Good day, Kultists! This post has been written by Gabe, a prominent member (and former admin) of the Kult – Elysium Discord server, which you should definitely join if you haven’t already. Gabe is something of a Powered by the Apocalypse coach, and has excellent ideas for how to make the most of Kult: Divinity Lost. This post explores the process of conversation between GM and players, and how the rules facilitate it. Enjoy the read!
Disclaimer: This post is oriented towards GMs, so everything told here is put in the perspective of someone running a game of KULT: Divinity Lost. Players can benefit from reading this post, yes, but if they didn’t read the GM section of the book, some things said here might edge the maybe-I-should-go-back-and-read-the-book territory. Just know that when I say “you”, I’m looking at you-the-GM and not you-the-Player. Another thing to mention here is I assume you know the basics of PbtA, e.g. you’ve read the book and an article or two about it, but can’t wrap your head around the concepts just yet.
Before exploring combat and Wounds, Stability and Basic/Archetypal Moves, we need to first pinpoint how Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA from now on) — the mechanics on which KULT: Divinity Lost (KDL) is based — works. I’m assuming here you have experience with other games such as Dungeons & Dragons, World of Darkness, OSR, and/or others. These are games that approach the narrative in a traditional and sometimes simulationist/gamist light. PbtA, however, uses player-facing rules and favors fiction.
WHAT IS FICTION FIRST?
Yes, roleplaying games are focused on fiction, and saying that World of Darkness isn’t “fiction first” may sound wrong. What we mean with “narrative game” and “fiction first” is that the rules are tied deeply to the fictional positioning of your character. There are no “passive rolls” like a Perception check, or a Constitution saving throw. When a character is attacked by a terrorizing creature screaming bloody curses and infecting their mind, there is no Wisdom Save to help them. What KDL offers is the opportunity for the player to describe how the character reacts to the screaming creature. If he wishes to gather his thoughts and resist the curse, well, then the player is allowed to roll Keep It Together. If the player wants to lunge head on and fight the creature, then an Engage in Combat roll is needed. “Fiction first” means that the rules apply only when the fiction demands, or in other words, when the player knows what is happening and why. When there’s uncertainty, when there’s the risk of losing something, yadda yadda yadda.
Another quick example would be See Through The Illusion. This is a Basic Move every character has access to, which means everyone can perceive stuff from beyond the veil of Elysium when the opportunity arises. The trigger for this move is “When you suffer shock, injuries, or distort your perception through drugs or rituals.” Is the PC unable to See Through The Illusion without suffering shock or using drugs? No (but that’s a conversation for another time). However, if the PCs want to actually see through the illusion, they better be ready to get fatally beaten, snort a weird new designer drug, perform a ritual, suffer emotional trauma, or whatever else you deem reasonable to the fiction. Again, there are no “passive checks.” There are no “saving throws.” There is no “roll for humanity.” The PC has to actually do it, which boils down to the PbtA mantra “to do it, you have to do it.” How is this different from Vampire, you might ask, and I say: When you roll to see if your humanity decreases, you’re not necessarily trying to get a grip on reality. You’re not harshly judging yourself when taking a warm shower. You’re just rolling it. And this is a passive check. If you pass and your humanity remains intact, then you may roleplay remorse or something. If you don’t, then you may roleplay the lack of remorse. This isn’t “fiction first.” This is you being a good roleplayer and using the system to guide the narrative, as it should be. Rolling for humanity in a KULT-Vampire-hybrid-frankenstein-game would sound more like the PC facing the consequences of their own actions and making the conscious decision of wanting to be better or keep on doing monstrous actions. Then the Player rolls to see how the world (or the character) responds to the decision.
