Designing Religious Communes/Cults with a Secret

TL;DR: If every campaign in your spiritual horror game took place in a different isolated commune/cult, how would you systematize the creation of that kind of campaign setting?

I’m working on a new suspense/horror game, tentatively called Labors of Paradise, where the players are hired to infiltrate a mysterious, isolated religious/spiritual commune for some secret mission and, of course, find more than they bargained for. Thematically, think Wickerman, Midsommar, The Apostle, etc., and mechanically I’m still figuring out a new system that will hopefully challenge player’s agency as their values are questioned and they gradually discover the true powers of the group’s miracles.

What I’m looking for some input on is the designing of the commune and how much to actually make part of the rules and system versus what to leave to narrative. Since the vast majority of the game/scenes will be confined to the commune, designing it is essentially designing the setting and campaign, like a bigger, more elaborate Incursion from Trophy. I tried drawing inspiration from Dogs in the Vineyard, but the town hierarchy seems too strict and the progression too scripted for what I’m looking for. I need a structure that can be used to present a few pre-made communes in the core rulebook, set around the year 1900, plus methods for a GM to create their own. So far, I’m considering:

  • Worship: What the commune values above all else, whether a deity, object, ideology, emotion, etc. [Effectively a commune-wide trait?]
  • Leadership: The authority structure of the commune. Choice of three? Singular (top-down under one authority figure), council/committee, or collective?
  • Service: The commune’s regular, standard “service” or group behavior honoring their worship.
  • Ritual: Habitual/ritualized behavior of the commune’s members, embodying their worship.
  • Ceremony: A special ceremony for particular circumstances, typically revolving around a transgression or preparation for something dangerous, such as righting a wrong, “cleansing” someone/something, prepping for an arduous task, etc.
  • Festival: A seasonal/annual celebration or thanks-giving event involving long-term planning, large and elaborate activities, and some sort of transformation.
  • Transcendence: A rare occurrence that either brings a commune member into one-ness with their worship or makes them transcend the physical plane and enter the realm of the spirit in some sense.

But depending on how detailed the GM gets, that could be a lot of pre-writing for a campaign, even though they could probably guarantee most of it would be used, and I don’t know if I want these events to just proceed in a linear order, though that seems to make the most sense in terms of scale. I love the Ring structure of Trophy, but I’m not sure I want the outcome of this to be as pre-determined as that.

If anyone wants more info on the system, it inverts the typical order of “checks” in an RPG. The player’s “stats” are comprised of opposed Values (sort of like Pendragon’s Traits). The GM declares the difficulty of the check, anywhere from 1D4 to 1D20, and then the player draws a number of cards from their deck based on their character’s Value that is involved in the check (plus bonuses from skills/traits). They choose how many of the cards to play to use the numerical values as “points” towards the check. (Any unplayed cards will be discarded to be recycled back into their deck.) The GM will then roll the difficulty die. More points than die result = success, less points = failure, and equaling the die result is a critical success. Failure with a Value can mean a shift towards the opposing Value. The GM then gains all played cards to add to their own deck to be later used against the players. Still puzzling out that part, but I want the harder the players work against the commune’s interests to come back against them that much harder in the commune’s eventual response.

3 Likes

First off, cool idea! I don’t think I’ve played any of the other games you’ve mentioned except Pendragon, but the setting seems like a pretty refreshing take on a subject other games have done to death.

Secondly I don’t feel like your list is too much pre writing for a campaign. No matter the system I play, if I’m centering the campaign around an organization, your list would likely be the minimum of what I’d consider. In fact I would add three more queries to it

Face What the group wants the world to see it as. Such as the legitimate branch of an established religion, a club for privileged gentleman, etc.

Influence Whether they are powerful and open, or must hide in the shadows

Location More important than it sounds. It makes a difference if the events take place in a sleepy village on a secluded island or in a trendy new church in a bustling city.

The card system sounds like it might be a tad over busy but I can’t say without more details.

Anyway I wish I had more input because I’m very interested in your game.
Keep me posted!

1 Like

FWIW I would play the hell out of this game, let me know if you need playtesting help! The incursion structure is one of Trophy’s great achievements and I hope more games will provide this kind of framework.

