[Sorcerer] Traveller: Holy War

Started by Christopher Kubasik, January 27, 2009, 04:53:49 PM

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Christopher Kubasik

We had our third session of our game set in the universe of Classic Traveller Sunday night.  (You can check out tons of material about Traveller and the Classic Traveller setting, along with notes about what I was doing with the setting, Player Character creation, and game prep here: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=26849.0)

Due to the holidays, travel and illness, my group and I had not played for almost three months. This gave me lots of time to think about the game I had set up.  And something was beginning to bother me.

After playing the first couple of sessions I realized we were slipping toward a trap I hadn't anticipated: simply playing in the Traveller universe rather than creating a story of our own.  My Players were having a blast doing all the "bits" of being soldiers in a military hard-SF setting, but I knew that in a short-while I'd end up dazed and bored.  My Players weren't going to build anything unique if I didn't inject something to really shake things up. 

More importantly, I had ported the game of Sorcerer to the Traveller setting in part to test the rules of Sorcerer.  I had taken out Demons and Lore, replaced it with vague ideas about social acts one committed that were the opposite of our Humanity definition of Friendship.  But none of it seemed to be gelling.  I felt like we were doing Traveller  well, but Sorcerer poorly.  The personal stakes didn't seem big enough.  The story felt diffused and lacking the narrative focus worth of a long form TV show – which is what I usually shoot for in a Sorcerer  game.

In short, I was pretty sure my Players could have their character have an adventure inside the setting, but that nothing particularly significant was going to happen to either the characters or the setting.  This made perfect sense for the Traveller.  The setting has always been, and remains, an elaborate model train set that defies any real change.  It's beauty – both within the fiction and as a published setting – is it's conservative nature.  The setting (an interstellar Imperium spanning 11,000 worlds) envelopes the Player Characters.  They can have adventures within its borders, but only within nooks and crannies that ultimately won't matter much.  The Imperium itself is resolute and cannot change.

I realized I could play that way.  Or I could open up the possibilities of adding more sorcerous weirdness, larger scale of conflict, and a chance for the PCs to flip over the entire established order of the setting (if they wished).

I wasn't sure exactly where I wanted to go with this, but while I was traveling I decided to brainstorm on the matter.

I had already established an Interstellar Jihad at the request of one of my Players, and realized that this was the point to really crack things open.  In fact, at the end of the second session, the PCs, who had been hired to put down a rebellion on a planet, encountered old friends of their who were working alongside the rebellion, along with missionaries who were supporting the rebellion.  Floating amid the mercenaries was a figure of glowing, golden light who spoke to one of the PCs, knowing his heart better than anyone, who attempted to get the PC to turn from his mission.

I had assumed that this was an Angel from the rules of Sorcerer's Soul   But honestly, I hadn't thought it through completely.  I just knew that it felt right when I introduced it, and that my players responded favorably.  They were curious and jazzed and a little spooked.  But I didn't know exactly what to with it.

So, I thought, what if the followers of the Jihad had actually tapped something unworldly?  This sounded interesting to me.  What if your enemies turned out to have something more special than you? 

Keeping my notion that I would draw on the Classic Traveller setting whenever possible, I decided that the Angels would be creatures associated with The Ancients.  I saw them as "memories that had floated forward through time" and needed sentient beings (ie: sorcerers) to let them take action in the physical universe. 

I decided that the Zhodani and Imperial forms of psionics were the naïve forms of this Angelic Lore, but that two hundred years ago the citizens of the Z'harde Caliphate had contacted, summoned and bound the Angels of the Ancients. 

It all was making sense, and seemed like a good idea.  But there was a bit of sadness at all this coming together so quickly.  It felt like I was losing Traveller.  Which I was.  I was now making something more specific.  Not Traveller.  But Traveller: Holy Wars – a specific setting and setting premise that would make sense one group's game or even a Sorcerer mini-supplement.