This whole ordeal may seem weird to people coming from WoD. The main reason being, “well, now, the fiction demands a passive Perception check. My vampire is fiction-first!” And I must say no, it isn’t. The fiction in your head demands a (most of the times hidden) Perception check. If you aren’t actively telling your players that there might be traps or an ambush, rolling for Perception is just you following a gamist approach. You, as the GM, wants to see if your NPCs are able to do something before roleplaying it. And that’s okay, but it doesn’t apply to being fiction first. Of course I’m assuming a lot here. I know people that play D&D without combat. I know people that play Vampire without knowing their own clan. I know people that have always been treating a miss like “you succeed at a cost.” You might be one of those, and you might not. Most people play a certain way, even though experienced GMs will have their own way to GM. I myself always adapt “Succeed At A Cost” in all my games knowing full well most mechanics don’t support this approach. Anyways…
BEING HONEST ABOUT THE FICTION
This is a core concept of my games. I try my best to never have my players make decisions in the dark and it is of utmost importance to me that they know what consequences to expect from something. Unless I need the actual surprise, and I very often do, I try to be honest without spoiling the fun of discovering the setting. This informs the Players which Moves they are allowed to roll (and you’re gonna see that during combat you’re never stuck to rolling Engage in Combat until it ends) after certain actions the PCs take. And it also helps me to nail down exactly what the Players are trying to achieve within the fiction. Here goes a quick example: “Character is in the middle of a fight and wants to take a dive so he can reach the shotgun before the monster gets to him.” Being honest here is as simple as telling the player that if he’s not actively dodging the creature’s attacks, there is a high chance of getting hit. “But I thought diving would help against the attacks, isn’t it Avoid Harm?” says the Player. And now your honesty pays off, because you can nail down exactly what the character is trying to achieve. You can now choose which Moves to roll. Are you ok with a single Act Under Pressure? Or would you rather see a successful Avoid Harm as to not get hit before an Act Under Pressure to grab the shotgun and cock it for a clear shot? Maybe, if you’re like me, you’d simply use a single Engage In Combat.
I cannot put into words how honesty doesn’t kill horror. I strongly believe it adds to the horror because players are making informed decisions, and dealing with consequences is far more engaging than suffering left and right never knowing what is hitting you, why it is hitting you, and how it is hitting you.
When you’re honest, you’re making sure everyone is on the same page. You’re shooting warnings at your Players and they’re free to ignore it. You’re also free to entice them to take on the challenge by creating situations where the PCs have to make clear decisions that move the fiction forward. Imagine the shotgun scene above. Now imagine if you said “Yes, diving for the shotgun might get you killed. You know what else might get you killed? Fighting this hellish spawn without something to blast its brains. Are you willing to risk your life to put an end to this or would you rather try to escape? What do you do?” You make it clear that taking on the fight might cost the PC’s life, but you also made clear that if it is done swiftly, the creature might never appear again. Aaaand on top of that, the PC may still try to escape.
GUIDING, JUDGING, PLAYING TO FIND OUT, AND COMMITMENT
Your word is final and you know all-there-is. But you’re not here to make your players suffer, or shove them in rooms with horrible creatures, or satisfy your wishes to see (something something) happening. You’re here to guide them through your story. What’s your story? Maybe you don’t know yet. My personal approach to KDL is coming with a strong enough hook that Players like and would enjoy seeing their characters tied to. Then I guide them on what type of characters I see fitting in my desired setting, but ultimately, I don’t like to cut their ideas short just because I thought of a game for Agents and Detectives and they’re coming up with Avengers and Veterans. From that point on, I shape my ideas according to theirs and try to reach a middle ground. With characters made, Players (and you) will know what to expect from the game. Got Nightmares? You know you’re playing with Limbo. Got Schizophrenia? You know you’re playing with Madness. That’s the honesty part I just told you about. There are no secrets here, because you know the same amount as your Players.
When I prep for KDL, I grab the hook I proposed and explore it through the character’s lens. I know that I have only as much as “the characters are investigating the murder of John Doe,” which is no surprise for the Players, so now is the time to nail down what might have happened to Mr. Doe. If I’m dead set on something, I will plan with that in mind. If not, I’m just gonna skim the book looking for cool creatures, cults, ideas, and write them down. Always thinking how Nightmares and Schizophrenia can be twisted for a surprise or two down the line. Then during the game I guide my Players through the story, always alert for an opportunity to introduce what I have prepared. If they show interest in something that I identify as “that’s Inferno for sure,” I will then adapt to this. I play to find out, too. I have no clue of what may happen. No clue of what or who murdered John Doe. For me, that’s the beauty of PbtA. I set up an RPG table and end up watching a movie. No one knows when the protagonist is gonna suffer. No one knows what is around the corner. I improvise a lot, and I let my improvisation surprise me as much as my players. Always guiding them, always keeping my prep in the back of my mind.
But there’s only so much that you can do with guidance and playing to find out. You’re gonna need to be the rules judge, jury, and executioner, because it takes one bad (or good) roll to change the fiction in a significant enough way that you’re gonna have to adapt, or re-adapt. Say the PC may never turn away from the plot because of his Nightmares, but one bad roll before they sleep and the investigation will turn upside down because you now have nightmarish creatures looming in. What if one PC reaches the Broken state before the big climax and you now have to make do with what you have for a big See Through The Illusion revelation? That’s commitment to the Moves. When you ask for a roll, you and your players have to commit to the result. You know as much as them they’re trying their best to win this fight, but they are Engaging in Combat and the rules tell explicitly that they might die if they fight. Worse, they may survive, but at what cost? During the fight they had to mark a Critical Wound that results in lasting scars.
