[Sorcerer] At the GenCon booth

Started by Ron Edwards, August 17, 2011, 04:28:09 PM

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Ron Edwards

When I'm at GenCon, usually I spend a lot of time playing after-hours, typically in the lobby of the Embassy Suites. I either set something up with people during the day, whether initiated by them or by me, or I show up and make myself available to a table, either for whatever's already happening or to suggest a game.

This year, I went loaded with Ronnies and other playtests and recently published Ronnies games - to no avail. Working the booth by myself was incredibly tiring and by 8 or 9 PM, I was very nearly done to a turn. I did manage to get in some play, but for two nights, something else happened. Specifically, Sorcerer lessons. In the evening, we did a full prep session, and then the next day at the booth, we played a little bit. The actual amount of play was minimal, but the point was actually didactic: to show how to prep and how that became play, as well as showcasing a couple of key points about play itself.

If I had to summarize it in a bumper sticker, it'd be something like, "You are not playing an adventurer and I am not running an adventure." Which I shall now try to explain.

Prep procedures
One of the procedures I'm hammering through several stages of play in the current annotations project is that following a general agreement to play Sorcerer, the very next thing to do is to arrive at two crucial opening lines. This should be done through discussion, although typically one person takes the lead at least to focus everyone's attention on the task, and may well arrive with at least a provisional suggestion. Furthermore, these lines are all that should be produced at this point, exactly as such.

The first one is best understood as "environment," a more immediate version of the familiar concept of setting. I prefer not to use the term setting because of many possible misunderstandings, such as thinking of settings as interchangeable skins. Furthermore, most of the time I discourage haring off to non-contemporary settings because in most cases that's merely a retreat to a comfort zone. So I might say, "All right, it's here and now, but what sort of take on here and now? What do we want to see and do in terms of environment? Any simple phrase will do."

Some examples from real games include:
·   Urban decay, rust belt U.S.A.
·   Successful suburbia
·   New York City! (with exclamation point)
·   "Here" (meaning the location of play, using content close to the players' lives and interests)

The second statement is about the look-and-feel of sorcery and demons, very much in the sense of presentation and atmosphere, and not at all in terms of justications or rationale.

Examples from the same games, in order:
·   Spiders and eyes
·   Frazetta, fleshy, animalistic
·   Cronenberg body horror, maddened cosmic insights
·   Hard-core necromancy

Once armed with these two statements, everyone should move straight into individual character creation. There should be absolutely no discussion between the two, whether "why we're together" (because that does not matter) or further processing of setting material (which should emerge from PC creation, not established here), or anything else.

Another principle of preparation for this game is the two-step between making characters and making demons. For the first, the GM provides or reminds about information the players need to arrive at starting characters whom they will play; for the second, it's reversed, and the players provide information which the GM uses to arrive at characters that he or she will play.

Finally, the crucial outcome of character creation, and the necessary armament for the GM to prep for the first session, is the diagrams on the backs of the character sheets. That's how far we got, and were supposed to get, in each of the GenCon prep sessions. I'll show you what came of each.

Ed and Konstantinos
The statements were, Successful suburbia + ancient languages, Frazetta-fleshy-animalistic large demons. I suggested the first phase, and Ed provided the latter, during which Konstantinos made nonverbal sounds which indicated approval and enthusiasm at a disturbing visceral level.

Ed's character Dennis Tyler is a "basic white guy about 30, clean cut, casual but well-dressed" – the concept was that he'd come from a very different, much poorer background and made his way to this lifestyle through secret means and his demon's help, with a fake cover career the neighbors think is real.
Stamina 3 (clean living), Will 4 (rageful and vengeful), Lore 3 (solitary adept), Cover 4 (internet pornographer), Price -1 (dishonest, penalty when being sincere)