In truth, what was at stake was this: I was either going to play Sorcerer, or I was going to play Traveller.  Which is strange, because I was going to use the rules from Sorcerer.  In fact, I'm not sure if I can articulate why this was this case.  But here's a phrasing that popped up in my head that seems to sum the issue up:

We were either going to play a story, or play the setting. 

While some part of me really wanted to play the setting, I knew that ultimately, for me, the story choice would be more satisfiying.

I wrote in my notes: "If I introduced the Angels, then the whole game will change.  We won't be playing a cozy game of mercs-on-missions anymore.  The narrative will become epic.  It will be worthy of Dune.... Which I always wanted from a traveler game, but never got."

So, here's the one sheet I came up with...
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Traveller: Holy War

... Friendship.  It is the warmth that connects us even as we travel the stars.  It is what makes us value one another even if we do not see each other every moment.

AT HUMANITY 0, you are...
... a husk of a person, aware of all time and space, able to work with your Angel to further their agendas, but unable to see an person as an individual.  Everything is abstraction; you only see the big picture.  You are the embodiment of Alienation.

Anyone who reaches a Humanity of 0 is a mummified husk: still breathing, and undoubtedly tended to either by the faithful (or, government officials, scientists or whomever, depending on the sorcerer is devoted to.)  The angel is born anew as a Passer demon. 

Any sorcerer who reaches a Humanity of 10 automatically triggers a Banishing ritual for all Angels that the sorcerer is bound to.  The Banishings my be involuntary, but they take place.  The sorcerer will spend however long it takes writhing, wailing, perhaps despairing until all the rituals are completed.

...stay connected to friends.

Alienation.  Rituals are acts of abstract thinking (Madness) or acts of soul-killing violence (Death) that allow faithful to leave behind the concerns of the day to day and see the world only in terms of the Big Picture.

Encourage followers to use others as tools, see only the "big picture"
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Angels are the handiwork of the The Ancients – the actual work the Ancients performed made manifest.  The Angels do not live in this time; Lore allows us to move backward through time, and bring them forward to this age. They exist in the space within our atomic structure: neither here nor there in terms of time, but present always with the man or woman who can see beyond the mundane details of the day to day.

The Angels demand rituals that threaten the sorcerer's humanity.  They great amazing powers (all the special Angel powers in Sorcerer's Soul, as well as Abilities built using standard Demon rules.)  All they ask in return is that the sorcerer see the universe in it's true colors: cold, implacable and not worth fighting or dying for except for one cause: to unite the stars and all it's races into a peaceful hegemony.

The Angels are Parasites.  However, they can manifest themselves as creatures of glowing golden-white light outside of the sorcerer, floating in mid-air, wrapped in glowing fabric that floats around them.

The Angels appear as creatures of golden light when they manifest, beautiful and enticing.  When still within a sorcerer, the sorcerer's skin has a golden tinge, the sorcerer's eyes have a golden glint – which is either enticing or disturbing depending on the intensity.

The Angels of the Ancients clearly have no fear about being seen or having sorcerers reveal their powers.  However, they bide their time.  Their motto is, "Everyone gets an invitation."  They have no desire to tear apart interstellar empires if it will only lead to mass chaos and the deaths of untold billions if political and social infrastructures are destroyed.  So they are working with small cells and political groups across the stars building powers bases and converts.  They will gather their army as they go.

SPECIAL NOTE: The Angels described in Sorcerer's Soul have astounding powers, including the ability to protect anyone they are touching from all harm, or "rewind" time a few moments to allow a second chance for an action.

Significantly, the Angels have an ability called TRAVEL. This allows the Angel to move anywhere instantly, with or without another person.

Now, while this would be a significant ability in any fantasy setting, it is preposterously powerful in the setting of Traveller.  Remember that the political and social berock of Traveller is that there is NO FTL travel or communication.  Travel between stars takes at least one week, and it is not unusual for travel across many systems to take weeks if not months of time.  The navies of interstellar empires are built on the assumption that no one can simply blip across dozens of parsecs in an instant. 

