More or less emerging simultaneously with the release of Vampire: the Masquerade (the two games being published within a month or two of each other), Kult hit the RPG scene at just the right time to ride the wave of horror games focused on pessimistic modern-day settings, though it came from a very different angle compared with White Wolf’s output. Whereas Vampire and its offspring cast the player characters as entities set apart from the common run of humanity, Kult was based around the premise that “humanity” as a category is broader, more powerful, and far more sinister than you think it is. Whilst the World of Darkness games tried to claim highbrow inspirations, Kult showed no aversion to embracing the most outrageously surreal end of the splatterpunk spectrum. Whereas White Wolf would occasionally try to moderate their content, if only for the sake of not losing sales (at least at first – the Black Dog era would rather change that), Kult is a game specifically about transgression and paid absolutely no heed to any boundaries suggested by good taste or common sense, and caught a certain amount of grief in its native Sweden as a result, being cited by pundits in murder and Satanism cases in a manner parallel to the way American panic-mongers would try to latch onto Dungeons & Dragons. (The English versions of Kult didn’t attract that sort of attention very much at all, though, possibly because the peak of the Satanic Panic had passed and the likes of Pat Pulling had been exhaustively discredited by that point.)
Kult has been stubbornly out of print in English for a while now, but I recently had an opportunity to snag the 1st and 3rd Edition cheap and thought I’d do the old compare-and-contrast (and then eBay them if I decide not to keep either because they go for silly money on eBay). The first edition, penned by game creators Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén, is a well laid-out and very readable rulebook which suffers a little here and there from slightly diffuse organisation (though actually, having read through it once I reckon I could reasonably quickly find any particular bit of information there – it enjoys an index which is actually functional too, which is a nice bonus). Following the split of subject matter from the original Swedish boxed set, the book is divided into The Lie (character creation and experience rules), The Madness (the rest of the rules systems, including magic) and The Truth (the cosmology underpinning everything).
For the most part, the system itself isn’t much to write home about, being a simple D20-based roll-under attribute-and-skill system which here and there shows the influence of Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying (unsurprisingly enough, since Drakar och Demoner – the first really commercially successful Swedish-language RPG – was a licensed riff on Basic Roleplaying). Character generation is complicated by a slightly-too-long skill list – your skill point allocation is particularly tight if you want to invest in magic or martial arts – but is rendered a little more simple by the provision of a set of archetypes, which provide suggested skills, advantages, disadvantages and so on for particular character niches. (In principle, there’s nothing stopping you from just not using an archetype altogether – just about the only thing the choice of archetype actually locks you into is a particular lifestyle and income rating, and that can be agreed with the GM simply enough – but it’s nice that they are on offer.) If you want to go really simple, there’s a stripped-down character creation process that’s intended to give you a sensible spread of stats quickly.
The advantages/disadvantages system is where the first curveball comes in, in the sense that there’s no real limit to how many disadvantages you can take. If you want to be able to afford an advantage, you have to take a disadvantage to make the points up; in addition, you can take more disadvantages to get more skill points. (Alternately, you can get more advantages by sacrificing skill points.) The twist here is that all the advantages and disadvantages are to do with your mental well-being and capability to interact with normal society – and thus, they’re used to determine your starting Mental Balance.
Mental Balance is Kult‘s ace in the hole, the really interesting system feature it brings to the table. It starts as the total of the points you spend on advantages minus the points you spent on disadvantages, and the twist is that a positive or negative mental balance is the first step on the path to waking up from the gnostic illusion Kult presents the modern world as being and regaining the godlike powers human beings possessed before they were imprisoned by the Demiurge. Of course, the cruel twist here is that the more enlightened you are, the more estranged you are from the human experience – extremes of Mental Balance cause not just extremely aberrant psychology, but physical changes, manifestations of strange powers, and all kinds of crazy mess. The ultimate revelation of Kult is that not only is the real world very different from the reality we perceive, the true status and nature of humanity is very, very distant from what we know and are comfortable with, and this is where it represents a style of cosmic horror that distinctly breaks from the Lovecraftian style. In Lovecraft, humanity is impossibly weak and irrelevant on a cosmic scale and the universe doesn’t care about you; in Kult, the universe hates you and wants to keep you weak and feeble, and if you ever escaped from that you’d destroy everything that made you the person you are and become something we’d barely comprehend as being human.
