Kickstopper: Divinity Lost, Quality Found?

Once upon a time there was a game called Kult, whose original Swedish-language release came out a few months before Vampire: the Masquerade‘s original English-language release. Despite being penned in different languages and presented for different markets, both of them managed to tap into the zeitgeist in a broadly similar way; each of them stepped away from the fantasy worlds, science fiction galaxies, historical settings or superhero milieus that had dominated tabletop RPGs to date in favour of setting themselves in a dark take on the real world, with supernatural horror lurking just out of sight of ordinary life. Both games had a distinctively edgy aesthetic drawing on goth and industrial influences freely. Both games tackled the subject of sexuality directly, rather than tiptoeing around it or pretending that sexual or romantic stories had no place in tabletop RPGs.

And as a result of all of that, both games ended up both making a splash in their respective RPG scenes – Vampire is famous for successfully getting people into RPGs who wouldn’t have previously given them a second look – and sparking cultural controversy. Vampire got tenuously connected to some murders in the USA, but Satanic Panic conspiracy theorists’ interest in tabletop RPGs had largely already waxed and waned by the time that Vampire emerged, and it rather got lost in a mass of a whole other range of stuff to get outraged over like DOOM and Marilyn Manson. Conversely, Kult was at the centre of a firestorm of controversy in Sweden, effectively becoming the hub of its version of the RPG-related Satanic Panic just as Dungeons & Dragons had in the Anglosphere.

Kult‘s English-language versions, however… those have had a bit more of a patchy record. The first English edition made a bit of a polite splash but I felt it was let down a little by a mixed bag of supporting supplements and adventures – with, in particular, some issues arising as a result of a mixture of Swedish 1st and 2nd edition materials being used, giving rise to contradictions between some materials.

There were also issues with the system being poorly received in the English market, being regarded as a bit clunky and uninspiring. This would have been less of an issue in the Swedish market, since Kult followed what was then the in-vogue style of system design, which largely consisted of ripping off Basic Roleplaying, since that was the first system which made it big in the Swedish market. What was then the norm in Sweden had become clearly a bit old-fashioned and behind the curve in English-speaking markets, especially compared to Vampire which (along with Shadowrun and Star Wars) did a lot to popularise the “dice pool” school of RPG design. Subsequent English editions failed to make much of an impact at all, with the third edition being quite badly botched – right down to the printing of the actual physical book.

When Swedish publishers Helmgast landed the rights to Kult, they decided to do right by the old beast – putting a new system under the hood to better support the themes of the game, and producing the English-language and Swedish versions of the new edition in conjunction with each other so that no more would the English version be out of step with the Swedish. And the grand plan to fund all of this? Why, a Kickstarter!

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

Funding rapidly (in only 8 hours), the campaign was primarily about getting a new version of Kult into print. This core text could come in various different formats – the most common being the Kickstarter-exclusive Enlightened edition, in which the tormented angel on the cover art has her bleeding breasts on full display, and the Illusion edition intended to go to retail, where her bleeding breasts would be covered up. This simple distinction pretty much sums up Helmgast’s approach to Kult – they are happy to go just as edgy and extreme in their content as the old edition did, but they understand that not everyone wants that and are 100% fine with toning it down a bit for the sake of reaching a wider audience if they need to.

A plethora of stretch goals were involved, and very sensibly that didn’t involve making major additions to the core text – though ultimately, delivery of most of the physical stretch goals happened along with the printed books. Sensibly, most of the stretch goals did not automatically get added on to any of the reward tiers; if you wanted them, you have to pay extra to take them as add-ons. This ensured they didn’t get into the trap of offering far more product than a particular reward tier was worth, and it didn’t seem to hamper the fundraising process any: by the end they’d raised over 2.7 million Swedish Kronor (about 300,000 Euros) of a 95,000 Kronor target.

What Level I Backed At

ENLIGHTENED EDITION (Print): The full color core rules and settings book, with the official uncensored cover art. This is the version that is the official standard “kickstarter” version of the game. It will be available for direct purchase online once the game is released.

Includes:

  • 1x KULT: Divinity Lost Core Book with uncensored Cover Art
  • All free stretch goals
  • A PDF version of the game.
  • Player’s Guide in PDF
  • Your name of choice in the credits.

On top of that, I also bought a bunch of stretch goals as add-ons.

