[Sorcerer] Welcome to the Carnival Bizarre

Started by Christoph Boeckle, September 02, 2008, 05:10:29 PM

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Christoph Boeckle


My friends and I got together to play our first session of the Carnival Bizarre. We had only two and a half hours at our disposal, so my aim was to bring the kickers into play and do some active revealing of NPCs, without angling specifically for any conflicts.

In addition to Jérôme (do tell me if the accented letters don't work on your screen and I'll stop), Julien and Thomas, our friend Lionel (a regular roleplayer, though not so much with us of late) came along to see how we'd play. He would contribute to the joking and throwing around of ideas that was very present throughout the session.

I did the round-robin trick to introduce everybody's stuff at roughly the same pace.

Jérôme's character, Friedrich Goethe, was invited for dinner by an old friend, Rémi d'Acremont, who offered him a long-term job at his opera house as, basically, an art director. Coming home from that evening, Goethe sees his library ablaze, a fire-engine coming fast from behind in the street. Jérôme chooses to ignore them, Goethe just staring into the fire. When they finish and ask him for some formal information, he basically tells them to bugger off, which surprised me on Jérôme's part, in an exciting way, as I thought (without specific grounds) he would play a nice-guy poet. Not so!
We move on, d'Acremont pops up again in the role of a supporting friend who is quite stressed by what just happened. Indeed, the previous candidate he had offered the job had been killed before she could even respond. This doesn't frighten Goethe too much. D'Acremont invites Goethe to dinner were he will introduce him to another opera director, a writer friend, the d'Acremont wife and daughter, promised to the other opera director.

Julien's character, H.P. Locke, is feasting at the carnival when a young woman come to fetch him: his father and his uncle are suffering. He arrives when the poison has already completely paralysed them. He quickly sets out to find were the poison could have come from and buys some from an obscure alchemist in the red-light district of the city. He also replaces that alchemist's door lock with his demon and begins to spy. He also got a chance to meet Brian Falcrest, bearing his sympathy to the widow, who was an associate of the two Locke brothers in an expedition outside the city they were organizing and nearly ready to commence. Falcrest also is a major player in the city's food sector.

Thomas's writer, Arthur, is invited to a secret meeting with a mysterious guy named Altar, who claims to be a Seneschal to the Scarlet Jester. Arthur takes his passer demon Alyssia with him. At first Arthur seems to ignore her and just starts speaking about the secret organization he is in. He's totally confident Arthur will accept to become the fourth Seneschal to replace the former who was assassinated lately. He explains all sorts of things about how the organization works (the Seneschals counsel the Scarlet Jester who then takes action through the men and women known as the Kings, using the Courier so that Kings and Seneschals never actually meet). Before they leave, Arthur asks Altar if it's okay that his personal assistant Alyssia work with him. Altar looks at her for the first time, seems vaguely troubled and then says that it's Arthur's business.
If Arthur accepts, he is to come to a meeting with the remaining Seneschals who will decide if they accept him or not.
We then have a scene were Alyssia (her desire is sensual gratification) asks Arthur who Alice is. Thomas is a bit startled by the question and basically says it was a woman who Arthur once knew but is now dead. She asks if she looks like her. Kind of.
Thomas wants to gather some information on Altar, so he asks Alyssia what she thinks or perhaps knows about the man. Since she has the Perception ability (conferred to Arthur) specifically tooled for knowing contact information about people in the city, I have Thomas roll his Will + Alyssia's Power against Altar's Will. Wow... demons are really really bad ass. It's a whopping four victories for Thomas and so I decide to say everything I had already established for Altar. We introduce it via a dialogue, where Arthur asks Alyssia questions (that's why we settled on the fact that the ability was conferred to Arthur, Alyssia would never think of the information as pertinent on her own). She has seen him disguised as Pierrot the Clown, kissing a woman he called Alice, which looked a lot like Alyssia. (I also disclose some other info such as a hotel Altar has visited a few times and his "official name", which I forget right now). By the way, was this a good way of handling the victory?

This got us into a sticky situation. Thomas had played the opening of the scene as just chit-chatting, and was now surprised that I was using Alice as a possibly important character in relation to Altar. He asked me if we could cancel the part of the fiction were he talked about Alice and I used my Uber-GM Fiat to say "No". He was worried I'd drop shit on his character, so I assured him that I wouldn't reveal that Arthur had been lying about Alice, and that if this is the same person (which we haven't yet established), all he said about her to Alyssia was in all earnest.
This got me thinking: how far can I go in defining the content of the game? Is it okay if I decided to declare that this was the same Alice Arthur had dated some time back (all details left open for Thomas so as not to deprotagonize his character) and that she actually hadn't died? Or could I go so far as to say how that relationship went at the time, leaving Thomas to deal with a messy past he might not have wanted for his character (in the present, he is of course free to deal with it as he wants)?

