Ropecon 2013: S/lay w/Me as essence of roleplaying

I purchased Ron Edwards’ S/lay w/Me a couple of years back. It impressed me instantly, but I was afraid to try it out. After a year of improv classes, I booked two sessions of it to Ropecon (and ran a third ex tempore). I’m glad I did. It’s a very special little gem, a two-player game of sword & sorcery that usually plays in an hour or so. I’ll go so far as to say it’s pretty much the essence of what I enjoy in roleplaying.

One player plays an experienced adventurer, described in a couple of dozen words. He also picks where the adventure takes place and declares something supremely important that he’s after there.

The other player then comes up with ideas, visuals, and people based on what the other player decided. He also creates a Lover and a Monster, who can be the same person or thing.

Then they start playing. It’s very light on mechanics, and although you roll dice, they only affect the final outcome of the game, not the task or conflict at hand. The game is played in “Goes”, which is pretty much another way of saying “turn”, but sounds a little less like a board game. On your Go, you describe things and end your Go by narrating a forward-moving event. Not “I search for the sword”, but “I enter the temple and I go through rooms of varying, vivid colors, until I finally reach a small, crimson chamber. On an altar I find the sword.”

In its most rigid form the narration turns resemble the typical player–GM split: one player says what the adventurer does, and the other says how the world reacts. However, they can and should play the game as loose as they are comfortable with. Rather than following clear rules about what each player can and must say, the players should feel out how far they can go – how much they can about the other players’ “realm”. I’ve often heard said that, for example, it’s not kosher in RPGs for the GM to say what the player characters are feeling; and it’s definitely out of bounds for the player to say how the monsters react.

In S/lay w/Me, the only limits are what you two as players establish. It not only applies to narration rights, but also to the content: since the game is about lovers and monsters, you have to include love and/or sex and violence in the game. One inhabitant of the internet, not well-disposed towards the game, said that the game seems like an awfully contrived attempt at foreplay. (The game’s highly sexual art might have provoked that reaction.)

But it’s not about foreplay (although you probably could use the game for it, but how is that different from any other RPG?). Instead, it feels very special to just play face-to-face with one person, and come to terms about all kinds of things without ever explicitly discussing them. It’s about connection, about jamming – to use Ron Edwards’ music metaphor for roleplaying – about learning cool things about yourself and your friends. It’s sitting together, forgetting everything else but the game, focusing on the fiction you’re creating. It’s like immersing yourself in a Robert E. Howard story, except you tell it together with an interesting person, and if that’s not high praise, I don’t know what is.

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