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An Overwatch Terminology Guide (Part 1) (A-G)
My name is Tom and I run a Youtube Channel called HeroRecall.com. We've been on hiatus since the beginning of the pandemic but plan on getting back to business soon. Meaning more new podcasts, VOD reviews and guides.
I was looking through my current selection of video topics and found a text version of a Terminology Guide I had planned to make but never got around to. So I decided to share it here to help newcomers adjust to Overwatch Terminology (which confused the shit out of me when I first started)
Some of it is outdated, but it's still helpful I think.
It's a massive guide so I'll likely have to break it into sections, this being part one. Don't worry, I'll post the following part after I create them.
The format is:
- Said in a sentence
Let me know if you have any questions, otherwise, enjoy!
“Hey - Can we get 2-2-2 please - we don’t need a 3rd DPS”
2-2-2 refers to the most optimal and balanced team composition possible. Having One Main Tank, One Off Tank, One Main Healer, One Off Healer, One Hitscan DPS & One Projectile DPS is the perfect combination - however just having 2 Tanks, 2 Healers & 2 DPS is usually what people mean here. If you’re sat in the spawn room and noticing someone spamming “I Need Healing” - it’s likely because they want to run 2-2-2 and just noticed there is only one chosen Healer. Despite the fact that many comps are viable in Overwatch in many ways - not having 2-2-2 can instantly tilt some members of your team before the match has even begun.
“We need to take this first point quickly - can we run 3-3”
The other team composition that people tend to prefer after 2-2-2 and usually more prevalent at higher levels of play is 3-3 - simply meaning 3 Tanks and 3 Healers. DPS begone, if you’re looking to get in and bully the enemy with sheer force of will and have a metric ton of healing to do so 3-3 is the go-to. This is also the main composition number of the legendary “Goats Comp” - more on that later.
“Since this is 2CP - can we save some big Ults for second point if possible?”
2CP means you are playing a 2 Capture Point map set. Hanamura and Temple of Anubis are examples of this. Generally speaking 2CP are considered some of the least balanced maps in the world of Overwatch. Mostly due to the MASSIVE spawn advantage for Defenders on the second point. Attackers basically have to completely team wipe the enemy or keep them trapped from the point with turrets or a Graviton Surge in order for them to easy capture the second point.
“Holy shit! Nice 5K D.Va*!”*
A number followed by the letter K in Overwatch simply means a multi-kill to the amount of the previous number. 3K means you killed 3, 4K is 4 kills, etc….The elusive 6K just means you singlehandedly Team Wiped with a hugely impactful play. Good for you buddy!
“Guy’s they have a 6-stack, so our communication needs to be on point - no trash call outs, stay focussed"
A 6-Stack just means that every person on one or both teams is in a 6-player group together, which usually means they are on comms together. Which usually means they will have better communication than you if you AREN’T in a 6-stack. Sometimes you can find yourself queuing with 3 groups of 2-stacks. against a 6-stack or visa versa. If you don’t have 6 people in team chat Vs a 6-stack, you are usually going to be at a disadvantage. Of course all OWL or professional teams are automatically 6-stacks.
“Is that Widow using a fucking Aimbot? I can’t move here”
An “Aimbot” is essentially hacking based software that is implemented by assholes who don’t want to play the game the way it was intended to be played. The software basically aims for them. It will *snap* to a specific part of the target and usually remain locked on until they fire and kill the enemy, then it will snap to another. Rinse repeat. It can be very hard to distinguish an aimbot from someone with the skill of say Carpe or Surefour. Other than the fact that if you’re in Silver and the Widow never misses, it’s worth looking at that POTG with a little extra scrutiny. Aimbotting is of course, a violation of the Terms of Service for Overwatch, and just generally massively frowned upon. Don’t do it, and report it when you see it.
“I can’t lose anymore SR on this account, switching to Alt”
An Alt is short for “Alternative Account” - this is different to a Smurf. Which we’ll get into later. An alt is simply an extra account you use to play the game. The allure of such an account is because you can essentially “start fresh”. For a lot of players who don’t believe they are at their correct rank - this is a compelling idea. On the console version of the game, alternative accounts are easy to make, since companies like Playstation allow you to make multiple free accounts on their system. If you play the PC version, you’ll essentially have to create Alt accounts by buying extra copies of the game. Which leads to a lot more higher skilled players at early ranks after the game goes on sale, which tends to be once or twice a year.
“Angry Monkey on point! Can i get some help here?”
Angry Monkey is just a short hand term for Winston’s Primal Rage Ultimate. Now i know what you’re thinking “But Tom, Primal Rage actually has less syllables than Angry Monkey” and you’d be right. However no-one just says “Primal Rage” they would more likely say “Winston has Primal” or “Primal Rage incoming” So simply screaming “ANGRY MONKEY! ANGRY MONKEY!” generally works out better and is frankly more fun to say.
“Since we’re tank heavy can we get an AOE healer to stick with the tanks?”
AOE stands for Area Of Effect. Simply put, an ability is going to take place within a certain area of the field of play, but no further than that area. For example; Lucio has AOE healing, which means if you want healing, you better stick by him. A lot of Ultimates can also be considered AOE. Mei’s Ultimate creates a large sphere in which everyone within will be frozen. This can be used to great effect when trying to stall out a point or prevent touching. Area Of Effect plays require a tight knit team to make the most out of them.
“Don’t say GG EZ. That’s just BM dude”
BM is short hand for Bad manners. usually more of a text based comment than out loud. No harm in using it to call out dick-ish players being rude in chat. As a general rule of thumb. Don’t have BM.
*“*D.Va demeched. Let’s stagger Baby D.Va - don’t kill her yet”
Baby D.Va refers to Pilot D.Va, otherwise known as D.Va when she has lost her mech and is still fighting. The term Baby obviously comes from how cute and adorable she is running around trying to kill everybody without her Mech. Don’t underestimate that Pistol though, it’ll be the last time you do. Once in Baby D.Va mode, her primary concern is to get off enough pot shots to get her Mech back without having to spawn. However if D.Va is the last to fall on her team, you will notice in higher levels of play that the opposing team will try to block her in, preventing her from attempting to Suicide by Environment so she gets staggered trying to rejoin her team, taking more time off the clock.