We ended play with three "snapshots" of future scenes (I think I got that idea from reading PTA and watching Japanese animes): I describe the people Goethe will meet at the second dinner: the wife, an elegant fifty-year old woman, the daughter, the two new guys. I describe that a man dressed up as a sad clown goes to see Ewald the alchemist (which is exactly the demon-lock's need). And I described the two other Seneschals: an elegant fifty-year old woman and a powerful, muscular but not silly-looking man in his thirties.

The NPCs should provide for some nice crosses since their activities overlap with those of different player characters. No Humanity checks as of yet, no conflicts yet. I hope I've sowed enough for the next session to be explosive.


This game sounds Fantastic. 

I can see the accented letters just fine, and I'm using a pretty generic IE6 browser.

With regards to the Alice Alyssa Altar Arthur situation (Good luck for keeping those names straight!), I think you played it well. 
Thomas plays Arthur.  That's his tool for affecting the gamespace.  Alice, Alyssa, and Altar all "belong" to you.  If you want to make Alice secretly hoping to seduce Alyssa away by providing more sensual gratification...  that's your opinion.

I would let Thomas determine how Arthur felt about Alice, and if he thinks that the relationship ended with Alice professing her love on her sickbed, dying with dignity, then that's how it ended.  Thomas should certainly remain in control of and determine any background facts about Arthur.

But if you want to make Alice have had a younger (or twin) sister who looks a lot like her, who is after revenge for the man who let her sister Alice party too hard (we'll call her Alix) and is after revenge, having murdered the last Seneschal in order to put Arthur in a position where he can become the prey to her own Demon that feeds on authority figures...  That's your game, not Thomas.

However, I think there's a deeper issue that you should talk with Thomas about, in that he seems worried that you will dump on his character from every little thing he improvises.  If he doesn't feel safe introducing things into the gamespace, he will "turtle up" and not have fun.  Talk to him, and let him know that you're not planning on doing that.   Some of the things he could improvise might turn out to be beneficial: What if Alice was Altar's ex (before Arthur), and now Altar wants to honor her memory and is pushing Arthur into Seneschalhood as a "reward" for being nice to his ex?

In other words: You do what you want to do with NPCs, up to the point where you make sure that everyone is still having fun.  And tell Thomas to relax, that you aren't looking to PK him, or then he'd have to make a new character and you'd both have to start all over.


Ron Edwards

Hi Christoph,

The information conflict was excellent!! You handled the successful roll quite well. That's exactly what the Sorcerer mechanics are supposed to do - it's a damn fine thing to be a sorcerer, when you want something! I have one little request for posting, though - can you be precise about the player being Thomas and the character being Arthur, in terms of who's doing something? It really makes a difference in my reading comprehension.

QuoteWe then have a scene were Alyssia (her desire is sensual gratification) asks Arthur who Alice is. Thomas is a bit startled by the question and basically says it was a woman who Arthur once knew but is now dead. She asks if she looks like her. Kind of.

Alice? I looked back through the previous thread, but you've left me behind ... do I understand correctly that Alice is (a) part of Arthur's back-story, (b) somehow the basis for Alyssia's Summoning, and (c) part of Arthur's Kicker?

I'll assume that at least two of these are the case to try to answer the next part, but it'll be easier once you clarify.

QuoteThis got us into a sticky situation. ...

This got me thinking: how far can I go in defining the content of the game? Is it okay if I decided to declare that this was the same Alice Arthur had dated some time back (all details left open for Thomas so as not to deprotagonize his character) and that she actually hadn't died? Or could I go so far as to say how that relationship went at the time, leaving Thomas to deal with a messy past he might not have wanted for his character (in the present, he is of course free to deal with it as he wants)?

Fred's right, and I want to elaborate on that further. Thomas has no authority over the back-story of any NPC, or how you want to play any NPC, up to and including the ones he's made up. He had the freedom to write his Kicker, but now, once he finished it, it belongs to you for however you want to establish "what happened" or "what's happening."

This can be an issue sometimes in playing Sorcerer. I failed to make this clear to a fellow player once, and it was a big disaster. So I think it's important to establish this point with Thomas right away. Possibly, you might allow him to set a couple of things in stone, but if so, then he has to tell you. He has no authority to introduce such stuff into the back-story through play itself.

