Iron Book: Notes on Cults

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The following are a collection of notes on Cults, collated by the Iron Book. Information is compiled largely from RL sources, and is augmented with fantasy where it's thematically fun and appropriate. ICly, they're the kind of thing you could find in the Iron Book's archives. ATM they're mostly maintained by Svarshan, who likes research way too much. A bibliography of links can be found at the bottom.

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When identifying a cult, take note of the following characteristics. These are not the sum of a cult's behavior or process, but may serve as a means to understand them.

  1. A charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power
  2. Coercive persuasion or thought reform
  3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie

Some scholars have elaborated on the above, resulting in a checklist of common characteristics.

Demonic cults (the terms demonic and devil are used interchangably in this document) multiply the methods of exploitation and craft the most severe, and dangerous cult types. See related topics: Soul Trade, formation of demonic bodies, access to mortal realm, energy feed.

Characteristics by Faith

Though demonic cults are most often found among the Gods of Darkness, they may be found among those of Twilight as well. Or, Twilight elements may be drawn in as force-elements within a larger cult. An example of this may most frequently be found among Navosians or Ceinarans, whose elements prove useful to darker forces.

Thul: Thulite cults tend to place vampiric elements in positions of leadership. This may be necessity: there are few intelligent undead. Thulite cults are not often hunted by the 'Book, and fall to our brothers and sisters in the Vardamen and Serrielite realms.

Maugrim: Maugrim's cults tend to be well-organized along whichever structure is used, with a dim view of outsiders in particular when compared to other organizations. Participation in the Soul Trade is less of an if than a when.

Taaran: Taaran cults are diverse. Their structure often focuses on the most effective means to acquire power.

Illothan: Illothan forces rarely admit to cults. Rather, cults which appear to be Taaran, Thulite, or otherwise may in fact be Illothan.

Caracorothan: Caracothian cults tend to fall in Eluna's realm, and involve the use of shapeshifters. However, Caracothan forces may be sometimes called at Maugrim's behest--he is the Tyrant's mad son. Old Rajek lost his life to a demon-were hybrid not long before these documents were written. See also references to: Cult of Garm.

Deimos: See Illothan.

Gunahkan: This faith is less organized for what a cult would demand, and not as many are seen.


In general, demonic cults serve, in addition to their other purposes, as a means to provide their masters with energy, as well as a means into the mortal realm. How they indoctrinate mortals (and immortals) into their reaches is of particular interest, as these beings become a means to their power base, as well as the corruption of innocents. Understanding of this process is key, so that it may be disrupted and its demonic elements destroyed.

Typically, indoctrination involves an initial period of psychological and physical stress. Demons feed off of this stress, so it may act as a source of pleasure for them. Aside from this tie-in, why stress works so well is a matter of debate. It's possible that stress and exhaustion weaken the individual will. An exhausted person is more likely to reach out for aid from others, less likely to question what they're told, and more likely to become dependent on those around him/her (who tend to be strategically positioned cultists). It's also possible that stress and lack of sleep make it easier to train an individual towards certain responses (such as how a beast may be trained to drool when the food bell is rung).

Most descriptions of initiation discuss a multi-part process. The first part is like a crowbar--subjecting the individual to stress to make them more receptive. The second is indoctrination, whereupon their views are altered to match the cult's. The third is reinforcing the indoctrination. Researchers break this down to a number of different stages, though the gist is similar.