His demon Sanchuniath, Chuni for short, is a stunning devil-babe with massive unfolding wings: Inconspicuous (Telltale: you might see an ordinary woman in your peripheral vision, who's gone when you look), Desire: Creation/Artistry, Need: Blood. Its/her abilities are Shapeshift (self), Cover (porn star), Shadow (self), Special Damage (claws, self, lethal), Spawn (self), Travel (flight, self), Special Damage ("monstering out," other, lethal). The Binding turned out to be +1 in the demon's favor. (Ed has provided a helpful sketch of Chuni at Esoteric Murmurs)
You can probably figure this out, but the point is that Dennis anonymously runs a porn site showcasing the mysterious indie-fan-favorite female star who is none other than Chuni. Ed made it clear that Dennis was so deeply embedded in his own lies about this that he's practically forgotten how to tell the truth.

His Kicker: a wealthy super-fan has dispatched a very competent private investigator to contact the porn star and arrange a private meeting.

Konstantinos' character Eloy Simons is a former child TV star, now married to an up-and-coming politician and unbeknownst to her, responsible for much of her success as her rivals often encounter life-crises and scandals. "Tall, well-fit, late 30s white guy. Can still see the signs that made him attractive when young, under the layers of self-abuse."
Stamina 5 (athletic, chemically heightened), Will 4 (social competence), Lore 1 (naïve), Cover 4 (former child celebrity), Price -1 (mild drug addiction)
His demon is Φίδι (pronounced "Fidi" for English speakers), a freaking huge three-eyed snake, never seen in its entirety: Inconspicuous (hides in improbably small spaces, Telltale: rattling sound), Desire: Power, Need: Consume old things/antiques. Its abilities: Big (self), Travel (suddenly there, self), Special Damage (snake-crush, snake-bite, self, lethal), Perception (a named target, self), Vitality (self), Vitality (other). The Binding was the same: +1 in the demon's favor.
Eloy keeps a lot from his wife and two kids even beyond his sorcery and his demon's activities to support her career. He has a secret apartment where he does his rituals and stores the chachkes he collects to feed the demon, and of course, he has his little habit.

It took a couple of tries for Konstantinos to arrive at the Kicker, but he nailed it with: Eloy's wife has slammed him with a drug intervention, up to and including placing him in a detox clinic.

You can find their diagrams here.
A point about Kickers: players sometimes struggle a little with this concept. Konstantinos proposed a couple of situations in which his wife's political enemies were investigating him or her, one of which included something really bad the demon had done, but my point to him was that Eloy had clearly been successful so far, and therefore must have handled any such situations well in the past. In other words, the proposed Kickers were simply "more of the same" material that we'd expect to be part of Eloy's back-story anyway. I asked him to think laterally: what sort of situation would throw a rock into his character's life which could not be solved simply by sending the demon to disrupt it, but would rather upset the assumptions that he'd been so carefully protecting? "My wife puts me in detox," he said instantly. That's how to get a Kicker.

Whereas for Dennis, being investigated was a desirable Kicker because of the emphasis that he'd put on his character's history of private secrecy. I'm not sure if I'm saying that well, but to me, the point of Dennis' history is that he has isolated himself thoroughly in several layers, so a genuine competent threat to his personal bubble (and Ed was the one who'd said the detective was "very competent") was a new thing for him.

We gathered to play at the booth the next day. My preparation consisted almost solely of a simple list of names and scores. Dennis' friend became "Rowan," the detective became "Cavanaugh," Eloy's drug connection became "John-O," and a few others. Each had a Will and Cover score, with a blanket assumption of Stamina 2, and in a couple of cases, a different Stamina score. If a name didn't occur to me straightaway (as with Eloy's wife), I simply waited until I introduced him or her in play and asked the player (Hannah). I didn't prepare Bangs in a formal way although looking at the diagrams was pretty much the same thing, if one is thinking about scene-setting and NPC priorities. I knew I'd start Dennis in front of his house, having a conversation with Cavanaugh, and Eloy at the detox clinic, in a conversation with his children.

