Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Clay That Woke

I'm currently reading through The Clay That Woke, a game by +Paul Czege, and I feel the need to write about it. This isn't a review, since I haven't played, but these are my thoughts so far.

'Clay' is a newer RPG, funded through Kickstarted in early 2014, and delivered without drama later that same year. I was aware of the game back then - Paul's marketing tickled me, as from what I can tell it consisted entirely of him posting minotaur art and asking, "Shouldn't you be thinking about minotaurs?"

A game entirely about minotaurs didn't really grab me, but a few months ago I caught a podcast interview with Paul Czege that did get me thinking about minotaurs.. or at least about Paul Czege. But more on that later.

I don't know!
The reason for all this minotaur art is that—like many indie games—Clay is extremely focused: all of the PCs play minotaurs. Also, they're all male.

Clay is set in and around the "Dégringolade," the sprawling remnant of a jungle metropolis. A couple of generations ago somebody found a quartet of baby minotaurs, unique in the world, sitting on the muddy banks of a river and took them home.

Turns out they're genetically compatible with humans, and as a result of a few unorthodox and sometimes self-destructive couplings, many years later the Dégringolade is thick with an underclass of minotaur slave labor.

I'm going to stop talking about the game for a minute and talk about the book: it's a slim, softcover tome, with delicate newsprint pages but a delightfully sturdy cover. It's only 128 pages, and a large portion of it is fiction.



This is the first of a few unorthodox choices Paul has made in the construction of this game. Rather than bust out a couple of pages of What Is A Roleplaying Game and rolling straight into How To Resolve Conflict, Paul starts off with a narrative about a minotaur.

There's crumbling ruins, cruel slave masters, an endless jungle filled with deadly monsters, but while other games with this setup would quickly get around to just how much ass you can kick as a minotaur, Clay returns to narrative, over and over again, gradually building up a tone painting about the inner lives of minotaurs—their lives, what they care about, their longing and their losses.


The endless jungle around the city is filled with strange creatures, remnants of lost civilizations, even Jorune-esque magic/advanced technology, but exploration, treasure, and understanding the past all seem beside the point. The jungle is chiefly a window into the soul - a carnivorous holodeck, a dream-like realm where casual violence and everpresent mortal danger reveal what the minotaurs are made of.

The minotaurs are helplessly drawn back to the jungle, over and over again to recharge their essence and learn whatever terrible or beautiful lessons it has for them.

Terrence Malick comes to mind a lot as I read, Rudyard Kipling, too. Even a little Robert Bly.

What also strikes me, as it did when I first heard the aforementioned podcast interview, is Paul's sensitivity, his openness to getting inspiration from his personal emotional roots. Grist from his childhood, percolated through whatever dark, psychic soil role-playing games sprout from.


The narrative is there because it's necessary - it takes that long to really feel what Paul's on about. The whole book is like a plea to listen just a while longer, because when you get it, it's going to leave a mark.

The art by +Nate Marcel is gorgeous - it's not showy, but it's spot on, and provides a lot of the visual imagery that tells you what sort of place the city is.  Everyone's naked, for one thing, which reinforces the sort of prehistoric/post-apocalyptic Sri Lanka vibe, but it's thematically appropriate, too—the raw drives of jealousy, revenge, unrequited love all play out on the canvas of the characters' emotional and physical vulnerability.

——

As I mentioned, Clay has an unusual structure for a game text. I read it straight through in a few sittings, and even so, by the time I neared the end I was thinking, "How the heck would I run this?"

Many modern, Apocalypse World-inspired games are conspicuously front-loaded with cues for players and GMs alike to help them rapidly do the right things to produce genre-appropriate play. Player-facing moves, XP moves, explicit goals, all serves as simple imperatives: do these things, seek these things, and it'll all work out fine.

Clay is totally unlike this.. until the very end, at which point the text suddenly switches from painting to teaching.  Paul delivers the goods here, a series of principles that reveal the structural logic of the world. I just hope would-be gamemasters make it this far before despairing of ever living up to the flavorful standard set by the text.

