[S/Lay w/Me] Reflections on a game

The following text was taken from the forum “La Locanda del Gdr” and translated from Italian using Deepl:

Hello everyone! In August I had the opportunity to try for the first time S/lay w/ME, accompanied by a faithful companion known online, for two sessions and a total of two rotations between the role of GM and Protagonist. It was therefore a limited experience, but I would have liked to deepen it during these vacations for some elements that have left me puzzled and uncertain about the judgment to be assigned to this game. Taking into account the provisional nature of this opinion, I would like to explore a point that I found problematic: the element of a player’s contribution as a constraint in the act of constructing the fiction.

What do I mean by constriction? Simply, I am referring to those elements of the system that compel us to take a player’s statements seriously at the table, here and now, while we are collaborating together, without being able to ignore – in the most egregious cases – or influence these same statements through diegetic elements (fate or hero points, I would say as an immediate example) or extradiegetic elements. I think the extreme cases of this idealistic continuum have been described many times: at one extreme, games like Fiasco (of which I have already had the opportunity to comment here) that, at least in my experience, need strong links and agreement between players in order not to get lost in a set of scenes not coherently connected; on the other, the “spring toys” of some sectors of today’s rpg, that in the definition of too stringent procedures stifle the space of determination of the players involved, leading everything to a standardized experience.

I want to clarify, before moving to the concrete example, that the only fact that the games of the first spectrum do not have procedures described in the manual does not mean that at the various tables there is no way to make them run – as witnessed by the many positive experiences that Fiasco collects – but that, at least personally, the advice offered by the text remain, in fact, advice: of course Fiasco encourages you to respect the contributions of others … but on paper. Since there are no stakes imposed on the construction of a scene, it is possible for the player next to you to jump into the past, the future or another location totally at random, ignoring the development of the fiction so far. You shouldn’t have to do that. But there’s nothing to stop you from doing so.

Basically, this is the point I felt playing in the two roles of S/lay w/ME: feeling somehow without footholds or fixed points in the construction of the adventure, we happened, to take a dance as a metaphor, to “step on each other’s toes”:

– as Gm, preparing the adventure for the noble paladin of my duet buddy, I took his suggestion for the objective “find the seed of the tree of life”, to introduce this phantom tree in the middle of “the battlefields, a few days later”. In practice, however, this element overrode Alek’s choice of scenario; the adventure ended up taking place all within this metaphysical space within the tree, which left my adventuring partner a bit puzzled. Looking back, I simply took something I wanted to see and transplanted it onto an initial choice that I felt I should have respected.

– As a player, it happened to me that the “encroachment” promoted by the rules, even if with caution, sometimes took undue possession of my Protagonist. In the second adventure, my thief, searching for the Eye of Moldered – a phantom gem hidden in a cultist ziggurat – finally gets it with the help of his lover and a wounded companion. My friend’s next Go, moving immediately outside the walls, left me without the possibility of saving the companion himself, so much so that we had to turn the tables for a moment by narrating how the Protagonist returned to save the unfortunate companion.

Now, as you can read from these examples, it wasn’t overly tragic stuff; I’m sure that by stopping the game and talking about it for a second, we could have solved these problems more easily. But, precisely, I felt that this contribution would come outside of the system being considered,  pausing the whole thing. This feeling stayed with me at the end of the game: I think that if I hadn’t had a player like my duet buddy with whom I felt in tune for aesthetic contributions, the results would have been different, and I don’t know if for the better.

These first reflections are missing an important part: when did I feel the game working instead? If in fact the experiences of the second and third adventures gave me this impression, I had a decidedly more positive feeling toward the first and fourth games. I think both of these experiences had a more conscious element of cogency, in two ways:

– on the one hand, our statements – our Go’s, in terms of the game – followed each other by paying more attention to their respective spheres of influence. Perhaps as a result of that, I would say I like to play more “tightly,” to define it in textbook terms. I wish I could add more on this, but Go as a topic is something massive that needs some more thought; in general we struggled in many cases to figure out whether certain statements were Go or not, and this flexibility in defining this element, while characterizing interactions between players at a specific table as unique, also opens up in some cases to a murk phenomenon, leading to stopping the game to ask, “wait, is this a Go to you?  Because it doesn’t seem to me that you have done anything significant yet”.

– On the other hand, the common denominator of these two adventures is that they took place in very precise locations (a temple of a cursed deity, the breeding pits of the Apostate’s army); in short, there was a clear image of where we were and what we were doing, rather than jumping around in several places and losing the consistency of the imagined reference.

My playmate’s comment, while exchanging opinions about the game, struck me very much, for the use of the term “self-responsibility,” given the perceived absence of elements of constraint – at least in the early stages. To get to the heart of the problem: how long should a rule system support you in the cogency of the imagined reference, and how long is the responsibility for the latter with the players at the table? How can I improve the experience I have playing this game, even imagining that by changing people at the table the learning curve, due to the tuning of aesthetic contributions, tends to reset?

One response to “[S/Lay w/Me] Reflections on a game”

  1. Complementarity

    I promise that this reply turns out to be nice eventually.

    I am unsympathetic to what you're calling a problem.

    As the "I" player, it is your job to take a phrase like "the seed of life" and "the battlefield, a few days later," and to make of them whatever you want and enjoy. It is not your job to guess at what the other player wanted about them or, during play, what they may wants at the moment. Similarly, it is wrong of them even to have preferences or expectations for what you do with it.

    The example with the Eye of Moldered is hard to assess from this side of the screen, because I'm not too clear on how the other person played the shift in location. If it's a teleport – "now you're outside the walls," "why isn't my friend with me," "you left him there" – then it's against the rules. Playing loose is about responses inside a Go; neither player may say what the others' characters did in the interstices and initiation of a Go. And if it's not a teleport, then you were fully able to take the friend with you just by saying so.

    That's the harsh part of my reply. Far more positively, your thoughts about the functional experiences (sessions 1 and 4) make a lot of sense and I really like seeing them. First, that you want to play toward the tight end of the rules, just as described in the text, which is good and necessary to know. Second, that play relies on always maintaining the mutual understanding of place, motion, and characters' activity, which I agree, yes, it does.

    On the more philosophical point at the end, I suggest that there is no such thing as a rules system "supporting" anything. That phrasing and concept are broken from the start. The cogency of the imagined situation and circumstances are composed only of listening to one another, with any instrumentation – rules of all kinds, even maps and miniatures – operating as a subroutine.

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