Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review: Kult

Review: Kult by Gunilla Jonsson and Michael Petersén
Metropolis Ltd.
Rating: ★★★★

Kult is a game that does not mince words in creating a setting that is both disturbing, fascinating and horrifying.  This was definitely not a game that was intended for younger or immature audiences.  Taking concepts from gnosticism, and giving it a dark modern gothic touch, fans of the Silent Hill franchise, Matrix movies, and cult favorites such as Dark City and the Watcher Pentalogy of Sergei Lukyanenko.  The world is an Illusion.  Everything you see is a Lie.   And we are prisoners in a world that looks normal, but is in truth embroiled in a massive war between forces of Light and Darkness.

Sounds Interesting!  Tell me more.
In the game, a being called the Demiurge is holding us prisoner and many of these beings that have been keeping us in check have started to approach things in their own way ever since the Demiurge itself vanished.  A massive city called the Metropolis exists beyond our perceptions whose roads reach out to every city in the world, and occasionally people slip out of the Illusion and into this place, where unthinkable horrors await.    But all throughout the world, there are certain people who have learned to pierce the illusion, and there are groups that seek to find a way for mankind to regain our lost divine status.  

Illusion and Madness are more than what they seem to be.  And even Death is just a beginning in this game.  In Kult, you struggle in a world where old gods squat in the streets, Fallen Angels rule in the shadows, and monsters walk amongst us beyond our sight.

What's the System Like?
The game is an old game, and thus very old approaches to dice systems are still used here.  Characters have Abilities, Skills, Advantages, Disadvantages, Dark Secrets and Mental Balance.  Point distribution can be a bit confusing at first, with players having 100 points to allocate among eight abilities, 150 points to allocate among skills, and... sorry what?  Yes, you read that right, 100 and 150.  Like I said, old school rules. 

Rolling a twenty-sided die is used to determine if characters succeed in their ability and skill-based actions.  The difference between the roll and ability itself then determines the Effect.  So if you had a skill of 14, rolling  a 13 means you succeed with an Effect of one, an acceptable success.   If you rolled a 2, you succeeded with an effect of 12, which is a normal success.  A difference of 16 and higher snags you even greater success.

The game offers a huge list of Archetypes, which basically are pre-set ideas for character concepts such as Drifter, Detective, Athlete, etc, allowing new players to quickly have an idea of what options exist and work well for the game.  It was nice how they really devoted a full page colored image for each one though.

Interestingly, the system has a lot of secondary abilities, such as Endurance, Initiative and Damage bonuses, and the like which are derived from the Abilities.  They add new twists to the game, such as Endurance representing exhaustion which can bring you down even if you've never been hit in a long-running combat sequence.  Advantages and Disadvantages are your usual mix of positive and negative traits (such as having a Code of Honor, or suffering from a phobia, etc) and these are actually vital in determining your character's Mental Balance.

Combat is split to three phases, and typically characters have two actions each turn.  Since humans typically can't perform actions in the same phase, they have to spread it out.  So for example if the human (2 actions) was fighting a demon (4 actions) the demon has distinct advantage since it can allocate its actions better.
Phase One
Phase Two
Phase Three
Human, Demon
Human, Demon, Demon
Demon, Demon, Human
Human, Demon
Demon, Human
Demon, Human
Demon, Demon

Damage is tracked as Wounds, which start out as Scratches, then turn into Light Wounds, then Serious Wounds and finally Fatal Wounds.  Most characters can only take one Fatal Wound before dying, but many monstrosities can suffer very many more.

Martial Arts and Magic are given comprehensive portions of the rules, with Martial Arts giving access to chi-based powers if you reach a certain level of proficiency with them.  There are various kinds of magic:  Lore of Death, Lore of Dream, Lore of Madness, Lore of Passion, Lore of Time and Space.  These aren't your typical quick casting magic spells type of game though the way its done in other games.  Most rituals can take lots of hours to days to perform, if not require planning, components and preparation to succeed.   Spells also consume Endurance, so casting them may leave you very vulnerable afterwards.

Finally, characters have Hero Points, which are a finite resource that can be spent to twist fate in your favor (read as alter the results of the Effect of an action), but given a spent Hero Point is gone for good, and recovering points is not an easy feat, players will likely choose to use them when their character's lives are at stake.

And boy will they be often in such dangers in this game.   Most of the threats and monstrosities are horribly powerful if not disturbingly strong.  Death is always looming in the horizon in every battle.

