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.

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.


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!

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.

1. An overview and what is worthy in the scenario: the Summit

The Summit is a scenario about isolation, and the horrors humans will perpetuate when pushed to insanity. The characters have something precious to them stolen and rush after it seeking its recovery. They will go from the regular part of the city and upon crossing the bridge, enter an abandoned section of the city, visiting body horror and the increasingly revolting tableaus to reach the Monarch Apartment Complex, ascending to the final floor to either recover that which was taken or join the debased cult of the pin-stripe man known as Monarch. 

What is definitely worthy in this scenario is the setup and introduction, the location when introduced has this wonderful complexity of opportunities for exploration, it raises questions during the introductory ambush and the stealing of something precious to them and the tension when they have to chase it down to the abandoned section of the city. The motif of Monarch Apartments as a skyscraper of doom is very much an intriguing one. 

I am sure there are groups who have successfully played through this scenario. However, that I feel would be more of a reflection of the skill of the group than the strength of the scenario, as the GM has to tease out the good elements and change-out the subpar ones. 

2. What is wrong with it from an agency and PbtA view. 

Beyond the crystallisation of the worthiness in the scenario, the number of items terrible in this scenario are many. The proposed player character groups are all with no strong reasons to go into the abandoned section of the city, let alone prepared to see or even participate in the horrors along the way. The reasons why they would continue is only due to GM fiat.

Re-reading through the scenario, the player-characters could choose to be a group of high-schoolers, who upon entering the foyer of the Monarch Apartments would be forced to participate in an orgy with little to no escape from it. There are other themes of body horror and hyper sexualization through-out the scenario, but this one struck me as the most wrong among the options.

I am going to ask you to pause, and try to imagine having no choice but to play this scene in front of other players of different genders, age groups, family and relationship statuses, without it being frankly personally traumatic and scarring. 

This highlights though some of the cardinal sins of the scenario, which is the lack of a formalised consent structure for the players and a strong lack of agency with the characters through-out it.

In the Summit, as the characters progress into the abandoned section of the city and finally into Monarch apartments they end up with little to no choices in following the dictates of the GM. The only way to pass through the Monarch apartment complex is to get to the penthouse. If they die they end up on the ground floor and have to go through the same arbitrary traps and scenes again without recourse to skip over.

From a Powered by the Apocalypse perspective, the GM is supposed to be an advocate for the player allowing them great amounts of agency beyond that of just die rolls. It allows the players through their characters greater autonomy and world building opportunities over the entire world. This agency is sorely lacking in the Summit. 

3. Exploring mature themes and my feelings about them. 

The themes in the Summit are said to be isolation, violence and desperation. The question as they ascend both physically and mentally is how far will the characters go in losing their humanity to reach their goals. 

When dealing with mature subjects, one has to be cognisant they are played out in the minds of the players. It is the responsibility of the GM for the players to be aware in detail what they are going to expect when going in and how to stop it and what are the options as the character to escape from it. 

It is thus important to have a warning section prior to delving into the scenario explaining from a meta-language perspective to the prospective GM the themes in detail, what is trying to be achieved and how to scale it back so that it follows the themes of the scenario, while still being a safe environment for each player. 

The Summit is missing most if not all the safeties as they are being led by the GM and often have no choice in the matter of how the scene will play out. When the GM is influencing the character through the player and having this broader power due to the lack of player agency, the player reaches a point where they stop reacting and will mechanically go with the words of the GM. This can ultimately create a fertile ground for genuine trauma. 

For me, if the scenario would be played as written, I would leave the group, never to talk to them again. The reason being, I would have to experience the GM telling me how he’s essentially going to rape/murder/torture me by proxy over and over again in the Monarch Apartment Complex. I would also feel cheated finding out this was the incremental reveal at the end and that no matter which of the scenario options I choose at the finale, it will always result in a Pyrrhic victory to me. 

4. Converting what is worthy in the Summit into a scenario that is more accessible to Kult: Divinity Lost.

There are still some good concepts inside of this scenario and what I would like to do is deconstruct the scenario and rebuild it to become Kult-like. 

From the Pit to the Pinnacle: A reconfiguration of the Summit

Short synopsis of the scenario: The group needs to reach the pinnacle of the Monarch Apartment Complex while having to make increasingly difficult choices between the easier immoral options and the much harder moral ones. 

Themes: The scenario is about whether stripping away our humanity truly makes us strong. 

