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[Sorcerer & Sword] Oh, the Shame!

Started by Frank T, February 09, 2006, 02:25:49 PM

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Frank T

Last weekend was GroFaFo Winter Rally. I did nothing but indie games all weekend, Dogs, Sorcerer and Polaris, plus one playtest. If you forgive me being pathetic for a moment, it fills me with pride how far we've come since last Winter Rally. More folks know and play indie games. And, much more importantly, virtually everybody agrees that, sure, it's about the players, not about the characters. People are really enthusiastic about WuShu and InSpectres, which were easily the most played games. There were also rounds of Capes, With Great Power, Mountain Witch and Breaking the Ice in which I didn't participate. I was asked several times whether I'd run PtA.

I'm not going to write up play reports of the Dogs and Polaris games that worked really well, Polaris emerging as the shooting star of this Rally. On Sunday morning, you would hear people who hadn't even played in the game talk in key phrases. Nerdy, that, but fun.

The Sorcerer game was rougher. We had been planning ahead a little in the forum. Intended for four players, the round ended up with six. We agreed that one of the characters would be a prince and the group kicker would be the usurpation of his throne. As setting, we wanted to use Koth from the original Conan stories, though we didn't use more than the name and the general atmosphere. We put together our character concepts on the forum, leaving the rules stuff to be figured out later.

Tim was the GM. He is translator and publisher of the German Unknown Armies, co-author of German Indie RPG Degenesis and generally very knowledgeable and thoughtful about role-playing.

Ingo played the prince betrayed. He is also a very experienced player and GM, reputed for his great descriptions and portrayals. He is interested in, but not convinced about, Forge games and theory. He has read but not played Sorcerer, Dogs and PtA.

Hendrik played a mercenary in service of the prince. He's played a lot of Shadowrun and Vampire, but lately has been drawn toward indie games and Narrativism. He played With Great Power the evening before and had a great time.

Bastian played a noble savage from the pictish wilderness. His biography is very similar to Hendrik's. He also tries himself in a little game design with a system similar to a matrix game.

Kathy played Kyrin, the prince's sister, a Cassandra-like seer. She is illustrator to the German Fading Suns RPG and also a long-time GM, reputed like Ingo for here descriptions and portrayals.

Tinka played the prince's loyal captain. She has a history of playing Space Gothic, Cyberpunk 2020 and KULT, always engaging in her character very intensely and acting a lot in character. But she also played PtA with me and even bought it afterwards.

I played Soren, an adept and counsellor, bastard brother to the prince's father, who had vowed to protect the prince. I'm pretty much the Forge-maniac in the group, eager for indie games, especially the narrativist type.

I like all of these people very much, especially Tim, Hendrik, Bastian and Tinka. And GroFaFo Rallies are special anyway, because there is some sort of magic in those walls of Castle Hessenstein that makes us all larger than life.

Character Generation

We had discussed on the forum some mad construction of relationships and kickers for the characters. Most of it was explicit, but Kathy had a dirty secret of her character being in love with her half brother, the usurper. Hendrik also wanted a dirty secret of his mercenary being heir to the Lords of Acheron overthrown by the prince's family ages ago, driven by a demon to reclaim the throne. I persuaded him to make this explicit in advance.

My personal kicker was that the usurper's mother, second wife to my half-brother the late king, had always been my one true love though I had never touched her.

So we launched into chargen. Fortunately we had two books of both Sorcerer and Sorcerer & Sword, but it still was a slow process of scanning descriptors and demon abilities. Ingo, the prince's player, came up with the idea of having his character be a half-breed, similar to the godlike Pharaos of ancient Egypt. His demon was a leopard passer that once was his father, the king.

Hendriks demon was a sort of amulet implanted in his throat, containing an inconspicuous demon. Hendrik's and Ingo's demons had power 9 or 10, way beyond their masters' control. We also had an ancestor spirit, two possessors, and large bat-like fighter and mount (mine).

Tim's (the GM's) idea was that the player to your left would be playing your demon. I played Ingo's, Tinka played mine. Ingo played Hendrik's, the demon that was most intent on the prince's—Ingo's character's—demise. He said that was no problem for him, and it wasn't. Everyone had to make a binding roll, and some confusion arose over the number of successes. That was settled when I told everybody to read the examples in the book.