“Reaper backline. Can we get some peel here?”
The Backline are the people fighting from the back of your team, more often than not it will consist of more long range based characters like Widow, Ana or Zen. A lot of these characters tend to have Low mobility and if flanked by Reaper or dove by an Angry Monkey, are relatively helpless to do anything about it. Unless they have god like aim and reflexes. It is expected of other team members to give the backline a certain amount of help, should these situations arise. After all, if they fall, you fall shortly after.
“Bait out hook before we dive that Roadhog”
Bait in Overwatch simply means to try and force a particular ability out of a dangerous enemy before attacking them. Roadhog’s Hook and McCree’s flash-bang are two abilities that tend to warrant baiting out before an attack. Anything that leaves you vulnerable to an instant death is worth trying to bait out first. As soon as the ability is baited out of the enemy, you should follow up with a call out like “Roadhog, no hook” - so your team mates can help you out with the kill if you need it.
“Oh shit, Lucio jumped right in front of my Nano - my bad - have fun Boostio!”
Boostio refers to the exclamation Lucio himself makes when he gets hit by Ana’s Nano boost. Considering this is a less than optimal play and usually a mistake, even Lucio himself seems surprised by this turn of events and will go a little ham on the voice-line. Secretly however, every Lucio loves being Boostio.
“Coming back from spawn with Bongo in 10!”
Bongo refers to the shorthand term for Orisa’s Ult “Supercharger”. Again more of a shortening for times sake name, however since the Supercharger is all glowy and weird when it drops - sometimes it can be hard to see exactly what it is for newer players. So if you hear the term Bongo, that’s what you should be expecting.
“Nice Boop Lucio! I think you got 3 of them in the well!”
A “Boop” is a trait that some characters in Overwatch have available to them, that causes the subject of said Boop to fly backwards, forwards or sideways depending on the angle of attack. Most noticeably Lucio can “Boop” people pretty far with enough momentum, However characters like Ashe, Brigitte, Wrecking Ball & even D.Va have some variant form that can be used to the same effect. Of course the most optimal use of a Boop is to get an environmental kill. Lucio’s live for that shit.
“I got boosted to Diamond, now i can’t win a single game”
Not referring to Ana’s Ult here but rather when a player usually wins games due to who they are playing with on a regular basis, and then discover that when those friends aren’t present, they have a hell of a time fighting in those ranks. Boosted players may feel better than they really are due to the high win rate, only to get a nasty shock when they try to go it alone. They will usually drop down to their actual ELO through time.
“Come on Jeff! Can we please Buff Mercy already?”
A Buff is when the developer team decides to slightly alter one or more aspects of a character to make them more viable to play in game. With all the consistent changes going on to the Overwatch roster, new characters and new meta’s mean that some characters will suddenly seem weaker than others even if they seemed fine before. Usually because their play style has been hard countered by said new character or meta. In cases like this, the dev team may consider a Buff to the character. For example; Mei’s icicles now have no drop-off damage, making her viable at long range.
“Oh my god! They C9’d it! We win!”
The term C9 refers specifically to the North American team Cloud 9, and their habit of winning team fights but not paying attention to the objective (usually during overtime). During a Pro match against AFB on no less than 3 occasions they had WON the team fight, but lost the match due to all of them leaving the Objective. Most notoriously they all ran from point with an incoming D.Va self destruct, and lost it, despite having a Winston that could have simply bubbled the explosion. Since then it has become somewhat of a meme in the Overwatch world. Referring to the same behavior. Leaving the point and losing the game, despite having the advantageous position.
“They have way too much CC guys, Widow can you focus that Doom?”
CC refers to the term Crowd Control. Essentially players that can Stun or Push you into a position that leaves you unable to respond for a second or two. Think Brigitte’s Shield Bash or Wrecking Ball's Piledriver. The rise of CC in Overwatch has led to many discussions about how it has “ruined the game” mostly by disgruntled Tanks. With good reason though. A lot of the most recent characters added to the game are very CC heavy, Doomfist, Brigitte & Wrecking Ball all have CC abilities that frankly bully tanks around, when realistically Tanks should have a little more weight to them. It continues to be a source of controversy.
“Sorry no heals right now, still on CD, Healing Orb coming in 3”
CD stands for Cooldown. These are the abilities that your character has to wait some time to use again after utilizing them. Any ability that isn’t your primary or secondary fire is usually a cooldown. Cooldown can range from as low as 2 seconds to as high as 12 or over for really powerful abilities, and everywhere in-between. A lot of people consider certain CD abilities to be crucial callouts when used. You’ll often hear “Mei No Cryo”, Moira No Fade” or “Tracer No Recall” - since these abilities are often life saving and knowing they cannot be used is good intel.
“Don’t let them Cap! Back in 3, stall it out!”
Cap means Capture. Sometimes you might hear a callout like “Unwinnable, let them Cap, Reset first corner” Meaning “We cannot win this team fight so please don’t run in and die instantly, wasting ten more seconds, let’s just let them capture the point and fight at the more advantageous position of the first corner after point” Simple enough.
“Jesus, their Tracer is hard carrying them right now, Let’s focus her and then roll ‘em”
Carrying refers to one particular player on the team who is essentially the only reason that side is winning. One player doing so spectacularly well, that the team would likely lose without them. A lot of players have a “Carry-Pick” - their go-to for when things start to go a little sideways with the current composition. If you are Carrying Teams at your ELO, it is likely that you are going to rise in the ranks soon. Players that can carry every game by themselves, usually have a higher win than loss rate, because they win the games they were supposed to lose.
“Symmetra can you set up a Car Wash at the top right entrance please? Let’s not let anything slip by”
Car Wash is a term specifically referring to when Symmetra’s turrets are set up in such a manner that they slow down anything trying to push and usually make it easier for you to kill, if they don’t already kill the enemy by themselves. A well placed Car Wash can completely shut down entry to a specific point and make it a nightmare for the enemy team to break a choke. They can often force composition swaps all by themselves.
“I guarantee they’ll be running a cheese comp here, what do we have to counter Bastion?”
