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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

13th Age: A Chronicle of the Ages

WHEN D&D 4e FIRST APPEARED, I decided to give it a go.  This was despite the fact that I hadn't played D&D seriously since TSR's "Basic" Dungeons & Dragons, the game that eventually coalesced as the "Rules Cyclopedia."  I had played a bit of AD&D, but had given 2e a pass.  3e and 3.5 held no interest for me at all.  I tried them, but felt they had sucked out everything I had ever liked about D&D in the process of turning it into a heavily regimented miniatures battle game.  4e still had the focus on miniatures, but I decided to give it a try.  I liked a few things about it, but my players and I abandoned it about fifteen sessions in.

For that game, however, I had constructed a campaign based on Babylon V.  Humanity had just come out of a war with the Elves, and a new city was built, a "City of Peace," to promote dialogue between the races.  I had the whole thing sketched out, but never got to run it.  A couple years ago when The 13th Age appeared, I thought "this would be the perfect system for it."

The following then is my version of the 13 Ages, drawing a bit on what is already in the books.  The first dozen Ages could easily fit any campaign; it is really just the 12th and 13th that are Babylon V specific.

THE CHRONICLE OF THE AGES


The number of the Ages is Thirteen.  Each arises from the ashes of the War that ended the Age before it.

The First Age
The Infinite Void, timeless and perfect, trembles and begins to divide.  The Overworld—embodying Order and inhabited by gods—and the Underworld—embodying Chaos and infested with demons—form.  The inhabitants of the two realms immediately begin trying to annihilate the other.  Between their two worlds, a battleground forms, a neutral territory known as the Land.  The Gods and the Demons cease open conflict and begin to use the Land as a chessboard instead.

The Second Age
In the newly formed Land, two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Branch and Leaf and the Kingdom of Bone and Blood arise.  The first is the realm of Plants, governed by the mighty Treants.  The second is the realm of Beasts, ruled by the great Dragons.  Tensions flare between these Kingdoms, and war breaks out.  In the end, the Plant Kingdom is conquered, and from that day forward it is decreed that plants shall be rooted to the soil like serfs, feeding the hunger of their conquerers.

The Third Age
The Overworld dispatches a race of demigods to the Land to act as Watchers and Sentinels, vigilant for any demonic incursions.  These godlings become seduced by the earthly pleasures of the world, however, and many abandon their mission.  Cut off from the Overworld they become mortal, but still possessing the stature and strength of gods.  These are the first Giants.  They declare war on the Dragon Kingdom for rulership of the Land. Over the course of this war, the Giants forge a slave race, the Dwarves, to mine metal and jewels, forge weapons, and build their citadels for them.  Victorious, the Giants proclaim the Two Legged Law…for the rest of time the Land will belong to those who walk upright.    

The Fourth Age
The War between the Giants and the Dragons had unforeseen consequences.  During one of their battles, in the distant East, the Sky was cracked.  During the Fourth Age the glass ships of the Fae came sailing through this rift.  Led by the first Elf Queen, the Fair Armada landed, and lay claim to the forests of the world.  The Giants challenged this claim, of course, and the Elvish enchanters cursed them.  From that time forward, the Giants living in the lowland regions began to dwindle, shrinking slowly into the races of Men.  To escape this curse, many Giants fled to the highlands, close to the Overworld.  They would return only periodically to pillage and raid.  Their Masters gone, the Dwarves declared themselves free.

The Fifth Age
The Kingdom of Branch and Leaf, seeing its chance to escape the cruel rule of the Beast Kingdom, swears allegiance to the new Elf Queen, who establishes her Court in the Woods.  The Dragons will have none of this, and the Wyrms declare war on the Fae.  The conflict is long and bloody, brought to an end when the Queen herself takes the Green Dragon hostage.  As terms of the truce she gives part of the world’s forests to the Dragons, but claims the Queenswood and all within it for herself and the Leafblooded.  

The Sixth Age
The human descendants of the Frost Giants spread across the North.  These Northlanders are barbarian peoples, organised in clans and tribes and worshipping the spirits of the Land.  In the South, the descendants of the Fire Giants build splendid city-states, worshipping the gods of the Overworld.  Forming trade pacts with the Dwarf Kingdoms, the Southlanders learn engineering, metallurgy, and writing from the Dwarves.  A powerful kingdom, the Black Land, arises along the banks of the Great River.  One by one it conquers all its neighbouring city-states, uniting the entire south under the Priest King.  At the end of the Age it turns its eyes to the North.

The Seventh Age
The Legions of the Priest King march into the North, initiating centuries of bitter struggle.  The barbarian Northlanders resist fiercely, but are outmatched against the superior arms and tactics of the disciplined southern Legions.  Worse still, the Black Land supplements its martial prowess with the necromancy of its priests, often causing the Northlander’s own dead to rise and fight against them.  The Druids of the North respond with their own magics, first with lycanthropic shock troops and later with a dangerous curse.  The fiercest and most savage Northland berserkers willingly undergo transformation into killing machines.  These come to be known as “Orcs.”  Bloody guerrilla warfare and orcish shock tactics bring the Southern invasion to a halt, but the orcish curse will never be lifted from the Land.

The Eighth Age
Over two long Ages, the Dark Elves slipped further and further from the Elf Queen’s grasp.  They began to build their own kingdoms in the bowels of the Earth.  In the Eighth Age they rebelled openly, invading Dwarvish citadels without the permission of their monarch.  Thus began the wars of the Underdark, as the Drow slowly conquered and enslaved the Dwarf race.  The survivors fled to the surface, and build the new fortress of Forge under a new Dwarf King.  Beneath the Land, however, the Dark Elves reigned supreme.

The Ninth Age
The Black Land was the mightiest empire of Men throughout the Seventh and Eighth Ages, but at the dawn of the Ninth Age, a previously unknown human nation exploded from the East.  These were the Men of Dawn, an archipelago in the Iron Sea.  Descended from the Storm Giants, the Dawnish were masters of Wizardry, and their Mage Lords commanded terrible power.  Their fleets sailed into the Midland Sea and city by city conquered the entire coastline, North and South.  Only the Black Land was able to resist, and in response the Mage Lords revealed their greatest weapon.  The Wizards had made a pact with the Four—the Red, White, Black, and Blue Dragons.  The Red flew across the Black Land and laid it to waste, boiling even the Great River away.  What was left was the Red Waste and the Lost River, and in exchange the Dragons were given their own city-state, Drakkenhall, to command.

The Tenth Age
The new Midland Empire rose, called the “Dragon Empire” due to its alliance with the Great Wyrms.  From the capital at Axis, it commanded the entire Midland Sea.  Bu tensions grew between the Mage Lords of the Dragon Empire, and those of its parent nation, Dawn.  Eventually, these tensions erupted in all-out war.  The War of the Mages shook the earth, and was plagued by terrible arcane calamities.  The greatest of these was the Drowning.  The mightiest of the Midland Sea Mage Lords unleashed this terrible spell against Dawn, shattering the archipelago and plunging it beneath the waves.  Worse, it cursed the entire Iron Sea, transforming it into a storm-wracked nightmare plagued by monsters.  Victorious, this Mage Lord proclaimed himself the Wizard King, and called the entire Dragon Kingdom his own.