The Game

Tim asked us to describe our kickers. I had tried to explain what a kicker is on the forum, but obviously, the concept is hard to grab. People keep thinking a kicker is a scene. So Ingo launched into describing the burning palace and what was happening to his character, how treason had come to pass and so on. He was turning on his "GM voice" and clearly using director stance.

I think this caused a problem for the rest of the game because people thought they had director stance somehow, but it was unclear how that was distinguished from the GM's power. That caused some uncertainty along the way, but eventually, Tim took charge and started driving.

The characters fled the city to some remote canyon, and Tim immediately decided there were ruins of old Acheron in the caves beneath, a forest alive, and degenerate man-apes with bat-like wings. He did some great descriptions, oh how he can do that imagery. My favorite was a demon from a pond in the woods that looked like a naked 14 year-old girl all covered with ritual scars. Ingo bound her (guess how?) There was also a titan demon bound to the true king, that bowed to Hendriks character, who swore that he was serving "the true king", and upon question, that Ingo's character was the true king. I just had to read out the Moorcock quote about lying with utter conviction at that point. The scene, to me, was the best in the game.

Before, there was a very confusing scene with all six characters and all six demons present and everybody talking at the same time. It didn't lead to much, but that got better as we split up.

Tinka's character came across "the second sons", the meanest band of mercs you've ever seen, who offered their service to the prince betrayed. Men of warped honor and foul desire, they started looting and raping little girls straight away. The prince ordered them to stop, so they killed the girls instead. We had a dispute on whether that would cost humanity, or even gain humanity. In the end, Ingo rolled for humanity gain. I think it's save to say that humanity as a central mechanic of the game didn't click for any of us at all.

More bangs were along the road. My character switched sides after seeing what the inhuman creature he had sworn to protect (i.e. the prince) did. There was a very cool dialogue with my "true love", where I was raving about the horror the prince was going to unleash, the terrible power he wielded, and Ingo was going, "Yes, oh yes!"

Later, my demon disobeyed me although his need (human flesh) had been met to full satisfaction. No blame on Tinka here, she had absolutely no guidelines as to how to play the demon. I blew the roll, so I had to stay with my prince instead of flying ahead. When my betrayal was discovered, the demon helped me, but I caught two arrows which would have taken me straight out of the action for the final battle. So Tim decided that my "queen", a witch of course, had the power to heal me. I think that's outside the rules, but I'm grateful.

The mercs attacked the city, and I banned the titan. Hendrik's character sent his loyal men to die in this red herring attack. Kathy's character (also on the usurper's side) used her "hint" to predict where the titan would strike, which is also outside the rules I think. I used my lore to draw a banning circle and added that into the banning. Tim just rolled two dice against my lore, of which I'm also not sure whether it's rules-conform.

The prince and his loyal followers, and Hendrik's character, snuck into the city through some director-stance-established ancient tunnel. They were met by the usurper, and the "second sons" turned out to be traitors as well. There was a final battle in which Tim half-ignored the combat rules, and the players were driving the scene with what they wanted anyway.

Hendrik wanted to ban his own demon and no longer serve it, because his mercenary oath was more important than some ancient claim. Ingo had his character get all Hamlet and pledge the throne to his brother. Over this, Tinka's character felt betrayed by her prince and got all mad. In the end, Hendrik's, Ingo's and Bastian's characters banned Hendrik's demon together. Tim just had them roll all their dice together, ignoring the rules.

In the end, everybody died, and my character took the crown and the queen. There were some dramatic speeches along the way, applauded by a crowd of spectators, but it was clear that we were by then playing freeform and not Sorcerer. I also forgot to act as Ingo's demon in one important instance because I, well, just didn't think of it at all.


I don't really know what my conclusion is. There was some serious confusion and lack of direction along the way. We were clearly struggling against the system, at no point coming to grabs with it. There was also some seriously fantastic atmosphere. Some of the bangs were good, too, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most players decided early on what part their characters would turn out to play. Or did they? I'm not sure, I should go ask them.

