Ok, so almost as big as the "everyone meets in a tavern" cliché, at least in my campaigns, is the "evil cult". No matter where you go in some game worlds, there is some cult dedicated to an evil god that wants little more than to conquer/destroy the world. They are generally just dungeon fodder; some humans you can fight and loot for the greater good. They are at most fringe groups most the time, since 'destroying the world' isn't the most powerful political platform.
Anyway, I don't like this sort of cult. Sure, doomsday cults have existed / do exist in human history, but no one is 'just a cult member'. People don't go and start talking in a wheedley or demonic voice, hunched over in some dark robe, and staying inside some hole dug out of a mountainside, just because they are waiting for adventurers to come and slaughter their cult. However, it does work as a minor scuffle for PCs, sure.
In light of wanting a different sort of crazy cult to combat, I'd like to take a real-world example. The problem is, defining any real world religion as a 'crazy cult' will likely offend all kinds of people. We don't discuss religion or politics in polite company. However, I don't care if I offend certain groups, so I will go with Scientology as a group that we can base a new type of cult encounter with. Scientology, if you haven't heard of it, is an incredibly wealthy crazy cult founded by a science-fiction writer in the fifties. The wikipedia article is fairly informative. Part of their belief system involves space aliens and panspermia. It's not a 'destroy the world' sort of group, but it could easily be tweaked into a cult that could at least cause the PCs problems.
One thing that makes Scientology particularly interesting for RPG usage is it's wealth, influence, and tendency to use that wealth and influence to protect itself. Religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, etc, are big and powerful enough that they don't fear eradication. The idea of forcefully or legally removing Judaism, for example, from Earth is so impossible as to be laughable. However, Scientology is primarily a group of wealthy people who have purchased a high ranking for themselves, and a long list of rubes who have gotten swept up in the group and have been forced to sever ties with their erstwhile loved ones. There aren't enough people and there isn't enough tradition to call it invulnerable to legal hiccups. If Scientology was legally banned from, say, America, the group would effectively cease to exist in a generation or two. Thus, they use their money and influence to slap anyone around who dares to criticize them. This is directly applicable to an RPG set in an urban area.
In your fantasy city, perhaps some group like this exists. They aren't the rulers of the place, probably, but they have the ear of the ruler. They have money, which can buy friends. Thus, becoming an enemy of the group is no trivial matter. Far from just annihilating a cult of six guys that hang out in a cave complex, assaulting this group would be beyond the abilities of most adventuring groups. Even aside from the sheer number of people, there's legal troubles. They are based in a city, and thus are protected by it's laws. Their money and influence also means that they aren't hampered by those same laws, at least not to the extent that average commoners are. If your group goes outside of town and slaughters a dozen followers in a cave complex, you get back to a very unfriendly place. Some commoners, unbelievers, might be happy about what you did, but wouldn't express it in public. You might not be immediately arrested, but you'd be followed everywhere. The church might start a slander campaign, digging up dirt to use against you.
For the purposes of a RPG, the church probably worships a legitimate power. This could be space aliens, if you are running that sort of game, but it could just as easily be Vecna, Nerull, or some other evil god or goddess. Of course, the neonates don't know the true object of worship. Scientologists don't start out knowing about the alien thing, though they aren't exactly an object of worship anyway. It's too hokey to use as a conversion tool. Perhaps in this city, the lower level followers believe the church to worship something innocuous. Most people wouldn't mind following a new church of wealth, for instance. The people worship the idols, they obey the tenets of the church, and all the power goes to the real leader of the group. After the worshipers have given a lot of money to the church and severed most of their connections outside of the religion, they find out who the real leaders are. At this point, they are in deep and have decided that it doesn't matter who runs the group; they like the power they've gained, and the group isn't hurting anything.
How does something like this spread? Easily, if you know how to do it. Scientology was started effectively to make money for the founder. He made a few bets that he could start a religion by himself, and it worked out. There are idiots to be taken advantage of everywhere. For instance, the church leaders arrive in a new town, and manage to convert a few poorer people with tales of great wealth if they give money to the church as a sacrifice. The people, long held down by poverty and society's unfairness, agree to anything that seems likely to improve their station. The group has money already, and uses it to slightly improve the means of the new converts. Rumors of this new god of wealth spreads, and new converts come in. The church uses the monetary influx to build a nice communal home, in a poor area of town. The building is nice, with marble walls and sunlight. The converts now live there, and it feels much improved over what they knew before. More importantly, the people living in the shanties nearby see this opulent place, and want to throw in as well.
Over time, the monetary and lifestyle improvements gained by joining dwindle. However, it's now an established religion. The combined money of the city's poor is more than enough to establish political pull. People tend to join up as a matter of course now, similar to joining a church of Pelor. Concerned citizens around the city speak out against this new religion, but for some reason, all of them have bad things in their past that are always brought up, or they simply disappear. After a time, no one questions the group any more.
This is an interesting place to bring in the party. If they see this established group, and have some way of knowing that it's crooked, they will probably want to either bring it down or join it to swipe loot and then run off. Either way, they put themselves into a situation where more than just a few nut jobs in a dungeon are angry with them. A group this size has real power, and power that a strong sword arm and spellbook can't easily stop. Perhaps the party is conscripted against the religion by someone who knows at least part of the truth. Perhaps the founders of the group are now realizing that the church is out of control, and offer money to the party to expose the secrets. It's possible that the church converts one of the PCs, and he or she just happens to be smart enough to see through their lies after giving their money to the group. Either way, it's a nice setup.
Do be aware, however, that bringing heavy use of religion as a negative force into a campaign can cause problems for sensitive players. Be aware of your players' limits. If you are playing with several confused fundamentalists who see no problem with playing D&D, but would be offended by this action, you may want to be careful about it. Religion is one of those topics that tends to cause a lot of conflict very quickly.
I've used groups like this in campaigns before, and it throws players off a bit. A large-scale group that, although marginally or severely evil, has a lot of popular support is a dangerous opponent. The group I used, "The Order of the Cloth", helped the common people constantly. They healed the injured (Cure Light Wounds is free, after all), fed the hungry (Heroes Feast,Create Food and Water and the like), rebuilt damaged buildings (Mending,Wall of Stone), and generally helped out. Most of these effects can be created by clerics of levels below five or six, and people may be impressed by even a level one or two magic user in general. Helping the masses made the group well-loved, and hard to oppose. The party also had no hard evidence that the group was evil, but they just acted somewhat suspiciously and were a little overzealous in appealing to the party to convert. It was fun times.
Anyway, consider a popular and influential evil cult. It's a nice way to spice up a region a bit, and it allows for a group that the PCs are too small to immediately oppose. Plus, the long-running villains are the ones that are the most fun to oppose.
Design Flow: Teaching Setting
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