The Eleventh Age
The Wizard King was a bloodthirsty tyrant, with power so great none could challenge him.  Over time he pillaged the necromantic secrets of the buried temples and pyramids of the Red Waste, using them to extend his own lifespan at the cost of others dying in his place.  Adding to his power, he opened the first Hellholes, binding the powers of the Underworld to his will.  Arrogant and almighty, he betrayed even the Dragons, luring the White to the North where he slaughtered the Wyrm as an alchemical experiment, creating the first Dracolich.  Something had to be done. It took an uneasy conspiracy—the Hero General of the Imperial Army, the Dwarf King of Forge, the Archmage of the College of Enchanters, even the remaining Three Great Wyrms—to bring him down.  In a terrible struggle the Wizard King was slain, and the Hero General became the first Dragon Emperor.  Something resembling the Dragon Empire we know today was born.

The Twelfth Age
One power noticeably absent from the Alliance was the Elf Queen, who had struggles of her own.  Isolationist, she sealed off the Queenswood during the 11th Age and spent her time in a civil war, bringing the Dark Elves back under her power.  Many of the citadels they stole from the Dwarves were liberated, and the Dwarves finally set free.  But as the Age drew on, and the Dragon Empire consolidated its hold over the entire Midland Sea, the Emperor turned his eyes to the Elven woods.  It was the 13th Emperor, whom some call the Mad, who declared war against the Queenswood and sent his legions in to burn it down.  This attack provoked a terrible response.  For the first time in eight Ages the Glass Ships of the Elves sailed, laying waste to city after city along the coast.  The mighty Imperial legions fell before them.  Slowly, irrevocably, they closed in on Axis, the entire human empire on its knees.  The Emperor summoned his Dragon allies…but they did not come.  The Elf Queen still held their sister, the Green Wyrm, hostage and they dared not provoke the Fae monarch.  The Elf Armada closed on Axis, and the curtain was about to fall upon humanity.  

When suddenly, inexplicably, the Elf Queen surrendered.

The Thirteenth Age
Now; it is the dawn of the Thirteenth Age – ten years after the Human-Leafblood War. The city of Concord, the City of Peace, is a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war, by creating a place where humans and other races can work out their differences peacefully. It's a port of call – home away from home – for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers.

It can be a dangerous place, but it's our last best hope for peace.

APPENDIX:  HUMANITY

Descended from Giants, and through them the Gods, there are three basic “races” of mankind.  

The Northlanders descend from the Frost Giants and are largely barbarian peoples.  They are organised into tribes and Clans, and occasionally into kingdoms under a particularly powerful or charismatic chieftain.  They are a fair-skinned people, tending to tan, freckle, or burn when exposed to too much sun.  Their eyes range in colour from brown to green and blue, their hair from brown to red or blonde.  They tend to be taller, heavier, and more muscled than other human races.  Their magic is primarily Druidic, and they honour the spirits of their ancestors and nature.  Think of the ancient Germanic, Norse, or Celtic peoples of Europe and you have the general idea.



The distribution of human races in the 13th Age.  Blue is Northlander, Red is Southlander, and Yellow shows Dawnish ancestry.  Click to enlarge.

The Southlanders descend from the Fire Giants.  They are a sophisticated and highly civilised people, having learned metallurgy, engineering, and writing from the Dwarves in very ancient times.  They invented the city-state, governed by a Senate made up of the heads of the most powerful families and presided over by an elected Speaker.  Later, they became more Imperial in nature.  They are a darker skinned people, ranging from olive or bronze tones to deep black.  Their eyes and hair are generally brown or black.  From the ancient days they have worshipped the gods of the Overworld, and have elaborate clerical priesthoods.  Their greatest civilisation was the Black Land, modelled heavily on ancient Egypt, but their are shades of Persia, Ethiopia, and India in them as well.  


The Dawners descend from the Storm Giants.  They are inspired mainly by mythical Atlantis, an island nation of powerful magic.  Their skin tends towards golden hues, with narrow eyes brown or black in colour and straight black hair.  They had no form of worship in ancient Ages, relying on Wizardry instead, but tend to revere Dragons as embodiments of power and awe.  Their culture was formal and hierarchal, with shades of Rome and China. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

NUMENERA: JIHAD, "THE CROSSROADS"

EVERY STORY BENEFITS from twists and turns.  They are what keep us tuned in, turning pages, or--in table top gaming--turning up.  I have been trying to run Jihad in the style of television programmes like Buffy, Babylon V, or more recently Doctor Who, shows that contain distinct stories each week but in addition link into longer arcs.  Obviously, inside the stories themselves there are plot twists to keep the audience on its toes, but you also need a few in the larger arc to keep that interesting too.  Crossroads follows hard on the heels of just such a twist.  The Amber Pope prophesied the rise of a terrible threat in the north at the start of the first session.  Six more sessions in, it turns out the players themselves are responsible for releasing it.  

Now, the thing that is unique about table-top gaming is that the characters are people with minds and wills of their own.  The argument can be made--and I have often made it--that this holds true of characters in any tale.  In my experience at least, characters are feisty little buggers that happily rebel when the author foolishly tries to make them do what they think they wouldn't or shouldn't.  But in gaming, the characters are sitting right there staring at you instead of whispering in your head.  The good gamemaster (and no, I am not qualifying that with an "in my opinion") understands that everyone at the table is co-authoring the tale, and needs to let them cut their own path through the jungle.  Nobody likes railroading, the primary characteristic of the weaker GM.

So after having the equivalent of a narrative atomic bomb blow up in their faces, it was time to pull way back and turn over a session to them in which they could digest the twist in the narrative arc and figure out how to respond.  As all GMs know, this can be tricky...because the players are expecting a story as well.

Crossroads kicks off with one of my favourite GMing dirty tricks.  Since the party was split the last session, and because we were introducing a new character, I had two parallel threads  to bring back together.  So we start with Myrna, our Graceful Jack Who Fights With Panache, coming to from unconsciousness in a make-shift cell.  She is a prisoner of the Angulan Knights, along with a frightened twelve-year old girl from one of the local tribes, and a pale, red-eyed stranger.  She has no idea how she got there; the last thing she remembers was going into the Box that housed Bilu-sha-ziri. As her player couldn't make the last session, I used an intrusion here to put her in the cell and explain her absence.

And the dirty trick?  To keep the three other players engaged while their characters were off somewhere else, I put them in the roles of an Angulan Knight, her Knight Commander, and the Aeon Priest chaplain assigned to them.

In Jihad the Knights Angulan take the place of the Knights Templar.  Though they follow the Truth taught by the Aeon Priests, they are a separate order altogether.  The Papacy teaches the eventually re-ascension of Man; the Knights Angulan go a step further and claim that cannot happen so long as the race is "impure."  They are mutant hunters, abhuman killers, and ISIS-like zealots.  Historically, they have uneven relations with the Order of Truth, but with the Amber Pope's declaration of the Gaian Crusade, an agreement has been reached.  The Knights have put their considerable military muscle at the Order's disposal, in return for the Papacy's sanction allowing them to freely hunt the impure throughout the Steadfast.


