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.

On the subject of Archons and their Shadows

Hello! This post’s intended audience is Kult players and GMs with a competent understanding of the game’s mythos. It may feel very inaccessible to people outside that intended audience. You have been advised. 🙂

A discussion I see cropping up every so often is that of the Archons and the Death Angels, and how their Principles do or do not “match”. I always love when the subject gets brought up, because everyone seems to have their own view and vision of what this all means. It’s really enlightening to see people’s different perspectives on the Kult mythos, how Elysium keeps us imprisoned, and what ideals the Archons and Death Angels actually operate on, and their methods. There are many ways to read into this dark universe and make sense of it. In this post, I would like to go over some of my favorite Archons and their Death Angel counterparts, highlighting why I think their Principles are interesting to the world and stories told, and how they connect to and interact with each other.

Binah (Community) – Sathariel (Exclusion)

To begin with, let us examine some piece of lore. When the Demiurge forged ten Principles with which to fetter us, he personified them (in some sense) as the Archons. The Archons are more than mere entities, however, they are cosmic forces in their own right. As these came into being, so too did their shadows, the Death Angels. Let us avoid the discussion on the specifics of how this occurred. The Archons represent humanity’s values and base desires – they are integral to our view of ourselves. That is what Kult tells us. Humans in Elysium are defined by their need and acceptance of hierarchy amongst themselves, the need to submit to the greater will, and indeed the community to which they belong. Binah, the Black Madonna, with her Principle of Community, lays out plain the idea that humanity requires and craves community in order to be whole. Looking around the world, this seems to me an uncontroversial statement. We seek family, seek friends and likeminded strangers, connect with our countrymen and those we share our faith with. This is Binah’s power within Elysium, it is she who guides us to look for these connections.

In our striving to find community, however, we often overlook the natural consequence of defining an ingroup to belong to: there will without fail exist an outgroup. Those who do not belong in your community. It cannot be helped – some will not fit in. There is family, and there are strangers. There are communists, and there are capitalists. There is your faith, and there are heathens. Binah’s shadow, her Principle’s outcome for the unlucky and unloved, is Exclusion, and it is from this that we see Sathariel born. She is the Death Angel of all those who can’t or won’t find belonging. I really enjoy this. The Archons define and represent our most pervasive ideals and wishes, while the Death Angels highlight the dark outcomes of the same. This is the approach I take to understanding the sephirot and qliphoth of Kult myth, as you’ll see in the remaining comparisons.

Chesed (Safety) – Gamichicoth (Fear)

Without a doubt, Chesed is my favorite Archon. Destroyed though he is, the Principle he stood for is vitally important to understand if we want to grasp how Kult views humanity and its progress since industrialization. I suppose that it is worth pointing out here that Kult is rather “Western” in its myth making and writing, and so this approach may come off as, eh, problematic to some. It can’t be helped. We must take at face value that the Demiurge’s fall and the War of the Archons coincides with the industrialization of Europe and North America, and that this is hugely impactful to humanity globally. These are not mere coincidences, but conscious choices. Chesed was destroyed as Europe propelled itself into a new age, where anything could be achieved. What we had for so long thought out of reach and things we’d never even imagined possible were suddenly right among us, and any sense of comfort and safety quickly dissolved as the masses were thrust into the industrial era.

Chesed’s principle was Safety, which might also be read as comfort. Prior to the Archon’s fall, humanity lived rather sheltered lives. We knew little and saw less, with the exception of a brave few travellers and those who had the luxury of education and wealth. Thanks to Chesed’s influence, this was idyllic in some ways. We knew the world as far as the horizon line, recognized the faces around us, and told stories which would explain the world and its intricacies in simple ways none would find time to question. When you don’t know how little you know, it would seem that everything is explained. Ignorance is bliss. The shadow of this idea, of course, manifests as the fear of the unknown. What might challenge your secluded little world view must be regarded not just with suspicion, but as outright dangerous. Gamichicoth, the Death Angel of Fear, incarnates as all the things outside your pool of knowledge. Where Chesed tells you that what you know is all you need to stay safe, Gamichicoth posits that what you don’t know must be rejected as dangerous, only because you don’t already know it.

