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.