[Sorcerer] More Evil Is More Morally Taxing?

Started by jburneko, July 21, 2009, 12:17:01 AM

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So, there's this common fear that if you throw overt demons and sorcerers into a "Dogs in the Vineyard" game it will detract from the moral issues.  I've never found that to be the case and indeed agree with Vincent's advice that a good place to start is to take a town all the way up to Hate & Murder.  Thing is, I've never been able to clearly articulate WHY have overt demons and sorcerer's doesn't detract from the underlying issues.

I've now run into a parallel situation in my on-going Sorcerer & Sword game.  Over the past few months I've been running a game for two people set in my Gothic Romance Fantasy setting.  The group is on its third story arc and all three stories have been set in a city called Shadowspire, which is probably best thought of as Lahnkmar by way of Emily Bronte.

These players are new to Sorcerer, and new to the methodology behind its play.  This has made the game very uneven as the players settle into "how to" play the game.  The first game I made a mistake I make a lot.  Basically, things were very "murky" because I had a lot of NPCs on the "verge" of doing things.  When I setup a situation like that I tend to forget to have NPCs actually start doing stuff and instead kind of make veiled threats about what they might do any minute now.  It's a GM weakness of mine.

The game worked out fine but the players seemed a little at sea with regards to taking pro-active action.  In particular they seemed to be hoping for a little more "action."  I chalked the whole thing up to me not providing enough motion in the NPC for the players to push against.  So for the second arc I stepped things up a notch.

I took another page of out of Vincent's "Dogs in the Vineyard" advice playbook.  He once said, "Whatever your Sorcerer's are up to, they did it yesterday."  So this time I dropped in a Lich who was the great grand-mother of one of the PCs and she already had her hooks into the PC's relationships with judicious use of Taint.  This did a really good job of stirring things up.

However, the players still seemed really reluctant to confront her directly.  They did a lot of running around dealing with their Tainted friends but when it came to dealing with the Lich (and a couple of other "baddies.") they seemed to side step the issue.  Ultimately the put her in a Contain and threw away the key so to speak.

Again the players seemed satisfied but still didn't seem to be getting what they wanted out of their characters.  Again this seemed to be related to the issue of not enough "action."  So I pointed out the number of "Evil" things I had placed in the previous scenarios from Zanzil, the cat-like demon looking for a mate to Grandmother Lich who had killed one of her own children for eternal life.  I was met with the response, "I don't know.  They all seemed too human."  This amused me.

So, for our third story arcs the players decided to ditch their old characters and create new ones in the same setting.  In fact, they decided they wanted to play younger versions of two NPCs that had featured in the previous story arc.  That seemed cool to me.  So this time, in an effort to try and make things "easier" while not losing the integrity of the game I tried to make things as "pulpy" as possible.

So this time I've got two sorcerous Shadowspire "crime bosses" at war with each other.  One of them Ivan is so cruel he makes his demon look like a nice girl.  He keeps her in a cage, routinely Punishes her, taunts her with her Need.  He's a pretty awful dude.  The other one is best thought of as Mrs. Havashim crossed with Fagin.  By day she's Roselyn who runs the local orphanage.  By night, she's Lady Andrea who organizes street kids to commit theft and robbery and in particular antagonize Ivan.  She treats the kids well enough with the exception of constantly putting them in criminal danger.  Both of these crime bosses want a scroll that describes a ritual for summoning a god.

Pretty pulpy, right?  Two bad guys and a McGuffin.  I also want to make clear that all three of these scenarios have been built from organizing the elements the players themselves put down on the back of their character sheets.  So what happened?

One of the players completely melted down.  I mean total, unfun, fit of frustration melt down.  I had to show her my scenario notes to prove that I wasn't hiding anything.  That really it was just two crime bosses and a McGuffin and that there wasn't any "trick."  But she honest to god locked up and had no clue what to do. 