In fact, Kult specifically suggests that campaigns not focus around player characters attempting to Awaken, because the extremes of behaviour involved would rapidly make player characters on either path untenable. Of course, you don’t have to Awaken all the way to accidentally (or deliberately) slip out of the Illusion within which human beings are imprisoned; some of the different Lores (magical traditions) presented in the book have spells that let you do this, and they’re the easiest spells in that Tradition. Supposedly, the hideous lictors are meant to keep us locked up in here, but the book specifically states that they have become indolent and corrupt over time, so presumably if you could work out how to bribe a lictor you could convince them to turn a blind eye to you. The premise of the game is that ever since the disappearance of the Demiurge, the Illusion has been crumbling faster and faster and faster. (The definitive break seems to have happened at the start of the 20th Century, with the process of disappearance beginning in the 18th Century with the Enlightenment – but because time itself is part of the Illusion it’s uncertain, and indeed later editions date the start of the the process to the 16th Century, so there’s the tasty prospect that sooner or later the Demiurge will end up never having existed in the first place – an event I’d be tempted to say would mark the definitive collapse of the Illusion.)
It’s in the erosion of the Illusion, rather than personal Awakening itself, that the action of Kult lies – things from outside slipping into the Illusion or people inside the Illusion falling out of it is essentially the triggering incident of any Kult campaign, and the overall course of the campaign will hinge a lot on whether the player characters put more importance on getting The Truth at all costs or trying to simply survive the weirdness and get back to what they see as a normal life. It’s possible, in fact, to run a Kult adventure where the player characters never get a sniff at the illusory nature of reality; a wide range of supernatural events or horrific monsters can be utilised and explained beneath the surface by the interactions between reality and the Illusion, but that doesn’t mean the player characters ever get that side of the story. For instance, the game includes “nosferatu” who are basically vampires, as well as Children of the Night – folk who have become something beyond human, likely due to extremes of Mental Balance. (There’s even rules presented for making Children of the Night player characters, if you want to go with that.) In particular, I’d say that Kult is really good at tackling two particular styles of horror:
- Stuff based on the early work of Clive Barker, in which grotesque splatterpunk concepts and deliberately shocking transgressiveness coexist with eccentric and esoteric cosmologies.
- Something along the lines of Silent Hill, where bizarre, impossible things happen, and you can sense that there’s an underlying order to what’s going on but you never get a direct look at it.
Silent Hill feels like the best comparison, actually, because the Silent Hill series has wavered a lot between focusing on really horrible, grotesque imagery and more subtle psychological horror, and Kult seems capable of doing both. (Indeed, in reaction to some of the controversy later editions appear to have tried to shift over to lean a little more on the psychological horror side of things). Equally, though, I quite like 1st Edition’s balls-to-the-wall shock tactics; this isn’t transgressiveness for the sake of cheap shocks so much as a specific exploration of transgressiveness itself; Kult specifically posits a cosmos where psychological shock is a pathway to gnostic revelations about the true nature of reality and runs with that theme all the way. Coming up with adventure ideas is aided by the way the books are arranged by theme – for instance, instead of having a single all-encompassing monster chapter which dryly lists all the monsters, monsters are listed in association with the general themes or places they are associated with, so if you hit on an aspect of the game you want to build an adventure around you’ve got the characteristic foes for that theme right there. The cosmology is even wide enough that there’s scope to surprise even experienced players; with the Dream-related stuff in particular, you can sidestep a lot of the Demiurge/Mental Balance stuff and have entirely different stories based around the breakdown between the waking world and the cosmos of dreams.
