Too many cultists

Jd Smith1

Explorer
You're making a great case for the use of organized criminals in games because those all sounds like excellent adventure hooks to me. The cartels in Mexico don't seem to be afraid of a fight when bribes, threats, and other options fail them.
The cartels have transitioned from being OC into a regional if not national force. To use the cartels in a setting, you would need them to have a highly illegal cash flow and a weak, ineffective government, with a neighboring nation who will effectively oppose an overt assumption of power by the cartels. .

Isn't this applicable to just about anyone the PCs kill? If they're in Baldur's Gate there's a good chance those cultist came from the local area, right?
Proof of cultist behavior is usually self-evident, and assumes that being a cult member carries a death sentence.

Again, that sounds like a fantastic adventure hook. And Harriet Tubman did it in real life so I don't see we can't do that in a fantasy game.
Tubman smuggled slaves in ones and twos, through deception. Not an undertaking well-suited to a fantasy setting.

Slave states tend to be highly effective at controlling their labor populations. The only successful slave revolt in history was enabled by local diseases decimating the troops sent to put down the uprising. Look at today's massive slave population: more slaves than in the mid-1800s, in a world with a near-universal ban on slavery.

If you would use slavery, I would recommend the history of the Congo as a good go-to setting. It was an excellent (if amoral) economic model in which the controlling power (Belgium) held sway by simple fear, rather than chains and auction blocks.
 
I feel like there's some incredible magical thinking about organised crime in these pieces, where people believe that it's this unstoppable elemental force or like trying to catch the wind or something.

History shows that to be completely false.

Organised crime absolutely can be stopped and absolutely can be a good enemy and absolutely does have a reason to stand and fight in many cases. Outside of comic books, organised crime organisations are not regenerating hydras, and decapitating them or just killing or jailing most of them can be very effective.

The problem then isn't regeneration but the vacuum, both in power and black market economy, that exists. But that can lead to more adventures.

As for the idea that killing organised criminals will have consequences in the society they are part of, absolutely! But so should cultists. And this is something D&D tends to gloss over. The Baron's family will be mad if you kill him for being a criminal, but guess what, they'll be mad if you kill him for being a cultist. If one would get your throat slit by an assassin, both would. The problem is a different kind of magical thinking re cultists, where there's an assumption that killing them never has consequences.

I'm not saying cultists aren't awesome, but the OP is flatly right that they're overused and used lazily, particularly by official adventures through all editions.

Mercenary companies of a nasty bent are often good enemies. They have access to magic, lots of combatants, may have exotic creatures, golems, etc and tend to be possible to destroy.

Magic or martial arts schools are a possibility, though you do probably want to make them adult educational institutions, as it were.

Aggressive mercantile organisations can work. I have an East India Company but worse type organisation in my game which frequently clashes with the PCs. They also have a lot of spies and catspaws and so on.

Unpopular rulers, especially oppressive ones, can work really well. As can their agents in other societies.

Non-cult but dangerous religions can work. In my setting there is an entirely above ground and open non-evil religious group which seeks dominance and is willing to war to get it which also clashes with the PCs plenty. No skulking cultists they - indeed they may sometimes be on the same side as the PCs vs cultists.
 

Aebir-Toril

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IMHO cultists are a go-to enemy for the same reason Nazis end up one in modern games--there's no moral ambiguity there. When your enemy literally wants to sacrifice people and bring about the destructive re-ordering of the world (or outright wants to end it), there's no real question about whether you're doing the right thing fighting them.
Not at my table. That's what Undead are for.
 

Aebir-Toril

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Furthermore, even when I do create cultists who are killed by the players with little thought as to their lives, because cultists are fanatics, they serve as fantastic, amazing enemies, IMHO.
 

Digital M@

Explorer
Cultists are fantasy Nazi. I do like fanatic bear cultist idea. I may break that out in a session just to see the player faces. I will just play it straight and let them guess why and what is going on.
 

Aebir-Toril

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Cultists are fantasy Nazi. I do like fanatic bear cultist idea. I may break that out in a session just to see the player faces. I will just play it straight and let them guess why and what is going on.
The difference being that cultists are usually religious, and that's exactly what Nazis don't like.
 

tommybahama

Villager
How about gypsies? They can have the elements of a cult (fanatical loyalty to the clan) and a criminal organization. They could be a foe in some adventures or provide rumors, gossip, or services and goods not available from more law abiding shopkeepers.
 

Celebrim

Legend
D&D has too many cultists in their adventures. Let’s give them other ideas to replace cultists
I'm going to give an entirely different take.

D&D religions is vastly too influenced by Catholicism, despite lacking any of the cosmology which makes Catholicism reasonable. That is to say, cults in D&D are either always inspired by the Catholic Church or else are always inspired by heretical opposition to the catholic church of some sort.

Since the vast majority of D&D settings are pluralistic, polytheistic, and animistic none of that makes the slightest bit of sense. In fact, D&D settings tend to have vastly too few cults. The only cults that show up are occult anti-religions. In fact, there ought not be any 'churches' in the setting (and I consider the use of the term mildly offensive): it ought to be all cults. All religious practice ought to be cults, and based on the prevalence of activity deities or at the very least their agents (clerics), such practice ought to be fundamental and pervasive.