Delivering the Goods

The estimated delivery date was December of 2016, but I didn’t actually get my core book until October 2018, with the PDF of the core book not coming out until June 2018. Beta text did start coming out to backers substantially earlier, however, and in general Helmgast at least managed to stay in communication with the backers to the extent that I never felt that the project was actively in trouble.

Reviewing the Swag

Kult: Divinity Lost (Enlightened Edition)

So, the final product itself – with big ol’ blood-spattered bust exposed and all (not shown above)… is it any good and how does it compare to the original? For the purposes of this review I’m not going to go too deep into the basic concept of Kult – hop back and look at my review of previous English editions if you need to catch up.

First let’s look at it on a superficial level: this is an absolutely gorgeous book. The horribly botched printing of 3rd edition is put to absolute shame by this weighty hardcover, with nice quality paper without so much gloss as to make reading difficult and gorgeous gold highlights and one of those handy ribbon bookmarks. Previously, I considered the high water mark of Kult‘s artistic presentation to have been the 1st edition material – sure, sometimes they blatantly plagiarised horror movie posters, but it had this distinctive aesthetic to it. That’s blown out of the water by the incredible artwork here, which is both highly accomplished on a technical level and unflinchingly evokes the game’s transgressive themes. The sexual material even manages to be a bit more varied than “eye candy for straight men”; there’s at least one picture of a dude eagerly giving a buddy a blowjob.

Oh yes, this is very much 18+ material, and that’s true of the game content too. If you thought that Kult would get watered down or back off from the edginess in its old age, you have another thing coming, but whilst the core book is a cavalcade of transgressive horrors it’s also got genuinely more mature and thoughtful advice about how to deploy it this time around. Extensive space is set aside in the GM section to discuss the concept of the “horror contract” – the agreement, unspoken or otherwise, between the participants in a horror roleplaying campaign, that we’ve all come together with the specific and intended purpose of getting properly spooped. Sensible advice about soliciting information from players about themes and concepts they point-blank don’t want to encounter is offered, as is an endorsement of an X-Card-like mechanic through which people can unintrusively indicate whether the action’s gone from “good spoopy” to “OOC traumatic and no longer fun” for them. (As advocates of such systems note, this isn’t as fatal to running horror games as you might think – in fact, it can help give the group confidence to go further and get darker than they otherwise might.)

As with the original game, though, the book works on the basis that they’d rather include a wide variety of stuff and then leave it down to you to take things out, rather than making any assumptions about what lines or veils individual groups might draw and exclude stuff that you might find useful. So, yeah, there’s stuff in here like an entity which pretends to be a vulnerable child so that it can prey on pedophiles, but you don’t have to make that central to your game – moreover, when considered in the light of the advice given by the book, it would seem outright incongruous to include such a thing in a game unless you and your groups decided that such subject matter was fair game.

In terms of what they’ve done with the setting content, the book really crams in a lot of material, but does a way better job of making it all fit together than previous editions did. When it comes to whether the Demiurge’s palace is missing, leaving only a void, as in 1st edition, or whether it’s still extant in Metropolis as in 3rd edition, they jump for the 1st edition option; they also back off from 3rd edition’s unfortunate tendency to say that only Western occultism works and that African traditions didn’t work until they had a fat dose of syncretism under slavery. Not only does the book cover the same general material as 1st edition, but it also includes the best concepts from its supplements, such as the realm of Gaia, and also teases out a bit more of a role of Gaia – namely, that Gaia is the borderland between the portions of the cosmos shaped by humanity and its jailers and other universes entirely.

In general, everything in 1st edition’s supplement line which seemed incongruous and out of place now manages to feel like it has a certain natural place in the Kult setup without robbing it of its sense of mystery – Kult, after all, is well-placed to deliver that sort of Silent Hill-ish sense that there’s a set of rules to what’s going on, but the rules are kept out of sight of you and which you can’t ever fully apprehend.

So much for the setting: what of the system? Well, as mentioned it’s inspired by Powered By the Apocalypse games like Dungeon World, but it’s very much put through a Kult filter. From the Apocalypse stuff you get the general terminology of “moves” and the centrality of the fiction, but instead of rolling 2D6 and taking 7-9 as a partial success and 10+ as a full success, here you roll 2D10 and take 10-14 as a partial success and 15+ as a full success. That sounds like a minor difference, and part of me wonders whether the motivation is to not alienate Kult grognards by making them throw away their percentiles, but there is an appreciable effect. In baseline Powered By the Apocalypse games you have, on an unmodified roll, a 16.67% chance of a full success, a 41.67% chance of a partial success, and a 41.67% chance of a full failure. Here, the odds are a bit different: a 21% chance of a full success, a 43% chance of a partial success, and a 36% chance of full failure.

