[S/lay w/ Me] Postal play as literature

imageA friend of mine, Petteri Hannila, suggested that we should start a blog that combines our two shared pastimes, creative writing and roleplaying. So we did - Writing with Games is basically a postal rpg session between the two of us, playing S/lay w/ Me. At this writing the story is progressing just like you'd expect of S/lay, except it's in a readable format available for others to enjoy as well.

The choice of game was dictated in part by our shared fondness for the literary genre of pulp fantasy and in part by the fact that S/lay fulfills the constraints of the medium well: as a two-player game it's not dependent on a large number of people, as a turn-based game it fits well in the format and it produces rather literature-like stories. We've played for a few weeks now, and so far this has been quite enjoyable - we're certainly doing a much more acceptable amount of creative writing per week this way than the usual lonesome toil of the writing hobbyist achieves.

As a side experiment we also asked a friend, Peitsa Veteli, to illustrate the play as it proceeds. As S/lay does not directly incorporate a court illustrator, the role is somewhat informal, but we'll have to see - perhaps some sort of structural logic is achieved over time.

If you enjoy reading fiction, do take a look and perhaps post a bit of critique on our English literary style, por favor - improving our writing skills is a big aspect of the project for us, so any insightful observations on what we're doing are very welcome. I don't think that it's supremely useful to compare the produce of our play directly to finished literature, but I think this process does a good job of bringing out our skills in dynamic, immediate writing - whatever our individual technical weaknesses as writers are, they sure make an appearance when the deadlines are tight and the gameplay constrains the ability to plan and polish. I've compared the experience of writing this to participating in a marathon while juggling with beer bottles.

Also, as a more general consideration of the topic, a question I've been pondering around this experiment: what other games might work well for blog-based, literarily oriented play? De Profundis is an obvious suggestion, but what else might be considered, were one to play more along these lines? This is a sort of a specialty niche in the niche of story gaming, and one that doesn't obviously map to any other analytical traits we usually use to characterize games. Some games just seem more likely to produce a readable story than others, and even then it's not a given that the game can be altogether restructured into a postal format where the players communicate in slow, large chunks of information instead of a quick back-and-forth.

I'll make note of a different type of interactive postal play here myself, simply because I find the "quest" format that's developed among the Internet denizens over the recent years interesting in itself. It's not a direct inspiration for what we're doing, but the creative impetus is quite similar, I think. (I'll also note that I do not particularly recommend the afore-linked site to a writing hobbyist due to its suspect copyright contract; I'm merely linking to it as a convenient explanation of the phenomenon.)


  • Interesting, Eero! I'll definitely have a look (particularly since I've never played Slay/w/me and I'd like to learn a little more about it).

    I've run and/or participated in a few of these on the S-G forum. I'll try to dig them up if that's of interest to anyone.
  • edited April 2016
    Interesting, Eero! I'll definitely have a look (particularly since I've never played Slay/w/me and I'd like to learn a little more about it).
    Regarding that, I'd be happy to discuss the game if you have any questions about it. I hadn't really planned making a project of it, but I've ended up playing enough of S/lay with different people over the last few years to feel that I've got a bit of a handle on its nuances. Still haven't finished a full campaign, despite the compelling and definite campaign arc of the game - it is a truly ambitious vision in some ways :D

    (For an example of what I consider a "nuance", my last turn in our on-going game illustrates how the GM-player can compensate the loss if they are obligated to pass on a dicing opportunity during the Match. I just wrote a little bit of an explanation of it as a comment to the post itself, as I've tried to commentate the proceedings a bit to make it easier to follow for new-comers to the game.)
    I've run and/or participated in a few of these on the S-G forum. I'll try to dig them up if that's of interest to anyone.
    Please do. I'm personally especially interested in any observations about the types of games that can be used for this sort of thing. I'm less enthusiastic about pure freeform, as you might imagine. S/lay is in many ways just perfect in the way it focuses play while allowing the players great freedom in developing the story.
  • edited April 2016

    I always enjoy your analyses of various games, so I'd love to hear a little about the basic structure of Slay/w/me and what makes it unique. What are its creative challenges, and what techniques does it train?

    Here are some links to "fiction-producing" games I've played on Story Games. All three games seemed well-suited to this purpose, although none of them were designed with that in mind:

    1. Seth Ben-Ezra's "Showdown"

    I enjoyed this one a lot, even though it took us a long time to finish. Quite an interesting game, since it combines collaborative storytelling with a heavily competitive vibe between the two players (you are opponents in the game as well as at the table).

    2. "As the Worm Turns"

    The resulting story in its own thread (unfinished, but much easier to read than the link above): Resulting story

    This is a barebones game I designed for playing with children in the backseat of a car. We had some trouble steering together into the same genre in the forum version, but there were still some interesting moments. In live play, however, the game was lots of fun, and the Oracle works extremely well.