But now the priests, priestesses and prophets of the Caliphate can.  It is a game changer.  And I love that rule have this unexpected power!

The priests, priestesses and prophets are simply the most disciplined people who have allowed themselves to be bound by the Angels.   The concentration of the efforts gives them more Angels per world than anywhere else.

But efforts to tap these powers, if misunderstood, take place in the labs of the Zhodani Consulate or the Imperium, in military intelligence barracks, and in the well-funded facilities of mega-corporations.  Even a few cults scatted in backwater stars have contacted and summoned the powers of the Angels.

So, some groups call those bound to the Angels Priests or Priestesses or Prophets.  Other groups call them Psions.  Others might call them PsiSoldiers.  There are several in the labs of the Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate, struggling to reconcile their new "understanding" of the universe with their loyalties to the political entities they serve.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield



So if I understand you right you're not actually treating the Angels has Humanity helpers as described in Sorcerer's Soul.  They're the demons of this setting but you're including the Angel powers listed in Sorcerer's Soul among their potential abilities.  Do I have that right?


Christopher Kubasik

Hi Jesse,

I'm going to need you to break that out a little.

The Sorcerer's Soul suggests that one way to play Angels is that they are a threat to Humanity. 

This is Rules Option 1, as described on pages 52-53:
QuoteThe most important thematic twist is that Bindings should be thought of in reverse, in that the angel Binds the person, and the relevant roll should be its Power against the person's Humanity...

A good story along these lines concerns characters who think they're in good shape because the angels are on their side, but their situation turns out to be very similar to that of diabolists.

Also, in the context of this rules option, Humanity may be lost in the course of dealing with angels, and thus take on a very disturbing meaning -- that some degrees of "good" are just plain inhuman.

So, they're angels.  They just have an agenda that is too good for people to remain people.  If they win, no one will ever care about a specific person as a specific person ever again (no more Friendship).  But there will be peace across the stars....

Does that answer your question?  I'm working from the book, but a variation listed in the book.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


I went back and reviewed the material in Sorcerer's Soul and there's a lot there I had forgotten.  For some reason I had it in my head that Option 1 was simply "treat them like demons" full stop.  And only Option 2 got into all the stuff about addressing the higher good and new powers and all of that so it seemed like you were mixing the options.  Turns out I was wrong.

This is the first time I've ever seen anyone attempt Angel play.  I will be curious to see how it goes.


Callan S.

I can't quite see the threat in that description of angels, myself. It's only a threat if you want human diversity not for any particular purpose but just for the sake of having it. A grander purpose for diversity is that its a weapon against an uncertain universe. If the angels don't really offer peace, or you have uncertainty about whether they do, and perhaps you'll all become harmoginised and picked off by a single virus or something, then I can see the threat in the angels there.

But really, it seems contradictory to value friends/the differences in a friend, when other differences in people can lead to that friends death or harm. It's valuing something that's self destructive.

And if you've chosen it regardless, then the angels aren't a direct threat, they're just a choice declined.

I'm not jabbing at the text - quite the opposite. It's prompted me to question the idea, which is probably the overall intention.


This is incredibly fascinating, but...

I think your "play the setting vs. play the story" dichotomy is a false one.

I think what you are seeing is real, but is more a question of how you have defined Traveller inside the context of the Sorcerer rules.

For example, you could easily make the character's starship a demon.  It's got an AI, it's got 'Travel' (Jump drive + Maneuver drive).

You could make Psionics into a kind of possessor/parasite demon.

You could make Robots be Object or Passer demons.

You could make Aliens (ie, Droyne, or Aslan, or Vargr, or whomever) be demons.

You could make Ancient Artifacts into demons.

You could make worlds themselves into demons, and have the characters be rulers of those worlds.

You could do all of those things at the same time.

