I've been working on a roleplaying game for half my life. I started it in the summer before college, sitting in the empty campus of UNL. I was about to leave for a another state, bitter about my life, bitter about leaving it. But this isn't about that. I recently finished an eight session campaign using the system I built. I thought I'd tell you about it.
Living Alchemy is an emergent storytelling game. Virtually nothing is prepped. Virtually no elements are introduced into the game by the gamemaster. Not only do plots emerge organically, but the game naturally builds towards intense situations. I've been told it feels like suffocation. The players play afflicted characters- addicts, schizophrenics, people consumed by revenge or devotion. It draws from the the romantics- the morose poet, the Byronic hero, its interest in the occult and the psychological.
My campaign had one player, my brother R who has played games with me for years and shares my interest in literature.
I've been working on making organic story-oriented play more accessible. For Bright Eyes, I tried something new- a variation of the character map technique but specifically tailored for Living Alchemy. I began with a simple character map (in fact, just three people and three locations) and let the players attach themselves to one of the characters. Relationships are always of the following types: Adversary, Master, Apprentice, Servant, Romantic, or Family. Relationships are conceived as asymmetrical and almost assured to develop through play.
My solution was to start with an antagonist and let the players frame the conflict with respect to him. Enter King Greyhand.
I saw this picture and a character sprang to mind immediately. Like the player character's, the antagonist begins play with an affliction. He was once a powerful king who conquered the Wildlands, the country the game takes place in. The Wildlands was home to the fantasy races we all know, but Greyhand conquered it and installed himself as King. Like a player character, Greyhand has an affliction- Broken. He has grown fat and weak though his power and strength once matched that of trolls. He draws very much from The Kingpin from the TV show Daredevil- the personification of neo-liberal gentrification. Essentially, I took the Kingpin, made him a colonialist, and broke him.
The module has two other characters. Priestess Reyla, Greyhand's former general and King Aeshma. Aeshma is a troll who rallied the fantasy races of the Wildlands together to oppose Greyhand's conquest, unsuccessfully. He lost his arm and sits in Greyhand's dungeon feeling sad.
Greyhand is not only old and fat, but impotent as well. His goal is to hire an alchemist to help create a child to carry on his legacy.
That's the entire relationship map of the module. R was filled with ideas immediately. He picked up on the racial undertones quickly which I had to push back on. My framing was explicitly colonialist, the "happy" kind of colonialism. Greyhand thinks he's a civilizing king. He has brought peace to this country and begun the selfless process of industrializing and educating.
R hooked into this and made his character. He was an elf whose original name was Lorend of the Seven Winds, but his human name was Laurence the Innocent. The affliction he chose was Outcasted– an elf ascending the ranks of human society as an alchemist and professor. He was once Aeshma's adoptive son- vowing to unseat Greyhand at any cost. He introduced a new character into the game to act as his patron- An abbot named Milo who ran a center for educating the Wildlings, reshaping them into useful workers.
Laurence would prove to be one of the best player characters I've ever had in one of my games. A near-genius plagued by an overwhelming longing for companionship whose every action undermined that desire. Associating Outcast (one of nine afflictions) with elf was entirely R's idea and it was the fulcrum for the whole campaign.
The game begins in the Abbey of Unification, the reeducation center run by Abbot Milo. Laurence serves as a professor under him. His first action was to recruit one of his students to act as his lackey- a reformed criminal named Jessup Freeelf.
Living Alchemy allows players to introduce new elements into the game using special abilities. Jessup was introduced using the ability hire. The abilities of the hire and the framing of the relationship are established using the mechanics. We established that Laurence had something over him (he desperately needed help with his studies), which made the roll extra difficult.
Laurence begins a series of secret alchemical experiments to enhance his own intelligence and to create enhanced animals that might be presented to the King. One of these experiments goes wrong. R misses an easy roll with his absurdly deep pool.
(Rolls in Living Alchemy are often successful – possibly 85% of the time. Players play an important role in setting the difficulty. If rolls are too hard, they won't be attempted.)
A transmuted horse bites Laurence's leg and escapes into the Abbey, biting and terrifying students before being put down. The abbot considers this a deep betrayal and, after healing Laurence, begins treating him almost like a prisoner. In particular, he begins taking Laurence's transmuted animals to King Greyhand, improving his own standing with the King.
R conceives a strategy. He will exhaust himself to create an incredible transmuted animal, present it to the King and treat his affliction with the King's praise. This is a masterful plan, taking advantage of the narrative to achieve a mechanical advantage. In Part II, I'll show you how it fails.