This actually means that you’ll get full and partial successes somewhat more often and full failures less often than in vanilla Powered By the Apocalypse on an unskilled roll – but actually that’s fair enough, given that failure is the referee’s invitation to mess with you and some of the forms that can take in Kult can be pretty extreme. There’s something to be said in horror games for standard tasks to actually be reasonably easy to accomplish, so as to encourage the player characters to go way out there on a limb before things start getting grim.

On top of that, switching from 2D6 to 2D10 allows for a bit more wriggle room when it comes to roll adjustments; a +1 bonus means somewhat less on a 2D10 scale than it does on a 2D6 scale. This is handy for when you want to model capabilities ranging from “reasonably trained human” to “actually superhuman”, as you may well want to do here. As such, this makes the tweaked system somewhat more suited for “normal humans get in over their heads” or “ordinary people discover extraordinary and disturbing capabilities”-type stories, and less oriented towards “heroic characters who kick ass in their areas of specialisation but rapidly get in trouble outside of their niches” than Dungeon World and the like are.

The “move” terminology also neatly allows them to deliver more of their ideas about horror scenario refereeing through the way they discuss GM moves and the like, though as with Dungeon World I find thinking about GMing in terms of moves is rather redundant – it’s a systemisation of a philosophy you could quite happily run without any system underpinning whatsoever (particularly since refs don’t roll dice in the system).

However, this is very much a PBTA game filtered through a Kult lens, and that lens is particularly evident in the approach to Archetypes. Archetypes are what Divinity Lost has instead of “playbooks”, a shift I quite like because I find that “playbooks” tend to over-emphasise the mechanical aspects of PBTA when the point is to focus on the fiction over the mechanics, and were also the basis of character creation from 1st edition Kult. The major features of Archetypes – the areas of competence, the general concept, and most particularly the idea of each character having a significant dark secret – all transfer from there to here, but with a more thoughtful presentation. (In particular, much discussion is given to dark secrets, since the baseline assumption is that they’re quite central to play.)

Perhaps the biggest omission from the old system is the old mental balance scale, with its objective details on how the process of ascending from humanity’s imprisoned state involves going either super-dark or super-ascetic to an absurd extent. Now, to be fair it’s possible they are saving that for a later supplement, or have just decided that actually depicting ascended humans (like Christ or the Buddha, as in 1st edition’s supplement line) doesn’t actually add much to the core experience of the game. There’s also the fact that they don’t really need to have that scale any more when they can just have the referee select an appropriate Move when people are under severe psychological pressure to get broadly thematic and cool and horrific results. (As a reminder, this is a universe where extreme mental states can cause physical mutation.)

So, given this major shift in the system design, is it really fair to see Kult: Divinity Lost as a new edition of Kult, or is it an entirely separate game? I am going to be a bit of a hypocrite here and say that my gut feeling is that it’s very much in the tradition of the original game, despite claiming in my WFRP 4th Edition review that if you swap out a game’s engine for a completely different system you may as well not call it a same game.

For one thing, I would say that Divinity Lost borrows enough concepts from earlier editions of Kult in system terms – such as the use of Archetypes in tiers reflecting just how awakened or asleep the individuals in question are – that it is still working in the same tradition. For another, I would say that the Divinity Lost system has been deliberately designed to support the same general approach to play that Kult was always about – it just does that substantially better than the original system, which wasn’t designed so much as it was copy-pasted in from other BRP-inspired Swedish-language RPGs of the era because that was the dominant approach in the Swedish RPG industry in those days. Conversely, WFRP 3rd Edition feels like it’s enabling a decidedly different atmosphere and approach to play than other editions of WFRP.

Lastly, I would say that any game which replicated the Kult cosmology is going to feel the same. To one extent or another, any Kult scenario is going to derive at least partially from that cosmology, and any extended Kult campaign is going to be shaped by the process of the PCs figuring out and getting deeper into the cosmology. The cosmology is an aspect of the setting, not system, but it shapes the priorities of play sufficiently that keeping the cosmology the same gives a strong sense of continuity from previous editions.

