How to Role-Play a Cultist in Dungeons & Dragons 5e
Cultists are individuals engaged in the fervent and single-minded service of an individual or a God, often banding together to obtain extreme goals. Their interactions with characters may vary depending on the God they serve and the goals they are trying to achieve, but there are some fundamental principles to keep in mind when role-playing cultists.
Cultists often wear identical clothing, especially robes and masks, to devalue the identity of the individual and promote assimilation and service to the organization. The color of their robes may match the colors or domains of the God they serve. For instance, servants of Shar may wear black robes, Umberlee’s servants could wear blue, and servants of Kossuth may wear red.
Because the cult consists of citizens of the city, cult members are usually composed of common races. However, they may have disproportionate numbers of a specific race or gender due to requirements of service within a particular cult. For instance, a cult of Lolth may be comprised primarily of female drow, which she sees as her chosen race and gender.
Often, cultists attempt to conceal differentiating traits which can make it difficult for characters to tell them apart. However, cult leaders may have distinctive markings on their robes or distinguishing physical characteristics such as scars or facial hair, which individuals can use to recognize them. When introducing a cultist NPC, be sure to spend extra time describing their facial features, mannerisms, and other features to help characters identify and remember them.
While cultists are individuals with distinct personalities, they are united in service of God or purpose which binds them together. Often, low-level cultists are nameless individuals, who abandon their past lives in service of the cult. They are seen as a formless mass, being zealots who are willing to sacrifice their lives in service to their cause.
However, high-level cultists and cult leaders may retain their personalities. They are often highly charismatic, using their strong personalities to guide and manipulate low-level cultists. They experience an intense devotion to their God or cause and are usually willing to die for their cause.
Cultists have varied duties which evolve and change as their organization grows. Many cults exist to complete a single purpose, such as completing a ritual to bring a demon to the Material Plane. In these instances, each cult member is responsible for completing different tasks, such as collecting spell components for a ritual, patrolling and protecting the area where the cult is located or where the ritual will occur, and ultimately participating in the dark ceremonies. Additional roles may be acting as a spy to gather information from other organizations or to sabotage those who would interfere with their plans, or researching information required for the ritual.
The cult leader is involved in overseeing the actions of low-level cultists, communing with the God they serve, and acting as a leader for any rituals the cult performs. Ultimately, they are the mastermind of the situation, with low-level cultists behaving as sheep who serve the leader’s every whim.
There may also exist various factions within a cult who are loyal to different leaders or goals. Even though a cult may seem to have a single unified cause, there are many potential allies, enemies, and plot hooks which may exist within a large or fragmented cult.
Low-level cultists focus primarily on following orders and taking down the adventurers. Ultimately, they are not highly trained fighters and fight with melee weapons or their bare hands if necessary. Because they're not trained fighters, they will attack whoever is convenient, without trying to focus spell-casters or other squishy targets. They do not follow tactics, unless a cult leader is directing them, and fight fervently to the death to protect their cause.
Cult leaders, on the other hand, are highly intelligent and charismatic. They are often spell-casters or high-level melee combatants, who try to stage combat to their advantage. While they may be willing to die for their cause, they are not eager to do so and will try to put the odds in their favor during combat. They willingly sacrifice low-level cultists if it improves their own chance of survival, and show no moral qualms over their deaths.
If attacked while conducting a ritual, cult leaders may strive to either complete the ritual before engaging in combat or may choose to stop the ceremony to defeat combatants before continuing, choosing whichever is more reasonable. Cult leaders will do their best to protect magical artifacts or other valuable objects during combat, as well.
When designing a cultist NPC, imagine what God they serve and allow that to shape their personality and appearance.
A Kuo Toa cultist in service of the Deep Father seeks to raise him from his watery home in the Abyss. He is abducting victims to sacrifice on a bloody altar. Once enough blood has been spilled, the Deep Father will rise from the great lake and destroy all that is left of the Underdark.
A cultist of Shar seeks a rare obsidian stone artifact which, when placed in the light of a blood moon at the peak of pandemonium, will usher in an endless night. If she completes her goals, all life on Faerun will be extinguished, disappearing into complete and utter darkness.
These are just two simple examples of how cultist NPCs can shape your campaign. What kind of cults have you set against your PCs, and what diabolical schemes have they hatched? Tell us in the comments below!