Okult is a game that hammers hard at the boundaries between roleplaying games like Call of Cthulhu and story games like Penny for My Thoughts. While roleplaying is the main activity of the players in the game, because of the tight structure and aggressive scene sequencing there isn’t the full freedom normally associated with roleplaying games.
Okult will tell the story of return of several characters to their hometown, and facing a terrible truth from their past. If you’ve read any Stephen King novels to speak of, you will recognize the structure and key elements of the horror story. Just as the traumas and problems of our teenaged years still lurk beneath the surface of our adult personalities, in this type of horror story the literal monsters and dark secrets of our teenaged years still lurk in the home we identify with that time period in our lives.
Characters are created with a series of questions – some answered by the player that plays the character, some answered by other players, and some that are kept unanswered, so as to give the character direction in the game.
Once the characters are created, play proceeds with players taking turns setting scenes and playing out their characters proceeding to answer the unanswered questions in their lives and, of course, the question they all share, which is why they are returning to their hometown at this point in their lives. What’s interesting is that as questions are answered, new questions are asked – you should always have two questions “active” on your sheet at all times. Eventually in order to establish some of the answers to these questions there will be scenes with no main characters in them at all – in fact there will be a total of 5 such scenes, as each such scene advances the tone of the game from Normal to Scary to Terrifying on a 6-space track.
I think probably the biggest stumbling block in the game is the wide-open nature of the game. For example, with total freedom to select what a character’s main question is, it’s possible to create one that you think will be interesting but turns out not to be, or one that doesn’t drive the character forward as forcefully as others’ characters do, and you’ve inadvertently made a character that’s a drag on the game. Additionally, although the game says to ask questions to invite others to contribute, it seems like there are two poor outcomes to this that other collaborative games lack: first, you might be more intrigued by the question you’re asking than others, who simply give you an answer and don’t develop the question as sufficiently as you wish, or second, that they would leave a question you consider unimportant open, leaving it on your character sheet without much desire to resolve it.
I’m reviewer tilting this game up one star because of the use of questions as a character generation tool and a solid dedication to not just horror, but one extremely specific type of horror, one that many of us grownup gamers can relate to and that has been successful in many forms. A more solid approach to the procedures of the game and some thinking about how exactly to make sure the questions on my sheet are good at moving my character forward and interesting for everyone else would improve it dramatically.