There aren't a lot of rules, but what few there are are sprinkled through the text in a way that leaves me with the feeling I can only remember half of them, and the rest I will never, ever find except by re-reading the whole book. Paul has made no concessions toward traditional RPG book expectations, even going so far as using a created alphabet for section titles.. so they're no more informative than paragraph spacers.

It's neat.. but cripes! Now that I've absorbed the tone and I'm moving toward running, I want to make sure I've got exactly what I need at my fingertips. I'm dying for a quick reference or a concise SRD.

Paul is clearly aware of this - he's gone to some trouble to come up with an innovative table of contents, which is a little like an index, in that the items aren't in the same order as they appear in the book.

In fact, the table of contents is essentially a fairly sensible outline for a traditional RPG, the order you'd expect to encounter the topics in a well-organized reference text - except inexplicably, the page numbers have been shuffled, so the net effect is like trying to use a Fighting Fantasy book as a campaign guide. (Goblins.. sections 72, 84, 112, 128, 330.)

I don't want to belabor this point, as there aren't really that many rules, but it seems like an idiosyncrasy that raises the barrier to play. Stephen Hawking was famously told that every equation in his book would cut its sales by half, and I think that rule applies to indie RPGs and unorthodox layout choices. Games already have a lot stacked against them in terms of finding a receptive audience willing to devote the dozens of hours necessary to learn and try a game, so doing this deliberately is either brilliance, madness, or both.

[Update: There is a fan-made reference available, created by +John Willson.)

Paul was partly inspired by the classic, otherworldly RPG "Skyrealms of Jorune", a richly detailed world that buries the reader in an avalanche of canon. While the feeling is similar, Clay, however, has no lists of monsters, people, businesses, factions, or jungle locations.

Instead, Paul focuses on telling game masters how to generate content that serves the game's purposes. Because of this, I suspect that Clay would go very well with something like Yoon-Suin as a supplement—Yoon-Suin could serve up a lot of fine-grained texture, while Clay tells you what you're looking for and how to stitch it all together.

——

No discussion of Clay would be complete without talking about its approach to resolution, the "Krater of Lots". Instead of dice, resolution is handled by draws from a bowl filled with distinctive tokens. When a decisive moment is at hand (there's a specific list of situations that count), players toss in tokens from their supply, as does the GM.

What's neat is all the tokens are unique - there are tokens that represent the minotaur's health, how well they're adhering to the minotaurs' code of behavior, their status in the world, their innate and otherworldly gifts, and so on.  The GM's tokens represent the situation - its danger, the presence of the god-like voices, etc.

The tokens are really neat, but the text that explains them is tricky. In the text, they're referred to using tiny icons. I mean tiny. Really tiny. In a couple of places they're named, but most of the time they appear unadorned, which I find really hard to scan.


The tokens in the krater are are jumbled, then the acting player pulls out four. The specific combination explains what happens in the scene, by comparing the patterns with a reference menu, a little like Poker hands:

I think I'll have the duck
This list runs to two pages and looks overwhelming (particularly as there are substitution rules in there, where some tokens can count as other tokens once you make it so far down the list), but I've tried a few and it's fairly straight forward.

A subtler aspect of Clay's resolution how it fits into play. Rather than resolving an instantaneous action (e.g. I'm climbing the wall, do I succeed or fail?) it resolves the whole matter at hand. It's a lot like Fiasco in this respect: the audience votes on whether the PC who initiated the scene gets what they want or not, but how is not immediately obvious. Clay has many more outcomes than just success or failure, they're things like "You act with physical confidence or skill for a dramatic outcome in your favor," or "Your efforts change the mind of the opposition."

After the draw, the players continue role-playing the scene, tacitly cooperating to discover an organic way for the required outcome to manifest.

This definitely strikes me as a challenging game. How do I get the players into the right frame of mind, without getting them each to read the book? Will I do it justice? What's an intrinsic?

Hopefully I get to find out! If you've read this far, then maybe you will too.

——

The Clay That Woke can be purchased directly from Paul Czege at half meme press.