[My Life With Master] Radium power

Started by Ron Edwards, April 17, 2008, 04:46:19 PM

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Ron Edwards


When I arrived at Forge Midwest, people were playing Handy ("the game that lets gamers touch each other" as I call it), and eventually it turned into a conversation about what role-playing would happen that night. Willow was all up for Awesome Adventures, spurred by the adrenalin rush from my purchase, and there were all these cool games just sitting around all over the tables. We also realized that there were enough people for as many as three games, so with some reluctance, we all split up. I thought about it: I'd had a tough day and didn't feel like a playtest of any kind, and one of my peeves lately is that a lot of people are all excited about indie games without any real experience in the basics like Dust Devils, InSpectres, The Pool (which I was tempted to run but was too tired to consider doing from memory), or ... as there were no less than two copies currently visible ... My Life with Master. Ah-ha!

So Tim (not Koppang), Daniel, and Jerry and I ended up at a table together, with the game books at hand and a bunch of d4's appearing out of various bags and pockets. I was excited about GMing the game again, and put myself into a fully-receptive frame of mind, determined to play very steady bass. I deliberately kept myself as a minor presence during Master creation. They came up with a sort of "Things beyond the stars" Master, a Teacher-Brain named Markov, with a classic technological project using radium to contact other-dimensional, presumably tentacled entities, and a strongly academic and scientific schtick, they mocked me at the academy type of thing. Since my tastes in Masters tend to go more toward Beasts and Breeders, I found myself wondering if we were not getting a little too comfortably Lovecraftian, but said nothing about that.

The imagery turned out to be a really cool mix of Victorian tech and local terrain, with weird pylones, antennae, and satellite-type dishes sticking right out of the ridges and rocks at the top of a mountain, which was riddled with the radium mines.

All the Minions were warped and changed by the radiation. Daniel made up Mr. Crenshaw, a man who'd become kind of an atomic Adonis and had been placed by the Master above the other miners as an overseer, including his older and wiser brother. Basically, as he keeps getting more and more beautiful and highly-placed, he has to oppress and brutalize his former peers more and more. He began with Self-Loathing 3 and Weariness 0. Jerry made up a horribly maimed guy who could not talk unless he had stolen something, and who could steal anything except when ... what was it, if he had spoken with them? Something like that - almost a completely closed loop, which we chatted over to see whether we thought it was too tight, and decided it might not be and to try it anyway. He began with Self-Loathing 2 and Weariness 1, I think. Tim made up a guy whose limbs were spindly and elongated, practically a human spider, and who kept the Master's machines running. I was most intrigued by one of his Connections, his ex-wife. I think he began with Self-Loathing 1 and Weariness 2, unless I'm reversing it with Jerry's character - I know that they were all different, and that no one started with Weariness 3.

I have never really liked the recommended con-game parameters, and decided to approach but not entirely follow them, using Reason 3 and Fear 3. Certain rolls still defaulted to one die, but I liked the knife-edge relationship between the Master and the town, and certain other rolls were more interesting than they'd otherwise be. I stuck with the real rules about starting Love, i.e., nothin'!

Throughout play, I kept a very close eye on global variables and their effects, and I'm rather proud that we played it absolutely on-target for things like the Horror Revealed and Endgame issues, as well as the specifics of scene framing and requests. As far as the scores were concerned, Weariness wasn't much of an issue - all Violence succeeded, as I recall, with maybe one exception, and the one Minion-on-Minion scene actually got blocked by a tie. Therefore there were no Captures. Also, by aggressively seeking Connections, they managed to keep the Horror Revealed away by a single point until during Endgame - although I was itching for it from nearly the very first scene.

The stories were quite poignant. The spindly guy did his best to please the master and found it to be a losing game, had a great scene with his wife and her current lover, the blacksmith, and did a great job of trying to find a new master (a visiting scientist). As it turnd out, that led to the Master's crisis during Endgame as the Minion tried to help him and (of course) inadvertently screwed it all up. He ended up killing himself by trying to stay with the apparatus as it collapsed into the mines beneath it.

The mute thief guy was terribly, terribly hopeful. He had genuinely moving Connections scenes, including learning to sing, but got ignored over and over again. He had fantastic Endgame scenes which brought in another character's Connection in a key way, and he was killed in the final fight-heavy action of the Endgame, or rather, we interpreted his Epilogue in that fashion.

Daniel's atomic Adonis began with a dramatic conflict regarding murdering miners in the mine and dealing with his brother, and then it shifted to the woman who would become his lover, named Mary (more about her in a minute), and ultimately the full redemption of becoming integrated with the townfolk. It especially suited us, I think, that he became horribly scarred at the moment that he most fully embraced his humanity.