The War of the Archons began as Malkuth utterly annihilated Chesed (and we’ll talk more about this later in this post), and this signals a massive shift in how we humans viewed the world. Industrialisation brought many things upon us. We saw more, from the rise of trains and cars to massive factories spouting smoke. We knew more, with physics and biology dissecting and revealing what was once the domain of God. There was no longer an excuse for ignorance as scientific and economic advances steamrolled the old world for the new, and what were we left with? Certainly not a sense of safety, but larger and larger unknowns. A wider scope. More things to fear. Gamichicoth still lives in the shadow of Safety. We may never again return to the world where we could imagine a comfortable and common sense existence, but must instead face an endless stream of the new, the unknown, the things we cannot and will not understand. In the new world, there is no safety. Only fear.

Yesod (Avarice) – Gamaliel (Lust)

Avarice, the need to have and to own, is a strong notion. It is not only greed for the things we do not have, but coveting and protecting what we do. Humanity really does want to have things, to say that this is mine and mine alone. Yesod imbues humanity with its individualism. We are told that until the industrial revolution, Yesod was often suppressed by the other Archons, which I would argue alludes to the fact that the absolute rulers and their noble castes of earlier ages equally suppressed the individual power of all those beneath them. Slavery, serfdom and feudal power meant that there was little that the smallfolk could have. The industrial revolution, Kult would have us believe, relieved much of that pressure. In an age where nothing was off limits and everything could be gained, humanity’s avarice became dominant. We could have more, so why shouldn’t we? I’ll refrain from commenting on the subsequent fall of Yesod and Tiphareph’s enslavement of the fallen Archon, because that seems a very complex subject for this analysis.

The big question here, then, is: Where does this leave Gamaliel? The father of perversion is associated with Lust, and this is something I’ve seen remarked on as confounding. In fact, fellow Kultist Auburney wrote an excellent article a while back discussing this exact subject. His theory is honestly enlightening, and a fascinating take on how Chastity as a principle could breed the Avarice which Yesod would come to represent. However, I must personally disagree with it, and I hope to show you why. Gamaliel is the shadow of Yesod in two important aspects, and I think we do not need to make any additions to the Mythos in order to explain their connection. First, the Principle of Avarice represents the need to have things. The natural consequence of this, and separate because it meaningfully alters how we humans approach reality, is the need to gain things. We love what we have, and we lust for what we don’t. Where Yesod makes us look at what’s in our grasp, Gamaliel makes us eye the things outside it. This is a dark thing indeed, because it means that so long as we are under Gamaliel’s influence, we will never be satisfied and we will always crave what someone else has. It causes conflict, frustration, and drives us to madness.

The second way in which Lust is a shadow of Avarice is in the more… fleshy sense. Gamaliel is intrinsically tied to sexual perversions and forbidden pleasures, the wonders and horrors of the body. This is because Yesod is concerned about material goods, the world around us, the things humans find and make. Gamaliel states that this is not enough. You can look at a broader scope and see that humans themselves are, and always have been, up for the taking. There is much to gain from this perspective. We make full use of the body we have, and when that is no longer enough we lustily reach for others. Sex becomes the ultimate way to express the desire to gain and take more, to expand what you have and what you’ve experienced. Yesod encourages you to have, Gamaliel makes the demand that you should take. This is how Lust becomes the shadow of Avarice.