Here's the situation that really taught me to clarify this. It was at the first Forge Midwest gathering, in early 2006, in the Chicago area. Three people were playing with me: Luke, Chris, and Elizabeth. We did the prep late one day, and played the following morning. I was extremely happy with my prep and looked forward to the game.

The thing is, Luke had built a fine character, a violent gang-banger leader guy, and the Kicker was that his lover (also male) had been killed. On paper, this is great. However, and this fell into the cracks created by the slightly rushed quality of the situation, the character featured two important missteps for Sorcerer. First, as he told me later, he "built the character to burn out." That's a problem, because the essence of a Sorcerer player-character is that you do not know which of the four outcomes will be achieved or approached. Second, and this is the specific thing to discuss here, is that he did not at all expect that I would take hold of his Kicker and make it my own as GM.

I prepped that the death was a suicide.

This meant that the character couldn't simply ride down the path that Luke comfortably expected, to seek some villain and wreak savage woe upon them. Nor could he just "burn out" as expected as well, because the immediate conflict now required introspection, and that raises questions, meaning unpredictable play. As far as Luke was concerned, all this was breach of contract on my part. I'd totally undercut his character and his play. The trouble is, since such expectations weren't part of my contract (meaning the very foundations of the game as a whole), I found his stunned and frustrated reaction during play to be nigh-incomprehensible. We muddled through the rest of the session and the other two players had fun, but it wasn't a good time for Luke and only a semi-OK time for me.

Therefore it is crucial that players understand that whatever they don't say in the Kicker or make explicit via the content of the diagram on the back of the character sheet, is wholly up to the GM.

Best, Ron

Christoph Boeckle

Hi Fred and Ron

Thanks for your valuable input! It makes perfect sense to me. I will use the advice of both of you to straighten out the situation of Alice with Thomas. We also need to be clearer about the diagram at the back of the character sheet, which the players have filled out to various degrees (Thomas the most actually, he also wrote stuff such as "literature" in some parts). All in all, there are little NPCs on the back of the sheets, so I created and introduced a dozen in that first session. Is it good practice to update the diagram as play goes on, just like one would update the Cosmos in Polaris? That has been my assumption, but I might be mixing up the two games.

I see I wasn't quite clear about that information-seeking scene, I'll try to clarify. The names are going to be messy indeed, but might also be part of the fun. A note of interest: people in the city have a given name and a family name (of different European origins: for the while being we have French, German, English and Italian origins). Altar and Arthur are pseudonyms, that's crystal clear to all players. So perhaps Alice is a pseudonym too. Of course, the phonetic resemblance between Alice and Alyssia was intentional.

Thomas chose the Kicker: Altar, the master of a "hidden hierarchy" of this city, invites him to a private meeting. He also made up Alyssia and I just validated her. But now I'm playing her in my very own way of course.

So, Alice is not part of the Kicker at all. I got the idea for her when Thomas told me that Alyssia was probably brought into existence because of a romantic story Arthur wrote about himself and a lady named Alyssia. In my mind, I thought that this story could have been inspired by real events prior to the writing/summoning, but said nothing.
In my prep (which is not quite a relationship map), there's a love-link between Altar's real name (which I can't look up right now, but certainly does not begin with an "A") and an unspecified Alice.
In the first scene where Alyssia and Arthur are alone, I decide to introduce the name Alice, via a question fallen out of the blue: "Who is Alice, Arthur?" Thomas told me later he thought this was just detail and supposed to illustrate some chit chat in the couple (Thomas decided during character creation that Arthur's most human aspect at the time being is his love for... a demon). So Thomas plays along and Arthur says "Oh, she's just a girl... but she's dead now." "Do I look like her?" "Well, kind of... so, can you give me some info on that Altar guy?" "*sigh* Yes, he's very suspicious, giving you such an offer without knowing you, isn't he? Like, this is probably a trap" (I'm having a great deal of fun criticizing my own prep through this NPC). Now Thomas goes into serious-mode (something I noted on his face and which was confirmed by later dialogue.) "Yes, I agree, he's suspicious, have you seen him before?" That's of course only a rough retelling of what we actually said. At that point, we check how the Perception ability works, and I ask Thomas to specify who the ability is conferred to. We discuss the implications and Thomas decides he likes the dialogue-like implementation the ability has through it being conferred to Arthur. So we roll dice! Arthur's Will (or perhaps Cover) + Alyssia's Power vs Will (Altar's) which lead to 4 or 5 victories (I messed up a tied result reading) for Thomas. Is the number of victories at all relevant in such a case (or: how can I quantify information)? In any case, since this would have been an instant incapacitation (at least for a full round) had it bean dealt with a sabre to almost any human being, I decided I'd say everything I had prepared on this guy, plus some more (I stayed in the "telephone directory" sort of information the ability has been defined to cover).
This is when I "innocently" revealed how Alyssia actually knew the name Alice: she's a woman that looked a lot like her she had seen kissing Altar (dressed up as that Pierrot guy; when two people live together, their names come up together in the directory, although it could be argued that this is a secret affair, but this is sorcery with loads of victories...) Thomas had a reaction that amounted to "What? Alice is a serious character? Wait a minute... can we cancel what we said before?" "No, but you decide if what you said was honest on Arthur's part or not. I haven't quite decided if this Alice is the one you mentioned, a twin sister or a chance resemblance. We'll see... *smile*" As far as I recall, Arthur had no clear reaction to that revelation, but Thomas stated that Arthur would not knowingly keep anything secret from Alyssia. So we can easily back-fill some stuff after our upcoming conversation.
We left it at that (plus some other "contact" information about Altar), and this AP was written greatly to get some advice about how I should settle the issue with Thomas. I know I have full authority over any NPC's back-story, but what if that back-story implies a relationship with Arthur, thus going into the domain of Thomas's authority over his PC's back-story? I'm also supposed to provide bangs, so...
Since this answer depends on the game being played and since I'm aware that I'm a good candidate for the Sorcerer-trap you've mentioned before, Ron, I preferred to ask.