As a final point, I want to trumpet the really solid advice this book offers both for running campaigns and for running self-contained scenarios (whether as one-shots or as short two-or-three session jaunts). The campaign advice is really detailed, right down to giving advice on how to run the first session of the game, and gives even beginner referees really good tools and advice for essentially improvising a campaign in an open-ended manner with minimal prep, save for keeping your notes updated and deciding what the NPCs are going to do in response to the players’ actions between sessions and cooking up ways to tie in that one weird thing you tossed in on a whim to the deeper cosmology.

The provision of a separate chapter advising on best practice for self-contained scenarios is a particularly clever idea because it shows an understanding that campaign play and “one scenario and done” play have very different constraints and priorities, and thus merit different advice depending on which approach you are taking. This very true of Kult, where odds are you are not going to incorporate more than a tiny fraction of the cosmology into any particular one-off scenario, but is also true of a great many other RPGs, but I don’t see much understanding of the difference out there.

On the whole, I am actually inclined to declare Divinity Lost to be the definitive edition of Kult. It has the best art, best production values, best explanation of the setting, best refereeing advice, and best presentation of the idea that just because you can throw in a monster which eats pedophiles into your campaign you don’t have to actually do that and even touching that subject, or a swathe of other subjects, might annoy, upset, or even (PTSD being what it is) actually traumatise your players in a way which you shouldn’t want to do if you regard them as valued friends. (If you don’t consider them friends, or at least potential friends, why are you investing hour after hour of a horror campaign on them, ya goof?) Most of all, it has the best system, which was a low bar given the sloppy job previous editions did but is still very much true.

Kult: Divinity Lost (Bible Edition)

This is just the text of the core rules, laid out in a nice readable fashion but absent any artwork, incorporated into a book whose form factor (leather cover, gold leaf on the page edges, nice ribbon bookmark etc.) is meant to make it look like a Bible. It’s a heretical, silly, deeply edgy item, which naturally means that it’s an intensely Kult-ish little souvenir. Silly though it is, it’s also got a functional purpose in terms of providing you with a handy extra copy of the rules, which is always handy to have at the table. (You can even use the ribbon bookmark to denote where the GM-only section begins, so players know not to flip beyond there when they’re looking stuff up.)

Player’s Guide

It’s literally just a direct reprint of the player chapters from the core book in a separate booklet. Simple, low-effort, but actually dang useful to have for character creation purposes.

Taroticum and Other Stories

As the title implies, the main attraction here is a revised version of the Taroticum campaign originally released for 1st edition Kult, updated to the Divinity Lost system. Despite some tweaks here and there, it’s essentially the same annoying railroad that I reviewed before.

If anything, I’m even more annoyed about it now because Helmgast have just reproduced the old adventure with no thought given as to how some aspects of it would play with a modern audience. In particular, late in the adventure there’s a really offensive bit, which I missed on my first look at it because I’d thrown my hands up and given up before reading that far, where to advance the adventure the player characters need to convince a Passion magician to have an unwanted magical sex change so as to gestate a special magic fetus.

Using gender transition for shock value is very 1990s, very cheap and trite, and very exploitative and offensive, and generally is pretty awful. How you get there is ridiculous: the adventure just sort of assumes that the players will jump to the conclusion that they need to do this to allow the magic child to be born, but that seems like a huge, bizarre logical leap for them to make. Even if you have NPCs suggest the idea, as the adventure suggests you do if the players don’t think of it themselves (exacerbating the railroadiness of the campaign), it’s far from clear why you need to perform magical gender transition on an NPC when it’s entirely possible that a player character might be willing to carry the child themselves. It’s almost as though the authors assumes all participants in a tabletop RPG would be cis dudes playing via dude characters.

The other adventures in the collection are not much to write home about – a mashup of underdeveloped railroads and sketches towards something which might be a scenario worth cribbing from if it had a few more development passes.

The Black Madonna

This epic campaign is set in 1991, against the fall of the Soviet Union, as a haunted remnant of the starving, besieged Leningrad of 1941 attempts to impose itself on the Leningrad of the present day and the guardian Archon of Russia faces off against a Death Angel. All dramatic stuff, but what this boils down to is another very linear story, and one which is an odd fit for a horror campaign at that.

You see, according to the introduction to this edition by original authors Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén – the very creators of Kult themselves – this was originally designed as a high-octane James Bond-esque action extravaganza for an espionage RPG, and then converted to Kult with the supernatural stuff added in.