Now, in the interest of full discloser this player has some well-documented emotional issues that I knew from the beginning might cause problems.  Indeed, I'm pretty sure that's why this was such a large melt down.  However, those aside the other player hasn't been faring much better in the "decisive action" department.

The net effect over the course of this series of games is that the more I try to make the situation more black-and-white, the harder the players have found the game.  I keep ramping up the violence, demonic and sorcery quotient of the NPCs and the players have found the situation more and more morally murky.  It's the exact OPPOSITE of the general fear regarding doing the same thing in Dogs in the Vineyard.

I don't know if we'll be continuing the game or not.  I've given the player some time to think about it.  But, I've found the whole thing fascinating.


Christopher Kubasik

First, this is the best sentence of my week... "which is probably best thought of as Lahnkmar by way of Emily Bronte."

Second, you don't seem to be asking advice, but I always get curious about one thing when I read APs about gear-stuck Players: what are the Kickers?
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


Advice?  No.  But discussion, yes, otherwise I wouldn't be posting.  I'm genuinely curious as to what to make of this phenomenon.  Particularly since in the past I've suffered from the "can't make things too morally simple" issue.  This time I actively put work into just letting the "bad guys" be "bad guys" and the result is that the game got MORE morally tense, not less.  But I don't know why.


Morena's (the character's name) kicker is that while doing archeological work under the city she uncovered scrolls that revealed to her that her demon (Zenov) turned its previous master (Bavmorda) into a demon.  Zenov is pretty much a classic vampire which Morena keeps around because of his vast historical knowledge.

Things I added:

1) This demon transformation is the first step in what the scroll goes on to describe as a mating ritual necessary to "birth" another demon (i.e. god) into the world.  Morena's demon is listed as one among many who have attempted the ritual in the past.

2) Ivan's demon is indeed Zenov's former master, Bavmorda.  More importantly, Bavmorda is trying to regain her Humanity as per the Demon-To-Human transformation rules in Sorcerer's Soul.  This is one of the reasons Ivan can bully her around.  She's a very reluctant vampire.

Rand's kicker was that he was caught stealing from Ivan by one of Ivan's henchman.  Looking at the back of the sheet Rand's player pretty much rewrote Oliver Twist.  Rand has four siblings.  Rand is wanted by several authorities.  The City: For criminal acts.  A school: who want to develop his sorcerous powers.  Ivan: Who wants to kill him.  And Roselyn who runs the Orphanage and wants to find his family a proper home.

Things I added:

The big thing here is that I turned Roselyn into Lady Andrea and Ivan's rival because Ivan killed her husband.  Roselyn really does care about Rand and his family though.


Rod Anderson

From the Kickers, it seems like both players were angling for a straight-up "bad guy wants to get me" confrontation -- Morena vs. Zenov, Rand vs. Ivan -- which arguably would parse what they meant by "more action" (the main action of the story is directed right at me, right now) and "less morally ambiguous" (I don't have to wonder if it's right or wrong for me to defend my life/humanity). Does that fit the facts?

Ron Edwards

Those Kickers ... needed to be spiked far more than you did, and as Rod said, should be expressed as quite primary (primal) action.

Morena's demon "did a bad thing" (that's the Kicker). And that thing provides back-story and motivation for what a variety of NPCs want, none of which has anything to do with Morena (that's the non-Spike). If I were a much less nice and gentle-worded person, I would have called this technique the Gooser instead of the Kicker, and if I had, then I'd say here that Morena isn't being goosed. She is not jumping and squealing. There is nothing that changes her life inherent in some back-story for her demon's misdeeds.

Rand stole something and its owner is mad at him. OK, that's not bad ... except that since the owner "wants him dead" that essentially means a straight-up attack, which apparently hasn't happened, or ... nothing, which apparently has. He stole it. He has it. And ...? It seems to me that the necessary choice is either to have the owner go to extraordinary lengths to get the thing back, or for the thing itself to be much more of a handful of trouble than it first seemed.

I can understand why the players flailed. Those Kickers don't kick.

