KULT: a slice of my self

This started as a comment on  Paul Beakley’s post about the KULT RPG Kickstarter but then it sort of grew out of it so here it is… I might link it into your comment thread Paul. Also reeling in Scott Martin since he’s been trudging these hunting grounds lately and triggered all kinds of emotional responses in me that I’m thankful for.

“Okay. I feel like I should say something here. But first just a trigger-warning here, (that might be completely and utterly superfluous considering the topic) because I feel compelled to shut my self-censoring completely off due to the nature of this game.

It was 1991. We were 18, immortal, and free. In those days, black was the new black, and you could be certain you were wearing your own fucking dr martens after last nights party because the pile of martens inside the door all looked the same… Drunken stupor dictates that if they all look the same they probably are and you shouldn’t give a fuck either way. This was the time we all claimed NOT to care about how we looked or what we wore, whilst at the same time we all fit the same mold so damn hard we might as well had been from the same fashion womb. Goth-clones. Really fucking rebellious, individual and independent clones.

“Entreat” was playing so loud in my earphones, my ears were ringing, head spinning and tears running down my face when she said no.

We played a lot of RPGs back then. It seemed like all we did. School was just another excuse to get together and play.

1991 was the perfect storm, we travelled across the conventions like a scourge playing Call of Cthulhu mostly when a couple of things collapsed around us. Vampire the Masquerade and KULT.

810px-kult_1autgc3a5van_box_framsida

We were smack in the middle of that shit-storm. Balls deep in Barker, Rice and Gaiman. It might sound like I’m making this up but not all of us made it out alive.

The brains behind KULT created a distilled version of everything that was awesome about this era in the most horrible sense possible. They tapped into the vein of the young adult angst-ridden attitude that insisted that Pinhead lines were poetry and the only stories worth telling. Splatterpunk was the word de jour and it mixed the horror from classics like Dracula and Frankenstein with the modern in-your-face-style of cyberpunk. KULT was everything I ever wanted out of a role-playing game. There were no limits to the dread, no taboos. The horror here is raw, obnoxious and runs deep. The reason is the setting of the game is linked to enough pseudo occult babble to make it almost connected to the real world. Just like Vampire:TM built a world just real enough for you to fill in the blanks, so did KULT. It felt like, almost real, it touched a nerve we didn’t even knew we had. The myth, the conspiracies, the horror was in the numbers between the worlds. Realms of dream, passion and madness all collided making a beautiful collage of dread.

There was only two flaws to this game. Fist of the system sucked. Big time. I appreciate the attempt at a double edge sanity system, but other than that it was abysmal. As a result, most scenarios we ever played were free-form. The second problem was a bit trickier and the main reason why the game died (at least for me) and that was the fact that it’s creators (IMO) didn’t really understand the greatness of it.

I talked to them a couple of times especially as a GM for scenarios that they wrote for conventions, and every time I got the feeling that they didn’t get it. It’s hard to explain why I felt this way, in part it might be the teenagers eternal complaint that more “grown up” persons never get it, I suppose, but I still think I was right about this.

Let me make an analogy here for a second. What if you invented the world of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”… and then used it to tell the story of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”… wouldn’t you have wasted an opportunity there, unless you made a real effort to change it so that the world shone through and transformed the story into something else? That was my main gripe with their adventures. They focused too much on the gore and almost nothing on the mythos. Too many cheap shock-effects and not enough grandeur. This game was aiming at so much, much more.

So we did our own stuff. Like kids do. Most of us lived to tell the tale.”

/ulf

The New KULT Kickstarter

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Mutant

I wrote this a while back on a private forum, but since I was recently asked by a gentleman on G+ to share some more insights into the classic Mutant setting, I thought I should share.

“Just could not resist posting this here.
When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old I played my first “Post-Apocalyptic” RPG.

It was a Swedish game called “Mutant”. 

 
Over the years this game has evolved and been re-published by different companies with slightly different flavours, at one point there was even a cyberpunk version that had almost nothing in common with the original.

