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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

KULT: DIVINITY LOST

KULT RETURNS

ORIGINALLY RELEASED IN 1991, Kult was at the forefront of a new RPG movement, the urban horror/fantasy wave that dominated that entire decade.  Drenched in real world gnosticism and occultism, it postulated a dark world in which humanity was tortured and imprisoned.  Once, the mythology goes, human beings were gods.  The race dwelled in Metropolis, a cyclopean city immense beyond comprehension.   Then, one of their number rose to power and turned against the rest of his species; called the Demiurge, he forged the Illusion and trapped his brethren within it.  Our world, with its 9 to 5 jobs, health insurance, and reality television, is a Lie.  It works to keep us distracted and divided from our own divine natures.  Since around the first World War, however, the Demiurge has been missing and the Illusion is beginning to unravel.  The angels and Archons who helped maintain our prison are scrabbling to keep things up and running, but true reality--the reality of Metropolis and its attendant realms--is bleeding through.  Kult characters are beginning to see through the sham, and their adventures are a quest to discover the Truth.



Now, I've reviewed the complex mythology of this game before.  Back in 2007, I wrote a lengthy review of the game here.  Instead of wasting your time then on the game's setting and history, I'll concentrate on what makes the latest edition of the game, Kult: Divinity Lostdifferent.  It is a a dramatic reboot of the classic game, updated to a more modern setting and driven by a completely different engine.  In fact, whether or not you decide to play Divinity Lost may depend less on your feelings towards classic Kult and more on what you think of games like Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Masks, or Urban Shadows.  This version of Kult, you see, is "Powered by the Apocalypse."

APOCALYPSE NOW

Originally appearing in D. Vincent Baker's 2010 RPG Apocalypse World, this is a rules system that seems to generate particularly strong feelings in people.  On one hand, there are tons of fans out there determined to convert every RPG in existence over to Apocalypse, and on the other people like a friend of mine who likens the game's approach to ordering Chinese take-out from a menu.  My personal take is that there is more smoke in this debate than fire; the Apocalypse engine is not really all that different from any other RPG out there.  So instead of getting tangled up in the merits I will focus on how Apocalypse changes Kult.



Divinity Lost is driven by a series of "Moves."  Moves are what players characters--and indeed the GM--"can do."  Player Moves include things like Influence Other, Endure Harm, and Investigate.  GM Moves are things like Take Their Stuff, Deal Damage, or Separate Them. There are general player character moves that everyone can use, and then there are those specific to what Advantages your character has taken.  Your Contract Killer character might have Moves like Weapon Master or Sniper, while your Occultist might have Occult Library or Exorcist.  

Moves require the appropriate Trigger to bring them into play, and are resolved by rolling 2 ten-sided dice.  For example, the Trigger for Act Under Pressure is "when you do something risky, under time pressure, or try to avoid danger."  You would roll the dice and add a bonus from one of the game's ten attributes (in this case Coolness).  A result of 15+ means your Move goes off perfectly, without any messy complications.  On a result of 10 to 14, it succeeds, but there will be complications involved.  On a 9 or less you probably fail, but as with many modern RPGs here the philosophy is "failing forward."  It's not that nothing happens--Moves always drive the story forward--but perhaps not in the way you might have hoped.

GM Moves are obstacles put before the players, and are themselves diceless--the GM never rolls.  So instead of a monster trying to grapple a character, the GM plays the Capture Someone Move.  Instead of having an NPC attack, the GM plays Deal Damage.  The effects are automatic; it is up to the player to counter these with the appropriate Move of his own, such as Avoid Harm or Endure Injury.  While I cannot vouch for how the Apocalypse engine's approach here works for every genre, for Kult--a game about horrific supernatural forces--it works quite well.  Moves allow the GM to orchestrate the game like a horror novel or film, while the player to respond to these threats rests entirely in the player's hands.