A Cheese comp is when (usually, but not exclusively) the defense picks a team composition composed of the most infuriating spam characters available. Traditionally there’s going to be a Bastion behind an Orisa shield. A Torbjorn with a well placed turret. A Symmetra with a Car Wash set up. A Junk rat spamming the hell out of every possible point of entry & maybe a Moira keeping them all alive and throwing random death orbs in your general direction. It can be infuriating to break, but often times once one or two fall, the whole thing collapses. Just don’t get tilted, get smart.
“Let’s push up and keep them at the choke, fall back when shield breaks”
A choke or choke point is a narrow point of entry to an area where you can funnel damage, or defend. usually every choke in Overwatch has at least two alternate flank routes to bypass it. However, because leaving the choke open and dealing with 6 players storming you Vs trying to hold the choke and keeping a half an eye on the flank routes is the most optimal play in most situations. Choke Holds are common place. Certain alts also bare better fruit in a choke, such as Moira’s Coalescence, or Hanzo’s Dragonstrike.
“Way to Click Heads Widow, nice work!”
“Clicking Heads” came about from people asking how to better their skills in various Overwatch forums often to be met with the reply “Just Click Heads” The term itself is quite literal. Move your cursor over the opponents head and click. Voila! Instant kill. Often times you will still see budding Widows asking for advice and getting the same reply, or alternatively, excellent Widows will post an epic montage with the comment “Am i clicking heads right?”
“Hey Hanzo can you get on comms so we can co-ordinate Ults?”
Comms is shorthand for communication. So saying “Get on comms” is someone asking you to join the Team Chat so that they can discuss things with you mid-match. Generally speaking, comm usage is at its highest in the higher ranks, and at its lowest in the lowest ranks. Make your own mind up as to why that might be.
“Which comp do you want to run for point A?”
Whilst Comp could also mean Competitive as in the Ranked Gameplay mode. usually when someone is referring to Comp, they mean “Composition”. As in - which 6 heroes do we want to use to fight in this match. Comps can be hugely complicated things, sometimes you want maximum synchronicity, other times you need to switch Comp on the fly in order to counter the enemy Comp. They can be tilting, and rewarding. Certain Comps are considered ‘Meta’ at different times. We’ll get into that one a little later.
“We need to Counter this Pharah, can somebody go Hitscan?"
For the most part, every hero has a Counter, and by Counter i mean another hero that is their worst nightmare. The type of character they’d have to actively avoid, rather than face head on. Making life difficult. There are two types of Counter - Hard and Soft. An example of a Hard Counter would be Brigitte Vs Tracer. Brigitte is Tracers hard counter. Tracers main deal is that she can zip around taking pot shots at the back line and hopefully take out an Ana or a Zen, making life easier for the guys on her front line. When Brigitte was released, Tracer’s pick rate dropped significantly. In fact it dropped so hard she fell out of the Meta. Brigitte had a shield to avoid pot shots and could bash the zippy little Tracer into oblivion. Most Tracers were sensible enough to switch if they came across a fierce Brigitte. For an example of a Soft counter, let’s look at Moira Vs Pharah. Moira is not a Hitscan, which tends to be the Hard Counter for a Pharah, however, Moira’s Biotic Grasp can reach most Pharah’s if they dip low enough, and add in a quick death orb to make relatively short work of her. Not to mention her Ult. Of course this is less than ideal because while Moira is dealing with Pharah, she isn’t healing her team, Pharah has quick kill potential, and if she wipes your Moira, it’s likely the rest of the team is next. Moira can be a soft counter for Pharah. As in, she can deal with her, but it’s less than ideal. Learn your Counters, it’s how games are won or lost.
“It’s King’s Row? I say we go full Deathball - who’s in?”
Deathball comp is an interesting Composition. Not to be confused with GOATS, Death ball usually consists of a Reinhardt, Roadhog (or Zarya), Soldier, McCree, Ana (or Moira) & Lucio. Essentially you want a big ass shield up front, Hog hooking people into your ball of death. A bunch of hit scans with good aim, An Ana to sleep anything that gets close and Anti-Nade the opposite team. Top that all off with a dose of speed by Lucio and you got yourself a Death Comp. Designed to roll fast, hard and act before the other team has a chance to answer.
“Hey Zen, can you Discord that Bastion real quick, we’ll burst him down.”
Everyones favorite Omnic Monk - Zenyatta - has the ability to throw two different types of Orbs onto other heroes. A Harmony Orb to heal his team mates, and a Discord Orbs to essentially curse his enemies. The Discord Orb itself basically means the person who receives it will take an extra 30% damage from any attack, for as long as they stay within Line of Sight of Zenyatta, or for 3 full seconds after Line of Sight is broken. Discord call outs are hugely important to listen for, because its essentially meaning the whole team should focus a target, due to their current disadvantage.
“This map has a lot of high ground, let’s run Dive Comp!”
Dive Comp has, up until the release of Brigitte, been the most favored team composition in Overwatch history. Dive comp relies exclusively on high mobility and the ability to collapse on a single target in a heartbeat. By the end of its time, it was mostly refined to Winston, D.Va, Genji, Tracer, Mercy & Zen. With Tanks working in tandem to “dive” a target simultaneously, whilst being pocketed by healers. and Genji & Tracer running interference in the backline. Dive generally works best on maps with high ground such as Numbani, Gibraltar & Busan.
“Hey D.Va*, i’m about to Ult, can you DM me?”*
DM stands for Defense Matrix. Referring of course to D.Va’s cooldown ability which allows her to negate any incoming damage within her Defense Matrix’s range. The ability is hugely useful for characters who are prone to damage when performing their ultimate, such as McCree or Pharah. Conversely, it can be used to negate Ults from the same characters if they are attempting to Ult against you. If you see a D.Va turn and charge a McCree with her Defense Matrix open. Be sure to thank her after.
“Can we get a projectile DPS please? We already have a hitscan”
DPS stands for “Damage Per Second”. DPS used to be split into two categories - Attack & Defense. However, Blizzard eventually decided to just smash them all together into a single category, known simply, as “Damage”. DPS are comprised of either Hitscan or Projectile aim-based heroes. See further explanation on those later. All you really need to know is that the DPS player has a singular goal. To pour out as much damage against the enemy as humanly possible. They generally have high damage output, but tend to be more fragile as far as health bars go. DPS players are definitely a varied bunch, some with high utility, others who can fly, hack or turn into a god damn mini gun turret. Despite their bad rap, they are often the most fun characters to play, and everyone secretly enjoys going on a bit of a tear as their favorite DPS hero.
