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.

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Review of The Summit – By Chrystal

Hello, Kultists! This blog post is written by Chrystal, a prominent and highly valued member of the Kult community whom you may recognize. The Summit is a controversial scenario, and in her review Chrystal tries to shed some light on mistakes made, ideas worth praising and what could have been. I hope you enjoy! //Kraetyz

After reading the summit my conclusion is there is a good scenario in there, somewhere. The following review is based on myself and Auburney’s conversation about the topic. As we have consensus of the scenario, I have included with permission some of his comments as if my own. 

I will break this down into sections: 

  1. An overview and what is worthy in the scenario: the Summit
  2. What is wrong with it from an agency and PbtA view. 
  3. Exploring mature themes and my feelings about them as it relates to the Summit. 
  4. Converting what is worthy in the Summit into a scenario that is more accessible to Kult: Divinity Lost.
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The Truth About www.coolmathgames.com

A good friend of mine messaged me, basically without context, and gave me a prompt to write something Kult-y about. The truth about ‘www.coolmathgames.com’. Bewildering, but interesting. I obliged, and this is the result. I hope you enjoy.

While playing around on the internet, you might find yourself wasting your time on ‘www.coolmathgames.com’. It’s an innocuous website, just one of a thousand dedicated to small browser games. There’s retro game clones, platformers, and the eponymous “cool” math games. They might not actually be the website’s main attraction, judging by the top games list, but it is in examining these number puzzles and educational experiences that the perceptive can discover the website’s true purpose.

Playing just one of these games is not enough. Beating one will not tell you anything but a piece of the puzzle, but an alert mind will recognize something offputting about what it’s just seen. There’s a rhythm to the answers, sequences in the solutions that seems to defy reason. Why is it there? Why is it in every one of these games? The few who catch these glimpses, who manage to put together the intricate patterns stretched across dozens of cheerful, colorful browser games, find themselves falling down a rabbit hole unlike any other.

As if a dream, the entire website opens up to them. Not just the code, not just the connections between content hosts and ad networks and the massive, humming server halls in some far-off locations. Like a world of its own, ‘www.coolmathgames.com’ reveals itself to the truth seekers and invites them in. They are lost in front of their computer screen, glued to the simple math questions flashing on their screen in friendly colors. They have entered a place beyond the computer, beyond time and space, a constructed reality of beautiful mathematics and intricate algorithms. It is immaculate, and it is forever.

Jessy on hiatus, musing about scene writing

As session 8 concludes, we find Jessy unconscious and facing an uncertain fate. Well… not entirely uncertain. She will return at the start of next year, facing new challenges and getting further involved in the madness that seems to surround her. This campaign is an undertaking. It’s bigger than I first anticipated when I started writing and certainly bigger than anything else I’ve done in this style. I come from a D&D background, so my concept of campaign writing was largely limited to building dungeons with more rooms and cooler monsters. More narrative-driven games, such as Kult or Tales from the Loop (another favorite of mine), are newcomers to my game arsenal, and so Jessy’s Story has been an opportunity for me to learn. A lot.

For instance: I think I have finally figured out how I like to write scenes! In the past, I’ve always written my own scenarios and campaigns in terms of locations and events, but Kult: Divinity Lost and many other narrative-heavy RPGs ask you to think in terms of scenes. This was a huge change for me, and I’ve stumbled quite a lot with it. I expect myself to stumble for several more years before it becomes easy for me. Even so, I’ve now come up with a way for me to write scenes that I enjoy and think works for me.

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Thoughts on player agency

I often end up in discussions about roleplaying games with friends who share the interest, and recently a topic that’s come up multiple times is this:

How much should the Game Master allow the players to affect the story’s outcome?

Now, the short answer to this is obviously ‘it depends’, but that doesn’t make for a good blog post. So instead, I will explore in some detail my thoughts on how I, as a GM, approach writing depending on what kind of game I am running. I will here make the same separation as the upcoming Alien: The RPG by Free League, and I will praise it for its decisions any time I talk or write about this. In Alien, gameplay is strictly split up into two categories: Cinematic Play and Campaign Play.

  • Cinematic Play involves playing a published, or at least pre-written, scenario. It is separated into Acts, has pre-written characters with their own agendas specific to the scenario, and is generally meant to be played until it’s done and not continued past that point.
  • Campaign Play instead allows the players to create their own characters, give them flair and backstory and rapport, and then explore the universe of Alien as the GM gives them new challenges based on their choices.

Both of these forms of play should be familiar to seasoned roleplayers, but it is the strict distinction in Alien: The RPG that makes it interesting. In Alien, premade cinematic scenarios will (so far as I can understand) always involve pre-made characters, while campaign play should always (again, to my understanding) demand of the GM to write and adapt. Alien even goes so far as to make the rules different for cinematic and campaign play. This makes me really excited, because it is almost exactly how I like to think about writing for other games, specifically Kult: Divinity Lost. Let us cover some terminology to make sure we are on the same page.

