[The Clay that Woke] Weird and exciting

Started by Ron Edwards, May 06, 2013, 03:30:37 PM

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Ron Edwards

It's hallucinatory, freaky fantasy, full of details and brimming with whatever new ones come into play. The textual framework for all the details is sketchy but imposing: there's a sprawling, immense, decadent city surrounded by seething trackless jungle. You play minotaurs, all of whom belong to a servant/laborer under-class.

Paul's goal is ambitious. If you were involved in Forge-related discussions ten to fifteen years ago (the Sorcerer mailing list goes back that far or farther), then you remember how most of us put aside the idea of the brilliant GM with his brilliant story and his brilliant setting, and play that was intended primarily to convey both to an adoring and thoroughly-obediently participating small audience.

As I've been trying to emphasize in the past few years, throwing all that out doesn't have to mean throwing out the 'brilliant setting' part. The trick is separate 'setting' from 'imposed plot,' which gets even trickier when you want the setting to be undergoing brilliant changes throughout play. I've written a hell of a lot about this in Setting and emergent stories and in threads like [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents , but typically in those threads, I was talking about canonical/published settings.

So Paul's bringing up something that was skipped over fifteen years ago and not really returned to the discussion in the latest setting-heavy ideas and designs. Imagine: your brain is seething with setting-stuff, whether a draft of a map or a timeline , a notion of a social structure, a general strain or sense of the culture, or plain old disconnected brilliant imagery. You know that you could get this 'out there' in the right application.

Here's a game which turns that up to 11. Can you 'do setting' in incredible profusion whether in long preparation sessions on your own, in pre-play ramping up for the session to be held in a few days, or right there in play? It requires you to be creative and communicative, getting material across and seeing it get used, fostering a tiny subculture of fandom and reciprocal creativity about this setting right there at the table. ... And all of that without playing God-Author about how the story turns out, and how the setting may change.

The players really have something to do ... as in really to do, not merely 'to keep them occupied.' But what that is, and what the characters become, is all completely viscerally determined in play, nothing to do with preparation at all, nothing to do with designated benchmarks or quantitative tipping points. Hell, there is one solitary choice made at character creation, whether your character is a leader, a philosopher, an advocate, or a soldier, and that's it. Here's the relevant character sheet. You don't even put a name at the top. Go.

Do characters get better at what they do? Yes. Do they have relationships and do those relationships change? Very yes. Does what they do make a difference? As far as I can tell, yes. But exactly what they do, and with or to whom; how they relate to one another, and why; and what happens, and whether that's good ... none of that is textually in place. It's all play, driven by Color and the impulse of the moment. That's why character-play plot-creation are really, really hard to see if you just read the rules, and it's why this game is intended for long-form play.

Have you read Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun? Like that, even freakier. With minotaurs. This game is for people who go 'Oohh' to that and start saying 'what my guy does' right out of the gate.

The GMing techniques are nothing like those which are currently widespread across new independent games. This is a central GM who really does introduce and operate every instance of the back-story of the moment, play the NPCs full-tilt, and cuts and slices across scenes as needed, always. All play is descriptive of the current in-fiction time wave-front; there is no negotiation or framing or verbal set-up of any kind. Paul describes the GM as a pasta flinger, piling on details and events and stuff like mad (the weirder the better), from which the players produce reactions which can't help but generate further reactions.

As far as I can tell, and speaking from the experience of play, I think the GM would do well to initiate a scene with every character and have such scenes running at all times, so no one is 'in between' in terms of fictional involvement. This means doing a lot of camera-switching back-and-forth, rather than the My Life with Master model of running a scene per character per turn in a relatively fixed round-structure. It also makes sense to me to run a lot of Crosses as described in Sex & Sorcery, which is to say, not forcing characters' situations together through the back-story, but rather having effects of each character's actions be visible and occasionally influential upon another's immediate situation. Given the characters' shared under-class status, that allows for all the inter-character meeting and cooperation the players may want to have, as they see fit, through their direction of their characters' actions.

