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[Sorcerer] Roleplaying bonus dice.

Started by Simon C, April 10, 2007, 12:16:00 AM

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Simon C

I'm planning on running a game of Sorcerer in the near future.  I got the rulebook recently, and I'm really impressed.  I have one problem with it though.  The system, as it stands, seems to rely rather heavily on bonus dice for "roleplaying", in that the odds seem stacked against the PCs unless they can rack up some of those dice.  I don't know if that occurrs in Actual Play, but the way it's written makes it sound like those dice are essential for success.

I hate bonus dice for roleplaying.  For a lot of reasons.  I wrote about it on another thread, so I'll quote that here:

At a certain point, your choice as GM over whether to give out bonuses or not is gonna be the deciding factor in whether the player succeeds or not.  That's a pretty uncomfortable situation.  Putting the characters in a tough situation, and then deciding for them whether they have a chance of getting out of it is a recipe for frustrated players.

Also, I don't like judging my friends' contributions to the game.  Who am I to say "that's one dice cool, but Tom, he gets three."? It makes me uncomfortable forcing my creative ideas onto the players, making them play by my rules.  We all have a stake in the game.  If someone's having fun describing what their character is doing, it feels like I'm trampling their creativity if I say "No, only one dice for that."

Another reason is that, if "cool descriptions" serve a mechanical purpose in the game, as soon as there's no mechanical reason for them, the cool descriptions stop.  If someone's not inclined to describe things anyway, giving them bonus dice for it just means they'll do the bare minimum to get by.  It doesn't increase their enjoyment of the game, since you're forcing them to do something they don't want to do.  Players who enjoy doing it will do it anyway.

The last reason is that it makes narration really messy.  With a fortune-at-the-end mechanic, "cool descriptions" are always going to be a bit weird.  "I flip over his head, spinning in mid air, to kick him in the back of the head" looks a bit odd when it's followed by rolling a one.  It's dissatifying to have your description of the scene negated immediately afterwards by a bad roll.  It also leads to a weird disconnect, where sometimes moves that look really awesome, still mess up.  Rolling the dice after describing the action will always lead to slightly wonky looking combat.

So I'm a bit worried about playing Sorcerer, which seems to require this kind of thing.  What should I do?  My first instinct is to play the game as written, and see if I come around to the idea.  I'm worried though, that I'll keep forgetting about them, and inconsistently giving out bonus dice seems to exacerbate a lot of the problems I've outlined above.  So I'm worried that I'd do it badly.

My second thought was to keep the bonus dice, but let the players control them.  I was thinking about having a bowl of a dozen or so counters, and every time they roll the player can discard a counter or two for a dice bonus, and then describe what they're doing.   Would that work?  What if the players could only give each other bonus dice? What if everyone can give bonus dice, like PTA? Is that going to be a problem?

Ron Edwards


I think I know just what to say.

You, as Sorcerer GM, are not the judge of quality role-playing. You should instead consider yourself the voice of the group engagement. When someone does something that makes anyone or everyone react in an engaged, heightened way, it's worth a bonus die or two.

That's all. So you're not saying, "Gee, I'm stroking my chin and deciding whether you're 'acting' well enough." Instead, you're saying, "Wow! Cool!" or seeing someone else say that (or nod, or smile, or grunt, whatever) and then remembering that it's worth a bonus die. Fanmail in Primetime Adventures is at least partly derived from this concept in Sorcerer - the rule is based on acknowledging that something said or done by person A resulted, right there and then, in enjoyment for person B or persons-everyone-else. Given that perspective, bonus dice are not add-ons for something extra, but a recognition for what's already happening.

Also, bonus dice in Sorcerer are not about long, drawn-out, extravagant descriptions of actions. They usually get applied because of the quality of a given stated action, which includes its timing. Here's an analogy from film: in the first Indiana Jones movie, a guy comes running at Indy to kill him with a sword, doing all sorts of crazy whirly sword-moves. Indy grimaces in a kind of "oh come on" way, pulls his gun, and shoots him. My point is that in role-playing, an equivalent reaction and stated action typically make at least one other person at the table cry out or smile-and-nod or otherwise react in a positive way, because their fun just increased. That's what you, as GM, are keeping an eye out for, with yourself as a possible reactor as well.

I also suggest that the concern about bonus dice and successful rolling is ... well, group-specific. I really cannot say whether those dice matter in terms of successful rolling. Or rather, yes, they matter in a statistical sense (if present, the chance goes up), but not necessarily in the sense of whether the character succeeds adequately for purposes of enjoying play. So my recommendation is to let that take care of itself during play and not to anticipate it or try to manage it.

Does any of that help you get around some of the objections that you (rightly) are bringing up about GM-rewards for "good" role-playing?

Best, Ron

Simon C

I take your point about how the bonus dice are not for showboating (like stunts are in Exalted), but rather for acknowledging actions that are entertaining at the time they are described. That's an important point, and one I'll be sure to remember.  I'm not sure if it resolves my problem though.  What I'm concerned about is why the GM is made the gatekeeper of these bonus dice.  If the bonus dice are for acknowledging actions that the whole group appreciates, why not let the whole group administer them?