Myrna, thanks to an artefact in her possession, has a mutation.  So apparently do the two other prisoners.  When she comes to in her cell, it is just hours before the Knights launch their assault on the Scorpion Sanctum.  The very first scene puts her in an uncomfortable position.  Two of the guards, not Knights themselves but mercenaries employed by them, decide that while the Knights are readying for the assault they have time to have a bit of fun with the prisoners. They decide the little girl is easier pickings.  But Myrna is having none of it.  Despite being injured and unarmed, she lays into the pair as they enter the cell she shares with the girl.  Deftly lifting a dagger from one's belt to slit his throat and then using his dropped sword to run the other one through.  

She fights with panache, remember?  It didn't hurt that her player got lucky with rolling a pair of 20s.

Lifting the keys from the fallen guards, she releases the third prisoner and a new protagonist; Hanna, an Exiled Glaive Who Siphons Power.  Hanna hails from the Beyond, and his mutation makes him an energy vampire, draining power from both numenera and living things.  Naturally, he doesn't disclose this up front.

The trio decide that discretion is the better part of valour, and led by the tribal girl, slip from the camp into the wastes.  Mid-escape, they are spotted by the Aeon Priest chaplain...but as a quiet sign that the alliance between the Order and the Knights is not entirely a  harmonious one, he turns a blind eye to their escape.

Now we shift scenes.  Several hours later, Lugar of the Marked Name (our Wasteland Glaive Who Knows Too Much), Karasht (our Charming Nano Who Works Miracles), and Beatrix (our Impulsive Jack Who Fuses Flesh And Steel), have just escaped Bilu-sha-ziri's extra dimensional prison, allowing him to escape as well.  They emerge in the midst of the Knights Angulan laying waste to the Scorpion Sanctum around them.  Bilu-sha-ziri effortlessly destroys the Knights before flying north, leaving his three "rescuers" to pick the cypher and artefact rich corpses of the fallen Knights.  Since they are on the edge of the Cloudcrystal Skyfields, in the lands of Lugar's own people--the Sha'sara--they decide to seek them out for help in escaping the wastelands.

THE SHA'SARA (A Wasteland Culture)

A nomadic people who roam the Fallen Fields and the foothills of the Black Riage, the Sha'sara survive by herding flocks of yols (see "Livestock," p. 12 of The Ninth World Bestiary) and gathering desert plants like the uwama.  They are not above supplementing their diet and supplies by raiding settlements along the wastes.  Matriarchal, men are considered too temperamental and emotional to lead, and instead serve the women as warriors and labourers.  Sha'sara women--either through mutation or contact with some numenera in the distant past--possess the ability to decide whether or not they wish to conceive, giving them ultimate power over the continuance of the tribe.  They are thus polyandrous, and wealthier matriarchs may have up to half a dozen husbands.

The Sha'sara do not follow the Truth, though they can speak Tru, the lower form of the language associated with it.  Instead, they worship the crystals of the Skyfields themselves, which they believe house the spirits of ancestors as well as the yet-to-be-born.  Their shamanesses, the Listeners, interpret the resonances of the crystals to predict future events.  The only men who hold spiritual positions are the half-insane Vajra-Ajari, who are regarded with cautious fear.  

The Sha'sara are easily recognised by their ochre colour robes, and the eerie phosphorescent body paint their employ drawn from uwama berries.  These intricate designs mark tribe, clan, and status. 



Lugar leads his friends across the wastes following Sha'sara trail markers, and by nightfall they make the encampment.  We discover Lugar's mother is actually the wealthiest and most influential of the tribe's matriarchs, but not particularly pleased to see him.  We also discover that Myrna and Hanna are here as well, since the little girl they rescued was Sha'sara as well.  Reunited, they catch up on all that has happened and consider where to go from here.

And this is where player agency comes in, and as a GM you need to be flexible.  Having designed a campaign in which a massive, epic crusade is slowly brewing, the group decided they want none of it.  Their plan is to find a pass across the Black Riage and strike out into the Beyond, as far away from the shifting politics of the Steadfast as they can get.  Putting distance between themselves and the fallen god they just released made sense to them as well.  The group's response to the plot twist was to escape it.

To that end they ask the tribe for help.  They need provisions and a good pass across the mountains.  But the Sha'sara have a price.  

Some of their men, on a raiding party, have been taken by the goatish abhumans known as Margr (p. 244 of Numenera).  Brutal and frightening prolific, I decided to borrow a page from my favourite Gloranthan monster, the Broo.  In Jihad there are no female Margr, and the males reproduce by rape.  They can rape any animal, male or female, and their hideous seed steals DNA from the host organism to create one to five hybrids.  Female victims have, on occasion, survived Margr birth.  Male victims never do, torn open from inside as their offspring wriggle out.  The Sha'sara want their men back.

The Margr, who like Games Workshop's Chaos Beastmen owe their inspiration to RuneQuest's horrifying Broo

The party then tracks the Margr to their nest, and engages them in battle.  Karasht, meanwhile, uses his Alleviate power to "cure" the impregnated male victims in a grotesque scene that liquifies the offspring and expels them as a stinking black goo.  Their end of the bargain upheld, they lead the male Sha'sara back to the tribe.

Next time...they cross the mountains.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

CAROLE SATYAMURTI'S "MAHABHARATA," A REVIEW

Despite the availability of various versions of the Mahabharata, on page, screen, and in live performance, I am assuming that it will be less familiar to the average American or European reader than the Iliad or the Aeneid, for instance. I have seen my task as one of trying to open the reader's eyes--as my own were opened--to the richness of a literary masterpiece they may hardly have heard of until now...
Carole Satyamurti, from her Preface

FIFTEEN TIMES THE LENGTH OF THE BIBLE, the Mahabharata is a sprawling saga of gods and mortals, demons and monsters, comedy and tragedy. It is the story of Kuruksetra, a cosmological war that ended the previous Golden Age and gave rise to our Age, the fallen Kali Yuga. On on side, divine beings incarnated in mortal form as Lord Krishna and the five Pandava brothers. On the other, demonic powers incarnated as Duryodhana and his ninety-nine Kaurava brothers. Disguised as a dynastic struggle between human cousins, it is actually a fight for the destiny of the Earth.

Composed around two thousand years ago, but with an oral tradition stretching back a millennium before that, the Mahabhrata is as familiar to the people of India and South Asia as the stories of Adam and Eve or Moses and Pharoah are to most Westerners. Usually compared to the Iliad and Odyssey, it certainly shares much in common with them; Sanskrit and classical Greek are close cousins, with vocabulary and grammatical structures strikingly similar. Both descend from an earlier Indo-European ancestor, and it is easy to see the linguistic and thematic relations between Greek and Vedic mythologies (a clear example is the god Uranus and the god Varuna, both lords of the night sky). But the Mahabhrata differs sharply from its classical Greek cousins in that for hundreds of millions it remains a religious scripture, and enjoys a position in Indian culture that is more Biblical than Homeric. The Bhaghavad Gita, the section Westerners are most likely to have heard of, is still a source of moral, ethical, and spiritual teachings to many on the subcontinent, and indeed has inspired people far beyond. Because it is such a significant text, people have been attempting English translations since the 19th century. The best known is probably KM Ganguli's, but despite being the most complete translation in English, its stilted Victorian prose is nearly as alien to modern readers as the Sanskrit. Several others, among them William Buck, R.K. Naryan, and C. Rajagopalachari, have published condensed versions also in prose. All seem to be missing something.