You might consider looking at My Life with Master if you know that one or possibly also Sorcerer for elegant ways of describing powerful beings that control their followers.

I agree that some of these categories should be reducible to a choice between types, and some should be more freeform, but I’d err on the side of choices since the rest of the writing of the group will be freeform and it seems like you want to take some of the burden off of GM prep. Also, constraints breed creativity.

What if you collapsed Ritual, Service, Ceremony, and Festival down to “Rites” and just provide the procedural tools to generate festivals/ritual/services/ceremonies out of the same set of characteristics? Each will have a great deal of overlap with one another, and neither of the categories are necessary to a cult, so if you encourage the GM to design say a minimum number of Rites they can play with the procedure as much as they’d like to fill in the necessary blanks. If you want it to always be a Festival though, to ensure a similar story as Midsommar or Wicker Man, it might be important to keep that separate. Whereas not all cults have a “service,” the number of their ceremonies varies, sometimes a service is just the vehicle for a ritual, etc.

Transcendence feels specific to certain kinds of religion to me. I think something more generic would be Goal or Telos, or if you want to get fancy, Soteriology. Transcendence is a specific goal, whereas other cults might focus more on conversion or say triggering apocalyptic events.

Worship feels like the area where you want to give the most leeway - sort of like Trophy’s “Theme.” But I think it might be good to set some limits on the receiver of worship, or else it might be hard to direct the rest of the creation process. So maybe you have 4 categories: Being, Relic, Idea, or Other, and each one has a blank space you fill in with the specific, unique target of the worship and its description/manifestation. I also wonder what it does mechanically - does it just help you fill in the sections below it, or does it have a direct mechanical effect?

Leadership also seems more flexible. Maybe focus less on specifics and more on structures? Like, Tiered Hierarchy, Inner/Outer circle, Single Leader, Collective authority.

What about Trappings as a category? Like do they all wear robes, do they have cult idols, do they adorn themselves or their leaders in any ways? Also it will probably be important to generate specific NPCs and mark their level of zeal or belief - there’s often someone trying to escape, or the true zealot, or the priest who is just swindling everyone.

The last thing I’m wondering is what the players/characters do and how the structure of the cult might support those activities. For instance, some leadership structures are easier to infiltrate but harder to collapse; some rites might be more open or secret than others, and what happens if you view a secret rite as an outsider? etc. If you can tie the cult’s aspects to character activities, it’ll strengthen both the cult structure itself and the experience of the players.

Hope this is helpful, and sorry for the long post! I’m just into this genre of things generally and I’m working on my own “incursion generator” for one of my games right now.

2 Likes

Thanks for the encouragement and tips!

Face is a great suggestion; I’ll add that immediately.

I think Size & Believers, a metric I have but didn’t mention, will be a decent shorthand for Influence. Size is how many people live at the commune, and Believers is how many people adhere to its tenets. Fewer Believers than Size? You have some doubters in the midst or people forced to live there by some other circumstance. More Believers than Size? Then people beyond the commune’s walls are spreading the message in the outside world. The public/covert dichotomy should be covered by Face as well.

I also considered Location, yeah, (as Environment), but didn’t include it because I don’t see it weighing on the mechanics much. Although I’m sure there will be exceptions. The key with that will be for the commune to be isolated, so the players can’t just run to outsiders or authority figures for help. (But I guess a clever GM could come up with other complicating factors for that in specific settings.)

1 Like

Thanks for the feedback; these are really good suggestions. I’ll see if I can check out My Life with Master and Sorcerer.

I guess I can limit more of these options to choices, at least for playtesting, and see how they work.

Collapsing all those activities into Rites should work better, yeah. I was probably thinking of them too linearly, searching for the game structure, but I should give the GM more freedom on when and how to use them.

Very good point about Transcendence; I was a little hesitant on that, as I didn’t want it to seem like a goal of the group insomuch as something that could happen and, if so, how it might happen within this group. But Telos works a lot better as the commune’s goal, while the other parts of Transcendence could be sprinkled throughout Rites and other freeform stuff.