In our session of playtesting at Forge Midwest, my minotaur was the philosopher, and the three other players ran the other three types of minotaur: leader, advocate, and soldier. I think that first-time play is basically sinking into the whole swampy/stony feel of the thing, with some features strongly reminding me of Zero about emergent character creation ... specifically, that given both minor actions and reactions early in play, and with decisive outcomes in the resolution system, your minotaur very swiftly becomes this guy in ways that all the elaborate brushing-in of details and picky point-spending do not reliably produce in many games of my experience.

As for the resolution mechanics themselves, whew ... this post is getting too long. That combined chip-flip chart is genius, Paul, but at least based on what I saw and felt, I still plead that you throw the brainy guys a bone in the lower levels.

Best, Ron

edited to fix display - RE

Paul Czege

What do you mean "throw the brainy guys a bone"? That it's too hard to get Mind token outcomes?

Ron Edwards

Yeah. Wait a minute, let me dig out the chart.

OK, for truth-based outcomes, I need to throw Silence tokens in and be reasonably sure that you're throwing in Stop tokens. Which is pretty fair if "try to find shit out" is explicitly happening, just as I can be pretty sure you're throwing in Skulls when some guy is hacking at me with an axe.

And for cleverness-stuff, basically "the brain of awesome" outcomes, I need to throw Mind tokens in, and hope the combination of your Skulls or Stops will result in one of the two ways to be successfully clever.

Two things came about in my draws. One was me trying to find the truth and be clever at the same time, and that's not possible. I threw in Mind and Silence at the same time and crapped out hard; I just didn't understand the chart yet.

The other thing that came about was going for clever but getting results that didn't hit either clever outcome. One Skull + two Minds = One Mind + two Stops = clever dick, but nothing else will do it. I think I got two Skulls and a Mind, or maybe it was one Stop and a Mind, either way.

Don't get me wrong! I'm not complaining because my character failed to get the best outcomes. I totally get that it's hard for minotaurs to be clever to one's advantage; this is an oppressed minority in-fiction.* Being clever requires luck, not just effort.

I was thinking, though, that a single Mind token draw - i.e., when nothing makes any sense on the chart, but you do have a Mind sitting there - might provide something to do, even if it's not a success. Maybe you're just eloquent. Wrong, sure (single Stop); beaten for being uppity (single Skull), sure - but at least the mechanics let me get a couple well-spoken phrases out.

If that were the case, then it's productively incompatible with two Stops - humiliation - which seems to make sense to me - that shooting for two Stops and a Mind can get you success and a Name token, but it can also humiliate you ... or if not that, and if you get a Mind, then you don't a great outcome but you get to be well-spoken about it. As I say, it's more about having something to do, to say something Philosopher-ish or Advocate-ish or just brainy instead of being landed with generic failure.

Best, Ron

* Not talking about what it symbolizes out of fiction; that's for discussions after many more people have played the game, I would think.


We started playtesting this on Sunday. I think Ron is really on to something about "emergent character creation." Solely from a short session of gameplay and a handful of details of what my character's social role should be, I'm getting a striking impression of who my minotaur is. Probably, this character is shaping up to be more psychologically complex than, uh, any character I've played. How did that happen?

This seems to be a pretty pure strain of role-playing I hadn't been aware of. It's not full-out immersion-BE-your-character-bleed or talk in funny voices or use altered body language stuff. Nor is it author-stance collaborative story scripting.

I'm a little reluctant to talk too much outside of play about what's going on in my character's mind, for fear of storyboarding the thing in advance. I'm finding the business of working out the fictional dilemmas in-play, in-character to be pretty enjoyable.

Ron Edwards

Paul and I talked about this a little already. I have a gaming art question. When did minotaurs get mixed up with satyrs? The Greek mythology says 'bull-headed man,' and all the illustrations on urns and stuff show the creature's fully human body, legs and feet.