“Ok, they have the Ult advantage here, let’s make this one a Dry Fight”
A Dry Fight is a fight in which your team does not commit any Ultimates. The idea being that you either try to win the team fight on the mechanical merits of your own abilities, or by counter picking. With the hopes that your team builds their own ultimates, whilst hopefully forcing the enemy to use some of theirs. So either you win the team fight and set yourself up nicely for the next one, or you lose, but the next fight should be much easier.
“I swear to god, i am just hard stuck in ELO hell right now”
ELO does not refer to an acronym as some might think, but rather to a man - Arpad Elo. Elo was a Chess Master and actually designed his own ratings system for the game that was officially approved in a meeting in St Louis in 1960. It was essentially supposed to be the best governing method for match making players based on a variety of factors. Later adopted by some online competitive video games such as League Of Legends and, of course, Overwatch. You will hear the words ELO Hell thrown around quite a bit, this essentially means that a player believes they perform way above their current MMR and SR rating, but are consistently thrown into matches that seem lopsided or unfair, thus making the ability to gain any kind of traction with winning games either hard, or near impossible. Others would argue that there’s no such thing as Elo hell, and that it is a form of cognitive bias - essentially players assuming they are better than they really are. ELO hell also accounts for the large variety of Smurf accounts you may come into contact with on Overwatch. More on that later.
“…nothing left to say but EZ CLAP”
EZ Clap is an exclamation usually made by the winning side of an absolute stomp of a match. If one team completely rolls the other with no difficulty at all, two common types of winners insult in the chat box were usually “GG EZ” or “EZ CLAP” Blizzard actually caught on to the former and changes it to something else more wholesome when typed. It doesn’t stop people from saying it out loud though.
Fall Off Damage
“Keep out of McCrees fall off damage range, he’s a decent shot”
Fall Off Damage is the distance with which a hero’s effective damage range with a weapon is reduced. Not all weapons in Overwatch are created equal. Some of them will lose a portion of their damage output once an enemy is far enough away from the origin of the shot. If you know the effective range of a hero’s maximum damage output, you can try and keep at arms length and avoid taking quite as much harm as if you were within the effective range. Other hero’s have zero fall off damage, meaning they will hurt you just as much at maximum sight lines, as being directly in your face. Learning which is which is key to your overall survival.
“Soldier, can you please stop running in, you’re massively feeding right now”
Feeding essentially means you are doing one of two things, either allowing the enemy to build Ult charge off of you by continuously running into a fight by yourself and dying, or you are doing Trash Damage to the enemy team and allowing their healers to gain Ult charge by simply healing up the tiny amount of damage you are doing to their team. Both of these are generally bad ideas. You ultimately want to be building your Ult charge as much as possible, without allowing the enemy team to gain much, if any, Ult charge from you. Do you best to avoid feeding the enemy Ult Economy.
“We’re having a hell of a time breaking this Choke, Genji, can you flank?”
Flanking is a term used in many games, so most of you are probably familiar with it. However, in Overwatch, considering so much of the game is based around picking off one or two people, or simply breaking a choke. Flanking is hugely prevalent and important. The best flankers will engage with the enemy at the same time their team does, and use the chaos to find their mark. Sometimes your flanking player will just go right to the objective in order to force the team to deal with you. Prominent Overwatch heroes used for flanking are Tracer, Sombra, Genji & Reaper. Amongst others.
“Hey, can our Flex go Pharah, we need to take their focus away from us”
A Flex player is a player that prides themselves in being able to play multiple roles at a mid to high level. They may not be as fine tuned as an OTP or just someone who has a hundred plus hours on a particular hero, but they’re your go to for those sticky moments when you might need to switch up to a triple heal or triple tank play. They know how to play Junk, Pharah, Mei & Soldier with decent results, and can save your ass in a pinch. Often to the detriment of true greatness themselves.
“Jesus Widow! Way to frag out!"
Fragging quite simply means killing. It is an old military term for using a fragmentation grenade. Originating in the Vietnam war. Believe it or not, the term was based on using a Frag Grenade to kill or assassinate an unpopular or incompetent officer, often times a Frag Grenade was used for plausible deniability, since they could be easily blamed as an accidental short throw or an enemy grenade. It gained a resurgence in the 90’s with games like Doom & Quake. No killing your team mates in Overwatch though, unfortunately.
“McCree loves to Flash FTH, be aware, don’t get to close”
FTH in Overwatch usually refers to McCree’s secondary fire, FTH is shorthand for “Fan The Hammer”. This is when McCree unloads the remainder of his revolver in one go. Typically, a McCree will flash-bang you, then unload the full remainder of his barrel as close to your face as he can, this is instant death for most squishies. Hence why most people will try to bait out flash-bang before 1V1’ing a McCree
“GG’s guys, well played by everyone”
GG is simply short hand for Good Game. It’s kind of tradition after a well played game for both teams to type or say “GG” to each other. Just a simple sign of respect. Of course there are variations of this term that go completely against the original message. Most famously GG EZ, which is frankly a dick move to type.
“This is a close quarters map, you guys wanna run GOATS?”
GOATS comp is one of the most popular current compositions in professional level Overwatch. Named after a North American Overwatch team originally formed from the core of Fractal eSports. They played in the Overwatch Contenders trial and placed first in the 2018 Season 2 open division. The Comp consists of 3 Tanks, and 3 Healers. Usually Reinhardt, Zarya, D.Va, Brigitte, Lucio, Moira - although there are some variations. The power of GOATS comp is that the unit moves fast, together and isolates a target to pick as a group. Rinse repeat until the enemy team is dead. A good GOATS comp is very hard to counter, although there are several methods available. Notably Dive will still give them a run for their money on maps with verticality.
“Ok Hanzo, I have Ult - ready to Grav-Drag?”
A Grav-Drag is shorthand for Graviton Surge & Dragonstrike combination Ult. Essentially once Zayra builds her Graviton Surge, She tries to catch the whole team in it, and Hanzo will Dragonstrike directly into the centre, destroying anything caught within. This is a hugely popular combination ult that often results in a team wipe. Most likely to be seen on King’s Row.