    3. Ben Dutter's "Perseverant"

    This one went pretty well, although it is also unfinished. Anyone interested should participate in the second round of the game:

    Playtest, Round Two

    It hasn't started yet, so it's a perfect time to jump in.
  • I always enjoy your analyses of various games, so I'd love to hear a little about the basic structure of Slay/w/me and what makes it unique. What are its creative challenges, and what techniques does it train?
    Let's see... The most uncommon thing about S/lay for me is the way it relates the player to the character: the task of the "you" player in creative terms is the usual one for a narrativist game in that they are an advocate for the character's interests, but the tools are very abstract, honed into something GM-like. Specifically, what the player possesses is no more or less than the narrating authority you usually see a GM hold: the power to frame, the power to introduce, the power to elaborate and the power to resolve. The back-and-forth between the players is predicated on the exchange of the "narrative beat" rather than character pressure, necessarily; the "you" player, who is supposed to represent the hero-character of the story, may just as well end up the active as the reactive participant in introducing and resolving plot points. So while it may be "OK, you open the door and there are orcs, what do you do?" it may just as well be "OK, I open the door and there are orcs. What do the orcs do?"

    The technical basics are very similar to your basic conch-passing game such as Once Upon a Time: first I tell, then you tell, and we take turns until the story ends. However, the way the game focuses and constrains the narration with the dice and the player goals is really clever - not that surprising, as Ron absolutely knows about the perils in conch-passing, he's the one who phrased the terminology surrounding the topic. So the game manages to superficially fulfill the simplicity of "I tell, you tell", but without ever getting into authorial disputes or zilch-play.

    The key to how the game manages this is familiar from Polaris - the players have well-defined roles in terms of goals rather than authorities as would be more usual. Both players have identical, symmetrical authorities, but their goals, roles in telling the story are heavily asymmetrical: the "you" player is advocating for the hero (I know you know about my thinking regarding this, what "playing the character" constitutes of theoretically speaking) while the "I" player is driving a hard Climax (by running the hero ragged in story terms, basically, while encouraging him to over-commit in the setting) and trying to make the hero fall in love with the Lover. Because the player goals are ultimately expressed in terms of communicating with the other player, the game becomes a real roleplaying game in Forgite theory terms: a shared imagined space exists, and the players are forced to manipulate it to achieve their aims. It's not like Once Upon a Time, in which winning may constitute of of pro forma relations between cards and the words that come from your mouth; in S/lay the only way for the hero's existence to have meaning is for the other player to believe in him, and the only way for the Lover to get what she wants is by convincing the other player of her sincerity. It all happens in the fiction, it's a very fiction-oriented game.

    The conch-passing structure of play takes some getting used to, to begin with - it takes a while for the participants to realize that it's like being the GM in an ordinary game, except you just take turns doing it. Once you get the "narrative beat" down it's easy - you just push forward-moving events in turn and the story flies forward, and it's generally easy because your every turn is guided by your complementary, specific player role goals: the hero is struggling for his Goal (the mechanical concept, I mean, not the player goals I mentioned just now), the GM-player is being Monstery or being Lovery or both.
  • Thanks, Eero. It's an interesting game!

    I've been following its progress, and enjoying it a great deal. The genre is quite noticeable "old-fashioned" (reminds of me pulp fantasy or science fiction from 40-50 years ago), and full of interesting and original ideas and detail.

    The gamer in me wishes for commentary about the players' direction and goals, how they see the game developing, and what's happening "behind the scenes". However, despite that, I'm finding myself enjoying the pure fiction of the thing far more than I expected. Thanks!
  • For the record, so far my favourite chapter was "Preparations", both for interesting material which is poignant in terms of setting future decision-points ("The old Derak would laugh and mock me for this. At this moment I don’t want to think what happens if I do find the crystal." - That's powerful stuff!), and for the quality of the game-commentary below.
  • edited April 2016
    Ha haw, we got to the climax! My latest move is longer than the wall of Chinese classics, but at the end of it you can delight at the beautiful, beautiful Otherkind madness that is the S/lay w/ Me conflict resolution. I'm pretty happy with the climax we got, ultimately; at one point it seemed like this would be an easy adventure for Derak East-Born, but right now it seems that he's going to have make some harsh, harsh choices about what to preserve and what to let burn.

    In fact, my recommendation: you should get there and heckle Petteri a bit about it in the comments. His next deadline is on Tuesday, so he'll have a couple of days to make up his mind here about who's going to live and who's going to die. He could use some suggestions at this point, I feel.
  • Ha! Suggestions on what decisions to make, you mean? I'll have to go look.
  • Go ahead and let Petteri know. I understand that he's delightfully tormented over it.

    I also created a cast page as a bonus to commemorate us reaching the Climax.
  • Very well! I have a very busy upcoming 24 hours or so, but I will do my best.
  • edited May 2016
    This is getting quite intense! I was surprised by Petteri's choices, as well.

    One question: what happens if the Monster wins the roll?
  • If the Monster wins the roll (has a better total in the dice, or a tie), that simply toggles the Goal off from the choices list; the Hero player may still choose to achieve the Goal with one of his picks off the list, though, so the loss on the dice does not need to mean much (although odds are that he doesn't have many picks to spend if he lost the Match).

    The Goal has added importance in that if the Hero does not achieve the Goal, the "Monster injures you" pick turns into "Monster kills you". In practice a Hero who wants to survive the story has to pick either the Goal or self-preservation (or both if they have the picks).
  • Interesting! Thanks. I'm looking forward to seeing how this story ends. It's been a pretty intense read, and there are lots of surprises as well as strong, coherent threads throughout the story.
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