessings of the gods. The concept of reciprocity between humanity and the gods was central, with both parties having obligations and duties to the other. This reciprocity was central to community cohesion and cultural identity and found an echo in the human relationships between patron and client important to ancient cultures.

Sacred religious texts and holy scripture did not exist in the modern sense and there was no special emphasis on founding figures who experienced a special revelation. Complex hierarchical priesthoods were rare and where they do appear they are generally restricted to a single city or geographical region. Monastic orders did not exist there was little sense that individuals needed to withdraw from public life to pursue religious purity. Asceticism was rare. There were few fixed prayers or liturgies - poets might compose new hymns for each public festival. And there was a sense that morality and ethics were the domain of philosophy rather than religion - people didn't expect the Gods to follow human ethical standards. There was no sense of "sin" in the religious sense. A mortal might offend the gods through impiety or neglect, but there was little sense that the gods acted as some kind of "moral police" who enforced abstract ethical standards upon an inherently sinful human population. Morality could be seen as an emergent property of each community rather than as an objective standard against which all human behaviour should be measured.

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