[Sorcerer] How to play a sorcerer

Started by John S, September 13, 2010, 11:24:03 PM

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John S

So, we had another session on Friday continuing our adaptation of the Training Run scenario. Afterward, we had a long conversation about the adversity and intensity of the session. Steve said he'd like to read up on how to play Sorcerer, from a player's perspective. I imagine that there is a whole wodge of historic threads somewhere around here covering questions from new Sorcerer players-- where should I look first?

John S

P.S. I know about Jesse's excellent "Unbound" essays, and I also keep an eye on CK's "Play Sorcerer" blog.

John S

After scouring the forum and making a whole bunch of notes, I sent this to the player who asked me "What are my tools as a Sorcerer player?" Much of the text is cribbed directly from this post; my intent is to follow up with some of the other things I've gleaned, but it seemed wise to break it up into discrete portions.

QuoteThe Diagram

Your main tool for playing Sorcerer is the big diagram on your character sheet. Before play begins AND between sessions, everyone should look at the diagram.

For a beginning character, there should be at least ten words written into it: the people, places, and things (including demonic characters) associated with the four sections of the sheet. Between sessions, the events of the past session may well remove, add, and rearrange the items on the diagram. Keep note of the things that the character is concerned about or struggling with.

  • If a given item is associated with a single section, then it should be placed toward the edge of the diagram.
  • If a given item is associated with more than one section, then write it near or at the border of those sections. If those sections are next to one another, then the effect is to draw the item sideways; if they are opposite one another, then the effect is to draw it to the center.
  • If it's associated with three or four sections, then it's drawn toward the center.
  • If you spot other connections between items, make those connections visible on the diagram.
During play, your job is use this diagram to consider what features of the character's life are currently undergoing the most tension, and bring the tension around those elements into play. My job is to bring those connections to the forefront in scenes with your character.

What you write down in the diagram is what you want to come into focus during the game, so make sure that it lists characters, objects and places that you care about-- things that matter to the character, and things that you, as a player, would like to play important roles in your character's story.

The other tools you have mostly help you make better use of the diagram, both between sessions and in play.

We have been playing with the diagram filled out, but I'm not sure it currently flags the main things he's interested in developing in terms of the story. Because of this, I'm glad I found the advice to revisit the diagram between sessions.

I realize the OP was a bit vague, but I'd be interested in hearing any feedback or other thoughts if this provides any scope for such. I may post again after further thought.

Ron Edwards

Hi John,

There's a lot I have to say about this, but you've hit me in a time crunch. I promise a solid reply when I can.

Anyone else, chime in as you see fit. It's clear that Adept forum-talk has been too GM-centric over the years.

Best, Ron

John S

Thanks, Ron. I look forward to hearing your thoughts whenever you get a chance.

Here's what I sent the player as a "Part II"-- all the ideas come from the rules, this forum, and the wiki. I just tried to digest it into an eMail-sized portion:

QuoteSo the question is, what should you write in the diagram, specifically. In order to answer that, you have to get inside your character's head:

  • What are his big ambitions, goals, and motivations?
  • What are the things that matter to him more than anything?
  • What's so important to the character that he has meddled in sorcery to get it?
  • What price has he already paid?
The keystone to the sorcerer's mind is arrogance. The rules allow your character to keep going even if his guts are hanging around his ankles. But in order to do so, you have to know what your character needs so badly that he can taste it. A sorcerer without a need just banishes the creatures who give him power and ceases to be a sorcerer.

Once you answer the above questions, you can start thinking about the people, places, and things that shape his life and his world. What are his likes and dislikes? Who are his contacts, comrades, followers, and mentors? Who are his enemies, rivals, love interests, and former lovers? What are his duties, debts, and unsettled scores? What are the top three big events of his life, and where did they take place? What other places or things are important to the character?

Thats the stuff you write in your diagram. You don't have to plot out your character's entire background, but you should have a sense of who and what your character knows, what adversity he's been through, and what challenges he's still facing.



So here's a phenomenon that took me a while to catch on to.  You sometimes come across a player who is rather enthusiastic about the game.  They're totally digging on the color.  They even pitch a pretty solid sounding character concept.  Then when play happens they don't do anything.  It's like all that enthusiasm just dries up.

What I finally figured out was happening was that the player expects the GM to provide and prompt appropriate moments for their character concept to shine.  So like if there concept is this noble warrior they're waiting for the GM to cue the moment when it's time for them to step up and be the noble warrior.  They don't seem to understand that the presentation and demonstration of their character is their responsibility.  The GM agreement is that situation is (a) character relevant and (b) presented without agenda.  But beyond that the GM is under no obligation to make sure that the character "comes alive" as the player envisions him.

Unfortunately this is a skill that can't be taught by example.  Most players who exhibit this behavior in a group with someone who does not have this problem simply assume that the GM *is* providing that player with the appropriate cues and moments.  In extremely bad cases this can lead to jealousy and resentment under the mistaken belief that some kind of favoritism is happening.  "Joe ALWAYS gets to be so badass, and I never do."



