Playing S/Lay w/Me for the first time.

I’ve owned S/Lay w/Me for years. I’ve wanted to play it for that entire time. I never have, because it seems so intensely intimate, and also because no matter how many times I’ve read it, I don’t know if I know how to play it.

Regardless, after a long, soul-baring conversation with a friend of nearly 20 years a couple nights back, I proposed a session of phantasmagorical roleplay together. He agreed.

So, this afternoon we meet up on Discord voice chat. For the first session, he played as You and I played as I. He’s never played S/Lay w/Me before and only just read the book from start to finish with me as we begin, me reading it aloud to him. Then, neither of us sure what we’re doing, we begin.

You is a young warrior, fierce and feared, but his hair is grey. He wears simple clothing and bears a gladius, as well as a pouch with his family’s ashes. He comes to the cemetery that is also a city, in search of the gem that will allow him to lay the dead to their final rest. That’s his Go.

I Go and describe how the city is gray, empty, and dead. It is layered upon itself like a vast cake, multiple levels built up to a tower in the center of it, with a golden light like a pharos beaming from the top of it. The mist billows like dry ice throughout the city and as You walks under the gate, it pools around his legs, almost drawing him in. (the mist is the Lover, although I don’t specify that explicitly yet.) You makes his way cautiously into the city, taking a moment to check into one of the many empty buildings.

Within it, I describe a hunched figure under a ragged cloak. She looks up at him, flashing green eyes, long dark curls framing her face, and scrabbles away from him. This is the Monster, although You doesn’t realize it. He assumes it’s the Lover.

The Monster pretends to be scared of You, drawing him close until he offers his hand and promises to take her from here. All the while the mist is building, building, rising up to waist height and higher. Whispers are echoing in his ears, “Help me. Save me.” I don’t remember what point it was that I shifted to activating the Monster and rolling dice, but she dug her nails into You’s back and sides, raking deep gashes into him as her face split open with a four-pronged lamprey mouth like the Predator.

I narrated how the mist built around him and floated him to the base of the tower, almost like a teleport, a whispering voice pleading “Save me” as it did. You lost his sword, but runs from the screaming chittering monster-woman chasing him through the mist, turning and free-climbing the tower. You gets to the top, describing it as an onion dome, Arabian Nights style. I Go, and describe how You scrambles through the low windows to find a gem, golden, fist-sized, floating in the center of the room at the top of the tower, glowing and casting the light that’s drawn him since he entered the dead city. The mist whirls and coalesces around the gem, forming a nude woman with the gem as her heart, gray of skin, her hair billowing upwards like flame. Her eyes are closed and she floats there, arms wrapped around herself to protect her modesty. She speaks to You in person now, asking him again to rescue her.

You of course immediately goes to her, takes her in his arms. He looks around to find any exit as the tower shudders, with the Monster below shrieking and carving chunks out of it with her/its claws. You describes how there is a trap door as the only way down from the tower, other than free-climbing the outside of it again, it is old and wooden and leads to a rotten staircase (and it is amazing how sympatico the visualizations can become… I saw the onion-dome tower with the trap door in its floor at least two Goes before You described both of them). The Lover opens her eyes and looks at him, without pupils, her gaze burning the same gold color as the gem that is her heart. “Save me. Rescue me,” she says again. You dives through the trap door, carrying her.

I Go, and describe the rotten staircase collapsing under their combined weight, dropping the two of them down storeys’ worth of black empty tower, falling right into the open maw of the Monster who swallows both of them whole.

At this point, I’ve rolled the five dice that I had decided was the value of the Monster. My stack is something like three-six-four-six-five, I am beating You rather badly. Not realizing I’ve just maxed my stack, You elects to knock my stack over. Re-rolling ends up with a 1 in there, so it makes all of You’s six dice in his stack into Good dice.

You narrates the climax, electing to cancel the harm the monster inflicts, save the lover, and escape with her. Her billowing hair bursts into shards of flame, cutting through the Monster’s gullet and setting them free. As You runs out of the city, his Lover in his arms becomes warm, pink, living, her hair falling around her shoulders and blood pulsing under her skin. I narrate in my Goes how the fire of her hair catches the pouch at You‘s belt, igniting it and burning away the ash of his family as she looks into his eyes lovingly, as the Monster howls and crushes the city behind them, following them as they run for freedom. Very Tanith Lee vibes on this story.

