Running Session Zero

Starting a new Kult campaign is a big endeavor. Other than the constant struggle of finding players who will be right for the game and your style of playing, Kult offers a lot of challenges for GMs and players alike. In order to get everyone on the same page, it’s a good idea to have a Session Zero. Dedicating time to explaining the game to new players, going over do’s and don’t, as well as creating characters together will help make the actual first session of the campaign that much cleaner. That’s the hope, anyway! As I’m writing this, the first session of my new campaign is rapidly approaching. Before then, I would like to share how my Session Zero went down.

Pre-pre-planning
Session Zero is meant for pre-planning. As a GM, you don’t know much about what your players want yet, so there’s not that much campaign prep you can do. Even so, I wanted to plan for Session Zero to make sure we didn’t miss anything important before and during character creation. I have four players for this campaign, and two of them are completely new to Kult. I decided to section our session into four major topics: Basics of Kult, What is Horror?, Stories, and Character Creation. My goal was to step through these one by one, explain and discuss the topics with my players, and only look back at the previous sections when necessary. I’m not sure what this Session Zero would have looked like without this planning, but I am happy I did it.

Basics of Kult

This was more or less me monologuing about Kult. I explained the premise of the game, as I see it, to everyone around the table. You are playing as humans with dark pasts and uncertain futures, running from things out of (or entirely too much in) your control. Insanity and misery are given elements to your lives, in one way or another. There is a very real chance that you may die, but death is only the beginning. Life and reality is a prison, but what lurks beyond the veil is no better. I gave examples, alluding to the various realms of existence beyond our own. Finally, I explained that the characters they play are Aware, and will know and understand more of humanity’s sorry state than the masses. The people around them are asleep, failing to see the cracks in the facade of the Illusion.

For experienced groups, this will perhaps not be necessary, but Kult is a peculiar game and it is worth priming new players for what’s to come. Dash early any hopes of them being a hero or some paragon of virtue. Kult is not that game. Both my new players seemed ready to take on the dark world of Kult after this, so we moved on.

What is horror?

Once everyone had a basic understanding of the world which Kult asks them to be part of, we moved on to an open discussion about fear and horror. To lead the conversation, I began by suggesting that everyone call out some things they might find scary. I was soon presented with a smörgåsbord of fears and anxieties, some surreal and some all too real. 2020 is the year of Pandemicworld, and I would be a fool not to utilize that for this campaign. Family dynamics, personal space being disrespected, man-eating snakes, drowning, mental degradation, the Goatman, dysfunctional technology, loss of control, the list went on for a while. 

As we elaborated on these fears and anxieties, I made sure everyone also considered what kind of horrific content is just not for them. Some things are better left unexplored, and my players of course know themselves better than I do. The list of Don’ts ended up rather short, so I will share it in full with some explanations:

  • Abuse of loud noises. One player expressed that loud noises are likely to catch them off guard, and might not be okay with it. We left this one open for now, but I know for future reference that if the player says to stop, I will.
  • Sexual content. I actually put this in myself. Jessy’s Story is intensely sexual, since I play it with my wife and we’re very comfortable with each other, but in a group setting with people I am still getting to know, it just seems like a no-brainer to skip. Sex is complicated and most people don’t want to share their personal experiences with everyone. Besides, I just finished a 20 session campaign focused on the subject. I want variation.
  • Fluffy abuse. Roughly defined as something truly small, cute, friendly and helpless being needlessly destroyed. The player who brought this up said that they’re totally fine with gruesome imagery in most cases, so this seems to be a case of framing. I think it will be very easy to avoid.

