Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kult - How Do You Use This Crazy Thing?

So there's this Swedish horror RPG called Kult. I've been slowly digging into it lately. There's a new version coming out soon (link may be NSFW). Over on the LotFP Facebook page, Eric Fabiaschi referred us to this website containing a lot of free resources for Kult. I recently bought the old sourcebook Legions of Darkness on Amazon for a steal, because the word on the street is that it's one of the best books ever published for the game, maybe even the best, and it fleshes out the setting very well. Long story short, I want to talk about Kult.

I don't want to spoil too much, but suffice it to say that Kult has a Gnosticism/Plato's Allegory of the Cave/The Matrix or Dark City with occult stuff/Philip K. Dick fever dream thing going on. It's a very strange and interesting setting that can be interpreted as both hopeless and hopeful, depending on how you look at it. Humans are trapped in a metaphysical prison and purposefully deceived by nightmarish monsters. Oh no! But people are capable of busting out of this prison and regaining their former power and glory. Yay! But doing so would turn you into something that could no longer be considered human as we know it. Hm...

A lot of people seem to love the setting, but it also seems unclear what players are actually supposed to do in the game. Investigate things Call of Cthulhu style? Fight monsters? Explore strange locations? Uncover conspiracies? Get trapped in a remote location with a monster and try to survive? Start a cult and do weird sex magic? It's nice to have an open-ended setting and system that allows for all kinds of different styles of play, but without some kind of guidance or examples of clear goals, the whole thing can be confusing to play, run or design adventures for. Simply reading the rules, it might not occur to the reader that any or all of these suggestions may be intended or plausible. I've read a lot comments to this effect. I'm betting the game offers some suggestions on this front (keep in mind that I haven't finished reading the game yet, and I haven't played it at all), but clearly a lot of people have found the books lacking in this regard.

I've seen several solutions to this problem suggested, and if it's not too presumptuous of me I think I may have more to add, based on my cursory investigations into the setting.

1. Silent Hill: The RPG
This one gets suggested a lot, and I think it's a fantastic idea. Aesthetically, Kult seems like Silent Hill before Silent Hill existed. The players could live in a town that keeps shifting between the "real" world and a supernatural, industrial hellscape that pits them against monsters created from their own sins and those of their neighbors.The Order from the Silent Hill games is right at home in Kult, too.

2. The Matrix, but Occult
Another cool idea that comes up often. Put those seemingly out-of-place martial arts rules to use, ki powers and all. Deck yourself out in leather, shoot monsters and their unwitting human servants with a ton of different guns, and try to get people to wake up to the true nature of reality. You know kung fu? Show me.
Some other good inspirations for a splatterpunk action game are the Splatterhouse series, The Suffering and its sequel, the Killing Floor series, and the F.E.A.R. series. (Okay, so The Matrix isn't exactly what I would consider "splatterpunk," but I imagine Kult's version of it would be!)
EDIT FROM THE FAR FUTURE OF OCTOBER 2020: How the hell did I neglect to add the Devil May Cry series to this list? It's a perfect fit!

3. Call of Cthulhu with a Twist
Another point of general consensus about Kult online is that the setting is incredible, but the rules themselves are mediocre, at best. Many people have suggested grafting other rule systems onto Kult's setting to make your own ideal version of the game. Call of Cthulhu seems like a perfect fit, and has often been suggested as such. What's more, your players will probably be shocked if and when they figure out that their world operates on almost the exact opposite principles as usual in Call of Cthulhu: Instead of being subjected to an uncaring, impersonal cosmos in which most of the danger comes from the insignificance and weakness of humanity, they're trapped in a universe that revolves around them, that was built for them...and that hates them and wants to keep them oppressed. Or maybe it loves them, but it's strange, inhuman "love" is hard to distinguish from hate, Hellraiser-style (or perhaps Berserk-style).

4. X-Files/Twin Peaks/True Detective/Condemned: Criminal Origins-style Weird Investigative Procedural
I've seen some variation this idea come up at least once. The players could be police or detectives dealing with horrifying cases of extreme brutality with connections to the occult or supernatural phenomena. Heck, Twin Peaks is actually quoted in at least one version of the Kult rulebook. This has some obvious crossover potential with the Silent Hill and Call of Cthulhu ideas above. The Condemned series of video games is a natural fit, as well, since Kult really nails the "What the fuck is going on? What's the whole story here? Can I ever even collect nearly enough pieces of this puzzle to put it all together? Why are homeless people suddenly trying to kill me? What's up with these magic noise-emitting hubcaps in abandoned buildings across the city? Does any of this even make a lick of sense?" aspect of those games.