I guess what I'm saying is that I think you could map the Traveller setting onto the Sorcerer mechanics that would still let you play Sorcerer AND Traveller at the same time.

It might not be what you want to get out of the exercise, but I think it could be done, and be done well...
Dana Johnson
Note that I'm heavily medicated and something of a flake.  Please take anything I say with a grain of salt.

Christopher Kubasik

Hi Callan,

Great questions!  I'm actually very excited to discuss this topic.  It's one of the reasons I posted the material above. 

Before we go any further, however, could you go read this thread: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=15415.0

The thread is called, Sorcerer Doesn't Scare Me. What's Wrong With Me?  It's one of my favorite threads on this board, even if it does flip over the guard rail at the end.

When you're done, let me know.  I've got a bunch of stuff I want to talk about from the actual game, as well as thought about this stuff in general regarding Sorcerer.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Hello Anya,

I'm going to respond to your post.  At least I think I'm responding to your post.  I know I have something I want to say.  But it might be at cross-purposes to your post, and I missed your meaning.  And if so, I apologize.  But I think I'm on track, and I think what I'm about to say is interesting.  (At least to me!)

So, here's a thing about me: 

I'm a writer.  Specifically a writer steeped in the traditions of TV and Film and Theater.  That means I'm coming to Sorcerer (and all RPGs) with certain traditions and habits of thought filling my head.  (Just as everyone approaches anything with whatever traditions and habits of thought are in their head.)

One of these traditions and habits of thought in my head is this: "Whatever the biggest thing is you name in a story, until that thing is resolved, that's what your story is about."

By that I mean, in Star Wars rescuing the princess might matter, but until the Death Star is destroyed, her safety is still up in the air.  In the Matrix, once Neo finds out the life he's been living is actually an artificial construct, the issues of getting chewed out by his boss in the fourth scene of the movie really don't matter anymore.  In The Dark Knight, Batman might have his hands full with lots of petty criminals wandering Gotham, but once the Joker shows up, none of that other stuff matters as much as the Joker.

Dramatic narrative (TV, Film, Theater) are very compact forms in many ways.  (For example, the script of The Matrix, despite the movies big concepts and jangling styel, is a mere 100, with not more than a hundred words on most pages.)

Most dramatic narrative is focused because of this: it is a core conceit or idea that is focus of the audience's attention.  "This is the story of a warrior who murdered his own king to fulfill the prophecy of his power as predicted by three witches."  Lots of events will orbit this core conceit... but pretty much, that's the story and that's what the events are about.  Same with Batman vs. The Joker, or a New England beach community threatened by a giant great white shark, or terrorists taking over a sky scraper, or whatever.  There are lots of reasons for this (unlike prose lit, you can't go back and find out all the complications you forgot about while watching a movie or a play, for example), but that's pretty much it.

So!  In Sorcerer, when I play Sorcerer, the fact that there is a weirdness in the universe alive in the moment in the lives of characters IS what the story is about.  There's no getting around it.  It's not, "So, there are these characters, and they're all involved with these cool stories, and oh... they happen to be sorcerers and have demons."  It is this: "This is a story about people who are sorcerers and have summoned and bound demons..."  Because I can't imagine anything bigger happening in a tale involving people who have distorted the nature of reality in this way.  There will be lots and lots of other things that happen.  But they will all orbit and be affected by this central, core conceit.

This is not to say that other people don't play differently, or shouldn't.  It's to say, "This is how I see this."

Even looking at Sorcerer & Sword, where the players' characters might not have bound demons -- where, in fact, the protagonists are "the battler of things" -- the fact that there are demons in the world, that there is other in the world that is wrong -- is central to the tale.

