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Playing Sorcerer with my Daughter (long)

Started by Eric J-D, May 11, 2006, 12:59:07 PM

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Eric J-D

Over in this thread I mentioned that I am starting a Sorcerer game with my 11 year old daughter.  It'll be just the two of us (I think), although my wife might join in as well.

So a few nights ago we chatted over dinner about the idea of playing a roleplaying game together.  This is her first experience playing a game like this, but she had a good grasp of what it is all about from past conversations we have had.  [Interesting sidenote: It was really interesting to listen to the way she desscribed what a roleplaying game sounded like to her.  She said to me that it sounded like the players were authors and actors at the same time.  I hadn't even used these words when I gave her my brief description of what playing is like, but she had an intuitive sense of at least these two stances.  It was cool to see how quickly someone unencumbered by years of experience with traditional games could grasp the idea that players have a range of roles within the game--that they aren't just actors in someone else's play]

Anyway, so we talked again about playing and I decided I'd pitch a version of Sorcerer to her.  Now, I know what some of you might be thinking.  After the emails Christopher Kubasik received saying essentially, "Here are five different games you might want to run before you try your hand at Sorcerer" a small voice in my head said, "Eric, give it up.  Start with something else and work your way towards Sorcerer."  I didn't listen.  Partly because I'm stubborn, partly because I wanted her first gaming experience to be special and to involve a game I really enjoy, and partly because she grasped the mechanics of the game so quickly when I had talked about it before, I decided to do it.

Despite the fact that when we sat down to dinner I had very little in the way of a setting to pitch to her, I decided to plow ahead and trust that some combination of creative desperation, sheer enthusiasm, the few crumbs of cool color I had stored away (and that I hoped would mask the obvious scaffolding and bare rooms behind it all), and her own willingness to contribute to the setting (I was especially relying on this last element) would save the day.  So plow ahead we did.  Here are the results:

After explaining Sorcerer's central concept to her, I told her that we would be calling the demons something like "Shadows."  These "Shadows," I explained, were like those parts of your self that have incredibly strong desires, desires that weren't necessarily good.  "Imagine what it might be like," I said, "if that part of you that really wanted something fiercely---something that isn't always able to be satisfied---broke off from the rest of you and no longer had a conscience to restrain it.  Now imagine that that part of you had a lot of power.  Imagine that it would be willing to break the rules to get what you and it wanted."  She said that this sounded neat, so we talked a bit about how these "Shadows" might appear.  I said that some might actually look like people, but with slightly odd changes to them that a sorcerer might be able to detect.  Some might have one oddly colorless eye, for example.  She said that sounded cool and added that some might smell weird and proceeded to describe the slightly sweet decaying smell of rotting fruit.  I thought this sounded really promising.

She then said she thought others were literally things formed out of shadow.  I said I agreed and described a scene where someone in a dimly lit room might not notice something growing and stretching out a shadowy hand from a the gloom.  She clutched her arms around herself and said, "Oooh Dad, that sounds really eerie."  But she said it with a smile.  Then she asked me what the world was like.

This was the moment I had both dreaded and excitedly anticipated for all the reasons I mentioned above.  So, I said:

The game is set in a world called Maerd.  The scholar-priests of Uriel in the city of Sephiroth claim that it once had another name, but whatever it was is now lost.  Maerd is an old world filled with ancient, decaying  empires and ambitious, young city-states that dot the coasts along the great Boreal Sea.  Sephiroth is the capital of the oldest of the empires that once dominated much of Maerd, but now it is in decline.  It is a vast city, built on two hills.  To the east, near the sea, the Eternal Library looms Babel-like (I showed her a cool picture of someone's idea of what Babel looked like) over the city that fills the valley below.  Inside, the Illuminates of Uriel--scholar-priests of a sect devoted to preserving and restoring the light of knowledge--tend the library's massive collection, sorting, cataloging, and copying the works of long-dead scholars in a battle against time and decay.  To the west lie the golden domed towers and soaring, needle-like spires of the Citadel of the Archons, Sephiroth's military and religious rulers, where sits also the walled garden palace of the Exarch, Uthris Caldor the 72nd of his name.

