[Sorcerer] Miyazaki + Wuxia + Westmark = Druids! (one-sheet help)

Started by James_Nostack, March 28, 2011, 10:09:36 PM

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Though I haven't played Sorcerer in four years, it remains one of my favorite game, and periodically I get the urge to run it again.  Now's such a time, and I dug out some notes from 18 months ago.  I need a helpful nudge with a one-sheet, though.

Various Inspirations
This is a setting inspired by my girlfriend's fascination with My Life as King.  I'm mainly stealing the game's visuals: manga-style Renaissance Europe with little hints of steampunk and fantasy-stuff.  The game involves a child-king who must build a capital through elemental magic, which is fueled by sending incompetent D&D adventurers off to TPK's.  (Players of the game will realize I'm teasing.) 

Somehow this got me thinking about Individuals, the State, Nature, and Magic . . . which very naturally led to the films of Hayao Miyazaki.
* Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
* Howl's Moving Castle
* Castle in the Sky
* My Neighbor Totoro
* Spirited Away
* Ponyo

Children's books about 18th Century statecraft and its demands on individuals put me in mind of Lloyd Alexander's Westmark Trilogy.  A Korean version of this theme is Iron Empress, which my girlfriend was watching regularly around the time she was playing My Life as King.  (Plot of Iron Empress: good widow-queen gets captured and enslaved by Kingdom of Terrifically Evil Henchmen, and falls in love with enslaved lower-class person; meanwhile good queen's corrupt brother rules as regent for epileptic little prince and tries to keep them apart.) 

In my head, these themes of love, duty and social expectation also sort of connect to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, which take contrasting views on the subject.  And of course, Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Tomoe Gozen trilogy of novels, which have been the victims of criminal neglect by fantasy fans.

Adding Some of This Up
Miyazaki's films are the major influence here.  The archetypal Miyazaki film features a good-hearted, youthful protagonist who becomes initiated, possibly against her will, into an intimidating spirit-world closely linked to natural process. (I'd say "Faerie" but that word has gamer baggage.)  After the shock of exposure, the protagonist finds that the nature spirits are both awe-inspiring and friendly . . . so long as you respect them.  Involvement with the spirit-world, however, alienates the protagonist from normal society, and may in time transform her into a heartless abomination.  Balancing these requirements is usually difficult, since the ravenous demands of the State (typically warfare, industrialization, and maybe even agriculture) encroach on the spirit-world.  The State may also seek by-gone relics of prior States: enormously destructive artifacts of high technology.

So: vaguely post-apocalyptic feudal cultures.  The apocalypse was relatively mild and long-ago, and we've managed to bounce back reasonably well.  Or, shoot, maybe it's another world entirely, with a mixture of science and 18th Century politics.

Some facts about the world:
  • It's got steam-punk technology, because that's interesting.  Steam-punk stuff isn't sorcerous: it's just how things get done.  And it's not aggressive steam-punk either: just tucked away, a little bit fancier than it was in the late 18th Century.
  • Politics: some absolute monarchies.  I like the idea of "King Colgrevaunce" and other names from Arthurian myth, to suggest that there's an older layer here, still played-up by the aristocracy.  Those sorts of names, however, are deliberately archaic.  Old like Gormenghast traditions.  This is stuff of an immensely conservative First Estate.  It's possible that they literally don't acknowledge that 100 years have gone by: there might be some big event that nobody's informed them of yet, and they just keep re-using old calendars.
  • Radical revolutionary stuff, mixed with hints of anachronistic 1930's politics ala White's Once and Future King: proto-Communists, Fascists, Anarchists.
  • Party of the Swine, Party of the Curs, Party of the Worm, Party of the Crow, ad nauseum
  • The aristocracy still believes in duels.  They even engage in primitive dogfights if they've got Wright-brothers style aero-planes and gyrocopters.  But fencing is a big thing, with lots of special moves, like in the martial arts rules from Sex & Sorcery.
  • The dudes manning the Sky Navy are serious, practical people who are used to scrambling around with emergencies all the time.
  • Still, it all comes down to holding ground.  So there are guerrilla partisans in some ethnic parts of this territory, trying to resist occupation, and doing a pretty good job as the Empire pours zillions of funds into schemes to drive out the rebels.  Within the Empire, people don't care about the occupied territories for their own sake, but only in so far as the occupation can be used to disgrace or praise the ruling party.

