I’ve been posting about Paul Czege’s The Clay That Woke for some time now as I assembled my token set and prepared for what would become a rewarding play session this past Saturday. I ran the game at GameDay 44 in Mt Prospect, IL, organized by the indefatigable Mark Delsing. While I can’t pretend that everyone at the table was over the moon about the game, I’m happy to report that we all found the game challenging, rewarding, and at the very least intriguing. Playing the game was myself, the aforementioned Mark, Matt, Nikitas, and another Tim.

I’ve already posted about my preparation efforts, but now you can check out my brainstorming notes, which I’ve attached to this post. In general, I used the method outlined by Paul in the book and it worked great. I was able to generate two situations both weird and thematically loaded. As we started play, I divided the PCs into two groups, each employed to the main NPC for each situation.

The first involved an Empyrei convinced that he could return to a state of innocence. To do so, he kept a harem of seven wives and a brood of exactly 47 children. The children were either castrated or drugged in order to keep them prepubescent. Upon showing any sign of adulthood, they were sacrificed and replaced by a new child. Needless to say, the relationships were abusive, and two of the minotaurs, including Mark’s, were hired to keep watch and help carry out ceremonies.

The second situation involved a veteran of the Everwar who abandoned his post to return to the city and take up a sedentary life of pleasure. He opened a brothel where patrons rented apartments on a long-term basis in order to lead a life of hedonistic pleasure 24/7. Into this situtation I inserted a particular patron, Deo, who could not pay his bill but instead kept the brothel keep charmed by use of a mind-altering drug.

The first situation proved immediately potent and Mark couldn’t give away his silence tokens fast enough. He broke with the birthing traditions, returned a newborn to its mother, murdered the Empyrei, stuffed the man’s body into a infant bower, and promptly broke for the jungle in a frenzy. Along the way he caused another nameless minotaur to break with him, but his companion was slaughtered on the street after goring a child. Meanwhile, Nikitas’ character was a stoic philosopher determined to keep silence despite witnessing all of Mark’s madness. The contrast proved powerful and I’m happy that Nikitas stuck to his guns despite some initial worries that I kept to myself.

The second situation was less thematically charged, but led to some interesting characters and situations outside of the brothel elsewhere in the city. Most memorable for me was a racist constable and a begger woman with a odd sense of duty. None of these NPCs received the attention I would have liked to give them, and I would love to bring them back if we were playing long term. What I really want to emphasize is that, even though the game went in a different direction than the one I initially planned, it was still rewarding and charged with thematic potential. Frankly, given that I’m used to improvising while GMing, this felt more directly in my wheelhouse even if I had to take one or two breaks to recharge my creative batteries. There was still plenty to keep the players engaged, and I was happy to take them wherever they wanted to go.

Three of the four characters managed their way into the jungle. Mark’s character lost his final silence token. While in the jungle, he encountered The Bright (who I thoroughly enjoyed roleplaying as a cackling madman) and wrestled a carnivorous eel to its death (drawing inspiration from the book’s illustrations). Mark at first interpreted these events as a type of vision quest, and I think he was surprised to find out that everything was indeed real.

The two other minotaurs found the jungle a little differently. They chose to go as a team, and so their excursion felt more like a quest. Nonetheless, I did my best to make their trip just as bizarre as Mark’s. They met a man from the Everwar who was separated from his unit and seeking to regain his courage. They encountered lentic lions, and retrieved a particular forest slug used for its medicinal qualities. They also saved the soldier from a large snake (lots of eel and snake imagery in this game, hmmmm…) before returning to the city and to the brothel.

Finally, Nikitas’ character displayed an impressive level of dedication to silence. At times, I wondered if he was taking it too far, claiming that his minotaur felt it best to remove himself altogether from the dealing of mankind. But in the end, even he couldn’t help but display an inkling of passion. Needless to say, after Mark’s character murdered the Empyrei, the wives and servants suffered a combination of shock and confusion. The ensuing power vacum caused enough of a stir (one wife blinded and another strangled to death) that Nikitas eventually, when faced with mortal danger, expressed personal desire and broke silence. What’s more, he did so in public, on the city streets, and in full view of four other nameless minotaurs who voiced their respect. It was a powerful conclusion, well earned.

So far so great, but that’s not to say we didn’t run into a few hiccups along the way. Rather than nitpick, I want to give a few suggestions to people who might be gearing up to run their own session of Clay for the first time.

First, the Krater of Lots is a trick thing to wrap your head around. Physically, there is a lot to enjoy about tossing chips into a bowl and drawing them out to determine your fate. By the end of the session, the group had everyone chanting “Krater, Krater, Krater!” and even drumming on the table with each draw. It was an organic development, highly satisfying. It also emphasized the ritualistic feeling of using such an odd system. I only hope our neighbors looked up with bemused looks on their faces every time someone pulled a chip!

That said, I still don’t think I have a full grasp on the strategy here, and I know the players didn’t, especially at first. How many chips should I put in? What should I be aiming for? What does this symbol or that symbol mean? There is some serious friction going on between the component, iconography, and desired outcomes that is so thorough that I can’t help but think it’s on purpose. By the end of the session we all had a few “aha” moments, but for most of the time, it felt almost entirely mysterious and opaque. It’s worth your time, in other words, to really study the menu of outcomes and help explain them to the players. It’s also worth noting that you really shouldn’t be thinking of the Krater as a traditional conflict resolution system. It’s a guide, not an arbitrator. Some outcomes are more definite than others, but overall events are determined by player negotiation.

On a purely practical note, I also had everyone at the table suggest to me that what they really want is a menu of outcomes that include the same icons as those appearing on the chips themselves. Making the translation from symbol to icon was just a step too many and was the source of real frustration at the table.

Second, I want to talk about the rulebook generally. For a first play-through, I think things went pretty well overall. Despite reading the book twice through, I was still having trouble remember all the rules, but I was usually able to locate the reference I needed within a reasonable amount of time. For future plays, however, I am seriously considering an all-in-one quick reference sheet. Because of the book’s organization, the rules are scattered throughout. At first, no big deal. But despite my serious of sticky tabs, there were times when I found myself completely lost. I love the book for learning the game, and for communicating the “feel” of the world and themes, but reference was, by the end, frustrating. I need something to bridge the gap and help me with a few key mechanical things while still learning the ropes.

Overall, the game was a success, and I wish I had more time with the same players to enjoy a long-term campaign. We all saw the potential for powerful relationships and rewarding mechanical outcomes via the menu, but also realized that most of those are available only over the course of multiple sessions. That is not to say, and I really want to emphasize this, that Clay is something you should put aside until you can assemble a dedicated group. If you have the opportunity for a single 3-5 hour session, play it! You’ll want to get your feet wet anyway while you learn the system and understand how theme connects with play. I found even my single session immensely rewarding, and although I’m sad we probably won’t continue, I can’t help but recommend the game in whatever form you can fit into your life.

#claytalk