[G+ throwback] The Clay that Woke

[With the incoming demise of G+, I've decided to rescue some posts from there. This one is a heavily edited selection of posts about playing Paul Czege's The Clay that Woke that we played back in May of 2018. You might call it a review of sorts.]

When I crack open a new game, I try to absorb as much of it as I can in one go, trying to get a big-picture view of what the game functions, what it demands of the players, what its core feedback loops are. My first impression of The Clay that Woke was that it offers very little in terms of guidance. It relies on its chunks of fiction (interwoven with bits of rules), its sparse but thematically and aesthetically dense seed content and its evocative mechanical bits to sweep you along. It is like falling into a river. It cannot be taken piecemeal. It positively requires you to be consumed by it and consume it cover to cover, then very slowly digest it through your four stomachs.

This is not an accidental metaphor. All its fictional imagery (the slowly-digesting minotaurs, the clay, the ancient river, the decaying city, the sweltering jungle) seem like deliberate reflections on its real world actual play.

We started our first session by painstakingly cutting the printed tokens out of heavy stock paper. We made characters, one for each type (Philosopher, Soldier, Leader, Advocate). This is not something the game seems to require, but it felt right to do. We played for a couple of hours which seemingly wasn't enough time for any of the minotaurs to break for the jungle (which the game suggests should happen) or my prep (which was done lazily) to fully unfold. GMing consisted mostly of juggling a lot of characters in various locations, shifting the spotlight here and there. The rules are slim and not overwhelming in any way, and so the GM has a lot of bandwidth left to just direct the camera around, which is good for this kind of game. After the session, everyone was eager to play more. A player for whom this was her first tabletop RPG experience was extremely enthused. Another was quite taken with the Krater. Another was somewhat lost and uncertain but very curious where the game might go further. A few sessions later, I felt a little torn. Unless I misunderstood Paul's intent, the game requires a kind of GM agenda that goes somewhat against my grain. This made the game a taxing (but still satisfying) experience for me.

Regarding the GM's role, the book tells you, in no uncertain terms "not to hammer the game into a pre-determined narrative". This is good and comes easy to me. However it also says "not to unwind drama from inter-character stress", which left me a bit uncertain. I read it as a warning not to create pressure boiler situations or "PC-NPC-PC triangles" (in AW parlance). So I was left somewhat grasping for a way to drive the game forward. It seemed to suggest (this could be just poor reading/misunderstanding on my part) to basically just kinda observe things, with the purpose of play being discovering both the characters, seeing them take shape from unformed clay and the setting itself, full of mysteries and strange sights and traditions. I am not used to such a role. I felt compelled to put the screws to the characters all the time. My method of discovering characters is putting them in untenable, complicated, horrible circumstances.

Assuming Clay doesn't really want you to do that, I felt that the game asks to be run contrary to my GM instincts. Perhaps I took some of the advice from the book too literally, perhaps I didn't read it attentively enough. In either case I felt I had to adjust some dials in my head for it to click neatly into place. It also left me with a lot of thoughts about resolution and interpretation.
In games like Apocalypse World, moments of mechanical resolution are clearly and narrowly defined. In games like (osr) D&D, those moments are more often than not left to the discretion of the GM. Clay seems to straddle an uncertain middle, with draws from the Krater somehow being very constrained and vaguely prophetic at the same time. As the GM I felt I had neither the liberty to resort to (osr) "rulings" with mechanics as a neutral arbiter nor the concrete support and direction of AW moves.

Another way I found to describe what Clay felt like at the table was using what I called "tenuous" or "strong" links between fiction and mechanics. Clay has a number of quite strong, obvious fiction-to-mechanics links. It is clearly defined when a minotaur Breaks Silence or when the Krater is to be used. Sometimes, the links are strong back, too. Like, when you run out of Silence your minotaur has to run for the jungle, no arguing about it.

However, when the Krater is consulted, its results often have the most vague and tenuous link to the fiction. The Krater does not provide resolution. At best it offers prompts and suggestions. Resolution is a thing that only occurs in the fiction, through roleplaying. It is not an accident that the draws from the Krater are called Inflections, and I think it would be mistaken to call them a "resolution mechanic" in any traditional sense. A lot of our draws ended up with no guidance for the situation at hand at all, offering instead Foreshadowings of things that would happen to NPCs entirely absent from the situation.

I feel right at home with mechanics that introduce "neutral" but "unwelcome" results in the fiction, the rules being a third participant in the game who keeps both the GM and the players on their toes about what's going to happen next. So, as a GM, I often felt rudderless, the Krater rarely offering any concrete answers on how a situation was going to turn. It offered small adjustments in tone or rhythm but rarely in a way where the group would feel comfortable just improvising off of it. We ended the game after four sessions or so, in large part due to scheduling issues. We wrapped up with some kind of conclusion or cliffhanger, the PC minotaurs either abandoning their old district and employment and seeking refuge in distant parts of the city, or even joining the Everwar. Despite the fact that it didn't click with me, and the cogs never started spinning, this game keeps my interest. The Clay that Woke feels like it was pulled out of the heart of a white star. If is dense, it is feverishly hypnagogic, it seems to hang in the air like a heavy jungle mist. The vapours themselves rising from a quenched red-hot truth. It feels deeply personal, candid and hermetic and impenetrable at the same time. The art by Nate Marcel is gorgeous. I usually skip RPG fiction entirely, but this was the first game in a long time where I actually read Paul's melancholy stories of a minotaur's life in the city. I feel like I want to pick up the game again at some point but this time with a better understanding of what it is and what it wants to do.

So yeah, Paul, I'm thinking about minotaurs.