Monday, 15 July 2019
Play Report: The Clay That Woke
I had been curious about Paul Czege's The Clay That Woke for a long time, and a couple of weeks ago I finally got to play a session of it, run by Mikel Matthews on Gauntlet Hangouts. You can even watch the video if you like.
The Clay That Woke is a fascinating, deeply idiosyncratic game. The most obvious feature is the unique task resolution system. It involves putting various tokens into a pot, pulling out four of them, and interpreting them according to a chart to get the outcome of your task. This is really the only 'mechanic' in the game - at least, all the other mechanics flow into this token economy in some way.
The other key component of the game is the setting: a lush, strange, decadent city surrounded by jungle, in which players control minotaurs who form a sort of racial underclass doing menial tasks for humans. A lot of the setting's details are intimately woven into the mechanics. For example, the minotaurs' code of conduct governs how they lose 'Silence' tokens. When a minotaur runs out of Silence, they run wild and go into the jungle, where they can regain Silence - thus creating a natural rhythm between city and jungle scenes.
Because of these connections, it's hard to imagine reskinning the game for a different setting, or even modifying the default setting very much. This wouldn't work if it weren't for the fact that the default setting is extremely compelling. Normally when I read RPG setting material I am filled with ideas for how I would remix it for my own games. When reading The Clay That Woke I was instead filled with a desire to enter into Czege's vision exactly as he describes it.
I won't go into detail about all the events of the session I played. Suffice to say that there were two players and we were working at odds to each other. Often we weren't in the same scene together, but at the end we had a climactic confrontation that ended in both our minotaurs 'running wild' into the jungle.
The way the token-based resolution plays out is very interesting - not just because of the tokens themselves but also the text surrounding the moment of resolution. The book specifically tells you to "play deep into the scene" before drawing, and then to "use the draw as an oracle to inform you as you play out the rest of the scene". For example, during a fight scene, the GM and I worked semi-collaboratively in describing a few exchanges of blows; then we drew tokens that showed a bad result for my character; then we kept playing the scene, both of us angling towards depicting my failure.
This style of resolution feels more collaborative than a trad game of "player vs. GM", but also more concrete than the really loose storygames I've played like Fiasco or Final Girl. I found it helped me to get immersed in my character's internal thoughts in a way I haven't experienced before.
The other unusual thing about the game was that the PCs were often separated, so each player had a lot of 'downtime' spent listening and not playing. The game book specifically tells the GM to set up scenarios in this way. This is quite contrary to trad RPG advice that sees downtime as a negative, e.g. "Never split the party" "If someone dies, bring in their new character as soon as possible".
Czege has stated that this is an intentional choice to give players time to reflect on their character. Weirdly, this reminds me of James Young's blog post about running large groups, in which he states that he will split the party into two subgroups. "the main trick is this - get one group to a decision point where they can discuss what to do next, then switch to the other." Although they're very different play styles, the common thread is that downtime can be positive if the inactive player/s have something worth thinking about, instead of just sitting around waiting.
When I'm GMing, I definitely start to sweat when the party splits up and players are spending a lot of time waiting. In future I'll try to follow this rule of 'give them something to think about'. I wonder if the game mechanics could also support this in some way... perhaps if there was some minigame the players can pursue without input from the GM?
I could say more about The Clay That Woke but I'll wait until I get a chance to play more. In particular I'm curious about the jungle scenes, which we didn't get to in the single session I played.
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