For an upcoming project, I felt like the Acolyte background was a little too socially acceptable. The Cultist background presented here is a fairly close cousin to it, but emphasizes an illegal or heretical sect or secret society. As such, I think it’s especially well-suited to warlocks, but I love the idea of a setting like Midnight, where paladins have been driven underground.
You are, or once were, a member of a cult – a religious splinter sect or a secret society of occult study. You might still be active within the cult, receiving orders from its secret masters. Or perhaps you’ve rejected its authority, and now the cult wants to bring you back into the fold… or silence you forever. In either case, you live at the crossroads of criminality and faith or arcane study.
Work with your DM to determine the nature of the cult’s devotion. It might be a god, celestial, demon, devil, dragon, fey, or genie. It might be a cabal dedicated to arcane study, with an archmage or lich at its head. A cult without strictly enforced rules is soon stamped out by the forces of orthodoxy, however; no matter what your cult’s nature, their dictates present challenges in the daily lives of adherents.
Skill Proficiencies: Deception, and your choice of Arcana or Religion
Languages: Two of your choice
Equipment: A tattoo signifying membership in the cult, a book of heretical or blasphemous truths, 5 sticks of incense, vestments or robes of occult significance, sacrificial dagger, a set of common clothes, and a belt pouch containing 10 gp
Feature: Cult Network
You know the locations of your cult’s safehouses, shrines, and sanctums in many settlements and wilderness areas. In such a network, you can find at least one loyal member of the cult, who can provide food and a safe place to rest for you and up to six people that you vouch for. Large cities always have a safehouse, while smaller settlements are 50% likely to have one. Remote wilderness areas have one safehouse in any 100-square-mile area. If you have left the cult, you can use the safehouse, drawing attention from the cult only 50% of the time.
A rejection of socially-accepted belief or behavior, and adherence to strict and potentially isolating set of rules, defines the life of the cultist. Their expectation of persecution shapes their interactions, even with people who do not know about their cult connections. Their belief in their secret, superior understanding can be hard for them to conceal.
|1||I try to hide as much of my face as possible, out of habit and fear of recognition.|
|2||I believe that I possess esoteric wisdom on a wide variety of topics.|
|3||Every event is part of the plan of the Secret Masters.|
|4||I carry the holy symbols and texts of a dozen religions, just in case.|
|5||My outward cynicism hides a core of hope.|
|6||I have foreseen my own death, and have no fear of any other demise.|
|7||The cult’s rites and taboos take up much of my spare time and energy.|
|8||When I meet new people, I look for the potential for new novices.|
|1||Freedom: I will get the cult’s hooks out of my life, whatever it takes. (Good)|
|2||Tradition: My family has an ancient history with the cult, and I will honor it until my dying day. (Lawful)|
|3||Revelation: I must undermine the false dogmas that blind everyone around me. (Chaotic)|
|4||Power: The cult is my path to something greater, and I will pay any cost. (Evil)|
|5||Hierarchy: Some were made to serve, others to lead. (Neutral)|
|6||Aspiration: The cult’s demands are harsh, but I will rise through the ranks. (Any)|
|1||A priceless talisman of the cult was stolen, and I will earn great favor by returning it.|
|2||The cult’s mysteriarch is like a mother to me; I value our relationship more than the cult itself.|
|3||The gods I was raised to worship ignored my prayers as my loved ones lay dying, but the cult heard and answered.|
|4||I must prevent the people I love from learning about my involvement with the cult.|
|5||I want to put my past with the cult behind me and atone for the harm I’ve done.|
|6||A powerful inquisitor knows my face, and my connection to the cult.|
|1||I am quick to anger when my beliefs are slighted.|
|2||I weasel out of telling the plain truth when a question makes me uncomfortable.|
|3||I believe that everyone around me is hiding multiple layers of secrets.|
|4||Anyone who looks into my eyes can’t doubt that I am stark raving mad..|
|5||I have crossed over into death and returned, and it put a deep fear into me.|
|6||I keep secrets even from those closest to me.|
The variable skill proficiency is a bit awkward, as backgrounds go, but it’s the price of doing business if I want this to cover both religious cults and esoteric cabals. It’s pretty clear in actual use, all the same.
For the background feature, I originally wanted to offer a Forbidden Lore feature, representing knowledge of things that authority figures work to keep secret. I’ve been trying to make something like that work as a class, subclass, or background feature since some time in the midst of the D&D Next playtest days, and I’ve never really gotten it right. Anyway, Cult Network is a slightly more involved variation on all of the other easy-access-to-hospitality features that show up in backgrounds.
Ultimately, a lot of the personality features come from thinking about lunatic-fringe conspiracy theorists, as much as any real-world religion or cult. (For some cults, this may be a distinction without a difference.)
I hope you like what you see here, and I plan to release another new background soon: the Inquisitor.