Howard's "The Tower of the Elephant" looks, at first blush, like a story about a wandering adventurer and a thief on an impromptu heist.  But it's power comes from Conan's interaction with the Old One who he frees.  "Red Nails" is a cool adventure story -- but there is not denying that the engine of the tale is the ritual lore of sacrifice that has kept the war within the ancient, dark city for so long.  The biggest, coolest conceit of each of these tales is the wrongness alive in the acts of the sorcerers, and until that wrongness is resolved, the story cannot end.  Those things are what the stories are about.  (You'll note I'm referencing short stories here, which are as compact in many ways as dramatic narrative.)

Now, you're list of how to incorporate demons is really, really cool.  And, when I was preparing the Traveller game I considered many of them. 

But the thing is, when I thought about them (and this is perhaps a failing in my thinking, and only how I think about them) I saw them as using demons as tools within the Traveller setting... the same way you would use a laser rifle or a powersuit.  Yes, there's a way to mechanically use the Sorcerer rules to plug demons into being such tools.  But, for me, that misses the whole point of demons -- Someone is dealing with things that just plain threaten the nature of Humanity.  And the moment that happens, that is what the story is about.  It is what the story has to be about.

And this is what I meant about playing the setting versus playing the story.  The moment demons -- as defined in the context of all the Sorcerer books -- are on the table, then they are the central conceit of the story.  The rest of the Traveller universe falls by the wayside.  Nothing, I mean, nothing, can possibly be as important as the fact that those demons exist and people are interacting with them.

Because, remember, I'm approaching this from a story-centric perspective.  That means I care about the character meeting the setting meeting the situation.  Boom.  That's it. 

The book Dune has notes about elaborate empire and political structure at the back end.  But in the tale, what do we actually read about?  We read about the most important shit happening in the galaxy.  And that's it.  Yes, within the culture of fandom we can start elaborating and dreaming about all the "unfiled in spaces" that are not Arrakis.  But in terms of a discrete unit of fiction -- a story -- what matters is the control of Spice.  Everything -- the battle of the Fremen for their freedom, the sandworms (that help make the spice), the political struggles and back stabbing among nobles -- all of that circles the core conceit that there is this thing that lets you navigate the stars in an unimaginable way.

Once I introduced demons, they became the "Spice" of my setting, if you will.  If they were not to be "tools" -- which, by definition, they can't  be -- they would have to be the center of the story. 

Now, the demons could have been starships.  Or psionics.  Or whatever.  But still, at that point, the Traveller's Third Imperium would no longer be the Third Imperium.  Something new, and so vital as to not be ignored in story after story, would have been added.  The introduction of the demons would be as vital and central to any tales told as the revelation that reality is a computer constructed virtual reality or the discovery of an imprisoned Old God during a heist in a wizard's tower.  Outside of the character's interaction with this world altering fact, nothing else could matter as much.

Hence, a revelation that if I introduced demons in the Third Imperium, the Third Imperium could simply be not as important as the interactions between the players' characters and the fact of demons.  Moreover, that that the introduction of demons, narratively, utterly redefined the Third Imperium, and that anything in the Third Imperium could be knocked over because of the interactions of the players' characters and demons -- like King Kong and Godzilla knocking about Tokyo.  The story is about King Kong and Godzilla.  Tokyo is just there to show us how the fight is going.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

By the way... that big post?

It was there as a conversation starter, not an ender.

If anyone wants to comment or has questions, please jump in.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


I can only agree. Sorcerer (and source Conan) stories are about the character's relationship with themselves and something wierd. On the other hand, Traveller's core ahs always been stories about character's relationship to the vast reaches of the Third Empire.

When you put the two together, you'll have to decide which to focus on. It's like how Shadowrun tried to combine magic and cyberpunk, but play usually turned into a magic setting where some of the magic looked like technology. The core theme of one or the other will dominate. You can't have both.

Myself, if I wanted to play Traveller, I would go with a system that fosters the relationship to the setting--like, well, the standard Traveller rules--or maybe Hero Wars. If I were to play Sorcerer in space I'd go with Sorcerer and leave out references to Traveller--have a space empire background sure, just don't bring in the thematic expectations the word "Traveller" brings with it.
- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com

Callan S.