As far as I know, Thomas has no preferred outcome of the four mentioned in the books (I explicitly told the players that those were the possible outcomes for their characters during creation). I also made it clear during prep and before beginning this session that I was the one who would put the meat over their skeleton-Kicker (which is vaguely related to our discussion since Altar was introduced, without further information, as a master of a secret organization, through the Kicker Thomas wrote). The players expressed full agreement with those points.

So, Fred, I will tell Thomas that I will not dump on his character, but I will certainly bang him as hard as possible (pun intended) in a way where he retains full control (protagonism) of his character's attitude toward the situation. Does that sound right?

Ron Edwards

Hi Christoph,

Well, you've built a slight trap for yourself, I think, by going half-and-half. You brought in back-story but threw it to the player to control. I would have been confused too.

When I want to add or refine back-story that's relevant to a player-character's history, I usually do so in a negotiatory way. "This is Laurie. You remember her from when you were little kids; sometimes you played together." I did that in a game in which the character's childhood had already been established as very important by the player. Therefore I wasn't bringing in that phase of the character's back-story out of nowhere. Also, I stated this in a way which allowed the player to veto it or not. It's hard to describe how that is done; it's more a matter of tone of voice and looking at the player in a way that gives him permission to approve or not.

It seems to me that Alice could work this way very well, if you and Thomas take only a moment to carry out this interaction. Here is my advice. You wrote,

QuoteThomas told me that Alyssia was probably brought into existence because of a romantic story Arthur wrote about himself and a lady named Alyssia. In my mind, I thought that this story could have been inspired by real events prior to the writing/summoning

Tell him that and see whether it's OK. The potential problem with this is that you both might begin to make an elaborate story about what happened with Alice. I suggest that play has progressed past the point for making up complicated stuff about a character's back-story. You should tell Thomas that you do not have any such complicated story in mind, but that you'd like to know whether Arthur was close to Alice, whether they had a relationship, and whether it ended well or badly - and it's OK to say "No, she was just some woman I met briefly," too. Whatever he wants, as long as it is simple.

It is possible that Thomas might say "Forget it, there is no Alice, Arthur was saying anything that came into his head just to placate Alyssia," and if so, that is all right too. You are still fully in your GM rights to bring Alice into the game and have her look like Alyssia, and have her be significant in all kinds of ways. That merely means that the Alice-situation is wholly mysterious to Arthur, and that's fine. (However, this is unlikely, at least for me as a player - I'd be happy to add Alice to my character's diagram to see what you have in mind.)

As you can see, all of this is consistent with the point you made to Fred as well.

You asked a quick technical question too, about the degrees of success regarding perception/information rolls, and the answer is to handle it exactly as you did - come up with the equivalent in practical, physical terms, and proceed from there. So you GMed that perfectly.

Also, regarding the diagrams, yes, they should be regularly updated: add new characters, move terms around as appropriate, and so on. Ben told me a long time ago that this dynamic sheet concept was the basis for his character sheet in Polaris.

Best, Ron
edited by me to fix the word "placate" - RE