Around the base of the rocky, lichened cliffs on which the Eternal Library stands, beacon-like, creep the huge cyclopean walls of Sephiroth's necropolis. [I paused here to explain what "cyclopean" meant and what a "necropolis" was].  Beneath these two hills, the city tumbles down high and winding streets, a mazy jumble of steep slant-roofed stone buildings, most three stories or more and built almost on top of each other, admitting little light to the streets below.  Such a scene might suggest the impression of life and activity, but Sephiroth is a dying city.  Where its streets once teemed with life and the noise of travellers from distant lands, now all is almost as quiet as the graves that fill its seemingly endlessly growing necropolis.  If Sephiroth were an organism it might resemble a frog pinned to the vivisectionist's table [note: I explained what a "vivisectionist" was though she picked up the meaning from the context and gave me a reproving "Dad?!?!?"], its lungs and most of its other organs present and just barely functioning but something vital missing at the center.  You might be steering your way through the narrow lanes created by its heaped buildings and suddenly find yourself staring onto an enormous plaza swept nearly bare of human life.  At its center, a stag sips stagnant water from the basin of a chipped marble fountain choked with slimy black and green leaves where vile orchids mockingly grow.  Parakeets keep up a cacophonous symphony, filling the branches of plum and orange trees whose boughs hang heavy with overripe fruit, while bright geckos dart in and out of cracks to avoid monitor lizards who drag their swollen bellies across tiles made sticky by the mashed fruit.

What few residents Sephiroth has seem possessed by an almost unnatural lethargy of spirit.  But in spite of the despair that seems to gnaw at its inhabitants' hearts, Sephiroth continues to present to the world the appearance of joy and tranquility. For no one walks its streets unmasked for fear of punishment from the Archons, but  rather keep to the ancient customs, hiding their fear and sadness behind their elaborate bird-masks or else throwing themselves into a giddy and desperate search for pleasure and entertainment.  Its numbers dwindle every day, and every day the despair seems to grow as the dark raven-masked Thearchs of Samael whisper of a plague that stalks the city.

I broke off my pitch here, feeling pretty good about the color this evoked (I should note that the above is a much more coherent prose description of the substance of my pitch.  If I had transcribed it exactly there would have been lots of "uhmmms" and "well, let's sees" peppering the whole thing).  "So that's what I think this world is like, what do you think?" I asked.  She said it sounded pretty eerie but that she really liked that (I should add here that she really likes the Raven character from the Wolfman and Perez Teen Titans series).  I told her I was glad she liked what I had described but emphasized that this would be a world we would create together and that I really wanted her input.  She said that she would think about that, but that for now it sounded really neat.  She said she thought the city was somehow cursed and haunted, adding that her character was also kind of haunted by something.

I hadn't expected we'd switch so soon to talking about her character--I had imagined we'd spend a bit more time putting some flesh on the setting--but I decided not to force things.  Better, I thought, to turn to whatever she felt jazzed about and wanted to add to the world.  So I asked her to tell me about this character.  She said, "I don't know what her name is yet, but she's between the age of a girl and a woman.  Oh yeah, and she's one of the oldest families in Sephiroth, a family that goes back to a time before the city was so decayed." 

"That's great," I said, "so tell me more about her.  What is she like?"

"Well, I think she would be pretty brave to continue living in a place like Sephiroth," she said.  "But she's a bit different.  People feel a little odd being around her because she has this haunted or cursed air to her."

"Does part of that haunted quality come from the fact that she has summoned a 'Shadow' or is it from something else?" I asked.

"I think mostly from summoning a 'Shadow' but I don't know yet why she summoned one.  I'll have to think about that.  But I imagine that she dresses in flowing black cloak that looks like smoke drifting about her.  Her hair falls down over her face like a curtain and gives her a kind of closed look that makes people a little uneasy, but aside from that she looks younger than she is.  She doesn't look old but she is actually much older inside."

I wasn't totally sure what all of this meant, but it sounded really good to me so I said, "Wow, that sounds really great. I like the physical description you've created, and I think the idea that she is 'haunted or cursed' in some way is very neat.  You remember what I said about the scores in this game?   Well, it sounds to me like you've already described her Price.  Maybe her Price is 'Haunted' and she loses a die whenever she is involved in casual conversations with other people."