TBC - Part 2
Stranger than Fiction IV: What Even Are Cults
This one is a bit different. I have put some time and effort into researching this one because two of the three stories I will tell were somewhat unfamiliar to me. The whole field of sociology and religious studies is one I have only shaken hands with occasionally. In fact, the idea of researching ‘Cults’ is incredibly fraught in academia because of the negative connotations of the word, the massive scope of what is or is not a cult, the tendency to get really political and moralizing in researching them, and, in some cases, the very real danger that by researching a dangerous organization you become one of their targets. So, while I assure you that I have done some work and tried to come to some reasonable arguments, the conclusions I make are only for your D&D game. Do not assume that this is in any way indicative of the various fields of study that work on these groups.
So let’s talk about real cults. I bet there isn’t a DM out there who hasn’t used cults in their games at some point, because they are such a staple of the genre. My goal is to identify some characteristics of real cults so that we can add them to the ones in our games and provide some depth and character to them. Real cults have an undeniable power over people, and there are reasons for it that I think are lost in the fantasy genre.
I identify five characteristics of cults and then will go through three examples to show these characteristics in action in history. The five characteristics are: a godlike leader, flexible beliefs, reinvention of the self, isolation of believers, and elite membership. The three stories I will tell are three wildly different manifestations of cults: Heaven’s Gate, Aleph, and the personality cult of Mao Zedong. There is a lot of space to cover, and a lot of repetition in showing how each story exhibits each of the five characteristics.
This is a long one, I am pushing the word limit. So, I give you permission to skip the whole body and get to the conclusion; that will, in what is a long enough post by itself, summarize how to build a cult and some questions to think about when doing so for your D&D game. There's also a TL:DR right below if you're really in a hurry. No judgment at all, this is a long one.
TL:DR; five characteristics of cults are godlike leader, flexible beliefs, reinvention of the believer, isolation, and elite membership. That’s a useful framework to build reasons why cults can recruit people in your world. Specific lessons from the stories are that people crave the feeling of a chosen community, will defend it by resorting to extremism when that community is threatened, and tend to trust their leader entirely when it comes to deciding what it means to build and defend their community.
Heaven’s Gate39 people, including the founder and leader, of the Heaven’s Gate cult died in a mass suicide in 1997. For those of you that are old like me, you may remember looking up to the skies in 1997 to see the stunning sight of the Hale-Bopp comet. Those in Heaven’s Gate believed that there was an alien ship hiding in the comet’s tail, and that it was going to take them away from their mortal coil and transport their consciousness to a greater plane of understanding and evolution. They committed ritual suicide to beam themselves up.
This is a good starting point for our stories about cults because it is really about the cultists, their leader, and their beliefs. They didn’t commit any massive acts of violence, except against themselves, which makes it easier to pry at what drove them to believe something that seems so nonsensical on its face. It shows how a few simple characteristics can create such a strong bond between people and their faith, regardless of any setbacks that seem like it should have shaken them out of this state.
God-like Leader - Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles were the founders and leaders of Heaven’s Gate. They mixed sci-fi, the bible, and the occult into this belief that the Christian God was real, and he was an alien, which directly led to the creation of the History Channel (this claim is disputed). In all seriousness, Ancient Aliens might not have been their invention, but they took it to a religious level and spread the word as prophets, people destined to tell the fate of the world as foretold in The Book of Revelations, but with their alien spin. Both Applewhite and Nettles even later claimed that they were gods; they argued that Jesus and God were incorporeal aliens that could take over bodies, and that Applewhite was the same alien spirit that had once taken Jesus for a ride, and Nettles was the spirit of God. So the leadership of Heaven’s Gate quite literally made themselves out to be Gods.
Flexible Beliefs - Nettles and Applewhite had been running this thing since the early 70s and had led their cult around the US. They begged on streets, avoided anybody who might recognize them, and focused on reaching a higher evolutionary level on their own. They were a vaguely public group, a wandering community of believers that preached around the country. They picked up some ex-hippie, truth-seeker believers as you imagine with 1970s cults, but they also recruited scientists and even a serious major party candidate for the Colorado State House.
Nettles died of cancer in 1985. I bring this up, because it radically altered the group’s trajectory. She was supposed to be divine, how could she die before her time? Rather than fracturing the group, they changed their beliefs to one where bodies were vehicles. While they claimed to be alien spirits in human bodies, they believed up until Nettles’ death that they would be taken corporeally by alien spacecraft to their immortality and evolution. After her death, they changed their beliefs to focus on the spirit being taken rather than the body. When confronted with challenges to their doctrine, the beliefs changed.
Reinvention of the Self - Heaven’s Gate asked its membership to completely change themselves in order to attain the evolutionary level above human. There were two levels of this; first, in their life on earth they had to rid themselves of all the pitiful human traits they could, such as gender, personality, possessions, and more. Second, when the time came they would literally be taken by aliens to ascend to the next level. Cults offer both a promise and an action, in this way. There is a reward at the end, a great achievement that will change the individual and even mankind, but to deserve it they needed to reinvent themselves in the here and now.
Isolation of Believers - Like many cults, Heaven’s Gate asked its believers to leave everything behind to follow the leaders. In their early years, they were nomadic as people gave away everything to follow them around the US. After 1985, they began to become even more reclusive, primarily contacting the outside world through their website (which is still active and maintained by two, anonymous, remaining members). About a year before the mass suicide, they began renting a compound for everyone to live in, shut out from the outside world.
Elite Membership - Here is, I think, where Heaven’s Gate really stands out as a story, because while all the cults we’re looking at exhibit this characteristic, Heaven’s Gate personifies it best. Membership in Heaven’s Gate was not easy; not only did one have to give up everything and lead an ascetic life, they really had to prove themselves as a cut above normal people. Not everyone was ready for the evolutionary level above human, so the entire life of membership was a test that people were expected to fail. To gain and maintain membership in Heaven’s Gate meant that you were special and different, more advanced than most humans. And as the noted reinvention of the self, the cult promised that this cream of the crop would be rewarded by ascending to a higher level of consciousness in which all would finally be revealed. Heaven’s Gate attracted smart, capable people because it told them sure you’re smart and capable, but that’s just the start.
