The Kult Take: 1st Summoning

For this recurring segment of Beyond Elysium, I will step away from the nepharites and have a Kult-inspired look at other horror media. Welcome to The Kult Take.

1st Summoning is a film in which an amateur director, Mark, convinces his friends to help him make a documentary film about an allegedly cursed factory. It’s said that the Millbrook Factory was built on grounds used for satanic rituals, and that supernatural phenomena continue to happen inside even forty years after its discontinuation. Mark’s concept is to film interviews with locals about the rumors surrounding this place, then head inside the factory on the night of October 6th to perform a ritual which allows you to ask for anything you want. As the movie progresses Mark’s fragile mental state deteriorates, and his friends and girlfriend become divided amongst themselves as they help him realize his vision, with a gruesome end result.

That’s a good Kult story. Unfortunately, the film is a mess. It is shot poorly even for a found footage film, the plot is at times nonsensical in a way that doesn’t tell us anything interesting, the horror isn’t impactful, and Mark’s acting is unfortunately the worst in the group of four main characters. I did not like it, but it did have some good ideas worth salvaging. What better way to do it than adapt it as a Kult one-shot?

SPOILERS AHEAD.

1st Summoning is a scenario for three players, with the game master taking on the role of Mark. Having a GM-controlled “main character” can lead to some issues, so the framing here is important. Mark is single-minded and distant, even with his girlfriend, all in the pursuit of the ritual being performed, and his film succeeding. The players don’t have access to all of Mark’s research on this devil at the Millbrook Factory they’re making a film about. He only tells them the bits and pieces they need, expertly lying to keep the full truth from them. Mark is effectively an Aware character while the rest are Sleepers. He believes in this ritual, and now sees it as the only way to fulfill his desire for success. The players follow along as Mark’s obsession takes them inexorably closer to the night of the ritual, with scenes alternating between high tension character drama and building horror. Inside the Millbrook Factory, they draw a satanic symbol on the floor and recite a verse to summon the being that dwells there. The players don’t know it, but the ritual also demands a sacrifice of three humans. In the aftermath of the ritual, Mark disappears and the players are beset by supernatural forces. The scenario’s endpoint is either that the players escape, or are captured and sacrificed by Mark in exchange for fame and fortune.

Since the plot of this scenario skeleton is very linear, it is vital to provide the players plenty of opportunities to instead play off of the relationships between the characters. Drama is king. The scenario should be teeming with tension from Mark’s singlemindedness, Leslie’s infidelity, Ryan’s sensitive ego and Ace’s recklessness. It should make the players question what it means to be a good friend or partner. Peer pressure and guilt are important tools, with Mark goading, shaming or outright lying to get his friends to help his mad scheme. It’s hard to be on Mark’s side, but abandoning him in this time of need would be even worse.

Leslie is a detail-oriented photography student, operating the camera and helping Mark however she can. As his girlfriend, Leslie understands better than the rest Mark’s need for this project to succeed. She’s seen first-hand that he has put everything on the line for this. When she’s not working or laughing about something stupid someone else did, Leslie tries to act as a voice of reason. She will push back against others’ ideas if she doesn’t like them, but will always back down if Mark really wants to do something. She wants to help him and make sure he’s safe, but knows that no one can stop him from doing what he wants. She doesn’t exactly believe in the Satanic legend they’re investigating, but would still prefer not to get involved with the supernatural, just to be safe.

Leslie has dated Mark for a while now, and before that she was with Ryan. As such, she is the closest to Mark. He can be very difficult at times, with his obsessive moods and callous disregard for others. She cheated on him with Ryan at a party, a few weeks before the start of the scenario. It weighs on her, especially because she suspects that Mark knows. Still, Leslie loves Mark for his powerful drive and willingness to commit to ideas. Ryan is kind, and hot, but he’s an indecisive wet blanket and lets his worries overtake him in every situation. It makes him annoying to be around at times, though not as bothersome as Ace. She thinks Ace is funny, but very dumb, and his complete unawareness of both safety and sanity stresses her out.

