The Clay That Woke is a wonderful game to play. You play male minotaurs living as denizens in the ruins of the remains of a decadent civilization – with its very high culture only living as shadow of itself, but this shadow is still giving you a glance of the high wonderfulness of this society. The dense jungle around the ruins inhabited by the people is both wonderful and dreadful. We met at four players, two from US and two from Europe, to play a game at Christmas day. I had a few situations in a notebook, and I overthrew my stress to gm in English to get into this wonderful session with two players I didn’t know before.
The Clay that Woke is a a good game for me to face my stress of gming. I generally muddy myself in “overprepping”, which is trying to know every details of the backstory before the game to “be ready to say something”. Clay is not a “non prep” game – it requires investment for the GM. The preparation of a session is daunting but so smart: you think about an injustice that taks you in your gut, personally, not a general macro thing, you “translate” it into specific NPC with specific behaviours. Those NPC can have “quiproquo thinking” (they don’t take responsibilities for the consequences of their own morally questionable actions) or “strange beliefs” (stranges conceptions about their situation, the world, or those weird of urban legends) that can be true or false. They can also have both. Not all NPC does not have to be like that, but I chose to have the character’s master and we had three different scenes. Those who have quiproquo thinking, or strange beliefs, or both, are called intrinsic NPCs.
There are lots of things that I love about this game (I gmed it, never played it), here are some of them: it is really evocative and it is really easy to improvise interesting lore during the game. This a high fantasy setting, and the book is 120 pages, but you have what you need to root yourself in the imagery then everything flows by itself during the game. I always surprise myself, adding little elements that are only color, but builds a mood of weird wonderfulness, which seems to support the engagement in this shared imagery (I’ll let the other confirm or invalidate this claim).
Playing the intrinsic NPC are superfun. They are totally nuts. Sometimes it is written on their face, sometimes it is very subtle.
The conflicts, alled “inflexions” are also very interesting in terms of Intent-Initiation-Execution-Effect. It is a token resolution system: you put tokens you have in your pool and you see the outcome. When there is opposition to a PC, we stop a bit to clarify the intents of the parties involved, but we don’t draw the tokens directly : we play and describe and we go further until we feel that we need to resolve it through the mechanics. Then we draw, we know the outcomes, and we play it until we are able to implent them through the fiction. Everything has to flow. Three things attracts my attention here, based on this game.
First, sometime the player change its announced intent through play before we arrive at the resolution, and the resolution does not seems to be needed at all. Here, as I did before, I try to remind that we are just playing through the resolution, but it seems like the described actions really changes the intent of the character – as perceived by the player. I think it is part of a learning curve, but it is open to thought.
Second, the starting situations. Prepping a starting situation is daunting for me. The game text anticipates that and its advices are really good, as mentioned above. But it is also useful (and generaly more useful) to think about the starting situation involve personally the character. For instance, I had no “big story” behind the starting situation of the soldier. I took it from an actual play I’ve seen gmed by Paul Czege, because it is superfun. The Minotaur’s master is screaming because a snake has eaten his daughter. He commands the Soldier to kill the snake, get back her daughter – she is dead – then kidnap another kid and find a stag anywhere he wants so it can feed on the body and sucks her personality and memories so he can feed te kidnapped child and “Neither seen, never known”. I don’t have a whole story of injustice translated in a fantasy cultural issue behind this, just this intrisec NPC with quiproquo thinking. But it works wonderfully. This scene was both lots of fun and intensity. The situation is dramatic and I could see the player’s eyes growing bigger the more and more this scene was growing. I used Sex & Sorcerer techniques of hardframing the starting situations and going to another player when we needed to go to the resolution system. The Soldier killed the snake, listened to his master telling him to find a stag and kidnap a kid, then he went on the bank of the Vadmriver where he smoked roots to calm itself while dolphins were singing to him minotaur poetries of another millennium.
Third, the silence. Silence is sometimes open to discussion: did a minotaur breaks silence there? Was this situation a social injustice he endorsed? We had a pretty intense situation here. I took this one from the book. The wealthy judge master of a Philosopher Minotaur is looking to the dead body of a servant. He asks the minotaur to testify against his wife, so he, the judge, will be able to “lift the curse” with the Philosopher while everyone is protected in prison. Then, when the curse is lifted, he will have the power to get out everyone of prison and “save this household”. In short, the Philosopher, thinking it is totally crazy, locks up the judge inh his room, convince a bodyguard Minotaur to help him to talk to wife. “A curse ???? Oh my god, we need to lift it!!”, said the judge’s wife. Follows a weird situation where the wife talks with his husband, the husband asks the bodyguard to kill his wife “because anyway I will get her back to life after I lifted the curse”, and the Philosopher battles with the bodyguard and wins the conflict with its mind, convincing the bodyguard to stop the fight, with a moment of respect between each other …… then kill him the bodyguard by surprise. I didn’t expect! Nobody did. Every players were like “whaaat”. One of the players said, “did he break silence?”. In the actual play I’ve seen, the same discussion occurred, and I took the same path. “Let’s keep the Silence as a group thing”. We had a little about this. The Philosopher players explained that for him, this minotaur was going to kill this wife, and this kind of behaviour is a threat for everyone. And it’s true that the whole thing was an unfair situation: a false testimony, the potential murder of the wife, the wife going in prison etc. But killing a minotaur is a huge thing ? Everybody seemed to agree that the situation is fuzzy, but not to the point that silence has not been broken. So we went this path.