I’m not sure if we were rolling dice properly. I ended up with a stack of five dice as I mentioned, because I think that I only roll dice when the Monster acts. You ended up with six dice, two for the Lover (I told him when to roll dice acting towards the Lover, since for much of the first part of the game, You thought that the Monster was the Lover, and the mist was the Monster, as I’d intended) and four for the Goal. We’ll come back to the mechanics later.

We switched for the next session as the rules dictate. I was You, and I was a demon’s child and heir to it’s power, but beautiful and good. She is a tall blond woman, walking topless and clad in a sari type skirt, into the Skinfarms ruled by the slaves who toil there. You came seeking a way to change her blood so that it would match her appearance, she wanted to be truly as good as she appeared.

This went into a very British Empire in India series of Goes, as I narrated to me that You was approaching the low, open-air building with slim towers at each corner. At a desk in the center of the favela was a man, the top of his head bald (or shaved), but his gray hair long, his face un-lined, dressed like an Indian priest with a bare chest and wearing glasses as he did bookwork. As You walked into this building she saw the workers, the slaves, all around this plantation, kneading the skin in the fleshpits like bread dough, and noticed too that up in the left-hand tower a shadowed form was watching her approach.

I wasn’t sure if the man at the desk was the Lover or if it was the shadowy form in the tower, because as You leaned over the desk to speak to him, he took in the sight of her breasts and was quite clearly impressed by her beauty (this second session was far more heavily sexual in tone than the first). As You demands that they change her, and he declaims that the flesh pits can only change her appearance but not her blood, a voice speaks from behind You, and hands wrap around her waist and slide up to her breasts as the shadowy figure from the tower enters the scene. Now I as the player really don’t know who is who, I’m pretty convinced the man at the desk is the Lover, and the woman behind me is the Monster, but I am not sure (turns out that I was playing the woman as both Monster and Lover).

This session was interesting in that many of our Goes were one or two sentences only, looking back and forth between the three parties, asking simple questions. You wanted her blood to change to match her appearance; the woman behind her, her legs morphing slowly into a snake tail and turning her into a naga as they talk, keeps trying to convince her that her blood is powerful and beautiful and she should embrace it the way that she is embracing You, and the man at the desk reiterating that You could appear any way she wanted but the flesh pits would not change her nature. You is all over the man, winding up with holding him in her arms, using him almost as a shield between her and the naga, groping him and trying to figure out if he’s the Lover by seeing whether he had an erection (which he did).

It wound up with I having a stack of five dice, and You having a stack of six, just like the first game. I didn’t elect to knock over I’s stack, because he’d rolled a 1 at some point, and so all of my dice were Good dice.

Once the Match ended, You chose to embrace her blood and held her hand out, immolating the naga (the Monster and the Lover both). She immolated the man in her arms (who I thought was the Lover at the time). She immolated herself, and chose to immolate the artifice of the Skinfarms as well. Chose to embrace truth through destruction. She went nuclear and the column of smoke from the burning Skinfarms and bodies of the slaves running it billowed into the hot tropical sky for days afterwards. This felt an awful lot like a Brian McNaughton story to me, although with notably less necrophilia. But the naga-Lover-Monster would’ve eaten and digested You if she could have, and the Skinfarm’s flesh pits would’ve done something similar if I had decided that You would go that route, so… yeah.

Neither of these sessions went the way that either I or my friend expected. But they were incredibly evocative, original, erotic, sensual, visual, intriguing. Phantasmagorical roleplay is the best word to describe it. It was like dropping into dreamspace and experiencing something like a Dali or Giger painting in real-time.

Thank you, Ron, for such an intimate game. It is a flensing game. A truthful game. You can’t play it without baring yourself, I think. Not if you play it genuinely.

That being said, I have some questions about the mechanics, because I don’t know if we were doing it right.

In both the scenarios, I think we jumped the gun. We both went into the Match on the second or third Go, when it might have been better served to explore a bit and set up the world and other characters more fully. We both would pause and return to the book to see if we should be rolling dice on our Goes. If I’m correct, the only time I roll dice is when they are making the Monster act, whereas You rolls dice any time they take an action towards the Goal, with no limit on the number of dice, as well as any time they take action towards the Lover, whether they’re aware of it or not, correct? In both sessions, the one of us who was playing I would tell You that they ought to roll dice towards the Lover, even though the Lover was hidden and we both thought someone else was the Lover initially.