People like feeling not just smart, but like they are holders of secret knowledge. There’s something about knowing the world’s secrets better than the common man that is enticing and seductive. A cult plays into this by giving that feeling to them; more importantly, it makes them work for it. A religion puts its beliefs up front (generally) for people to see, but a cult gates that knowledge off and releases it slowly to believers to make them feel special, different, chosen.
This is the lesson I want to draw from for our D&D, that cult membership isn’t entirely illogical. I mean, it is, but it works by preying on some common psychological exploits. Faceless, fanatical cultists are faceless by choice, not because you need a villainous mob. They gave up their faces and individuality in service of a greater power because it knows they are special, because it gives them secret knowledge, and because they are an elite and chosen group who has worked for and deserves the rewards that will come in the promised end. That’s something to remember when making a cult in your game.
AlephBetter known as Aum Shinrikyo or just Aum (Aleph is how they’ve rebranded), this group was responsible for the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attack that killed 13 and injured thousands more. This was only their highest profile attack, as there were a few other sarin uses before 1995 and the 1989 assassination of a lawyer, and his family, who was involved in a case against Aum.
With this story, I want to get at what made them violent like this and understand how a yoga study group became terrorists. I will go through a lot of their history and doctrine only on the surface because I want to focus on what pushes cults to go extreme. Also, what they believe in is really hard to pin down, and I don’t really want piles of Aum sites in my browser history lest I end up on some watch list.
God-like Leader - Shoko Ashara (not his given name) started preaching in the early 1980s; by the 90s, he was a popular guru lecturing and publishing books about spirituality. On the one hand, he claimed that his teachings were meant to identify and preach to a more pure, original form of Buddhism by referring back to Buddha’s secret teachings; on the other, he also incorporated ideas from Christianity by claiming that he alone could take on the sins of the world to redeem people. He even claimed to be Christ in 1992 (this is a common theme in my series, it seems).
What is important here is that the cult centered on the reverence of this one guy because of his special, spiritual qualities. Whatever he was, belief in and service to him was portrayed as the only path to spiritual enlightenment. In fact, the point of the cult was to convert people into clones of Ashara, sometimes even using specially made brainwave devices to transmit Ashara’s thoughts and personhood into other people. He also sold his bathwater, so really a trendmaker in that sense. He was executed in2018 for his role in the 1995 sarin attack.
Flexible Beliefs - Again, I am having difficulty pinning down their beliefs, but I think that is the point I want to make. Throughout its history, Aleph has predicted various kinds of doomsdays; the passing of one for-sure date of the end of the world just meant that they recalculated to find the next date. The execution of the leader hasn’t quite killed off the cult. Like with Heaven’s Gate, while there is a sort of core belief, the real power of the group is in the rituals and foundation of a community, and the beliefs will change whenever necessary if they are ever challenged by the interruptions of reality.
Reinvention of the Self - Aleph members, like Heaven’s Gate, are told to give all of their belongings to the cult and give up their lives to join. As noted, one of the goals of the cult is to literally clone the leader by making all the cult members into versions of him, whether through indoctrination, brainwashing, or the brainwave devices. Once again there are also two layers to this; by giving up all the things that made them individuals and taking on the persona of Ashara, they are advancing to a new level of consciousness. Ashara draws from Buddhism here in that the goal of consciousness is to realized the truths of the world. Ashara argued that he knew them, so by becoming Ashara, they can make steps towards attaining this perfect nirvana where they have become enlightened beings outside of the bounds of the mundane world, outside of the physical universe.
Elite Membership - Changing up the layout here to leave the most important for the end, but this is a crucial component of the story. Taking on this new self and stepping outside the bounds of the mundane world had a purpose; it was how they were going to save the world. Or at least live through the end of it. Ashara argued that the world was going to end, probably in a nuclear winter caused by the third world war. Only through their belief in Ashara could believers be saved, and with enough believers, the fate of the world could be reversed.
I’ll take a quick detour here to explain that, as best as I can. Karma is a familiar enough concept, but we generally get it wrong. I’ll relate a personal experience. In my philosophy course we were learning about karma, and the basics are that if you do bad deeds, you’ll eventually have to pay off that karmic debt by having bad done to you. I asked my philosophy teacher who was explaining this, “what about some kid in the back seat of a car hit by a drunk driver, what did they do?” The answer was, “well, to a Buddhist, probably something awful in a previous life, as did the drivers of both cars, the families impacted, and everyone hurt by that event.” Karma is not direct, it’s a universal system of waves that we are creating, reverberating throughout infinite time and reincarnations. Everyone is connected, every event is just the waves of karma shifting our fate and balancing the karmic debt from thousands of lifetimes of ripples.
That might help explain what Aleph and its believers thought, because they seemed to think that their devoted group could change the world through the power of their karma. By following their leader, living lives of good karma, and serving this one shining light that promised to fix the infinite pattern controlling all fate, they could suck away all the bad in the world and prevent these karmic waves from destroying everything. I’m going on hunches here, but that’s the connection I see.
So people in Aleph were an elite group of the best of mankind united in a mission to save the world from itself. Not just that, but Aleph specifically targeted certain people for recruitment, offering university graduates and high skill people a relief from their workaday lives and a belief in something bigger. For a 90s, cutthroat capitalist, 60+ hour workweek Japan, the idea that they could do something really meaningful with their lives and transcend the mundane was attractive. Shit, I barely do 40 in a job that isn’t that bad and I can feel it.
Isolation of Believers - I saved this for last because this is where it gets violent. One of the ways that cults overcome the doubts when beliefs are reinvented, one of the ways that it makes people believe they are elite and unique, is by isolating its members from outside influences. They get put into a bubble where only the desired behaviors are reinforced by new secret knowledge and access to the leader, and any contradictory information is screened out. Heaven’s Gate did it, Aleph did it, and so, as we will cover, did Mao.
But in the case of Aleph, their isolation was not just from the rest of the world around them, their isolation was viewed as a fortress to protect them. Going back to the karma, these people saw themselves as the last hope for mankind, the calm center of the storm trying to spread that calmness against the encroaching waves. Part of what made them a cohesive community and made them commit was because they thought the world would push back on them. They had to fight against bad karma. And remember, karma is not individual, it is a universal pattern that links every person together, not a direct action/reaction dyad. The people that resisted Aleph did so as part of this universal system of bad karma shaking the pattern. Aleph’s little pocket of good was under attack by the system, almost like Agents taking over individuals in the Matrix. And Aleph was under attack. They were sued for fraud and kidnapping by parents whose kids joined the cult and faced numerous legal battles about all sorts of other, very legitimate, complaints of illegality.
