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My Life with Master

Originally published in Hobby Games: The Best 100, 2008.

Paul Czege, 2003, Half-Meme Press

"The life of a minion is not an easy one. They are shunned for their frightening visages and disfigured bodies, for their mental and physical scars and their horrific afflictions, and for their bizarre, asocial behaviors."

--p. 19.


For many of today's game designers, the tension between story and game is central to their creative efforts, and the relationship between the two has become a point of contention in both the digital and tabletop game industries, as well as among game studies academics (in the continuing "narratology versus ludology" debate[1]). The tension is particularly important in tabletop roleplaying, partly due to its origins in tabletop miniatures: the original Dungeons & Dragons was an elaboration of the Chainmail fantasy miniatures game, and contained scant reference either to plot or to playing a role--the focus was on combat.

Despite this, the success of Dungeons & Dragons, in both the artistic and commercial senses, was due precisely to its connection to story: it bound players to individual characters in an imaginary world. The other elements of story--plot, character growth, and the evocation of a rich world--were missing, but this was still a far different experience from the abstracted strategy prevalent in boardgames of a prior era.

The next and logical step from classic D&D was to elaborate setting and background; while most immediate imitators simply took the D&D paradigm to other genres, others began (as with Runequest and Empire of the Petal Throne) to develop fantasy worlds with the kind of detail and richness seen previously only in the work of Tolkein.

In short, tabletop roleplaying, which began as an outgrowth of wargaming, rapidly became, at least for some players, a form of rules-guided improvisational theater. And yet the rules of most games were inherently unsuited to this: they required extensive table look-ups, rote memorization of minor die-roll modifiers, etc., so that the action was often interrupted to look up and apply some minor rule, with a consequent break in both narrative and the spontaneity of the actors.

Understandably, RPGs of the late 80s began to adopt simpler rules[2], but even this didn't address the central problem: the inherent conflict between the demands of simulation (the central focus of the wargame) and the requirements of plot and character development.


"Success results in an increase in the minion's Self-loathing."

--p. 31.


At the same time, digital games have struggled with the same issue, in a different context: Stories are by nature linear, but games must provide the players a sense of freedom. That is, the writer or teller of a story does his or her best to have events follow in a sequence that makes for the most compelling possible story; but if a player is confined to a single linear path, he feels as if he is hardly playing at all, but simply wading through a story imposed from above. Not surprisingly, most digital games that are dependent on story take a "beads on a string" approach, granting a player a fair degree of freedom of action within a bead (or level, if you prefer), but with beads following one another in a constrained linear progression[3].

In the late 90s, a group of experimental roleplaying game designers coalesced around the The Forge[4], an online community for independently developed tabletop RPGs, and began experimenting with ways to better enable what might call "true roleplaying," that is, the sort of rules-guided improvisation of character and story that commercial RPGs point to but rarely sustain. Many adopted Ron Edward's conception of "gamist/narrativist/simulations theory[5]" as a structure, and a variety of interesting works emerged--of which My Life with Master is among the most important[6].

My Life with Master is a serious attempt to grapple with, and solve, the central conflict between story and game: that plots are inherently linear (that is, that any deviation from the plot is likely to produce a less compelling story) while games that do not provide players with the sense of freedom of action are inherently unsatisfying.


"And so the mechanics consciously empower the gamemaster's use of an aggressive scene framing technique to deliver pacing and dramatic tension across a series of game sessions comprised of individual scenes with these characters."

--p. 44.


Because of the simulationist origin of the tabletop RPG, the usual paradigm is to constrain a character's action from moment to moment through a set of rules that simulate actions and their consequences. Thus, when you pick a lock, you roll dice (or apply some other system) to determine whether or not you succeed. However, the usual RPG provides no functional constraint on the evolution of the story; instead, the story is supposed to magically emerge from the decisions and actions of the player-characters, coupled with the gamemaster's desperate improvisation. In other words, actions are rules-bound, the story is freeform. And because it is freeform, there's no guarantee that a particularly satisfying story will emerge from play--and indeed, quite often it does not. (Note that "telling a satisfying story" is only one of the possible pleasures to be gained through roleplaying, and it's quite possible for all to have an enjoyable experience without doing so.)

My Life with Master turns this basic paradigm on its head. The rules dictate a fixed and immovable story, and outcomes for individual characters within that story are mutable only within strict limits. Conversely, in order to preserve a feeling of player freedom of action within the constraints of the system, the game utterly throws open action on a moment-to-moment basis.

The game is played in a sequence of "scenes," and after an initial description of the set-up from the gamemaster, the game system is used to determine whether the outcome of the scene is "favorable" or "unfavorable" for the main characters involved. They are then utterly free to improvise and roleplay the scene and its outcome--and never, say, roll to see whether they can pick a lock: they can pick the lock or not, depending on the demands of the story as they choose to tell it.

In part, My Life with Master works because Czege has chosen as the theme for his game a genre of story (gothic horror) that has a defined narrative arc: hubris and terror, followed by a fall. Of course, many narrative genres also follow a conventional arc: You could see the same approach working for, say, the romance story, or for the by-now stereotyped adventure quest fantasy. Because each is a class of stories that are variations on a theme, My Life with Master's predefined narrative arc is adaptable to many types of stories--not all, to be sure, but a good many.

Work it does, and extremely well; the rules are few and the system tightly constrained, but they suffice both to shape the plot and to evoke a real sense of drama, pity, and horror among the players. A game of My Life with Master (in the hands of a good gamemaster--always a caveat with tabletop roleplaying) can be, in fact, a harrowing, and chastening, emotional experience. In a commercial medium where most players ask nothing more of a game than it be "fun," My Life with Master instead strives to provide a game that not merely recreates a story of the piteousness and beauty of Frankenstein or Castle of Otranto, but by placing the players within it and making them complicit in the uncomfortable actions demanded of them by "the Master," provides an experience that can be even more powerful for the players than that provided by traditional narrative.

Unlike conventional RPGs, My Life with Master comes to an end--a conclusion. Of course, it must do so; it strives to tell a story, and stories have endings. Consequently, it is not a game you are likely to play more than once or a handful of times. But what of it? That's the kind of game it is--sui generis, to be sure.

My Life with Master is, in conclusion, an important game: It solves (within its limited sphere) the most intractable problem faced by narrative games, that of reconciling plot with player freedom. It evokes emotions and feelings rare in games. And it stands as one of a very few games we can show the skeptics when we claim that games can be art.


"He has demonstrated his humanity, regardless of the outcome."

--p. 28.


[1] C.f. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludology.

[2] Paranoia and Vampire being two good examples.

[3] For a more detailed exploration of these issues, c.f. "Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String," Greg Costikyan, in Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, ed. Harrigan & Waldrip-Fruin, 2007, MIT University Press, p. 5-13..

[4] http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/

[5] C.f. "GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory," http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/.

[6] Others that repay study include Sorcerer and Burning Wheel.

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Copyright © 2007 by Greg Costikyan.