Although the game is written mostly for a Western audience, its Swedish origins mean that it’s less US-centric than many RPGs, with interesting sites identified all over the world. Similarly, whilst the authors seem mostly familiar with Western occultism, they both highlight the existence of other traditions in the magic chapter, and the actual magical lores themselves could very easily be aesthetically structured around any particular strand of real-world occultism you like. (Equally, whilst the cosmology as presented is based off Gnosticism, the authors note that this is just one way in which the wider reality can be interpreted, which at least leaves the door open to tweaking it to fit some other tradition – indeed, it’d be nigh-trivial to put an unorthodox Buddhist spin on the gameworld). At the same time, though, the book isn’t without its problematic aspects. People who are very religious and find speculative maltheistic theology to be offensive or threatening rather than an entertaining diversion aren’t going to enjoy the game’s themes at all – even though the book makes sure to stress that the cosmology is a fiction cooked up for the purposes of the game, some people might just not feel right playing a game built around that cosmology anyway.
Equally, there’s an extent to which the game perpetuates over-the-top gothic novel stereotypes about mental illness, particularly when the “Beyond Madness” section refers to cults of extremely mentally ill people living in abandoned places and in the way in which severe mental illness is depicted as a path to enlightenment. It’s a double whammy of “madness as melodramatic curse” and “madness as superpower”, and you can’t really remove it from the game without wrecking the Mental Balance mechanic, so all you can really do is acknowledge that this isn’t how real mental health works and either accept it as a flaw of the game or reject the game altogether.
Another aspect which stirred controversy is the sexual aspects of the game. To give the authors their due, although they present a Femme Fatale archetype they note that it’s entirely viable for the archetype to have a male equivalent, and in the description of the “Sexually Tantalising” disadvantage (the “people tend to objectify and creep on you” disadvantage) they do note that your character will be attractive to gay people as well as straight members of the opposite sex. The notes on how extreme, transgressive sexuality can open the way to seeing through the Illusion (almost wrote “penetrating the Illusion”, hurr) show some impressive nuances where they state that this only counts for sexual acts which are shocking to the characters in question – so someone who’s a prude is going to be easily shocked whilst someone with a broad and eccentric sexual history will be more difficult to shock. At the same time, though, some other aspects are more doubtful – apparently being into BDSM counts as a “sexual neurosis”, and the “sexually tantalising” disadvantage reads as blaming creepy behaviour on the victim being just too darn sexy, rather than creeps being too creepy.
There’s also the inclusion of rape in the “stuff which can incur shock” table. One of the nice things about that table is that in general performing horrible, violent acts is as shocking to the perpetrator as it is to the victim, and this is true of the rape entries, but that ties into the idea that rape is always in the context of a violent attack – unfortunately, a lot of real world rapists don’t realise that what they have done is rape because shitty ideas about consent are depressingly common. In general, I think giving specific examples of how sex ties into the shock rules may have been an error because applying system criteria to these things will tend to oversimplify them, and a lot of the same effect could be obtained merely by noting that sexual activity which you personally find shocking and transgressive may have mind-expanding effects and may even cause shock as per the shock rules. (The sex chapter also tends to portray sex as a universal desire, which kind of leaves asexual people out in the cold.)
On the whole, the 1st edition of Kult has a few flaws (as outlined above) which I think detract from the game’s overall agenda and themes. Hyper-heretical inversion of major religions is transgressive in a way which supports the game’s overall idea of tearing down people’s worldview; regurgitating stereotypes about mental illness or reiterating dubious things people believe about sex and rape is offensive but isn’t transgressive, in the sense that it falls in line with the way a whole lot of people see the world, and consequently these missteps don’t serve the game’s ends. Equally, these are missteps which are minor aspects of the game which individual groups can easily correct in their own games. I certainly wouldn’t wheel this version of Kult out for every group, but I’d certainly consider it if I had a group who I knew liked their horror content to be truly disturbing and don’t mind getting a little gross in their gaming, and I’d definitely recommend it to horror GMs who want some really twisted ideas for a cosmic horror setting which doesn’t revolve around the usual Lovecraftian touchstones.