We can talk more about the scenes and their internal events, but to summarize, at least as far as the scenes we played were concerned, these two player-characters were in a race to the bottom. Each one writhed in the throes of admitting that yes, their current way of life was actually over. I had a lot of fun playing the various NPCs, finding that Kevin, the detox counselor, really came to life simply by taking absolutely no nonsense from Eloy and laying out very reasonable choices. It didn't do him any good, when Eloy sent the demon to retaliate, but I noted for later play that Φίδι would now figure out that as long as Eloy kept playing his bullshit games, he was going to be farther and farther from Power.

Let's see ... overall, Dennis had a bad morning, mis-managing his demon such that his closest friend was attacked and finally complying with the detective's directive to set up a date with her and his client. Eloy, after a sterling start by making his kids cry when trying to reassure them, suborned a detox employee to fetch him antiques, nearly successfully assassinated his drug counselor via demon, and received a sizeable contribution of drugs from his scuzzy friend John-O. How he thinks he's going to use them successfully in detox is a good question, but Eloy is nothing if not resourceful. Each one encountered at least one Humanity check, and frankly, I think I took it a little easy on them. What a pair of boy-men!

Ed and I discussed Humanity for the game a little bit at his blog, which you can see via the same link I posted above. We can follow up here if anyone wants.

At one point, Ed (and Dennis) was astonished that Chuni had attacked and drained a lot of blood from Rowan. It was a pretty extreme act, but it arose quite directly from Dennis' own actions. He'd left Chuni behind in his house, to pursue Cavanaugh's car, and he'd failed badly with an elaborate lie he'd peddled to Rowan who was very concerned about him. Failed rolls of this kind are a deep cue for me in terms of NPC behavior. Rowan went straight to Dennis' house and tried to get in. When she found a way in (which I felt was reasonable to assume might be open, as Dennis had been puttering on the lawn and had not gone back to the house to lock it up before running off), then Chuni, already riled by her observations of people surveilling the house, nabbed her for a little Need. After all, via his failed lie, Dennis had indeed "sent" her there, from a demon's point of view.

And no, Chuni didn't explain this to Dennis. I don't feel any need to play the demons as explaining themselves. I'm happy to explain it now as follow-up and debriefing as far as technique is concerned, but in play, a person simply has to accept that good Sorcerer GMing is never about arbitrary actions. It's always based off of existing characterization, previously established actions, and clear consequences of failed/successful rolls.

I'm interested in following up on Ed's question as we ended play: (slight paraphrase) "When did you plan on switching Cavanaugh's loyalty?" I told him the truth: it was not a decision on my part in terms of planning, but simply what I did with Cavanaugh in the sense of playing him as a character. Even that is hard to articulate, though. I am not talking about a fast-on-his-feet GM who can improvise "story" in the moment in the way that others must laboriously prep for hours beforehand. That is not the skill I am displaying with events like the one we saw in this game. I am talking about abandoning the GM-role of "story man" from the outset, and letting it go entirely. From my current draft of the annotations for the core book:

QuoteNPCs do stuff. They aren't living in terror of the PCs, trying to brush them off. They respond deeply to the PCs towards their own priorities; they are grabby. They aren't helpless. They aren't dumbly locked into their single-blurb descriptions. And you don't protect them from themselves.

You see, the phrase, "Just play the NPCs!" turns out to be a subcultural problem. I have learned that no one knows what I mean by it. It seems to me as if I'm giving the most straightforward advice possible. But after fifteen years, I now know that the communication rate is under 10%. Instead, it can go "doink" right off someone's defenses, because they don't get it, and what they don't get, they blink away. Or it can be heard, but mis-interpreted, as in, "Play the NPCs to elicit the desired player behavior," or "Play the NPCs according to a set track or flowchart." Or worse, thespian: "Act out the NPCs in full, with gestures and accents."