So how does a yoga, self-help group become terrorists with biological weapons? Because they saw themselves as an isolated bastion trying to save the system from itself, they viewed their attackers not as people but as expressions of that system, and because the fate of the universe hung on them and them alone. It might have seemed like just some lawsuits to outsiders and the resulting attacks as absolutely inordinate retaliation, but on the inside this was a defensive war for the future of the world.
So there’s the D&D lesson from Aleph; to protect their community and their ideals and their mission, a cult can very quickly become violent, extremely so. But they won’t see this as retribution and violence, but as a necessary evil taken only in defense against those already attacking the group. Even the end of the world, as cults are prone to seek in D&D, might be justified to believers as a defense against something worse.
Mao ZedongWhen you think of the Cult of Mao, you probably see images of the posters from the Cultural Revolution. You think of the million teenagers cramming into Tiananmen Square, all waving their little red books, just losing their shit at seeing Mao as if he were one of the Beatles in their first American tour. This is definitely the biggest incarnation of a cult that we’ll look at, but Mao started small and the Cultural Revolution was as much an attempt to recapture the magic of his first cult as it was a totally new expression of his cult.
Mao is an interesting case of a cult leader because he is the only one without any trappings of a deity, and yet he is probably the most deified of them all. He shows that when you add charisma and mythical heroism to the cult leader, the cult can feel like a special and embattled minority even when it is the clear, dominant, and oppressive majority.
Flexible Beliefs - I’ll cover Mao, the person, last. I don’t want to get into the arcana of dialectical materialism here to show how Maoism changed, but rather I’ll focus on people as a stand-in for flexible beliefs. Because one of the big hallmarks of Maoism, as it played out in China, was how replaceable every believer was, and how once deposed their entire history of support for Mao and Maoism became a sham. I’ll give a quick biography to demonstrate the point.
Peng Dehuai was one of Mao’s closest associates from the very beginning in 1927 and a superb military mind. While Mao wrote about guerilla warfare and led politics, Peng led the troops in doing it. Peng supported Mao when he was just an upstart in the Communist Party, he supported Mao when he eventually became leader, and he supported Mao in the Korean War after taking over China, he was there every step of the way without question. But in 1959, he wrote a letter arguing that Mao had gone a little overboard with this whole Great Leap Forward thing and that it looked like the movement (which led to a massive, unquantifiably deadly famine) might have had some adverse consequences. The entire party turned against him, his entire history was purged, and he was routinely publicly humiliated during the Cultural Revolution and accused of being a deep-capitalist plant the entire time.
Peng is not an isolated incident. Mao’s second in command, Liu Shaoqi, suffered similarly and he was killed during the Cultural Revolution for being a traitor and spy despite having given his life to the Communist Party and 20 years to Mao. Lin Biao, who took over behind both Peng and Liu as head of the military and Mao’s #2, went harder on the Mao cool-aid than anyone, but in a mysterious set of circumstances his plane crashed while he was fleeing the country and everything he’d ever done was portrayed as a great deception and betrayal of Mao.
Reinvention of the Self - Mao got his start as a cult leader in Yan’an during the Rectification Movement. The Party, he argued, suffered from a lack of unity; everybody had their own readings of Marxism and therefore the group lacked cohesion. Rectification was an intense movement of reeducation where everybody grouped up into small groups, read the works of Mao and other approved texts, commented, and then criticized themselves and their own failings in front of this group. Failure to be sufficiently sincere in your self-criticism meant you had to do it again. And again. And again. At the end of this, people had been reinvented into a cohesive force, a group capable of saving China.
This first movement was something almost mythical. The people that went through it went on to rule China for 40 years (Deng Xiaoping was the last living leader from Yan’an). But Mao decided that the first 20 years had made that group soft, so he got the Cultural Revolution off to replace them with a new group. And that blueprint, of groups forming to study, to criticize, and to reenact the wars of the revolution by fighting now against the entrenched state bureaucracy, was a quite deliberate attempt to recreate Yan’an on a national scale.
In both cases, the reinvention of the self was a proxy for the reinvention, the revolution, of China. When the students of Yan’an were rectifying themselves to create Party unity, they imagined it as the prerequisite to finally saving the country from the imperialism of Japan and beyond. When the students of the Cultural Revolution memorized the little red book together in the office buildings of bureaucrats they had overthrown, they saw themselves as the only hope for global communism against the traitorous capitalist-roaders in China and in the USSR.
Isolation of Believers - Mao managed this by effectively taking over the country. Whereas many cults have to really work to get their people away from outside influences, when you can shut off the whole country to foreigners and you can totally control the media to say whatever you need it to say, isolation is pretty easy.
But there’s an extra step here. They still need to isolate within that isolation to feel unique and special, as I’ll cover later. In Yan’an, they managed it by being out in the boonies. Yan’an, though it is the heart of ancient China, is a backwaters in modern times. The mountainous terrain and muddy roads make it nearly inaccessible. Out here, away from Japan’s attacks, away from the Nationalist government in the South, the beleaguered Communist Party found a home having run away from all that. And more people came, similarly undergoing their own trials to arrive at this heart of resistance.
During the Cultural Revolution, the young Red Guards tried to recreate this by going on tours around the country to revisit these spaces, but more significantly, their isolation was psychological. Universally, they created their own groups and attacked the rest of society; anybody old was suspect, including teachers, government officials, and often their parents. They isolated themselves in the belief that the old revolution had failed, long live the next revolution.
Elite Membership - Everything about the Communist Party is an elite organization. Even though Mao warned them that they should keep close to the masses, the Communist Party recruits only a percentage of the population, picked based on merit (or connections) to become part of the ruling group. Each level is another layer of prestige, all the way to the top. But it takes a lot work to be there. During Yan’an, it meant undergoing rectification, and the same process continued throughout Mao’s tenure. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guard groups popped up styling themselves as the true believers, sometimes even fighting each other over who was the most correct and closest to Mao.
