Welcome to Reflections! This is a blog segment in which I hope to explore some of my thoughts on stories I’ve shared in the past. This may include musings on the creative process, fun anecdotes from live sessions or downtime, mistakes I hope to never repeat or anything else I think is worth saying about a scenario. These segments may not be suitable to read if you are a Kult: Divinity Lost player who does not have insight into the game’s mythos.
This post concerns my playthrough of And The Rockets Red Glare. You can read the recap of that here.
When the PDF of And The Rockets Red Glare was first made available, I bought it without even a second’s hesitation. Something as baffling and internationally impactful as American politics deserves to be explored in Kult, and especially so the 2016 election. Bryk (the author) makes no effort to hide her feelings about the Trump campaign, and the scenario is much better off for it. By presenting Donald Trump and Mike Pence as literal inhuman monsters, Rockets Red Glare taps into the shock and horror that some portion of America felt as Trump won the election. As delightful as the subject matter is, however, I’m not a political blogger and would never aspire to be. Instead, I’d like to explore the scenario’s presentation, and how I went about running it.
The character library of Rockets Red Glare is, to my knowledge, rather unique in its presentation. The players are Sleepers, but the scenario does away with all the mechanics normally associated with them. There are no dark secrets, no disadvantages, no distractions. What’s left are ten single paragraph descriptions of different interns to play, and the typical spread of modifiers to assign the ten Attributes. When playing Rockets Red Glare, the only things that matter to the players are the fiction and the basic moves. Each character introduction is also decisively mundane. You won’t be playing typical Kult characters in this scenario, struggling with deep-seated personal traumas and inherited demons. The scenario places the focus of the horror on the election itself and everything leading up to it. The players are expected to expand on their characters, make them interesting and flawed humans, but the purpose of this isn’t to make them the center of horrific events. Rather, it serves to encourage and give depth to the interactions between the players. We’ll come back to that.
It is a bold choice to present a scenario with such barebones characters and avoid involving the mechanics of the game. Rockets Red Glare is a bold scenario. The players are free to, and must, focus only on the fiction of their character. What do they think, where do they come from, how do they feel about Trump and the Republican party, and most importantly, why did they seek this internship position? That last question is key to character creation. The scenario only works if the characters are deeply invested in their internship and how it will help them in the future. The motivation here needs to be well established and central to the characters. Without it, simply leaving when things get rough is an easy out that deprives the scenario of its best content. Each character description has some hint as to why this internship matters to them, but it is up to the players to embrace that and make it important to themselves.
I played And The Rockets Red Glare with three players, none of which had played Kult: Divinity Lost before. I found that the mechanically simplified characters helped quite a lot in reducing my work load for the scenario, and it made explaining the system much easier. The scenario has a very demanding schedule to stick to, jumping from scene to scene to build the story and atmosphere. By focusing more on the fiction and reducing the players’ options to only the basic moves, scenes are less likely to spiral entirely out of hand. The Powered by the Apocalypse system revels in the chaotic outcomes and far-reaching consequences of dice rolls, but Rockets Red Glare doesn’t, can’t, function according to that ideal. To get through the story, sacrifices to player agency have to be made. For more on my thoughts on player agency, see here.
And The Rockets Red Glare is very linear. It takes place over three days. Each day, the scenario presents some number of scenes that must happen. On the third, these scenes must lead up to the final blood sacrifice, and then you are done. You may see this as a negative, but I think the scenario offers alternatives to player choice that makes it engaging in other ways than control over the plot. It is important, however, that you as a GM respect this linearity and take steps in sticking to the schedule. Rockets Red Glare is supposed to be a one-shot scenario, and so dawdling about and not pushing onward to the end may well dilute its stressful nature. I had two different methods that I used to make sure that we stayed somewhat on time, both in and out of the fiction.
1. Be strict about starting and ending scenes
As a GM, I have a tendency not to end scenes. As a scene’s central point concludes, I let the players continue to roleplay their lives until a new sceneworthy situation arises. This is a habit I had to kick for Rockets Red Glare. The scenes provided in the scenario have start points and end points, and they work best if you play them exactly as such. This may be basic knowledge to more experienced PbtA game masters, but I am not one of them. When a scene is coming to a close, wrap up any conversation happening, quickly establish the players’ thoughts and plans, and then move on. Describe the setup for the next scene, no matter how much time has passed and where everyone was before. The scenario is fast paced, scene after scene after scene, so be proactive about putting an end to scenes once they’ve served their purpose.