The 3rd edition – Kult: Beyond the Veil – was the result of an abortive attempt at a revival of the English-language game by French publishers 7eme Circle, under licence from Paradox Entertainment (who had taken over the Kult IP along with other Swedish RPGs like Mutant), and came about through a torturous and difficult process. Preceded by Kult: Rumours, which was intended to be the players’ guide, originally Beyond the Veil was supposed to be the GM guide, but plans changed over the course of its production and instead it ended up being a full core rulebook. This might have been a time-saving gambit, because apparently Beyond the Veil is a word-for-word reprint of the English-language 2nd edition, with the two magic supplements (Beyond the Boundaries and Heart, Mind and Soul) included since the original 2nd edition English core bizarrely didn’t include any magic rules. A GMs-only book would have required a fair amount of rewriting in comparison, since the 2nd edition text (in itself 90% a straight reprint of 1st edition with a number of tweaks here and there and with the organisation slightly jumbled) doesn’t seem to be as good at providing a firewall between GM-only information and non-spoilery stuff as the 1st edition was. The extensive use of recycled art from previous books (and the CCG) also suggests a rushed product produced on the cheap. Additionally, the hodge-podge of different art styles presented means that the book has a slightly inconsistent mood, and the presentation of the text in a small black font against a greyscale background makes the process of reading the book unpleasant to read. Perhaps the nadir of the presentation is the modified version of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in the magic section; not only is it nowhere near the section that discusses Kabbala, but it’s also in French (presumably reproduced from the French version of the 2nd edition magic supplements) and in parts, because of the greyscale printing, is nigh-impossible to read.
In addition, the actual production of the book was botched – it was announced as, and was intended to be, a hardback, but due to a miscommunication with the printer it’s actually a softback whose covers have these weird inner flaps (presumably those would have been the inner flaps of the dustcover had the hardback plans gone ahead). This has a very unfortunate knock-on effects: hardback books and softcover books are bound differently, and thus different margins are called for to account for this, and the margins in this book have been optimised for hardcover binding instead of the softcover binding used here. This means that text and images close to the spine tend to be lost in there unless you yank the pages apart really hard – hard enough to nigh-guarantee damage to your book. The worst example of this can be found at the start of the Truth section, in which a double-page spread of the 1st edition angel-being-dissected cover art is ruined – the angel himself is lost in the spine! (Other owners of the book have commented on this so it definitely isn’t unique to my copy.) In addition to this, the book seems to have been printed on the cheap, with the pages tending to be stiff and wavy towards the spine (again, this is an issue which other owners of the book have reported). Frankly, if I were in 7eme Circle’s place I’d have either not paid for such a botched print job or sought a refund (or flat-out sued), because this is just horrible. (I’d also be ashamed to ship such a product to the paying public.)
Between all this and the fact that Beyond the Veil has no index, I have to say that in terms of presentation I greatly prefer the 1st edition, which was nicely laid out, was very readable and easy on the eye, had a consistent art style (with highly atmospheric images printed in black and white and red) and was easy to navigate. I’m also not thrilled with the 2nd/3rd edition additions and tweaks to the setting and system. Dealing with the setting stuff first, this edition seems to push the plot around the disappearance of the Demiurge with a slightly different emphasis than 1st edition – whereas that book took the position that the Demiurge is gone and is not coming back, and indeed had the Demiurge’s palace in the true reality vanish to leave behind a hellish abyss to underscore this point, in this edition the palace is back and there’s more hints that God has merely stepped out of the building for a while, which to me seems to both introduce a little too much metaplot (the text suggests that this change reflects the onset of the end of days) and also feels like a watering-down of the gleeful heresy of the original cosmology. In addition, the date of the beginning of the Illusion’s failure is shifted back from the 18th Century Enlightenment to the 16th Century Renaissance, and whilst (as I mentioned above) you can interpret that as the absence of the Demiurge becoming increasingly retroactive through time as the Demiurge drifts from “dead and gone” to “never existed in the first place”, at the same time this seems to have been done so that Leonardo da Vinci can be cited as an Awakened for the purpose of using quotes from a lost book of his to give not-especially-useful intros to each of the monster descriptions.