"Yeah, that sounds good.  But I still need to think about why she summoned a 'Shadow.'"

I also said that it sounded like we might have already defined what Humanity was going to be in this game.  "Hope?," she asked.  "Yep, humanity is not succumbing to despair.  I think that when your Humanity reaches zero you literally disappear from Sephiroth--that's why there are fewer and fewer people in the city--and the walls of the necropolis creep further and further up the side of the hill towards the Eternal Library."  "Oooh, that sounds creepy, Dad" she said, and she smiled again.

I told her that this was probably a good start for now and that she should let her mind turn things over a bit more about her character. "Try to think of something that she needs or wants that she might only be able to get with the help of a 'Shadow'" I said, adding that if she could think of some kind of crisis or challenge that her character was presented with and needed to resolve that would help her to decide on the kind of "Shadow" she summoned and why she summoned it.

At that point we broke off talking about the game and played a very fun board game called "The Bard Game" from Uberplay (If you guys don't know about this it is essentially a German-style timed gamed where each person is the head of an Elizabethan theater company trying to put on various plays by Shakespeare to earn as much acclaim as possible before the end of the day.  It is loads of fun and really captures the flavor of theater life that you find in a film like "Shakespeare in Love."  Theater owners are almost always in Henslowe's predicament: short of cash, scrambling to find patrons and poaching actors from fellow owners in order to put together the best cast they can with limited means.  Often you wind up performing the plays with less than stellar actors as fickle fate sometimes carries off your best actors (like Ned Alleyn or Richard Burbage) due to things like plague or [I kid you not] being mauled by a bear.  A well-known theater scholar that I know served as a consultant on the game and, somewhat surprisingly, the result is a game that is not some boring, fun-for-renaissance-scholars-only sort of thing, but one that is actually really fun.  I recommend it--but I digress).

Since that night we haven't had much time to talk further about the game as my daughter has been busy finishing up a research paper, but I wanted to share with you all the first fruits of what we've done.  I have some ideas already for the r-map backstory that I will post later, along with whatever new contributions my daughter makes to things.

If any of you have any thoughts (about what I could do better to encourage input from her, about the setting, about important stuff to notice as we proceed) please share them.  Thanks!


David "Czar Fnord" Artman

A very... interesting first session. I begin to understand how it must have been for my Dear Old Dad when we first cracked open the Red Box and started on Keep on the Borderlands. I wish I could recall how he and I played--I recall only that running an tabletop RPG outside was probably a bad idea. And something about a dwarf....

Just out of curiosity: how do you pronounce "Maerd?" And is your daughter studying French in school? ;-)

Keep us informed, please.
If you liked this post, you'll love... GLASS: Generic Live Action Simulation System - System Test Document v1.1(beta)

Eric J-D


Thanks for the interest, although I'm not quite sure how to interpret that ellipsis. <puzzled face>

I'll post more when she and I have another prepping for play session.

And yes, you pronounce it pretty much exactly like the French word you're thinking of. <grin> Although I think it has more of an "ay" sound than the "eh" of "merde."  No, she doesn't take French.  Actually the name of the world is just the word "dream" reversed--done to capture what I hope will be the setting's surreal and slightly nightmarish dystopian quality.  When I realized that its pronunciation would sound like the French word for "shit" I knew the old subconscious had not let me down. <wink>


David "Czar Fnord" Artman

Ellipses is just a pause to find the right word (or, rather, demonstrating a pause to find it). I was torn between being impressed by your daughter's maturity and wondering if some elements might be a bit too much too soon--and then stopped any mention of that because who the hell am I to judge. Shoulda stopped the ellipses, too, but I guess my damnable subconscious really wanted to float that notion out there. I guess I'm getting old, because I wouldn't have batted an eye at such play a few decades ago. After all, there's little in your game world that's darker than original Grimm Brothers tales.

Of course... I also use ellipses a lot, in general.

As for dream -> maerd -> merde: yeah, that's a pretty weird coincidence/subconscious choice. Flip a dream and you get something that sounds a lot like shit. hehehe....

