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Carnival Bizarre (Sorcerer)

Started by Christoph Boeckle, June 20, 2008, 02:02:10 PM

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Christoph Boeckle

The Carnival Bizarre


I'm preparing for my first sessions ever of Sorcerer and would appreciate some advice about the robustness and adequacy of this prep. Especially in the way Colour, Setting, Characters, and Premise mesh (or fail to mesh) with the existing System.
I'm trying to give an orientation to play that goes along the questions of individuality and society, superficiality and meaning of life (for a given individual, not in the absolute sense), and how power and ambition play a role in those questions.
I have a strange fascination-revulsion relationship with clowns and the circus in general. I want to do something about it. (This has nothing to do with a certain horror film with a clown in it.)

Notes on the setting

This setting features a 19th European century city whose streets are perpetually host to an enormous carnival. The festivities follow 18th century imagery of decadent baroque tending to the grotesque and the perverted. Heavy make-ups, poignant perfume, fumes of alcohol and tobacco, sounds of barrel organs and nervous bands and exaggerated laughter stress the senses at all times. People frolic and drink and abandon themselves to all sorts of orgies and excesses. In the less busy streets, gipsies play music, jugglers display their skills and bears dance to their masters. Squares at a distance from the bustling main streets host markets and circus tents. There is no respite: all buildings are public. Everybody lives in hotel rooms and dines in restaurants. Remaining buildings are home to bars, brothels, theatres and other performances.
Time is immutable: the carnival has been there forever and there is no reason it would change. That's what life is for the people of this city. It is always night, and the weather ranges from fresh to warm spring temperatures, the occasional fog, light drizzle or soft breeze constitute the only variety.
It is quite difficult to leave the city, since it is so crowded and labyrinthine. Most people don't even dream of leaving the city anyway. On the outside, one would find that the city is built on the coast of a calm sea, which however is subject to tides, while the remaining landscape is a rocky desert. The port is as good as abandoned and ships rare, yet safe to navigate with. Nobody knows who the ships belong to.
Food sources are a mystery, but not a problem. Merchants on the market always have fresh food on sale and the restaurants offer the best of dishes. The supplies never seem to dwindle, and that's all the people here have ever known.
There is no political system to the city, because there is no need to it. Anarchy is the order here. People always somehow have enough money to pay for their needs. The people have no sense of history and their family is a vague concept, that mostly stretches out two generations up or down. It's not really interesting to this culture who experiences time as quasi-cyclical. Of course there are powerful families, that maintain their rights from generation to generation, but there's nothing to make a fuss about it. Justice is a useless concept here, because there are little crimes, and those that are committed... well are they really crimes or just part of the performances? Who cares, there's always enough wine anyway.
People do often talk about the weirdness of how things never really change, just as people from a different place might talk about the weather. Similarly, these kinds of talks never lead anywhere and are just a polite way of breaking the ice. Nobody takes action against this suspended state of time: it's not as if it were possible, or even desirable.

One way to think of it is as if time stood still for all except sentient beings.

Sorcery and demons

Sorcerous acts are the willing precipitation of society's decadence for personal benefits. Sorcerous acts are those that derive from the desperate belief that there is no value to society and other people.
Demons take on all sorts of forms, according to the sorcerer's sense of perversion. If they have it their way, the city will end up in an immense orgy of nihilists, blisffuly wasting their existence away in all sorts of superficial and profoundly solitary ways.
While the city is a non-stop feast, ordinary people are far from behaving in this way as a rule. They need a nudge to fall completely.
Although Demons are often depicted as individual entities, it is not quite clear if they actually exist independently from sorcerers. In some way, they are just messed up metaphor for the psychology, values and beliefs of the character.

... is to have a sense that other people, however dressed up or stoned, remain human beings at heart, and thus to treat them accordingly.


  • Deformed: you have some deformity, which does or doesn't constitute a handicap. A rather common affliction, it doesn't especially raise attention from people.
  • Force of nature: you are exceptionally strong and robust, and might actually make a living as a performer thanks to that.
  • Graceful: your every move has something beautiful or charming.
  • Duellist: you are one of the few who have an interest in combat and fighting. Most of the time, it is just an art-form.

  • Bohemian: Poetry, wine and sensuality is what you think life is for.
  • Eccentric: You do crazy stuff all the time and establish new trends.
  • Silver-tongued: You have a way with words and tend to charm people easily.
  • Incredulous: there's too much bullshit all around. This can't be real life. You take your life seriously.
  • Self-destructive: Will = 1 or 2. You are burning your life away in all kinds of excesses and have little interest in the long term.