The problem seems to be that its very heart, the Mahabharata is a poem. Traditionally, audiences would have experienced it in song or chant (indeed Bhaghavad Gita means "the song of God"). The English retellings, concentrating on making it clear and comprehensible for modern audiences, have generally ignored this, opting for prose instead. This isn't necessarily a bad decision; any attempt to directly imitate the metrical form of the shlokas (the stanzas used in classical Sanskrit literature) in English would sound jarring anyway. But undeniably something is lost by changing it to prose, and these Mahabhratas all seem drier and dustier for it. So while there are certainly good translations to be had in terms of accuracy and keeping alive the stories, no one has really been able to make the epic sing in English as it must have sung to its audiences so very long ago.

No one until Carole Satyamurti, that is.

Mahabhrata, a Modern Retelling is glorious, and like so many brilliant ideas you are dumbfounded no one ever got around to thinking of it before. It starts with the realization that retelling the Mahabharata isn't a job for scholars, it's work that requires a poet. Satyamurti, an award-winning poet with several published collections under her belt, comes at the work not as a Sanskritist would--primarily concerned with hewing close to the original language--but as an artist who paints pictures with English verse. Since she does not, by her own admission, read Sanskrit, she allows herself to trust the most respected translations of those who do, soaking them up and respinning them in a way that sings to the English ear. The result is the Mahabharata I first longed for twenty years ago, when I read it in Sanskrit, and desperately wanted to share it with my English-speaking friends and family. It's the retelling you can hand to English speakers and say "this is why it has been loved for two thousand years."

This is no mean feat. Satyamurti has distilled 100,000 Sanskrit shloka couplets into 27,000 lines of English blank verse, keeping the structure of the original 18 books largely intact. Her choice of blank verse, with nine to eleven syllables per line and an average of five stresses, is perfect. The Sanskrit shloka, consisting of 32 syllables in two 16 syllable lines, was a widespread and well known form in ancient and classical India, just as blank verse--the meter of Shakespeare's plays and Milton's Paradise Lost--is for modern English speakers. Reading Mahabharata in this form is a subconscious cue that we are reading a classic.

It is also vibrant. With all due respect to Ganguli, his 5000 page retelling is often numbingly dull to even devoted Sanskritists and scholars. Satyamurti's poem by contrast is nearly impossible to put down, racing through the massive storyline with lithe, economical verse. On the crucial scenes she slows to focus attention, then picking up pace to speed through the less vital sections of the narrative. In addition to her story-telling skills her sense of character is pitch-perfect. Each of the twenty four or so principal figures she portrays in all their multiple dimensions, and the secondary characters are consistently distinct and memorable. This is the work of an artist just as devoted to her craft as she clearly is the Mahabharata, and the fact that this is a retelling should never detract from the fact that Satyamurti has composed one of the longest narrative poems In English history, and is it masterful.

I simply cannot recommend this retelling enough.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

CYPHER SYSTEM CONVERSIONS: The Doctor (Doctor Who)

The Doctor is a Rebel Time Lord Who Outwits Adversaries


REBEL
You have issues with authority. Willful and independent, you refuse to take orders from anyone but yourself. This quality doesn’t necessarily make you a criminal; you will follow rules and conventions if they make sense to you, but if they don't you have no trouble ignoring them. You may or may not be a freedom fighter, taking on what you perceive as tyranny. Regardless, you likely dress and act with unique style and air, not caring what others think. You gain the following characteristics:

Willful: +4 to your Intellect Pool.
Skill: You’re trained in resisting attempts to manipulate or intimidate you.
Skill: You’re trained in tasks requiring you to talk yourself out of trouble. Inability: Your ego sometimes gets in your way. When dealing with authority figures--leaders, bosses, commanders, etc--the difficulty of all social tasks is raised one step.

Initial Link to the Starting Adventure: From the following list of options, choose how you became involved in the first adventure.
- You threw in with the other PCs because you saw that they were resisting some form of authority.
- One of the other PCs convinced you that joining the group would be in your best interests.
- You’re afraid of what might happen if the other PCs fail.
- Helping the others inconveniences someone you are opposed to.

Time Lord (Prydonian Chapter)
Are the "Time Lords" a race, or a profession? The television program has never made it clear. Certainly, not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords. In both the classic series and recent episodes, some live comparatively primitive lives in the wilderness outside of the Citadel. This version, then, assumes that Time Lords are not born, they are made by attending graduating the Academy. Obviously, other assumptions are possible.

Based on the Doctor, we might call this the "Prydonian" build (his Chapter at the Academy). Noted for their manipulativeness and political skill, we are suggesting a Speaker with the Technology Flavor.

Regeneration: Time Lords can bear two cyphers. However, we are counting "Regeneration" as one of them. Time Lords are imbued (or promised they will be) with Regeneration energy at several points in the series, and it is clearly something that is expended once used. This ability then is treated as a subtle cypher with twelve "doses." When the Time Lord reaches death, or near death, it can be voluntarily triggered. Doing so simultaneously triggers all remaining recovery rolls in a burst of energy. The character assumes a new appearance (possibly even gender), with a new set of personality quirks. He or she cannot regenerate again until resting and restoring all recovery rolls (thus the Time Lord can still die unless retreating from danger). The power can be used twelve times, after which further regenerations can only be obtained from the Time Lord High Council.

Outwits Adversaries
This is simply "Calculates the Incalculable" with a new name.

Might: 15 (Edge: 0)
Speed: 20 (Edge: 2)
Intellect: 33 (Edge: 5)
Effort: 6
Skills: Resist Manipulation/Intimidation T, Talk Your Way Out Of Trouble T, Seeing Through Deception T, Persuading T, Time Capsule Piloting S, Time Capsule Repair T, Practiced with Light and Medium Weapons

Abilities: Encouragement (1 Int), Fast Talk (1 Int), Spin Identity (2 Int), Understanding (2 Int), Hacker (2 Int), Scramble Machine (2 Int), Tinker (1 Int), Tool Mastery, Babel, Impart Ideal (3 Int), Grand Deception (3 Int), Mind Reading (4 Int), Confounding Banter (4 Int), Flee (6 Int), Jury Rig (5 Int), Predictive Equation (2 Int), Predictive Model (2+ Int), Subconscious Defense, Cognizant Offense, One Step Ahead Of Everyone (6 Int)

Sonic Screwdriver (Artifact): Pick Locks T, Gather Information T, Turn On/Off Machines T

TARDIS (Artifact). A time capsule that can travel anywhere in time and space, is infinitely large on the inside, and can blend into its surroundings to escape notice.




Saturday, December 26, 2015

NUMENERA: JIHAD - "THREE SANCTUMS" and "FALLEN STAR"

I don't often run published scenarios or campaigns.  As a gamemaster, I get the same pleasure building my stories from the ground up that players get from making their own characters.  Published scenarios are like pre-generated characters; you can put your own "take" on them, but they are never really going to be your own.  As a kid, of course, I ran things like The Keep on the Borderlands and The Isle of Dread, and later I took a stab at classics like Masks of Nyarlathotep and The Great Pendragon Campaign, but 99% of my games the last thirty odd years were my own invention.  