And you can rest assured that she will remember that world name the day she learns merde. I suspect it will be quite a "lightbulb moment." ;-)

Awaiting the next installment;
If you liked this post, you'll love... GLASS: Generic Live Action Simulation System - System Test Document v1.1(beta)

Eric J-D


I wondered if that ellipsis was a subtle way of saying, "are you sure she's up for this?" but when I responded to your post I stopped myself because I thought, "Well who the hell are you (Eric) to assume that that's what that ellipsis means?!?"

So you'll be pleased to know that your subconscious telegraphic system is working fine.  Message received and decoded. <grin>

If you happen to read my reply to Ron in my latest thread, you'll see that I admit to having nagging doubts of my own about whether or not to run this with her (and I haven't even described what's going on in the backstory).  So I appreciate what was conveyed by that ellipsis, I assure you.

Gaming with your child is, I think, quite a different experience than gaming with your adult peers.  That sounds pretty obvious, but I think the challenges it presents weren't as obvious to me when I first thought about doing it as they are right now.  I think the emotional investment in wanting the experience to be a really good one is, at least for me, if not exactly higher than it is with adult friends then at least more highly charged in certain ways.  Add to this the fact that with adult friends you at least feel like you have a pretty firm grip on their level of emotional and intellectual maturity, but with your kid you know that this is still very much in the process of formation (NB--this is not to suggest that the emotions/intellects of adults do not continue to develop, only that the degree to which they are being formed is less than it is for a kid).  And when it is your own child, you have the added worry that you might in fact be overestimating your child's emotional and intellectual maturity, etc. etc.

Anyway, thanks for the thoughts and interest.  I think I'll try to see what some of the folks here who have kids have posted about the challenges they've experienced in gaming with their children.



Frank T

Man. I don't remember that much about being 11, but I think that stuff would have scared the shit out of me. But then again, at the age, I thought that the Judge in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" was pretty scary, so maybe I'm not a measure.

- Frank

Sydney Freedberg

Your kid sounds very cool. I think her instinct to head immediately for character, and worry about filling in the setting around the protagonist, is absolutely correct, and something that a lot of adult roleplayers could do well to imitate.

My only advice would be, "trust her, lead gently, and be prepared to follow her lead into darker realms and deeper waters than you expected to go."

My own daughter's only two, so she and I have a long way to go before we're caught up to you guys, but already she's fascinated by stories about facing and overcoming fear. Just this morning we read (again!) about the "band-aids," her pronunciation of "bandits," which is actually The Village that Vanished, a picture-book mean for much older kids about an African tribe escaping a raid by (Sudanese-looking) slavers -- I simplify the vocabulary and condense the longer passages, but I keep the story intact, and she usually lingers a long time over the pictures of the cruel-looking raiders with their spears and muskets, and exclaims with satisfaction, after the grandmother character has convinced the slavers to leave, "Gwamma twicked them! Haha!" She's recently started on Babar: We don't skip over the part where the "wicked hunter" shoots Babar's mother dead (I add "bang! bang!" for emphasis and have her stuffed elephant whimper and hug her tightly), and she asks for this story again and again. And no, she's not a timid child: The other day she rode a (very tame) pony at a fair, twice (with me holding onto her, of course), when a little boy her age panicked and wouldn't get on, and afterwards she climbed up an enormously tall slide and went back down over and over.

If your daughter's a fan of Raven from the animated Teen Titans, then she's already thinking about some serious, and seriously dark, issues, since that character (my favorite too) is struggling to break out of a whole cycle of family trauma > fear, rage, & self-loathing > self-isolation > depression. Plus there is at least one episode where Raven's emerging sexuality is clearly problematic, namely the one where she breaks out in glowing red runes all over her body and tries to cover them up, only to have the villain rip half her clothes off before tossing her off a building.... Given a just slightly pre-adolescent child playing with the opposite-gender parent, I suspect sexual stuff is probably going to come up and be at high risk of wigging one or the other of you out.

Obviously my toddler hasn't gotten to this stage yet, but I'd suggest you take the same approach with implicit sexuality as you do to any of her other creative contributions: Don't introduce anything you're not comfortable with, but if she suggests something you find uncomfortable, don't brace rigidly and reject (even by your body language), just stay loose and roll with the blow as if practicing judo, and stay by her side as far into the darkness as she's willing to go... which will probably be further than you expect but a lot less far than you fear. Right now the two of you are walking hand in hand, as you should be.