There’s an overall sense with the subtle changes and shifts to the setting that 2nd/3rd edition was more produced by committee compared with the original book (and indeed, despite a lot of their text being used here Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén are only credited with the original concept, not as authors). 1st edition felt like the expression of a very particular shared vision between Johnsson and Petersén which the tweaks to the setting and presentation blur and distort. This is particularly evident in the magic chapter. The changes to the various original Lores are twofold: firstly, some general spells are added, two of which have no real game effect other than giving magicians pointless busywork (constructing magical protection circles and consecrating sacred spaces being stuff magicians can just do anyway) and the rest are just the Lore-specific binding/summoning spells extracted from the main Lore descriptions. Secondly, a whole bunch of extra spells of varying quality are added. Those who like to have long spell lists handy may appreciate this, but personally I actually prefer the original, shorter spell lists because there was a pleasing symmetry to them which really added a nice flavour to the system – each Lore began with some minor spells for scrying and transportation to other places at the lower end of the range, presented means of summoning and binding appropriate entities in the middle range, and then had a couple of really major effects at the upper ranges. It seems to me that a lot of these new spells simply codify stuff that magicians in earlier editions could simply do with the right spells and a little imagination – particularly the Dream-related stuff, which sets up an overlap between stuff you are supposed to do with dream magic and stuff you are meant to do with the related but separate Art of Dreaming skill which wasn’t there previously.
(As an aside, I really don’t like what they’ve done to the dream realms in this edition. In the previous game dreams constituted a universe of their own, and a plane wherein people could regain a lot of divine-like abilities independently of the whole Mental Balance thing, offering a solipsistic but valid means of escaping both the prison and the doomed Demiurgic reality that contains it. In this edition, dreams take place in Limbo, which is explicitly stated as being part of the Illusion – along with Inferno, which previously was portrayed as being beyond it – which smacks of the later editions’ authors seeing dreams and Inferno and all the rest as being subordinate and lesser to the core Metropolis cosmology, whereas I genuinely think it’s more interesting to see each of them as different aspects of the ultimate reality – like Metropolis and the Labyrinth beneath Metropolis, there’s a great gaping hole into nothingness at the heart of dream, like Inferno a lot of people only ever get to see inside their own little bubbles in there, and you can sort of see the Dream Princes as, if not actually properly Awakened, at least the next best thing, so dream might be the closest glimpse we have of the state of humanity prior to imprisonment.)
Another irksome thing is the inclusion of the Occult Sciences, which offer little of concrete use beyond providing knowledge about the true nature of reality people should be obtaining through actual play and powers and abilities which more properly belong to the specific Lores. In particular, the Occult Sciences tend to overly privilege Western occultism – unlike in 1st edition, where individual occult traditions and practices were basically aesthetics you could apply to the Lores as desired, here there are seven Occult Sciences which are specific traditions that are awesome and powerful and connected to the Truth, and every other occult tradition is a waste of time. Six of them are subjects which are perennial features of Western occultism. The seventh is voodoo, which is cited as not existing/working until a couple of centuries ago and had its roots in the Haitian rebellion – which leaves the traditional Vodun practices of West Africa, which became the Voodoo of the Americas and Caribbean when syncretised with Christianity, out in the cold. In fact, the implication there is that esoteric traditions and folk religions only have any legitimacy when you add some Christianity to them or when they are practiced by predominantly Christian-flavoured occultists, which gives Christianity too much centrality to the game in my mind. (Though the previous edition used Gnostic terms like “Archon” and “Demiurge” and so forth, it was very specific about pointing out that this wasn’t the only way to describe the true reality, and you could probably legitimately argue that whilst some Gnostics historically considered themselves Christian, others very specifically weren’t – the Mandaeans specifically rejected Jesus as a jerk who fucked up John the Baptist’s teachings, for instance.) Oh, and it’s also insanely, insanely racist in a way which the previous magic system wasn’t.