Whereas what I actually mean by it is that when playing NPC 1's actions and dialogue, put aside any priorities except for those of NPC 1. Never mind what NPC 2 wants, or what the head or the ideology of the organization NPC 1 belongs to wants. Never mind what NPC 1's actions will do to anyone else's plans. Never mind what NPC 1's actions might do to the immediate outcome of this scene. Basically, NPC 1 can always and only do one of three things: hold steady which whatever goals and actions and tactics he was already doing; go solidly hard-core toward getting those goals using new and extreme tactics; or abandon those goals and adopting new ones, to whatever extreme seems (to him) warranted. And in each case, do it as effectively as possible. So when playing NPC 1, you play him. Then, switching to another NPC, do the same with him, and never the fuck mind what that would mean to NPC 1 - save that for when you come 'round to NPC 1 again.

So it's not about an overview. It's not about a story. It's not about a plot. It's not about a tapestry. You're not playing "the world." You're playing characters one at a time at a very local, moment to moment level, and as far as the NPC behaviors are concerned, that is literally all.

I want to stress that in Cavanaugh's case, this wasn't even a matter of "switching." He did his job for the rich fan-guy, and as soon as Dennis had agreed to set up a meeting with Chuni, Cavanaugh gave him the contact information and his job assignment was finished. In that moment, playing Cavanaugh, "I" (meaning me-as-Cavanaugh) felt some amused sympathy for this "you hit my dose!" incompetent-but-spunky guy. Dennis may have felt intruded upon, but Cavanaugh felt as if he'd shepherded him through a difficult day and could see more difficulty coming up for him. Cavanaugh was free now, so why not offer him professional services?

Such moments are what the "story man" GMs are always trying to force upon players, whether planned before play or improvised into play. And such force is a crappy, un-fun method without any of the enjoyable springboarding effects that I enjoy routinely. To me, that's not a brilliant one-off. It's normal play, mainly because we did it without any force of that kind. I was in fact merely playing the NPC.

I'll post more about the other two game-preps and play later in the thread! I'd like to see some questions or observations about this one first.

Best, Ron


What you wrote about just playing the NPC's reminds me of these moments when I'm GMing and the players have done something that inadvertently steps right on an NPC's toe/tail/junk and they don't know it.  A few weeks ago there was this quiet moment, a pause in the game as I kind of considered the NPC reactions and it was like little imaginary pinball dinging off the bits of setting in my head until I said out loud,"Holy shit." 

Pete: "What is it?"

"When you get back to the brewery, the doors are off the hinges, the guard at the door has a bandage over his bloodied head."

"What the fuck happened?"

"City guard busted down the door..."

It happens most often lately with urban settings, lots of NPC's with overlapping turf and wants and needs, all kind of grabbing at one another until the players bust on in like bulls in several china shops.


Thanks, Ron!  Would have loved to play further.

The "why did Chuni drain Rowan?" thing makes sense to me now, I think -- it sounds like the answer to that is: "you failed a roll and just walked away from it.  You don't think some shit is going to go down because of that?"

Something that I'd be interested in hearing more about is this:

QuoteAfter all, via his failed lie, Dennis had indeed "sent" her there, from a demon's point of view.

"Demon's point of view" is something it's always interesting hearing more about.

It sounds like you're saying:  Chuni, demon that she is, is likely to be keeping an eye on her environment and the actions of her binder, and so when she sees Dennis talk to a woman and that woman end up entering the house, she's going to say "ooh, my sorcerer just did something that sent this woman to me.  So her blood would taste like a nice present from Dennis.  Yum."?  Though she might be perfectly well aware that he intended nothing of the sort, that doesn't change the fact that it's a nice need-satisfaction just waiting for her to accept it?

And on the *contrary*, you pointed out later on that when Dennis was hoping to get rid of Cavanaugh by violent means, and was hoping he could just sic Chuni on him, Chuni was not interested in that because she doesn't want to *feed*, she wants to be *fed*.

So Dennis inadvertently feeding her = awesome.  Dennis intentionally directing her to feed herself, while he sits back and watches = totally unsatisfying.


