Kult: Divinity Lost, Second Wave Released

A while back I reviewed the first wave of products released for Kult: Divinity Lost, the fourth edition of the infamous horror RPG whose previous English editions had a patchy record when it came to the core rulebooks and supplement line and some adventures where… well, the kindest thing I can say about them is that they have aged very badly. To be fair, the latter is a perennial problem of modern-day occult RPGs: pretty much no prewritten scenarios for early World of Darkness games are particularly good examples of game design, and even Unknown Armies, perhaps the most accomplished of the genre during its 1990s boom, had an issue with adventures which might have been edgy and avant-garde but weren’t necessarily very fun to actually play.

I found that the new core book for the new edition was about as good a presentation of the concept as the game has ever enjoyed (and, reassuringly, includes some wise pointers about the use of safety mechanics and not cracking players over the head with content they’d find OOC traumatic), the support material was useful but not essential, and the adventures… meh. Now, thanks to the second Kult Kickstarter coming to fruition, I’ve received the second wave of support products for the line – a brand new referee guide and some additional adventure and support material in addition to that. Let’s have a look at the new books and bits and see what new goodies the Archons are offering us…

Beyond Darkness and Madness

This is billed as a referee’s guide, and is light on significant new crunch and heavy on refereeing advice, guidance, and tools. That, however, rather makes sense for a game derived from Powered By the Apocalypse, because that family of systems puts a big emphasis on the referee actually paying attention to the GMing advice and following the agendas and principles outlined to guide play. (Well, at least in principle. In practice… does any Powered By the Apocalypse game have any real safeguards against the referee abandoning one of the Agendas mid-play if they think it’d make for a better game? I’ve never seen one.)

The book is divided into three sections. The first goes into deep dives on the various scenario construction principles already presented in the core book, providing further details and explanations on such things as the concept map you are encouraged to draw as play progresses and how these may can be used; this is arguably the part of the book which risks tipping into being mechanistic most (a bit of a risk in game systems which purport to be about a fiction-first approach, but then try to define the fiction in a somewhat mechanical way), but I can see how these exercises can be useful to spur creativity and assist inter-session prep work, and it’s useful to be offered alternate ways to use these techniques rather than necessarily abandoning them. (Relatedly, an appendix provides a print version of the PDF guide for using the Kult tarot deck to designing scenarios.)

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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!

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Referee’s Bookshelf: Adventures of 1st Edition Kult

The English-language Kult line’s 1st edition was cut short. If you want proof, you can take a look in the back of the two adventure supplements put out for it – Fallen Angels and Taroticum – and there’s a series of products promoted as forthcoming which were simply never released in their English versions. As well as a Player’s Companion and a GM’s Companion, there was also the epic adventure The Black Madonna, which is quite well-regarded by those who can read the languages it has been translated into. Most frustrating is the fact that apparently the manuscripts for all those products were done – it’s just that Metropolis never managed to get the layout and art done and the print runs ordered before they died a death.

What few adventures did come out for the 1st Edition line were both translations of releases for the orignal Swedish line – in fact, both supplements are written by Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén, the game’s original creators. That being the case, would they provide definitive answers to the question of “What do you do in a Kult campaign?”, or would they just be typical crappy 1990s railroad shovelware adventures?

Spoiler: they’re the latter.

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Sinister People, Secret Places: the English Supplements of 1st Edition Kult

Having previously reviewed (and thought favourably of) the first English-language edition of gnostic horrorRPG Kult, I thought I would check out the supplements that were released for it. Both of these were translations of material originally released for the Swedish version of the game; Legions of Darkness translates a supplement written for the Swedish 1st Edition by game creators Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén, and is therefore closest in style and presentation to the core book, whilst Metropolis was originally written by different authors for the Swedish 2nd Edition, which introduces a number of cosmology tweaks. (For instance, this seems to be where the English 2nd/3rd Editions got the idea for the Demiurge’s palace being present in Metropolis but vacant, rather than being absent with a terrifying chasm that even the Devil himself fears to descend in its place.)

Let’s start with Legions of Darkness. As with the core rulebook, the original Swedish version of this was a boxed set of three booklets that was turned into a single book for the English version. Whilst it is a slight shame that the English 1st Edition didn’t come as a box so that referees could pass the player’s book around the table without exposing the players to referee-only secrets, in this case I don’t really think anything is lost from the slight change in format, since all this material is GM-only stuff anyway and turning it into a boxed set seems kind of pointless.

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Referee’s Bookshelf: Kult

More or less emerging simultaneously with the release of Vampire: the Masquerade (the two games being published within a month or two of each other), Kult hit the RPG scene at just the right time to ride the wave of horror games focused on pessimistic modern-day settings, though it came from a very different angle compared with White Wolf’s output. Whereas Vampire and its offspring cast the player characters as entities set apart from the common run of humanity, Kult was based around the premise that “humanity” as a category is broader, more powerful, and far more sinister than you think it is. Whilst the World of Darkness games tried to claim highbrow inspirations, Kult showed no aversion to embracing the most outrageously surreal end of the splatterpunk spectrum. Whereas White Wolf would occasionally try to moderate their content, if only for the sake of not losing sales (at least at first – the Black Dog era would rather change that), Kult is a game specifically about transgression and paid absolutely no heed to any boundaries suggested by good taste or common sense, and caught a certain amount of grief in its native Sweden as a result, being cited by pundits in murder and Satanism cases in a manner parallel to the way American panic-mongers would try to latch onto Dungeons & Dragons. (The English versions of Kult didn’t attract that sort of attention very much at all, though, possibly because the peak of the Satanic Panic had passed and the likes of Pat Pulling had been exhaustively discredited by that point.)

Kult has been stubbornly out of print in English for a while now, but I recently had an opportunity to snag the 1st and 3rd Edition cheap and thought I’d do the old compare-and-contrast (and then eBay them if I decide not to keep either because they go for silly money on eBay). The first edition, penned by game creators Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén, is a well laid-out and very readable rulebook which suffers a little here and there from slightly diffuse organisation (though actually, having read through it once I reckon I could reasonably quickly find any particular bit of information there – it enjoys an index which is actually functional too, which is a nice bonus). Following the split of subject matter from the original Swedish boxed set, the book is divided into The Lie (character creation and experience rules), The Madness (the rest of the rules systems, including magic) and The Truth (the cosmology underpinning everything).

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