5. D&D (or Lamentations of the Flame Princess, obviously) in the Kult Universe
I'm serious. I've seen this concept suggested, but not thoroughly explored. This idea deserves its own blog post once I've become more familiar with the Kult universe, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of places in the realm of Metropolis which would make for interesting dungeons to explore and loot.

6. The Lives of Nice, Normal People Suddenly Get Invaded by Creepy, Sick, Yet Strangely Erotic Magical Bullshit
The films of David Cronenberg are a big influence on this one (especially Videodrome), as well as the films of David Lynch, the Tetsuo trilogy of films, the film They Live, and the video games Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of FleshCatherine, and Harvester. The players are all average Joes and plain Janes who are minding their own business until one day they're all mutually caught in a weird, frightening situation that they can't explain. There's no one who will both believe them and help them except each other, and if they don't take action and keep ignoring what happened, more bad things will keep occurring. Maybe monsters are walking among the townsfolk, but they look like ordinary people to everyone except the players. Maybe the players keep getting mysterious letters in the mail, and if they don't reply with intimate and embarrassing details about their lives, their loved ones die gruesomely. Maybe all of the food in town is slowly being replaced with human flesh, and again, no one notices except for the players. Maybe there's a Ringu-style curse going around, and the players need to work together to break it or pass it on before something terrible befalls them. Maybe everyone the players sleep with goes axe-crazy the next day. Maybe they all have the same ominous dreams, and soon, the same repugnant mutations.
If you want to include a sleezy, or even sickeningly erotic aspect to the horror, try making something enticing, tempting, or desirable about the otherwise-repulsive phenomena that the players have to deal with, so that the players and/or NPCs might consider using or even indulging in it instead of fighting it. This could be hard to pull off in an RPG, but you might be surprised what less inhibited players might have their characters do in a game of imagination. Delightfully, horrifyingly surprised. I sure have. A couple of PCs in my Lamentations of the Fallen Lords campaign once gangbanged a mutated musclehead and then murdered him in a humiliating and cold-blooded fashion to gain favor with a petty "god" they just met. It was hilarious.

7. Be a Bunch of Murderous Assholes
I have the Postal video game series in mind for this one - both the creepy, off-kilter, disturbing first one and the goofy, purposefully-stupid, off-beat, and yet still kind of disturbing second one (let's forget Postal 3 exists, if you don't mind). Play a bunch of misanthropic, antisocial, deranged, violent jerks in a world that feels off, somehow. Mix comedy and horror. Go out to buy milk and end up burning a marching band alive. Try to order at a fast-food place and find yourself face-to-face with a Mad Cow Zombie. Piss on the grave of your father and accidentally awaken his shambling corpse. Defend yourself from hordes of demonic celebrities. Only your weapon truly understands you, but since there's probably more than one player at the table (unlike in Postal), keep in mind that you can get what you want more easily, cause a lot more chaos, and have a lot more demented fun if you band together with like-minded bastards. Go crazy enough, and the true face of reality just might show itself to you, whether you're ready or not...

8. "Your lives have ended. What you do with your new lives is entirely up to me. That's the theory, anyway."
Just rip off Gantz, straight up. I ran a d20 Call of Cthulhu campaign like this in college, and it was a blast. Come to think of it, the main characters discovering that they were trapped in the Kult cosmology would have been a far better explanation/plot twist than what we actually got in the manga, but I digress.
The premise is this: the players all "die" before their time in strange or violent incidents and find themselves somehow still alive. ("Death is only the beginning.") They are then contacted by a mysterious being. About once every month, this being renders the players invisible to other people, arms them with odd weapons and equipment, teleports them to a seemingly random area of the city, sets a time limit and borders they can't cross, and forces them to fight for survival against bizarre, sometimes goofy, and always terrifying monsters. They can even earn various amounts of points per kill and cash them in for prizes. Imagine X-COM, but the humans are all untrained civilians instead of soldiers, and they have no support from the government or anyone else except another homicidal alien who also kind of hates them. The whole thing seems to be some kind of sick, highly dangerous, non-consensual game show or reality show for the amusement of alien entities.
Maybe this is some kind of purgatory created by Astaroth, or a form of amusement for a group of Azghouls, an Archon, or a Death Angel. Maybe a powerful cult set this up as an over-elaborate ritual sacrifice. Maybe the powers-that-be are using ordinary people as convenient, expendable foot soldiers in their various proxy wars against each other. Maybe an Awakened individual is running the show as part of some incomprehensible plan to weaken the illusion. Whatever the case, the players need to find a way to escape this situation, because the battles are getting more difficult and horrifying each time...

