My Life with Master: Yukon Gold Rush

I heard that there was an interest in Actual Play reports and discussion here, but no one to lead the way, so I’ll contribute one. It’s a really unique and unusual design, and our game is worth documenting. Here we go:

My Life with Master: the Treadwell Mine

Tonight, we wrapped a pretty long-playing game/campaign of My Life with Master.

It was an unusual setting for this game (to the point where I wondered if we’d get in trouble with it!): a sprawling sort of mini-epic set in Gold Rush-era Yukon, freezing, rushing river, gold mine, Native magic, and alchemy.

It was beautiful and tragic.

If you’re a sensitive soul, I’d advice you not to read too much further: there was some gruesome business in between the moments of beauty and heart.

Our characters were:

-> A brute of an enforcer and a former bounty hunter (though with a heart of gold under it all), a giant, terrifying man named Bush Lavender, working for the Master because he was fleeing from some debt collectors, and the Master promised to pay his debts.

Early in the story, Bush, carried away by his inhuman rage, maimed a young boy named Toko (more on him later), inadvertently giving the Master the key to his alchemy shortly before the end… you see, it turned out that the tears of a parent afraid for his child’s life were the missing ingredient for true alchemy. The Master figured out the secret just before the mine and his reign came to an end, when Toko came to him, looking for his father. The Master got a brief moment of glee - his plans coming together at last! - before everything came crashing down.

Bush had one eye mangled by Darren (see below), and ended up sawing off his own hand to spare the woman he loved (as well as the man she loved). Though he helped bring down the Master with his incredible gun-skills, he couldn’t save himself. He ended his life by stabbing himself in his remaining eye with a shard of a mirror (his character was based around a motif of rage and gaze : he couldn’t lock eyes with someone without being filled with rage). A powerful ending! He escaped those debt collectors after all, but only by locking eyes with himself.

-> A sad, tortured young man, who had been left with a strange power by the Master’s experiments, by the name of Galilee. He could smell gold, but only if it was honest gold (once the gold was stolen or otherwise tainted, he could no longer smell it). He was the Master’s gold-sniffer, a sort of a melancholy hybrid of Gollum and Edward Scissorhands.

In a memorable scene towards the end of the game, he survived a beating by taking off his shirt and showing the myriad scars covering his pale body to the mob of Townspeople out for his blood.

He managed, just barely, to make the final shot to destroy the Master, in the end, blowing off half of his jaw (he was aiming for the head, but the gun wobbled so much in his unsteady, frightened hands).

Galilee rescued Dante: Dante was the Master’s nephew, hiding in the Town under a pseudonym in hopes of “living the life of freedom”. He made a weird and destructive drug called ‘slidgesynthe’ from the mine’s toxic tailings; then he got Dwight, the foreman, first hooked on them and, eventually, killed (strangled by Bush while handcuffed to a dinner table). Dante ended up as a horrific burn victim when Bush set the old tenements aflame.

Dante and Galilee left the Town to make a life together, but couldn’t recover from their trauma. Galilee was eventually driven mad by the smell of gold and spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

-> Darren, the mine’s foreman, survived a horrific accident due to the Master’s graces. The Master rebuilt his damaged parts to turn him into a sort of an alchemical clockwork cyborg. Strong, twisted, and conflicted, Darren spent much of his time trying to coach Dwight (his replacement) and looking out for Iris, a young girl whose family life wasn’t all peachy (Iris’s dad, Steve Fitzpatrick, was an abusive asshole who regularly beat her sickly mother).

Darren ended up helping to save the life of a young Haida (Native American) boy named Toko, by turning half his face into beautiful gold and platinum (a mystic alchemical ritual Darren performed with his father, Blackheart, rescued him, turning Blackheart’s tears into true precious metals).

When the Haida were thrown out of the Town, Blackheart snuck into the mine with a pack of dynamite, as well as a severed deer’s head (to curse the remains of the mine forever, in case the dynamite didn’t do the trick). Darren stopped him, nearly severing Blackheart’s hand, and delivered him to the Master.

