This is a review of the Kickstarter version of the fourth edition of the Kult RPG. The Swedish publisher Helmgast AB ran the Kickstarter, produced the book and Modiphius are in the mix as distributors.
How ‘adult’ is Kult – Divinity Lost?
Kult is the only RPG in my collection that discusses safe words and hand gestures that can be used by an uncomfortable player or GM to stop a scene.
There are frequent full-frontal male and hermaphrodite nudity in the artwork. There is an up-close illustration of a guy-on-guy blowjob. There’s a naked hermaphrodite demon with a hard-on solid enough to be considered porn, not art, by the British movie licensing board according to my research.
Kult is clearly not a game for everybody.
In the RPG forums today there are a minority of gamers who seem to question whether the Nazis are monsters. Kult’s not for you. In this game, humanity is trapped in male bodies and female bodies when we should be neither or both or something else. In this game white supremacists are the (unknowing) pawns of manipulative jailors. If the idea of transgender people using the bathroom unsettles you then Kult will destroy you.
Also, in the RPG forums today there are a minority of gamers who cannot even look at a Swastika without feeling upset or being offended. Kult is not for you. This is a horror RPG, it makes Hellraiser look sweet, and it explores the darkest and most horrible aspects of human nature. Some people will be unhappy at how madness is treated.
In fact, I’d argue the niche of gamers who find time for horror RPGs are is pretty small. Kult will only appeal to the hardcore of that group.
I liked it.
The Kickstarter raised nearly three million Swedish kronor and, as a result, space was a luxury the writers had. While every word in Kult feels like poetry, I think some harsh editing would not have harmed the overall entity. Sometimes one or two paragraphs of amazingly visual writing serve to introduce a section as well as three or four do.
The Setting: Kult – Divinity Lost
I will avoid spoilers from the nitty-gritty of the game but will talk about the overall setting next, and that may well be spoilers for those unfortunate souls who know nothing about the game. I don’t imagine any GM will surprise their group with a game of Kult, but if you know you’re supposed to be going into an adult RPG like this blind, then you may not need to read any further.
We were once gods.
A powerful being known as the Demiurge put an end to that and trapped humanity in an illusion. This illusion is our cage and our protection from some of the creatures outside, beings who cannot see us for as long as we cannot see them. It is an illusion that entangles us in bodies of flesh and bone, that wraps around us and permeates our bodies and essence.
Then the Demiurge started to fade and the illusion crack. Today the Demiurge is gone, humanity is rebelling against faith and the Archons – the Demiurge’s all-powerful servants – are kept busy spinning more of it to keep us in check.
Hence the name of the game ‘Divinity Lost’.
Most of humanity is blissfully unaware, even if we feel the sense of loss or that something isn’t quite right, and the game focuses on the PCs who – unfortunately for them – have a pin-prick more knowledge. The PCs are people who might notice that the chief of police always smells of blood or that the shadows around the crime scene are unusually dark.
I imagine most Kult games will begin at the surface of the illusion like a dark episode of the X-Files where bad things happen to good people, and the only takeaway of merit for the survivors is the knowledge is that crazy TV evangelist is a serial murderer with some miraculous power. Shame they can’t touch him; they’ll have to hide from him instead.
However, it’s possible to go much deeper (and darker) with Kult and into what I think as ‘Hellraiser‘ mode. By which I mean Clive Barker’s books and horror novels wherein tortured Cenobite ‘demons’ turn up or the unfortunate heroes find themselves in hell realms.
If you wanted you could run a whole game of Kult with hapless humans in these hell realms – Kult gives us travellers’ guides to these bleak and horrible corners of reality complete with a list of the Things you might find there. If the gore of the Cenobites, with their flesh peeled back to expose open wounds and meat, is too much for you then Kult is not your RPG.
The fact that there is more than one ‘hell’ means Kult will be full of horrible player surprises for years to come. One campaign could take years before the survivors found themselves lost in the Underworld. Once they’re all mad, dead, or worse and a new game starts those game players, years later, may find their characters roaming the wilds of Gaia next.
The Mechanics: Kult – Divinity Lost
This edition of Kult – Divinity Lost began life began life when head writer and designer started to convert the previous version to the Apocalypse World system.
That’s not a system I know all that well so let me quickly try and summarise how Kult works.
Characters make Moves (and GMs make Moves against them) and check the result against a table. Each move has a trigger, and the table gives you complete success with a result of 15 or higher, a success with complications with a score of between 10 and 14 and a complete failure on 9 or less. A standard Move is a roll of 2d10 + attribute.
Character creation has PCs assign +2, +1 and +0 modifiers to Fortitude, Reflexes and Willpower. They also have +3, +2, +1, +1, +0, -1 and -2 to distribute between Charisma, Coolness, Intuition, Perception, Reason, Soul and Violence. As you can see with a spread of modifiers like those the PCs are above average but not without imperfections.
One thing you’ll notice is that for every one monster given a block of stats there are four or five talked about which do not. In many cases, this is because the horrors in Kult are not things that the PCs can fight. Uncomfortable without guidelines to at least give you a scale of things? Kult has those.
Kult is remarkable in that it has the best set of instructions and guides for a Game Master that I’ve ever seen in a core rulebook. You might already be imaging this could be an awkward game to run! Kult – Divinity Lost has help on setting up the story, a first adventure method and tips on setting a scene, the pace and setting players’ expectations (only to mess with them later).
There’s only one thing I disagree with in Kult’s tips to Game Masters. Kult wants you to ‘What do you do?’ pretty much every time to your players. Perhaps this is intended to keep the pressure and pace up, but I dislike the phrase. I think it rushes against the curtain of disbelief. I don’t think it is necessary if the GM has orated the scene well enough.
On the same token, Kult is forthright with the players with what they should do. Besides being upfront with the GM about what’s entirely off the table, even in a game set out to explore your nightmares, players are expected to agree to the ‘horror contract’. Don’t fight it. Don’t sit in the corner checking your cell phone, cracking bad jokes or distracting other players.
Layout and Art: Kult – Divinity Lost
Kult is gorgeous. Helmgast are good at what they do. The book is written in light and shadow; sometimes the page is divided by a battle between the two and the text on the page split into each panel.
My hunch is that the hardback will be exquisite. Although the diagonal fading text is pretty, it made scrolling a bit of a challenge on my screens.
The art entirely won’t be to everyone’s tastes (the illustrations in this review are carefully picked) but amazingly well drawn and expertly placed. It’s so good I wanted more, and I don’t think it would have been that much of a challenge to commission and inserted more illustrations.
Conclusion: Kult – Divinity Lost
I really can’t wait for my physical copy of this delightful nightmare to arrive. It’s going to go straight onto the shelf and won’t be left out on my coffee table. I don’t imagine getting around to playing it any time soon because I will have to think carefully about who I would want to play it with to do it justice.
I’m just glad to have it, though, as it may well become rare and hard to get hold of quite quickly despite the crowdfunding success. I don’t think Helmgast are unaware of the challenges marketing this book will present as they’ve censored the front cover, producing a version of the bleeding angel who is more fully covered up.
Overall? Stories of death, sex, tragedy, horror and mystery all expertly framed in a devilishly dangerous illusion? Yes, please.
DrivethruRPG is stocking some digital accessories for Kult.