I have to say, I feel a bit like Charles Marlow, relating a series of half-real half-imagined events to an unknown audience.
"'Try to be civil, Marlow,' growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself."
So far, we’ve seen the creation and reification of Laurence the Innocent, a self-hating elf, would-be liberator, and unexpected father. To defeat Greyhand, he has had to live like a human and think like a human, spending years as a monk listening to each word carefully. His approach to problems is always dishonest and anti-social.
In the brutalist citadel, with his elf-son “Melchior” created, possessing the likeness of Greyhand, Laurence sets upon the task of killing the King. R’s strategy for this was nothing short of ingenious. He made the point that, as an ageless elf, he could merely outlive the King.
This led to an intercharacter conflict and we had to decide the stakes. For Greyhand, it meant certain death. For Laurence, we decided it meant exposure as an antagonist, a break in his visage as goodly King’s physician. In other words, both characters were rolling against their afflictions, Greyhound against his health, Laurence against the crushing weight of living in the citadel. The resulting conflict was brutal but Greyhand managed to eek out a win, although his affliction was triggered. Laurence missed a roll, but his affliction remained untriggered.
The King, sensing Laurence’s deception, set out on a journey to the Abbey where Abbot Milo might treat his affliction (rather than Laurence).
We had many scenes here building the relationship between Laurence and his son. His son was having difficulty meeting the demands of princehood (being an elf) and Laurence chose, against his character, to reveal the truth of his heritage to him. I played Melchior as intelligent and curious but meek- or maybe he felt small surrounded by such titans as Greyhand, Laurence, and Aeshma.
King Greyhand returns with Abbot Milo with the intention of testing Melchior to see if he’s human or elven. Laurence, forewarned by his spy Jessup, prepared a transmutation to change his DNA to scam Milo’s test.
Melchior was not happy about lying to his father. In fact, he wasn’t sure he wanted to become King and would even see it fall to his brother Samuel. This led to one of the greatest confrontations in the campaign where Laurence finally set out his reasons for hating humanity and Greyhand in particular. They discuss the concept of political dynasty and Melchior presents an interesting view, that perhaps living forever means bearing with the ups and downs of political, social, and environmental upheavals.
Laurence, in consideration of Melchior's reflective and philosophical tenor answers in matching tone, "Listen here you little shit. I've spent two decades getting you into this position. I'm not about to let that fucker (Greyhand) hand over my stolen land to his bastard son."
Laurence ends up guilting him into participating in the experiment and Milo performs the test. Milo fudges the results and says that Melchior is an elf.
Laurence’s solution is to have Melchior testify on his own behalf to the King, which he does successfully. Greyhound loves his son, a fact Laurence understands all too well.
Milo, himself worn by age, condemns Laurence and his sinister tactics. Laurence says that his salvation will be through the world his son will create.
At this point, I had Aeshma die. Laurence had never visited him in all those years in the citadel, ashamed of the person he had become. King Greyhand took his death quite badly himself, crying over his fallen adversary (the closest being he had to a friend). R took this quite hard.
Laurence plans to kill the king with poison but leaks the plan to his son. Melchior stops the plan in its tracks by informing Greyhand, but suggests Laurence to be exiled instead of executed.
I wasn’t sure how to handle Laurence’s exile- all of the game’s characters and locations either dead or far away. What we did was simply have Laurence adventure like the traumatic events of the campaign were all a distant dream.
It was wonderful. The alchemist reconnected to a friend who had become a trader in trolls on the high seas, recruiting them into the logging industry. He jumped aboard a pirate ship and led them to steal the fortune of a war financier. In the course of his adventures, he often had need of assistance from his son, but never called upon him even when it was important.
In the middle of these adventures, I announced that Greyhand had finally died, choked to death on a chicken bone.
Laurence did not reconnect with his son until his son lay upon his deathbed, a hundred years hence. Melchior needed a rare plant to live, which had been wiped out by industrialisation in agriculture. Instead of creating an heir by artificial means, or extending his life, he elected to pass on. Rule would pass to a body representing humans and wildling interests.
He asked Laurence to give the eulogy at his funeral and he did, telling a story of a man caught between two worlds.
We decided the future of the Wildlands was something between Greyhand’s vision of peace-at-any-cost and the naturalism of the Wildlings, since Melchior was equally influenced by Greyhand and Laurence. Interestingly, Laurence’s redemption didn’t come from being a good father, but from letting his son go and learning to befriend and love regular people. It was significant that these regular people were slavers and pirates and criminals.
The campaign’s most prominent theme was freedom versus discipline. In the first part, we saw how Laurence’s intense discipline (going so far as to physically transform his brain) came at the expense of his humanity (elfmanity?). In the second part, he had to subject this same process onto his son, and finally reflect on it. All of this happened before Greyhand, the ultimate embodiment of unthinking physical and mental discipline. A blob on a throne, embodying ultimate political power but unable to take a stroll down to the tavern and enjoy a droll conversation.
The most important strategy in Living Alchemy is how your character treats their affliction, but most players pay it only the most cursory attention. R’s strategy of relying on praise and attention from his adversary was excellent, and its effect on the story was profound. Watching Laurence struggle against Greyhand, afraid to make a move against him was enjoyable, reminding me of the film Amadeus (which I obviously love).
