It is a great honor to present an interview with the core creators of KULT: Divinity Lost. Robin Liljenberg and Petter Nallo. The questions are by me primarily but I have had contributions from Sebastian Ste, Carlos Torrealba Cavo and Míchel González.
So let us begin!
Can you describe how the project moved from the fan hack Illusionens Fångar (Prisoners of the Illusion) to KULT: Divinity Lost?
Robin: Well, the reason for the transformation of my original Apocalypse World hack into the game we have today have been Marco Behrmann and Petter Nallo motivating and assisting me. I can remember that Marco wanted to create a full fledged tabletop RPG after some play sessions. I was a little bit sceptical in the beginning but got more convinced after listening to them. After that is was just a question of writing down all my thoughts on paper and letting Marco, Petter and other roleplayers playtest and provide critique. KULT: Divinity Losts rulesystem today is the result of thousands of hours of playtesting. My own view on my work was that everything that didn’t contribute to the experience in some way should be thrown out. The only things left is rules to enhance the stories you play.
Petter: Illusionens Fångar was a fun thing to be involved in. At that time it was only a fan hack of Apocalypse World that Robin developed further and further. I was really into doing some dark art in photoshop so that was mainly my contribution. It felt really indie, like doing a fanzine or something like that. But the result really became outstanding and Robin spent so much time playtesting and working on the Archetypes and the Rules. In the end me and Marco felt that we should take it to the next level. So we met with the owners of the Kult license and show them what we had done. And they were impressed and we got a deal through quite quickly.
Robin, as I understand it you were the one that started the KULT project and decided to change the rules to the Powered By the Apocalypse ruleset. What was the main reasons that you decided to use this system instead of the old ones?
Robin: When I decided to play KULT with powered by the Apocalypse I had played Apocalypse World for a while and really liked the feeling of freedom as a gamemaster. I remember there was these two playbooks called The Hoarder and The Operator which had player moves that you rolled for in the beginning of the play session. Depending on the result of your roll things went smooth or shit happened for you. I was thinking that these kind of mechanics could be a cool way of simulating disadvantages in KULT and started to make the disadvantages in the first Swedish version of KULT into moves. For the first story I used the rules for Apocalypse World with some additional advantages and disadvantages and gave the players freedom to create their own archetypes. The result was mindblowing and after that it felt wrong to not going forward with the idea. Those first archetypes was actually the first seeds for what later should evolve into the archetypes The Prophet, The Fixer and The Careerist.
What was the hardest part when it came to adopting the Kult setting to 2018?
Robin: The most important thing for me was to renew the setting without losing touch with what made it cool in 1991. We were able to cut out the things that is cheesy with today’s standards and add elements from fiction that have been created since then. After reading every forum thread on old KULT I could find online I was convinced that we needed to put more effort in explaining the different dimensions and what could happen if a player character stumbled into them. I wanted KULT: Divinity Lost to provide world chapters that gave you some kind of reasoning for each of the dimensions in the complex universe of KULT. I think Petters ability to read the old texts and then build on them really have made these chapters great. I also like the idea of letting KULTs twisted universe explain things happening today. One vision I had on an early stage was of the sleepers and how the humanity in some sense had dulled themself by using the Internet, TV and constant flow of entertainment today. In old KULT people were forced to un-see the cracks in Reality. In KULT: Divinity Lost they miss it because they are staring into their smartphones with music playing in their earplugs. Now it is only the ones that have a reason to stare out in the darkness that will notice something.
Petter: I don’t think it was that hard when it came to the setting itself. I know that Michael and Gunilla (the writers of the first edition of KULT) use to say that KULT is very much stuck in the 90s: Sisters of Mercy, Leather coats, UZI submachine guns, the whole goth style. And that it is important that the players have an basic understanding in Christianity since the game sort of deals with the Death of God.
But I feel that KULT transcends all that. Sure the first edition of KULT was released in 91 and was a child of its time but that isn’t what KULT is for me. It is the whole gnostic backdrop that is KULT. You can take KULT and place it in another time and another place of the world and it still works.
So the biggest thing was to actually use the Gnostic world building and tie it into the setting. Creating the principles, tying them to the illusion. Sort of make a logical machinery of it all where the Archons and the Death Angels have true influence over Elysium and us that live there.
Can you describe your collaboration with Michael and Gunilla, the writers of the first edition of KULT?