  

There was even a SciFi / Space Opera era called Mutan: R.Y.M.D. (space)

  

And yes, as you might glean from this picture this in turn spawned the Mutant: Chronicles franchise, that got its own life.

  

But at this point in time the wierd original Mutant game I remembered as a kid was long gone. Instead we had some sort of Warhammer 40,000 rip-off that did not appeal to me one single bit.

Then someone finally picked it up and went back to the roots. And for years we had “Mutant: Undergångens Arvtagare” (Heirs of the Apocalypse)

  

And it was glorious! They published campaigns that include some of the hands-down best stuff ever written for a Swedish RPG. But when they felt like they had done their bit and their “Campaign Arc” was complete, they decided to “quit while we are ahead” so they let the line and the license die out again. I’m not blaming them. They probably did a really good thing.

There was even a short film made!

https://youtu.be/yX1bcDumZBw
Now just last year another company picked up the legacy that is now Mutant. and they published a game that was EVEN MORE back to basics. Called Mutant: År Noll (year zero). The Swedish version has been out for a while. And recently they announced it will be available soon in English!!!

  

For more about this game in English check out Fria Ligan!

The Scary Stuff – Part 4

“In the end I returned and lived, but my nights are filled with strange memories, nor have I ever permitted a doctor to give me opium again.” – H.P. Lovecraft

…Continued from Last… Year?

This is it. The End of my series.

There will be no new games presented here. But rather a summary of what I have learned over the years. Some hints and pointers to what I think makes a good Horror Story and how you can achieve that in a Role Playing Game.

Guiding Stars

The Mystery is infinitely more exciting than the truth behind it!

Fear of the unknown, playing of the fantasy of the audience/players, keeping some of the secrets hidden even after the grand finale. Remember the old X-Files series? Remember how everyone agreed that the conspiracy episodes were SO much better than the “another mutant who needs some sort of bodily fluid from other humans to survive” kind of episodes? Why? Because one of them added more fuel to the mystery-fire, the other one didn’t. Also note how many episodes about this conspiracy could go by without actually revealing much of anything, and yet all these bits and pieces made you want to try to put the puzzle together… to explore how they fit and let your imagination do some heavy lifting. THAT’s what kept the X-Files alive. The Mystery. The urge to solve the puzzle. Every episode you thought you got one more piece to the puzzle, but in reality you were probably just right back where you started.

Reality always trumps fiction!

It might not look like it at first but some of the most horrific stories of our time have actually happened for real. If you want to tell a good horror story you should always try to tie in Real World events and or elements, to ground it in reality and let it grow into fiction along the way is the best way to both build Player “suspension of disbelief”, get inspiration to your story and also come to some logical conclusions about a lot of the potential holes in your story.

Some of the absolute best horror session I’ve played have been based on real (or slightly-tweaked-real) events. Some of the “hand-outs” even being based on real police reports and evidence…

Example: A Call of Cthulhu Adventure with a King in Yellow Backdrop, about Trepanation. Citing real journal entries on the subject,

“After some time there was an ominous sounding schlurp and the sound of bubbling. I drew the trepan out and the gurgling continued. It sounded like air bubbles running under the skull as they were pressed out. I looked at the trepan and there was a bit of bone in it. At last!”

– source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trepanning#Voluntary_trepanation