Ryan comes along as a friendly face in front of the camera, and to look out for his friends. He knows that Mark is difficult to deal with, but would rather be part of the film than not. Like Leslie, Ryan thinks he is a voice of reason and a competent person. His safety-first pragmatic attitude gets him made fun of by the rest, especially Ace, and his short fuse means that arguments are never far away. Ryan is nervous about this entire film idea. Something feels off about it and he can’t put his finger on what. It’s not that he believes in the supernatural, but Mark’s obsessiveness about performing the ritual for the movie is a little creepy.

Ryan loves Leslie, and wants to get back together with her. He refuses to believe that she could be happy with Mark, who he knows is a prick that doesn’t treat her well. Still, Ryan knows he can’t afford to look for fights, the situation is already tense. He always tries to take the least disruptive path, and so he seethes whenever Mark or Ace do something he thinks is stupid. Ace and Ryan bicker a lot, but it is mostly friendly. Their friendship is stronger than a few arguments, and Ryan wants someone with them who isn’t the girl he’s in love with or her boyfriend.

Ace is, in one word, reckless. At the start of the scenario he has a sprained ankle from falling. He got the shot, though. He considers himself a good friend to everyone there, and believes in Mark’s documentary.  Ace is the one most willing to go the distance and help Mark when something needs doing, and he has few qualms about doing illegal or stupid things. When everyone else backs down to reconsider, Ace is the one to head straight forward. Primarily tasked with shooting B roll for the documentary, Ace has a free pass to do almost anything. It suits him perfectly, and he’s keen to agree with Mark’s more eccentric ideas.

Ryan and him have a good relationship. They bicker, insult each other and disagree, but at the end of the day they’re friends who try to be honest with each other. In some ways, Ace still sees Leslie as Ryan’s girlfriend because that’s how they met. He’ll often make jokes and callbacks, which frustrates Leslie and he knows it. Like Leslie, Ace looks at Mark’s sheer willpower and drive as an inspiration, but he lacks the critical judgment to consider when it goes too far. While Ace is a skeptic towards the supernatural, he always tries to see the world for what it is and when something looks or feels wrong, he’ll never deny that. Every situation is approached with open eyes, if not with intellect.

Mark released a mildly successful niche documentary last year, and knows that this film about the Millbrook Factory is what will propel him towards success. He has put everything on the line for it: his savings, his relationships, everything can, and must, be sacrificed for the ritual to work. After discovering the legend of the Millbrook Factory online, his research has concluded that the stories are true, or true enough that it really is worth risking it. Since discovering the ritual, Mark has felt a dark force manifest within him, and it grows stronger the closer they get to the factory and October 6th, the only time the summoning works. The entity that lives on those cursed grounds has its hooks in him already, and the line is blurring even for himself where his own compulsiveness ends and the pull from the impending ritual begins.

He keeps the exact details of the legend and the ritual from his friends, even from Leslie, because if they knew their roles as sacrifices, he could never succeed. Mark will lie to and manipulate any of them if they begin to doubt the project, and actively sabotage any efforts to pull out of it. He has come too far to see this fail. He is afraid, both of failure and of the entity waiting for him beyond the veil. He tries to hide it by alternating between wide, nervous smiles and laser focused rationalizations of his view. He’s always had tendencies to act out, but this is different. To his friends, it is as if Mark has become a parody of himself.

These are the characters that make the tension and drama of 1st Summoning work. They all have strong bonds to one another, though their relationships aren’t always smooth. Mark’s obsessive behavior and strict demands make the entire group dynamic volatile. Those are the moments the GM must push to create, and then emphasize on relentlessly. The scenes in the scenario should test the ways characters approach situations and each other, and revel in their disagreements. Just when everything feels like it’s about to fall apart, Mark and the dark force pulling at him ensure that the show must go on.

Below, I’ve outlined a few scene ideas either taken from or inspired by the events of the film. They are not expansive, and don’t encompass the entire scenario. Instead, they hopefully serve as a starting point for thinking about the story and the characters. Each scene comes with a short description of how the scene looks, its purpose, and how it might be run.