The Master sabotaged Darren’s clockwork mechanism, removing some of it to weaken Darren and to build a bomb into Blackheart’s body. From now on their fates would be intertwined: if Darren wasn’t around to rewind the bomb every four hours, Blackheart would explode.

Darren was the one to turn the tide and the first to rebel against the master, eventually, even though he was disabled by a pain-device the Master had cooked up to control him, biting through the Master’s Achilles tendon with his metal jaw.

In the end, Darren and Blackheart survived the explosion of the mine only by combining their bodies and clockwork, surviving as two souls inhabiting a single body. This was an especially satisfying image, since it was foreshadowed by Toko’s “vision quest” earlier in the game, where, torn between his human nature and his new half-metal identity, he saw Darren and Blackheart as a single, combined “father figure”.

In the end, Darren/Blackheart - Toko’s true father - lived out the rest of his days in Treadwell, watching Iris and Toko kindle a childhood romance as they played in the rubble of the Treadwell Mine.

Haida healing turned out to hold the secret to curing Iris’s mother’s sickness, where the colonists could not.

I was the Master. It was out first time playing My Life with Master. We occasionally struggled a little with the mechanics, but we managed something quite special in the end. (There was some great gunplay, as well as a weird subplot about a replacement metal head as a “gift” for Darren from the Master. Bush had some great moments, like turning his back on Blackheart after handing him his pistol - a great overture! - and I’ve omitted so much from this little capsule summary.)


I’ll add some more commentary here, and mention that comments, questions, and so forth are very welcome!

I found it very difficult to play the Master: always walking a line between portraying the villain and running the game in a fair and generous way. This game, like Dog Eat Dog , blurs the line a little between the character and the player, and given the amount of power the Master has over the Minions, could easily become a pretty twisted power fantasy. I found it hard to be appropriately “evil” a lot of the time, and found great relief and release in the Connection/overture scenes, where we could explore kindness, generosity, mercy, and other positive emotions and ideas.

I also gave the players a lot of narrative control, allowing them to set their own scenes whenever the Master wasn’t dictating their actions, for example. I’m really happy with the balance we struck there; the Master’s control was still very much felt, but the players got a lot of input into the developing fiction.

To me, as the GM, the Master was far less interesting than the Minions. (Although I did have all kinds of plans for him that didn’t pan out; I would have been curious to see how far I would get, and did manage to get some of them into effect, like building a clockwork bomb into Blackheart’s abdomen.)

The Master was obsessed with riches and gold and furthermore obsessed with impressing his family. (The family was on their way to the Town, but, as it was revealed at the end, had been killed en route in a landslide, making pretty much all of the Master’s efforts for nothing!)

I hope that the players might jump in here and report on the Master and what they thought of him.

My writeup is a very very poor summary of 13 sessions of play; there was a lot of very interesting motivic resonance (you can see it a bit with all the eye/gaze motif stuff, as well as the man/machine, colonists/Natives parallels) and we managed to reincorporate a lot of material in satisfying ways.

We didn’t get to play as often as we would have liked, so there were long gaps between sessions. We kept a “chronicle”, summarizing the events of each session. In the end, there were some things that had been foreshadowed long ago and were brought back - there were times where we thought "surely, we didn’t actually set this up three months ago, did we? - and then we’d look back at the chronicle, and, yes, there it was!

This happened with Darren and Blackheart fusing into a single father figure for Toko, the boy torn between his Native/human and his foreign/metallic identities, with the Haida crone foretelling his fate as a servant to the Master (though this never came to full fruition), the Master’s death coming about as a gun shot severed half his jaw - which was what Darren’s accident had done to him , at the beginning of all this - and so forth.

It would have made quite a satisfying mini-series for television, with all the visual symbolism.

My main regret (not that I would change a thing!) is that the Master never got to stage the elaborate wedding he had planned, where he would force Bush to hand over Clementine (taking the place of her father in the ceremony) as his bride, and then enforce strict table manners and discipline on his rough-and-tumble crew of miners and enforcers, in a misguided attempt to impress his family.

Having the Master finally destroyed at his own sham wedding would have been quite the spectacle.

There was a writeup done for this game by Galilee’s player. It’s rather grim, but I’d like to leave it here for posterity - it tells us a lot about the player’s inner interpretation of the character and what happened to him.