Reading this made me realize how much I'm still struggling with this: "Play the NPCs to elicit the desired player behavior,"

I've pretty successfully jettisoned the "desired" part of that statement, but I still think I play NPCs in a deliberately pokey manner trying to elicit behavior.  Rather then just let the NPCs do what they're going to do around the PCs.  I'm always working to aim the NPCs directly AT the PCs in some very direct manner.  I don't think that's always a bad thing but sometimes it's TOO direct.


Ron Edwards

Hi Jesse,

That's a subtle distinction. I'm not sure the around vs. at phrasing is quite the right way to look at it.

It helps me to think in terms of the diagram ... by definition, the NPCs clustered at the center will be doing things which affect the player-character, whether their actions are aimed right at him, or at someone else.

Can you clarify what you mean by at vs. around?

Best, Ron


Hey Ron,

Sure, your example of Rowan going to Dennis's house after he lied to her is a good one.  If I'm reading your account correctly that all happened "off screen" as response to Dennis's failed lie.  In other words, Dennis failed the roll provoking Rowan to go off and do something on her own, which in turn provoked a response from Chuni which Dennis then later discovers the aftermath of.

That's what I mean by "around" the PCs.  Both Rowan and Chuni took consequential action that Dennis basically had no opportunity to directly intervene in.

My response in such cases is usually to have an NPC like Rowan act hurt or get pushier towards the PC.  And if the PC still brushes such a character off they tend to just go off and basically do nothing until the PC approaches them again later.  They basically go in a little closet in my brain since they failed provoke a direct action or response.

Similarly, I might then have a demon like Chuni come up to the PC and say something like, "Hey, she's getting to be a problem.  I could take care of that for you, if you want?"

If it gets to the point where in my head that I would think Chuni might actually act toward Rowan on its own then I tend to wait until an opening presents itself to have it happen directly in the PC's presence.  If no such opportunity arises, it never happens.

I'm not saying I have this problem ALL the time, but it's a struggle to stay conscious of it.

Does that help?


Ron Edwards

Yes! I see exactly what you mean.

I know what you're talking about from experience too, because I encountered the same difficulties for a long time. It was particularly hard when GMing Champions in the heavy-duty early Marvel + intense mid-80s indie comics style hybrid that I favored. What I wanted demanded very proactive NPCs, and yet I had no way, procedurally, to say what they were doing unless a player-character was actually looking at it. To do it, I had to create a method that involved columns with all the names running down the left, and an ordinal timeline across the top, to keep track of what I was having the NPCs do.

Sorcerer makes such things much easier because the basic assumption of play is that player-characters' decisions really matter to the NPCs on the diagram. If you blow someone off, they'll do something to retaliate or whatever is appropriate for them. If you indulge them, they'll be on you with everything they need from you. Or with less needy/weird NPCs, they'll call you on your bullshit in no uncertain terms, and support you when they approve or sometimes, gritting their teeth, when they don't.

As an aside, this is why the complex relationship map method in The Sorcerer's Soul is advanced: it's adding layers of backstory that are not on the player-character diagrams. It does work, but in retrospect, I really wish I'd emphasized and pushed "basic" Sorcerer harder in the 2001-2003 period, so people wouldn't have hared off to the relationship map as the one-and-only means of prepping. (And here, I want to distinguish between that specific method and what we can call an ordinary, Kicker-influenced set of relations that are personal for the character, like the ones described here.)

Maybe we can talk more about the diagrams as a core feature of prep-to-play, because as I indicated above, those characters are exactly those whose needs and views simply cannot ignore the player-character's actions or inactions. Can you see how the diagrams are taken directly from what the players said about their characters and the various descriptors and terms they chose? Can you see why some names and things are clustered at the center and others aren't? And then can you see how I chose to scene-frame based on the centers, and how I used stuff in the center to "reach" to the stuff in the same quadrants? For example, as soon as Hannah interacted with the pills (which is precisely what the Kicker implies), the pills "called" John-O into action.

