[S/lay w/Me] Yun-Hai & the Corpse-strewn battlefield

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Hans Otterson:
Brendan Adkins & I played S/lay today--probably the fastest turnaround time from buying a game to playing it, ever, for me. First: It was good! I want more! Now:

The first round Brendan was the hero, and chose "lamed & sick, but my iron will commands even the dead," and described himself as "Gray hair and hollow eyes, once strong, now hobbling." The setting was "The battlefield a few days afterward." His goal was "to find the ring that was taken from me".

I chose a Lover of 2, Wanton, Approved, Manipulative, and Knowledgeable. Hoo boy, I didn't really stick to those at all, except for Wanton. I suppose it would have helped if I had fleshed her out a bit more. I spent several minutes making both the Lover & Monster, but with someone sitting across from me in silence, I felt the pressure and all I scrawled for the Lover was "camp follower-Shasa".

The Monster had a score of 4, and was Slow, With Deceit, Civil, and Singly. I can make an argument for Slow, and I see Civil, but he wasn't Deceitful at all, and he had an army, which wasn't Singly. I didn't scrawl much for him at the beginning, either: "general--wizard on the losing side of battle". I didn't stick to that concept, either. It became established in the fiction (by me, no less!) that he was actually on the winning side of the battle. In retrospect it would have been much more interesting if I stuck with my original concept and had him be a lone, bitter general, all his troops dead.

Anyway, to begin: I described a scorched field with scorched corpses ringed by burlap tents full of people tending the wounded and dying, with a large tower at the far end of the battlefield. Brendan surprised me by having Yun-Hai enter the scene by leaving the tower, implying that he was the owner of it (!) This created a problem for me later, which I'll come back to.

Yun-Hai hobbled on his crutches across the battlefield, seeking the ring that was taken from him. Shasa (the Lover), a red-haired, burlap-clad tribeswoman sought to stop him from raising the corpses on the plain to do his bidding, and he promptly ringed her with them and strode off. He swatted aside a burly tribesman with necromancy (bone spikes protruding from the earth!) and strode toward a black cave at the opposite end of the battlefield. As he was about to enter a "thump" behind him surprised Yun-Hai, and he turned around to see Shasa there, a corpse arm that she apparently ripped off laying on the ground between them. She offered herself to his services, acknowledging his great power, and he asked her to help in retrieving the ring.

We started the Match here, with his overtures to her taken as going toward the goal, though in retrospect I suppose it was acting toward the Lover as well.

All of a sudden a bunch of troops marched out of the cave, with the Monster (Silman, a robed stranger) following. He had the ring, and Shasa wrenched it from him, but he paralyzed Yun-Hai with a muttering and got the ring back before slapping Shasa away. She accidentally knocked one of Yun-Hai's crutches away, though he still stood, paralyzed. Silman began choking him and said, "The tower is ours. Give up." Then he dismissed the paralyzation spell, and Yun-Hai fell over, but not before grabbing the ring off of Silman's necklace and throwing it to Shasa, yelling for her to get away. Silman order his guard to drag Yun-Hai into the cave, and they went down, down, down. Yun-Hai was deposited in a torch-lit cavern with a corpse in front of him. Silman was at the opposite end, with a corpse in front of him, too. He said something like, "I will defeat you and prove who is worthy of the tower," and began muttering incantations and taking out vials and things from his robes. The corpse in front of him began to twitch.

Yun-Hai ignored his corpse and crawled over to Silman, who was in a trance. I don't remember exactly what happened here, but some rustling about was had and then Silman's eyes flew open, he pulled out a dagger, and stabbed Yun-Hai in the chest. Yun-Hai stole another ring off Silman and somehow got away, fleeing to the battlefield. At this point the Match was over and Brendan (Yun-Hai) won, with only two Good Dice. He chose to save the Lover (even though she wasn't clearly at risk. I chose to interpret his choice as an affirmative that she was at risk, but in retrospect I probably should have said "she wasn't at risk when we last saw her, so you can choose something else," right?).

So he didn't recover from the monster's harm, and ended up with a paralyzed arm from the poisoned stab. Silman lived, and dug himself deeper underground as his troops were massacred on the open field by a horde of undead. Yun-Hai marched to his tower, where the undead horde were standing before Shasa. She gave Yun-Hai his ring back, and he gave her Silman's ring and pledged his love for her. He then fell over, exhausted by his wounds, and as Shasa put the other ring on, the horde snapped to attention and waited for orders from their new master, Shasa. Officially Brendan chose "Stay there with the Lover", but something interesting happened next: He narrated Yun-Hai dying and being resurrected on the spot as one of Shasa's loyal horde.

