Many tabletop worlds are rife with cults and their troublesome members, causing strife throughout the realm as they move inexorably towards whatever their nefarious goal is. Cultists can get a bad rap as a boring, causing the rolling of eyes from experienced TTRPG players who have dealt with so many campaigns across multiple RPGs that revolved around some type of boring cult that didn’t stick out in any way from the last one.
The truth is that when they are run the wrong way, a cult is boring. The stat block for a cultist in 5th Edition isn’t anything impressive, and these NPCs are often played as simple, one-note characters. It doesn’t matter how interesting the Forgotten Realms, Faerun, or your homebrew setting are if the players are yawning at the obvious challenge ahead.
This blog post will:
- Give you plenty of 5E cult ideas to spice up traditional cults to make them more interesting
- Give creative ideas for very unique and different cults that will be nothing like your table has seen before
- Give you DMs all the tips, strategies, and tactics you need to run a cult-based story the right way to create an unforgettable adventure for your table that them, and their pcs, will never forget!
Let’s dive in!
Best Traditional DnD 5E Cult Ideas
Just because a type of cult is a commonly used faction from past campaigns doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting. It’s all about playing them well, adding some unexpected wrinkles, and playing the cultists more as NPCs versus thinly-veiled drones (though there is a time and place for that, as well).
With that in mind, let’s dive into spicing up the traditional troublemakers first.
The Dragon Worship Cult
A cult of Dragon Worship is a common one and why not? Dragons are an inherent part of the game, and there are several ways to create a good cult around their worship. Kobolds and Dragonborne make sense, but would be pretty easy to spot. They could make for a good red herring, potentially, though.
This is a great time to introduce maybe a forgotten type of Dragon, one that even experienced players might not have ever run into. Go to Dungeon Dad’s amazing YouTube channel for ideas of unknown dragons that bring a new wrinkle. Maybe the human form of one of these creatures is attempting to found a religion, recruit followers, and its intentions might be much harder to figure out – making for a great challenge for the gamers around the table.
While it can be tempting to see this type of cult as worshipping the deity Tiamat as a great wrinkle, Tiamat is an antagonist that many experienced players will have dealt with before so keep in mind that based on the experience of your playing group, you might want to go a different direction if you want something unique.
The goal of a Tiamat dragon cult is always to finish a ritual that brings her to this plane of existence. It definitely ups the stakes, but it is a well-worn trope as she is the evil goddess of all evil dragons.
The Demon Summon Cult
When a cult worships a demon the goal is, admittedly, obvious, but a high level Abyssal or Infernal creature is no joke even for a mid to high level devil or demon. A wrinkle could be that this cult is multi-plane…meaning the demon being summoned isn’t the BBEG but a key member of hell’s version of this cult, needing to come to this plane to help the indoctrinated find a hidden sacred altar or push the next step of a plan from the bigger puppet master behind the cult.
You can also drop clues of this being erratic, only to find out one teenager with a tainted artifact has been brainwashing townsfolk because he thinks he can become immortal because an entity from the planes of hell has convinced him it was an imprisoned genie.
Deception is a powerful tool and can be used even within in the cult to really change up things.
The Dark Prince Cult
This cult might be a bit dark for some tables but it’s found many times in D&D lore, not to mention many a horror film. Those secret members follow a prophecy, often spread in small towns outside the watchful eyes of the Temples in larger cities, as they want to bring forth some entity that will rule the world, and they’ll be rewarded for supporting him.
The key to this cult is often the prophecy, giving a window to those hidden in cloak and dagger tactics a limited time to get their goals done before that time passes.
There aren’t many ways to make this unique as a concept, but the best way to play them is to start out with the players not aware of the cult.
This is a secret society: the mission shouldn’t be to go straight after them, but have your party stumble upon them, discovering them through clues, dropping hints during tabletop roleplaying, chances at lucky dice rolls, or even having a moment where a mission to do A leads to a ritual slaughter…that maybe calls up a terrifying monster when the party shows up, making them realize they are going to need to figure out what’s going on quickly before things get worse.