Also the pronouns are freaking confusing… we ended up calling I the World and You the Hero to keep things clear in our minds. Saying “I am You and you are I” was just not working.

Great game regardless, and can’t wait to play it again. I would love to get together with someone, preferably multiple someones, through Adept Play to explore it more.

[image by SueMart]

6 responses to “Playing S/Lay w/Me for the first time.”

  1. I’ve played the game a bunch and your experience sounds about on par with mine. Although, I admire your commitment to the You/I phrasing because I always just refer to them as the Hero player and the Monster/Lover player.

    From experience, I think it’s pretty normal to dig into the dice a little too quickly when you’re learning. My key take away has always been to keep in mind that there tends to be a social rubber banding effect between the two dice towers if the players are invested in keeping them relatively even.

    If the Hero player starts aggressively goal seeking, then the other player has to respond with aggressive monster play to keep up. Similarly if the Monster/Lover player starts aggressively attacking with the monster the Hero has to step up their goal seeking to keep pace.

    So the game can only slow down if both players want the game to slow down. Neither player can control the pace alone.

    I really do enjoy the creative intimacy the game fosters. I agree with you that it demands a certain level of honesty and vulnerability that other games don’t.

    • In case this helps, I only use the “you” and “I” terms for reading purposes, not during play. If you’re learning the game together and working from the book during play, then I suggest that the “I” person should be the primary reader.

  2. Here are some rules thoughts.

    A minor but useful point: the initial two descriptions (place, how the hero enters it) are not Goes, and they don’t include any rolled dice. That might help vs. the tendency to leap into attack-attack dice rolling, although as Jesse points out, it’s true that the stories will be short and furious during the first phase of learning the game.

    I think you’ve played the dice mechanics correctly: one player rolls a single die when the Monster acts during their Go, and the other rolls a single die when the hero acts toward the Goal, during their Go.

    Nuance 1: the Lover die operates independently during the hero player’s Go; it may not apply, apply on its own, or apply in combination with the die rolled for acting toward the Goal. However, this may occur only once or only twice depending on the option chosen during preparation by the other player. After that there are no more Lover dice.

    Nuance 2: in later play, it is possible to have a single extra die rolled during the first Go, for any of the following reasons. (i) The hero is accompanied by a Lover from a previous adventure, (ii) the Monster has re-appeared from a previous adventure, and (iii) the hero was injured by a Monster in a previous adventure. In each case, this die is only rolled once.

    That’s an amazing account of play. I really ought to get this thing re-illustrated and re-released; the new text has been ready for over five years.

    • Thanks for clearing up the mechanics, I think it will make the next games go a lot more smoothly. And there will be next games, this friend and I were both really intrigued by what happened and plan to play again soon.

      This kind of shared narrative creation is really something special. When you play from the dreamspace, take your filters down and just narrate what you see, you come up with things you’d never have experienced if they were planned out. Making the Lover in the first scenario the mist itself was as much a surprise to me, in the moment, as it was to the other player, but when I realized that the first scene needs to establish the Lover, and the mist is the only thing in this vast mausoleum city actually interacting with the hero, it was like, of COURSE it’s her. It couldn’t be anything else. The gem that was his Goal also being her heart and allowing her to form her body again just came out of that like a natural extension.

      It all flowed so seamlessly, even as it spawned more questions then answers. Obviously the city was her tomb… why? How’d she become dispersed as mist throughout it? Why is the Monster there guarding her? No idea, but it felt right and real in the moment. As the visuals and events built upon each other, there was this continual sense of, “Well, of course this is how it is. It couldn’t be anything else.” Dreams don’t have to make logical sense to move you.

      The closest thing that I’ve played to this so far is Ten Candles, also an incredible game, but the experience is designed quite differently. I think I like S/Lay w/Me better.

    • I greatly appreciate the kind words, which are very affirming for me as the game’s author.

      I’ll eventually present some thoughts on Ten Candles in a Seminar post, so let’s not develop that topic or comparison here. Just letting you know that I’m not ignoring it.

  3. Sable Phoenix, I just wanted to share my appreciation for the phantasmagoria that you and your friend created – this game sounds like it rocked and it made me want to play S/lay w/Me again.

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