As you can see, I'm pretty much ignoring your topics of discussion, (1) the effect of supernatural content in Dogs in the Vineyard in particular, and (2) the relationship of black-and-white morality to player paralysis. I think both of these are reaching deeper into complex principles than they need to for what is essentially a basic question of adversity and engagement.

I will say one thing about Dogs. I think that What the demons want ... has been picked up and (as sometimes happens) warped into something far less reasonable than what I did say.

For the record, my position is that the "supernatural dial" is best spun to wherever you want it, because the mechanics and moral issues of play should remain exactly the same, whether your particular group's particular story includes glowy eyes and floaty people, or not.* However - if such imagery distracts you from those mechanics and moral issues into maundering about in-game metaphysics, which it patently has done as demonstrated in many threads, then you're best off avoiding it.

Best, Ron

* Note to Jesse: Which is, incidentally, also completely independent of where you start play in the Sin progression; starting with a town in the midst of Hate and Murder does not mean an overt supernatural presence in the fiction.



Hmm.... That's very useful.  It leads into an issue I've always had with Sorcerer in that what *exactly* does it mean to have a Kicker "resolve" when there's a lot of other stuff going on situationally.

I read the Kickers more or less as Rod pointed out.  In the specific case of Morena it was very difficult to get her to the point of the "gooser."  Morena's player is very good at describing her characters in terms of what they look like and how the world responds to them.  Ask her what her character *wants* or *does* and she freezes up even at character creation.  Which is why I say, the whole topic is kind of skewed to begin with but the problem seemed to *escalate* the more I tried to work with it.  Every Kicker she wrote previous to this one I had to ask the question, "And this is problem for you character how?" and she'd think about it and go "Oh," and try again.

At least this Kicker had the implied, "...and I'm next!" as Rod pointed out.  So, I tried to play Zenov as charming but possessive and manipulative.  Very early on Morena and Zenov got into a fight, not a physical one an emotional one.  Morena decided she needed help dealing with Zenov and decided to track down the former Sorcerer Bavmorda mentioned in the scrolls.  That of course, leads her to Ivan.  She makes a deal with Ivan.  Ivan will let her "borrow" Bavmorda in exchange for the scrolls she found.  Morena agrees.

Morena goes home and starts composing a letter to a friend of hers a the academy she works for.  While she's writing this letter I have Zenov show up with roses and an apology for the fight earlier.  Things go badly between them again and this time things get physical.  In a moment of panic Morena tries to snap shot Banish Zenov... and actually succeeds!

So here's my question: Is her Kicker effectively resolved?  My understanding is that a Kicker *includes* any crises which may have developed from the initial "kick."  In this case, she's made an agreement with Ivan who fully expects her to follow through even though she no longer needs him.

(Her solution to this was to go to Lady Andrea and enlist her help.  But Andrea wants the scroll as well.  She made stops to several other NPCs trying to enlist aid as well, all of whom want something from her she's unwilling to give or resort to methodologies she's unwilling to participate in.  This is what led to her eventual frustrated melt down).

Rand has the opposite problem.  His Kicker focuses on Ivan.  But the back of his sheet looks like this:

Four siblings(3 brothers, 1 sister), a city guard, a city judge, an orphan matron, Ivan, two named Ivan henchman, a professor at the school.  All of these characters have a "stake" in Rand that is bigger than his Kicker.  And I've had them ALL come down on Rand in various ways.  Rand's solution in each and every case has been to act like someone in witness protection.  He keeps moving himself and his family members around, constantly eluding pursuit, capture, harm etc.  He's moving, but he's moving AWAY instead of towards.  (I misspoke when I said, Ivan wants him dead.  The stuff Rand stole is related to the ritual described in the scrolls and so Ivan is trying to get it back).

I'm less concerned about Rand because he seems on the verge of something.  He knows that he needs to do something to get him and has family out from under these forces but like Morena he seems "stuck"; like he's waiting for a clear solution to present itself.