Surely, the players have some help?
Somewhat.  You see, there are rules for different kinds of magic, and players who have the ability to use magic can definitely have an edge.   Interestingly, while most would probably think having a high Light Mental Balance is the best course of action, having your Mental Balance high in either end of the spectrum both have their bonuses and detrimental effects.    At its simplest, one's madness (or uncontrollable demand for order) can actually manifest as actual physical changes as your character deals with the growing Terror in the game. One might manifest an armored carapace in hopes of protecting himself from the darkness, another might have so high a state of Mental Balance that their dark side might gain sentience and try to contact you.

Death Is Just a Beginning?
Oh that's cause some characters who die... might not die.  They might actually find themselves coming back, changed.  And if they do, they might not exactly like what they have become.  But to say more might spoil things for people who will eventually get a chance to explore the game!
Yes there was a four-issue comic based on it.

Okay, I'm NOT going to play, I'm going to RUN the game.
Then consider this paragraph a huge SPOILER WARNING for players who need to avoid reading things since they have trouble, or rather not struggle to separate player knowledge from character knowledge.

First, the Demiurge is pretty much the God in the game, and sadly he's gone.  Vanished. Maybe dead.  Its dark half, the Astaroth has risen to take its place.  But it doesn't quite grasp what it should do.  All over the world, the Archons and the Death Angels vie for greater power and influence, and in smaller scale, the Lictors (all 823,543 of them) relish having the freedom to punish (and play with) humans in any way they see fit!  So yeah, we're all pretty much prisoners in a massive jail that we know to be the world.

Astaroth however, senses Humanity's capacity to Awaken, and knows if that happens, we will most likely end up free and powerful.  So he plans a massive Ragnarok to keep us lost in our own ignorance, while he desperately tries to find the missing Demiurge.  Many of the things we encounter are hidden by the Illusion to appear as something else.  But more and more are starting to see the Truth.  Great beings however residing deep within Metropolis and other places might send in their stead an Incarnate instead, which while still powerful is a weaker presence compared to the being's actual power.  Archons, on the other hand, rarely use Incarnates and prefer to reach out and influence the world through Manifestations, such as war and bloodshed happening where the Archon of Death resides, and so on and so forth.

Crossing through the illusion and visiting Metropolis can be accomplished through cameras, mirrors, puzzles and sometimes by accident as some places in the world meld so easily into the Metropolis for one reason or another.  Paintings, portals, and pain at times allow us to open our eyes to see the Truth and expose to us a world we might have rather to have never seen.

Mental Balance is more than a measure of one's sanity.  It declares whether or not deep down you are a divine or demonic being and there are various system changes that occur as your Mental Balance rating moves beyond +/-100 (positive of course relating to Light and negative to Dark.)  There are times when these changes even allow you to shift time and space.

There is more than just the Metropolis to explore too.  There is the Inferno, the Dream Lands, and many other strange realms to explore.   And there are many cults and groups that know fragments of the puzzle of the Truth, and hopefully through them you can grasp how big the Lie actually is and break free.


There is a rich GM section in the book, giving adventure ideas, thoughts on how to incorporate madness, fear and other elements into your games.  And yes a very generous helping of sample characters, monsters and the like.  Overall, you got a lot to work with even with just the main book.

Rating Breakdown: Concept:  Deliciously frightening.  I love the mythology and I am impressed how they worked out the setting for the game.  I love the way Mental Balance works in the game and I was curious to see how players would react to explore such a setting.
Crunch:  Not as heavy as I expected.  While yes, the idea of spending 100 and 150 points during character creation sounds more frightening than say allocating 12 points (new World of Darkness attributes) or rolling for stats using three six-sided dice (Pathfinder), the spending doesn't cause too much of a headache.  Many will be struggling at first to embrace the idea that rolling a twenty on the 20-sided die is a disastrous failure, but otherwise, the system works very smoothly.
Layout:  I wish this was done better.  The original books were well written but was in desperate need of having certain portions grouped together instead of spread in their own chapters.  The newer versions of the books are just a pain to read, with frenetic backgrounds against laid out text that do not lend well to making things legible.
My favorite part:  Mental Balance.  I love how both Positive and Negative are insane (and staying on zero is the best way to stay sane), and yet offered unexplored powers and truths when you dive right into it.  Being able to role-play them is harder though and I wish they offered a guide in the game.
What I wish was better:  As mentioned above, I wish Mental Balance was explored better.  Perhaps a whole book on what insights having Mental Balance gives would have been awesome.  Or a guide book on how to portray them at certain stages.    But beyond that, I really really wish the new books were kinder to the eye.  You know there's something wrong when the books themselves do NOT allow you to read the rules faster.

Break free.  See past the Illusion.  Embrace the Kult.
Sadly the books are no longer in print.  But maybe if you look past the Illusion, you'll find a way. :-)
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