Yeah, Worship being the Theme is pretty spot on, so that should be fairly open. But I like your category suggestion. As for how much it affects mechanically, I was thinking it could provide a constant bonus for the GM for checks whenever an NPC is acting directly in service of the Worship, or for players when they are appealing to the Worship. But I need to nail down the GM’s side of the system mechanics more before I know whether that makes sense. At minimum, yeah, it should be a guiding concept for creating the rest of the commune.

Trappings would be good, just some notes on how they are identifiable or carry themselves. And I want to have space on the GM’s commune sheet for a good handful of key NPCs, but I am concerned about making them too scripted by suggesting things like “This is the zealot, this is the escapee, this is the swindler,” etc. Again, maybe just some suggested checkboxes with archetypes like that and an “Other” box for freeform writing?

I’m not 100% clear on what you mean by tying the cult’s aspects to characters’ activities, though. I’m hoping to have each player make a “secret mission” for their character, the thing they were sent or compelled to infiltrate the cult for, and find a way for the GM to use those in their commune creation somehow. But maybe I should leave that pretty freeform. And I’m still figuring out the sort of Initiation phase at the game start, where the PCs first arrive as new initiates and make their first ties and relationships with the community.

All this is very helpful! I’ve also added a Crisis category, whatever is putting greater stress on the commune as the PCs arrive, and a Protector(s) category, either whoever the group’s peacekeepers/guards are or some other entity that looks out for them.

2 Likes

I think choices generally just provide useful guidance (My Life with Master uses these kinds of choices). They are left up to GM interpretation - I wouldn’t worry about closing off too many options unless you hear that in playtesting, and you can always include an “other” option. Trophy’s Ring structure is super specific, and you don’t even have a choice - it tells you what type of danger is in each ring. And yet we all managed to create 50 incursions within a few weeks.

That could work - I was trying to suggest maybe you have a Zeal or Belief slider/rating for each of the NPCs, which could add a dimension to interactions with them, more so than archetypes which can be pretty static. One idea that could work would be to have a pool of Zeal for NPC creation and the GM needs to divide it up among them. Or they could just manually set the ratings. Or they could be words, like “Zealot, Believer, Skeptic, Nonbeliever” or something.

What I mean is: how do you reward the player? and is it like Trophy where the character is doomed? In Trophy, the “rewards”/advancement includes conditions, for instance. Player rewards can often be tied to antagonists - xp for monsters, xp for solving the puzzle, etc. It’s tough to make a secret mission when the cult itself is a secret. So maybe you mechanize something like clues or secrets, as in say Gumshoe? What I’m suggesting here is that what matters most are the parts of the cult that the players will directly interact with/that will have a direct impact on the character’s missions/goals. Lore can help fill out the atmosphere, but what is most central are the pieces that matter to the players/characters. It was more of a general suggestion, but these things might and often do collapse into a mechanic at some point.

Crisis is cool - cult leaders often use manufactured crises as well. Protector is also cool - could they be just another kind of NPC, or is it important that they’re separate? I’m genuinely not sure, just something to consider.

I could see some of this stuff being able to be generated on the fly. Like, oh, the PCs stumbled upon cultists engaging in a Rite, let me roll one up. Or: I need some set dressing, here are some Trappings I just made. I’m personally biased toward low-prep stuff, and any help you can give to create things on the fly could be useful. Blades in the Dark is really good at this, especially in the back tables.

Glad it was helpful! I’m looking forward to reading more.

2 Likes

SIlent Legions from Sine Nomine Publishing, a sandbox-style investigative lovecraftian horror old school game, has GM tools for creating cults (among many other things, such as mysteries, monsters etc.). I haven’t read it yet and can’t offer more specific insights, but the game is specifically geared towards low-prep and helping the GM with world creation (as are all games from this author).

1 Like

Choices are good. Just tough finding the right balance between prep and improv, but I should err more on the side of offering more structure. I like the Zeal pool idea for NPC creation, and I might be able to combine that with archetypes that don’t have anything to do with the characters’ commitment to the commune or lack thereof, to aid the GM in finding their personalities on the fly. Still wondering if I can find a way to draw their Zeal into the mechanics, though.