The Obliteration Cult
The classic end of the world cult always gives the party a reason for wanting to stop it, through it is harder to figure out the nuance on this one. Are the towns or cities charmed? Deceived? Can the charismatic leaders fuel feelings of anger or hate and direct them at kingdom leaders, to the point of being blinded or not caring about their own destruction?
Maybe late in a campaign this comes up and reasonable NPCs from earlier seem different, off. Perhaps the leader has a mask that is actually an artifact, granting unusual powers of persuasion, or even have them possessed by the ghosts of past worshipers.
To get something interesting and unique with the obliteration theme the mechanics must be interesting or different as the over arching plot is going to come back to stopping the world from burning.
The Undead Cult
The difference between cults isn’t always easy to see, but if you have a cult hoping to become undead that certainly turns the head. Was there promise for the downtrodden of finally breaking free with the power that eternal unlife would provide…or has sinister indoctrination planted lies in their heads, causing those within the cult to continue building the power of a high priest?
A Cult of Vecna could be one example of what an undead cult would look like, serving the great Lich, while a cult of Orcus could have a very dark feel to it. This can also be a great pick for gaming groups running other systems like Vampire the Masquerade, The Dresden Files (via Fate System), or Delta Green as these systems can have a very different interpretation of how an undead cult looks, acts, and what they want based on how that RPG setting is run.
The Mind Flayer Cult
Here’s one that can throw your table’s adventuring party for a serious loop! Maybe those hooded figures aren’t as human as they first appear from a distance! Maybe those chants are in a truly alien language!
There are beings that worship mind flayers and those who are magically under control of them, but being hyper intelligent creatures they may see the advantage of having surface mortals who can recruit others, either wittingly or unwittingly, into their plans for greater local control.
This could create a multi-layered challenge as there are creatures in the Underdark (and the other terrifying creatures related to them that can F up a party fast), those under direct control of their Illithid masters, and those who are independent but working for them…perhaps through an intermediary, perhaps not.
A mind flayer cult is one that can create some gnarly moments in homebrew campaigns – especially if you do what our group calls “side room” moments and one of the party end up inadvertently under the control of their new masters without the others noticing.
Best Creative 5E DnD Cult Ideas
Why does every secret society have to be the same with the dark hoods, secret meeting places, and other similar tropes that can make it hard to tell one cult from another? Why not change up the template completely?
Here are some creative ideas that work towards breathing new life into old cults.
The “Fan Girl” Cult
Instead of being secret and meeting in caverns or caves out in the swamp, what if the head of the burgeoning church (for what is a cult but a burgeoning church?) or even the patron is incredibly open, popular, and charismatic. Maybe they come to town and convince all nobles (or notably only some) to give up all their worldly possessions to the poor? Making them popular but maybe creating a power vacuum?
Maybe everyone in your group finds the face incredibly likeable. What is the motivation of this person gaining followers like Deadheads following the Grateful Dead on tour year after year? Are they being intentionally disruptive? Unintentionally? Playing the long game?
Having a fanatically devoted series of followers that will do anything the powers that be in the organization say, or even “act independently” (wink, nudge), to pave over any difficulties that might come up do to their actions.
The Fey Fanatics
Some people just enjoy chaos, and the Fey Fanatics would be a group that maybe pretended to be the Fey so much that somehow they caught the attention of potential patrons who could weaken the veil between the planes. If those that came through first enjoyed chaos more than bloodshed, perhaps the followers would start gaining traits from creatures not naturally in the area.
Imagine these cults even splitting into gangs. Walking into a town where a Satyr gang, a Fairy Dragon gang, a Hag gang, and a Displacer beast gang all starting to get violent with one another, stopping only to spread chaos together for those who aren’t part of the fanatics.
I’ve long been of the opinion that Eldritch cultists should have Eldritch traits, and the same idea should come into play here and can create a really interesting group of cults that have warlocks, warlock-lite worshippers, and more that are all tied into these holes in reality allowing those in one plane to move over to another.
Other System Alternative: The Dresden Files have a Winter Fey Fanatics and Summer Fey Fanatics, which can cause all kinds of problems in this world especially if they are mortals who shouldn’t understand these worlds exist, much less start showing traits that are creating a proxy war in your local setting.