  • Mathematician: you detach yourself from the worldly baseness of common street life and devote a great deal of time studying mathematics. Your understanding of geometry and astrology has led you to believe that the city lies in a topologically defect space and yielded insights to how you could take advantage of this.
  • Naturalist: you have a keen interest in beasts and plants and study them in all possible ways and forms. You have contacts with people from outside the city who bring you ever new specimens, some very strange indeed.
  • Psychologist: your understanding of the human mind allows you eerie feats of hypnosis, paranormal sensitivity and communication with the spirits.
  • Pygmalion: you are an artist with a profound degree of mastery. Some of your creations are extremely life-like or have an especially deep impact on those who contemplate them.
  • Mad: Suggested starting Lore = 4 or higher. You have fully embraced the decadence and senselessness of the city and thus clearly see how to take advantage from all situations. But you're weird and scary even by the city's standards.
  • Child: Lore = 1. You wish your parents were a bit more present and strict. All seems loose and you are grateful to your imaginary friend for helping you to make sense of this strange world.

The whole friggin city is a huge circus and entertainment facility. Enough said.

Questions and requests for help

I'm a bit worried I might be mixing up Will and Lore, Cover and Stamina. Also, some descriptors might be similar. Should Self-destructive rather be a thing one says about the character when seeing him in play or can it work as a starting situation (albeit a very biased one)? Specifically, how related to the potential Premise should the descriptors be (I'm a bit wary of front-loading, yet I want to give momentum to the characters right from the start)?

Rather than giving into the vague esoteric stereotypes, I tried to give a similar feel through twisted scientific and artistic professions. I excpect there to be a loose tie between Lore descriptors and demon types: a naturalist will tend to have passer and parasite demons and a pygmalion object or inconspicuous demons. A psychologist will inspire players to go the possessor route and a mathematician will surely have object/inconspicuous demons (formulas and bizarre experimental apparatus). Hmm, perhaps the maths and the artsy guys are fundamentally the same, although their demon capacities will probably be different.
Am I excluding any obvious type of sorcerer with these descriptors? I regard it as a feature that all those guys tend to suggest loners, rather than coven members (because of the humanity definition). Also, no religion in the descriptors. I don't specifically want to explore that route. Is this sound, or am I doing a grave mistake?

Pure geekiness: see what you can do with a deformed child character with a parasite demon? The archetypal deviant Siamese twin! Ha, and what about a mad eccentric one? The psychopathic clown stereotype from a certain horror film!

Do these choices look functional to experienced Sorcerer players? Why? Have I missed obvious descriptors?

Ron Edwards

Hi Christoph,

I've been thinking about this topic for a couple of days, and haven't quite managed to come with a way to articulate my response. I'll try, but this post might not be as helpful as I'd like.

First, I'm not sure that I understand how the setting differs from being a sorcerer, or better, how being a sorcerer breaks the setting as the game more-or-less demands. It reads to me like an Otherworld from Sorcerer & Sword, which is to say, a whole "sorcery zone," without a setting which such a zone violates.

Second, I'm not sure that's a deal-breaker, necessarily. I walked as close to that line as I could with Demon Cops, in that demons were so "normal" that a whole branch of the police force was created to deal with them. I did try to establish a fine, if occasionally-invisible line between sorcery and normality, though, which worked pretty well in play.

What I'm saying with those two points is that some attention to that line is a pretty constructive thing for Sorcerer prep. I don't see it in your write-up, but that doesn't mean that it's not there (in your conception) or that it couldn't be placed there.

Now, all that said, the color and general thematic impact of your introduction is fantastic. My brother-in-law is terrified of clowns even at age 32, and although I don't share that terror, I do find them more alarming than funny. You were able to share your sense of that squickiness that I think my alarm would quickly get amplified during character creation and then through play.

This all applies to your discussion of sorcery and demons, because it seems as though the place would be practically all sorcerers, and demons would be all over the place. Do I have that wrong? I'm not criticizing the concept of sorcery or how it relates to or generates demons; I'm talking about how those concepts appear to be the setting, not to violate it.

I like the Humanity definition just fine and think it works well with everything else you've described.

I also think you're worrying too much about the Lore/Will distinction, because all of the descriptors seem quite appropriate to the respective scores. The only one I'd question is Mad, because it seems, well, redundant. Loss of Humanity is itself madness (sociopathy, specifically) in this setting, so the concept seems to be already there.

