My Life with Master was my pick of GenCon 2003.
My Life With Master is a remarkable roleplaying game. If you like narrative roleplaying and you want to try something new, it's well worth a copy. One remarkable virtue of MLWM is that you can play an entire campaign in three sessions or so. You don't have to give up your weekly D&D campaign to try it out (at least not for long).
Here's a scene from our MLWM campaign:
Marcus, the butler, admired the town blacksmith. So when Count Morgenstrom imprisoned the smith in the dungeon, Marcus sneaked him a plate of food. "Let me out," pleaded the blacksmith. But Marcus didn't dare disobey the Count. He backed off into the shadows, berating himself for his weakness. The next day, the Count killed the smith in one of his horrific experiments.
You've got to love a game with this sort of melodrama.
It's 1805 in an isolated eastern European territory. You play the pathetic minion of an evil Master. Your only hope is to find love by making personal connections to people in town. Maybe that hope will give you the strength to disobey the Master. Maybe you will even be the one to kill him.
All stats are personality ratings. The Master's power is Fear. The town's strength is Reason. You start with Self-Loathing and Weariness, and you strive to accumulate Love. All conflicts are resolved as contests between two or more of these stats.
Minions each also have two narrative stats: one way in which they are more than human and one way that they are less than human (a special strength and a special weakness, possibly supernatural).
The dice system sounds stupid, but it makes sense once you understand its point. A contest is between two stats or combinations of stats. For example, if a minion tries to commit violence against a townsperson, the player pits his Self-Loathing + the Master's Fear against the town's Reason + the minion's own Weariness. Each side rolls a d4 for each point on their side, with numbers for each stat usually ranging from 1 to 7. A die that rolls 4 count as 0. Why does the 4 count as 0? So that 1 die has a chance to beat 10 dice. (You could probably use the Sorcery dice system if you wanted to.)
The basic structure of the game goes like this (as far as we could tell). The Master orders a minion to go do some sort of villainy or violence against a townsperson. In performing this onerous deed, the minion risks gaining Self-Loathing or Weariness. But the minion also has a chance to sneak a visit to a "connection," someone in town with whom they're trying to form a personal bond. The connection earns the minion Love points, which help them resist the Master.
Each minion's story line runs parallel to the others. A given player gets one "scene" at a time, each scene culminating in a single contest (dice roll). A scene isn't like a "round" in a typical RPG. Instead, a scene takes the character up to a crunch point in the narration, at which point a single dice contest resolves the conflict one way or another. No rounds of combat. No dice rolls for maneuvers that merely lead up to the climax. The story progresses in a free form way until the moment of truth, and then the dice are cast, the conflict resolves for good or ill, and the spotlight moves to the next minion.
Eventually, the minions gain enough Love that they can disobey the Master and soon thereafter one of them kills him. The campaign ends with the Master dead and each minion landing in one destiny or another depending on their stats. Figure about three sessions for a whole campaign.
Game versus Narrative
MLWM practically eliminates simulation, leaving you with game and narrative. On one hand, it's liberating because elements that you ad lib into the story have practically no bearing on the outcome. On the other hand, it comes as something of a shock.
The narrative freedom you get from the game is marvelous. Here's an example scene: The apeman has stolen a snake from the zoo and, on his way back to the baron's castle, he spied on a beautiful young maiden that he adores. The apeman is a terrific climber, but not when he's carrying something, so he foolishly leaves the bag with the snake in it at the base of the tree that he climbs to spy on her. In fact, it's the maiden's favorite tree, and he apeman has seen her come and rest beneath if many times hen she's out riding her horse. Sure enough, the maiden came by, and the snake slipped out of the bag and threatened her. The apeman had to drop out of the tree and scare the maiden in order to save her. That was a crucial point for the apeman. Would the maid thank her rescuer or cringe in fear? She thanked him.