Malkuth (Conformity / Awakening) – Nahemoth (Discord)

Finally, we reach the bottom of the tree of life and the Archon of Awakening, the Rebel, the Babe, Malkuth. As the de facto patron saint of humans striving to escape Elysium, what her Principle(s) actually represent may not be immediately evident. The Kult: Divinity Lost core book doesn’t spend much time exploring Malkuth’s original purpose. We know that she crafted the physical world of Elysium, taming Gaia to create a world where order reigned. This order, conformity to universal constants and replicable patterns, is vitally important to understanding humanity. We use the movement of stars to guide our ships, the changing of the seasons to grow our food, and we comfort ourselves by reminding each other that after rain comes sunshine. Malkuth was always tied to the natural sciences and science in general, which then makes it no surprise that she has a significant role to play in the industrial revolution. The Demiurge’s disappearance or no, it is clear that the success we found in using and abusing Malkuth’s creation required her to act. The annihilation of Chesed is a direct consequence of humanity shining the harsh, revelatory light of science on old wisdoms and misconceptions. Industrialisation was a massive turning point. Instead of passively viewing the world and learning its cycles, we forced ourselves deeper. We studied automation, atoms, radiation, we viewed the stars not just as a map to follow but a place to get to. Humans no longer respected the universe’s conformity, instead we tore it apart in our desperate desire to break free. In enforcing her principle, Malkuth pushed us too far and in essence became a victim of her own Principle. Whether she was convinced by our actions or our scientists’ combined divine wills forced the Archon to shift her Principle, it did change during this time. She still represents science and the study of nature, as she did in the past, but the purpose of it has forever changed. Malkuth now represents Awakening, the scientific demand for a higher and more complete truth. 

Because of this, Nahemoth’s manifestations have changed too. The Death Angel of Discord is certainly deeply rooted in Gaia itself. Malkuth tamed Gaia, made sense of nature, but Gaia cannot be tamed. We can never expect nature to conform, not really, and Nahemoth represents the hubris of trying to understand that which can never be tamed. She is one with lightning storms, floods and forest fires, everything that undoes what Malkuth has crafted. In ages past, where humanity was still learning what it meant to respect the conformity of nature, she showed us that we shouldn’t, couldn’t, trust our own knowledge. Nahemoth is Discord, but she is also doubt and punishment for hubris. No more is this evident than looking at how she manifests in the modern age. Malkuth has brought us into a world of nuclear reactors, massive factories and consumerism so extreme that we eat the world itself in our quest for progress. The shadow this casts is immense, and horrifying. In the modern age, Nahemoth finds herself woven into greenhouse gases, bushfires, rivers clogged with pollution and mountains of plastic drifting out at sea. Everything the enlightening science of Malkuth has given us gives us just as many problems. Nahemoth’s principle is still Discord, but her power doesn’t just come from the chaos of Gaia anymore. We feed her with our own quest to bend Gaia to our will. She is the cost of progress.

The Archons are more than just big scary god monsters, though they can be that as well. The mere existence of what they represent is what powers them, and the creatures tied to them. Whenever anyone in the world accepts their place within a hierarchy, Kether is there, and when they no longer feel content with that place, Thaumiel gains strength. Every time a community is formed or welcomes a new member, that is Binah’s doing, whether her servants are there or not. Every time you litter, Nahemoth smiles. The Death Angels don’t just exist to be ‘evil’ versions of the Archons. By some unexplained force of cosmic balance (also known as ‘it makes for better allegory’), the Death Angels exist out of necessity, because that is simply how godlike beings work. If you hold an object in the light, a shadow is cast. Actions have consequences. Dedication to an idea implies the existence of an alternative. Who is to say that the Death Angels are more evil than the Archons (other than the Archons themselves)? They represent the consequences of our ideals, the alternative to our accepted norms. We can only say they are the evil ones by declaring the Archons’ Principles as good, and personally, I’m not willing to do that.

Our thoughts and actions, controlled by these Principles which were imposed on us by the Demiurge, feed the Archons and strengthen the machinery of Elysium to keep us imprisoned. With this in mind, it must be understood that breaking free from Elysium and reclaiming one’s divinity is a horrible and monumental task. You cannot simply fight the order given to the world by the Archons, because in fighting it you come closer to embracing the Death Angels, who also do not have your interests in mind. By fighting it, you still accept into your mind the idea of the Principle’s existence, and that too will allow it to live on within you. The rejection of these Principles must be so complete, so sincere, and you must remove them all from your soul so that no shadow can be cast. Then, and only then, you might experience the true and unbroken divine light of your own soul.

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! Tumblr too? 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.