More importantly, in every case, these people believed that China was unique and elite in the world. Even when their goal was fighting against other Chinese, both in the revolution and in the Cultural Revolution, they felt like they were saving China and indeed the world. They were the forefront, the vanguard, of revolutionary change.
God-like Leader - Mao’s biggest departure from the cults we looked at earlier is that he made all of this happen to a population of a billion, not the forty of Heaven’s Gate or even the (alleged) tens of thousands once in Aleph. A billion. The most populous country in the world. And yet all the tactics that seemed to serve a small, dedicated group like a religious cult worked here. In a country they controlled, they still felt isolated. In an elite group of specially picked members, they still felt special and unique. In a place that had already been reinvented as a Communist nation once, they still had to do it again. And in a land of a billion, nobody was able to point out the absurdities in how beliefs changed so wildly.
A main reason for that is Mao himself. I said that the Cult of Mao kinda got its start in Yan’an, but that’s not quite true. By the time he reached Yan’an, he was already a sort of mythic figure. He’d escaped the white terror of 1927 (when the Nationalists hunted down all Communist Party members they could find in a sudden betrayal of their alliance), and in fact had totally called that it would happen years before. He built up a rebellion in the mountains, redistributed land, created a Communist state, before the Nationalists were able to bring a war to him. And he got away, walking with his handful of followers over 10,000 kilometers, crossing bridges under fire, constantly pursued, until finally reaching safety in Yan’an. He was the hero of this battle-scarred group and the nucleus of China’s revolution. His survival was a thing of legends, and it was all because he knew the path before he walked it, had been right at every turn.
This is, again, describing him in 1942. Not 1966 when the posters of him being the glorious sun shedding the light of revolution on his adoring followers sprung up, well after he had colossally screwed up as a leader multiple times in the intervening years.
The cult leader has a lot of power over his people, in every case they are portrayed as not just god-like, but infallible and essential. Mao really embodied this. His every word was the truth, and his existence was the prerequisite for the success of the revolution, for the salvation of China. That’s why people could be so subservient, why they could kill themselves in a mass suicide at Applewhite’s command, or commit atrocities for Ashara, or denounce their parents and kill their teachers at Mao’s whims. God-like, in a cult, means that they must be followed and they must be revered because they are the keys to the belief structure and the final goals of the community. So when Mao’s followers attacked their elders, they saw themselves as the embattled few saving the world when they were, in fact, already in total control. They believed Mao when he told them otherwise, regardless of the evidence in front of their eyes.
So there’s our lesson from Mao for D&D, and I think this is why cults are so common in our settings; it is so easy to single out such a important, powerful, and chaotic leader. The nature of a cult, the way it is formed, necessitates that the leader is infallible and essential, that they must be followed to the ends of the earth. That is a very easy person to make a villain.
ConclusionWhew, this has been a journey. Thanks for making it through it all. And if you skipped it, no judgment, that is a lot of words to provide a historical context for a few points I want to make about a game we all play for fun.
So I think our five characteristics are a useful way to start understanding cults. Historically speaking, they are present in our examples, and they are pretty key components of what makes a cult a cult as opposed to a religion or political party or canasta club. So I’ll repeat them here, summarize some basic lessons, and prompt a few questions to help you build a compelling and terrifyingly realistic cult.
God-like Leader - the leader of a cult is often a prophet or even portrayed as a manifestation of a god, quite literally being god-like. But even without the religious dimension, they are god-like in that they are infallible and essential. They might totally contradict themselves, they might be a prophet one day and an avatar the next, they might suffer all sorts of set backs, but to be god-like, they have to show that it was all part of their vision. They couldn’t reveal the truth until they were ready. They allowed misfortune to test their followers. They are never wrong and are the key piece to reaching the goals of the organization.
Some questions; do they do this cynically, fully aware of what they are doing and manipulating it, or do they believe in it themselves? What myth or legend has made their charisma? In the world of D&D, what powers towards deification can they actually gain or use for the purpose? How much does the cult serve only the leader, and if a lot how is this justified?
Flexible Beliefs - There is usually some core at the center of a cult, a basic secret about the reality of the world and humanity’s place in it, but everything around it can change, and cultists won’t see the dissidence. To put it simply, for a doomsday cult, doomsday can always be tomorrow even though each successive day proves them wrong. The most important thing is that the purpose of the cult is served.
Some questions; what is the core, unchangeable belief at the center of the cult? What actions can they take to get there? Why is it persuasive, what does it offer them? How can it adapt whenever proven wrong? What is the leader's role in redefining the cult's beliefs? Can it survive without the leader?
Reinvention of the Self - every cult asks its people to reinvent themselves. This is such a powerful tool, it’s used almost everywhere, from the military to business retreats. Because when you reinvent yourself alongside others who are going through the same process, you become a particularly tight-knit community. But what separates cults from common uses is that that transformation has to be powered by a belief that it is happening for a reason and that they are becoming a more advanced type of person for having gone through it.
Some questions; what are the rituals they use to reinvent themselves? What are they trying to attain? How do senior members initiate the new ones? Are there additional levels of reinvention beyond the first? What does a reinvented cultist look like or act like? Should they literally gain some powers?
Isolation of Believers - for all of this to work, especially the flexible beliefs and the reinvention of the self, people have to be isolated from the rest of the world. They might literally sequester themselves away, but for a villainous group, they instead take extreme measures to keep the world away even as they live and act within it.
Some questions; how does the cult keep information from outside from getting in? What are the punishments for letting information in? How do they interact with the world when they must be out in it? How does the cult isolate people from their friends and family?
Elite Membership - Cults don’t just gather the gullible, they appeal to even particularly smart and capable people because they appear to be a special group that not everyone can be part of. There are always requirements to join that not everyone can meet, and this makes the cultist feel like they are part of an elite group. That feeling reinforces all the rest of the characteristics. But that feeling of being different is complementary to the feeling that they will get elite rewards for their sacrifice. They are elite because they will be the first (or only) to gain something once the cult’s objectives are attained.
Some questions; why do cultists see themselves as unique and special when they are part of this organization? What prerequisites are there to membership? What do they have to do to prove that they deserve membership? How are various levels distinguished from each other within the cult? What do they gain, what secret knowledge is dispensed with membership, what boon is granted?
Thanks for reading! I have a podcast and a blog that you can find at www.marriednd.com or @marriednd.