The Art of Telling Stories
Earlier we have told you that there are tools in KULT: Divinity Lost for helping the gamemaster to tell stories. Today I want to tell you a little more about these tools and how I use them in my stories.
KULT: Divinity Lost have two story modes: the campaign mode and the scenario mode. The campaign mode uses the system of gamemaster tools to play with little or no prepared material, while the scenario mode is stories with some degree of preparation by the gamemaster.
THE CAMPAIGN MODE
A campaign is built by the characters’ dark secrets and disadvantages. By letting the players be an important part of the creative process, the gamemaster can use their ideas for their characters to create the foundation of the story they will play.
The campaign is created in these steps (you don’t necessarily need to do the steps in this order, but some steps can’t be done if other steps aren’t finished):
- Choosing the setting for the story.
- Choosing archetypes for the characters.
- Choosing dark secrets for the characters.
- Choosing disadvantages.
- Creating a plot map.
- Choosing advantages.
- Distribute modifications on attributes.
- Write down important equipment.
- Present the characters.
- Establish relations.
Choosing a setting for the story consists of two things: a place and a date. The setting will have big impact on the mood, themes and possible characters in the story. In KULT: Divinity Lost, you can play in a lot of different settings. The default setting is present day, but KULT: Divinity Lost isn’t fixed to this. You can choose any date and place you like.
Some examples of settings in old campaigns I have narrated are:
- A favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro, 2014
- The Arctic science station Revelation, 1982
- Storsjön campsite, Sweden, summer in 1976
- London, 1895
- Detroit, 2015
- New York, December, 1991
Choosing archetypes for the characters have a heavy impact on the story.
First, it makes a big difference if the characters are sleepers, aware, or enlightened.
Sleepers don’t know anything about the big lie and have suppressed their dark secrets. A campaign with sleepers is going to let the characters understand that there is something wrong with the world at a slow pace, while the characters progress to being aware.
In a campaign with Aware archetypes, the characters know that something is wrong. They will probably be in conflict with the Illusion they live in.
Enlightened archetypes creates characters that are fully aware of the existence of the Illusion. They may not fully understand the Truth, but they have enough insight begin the Awakening. This means that enlightened characters are in conflict with the big dangerous players in the KULT universe, and will bring supernatural events and creatures to the stories. These characters play a dangerous game where one mistake could mean the end. Enlightened characters also struggle with their own humanity and their strings to their former lives. To walk the path of awakening means abandoning the false reality of the humans.
The players’ insight in the Truth of the KULT universe is also a good guideline when you decide which type of archetypes the players should choose from.
- Beginners of KULT could profit of playing sleepers that gain insight as their players do while the story advances. When the characters progress to aware archetypes, their players also know that there something is seriously wrong about the world. If and when they progress to enlightened archetypes, the players have also gained a greater knowledge about the Truth. You could of course let beginners play aware or enlightened archetypes, but that would probably require some explanation about the universe.
- Experienced players that have some knowledge about the Truth in KULT can start playing aware archetypes. They can of course play Sleepers anyway, because it creates a great prologue for the story.
- Players with full insight in the KULT universe can choose enlightened archetypes directly and jump straight into the intrigues of higher powers. We have decided to focus KULT: Divinity Lost mainly on the sleepers and aware characters. A few enlightened archetypes are present and enables an experienced KULT gamemaster to start here right at once. I usually demand greater knowledge about the universe for everyone involved. It may require the gamemaster to create some enlightened archetypes of her own, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
The second thing about archetypes is their impact on the story. In KULT: Divinity Lost, the archetypes influence the story. Even playing the same prepared scenario with two different archetypes will probably create two different stories. The reason is the advantages and themes that every archetypes brings to the game. A story with The Detective will have scenes with investigations, stake-outs and interrogations. A story with The Artist will have art, visions and madness.
Every archetype brings something unique to the table and, instead of ignoring that, KULT: Divinity Lost use it to influence stories.
Choosing dark secrets is the tool the players use to tell the gamemaster what they want the story to be about. In the campaign mode, there are three ways to choose dark secrets for the players: they could choose one dark secret that every character share, choose a theme that they center their characters’ dark secrets around, or choose dark secrets freely and let the gamemaster connect the dots.
If the characters share a dark secret, you get shorter stories with unified characters. An example could be my own first story with an early version of this system, where three childhood friends were haunted by a gruesome crime in their past. They had gone to an abandoned house to steal copper with their grim leader Bobby and one of the characters’ little brother, but something caused Bobby and the little brother to never come back from the house. When the story started, the characters had been out of touch for about ten years, and had more or less suppressed the memories of their dark secret. Then supernatural events and people from the past started to remind them of the dark secret and forced them to investigate what really had happened.
Choosing dark secrets with one common theme means that the players and the gamemaster discuss until they come up with a theme they like. Examples for themes could be:
- An experiment that went terribly wrong.
- A trafficking network.
- A sinister cult.
- The War in Afghanistan.
- An mysterious artefact.
- Demonic possession.
Choosing dark secrets freely doesn’t require any discussion. Every player just choose what she want and then tell what the character knows to the gamemaster. Later, the gamemaster try to flesh out the dark secrets and connect dark secrets on the plot map.
