Referee’s Bookshelf: Adventures of 1st Edition Kult

The English-language Kult line’s 1st edition was cut short. If you want proof, you can take a look in the back of the two adventure supplements put out for it – Fallen Angels and Taroticum – and there’s a series of products promoted as forthcoming which were simply never released in their English versions. As well as a Player’s Companion and a GM’s Companion, there was also the epic adventure The Black Madonna, which is quite well-regarded by those who can read the languages it has been translated into. Most frustrating is the fact that apparently the manuscripts for all those products were done – it’s just that Metropolis never managed to get the layout and art done and the print runs ordered before they died a death.

What few adventures did come out for the 1st Edition line were both translations of releases for the orignal Swedish line – in fact, both supplements are written by Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén, the game’s original creators. That being the case, would they provide definitive answers to the question of “What do you do in a Kult campaign?”, or would they just be typical crappy 1990s railroad shovelware adventures?

Spoiler: they’re the latter.

Fallen Angels

Set in New York, this is a set of three adventures that can either be played as standalones (though in practice I think you’d need to do a fair bit of work to make the last one function as a standalone adventure) or as a three-act campaign. In the latter case, the connecting tissue between the adventures is the player characters’ connections to Elizabeth Seymour – or Seymor, since the editing on this book is incredibly inconsistent – who is the owner of a small off-Broadway theatre that for various reasons has come to the attention of various esoteric subcultures.

The book comes with a little guide to New York, but this offers insufficient depth to really base much of a sandbox campaign on, or even to come up with additional material to fill things out between the episodes detailed in here – New York By Night this ain’t. No, the star attraction here is the adventures, and these are blighted by a tendency towards the worst sort of railroading – railroading that functions by making sweeping assumptions about the behaviour and motives of the player characters, railroading that repeats itself for lack of ideas, and railroading that telegraphs its destination well in advance but heavy-handedly resists all player attempts to derail the train.

Of the three adventures included here, the first should at a cursory glance be the least railroady, since it at least doesn’t assume a particular climax or outcome of the player’s investigations – the outcome is, in fact, wide open – but there is a major structural flaw to it which I think has a high chance of leaving a bad taste in the mouth of some players. Specifically, a crucial plot point in the adventure demands that the PCs black out at some point and wake up not remembering how the previous night ended – and the adventure assumes a whole bunch of stuff about what the player characters did during their block of lost time, including consenting to get into some really extreme shit with a group of sketchy-looking strangers that they have only just met and they have good reason to believe are wrapped up in something dodgy.

Now, I’ve used amnesia as a plot point in tabletop RPGs before – it was the basis for an A|State campaign I ran a while back. But to make that work you really need to have the characters start out as amnesiacs – the more complete the amnesia the better. That way, if the decisions you make about their activities prior to their amnesia don’t fit their conceptions of their character, there’s an easy way for everyone to reconcile that: that was the old personality, and you would expect total amnesia to bring with it a swathe of behavioural and personality changes anyway.

Partial amnesia covering just a few hours of an evening doesn’t give you the same “out”: there, I think it is much more reasonable of the players to expect their characters to behave during that period in a manner consistent with their personalities. This goes double when, as is the case here, the players get to play their PCs during the evening leading up to their blank spell. As much as I prize having co-operative players who are willing to trust me and go with the flow of a game, I don’t think a player would be too out of line to say “I’m sorry, I just don’t see my character agreeing to that” in response to their discoveries during this adventure. Guidance in PC generation to try to yield characters with the appropriate personalities can help here, but only to a certain extent, whilst starting the adventure from the moment of waking up and making the amnesia more complete would require a lot of work because the adventure hinges on the PCs remembering a whole bunch of stuff from before their blackout.

Still, this isn’t as bad as the railroading intrinsic to the other two adventures. Both of these are very much structured around major climatic set-pieces, in which Elizabeth’s traumas shatter the barriers between worlds and the theatre transforms into a tripped-out otherworld that the characters must navigate in order to save themselves and Elizabeth. On top of that, the buildup to these climaxes are remarkably similar: something extremely grim happens that prompts the characters to realise that all is not well with Elizabeth, there’s an investigative bit which doesn’t really provide them much information that can help them beyond putting the climactic mindfuck in context, then when the time is right the climax kicks in. It’s basically the same adventure written twice, with more body horror the second time around, and whilst that is a repetition which could perhaps work in a more passive medium I can’t help but think it will fall flat in a tabletop context.

