September 15, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
Qualities of ‘Cults’
In our previous installments, I’ve talked generally about the nature and role of cults in the Call of Cthulhu RPG (and Lovecraftian RPGs in general) as well as those cults that are described, either in Lovecraft writings or later RPG works, as operating in Lovecraft Country. Today, we’re going to look at the elements and qualities inherent in a cult; after considering these elements we will then begin making up a new cult for Lovecraft Country. (There is a list of cults that have appeared in Call of Cthulhu scenarios, but it is currently little more than just a list of names.)
I’d like to divide up what I’m going to call qualities into two groups: Practical and Narrative. Practical qualities are those thing related to the functioning of the cult in the game world – how it operates, interacts with the wider world, and how it responds to investigations. Narrative qualities are those factors related to the wider fictional setting, including existing elements of the Cthulhu Mythos as well as setting or thematic goals the Keeper might have. Obviously all of these qualities impact each and every other quality, practical and thematic; there is a web-like quality to making a plausible and engaging cult, and once you’ve set one element, the others quickly come together.
Practically, the Keeper should understand the following things about a cult when using it in an important role in their game:
- Location – Where does the cult operate? You might also consider where it was founded, if it came from somewhere else.
- Origins – How did the cult start? Where was it? When?
- Membership – Who (and sometimes what) makes up the membership of the cult?
- Benefits – What do members get from being a part of the cult?
- Resources – What powers can the cult use to expand itself? Protect itself? Attack enemies? Gain information?
- Methods – How does the cult control its members? How does the cult deal with threats? How far will members go in serving the cult?
- Ability to function – How well do the cult’s members interact with the outside world? How much friction does it generate in going about its normal activities?
- Reputation – What does the lay-person know about the cult? How is it generally regarded?
Narrative issues are more nebulous, but they provide the essential ‘color’ that brings a good cult to life and makes it something of not just menace, but an unnatural threat. These narrative factors include
- Hook – How do you describe the cult in a sentence or two (at most!)? How is it different from other cults?
- Inspirations – What elements from fiction and history inspired this group? What fictional and/or historical groups can you utilize as part of this cult?
- Themes – In the scenario or campaign, what dramatic themes does the cult highlight? How can you link this into the general theme of the campaign, assuming there is one?
- Mythos knowledge – a final consideration: based on what you’ve established for the cult, what does it know of the Mythos? What Mythos secrets is it most interested in?
Example: The Starry Wisdom Cult
[Some] cling to less rational and commonplace theories. They are inclined to take much of Blake’s diary at its face value, and point significantly to certain facts such as the undoubted genuineness of the old church record, the verified existence of the disliked and unorthodox Starry Wisdom sect prior to 1877…
– “The Haunter of the Dark”
Let’s take a look at Lovecraft’s Starry Wisdom cult, as given in “The Haunter of the Dark” using the questions outlined above. (I Should note that the cult has previously been discussed by Dan Harms in Worlds of Cthulhu #1, in the Keeper’s Companion vol I, by Kenneth Hite (for Trail of Cthulhu), and in the scenario “The Crystal of Chaos“. I have avoided checking these fine articles so that I would solely stick to what Lovecraft established in the story, to model how you might do the same to less well-trod sources, though I strongly suggest reviewing published materials for inspiration and ideas – the Harms and Hite articles in particular are well worth a look.)
- Location – Providence, Rhode Island. (Some RPG works suggest there were branches of the cult in other towns, but those are later inventions.)
- Origins – Founded by Prof. Enoch Bowen, an occultist, upon his return from Egypt in 1844.
- Membership – Aside from Bowen, Lovecraft says the cult had “200 or more in cong.” in 1863 and that “181 persons leave city” after the cult is broken up. A few members or former members are named: Francis X. Feeney and Orrin B. Eddy. The former name (and the fact of is deathbed confession to a Priest) indicate that Feeney was a Catholic and likely Irish. Eddy’s name suggests someone of old New England stock (and perhaps a nod to Lovecraft’s friend C.M. Eddy).