I also kept telling everybody that, yep, I had won the Sorcerer game. I thought that was hilarious, but the joke wasn't appreciated by many...

Ron Edwards

There seems to be a rash of not-so-good Sorcerer games lately, for some reason.

I guess I have to keep saying, it's not a convention game. I also think it's especially sensitive to people suddenly showing up and jumping in. The technique of having players play demons seems to me like a different game entirely.

Humanity isn't Fanmail, it's a judgment. If someone has to say, "Hey, is that a Humanity gain or a Humanity check?", then something is off-base about the judgmental context of play.

What concerns me about the dice is that complex group resolution in Sorcerer is easier, faster, and more reliably decisive than any RPG known, relative to the detail. (Yes, Dogs fans, it's true.) Yet for some reason people keep insisting on playing it as if it were Vampire or Over the Edge, adding complications like initiative in the former case and reducing it to freeform with arbitrary "roll now" bits in the latter.

It seems like you guys had some fun using the color and atmosphere inspired by Sorcerer & Sword. It also seems as if you functionally played Over the Edge, which is no bad thing if a little muddled or chaotic. In fact, now that I think of it, it sounds tremendously like my experiences with Unknown Armies, up to and including the intensive blood-opera. And with the whole "Humanity" notion really being a matter of getting extreme and crazy with the characters. That's it. I think that's what you guys did: played UA with Sorcerer & Sword atmosphere, as if it were an Unknown Armies supplement.

Which is OK. Just wait until I get back to Germany, though. You'll see.




this is my first posting and I would like to say Hi and thank you Ron and The Forge for all your thought provoking ideas about roleplaying in general. It is true that I am not totally convinced of every idea ever stated here, but I am interested and open. I use a lot of concepts in my games, which are highly immersionist but hopefully never illusionist. I try to combine old concepts with forge ideas.

OK, now to the point, I would like to add some ideas to this discussion. I am Ingo, the player of the prince and I enjoyed this game a lot. As stated in Franks post I am a pretty egocentric player and I think that this version of Sorcerer really offered a lot in ways of acting out our characters.

It should be added that this was Tims first Sorcerer session and he is like me, he usually only uses a part of the rules, which seemed more than enough. However I think it is not entirely fair to state that it was a Sorcerer game, it was just part Sorcerer. Tim omitted some of the rules and changed others, especially that it wasn`t possible to carry over the successes of one roll (sorry I have Sorcerer at home and I don`t use the right terminology) to the next conflict. 

However, the demon were played were played by the rules and they were indeed the biggest problem of this gamesession. Too many peoples, too many intentions and too little discipline. Bascially I think it might work to have a "group demon" shared by all and played by every player in its special aspects but only by choice or by a special die rolling mechanism. I might think about that because I like to gm sorcerer or something similar in the next few weeks.

OK, thanks and cheers



Hey, I'm Tim, the GM of the game in question.

Though I really loved the material and advice in Sorcerer & Sword, I really had a hard time understanding how to aplpy the Sorcerer rules in the context of the playing the game:  I'm used to roll dice only when it's really important. but as far as I've seen in Sorcerer one must roll dice in one conflict where one has the advantage in order to get enough bonus dice for a conflict where one is disadvantaged (So if I'm a great orator, I'll give an inspiring speach before the battle so that I've enough bonus dice for the fight itself). A neat idea, but it somehow clashed with our own playing styles.

Personally, I think having the players play the demons of the other players would have worked fine, if we just had used only one or two demons in the game. As written, I think having to play the demons for 4 or even 6 as in our game would have burdened me down a great deal, as I would have to be called in action everytime a player tries to do something with his demon. It's mostly a thing of GM ressources: When I have to think about the players' demons all the time, I can't think about interesting interactions with non-player-characters or intrigueing plot reversals. All in all, I personally was happy not having to care much about the players beginning demons: Halfway in the game, when I introduced the seductive 14 year old passer demon and the powerful Acheronian titan bound to the True King, things clicked more for me: These were more the kind of demons the game is about. They were meaningful and much more integrated in the context of the game and the goals of the characters.