Some random names for things: The Crescent Kingdoms, the Great North Woods, Red Stick and the South-Lands, the Scorch.  Marlucca, Illyria, Nithia . . . the Southern Archives . . . Szegge the Vulture.  The Money Groups as a form of criminal conspiracy back when people were illiterate by law and used accounting as a type of language?  (Some of this is old, like pre-history stuff.)  Kotor and Scutari and Zembla.  The Time-Traveler.  And some vampires.  Thunder-Stick the Rifle.  Viking Cherokee Gods: Crow, Deer, Otter, Snake, etc.  Westland.  Sark, Zirid.  Grimsby, Toadcroft.  Jarrow and Abernorton.  Vortigern, Colgrevaunce, Yseult, Bagdemagus.  Maybe a family stolen from Finnegans Wake.

One Sheet Stuff
Humanity is . . . reciprocal devotion to a community (family, crew, corporation, town, nation).  Saying a wholehearted "Yes I will yes" to some claim made by (a subset of) human society.

Demons are . . . manifestations the Waste Land.  Needs of natural demons are typically kind of cute.  Needs of techno-demons, which we might treat as undead under the rules, have really wicked, awful Needs which often will lead to horrific Humanity loss.

Lore is . . . Familiarity with the Waste Land and the powers of the natural world.
* Goodman or Goodwife, the heroine of Howl's Moving Castle.  Repressed, maybe mistrustful.
* Field Biologist, like Ash and Professor Oak.  Analytical.
* Wayfarer, like Patrick Stewart's guy in Nausicaa and Nausicaa herself.  Experiential, intuitive.
* Just a Kid, like the boy in Ponyo.  Unsophisticated, wide-eyed, and marginalized.
* Hermit, like Ponyo's father or Howl.  Obsessive.

Sorcery is . . . um . . . alienation?  Malcontents, anarchists, runaways, hermits, disaffected wives, sociopaths, etc. are potential sorcerers, but I'm not sure what the catalyzing event might be. 

Other Rules Stuff
The spirit-world is a Mystic Otherworld like in Sorcerer & Sword.

People with the Royal Blood as a Will description can inflict the milder form of Hypnotism from Sorcerer & Sword.

Sword fights among those with Past: Swashbuckler may use the martial arts rules from Sex & Sorcery.

Characters with the Field Biologist as a Lore description can choose to cap Humanity per Sorcerer & Sword.  Your rationalism prevents you from getting too emotionally bound up with society.

Characters with the Hermit as a Lore description can trade down their Humanity per Sorcerer & Sword.  Turning your back on other people for good can give you unnatural power.

Where I'm Stumbling
So far, so good!  But . . .
  • Are these nature demons actually Angels instead?  They tend to be pretty beneficent, despite being pretty frightening at first.
  • Do I have Humanity all backwards?  The really low-Humanity characters in Miyazaki's films tend to be "There Must Be Progress!" types: military = industry = applied science = politics, etc.  He's a complete hippie.
  • What to do with the various techno-monsters, like the God-Warrior in Nausicaa?  Are they demons?  Or maybe lost technologies like from Sorcerer & Sword?  (This part of the rules seems to go unused by the majority of players, and I'd like to be able to say I used them at some point.)
  • What turns somebody on to sorcery?


Hi James,

Here's the thing about Miyazaki's "nice spirits" - in the end, most of the protagonists have to leave them at some point anyway, or, at least, he ends the story before having to answer that question.  For example, if only kids can see Totoro, what happens when they grow up?  Is it simply age, or is there a choice to be made? 

