This article originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Daedelus. As that e-zine is currently undergoing a facelift, I’ve posted it here for reference. Copyright © 2005 Michael S. Miller
My Life with Master is a unique role-playing game and requires a unique perspective from the GM. The trick to masterful GMing lies in how you regard your primary role: That of the Master. You must not think of the Master like a person, or even a character. Think of the Master like a club. The players have forged this club, so there is some facet of the club that is particularly suited for provoking their emotions. It is your job as GM to wield this club against the players—to emotionally batter them until they can stand no more and are focused on only one thing: Taking that club away from you. Once you master this technique, the rest of the game falls into place of its own accord, and resulting gameplay is horrific, tragic and thoroughly gripping.
The whole situation is horribly dysfunctional. . . . [The Master] inhabits an insecure position at the crux of consuming desire and lack of self-sufficiency, and it is from this that fear and horror flow out into the game.
—Czege, My Life with Master
A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; . . . with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.
As the GM you will be called upon to imagine and describe heinous acts of villainy and regularly humiliate your players and their characters. Why would you do such things and call it a “game”? Your reason is the same as that of all great tragedy: Catharsis.
Simply put, you are the scapegoat for your fellow players. Just as ancient priests would place the sins of the entire community on a goat before setting it loose in the wilderness, during Master creation, the players put their sins and their fears upon you. You must play this vileness to the hilt. Use every ounce of your energy and imagination to seize their suggestions and embody them, magnify them. You must become what they dread, so that they can achieve the emotional release of gaining strength against, and finally defeating, their fear. It is a great responsibility, a lofty goal, and rush like none other you’ll find.
Although you lack a massive special effects budget to stun your audience with spectacle, and haven't the luxury of a Greek chorus to back you up, you share the same goal of provoking catharsis as a major motion picture or a classical tragedy. Despite such limitations, you must play to your strengths: your own physical presence at the gaming table. For the time period of the game, you must engage as many of their senses as possible. Think of this as proper stance, swing and follow-through of using the club.
· Use a prop, such as a special hat, scarf, cane or vest while portraying the Master. But you must be certain to set it aside when not playing the Master. This will quickly become a powerful nonverbal cue of the Master's attention. Even when beginning a scene wherein you aren't playing the Master, pause and look at the prop. Perhaps pick it up. Watch your players gasp and squirm.
· Copy the Formulae page for each player, so they can see what they need to roll. The Master does not consult the rules during the game.
· The Master never does anything for himself, except for disciplining minions. Do not enable their foibles, make them enable yours! To this end, when playing the Master, do not even roll your own dice. If a Beast, hand them to one of the currently-unoccupied players one-by-one. If a Brain, curtly order the player, by name, to roll a certain number of dice.
· Alter your movements to suit the Master’s Aspect. Brains will often sit, or walk slowly. Beasts will likely move around a good deal. Whichever path you take, invade their “personal space.” Get close. Particularly if they are seated, loom over them.
· Your voice is your most powerful tool, use it wisely. Each Master should have a distinct manner of speech. Remember that the Master can never gain the Sincerity die, so remove all emotional warmth from your voice. Even when complimenting a minion, the tone of your voice must convey the Master’s cold manipulation. Do not use some made-up accent for the Master—that is often the first step on the horror and pathos turning to humor and parody.
On page 46, the rulebook states: “there is no need to explain or justify how the Master knows of a minion’s secret Connections. He just does.” These two clauses are pivotal for unlocking the power of the role of Master. Your eyes and ears are the Master’s eyes and ears. Watch and listen to your players. They will sigh, or smile, or mutter “cool” at various times during the play of their minion. These are signs of them enjoying their character. The Master exists to extinguish those moments of enjoyment. I call it Crushing the players’ enjoyment of their character. The objective of Monopoly is to be the last one with money. The objective of Chess is to checkmate your opponent's king. For the GM, the objective of My Life with Master is to Crush as often and as viscously as possible.