About our problems with the rules: What confused me is the fact that Sorcerer has a combat system at all, using basically two kinds  of hit points (temporary and lasting negative modifications to rolls): It never became really clear to me, if the rules as written are really conflict-resolution or task-resolution: If I describe a combat action in the game and I win, does that happen what I describe or does it just rid my opponent of some dice for his or her next rolls? We started trying to use conflict resolution by specifying stakes but somehow lost this kind of author view when we getting into hard & fast action: All in all, the rules got in our way, when we were carried away by the atmosphere of the game itself.... Stopping the fun in its tracks, by really counting out how many dice everyone should really have, somehow felt wrong and contrary to the momentum of the game we were creating...

About humanity:  We had defined Honor as the definition of the trait. But Honor in the context of a Sorcerer&Sword game is quite different to our own idea of humanity as we normally understand the definition, so things got muddled and confusing: A character is honorable when he's acting according to the rules of his culture and close acquaintances: Raping innocents is not honorable, that was clear. But a princeling who stops the tortures of his evil underlings and harshly descides that it's the best if the prisoners are killed is in someways honorable. Inhumane, brutal, cruel, possibly evil, but honorable nevertheless: Though it went according to our own ideas of humanity, it definitely was a possible raise of honor in the context of the game, and it mirrored quite well the narrative ideas we were dealing within the game: Being honorable would most often mean that the characters would have to say yes to evil deeds (murdering of innocents), while being humane and open - or being just indecisive and weak - can easily result in a loss of honor. Admittedly, we weren't able to install the importance of humanity rules-wise as strong as it should habe been, but we had a taste of it... But I can't really say, whether I understand the judgemental nature of it.

All in all, we had a blast even with all the problems we had, but I still do not really understand how a Sorcerer game should play out.  We had a really strong character-driven game with a lot of atmosphere going right into Elizabethan drama, but probably we really did not play Sorcerer as it should be played.. .But then again: Come to Germany and we'll see about it.

even if it's sunday may i be wrong

Ron Edwards


I guess I see two ways for me to post in this discussion ... one way is to be the author of Sorcerer and talk about how its rules work, and how Humanity is applied, and things like that; and the other way is to embrace the kind of game that you did play, using Sorcerer only as inspiration, and then we can talk about what worked or didn't work in that context, without worrying about Sorcerer as a text or rules-set. I will try to do both in this post.

So I'll begin with the game that you really played. I want to state clearly that I like the fact that you all used Sorcerer only as inspiration, as a source for further enjoying a role-playing experience that is essentially your own approach and reliably fun for you. In the past, people have frustrated me by playing the game with strange mis-applications of the rules, and then blaming the game when it wasn't fun. But that doesn't seem to be what you are doing at all, so I am not frustrated.

Ingo, you were very clear about how there were too many demons and too many agendas in one place. Your solution will work well. You also might consider the interesting idea of having one sorcerer and many demons - there will still be many agendas, but they will all be focused toward a single character. This was first suggested by Clinton Nixon several years ago.

For everyone, what was the most exciting and interesting part of play for you? What really went well?

Tim, that's an interesting comment about playing the demons vs. playing the NPCs vs. managing plot-twists or game events. I suggest that with three or four player-characters, it becomes much easier to play these all as the same things. Also, why do you think the player-characters' demons failed to suit the overall idea of the game, unlike your own demons? I think it might have something to do with the convention context.

Now I'd like to talk about Sorcerer as a full rules-set and book, so at this point, I'm not talking about (and especially not criticizing) your actual game experience. Instead, I'm answering your questions, Tim, about the game as intended and written.

First, about resolution. I am going to be a little pedantic about terms, so forgive me. As I use the term, conflict resolution vs. task resolution is best understood in terms of opponents. Let's say one character is chasing another, and the person being chased is confronted by a fence. It's time for a roll!

If the character rolls against the fence, in the sense that it is tall or otherwise difficult, and if we the players consider how fast or strong the character is, then this is task resolution.

If the character rolls against the pursuer, in the sense that the fence modifies the chase (and it might do so significantly if it is tall or whatever), then this is conflict resolution.

