My Life With Master

Tabletop Tuesdays: The Greatest Story Ever Played

System Requirements:
A Free Soul
Paul Czege

My Life With Master is as seminal a work in the history of tabletop role-playing games as Frankenstein was for literature. It's a game designed around not a narrative, but a dramatic scenario that you act out, producing your own unique narrative. From a game designer's perspective, it's something that must be studied, it's something that must be played.

Imagine a gothic countryside burg, like the quite Bavarian steppes where Victor Frankenstein might have lived, or the brambly swamps of Dracula's castle. We're talking Eastern Europe before communism, when science was just kissing the brittle lips of superstition and stable poverty. The game begins by the group collectively designing a "Master", the otherworldly antagonist who dwells in some stereotypical castle or haunted house or ancient catacomb. This master has some kind of M.O. - discovering the secret of eternal life, rejuvenation, astral projection, or maybe just a nice skin suit, get creative. Then the players design their characters, minions of this master, complete with a tragic flaw and constrained power. Then the real game begins.

The game is based on a few variables: Love, Self-Loathing, Weariness, and Fear. If you have any game design experience, you may be experiencing a form of cerebral arousal right now - we're talking about a spreadsheet soaked in procedural theme, yet elegant to the scale of Euclidean geometry. This sets the incentives for players to act a conflict of love versus self-loathing, where doing work for the master increases self-loathing, and making overtures to villagers increases love. Remember in Bride of Frankenstein when he smokes the pipe with the blind man? Stuff like that, but in the context of your character design, and acted out with your own pathos.

Eventually the contours of the dynamic, the way the spreadsheet algorithmically tends to move, puts the dramatic arc toward a climax, with one minion swelling with enough love to rebel against the master. Then everything goes crazy, the villagers start attacking the minions, and the fight with the master goes back and forth. After the master is killed, each character gets their own epilogue scenario based on what their numbers were at the finish.

This is a game that lets you experience the monster within, and make peace with it. It also is elegant proof that algorithms can provide context to dramatic storytelling. It should be distributed in collegiate game design courses. Everyone should read this. You can get a PDF for a reasonable price, I recommend it.


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Awesome Game

Seriously, go try My Life with Master. If you're a role-player (and I imagine you are if you're reading these comments), you owe it to yourself. Each and every session of MLwM I've run has been a blast, with a much higher concentration of fun, memorable moments, and catharsis than any other system I've run. Honestly, I'd pay $20 a session for MLwM, but instead you pay less than that per book. It's awesome.

Another great perk of MLwM is the little-to-no preparation required. Really you should just skim the book as a refresher, and perhaps check out a couple of cool websites. Here are my two bookmarks:

A helpful bit of advice on running MLwM games in single sessions (which I've done every time):

An essay titled "A Manifesto on Mastery":

Geek glands quivering.

This looks incredibly interesting.

Other comments on My Life with Master

I've written about it here:

And it's mentioned in my piece "Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String" here:

This is great fun

If you are into this genre of game - take a peek. A breath of fresh air! I keep telling my friends about this one.