Before starting: 

  1. Discuss what topics and themes you are willing and unwilling to explore and to what degree. Refer back to this every time when fleshing out the scenario and during game-play.
  2. Discuss with your group, should the types (sacrifices, secrets and rumours) also be shared with select player characters of the group or not. If you choose to share, this can create further interplay and tension between player characters. You may find the best interplay by sharing one of each type with a different player character.

Notes: You below refers to your character.

Questions for generating the scenario:

  1. What kind of goal would make you willing to sacrifice everything?
  2. What type of mundane group would be willing to reach that goal?
  3. What would create urgency in reaching that goal?
  4. Action for each PC: Write down 3 things you would be willing to sacrifice to reach that goal. Once complete, show them to the GM only.

Questions about the location:

  1. How do you enter the abandoned part of the city?
  2. What is supernaturally unusual about that abandoned part of the city?
  3. What are some of the elements that make you uneasy while moving in that abandoned part of the city? (Discuss what a description of a street would look like)
  4. Why won’t help come for you in this abandoned part of the city?
  5. Action for each PC: You have all lived here before. Write down 1 terrible and unconscionable secret act you did to cause you to flee and never return. Once complete, show it to the GM only.

Questions about Pin-Stripe and the inhabitants:

  1. Why does Pin-Stripe have absolute control of this section of the city?
  2. How does its will manifest against you?
  3. What control does Pin-Stripe have over its inhabitants?
  4. What would an example inhabitant clinging to the remnants of their humanity be like to elicit revulsion and sympathy?
  5. What would an example inhabitant who embraced their monstrousness be like to elicit fear?
  6. Each PC: Write down 2 rumours about what makes Pin-Stripe a terror (mundane or supernatural). Once complete, show them to the GM only.

Questions about the Monarch Apartment Complex:

  1. What makes the Monarch stand out among the rest of the abandoned part of the city?
  2. How is the Monarch an extension of the will of Pin-Stripe?
  3. What kind of terror do you feel as you approach it? (Discuss how does the terror manifest with the PCs and also in the environment)
  4. What would an example abandoned apartment in Monarch be like to elicit abhorrence and despair?
  5. What would an example inhabited apartment in Monarch be like to elicit dread?

During game play:

Locations in the abandoned section of the city:

  1. What was this place and what is it now?
  2. What senses are now engaged?
  3. Who or what inhabit this location?
  4. Pick a sacrifice from among the player characters they would have to complete to pass.

Locations in the Monarch Apartment Complex:

  1. What is this place?
  2. Is it abandoned or occupied?
  3. What emotions are now engaged?
  4. Pick a sacrifice from among the player characters they would have to complete to pass.

The Monarch Penthouse:

  1. What is unusual or jarring about this place?
  2. What is generating that sense of terror you feel?
  3. Who or what else is here beyond Pin-Stripe?
  4. Pick a sacrifice from each player character they would each have to complete to reach their goal.


  1. What was the final outcome?
  2. What stories have remained uncompleted?
  3. Where are you six months from now and how have you been reminded of the events in the Monarch Penthouse?

Thank you to Chrystal for allowing me to post this review on my blog! You can find her and myself on the Kult – Elysium Discord server.

The Truth About

A good friend of mine messaged me, basically without context, and gave me a prompt to write something Kult-y about. The truth about ‘’. 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 ‘’. 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, ‘’ 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.

Step 1: Decision Points

The most important thing when playing a scene, I think, is what decisions the player(s) can make during it. I try to center scenes around the most important decisions that might get made. How will Jessy deal with the girl knocking on her door? What will her reaction be to Tan’s intimidating sexual advances? If I know what the scene is supposed to center around, what the big thing is going to be, then I’ll know what the pace for the scene should be. I’ll look for ways to guide the scene towards the interesting decisions.

Step 2: Endings

Since I know what the big decisions for the scene are, musing about endings becomes much easier. What happens if Jessy attacks Wilma? What if she instead succeeds in bargaining with her? Or if Wilma’s thugs just attack her outright? The scene has a direction, but that direction is ultimately in the hands of the player(s). I often have several potential end points for scenes. Some scenes might end early, or they might go on for a long time, and having a lot of bases covered lets all of that feel meaningful and smooth. You obviously can’t control everything the players might get up to, of course, since…

Step 3: Nothing ever works out

Plans fail all the time. All the time. You cannot write a scene and expect it to play out the way you wrote it. Decision points might have to get reframed because of player action, what you thought was the ending of a scene ends up giving a creative player more drive to continue it, and sometimes players decide to do something you simply had never even considered. All my notes are garbage, all the writing for naught. You just have to wing it, and it’s not always going to be the clean, pretty thing you had in your head.