Great write up, Paul! Thanks for taking the time to do it.

Like Paul said, he was only able to cover part of what took place in the game. It was a very elaborate story and it’s difficult to summarize it.

Here’s little background and sketch of the character I played; hopefully, I’ll be able to add more about our actual game as the discussion continues.

I also want to warn people that the content of the game was extremely dark and quite horrible. You shouldn’t read below if you are troubled by such things. Consider yourself warned.

I played Galilee ; a tortured, fear-filled Edward Scissorhands type, with a bit of Gollum mixed in, who had the ability to smell and sniff-out gold, but only if the gold had been gained by honest means. This meant that the sensitive Galilee would regularly have to betray his inner sense of self, because it meant that the gold he sniffed-out and stole for the Master, (in exchange for the basics necessities he needed to survive), would have to be mostly taken from honest, good people—people in need like him.

The Master had acquired Galilee when he was a child—maybe he was orphaned, maybe his parents had sold him off—Galilee wasn’t sure.
The Master had scourged him daily as a child —getting more creative with his methods of torture on days Galilee didn’t sniff-out enough gold, or on the days when he just felt like causing something pain. Galilee quickly developed the mannerisms of an abused animal—ungovernable, trembling hands; facial tics and twitches; a cowering, distrustful manner; and apprehensive eyes blazing with fear.

As he grew into an adult the Master took less pleasure and grew board with torturing the boy—Galilee wasn’t the fresh, innocent, unspoiled thing he used to be—and the whipping became more intermittent, but this wasn’t the relief one might expect. There is something comforting and final when a man is without hope, in knowing that hell it is coming no matter what, in the assuredly of it, in the absence of any and all possibilities of salvation.

Galilee’s fear of the night became so intense that even as an adult—when the sessions had ended and the Master was no more cruel towards him than to his other men—he was only able to speak with those who were pure in heart during the darkness of the night. Which usually prevented him from being able to talk to anyone but children at night.

There were points in our story where it looked like Galilee may overcome some of what had damaged him; where he might be able to somehow gather what had been shattered. When Galilee was able summon the strength to act courageously—which had seemed an impossible task—because of his will to be good person and to not let the Master determine what kind of person he would be. This gave him an inner strength, and sense of purpose and meaning that he’d never experienced. It opened up an unthinkable hope in him that he could leave the town and live without the Master. That he could stop being a part of the Master’s evil, stop contributing to, or being a semblance of, that which had devoured his own soul.

At times, Galilee experienced what it felt to be human for the first time, of being something almost whole—rather than a tortured, reactive animal with a mind full of the terrible, storming sirens of fear.

In the end Galilee and Dante moved to another town, but without the Master’s instructions he was aimless and unstructured. He had never had anything constant to organize himself around except the Master’s commands—he never had a real self, just glimpses of one—and when the commands were gone he had nothing but the wilderness of his mind to get lost in. He started to hallucinate; he could smell gold everywhere but couldn’t find it. He looked everywhere, scurrying, rustling through drawers, ripping things apart in a panic, and pressing them against his nostrils—he could smell the gold, it was so strong, where was it? The Master must have been playing tricks on him—torturing him. The smell of gold was burning within him. The smell of gold was filling up his entire being—then the smell was filling Being itself.

In time, the phantasmagoric horror, which is the abode of the damned, made its nest in Galilee’s mind. Cruel, shattered image after cruel shattered image, a chaos of broken images cascading forever. The Master’s scourge fell upon him, cutting brightly and painfully through his body, tearing peices of flesh, always and continually tearing, tearing into his bones, tearing thru his bones. The Master’s mocking words twisting, over and over, recursively, like sharp hooks lacerating his mind: “More gold animal! More gold you fithy animal!” But all there was was gold. The whole universe was made of it. It pored through of Galilee’s nostrils like molten lava; it burned in him forever—while the scourge of the Master blazed like razors through his mind.

Dante visited him at the asylum, but Galilee never recognized him; his psychosis was all encompassing, it had swallowed him whole, and to this day, the belly of the beast grinds.

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