Here's another technique for the "around" concept: one can even use rolls. As I recall, I actually did roll Chuni vs. Rowan, just a single oppositional roll, to see whether Chuni got'er or Rowan got away. I rolled three or four such things, including one with Kevin vs. John-O, to see whether the latter blustered his way into Eloy's room (he didn't). I haven't talked much about this technique, but I often use it nowadays for a lot of scene framing when GMing Sorcerer. I have a whole little section in my annotations to explain it.

Also, Ed, in response to your second post, all I have to say is "yes," and I'm pointing that out here because the reasoning you explicated is exactly what gets this "around" concept into practice. Plus the wondrous fun of playing demons, who are beings of nothing but Desire and Need, and thus are imbued with a dreadful sincerity.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

The three young guys
I remember only that one of them was named Ian. They came to the booth and we discussed Sorcerer in some detail, and at least one bought the core book. We agreed that we'd meet the next day at the booth for some prep, in hopes that they themselves would carry forward from that point in play. And they did!

Again, we began with the two key phrases. They came up with:
- New York City!, with the exclamation point definitely audible.
- Cronenberg body-horror demons, sorcery based on Lovecraftian cosmic/insane insights

In this case, one of three guys would be the GM, so the other two made characters. Unfortunately, I didn't retain copies of the diagrams, and the details have mainly fled clean out of my mind. I remember that one of them was a tycoon whose demon was a possessor with Hop, and it favored obese people, opening hideous fanged mouths in their stomachs. His Kicker was a strong emotional grab, too, in that this ruthless and exploitative person was confronted with values that he'd forgotten he had. I do remember that the other character was very good as well.

I kept up a dialogue with the GM as we went through character creation, especially once the diagrams were done. I explained that the next step would be to

I sure would like to know how that game went, if it did.

Nat and (sort of) Marc
This was a bit less organized than the previous two. I'd rounded up three people for the prep session, but only Nat ended up being able to attend. I was getting more and more fatigued as we waited around, and we finally roped in Marc, for prep only, as I really think one-on-one Sorcerer prep and play would not be productive for what Nat wanted to see.

We came up with the two statements:
- frontier old west
- Native American + Christian mash-up sorcery

This bears a little discussion. For a past few years, I have greatly preferred "here and now" as the context for playing Sorcerer, as my above list of examples for the first statement implies. I do not regard the flexibility of settings for Sorcerer to be a feature in the same sense that it's a feature for GURPS. "You can play in any setting!" has connotations, in gamer-talk, which I do not really think I want to see in Sorcerer. Those connotations concern setting as skin, i.e., a completely trivial aspect of scribbling perhaps-elaborate but ultimately inconsequential Color onto a totally-consistent System which has its own features that really drive exactly what play is like no matter what setting is concerned. Whereas for Sorcerer, the Color is supposed to integrate with Setting in such a way that the Character-centric concepts are highlighted even further.

A related, perhaps synonymous issue is that Sorcerer settings are supposed to be personal, invoking the Shudder concept that's been discussed at some length in the Adept Press forum. And GURPS-style setting-as-skin is antithetical to that approach, as it treats setting and genre as comfort zones.

(Side note: the techniques in both Sorcerer & Sword and The Sorcerer's Soul do produce stronger setting effects in productive ways for the game, but I hope you can see that they do so from character-centric angles, much different from "we'll play ninja!" or "we'll play space opera!".)

So I went with Nat's desire for the old west, but asked him what he meant by it. When he said that he was going for the frontier, a sense of being well away from ordinary human community, with the implications of alienation, desperation, and gritty determination (all my paraphrases from what he said), I was more confident that we were doing it Sorcerer-wise and not GURPS-wise.

Nat's character was Jenkins the general store owner, described as "late 30s, starting to put on weight." Stamina 3 clean living, Will 5 belief system, Lore 2 solitary adept, Cover 5 general store owner, Price -1 still in denial, Telltale: Native American tattoo on arm.