It took me a minute to realize what Brendan did, and that's when I asked, "So he chose to stay with the lover?" and Brendan confirmed. I didn't press the issue then, but now in post I'm looking at it and thinking, "Yun-Hai shouldn't have died, right?" because he achieved the Goal. It didn't matter for the game, because it was a one-shot at a gaming meetup, and the story was over anyway because he chose to stay with the Lover, but ideally Yun-Hai wouldn't have died. Am I pressing the issue too much? Since the story's over, does it matter, fictionally, in what way he "stayed with the Lover"? I suppose it does to me, and that's why I keep bringing it up.

Also, I said I would talk about it later, and here it is: since Yun-Hai was a part of the setting (the tower was his) can "taking the Lover" and "staying with the Lover" actually be meaningful choices? Now that I'm writing this I see that it probably can: the distinction could have been between taking Shasa to his tower and then on further adventures, or abandoning the tower and staying with her & her tribespeople. I didn't think of that in play, but my brain did a "wait, isn't this made for adventurers to come from the outside into this setting?" Brendan's surprise of having Yun-Hai enter the setting from the tower itself was cool & thus distracting, so I didn't call it out. Should I have?

Another question whose answer will be fruitful for me: When you're "I", how long does it usually take to make the Lover & Monster? How much description do you write down or think up? How much is needed?

I suspect that part of my problem was letting nerves get the better of me during play--I did rush (the whole thing above took 40 minutes from the moment we opened the book and I started explaining), against textual instructions. This game sure as hell is "face to face," and it takes a bit to get comfortable with another person across the table, waiting for your input. The next round was much better and more satisfying. I count this one as a warm-up. Though, to be fair, Brendan had no qualms with it. I do tend to judge myself pretty harshly and thus hamper my fun when I'm in the facilitator/GM role of something (I've gotta stop doing that, it's really lame), which wasn't a problem when I was the hero. A post of which is forthcoming.

Gregor Hutton:
Quote from: Hans Otterson on May 23, 2010, 12:00:48 AM

Another question whose answer will be fruitful for me: When you're "I", how long does it usually take to make the Lover & Monster? How much description do you write down or think up? How much is needed?

Hey, I happen to have S/Lay w/Me in my bag with me today, which has my notes from the last time I played it. I went and looked, here's what I have written down.


PYR How Kill: Savage/In A Group/Slow/With Deceit
MOLLY How Desired: Wanton/Forbidden/Manipulative/Knowledgeable
I've then drawn a loveheart with the number 2 in it. (where the other player could see it).
On the back, where the other player can't see it, I've drawn a box with "M:6" in it.

That's it. The PYR are the Sky Pirates (the Monster) and MOLLY is the female pirate Molly who'd be the Lover in the game. In my head I had an idea of who and what the Monster and Lover were. I didn't think too deeply, and stuck to what I came up rather than trying to be too clever or complicated. I wrote down the "ways' as a reminder for my Goes. That's been working pretty well for me. It can't have taken more than a few minutes.

Oh, on the back I wrote down the outcomes Brian got in that game so I could keep on track of what he'd won and what our constraints were.

But at the start the Monster and Lover come pretty quickly for me out of the "location becomes mine to develop" stuff and I've just been riffing off of the Hero's choices and 10-word description mixed in with their Goal. (Brian's picks in that game were the "Plains of Ice ranged by Sky-Ships" and his Goal of "Hunting for the old gang member who'd betrayed him.") I had a rough draft in my head and elaborated in play (while sticking to my rough outline and "ways" as a guide).

I'm maybe at the minimal end of the scale? I figure that I don't want to worry about too much story before, I feel that on repeated plays with the same hero you'll get a shared history and world building up out of all the tales. (It's kind of how I've been enjoying my large black Gollancz hardback of Conan tales!)

Hans Otterson:
Thanks, Gregor. I figure the more I play and the more comfortable with the game I get the easier it will be to quickly make up Monsters/Lovers and stick to the concept.

Here's the second round:

I chose "My songs are beloved wherever I go, but I fear they sow doom & horror in my wake." My description was "a young woman with short dark hair carrying a lute." Her name was Suki. The setting was "The last remaining holy place of the first god." Suki's Goal here was "to supplicate the first god to banish the curse on my voice." I'll talk about Brendan's choices as Monster/Lover after I recap the fiction, since that's how I experienced it and showed me something about how the prep worked for someone else.

I'm a little fuzzy on the beginning details, but I know that Brendan described a smallish waterfall that hit against a large bell that, because of the constant stream of water, tolled "bong...bong...bong" back and forth. Behind this waterfall was a cave-like entrance. There were indications that there used to be many more streams and falls and smaller bells, but this was the largest and the last remaining.