This whole sequence of games has been "odd."  The players alternate between being very awesome and some of the worst turtle-ing behavior I've ever seen.



Jesse, it sounds like your frustrated player has serious problems with player proactivity, and in some ways you're making things worse with the "Heh heh, you have no good options, now choose" approach.  Not every player appreciates that style of play, and they see Hobson's choices as a screw job rather than an opportunity to make a thematic statement.

That said: not every bang has to be a Hobson's choice, and even if it is one it doesn't have to be brutal.  It sounds like as a general matter this player wants a lifeline to a mission-of-the-week style of play where some NPC tells her what to do and leaves the question of how that's accomplished to her.  I'd leave a couple open-ended, thematically relevant sub-plots spinning off the mission, which she nevertheless must resolve somehow for the mission to conclude, for her exercise agency.  (The player would author kickers by describing the mission of the week as if the player were issuing orders to the character.)  But I suspect Sorcerer isn't the right game for this player right now.


Hey James,

I've asked both of these players several times if this wasn't the game for them.  Morena's player in particular really groves on the flavor of my setting.  She's made little illustrations all over the back of her character sheet.  She provides the best *passive* descriptions of things.  I mean in terms of raw *vision* she's there 100%.  Which is why I suspect she's reluctant to give up.  She really digs the game's flavor pretty hard-core.

I also thinks it's unfair to categorize everything I've thrown at the player as Hobson's choice.  With the exception of the Ivan-Andrea issue all the other NPCs have been quite reasonable.  These are not lose-lose choices.  The only common factor among them is that they all carry *risk*.  I even had an NPC attempt to arrest Lady Andrea and Morena's player stopped him because she saw that things were about to get violent (indeed they did get violent for a couple of rounds).

To sort of get back to my original post (and Ron was right in side-stepping it in favor of pointing out a flaw in how I've setup/running the game) I am kind of amazed how *easy* it has been to spark basic empathy even when I've bent over backwards to make the characters as monstrous as I could.  My Lich was "too human" to fight.

I am willing to entertain the possibility that I'm not being pro-active enough myself.  As I said in my first post, that's a weakness I have as a GM.  I sometimes forget to have the NPCs take enough action themselves.



Oh, hey, I'm sorry if that post sounded critical or anything; sometimes I write in haste.

You obviously know your player a zillion times better than I do.  But it's possible have a player who really likes the flavor of an RPG session--the atmosphere, the setting, the idea of certain Situations--while not quite digging the game or style of play.  (As an example, and not to sidetrack: Nobilis is a tremendously evocative RPG, and I keep thinking I'd love to play it, but I have no clue how to even begin.  Whatever the game's asking of me, I don't quite have it in me to produce:  I'm enthusiastic but impotent.)  So I think the fact that your player loves the setting is a necessary but not sufficient condition to enjoyable Sorcerer play. 

Has this player had to choose between Cake and Ice Cream yet?  By that I mean, two mutually incompatible good things?  Because it might be that this player is very strongly risk-averse (but has no trouble making statements when the pressure's off), or it could be that the player really has a hard time making meaningful choices in play of any type (in which case Cake vs. Ice Cream would be as paralyzing as anything else).  From my standpoint, a player who ingeniously maneuvers to have Ice Cream Cake is a valid statement, so if she pulls a Batman here to get what she wants that's a good sign.

If I'm understanding your OP, though, you've got a situation where:
* When the situation is slack-paced and morally murky, the players just kinda dither around
* When the situation is taut-paced and morally murky, the players just kinda dither around
* When the situation is taut-paced and morally stark, one player melted down in frustration

And you'd like to end up with engaged, non-dithery player(s), right?  Is that what the players want too?




I'm 100% with you on the Cake and Ice Cream analogy.  I'm not actively trying to rob the player of ingeniously having both.  But I think that's where the emotional issues of the one particular player ramp up the volume on the problem.  She feels like she isn't "ingenious" enough to get Cake and Ice Cream.  And so freaks out.  But I still feel like that issue is simply magnifying something else particularly since I see a similar issue in the other player, just not on as a dramatic scale.