The provision of a range of new magic-based archetypes is nice in some respects, though equally I think archetypes in this are much, much less useful and necessary than the designers seem to think they are, so ultimately you get a muddled blurring of the clearer vision of the earlier edition, a dose of racism, some rather muddled occult sciences and a few tools which might be nice time-saving tools but are far from necessary. In short, Beyond the Veil botches its magic chapter. Another unnecessary addition is the Dark Art, an ability of some monsters to affect the Illusion; whilst some people like this in a Dark City sort of way, I actually prefer it if the monsters don’t as a rule have this capability – providing it to them raises the awkward question of why the Illusion is falling apart, since they can apparently repair it at a whim. (On that note, I don’t like the new metaplot feature of the lictor rebellion – a revolt of a sizable faction of the lictors who want to go from mere guardians of the Illusion to its rulers. I much prefer the original version of the lictors as jaded and corrupt as opposed to the ideological and zealous variety.)
Aside from embellishments to the magic system, the major rules change in 2nd/3rd edition – supposedly, if the 2nd edition back cover is to be believed, a “more streamlined system” – is an utterly pointless to the way weapon damage works. Previously, wounds were divided into different categories, and how much damage a weapon did depended on how much you won the combat roll by, with each weapon having different ranges you had to hit in order to do more serious wounds. This time, weapons have a Damage Effect Factor, which you add to the score you beat the roll by and then compare to a central table to work out what wound you did. So, to summarise, in 1st edition the process for working out damage is as follows:
- Work out how much you won the combat roll by.
- Compare this with the chart for the specific weapon, which you should have copied down when you picked the weapon out and can easily fit a single line on the equipment sheet.
Whereas in 2nd/3rd edition the process is this:
- Work out how much you won the combat roll by.
- Add the damage effect factor for the weapon.
- Compare the total with the damage effect chart.
This means the grand “streamlining” of 2nd edition took the following forms:
- Making substantial additions to the magic system, muddling it in the process.
- Separating the magic system from the core book into two supplements, so to get all the information you used to get in a single book under 1st edition you had to buy 3 books.
- Adding a whole new step to the process of rolling damage. Of course, it could be argued that you have to write down more when you acquire a new weapon in the old system – but in general in RPGs you acquire new weapons substantially less frequently than you make damage rolls.
- Removing the entirely optional martial arts subsystem, which worked exactly like the rest of the skill system (and certainly didn’t constitute as much material as has been added to the rest of the system).
So, not so much “streamlining” so much as “pussyfooting about ineffectually”. Between this, the horrible presentation of 3rd, the money-grabbing spinning-off of the magic system under 2nd edition, the pointless and sometimes offensive tweaks to the setting and the fact that the 1st edition had substantially more support than 2nd and 3rd edition (including supplements and adventures penned by the original designers for the Swedish edition), and various other factors I can’t help but see the 3rd edition as being markedly inferior in just about every important respect. It’s an ugly botching of what was formerly an excellently-constructed game, presented in an ugly, botched book. I think you can guess which edition I’m keeping. Apparently, a while back Cubicle 7 toyed with the idea of an English-language revival: if they eventually go ahead with this I can only hope they are better custodians of the game than those responsible for the 2nd and 3rd editions were.