His demon is what he's conjured up as the spirit of his dead wife Samantha, animating her actual body. Stamina 7, Will 8, Lore 7, Power 8, Possessor, Desire: Power, Need: Undivided attention, Telltale: doesn't sleep; abilities = Armor, Fast, Cloak, Cover (Samantha), Link, Spawn, Perception (what people want). Just as the Price implies, Jenkins is a guy who desperately wants to cope with his wife's death by making it not have happened. He hangs out at her empty gravesite for his moments of reflection. He'd be a perfect main character for an Ambrose Bierce story, which in my book is about the highest praise you can get for an American character set in the nineteenth century.

His Kicker is lovely: Jenkins catches Samantha having sex with Seamus. As you can see from the diagram, this threatens both his sorcererous and his personal identities, racking a ton of stuff right into the center.

Marc's character was Seamus Long the traveling snake-oil salesman. Stamina 2 clean living, Will user/manipulative 5, Lore 3 apprentice, Cover 5 snake oil salesman, Price -1 cynical (to Humanity checks), Telltale: doesn't blink.

He calls his demon the Urge. Stamina 6, Will 7, Lore 6, Power 7, Parasite, Desire: Corruption, Need: physical contact with others, Telltale: auditory displacement of the host's voice, in that it may seem to originate within a listener's head. Long and the Urge add up to a creepy dude, huh?

Marc went around in circles for a bit over his Kicker, partly out of an excess of riches than anything else, I think. He first suggested that Jenkins was going to be thrown out of town for selling useless remedies, but I pointed out that this was business-as-usual for Jenkins, not a life-changing moment. He suggested "accused of rape," which seemed fine to me, but then changed it to "fell in love with a liaison," who he then identified as Julia, the parson's daughter.

I really liked the net effect of what all this material had developed as "our western." It was not intended to be historical so much as pure atmosphere and thematic potential, much like the settings for A Fistful of Dollars and Django. In retrospect I wish I'd developed its physical features more specifically in play, because its "feel" was very strong in my mind.

The diagrams are here. I'm not sure if I've made it clear exactly how these are made, so here goes.

1. Start by making four headings on scratch paper: Lore, Cover, Price, and Kicker. Then list any people, places, or things which go under them. It's important that the items are only nouns of this time, not adjectives or attitudes or anything else. One obvious and necessary item for any Sorcerer character is the demon. Covers typically include homes and workplaces, as well as any relevant items in them, but if such items are associated with sorcery, then they go under Lore.

2. Add stuff through dialogue. The player usually does so without much struggle. Marc tossed out the existence of Seamus' partner more-or-less off the cuff as we were making the diagram. I usually sort of riff off of what I see, asking questions like "if he's a traveling salesman, does he have a wagon or just ride a horse?" and things like that. In the example I described above, the tycoon character's Price was arrogance, so I mentioned that if it were a genuine Price, then we could expect to see at least one pissed-off former friend in that quadrant. I always leave the final call up to the player for such suggestions, though. My goal is usually about ten terms per character, although in this case (this western example) we had less. I think six or seven terms total would be the bare minimum.

2. Hypothetically, every item gets placed into its quadrant at the outer edge and dead center of that quadrant, i.e., as far apart from the items in the other quadrants as possible. Then pull together the ones which are physically or socially associated with one another. Pull them toward one another, not toward the center as a default. Therefore if two things are in adjacent quadrants, they travel toward the diagonal boundary line, not toward the center.

3. Two associated things will go toward the center only if they are (i) in Lore and Kicker, (ii) in Cover and Price. Often, when this happens, one of the items will drag other stuff with it, either in its own quadrant or from an adjacent one.

That's why Seamus' wares are in the center. First, the wares and the Urge are necessarily connected as he routinely uses it to successfully sell his gunk. Marc had retained the idea that Seamus was indeed at the late stage of his sojourn in town, when the locals are getting pissed off about his crappy wares; this was important because it highlighted that falling in love was keeping him there longer than he should be. So the customers (associated with his Price of cynicism) and the wares (in his Cover) are pulled together, which in this case means toward the center. So the Urge gets dragged to the center through its association with the wares. And Julia is pulled toward both because she's the one he's staying for and heightening the hassle between the other two - which means she gets dragged straight into the center too.