Takeoff

It’s early morning. Mark was set on heading out at dawn, so he and Leslie are packing up the RV that Mark has rented for the project. Equipment is checked and double checked, driving directions are discussed, and Mark is growing increasingly annoyed with Ryan and Ace being late. They have a limited time frame, the ritual only said to work on October 6th. As Ryan and Ace show up with the cameras, Mark throws out a half-joking accusation that Ryan was trying to bail on them.

Let the scene be brief. This should be a chance for the players to feel out and introduce their characters in the way they like. Mark’s distinct brand of obsessiveness should be clear and introduce just a tinge of tension, but try not to start any fights. There will be plenty of time for that.

The Ride

The RV isn’t cramped, but it doesn’t allow much room for privacy either. Everyone is taking turns driving except for Ace since he broke his foot filming recently. Conversations come and go naturally as forests and fields pass by the windows. At some point during the drive, perhaps when stopped for lunch, Mark brings out a piece of paper to show the rest. It contains a long verse, in English, which Mark explains will be used during the ritual to summon the entity at the Millbrook Factory. At the bottom of the page, there’s a hand drawn sigil in a circle. One of them will have to stand in the circle and read the text to perform the ritual. Who will it be?

Before the dramatic question of the scene is asked, allow the players to come up with their own conversations and discussions to have. Ask them questions about how they feel about the project and about how much (or little) they know. If any real worries emerge, allow them to be brought up in conversation if the player or players so desire. Once any potential discussions have been put to rest, introduce the paper detailing the first part of the ritual. Mark will claim not to know what happens after this point, other than mentions of an entity appearing. He’ll refuse to perform it himself, because he’ll want to be able to film and see it all with the clear eye of an observer.

Reel

Arriving at the town of Harrison, close to the Millbrook Factory, the team begin their filming in earnest. Mark’s idea is to have someone on the team, preferably Ryan, interview townsfolk about the legend surrounding the factory. The answers range from having no knowledge to preferring not to talk about it, with some members of the Harrison community clearly still believing in what they might refer to as the Millbrook devil. While some of the stories seem outlandish, Mark is paying close attention to every word. Even if he claims to be there to make a documentary on this supposed phenomenon, it’s clear he believes every gruesome detail.

Here is an excellent opportunity to introduce an Investigate roll and really explore the consequences of the roll. Perhaps a strange old man invites them in to talk about the legend, but something doesn’t seem right. Someone might offer themselves as a guide, claiming to have entered the factory themselves. Mark will resolutely refuse any additional crew members, which might cause some strife between team members who’d rather stay safe. Whoever is performing the interviews will find themselves both micromanaged and spoken over by Mark, who cannot help but interject and push for more information. Mark should be pushing buttons and boundaries here. This is also the point where the atmosphere of horror starts to build. A lot of town members don’t know or don’t want to talk about the legend, but those who do will tell stories or give out details that are anything but pleasant. Write down a few eerie and disturbing details in advance, or make it up as you go to feed into the players’ potential fears.

Mishaps and Disasters

Interlaced with everything else happening, several scenes of things not going according to plan can play out to up the tension and cause more frustration between the characters. It starts out with something small, like a memory card going missing or something small breaking, but can escalate to the RV breaking down or someone seriously injuring themselves or someone else. Mark will always react to these events the same, telling the rest to ignore anything going wrong because the film has to get made, the ritual only works on October 6th. He’ll say and do anything to get his way, and if it comes down to it, he will abandon them to do it himself. He doesn’t believe the ritual will work without them, but it is better than simply losing everything he’s chanced on this and he is not above guilt tripping his friends. As the story progresses, these scenes can also be used to show the signs of Mark’s possession: faintness, long periods of being unresponsive, vomiting black bile.