I'm also not 100% convinced the "problem" can be fixed as there are just so many other social issues and play assumptions and what not involved.  I agree 100% that the game is probably simply a poor fit for these players and what they want.  Yes, I think both players are to a degree risk adverse.  And on player is risk adverse to the point of being crippled by it.  That's why my original point focused on something that I think is noteworthy in parallel with the underlying unstable nature of the game.

In fact Ron pointed out this:

QuoteHowever - if such imagery distracts you from those mechanics and moral issues into maundering about in-game metaphysics, which it patently has done as demonstrated in many threads, then you're best off avoiding it.

regarding Dogs in the Vineyard.  I agree with this completely and with his other comments about Dogs in the Vineyard.  With regard to Sorcerer I find that this can be issue as well.  There is a naive assumptive response that Demon = Evil.  There is almost a certain underlying personality trait required to play Sorcerer at all.  If a player can not imagine circumstances *for themselves* that they would summon a demon were such things possible then they are going to have a hard time understanding the moral dynamics of the game.


Callan S.


I kinda wonder if she didn't melt down because of being risk adverse, but because her character wasn't really interested in the events portrayed? Yet she felt as if (not necessarily a correct feeling) she had to interact with them? I'm almost kinda reading her demon seducing her into vampirism, in her kicker. A very one on one, intimate adversity. Does she read twilight or stuff like that? Obviously I don't know without asking her - but a female owning a male vampire? Sexual (eroticised vampirism) tension ahoy, it seems to scream! But then what comes up in play is this whole other thing where two people are fighting over a scroll and she's like "What?", perhaps? Probably worth asking her.



That's probably a big part of it and partially what I think Ron was getting at in his original post.  I needed a way to "link up" the elements on the two character sheets.  The crime stuff come's from Rand's character sheet and Bavmorda and the scroll comes from Morena's character sheet.  But I probably should have linked up Zenov and his agenda in some more interesting way than I did.

I tried playing Zenov as the seductive Vampire lover in the beginning and Morena ran from it, pretty hard-core.  She went looking for Zenov's former lover and found her... in Ivan's captivity.  That's a pretty standard bang right there.  I mean Bavmorda could have been in ANY kind of bad situation, it just happened to be the one on the other player's character sheet.

I"m not saying I laid out the scenario flawlessly because this thread is being very useful in making me think that I didn't.  But there's not caring and then there's finding elements you do care about in unexpected situations and deciding they're no longer worth the effort.  (And I'm not talking about the character.  If Morena wants to leave Bavmorda to her fate, that's fine but the player seemed personally distressed by the whole thing).



Quote from: jburneko on July 21, 2009, 10:44:07 PM
There is almost a certain underlying personality trait required to play Sorcerer at all.  If a player can not imagine circumstances *for themselves* that they would summon a demon were such things possible then they are going to have a hard time understanding the moral dynamics of the game.
Yes. You're playing Sorcerer with Dogs in the Vineyard Players.
James R.


Quote from: Noclue on July 22, 2009, 01:03:14 AMYes. You're playing Sorcerer with Dogs in the Vineyard Players.

Ha Ha Ha.  Perhaps.  But then you run into the naive assumption that Religion = Oppression.


Callan S.

Quote from: jburneko on July 22, 2009, 12:46:58 AMI tried playing Zenov as the seductive Vampire lover in the beginning and Morena ran from it, pretty hard-core.  She went looking for Zenov's former lover and found her...
Hmmm, why was she interested in who and where Zenov's former lover was? That's what I'd be curious about in play (after having read all this at my own pace and contemplated it, rather than in the heat of play, I'll totally grant). She hasn't ignored it/ran away from it entirely - she's just pursued this particular angle...indeed, it tickles my curiosity right now!?