With the Numenera core rulebook adventure "Three Sanctums" I made an exception, not because it is a particularly brilliant scenario (it's good, but not great), but because it clicked into the story of Jihad so well.  Jihad begins with the Amber Pope's declaration of a Crusade against the Gaians, and the mysteries surrounding that.  The Order of Truth claims these simple animists and nature worshippers beyond the Cloudcrystal Skyfields are a threat, heretics who imperil the Nine Kingdoms of the Steadfast and the Truth. Yet anyone who has ever actually been in the far north finds these claims dubious at best.  So are the Order's motivations simply cynical and political?  Is it a scare tactic to strengthen power over the Nine Kingdoms?  Or is there something more to it...

In writing the campaign I decided to give the Order of Truth a "god" of sorts, the Eidolon. When Calaval entered the Amber Monolith he found himself transported to the heart of the Sun, a citadel called "the Throne."  A disembodied intelligence there--the Eidolon--revealed itself to him, taught him the Truth (both the language of the Men Who Went Before and the philosophy of the Order of Truth), and sent him back as the first Amber Pope.  The Eidolon claims to have been created by ancient humans in a previous world, humans whose science made them like gods, and further claims its agenda is to raise men up again to their former state.

Now, in Jihad the Eidolon is not simply an AI living in the Sun...it is the Sun, turned by these ancients into an actual intelligence. It was this decision that made "Three Sanctums" irresistible to me.

In a nutshell, "Three Sanctums" has the player characters robbed by the shadowy Convergence, as the group needs an artefact in the characters' possession.  The title refers to the Convergence's strongholds in the Steadfast, the Empty, Golden, and Scorpion Sanctums.  The characters go in pursuit, ending up at the Scorpion Sanctum.  There, the Magisters of the Convergence are using the stolen artefact to complete the Venerator...a device harnessing the power of something held in a black, room-sized box.  The twist?  The box (like the TARDIS) is bigger on the inside, much bigger...spanning hundreds of AUs (astronomical units) across.  It contains "Bilu-sha-ziri," the red giant star we know as Antares.  At some point in the distant past, the ancients stole the star and tucked it inside this box.  The Magisters think tapping it will give them some sort of ultimate power.



The previous paragraph sums up the published version.  Once I read it, however (and I didn't actually read it until the latter stages of writing Jihad), the Amber Pope's crusade all fell into place.  Ideological rivals of the Order of Truth, the Convergence has been persecuted and hounded for centuries in much the same way the Inquisition hounded heretics.  Despite their own power, they have never been able to get the better of the Order, because the Order has an actual god on their side.  When the Magisters discovered Bilu-sha-ziri, what they found wasn't just a "star."  It was another "uplifted" stellar intelligence, a being exactly like the Eidolon.  They made a pact with it, and the Venerator was a device to channel its power.  

Unfortunately for the Magisters, Bilu-sha-ziri was imprisoned in the box for a reason.  Unlike the Eidolon, this stellar AI is psychopathic.  What it really wants is a way out of its prison.



My players and I went through this story in two sessions.  The first, "Three Sanctums," was a straightforward running of the published adventure.  The artefact taken was a bronze automaton in the shape of a young boy, an artificial intelligence the characters discovered back in the first scenario.  The Venerator (in both my version and the published one) currently is powered by human brains, but these are unstable and burn out.  The Magisters need a dependable AI that can bear the strain.  



The players go in pursuit.  At the Empty Sanctum they get separated; most teleported on to the Scorpion Sanctum, but the Nano, Emerson, getting transported to the Golden Sanctum.  It turns out the Magisters of the Golden Sanctum are not quite down with the whole plan to harness Bilu-sha-ziri's power, and send Emerson back to help stop them.



At the Scorpion Sanctum we find our trio of Magister conspirators, Mnoma, Iom, and Juthes.  Mnoma and Iom are still basically following the script; harness the star's power and use it for their designs.  Juthes, secretly, has fallen completely under the star's influence and worships him like a dark god.  He is going along with his cohorts until such time as he can betray them and release his new master.

It doesn't play out this way.  The player characters kill off Iom, who is outside the box manning the Venerator, and then go inside the box to see what it is.  Just as with the published version, getting into the box is easy, but once you do, you find yourself millions of miles from the nearest wall.  The way out is Mnoma and Juthes, who are inside the box.  But at this point Juthes makes his play and the characters end up killing both he and Mnoma...leaving themselves stranded inside the prison with Bilu-sha-ziri...



The next session was called "Fallen Star."  With two players unable to make the game (the Nano, Emerson, and the Jack, Myrna) it was time for a clever Intrusion.

The group awakes on the rocky surface of a planetoid in orbit around Bilu-sha-ziri...now near the centre of the box and much farther from escape.  The star itself seems to have brought them there, and its influence over one of the characters--Lugar--is growing.

Lugar, an outlander barbarian from the Cloudcrystal Skyfields, was created with the "Knows Too Much" focus from the sourcebook, Celestial Wisdom.  In essence, at some time in the character's past he fell under the influence of a god who is guiding him towards some purpose.  Our basic understanding was that this god was Vajra Ajar (see the photo below).  But now, in flashbacks, we see that the boy Lugar was left raving and mad after his encounter with Ajar...until a young Magister from the Scorpion Sanctum, Mnoma, came to collect him.  The god guiding him has been Bilu-sha-ziri all along.



The party is led to caverns beneath the planetoid's surface, where they are eventually attacked by nasty, spider-like robots.  These turn out to be the defence mechanisms of another Magister, Uwan, who opposed Juthes, Iom, and Mnoma and was imprisoned here in the box as a consequence.  He has a way out, but needs their help.  Working together they escape...

Re-emerging, they find the Scorpion Sanctum under attack by the airborne Angulan Knights.  The Order has made an alliance with these racial purists, and they have expanded their attacks from mutants and abhumans to heretics as well.  They have devastated the Sanctum, and it looks like the player characters have gone from frying pan to fire.



Until Uwan simply waves his arms and all the Xi-Drake riding knights fall burning from the sky.  Uwan reveals his true nature--he is none other than Bilu-sha-ziri himself in a synthetic humanoid vessel.  He thanks the players for liberating him, promises to not "forget" them, and vanishes. 

The player characters, then, are the harbingers of the Apocalypse.  The Amber Pope's Crusade was based on the Eidolon's projections of a godlike power rising in the North to challenge the Order.  Now that Bilu-sha-ziri is free, he is heading north to fulfil that prophecy.

And Jihad shifts into high gear. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

KULT: A Review of the Third Edition


An Enigmatic Game

“Play me,” it whispers. “I dare you.”

Kult: Beyond the Veil is a 304 page Rorschach blot, a game so cryptic and so vast that it can be almost anything you want it to be. Like Nietzche’s Abyss, when you stare into the book, you get the uncomfortable feeling it’s staring back into you. If you want Kult to be a game about paranormal investigators struggling against supernatural forces, it is. If you want it to be about cultists and sorcerers delving into dark secrets to turn themselves into gods, the game is happy to oblige. Or how about a game in which the players are monsters struggling against their own dark urges? Kult will be that too. It will be traditional Gothic, it will be brooding psychological horror, it will be post-modern Clive Barker hideousness. Like Mephistopheles it will give you anything you want just so long as you turn yourself over to it. “Play me,” it whispers. “I dare you.”