The Rock Band Cult
You know what would be a terrifying and hard cult to deal with? The most charismatic of all cults: one made up entirely of low level bards. The cult leader may or may not follow this exact build, but at low level bards have a variety of spells that are nightmarish to deal with – especially when the adventurers are low level and unprepared for the opponents they’re facing.
Bane and Vicious Mockery can both do some work, and the idea of a “rock band” having a cult following isn’t a stretch at all, but is a funny take and the complete opposite of what many expect from a secret organization.
The Nature Cult
What happens when Druids go rogue? Whether through natural means, discovering an ancient Treant on the material plane that became a sort of living natural demi-god who could over influence the environment, and those in it, a lot of Druids suddenly deciding all the isolated villages and farms need to burn, that the forts need to be torn down, that would be a problem.
How did they defeat towns that had stone walls, guards, and garrisons? The doors were opened from within as the influence of the cult’s patron continues to grow the more its powers grow.
Re-Skin a Movie or Pop Culture “Cult”
An example could be the Foot Clan from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, particularly from the first movie. Move in the shadows, make them a combination of low level Monks and Rogues instead of 9 hit point punching bags. Take a group from a movie, book, or anime and put your little spin on it.
This gives you a framework to work with that also is likely very different from what shows up on your gaming table each week.
Making Cults More Exciting in Your Tabletop Game
There are multiple ways to make a cult more exciting as the DM. If you’re going to want to get the most out of a cult’s impact it’s important to play them the right way at your table. Mainly, there’s one common mistake I see many DMs make is that the starting mission is to find the cult and destroy it.
If the cult is staying undercover, you should discover them through other missions. Have some clues to get an early idea of what’s going on, but keep in mind these groups should be made of NPCs that act normally outside these meetings and are keeping their cover.
Have NPCs that help your party repeatedly for weeks with no signs of something funny going on, but then see them someplace odd or find out later they are “eyes and ears on the surface.”
Imagine every cult as you would an infiltration mission your party would tackle, and act accordingly for a fun and realistic threat that actually reveals itself instead of just handing a mission scroll to the group of players on day one.
Don’t Use The Base Cultist in 5E
Leather armor, few hit points, and no magic? Yawn. No thank you. Forget about the cultist stat line for 5th Edition, it’s just not that good. I honestly believe your average neophyte should be stronger than what you see in the book.
There should be low level warlocks, magical abilities, and if you want them to really look and act different, traits based on the cult. Eldritch cultists should start having those Lovecraftian traits. Those spending too much time in other realms shouldn’t come back untouched.
Think about the dangers in this world and ask yourself: would a lot of 1st level weaklings really make it that far and be a threat?
Of course not. So no cult your group runs up against should be that helpless.
Which 5E Cult Ideas Will You Use?
As this article has proven, there’s no excuse for a cult to ever be boring. You have so many options when it comes to spicing things up, and when done well these can be the main foils of your adventuring party throughout a campaign, bringing plenty of interest and intrigue to your story.
Running a Cult Tips (DM Cheat Sheet):
- Cults always have a goal they’ll do anything to achieve
- They will use any strategy to get their goals – whether brute force, complete secrecy, or a combination of them
- Cults don’t play fair – they’re not above murder at night, poison, or even setting you up for murder if you ask too many questions and get their attention
- Cults are secret. The friendly innkeeper, the “useless apprentice” at the blacksmith, maybe even the local cleric at only temple in an isolated community could all be part of the conspiracy
- Cults often need more than one charismatic leader to grow. Not all of them are rote robots – revealing that the helpful Ranger, the concerned Mayor, and the likeable traveling Merchant were all high ranking cult members could be a great reveal
Whether playing Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, or some other system, a better experience will always come from having a more interesting cult that feels and acts differently than what you’ve run into before. Follow the ideas, advice, and tips form this article and you will have a table full of gamers looking forward to every new and fascinating group of strange cultists that you roll out next!
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Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years. You can find his other work in publications like Level Skip or Hobby Lark.