Good insight, Jesse.  You've described ME, about one year ago.  30-odd years of playing D&D forms some habits of thought that are hard to break out of.  The idea that the player bears responsibility for bringing his character's story to the table is a hard one to teach.  It takes explanation, and example... and repetition!

Ron Edwards


Of the few threads which addressed this issue, I've probably said the most in [Sorcerer] Cascadiapunk post-mortem, [Sorcerer] How do you play it?, which is a bit GM-centric but you can see stuff addressed to non-GM players if you read carefully; and [Sorcerer] Curtain on the carnival bizarre. From the latter, edited a bit:

Quote... be reasonably certain that others are playing Sorcerer with you because they are even more intent upon the game than you are. I can only describe this as taking the phrase "Play my character" in a very different light from the traditional RPG meaning ...

The word "traditional" turned out to cause trouble in the discussion, and so I clarified, as well as continuing with my point. In a later post,

Quote... an extraordinary degree of bullshit had accumulated among me and everyone else I knew in the hobby (a considerable number of people) which literally negated the fundamental notion of "we play our characters." The nearly impenetrable mass of point-counting and so-called realism, the utterly primitive initiative-based or turn-based action sequences, the unbearable weight of Story Before, the recent fetish of thespianism, the recent claim that system didn't matter ... none of it was helping. All of it bogged down the simple and direct insight that if you have your guy do something, and I have my guy respond, then if we stay attentive and utilize various system features as our medium together, a result will appear that will literally be a new universe in which to play the next actions. By "new universe" I'm thinking about the dramatic landscape, audience attention, and creative enthusiasm associated with both making and experiencing a story in successive stages of its plot.

There's only one thing that really gets in the way of this, though, and even though all those other bullshit things I listed are problems, this one thing is a total deal-breaker. It kills role-playing dead. It is: when someone has no interest to say their guy does things with any integrity relative to the fictional content. I'll say that again and boldface the important part: when someone has no interest to say their guy does things with any integrity relative to the fictional content. A lot of pain and effort has gone into game design and play-practices to correct issues with the latter, unboldfaced bit. As far as I can tell, almost no one addressed issues concerning the boldfaced bit until the Threefold discussions of the mid-late 1990s. (One of the most important early exceptions was found in the Strike Force supplement for Champions, based on the authors' original games.)

So basically, I wrote Sorcerer strictly and only for people who didn't have this issue. I wrote it for people who would make characters that would simply be so present, so utterly in motion, so arrogant, and already so enmeshed in conflict that they simply could not sit still. To be clear, if I were to boldface one word in that previous sentence, it would be "people." There would be no stopping those characters is because the players would, themselves, be unstoppable.

I'd like to provide some examples and also some explanatory text which is focused on satisfactory play, rather than unsatisfactory. But first, I think it would be useful for you to review these two threads, and to make any observations or ask any questions which seem relevant.

Best, Ron

John S

@Jesse: I appreciate that insight. It seems relevant, and I shall mull it over.

As I mentioned before, the player is pretty new to tabletop role-playing of any kind, so his unfamiliarity and uncertainty aren't surprising. I don't know whether his expectations from gaming are suited to playing Sorcerer or not, since he doesn't have any gaming-related baggage to report— all I have is my hunch from the climax of our other game, and I thought it would be worth trying. Anyway, there's only one way to find out, and our game has definitely delivered the advertised intensity!

It may be the case that he wants more cues and moments that bring out his character concept, but I'm trying to take his questions at face value. The player might chime in to connect with these ideas or not, and I'll leave that to him.

@Ron: Those threads are very helpful, and articulate exactly what I want from role-playing, especially the thread you quoted from in depth. There's a whole lot here I want to consider in reference to the current game. I'm very grateful for your thoughtful reply. What is needed here are some reports of the actual play to put the questions in a definite, specific, concrete context-- I'll get to work on that as soon as I can.

warm regards!

Ron Edwards

I've been trying to figure out how to post for the next step of the conversation. I don't know if this is going to work ... the only thing I can think of is to speak to someone as if I were about to play a character in a Sorcerer game they were organizing, and for which they were the GM.

1. Don't fucking drop the ball on me. You have my Kicker. If it's a mystery, you're supposed to know what's going on. If it's an action-event, you're supposed to round out its human and motivational side. If it's just freaky, you're supposed to embrace the weirdness. Don't cop out. Above all, our shared agreement is that this Kicker is going to matter, and that means not only to at least one other character besides my own, but also to us, the people, here, during play. I know it matters to me, in its unbaked, unspiked form. You make sure your private/prepped version of it matters to you. All of that goes double for Humanity checks and Humanity gain rolls.

2. My character can do a lot. And I'm not sure exactly what he's going to do first, but you can bet that in the first few moments of play, he's going to do something, and it has nothing to do with familiar role-playing tropes or standards for character action. This guy is not a "role-playing character." He is bigger than any prep, bigger than any game-book, bigger than any genre. I am not playing in the "playful" sense of that word. Maybe sometimes he'll play it cool or cautious, but never purely reactive. I will not wait for cues.