Robin: Rulewise they haven’t been involved at all, but I haved played with them to show my vision of how KULT could be played with the new rule mechanics and we had a great time together. For me it was important to show how KULT: Divinity Lost differs from the original in term of storytelling focus, narrative mechanics and player influence. When people experienced that for the first time and see how well it works compared to older more traditional systems it’s usually a mind blowing experience.
Petter: First they were a bit cautious.It was a little bit of “What are you going to do with our baby” but they soon became very positive. I sent them the mythos chapters one by one to Michael and Gunilla and got their feedback. But mostly it was just “Great”, “Go on”, “Better than we could have imagined” and other really positive comments. So it was a very smooth collaboration. The only chapter where I had more direct input was Beyond the Dream which I never got to work. And they had some nice ideas there and I think it is one of the best chapters in the book.
What are your own favorite campaign/scenario moments when playing KULT: Divinity Lost.
Robin: I have played it so much over the years that the different stories intertwine in my memories. Most of my campaigns have been created with the players with the method I describe in the Setting up a story chapter in KULT: Divinity Lost which means I have no preparations at all before we create the player characters. Together with the players a setting is chosen and then we base the story on the player characters, their dark secrets and disadvantages. The first story we ever created have a special place for me. It evolved around three adults that have known each other as kids, but were separated by a terrible event in an old house ten years ago. When the scenario started the characters past catch up to them and they had to get together and confront those events. I would say it got both emotional and scary and there was some memorable moments when things just worked out perfectly. Especially a scene where one of the player character’s girlfriend had been posessed by the purgatide of a friend lost in the event from the past, who had harassed them with threats and calls. Two player characters saw through the Illusion and experienced the threat as the purgatide while the boyfriend saw that it was his own girlfriend. She were threatening to cut of one of her fingers with a wire cutter and the boyfriend begged for the purgatide to not hurt her. It ended with the two other characters shooting down the possessed girl (which they thought to be a crazy killer) and the boyfriend watched in horror as his girlfriends spirit were dragged screaming into hell.
Petter: There are many memorable moments. Especially during the development of Illusionens Fångar and then KULT: Divinity Lost when we tried the rules and explored different parts of the setting. And it has been a joy playtesting the game with new people that know nothing of KULT or haven’t played an RPG before just to see their reactions.
But for myself as a player I would say that everything that Robin has led has been of extremely high quality. Robin is such a good game master that in his hands almost everything becomes intense and very personal. If I should name one that I still think back on it is The House of Masques. It was set in London in 1897. The KULT mythos went full on victorian gothic. Robin was the gamemaster and I know we experimented a lot with getting the Dark Secrets to work and really drive the story.
The Player characters from the KULT: Divinity Lost campaign the The House of Masques illustrated by Petter Nallo.
Petter, in the book you are credited for additional Game Design. Is there any particular parts you have been involved in?
Petter: Robin was the one that almost all of the game design. He really knew what he wanted with the game. I think I was the one that always pushed it further and further away from the Apocalypse World rules so it was always a struggle back and forth how far and different (or perhaps closer towards trad-rpg) we should take it while Marco and Robin were more classic PbtA. Mostly because I wanted to weave the system really, really close to the setting. Some of the things I am guilty of are:
That there are Ten Attributes and they are shaped like a Sephiroth. I always felt that 5 attributes (the normal amount in PbtA) was to few. And I also wanted them tied to Archon/Death Angel pair. So that Kether/Thaumiel is Willpower, Tiphareth/Togarini is Perception, Netzach/Hareb-Serap is Violence and so on. It just felt so right for KULT: Divinity Lost that the higher powers even exist on the character sheet.
The Dramatic Hooks was something I had developed for the RPG Eon. So I just brought them to KULT. I feel it work very well to create drama and gives incentives to push characters in new directions.
I worked quite a bit on the Opponents and how they should be described. The Attributes: Combat, Influence and Magic and unique moves tied to them was designed because I wanted a Game master to easily be able to measure different opponents against each other. Robin did almost all of the writing and polished that design.
The system for Relationships where you have Neutral, Meaningful and Vital relations and those are your main source of regaining stability was largely inspired by a similar system in the RPG Noir that me and Marco worked on. It replaced a more traditional HX system. Also I think it works very well in KULT since you become much more vulnerable as a character when you need to have individuals that you care about.
I also worked and slimmed down the Endure Injury move from a quite bulky start. And I added some results for when you reach 0 Stability you actually might gain some insights in the world, change archetype or undergo some change . To go mad in KULT should not be just a bad thing. There are truths to be learned.