With every mishap, make a conscious decision which character or characters you want to sabotage. Find ways to pit the characters against each other: Did Ace lose one of Leslie’s memory cards? Does proof of Ryan and Leslie’s cheating emerge? Is Ryan driving when the RV gets a flat? If Mark passes out, who will care for him and who will listen to his pleas to keep going? Examine the group’s dynamics, and seek to break or put a strain on them. Mark is the central piece, and the GM should always try to sow disagreement and stress between the players through him when possible. Let the players argue with each other, let them argue with Mark, and do not be afraid to bring in the supernatural and inexplicable as the story draws closer to its conclusion. Dark powers are scheming to allow Mark to finish this ritual. They may work in gruesome ways, but they are on his side.

Ritual

As the scenario draws to a close and the night of October 6th comes down on the characters, they’ll find themselves exploring the Millbrook Factory. Long dark hallways, trashed offices, years and years of garbage and filth from humans and other animals covering every surface. Their own footsteps echo back at them, a disorienting feeling of being followed settling in. Mark is clearly looking for something, and believes he’s found it when they enter a massive open space, with arcane symbols painted crudely on the walls and pillars supporting the ceiling. The silence is oppressive, and standing in the middle of this hall the walls fade away into impregnable blackness. As the clock strikes midnight, one of the team members has to read the incantation and perform the ritual. Every word spoken feels like reciting one’s death sentence.

This is the climax of the story. Take care to build up a truly disturbing atmosphere as the players explore the factory, giving them glimpses of evidence of rituals past and the violent outcomes. The evil dwelling there has them fully in its grip now, and as the Illusion begins to falter with every minute approaching midnight, what’s waiting for them beyond the veil becomes more and more visible. This is a team effort, and sticking together is all they can do, but in the end one of them will be singled out to perform the ritual. Mark will not allow anything else, to the point of raw aggression and violence if necessary. Once the ritual is completed, he disappears into the shadows knowing that his plan has succeeded. The cameras are still rolling.

The Culprit, The Madness and The Ending

You will notice that throughout all of this, I have failed to comment on who or what it is inhabiting the Millbrook Factory, waiting for this ritual to be performed. That’s because I believe the truth of this scenario to be decided by the GM. Everyone has their view on what the Kult Mythos is and does, and how they want to use it. 1st Summoning offers a simple idea that is easy to pick up and run with in many directions. Is the devil in reality a child of the underworld, setting in motion elaborate schemes to harvest genetic material and find allies within Elysium? Perhaps the curse of the Millbrook Factory is a weak spot in the Illusion, a place where Limbo and Elysium intersect so that the unlucky visitors’ own fears and dreams are what manifest through the ritual? A servant of Yesod might have been locked up below the floor years ago, now desperate to get out of its prison if only for one night when the seals are at their weakest. My point is, the ending must be yours to write, because the ending informs so much of the scenes leading up to it. The frightening details you add, the mysterious undercurrents and inevitable side plots that develop work best if you have your own story to tell.

In the original story, Satanic cultists descend on the three characters while Mark undergoes some dark experiences on his own. After being chased around and eventually captured, Leslie, Ryan and Ace find themselves in stocks set up by an earlier scene. There, Mark dons the same gear as the Satanic cult and kills his three friends with an axe before the movie ends. While I don’t care for the execution of the film’s climax, the broad strokes are good and should be learned from. When the ritual finishes, all hell breaks loose and Mark disappears or is otherwise distanced from the rest. As the horrors you’ve been building throughout the scenario are unleashed in full force, the players are forced to fight or escape until a breaking point is reached. All three of them must be sacrificed, and so if one of them dies prematurely or escapes Mark’s ritual will fail and anything may happen. Let the film itself provide a mood, but steep it in your own brand of Kult madness.

This has been an exercise and experiment for me. This Kult Take is definitely different from the other ones, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the read regardless. I find it difficult to recommend 1st Summoning as a movie, and yet I was willing to go back and watch it twice again while I was writing this. While it isn’t good, it holds a kernel of something interesting, and perhaps I should be willing to recommend it on that basis alone. If you thought this Kult Take was interesting, or if you didn’t, please leave a comment and discuss it with me! I’m always eager to hear others’ thoughts.

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