The end of the world often looms large over sci-fi and fantasy settings; AI uprisings, alien invasions, experiments gone wrong and earth-shattering superweapons are just some of the ways your life could be cut short in an instant. After a while, people could begin to feel powerless, like their lives lose meaning when it could all be over regardless of what they do… so when someone shows up claiming they have the secret to salvation, who wouldn’t be at least a little inclined to listen? Be careful, though, because this smooth talking man with a plan might just have a very different goal in mind. Did you think people joined a doomsday cult for the fun of it?

Here are 4 things to look for when you’re trying to find out if this bold new group is actually selling snake venom instead of just snake oil.

4. Promised Salvation

Headward, free now to rise!

One of the key aspects of a doomsday cult is that while they see the end of the world as imminent, that doesn’t mean it’s totally “unavoidable” for you as an individual. If the AI overlord intends to exact punishment on humanity for creating it, for example, then our doomsday cult may claim to have a way to avoid its wrath, or at the very least offer a lesser form of suffering. How exactly they’ve determined this path will save its adherents is often a mystery; after all, even in the event of an AI or alien threat, it’s not like the enemy’s communicating with ordinary, run-of-the-mill humans. In particularly brutal cases, the “salvation” that a doomsday cult offers is simply a well-timed or ritualized form of suicide… which doesn’t seem like much of a better fate.

On the other hand, eternal torture at the hands of a mad AI may leave you wishing you had.

3. Exclusive Insight

Decapitation is rarely an enticing offer; just ask Dorium Maldovar.

While many of these doomsday cults claim to have the inside info to save their followers from the worst of what’s to come, once in a while you’ll find one that actually does. A sympathetic engineer who’s managed to get on the AI’s good graces, for example, or an abductee who was forever altered after he was taken by the aliens. They may or may not actually be able to help anyone else, but there’s some reason to believe they might. Whatever the nature of the insight they offer, one thing is clear: they’ve seen what lies ahead, and resistance is futile.

Of course, that’s just their opinion, and they’re not necessarily right, so don’t go giving in just yet. A cult leader with this level of connection will probably be advertising the fact–placing the emphasis on how their brush with the harbinger of our doom gives them a right to be heard. Some, however, aren’t so transparent about how they’ve acquired this insight into the apocalypse…

2. Collaboration

Okay, so he colluded with the Pah Wraiths, but who wouldn’t accept a literal deal with the devil?

There’s always one simple explanation, though: perhaps they know how to be spared from the End because they’re helping to bring it about. Our doomsday cult could just as easily be led by a Reptilian in disguise rather than abductee. Invading armies always reward the traitors quite well, don’t they? Sure, it means turning against the rest of the human race, but what has humanity done for us lately? And even life as an alien slave might seem appealing when you feel you’ve been cast aside and forgotten by your own people. An entity that can bring about the end of existence probably doesn’t need your help, but the odds for a henchman’s survival have to be better than an enemy’s.

If you’re far enough into the cult to have learned that they’re collaborators, then it’s probably too late to bail; to them, you’re doomed to die anyway if you’re not part of the cult, so what’s the harm in killing you to keep their secret? You’re better off keeping your hooded head down and getting in line for the poisoned punch last. There is, however, one final scenario in which a cultist with regrets might be able to escape…

1. Invocation

God is in his Heaven, and all is right with the world.

Because after all, what better way is there to ensure that you and your followers are safe than by triggering Armageddon yourself? A doomsday cult operating at this level isn’t just predicting the end of the world, they’re setting things in motion to force it to happen. Crazy cultists rarely have the resources or know-how to pull this off on their own, so there’s still probably an outside force involved–an eldritch presence from another dimension, etc. The main difference is that this world-ending outside force wouldn’t be able to act on its own, typically, no matter how much it wants to raze the Earth. This tends to lead to a deal being struck: the cult gets to inherit the world and reshape in their image, while the cosmic horror they called forth destroys all else and basks in the radiance of their worship. Win/win, right?

And this is your opening, my dear cult member with second thoughts. You’ve clearly reached the upper echelons of the group to know their true plan. You know what they need to do to succeed, and thus how to stop it from succeeding. Sabotage the plot from within, and the day is saved. Whether or not you’ll make it out of there, I can’t say, but what I can tell you is that regardless of what your leader says, those terrible beings whose true form is beyond your ken aren’t much for holding up their end of the bargain. And for that matter, neither are vindictive AIs, supervillains, or alien invaders. It may not be immediate, but odds are good that you’ll suffer along with the rest of us sooner or later.

So it’s all come down to you. Ready to save the planet?

Any tips for handling the doomsday cult that I’ve left out? You can let me know in the comments, or on Twitter @RetroPhaseShift. If you enjoyed the article, be sure to share it, and please do check out my books, available on all the major ebook retailers!