I suppose you could call it a game of generic horror, but there’s nothing generic about it. This is a game with one of the strongest personalities I have ever seen. Kult might better be described as an intricate, elaborate setting in which any horror imaginable might rear its ugly head. Vampires, Lovecraftian gods, Cenobites, fallen angels, animated killer dolls; the setting offers a rationale for them all. To my mind, this is a remarkable achievement, but it might be disconcerting to players who read the book and have no indication what to do with it. Hopefully, this review will help a little with that, because if you like horror, you need to play this game.

Editions

Despite a fanatical (dare I say “cult”) following, Kult never caught on all that well in the United States. A Swedish game, the English translations of Kult went through three editions and a short-lived card game, but each quickly lapsed out of print. While this is not exactly a bad thing, considering the high turn-over of games and companies in this industry, a game of Kult’s caliber deserved better. The problem may be, in part, that the game wasn’t even sure how to define itself.

The first, Target/Metropolis edition, for example, seemed to lean towards “Splatter Horror.” It was gun heavy, with detailed descriptions and drawings of weapons. The combat system was longer and more complex, and martial arts were heavily detailed. The overall feel was one of gore. The second edition was a radical reinvention. The combat and skill systems were greatly simplified, and the long weapons lists trimmed. The new focus was on “Psychological Horror,” as evidenced by the remarkable new cover. While the first edition had a naked crucified angel, the second featured stark, black and white silhouettes showing a man losing his mind. But where the second edition truly shined was the deeper attention given to the setting of the game, and a strong new focus on the occult. The new edition was more Hellblazer than Hellraiser.


The First and Second Edition Covers

The third edition, Kult: Beyond the Veil, followed the course set by the second edition. Since it is this edition which will be reviewed here, not much needs to be said at the moment. The third is, frankly, the finest of the editions, and the first to present the complete magic system (originally released in two separate sourcebooks to the second edition). This inclusion shifts the focus again, making the new Kult more a game of “Occult Horror.” This is, perhaps, where the game feels most at home. Magic is an integral part of the setting, and the hidden reality foundation of the game resonates powerfully with occult themes. This is not to say the game excludes psychotic slashers or mad scientists, but the heart of the game is of dark secrets and otherworldly terrors.

Called the Demiurge, he banished his peers from the Metropolis and imprisoned mankind in an Illusion…the world we live in now. 

Reality, As We Know It, Is A Lie

This first line from the back cover summarizes the entire setting of the game. Once, ages past, humanity was a race of gods, building for themselves a cyclopean, impossible city known as the Metropolis. Somehow, one of their number seized power and rose against all the others. Called the Demiurge, he banished his peers from the Metropolis and imprisoned mankind in an Illusion…the world we live in now. He forged Passion to make us slaves of the flesh, Time and Space to make us feel small and finite, Madness to limit our genius, and Dreams to turn us inward, away from discovering the truth. His supreme invention was Death, or at least the illusion of it. Though we are all immortal, after a span of time in the world we are yanked out and dragged off to Inferno, or Hell. There, under the auspices of the Demiurge’s lieutenant, Astaroth (Lucifer, Satan), we are hideously tortured until all memories of our lives are gouged from our minds. The slate wiped clean, we are reduced to infants and reincarnated in the womb to go through the cycle again. The point of all this is to limit us, to ensure we never had enough time to Awaken and reclaim our innate divinity.

Kult assumes that the Gnostics—a collective term for religious sects who believed the Creator God of the Bible was a jealous imposter—were right all along. 

This system worked well for millennia, until it all started to go wrong. Sometime around the 16th century, the Illusion began to break down, growing thin and threadbare. Sprawling cities—intrusions of Metropolis into our space-time—began to spread. By the end of the first World War, the Demiurge had vanished, his citadel locked and barred, the angels serving him expelled. No one knows exactly what happened, but in the aftermath, all hell has broken loose…literally. The Archons—quasi divine beings who helped the Demiurge enslave mankind—started fighting amongst each other for the throne, while Astaroth up and left Hell. All manner of beings from Outside started crossing over into the Illusion. And yet, for mankind itself, all this presented the best chance ever to escape imprisonment and reclaim our birthright.

All this background isn’t exactly new; actually, it’s two thousand years old. Kult assumes that the Gnostics—a collective term for religious sects who believed the Creator God of the Bible was a jealous imposter—were right all along. But while Kult does draw on historical heresies and occult traditions to provide a foundation for its setting, it works very hard to build upon these things with elaborate new fictions. Much of the book is devoted to describing the empty, haunted ruins of the Metropolis, the pits of Inferno, and many other hideous otherworlds. The inhabitants of each are also described. And all this is fresh from the author's fevered imaginations, not merely rehashed from old myths and legends.

The Captivity of Man (Character Creation & System)

Character creation in Kult is only a moderately complex affair, and the designers of the 3rd edition offer two variant systems to speed you through it. We’ll assume here—for simplicity’s sake—that we are talking about the creation of ordinary, human, characters. Later, I’ll discuss the rules for magicians and monsters.

The chapter starts with nine “Archetypes,” descriptive collections of personality traits and Advantage/Disadvantage guidelines. There are not character classes, and frankly you can ignore them if you already have an idea of what you want to play.

After these, there are eight Abilities—Agility, Strength, Constitution, Comeliness, Ego, Charisma, Perception, and Education—rated on a scale of 1 (terrible) to 20 (great). In standard character creation, you have 100 points to distribute amongst them. This is on a 1 for 1 basis (an Education of 15 costs 15 points) unless you want to purchase an ability rating above 18. At that point, the cost is 3 for 1 point of ability. In the simplified character creation method, you just roll 2d10 for each.

Skills are each based on a particular ability. “Basic Skills,” those anyone can reasonably expect to perform, all come with an automatic rating of 3. Some others have specific prerequisites (“Academic Skills” require a minimum Education rating of 13). In the standard system, you get 150 points to spend on each skill, again on a 1 for 1 basis. The catch here is that a skill rating is limited by the value of its controlling ability. Once the skill exceeds this, the cost jumps to 3 points for 1 point of skill. For example: Parapsychology is an Ego-based skill. If the character’s Ego is 16, it would cost 16 points to buy Parapsychology 16. Parapsychology 18 would cost 22 points (16 6 points for the two additional points above the Ego rating).

In simplified character creation, you simply chose 2 skills at 18, 2 at 15, and 8 at 10.

The game system is very simple. Actions are resolved by a single d20 roll. If you roll under your skill or ability score, you succeed. The wider the margin between your roll and the score, the better you succeed. A 1 is a success and adds 10 to your success margin, while a 20 is always a failure. Naturally, circumstances can increase or decrease your base chance of success.

Beyond Madness (Advantages, Disadvantages, & Mental Balance)

One aspect of character creation deserves to be singled out; the selection of Advantages and Disadvantages. The way Kult deals with these is unique, and goes to the heart of both the setting and the game.

The first thing one notices looking over these lists is that all the entries are mental, emotional, or social in nature. Physical (dis)advantages fall under the umbrella of high or low ability ratings, while matters of wealth and property are handled other ways in the game. The advantages and disadvantages of Kult all revolve around one’s mental state.