Regarding self-destructive, or any other Will descriptor, remember that they are always about what the character has been like so far – they are not prescriptive for play, especially since the Kicker has just Kicked. In other words, a self-destructive character may be played utterly constructively, if that's the response that a player goes with under the conditions of the Kicker. It's just a big, big change for that person and other characters will certainly notice and comment upon it.

I think that you might do well to let go of what sort of demons go with which descriptors or character concepts. Let the players do all that work.

The one concept that your descriptors might be missing is the Ringmaster character, who embraces the city and the craziness specifically by imposing order (of a kind) upon it. It seems to me to be a kind of Lore, or maybe the possible outcome of various Lore and Will descriptors.

That idea also seems to present one solution to your "loner" concern, as such a character must work with others. Actually, I don't see that concern as too big a deal – surely every sorcerer character in this setting is involved with a troupe of some kind, right?

Best, Ron

Christoph Boeckle

Hi Ron, thanks for those precious comments!

I agree with your impression that the whole city feels like one big sorcerer, making any human sorcerer just a normal citizen. I do want to make a distinction though and I'll try to refine it some more.
This setting has some very personal aspects to it. My friends and I are in our early and mid twenties leading a student life (see my obsession on scientific sorcery?) We drink, we do silly things, we play games instead of studying, we don't take ourselves seriously (that's the setting). It's all right, we'll soon be full-fledged adults with a job, an apartment, a wife and we'll all be nice and safe. Or not? What if we've already transgressed the line? What if we've missed the coach? There's lots to be said for living an eccentric solitary/uncommon life-style. Some of the greatest men and women of history definitely went that line... (that's sorcery).

So, in the Carnival Bizarre, people party all the damn time. They are frivolous, they're not really responsible. Yet, they still are human at heart, despite this. Sorcery is about saying fuck you to other people and taking advantage of them, exploiting their natures to the limit and beyond. These people are all vulnerable, it's easy to make them one's prey. But should we?

The parallel between my personal experiences and the game are of course far-stretched, but I see a similar pattern in it, which should speak to my friends too at some level.

Thanks for the good words about the colour. The "more alarming than funny" theme is exactly what I'm striving for. It applies to a lot of students' life-style, in my opinion. Nevertheless, demons and sorcerers (those that are totally alarming and not funny at all) should be rare enough.
I think I'll cut some slack on the speech about demons when I present the full concept to my buddies. Especially the linkings of lore descriptors and types is indeed better left to their imaginations.
I'll probably even just have one scientist descriptor and give the ones I already described as possible examples. The Ringmaster is a brilliant suggestion. Of course trying to impose some "order" on this chaos is bound to be a source of great power in the direct lineage of despots. Your point about the "Mad" descriptor makes lots of sense. I do want something along the lines of "Disillusioned" though (what about Depressive? In such a "merry" world, that would be cynical indeed). Not all Sorcerers should be scientists, artists or leaders of men.

My point about loner sorcerers was exaggerated. I just felt that sorcerers should work with no other sorcerers. Of course they can have all sorts of assistants and fellow artists (this needs to be explored further with My Life with Master...)

Good point about the descriptors being descriptive of the characters up to the moment of their Kicker. I needed to be told that again.

With that said, does the distinction between the setting and the sorcerer characters make any sense?

Ron Edwards

That does make a lot of sense. I think you're ready to play!

I also suggest reading the book The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, which includes a very effective, very disturbing clown character as one of the villains. He commands a horde of tiny minions, too.

Best, Ron

Christoph Boeckle

Thanks for the help and for the book tip!

Christoph Boeckle

Some minor tweaks were made to the setting presentation to reflect the discussion here, and I changed or completed the descriptors like this:
Added a Stamina descriptor named Party animal: you can feast yourself sick, you never have enough of it. Somehow alarming is the fact that your body doesn't seem to mind.
Changed the Lore descriptors to read:

  • Scientist: you might be a mathematician, interested in geometry and astronomy; you might be a naturalist studying beasts and plants from afar; you might be a psychologist whose understanding of the human mind is vast. In all cases, your knowledge opens up gates of great power.
  • Pygmalion: you are an artist with a profound degree of mastery. Some of your creations are extremely life-like or have an especially deep impact on those who contemplate them.
  • Ringmaster: you are a master of the show and you direct people and animals alike to the sound of your voice and the cracking of your whip. One day, the whole city could become your circus.
  • Disillusioned: Life in the city is senseless, so you might as well use the system to your own advantage. People are merely pawns, the traditions can be bent and nothing must be respected.
  • Child: Lore = 1. You wish your parents were a bit more present and strict. All seems loose and you are grateful to your imaginary friend for helping you to make sense of this strange world.

