Kult Capsule Review by Derek Guder on 24/11/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
The second edition of a superb game, this has a bad reputation among fans, but it's more than worth the price of admission just for the basic cosmology.
Author: Gunilla Jonsson, Michael Peterson and Nils Gulliksson
Company/Publisher: Target Games and Metropolis Ltd.
Page count: 256 pages, softcover
Year published: 1997
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Derek Guder on 24/11/01
Genre tags: Horror Conspiracy
I fell in love with Kult long before I was ever able to actually get my hands on one of the books. When I simply heard the premise of the game, I knew it was made for me. So intriguing, elegant and gleefully malicious, it was also the game that really introduced me to the wonderful world of the kabalah and the Sephiroth. Sadly, it never seemed to be able to really catch on in America (Kult was originally a translation of a Swedish game) and it passed out of print.
There is justice in the world, however, because 7th Circle (a company that translates a number of RPGs into French) has picked up the license for printing and developing material for the Kult mythos. Not only that, but their new two-book edition should be available very shortly with any luck. Further information can be found on 7th Circle’s Kult web page.
So I’m reviewing yet another long out-of-print game I love in the hopes of generating some more interest about it – and to make sure people are aware of it’s return and history doesn’t repeat itself. I also wanted to take a close look at the odd division between Kult fans, first edition vs. second edition.
I previously reviewed the first edition of the game and it’s archived here. Interested parties or people with just too much time on their hands may want to check it out. It does not, however, contain any spoiler warnings when it spills the beans about the central nature of Kult, so be advised. In this review I’ve tried to make sure that I stick in warnings where applicable, so this one is rather more friendly to people trying to get a feeling for the game without ruining it all. Though I think that it’s really impossible to fully appreciate the game (and understand why it has such a dedicated fan following) without knowing that “Big Secret.”
The second edition of Kult is a very visually unique book. The cover, which I’ve always been very fond of, it a collection of eleven indistinct black and white photographs of a man’s silhouette as his head seems to loll back and forth. I’m probably also the only person who likes it. I like simpler and more iconic covers anyway. Just give me a title and a clean and clear symbol or object and I’m much happier than with some lush painting or exciting action scene. I’m weird that way I guess. Even if it doesn’t really directly get what the game is about across or depict a clear scene, I think it has a simple and evocative style. Not only that, but it really is a pretty darn unique cover.
Inside is also rather distinct itself, with asymmetrical columns on each page and parenthesis and slashes used in section headings. Combined with a variety of background images and illustrations taken from the short-lived Kult card game, the general look reminds me of nothing so much as a web page. I don’t know if the effect was intended, but it’s certainly strong. Kult second edition (as in the entire line, in this case) has something of an infamous reputation for completely illegible layout designs, but thankfully the basic book avoids that. Organization of sections could have been better, but the text itself was still easily readable. Though the seeds of what will later become problems can be seen, I quite enjoyed Kult’s uniqueness, both inside the cover and out.
Anyone who picks up and handles the book will also notice that the manner in which it was printed was rather uncommon as well. I am far from an expert on printing processes, so I have no explanation for this, but the cover has a very distinct feeling to it, an intriguing smoothness. You all might look at me weird, picturing my stroking the cover for hours on end, but you’ll know what I mean if you get a chance to touch one. The cover seems “flatter” (as in not as glossy and reflective) than most book covers, perhaps this is a side-effect of that. There is also a very nice heft and flop to the book. Minor, perhaps, but when I pick up the book and it feels weighty and solid and the pages flop open and flip comfortably, I feel like I have a real quality production in my hands. It’s nicely impressive. At least to me. Again, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
The writing does not stand out at much as the rest of the book, but it is certainly solid and quality. There are a few editing errors, but nothing so outrageous that I remember it now. The text manages to get across the horror of the setting without falling into purple prose or incomprehensible jargon – it accomplishes its job.
The system for the second edition remained relatively unchanged compared to the first edition. It still was a simple d20 die roll. Roll equal to or below your appropriate skill or ability and you’ve succeeded. Great the different between the roll and the target number, the greater the degree of success. Fleshed out with the standard attributes and skills, Kult’s system is surprising standard, aside from two elements: sanity and magic.
Sanity is tracked on a simply scale based around the idea that a mentally balanced person (someone who is “normal”) is a 0. Positive numbers are people who are virtuous, saintly, kind, self-denying. People who are in the negative side are angry, violent, lustful, indulgent. Getting to extreme on either side of the scale can get you classified as clinically insane. Mental balance is much more important when you know What’s Really Going On (see below).
Magic in Kult is divided up into five Lores that encompass of all of reality: Dreams, Madness, Passion, Death, and finally Time and Space. Prospective magicians, after tilting the mental balance far enough either way to be able to use magic at all, learn a Lore as a skill and then they learn each ritual as a further skill. And I do mean “ritual,” magic in Kult is a long, slow, fatiguing process conducted in the sanctity of a magicians temple for hours, sometimes day, on end. There are no fireballs in the street, only hours of meditation simply to speak with a minor spirit. The second edition takes a much looser and more flexible track with magic as it provides only general guidelines of what a magician can accomplish at each level of skill and leaves all the detail on rituals and effects for later sourcebooks. This is one of the big criticisms of the edition by fans. Even though I think that magic is not going to be a part of every PC or even many of them and I can understand why those rules may have been left out, they are rather important to the setting and should have been included.
The setting of Kult, from the inside, looks a lot like many of the other modern occult-horror games available, especially White Wolf’s gothic-punk World of Darkness. Monsters lurk in the shadows, corruption is rife everywhere, cities are piles of filth, great institutions are manipulated from within by beasts that walk like men – it’s all there. The real gem is the Truth behind it all…
Now isn’t that such a fun setting?
First Edition vs. Second Edition: Rusty Steel Cage Death Match!
As I mentioned before, the second edition of Kult has rather bad reputation. Whenever I see fans talking about the game, they almost always urge people to find the first edition and avoid the second edition. “It completely changed the metaphysics of the game” or “It went for splatter and gore instead of psychological horror” are the two most common accusations slung around, and after trying to compare the two editions, I don’t think either are really that accurate.
Here’s a list of some of the more notable differences between the editions.
From this list, I don’t think that the two common claims against Kult second edition really hold true. It’s not really geared more towards splatter and gore and the cosmology is not radically changed. There are enough details to irritate fans (like just what “Elysium” means and what happened to the Demiurge’s Citadel) but it is still the same game. There are fewer changes between editions than in almost any other game I can think of.
Although the second edition’s odious reputation may not be entirely deserved, I do agree that not all of the changes were really necessary. The Dark Art seems to be something of a blanket cop-out, largely because it’s not thoroughly detailed. Worse are the Occult Sciences, which I find to not only be superfluous but also incongruous. How is Symbolism like Astrology or the Tarot? “One of these things is not like the other…”
Death is Only the Beginning
Needless to say, I love Kult and am simply ecstatic that a new edition is due soon. The basic idea driving the cosmology within the setting is such an ingenious little gem that I want to use it everywhere and not tell my players until it is too late, and that is perhaps the best way to do it. Kult seems to lose something if you sit everyone down and say, “Alright, time to play. By the way, The Reality You Know Is A Lie. Everyone all set? Good.” Springing Kult as a surprise on the unsuspecting can be much more viscerally enjoyable. The cosmology makes a great addition to virtually any other game.