You may take any number of disadvantages you wish. These supply you with points you can spend on advantages or skills. Likewise, you may take as many advantages as you like, but if not balanced by disadvantage points, the costs are subtracted from your skill points. I could take, for example, both Greed ( 10) and Mathematical Talent (-10) and have no more or less skill points than the starting 150. If I took Greed only, I would start with 160 skill points. Mathematical Talent only would start me with 140.

As my balance becomes more extreme, I become more or less than human. At the very extreme ends, I shake off the illusion altogether and become a god once more.

What really matters, however, is the total number of advantage points versus disadvantage points. This value is used to determine the character’s “Mental Balance.” Following the example above, if I started the game with Greed only, my Mental Balance would be -10. If I started with Mathematical Talent, it would be 10. If I took both, my balance would be 0.

Why does this matter? Essentially, man’s captivity demands a Mental Balance near 0. As my balance becomes more extreme, I become more or less than human. At the very extreme ends ( 500 or -500), I shake off the illusion altogether and become a god once more.

As my Mental Balance increases, I start to radiate an aura which draws people to me, making them feel safe and comforted by my presence. Evil things shun me, and I become increasingly immune to fear and negative mental states. I begin to acquire miraculous powers. I am on the Light Road to my lost divinity.

As my mental balance decreases, I start to radiate an aura of fear and discomfort. Good things are repelled by me, and I become increasingly vulnerable to negative mental states. At extremely low levels, I start to go through physical changes, mutating into some sort of creature. My fears and subconscious urges might manifest as objective beings in the outside world. I start to gain monstrous powers. I am on the Dark Road to my lost divinity.

The beauty of this system is that it provides an explanation for the appearances of both monsters and saints. Vlad Tepes became so sick, so twisted, and so depraved that he mutated into a vampire. Siddhartha became so enlightened that he Awoke and shook off the coils of the illusion. Much of Kult depends on this mechanic, and we will be coming back to it again.

Beyond Humanity (Playing Monsters)

The Mental Balance system allows for player character monsters, and a separate chapter is included for those who wish to explore this option. Basically, lists of supernatural Limitations (like “Bloodthirst,” “Uncontrolled Shape Change,” and “Inhuman Appearance”) and Powers (like “Telekinesis,” “Invulnerable to Weapons,” and “Regeneration”) are provided. Each has a point cost, just like Advantages and Disadvantages. In this case, Limitations are taken to provide points for purchasing Powers. At the same time, however, the total value of Limitation points is subtracted from the character’s Mental Balance. In addition, even if the character has enough Advantages to raise the balance, no creature with Powers of this kind may have a Mental Balance of greater than -25. All Monsters are on the Dark Road, their dropping Mental Balances rendering them increasingly inhuman.

For example, a classic vampire might take the Limitations Bloodthirst (15), Tomb Bondage (10), Scared of Religious Symbols (10), and Sensitive to Sunlight (15). This gives him a total of 50 points. He uses these points to purchase Eternal Youth (10), Enhanced Senses (10), Increased Strength (15), and Invulnerable to Weapons (15). His Mental Balance is then lowered by the total number of Limitation points. Assuming the character started with a Mental Balance of -15, it would now be -65.

Mental Aspects

At times of extreme mental stress—seeing monsters, undergoing torture, being seriously wounded, etc—characters must make a roll against their Ego score, modified by circumstance. It is essentially the Kult equivalent of a Call of Cthulhu “sanity roll.” If you fail, you will go into “shock,” and suffer an appropriate reaction for 1d20 minutes. Reactions include “Screams,” “Faints,” and “Runs Away.”

There are a lot of systems out there to model states of mental distress. Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies are two beautiful examples. But the way in which Kult makes use of the character’s natural disadvantages is inspired...

If you have a positive Mental Balance, you can resist shock. At 15 or higher, instead of suffering a reaction, you may act freely with a -5 penalty to all rolls. At 30 or higher you can cancel even this with another successful Ego roll. As the scale goes higher and higher, you become completely immune to mental stress.

If you have a negative Mental Balance, bad things can occur. At -15, your Disadvantages get the better of you, and you must make a successful Ego check to resist them. For example, a character with Depression might complete give up, unable to act, consumed with self-loathing. A Rationalist might refuse to acknowledge what has happened, denying it exists. A Phobic character might suffer hallucinations related to his fear. And so on. The effects last until the character manages to shake them off with another Ego roll. However, the lower your Mental Balance, the less often you can make such checks, and the higher the penalty you take on each roll. At -75, well below the limit or mere insanity, shock can actually begin to provoke physical mutations, your humanity slowly slipping away.

As an added delight, any character who fails his initial Ego throw to resist shock by 10 or more will gain a new disadvantage appropriate to the situation that induced the shock. This doesn’t give you any points, it just lowers your Mental Balance.

There are a lot of systems out there to model states of mental distress. Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies are two beautiful examples. But the way in which Kult makes use of the character’s natural disadvantages is inspired, as is the notion that beneath even the level of clinical insanity worse things can happen.

Magicians cannot be normal people...

Magic & Occult Sciences

In the world of Kult, sorcerers may believe that their power comes from harnessing elemental forces, from calling upon spirits, demons, or gods, or even from some energy source like “mana” or “quintessence.” They are all wrong. Magic is a means by which innate human divinity is temporarily re-awakened, allowing the will to strain against the bars of its prison. In a ritual, the divine portion of the mage stirs in its sleep, flexing its muscles. As the Illusion is built from five aspects—Time/Space, Madness, Dreams, Passion, and Death—magic deals with manipulating those forces.

Magicians cannot be normal people. They must have Mental Balances either above 25 or below -25. This allows you to purchase Magical Intuition, an advantage costing 20 points. This allows you to see auras, sense magical energies, and perform effective rituals.

The magic system of Kult is mechanically quite simple, but it is one of the most elaborately described in gaming history. Furthermore, a large measure of it mirrors the practices of real-life occultists. Even a casual student of the occult would find much that was familiar in the game. For example, the spell “Protective Pentagram” is basically a complete description of the occult “Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram,” and it does in the game exactly what genuine occultists believe it does in real life (with a Kult twist). The result is something extremely atmospheric, though not, I imagine, to everyone’s taste.

Mechanics: there are five Lores of Magic, each wielding power over one of the aspects of the Illusion (a sixth Lore, the Dark Art, is possessed by beings from outside the Illusion). Lores are learned exactly like skills, and allow you to perform spells relating to that Lore. For example, the Lore of Passion allows you to study and perform spells like “Seduction,” “Arouse Instincts,” and “Master and Slave.” Each spell has a Skill Score, which is the minimum rating in the controlling Lore the magician must possess. To learn “Seduction,” the mage must have the Lore of Passion at 7 or higher. To learn “Master and Slave” it must be 14 or higher.

To cast a spell you make a roll under your spell skill score. Spells also have an Endurance cost, the amount of personal energy the magician must expend, as well as a time to cast. This can run from 1 hour to days for powerful and complex rituals. All the tools, preparations, procedures, incantations, and visualizations are painstakingly described for each and every spell.

The best way to give you the full flavor of the system is to completely quote a spell. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve selected one of the more “controversial” spells from the book (in that Kult’s realistic and detailed treatment of topics like “sex magic” often gives the game a bad rep).

