The Players Cult
A near-future, pseudo-religious organization. Warning: mature content
Two hours into the ordeal, and Justin finally caved. What the Players were saying made sense. They had opened his eyes to the truth, so why was he fighting them anymore? His life up to this point had been one big lie, and they were promising the truth. But only if he killed her. 'Give me the gun,' he said, his voice surprisingly steady.
At one point or another in his life, the modern man has been gripped by a single paralyzing fear: what if the life he's living is false? What if his mind is actually trapped in some twisted simulation, a vast computer game from which he cannot wake? Most dismiss the idea with a laugh or perhaps a slight shiver running down their spine, while others dwell on the idea for days before giving it up as ultimately unprovable.
A very small minority have moved past that point. The Players have embraced this fear as their new reality, with life-altering consequences.
Core Beliefs of a Player:
- The world they live in is a giant game, in which people are trapped unaware.
- Players are a distinct minority in this world. Most people are actually NPCs..
- NPCs have no emotions and feel no pain. They are exploitable, expendable resources.
- There is a reward waiting for those Players who win the game, even if it is simply a reunion with friends and loved ones back in the 'real world'.
Initiation to the Cult
Players are most often recruited by a current member, though some seek out the Cult on their own (especially after a new movie or book has been released that plays with these ideas). The initiation ritual (called 'The Awakening') consists of four steps (or 'levels'), and fosters a dependency on the Cult while severing the newbie's ties to their old life. It can take months to complete, but one is not considered a full Player until they have completed the secret final phase of The Awakening.
Level One: The Test
Players believe that there are only two types of people: PCs and NPCs. Players believe that PCs will 'remember' things about their previous life that NPCs will not know.
The candidate is brought into a plain white room and must sit in an uncomfortable folding chair. Their hands are cuffed to the chair, and a blindfold is placed over their eyes. Then they are questioned for over an hour by three current members -- Level Eight and above. The candidate is asked to sift through their memories, and focus particularly on the 'unusual' memories that have no rational explanation.
Nearly every candidate passes this level. Players are, as a rule, wildly imaginative and creative people. The sensory deprivation combined with guided questioning is usually enough to bring some 'memories' to the forefront of the mind, something that the three testers can correlate with their own 'past experiences' to authenticate the candidate. Even if the candidate's 'memories' cannot be related to their own, high level Players are taught to make note of the new data, as it is obviously a revelation of some new information about the 'real world'.
Level Two: The Choosing
Having passed Level One, the new initiate is invited to choose a guild (more on these later) that will guide them through the rest of The Awakening. The members of this guild will become their friends, confidants and new family should they make it to Level Four. In theory, the initiate is allowed to choose whatever guild they please, with no pressure or guidance from those giving the choice. In practice, the initiate almost always chooses the guild that the person who brought them in belongs to. The encouragement to do so may be subtle (or not so subtle, depending on those administering the test).
Level Three: The Grooming
The initiate is then whisked away (sometimes against their will) to a camp or training facility run by the guild they have chosen. They spend the next several weeks there, under constant supervision. They watch movies, play games, and sometimes even read books about virtual worlds and those trapped within. This is the initiate's chance to ask questions and experience life as a Player, and the Cult makes sure these are the best weeks of the initiate's life.
Homesickness is almost unheard of -- the initiate is not allowed time to dwell on friends and family. Instead, he or she participates in paint ball or laser tag matches, obstacle courses, and even receives some training with real weapons like swords, bows, and all manner of guns. Drugs may be introduced here, especially hallucinogenics like LSD and ecstasy, though only in very small doses -- enough to be somewhat addictive and mind-altering, but not enough to manifest the truly harmful side-effects. 'NPC' prostitutes may also be introduced, and the initiate is encouraged to view them as computer constructs -- completely exploitable, and without emotion.
Once the initiate has accepted the lifestyle, and has begun actively seeking more information and more responsibility, they are allowed to go on to Level Four. Depending on the candidate, this may take anywhere between a few weeks and a few months.
Level Four: The Swearing
No one who gets to Level Four emerges from the experience unchanged. There are only two paths forward from this point -- full membership of the Cult, or death. The initiate is not warned of this when they begin the test.
They are brought back into the white room, but this time another person is bound to the chair, gagged and blindfolded, and drugged with strong sleeping agents for good measure. When the hood is removed, the initiate is confronted with someone they know from their former life -- preferably a family member or a close friend.
'This,' the test administer will declare, 'is an NPC. S/he has already been Tested and found wanting -- they are not one of us. You have two choices: kill him/her and advance directly to Level Seven, or beat them to the point of bruising to advance to Level Four. You may do anything else you like to them as well, they feel nothing anyway. Make your choice.'
The initiate is given any weapon they choose to accomplish the act, and guided through it by the test administers, who use peer pressure and psychological torment to help break down the candidate's will. In the end, the bonds must be severed to the candidate's former life. They are given only until the victim wakes up to make their choice (a period of 4-6 hours).
There are several outcomes. If the candidate refuses to do anything to hurt the victim, they are seized by the test administers and killed. The victim is dumped near to their home, hopefully so drugged and delusional that they won't be able to recall anything of their experience.
If the candidate finally consents to beat or murder their unconscious friend or family member, he or she is recognized as a full Player at last. The body is removed from the room and either discretely disposed of or dropped off near a hospital by other Players, and the candidate is sworn in as a full member of the Cult in front of the test administers and several of their new guild mates. The Oath is treated as life-long and binding, and serves to fully indoctrinate the initiate into their new life.
The Oath: 'I will play the game to the best of my ability, always seeking the exit. I will support my fellow Players, and engage in PVP activity only when my hand is forced, or when my guild requires it. I will not let anything hold me back -- not pain, nor pleasure, nor NPCs. I will find my way back to the real world, or die trying.'
