Dark Cults

A card game by Kenneth Rahman, published 1983 by Dark House
These comments copyright 2002 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated February 13, 2002

"This night, upon leaving the old ..."

"... and rumor-ridden brick apartment house ..." So begins the tale of Horace Phineas Lovejoy, or any other protagonist you wish to inflect a horror story upon. Dark Cults is a storytelling game - specifically a horror story. Designed for two players (though we usually play with more), one side takes the role of Life, trying to keep Horace alive through story and card play, while the other is Death, trying to ease Horace's troubled soul into another realm.

Dark Cults is an ancestor to Once Upon a Time. The latter game improves on Dark Cults in some ways, but in other ways Dark Cults can be the better game.

The game consists of 108 cards and the rules needed to play. The cards have black-and-white illustrations of various situations and threats, as well as an identifying letter and a separate group of letters showing which types of cards may be played next.

The Basic Game

The 15 Pace cards are removed from the deck and shuffled into their own stack. One player takes the scoring card. Find one Start card and place it on the table with room for a row of cards to follow it. The rest of the cards are shuffled and each player takes one card to start his hand.

Life starts the game by drawing one card and adding it to his hand. If he can, and if desirable, he plays a card, beginning the story of the (hopefully) fictional protagonist. This really is a story: each card has a picture and a phrase at the bottom of the card - work these into the story. For example, one Atmosphere card says, "terrifying screams." Not exactly the kind of card that Life wants to play, but let's say he plays it. He might say, "As Horace left his apartment building, heading to the convenience store for a late-night snack, he heard terrifying screams coming from an alley as he walked by. He looked in, but it was too dark to see anything, and being a timid soul, he began to run to the convenience store to phone the police."

But if Death were playing the same card, his story might go, "As Horace left his apartment building, heading to the convenience store for a late-night snack, he heard terrifying screams coming from an alley as he walked by. He charged bravely into the dark alley, hoping to come to the aid of whoever needed help." This nicely brings Horace close to whatever danger is lurking in the alley. Exactly what that danger is, we don't know until the next card is played!

So the players alternate drawing and playing cards, telling a story as they do so. Occasionally a player will be unable to play a card, and must pass: slowly his/her hand builds up. Sometimes they are forced to play before drawing a card, and if they cannot, must play a Pace card. When all 15 Pace cards have been played, the story segment ends. Likewise, the story segment ends with an End (death) or Save (survive!) card.

There are ten kinds of cards, each with their own letter (or letter-number) code:

  • A = Atmosphere (mood-setting cards)
  • C1 = evil Character (very deadly)
  • C2 = neutral Character (Life's way of calming a difficult situation)
  • D = Danger (just like it sounds)
  • E1 = End (death of the character!)
  • E2 = Escape (temporary reprieve, but he's still outside...)
  • L = Location (where Death's minions hang out...)
  • S = Save (home safely!)
  • Start = (begin a new story segment after an End or Save)
  • T = Threat (somewhere between Atmosphere and Danger)
Each card states which cards may be played after it. For example, a Start card lists: "A D L T" - only Atmosphere, Danger, Location or Threat cards may be played directly after a Start card. When a card lists "E," either E1 or E2 may be played - likewise, C1 or C2 fulfill a "C" requirement.

Once a player has a 5-card hand, his next draw is critical: if the card itself cannot be played, the drawing player takes a 3-point penalty. You can only rid your hand of unwanted cards when a story segment ends.

Scoring is done throughout the game, and a running total is kept. Different cards score different points, usually, depending on if Life or Death plays it. For example, Life can be daring, hoping to gain more points, and play a Location card: he gains 3 points. But if Death plays a Location card, it's only worth 2 points to him - it's where his minions hang out, you know, so it's not risky for him.

A story segment ends if an End or Save card is played. The game continues with another Start card, and a new protagonist if an End card had been played. The game ends when the draw pile is empty and neither player has a legal play from their hand. Highest score at that point wins.

Pros and Cons

Dark Cults has a major advantage over its chief rival in storytelling games, Once Upon a Time (OUAT): players alternate turns. In OUAT, it's possible for a player to run away with the game - keep playing cards, one per sentence, while his/her opponents can do nothing to stop them. However, the rigidity of requiring specific cards in Dark Cults means poor luck is easily possible. Once you've got five cards in your hand, you'll lose points every time you draw until you get something you can play. It's easy to get Threat cards - there are 17 of them - or Atmosphere cards (19), but getting a Save (5) or End (5) isn't so easy.

Oddly enough, I accidentally stumbled on the perfect fix for this. In the 1980s, I taught storytelling classes. I would occasionally use the game to give a structure for developing storytelling skills. Since the game is written for only two players, and my classes were 10-12 students, I simply had them sit in a circle and alternate sides: Life, Death, Life, Death, etc. Oddly enough, this turned out to be a better game than the two-player version! The reason is obvious to me now (you've got more cards per side out there, so somebody is bound to have one that'll play), but at the time I thought it wonderful and new.

So now I recommend you play this game with at least four people. You do need an even number of players, but otherwise I've played with up to twelve people and we've all thoroughly enjoyed it. We actually played once with an odd number of players - you simply play it for the story aspect. (Which we were at the time - it was in a class.)

The Pace cards are a bit lame - they're simply one word, such as "Meanwhile..." or "Suddenly..." In fact, I think the designer was aware of it, as I have a set of stick-on cards (O = Objects) which I got in a newsletter sometime in the 1980s, and was instructed to paste them over some of the Pace cards. (Objects can be played after Locations and are worth 2 points to either side. My thanks to Darrell Pavitt for providing that rule, as I had cleverly lost the original newsletter!)

The worst disadvantage, it must be admitted, is the scoring system. It's pretty luck-driven whether you happen to have a high or low scoring card that can be played at any given moment. There's no real planning you can do: you can't set up a given card that easily because your opponent can quite possibly play something in between that changes everything. So: no long-term planning, not much control over the amount of points you get - it sounds bad until you realize that the fun of the game is in the story, not the score. If you don't like games like that, you probably won't like this one.

Summing Up

Overall, a fun game, especially with people who like to embellish a story. If you are playing with gamers who simply want to place a card down and say, "a dark alley," it's not much fun, and probably should be avoided. But with the right group of people - and I do find a group makes a better game than with two players - it can be a blast.

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