If we were to explore this Engage in Combat a little bit more, the over-the-top violence may make them roll to See Through The Illusion, which in turn reveals the demonic face of the assailant, adding a new twist to the story. After that, they try to not succumb to the stress of seeing a literal demon, therefore rolling to Keep It Together, and if they fail, that might end up in a hefty -4 Stability Loss. And what was supposed to be a simple fight is now the source of the newly acquired PTSD (oh, by the way, would you turn this into a new disadvantage for the PCs?).
That’s commitment. Playing to find out. There’s no amount of prep that survives Players and Moves. I advise you to be ready for it and glue this to your mind: “This is my Player’s tale just as much as mine.”
ON WEAVING SCENES
|Tip: Make the conscious effort to adapt your thinking to The Conversation before you let go of the rules and free-form your way to Inferno. Actively think of GM moves. Think of Basic Moves. Judge rules in your head. Take your time. Be honest about the fiction. Once you get the flow of PbtA and how to make it work for you and your group, you’re gonna automatically stop the mechanical thinking and just follow it naturally. I know it takes some time to get used to, and this is basically me asking you to “unlearn” some of the traditional concepts RPGs were/are based on, so just believe and make an effort.|
In very broad strokes, this is how it goes down: GM sets a challenge > Players make decisions > the decisions inform the GM if something should be rolled > Based on that, the GM responds to the Players > Players respond to the GM > the GM decides if something should be rolled > and so on…
Yes, this does sound a lot like everything else on the market right now. The core idea here doesn’t differ from traditional games such as World of Darkness and Dungeons & Dragons. PbtA just puts a name to the cycle of exchanges Players and GMs go through and helps you navigate it more clearly. With that said, PbtA and Traditional RPGs split ways in how much agency your Players have in the story, and how important rolls are. For instance, in WoD and D&D you go over combat turn-by-turn, while in KDL you can roleplay an entire combat that goes on and on from dusk till dawn using a single roll if you wish.
If we were to zoom in and breakdown The Conversation, this is more or less how that would look like:
- GM sets a scene with one or more challenges. Pretty darn obvious, I know, but imagine your game playing out before your eyes just like a movie. Every scene should have a purpose, and it should be clear to you as GM and more or less so to the Players as well. You don’t need to disclose that you’re setting up a scene because of (…) and you need to know if (…) and (…) because (…). But you do need to understand why you are doing this specific scene instead of whatever else you thought would be cool. When you give it a purpose, you know where to guide your players, so ask yourself: Why are we playing this scene? What are we trying to explore here?, and pinpoint the answer: “I want to see how the group reacts to Robert’s sudden Stability loss and newly acquired addiction.” Or maybe “I want to know if they’re grieving a lost friend or don’t care about it at all.” Perhaps “Kiara is trying to get a grip on reality, I want to see if she succeeds.” Or even something lighter, like “I need to showcase the difficulties of studying the occult and how draining it is.” Once you set and describe the scene, it is up to the players to explore it.
- Players utilize their agency to explore the setting. Whenever you set up a scene/challenge, you ask Players “What do you do?” This is where they affect the scene through roleplay, and you should be always alert to possible triggers that can be used to roll and further the plot or help explore the challenges you just set. If you need clear guidance here, I must tell you to ask for a Move only if there’s something at stake or at the very least the story itself benefits from a possible failure or success. Long story short, it isn’t because the characters are investigating that they roll Investigate. Or because they’re trying to influence someone that they’re gonna roll Influence Other. Sometimes you may even roll something different than expected, like Act Under Pressure instead of Influence Other. But I’ll go over Basic Moves later.