Early Stage: Weakening the Will: Whether the participant is willing or unwilling at this stage often depends on the demonic force behind the cult, though in the end the underlying process, it may be argued, is much the same. A volunteer charmed by a succubus or of similar ilk might receive a lot of personal praise, find themselves surrounded by enthusiastic and supportive followers of the cult's beliefs. They may be invited to participate in uplifting weekend retreats, or any other activity which physically and socially isolates them from their routine surroundings, or any area which may provide an idealogic contrast. They may be showered with attention and are likely to be carefully squired by enthusiastic group members.
In cases involving coercion, abduction and arrest serve to locate the indoctrinee in an indoctrinating context. The major distinguishing feature of such coercive settings is that initial stress levels tend to be higher and more salient to indoctrinees given the greater threats to their person and freedom. A surprising number of other features, however, are common to both voluntary and coercive forms of intense indoctrination, such as physical and social separation, changes in diet, sleep deprivation, peer pressure, and emotional manipulations.
Some demonic forces have shortened this period through the use of persuasive magics, such as those possessed by a bard. In this way, mortal followers are capable of spreading the cult's will.
Middle Stage(s): Altering Perceptions: Once the initiate's will is made more malleable, they're presented with controlled information and social pressures. Their identity may be challenged or threatened. At the beginning of this stage, the recruit may "try out" some of the behaviors requested by the group, more or less going through the motions or paying lip service to many of the demands made by the group. Often, the recruit views this as a period of exploration to see what the group is like or what such compliant behavior nets him or her. In other cases, compliance occurs in response to social pressure. Although curiosity and politeness account for some acts of compliance, other instances are induced by well-known compliance techniques, such as reciprocal concessions procedures, appeals to authority, and group pressure. Finally, in coercive settings, individuals often comply in an attempt to reduce threatening or aversive aspects of the situation.
In the final parts of this stage, the individual is turned on him or herself. Eventually, the recruit starts to consider aspects of the group belief system. This can be triggered by various mechanisms including curiosity, persistent social pressure, and the need to justify prior compliance. This portion can be completed within a week in some cases. In this stage, standard theories of social influence and persuasion became applicable in that the individual reevaluates old beliefs and considers new ones.
Final Stage: Acceptance, Solidification: In this final stage, the changes within an individual's psyche are made permanent. Magic can help and in the case of demons--the very act of solidification, it's possible, lends them permanent power. However, demons are successful predators in their study of the mortal mind: thousand-year masters of the art possess little to no need for magic to accomplish their goals. They may engage other mortals to provide interpersonal confirmation and social reinforcement, or may arrange events to do so. Interpersonal reinforcement by others play a crucial role in the success of this process. In cases of indoctrination, individuals are often cajoled into violating their values, engaging in costly behaviors, or committing themselves to irrevocable decisions in service of fanciful, paranoid and unverifiable doctrines.
Demons are likely to engage in this last process because it pleases them, whether or not it is necessary to their goals.
Regardless of method, the recruit solidifies his or her newly acquired allegiance to the group. Because of demonic influence, this often means making various costly behavioral commitments that are hard to undo (e.g., donating one’s personal possessions to the group or recruiting new members), isolating oneself from nongroup members, or selective exposure to information. Donation of belongings is particularly common where a demon is attempting to build a monetary base.
This final stage of indoctrination is marked by the recruit’s total acceptance of group doctrine and policy with a minimum of close examination. Importantly for our agents: the primary reaction of the recruit at this stage to negative information about the group is denial and rationalization. Thus, events and information are selectively interpreted and attended to. As this implies, cognitive dissonance mechanisms appear to be highly relevant in this stage. Individuals at this stage are dominated by defense motivation, when they process attitude-relevant information (i.e., the desire to hold or defend a specific attitudinal position). For this reason, the indoctrinee who reaches the consolidation stage will be highly resistant to persuasion from those outside the group.

Cult Leadership

Cult leadership, at least that leadership which is visible, can depend on the leader being seen as an embodiment of an ideal. Manipulation may take on a special intense quality in a cult for which a particular "chosen" human being is the only source of salvation. Crafting disillusionment of the leader is one means to weaken a cult, though there is always the risk of backfire.

Cults and Their Perception of Outsiders

A cult's perception of outsiders is easily seen in Charn, or the Tyrant's doctrine. Knowing their perception, in general, can help when dealing with them though admittedly, it may also be an exercise in frustration.

  • Anyone who has not seen the light and therefore lives in the realm of evil can be justifiably deceived for a higher purpose.
  • Those who have not seen the light and embraced the truth are wedded to evil, tainted, and therefore in some sense, usually metaphorical, lack the right to exist.

The above are reasons why a cult member threatened with being cast into outer darkness may experience a fear of extinction or collapse. Under particularly malignant conditions, the dispensing of existence is taken literally.

Additional Tools of Cults

Aside from magic and influence, cults employ other tools.


A simplified, cliche-ridden language can exert enormous psychological force, reducing every issue in a complicated life to a single set of slogans that are said to embody the truth as a totality. When a cultist encounters concepts that challenge these ideals, the ideals or language can be reinforced as an "all-encompassing" solution to the issue. In this way, ideology of the cult trumps the reality of the world around them, and slogans define reality.


Confession can serve as a means to keep a "pulse" on the inner workings of initiates--their thoughts and feelings, as well as how far along the process they are. Confessions can be framed as a means to achieve purity--by confessing and cleansing the inner being. Groups of initiates engaging in confession may end up competing against one another--the more one cultist expunges themselves, the more they may place themselves more loftily above others.

Helping Former Cultists

Although the eradication of demonic cults is the goal of the Iron Book, finding help for cult victims is the right thing to do. Based on interviews with former cultists, their greatest need tends to be spiritual. They've just discovered that their leader is a fraud, that the "miracles” are no more than tricks, that the group's victories and accomplishments are fabrications of an internal public relations system, that their teacher is breaking his avowed celibacy with every young disciple, that the group's connections to people of import are nonexistent. A former cultist to come to these realizations is in pain.

It may take years to overcome the disillusionment, and learn not only to trust in your inner self but also to believe in something again.

Former cultists also report that they may have made a mistake in leaving--that perhaps the cult was true and the outside world false. They may feel that they have failed. Because cults are so clever at manipulating certain emotions and events in particular, wonder, awe, transcendence, and mystery (this is sometimes called "mystical manipulation") and because of the mortal desire to believe, a former cult member may grasp at some way to go on believing even after leaving the group. For this reason, many people go from one cult to another, or go in and out of the same cultic group or relationship (known as "cult hopping").