Hi Christopher,

I'm not sure what to read in it or in what context? In terms of not shuddering, I think when you wrote the post (that was awhile ago, of course), you keep seeing the games proposed content as a choice you have as to whether you engage it. There was a bit in one of the 'prince of nothing' novels where the author notes the army finds what is deadly/the desert a thing of beauty, when they have water. When they had no more water, it became a horrorfying, shuddering ordeal. Atleast back then, you were seeing sorcerer while you thought you had 'water', so it just appears beautiful. Has that changed, since then?

Just as a side note, in terms of the idea of a 'warrior', this clip is illuminating. And yes, I am named after the character (it was that or William, apparently - I think I got the better one)


As my friend Mark would say, "We are in agreeance".

More accurately, I think the crux of how we are seeing things differently is this:

QuoteBut, for me, that misses the whole point of demons -- Someone is dealing with things that just plain threaten the nature of Humanity.  And the moment that happens, that is what the story is about.  It is what the story has to be about.

I don't disagree with this statement at all, but I think what you see as using Demons as Tools comes from your view of What Humanity Is and How Demons Threaten it.

I would personally argue that the Third Imperium, and Traveller in general, could support a lot of definitions of 'Humanity' to focus the games upon.  It's not just that Demons give you the following abilities.  It's "Humanity is X, and Demons may affect it Y".

So, for example, let's say that Antares Veen is a "sorcerer" and his Class S Scout Ship is his Demon.  Yes, we've now "reduced" his Demon to a kind of tool.

But that's all Demons ever are.  A tool.  A way of codifying a certain kind of tradeoff between power and Humanity.  But we get to decide what Humanity we're going to focus on just as much as we get to define what Demons are.

In Traveller, characters are frequently skirting the law.  Antares Veen may be a very principled guy, but what is he going to have to do to keep his ship in Jump Fuel and Berthing Fees?  Look at the Firefly episode "The Train Job", where Mal is put into a position where he can accept a job to keep his ship running which in turn deprives people of medicine.  You can't tell me that's not a 'Humanity' challenge, and it's exactly the kind of thing you can do with a Ship as a Demon, and Humanity defined as compassion for others.

What does Antares do when he's visiting a planet with active Slavery.  Does he help smuggle people offworld, or not?  Does he risk himself, and the freedom his ship gives him, to help people who are in some other position?

Does he accept a merc ticket that puts him on the side of a dictator depriving his population of food?

A Ship as Demon can push you into these kinds of stories pretty easily, I think, and will be both legitimately Traveller and legitimately Sorcerer without having to compromise either.

Which is not to say that you have to play Sorc/Trav this way, or that your Traveller:Holy War is a "bad game", or anything.  I just think I see a way to have your cake and eat it too, here, if you structure your game in a certain way.

I think the definition of Humanity is just as crucial to getting the feel of a setting as is what you choose to make the Demons.  And you don't necessarily have to have the supernatural on either end of the equation to have something threaten whatever you've defined Humanity as.

Dana Johnson
Note that I'm heavily medicated and something of a flake.  Please take anything I say with a grain of salt.

Callan S.

Hi Anya,

I think that may be a missplaced emphasis? In terms of the slavery example, it's not about getting there on a demon ship, it's about whether you would unleash a demon in order to free the slaves? Unleash a demon, of all things? Or put up with continued slavery? It seems the focus isn't on whether Antares risks himself, and instead on how he risks the universe by letting demons into it in order to meet his ends. That's a very different focus - risking yourself is relatively neat and tidy at a moral level (apart from grieving loved ones, one could say). But unleashing a demon into the world? Not so neat, not so tidy.

Just having a ship which happens to be a demon and really only comes into things by transporting you to the next moral issue, rather than being the moral issue - as I understand it, that's not the right emphasis.