So, we got together at Thomas's and his girlfriend's new flat for lunch (we made our own yummy pizzas). I did an oral presentation of the game world (they had read it before hand though) and we discussed the various aspects of character creation. Then we ate, critiqued the Swiss army (Julien is in mandatory service right now) and told disgusting jokes.
Then character creation began. Julien immediately knew what he wanted, Jérôme didn't talk much, even took a quick nap at one point, but still got a nice character together, while Thomas was busy optimizing his character (he was very dubious of the use of the Lore score) and then his demon.
After that we quickly set up a LAN and played a game of DotA before going back home.

I look forward for these social details becoming important in our play in one way or another, and at the very least they're intended to show that this play is amongst a group of best friends, for which this set-up just might get quite close to home.

H.P. Locke, played by Julien
Stamina 2 (deformed: six fingers), Will 5 (eccentric and silver-tongued), Lore 3 (pygmalion), Cover 5 (lock-maker), Humanity 5
Telltale: wears glasses with a key on either branch, Price: Cynical
Kicker: death of relatives by food intoxication
Demon: It's a beautifully decorated lock (telltale: Locke's signature), which has no name. It has an advantage of 1 against Locke through the binding.
Stamina 4, Will 5, Lore 4 (Cloak, Link, Spawn and Hold), Power 5, Desires mischief, Needs to be handled by a clown

Julien's plan is to have Locke take control over the mysterious food sector in this town. He uses his demonic locks to spy on key persons and control access to specific storing places. The actual demon has not yet been placed. I will probably make sure that the clown is a guy Locke would rather have dead, but I still need to prepare the next session.

[N/A], played by Jérôme (he takes time to decide for character names)
Stamina 3 (deformed), Will 4 (incredulous), Lore 3 (pygmalion), Cover 4 (poet), Humanity 3
Telltale: a big burn scar on his back, Price: Scarred
Kicker: his library got burned to the ground
Demon: A possessor who manifests itself with a strange light to the possessed eyes. It has an advantage of 1 in the Binding.
Stamina 4, Will 5, Lore 3 (Spawn, Hop, Cloak), Power 5, Desires mischief, Needs to give applause.

Jérôme's idea is that his character wants to explore the outside world and is thus starting to gather an expedition (with the explicit statement that the actual exploration is not what is interesting to Jérôme). His demon will be used to manipulate key personalities into giving him support in his project. Now somebody burned down his library, including the books about the outside world.

Arthur, played by Thomas
Stamina 3 (graceful), Will 6 (silver-tongued and incredulous), Lore 1 (pygmalion), Cover 6 (writer), Humanity 6
Telltale: black cloak, Price: Lame (he has a limp)
Kicker: Altar, the master of a "hidden hierarchy" of this city, invites him to a private meeting.
Demon: Arthur's lady apprentice Alyssia actually is his demon, on service for his security (he has a good handle on her with a +2 in the binding). Her telltale is that she speaks with a heavy Quebec accent.
Stamina 5, Will 6, Lore 5 (Cover (apprentice)), Travel (there's always a door for getting away), Transport, Link, Perception (she knows where all the important people are and what they do: basically works like the yellow pages of a phone directory), Desires sensual gratification (Thomas asked if other people than Arthur could take care of that on occasion), Needs a glass of water

Thomas's concept for the character is a man in his forties, a cross between Bourdieu and Voltaire, who doesn't believe in the apparent anarchy of this town and is convinced that there are power-structures at work. His quill is his weapon, to the point that some of his writing comes to life.


Thomas first thought that play would be about finding out the city's secret. I made it clear to all that there was no answer yet and that all that mystery will be in support of their character's stories. All three characters want to deal with a specific weird aspect of the city.
The characters are quite evocative of their respective players, at least in a way that makes sense to me. Only Thomas could have chosen Sensual Gratification for his demon (we don't shun talking about very private things, something I do less with the other two).
All the sorcerers are artists of some kind. Interestingly their art is somehow related to what the players like or do (Thomas is a political scientist, Jérôme and I have very similar tastes in music, and poetry isn't that far from that, Julien and I like to talk about IT and it's technicalities (the demon lock has a very functional nature indeed)). Of course, this is an interpretation, and I could have justified a great number of different choices.
We still need to flesh out the backs of the character sheets which are now either not filled out or only in part. I proposed this because I have not yet created NPCs and that we'd start writing them up in the diagrams as soon as play commences (which has just been postponed so that we may achieve the monthly party quotas...)