The third situation has also something interesting to discuss. The Advocate Minotaur’s master led him into a prank to accuse one of his rival. The Advocate had to impersonate a false ghost that pretended to be customer of this rival, dead because of her. The rival, that seems to be totally innocent, and maybe the first non intrinsic NPC (which makes her sympathetic in comparison of the others), but also fair. Even if the Advocate whispers her to flee, she answers by saying that “if she had made a mistake, and people are dead, I have to take responsability”. I think the player did not expect this, because the previous important NPC had quiproquo thinking and it built an interesting situations. People led the rival into the judge household – yes, this judge actually dealing with the curse. I’m not sure if it is in the text, but crosses works very well with this game, without being mandatory, and in a “sorcerer” style. It is realty easy to do: I didn’t think about it, it just appeared to be a good thing at this moment.In this game, we did not have time to have an opportunity for PC minotaur to meet together – which is not needed, but could arrive with crosses.
In a previous session, I forgot to do the last scene: players play anonymous minotaurs talking about the social issue behind one of the PC’s story. It is easy to workshop this, by negotiating which “scene” we want to choose. There is no advice in the book to help prevent this. One player was aware of that and went just framing the scene and talk about the Philosopher. So it may feel arbitrary that one player can just choose… But I think it is something that could be a “debate in-game”. This scene should not be forgotten, it felt very important for me, as a closure of the session. It focuses everyone attention on one of the event and let it discussion at the more general macro level. It also let time to reflecting, but through play, one intense situations everyone had to expect.
Interestingly, everyone one a Name token in this game. It was wo fun that we want to schedule a new game in January. This is a wonderful opportunity to play in the Jungle, which I expect to be a new kind of mood and psychedelic trip, if the players want to go its path – I will be very explicit that it is possible but not mandatory. I will try to record it. We played 3 hours when I was expecting 1h30-2h max, with 30 minutes of introduction of the game and its setting.
An interesting thing is how the intrinsic NPC creates and sometimes superstisious secondary characters (such as a crowd) makes the players feel they are in a complete alien civilization, disconnected from it. The players are not expected to be intrinsic at all. I think this lead to some kind of solidarity together “men this world is weird” that helps engagement in each other story. The most funny is when you realize that one of those NPC with strange beliefs is actually right. Man, does this juge’s household is really cursed and is he right about what he wants to do? For the purpose of this session, I didn’t decide anything – I let the game builds itself before I need to make a decisision.
Another thing I want to say relating to this discuscussion : https://adeptplay.com/seminar-hearts-minds/presentation-why-glorantha-and-its-games
I commented there that I have no idea how to “binge Tanith Lee” to fill notebooks about fantasy setting. I said that S/Lay W/me helps me to do it, but it is also true about The Clay That Woke. It has a wonderful effect on me: during play, ideas are just coming in reactions to what the players says, do, thinks, and the evocative setting and text in the book are just sufficient to prompt novel ideas. There is “bestiary” with 100 creatures you can meet in the jungle. But you have three or four descriptions, such as this Plant “Stag” who feeds on fertile soil (such as dead bodies) and sometimes produce seeds with the memories of those dead, or those dolphins singing wonderful stories of previous centuries when they were walking with the humans. Or those glowing fishes who hides in human skulls in the Vadmriver. Or this other one who collects fallen seeds underwater, keeps them under this skin and digest them when he is afraid of a predator as it pump its adrenaline ups – and that is served as a meal to express friendship between minotaurs and humans because both species can eat something from them. Having that in mind, it is really easy during play and through play to come up with weird things. The thing is I don't "try" to do it, and I don't expect myself to do it. But every time I play, it happens. Details about color are building from themselves as we describe the situations, not a lot of them, maybe one or two by session.
A simple starting situation by PC with one move by NPC and one situation of resolution needed is generally enough for a whole session - even if the text book seems to expect a lot (moves, truths, potential truths, situations). I try to lower the pressure with this game and it works. If I don't have any idea, I'll just end the session and need some time to prep the follow up. The problem that can arise (I had this once) is when I have a very nice "social issue translated into the setting" but with no ethical choice for the character in the starting scene.