A venal conjurer walks into a bar…

After I mentioned wanting to try new types of games, Claudio offered to play with me. Our options were Tales of the Round Table, Cold Soldier, and S/lay w/Me. I initially asked to play Round Table because of its explicitly introductory quality, but we decided it’d be easier to play a two person game. Of the two remaining, I preferred S/lay, because it seemed a little less emotionally intense and a little more structured, and because I enjoy swords and sorcery tales.

I was “You”, the player controlling the hero, and Claudio was “I”, the player controlling the Lover and the Monster. Until Claudio suggested it, it didn’t occur to me that I could start as “I” on my first game, but I would have chosen “You” for the first go anyway. I liked the lists of character starts, but none of them were exactly what I was looking for. I decided: “I am a venal conjurer, but my heart still has a spark of wonder. Pinched features, scrawny, richly garbed, limp, empty purse, white teeth.” We established this over text.

Claudio: Remember also the first sentence, which is the same for all protagonists

Me: Ah, hmm

Me: Yeah, that character is more Vance than Howard

Claudio: No, I didn’t say it was wrong.

Claudio: I just said: Remember to include the first sentence in your character description.

Claudio: And to remember it during play.

Me: Ok, I think it does, or could, work

Claudio: I think so too

So the full description is: “I am myself. I am canny, brutal, experienced. I laugh at the gods. I delight in life. My foes meet death swiftly. I am a venal conjurer, but my heart still has a spark of wonder. Pinched features, scrawny, richly garbed, limp, empty purse, white teeth.”

Name: “Agathon”

Place: the lichen-covered ruins of the Lunar Citadel. Trying to find lost magic to help me avenge myself on my rivals.

Claudio told me my Lover score was 2. We chatted about gaming and his new forum, reviewed the rolls, and started.

In the following, I’m going to alternate paragraphs between Claudio’s Goes and mine. Claudio’s Goes start with C, and mine start with M. Though during play I spoke in first person, as Agathon, writing here I’ll describe Agathon’s actions in third person, and my own actions as a player in first person. I’ll also skip most or all dialogue, because I don’t remember many individual lines.

Claudio described a city in the middle of the jungle, laced with canals and covered by ivy. I named it Xitaqua. There was one primary entrance, a road following a river. In the center of the city is the Citadel of the Moon, a step pyramid visible from every corner of the place. And the place was bustling with people. (I expressed surprise at this. I think we both kind of forgot that the place was supposed to be “ruins”; we never referred to any crumbling buildings or shattered statues. But other than a momentary disorientation, it didn’t cause any trouble in play.) The air was thick, hot, and humid.

Agathon strode in, lead by some unnamed native of the land. Xitaqua had conquered the man’s home village and enslaved his people several generations ago. Agathon came to that village with a lead jar, claiming that it was full of spirits and that he was a powerful magician. He essentially kidnapped a villager and forced the man to guide him by secret ways to Xitaqua. “Only a fool would follow the main road into Xitaqua, past all the guards and checkpoints!” Agathon said to himself scornfully. (To be clear, this isn’t me adding poetic detail after the fact. I interrupted my narration to say, ” ‘Only a fool…’ I say to myself scornfully”.) “For my mission is to steal the cuneiform tablets from the Lunar Monks and the Guards of the Moon in the Lunar Citadel, and I won’t have my presence in this city known.” Claudio asked how people reacted to my presence. I realized that, for all his fine words, Agathon wouldn’t be very inconspicuous. Actually he stood out like a sore thumb — he was exhausted, soaked in sweat, and dressed in the finery of a Renaissance wizard pastiche. Crushed red velvet and all that. Moreover he was much paler and taller than the people in the streets.

