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.
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.
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.
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.
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