During this segment, I also started the conversation about where and when in the world we would be playing. The only thing brought up before Session Zero was that one player had mentioned over dinner that the back corridors of retail stores are pretty uncomfortable, and service work during a pandemic in general. I brought this back up, and everyone seemed on board with that as a guiding principle. I suggested then the simple choice of setting: Contemporary Toronto. It’s where we all live, saving everyone some headache in imagining their characters and their surroundings. We briefly had to discuss whether to make this Pandemicworld or not, but no one seemed opposed to roleplaying a pandemic during a pandemic. We explored a few different avenues in terms of setting scope. Should we focus the setting on a single store, a shopping center, the whole of Toronto and the GTA? The CF Eaton Centre, a huge underground mall in downtown Toronto, became our focus point. No matter what characters they wanted to make, this would be the primary location to consider during character creation. With this in mind, we decided that the characters didn’t necessarily have to know each other at the outset of the story.

Stories

The scene had been set by this point, and it was time to figure out what kind of story we wanted to tell. I began by explaining that I aim for this campaign to be finished within six sessions, barring any major twists or setbacks. The players were then given a choice to discuss with me and amongst themselves: How should we pick Dark Secrets? The core book presents three options, and these were the three I offered them:

  • Shared Dark Secret. Everyone could have the same Dark Secret, which would immediately tie them together.
  • Pick around a theme. Together we would decide on a theme or story element, and all players would select their Dark Secrets and make their characters based on that.
  • Pick Dark Secrets freely. This allows for maximum character freedom, but requires a lot of work for the story to hold the characters together.

There was plenty of discussion around these options, mostly weighing between the first two. The campaign’s limited scope made picking dark secrets freely a less appealing option. We would have to decide on a theme if we were to pick dark secrets around one, and eventually one emerged:

Something lurks beneath the Eaton Centre. People have gone missing, while grainy security footage and shaky mobile uploads show attacks by strange creatures.

Character Creation

Once we had this theme, we could begin character creation. We bounced back and forth in discussion between dark secrets, horrific elements to include, and ideas for characters. I allowed the two new Kult players to flip through the Archetype Bundle and Core Book at their leisure to familiarize with the archetypes, available dark secrets and disadvantages. My wife had a few ideas since before the session, and everyone got to weigh in on what they would like to see from her. While there was some debate between some players about what archetypes were cool and what dark secrets might fit into the theme, my girlfriend already had a solid idea and got to work on filling out the character sheet right away. She would play The Detective Fayola, investigating the recent disappearances and escaping her all too clear memories of nothingness beyond the grave. With her working on her own, I only had the rest of the players to manage, a relief I did not mind.

The deck of tarot cards came out to play, of course. The new players had been fascinated with the Kult tarot ever since I first showed it to them, and my wife is a big fan. We employed two different methods of reading, improvising a little bit on the spot, to establish and flesh out their characters.

The Descendant

One of the new players really liked the idea of the Descendant, but found it difficult to get himself rooted in the character. I offered to perform either a full or partial reading to help him along. He picked the former, and the results were as stunning as usual.

  • Core Characteristic: Remnants, the 3 of Skulls. Immediately we see that this character is alone, left behind in some way. Perfect fit for the Descendant. We float a few possible story seeds based on this alone.
  • Past Event: Labyrinth, the 7 of Hourglasses. I had already planned to incorporate the Underworld into the story (seeing as something lurks beneath the Eaton Centre), so this has me excited. We realize that this Descendant is the sole survivor of a group of friends who went down… way down, beneath Toronto. Exactly what happened, we leave open and unknown.
  • Ambition: Merging, the 6 of Crescents. After we spend some time discussing what Merging might mean to a person, we realize that this Descendant is desperately looking for connection and belonging. Their friends dead or lost, they now hope for a new chance to become part of something.
  • Weakness: The Principle of Safety, Chesed. My good friend Chesed makes an appearance, and we see two things from this. First, that the character is a coward on their own. Two, that safety and comfort do not come easy to them.
  • Strength: Gaia, the Ace of Roses. When this was first revealed, I was hesitant, even offering after some thought to replace the card. We stuck with it, though, because it presents an interesting counterweight to the Chesed Weakness: Primal action. When push comes to shove, this Descendant can outperform the best. If they get there.