Also worth noting is that Marco Berhmann was involved in the design as well. And he is very scrutinous and finds unbalances like none other.
Most Role Playing Games, especially those in the horror genre, tend to have a section in the beginning of the book that says “This is just a game”. KULT: Divinity Lost lacks this all together, was this a conscious decision?
Robin: Well it is a game!
KULT: Divinity Lost is a visually stunning game with the art and layout. Did you draw from any certain inspiration when developing the style of the game?
Petter: I wanted the game to have a religious atmosphere. My reference to our Graphic Designer Dan Algstrand (who did the amazing layout) was that it should look like a mix of an old ortodox book with religious icons and something dark and quite vulgar (which i will not name).
The biggest change when it came to earlier editions of KULT was that I wanted to show the creatures. I was inspired with the first Hellraiser Movie and an interview with Clive Barker where he was very specific that he wanted to show the demons (the cenobites) full on. So, I felt that it was what I wanted to do as well. And the creatures themselves got a religious tone often using poses and hand gestures and of course halos behind their heads that you find on religious icons. And when I showed the creatures I also wanted to show the worlds. So that one could get a hint of how Metropolis would look. There was always a desire to weave in symbolism in the artworks. Leave subtle hints. Small mysteries for the reader to find.
In the end I would say it Dan and our Artists that made the books so great. Especially Bastien Lecouffe-Deharme for the beautiful cover artworks. But Marcin Tomalak, Daniel Comerci, Kamil Mickiewicz, Ander Plana and Alfred Khamidullin provided interior art that people seem to really love.
Layout concepts made by Petter Nallo in the beginning of the KULT: Divinity Lost project to be used by Dan Algstrand as a template for the layout and style of the book.
There are a lot of Archetypes in the core rules. You find the ones from the original KULT but there are also many others. What where the thoughts behind these new archetypes?
Robin: In the beginning there were only ten archetypes inspired by the on the ones from the first KULT. We playtested and revised those archetypes for years. I had only added The Deceiver, The Ronin and The Academic and was thinking that we could use them for future supplements. When the kickstarter reached its end Petter and Marco was thinking up new pledge goals they asked me if they could add some more archetypes. I said, “Hell, no! It takes forever to design and make the archetypes balanced.” But Marco said that we never would reach those goals anyway so I didn’t need to worry. All of the archetypes was of course unlocked so I had to spend a Summer to create those new ones based on Marco and Petters texts on the kickstarter page. In hindsight I think I managed to add weird concepts and story seeds that weren’t there before. The Doll is all about abuse but also how attraction can corrupt people. The Condemned added concepts of desperation. The Drifter is the perfect choice for road trip stories. The Descendant added the weight of blood lineage and were a twist on the classical monster hunter and dilettante. I tried to make The Occultist into a messed up person guilt stricken by his past dabbling with the occult or at least on the edge of disaster. It was important to make concepts that inspire drama and give the players and gamemaster ideas for stories. Lastly we added the Enligthened archetypes which were supposed to be in a future book. I think you should wait playing those until we have given more guidelines, and instead use them as inspiration for non-player characters in your stories.
Petter: As Robin says me and Marco went a little bit overboard in the goals in the kickstarter when it came to new archetypes. But I still think they came out really well and interesting. I have always liked the archetype the Avenger in KULT since it is not a profession or calling but something that drives you. I think that the new archetypes followed in the same vein and they are very memorable and different. Robin truly did do a great job with the seeds we gave him.
In the previous editions of KULT, many lictors are involved in a conspiracy against their masters. When they died, their memories were erased in order to not “sell” their allies. In KDL this isn’t true. Why the change?
Petter: I never felt that it brought that much to the table. The Lictors are the primary tools of the Archons and if you remove them from the game board the Death Angels and their servants becomes a bit overwhelming. I see Lictors to be more individualistic after the fall. The Archons are there yes. But the Lictors are the ones that are the primary force in Elysium and sure, some of them may allie themselves with a Death Angel. But others will rather define more to themselves how things should be run.
Now that KULT: Divinity Lost is soon released in stores everywhere what kind of books can we expect in the future? Will you for example create a book about magic?
Robin: I will provide a book or several books with rules for playing Enligthened stories where the player characters explore more of the other dimensions and secrets of the KULT universe. Magic will be a crucial part of that. The Death Magician already provide rules for Death magic and I will create similar rules for the other schools.
A big thanks to Robin and Petter for partaking in this interview!