My one concern is that so much of this is based on pure luck. Kult: Divinity Lost characters have ten core Attributes, such as Willpower, Reason, Charisma, or Violence (brilliantly these correspond to the Sephiroth of Kabbalah, or in the Kult universe, to one of the ten Archons created by the Demiurge to shape mankind's prison).  Each Move a player executes is keyed to one of these Attributes and receives a bonus from them.  The problem here is, the bonus from an Attribute ranges from +0 to +3 (in play an Attribute can be advanced to +4).  Again, there are no skills in this edition of Kult.  Archetypes simply allow new kinds of Moves, not additional skill bonuses.  Remembering that to avoid negative consequences you need to roll above a 15, and that a 9 or less is generally a failure (or at least a very messy success), the character's progress through the story relies mainly on pure luck.  The influence of actual skill or expertise is minimal.  Powerlessness is a common feature of horror roleplaying, but I can already hear my players balking at this.

The other side effect of adopting the Apocalypse engine over those used in previous editions is that it makes some major shifts to the lore.  

An important feature in previous versions of Kult was the concept of the character's Mental Balance.  Essentially this was a number determined by comparing all the values of your positive and negative traits.  Sleepers--humans blinded by the Illusion, with no real awareness of the reality behind it--were balanced.  In other words, their positive and negative traits evened out.  As characters began to approach extremes, either very high or very low Mental Balances, they started to break through the Illusion and were now Enlightened.  Breaking through the Illusion by pursuing a positive Mental Balance was the Light Path; breaking through by pursuing a negative Mental Balance was the Dark Path.  This was a fascinating feature of the game.  You could pursue Enlightenment either by becoming increasingly superhuman or increasingly monstrous.



Nothing like this really exists in Kult: Divinity Lost.  There is no Dark or Light Path.  The Apocalypse engine eschews bookkeeping of this sort in favor of Moves and a fairly simple Wounds and Stability bar.  Characters still can and do evolve from Sleepers to the Aware, and then to Enlightened, but this is handled via a much more abstract system of taking enough Advancements.  

Additionally, the removal of skills from the system removes the occult sciences characters used to have to pierce the Illusion.  For example, Kabbalah provided knowledge of the Archons, Alchemy studied the substances the Illusion was made from, and Voodoo was the science of breaking the hold of death.  These things could still exist in the setting, and might be introduced later, but for now this rich level of setting detail is all gone.  The same is also true of the remarkably rich and eerie spells that added so much texture to the previous edition.  The new magic system is extremely thin and freeform; not something I object to in a general sense, but it does deprive newcomers to Kult of the deep lore that made the setting such a dark jewel.  If you happen to have previous editions of Kult or your shelf it would be easy to port more of the lore in, but as things stand there is a lot more style in Kult: Divinity Lost, but a lot less substance.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This is hands down the best looking edition of Kult.  Arranged in 22 chapters (like the Tarot Trumps) the full color book is flawless in its visual presentation.  The art pulls no punches, which is consistent with the spirit of a game (in)famous for its unflinching approach to horror.  Neither does the text.  Particularly in the wake of issues plaguing the latest release of Vampire (we want our horror edgy but not that edgy), Kult: Divinity Lost goes "all in" on the horrific.  Kult can afford to be this bold because of its audience; while Vampire or Call of Cthulhu can be extremely horrific, there are large swathes of those communities that want the games more "Anne Rice romantic" or "genteel Lovecraftian."  People come to Kult because they have strong stomachs and like their horror relentless.



Divinity Lost hews close to the spirit of previous editions, and while I am not quite willing to call it a "better" game than Kult: Beyond the Veil, it does offer the much more narrative, story-based approach the people expect from games powered by the Apocalypse.  Unfortunately, Divinity Lost does seem to assume prior knowledge of that system.  It throws terms like Moves and Holds at you right away and gets into detail later.    If you have never played anything like Apocalypse World or Monsterhearts, the initial chapters can be unclear.  

In the end, if you like games powered by the Apocalypse you will like Divinity Lost.  If that isn't your cup of tea, I would recommend at least giving it a try.  The system's approach to gaming fits the macabre setting well, and might change your mind even if you disliked the way the mechanics model high fantasy or supers.  Previous Kult fans are going to find a promising but quite more scaled back game here.  We'll have to wait and see how it expands into something closer to the scope of the previous edition.

           

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