The exact methods of Crushing are as manifold and varied as the varieties of players in the game. However, each Crush has two parts: Something valued and the destruction of value. Think of “something valued” as proper targeting of the club—deciding where best to hit them. Think of “the destruction of value” as the strike itself—sharp, powerful, a likely to leave a welt.
Below are some examples of Crushing that occur quite frequently in play of My Life with Master.
Something valued: Connections are the most common thing that players value in the game. If the Master is a club, the Townspeople are the carrot. Beyond their role in providing Love for the players, Connections must also engage the players’ emotions. Half of this work is done for you since the players create their own Connections. They are already emotionally invested with seeing those Connections come into play.
Making new Connections appealing is a bit trickier. If you are familiar with a player, and know that they often react favorably to NPCs presented in a certain way (e.g., damsels in distress, hard-bitten loners, etc.), be certain to color your portrayal of potential Connections to make the most use of it. Reuse the names of well-loved characters from other games. Also, you must cultivate as much sympathy for your Townspeople as you can. The more the players care about the Townspeople, the more delicious the Crush will be. Emphasize the Townspeople reacting favorably to the minion when least expected. For instance, whenever a minion succeeds at Villainy, make sure that the Townsperson is completely taken in by their ruse. Play up their trust in the minion and their genuine appreciation for the minion coming to them with this request.
Make a list of all the Connections in play. Keep track of which minions each of them holds Love for. This list becomes the Master’s “to do” list. When a minion has completed a Command and returns to the Master, look at the list. Whichever Connection that is carrying the most Love (and is not already being acted upon by another minion) is vital to the Master’s plans this very instant. Glance at the list of Needs that the players drafted for you during Master creation, come up with some way that this Connection could meet one of those Needs, and Command the minion to make it happen.
Destruction of value: Simply threaten the Connection. I suggest drawing out the threat as much as possible. Give an order to one of the minions to bring the Connection to you. Then order the Connection to be “prepared” for some unspecified, horrible fate. Then order the minion to fetch you something necessary for the procedure. Each of these Commands will increase the tense anticipation of the blow, and will also provide the minion with opportunities to request further Overtures with this Connection, thus increasing its value and making the subsequent increase in threat that much sweeter.
It is indeed tempting to Crush each and every object of Love. If you do, you will destroy the game. It may seem reasonable that the Master would want to destroy any resources the minions have to oppose him. Such thinking comes of regarding the Master as a character, not as a club. Remember that you are wielding the club for a purpose: To enable the catharsis of the players. The only method the rules give them for achieving that emotional release and taking the club away from you is to accumulate enough points of Love. If you systematically rob them of their Love points, you have stopped being a scapegoat and begun being a bully.
Something valued: Occasionally, a player will enjoy the vicarious thrill of being a powerful outcast. This must be Crushed immediately.
Destruction of value: The only one power-tripping in a game of My Life with Master should be the GM. Each character’s More Than Human has an exception. Have the Master trigger that exception repeatedly, purposefully, and callously.
Something valued: If the minion’s player is enjoying carrying out the Master’s vile Commands, then that is what you must Crush.
Destruction of value: For a minion like this, there must not even be the vestige of praise from the Master, even if he follows the Master’s orders to the letter. Have the Master berate the minion for not fulfilling some requirement that you never mentioned in issuing the order. When they blubber about not knowing they were supposed to do things that way, humiliate them for being too stupid to know something that ought to go without saying. Speak to them like a small child for the rest of the scene.
Something valued: If the minion’s player is enjoying sniveling and groveling before the Master, that enjoyment must be Crushed.
Destruction of value: They may have fun with competing Peter Lorre-impressions and the like, but fun must only exist when you allow it. Have the Master forbid the offending minion from moving or speaking until dismissed. Then portray the Master lecturing and berating them for some time.
To use anything to its best advantage, you must know why you are doing it, have good technique, and powerful execution. As the GM of a game of My Life with Master, once you have learned to think of the Master a club, resolved to use that club for the catharsis of the players, engaged their senses, and mastered the technique of the Crush, you have all you need to realize the game’s potential and revel in its dark beauty. Happy Mastering!