“The horror face” by gregyb

Corner Stones of Horror

  1. Helplessness
    It doesn’t matter what you do. You cannot shield yourself from the dread that grows within your own mind. You are chained, and forced to watch your loved one cut in half with a chainsaw, and there is not a damn thing you can do about it.
  2. Isolation
    The bridge has fallen, the phones are dead. No one will help you, no one will hear you scream. You are all alone, except of course… the terror out there. This is also something that can damage the human mind (in and of itself) from lack of contact with others. See Cabin Fever, Stir Crazy and other similar conditions. It makes you unbalanced, irritable, short tempered, violent and prone to look at other human beings as strange or intolerable.
  3. Alienation of Self
    Are you changing? Is something growing inside you? Did you really kill that man? Why can’t you remember where all the blood comes from? Why is your left hand holding a knife you don’t remember picking up? And who the FUCK is that person in the mirror looking back at you with an evil, knowing grin on his faces!?
  4. Paranoia
    Who can you trust? Who is this person sitting next to you, really? Why does the friendly neighbour always ask you how your day was? How long has that car been parked outside? Why does it feel like you’ve seen the person behind you in the supermarket line before?
  5. Fear of the Unknown
    What is making those noises in the basement? What is casting that moving shadow on the wall? Again this reminds us of the usefulness of the Mystery. If the GM keeps things vague and unspecific, the players will fear the opposition even more, their imagination will run away with them and come up with all kinds of sick demented horrors that will probably beat anything you could have told them or described to them. The longer you can wait before revealing the big bad, the better. Sometimes you can get away without ever showing clearly it at all.
  6. Reality dissolution
    How can you say you’ve been at home all day when I had lunch with you down town, are you saying I had lunch with someone else? I know I who I am, why is everyone treating me like I’m someone else? How can this woman be charging me with a kitchen knife when I know I killed her last night? And just what the FUCK is that THING in the sky laughing at me?!
  7. Violence
    In my book, violence is a tricky one. I mean it is scary as all hell in movies and books, but usually the threat of violence or violence happening to someone else or the fact that violence is happening to you and there is nothing you can do to stop it, is usually what elicits a sense of terror and dread… and those categories sort of fall into items above rather than violence itself. There is a lot of violence in “Rambo” but not many truly horrific moments where you are scared shitless. And yet… Rambo is fiction, told as an Action Story. Soldiers in the real world face short intense bursts of actual horror in every fire-fight. The problem here is that violence in games always have a tendency to be presented as Action Scenes rather than horror scenes. You roll initiative and take it from there, right? Not very horrific. But the ever present threat of violence is what ultimately sets the horror in motion. You are afraid to get hurt, to die or be maimed. You are afraid of pain. You fear what it will feel like when that lunatic lets his axe drop into the flesh of your arm… As a GM you just have to make sure you understand the difference between when violence is used as an element of horror or as an Action Scene to keep the audience awake.

A GM that can balance these elements and exploit the heck out of each piece, keep the mystery alive and a minimum of TWO of these corner stone front and centre at all times, will NEVER fail to compel his/her audience.

They will come back for more, week after week.

/wolf

The Scary Stuff – Part 3

The ninety and nine are with dreams, content
but the hope of the world made new,
is the hundredth man who is grimly bent
on making those dreams come true.
-Edgar Allan Poe

…Continued from Last Month.

Kult ultimately failed for me. I wanted to love that game so bad. But it seemed the creators of this little gem had no idea what they had stumbled upon. They seemed intent on making the least of it. I have spoken to both designers on several occasions since they wrote some convention scenarios that I GM’d. And the way they urged everone they talked to to “bring on the gore” and asked questions, when they popped in during a session, like “Have you ripped out their intestines yet?” made me wonder if this game was anything but a complete accident.

Don’t get me wrong, Penicillin was also an accident, right?

The designers of this beautiful game (not looking at the horrible system here) was apparently completely blind to what made it special. Because trust me, it was NEVER about the blood and gore.

I started to think about that Stephen King quote I started this series with. About “Gross-Out” basically meaning you failed and went for something else and I found my self hating the system and hating every adventures they put out.

So… now we moved on, still playing WoD stuff when in 1996 this happened:

I mean… WOW! Talk about revitalizing a genre! Holy crap! We all fell madly in love with this CoC version… I mean, MADLY! 😉

We were all in awe of how brilliant this was. Why didn’t anyone catch on to this type of horror setting sooner? It was so brilliant!