The setting is actually very helpful in this regard. The characters are interns, constantly bossed around by managers and with a stressful work schedule. All the time in the fiction, the characters are at work with a hundred things to do. You can end nearly any scene by simply saying that the characters get back to their duties. Minutes or hours can pass and the characters might find themselves anywhere in Trump Tower performing some menial task or catching just a minute’s rest from the stress. Use this to your advantage. By being efficient with how your scenes start and end, you’re also managing the time out of the game efficiently.
2. Make a scene schedule
The scenario is structured as a list of scenes, read in roughly chronological order from Dawn to Victory’s Price. Simply eyeing through these will give you an overview of how the story will play out, but that is only the first step. A lot of the scenes can be used out of order, or multiple times, or skipped altogether if you want. Rockets Red Glare is linear, but you will need to construct the rails yourself. I did this by writing down exactly which scenes I was going to run, in exactly the order I was going to run them. I will note that this was not a comprehensive list. Character interactions and scenes borne from player decision making were slotted into the schedule as necessary. The important thing is that you, as GM, always know what the next scenario scene is. They need to happen, and knowing when and how helps a lot in keeping up the pace. It also lets you provide foreshadowing in a more coherent way.
Down The Hall is a special kind of scene in the scenario, and deserves special attention. These scenes are aimed primarily at amping up the atmosphere and wearing down the player characters. Something terrible and spooky happens when a character is alone, they react to it, and the story continues. I recommend writing several of these scenes in advance, possibly multiple per PC. Some might be tailored for a specific character or pair of characters, others could be written as to be applied to any of them. This has several benefits. For starters, it allows you to fit some or all of these Down The Hall scenes into your scene schedule, which could allow you to switch focus between characters and give each of your players some time in the spotlight at opportune moments. It also allows you to give out additional hints and information about what’s really going on at Trump Tower. I find that if I have a coherent view of what info I want to give the players before the game even starts, I have a much easier time managing that flow of information during the game. It also lets you flex your creativity. Not all of the Down The Hall scenes need to be fully fleshed out events, and you may spot many more opportunities to fit in personal scares between scenes. Let your prepared Down The Hall scenes be a safe jumping off point to do more improvised horror.
With the linearity of Rockets Red Glare so evident, we know from the start that the players will not have a huge say on how the story progresses. What they do have a say on, however, is how their characters feel and react to that story. This is, in my opinion, the real meat of And The Rockets Red Glare. The mundane character creation and inevitable narrative lend themselves both very well to a scenario where the player characters’ primary function is to express their feelings towards what’s going on. It’s the kind of scenario where, sometimes, you as a GM just lean back for twenty minutes or so and let the players talk to each other. While you’re telling the story, you must always listen to how the players are reasoning and nudge them towards one another, especially if they won’t interact on their own. This is a lot of what you’re going to insert into your scene schedule, often on the fly. As much as you can, encourage the players to have arcs and goals of their own, auxillary to the scenario’s overall plot. Allow them to affect things which are left undefined or vague in the mandatory scenes. These are all basic things that most GMs will be familiar with, but I place emphasis on it here because it is most of what you’ll be doing in Rockets Red Glare. If you play a linear scenario and you don’t provide these opportunities for the players to express themselves as their characters, you’re going completely on rails and I’ve yet to meet a person who enjoys that.
Looking back at my playthrough of And The Rockets Red Glare, I can point to several moments where the players’ will to express and perform were significant to the story. I’ll share a few of these.
- Kate’s tarot readings. The decision to make Kate do tarot was a decision made by the player, and we both hoped and looked for opportunities to use this fact. I consider her reading on the night to election day to be the best Down The Hall scene I ran in the scenario. The tarot hammered home the strictly supernatural nature of the events unfolding. Yesod and Gamichicoth even made appearances, though the players of course didn’t understand the significance of this, nor did I expect them to.