An important side point: the distinction has nothing to do with the scale of the events resolved by the roll. The in-game time might be a second or a day or a century. The number of individuals affected could be one bit of one character's body, or a whole shipload of characters' lives. A lot of people think "task" means smaller increments of fictional material, and "conflict" means larger increments, and that is not correct.

Sorcerer rolls should always be conflict resolution. They rely on the situation including a conflict of interest among fictional characters or entities. This is important too - another common misunderstanding is that conflict resolution concerns disagreements among the real people, and this is extremely incorrect. If you think in terms of conflict of interest, in my example, the fence is not a character - it can have no conflict-of-interest with anyone, ever. If the character came upon it and there were no chase occurring, there would be no roll. He would either get over it because he can, or he would not get over it because he could not, as dictated by the GM.

But if there were a chase occurring, the fence presents an opportunity to express the chase, with a modification to the dice perhaps if it is an interesting or dramatic fence. The chase is what's important - the conflict of interest between the two characters.

I apologize for all the lecturing. Let me know if this makes sense: in Sorcerer, rolls are made whenever a conflict of interest among fictional characters is occurring during play. Never resolve a conflict of interest without rolling, and never roll when a conflict of interest is not occurring.

I am pretty sure that if you put this idea into action, then your question about how Sorcerer combat works will become easier, Tim. You wrote,

QuoteIf I describe a combat action in the game and I win, does that happen what I describe or does it just rid my opponent of some dice for his or her next rolls?

It definitely removes dice from the opponent, but it also establishes that what you described worked to appreciable effect, in the fiction. This is very different from games like The Pool, Universalis, and Primetime Adventures, in which winning a roll means getting to narrate freely. This is more like Dogs in the Vineyard or even the Burning Wheel, in which rolls are "locked down" into the existing narration.

I think I see what happened - the group may have been expecting and calling for stakes at a higher scale than the rolls in Sorcerer are built for, especially during complex conflict. It may also help to remember that all pre-roll narration in Sorcerer establishes that the characters are initiating their actions, really going into motion, so that before the dice hit the table, everyone should be visualized as moving - but not yet finished.

I also think that once you see how this works in play, then moving victories from one roll into bonuses for a following roll will also make more sense.

I have an easy and quick answer to your questions about Humanity - and it is this: the setting is fiction, but Humanity is about you, the real people. Never worry about what a term like honor means to the characters. Although they may use the word and and talk about it in their terms, that is all just fiction. As a game mechanic, the actual Humanity score should only be interpreted as you, the group, during play, find it the most compelling.

That means that a character may talk about honor and do something that every other fictional character agrees is honorable, but you, the real people, consider it dishonorable. In that case, the character must make a Humanity check.

Tim, does any of this help, or make sense?


P.S. I am excited about German play of Sorcerer and my other games! I'll be in Berlin again at least twice this year, so I hope I'll get a chance to meet more people who've posted here.

Nev the Deranged

Dude. Just now, for the first time, I understand the functional difference between Task Res and Conflict Res; and also the proper use of Humanity in Sorcerer. Freakin' great post. Thank you.

Frank T

That's some great comments by everyone. Nice to see you here, Ingo! So, let's get on with it.

First, on the demons. I think that most of the player-created demons were used just as a source for kewl powerz. As Tim correctly said, they didn't mean a whole lot to the fiction. The one big exception was Hendrik's demon, that was central to the plot. Ingo's demon was set up to play a pivotal part also, but I didn't really find a way to make it happen.

Second, let's see what I can report from the sister thread over at GroFaFo.

Tinka had planned her character to be a loyal, even fanatic follower of the prince, but certainly hadn't planned the outcome the whole story took in the end (she killed her prince). She was confused by the dice mechanic, I'm afraid most of that confusion was owed to a wrong explanation at one point. She really liked the idea of the demons, but didn't really find the conflicts for her character that would make her call on a demon. Playing my demon was even harder to her because she wanted to play it according to my expectations, but we hadn't really talked about what my expectations were.

Hendrik had set his character up for the conflict between mercenary oath and ancient claim (maybe destiny?), the latter also being his demon's desire. He waited until the final scene before he made his decision.

Everybody agreed that despite the struggles we had, we managed to wrestle a great game out of the session. I still would like to play Sorcerer as written some day.