Mystery Cult initiation - How much do they know?

As the title says, Mystery Cult initiations, how much do you think the initiate knows about the initiation?

All my players PCs are signed up to mystery cults and some of them have brutal initiations. Some of them would not like the flaws ahead or consider the virtues insufficient recompense for the flaws. In character, some of them are cautious and would be shy of committing to a practice that demands so much from them in return for unknown rewards.

So, do you think that an initiate should know the details of the initiation script, before the initiation? Should this be something they can work out with a good Int + cult lore roll? Or should it be a mystery, a leap of faith and trust where the details are only revealed by initiation itself?

I'm of two minds and so far i've let my players make the rolls to see what the next initiation only might be.

I as a player would be most discouraged if my character initiated and got a flaw I hated and a virtue that I found less than ideal. I certainly would never keep the knowledge from the players. My inclination is to make character knowledge of initiation as a cult dependent thing. I'd do this because I don't like to make hard and fast rules regarding the setting.

There are times when it's best to distinguish players and characters, in terms of both preferences and knowledge.

As for preferences, it's generally always good to go with what the player wants. Often, this is what the character wants too, but sometimes it isn't. A PC knight may desperately want to save his bethroted, but the controlling player may think it's cooler if she dies, so he can weave the themes of loss, sorrow, and possibly revenge (and/or a new love) into the story. When deciding whether something really bad should happen to a PC, particularly one into which the player has invested a lot of time and emotional attachment, it's always best to make sure the player is ok with it.

This "leaks" into the knowledge aspect. Generally, it makes for cooler play if the players only know what their characters know, so they can more fully immerse themselves in the story. However, sometimes it's better to give the player extra knowledge, so he can steer his character aways from situations where play would not be enjoyable. This can include steering away from situations his character would find desirable, but the player would not!

In your case, if in doubt (sometimes one already knows what his players want without asking) I would start discussing the situation with the players very frankly. I'd tell them: "Look, would you be ok with your character gaining Flaw X or Y, or would it ruin your enjoyment of the game?". If they say "Wow, that's evil, and my character would hate it, but I'm fine ... as long as you throw me this extra bone!", great, I'd go with the brutal initiations. Otherwise, I definitely would not; or at least I'd make sure that they have some way to wiggle out of the Flaw - a pilgrimage, a powerful supernatural creature/object/site lifting curses, etc.

The players should (and more then likely will, if using a canon source) know the script. The Characters? That's what Cult lore is all about, yes? Now you have a reason, "in game", to raise that skill. On the second part, I would not let them vary the script. Some prices might be too high, yes. That's life, and no one is making them do it, they are questing for alien power on a secret path. Shouldn't be cheap, or even convenient.....

Which ever you choose, I would try my best to reveal anything in game. I just think it makes for a better experience.

You could have a mystery cult where all the initiated only have one eye. That's a pretty big hint for what's in store. Or maybe a former member of the mystery cult tells the character about the initiation for her own ends. If the player does not like where things are going they can choose to have their character leave. Or you can always change the initiation. For example, the mystagog (sp?) could tell the character about the coming initiation. If the player's reaction is negative, but the character goes through with it anyway, on the night of the initiation the mystagog tells the character that he does not have to go through such a terrible trial after all. The mystagog was merely testing the character to see if he was worthy.

Agree with this.

It's a really bad idea to disappoint/annoy/frustrate the player over Mystery Initiation. Doesn't mean that the player has to know precisely what will happen. But as story-guide, if the initiation details are secret you want to make sure that the player will not be pissed off when the secret is revealed.

On the other hand, it is fine to make the details of the upper levels of the cult secret from a character only initiated to the lower levels --- afterall, that's practically the definition of a mystery cult.

The mystagogue has those flaws, the characters have a good idea what will happen to them. Subtle hints should be given to see if the candidate is ready for the next level. Moreover, a cult does not look for victims but for like-minded individuals that will carry on their ideal if not enrich it.

As a player, I expect to be forewarned: I will be given unspecified flaws to bring me into those kind of stories. That will allow me to verify it does not affect my character's "essential nature", or how I can transform it.

It's a ceremony. Generally speaking, you know what you get, what you sacrifice, and what your lines are.

For example-

"Who comes here?" asks the first guardian, palms raised.