As a result, it’s a bizarre mashup of the sort of Silent Hill-esque shenanigans you expect from Kult and a lot of violent guns-blazing action sequences which feel entirely incongruous, both in terms of the original Kult system and the Divinity Lost systems not really being set up for fun tactical combat and in terms of the adventure’s treatment of violence lurching between and regarding it as a terrible thing that leaves horrible scars on the collective psyche and treating it as cool badassery.

On top of that, it feels like they cheaped out on the translation job here; for instance, in that introduction from the original writers they don’t actually use the term “espionage RPG”, or the roughly analogous and perfectly cromulent term “spy RPG”, but the unnatural phrasing “agent RPG” which I suspect is the result of directly translating the Swedish words they used without giving thought to English common usage and phrasing.

On the whole, it’s nice that The Black Madonna is finally out in English – the translation having actually been prepared for the 1st edition English-language Kult line before being shelved – but it’s not for me, and doesn’t really reflect how I’d want to run Divinity Lost.

Archetypes Bundle

This is a collection of loose-leaf play aid – archetype summary sheets which would be useful to pass around your players for their perusal during character generation, blank character sheets, that sort of thing. Nothing that a suitable collection of PDF downloads couldn’t deliver, but still nice to have.

Gamemaster Screen

On the downside, this has its panels in portrait orientation when everyone knows that landscape orientation is the correct way to do GM screens. On the plus side, the art on the player-facing side is surprisingly restrained for Kult and yet very atmospheric – it’s a nighttime city skyline with faint occult symbols and diagrams visible in the background. It nicely gets across the feel and themes of the game without going for risible levels of explicit nonsense.

Card Decks

The reference deck is a handy set of cards summarising the basic moves, providing weapon stats, and otherwise providing useful play aids to minimise rulebook-flipping. That’s simple enough and undeniably useful to have.

The tarot deck is a thing of hideous beauty, its artwork offering perhaps the bleakest and darkest material I’ve ever seen in such a thing. The Major Arcana consist of cards representing humanity, the Demiurge, Ashtaroth, and each of the Archons and Death Angels. The Minor Arcana consists of five suits of nine cards each, with each suit representing an aspect of the Illusion.

Naturally, the most obvious use of the deck in-game is as a prop to jazz up the Taroticum adventure, but it has broader uses than this. In particular, Helmgast have thrown together a free PDF download detailing how to use tarot spreads as a creative aid for scenario design or to help you answer questions about the game when you’re creatively stuck or want to shake yourself out of a rut.

Official Soundtrack

Sealing the deal in terms of making Kult the “totes Silent Hill” RPG, this is a bunch of dark ambient/industrial tracks to play during your games, so you and your buddies can feel like Akira Yamaoka or Trent Reznor are composing the background music to your player characters’ lives. Neat!

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

On balance, yes, I’m cool with having my name associated with the core rulebook here. Yes, some of the subject matter here is pretty extreme, but at the very least the advice given on how to run games about such subject matter and the use of an X-Card-like mechanic makes me much happier about that; I think there’s definitely a place in horror gaming for the exploration of really extreme themes, but I think it requires the ongoing consent of everyone involved at the gaming table, and Helmgast clearly understand the necessity of that.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

As far as my main bid went, I’d say Just Right. In terms of the add-ons I got, I think I should have gone Lower; I dig the tarot cards, soundtrack, and the various practical play aids, but I’m really not keen on The Black Madonna or Taroticum and Other Stories. I think the basic problem there is that whilst the designers have taken a careful, critical approach to the core rules and presentation of the setting, when it came to the old campaigns they just regurgitated them more or less in their former state without really taking into account the nearly three decades of progress which has taken place since in terms of thinking about good adventure design.

As such, both The Black Madonna and Taroticum stand out for being essentially designed with 1991’s sensibilities, when the Divinity Lost edition has brought Kult up to 21st Century design standards. It’s not a good look, and the additional adventures collected with Taroticum are too lightweight to seem worth it to me.

Would Back Again?

Depends on the product, as always, but I would trust Helmgast with future Kickstarters – they may have been slow to deliver on this one, but they delivered on their promises and they kept their backers in the loop on the process, and I’m sure future Kickstarters of theirs will take into account the lessons of this one when it comes to setting expectations around delivery times at that.

One thought on “Kickstopper: Divinity Lost, Quality Found?

  1. Pingback: Great KULT: Divinity Lost review by Refereeing and Reflection! – Razors Through Flesh

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