C: His guide spat in the street, turned around, and fled back into the dense jungle, leaving Agathon quite alone. Then a woman emerged from a shadowy canal-side building and gestured Agathon towards her. He came. She called him a weary traveler, and offered him food, a change of clothes, and a bed for the night. She invited him into her tavern. I said that Agathon might not take the offer of clothes, as he was probably a little contemptuous of this culture, even if he did want to fit it. I asked Claudio to describe the woman more — what did she look like? She was attractive, dressed simply in a linen tunic, with no jewelry. (Not a member of the upper classes, I noted, just a bar maid.) She carried herself with confidence. She’d done this a million times before.

M: Agathon had no money, so when her gaze was turned for a moment, he plucked a leaf from a nearby vine and give it the appearance of a gold coin. He showed it to her, and let himself be shown in. I wasn’t sure if this was an entire Go, but Claudio thought it probably was.

C: When she saw the coin, her eyes flashed with greed for a moment, and then she recomposed herself. He didn’t give her the coin just yet. It still had the weight of a leaf, and it would turn back into one soon. (The coin would come back a little bit later, but unfortunately we never got to see her greedy side again.) I said Agathon ordered a long list of European delicacies, equal parts esoteric and expensive, and she simply laughed, tickled. She gave Agathon clothes and a bowl of clear water, and went to prepare his food. Claudio started to call her by her name, but stopped himself. “No, I don’t think she’d tell you her name yet.” Unfortunately for her, Agathon never did find out her name. Going forward I’ll just call her the Lover.

M: Here we had a little bit of confusion, because I imagined that the Lover had just lead him into the main room of a tavern, and that there were lots of other people around, while Claudio pictured her leading him to a private room. I said it would be funny if she expected him to just change there in front of everyone. Maybe these people don’t have the same taboo against nudity as we, and Agathon, do. Claudio enjoyed the suggestion and said that she definitely just dropped him off in the main room with the clothes and the water, surrounded by strangers. I described how Agathon plunged his face into the water, splashing it all about. His desire for unobtrusive, clean, cool, dry clothes overcame his chauvinism and he quickly changed into the clothes she gave him. Thankfully she didn’t return until after he changed, and so she didn’t see his pale skin and scrawny frame.

C: The Lover returned with an interesting dish, some kind of poultry with a thick brown sauce, decorated with its own feathers. Somebody worked hard on this dish. She was obviously eager to watch Agathon eat it, and sat at a bench across from him. (I didn’t say it at the time but I was unhappy with her choice; if she had stood near him or started to walk away, he might have grabbed her and made her sit next to him. As it stood, though, he could hardly ask her to change seats, or move himself. Opportunity missed.) The whole time she’s giving him big goo-goo eyes. (I can’t remember Claudio’s exact phrase, unfortunately.)

M: I established that the lower caste spoke a different language than the upper caste in Xitaqua, and Agathon had only learned to speak the upper caste language. Thankfully the Lover spoke it too. He laid the coin on the table, closer to him than her. Here I fumbled the sequence of events a bit, as I started talking about him taking a bite, then what he did before taking a bite, and finally the manner in which he took his bite. We got it sorted. Agathon asked the Lover to tell him about herself, hoping to ingratiate himself with her and possibly learn something to his advantage, and tore off a drumstick, putting the entire thing in his mouth and sucking all the meat from the bone.

C: The meat was wonderfully tender. The brown sauce turned out to be chocolate, unsweetened, made into a gravy with the bird’s own drippings. I said that the combination of flavors would touch something deep in Agathon; it was so perfect, and so heartfelt, that it sparked a small feeling of wonder. I privately decided that Agathon would spoil his own good mood. (The following few sections are a bit jumbled in my mind, and there was a lot of “loose” play, backs-and-forths outside of the structure of Goes we used the rest of the time.) The Lover described her situation: she was a slave, or a former slave, but her master allowed her to run this tavern. She knew he was coming, and had paid the villager who guided him to guide him here, as she loves to hear of the outside world from travelers. This instantly made me wary, and I said so. I can’t remember what I did in response, but there must have been something. Then the Lover said couldn’t leave, as she was bound to this place.