And isn’t that wonderful? No plan survives contact with the real world, and that definitely applies to writing roleplaying games. You might splice two of your planned scenes together in some cool new way (Jessy meeting Honey), entirely new plotlines get created because of your players (Jessy becoming obsessed with Artyom), and strange die roll outcomes give you an opportunity to expand the world and the story in ways you’d never thought of (This one’s secret). I find it hella scary to GM sometimes, because I know I can never be ready for everything that might happen no matter how much I try. That’s when I try to remind myself that it’ll be fine. Playing the game will always be satisfying enough.

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.

  • Scenario play, in Alien referred to as Cinematic, involves the Game Master writing or purchasing a full scenario. It should detail the beginning, middle and end of a story that the players will experience. The Game Master may introduce additional plot points or change some details, but in the end the players will have to finish the scenario as written to have a satisfying conclusion.
  • Campaign play, which is what Kult: Divinity Lost and PbtA games are primarily focused on, involves the Game Master writing a story continously, developing it over time as the players experience it. They may have an end goal in mind, but there will likely be unknowns in the middle of the story, and player choices may require introducing new plot points.
  • Player agency is the term I use to describe the idea that ‘player actions matter’. If player actions do not matter, the story is a complete railway akin to the GM telling their friends a story, and the ‘players’ (if they could even be called that) have no agency. In a game where the GM lets players take any action they like and allows it to have an impact on the world and story, the players have high agency. Note that GM-less/GM-full games need not apply. That’s a separate discussion.

We can see that player agency is a big factor in roleplaying. Scenario play makes no promise of extensive player agency, as the story should be experienced as written. This is not to say that the players will have nothing to do – they must still interact with the setting and each other, decisions may have to be made and side plots could develop over time. However, their destination is set in ink and unless the GM wants to abandon the structure of scenario play, they will need to get there. This is starkly contrasted to campaign play, where the Game Master must always be receptive to players’ decisions and write accordingly. The goal is to allow the players exploration of a setting on their terms, pointing the way and stating their preferences so that the GM can give them what they want.

There are many ways to provide players with agency, and not all of them are suited for scenario play or campaign play, respectively. I think communicating with your players about what level of agency they have is important to do before playing a game. If you are about to play La Cena, a quick scenario set exclusively at a family dinner, you may clarify to the players that they shouldn’t have their character spend the night at a hotel, nor should they actively attempt to sabotage the dinner. If your long campaign is themed around intrigue and political posturing in 15th century Florence, the players should keep their interests focused on the city and its surroundings, rather than seeking to travel the world. Still, the responsibility does not fall solely on the players. The GM must be aware of what they’re presenting and how they’re doing it, and always be ready to come up with or have prepared a response to the players’ actions. That is our job, after all. I would like to touch on a few ways in which I view player agency, in order to better discuss what I think is suited for what kind of play.

  1. Action agency. The player’s choices have an effect on the actions their character is taking. This is probably the most basic form of player agency. You get to decide what your character does. This is a nearly universal feature of roleplaying games, but I think it is important to note its existence regardless. A GM may still say “you can’t do that” or say “you take a step forward”, thus removing action agency from the player in some small way. In games like Kult: Divinity Lost, action agency may be lost entirely for some time as characters fall under the influence of beings more powerful than themselves.
  2. Spatial agency. The player’s choices have an effect on where their character is. This is different from action agency, in that a character’s physical position can have a direct impact on what they have access to in terms of NPCs, items, plot events, etc. In very open games like Forbidden Lands, players have very high spatial agency and are allowed to go and explore the whole world at any time. In more limited settings, such as Avery Alder’s Ribbon Drive, players might move around a little bit, but the story centers around their road trip and as such they shouldn’t expect to go very far away from their car.
  3. Social agency. The player’s choices have an effect on the relationships of other entities in the game. If your GM allows you to cause two NPCs to hate each other, or to ignore the quest giver to instead go work for the villain, you have social agency. It is worth differentiating from action agency, which is only concerned with the player character’s actions. Players with social agency are allowed to change the course of actions for NPCs, which can be very impactful. This type of agency is especially emphasized in games like Monsterhearts, where the ever-changing relationships between players and NPCs is the core enjoyment of the game.
  4. Plot agency. The player’s choices have an effect on the story told and perhaps even its ending. While this is what many roleplaying games are sold as promoting, this is the most difficult form of player agency to write for. Allowing the players control of the plot with their actions, not only affecting how the story is told but what it is even about, requires the GM to not write in advance. Instead, they must live in the moment and allow the story to be decided on by the players. This can be very challenging.