I initially used the Master in my usual way: praising one Minion, abusing another (and taking credit for his work), and callously ignoring the third, in all cases consistently and with lots of socially-inappropriate details. I especially liked the celebratory dinner scene, when the Master was flush with excitement and achievement, but then discovered that the miners had not been sacrificed to his plan, that the newly-tuned antennae were not drawing upon a presumed new power source, and that all the power equipment had been rigged in a new and not-especially safe way. It was a real challenge to see if I could rise to the needs of expressing his awesome wrath, especially because I did not feel like being very thespian about it, and was using techniques based more on vocal pitch and choice of phrase rather than gestures, facial expressions, and volume.

That scene was the turning point from my point of view, and after that, it was all hard-core plot, with Mary as the core (yes, more about her in a minute), and all the other Connections (including new ones) as key to the decisions. In fact, new Connections proliferated instantly from that point onwards.

In the first few scenes, I found myself concerned with a slight wiggle issue in terms of the single obligatory roll when commanded by the Master. It showed up in a series of ways which were not problems in any single case, but cumulatively sparked my attention. For instance: narrating a failed attempt as a personal inability/refusal to fulfill a command (experienced as "I just can't do it"), or a bit of confusion over whether defiance might be attempted well away from the Master in the middle of carrying out the command. No one was actually trying to do end-runs around the rules, but I did exert a bit of attention to those rules in order to keep us from drifting in that direction.

Which brings me to an important point for players in this game: if you want to accomplish something without Violence or Villainy, use that something as a framing device or narrated sidepiece of an Overture scene request. That way there's no roll.

The More Than and Less Than features played a slightly less front-forward role in this game than I've seen in the past. Only Jerry's character really utilized these much, actually - in fact, now that I think of it, we might have done some rolling even when the More Thans might have applied. However, I know that the spindly guy's Less Than ("except when he's tired") played a role at one point.

One scene bears some detailed discussion, because it featured in-game rape by a player-character. Basically, as a reward to Mr. Crenshaw for killing a bunch of miners (which he'd failed to do, but the Master didn't know it), the Master gave him a woman who'd been imprisoned by him and irradiated. As with all the Master's gifts, it included an agenda, as he wanted a "pure" child to be born of radium power. So there she was, all listless and bleary, with the bones glowing through her flesh and skin.

1. It took three scenes or bits to resolve, which I think is crucial in showcasing the fascinating interaction of narration and rules in this game. It began with an attempt to refuse the command, which failed. Then Daniel called for an Overture scene on his next "go," in which he defined the woman as a Connection and named her Mary, and went for an Overture. Basically, Mr. Crenshaw was making the eventual act, Villainous as it might be, at least occur in the context of a more genuine relationship. However, this role was failed as well - which means that they did begin with real intimacy, but Mary began resisting in fear. Daniel looked stricken. "It has to be Violence," he said in horror, which was matched by minor comments and reactions around the table. And that roll was successful.

(I am currently thinking that too much attention has been paid lately to post-mechanics, late-resolution narration. My current interest lies in the real-person dialogue, and imagined effects, that lead up to conflicts, and within conflicts, occur prior to the physical techniques like rolling dice.)

2. Don't get me wrong: this scene was not the peak moment in terms of the story arc and should not be considered conclusive or "what it's about" for the story. The real power hit later, at the dinner party soon after. This, on the other hand, is where the true furnace was built and lit. This is when the session became our game, not just "running through" My Life With Master in a high-quality but comfortably-genre way. Up until then, Markov was cordially hated but the Minions didn't rebel much; but after that, every player seemed ready to suffer anything as long as it would bring that fucker down, at the next scene at the dinner party. That's when Mr. Crenshaw defied the command to strap himself to the antenna, and why his success was narrated for him to run off wretchedly into the night, back to Mary, and it's when both of the other Minions began to concern themselves greatly with deep, emotional Overtures as well. I was pleased to see and participate in Mary becoming a consequential, decisive person in the story as well.

Finally, I greatly enjoyed our use of the intimacy, desperation, and sincerity dice, especially since someone actually had all three in the right colors. However, in all the times I've played this game, I've never seen the full 1-2-3 progression played out in a single scene, although I often begin Master interactions with Intimacy in hopes of getting there one day.