Based on this reading, the character of Aven Dwyer was born. With a clearer view of what the character’s relationship to the story was, my player was able to concoct a story of a schizophrenic bookstore worker who feels intense guilt over abandoning her friends in the dark tunnels beneath the Eaton Centre.

The Ronin and The Prophet

Instead of using the five card cross, The Ronin (another new player) and The Prophet (my wife) were content with using a simpler three card reading, representing Past, Present and Future. Always looking for ways to do something new, I suggested that we lay both of their readings out at once, again in a cross shape but representing two separate characters with a shared card in the middle. Both players were on board with this idea, and I enjoyed the possibility of linking two characters using their present situation. We revealed the Ronin’s cards first as such:

  • Past: Inferno, the 9 of Skulls. Off to a great start. After explaining in a vague sense what this card meant, we came to agree that the character must have gotten involved with something dark and dangerous in their past. Looking to dark secrets, Pact with Dark Forces stuck out and became linked to this card. A pact with a demonic entity had been sealed.
  • Present: The Principle of Safety, Chesed. Why hello again. Blame the fates or my bad shuffle, but the striving for Safety offers itself as a theme. In the case of this Ronin, Chesed manifests as a wish, the will to maintain whatever peace the character currently inhabits despite their past.
  • Future: The Principle of Discord, Nahemoth. The peace is fragile. We understand that much immediately. Between the demonic pact threatening to take over the character’s life. What’s more, this Ronin is a hitman and to be discovered would mean a total collapse of the life they’ve built.

The above reading coagulated into Bryn, a tattoo artist by day but killer for hire by night. A tattoo across their body has been infused with a demon, following a satanist ritual many years ago. That entity is what drives Bryn to kill, but there is a certain sense of pride to the work as well. Bryn kills those who deserve it, or so they tell themselves.

Next, we have Matthew, whose initial concept simply stated “Mall hobo”.

  • Past: Obsession, the 8 of Roses. Seeing as this read was for the Prophet, this Obsession was one of the Bible, and God. A fundamentalist home, where the Good Book was used as justification for cruelty and the Lord’s name meant everything. While it scarred Matthew, it also left an unmistakable reverence for God in him.
  • Present: Safety is a holy mission to Matthew. As someone who lives outside society intact yet believes in the glory of God, the Prophet must believe that everyone can be saved. There is little safety in his own life, yet Matthew insists that salvation exists for everyone, should they accept it.
  • Future: Elysium, the Ace of Eyes. I pondered on this one for a long while, before telling my wife: Matthew will not be saved. He might not know it himself, or he might have a painful, nagging suspicion, but Matthew is stuck on Earth and will not reunite with his God at the end of it all. His mission is futile.

That is a tragic character, and there were many questions left unanswered about how Matthew became the broken person he is when the story begins. We had to wait until later to answer them, while my wife did her research and fleshed out the character over the proceeding weeks.

The Chesed connection both between Matthew and Bryn, and Aven for that matter, was left largely unexamined, though the clash between the prophet of God and Satan’s Ronin servant was surely on everyone’s mind. We had our characters, we had our setting, and everyone had a lot to think about. We were happy here, though, and ended Session Zero there. As I worked to write a first session and construct a Kult-worthy mystery, I had private conversations with each of my players to examine their characters further. NPC relations, personal background, motivations and goals are big topics, and there is only so much time in a session to talk about it all. Session Zero ended after just four hours, but the conversations spawned from it continued nearly up until the first session started.

I hope this review of my Session Zero experience has been helpful or, at least, interesting to read. There are nearly infinite conversations to have about Kult, and I want to keep having them. As always, if you have something to add to this, or if you disagree with my approach, or if you have a session zero story of your own, share it in comments and messages anywhere I’m available (i.e. here, on Facebook, or on Discord). Thanks for reading!

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