Game: Kult: Beyond the Veil
Publisher: 7th Circle Publishing
Review Dated: 3rd, May 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 13
Average Score: 4.33
I can’t really review Kult. The review would be a lie. If ever there was an RPG which is only what you make – which is everything that you make it – it is Kult. All I can do here is talk about the book. It’s a book that makes you want to talk about it.
Kult was a game I’d heard an awful lot about; raves, rants, pros and cons, but which I never had found the time (or a copy of the book) to look at before. When the new edition of Kult from 7th Circle Publishing arrived in a package from Ossuem I was heel kicking pleased. It’s a paperback but it’s a reassuringly large book. The covers are weird. You’ll be familiar with the way the dust jacket on expensive hardbacks fold around the hard covers to hold itself in place. This paperback has covers wider than the book and which fold inwards in the way a dust jacket would. It’s an unusual book but that suits the unusual game.
Here’s something of a disclaimer. Kult is an old game and this is a review of the latest edition. If some of the ideas the RPG kicks around don’t strike you as all that new then that’s because Kult’s already established them. I imagine some GMs would like to introduce Kult and the world of Kult to players as a complete surprise. This review, on purpose, isn’t going to get into the deep secrets of the game but will talk about the main mythos. If you’re worried about spoilers then find another review on the site to read.
There’s some give and take on the Kult background, plenty of room for the GM to either subtly or drastically alter the truth of the setting. The world we see is an illusion. Even our most mighty cities are nothing more than quiet back streets in Metropolis. Metropolis is the force, origin and model of all cities. Kult says Metropolis is the origin and model of all cities, beyond time and space. Beyond Time and Space is a chapter in Kult’s “The Truth” section. If that sounds suspiciously Lovecraftian to you then its fair to say that whereas Kult isn’t a Lovecraftian game, it does have Lovecraftian influences.
The Creator God is missing. He is dead. He is in exile. No one, nothing, knows. The Creator is gone and the Prince of Darkness is left to look for him, searching for that one being which could give his own existence justification. I find that concept to be terribly spooky. Even the most powerful Demons and Angels can’t really remember everything about the Creator God. We have angels and demons roaming the Earth. We have old, powerless, gods stuck and left to rot in our own slums. There’s a truth here, a game truth about gods, which I’m not going to touch in this review.
In Kult our dreams, thoughts and desires have a very real effect on the world. Our world is just an illusion after all. Some men and women learn how to manipulate this, or think they know how to manipulate this, and some people are beginning to see through the illusion. Two examples in the introductory pages get to me. We might watch as a gypsy caravan burns to the ground and blame the evil racists who set the fire – but it was our own inner hate which tore reality and brought the flames. All of us have the potential to be something powerful in Kult. The other comment, spawned from this potential power, is how nameless organisations waste countless millions trying to decipher mad man’s scrawls in subway stations. Players do this, don’t they; they reckon they know the setting and therefore know what to chase up. You see this in Vampire all the time – mundane mortals PCs are surprisingly quick to accept that vampires are real. You see this in D&D too – characters very quickly work out (if they don’t simply assume they know already) the obscure magical weakness of the monster in the 20th level of dungeon. I think this is impossible in Kult. Players will fall into the same trap as the powerful organisations examining lunatic writing. You can’t get cocky in a game where the Truth is so malleable.
The game setting might be a little different from what you’re used to – but the mechanics aren’t. Skills, normally, range from between 1 and 20. Roll a d20 and try and score less than your skill to succeed. Sound familiar? Kult’s core mechanics are better than some other d20 based systems insofar as they have a degree of success system built in, right at the forefront, of the resolution system. If you score more than 30 points of success then the impossible might happen.
The character creation system is simple enough. People familiar with the intricacies of character generation rules will notice how character stats and scores are carefully balanced. You can’t have too much of a good thing without suffering side effects elsewhere. This, of course, is very Kult. The karmic balance is most obvious in the usual advantages / disadvantages section.
I think character development is particularly nice in Kult. You have experience points – common enough, of course. You also have practise points. This is the sort of character development mechanic that appears in games where the PCs hit the books, trawl through libraries or try and learn ancient languages. Honestly, it wasn’t actually until I started to read through the practice points rules that I even started to think of Kult as a “booky” type of RPG. It certainly doesn’t have to be played this way! You can play Kult as an investigation intense game but you can certainly play it as a more action orientated X-Files adventure too.
Don’t take my word for it. The mechanics support learning and investigation but they support adventure too. In addition to the “quick enough” combat system the game uses Hero Points. It is these points that you’ll spend in those action scene moments to ensure those critical cinematic successes brave and bold heroes will need.
Occult. Kult is drenched in occult. It oozes out of the rules like blood from the ritual altar. The magic system, I think, is especially good at this. The rules talk about creating your own spells before moving on the more traditional spell lists. This is the best of both worlds; spell lists are easy, create your own magic rules are better for experienced and sensible players. Magic sub-sections include, but are not limited to, such themes as dreams, death, madness and tarot. Magic tends to drain endurance and often needs a ritualistic preparation. Kult also uses invocation and gestures with spells, I like this game mechanic as it adds some flavour to what can become a fairly mundane aspect in any roleplaying game. Other RPG systems use gestures and somatic elements in spell casting too but Kult goes a little further. Kult also discusses, where appropriate, the visualization for each spell to. We’re told what the Conjurer might see. This really does enrich the atmosphere of each spell.
Atmosphere is incredibly important in Kult. Thankfully the layout and artwork in the book is fantastic. The pages are framed with a pair of Baroque arches at the top (snakes twisting around one), a rib cage and Kult symbol at the bottom left and burnt away occult writings on the bottom right. The pages are in shades of grey; darker on the far edge and lightening up as we move towards the spine. The background shading doesn’t make it hard to read the text though, that’s in small, but readable, tightly focused print. Illustrations often take up two-thirds of the page but never feel as if they’re filling space. With 304 pages in the tome there’s no shortage of space. Some of the pictures are disturbing; not so disturbing that they shouldn’t be in the game but I did find the image on page 94 of the man pulling his face off just a bit icky!
If I was asked to tell you how much of Kult was flavour text then I’d be stumped. That’s a tricky call to make. I could say that the game mechanics pages are in the minority. Even if you add the flavour rich magic rules and spells to the count of pages which make up game mechanics then we still haven’t covered the majority of the book. It’s a tough call to make because it’s hard to define what exactly is flavour text in Kult. We’ve stats and descriptions for the various forms of Astaroth but surely they might as well be flavour text? Kult doesn’t wimp out. We’re not simply told that “our reality” is a lie and then offered some vague, wishy washy, information on what actually is real. No. The Kult RPG gives us all the information we need on the powers in the darkness, of Metroplis, the Inferno, Limbo, etc. We have whole chapters for “Beyond Death”, “Beyond Madness” and even “Beyond Passions”. Are these sections flavour text? If you never use them – then I suppose they are.
Kult is my sort of game. It’s intoxicating. It’s different. It’s for gamers who look for anything cerebral. It’s a hefty book and at US$35.00 it represents great value for money. The book is well written, superbly presented and engaging. My opening paragraph stands; the book is what you make it. I’m almost too scared to try and run a Kult game, I just know it’s going to be really hard to get right.