I'm pretty convinced that the nonhuman legs on minotaurs are strictly a recent gaming thing. Maybe it started with unintentional ambiguity. The 1978 Monster Manual illustration by the great Dave Trampier doesn't show its feet, and the text does not say its legs are bovine. I can only speculate but I think its body language implies human anatomy.

Paul reminded me of the hoof-footed Grenadier miniature from the late 70s or early 80s, based on that very illustration but necessarily including the whole body. I actually remember that myself, in the stores. I think every gaming-related minotaur illustration I've seen since then follows the miniature. Is that the smoking gun? Does anyone know anything else about this?

Best, Ron

edited to fix display - RE


That's odd, I was thinking about this the other day.

While I was at the craft store picking up a pile of wooden tokens for the Krater, I spotted a Safari Ltd. minotaur figurine. And of course, having minotaurs on the brain, I had to bring him home with me. It's a nice figurine, but he does have unguligrade legs and cloven hooves instead of feet. And I was thinking, hey, wasn't the Minotaur just a guy with the head of a bull?

I don't know. Conflation of satyr features does seem like a good suspicion. It does seem right to me that the minotaurs of the Degringolade would have normal feet.

Ron Edwards

Thinking of other seminal moments of pseudo-myth fantasy adventure in that era, I hunted this down. It's from 1977, so would just barely pre-date the Trampier art (which again, doesn't show the feet) and first Grenadier miniature (whom someone painted mauve for some reason). And wouldn't you know it, the movie's minotaur has fully-human post-cranial physique. Not a bad animation job on him either, better than I remembered for those films.

I must say, even my usual pro-70s outlook gets a jolt in looking at this thing. How about that guy's hot pink turban, and my God, those faux-English accents ... uh guys? The characters are supposed to be Arabs, right?

On another note, some gaming-oriented minotaur miniatures from Germany do have people-feet, as seen in this guy's collection.

I bet we are totally off-topic now. Paul or Larry, feel free to steer this foot-fetished thread back to something about the game.

Best, Ron


Before we get back on topic, I just wanted to interject that, in elementary school in the early 1980's, our classroom had an illustrated book of Greek myths, which featured "Theseus, the Labyrinth, and the Minotaur" and the minotaur was a goddamn Centaur, except with the lower body of a bull instead of a horse.  I got into a pretty huge argument about this.

D'Aulaires of course gets it right.

Dragonlance had a whole nation of minotaurs (two, I suppose, if you count the long-forgotten Time of the Dragon boxed set) and a prominent minotaur in its endless novel line (this was not a good book to a 14 year old who loved minotaurs, so...), but all of the illustrations gave them regular person-feet.


Nice find, Ron! And a timely reminder of Harryhausen's talents.

As an interesting example of "before and after" media portrayals of minotaurs, there is an animated version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe from 1979 that shows a minotaur with feet. By the time we get to the 2005 big-budget media adaptation of the Narnia books, there are a whole slew of minotaurs with hooves. (As well as other design elements which are likely influenced by gaming art.)

"Man's head and torso on a bull's body" is apparently an interpretation that popped up during the Middle Ages, as Ovid only refers to a "twin-born form of a bull." (Metamorphoses VIII, 169) And William Blake, as might be expected, does something completely unusual when illustrating Dante's Inferno.

Dragonlance minotaurs were a special case. In that setting, they are actually descended from high ogres, their form changed by their bull-god long ago. They are not descended in any way from cattle, to the point of taking great umbrage to cow jokes.

In digging around on this matter, I learned something interesting about portrayals of satyrs. The original Greek satyrs had normal human legs, and a few horse features. It was later, when the Romans incorporated the myth, the satyr became conflated with the goat-legged Roman faun, eventually becoming interchangeable beings. I'm now imagining mythology geeks ancient Rome having heated arguments over what kind of legs satyrs should have.

And... I think we're losing the scent.

Right, we were discussing The Clay That Woke. Paul mentioned he had an illustrator in mind, so the foot thing is probably a matter of what his illustrator likes best, no?

Paul Czege

Not at all. My art direction will specify feet, and that's what I'll get.