Sinister People, Secret Places: the English Supplements of 1st Edition Kult

Having previously reviewed (and thought favourably of) the first English-language edition of gnostic horrorRPG Kult, I thought I would check out the supplements that were released for it. Both of these were translations of material originally released for the Swedish version of the game; Legions of Darkness translates a supplement written for the Swedish 1st Edition by game creators Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén, and is therefore closest in style and presentation to the core book, whilst Metropolis was originally written by different authors for the Swedish 2nd Edition, which introduces a number of cosmology tweaks. (For instance, this seems to be where the English 2nd/3rd Editions got the idea for the Demiurge’s palace being present in Metropolis but vacant, rather than being absent with a terrifying chasm that even the Devil himself fears to descend in its place.)

Let’s start with Legions of Darkness. As with the core rulebook, the original Swedish version of this was a boxed set of three booklets that was turned into a single book for the English version. Whilst it is a slight shame that the English 1st Edition didn’t come as a box so that referees could pass the player’s book around the table without exposing the players to referee-only secrets, in this case I don’t really think anything is lost from the slight change in format, since all this material is GM-only stuff anyway and turning it into a boxed set seems kind of pointless.

Legions of Darkness is one of the more well-regarded supplements in Kult fandom, mainly for the extent to which it both broadens and deepens the game’s cosmology. As far as deepening goes, the supplement gives fuller descriptions than the core book of each of the individual Archons and Death Angels that are so central to the cosmology. At points this hits the point of wallowing in grimdark edginess for its own sake, and occasionally decidedly alarming advice is given. For instance, in relation to Gamaliel, Death Angel of corrupted sexuality, the referee is encouraged to play the Death Angel’s human incarnation/emissary with tips like “Touch the players enough to seem pushy”, which obviously you really shouldn’t be doing unless you and your players are down with that. (And in my experience, it’s exceptionally rare for a group to be quite that intimate with each other.)

The real strength of these descriptions, though, is how they help to clarify and strengthen the themes associated with each Archon and Death Angel. This aids in selectivity. If you don’t want dubious sexual content to be a factor, then you don’t have to have Gamaliel play a factor in your campaign at all; if you even utilise the Archons and Death Angels or their servants, you can just pick those which suit the particular flavour of nastiness you reckon would work best.

Additionally, the provision of various servitor entities and cultists of the Archons and Death Angels makes it much more viable to include them indirectly in campaigns. As presented in the core book, going up against even a human avatar of an Archon or Death Angel is a horribly bad idea unless you are a quite potent character with an extreme mental balance yourself – in which case you are likely to not be very viable as a PC. Legions of Darkness reiterates this, but in an interestingly gameable way: by simultaneously offering viable opponents to tangle with as well as system support for what happens when you go along with that really bad idea and try to face down a Death Angel or Archon in their place of power, the supplement caters equally to campaigns in which PCs are expected to face balanced (if challenging) threats and those in which people are OK with getting completely hosed if they take an inauspicious course of action.

In terms of broadening the Kult mythos, Legions of Darkness adds a whole bunch of horrors, outer gods and alternate realities which provide interesting alternatives to what’s in the core book. For instance, following the logic of the core book that Metropolis is the real reality that starts to bleed through the Illusion in Earth’s major cities, Legions offers an answer to the question “what if you break through the Illusion outside of a city?” Answer: you end up in Gaia, an entirely different flavour of fucked-up hell-world. (The Gaia chapter also raises the delicious possibility that the Archons’ Metropolis, its Death Angel reflection Inferno, the Illusion and Gaia are all equally valid conceptions of reality, which drives home the idea that departing from the Illusion is actually a just plain bad idea and perhaps everyone would be happier if people stayed there.)

Not all of the additions to the setting are of such a major cosmological level – others are much more mortal in scale. As with the more potent entities, I found these hit and miss – the Lorelei, beautiful immortals who hang around gay clubs sapping life force from their sexual partners, are a bit too clumsy of an AIDS metaphor for me to really roll with, but the Subjectionist Church is pretty damn neat as a way to implement a Kult take on the bizarre body horror therapy cult from The Brood. On the whole, Legions of Darkness is strongest as a pick-and-mix supplement rather than something to implement wholesale in a campaign, but as a pick-and-mix it’s got some really spicy flavours in there.

The followup is the Metropolis Sourcebook, which is a much more awkward fit into the game line. For starters, if the credits are accurate then Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén didn’t have anything to do with the writing of the book, and the shift in the authorial voice and consequent change to the atmosphere evoked is marked – even more so than in the English 3rd Edition, which recycled an awful lot of text from Gunilla and Michael. On top of that, despite being published for the English 1st Edition line – which, remember, was a translation of the Swedish 1st Edition – it’s actually a translation for a supplement for the Swedish 2nd Edition, a version of the game which was never translated to English. This has the upshot that several of the settling details that were changed for later editions of Kult (like the Demiurge’s palace being present in Metropolis but vacant, instead of there being a nightmarish and mysterious chasm where the palace should be) are present here, contradicting existing material in the English Kult line.

Metropolis Ltd., who so far as I can tell were a company specifically formed to publish English Kult material, don’t make any effort to reconcile any of this, simply suggesting that GMs make their own call on which version is canon for their campaigns. That’s fair enough, but the same “Eh, I dunno, you figure it out” attitude seems to pervade the entire supplement. Much of the book consists of extremely brief descriptions of areas of Metropolis – the hyperreal Platonic form of cities accessed by those who escape our illusory reality – with the page count fluffed up by presenting large numbers of adventure ideas associated with each feature of the city described. With the big, chunky margins that it has, the book is already dealing with what I suspect is a radically reduced word count compared to Legions of Darkness, and the amount of space taken up by frankly half-baked adventure ideas makes the book feel like very poor value for money. These adventure seeds are overwhelmingly either ramrod-linear plot outlines in which bad things happen to the PCs for pointless, arbitrary reasons, or riffs on the setting details cooked up here so sparse and requiring so much work to turn into a viable session idea that it’s scarcely worth the inclusion.

On top of this, you have the redundancy. Remember how in Legions of Darkness we had descriptions of the palaces of all the Archons? We get them all over again here, which presumably made sense in the Swedish line because it’s accepted that a new edition of a game is going to include a certain amount of reprinting and revision of old information, but of course is absurd for the English 1st Edition line where the information in question is presented in the only other supplement available. Other choices of what to reprint are a bit more eccentric – for instance, the modified tarot deck from the adventure Taroticum is revisited here, in a slightly strange attempt to take something which was essentially invented for and made sense in the context of one particular adventure and universalise it which doesn’t quite work.

Weirdly, the overall impression given by the book is of a group of people who don’t quite understand the original Kult material trying to formulaicly mimic it. They’re very keen on cooking up new monsters on a whim and throwing in generically gorey background details, but unlike in the original core book or in Legions of Darkness there doesn’t seem to be any underlying logic governing this. There’s few if any references to the system except for an appendix giving stats for all the new monsters invented here, to the point where I wonder whether the authors were even conversant with the game’s system; in particular, there’s almost no mention of Mental Balance, which is arguably the signature game mechanic of Kult. The failure to recapture the tone and atmosphere of the original material, or even to appreciate their core themes and ideas, makes it it feels more like a fumbling second-hand interpretation of the Kult setting rather than an official contribution to it. Any particular referee who has read the more significant Kult books could produce something like the Metropolis Sourcebook – heck, just tidy up your brainstorming notes from a first read-through and don’t bother checking for system implementation or setting consistency and you’re most of the way there.

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