"I am a youth!" says the supplicant.

"Whence came you?"

"From the East!" the supplicant says, gesturing toward dawn.

"What do you bear?"

"A golden branch!" the supplicant says, raising the branch.

You don't just improvise through - you have to rehearse your lines and blocking!

You probably won't get any such luck if it's a really obscure ritual with huge reward and hard-to-find, not-necessarily-(still)-human Mystagogues. For example, you (or at least your character) will probably only be able to deduce the barest of "well it won't be that"s or MAYBE "okay it'll be one of these like five things for sure" from the Major Ordeal involved in, say, awakening your Inner Heartbeast with a great ancestor. On the other hand, for your standard Mystery Initiations with usually-sane and very human Mystagogues who aren't, in general, intending to bring you ascension into the next stage of their quasi-religious life system... Yeah, if you can't tell by looking at other people who have gone through it what the Ordeal will be, the Mystagogue will most likely tell you if you ask. "What, our ability to create automata? Why, yes, it comes with a rather large drawback... You'll generally have to be in your workshop to use any magic whatsoever! It's a big loss, not for the faint of heart, or for the adventurous for that matter, unless you like starting forest fires."

That's how I'd figure it, anyway.

Before initiation and Mystery cults existed, my PC went through an initiation which drastically changed its magic (without knowing what would happen - neither me the player). When I found out that because of that change my character would not be able to teach magic to his (real) son, I asked the DM to retcon that. I did not care if it could have made me more powerful, but it was clear that my PC would never let somebody else train his son (you could argue that he could have trained him in his new magic, but no reasonable father would bring his son in an uncertain mysterious and definitely dangerous path).

So I believe, since we practice our hobby for fun, communication between player and GM is key. Find out what the player want for his character - you can either disclose fully what will happen to him or just give him a hint that he is in the right direction. Be flexible and if the player find the flaw too crippling for his character concept (like a Diedne magician getting weak spontaneous magic...), then work on alternative or just cancel the whole thing.

Mystery cults initiation gives a nice, balanced system for character development, but like with any rules, it is up to you as GM to decide what's the price for knowledge. One of my player dedicated many - many seasons - without rewards (not even exposure XP) on a project he did not know how it will pan out, and at the end, I granted him the equivalent of Craft Magic. He had no clue what he would be getting, he guessed that there will be come form of reward, but played his character well and fairly. So no flaw, and still a nice virtue.

If the player/PC is going for min/maxing & munchkinism, just follow the rules and applied appropriate flaws (without destroying the character concept though), but I am a big supporter of "poetic reward" (a bit like "poetic justice").

As of in-game knowledge, a lot of people have already voiced sounded opinion and I agree with the trend: with the exception of the most fanatical cults, the mystagogue can give a fair warning on what's expecting the supplicant: they are not looking for victim, they are looking for like-minded peers. And some flaws can be quite obvious to guess.
Unless a cult is trying to convert under duress, it is not going to inflinct flaws just for the sake of it (although it could be a nice story line: to force a magus to perform a certain kind of magic - let's say Chtonian - because an acquired flaw preventing him to do otherwise).

Like the game itself, some surprises can be good, but you don't want to completely mess with the objectives or make the price too high. A lot comes down to how well you know the players. I had one initiation where the player liked the flaw they gained (magical animal companion) more than the virtue (ways of the hills)

One of my players plays a Criamon from Ireland. His character includes some irish mythological influences and there are some faerie components, too. Now she became stranded in the Provence Tribunal and learned a potential Mystagogue for the path of walking backwards. This tradition is very strange for her. She´d nothing to do with islam as yet, for example. I as storyguide would never exert pressure on the player to let his character "walking backwards"... but the acquaintance between the player character and the mystagogue is for both of us - the player and me - like a test of flexibility: The mystagogue acts as a role model for a Criamon - a role that the player character doesn´t play. Is it possible for the mystagogue to change the life of this utterly foreigner, just by acting exemplary, wise and well? Is it possible to step across the border of culture and religion that way?

This is the metagame I´m playing with this player: He doesn´t know "the path of walking backwards", but at all times he is able to stop his journey, if he doesn´t like it. Then it´s time for more confidence-building measures. Let´s see, how far the character gets.