- June’s suicide. The suicide scene in my playthrough replaced the scenario scene Enemies At The Gate, which I felt unnecessary to run given the circumstances. This scene only happened because Ian told Mike Pence that he wanted June nominated for a special commendation. In an effort not to water down the final sacrifice scene by introducing an NPC, I realized that June had to be removed somehow. By allowing her sleep-deprived mind to experience supernatural premonitions about her fate, I could both get her out of the picture and make Ian feel terrible about his choice of commendation. Win-win!
- So many of Blake and Kate’s interactions… and the extended character interactions in general. It feels really good to dedicate half an hour of play to the characters deciding to talk to each other. Blake was foremost in this, pushing both Ian and Kate to talk if only to calm himself (it didn’t work). These scenes rarely happened during the already established scenes from the scenario, but were inserted into the narrative as convenient and possible.
- Ian going fucking crazy. Ian rolled a Keep It Together partial success at the end of the first day, and the player decided to go for the Obsessed outcome. He delivered on that something fierce. I felt that I had basically no control over Ian, what he was going to do or why he was going to do it. His conversations with the other characters sometimes went completely off the walls in a way I couldn’t hope to capture in the recap, which fed into a lot of the others’ paranoias and fears too. It was a spectacle to behold, and I had nothing to do with it.
All of these examples led to a highly enjoyable playthrough. It should be noted that these scenes fall under the same constrictions as the rest, as per the linearity and limited scope of the scenario. Do not let these sort of side endeavors take over the story, and do not let them happen at any time. The players must know that their characters are interns, slaves to Kellyanne Conway and by proxy Donald Trump. When you feel that a scene has gone on for long enough, you have all the tools at your disposal to end it. If the players are trying to start a scene but you have something else in your schedule, tell them that it will have to happen later. There just isn’t time in the characters’ busy days to go do whatever they want. When they do, however, make sure they feel that it counts in some, small way.
Victory’s Price and Ending It All
It all comes down to this. Really, it does. This ending is amazing, and you should treat it with the respect and importance that it deserves. No matter what exactly happens, the setup ensures that it will be memorable. The players stand face to face with the future leader of their nation, and he asks for one of them to become a blood sacrifice. When Trump presents the players with this, the only way to secure his presidency, the game demands a choice from them. How do they want this story to end? Whether they are pitted against each other to decide who dies, attempt to flee, hopelessly go up in a fight against two lictors and a razide, or someone willingly steps up to save the rest, Victory’s Price is a scene that delivers exactly the energy that the scenario wants to build up. The simplified character creation comes in to shine again here. This is the only scene which has a very real threat of violence, and it’s a situation in which the odds are stacked strictly in favor of the opposition. The players can look at their character sheets all they like, but that should only further convince them that they are out of their depth. The scene illustrates their helplessness in the face of the vast, churning madness that is American politics, and forces them to fight amongst themselves while their leaders look on with amusement.
For this scene to hit home as hard as it should, you should be keeping it in mind all the time while you’re GMing. You know from the first Dawn scene that this is going to happen. It has to happen. Without this scene, the scenario has no real ending. Whenever you make a Move, whenever you introduce something to the story or nudge a player in a certain direction, it should serve to benefit Victory’s Price. When this scene comes, the other plot threads you’ve been running must either be resolved or be cut short. This should explain to you the purpose of the scenario’s linearity. Don’t fight that – embrace the linear structure and use it to ram the players at full speed into a brick wall. That’s how Victory’s Price should feel. Once the scene has resolved, someone (or several people) have died, Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States, and any survivors of the events that took place in his inner sanctum are sent away with some money and scars to last them for life.
You don’t have to linger on these last moments. You can, of course. Some players may want to detail what becomes of their life after such a traumatic event. I would still advise to keep it brief. The scenario has showed off its pièce de résistance, and everything after that is, well… that’s the world we live in.
And The Rockets Red Glare was the best experience I’ve had with a pre-written scenario for any game, to my memory. A lot of that has to do with my players, who were all fantastic at playing their parts and pulling their weight. If you haven’t played the scenario yet, I hope this article will help you in making it as good as it can be. Keep the scenes focused and move at a rapid pace, give the players just enough breathing room to express themselves, and deliver on the finale. To those of you who have played the scenario: How did it go? I’d love to hear your experiences and perspectives, because all I can write about is my own. If you think I have missed something, or if you think there’s better ways to run the scenario, share that too! As game masters we have to be open about our methods and strategies, so we can learn from each other and appreciate different approaches to roleplaying.