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My (lack of) planning

Hello! I have been busy this last while. Lots of work and in-laws visiting for a week means I haven’t been able to write much for myself or the blog! Such is life, isn’t it?
Reminder on that subject: Jessy’s Story session 6 will be one week delayed.

When I write scenarios for Kult, or really any roleplaying game, I tend to keep my notes sparse. Some would say very sparse. I do not often write full scenes, nor often detailed character descriptions. Fish tanks, locations, intrigue maps, stat blocks… none of it! It’s not that I think I wouldn’t find use for these things, but rather that I am not sure it is worth the effort for me a lot of the time.

So what do I have in my notes? Short answer: a mess. I write something down, leave the document, come back a day later and write down something else entirely unrelated. I tend to focus on writing down things that either serve as the basis of a plot point, or inspiration for how to narrate. Everything else, I’ll either keep in my head or come up with on the spot. I can’t remember when I first started relying so heavily on improvisation even for regular play, but I now improvise nearly everything I do when GMing.

I am unsure how common this practice is. I’ve been GMing for nearly 14 years at the time of writing, and very rarely have I been a player or seen another GMs actual work notes. Perhaps it is the same for you? Now is the time to compare!

Here are my full work notes for a two-session scenario I played with my wife and good friend Casey while we were out on a camping trip. My concept was that I wanted to play through Slenderman (2018), but make it better than the movie. I am not sure I succeeded in the end, which is embarrassing, but the players had a good time which is my number one priority.

That is all I wanted to share today. 🙂 Do you write more thorough notes than this? Or do you keep it sparse and just trust yourself that you’ll deliver? Talk about it!

Nahemoth’s Subtle Influence

Trash is everywhere.

You may not always notice it when driving or walking through a city, but it is ever present. Cigarette butts roll across sidewalks, plastic bags drift through the wind, and thousands of half empty coffee cups are left at bus stops ten feet away from the nearest garbage bin. The remains of McDonalds’ meals scatter across parks and parking lots, and dog shit is only one unlucky step away. City folk live with this. They get annoyed with it, zone it out, contribute to it. In the end, it does not matter to them. Cities are not clean.

We know Nahemoth as the smog which chokes out the cities, as rivers polluted with chemicals. Nahemoth is the plastic killing marine life, the wildfire started from a shattered glass bottle, and the large-scale despoiling of all we find beautiful on our planet. If Malkuth was the conformity and logic of nature, Nahemoth is the chaos of nature, the senseless destruction brought through it and to it. She makes us fear that destruction, whether it be with lightning bolts or acid rain. She also guides us to feed it, to make her influence ever stronger and more violent.

The corruption of nature has to start somewhere. It starts with us. The influence of Nahemoth is more insidious than spectacular violence. She will gleefully use the filth and ruin we provide her. She lives with all of us, and affects us on a very personal level. We invite her into our life every time we litter. The unwillingness to recycle, the lackadaisical attitude of your trash being someone else’s problem, it all comes from her and it is pervasive.

Nahemoth strives to create an atmosphere of helplessness against the ruination of nature. If we do not know how to combat it, or are convinced that the situation either can’t or doesn’t have to be fixed, we will continue to feed her. Her clergy and servants will tell you that green fuel is a bad idea. They will tell you that separating your trash and recycling is a waste of time. They proclaim that climate change has gone too far already, and that humanity is already on an irreversible path towards death. Everything you can do to hinder her, you won’t do because she will convince you that it’s never worth it.

So throw your batteries in the river. Continue buying your plastic bags by the dozen and toss them out the car window on your way home. Leave that Starbucks cup right on the sidewalk.

What could it possibly hurt?

Check out my artist’s website!

Larissa Darrah is a very talented freelance illustrator. She does cool digital art and is, in general, a pretty swell person. I wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t swell. She’s also one of my favorite people to play roleplaying games with, and makes every session of Jessy’s Story matter to me.

You can find her everywhere that’s relevant here. Linking her social media and Twitch information is the least I can do to give back for the art she’s making for me. Check her out! She’s open for commissions, if you also enjoy having art.

A Rant about the Free-Form Nature of PbtA

Forewarning: This blog offers little to none explanatory text. If you are not a roleplayer with some understanding of the PbtA ruleset, I can not promise that you will gain much from this. 🙂

One criticism I have read on more than one occasion, including from friends, is that Apocalypse World and its Powered by the Apocalypse ruleset is restrictive to game masters. To which I only have to say:

WHAT?

The idea behind this criticism is that the “Move” structure for game masters feels like a list of actions to pick from. When you are in a scene, you look at the list, decide to “Split the party”, “Inflict Harm” or “Herald the Abyss”, and narrate something according to the theme laid out in that Move. If you are not allowed to narrate events without following this list of Moves, then I would agree that the system is restrictive. Luckily, this is not the case.

Now, a disclaimer before I go further. This is my interpretation of Powered by the Apocalypse and how to use it. There may certainly be more gamified versions of PbtA than Kult: Divinity Lost or Monsterhearts 2, but to me making a truly gamified list of Moves for the GM to pick from misses the point of why Moves are great.

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