M: Agathon spoke highly of his prowess as a magician. If she knew so much about him, she must know this. Claudio had the Lover explain that she didn’t know anything about him specifically, just that a traveler was coming, as she habitually bribed villagers around Xitaqua to lead travelers to her. Agathon offered to break whatever spell bound her.

C: The Lover explained that she was bound by legal ties, primarily the enslavement of her family. But there was also a curse: a great calamity would befall anyone who left the city. I had Agathon dismiss this casually. She was tickled and impressed by his pride. (Some more happened but this part of the conversation is fuzzy.)

At some point in the conversation Agathon complimented the Lover’s cooking. She said she would be tremendously grateful for his help. He said, “I’ve tasted your curiosity [referring to the bird], and I can only imagine how could your gratitude is.” Then he shone his big white teeth at her and clacked them together alluringly. (I clacked my teeth accordingly. You’ll have to ask Claudio how alluring it really was.)

M: Agathon told the Lover that he could break any curse if she would lead him to the cuneiform tablets in the Citadel of the Moon. He said a whole bunch of bullshit, really contradicting himself, about how the tablets were a tiny thing, probably not even guarded, but also that if he could just take a look at them he’d be powerful enough the break the curse on her. It was staggeringly unconvincing. I started to feel like Agathon didn’t have any good plan for anything at all, that he was woefully unprepared. Nevertheless, this was an attempt to get Agathon’s goal, so we began the Match. I rolled a 5. I think I also rolled for offering to bring the Lover with me — a 1. (If I didn’t roll it then, I rolled it soon after.)

C: The Lover looked frightened and told him not to speak of such things. She lead him upstairs to his room and left.

M: As she began walking away, Agathon reached out and grabbed her by the forearm.

We discussed how she would react. On the one hand, “the Lover is willing”. On the other hand, it really didn’t feel right. Neither of us thought it was plausible that she would sleep with Agathon right then. What does this mean, within the rules? Is this Agathon “embracing” the Lover? No, surely not, because she did not want to. Ok, no rolling for this.

C: She wrenches her arm free and pretends like nothing has happened. She gives him a cheery grin and wishes him goodnight.

M: As soon as her footsteps fade away, Agathon slips out the window of his room. He climbs up the vines outside to the roof. I asked how close together the buildings were, and Claudio answered that, except for where they were cut through by canals, they were all adjacent. Good; then Agathon can simply walk along the rooftops towards the Citadel. He’ll stay up top there, and stay quiet, to avoid guards in the streets. Claudio says that the moon’s not full. I say that it’s a cloudy night.

C: When Agathon arrives at the temple, or a block away from it, he can see, in the shadows halfway up its steep stone stairs, a pair of iridescent eyes shining out of the gloom.

M: Agathon is wary of the temple’s magical guardian. He has kept his lead jar on a sling about his neck, or maybe under his armpit. Now he opens it and out pours a mist. He shapes the mist with his hands, fashioning it into a rough human figure. Then it solidifies into a mirror image of him! Every action he takes, it copies, mirrored. He turns from it and begins hopping along rooftops parallel to the pyramid. He hopes to walk 90 degrees around it, so he and the double are on opposite sides. (I was proud of this plan at the time, but in hindsight it needs some work.)

C: He’s interrupted by a crashing noise. He turns and sees behind him that the pyramid’s guardian, now revealed to be a hulking beast with white fur and long talons, has rent through the decoy. When it sees that it’s been tricked it howls in rage and runs after him.

M: Agathon grabs a leaf from a vine and tosses it behind him, directly in front of the beast. The leaf grows and sinks into a ground, forming a deep pit, carrying the monster with it. (I’m not pleased that I used a leaf for a second thing. It should either have been a one-off, or he should have always needed an external object for his magic. Using the leaf just twice is inelegant.) Agathon sprints forward (I forgot that he had a limp) and arrives at the base of the pyramid.

At some point after this, Claudio reminded me that I could introduce elements that would be concerned with my goal; that that in fact was solely my responsibility. On my next go after that, I said that the lunar monks stepped out of the temple at the ziggurat’s peak and began performing some kind of ritual.