Choosing disadvantages - Every character have two disadvantages at the beginning of a story. Disadvantages are generators of drama and horror in the story. They work as moves but are different in two big ways:
- If a disadvantage is activated, it results in consequences for the character (and usually good story twists for the player).
- It is the gamemaster that gets moves or holds from disadvantages. These are used by the gamemaster to activate the disadvantage in the story. It could be a schizophrenic character that starts to experience hallucinations, a persecuted character that get trapped by her followers or a character with suppressed memories that get flashbacks that creates scenes from her forgotten past.
The disadvantages are great tools for the gamemaster to create horror and suspense and have great impact on a story.
When creating a plot map, the gamemaster writes down the characters and important people, creatures, places, objects, and events connected to the characters. The plot map is used as a tool for the gamemaster to keep track of important things in the story, and connect the characters’ dark secrets and disadvantages with each other and other NPC’s, things or events. As the story unfold the gamemaster expand the plot map as she add new things of interest to the story.
Advantages, attributes, and equipment influence the way the characters handles problems. Advantages are more powerful moves that are unique to each archetype. These moves can have great impact on scenes and will always influence the story when they come into play. Advantages can also be connected to dark secrets and disadvantages. When you roll for an advantage connected to the Soul attribute, it usually have supernatural effects which will bring more supernatural elements into the story. Characters with high Coolness will probably try to sneak, lie, and avoid direct confrontations, while characters with high Charisma try to talk their way out of problems.
The characters’ equipment choices tell the gamemaster about what type of story they want to play. If the players want weapons, armors or other weird or dangerous things, the gamemaster should ask for an explanation and use the answers for her story. If the players say that she bought a gun from a shady guy in the docks, you write the shady guy on your plot map and connect him to something else. When the guy shows up in the story, he already has a connection to the character.
When the players present their characters, the gamemaster asks question about dark secrets, disadvantages, advantages and important things in the character’s life, in order for the gamemaster to to understand the characters better and get information that the gamemaster could use later on in the story. The other players can also ask each other questions to get to know each other better.
Some questions I usually like to ask are:
- Who or what do you love most of all?
- Where do you live? Do you live with someone else? How does your home look like?
- Where do you like to hang around when you have nothing else to do?
- Who are your best friends? Don’t you have any? Why not?
- Have you ever hurt somebody? Do you feel guilty over it?
- Who do you have sex with? No one? Ok, what do you do when you feel the urge?
- Who or what do you dislike most of all? Why?
In the establish relations step, the players establish potential relations between the characters and come up with three NPC relations in their character’s life.
Every archetype has different suggestions for relations between characters. For instance, someone have been involved in The Detective’s case, or someone owes the Criminal money. The players are free to make up their own stories about why and how their characters know each other. If they want to be strangers from the start, that’s also OK.
The three NPC relations are of three different types: one neutral, one important, and one vital relation. To hang around a vital and important relation restore Stability to the characters. Is something bad happens to a vital or important relation, the character lose Stability and get stressed.
This mechanic ensure that relations remain important throughout a story, rather than just being names written on the character sheet and forgotten as soon as the play begins. The gamemaster will use the vital and important NPCs in the story to create conflict and drama. Vital and important relations can be friends, lovers, siblings, mentors and children to the characters. Neutral relations are contacts, co-workers, neighbors and other people the character are acquainted to.
When these steps are finished, the gamemaster have a setting, background story, a plot map, threats that threatens the characters, important NPCs and a good hunch about what the players want for the story. The gamemaster could start playing the story with the players and make preparations between sessions, or she could take some time thinking about the story and preparing before the first meeting. Either way, she has some great tools for her KULT: Divinity Lost campaign.
THE SCENARIO MODE
Scenarios are great when the gamemaster want to play shorter stories or introduce KULT: Divinity Lost to new players. The disadvantage of scenarios is that they require more work from the gamemaster before play can begin.
In the scenario mode, the gamemaster makes preparations of her own and takes more control over the setting, backstory and choices of archetypes. The degree of preparations differs. Sometimes the gamemaster wants to create everything from NPC’s to characters before the story starts. At other times, she just has a great idea for setting and background for a story and give the players some guidelines when they create characters. For example, the gamemaster could tell the player that the story will take place in New York 1991, all the characters will be cops and that she has dark secrets and disadvantages prepared that she will give to the players.
These are the steps for creating a scenario (and most of these are optional for the gamemaster):
- Come up with an idea for the story.
- Choose a setting.
- Come up with a backstory for the scenario.
- Choose archetypes for the scenario.
- Choose dark secrets and disadvantages and connect them to the backstory.
- Flesh out the characters with details and stats.
- Create threats connected to the backstory and the characters.
- Create goals and steps to reach them for the threats.
- Prepare important places and NPCs in the story.
- Think about when the scenario should end.
After these steps are completed (or any subset of them), the gamemaster should have story prepared.
Robin Liljenberg, head writer and designer
Trivia of The Week
When Robin finished his first KULT campaign in the late 90s, the players were so attached to their characters that they couldn’t bear to just put them in a box somewhere. Instead they put the character sheets on fire and spread the ashes one night over the black waters of Svartån (which roughly translates to “The Black River” in English).