I had Suki enter by walking under the waterfall, dousing herself, and then walking into the cave soaked. Goes were on. There was an older woman inside, hair streaked with gray who was stringing beads onto a leather cord. She asked Suki what her business was here, and Suki told her of her need to sacrifice to the first god. The woman welcomed her and led her to some quarters to rest, but informed Suki that she only had one blanket, and would it be OK to share (awesome!)? Suki agreed, took the blanket, and fell into a deep sleep, where in a dream she dropped underneath the cave complex and one after the other slew a horde of man-ape things, and woke up when she reached Lelaine (the older woman). Interestingly, Brendan ended his go at the beginning of the dream and I described what was in the dream. Later, he informed me that he had originally envisioned something else for the dream, which would have played into something he had in mind later in the fiction. Still, it worked out, and I reincorporated the ape-men-things later on.

Suki woke up, it was dark, and she saw the light of a candle outside of her room, and followed it to Lelaine, who was hooded in her robes. She asked Suki if she would like to be taken to the altar of her god, and of course she agreed.

We stopped for a second and discussed whether the Match was starting, since this could be interpreted as Suki acting toward her goal. Since the text is pretty ambiguous at this stage (acting toward the Goal is more fleshed out in the Match and means specific things, but here it just says "act toward the Goal, the Lover, or both". We wanted to draw the story out a bit more since the first one went by in a blaze, so we decided to not start the Match just yet. Ron: is this "acting toward" left purposefully ambiguous in the text to account for this choice of whether to draw out the fiction a bit? In any case, it worked for us.

Suki followed Lelaine down some darkened, twisting passageways to a huge cavern, the ceiling and end not clearly seen with the weak candlelight. Lelaine led Suki to the center, and Suki kneeled in front of an alter, Lelaine standing by. Suki began to sing, and in the places where her voice echoed off the walls of the cavern, dark shapes appeared and dropped thudding to the ground. Suki stopped singing, stood, and took from her sack the hewn head of a man-ape-thing, then deposited it on the altar of seven uncut stones. Then Lelaine said something threatening to the effect that the god had given Suki her "gift" and that she should not ask for it to be taken away that that she should stay here with the god and Lelaine.

It was at this point that I realized Lelaine was also the monster! This was a very gratifying moment of play for me. The Match was officially on.

I think Suki first entreated Lelaine by sidling up to her, which got me the Lover die. Then Lelaine threatened further (sorry I can't remember this; it was great during play but it's lost on me now. Feel free to chime in, Brendan), and Suki began backing away, dagger drawn. We could hear the gibbering, childlike singing of the bat-things created by Suki's voice all around us. As she kept retreating, Suki sang in the bat-thing language and a B-T dropped bodily on Lelaine, obscuring her face, but not before she called out some prayer and the leathery beating of wings was heard above Suki. Lelaine shrieked as a gout of blood spurted out where her face would be. She dropped her candle, and the cavern was plunged into darkness. The bat-thing above Suki was coming down, down, but before it reached her Suki shouted out a frustrated prayer to the god, asking it to free her from her curse.

I believe the Match ended somewhere around here. I lost miserably, only rolling two dice during the whole Match. I was so into what was going on in the fiction and responding to Brendan's input that I wasn't really thinking about going for my Goal & Lover dice. I got that one Goal die from the yelled prayer toward the end, and I believe I got the 1 Lover die available by pressing my body against Lelaine's shortly after the Match started. Funnily enough, once I (Hans) realized that Lelaine was the Monster, so did Suki. It would have been cool if I hadn't had her be so jumpy and just talked to Lelaine more, making more overtures to her as the Lover. I think this was an emergent effect of having the Lover be the Monster, but it doesn't always have to be. Now that I realize that I was having Suki use my knowledge, in the future I know I can pull back from that a bit and keep the Lover in play some more.

Since I didn't win the Match, and I only had 2 Good Dice, I chose to recover from the harm the monster does to me. I don't believe any real harm was done up to this point (again, correct me Brendan), but I took the text literally when it said, "Otherwise, the Monster hurts you severely". As I wanted Suki to live, it was either that choice or having her get the Goal. In the moment it was hard for me to see how that would work, but really it was that I wanted Suki to live with this curse a while longer, especially since it was pretty helpful to her (creating monsters and commanding them with her voice!). I liked the idea that she had this powerful ability that she counted as a curse and wanted to rid herself of.

So the god didn't respond to Suki, and she bolted from the cavern, slipping and running blindly up dark passages until she reached Lelaine's room, where a single lit candle held vigil outside the door. She ran into the room & grabbed her lute, and ran outside into the dark, soaking herself again in the waterfall. This is where it gets cool:

Since we had to incorporate "the Monster lives, although you escape," and "Otherwise [the Lover] dies", and they were the same person, we ended with a cut back to the cavern where Lelaine stood, her lower jaw ripped off and bleeding. She rasped something horrible and guttural out of her throat, and the bat-things were hers to command. Lelaine was dead; only the Monster remained.