I'm particularly concerned about the category for rewarding "actions which advance the story".  Whose story? If we're talking about the GM's idea of what should be happening in the game, that seems like a recipe for GM force - "follow my story, or no bonus dice for you!".  If we're talking about the plot that the player wants to follow, the bonus dice seem redundant.  They want to do it anyway, so why reward it with dice? If they're doing something that doesn't advance the plot they wan't to follow, why are they doing it? Why are they even rolling the dice?

I'm pretty certain that there are good reasons for the rules being the way you've written them, but I'm not seeing it.  Perhaps if you could explain the intent behind them a bit more, I might understand better.,

Ron Edwards

Hi Simon,

Two issues.

1. Why is the GM the authority (not gatekeeper) for this function I'm describing? Because the GM also has a key authoritative role over Humanity rolls of both kinds, and the key playing-character role of playing the demons. These latter two things are central leadership features in Sorcerer which rely on the GM's personal commitment to the most intense, adverse, and honest play possible, mainly because he or she does not root for the player-characters, does not ensure that they come out of a given scenario all right, and does not mollycoddle the players into ego-escape trips instead of author-level pressure.

As such an adverse presence at the table as far as the fictional characters are concerned, this same person takes on the positive role of acknowledging the players as far as the real people are concerned. The two levels (real, fictional) are each made more extreme, freed to be more extreme, for that person.

In these days of Primetime Adventures, Polaris, my own It Was a Mutual Decision, and other games based on group-ish, mix-it-up, decentralized play, it might be hard to see why the GM is so centralized in Sorcerer ... but here's the point (and it relates to your second question, too): in Sorcerer, there is no "GM's story." It doesn't exist; it cannot exist. So what does the GM actually do? He or she provides the back-story, plays the demons and other NPCs, and ... (a) increases fictional pressure at the same time as (b) acknowledging and formally validating real-person fun. That a/b is a unique thing; it's part of Sorcerer's design. Nothing in the game is there only because I was used to it or thought it "must" be there.

So I strongly encourage you not to switch to a group-mode, anyone-says, Fanmail-like model for the bonus dice in Sorcerer. That role is centralized to be the twin (and counterpoint) to the Humanity-judging role.

2. What is that "advance the story" standard for bonus dice? You are correct - it cannot be for the GM's story, because such a thing is literally impossible in playing Sorcerer. The GM has no story, just a back-story and full power to alter NPCs' behavior as things progress (just as a player does with his or her character). So the only story possible is an emergent one, driven in part by the developing and intensifying adversity, but primarily and most importantly by the player-characters' decisions. That's the story I'm talking about. When someone does something that clearly makes things change, in terms of how NPCs or other player-characters will respond, that ipso facto advances the story.

To repeat, that "something" has nothing to do with any desired or anticipated or planned action that the GM has in his or head; such actions by the player-characters should not even exist as such constructs. It's all about when someone announces an action or completes an action which matters, which everyone knows makes everything different.

Remember in the first Spider-Man movie, in the Thanksgiving dinner scene, when Aunt May smacked Norman Osborne's hand when he tried to swipe some pumpkin pie? Wham. We as audience knew that from that moment, everything was different. The two sides of Peter's life (family, aunt, friends) (hero, vs. villain, deadly danger) had collided, literally physically. And mild as it was, in terms of the spectacular violence of the action (ie none), it made the audience shudder both times I saw the film in the theater.

When a player-character does something like that, it advances the story ... to put it most clearly, it creates the emergent story at that very second.

Better, worse? Making sense?

Best, Ron

Simon C

Ok, cool.  I think I'm getting it.  It seems like the way the bonus dice work in Sorcerer is qualatatively different to the way (for example) "Bennies" work in Savage Worlds, or Stunt Dice work in Exalted.  That qualatative difference seems to be maintained by a relatively small difference in how they're mechanically employed in the game.  A small difference in how they're used translates to a big difference in their effect on the game. 

In terms of my personal tastes, I'm still not sold, I think, but I can totally see how they reinforce what you're trying to do with the game.  I think what I need to do now is work on my own ability to use them correctly, rather than thinking about changing the way they work.  This thread's been really helpful.

Thanks Ron,



Simon, another way to think about it -- "advancing the story" significantly (or however it's worded) in this context could very easily mean, "Suggesting something that complicates things for the other players."  I.e., a suggestion or action that makes excellent fodder for bangs.


Something it took me a while to grasp is that Sorcerer bonus dice essentially replace the sort of circumstantial bonuses that other games hand out.  In GURPS or D&D, for instance, using cover gives a stated defensive bonus.  In Sorcerer, using generic 'cover' for defense probably gives a penalty, for boringness.  But if the player has his head in the scene and describes his defensive action as 'diving into the courtesan's cushion-pile,' then that's worth a bonus.
-My real name is Jules

"Now that we know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, how do we determine how many angels are dancing, at a given time, on the head of a given pin?"
"What if angels from another pin engaged them in melee combat?"

Ron Edwards


James, I'd like to adjust your comment in a way which I think will make most sense to Simon:

Quotea suggestion or action that makes excellent fodder for bangs

Here's my re-phrase: a suggestion or action that introduces Bangs. Once Sorcerer play gets under way, Bangs are emergent; the GM's job is not so much to make them up whole cloth or even merely to work them up from existing play-events, but to recognize them when they have already appeared.

Best, Ron

Simon C

This is just to say I'm still listening with interest.  I have a lot to learn.