9. "We are Approaching the Limit..."
The players are scientists, researchers, parapsychologists, and experts in complex or esoteric fields. They are working to understand and apply some abstract principle of science, psychic phenomenon, etc., either in private or as part of a larger institute. Doing so, they get far more than they bargain for, and have to decide whether to try and exploit their disastrous new knowledge and power or put the genie back in the bottle...if they even can. Think Frankenstein, H. P. Lovecraft stories like Herbert West - Reanimator and From Beyond (and their movie adaptations), the pseudo-scientific/occult/conspiracy aspects of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and films like Pi, Altered States, Scanners, Flatliners, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, and Beyond the Black Rainbow. There's actually a piece or two of introductory fiction in the Kult rulebook dealing with the concept of scientific research gone wrong, so the game designers might have actually had this in mind as a possible style of gameplay.

10. Escape from Metropolis
The players are all stranded together in Metropolis, Gaia, Inferno, or some other nasty place. If they work together, hopefully they can find a way home. If they can't do that, maybe they can find a way to survive in their new surroundings, although this may cost them their humanity. If my understanding of its premise is correct, this is sort of like Changling: The Lost if the time spent in captivity in the fairy realm was the core of the gameplay instead of the characters' backstory. I'm also reminded of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (especially Inferno), the manga The Drifting Classroom, as well as countless stranded-on-a-deserted-island stories like Gulliver's Travels and stranded-on-an-alien-planet stories like Enemy Mine and Pitch Black. Just make sure there's lots of scary supernatural, occult, and/or demonic stuff.

11. The Book of Revelations Meets Fury Road
The Seventh Seal is broken. An apocalyptic battle between "angelic" and "demonic" forces is taking place, or has already happened. The world is in ruins. Civilization has crumbled. Monsters, both human and supernatural, stalk the wastes. The laws of nature no longer seem to fully apply. Resources and allies are in short supply. Can you survive in this mad new world? If so, what is the best course of action: to be content with mere survival, to try and rebuild society, or to try and escape this corpse of a world altogether? Each of these options has a steep price...
EDIT: I've thought of some video game references I would personally keep in mind when trying to run this kind of supernatural, apocalyptic setting: the Metro 2033 series (the books would also apply here), the Shin Megami Tensei series (especially Nocturne), Doom II: Hell on Earth, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, Nier, the post-apocalyptic levels in Splatterhouse (2010), Lone Survivor, and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series.

12. Your Parents Warned You about the Dangers of RPGs
You know that "Satanic Panic" crap from the '80s and '90s, in which parents and church leaders were worried that D&D and other RPGs (and cartoons, and toys, and comic books, and so on) would corrupt the youth and make them worship the devil or kill themselves or each other or start doing drugs or whatever? Give them the finger and make their nightmares come true. Well, not really, because I don't want anyone dying over a game, but pretend to make their nightmares come true. Play a bunch of cultists, mystics, and warlocks. Take the game really seriously (or rather, mock seriously). Call upon demons in your hammiest voice. Act out parts of the magic rituals in the game. Use props. Wear robes. Blur the line between the game and reality...after establishing some safe words and ground rules, of course. Design NPCs based on people you don't like in real life, then put curses on them. Act horrified if someone's character died, as if they were actually harmed in real life somehow. Play by candlelight. Pour hot wax on things. Treat every decision with either religious reverence or demented glee. Blindfold your friends, get them to stick their hands in wet spaghetti, and tell them it's a bowl of guts. Incorporate some minor forms of hazing - nothing painful or dangerous or illegal, but maybe some silly right of passage that everyone treats with faux-solemnity. Maybe some light spanking, if all parties consent. You know what? Just let the game devolve into an orgy. Give the prudes something to talk about. If any horror RPG is designed for it, it's definitely Kult.

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