This article originally appeared in Pyramid #3
KULTPublished by Metropolis
Original Game by Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén
English Edition Edited by Terry Kevin Amthor
Note: Kult is a licensed translation of a Swedish game.
If this game had emerged four years ago, it would have been hailed as a breakthrough world background -- Call of Cthulhu, without the sense of hope. As it is, Kult is a strong contender in the ever-growing genre of Dark Roleplaying. It has a detailed setting, with enough nasties and evil places to satisfy the most macabre group of players.
The basic premise behind Kult is that both God and the Devil (though different names are used) have abandoned the world, leaving it open for demons and lost angels to roam the bleak cities, committing atrocities just beyond the power of our senses to observe. Our world is linked to the "real world" through our teeming, decaying cities. Apparently the true world, the Metropolis, is one huge city, where all the evils of man flow freely through the dank streets. Certain people have the ability, through psychic or magic power or simply through madness, to pierce the veil that separates the false world from the true one. These people are the player characters.
A typical Kult adventure might involve a close friend of the PCs being abducted by demonic apparitions, whose exposed organs constantly drip blood and pus. The forces of evil are investigated, hunted and eventually confronted in a bloody battle that may result in the death of most or all of the PCs. But, as the book's underline proclaims, death is only the beginning.
After death, PCs can be reborn, become spirits, demons or angels, or they can roam any of the several "underworlds." This adds an interesting dimension to the game -- it is strongly suggested that, even though the characters lose the memories of their past lives, they retain their bodies, with many of the same abilities. Thus the fear of death is removed to open up a whole new catalogue of fears with which to plague players.
To further darken the scenario, all of the player characters possess what is called a "Dark Secret." These secrets range from Guilty of Crime to Victim of Medical Experiments. Thus each PC has some bitter, demented history to flesh out his character. The selection of secrets is fairly complete, and the players are invited to create their own, to better fit their characters. Nearly all of the characters and NPCs are going to be evil, deranged, dangerous or disturbed -- or all of the above. If you go in for this kind of roleplaying, you won't find much better background material.
Which brings us to the game mechanics. Is this another great background without a useful rule to stand on? Actually, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the game rules. The game uses the now-familiar point-based character generation system, allowing players to construct their characters to their whims, not the whims of the dice.
The characters begin with a selection of eight abilities, which most other games call attributes. Most are standard fare: Strength, Agility, Constitution, Ego (a kool word for Intelligence) and Charisma. Then Kult adds a few odd ones, like Education, Comeliness and Perception. The players then choose their Dark Secrets, Advantages and Disadvantages.
One of the few blunders in the otherwise tight system is the mislabeling of a few disadvantages as advantages. Altruism, Code of Honor and Honesty are all restrictive mental traits that are listed as advantages. Although they appear to be advantageous at first glance, they actually limit the freedom and functionality of a character, making them actually disadvantages. I certainly would not spend points on an "advantage" that required my character to constantly "abstain from pleasure and gain in order to do good to others."
The players are also strongly encouraged to play one of the 18 character archetypes presented in the book. This is a fine aid to roleplaying, and I have no problem with the concept of archetypes, as a concept. But the writers of Kult seem to have made no attempt to balance the archetypes to one another. The most obvious crack in the rules is the Living Standard section. Each archetype has a suggested level of income and wealth, called a Living Standard. The problem is that the Outsider archetype has a Living Standard of 1 (which can be raised with points to a maximum of 3), while the Secret Agent has a base Living Standard of 6. A Living Standard of 1 gives you $300 a month income, with no home, no savings and no credit. The Living Standard of 6 gives you $2,000 per month, with assets of $125,000. As you can see, there is something basic wrong here.
The rest of the rules work admirably. While many specific situations may not be covered, there are good rules for combat, accidents, frightening situations and vehicle design. What's more, the rules do not make the mistake of only applying to the Kult world -- most of these rules could be transplanted to other modern-day settings.
The design of the book is strong, utilizing red spot color and duotones effectively. The font used for the section heads is not my favorite and tends to be hard to read, but the designers were obviously going for a stylistic look, and in that, they succeeded. The artwork is thick and scratchy, and tends toward the blatantly surrealistic; however, this is actually an asset in this book and gives it a genuinely creepy feel. My only criticism of the design is that the book needs more art.
All in all, Kult is a very good system and background for roleplayers who are mature enough to delve into truly dark roleplaying. Even for those players who dislike being immersed in depressing, hopeless worlds, the background has enough tidbits of bleak imagery and morsels of horrific scenery that it's worth the cover price just to browse through the Metropolis.
-- Jeff Koke
Article publication date: October 1, 1993
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