The player didn't have to worry about whether leaving the snake at the base of the tree was going to hurt the character. As the gamemaster, I didn't have worry that it was unfair for the snake to come out of the bag. The dramatic tension was about how the maiden would react to the apeman, not whether she'd be killed by a snake.
On the other hand, it's pretty weird that your characters' actions don't affect what happens to them. Do you, as a player, think us a particularly plausible lie to help you succeed at your task? Doesn't matter. Do you have your character blunder stupidly into trouble? Doesn't affect the outcome. The level at which conflict is resolved (dramatic rather than tactical) is going to catch some people by surprise.
MLWM moves quickly, even though the action is divided up among several separate narrative lines (one for each minion). RPGs are generally pretty slow, but in MLWM you skip or ad lib through lots of the material and get to meaningful conflict resolution in no time. If speed of narration were the game's only virtue, the game would be worth playing for that reason alone.
Compared to Other Picks of GenCon
MLWM is comparable to Dying Earth in that it offers a new vision of roleplaying conflict. As with Dying Earth, failure is as important to the story as success. In fact, MLWM goes even further than Dying Earth in showing you a new way to roleplay. MLWM holds together mechanically better than Dust Devils. It's not as mechanically solid as Sorcerer, but it does a better job of breaking one out of adventure-oriented RPG habits and presenting a narrative style of play.
Here's some stuff we learned playing the game. Maybe it will do you some good.
To save time, we tried combining the first session where the Master and minions are created with the first action session. This format meant that I had to improvise the missions that the minions went on; I wasn't able to prepare them ahead of time. While improvising missions is easy, the game progresses so quickly that the minions move through a lot of material. I wound up stalling out. The next session, after I had time to dream up a dozen or so missions, went a lot better.
We were not sure what limits to put on scene control. For example, we came up with a house rule that you only got one connection scene per order you got from the Master. So each player would get an order, each would attempt to carry the order out, and then each would get a connection scene. That ended the "round," and the new round started with a new order for each minion. We played it looser than it sounds, but the order-mission-overture cycle gave us our basic pace.
GMs are subjective in every RPG, but that subjectivity is especially clear in MLWM. For instance, the GM can put Connections in real danger of being killed. If the GM targets your Connection for assassination, it's clearly subjective and you care. Our use of a basic round cycle was an attempt to reduce GM fiat.
In one scene, the butler wanted to release the smith from the Count's dungeon. That's not villainy or violence, so we thought maybe it was automatic. Someone suggested that it counted as villainy against the Master, but there's no such thing. The only thing you can do to the Master is disobey him or kill him. So we made the butler's attempt to free the smith into an implicit attempt to disobey the Master. The player diced for it and failed to resist, so he couldn't free the smith.
I wanted a default opportunity for characters to interact with each other. I had them eat dinner together, and that's when the Master would appear and hand out assignments. The format also gave the players more stage time, which is good. It meant that when the endgame triggered, the characters were together at the castle, which isn't great but has its advantages. Next time, I'll probably try not using this device.
We got one Horror Revealed. We sort of think of Horror Revealed as "lose a scene." It took the place of the minion's connection scene, serving in that way as a penalty. But we're not sure how to enforce it or whether that's what the author meant.
No minions were captured in the making of this campaign. But at the endgame the butler's Weariness was equal to the town's Reason. If he'd failed to kill the Master, he'd have gained a point of Weariness and been captured. I'm not sure how I would have handled a minion being captured during his attempt to kill the Master, but I said that townsfolk had come to the castle with pitchforks just in case I needed them to burst onto the scene.
The minion with the high Self-Loathing got lots more Self-Loathing before the game was through. The minion with 3 Weariness got an increase of +1 in both Self-Loathing and Weariness. It seems as though a high-self-loathing minion will succeed at villainy and violence, so his self-loathing will go up even higher. A minion with high Weariness will have a low Self-Loathing. He'll fail at villainy and violence, and he'll gain more Weariness when he fails at acts of violence.
Link: Half Meme Press