Life in the Cult
Players are not afraid to bend or break the rules of society to further their goals. They engage in many illegal and morally questionable acts in their pursuit of the mythical End Game, and 'level up' when their guild leader believes they have earned it. A Player can only advance to Level Seven or beyond by killing an NPC, however. Cult members often receive a special tattoo to identify themselves to other Players, and some will also wear guild colors and symbols.
Player activities can usually be divided into three broad categories:
First, finding other PCs to bring into the Cult. This is treated as a nigh-sacred duty, and Players are only too eager to spread their special brand of insanity. Since PCs are seen as a scarce resource, the competition for new recruits is often intense, and inter-guild strife and politicking is common., especially when the recruit shows a lot of promise.
Second, gathering resources and training in preparation for the End Game. Players spend much of their time gathering money, weapons, explosives and anything else they feel might 'come in handy' when the End Game starts. For example, hey may raid medical facilities for experimental drugs that help them heal faster, fight harder or enhance their mental prowess. The rest of the time is spent on training, and Players are encouraged to learn a wide variety of skills -- weapons, computers, games, and even some surprising things like EMT training and sleight of hand are all covered in one of the various guild halls.
Players with highly marketable skills are encouraged to return to the workforce at some point, both to position themselves as highly as possible for the End Game, and to begin funneling resources (potentially stolen) back to the Cult. Some Players are surprisingly high up on the corporate ladder, while still others have gone into medical research, banking and even branches of the military (when they can get past the background checks).
Third, seeking a way out of the Game. Players may dedicate hours every week to combing old movies and games for clues, or investigating the lives of the authors and screenwriters who wrote them. They seek patterns in news stories and eagerly follow up on all manner of conspiracy theories. Some will experiment with drugs and hallucinations, or seek 'Easter eggs' left in the Game by 'developers'. The theories pursued by one Player will invariably be different than those held by another, which often leads to heated arguments.
For this reason, Players have separated into distinct 'guilds' (more
like gangs, really) that believe in very different versions of the End
This guild is generally comprised of the most athletically-minded Players. They pride themselves on their combat skills, and spend much of their time conditioning their bodies to be 'End Game ready'. Using a combination of Cross Fit, Parkour, weight training and an eclectic mix of martial arts, Power Gamers often dominate the field in cross guild obstacle course competitions.
A Power Gamer usually 'levels up' by mastering a new physical discipline or survival skill, and is always seeking a new challenge. These are the guys who see invisible targets painted on every moving object, and who think of every obstacle as a physical hurdle -- there to be jumped over, unlocked, over powered, or just smashed through.
This guild firmly believes that the End Game will involve a boss fight of some sort. They're just waiting for a likely candidate to show up.
The Puzzle Gamers are probably the most imaginative Players. They spend the most time by far combing through movies, news articles and other media looking for clues that will lead them to the End Game. While much of the stuff they 'discover' is garbage, they have been able to identify a surprisingly large number of real world power plays, underhanded government operations, etc.
An unchecked imagination, coupled with a certain dogged persistence, has given the average Puzzle Gamer a nigh-uncanny ability to recognize patterns in the information they process. If a Puzzle Gamer doesn't know something in his area of 'expertise', he can probably guess at it with fairly high accuracy. These are the guys who see connections everywhere, and are often more than a little paranoid by the end of it.
The (current) dominant End Game theory may involve a hidden connection between the Seven Ancient World Wonders (seen in multiple Player-themed films), a current head of state, and a meteor scheduled for near-pass of Earth in the next year.
The least popular of the guilds, the Death Bringers consist of those Players who have given up hope. They take a fatalistic view of the world, believing that the Game is bugged, and that it is clearly impossible to win. The only way to escape is to die.
This fascination with death can manifest in a variety of ways. Some Death Bringers take risks that no sane Player would with their life, taking on the most dangerous Cult missions available. Unlike the Power Gamers, they have no clear expectation of winning -- they really do have a death wish. Other Death Bringers descend slowly into a drug-hazed stupor from which they sometimes never wake. Regardless of their personal outlook, Death Bringers are the guys who are routinely assigned the various murders and assassinations that the Cult requires. They are doing no harm to their victims, after all, merely helping them 'escape the Game'.
Death Bringers want to bring the entire Game down around them. Recently, this guild has taken a new direction and is actively seeking ways to begin Armageddon. End Game for them means the total destruction of life on Earth, and they are prepared to go whatever length to achieve that.
Bringing the Players Cult to Your Setting:
Due to its unique world perspective, the Player's Cult can (and should) get into a wide variety of ventures. Grand theft, infiltration, hacking, smuggling, drug dealing -- pretty much anything is fair game as long as it advances the Cult's main goals (recruitment, resource acquisition, training and bringing about the End Game). They may try to produce new media to spread their message, or may elect to stay hidden from the public eye. The amount of power and influence they have over the general population, however, is going to be largely determined by who they have managed to recruit.
If the Cult has snagged some high profile names -- celebrities, financial gurus, industry experts, govt. agents -- you can bet that it will be exploiting those connections for all they're worth. The information gathered by the Puzzle Gamers is another potential source of influence, depending on whether a fact is highly sensitive or utter junk. Just remember that Players have a very different scale of value for the things they learn. If it doesn't relate to the End Game, a Player may very well discard a secret (even a juicy one) as irrelevant.
This odd perspective also applies to Cult goals. While the Players Cult and the Russian Mafia may be involved in some of the same activities, its end goal is not money, power, or even fame. The Cult will pursue objectives that seem utterly worthless to outsiders, and engage in activities that make little sense (some of which are completely benign).
Minor curiosity, harmless media nuts, or major power -- in the end, it's up to you.