My Life With Master: "As seminal to RPGs as Frankenstein was for literature"

Over on the Play This Thing blog, master game designer Greg Costikyan describes "My Life With Master:" "as seminal a work in the history of tabletop role-playing games as Frankenstein was for literature."
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 archetypal 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 Frankenstien 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.

Link to review, Link to buy My Life With Master


  1. Having played MLWM, I can say it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Every game of it I’ve played has been tragic and grotesque and comical and moving.

  2. I’ve read some fantastic session reports for MLWM with scenarios ranging from Santa Claus as Master to a workshop full of elves to Jesus and his self-loathing disciples. MLWM is a standout in the new Forge model ouvre of rpgs.

  3. My Life With Master is actually considered to be part of a larger movement within roleplaying games that focus more on rules for telling dramatic stories. These games are often referred to as “indie” or “story-games.” Most of these games consist of a single book, without the expensive rules expansions and updates found with D&D, etc.

    “The Forge” referenced above is an rpg design community message board:

    The last few years have seen a serious renaissance in pencil-n-paper rpg design. Now’s a great time to (re-)familiarize yourself with what’s been going on.

    Other games worth checking out:

    Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson (for games in the style of a serialized TV show: Lost, Firefly, Deadwood, Desperate Housewives, etc.)

    The Shab al-Hiri Roach by Jason Morningstar (a telepathic cockroach invades a small New England university at the dawn of the 20th century. Murder, mayhem and hilarity ensue)

    Breaking the Ice by Emily Care Boss (A game about dating, for 2)

    Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker (Horny teenagers bring divine justice to the Old West)

    Sorcerer by Ron Edwards (a game about power, temptation, and corruption)

    Steal Away Jordan by Julia Bond Ellingboe (a game that recreates neo slave narratives ala Beloved, Jubilee or Kindred)

  4. The forge is fine, so long as you steer clear of the moon-language and mis-characterizations of the hobby and gamers in general.

  5. You know? This sort of sounds like Paranoia with horror replacing the sci-fi. I’m fine with that.

  6. Thanks much to Ben Johnson for the link bomb above! Those all sound incredibly cool, especially The Shab al-Hiri Roach. Man, I’ve got to get back into gaming.

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