His less nice movie- Princess Mononoke, pretty much shows off San at 1 Humanity at the end of it, but still choosing to go kick it with the wolves.   Just imagine the kind of person she'd have turned out, if she survived and wasn't even friends with Ashitaka...

So yeah, I'd keep the nice spirits as demons too.  If you plan on doing long term play, maybe do it like this:  Sorcerers have a cap on Humanity, which starts at 9.   The first time in any story they actually decide to feed a demon's need, the cap drops by 1.   Sooner or later, they either have to decide to no longer Bind & use demons, or they're going to get pulled into the spirit world.  (I like to imagine Yubaba as an example of an old sorceress who probably fell in a long time ago...)

On the note of Humanity, I think Princess Mononoke is a damn good example all around of both industrialized and nature-types with low humanity.  Your basic definition works both ways, and that's pretty cool.



Hmmm, Princess Mononoke is one I haven't seen.  I'll have to check it out, thanks!

Ron Edwards

Hi James,

More comments to come later, but for the moment, I dug up this older thread: The Evils of Civilization. The links to other threads in it are worth pursuing too.

Best, Ron


Ron, thanks for the link: that's kind of what I was getting at by suggesting that the nature-spirits might actually be Angels under the rules.  I don't think I've presented Civilization, and all its accouterments, in a very flattering light.  It's one-sided. 

Here's one of the things I've been kicking around in my head - not about RPG's in particular, just about life & politics.  There's stuff in the modern world that is fucking awesome: medicine, the Internet, weekends, fresh pineapple.  But I have access to these things thanks to a planet-sized, clanking, rumbling, huffing-and-puffing Civilization Machine, whose operation (at least in its present phase) is likely unsustainable and, maybe, inherently immoral.  Speaking in extreme generalities, there ain't no iPad without Guantanamo Bay. 

So it's occasionally tempting to say, "Fuck it, I don't want any part of all this.  Get rid of the state, fire the jailers, let people just be people like they've always been."  But it's always been pretty sucky--until right around now, right around here, in the eye of the storm.  So the question is, how can you say "yes" to certain parts of the modern world, without inviting the whole military-industrial complex into your rec room?  Where do you draw the line?

What I'm describing here is a binding with a demon - a binding very much in its favor.  But a binding that's extremely seductive, to the point where it's almost impossible to imagine any serious alternative.  And you know, maybe if you work with the demon a little bit, you can make it do good things.  Sure you can.  From the inside.

Moving back to the nature stuff - there's this strain of . . . I don't know the right word, like, pastoral utopianism in Miyazaki's work.  Chris wrote, "For example, if only kids can see Totoro, what happens when they grow up?  Is it simply age, or is there a choice to be made?"  Within Miyazaki's fairy-tale, that seems like a category error: the kids aren't meant to be real people who will age, have regrets, and die.  But natural disasters don't seem to be a present concern in Miyazaki's work.  (Sounds like Mononoke is the exception.)  I want nature demons to be like bears - all cool and nifty-looking and awesome, until you accidentally do the wrong thing and they rip your fucking face off.



Hi James,

QuoteWithin Miyazaki's fairy-tale, that seems like a category error: the kids aren't meant to be real people who will age, have regrets, and die

This is generally true of all happy-stories that tend to get aimed at kids.  The question, though, is what is the the story implying as possibilities within it's own fiction?  Rewatch the scene when Mei goes missing- Satsuki is completely full of regret and flipping out. 

Notice that she goes to the Totoros for help, last, after she already tried to do things the mundane way, and with her community.  This would be the Humanity boost that helps shield her for dealing with the spirit world.

While it's true Miyazaki is almost always on the side of industry-bad, spirits good, I think Princess Mononoke was his rawest and most nuanced look at it, which dovetails perfectly with your Humanity definition.   (Spirited Away also tied into that as well.  Name-taking as Taint seems to be an appropriate tie-in).


Marshall Burns

Quote from: James_Nostack on March 30, 2011, 01:47:57 AM
Moving back to the nature stuff - there's this strain of . . . I don't know the right word, like, pastoral utopianism in Miyazaki's work.  Chris wrote, "For example, if only kids can see Totoro, what happens when they grow up?  Is it simply age, or is there a choice to be made?"  Within Miyazaki's fairy-tale, that seems like a category error: the kids aren't meant to be real people who will age, have regrets, and die. 