3. More privately, and maybe I wouldn't even tell you this, I'm not sure whether going this far is a good idea. There's one key safety-net missing here - that my character is the hero, and will eventually be nicely positioned in a climactic confrontation with whoever really and for-sure truly is the bad guy. In a lot of other games, we'd know that for a fact, but not in Sorcerer. Without that, I'm looking at a character whose actions and attitude I will myself be enacting, without much premeditation, and who I cannot say at this time is necessarily the good guy. I believe he might be, or could be, or could turn out to be. But I won't know which way he'll jump in any number of situations until we get there in play, and that will depend a lot on the immediate history of how we got there, too. This is like

4. I know what I'm doing in one way, though. I'm not going to go spastic on you or turtle up. You won't be looking at my guy and at me, going "What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?" I'm listening to you and to everyone else, soaking up everything that's said and described. My character's actions and words are right in there with what's happening and what has happened. He is not an idiot, nor a pyschotic. Whatever I have him do, just run with it, respond, bring out the consequences.

5. I love what you've told us regarding our upcoming game. I get it. I want to do that. I can't wait to see it happen via the lens/input of my character.

6. The system works, as long as we stay clear about exactly what our characters are doing and what they are driving for, at least at that moment. That's another thing you can count on: that if you want to know what he's doing, then one of these three things will work: (i) you already know because I just told you, (ii) you ask and I'll tell you, or (iii) you have a pretty good idea and frame right to it, waiting for my nod to confirm that what you say works for me. No tedious murk. We don't need it. With that knowledge in hand at all times, the dice are ready when they're needed.

7. In fact, that brings up another point. You have Bangs, conflicts, possible rolls in mind? Good. So do I. Be ready for me to do stuff which demands rolling, without your permission or prep or any consideration of your readiness.

Well, I don't know if any of that helps. Comments, questions?

Best, Ron

John S

It was rude for me to leave this thread hanging without thanking you all for the insight and advice. I don't have an excuse, but I am expecting a new child this Spring, and I've been very preoccupied.

Jesse, and Ron, your posts were helpful. The issues you talked about, Jesse, came very close to Steve's trouble in grokking the game I think, although I didn't realize it at the time.

We met up again a week after Ron posted and spent a long time going over each point, discussing each idea. In fact, we talked about it the whole time we would normally play, maybe three or four hours.

He pushed back a little about the notion that his character might not be a hero. I think his appreciation for darker themes that I picked up on is predicated on the safety net that at least his character would be heroic. I might have divined this when he wanted to play an FBI agent, a role that he idealizes, but it didn't occur to me.

His eyes lit up when we talked about the difference between winning in a traditional challenge-oriented game, and creating story with Sorcerer. He never had any problem identifying his character's most pressing drive moment-by-moment in our game, since his Kicker was that the character's girlfriend was kidnapped. We didn't have a single scene that his character wasn't jumping into the action. He enjoyed both the narrative freedom provided by having a score for "Cover" instead of a skill list, and he seemed to enjoy the intensity, even if it left him a little beleaguered by the end of each session, seeing how every choice he made heightened the tension.

That's what got him asking "What are my moves in this game? What are my tools for playing this game?"

On the other hand, he said he wasn't sure "what to pick" when I asked him what matters most to his character, in the big picture. From our actual play, I thought he had a vivid picture of what makes this character go, and this answer was kind of deflating. It struck me that was weighing this choice in terms of Step On Up: "Whatever I pick will have advantages and disadvantages for game effectiveness."

So I took the hint that although he seemed enthusiastic about the color and a lot of other things about Sorcerer, he wasn't so keen on dealing with the premise. Next time we got a chance to play was almost a month later, and we went back to the Tunnels & Trolls game we had on pause. He said he still wants to play Sorcerer, and maybe we'll come back to it in future. But with everything else going on, T&T is about my speed too. Preparing for unscripted T&T play is so easy, and it can easily be "skinned" with the thematic color and narrative freedom without requiring the characters to be protagonists.

John S

QuotePreparing for unscripted T&T play is so easy, and it can easily be "skinned" with the thematic color and narrative freedom without requiring the characters to be protagonists.

Oops, Edit: It can be skinned with whatever thematic color you want, allowing narrational freedom. Maybe that's not a word, but what I'm talking about is distinct from narrativism; what I meant was that the abstract combat, Saving Roll mechanics, and Monster Ratings provide ample space for collaborative narration, with or without narrativist concerns.

Ron Edwards

Hi John,

I make that distinction between narration and narrative all the time, as I think it's incredibly important for this medium. The fact that the two thing are almost identical, and spoken of as identical, in other story-type media causes a lot of trouble. So I'm with you on that.

Thanks for getting back to the thread!

Playing Sorcerer characters is best understood as productive arrogance. Not on the character's part (although there too), but on the player's, and I refer specifically to some of role-playing culture's long-standing standards.

I'll explain myself in detail when I get some time. This is a tough crunch period in my life at the moment, and I don't think it'll let up until after Thanksgiving.

Best, Ron

John S

Quote from: Ron Edwards on November 11, 2010, 11:33:00 AMThis is a tough crunch period in my life at the moment, and I don't think it'll let up until after Thanksgiving.

"Tough crunch period" is a pretty succinct way to sum up my life right now too. ;) I hope you have a great Thanksgiving!