C: The monster leaps out of the pit and catches up to him, grabbing him by the wrist, wrenching his arm, dislocating it. It hands limp at his side. Roll for monster: 5! He can get a good look at it now: a white ape with fangs and claws. (Classic Howard!)

M: A squadron of guards arrives. (I think I was the one who introduces them, anyway.) Claudio describes how they’re terrified by the ape, how they hang back, pointing their spears at it. Agathon takes his one good hand and barely pries open the leaden jar. A mist fills the whole area. When it clears, Agathon is gone, and there’s an extra guardsman in the squad.

C: The ape goes berserk, furious at being cheated, and begins smashing the ground and walls around him. The guards hustle into the ziggurat. As they do, Agathon can see the Lover standing on a bridge outside, behind the ape. She’s looking directly at him — she’s not fooled by his magical disguise. She’s holding a leaf. (I told you it comes back!) Claudio reminds me that I can topple his dice pool, but I don’t remember that this ends the Match, and I don’t understand why I might want to do this.

M: Agathon mutters something misogynistic but I didn’t bother to think up exactly what. He ignores her and lets himself be led into the pyramid with the rest of the guards. (If I didn’t roll a 1 when offering to save the Lover from the curse, then I rolled the 1 now, for abandoning her.) He ducks the rest of the guards at the first opportunity and slips off, now enchanted to look like a priest. He’s pretty much out of magic fog from his lead jar. He walks confidently through the pyramid until he reaches the storeroom where, he thinks, the tablets must be hidden. (I roll a 6 for goal.) But the tablets are gone! The priests must have removed them for their ceremonies! He really didn’t think things through very well.

C: As Agathon stands despondently in the storage room, the Lover arrives. Her eyes are shining with hope and admiration. She compliments Agathon on his prowess; she cannot believe he was able to escape the guardian. His magic really is strong, she says. He’s not all talk. She can give him information to help him get the tablets, if he’ll help her escape this place.

M: He embraces the lover. I roll a 6. Agathon says nothing about helping her escape. I speculate that it’s probably pretty awkward, because about half of his body is disabled at this point, and that it’s very quick, because of the danger.

C: She does her best to make him comfortable on the floor of the storeroom. She’s very, very good — she’s done this a lot. After, she binds his wounds and they talk. The Lover tells Agathon that the tablets are currently in a ritual chamber at the top of the pyramid. The only way to access it is by going outside, through a door near the top. When he does that, the ape will surely see him.

M: Agathon asks the lover how she knows all this stuff. They discuss the caste system in Xithaqua (three castes: slaves and peasants, then merchants and artisans, then warriors and priests; her owner is in the middle caste), and the religiosity of its people. Claudio has the Lover say she doesn’t believe in the gods or the holiness of Xithaqua’s priests, but she paid close attention during their rituals, so she knows where they hide all their stuff. (A bit of a conflict here with her earlier worry about the curse; if she doesn’t believe in their gods, why is she worried about the curse? But neither of us noticed it at the time.) Agathon asks her what she can do to help him. Claudio imagines that she’ll just stand nearby and cheer. I have a better idea. Agathon tells her to exhale into his lead jar for a moment. Don’t blow, just exhale, as if you were breathing out, from the bottom of your lungs. Claudio has her do so. Then the breath is sucked from her, all of it, leaving her flailing on the ground, gasping, trying desperately to recover her wind. Agathon laughs. She will help him, greatly… with his magic refilled he can face the ape. I roll for goal and lover. 6 for goal. Nothing for lover, because Claudio reminded me that we’ve got a maximum of 2 dice for the lover. He leaves her.

We briefly discuss the possibility of her death. I didn’t think that the Lover could die until the Match is over, but Claudio reread the rules and didn’t notice anything saying that. Nevertheless, I didn’t picture killing her, just draining her wind for Agathon’s power.