Huh? The older sister in Totoro has regrets before the movie even ends. Chihiro's adventure in Spirited Away is a trial to teach her manners, resilience, resourcefulness, and courage so that she can be a good adult some day. We see the boy's parents fighting plainly on-screen and in full view of the kid in Ponyo (the mother even chugs a beer to try to calm down).

I like Miyazaki because he knows that kids are smarter and tougher than we give them credit for. His stuff ain't your usual fairy-tale fluff; it's real fairy tales.


Marshall, it's been maybe 4 years since I've seen most of those films.  But would you agree that Miyazaki's films don't present Reality vs. Fantasy as a psychodramatic battle the way, say, A Streetcar Named Desire does?  (Confession: instead of Streetcar I'm actually thinking about the opening to the horrible 1980's Return to Oz, which begins with Dorothy being locked away in an asylum because she won't disavow Oz's reality.  That type of conflict, whether with Dorothy Gale or Blanche DuBois, doesn't seem to be a major issue in Miyazaki's work, but maybe I'm not remembering.)

But I do agree with you that Totoro, the Ohmu, and several of the critters in Spirited Away are more like teachers or psychopomps, giving the protagonists moral support when confronted with discouragement in the "real" world.


I watched Princess Mononoke last night.  I agree with Chris: it's hitting on all of these issues.

Some stuff that seemed relevant to figuring out Humanity considerations in the film:
* Ashitaka gets cursed when he shoots the Demon-Boar, even though it's to save his little sister
* Ashitaka tries to help the villagers against the samurai raiders but his curse turns him into a monster (for a moment or two)
* Ashitaka earns admiration for rescuing the wounded ox-drivers that Lady Eboshi had abandoned for dead
* Lady Eboshi is eager to destroy the forest and the spirits within it if it will strengthen her position
* Lady Eboshi flummoxes Ashitaka's expectations by not just protecting, but esteeming and respecting pariahs kicked out by society (prostitutes, lepers)
* Ashitaka astounds everyone by breaking up the fight between San and Lady Eboshi, getting mortally wounded in the process
* San fends off the Ape-Tribe, calms down her Wolf-Tribe siblings, and takes Ashitaka to the forbidden island of the Great Forest Spirit
* San ultimately takes up arms against the Humans when the Boar-Tribe makes their last stand
* Ashitaka engaging in massive Humanity-boosting behavior, rescuing San, saving the town, and healing the Great Forest Spirit
* San rejects returning to the human world, and Ashitaka remaining in Iron Town.

Lady Eboshi is the kick-ass classic Sorcerer protagonist in this bunch.  Reconiing that te existing regime is corrupt and brutal, she decides to create an alternative, Iron Town, a refuge for outcasts.  If the survival of Iron Town and what it represents requires her to be absolutely ruthless in cutting down the forest for more resources, well then so be it: it's not like the Forest Spirit was doing a whole lot of good.  (She reminds me a lot of the Kushana character from Nausicaa, just with some clearer motivation.)


Hi James,

A fun thing to consider is whether the animal gods are demons in the Sorcerer sense, or sentient big fucking animals who are ALSO sorcerers in their own right.

For example, Ashitaka's curse is pretty much a Parasite demon and it's need is probably to destroy Humanity: Boar God has hit humanity 0, now it's time to find a new host - which is when it "curses" Ashitaka and gives him the awesome power to take out the Boar God.

The other thing, is then it means San's protecting of the Wolf pack and the Forest are potentially Humanity gaining actions- which are being balanced by her non-stop vengeance quest...   So she keeps riding the edge.

Jigo, on the other hand, has a few moments, but basically is quick on a downward spiral- who cares if the whole valley gets killed as long as he gets what he wants, right?  His choice to give up at the end might have been the only thing keeping him from hitting Humanity 0.