Using these different ways of examining player agency, we can identify what kind of preparations we have to make in order to make the game flow smoothly for our players. It also allows us to better shape scenes and scenarios in effective ways by restricting or emphasizing different kinds of agency. To go back to La Cena, the bulk of the scenario takes place inside the Cruz household. As such, there’s no need to prepare information for what the neighbors are doing or what’s happening in another part of Miami. Instead, we can prepare conversation starters, spiteful acts from scorned family members, and NPC responses to a wide variety of player created events. More generally we could look at situations such as failed Keep it Together rolls, where the GM might simply tell the player that their character is running away from the situation. They are robbed of agency in the situation, but it emphasizes some aspect of the story (such as unimaginable terror). Having a firm understanding of what we want to allow the players lets us both write for it, and lets us play with expectations.

So with this in mind, let us rephrase this post’s opening query.
Question: What kind of player agency is best?

The answer is still ‘it depends’! This is entirely up to each Game Master, because the stories we tell and how we tell them is a matter of personal taste. So below, I’d like to discuss how I personally like to think about scenarios and campaigns, respectively.


When I think about scenarios, I am only concerned with self-contained stories which have a beginning, some number of twists and turns, and one or several end points.  An example would be And The Rockets Red Glare, which I recently played. The story takes place inside Trump Tower, has a clear structure of three days where things happen, and there is a definite ending to the story on election night. The characters will be there to take part of the story, playing the parts they have been given, and once the story is complete, we stop playing. The characters have experienced something horrible as per Kult standards, they’ve made up their minds on how they feel about that, and they’ve hopefully acted on some of their thoughts and beliefs with varying degrees of success. That’s a memorable experience, and it is the kind of scenarios I like to think about.

For this reason, I tend to favor scenario stories with a very limited scope. The scenario should be more concerned with presenting the best possible story than presenting the players with freedom. I am in favor of limiting all forms of agency a player has so that the story is guaranteed to be intact. The players have strict work days to adhere to in And The Rockets Red Glare. The GM has a list of scenes, and the story is presented in such a way that it is reasonable to jump from scene to scene and tell the players they have to be there. You can’t say no to doing your job in these situations. That is not to say that the players would not have any agency – certain NPCs can certainly be affected by their actions, they may be allowed some freedom of movement, and there are several ways to shape the end of the story. Giving the players wiggle room can produce great side plots, if you are prepared to maintain them alongside the actual scenario. The story does still need to be told though, and if that requires telling the players that they’re not allowed to leave Trump Tower, then I am okay with that.

The same applies to character creation for me. This is perhaps a secret, mysterious form of player agency, “Conception agency”, if you will. Because a scenario already has a story to tell, it must be played by characters which are inclined to interact with, or are intrinsically tied to, that story. In And The Rockets Red Glare, you are all interns working for the Trump campaign. You are playing a character who made that decision, and the sort of person who does that would be inclined to interact with the story presented by the scenario. I am a big fan of pre-generated characters, as is Alien: The RPG (which as I mentioned requires pre-gens for scenario play), but guided character creation can also be a good option here. There are ten character options for And The Rockets Red Glare, but they are very brief. The players are encouraged to expand on their characterization, and also get to decide what their attributes are. This gives the players the maximum amount of freedom that can be provided while still offering the best possible story.

This may seem like railroading to some… and maybe! It’s a fuzzy term. I would respond to that both by questioning whether railroading is evil, and by pointing out that character interactions between players can be a great source of entertainment when roleplaying. If you have four well crafted characters and lock them in a room together, they don’t have much spatial agency but could still spend hours interacting and forming opinions of one another. This still applies even in a somewhat less agency-constricted scenario. You will hopefully see some of this when the session recaps for And The Rockets Red Glare are posted: while the story proceeded as per the text, the players provided me with ample opportunities to build new scenes and even a small side plot. It is possible to offer player-constructed sideplots and dramatic scenes even in very railroaded scenarios.