When imaging what a cult or religious practice looks like in a D&D setting, it's best to avoid all ideas of Western organized religion, and instead consider something more like a fraternal organization like the Masons, the Shriners, or The Elks.

The following things ought to be true based on the assumptions of most D&D settings:

a) Almost everyone tends to have multiple patron deities, or at the very least feels quite free to worship broadly regardless of the alignment of the deity, if only to propitiate said deity.
b) Most worship ought to be communal rather than private. Most worship probably isn't particular sincere or pious as we understand the term, any more than most people pay taxes out of sincere love of their government. Most worship would be perceived as transactional. I'll do this, now don't murder me and maybe I'll get some benefit out of it.
c) Most people at least nominally belong to multiple cults, in the some way most people belong to multiple organizations.
d) All organizations are in some sense cults. So if you have say a Gym Membership, that would in setting involve membership in some sort of cult of athletics or strength, and have rituals and rites, priests and holy days associated with it. And on the holy day, people would go to the gym, lift weights, and what have you as an act of worship. Likewise, if you are a member of a Discount Club, or in a Professional Organization, or in a Trade Union, all of those things would be membership in cults. And likewise there would be probably Neighborhood Cults, and Homeowner Association cults, and heck if you had running water or sanitation that would probably involve membership in a cult. You would be paying the cult for the service of clean water. The folks that pick up the trash in the morning are a cult one way or the other.
e) There would be absolutely no such thing as separation of church and state, and certainly not seen to the great extent seen in the Middle Ages where you had a secular head of state and a parallel religious heirarchy which only partially overlapped the secular organization. No, justice would be dispensed by a cult, either formally as a recognized office and role in government or informally because the Police Union was a cult. The Judge might formally be part of a cult with the recognized role of judging, or defacto in control of the judicial system because Judges tended to have membership in a cult and anyone not in the cult was actively undermined by the judges that were in the cult. The army itself would be a cult. The king himself was the head of a cult that corresponded to the national identity.
f) Many cults would involve worship of more than one deity, in an effort to garner the favor from anyone or anything relevant.
g) As just a practical matter all organizations would tend to have a ritual and religious component for the same reasons that all parties tend to have a cleric. It's just not practical to try to go it alone without the benefit of some sort of divine favor and blessing.

Viewed this way, there is absolutely nothing you can replace a cult with.

Organized Crime? That's a cult with a massive religious component to it. Consider the Yakuza, Mexican Gangs, or even the Mafia just in the real world.

Pirates? What is that but organized crime? Every boat is a cult headquarters and no one is going to be sailing anywhere without propitiating various powers of wind and wave. Ditto every bandit group, which is just organized crime in a rural setting.

The anti-social cults might still exist, forbidden as part of daily life and attracting the desperate or the insane. But there would be a lot of religious strife of a much more subtle sort. And there would also likely be vast stretches of the world where morality wasn't neat and tidy and convenient, and players wanting to play Good would find challenges beyond the usual puppy chewing nihilistic End of the World lunatics.
 

Paragon Lost

Explorer
I disagree.

Cultists are perfect, because they are fanatics, committed unto death, and normally have a deadline to meet.

Organized criminals are nothing more than businessmen with a violent bent. If faced with a tough group of outsiders, they will simply try to buy them off, frame them for something, bribe officials to harass the PCs, or lure them away with false (or real) rumors. They have no reason to stand and fight. They are part of the community, and can simply wait out any storm the PCs can bring, until the PCs leave.

If the PCs (outsiders) start killing locals (criminals) the local authorities are going to take a dim view, especially if they are on the payroll.

Pirates are all right, but heavily used.

Slavers have been used a lot, but they only work if they are in a place where slavery is illegal, and they have a market where it is illegal. If slavery is legal, then the PCs will have a serious problem.

Political groups are good, but they are in practice little different from cultists. The problem with political groups is that the line between terrorist scum and freedom fighter depends solely upon your point of view. Which, as history teaches us, can change 180 degrees extremely quickly.

Historically nations go to war over wealth, religion, or political structures.
Don't forget resources.
 
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Salthorae

Imperial Mountain Dew Taster
Replace all cultists and organized criminals with bears
Bear Cultists lead by a Ranger
LOL. I was going to say awakened bears lead by a mad druid intent on replacing human society with their own, a la Bearmageddon!

They are raiding towns/caravans for wealth to get the material component for MORE awakenings, even starting to include other animals who will be lower in the new social order than bears but no less useful!

It reminds me of a random encounter I ran one time where an awakened monkey priest lead an attack on my PC's using kobold zombies and trained other monkeys to raid the PC's food supplies before the monkeys and cleric fled.
 

Tonguez

Adventurer
How about gypsies? They can have the elements of a cult (fanatical loyalty to the clan) and a criminal organization. They could be a foe in some adventures or provide rumors, gossip, or services and goods not available from more law abiding shopkeepers.
OMG - you can’t just go and start killing gypsies and taking their stuff, they’re not Orcs!!!
 

Uller

Adventurer
Replace all cultists and organized criminals with bears.
Problem solved.
According to Monty Python honey bears are timid placid creatures and, consequently, bad television...also bad monsters. My druid player would just try to adopt every bear she met.
 

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