The third adventure is particularly annoying in this respect because quite early on the characters get what is effectively a timetable of who is going to be disappeared to the spooky otherworld by the antagonist and in what order, which means there’s ample opportunity for the PCs to show up when the big bad makes their appearance and try to intervene. This explicitly and invariably doesn’t work, which is bound to be needlessly frustrating for the players. (Indeed, it’s decidedly possible for them to hit a point where there is literally nothing useful they can do for the next few days until they are invited to the big finale.)

On top of that, the adventures once again hinge on making broad assumptions about what the players do. In particular, it is expected that at some point before the second adventure one of the PCs will fall in love with Elizabeth or get particularly close to her, which is a little stretch; an even bigger stretch involves them being daft enough to accept the invitation to the climax at the theatre in the third adventure, particularly after the outcome of the second adventure should by all rights shatter any trust they had in the theatre and its inhabitants. So far as I’m concerned the only way you can really expect a party to go along with this nonsense is if they end up in the mode of “well, we’ve got no good reason to do this, but this seems to be what the plot wants us to do so let’s do it anyway”, which is deeply unsatisfying both from the perspective of in-world immersion and quality storytelling.

Now, Fallen Angels isn’t without its charms. I like the fact that at one point, if the PCs both discover the existence of vampires and demonstrate themselves to be friendly to them, they can become vampires themselves. Likewise, rather than having the hideous truth behind extreme mental imbalance be some sort of ultra-hyper secret, the adventure doesn’t bat an eye at having a psychiatrist quietly mention to the characters that in cases of extreme disturbance actual physical transformations can occur. Contemporary White Wolf material would both be highly resistant to such major changes in the player characters as a side effect of adventures (unless they were deliberately written as a “Here’s how you become a vampire” story), and simultaneously tied themselves in knots to explain why paranormal happenings are not common knowledge across the modern world, in contrast to the Kult authors’ apparent willingness to have people say “Oh, yeah, by the way this very weird thing sometimes happens, but we don’t like to talk about it as a profession very much because we don’t understand it and find it intensely disturbing”. This is clearly a different vision of horror from that peddled by Vampire and its imitators; it’s just a shame that it falls into so many of the same adventure design pitfalls.

Taroticum

Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén have actually cited this in interviews as their favourite Kult adventure, in the sense that it best captures what they consider to be the spirit of the game. Certainly, it’s got a fun premise: in 1894, a sinister conjurer summons to London the Goddess of the Forgotten, custodian of the Taroticum – a deck of cards depicting the forces controlling the twisted universe of Kult. In the aftermath of the summoning, a number of things go wrong – the end result of which is that the Taroticum becomes embedded in the spiritual fabric of London itself, with individuals and locations becoming influence by its different Major Arcana and suits. In 1994, the player characters discover their incredible connection to the events of 100 years ago – and find themselves on a mission of mercy to save the one entity who might free London from the framework imposed by the Taroticum.

That all sounds great, but what it amounts to is an experience just as inflexibly linear as that of Fallen Angels. There’s a couple of bits where players might choose to prioritise one set of tasks above another, but ultimately the adventure expects the players to accomplish all the tasks it sets them in the way it anticipates them to do it, and it gives almost no consideration to what happens if the players decide to take a different route. To a large extent it’s an exercise in witnessing weird metaphysical happenings which you may or may not understand, and to invoke a cliche that is sorely deserved at this point it would work much better as a movie or a novel than as an interactive entertainment.

It’s also really badly designed even if you want a hyper-linear railroad. The adventure kicks off with a prelude section taking place in 1894, where the players get to play their past incarnations who turn out to have been complicit in kicking off the action of the adventure. However, to successfully bring this portion of the adventure to a close the PCs have to undertake a very specific series of tasks which they could quite conceivably fail to think of, or actually botch; this is demanded by the metaphysical axioms the adventure works on. Consequently, as written it is decidedly possible for the campaign to be utterly derailed before the players even get to play their main PCs.

In short, not only is this adventure a railroad, it’s a railroad where the train might crash before it gets out of the first station.

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