Master and Slave (Kult, p. 147)
An individual is made to totally submit to the will of the Conjurer for the duration of the spell. A strong sexual connection is created between the Conjurer and the victim, where the victim is filled with a desire to be dominated. The submission has masochistic undertones, the victim is willing to be dominated and degraded. He looks upon anything the Conjurer commands him to do as part of a sexual game, even such things that result in the victim hurting himself and others. The victim will seek out the Conjurer if they know each other, otherwise he will submit to the Conjurer as soon as they meet.

Skill Score: 14

Loss of Endurance: 40

Tools of Magic: the wand

Time to Cast: 1 hour

Duration: 24 hours

Ego-Throw to Resist: Yes

Preparations: A strand of the hair of the victim is placed on the altar. All of the planetary signs are drawn around the inside of the Circle, and the names of the seven Chakras are written inside of these. A candle is lit in the middle of the Circle. The Conjurer paints the Chakras with red paint on his own body, in the shape of stylized roses or lotus flowers.
Invocation and Gestures: With wand in hand the Conjurer calls the victim by name and commands him to come. He swears by Gamaliel and by each of the Chakras while he touches the flowers on his body, feeling the snake rising up along his spine. Sitting on his haunches by the burning candle he summons Mars and Venus, Saturn and Luna. Finally, he takes the hair from the altar and burns it on the candle while he commands the victim to give up his will and submit. Visualization: The Conjurer sees how the victim is taking shape in the burning flame in the middle of the Circle, nude and initially reluctant, then more and more submissive. When the Conjurer is burning the hair the victim falls on its knees and starts licking the feet and genitals of the Conjurer.

Aside from five Lores of Magic, there are also seven Occult Sciences. These are skills (again, based on real-life disciplines but all retooled for the setting) which give characters knowledge of the Illusion and how to escape it. “Kabbalah” is a detailed study of the Demiurge and his Archons. “Alchemy” examines the substances which are the building blocks of our prison. “Astrology” uncovers the blueprints and plan by which the Illusion works. “Numerology” examines the Illusion as an equation. “Symbolism” underlies magic and the path to awakening our inner divinity. “Tarot” is a meditative art that gets the user in touch with his inner being. And “Voodoo,” the youngest science, explains how to cheat death.

Summarizing as I have just done does not do justice to the incredible richness of detail used to flesh out each. The same attention Kult lavishes on its spells is continued here. The section on Tarot, for example, gives a history of the cards in the Kult universe, as well as the divinatory meanings for each and every one. This is purely for atmosphere; the mechanics governing how to use the Tarot in game are actually much more succinct. It is this remarkable attention to detail that gives the game its richness.

On a side note, entities from beyond the Illusion have access to another form of magic, the “Dark Art.” While the Dark Art cannot directly affect the prisoners inside the illusion, it does allow them to reshape the illusion itself. For example, an Azghoul (ancient servants of Man left abandoned in the empty streets of Metropolis to fend for themselves) is hunting victims in the streets of New York. The hapless couple turns into an alleyway. The Azghoul can then use the Dark Art to reshape the alley...into a dead end.

Combat

Compared to the elaborate magic system, Kult's combat mechanics are much more straightforward, reflecting the design choices of the game.

Combat is divided into rounds. All (human) characters start with 2 actions per round, but can attain (via high levels of Agility) up to 4. Supernatural entities may have even more than that.

To determine initiative, each round the participants roll a d20 and add the result to their initiative score; actions are taken in order of highest total to lowest, repeating the cycle until everyone has exhausted their actions.

To attack, roll d20 and compare the result to your skill score (which may be modified by circumstances). Rolling over that number constitutes a failure. If you roll under, keep track of the number of points you succeed by. This is your “Hit Score,” and it is vital for determining damage.

The roll of a “1” is, incidentally, a perfect hit, adding an automatic 10 to the Hit Score. A roll of “20” is a fumble and a failure, allowing the GM to determine what sort of mishap befalls the character.

Every weapon has a damage rating, or “Damage Effect Factor” (DEF). The Hit Score modifies this number up or down. A Hit Score of 0-2, for example, lowers the DEF (I merely grazed the target) while anything about a 7 raises it (up to a maximum of 5). Thus a single roll resolves both hitting and your damage total.

Damage is rated in wounds—Scratch, Light Wound, Serious Wound, Fatal Wound, etc. Different characters and beings are able to withstand different numbers of each, and the wounds are cumulative.

There are, beyond this, rules for all sorts of combat situations, including armor, parrying melee attacks, fighting in darkness, poisons, infections, and so forth. It is a simple system, but deadly, and with enough detail to generate all manner of life-threatening encounters. But comparing the page count of the Combat chapter (12 pages) with that of, say Magic (90 pages) gives you a clear indication of the game's focus.

Why You Should Be Playing This Game

taboo (also tabu) noun ( pl. -boos also -bus) a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing

Some of the most intense horror experiences come from the transgression of taboo. Certainly, an ax-wielding maniac is frightening, but when Jack Torrance stalks his own wife and child through the empty halls of the Overlook Hotel, he is violating everything society expects a father to stand for. Psycho's infamous shower scene features a violent murder, but it becomes even more transgressive by the fact that it occurs in a place society defines as a citadel of privacy (not to mention the fact that Norman Bates is dressed in his mother's clothes). And vampires, bless their dead little hearts, get endless mileage out of violating of sexual taboos (rape, S&M, and incest being common features of the genre). While it is scary (and thus thrilling) to be put in danger, what distinguishes horror from adventure or fantasy fiction is this aura of violation, of horror's willingness to assault whatever our societies hold to be sacred.

Compared to literature or cinema, horror RPGs have shown an extreme reluctance to violate taboo, and thus content themselves with providing a “scare.” Most take the safer route of embracing the cliches of adventure fiction—hunt the monster, solve the mystery, defeat the cultists—sprinkled with borrowed horror elements. But there is nothing visceral in this, and while you might feel a few chills, it's unlikely you'll really squirm.

Kult is willing to go where most other games are not. Deviant sexuality, blasphemous ideas, torture; it's all there and more. Anything that might make you uncomfortable, you can probably find somewhere between the covers of this book. Indeed, deviancy and taboo violation are the very heart of the game, when one considers that societal taboos were put in place by the Demiurge to keep us safe, normal, and jailed.

This is not to say you can't get there with other games. Despite the intellectual, outre horror of Call of Cthulhu (with its non-Euclidean angles and unfathomable gulfs), entities like ghouls or deep ones do hit below the belt. The difference is, the core game itself takes a genteel approach to horror, while Kult takes you by the hand and drags you through the extremes.

If you are looking for a game inclined towards deep horror, the horror of Stephen King, Clive Barker, or Thomas Ligotti, Kult is for you.

Why You Should NOT Be Playing This Game

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with B-movie horror, or the action horror of films like Van Helsing or Blade. And while horror is, by and large, intimate and personal, gaming is a social experience. Many are not comfortable exploring their depths in the presence of others.
Also, If you have difficulty divorcing your faith from your gaming, Kult is definitely not for you. I have known people comfortable with Call of Cthulhu because its horrors were invented, but uncomfortable with Kult's open references to Satanism, or incorporation of genuine occult practices.
Further, it goes without saying that if you don't like to be made uncomfortable, you shouldn't be bothering with this game.