To me, a campaign is an open-ended and player driven roleplaying experience which goes on for many sessions. The word can mean many other things, but that is the viewpoint which I have taken in this post. Jessy’s Story is crafted in this fashion. The point to a campaign is to have characters with goals, and allow the characters to act towards those goals. While there likely is an underlying story even from the start, the campaign should be allowed to drastically change in tone and content based on player action. Plot agency is everything. We do not aim to tell the best story, but instead aim to allow the player the best portrayal and exploration of their character. When I write campaigns, I aim to build from what the character does or wants to do, which is in the hands of the player.

Player agency during campaigns may fluctuate a lot, because as plot lines are introduced and resolved the characters are put in situations which may more closely resemble self-contained scenario structures. The difference is that while in a scenario structure you know in advance what the agency limitations are or should be, when this occurs in a campaign it is due to player action. When Jessy was placed in a situation of being unsure on how to get home in session two, her decision to go to a hotel was what put her in a precarious and more constricted situation. Her relationship with Artyom, and Tan, and every other character is a direct consequence of her own actions. Jessy is not being guided – she points the way, and I pave it. The players make decisions based on the situation in the fiction, and the Game Master responds accordingly by adjusting the control they have of the story.

This approach to campaign play is why I am not interested in running The Black Madonna or Taroticum. Well-written campaigns, no doubt, but the approach does not work for me. For campaigns, I can not write ahead too much. Certainly it’s good to have a good grasp of the “Truth” of a story, but the players’ actions need to dictate where the story goes and how it ends. I can not go into details yet as to what has changed in the background of Jessy’s Story as it develops through the sessions, but consider player choices such as Jessy becoming ‘Obsessed’ with Artyom upon seeing him, rather than ‘Scared’ or any other option. Without such a decision, her storyline would have proceeded in a much different direction. What is so thrilling about campaigns is that as you play them, you begin to recognize decision points like this. You know where the narrative took a turn because of the players’ actions. They craft their characters to tell the story they want to tell, and the GM acts as a medium for it to be told in whatever direction it needs to go. Of course, GMing also involves surprising the players even within their own narrative, but that could be an article on its own.

To summarize: For scenarios, I put the focus on providing the most complete story, while in campaigns I shift the focus to emphasize the impact of player actions. When I am writing, I try to take these things into account. It’s important because the better I understand what my players want to or will do, the easier of a time I’ll have when running the game. I try to be open about what’s okay and what’s not, plan thoroughly for bits I’m certain will be relevant and have a basic understanding in my head of the rest so that the inevitable improvisation is satisfactory. In scenario play, I try to make room for player choice in ways that do not harm the story, and in campaigns I let the choices have a major impact on the story told by never writing too much ahead.

These are my thoughts. It may be a tad rambly, but I hope I got across how I approach GMing. Was this interesting to you? Was it helpful? How do you view player agency? Leave comments, hit me up on Discord if you can find me, ping me on Facebook! I’m curious about this stuff.

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.

She also has a website! And Instagram! And Facebook! And even a Twitter! I feel like linking all of those here 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:


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.

The Moves are not a list of actions. The Moves represent actions that fall within the theme of the game. When the GM looks at the list of Moves, their mentality ought not be to pick from the list. The list is there to inspire and guide the GM to tell a story consistent with the game’s vision and themes. This is why the GM never rolls dice. They should never be restricted to rules such as rolling dice or picking options from a chart. You are a storyteller, and the game system allows you to be that. When you are a GM in a PbtA game, you can do anything. The Moves are there to remind you that you shouldn’t, and that you should stick to the theme set forward by the game.

Certain Moves directly influence the players’ game stats, such as Deal Damage. The existence of Moves like these reinforces this idea, that the GM decides everything that goes into the story. If they weren’t allowed to do anything they liked, then Enjure Injury would cover all instances where a PC was about to take damage. Instead, the GM is allowed to decide whether the players have an chance to escape or not. Sometimes, you are just going to get hurt. These Moves exist to ensure that the GM doesn’t just have full narrative control, but full mechanical control as well.

Let us take a closer look at this, just to fully show what I mean. The GM has several Moves that influence the Harm and Damage mechanics. Here is a comprehensive rundown.

