Gabe’s Deep Dive: The Conversation

Good day, Kultists! This post has been written by Gabe, a prominent member (and admin) of the Kult – Elysium Discord server, which you should definitely join if you haven’t already. Gabe is something of a Powered by the Apocalypse coach, and has excellent ideas for how to make the most of Kult: Divinity Lost. This post explores the process of conversation between GM and players, and how the rules facilitate it. Enjoy the read!

Disclaimer: This post is oriented towards GMs, so everything told here is put in the perspective of someone running a game of KULT: Divinity Lost. Players can benefit from reading this post, yes, but if they didn’t read the GM section of the book, some things said here might edge the maybe-I-should-go-back-and-read-the-book territory. Just know that when I say “you”, I’m looking at you-the-GM and not you-the-Player. Another thing to mention here is I assume you know the basics of PbtA, e.g. you’ve read the book and an article or two about it, but can’t wrap your head around the concepts just yet.

Before exploring combat and Wounds, Stability and Basic/Archetypal Moves, we need to first pinpoint how Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA from now on) — the mechanics on which KULT: Divinity Lost (KDL) is based — works. I’m assuming here you have experience with other games such as Dungeons & Dragons, World of Darkness, OSR, and/or others. These are games that approach the narrative in a traditional and sometimes simulationist/gamist light. PbtA, however, uses player-facing rules and favors fiction.

WHAT IS FICTION FIRST?

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Running Session Zero

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

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

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Jessy on hiatus, musing about scene writing

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

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

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Thoughts on player agency

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

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

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

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

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

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My (lack of) planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Rant about the Free-Form Nature of PbtA

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

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

WHAT?

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

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

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