C: Agathon has arrived at the top of the pyramid. Claudio asks me what magic Agathon uses to hide his presence. I describe Agathon summoning a guinea pig that scouts ahead for me as I progress through the pyramid. Claudio clarifies that he wants to know how Agathon hides himself at the top of the pyramid. I don’t have anything better than the guinea pig in mind, so I say it’s sitting on a ledge above me, keeping watch. (The architecture of the pyramid is not particularly well established by either of us. There’s exterior portals near the top but below the topmost temple?) A ritual is going on. A peasant is brought up and chained to a stone slab with the imprint of a human in it. I volunteer that there’s a blood channel coming off one corner of the slab. Something happens, I don’t quite remember what, and the ape is upon me. It grabs me by the leg, breaking it and wounding me grievously. Claudio rolls a 5.

Here Claudio reminds me that I can topple his dice pool, and that this will end the Match. The only other ending is if he reaches the monster’s (secret) number of dice. Since I’m sitting pretty at 5, 6, 4, 1 , 6, and he has 5 and 5, I should definitely do it! He rerolls: 5 and 1. I win the match. Agathon will achieve his goal. I have 4 good dice and I can choose 2 outcomes. I decide Agathon will recover from the harm the ape has done to him. I also decide he’ll definitely leave Xithaqua with the tablets. Claudio says this might already be encapsulated in achieving the goal, but if I want to make really sure that it’ll happen, I can. I do.

M: Even with his wrecked arm, Agathon is able to pull the lid off his leaden jar. A mist covers the top of the pyramid. When it clears, Agathon stands far from the ape, wholly healed. Every single other person on the top of the pyramid looks exactly like him.

C: The ape goes berserk. It charges the crowd of priests, butchering them. Guards emerge (presumably from the same doors Agathon used just now) and it fights them too. A tremendous melee ensues. Miraculously, the slave on the altar is unharmed, though he’s covered in blood.

M: Agathon turns his back on the violence and strides confidently to the ritual storehouse. There, mounted on the walls and on blocks, are the tablets. He picks up the one he deems most powerful and quickly scans it.

Then we had a little bit of fun describing the fate of the slave on the altar. During the fight, the altar gets overturned, and he begins sliding down the side of the pyramid. He’s totally covered in blood and he has to blink to clear it out of his eyes. When he finally gets them clear, he notices that he’s hurtling down the side of the pyramid, and screws them shut again.

M: The clouds part above the pyramid and a single ray of light shines from the now-full moon directly upon Agathon. He begins to rise into the air.

C: The ape is gone, calmed or driven off by the soldiers. The Lover steps onto the roof. She is crying. She begs Agathon to take her with him.

M: At first I think Agathon wouldn’t say anything, but then I decide it might be time for a villain monologue. He laughs cruelly. He tells her that she thought her gods were fake and their rituals meaningless, but he knew better. Now the power of her people belongs to him, and he’ll be unstoppable. He continues rising, heedless of her cries.

C: The Lover continues begging. She has given him everything; he has taken all she has.

M: “Get fucked, loser”. (We laugh.) No, he doesn’t say that. He doesn’t say anything. She’s beneath his notice now. She falls to her knees, sobbing. His ascension continues.

And that was my first game of S/lay w/Me! I’m sure Claudio will tell me in the comments if I’ve forgotten or misremembered anything. I’m positive there’s a few more moments where Agathon says really awful things to himself, but I can’t recall any specifics.

I enjoyed the game. I think that we probably spent too much time doing my tactical bullshit stuff, which didn’t really affect the heart of the game. Thus I enjoyed the beginning and end more than the middle.

I was struck at how easy I find it to play bad guys. (I’m working on a different actual play report about that as well.) While I was curious to find out what would happen, and if Agathon would get the girl, I never really doubted that he would abandon her if it was convenient for him to do so.

I look forward to playing again, next time as “I”, the Lover and the Monster!