- GM makes a Move. When Players are roleplaying their characters, you have to help them travel the setting. This is part of the exchange. As much as they’re free to improvise details of the setting, they don’t know when a surprise is about to hit them. Or what exactly does this door lead to, or what happens if the character uses this weird drug. This is where you come in. You’re there to represent the world and other side characters. You’re there to interpret the consequences of actions and make them fun. To keep it simple, everything you do is a GM Move. For example, as weird as it sounds, when a character uses a drug and blacks out, you’re essentially using “Capture Someone” or “Separate Them”. That means you don’t have to keep a table of GM Moves and Cool Complications next to you during the game. For now, you may treat Partial Successes as “GM makes a Soft Move” and Failures as “GM makes a Hard Move.” Although it isn’t strictly like that, because Moves typically have their own conditions of Partial Success and Failure (which are, again, suggestions of Soft and Hard GM Moves). If you don’t understand the differences between Soft and Hard Moves, know that Soft is anything that can be fought against. Hard is consequences point blank. If you say “She clawed your stomach and bathed on your guts. Mark one Serious Wound”, that’s a Hard Move. There’s no way to fight this. Your Player is already suffering harm. However, if you say “She’s about to claw your stomach open, ready to bathe on your guts. What do you do?” That’s a Soft Move, because the Player will respond within the fiction how the character reacts and probably use a trigger for one of his Moves (Engage in Combat, Act Under Pressure, …). Again, your call if a roll is needed once the trigger is met.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the scene is cut. After a GM Move, Players will navigate the challenges once again, and you’re gonna make more Moves, and the Players are gonna roll even more Moves. That is how it goes. Even if you don’t ask for Players to roll, there’s still an exchange. You’re gonna talk a little, then your players are gonna talk a little, and then the ball is back to you, and so on and so forth until the scene reaches an end.
Some of the dos and don’ts:
- Do encourage your players to face the dangers of the setting. Entice them to accept hard bargains, shady opportunities, and fall for the sweet lies of Elysium.
- Don’t punish them for failing. Instead, put the suffering in the spotlight and revel in horror. It should be fun to go crazy, to be maimed by a creature, to go blackout drunk and wake up in Inferno. Just don’t make it uncomfortable. If players roll their eyes or dread every time they pick up the dice, something is wrong here.
- Do break the rules in your favor. That list of Soft and Hard Moves over there? These are but a guideline. Let them inspire you, not hinder your roleplay experience.
- Don’t remove player agency. Yes, this is horror. Yes, player agency is somewhat limited. No, it is not your job to describe how the PC is going crazy. Or how they react to things. One thing is saying that something is frightening and scares them, a whole other thing is stating they’re fearing for their lives and must run in panic. One thing to keep in mind is Players have to respect the outcomes of their rolls — that’s part of the game — but you can’t force your wishes upon them. That means if you’re honest about a roll, you may push consequences freely. For example, failing a Keep It Together against the Cairath makes the characters freeze in fear.
- Do ask “what do you do?” every time. This ties back to the don’t above. Your Move can be a creature using supernatural powers to fill the characters with dread and rage. If players wish to fight back the urge, they can roll to Keep It Together. But even if they don’t, you should ask them what they wish to do. In a sense, whenever you ask “What do you do?” you’re essentially asking “How do you wish to change the fiction now?” And Players will respond accordingly. The fiction-changing-answer doesn’t need to be a Basic Move, it just needs to change the fiction. Check the example later on to see an example of this.
- Do fail forward. If failing a Move would halt the story, don’t roll for it. Don’t roll to gather obvious clues. Don’t roll to get a binary answer of “you do it or you don’t.” Don’t roll because you just want to. Roll when failing or succeeding matters. Roll when you wish to change the fiction — sometimes drastically. And when you roll for a Move, roll with it. Always forward. Always exchanging turns in the conversation. Don’t shy away from the results. Enjoy failure as much as you enjoy succeeding, because that’s the beauty of horror. Root for success and failure equally, just like when you watch horror flicks. You wanna see the protagonist doing good, but you also wanna see them failing and succumbing to the creature.
EXAMPLE OF A SIMPLE EXCHANGE, AS DESCRIBED ABOVE
Steps will be highlighted next to text. (1) is the GM setting the scene/status quo/challenge/fictional truth. (2) is Players reacting to it and changing it back, sometimes rolling for the change as well. (3) is the GM reacting to the Player’s wishes and making a move, that in turn prompts another (2) that prompts another (3) that prom… To further explain how the exchange happened from a GM perspective, I will also include numbers next to the actions to reference it later.
Context of the scene: The PC is a Seeker who accidentally stumbled on a Limbo creature while using the Net. Robyn happens to be a great way for the creature to channel its energies. From time to time, the monster saps Robyn’s vital energy causing the PC to blackout for a certain amount of time.
Purpose of the scene: Explore how the PC deals with losing Stability after suffering the creature’s “energy drain”. The GM knows this might be a good time to push for a Keep it Together roll.
