Cults in Dungeons & Dragons: How I Would Structure Mine
Within any cult, there are often many levels of initiation, and with each level, cultists gain more access to wealth, power, knowledge, and influence. In naming these ranks, secret societies tend toward a decadent grandiosity. Membership in a cult grants a sense of belonging and purpose to the disenfranchised; this is often reflected in the cool titles they give themselves to make themselves and their mission feel essential. The titles here are just examples; flip through books by H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, or Jack Vance and read up on real-world secret societies for inspiration and have fun with it.
The Top of The Hierarchy: The Object of Veneration
All cults are organized around the veneration of something. It might be the cult leader themselves: a high-level bard, rogue, or narcissistic wizard who craves the admiration and respect they never got from their peers, or a less-powerful adventurer who came to possess an artifact granting them godlike powers (which may or may not turn out to be illusory). The object itself—the skull of an ancient hero, a vial containing the blood of a god’s avatar, or a tree branch struck by lightning when an evil usurper smote the thunder god—may serve as the object of worship, and the leader is merely its caretaker.
The leader might also be the spokesperson for an even more powerful entity. A cult leader may be carrying out the will of a cunning dragon or beholder who wishes to influence the outside world without getting directly involved or may be recruiting victims for a vampire or mind flayer who is creating a cult of mindless, devout thralls.
Most likely, the object of veneration will be an evil extra-planar entity, such as an evil god seeking a return to past glory after being defeated long ago by good deities, or a mighty Balor ravaging its way up the hierarchy of the Abyss (or simply wreaking havoc on the Material Plane for its own enjoyment).
My Idea for a Cult
Imagine a cult devoted to a mysterious upstart god known as Vulhggoghfh called the Baleful Supplicants of Vulhggoghfh. This deity wishes to take corporeal form and feed on the souls of the living, but to realize this detestable aim, it must first gain followers and grow in strength. In return, it promises to spare anyone worthy of serving them.
Leader: The Baleful Magus
The Baleful Magus gained their title by unwittingly unlocking the arcane seal that kept Vulhggoghfh’s realm separate from the Prime Material Plane. They were given a choice: serve or die.
As the leader of the cult, the Baleful Magus has direct contact with Vulhggoghfh. They are a vessel for its will, dispensing Vulhggoghfh’s orders to its followers. They maintain their hold over the cult through powerful spells that Vulhggoghfh casts through them. Without Vulhggoghfh, they are still a formidable wizard, but with the god’s backing, they have an almost godlike power themselves.
The High Council: Pentarchs of the Oracular Tribunal
The pentarchs are powerful and trusted wizard-priests who have been initiated into most—but not all—of the mysteries of Vulhggoghfh. As their name implies, there are five of them, each one maintaining one of the five unhallowed portals into Vulhggoghfh’s home plane. Additionally, the Pentarchy is responsible for recording the word of Vulhggoghfh as revealed through the Baleful Magus.
Mysteriarch of the Obsidian Stele
The mysteriarchs of the cult have gazed upon the Obsidian Stele buried deep within the Sepulchre of Sorrow, and as a result, they learn that Vulhggoghfh is an extraplanar being, fundamentally different from the traditional deities. They learn of Vulhggoghfh’s true plans for humanity and are told that they will inherit kingdoms.
Their primary responsibility is scrying for artifacts useful to Vulhggoghfh, but they also spend time organizing parties of lictors (Eldritch Knight fighters) and mystagogues (cleric/wizards) to find them.
Lictor of the Sepulchre
Supplicants who show talent in arms are promoted to lictor and serve as bodyguards to mysteriarchs and pentarchs, each of whom is guarded by three lictors. They are ranked above mystagogues because of their willingness to die for the glory of Vulhggoghfh.
Though supplicants will fight and mystagogues will provide magical support if PCs attack them, it is the lictors who are truly frightening in battle. They will likely have at least 3 levels in fighter or cleric.
Mystagogue of Vul
Ambitious, devoted supplicants who show promise (that is, pay their tithes, only associate with cult-approved people, and keep cult secrets) may be promoted to mystagogue. After the completion of either a quest to retrieve a magical item or a donation of thousands of gold pieces, new mystagogues undergo training at the hands of a mysteriarch, where they gain levels as clerics and wizards.
Mystagogues carry out rites of initiation, ritual reenactments of the Baleful Magus’s discovery of Lord Vul’s Tome of Direful Acrimony, and deliver sermons to the faithful. One or two mytsagogues in each of the larger cities of the kingdom maintain congregations of about a dozen supplicants and students each.
These are students who have been initiated into the cult. Students know Vulhggoghfh only as the Lord of Beyond; Baleful Supplicants learn that the Lord of Beyond is called Lord Vul, though they are never to speak this name to the uninitiated. Like students, supplicants live ostensibly free lives but are required to submit themselves to weekly zone of truth sessions to confirm their loyalty. Those who reveal the secrets of the cult are sacrificed to Lord Vul.
Student of the Veiled Arcanum
Students know very little about the god they serve; they are mostly a source of money and labor for the cult. Though they are promised knowledge and power, the vast majority of students never attain the next level. They are free to live their lives, but the type of work they do and the people they associate with are closely monitored by mystagogues.
Why Did They Join a Cult?
The student thirsts after an understanding of the gods and the universe, so the cult allowed the student to purchase books that promised divine knowledge. The student couldn’t afford the books, so they are now an indentured servant of the cult.
The student believes they were born into a lower station than they should have been. The cult offers the student the status that respectable society never would.
The student was thrown out of a guild or family, and the cult offers a sense of purpose and camaraderie.
The student was magically brainwashed into serving evil.