- Benefits – Members of the cult gained “the Shining Trapezohedron shews them heaven & other worlds, & that the Haunter of the Dark tells them secrets in some way”.
Resources – Bowen was wealthy enough to fund a visit, perhaps an archaeological expedition?, to Egypt in 1844 and to purchase the “old Free-Will church” in the same year. With a least 200 members, we can imagine that they cult had a reasonable level of funding. Considering the “satin pew linings” and extensive occult library held in their church (“a Latin version of the abhorred Necronomicon, the sinister Liber Ivonis, the infamous Cultes des Goules of Comte d’Erlette, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, and old Ludvig Prinn’s hellish De Vermis Mysteriis… [and] the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Book of Dzyan”) we can infer that the Starry Wisdom cult was well-funded indeed. Perhaps most importantly the cult possessed the dreadful Shining Trapezohedron, a supernatural jewel, supposedly brought to Earth from Yuggoth, that served as a “window on all time and space”, and with a hideous history from the time of the Elder Things to the forgotten Egyptian pharaoh Nephren-ka.
- Methods – The story suggests that the cult required regular human sacrifices and seemed to prey mainly on Providence’s immigrant communities as the only named missing person had an Irish name and “Irish boys mob the church in 1869”. The cult had enough social pull to prevent overt government action against it until 1877 despite rumors of blood sacrifice in 1848.
- Ability to Function – Despite some occasional harassment by certain members of Providence society, the cult operated without much impediment until 1877. This suggests that the cult had some leverage with Providence’s leaders, perhaps by preying on marginal communities and/or connections to the city’s government. Members seemed to move in regular society despite rumors; there is no mention of odd behavior or activities on cult members’ part. There are some hints that the cult had not entirely departed after 1877 – some items found by Blake in the old church mysterious disappeared after his visit and the property is curiously allowed to molder without civic intervention.
- Reputation – Very bad, especially in certain circles, but membership grew rapidly from its foundation – “Congregation 97 by end of ’45” even while some ministers are warning against it as early as 1844. Even after the cult was broken up the old church was regarded as a dreadful place to be definitely avoided.
- Hook – A Egyptian artifact provides a conduit to the nightmarish power of “The Haunter of the Dark”.
- Inspiration – S.T. Joshi (and others) have highlighted how the story was inspired by elements of Lovecraft’s life – Blake’s apartment is Lovecraft’s own and the “Starry Wisdom church” on Federal Hill was inspired by St. John’s Catholic Church.
- Themes – Forbidden knowledge, corruption from foreign places (though it is Providence’s Italian community that best recognizes the threat from the old Starry Wisdom church), fear of the dark, subconscious impulses toward self-destruction.. and apparently jotting down notes even while going mad and Outer Gods are rushing towards you.
- Mythos Knowledge – Considering the library held by the church and the power of the Shining Trapezohedron, we can imagine that the cult’s members had access to many of the secrets of the Mythos. The stone’s lineage from pre-human civilization to Egypt opens up any number of connections; the use of the Ankh within the church suggests the cult had an Egyptian elements, which was very popular in the 19th century.
Two New Lovecraft Country Cults
Now that we’ve reviewed the ‘qualities’ of cults and looked at one of Lovecraft’s better-known groups through that lens, let’s set the stage for our next and final post in this series, by setting out my two ideas for new cults in Lovecraft Country. I greatly appreciate a few people asking for more information about the Hermetic Order of Silver Twilight, I think that group has been covered adequately in The Shadows of Yog-Sothoth (and elsewhere) and considering they’ve already got a branch in Cambridge, I don’t think they’d set up shop in nearby Arkham…
I’d like to develop at least two different cults so we can have a little variety – I’ve settled on the following two ideas, which I shall expand upon in the remaining posts in this series:
The Fellowship of the Black Book – Based in Arkham, well-to-do men of the establishment.
The Slocum Family – Somewhere rural – perhaps Dunwich, but not necessarily; poor
But we shall say more about both them in our next installment… 😉