Secret societies are one of cornerstones of the Ravenloft Setting, but they tend to fall into background roles of either cannon fodder for the villain, or temporary resources for the heroes. Having played many games with secret societies and made three of my own (Memento Mori, Kara’s Daughters and the soon-to-be-released Ward Zero), here are some tips for getting the most out of them:
1) Information Is The Highest Form Of Currency
Some “underdog” secret societies like the Shadow Insurrection, L’Ordures, and Sons of Gundar make obvious allies for anyone fighting the same foe, but things can get too cozy; these are secret societies, after all. To keep the mystique in a long running alliance, remember that equipment and even spellcasting is cheap, but secrets, once shared, are spent forever. Outsiders should have to submit to lengthy vetting and use excellent diplomacy to pry a single critical secret from groups like the Duskpeace Outcasts. Offering money tends to backfire, because it suggests the one offering does not know how valuable information is, or how dangerous.
2) Splitting The Party
Even if one PC is a member, the rest of the party should not be insiders by default. Some heroic groups (i.e. the Society of Huntsmen, the Lamplighters, the Circle) don’t limit fraternization with outsiders, but a member of the Brotherhood of Broken Blades draws suspicion if their party includes arcane spellcasters. Many others are somewhere in between: a member might lead the party on one adventure on behalf of the society, share a little “need to know” info on the next, and offer nothing of value on another. Variety is the key; a member of the Green Hand or The Woodcutter's Axe need not confront the group’s enemies around every corner.
3) The More, The Merrier
Any of the “underdog” groups might welcome all classes, such that an entire party could join. Likewise, any party might join the Order of the Guardians and just report on any evil artifacts they find. More options become available with restricted character creation: a Carnival-based campaign with a party of Troupers, a “special investigations” team for La Serrure et Clé composed of calibans, or an all-elf strike team for the Children of Wrath are all possibilities. In all these cases, the restriction is on race, so the party might include members of any class. Class restrictions are more difficult; if The Noble Brotherhood of Assassins needs serious muscle for a particular job, or the Knights of the Ashen Bough need a spellcaster to erase Drakov brands, they would probably contract with an outsider ally rather than recruit someone.
Even if a PC doesn’t seek membership, someone might feel they earned it. Groups like the Fraternity of Shadows or Kargatane make offers one can’t refuse based on their own sense of worthiness. The Échansons, Ildi'Thaan, Vilushka, or Witches of Hala might choose someone based on their bloodline. In cases like the Stalkers, Ata Bestaal, or even Keepers of the Black Feather, membership includes lycanthropy, such that a character might be “accidentally recruited” during a fight. In all these cases, the PC is not really an outsider, but their loyalty is in question. Even otherwise good groups may take drastic measures if someone with too much knowledge of their inner working turns them down.
5) Membership Has Its Privileges
Members of most non-evil groups should be glad they joined most of the time. Physical tokens of membership frequently include masterwork items suitable for enchanting, if not minor magical items. Support societies like Société de Legerdemain, L’Académie des Sciences, and the Veiled Palm shouldn’t require more than dues (including discounted prices for supplies), reporting anything of interest, and keeping group secrets. If social obligations aren’t part of your game, this can also apply to “underdog” or “heroic” societies. If assigned to do more, the majority of the work should be within the PC’s comfort zone and rewarded fairly. Plots that pit group loyalty against friends, family or conscience should only come after the PC has built a strong identity as part of the society.
6) That Wasn’t In The Brochure!
Many secret societies have hierarchies, and some evil ones can appear harmless or even heroic to those at the lowest levels. A PC might spend decades in La Confrérie des Rêveurs* before finally discovering who (or what) they’ve been “feeding.” Insurrectionists in Mortigny might revere the long-dead martyr Simon Audaire long before being formally introduced to him in the, er, “flesh.” Many more groups are not stated as having such a layered structure, but could easily develop one, such as the Scions of Purity, Syndicate of Enlightened Citizens, League of Nine, and The Scions of Yakov Dilisnya. Allow PC’s to benefit from such associations as much as possible before learning the Awful Truth. Such “malign paradigm shifts” are among the most devastating horror checks, and are among the penultimate thrills of playing in a horror setting.
7) Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor
Finally, while truly evil cults may only fit as antagonists, you can still get more mileage from the Dark Delvers or Cult of the Straw God by emphasizing their insidious ideology. Long after the party has destroyed Mother Fury, have them discover a Howling Clan revival among the frustrated poor of some distant town. An old ally suffering nightmares of the Dead Man’s Campaign might be groomed for membership in the Lustmorde, or a treasure-seeking rival enthralled by writings about the Seven Scarabs. This could make for a truly epic struggle to destroy not just a dangerous cult, but a dangerous idea. Such challenges have been covered previously for destroying Sinkholes of Evil (RLDMG), and for fighting bogeymen (DTDL).
Whether allies, mentors, rivals or enemies, the people who make up these groups have committed themselves to keep secrets from their fellowmen. It’s a grave choice that players may be faced with, to join them in bearing that burden of secrecy, or to drag the truth into the light of day to kill it. Either option can pose a challenge for PC’s of any level, and raise the kind of complex moral questions that keep players coming back to Ravenloft.
*La Confrérie des Rêveurs was described in an article of the same name in Quoth the Raven issue #6, a Ravenloft netbook hosted by the Fraternity of Shadows.
Matthew Barrett has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, starting with the Kargatane's Book of S series (as Leyshon Campbell). He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently working on a Ravenloft-based experiment in crowdsourced fiction using his “Inkubator” system at inkubator.miraheze.org.
Pic Reference: http://www.theendofhistory.net/most_recent/history-terrorism-secret-societies/
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