Now to Brendan's prep: he chose Lover (1), Wanton/Forbidden/Manipulative/Knowledgeable, and Monster (4) Slow/With Deceit/Savage/Singly. In contrast to myself in the first round, I think he played those descriptors fantastically, and to the hilt!

Here's where it becomes really informative: He had an idea in the beginning that the lover and the monster were the same person, but he wasn't sure. He just did it all off-the-cuff, and it worked. And his notes that I have in front of me don't have any scrawls of description, other than Lelaine's name which was created in play. Whereas I prepped, and instead of sticking to my prep, I waffled and changed my people based on the fiction. Brendan also changed the M/L based on the fiction (from my perspective), but he stuck to the descriptors. This is important because it means that it's less crucial to have a fully-fleshed Monster & Lover at the beginning of play and more crucial to stay true to the descriptors you've chosen. This will help me play S/lay better, as it shows me what matters most about the prep. I don't know why this is a surprise, because the text says nary a thing about fleshing out the Monster & Lover in a "write 10 words about" sense, but it says to "especially consider" the descriptors. Huh. And here I thought I had read it closely.

Hans Otterson:
Also: when Suki grabbed her lute at the end, Brendan narrated it having an ancient-looking beaded leather string, a call-back to the first scene. This opened up the possibility to me that Lelaine had been a ghost or spirit, though I never asked Brendan explicitly whether this was what he was going for.

I'm looking back on my AP, and damn, it's long. Too long? I have a hard time summarizing the fiction, though if doing so would be more helpful and get more eyeballs, please say so.

Ron Edwards:
Hi Hans,

You're providing perfectly good actual-play posting, exactly what I (and I think others) need in order to understand your points and questions. Also, it's clear that writing it out allowed you to reflect more thoroughly upon your own practices and needs, and that's always good. And as far as it matters, I agree that you apparently put a lot of pressure onto yourself, and with a game like S/Lay w/Me, you don't need to do that - each person is free to please himself or herself, with equal responsibility to respect what's been established already in play. The net effects are to entertain one another and to co-author a great story, but like a lot of effects, it's counter-productive to self-dictate your immediate choices in order to impose them.

Now for the technical questions.

1. "The tower is his" - the issue is how this information is genuinely established. When Brendan stated that his character entered the scene from the tower, did he also say, exactly, that the tower belonged to the character? Or did you let the unexpected entry point rattle you and jump to that conclusion yourself?

And let's say that he did say that the character owned the tower. That's fine. It doesn't mean he lives there permanently and therefore is a fixture in the area. Nor does it mean that he plans to stay there. All of this information or back-story is totally left up to play, and play is carried out by both participants. It's also worth considering, instead of the "I" player being allied with the rulebook against the "you" player, that both players are looking at the same book with equal status toward it and between them. What I'm trying to say is that you have plenty of room to give initial, briefly-stated information a lot more context.

2. "The tower is his" part II - I think you've already mainly resolved the issue of whether the character's "stay" choice was relevant even if he did have some kind of residence in the area, as well as the distinction between staying with the lover or not in that context. My take is that the choices can almost always be legitimately present, as well as independent, even with certain tweaks like the character's own tower. You demonstrated that independence perfectly with the narration of what happened to the Lover/Monster character in the second story. I love stories like that, with a single character being the Lover and Monster, and interpreting the results of the independent choices upon that character. The system was built explicitly for the possibility of these kinds of creative choices.

3. Gregor's description of making up the Lover and Monster matches the way I do it. However, I think that the time to make up the Lover and Monster are not the issue you're grappling with. I think that the issue is what you do with that prep once play gets going. You are absolutely right to focus on the descriptors and let them be your guide as you go along. I also think that you may be hamstringing yourself by saying "based on the fiction," (I hope I'm not getting too abstract too quickly here) in the sense of trying to play forward toward some story effect. If you instead rely heavily on the fiction as established so far, working to enrich its input, like the beaded leather string, then you'll find that the descriptors mesh very well with it and story effects emerge without forcing them.

All that said, it's not a crime to immediately revise the descriptors once you hit the road of real play. I've done that a couple of times, when just as I introduce the Lover, for instance, I decide that wantonness isn't what I want to do after all, or with the Monster, enjoying playing it civilly after all. The thing to avoid for sure, though, is to switch up the listed concepts about either the Monster or Lover later in play, which has a scattering effect on the story.

Let me know if any of this helps, or if it's at least interesting.

Best, Ron


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