No sooner had our campaign in this universe started before this came along:

Now here was something “fresh”. Unknown Armies lived on the edge of Kult with it’s false reality that was falling apart and the WoD shtick with “clans” etc. The rules worked, were simple yet innovative enough to allow you to recognize and learn them AND find them new and exciting all at the same time. The sanity system was out of this world cool and we all loved it. There was just one thing missing… monsters.

Both UA and DG are two of my favourites still. We still play them from time to time and I’ve done cross-overs between them as well, that way I can add monsters as much as I wanted!

Around this time I experimented a lot trying to come up with a system for “investigation”. Looking at the building block of motif, means and opportunity and playing around with clues being technical, or anecdotal etc.

It was going to be a long long wait until I felt like buying another Horror RPG. And when I finally did it was almost like yet another refresh of CoC, because it was this:

Funny thing is, this game did what I’d been trying to do for years! It actually treated the “Investigation” part of the game separately. But it had taken a completely different approach to it than I had tried.

I smacked my fore-head and cried out in utter agony on how brilliant this was. And promptly cross-bred this into my DG/UA game. So now it was a DG/UA/ToC hybrid… that actually worked remarkably well.  (If I may say so myself).

I use the Sanity System, System for Skills, Stats and Combat from UA (The crunchy bits). I use the setting and adventures from DG (The world). I use the Core Clue mechanics from ToC (The Story mechanics) and OFF WE GO!

It is worth noting that between 1996 and 2008 I was very little movement in the Horror RPG department. Sure there were games like, “Conspiracy X” (1997) and “Dark*Matter” (1999). I bought them and read them and was inspired by some of it, but they all just felt like bleak copies of DG.

To be concluded in “The Scary Stuff – Part 4”

In the meantime let’s discuss:

  1. What is your take on Gore? Bring it ON! Or Less or More? (see… I even rhyme!)
  2. Have you created your own Cross-Overs? If so what did you mix?
  3. What other Horror RPGs have you played?
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The Scary Stuff – Part 2

“Fear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.” – Alfred Hitchcock

…Continued from last month.

Vampire the Masquerade changed not only the wolf but it made YOU into the wolf. But let’s take a step back for a moment and give a quick shout out to another game that I actually bought and played (I believe 1 year or 6 months) before the whole Goth-Vampire-Bomb-shell struck.

Nightlife RPG was the first RPG I played where you reveresed the roles. Suddenly YOU were the monsters. You could play a vampire, a ghost, a werewolf etc. trying to a) fight bigger and nastier monsters and b) staying away from (including killing) monster hunting humans. Night Life was profiled as a “splatterpunk” RPG, where Horror was something to be displayed in all it’s graphic, gory detail. Basically doing what hardcore porn does to more subtle romance. It was loud, in your face and dripping with blood. Just like a lot of the horror genre was at the time as well. The Horror film industry had taken this rout already from 1987 up to 1990 Horror fiction and films had changed the tune to more and more detailed graphical depiction of violence. Going from cheap thrills and mystery to pure dread and maddening suspense. Nightlife RPG embraced this.

Vampire The Masquerade (VTM) came one year later and it was the same thing but refined. Packaged in a prettier cover and art, and also tagged along a strong Gothic theme. Together with all this came, music, clothes, attitude and style. It was spot on the nerve of my 17 year old heart and I was doomed to fail my will save on that one.

I played a lot of VTM. I mean A LOT. Question here is… was it really a horror game? I can argue for it being a horror game, saying that the real horror was internalised and the true monster was within you. It’s true that the mechanics of the game would support this, you had to feed your Hunger and had to keep your “humanity” in check if you did not want to lose control of your character. But… where was the fear? Where was the dread and horror? What started to develop over time was a sense of us playing superheroes with fangs. And our rpg-experience was pretty far from being scary.

That was about to change…

In 1993 Swedish game developers published KULT. And again my mind was blown away. Utterly and completely, pitch black, dark dreadful and very very scary. This game tapped into some of my favourite writers at the time. Imagine a game that was the love-child of Clive Barkers; “Great and Secret Show”, “Books of Blood”, “Hellraiser” etc. and Neil Gaiman’s; “Sandman”. It was fresh, it was contemporary, it was truly horrible, and sure you could play a monster if you liked, but did it truly matter? Did it make you feel safe? Nope.