  • Harm Move. The GM can announce that a character is receiving Harm. The player can then Avoid Harm, and/or Endure Injury. This is the weaker Move the GM can make, and gives the affected player multiple reasonable chances to escape.
  • Exchange Harm for Harm. The GM can announce that a character is receiving Harm, but gets to deal some Harm back in exchange. This is mostly identical to the above, except the GM acknowledges the player’s intent to be an active combatant and offers them a mechanical opportunity for it.
  • Deal Damage. The GM can, should they desire, announce that a character is taking Damage. By doing this, the GM circumvents the regular mechanics for taking damage in favor of telling their story the way they think it should go. It is a very hard Move, but it exists because sometimes, a player should simply be given a Critical Injury.

The fact that GMs have the option of either inflicting Harm (which allows for player response) or inflicting Damage (which does not), I find illustrates this point. The GM decides what happens, and the GM decides whether the players get a say in it.

Enough about mechanics, let us talk about the primary motive of GM Moves: Controlling the story’s narrative and themes. Kult: Divinity Lost provides a very clear example as to why Moves are not to be treated as a list to pick from, but rather as inspiration for your own narration. There are a lot of Moves in KDL. So many, in fact, that they take up basically the entire GM Screen, and it still doesn’t cover all the Moves listed in the rulebook.

So what do all of these Moves do? Let’s first look at a few “core” Moves, and Move on from there.

  • Take their stuff. Choose something that the PCs possess, and take it away from them. By some means.
  • Capture someone. Introduce an obstacle, anything, that keeps a PC in place. What is it? You decide.
  • Announce off-screen problems. Describe something that’s happening outside the PCs reach or vision. It can be anything.

Well that’s incredibly vague and non-specific, isn’t it? If you were to pick Moves as though they were a list of actions to take, you would still be forced to do a lot of leg work in working the outcome of the Move into the fiction. It would be easier to just describe what happens and not even look at these Move. Let’s Move on to some more exotic Moves.

  • Distortion of Time and Space. Move a mentally ill person somewhere else, or send them on a trip in time.
  • Life in the Ruins. When in Metropolis, introduce a living being to encounter or hint at.
  • Leave Traces. When a PC travels between dreams, they leave a trace behind for another entity to find.

These are just as vague as the core Moves, except they come with some condition – the player is close to some other realm of existence, or is dreaming, or perhaps has a low Stability. The exact nature of when these requirements are fulfilled are left up to the GM, which in essence makes their triggers entirely arbitrary. The GM can choose to perform a Move like the ones above at any time they like, if they feel it fits the current fiction.

This is the first point of what I want to talk about – if the Move fits the fiction, the GM may make it. The specifics deliberately do not matter, because the story is yours to tell, not the book’s. You can trigger the Inferno Move Shadows of the Past when the player is deep within Astaroth’s Citadel, or when they look into a cracked mirror in a particularly vile bathroom in the basement below a filthy strip club. Do not look at the Moves and think that you can only do something scary if some specific condition applies. You can always be scary, and you always should be.

Before I get on to the second, more important point, let us go back to our enormous, really ridiculously long list of Moves. It is time to look at the Moves presented for cults and entities, because they are extremely important. Vital, even.

  • Create living dead (The Tomb Guardian).
  • Unflinching conviction (Prophets of the Third Temple).
  • Call for worshippers (Cairath).
  • Invoking dream beings (The Stillwater Collective).

These are Moves that just appear in the book. They have no additional description, no extra text to explain what they mean, and no way to look up clarifications. The GM simply has to decide what these Moves mean, and narrate the fiction accordingly. There are dozens of these Moves in the core book, maybe over a hundred, and more are added when flipping through The Black Madonna and Taroticum. There is no reasonable way that a GM could ever look at these Moves and decide ‘which to do’. They are not written to let you do that.

The point is, and this is why these Moves are presented the way they are, that the Moves do not matter. Repeat it with me: The Moves do not matter.

You are not expected to use the Moves as a reference point. They are built to be generally applicable narrative elements and storytelling techniques that guide you along your way as you create the story of your game. “GM makes a Move” is a rules text that could just as well state “The Story Continues”, because that is all you are doing. You are urged to continue the story. If you want inspiration for how to tell a story with certain elements of the Kult mythos, read through the Moves that apply to that part of the Mythos. If you have a cool idea and want to work out the best way to present it, create some new Moves as a note to yourself. Moves are not there for you to point at them and go “I split the party”. They are the starting point. They are just there so that you remember to tell a good story.

I hope, dearly hope, that what I have written here is already common knowledge and that I have just been unlucky when discussing AW hacks in the past. If it is not, please let me know if you found this an interesting or eye opening read. And if it turns out that this all looks like mad ravings to you, tell me that too. I am trying to improve my writing.