8 responses to “A venal conjurer walks into a bar…”

  1. A small correction: You rolled for the Lover three times, the first of which we deemed invalid and removed.

    First time: When she pulled you by the hand to your room. As part of your Go, you declared you made a move on you but she rebuffed you. We discussed that it didn’t feel right for her to offer herself in that moment. We rolled the die, but shortly after we determined that wasn’t a good Lover die roll.

    Second time: When she did offer herself to you in the ziggurat storeroom, and you embraced her.

    Third time: Shortly after, when you extracted her breath to replenish your magic, and left her there unconscious (This was the die roll that resulted in a 6).

  2. Regarding the “tactical bullshit”—I didn’t perceive anything of the sort. It might have been mostly taking place in your head, although I understand why that would spoil the middle of the game.

    I really enjoyed this session quite a lot, and particularly the vividness of the imagery that we conjured together. You contributed quite a bit to the backstory, but always reincorporating what I said, and I did the same.

    Regarding this: “A bit of a conflict here with her earlier worry about the curse; if she doesn’t believe in their gods, why is she worried about the curse? But neither of us noticed it at the time.”

    The Lover was concerned about the Guardian Ape, which she initially phrased as a “great calamity will befall anyone who breaks the Lunar Law”. But she never stated to believe in the religious mumbo-jumbo of the priests.

    Regarding her slave status, my idea was that she’s part of the peasant class, formerly a slave, but now an indentured servant to the owner of the tavern. So, “her owner” wasn’t technically a correct description from you here, although admittedly the practical difference between slavery and servitude is small, it is a difference nonetheless.

    • Re tactical bullshit: In hindsight I think the reason it felt like bullshit was because I didn’t lean hard enough into it. If I’d have said, “Ok, I’m really interested in how this guy approaches challenges and I think we’ll have fun watching him try to outwit the ape and the guards and everybody else, so let’s sketch a little battlemap agree on how fast everybody can go and all that” then I wouldn’t have had a problem.

      I didn’t feel comfortable introducing these things, because in my head you were still the GM, and you were the one responsible for the temple’s defenses. But of course that’s not true. We could both frame scenes and I could keep bringing in new elements relevant to my goal.

      Thanks for clearing up the rest. I think you actually did say the stuff about her not really being a slave, but it slipped my mind when writing this. I also really enjoyed it.

  3. Good fun to read, thank you!

    My two takeaways:

    1. I am getting hungry for some S/lay w/Me.

    2. I’d be very curious to see what kind of lover actually tempts Agathon. I might regret finding out the answer, though.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      I liked the game a lot and I’d recommend it. If you’re looking for another player, feel free to hit me up!

      At no point in the game did I feel really tempted to give up my goals for the Lover. Agathon started the game as a real dirtbag, terrorizing a village and kidnapping one of its citizens. The Lover, by contrast, seemed like a nice, smart, attractive woman, with a sympathetic backstory. Not a fair match for her. As a result, this game was more about getting to know Agathon, and seeing how bad a guy he was, than it was about watching him wrestle with a dilemma.

      I don’t think I remembered to put this in my play description up top, but when she began telling Agathon her life story, I said (as him) “I’m like trying so hard to pretend I care”, because he really only wanted her as a helper and for sex. So there was never any question for either of us if Agathon would have really cared about her or stuck his neck out for her, barring some kind of huge character shift on his part.

      I have some suspicions about what Agathon would be tempted by. I’m not sure if it’s kosher to list them here, or if it’s too much like stacking the deck. Claudio, if you don’t want to be influenced by me, STOP READING!

      I think Agathon would be enchanted by an equally powerful sorcerer, someone who could really command his respect. Or an exceedingly intelligent mundane person with a lot of authority, like the leader of a vast empire. Or somebody who was so unbelievably attractive he got dumb. (Maybe? He has nice robes, so he likes the finer things in life, but he’s not exactly a sensualist…) Or somebody who was so good and divine that they kindled the spark of wonder in his heart. What do you think? Any other likely suggestions?

  4. Thanks for the clarification. I did stop reading at STOP READING, though–what if we play and I’m also a “you” for Agathon? Seems like a legitimate possibility to me!

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