In the scene below there are few actual Moves made by the GM, although he uses his turn to guide the Player with questions and suggestions. Remember that when guiding a Player, you don’t necessarily need to be making a Soft or Hard Move.
|Scene recap||Explaining the conversation|
|(1) Robyn, it is almost 3 am when you come to your senses. You’ve been staring blankly at your glitched out monitor for 6 hours straight now. What happened? Your eyes are dry and strained, your stomach hurts and the buzzing sound you’ve been hearing just got stronger. What do you do?||The established scene begins on a calm note, without a danger in sight, even if the GM knows the danger is already lurking inside Robyn’s computer and, now, maybe in her mind. He wants to find out how much the creature already affected her, of course, he sets the scene without spoiling the fun.|
|(2) I will get up and go to the bathroom and have a sip of water.||Scene is pushed until there is nothing more to be said by the character. Robyn’s Player already described and expressed the character’s concern.|
|(3) And then what?|
|(2) I’ll talk to myself while I stare at my own reflection in the broken mirror.|
|(3) And what do you say?|
|(2) I mumble “God, I’m such a mess right now. Where is my head at? Damn…”|
|(3) This is not the first time that’s happened, Robyn. You know that if you don’t go to a doctor, these events will probably escalate even more.||GM makes a Soft Move (Announce Future Problems), but doesn’t ask what Robyn will do. Instead, the GM knows he’ll guide the conversation using other means.|
|(2) “But what will the doctor say?” I keep talking to myself. “That I need some fresh air? I already know this.”||Player is expressing again that Robyn doesn’t quite know how to deal with this situation. That is a dead giveaway that maybe it is time to shed some more light into the problem. GM probably takes a note or two.|
|(3) Is there something you can do to calm yourself in times like these?||As to not let the scene bog down, the GM continues to lead Robyn and asks a meaningful question that needs an answer. Essentially, that’s a Soft Move (Offer An Opportunity, With or Without Price). If Robyn refuses to do something to calm down, the GM knows he’s somewhat free to make a Hard Move and cause 1 Stability loss (Decrease Stability), as this is obviously bothering the character.|
|(2) Actually, yes. I grab my pack of cigs and a can of beer. I’m gonna chill on the balcony for a while.||Robyn takes it.|
|(3) Ah, I take it that is your way of coping with your nerves and staying on top of stressful shit? Would you agree?||GM knows that’s a good opportunity to ask for a Move. Asks if Player agrees, because failing the roll might entail more consequences than anticipated.|
|(2) Well, sort of. Yes. Taking some time to reflect on what’s happening while smoking and drinking seems like it’s gonna help me to gather my thoughts.||Robyn agrees.|
|(3) Roll to Keep It Together. Let’s see how Robyn deals with blanking out so much.||GM names which Move to roll according to the triggers already met within the fiction.|
|(2) Well, that was bad. I rolled a 7.||Player rolls and announces failure.|
|(3) That sucks, sounds like this is bothering you much more than it appears to be. Would you consider it a -2 Stability emotional trauma or a -4 Stability life changing trauma?||GM ponders a bit, fearing this might derail the character his Player is putting so much work to bring to life. Suffering -4 Stability is always a huge deal and this doesn’t seem like the situation would cause truly life-changing trauma… quite yet.|
|(2) For now this is just making me anxious. Last time I blanked out for 3 hours, now it is 6 hours? What then? 8 hours staring at my screen? And then what? How long until I lose my entire day? That’s -2 Stability for sure. A single tear will drop from my eye as I realize I’m losing my grip. Maybe I’m going insane. Do I have dementia? Alzheimer? What is it? I don’t notice, but my hands are shaking.||Player takes the lead and describes the failed Move and what it means for Robyn and the fiction.|
|(4) And on that note, this scene ends. With a silent sob and anxious, worried thoughts.||GM cuts the scene.|
As you can see here, there are but a few actual Moves (uppercase M) made, but a total of 17 moves (lowercase m) in the whole exchange. GMs don’t need to always trigger a Move to keep the story going, but they do need to guide it. When in doubt, do a Soft Move. If the Soft Move is ignored, you can always follow with a Hard Move. Players also don’t need to roll for Basic/Aware/Enlightened Moves. They can affect the story just by describing their character grabbing a pack of smokes and thinking about life.
That’s it for The Conversation. If you want to continue exploring GM Moves, there’s this blog post by Kraetyz about those. We’ll hopefully meet again in the near future where I’m gonna dive deeper on Basic and GM Moves, Combat and Wounds, Stability and whatnot.
I hope everyone found interesting Gabe’s thoughts on this subject, I am sure there is more where that came from. If you don’t want to wait for him to write something like this again for the blog, all readers are welcome (again) to join Kult – Elysium on Discord to dive into conversations about Kult’s rules, setting, tone, and much else. Hope to see you there!