Posted on September 15, 2006 by Flames
Written by Paul Czege
My Life with Master is a self-contained role playing game of personal horror by Paul Czege of Half Meme Press. It contains innovative ideas and a workable game, albeit one which would work best with creative and probably experienced players willing to enter into a setting and help to create it themselves. The interaction between GM and players is essential both in creating the setting and in forming the style and nature of the game. As the description below will suggest, gameplay can easily veer between a type of romantic desperation with which Vampire lovers will be familiar, to Grand Guignol to something rather less serious and bizarre. Since it can be difficult to maintain an intense style over an extended period of time and because of the very structure of the game, My Life with Master is best run as a single session game or, at most, a small number of sessions building up to a well-defined ending and epilogue. Some players will feel constrained by the fixed ending and this is another reason for limiting the length of time for which the game continues.
The background of the game is a non-specific part of Central Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Imagine the films of Frankenstein, with a remote and isolated town dominated by the tower of the evil master, dark skylines and black and white townspeople. At several levels, therefore, the setting brings reason and romance into direct contact and conflict with each other. This is a theme which some groups of players will wish to develop more than others. The first step is to create the master and this is done jointly by the GM and players. The Master is a demonic figure, dominating the emotional landscape and physically affecting the lives of the townspeople through the work of his evil minions, which are the roles taken by the players. The Master may be aspected towards brains (such as a mad scientist type) or the beast (as a vampire or flesh-eating zombie might be). Once the nature of the Master is established, the needs and wants of this creature emerge. Needs define the ways in which the Master, through his tools the minions, interacts with the townspeople. In essence, the townspeople are the inputs into the Master’s work, providing blood, bones, loved children or pets to feed the vile needs of the Master. The wants represents that which the Master wishes to obtain from the Outsiders, who represent a broader element of society. Frankenstein, for example, sough the approbation of the scientific community for his work in creating life from death. In his case, the Outsiders take the form of a group of elite scientists whom he wishes to impress and Frankenstein’s needs are supplied by the townspeople’s various body parts, which are obtained by his minion Igor. It is a given of the genre in which this game exists, that the wants of the Master must remain forever unfulfilled and that she must live an existence of increasing frustration and desperation.
The minions themselves are defined in terms of their otherness – the physical or mental features which separate them from the rest of humanity and which prevent them from establishing relationships without the greatest of difficulty. This might be a grotesque deformity, an inability to communicate except when singing hymns, a magical power that is both powerful and hugely anti-social and so forth. Again, since this process is a joint one between GM and players and contains a strong creative element, this becomes a game which could easily be distorted by an unbalancing affliction in one player in an extended campaign. Minions are further defined by their self-loathing and weariness, as well as the love they cultivate. Self-loathing determines both the hatred minions have for themselves because of what the Master has made them do and the efficiency with which they can intimidate the townspeople. Weariness represents a general erosion of physical faculties and the anomie of the soul and damages the ability of the minions to carry out their tasks. Love is gained by successfully creating a relationship with the small number of townspeople the player is allowed to define as connections. Typically, players take turns to be protagonists of individual and generally short scenes. These will begin with a task given to the minion by the Master, a task both disgusting and vulgar no doubt. During the course of the task or after its completion (which need not be successful), the player may call for a scene in which she attempts to establish love with a relationship. Imagine a giant hulking Igor bringing a posy of flowers to the tiny, blind orphan girl in the hope of not being rebuffed. The more love a minion can gather, the more power she has to resist the demands of the Master and the more likely she will be to trigger the endgame sequence, of which more later.
These characteristics are easy to enumerate and understand and a small number of well-worked mechanics link them together in the various interactions which are possible. These are highlighted in the text and presented in summary format at the end of the book. Indeed, the whole product shows signs of having some thought devoted to it and having gone through a meaningful editing process. Given how often I find myself just the opposite in both books and games, this is in my opinion an important commendation. As for the chance element, this is provided by opposed rolls of D4 pools. That is, either side involved in a scene has a number of D4 to roll depending on the nature of the scene and the ways in which characters have so far developed. Those de coming up 4 are ignored and the remaining scores are totaled. The higher total wins and the scene goes the way she would have it. This is by no means a bad mechanism and is just as valid as those in many other games. However, I find it slightly problematic for personal reasons which it is likely other people do not share. Even so, I will mention them here: first, I have only a small number of D4 and, where I live, it is difficult to obtain more without heavy shipping costs. Secondly, the D4 itself is, in my opinion, unsatisfactory in itself. It is too flat. It is difficult to pick up. It sits uncomfortably in the palm. It is inconvenient to toss onto the table. It does not bounce and roll across the table but just flops down, as if exhausted by the effort. As GM, I simply substitute D6 for D4 and ignore the changed arithmetic of the game and the balance between victory and failure.
In due course, a minion will feel powerful enough (because of love) or desperate enough (having come close to unmanageable) to trigger the endgame sequence. In this, the minion attempts to bring about the death of the Master and end all of this insanity. It is inevitable that the Master will die in this way but it is not definite that the first attempt or indeed any individual attempt will be successful. Once the death does come about, though, guidelines exist to structure the future story of the minion in the epilogue. So the game, therefore, provides a beginning, a middle and an end, which is generally a good thing. The players and GM can mutually explore how long and intensive the middle part is through the way the story develops. The comparative clarity of the rules-writing is another bonus, plus the use made of precedents in earlier games which is spelled out in the concluding acknowledgements. If there are failures, they are probably related to the inability really to lay out how the game sessions should go and how to set and sustain an appropriate atmosphere. A substantial portion of the 64 pages of this PDF are given over to trying to explain these vital skills, yet it does not quite seem to cohere. My personal view is that either a lengthy transcript or, preferably, one or more sample scenarios should have been included. The value of a sample scenario or adventure in a situation such as this is not to give players something they can easily pick up and play, although it does fulfill that function too, but to explain what the envisaged game should feel like and what players are likely to spend their time doing and what kinds of decisions they are likely to be making.
The RPGMP3 website contains a live recording of a game of My Life with Master, taking the setting of Porno Santa and his twisted elves. The first part of the session may be found -here-. Please do not listen to the game if you are in any way offended by (or do not wish to be seen or heard listening to) sexually explicit activities, prolonged profanities and grown adults having a good time behaving like adolescents.
Reviewer: John Walsh