There were a few cases where I might have pulled my punches a *little bit*. At the same time, I’ve never run a campaign with just one player. When players have their afflictions triggered, they can usually rely on other players for help. Not so here. But that’s also a result of R’s strategy to let no one into his life.
As GM, I am very much the adversary- but not like a mitary enemy, more like Q or Mephistopheles, forcing players to confront the limitations of their own conceptions. Fantasy heroes and princesses of unyielding principles don't make it very far.
Even in the adversarial mode, there's still a lot of creative agency. With the intense burden of balancing encounters off of your shoulders, you can focus on understanding the motivations of your NPCs, creating living environments, and thinking of ways to mess with your players.
The biggest problems came from the Transmutation rules, which simply didn’t focus hard enough on the game’s themes. Melchior never used his supernatural homunculus powers that Laurence exhausted himself in granting him. Using transmute should help frame the relationship with creator and creation instead of focusing on superpowers. In the future, each module will have its own rules for transmutation, that ensures alchemy fits the module's themes.
There were many minor changes to the abilities over the course of the game that I glossed over- the game is very sensitive to exact challenge ratings. The abilities continue to evolve as players use them. Most of them come from players trying to do something interesting and working it into the game so that play moves forward regardless of the outcome.
I hope the time you’ve spent reading my story has been worth it. GMing this game was quite fun, and creatively fulfilling. It bears mentioning that I've run this same module again with a group of four players, and the resulting campaign was very intersting in its own right.
2 responses to “The Story Module (Part III of III)”
Weird grim fantasy
I really enjoyed this account as “this is what we played,” meaning, “this is what happened because we played.” Vincent Baker said that he played role-playing games because the stories that emerged could not have been created by the people involved, singly or collectively through any other process. Specifically, not the familiar process of one person sitting alone, occasionally sucking on the end of a pen, looking upwards.
H’m, I think there’s an important thing to clarify about that. It’s not that any of us are incapable of writing a story by ourselves, and therefore need role-playing as a kind of kiddie pool in order to doit. Instead, it’s that this medium affords a way to create stories which is uniquely powerful in terms of content, arguably better suited to such creation than the media we’re accustomed to.
Please forgive me for not enthusing specifically about the events and for focusing instead on some procedural questions, as indicated by boldface in quoting from your account.
The phrase “the stakes” stinks horribly in my nostrils, so accepting that your local application in Living Alchemy is good and not stinky, I want to know how this is done.
Either way is fine, so this is not a “gotcha” question. But they are different ways, so I’d like to know which, or if neither quite describes it, whatever is done.
Is the forewarning part of your presentation to the player, i.e., the situation which Laurence must confront? Or did it result from some action or game procedure on the player’s part? (Same qualifier as before – this is not a right/wrong good/bad dichotomy, merely two procedural options that might result as you’ve described.)
If I’m understanding correctly, Melchior is played by you, so this question is similar to the one above: what mechanics are involved in this precise event? For example, it may be that the player attempted to resolve the assassination but mechanically failed to succeed, so Melchior’s action is the narrated/fictional means by which Laurence failed. Or perhaps it’s that you as GM treated it as a new event, “he does this,” as situational input from scratch.
Here, does “most players” refer to your other playtests compared to this particular one? (I confess that as you’ve described this, I would be all over the afflictions like an unmentionable simile.)
Thanks again for posting these!
The phrase “the stakes”
It's an important question. I've found getting into the nuts and bolts of conflict resoultion to be notoriously difficult. In our game, and generally speaking, it's very much the first one. I can address some stuff about LA's conflict resolution specifically:
That particular conflict took place over years and years of time, and required coming to a common understanding on what would happen over that time. Once we thought about it, we quickly came to the same conclusion. Laurence would be stressed by living in isolation and Greyhand would have to fight off age.
With all of that said, I'm very interested in different approaches to conflict resolution and instantiating it in the rules.
R made sure to send Jessup as a spy and probably made a roll for it using Jessup's dice pool. I can't remember. Sometimes, players make decisions retroactively and I will almost always allow it. Characters can have a rather broad range of influence- running hospitals, servants, armies, etc. If someone tries to steal from a character's house while the character is away, I'll let them oppose the theif's actions with their dice pools, especially if they have "traps engineer" or something.
In that situation, the roll never took place. R explicitly wanted Melchior forewarned in order to force a choice to either-
Let King Greyhand die and tacitly submit to Laurence's plan (pretty unlikely)
Tip off King Greyahand and have Laurence executed (much more likely)
I chose a third option. There is an important rule that character choices are never decided by rolls. There are emphatically no intimidation, persuasion, bargaining, rolls of any kind. However, choices are often made with respect to psychological consequences for instance. For instance, if a character has their Perverted affliction triggered and only you are capable of treating it, you can use that as leverage to get them to do something you want. But you can't make a roll to force them to.
Perahps I exagerated a bit, there. Of the ten or so players I've seen, players aren't used to thinking of relationships as *structurally* as they do their equipment, health, and other more common "game elements." It may come from the way other games treat relationshps as "soft elements," subordinate to other aspects of play. An innkeeper who offers money for quests, shares information on what's happening, provides safety and comfort, and connects you to other adventurers, isn't a "strategic resource" in the same way that a healing potion is.