Kult brought fear back into the players, and it also brought a large portion of mystery back. What it didn’t bring however… was a system that made sense. Mechanically speaking this game leaves a lot to want, and we had to house-rule just about everything. But the setting still blows me away when I think about it.

The important thing was… the “wolf” was BACK!

… to be continued in “The Scary Stuff – Part 3” but in the meantime let’s discuss:

  1. What scares you in RPG’s?
  2. Do you prefer Mystery over Suspense?
  3. The game Kult is a truly adult game, featuring; drugs, sex, torture, black magic & suicide, in all worst kinds of morbid combinations. How do you handle themes like that in your group?
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The Scary Stuff – Part 1

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” – Stephen King

In this series of posts I want to talk about my journey through the history of Horror RPGs. In short I want to talk about…

The Scary Stuff

I was afraid of monsters when I was a kid. I still remember a lot of the problems that came out of that. Having trouble sleeping at night. Fights with my parents who, thought I was too big to come sleep in their bed. My daughter has the same issues now. She’s 10 and it’s starting to bother us.

Slowly it got better, but it lasted for an eternity. I think one of the reasons things changed is that I got tools to deal with the horror I felt. And one of those tools was this:

I got the Swedish edition of this game in 1985. I was 12 years old. Right now I can’t remember how I got it. My parents certainly would never buy something like this for me considering all the issues I had. I think I might have bought it from a friend.

I could probably say a lot of things about Chill as a role-playing game today. But this is not supposed to be a review of that game. Instead I want to highlight one thing that this game gave me, that I still remember, that I still use and that I have not gotten anywhere else. (Granted. I’ve not been looking for it either.) And that is; a structural breakdown of the Horror genre and how it is used in literature.

This game, in one of the GM sections, explains what horror is, and what tools you can use to invoke it. It illustrates this by examples as well, and does so in a fashion that the 12 year old in me still remembers 30 years later.

The game talked about “isolation”, “alienation”, “twists” and other horror elements and held them up as building blocks to use.

Soon after I was hit by the Call of Cthulhu train… I was blown away by that, but I have to admit that it didn’t explain “horror” to it’s core the same way Chill did for me. Truth be told I encountered CoC earlier than that, but was a little too young to understand how to deal with it. Chill told me how. It showed me how. And when I picked up CoC again the world was forever changed.

I started writing Horror short-stories, and still do occasionally. I started consuming horror literature by the truck-load. Everything from the classics; Shelly, Stoker and Poe to more late-80s-contemporary; King, Koontz and Barker.

Maybe this is why I still regard a really good Horror-Story as the best RPG experience one can have?

During this time; age 15-18 we played a lot of RPGs and a lot of it was Call of Cthulhu. Then in 1991, two things happened more or less at the same time, that took the genre into a very different direction:

Vampire the Masquerade and Kult…

… to be continued in “The Scary Stuff – Part 2” but in the meantime let’s discuss:

  1. What was your first encounter with Horror RPGs?
  2. Are you a Horror consumer outside of the RPG medium?
  3. At what age did you start in the Horror genre?
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Support Board with Life: Season 2!

This is not a normal post for this blog. There is no gaming philosophy like in Ulf´s posts nor are there any weird birdwatching-parallels like in mine. This post is just to notify everybody within my reach (maybe around 20 people or so…) that the boardgaming series Board With Life exists and runs a kickstarter campaign which will end in two days and that they are well worth a couple of American dollars.

Just watch this video:

In it you will see that they are funny, talented, very professional and that what they make is all about Important Things, like boardgames and people.

In my opinion, everybody should support this kickstarter and make it easier for these people to continue creating great stuff for boardgamers and for potential boardgamers, i.e. the rest of mankind.

A Hisingen Gaming Journal