Afterwards: as I say, this game experience was far more than just a comfortable, pre-storyboarded, genre piece. It was brutal, beautiful, and exhilarating - entirely unique, its own story about these almost-ruined people, and how unexpectedly hot the flame of their humanity burned right at the darkest moment. If I had to present an example from another medium, I'd say it was like seeing Boondock Saints without knowing much about it and assuming it would be a standard crime-caper gun-action movie - and realizing halfway through that you were in a totally new zone, and thus activating your full attention and commitment to anything that could or would happen next. I didn't feel tired at all afterwards, and I got the idea all of us would revisit our story in our minds, re-capturing sensations and pivotal decision moments to see what they felt like upon reflection.

Best, Ron


I played Jacob Crenshaw in this game.  I guess I have very little to add to Ron's already detailed report except to say that I've played 3 games of My Life with Master, including this one, and this was the only session in which I really, deeply wanted my character to have a happy ending.  In fact, I believe I was given the choice of having a happy ending (in which the minion integrates into the village) or a suicide (Ron, please correct me if I'm misremembering).  When I was presented with those options, I knew that Jacob had clawed his way free of his terrible, dysfunctional relationship with the master to not only become a better person, but also to start a new, noble relationship with Mary and their child.  I wanted - maybe needed - the fiction to reflect that.

Without the pressure and prompting of the mechanics, I don't think I'd have been able to develop that empathy toward the character or the fiction.

Thanks very much for running that game, Ron.



This was my first game of My Life With Master, and the first time I'd seen the rules. I played the mute thief guy (Stanislaw) who could only speak if he'd just stolen something (and couldn't steal from someone if he'd been speaking with them). It meant, for example, that when the master commanded him to prepare a song (for the dinner scene, as it turned out) he had to steal the sheet music.

The most memorable scenes for me (of my character) were:

Stealing the mayor's gold, and frightening the mayor's children afterwards. I don't remember the mechanics around that scene right now, but we imagined it as a very grinch-like scene with Stanislaw sneaking around corners, through shadows, etc. Immediately afterwards, Stanislaw attempted an overture (hope I'm getting the terminology right) with one of his connections ("Afraid of Jan the Grocer"); it was meant to be simply leave a piece of gold at the grocer's without being caught, but I failed the roll, and suggested that after leaving the gold, the grocer caught Stanislaw, beat him, and threw him into the street.

Stealing the sheet music in order to be able to speak to another connection ("Mrs. Lemke saved my life") and ask her to teach me to sing.

I ended up with Jacob Crenshaw's brother Jonah as a connection, which Ron alluded to above. At the very end, Jacob's brother came in with an axe to kill Jacob. While Jacob was dealing with the master, I initiated an overture with Jonah, detailing his brother's heroic and selfless actions. It wasn't enough to keep Stanislaw from running in self-loathing into the collapsing mines when the real world came calling, but it was probably the pinnacle of hope for the character. He succeeded in showing that hope to Jonah but not to himself.

The reason Jacob's scene with Mary was the "turning point" is that (for me at least) it made it very clear where the game was leading us. Unless we were careful, we were in for a spiral of real self-loathing. "Villainy or violence" were our only choices if we didn't oppose Tandimo Markov and we didn't succeed at an overture.
Gods & Monsters

Ron Edwards

Stanislaw! That was it. I don't know why I'm having such a terrible time remembering their names.

The scene with the children was a straightfoward obey-the-Master scene, when Stanislaw was ordered to steal the mayor's gold. In fact, it was his first scene following the command. Two of the mayor's children were playing in the room where the gold was, and he was using Villainy, so he narrated saying "Now you'll be in the poorhouse" to the little kid who had spotted him.

I think it's interesting, in retrospect, that this was your first game, and that it took you a little while to start trying to defy the Master's commands. People who have played before sometimes get a little too hyped about jumping right away into Overtures and defying commands at every step, because they're aware of the Endgame conditions and, less strategically, because they know damn well what you just articulated - that there is no percentage in even trying to compromise with the Master, because the Minion will be forced to be villainous and violent forever.

In our case, no one took that strong (or rather artificial) an initial approach; if I recall, although both of the other players sought Overtures right away, they did not start defying commands until later. But I especially value your participation because all of your decisions were "pure" in the sense of, where is Stanislaw at, at this moment, and where am I as a player. For the other players, I think it was as solid a gear-shift into absolutely honest play in the middle, as it was for me. For you, you were already there.

Best, Ron

Frank Tarcikowski

Fantastic! Ron, thanks for writing this. As it happens, MLwM is next on my list. This is incredibly helpful.

I've had a few of these sessions myself, where you start out rather tired and maybe even a little reluctant, and then when you're through you're wide awake and thrilled. Yay for intensity! Rock on guys.

- Frank
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