[Living Alchemy] Hooking players into a conflict instead of a setting

Living Alchemy is an emergent storytelling game about troubled, often brilliant, people inspired by gothic fantasy like Frankenstein, Dracula, Westworld, or Fullmetal Alchemist. The core mechanic is that players are allowed to use "extra dice" for their rolls, but risk triggering their character's affliction such as an addiction, a temper, or sense of alienation. The game also uses a powerful engine allowing players to introduce characters, locations, and spells into the game. The game really gives players enough rope to hang themselves with, and organically generates stressful and challenging situations.

The game seems to work well if you approach it on its own terms. In some standard play modes like princess play, it kind of hangs. Sometimes a players is forced to give up on important objectives or important relationships and this can be crushing for some players. To make it easier for players to engage with the game, I've tried starting with an Antagonist and some minimal setting and seeing if players can hook into that.

The scenario I'm using is called Bright Eyes. The premise is that a king has conquered a land filled with traditional Tolkienesque fantasy creatures. He has grown old and fat with no son to continue his legacy.

I'm playing with a single player. He picked up on the colonialist theme and his character is an elvish alchemist and taken a human name with the ultimate goal of unseating the king by creating him an artificial "cuckoo" son with alchemy. He took the affliction "Outsider" signifying a need to belong to enlightened human society.

In this context, elves have no organized sciences like Alchemy so Laurence has essentially forsaken his heritage in order to protect it. He is professor at a reëducation academy for the non-human natives. Most of the first session was spent getting things ready to enact his plan- blackmailing a student, performing experiments leaving him with a triggered affliction and a fractured relationship with the headmaster (the headmaster hired him over all the human candidates after all!). After his affliction was triggered, he decided to travel to the King and present one of his alchemical creations to him, simultaneously treating his affliction and bringing him closer to the king.

Overall, it was a great session with really tense situations, atmosphere, and sticky themes. I was surprised at how little the antagonist participated in the narrative. The King's resolve and symbolic corruption were very much part of the drive for Laurence, but the game was still rife with conflict without the King participating directly.

Have you tried hooking players into a setting and its themes with an antagonist before? What are the best ways to get players to engage with a game in a particular way?


  • edited May 9
    Superheroes have their villains. Part of the setting is already there, but the villain provides the zoom on meaningful parts and themes. In the case of villains, I try making them posit questions without obvious answers and cleave through heroes beliefs.
    Cf Lorenzaccio, Batman
  • Absolutely. I’ve used that structure before in one of my games. I like things that define play content; a great way to break out of some people’s bad character creation habits.
  • edited May 9
    Oops, I didn't think of naming all the games that start with a big bad.
    Facing the Titan, Misspent Youth, many sessions of Follow, and you could play a Tales of entropy and "6 characters zig zag" starting with an antagonist instead of a protagonist.
    Some games, like For the Queen (and Fall of magic but this one has a sort of starting setting), do something like this, not with an antagonist, but with a menace on something the players hold dear, which is a sort of abstract antagonism.
    Finally, many games can go with one central PC having a quest (that may mean defeat an antagonist) and the other PCs gravitating around.
  • Of course, there is also the old classic, My Life with Master, which very specifically begins with the group creating the Antagonist together, and ends with the Antagonist being overthrown.
  • Since it's a player driven story-game, I'm trying to use an antagonist to frame the player-characters' personal conflicts without determining what it is. This is very different from using an antagonist AS the conflict. That is, the "premise" that is being addressed through play is firmly in the players' hands.

    In the case with Bright Eyes, nothing suggests that the King character needs to be taken down. A player character could just as well make it their goal to become his right-hand-man, or convince him to return the player character's swamp.

    My broader goal is to help make this kind of kicker-style story-game more accessible. So far, I've made it work by having the game develop organically out of a small number of starting details. However, I still have trouble conveying some of the game's expectations.
  • This looks more like For the Queen, where the Queen and the situation are discovered through play.
  • My unpublished game “Land of Nodd” did exactly what you’re describing, and it worked well. I’ve since fooled around with other framing devices; I like this kind of approach of defining setting as a sort of “negative space”.

    Take a look at DeReel’s “six character zig zag”, it also does something similar! (He linked to it above.)
  • Where can we find the rules for Living Alchemy?
  • Hey, here's a one-page write-up.


    and here is the module for Bright Eyes:


    I tried to distill the entire game down to one page for players. The guide doesn't go into some of the game's attitudes that provide important context.

    The gamemaster typically does some minimal prep which involves creating an antagonist, choosing source material, and establishing some minimal setting. I've tried involving players in these steps but it feels like a stumbling point.

    Here is a sample character created for a one-shot I'm developing. (S)he is a good example of a Living Alchemy character- engaging in rash action to cover for a real or perceived weakness.

  • The .png hurts my eyes. The illustrations in "Bright eyes" are real candy.

    When you specify for the Broken Hero : it's the leg, there's a compass, a werewolf head, etc. you already have defined a big (big) part of the setting. "Establishing some minimal setting" is way behind at that point. I fear players might feel that they are just coloring without going over. What did you mean exactly ?

    As a player, I'd need to know when, how long, how often my PC can act. I am missing a time/drama unit.
  • Sorry about the .png. Here is the .pdf


    I think I've been unclear regarding "establishing setting". The game wasn't written with a particular setting in mind, and gothic fantasy encompasses a surprising range of source material. Typically, the group works together to establish source material and minimal setting. Within this context, an antagonist is created.

    From here, the players create their characters in serial, connecting their character to another introduced already via one of 5 types of relationships (romantic, master-servant, master-apprentice, family, or adversary). This forms a character map and makes sure that relationships have a lot of space to develop through play. In the Bright Eyes game, the player chose his character to have a relationship with Aeshma (his former ward).

    Players also introduce a new character and location into the game. In Bright Eyes this was the headmaster (his master) and the reeducation academy.

    The game's mechanics contribute to pacing. A large part of the game is managing your resources through your relationships which power special abilities, and allow you to treat your affliction.

    For instance, in the second session above, the player really tried to avoid danger and making rolls because his affliction was triggered. He had to rely on his tenuous relationship with his headmaster and with the student he was blackmailing.
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