Character advancement is an issue currently. I envision most characters not succeeding at their secret mission, or maybe succeeding but failing to escape the Commune. It will be a pretty deadly game that I suspect won’t last more than 3, maaaaaybe 4 sessions (if they’re lucky) per campaign. (I’m trying to figure out mechanics for letting a player whose character has died or escaped continue playing as a sub-GM, introducing effects that their character’s presence has had on the Commune. That’s a tough one, though.) Characters won’t be increasing their stats, but may be picking up a couple supernatural abilities as they get closer to the Commune’s true nature.

Best I have for tracking advancement is a “Clues” track indicating how close the character is to figuring out what they need to know to solve their secret mission. I was thinking I could relieve the GM somewhat and give the players some more agency in the narrative by having the clues be created by the players on the spot when they are discovered. It takes a bit of narrative buy-in for the players, but maybe they can generate the breadcrumbs as they go. That way the solution is a mystery to everyone at the table and could evolve to make sense alongside how the nature of the Commune is revealed.

The issue is, again, tying that to mechanics. When/how does a character discover a clue? My working idea at the moment is that the GM has a list of “triggers” that, if/when they occur, mean they can let a character discover a clue now/soon. The triggers would be both mechanical and narrative, e.g. A character publicly fails a task, A character selflessly aids a Commune member, A certain card is played, a character reaches X respect from the Commune, etc. Downsides are that it would probably feel pretty random, and I’d have to come up with a pretty big list of triggers to ensure players don’t just get stuck not actually hitting any of them. I’ll keep brainstorming on that.
EDIT: I have a card mechanic for when the GM pulls a Joker, the Crisis escalates or needs some release valve or scapegoat, but maybe I can change that to be Clue discovery? (Chances start out as between 1 in 3 to 1 in 4, depending on player count, and should gradually get smaller as gameplay progresses.

I’ve heard it’s got roll tables galore. I’ll see if I can check that out, thanks! Along with this recommendation and @domesdaygames’s suggestion of Blades in the Dark, I’m starting to lean more towards “I just need a bunch of roll tables!” We’ll see.

2 Likes

Gumshoe systems are great for clue mechanics/mysteries - Trail of Cthulhu seems most relevant here, might be worth a read. Sorry to keep piling on book recommendations!

I like games that cede some narrative control to players. It’d be interesting to see how that could work for a mystery game, which might be tough. Clues seem like a primary reward/currency, maybe you’d want to build in clues for some of these feature generators, like “the climax of this rite yields a clue” or “this NPC knows a clue” etc. There could be some features that are red herrings or set dressing while others are directly relevant. I like the idea of triggers too, maybe there’s some combination or a variety of ways to uncover clues (always a good thing in a mystery game, plus it enables players to contribute even if their stats and abilities aren’t helpful to discovering clues via standard methods). I also like the idea of tying clues to advancement.

Character death is a tough one - maybe new PCs are always prisoners of the cult? Maybe a PC that replaces a PC that died always has a clue at the start, which could soften the blow of losing a character.

1 Like

I’ve seen Gumshoe recommendations before for mystery writing, but as far as I can tell there isn’t much of a clue “mechanic” in the system, is there? The GM just has to come up with clues, put them in scenes, and if a player’s character is in the scene and has a skill relevant to identifying the clue, they do.

Perhaps I can figure out three means of acquiring clues: narrative, mechanic, and chance/puzzle. For narrative: when a character goes through some arduous task, complex politicking, or serious hardship they can gain a clue. Mechanic: when hitting certain levels of respect or knowledge of lore within the commune, they can gain a clue. Chance/puzzle: maybe once the commune is created, the GM rolls randomly to seed clues into certain aspects of the commune’s design which, if involved significantly in a scene, or a character takes time to observe or study it, can gain them a clue.

Yeah, maybe players whose characters die can just play another commune member who “awakens” to the bigger issues or problems within it and starts to aid the other PCs. At least, that’s a simpler solution until/unless I can figure out how the sub-GM stuff could work.

I’ve started trying to write up roll tables for commune creation. I split Worship into Worship Vessel (what/whom it is the commune finds their spirituality focused in) and Worship Doctrine (what/whom they are servicing and hoping to do/achieve), that will hopefully all be able to be created with a single large dice roll. People should feel free to toss in suggestions as comments. Nothing I’ve entered so far is set in stone, so I’m open to reinterpretations.