So even though Julia and the Urge have no direct connection between one another, they are both in the center of the diagram, "face to face" as it were, meaning that the moment they do come into contact is a big ol' Bang waiting to happen.

Another issue this instance brings up is character association. In the suburban game, the two characters were not created in direct reference to one another aside from the fruitful aspect of being done at the same table. In other words, they weren't brothers or trained by the same guy, or anything like that. (I put them next door to one another merely for the fun of Crossing, a GM technique.) Whereas in this case Nat was quite explicit that he wanted Seamus in Jenkins' Kicker. I don't think it was out of a misguided notions about "bringing the characters together" or anything like that; I think it was simply that upon looking at Seamus, Nat found it perfectly logical that such a character would be the candidate for an affair for Samantha, especially as a sorcerer and especially as a cynical sensualist. In other words, if the shoe fits, wear it. That's the best and actually the only reason to associate two characters directly in Sorcerer.

Note as well that the players did not try to make the two Kickers into a single Kicker, either. The content of Jenkins' Kicker actually doesn't concern Seamus' at all, but rather his Price. I think that's good practice for this game as well, which unfortunately I didn't quite manage to pull off with my example characters in the core book, although I was trying.

By the end of character creation, Marc was excited to play too. But unfortunately, the next day, he slept in (and I mean GenCon sleeping-in), so it was just Nat and me at the booth. I enjoyed playing this a lot, starting right in with Jenkins hanging out at Samantha's grave, checking in on her location via Link, only to flash on hard-core sex with Seamus, ewww! We did three solid scenes: (i) Jenkins fetches Samantha from her, uh, predicament, taking her home and then apologizing profusely and pampering her; (ii) dealing with a customer, whom Samantha sends a Spawn to possess, an action very much like my role-playing of Chuni in the other example; and (iii) the next morning, when the townsfolk decide to try to run Long out of town. It was sort of a bummer not to be able to cut back-and-forth between the two characters, though, and obviously I didn't develop anything about either Kicker from Seamus' point of view.

The core feature of play turned out, interestingly, to be the Spawn, whose lust for Power totally drove its host to lead the mob and destabilize the mayor's authority. But there was one more thing in my GM pocket: a prepared Bang, intended for the end of the session, which I delivered on schedule. It was to have a band of about twenty roughnecks ride into town, led by a grizzled one-eyed man they called "Captain." They simply take over, beating up Seamus' partner and anyone else physical-looking, threateningly calling the mayor their "new best friend," demanding breakfast instantly, and making free with their plans for the local townswomen including Julia.

This is an extreme form of spiking a Kicker, or rather, all the Kickers: introducing a radical shift to the entire environment which throws the Kickers into higher gear. I did this, and have done it in the past, for several reasons: (i) the characters look, at the outset, as though they might just able to squeak by their Kickers-as-initially-written in safety; and (ii) I see that I can dramatize the basic Humanity question for these characters in extremely adverse terms. Here, the Humanity question arises straight from the initial statements - the classic community-vs.-loner conundrum found in all great westerns in their original and derived forms.

I've done this in frighteningly extreme form in other Sorcerer games, but only when it really seems perfect. Otherwise I stick to the as-conceived context for Kickers and situations. In this case, I found myself bitterly disappointed not to see what Jenkins did now via further play.

Nat and I have discussed many a role-playing issue over the years, and I suspected he might have a specific hangup to address with me via play. In fact, he was up-front about it: simply and clearly, when the hell does one roll. If I understood him correctly, the question was whether Sorcerer play was basically same-old, same-old GM-run play with a good hook-concept and a cleaner dice mechanic.

I hope I showed him otherwise, for instance regarding the brief dust-up among Jenkins, Long's partner, and Samantha in the first scene. But I can't speak for him, and I'd like to know. So Nat, speak up if you're there. I have a lot to talk about for this issue.

A little while ago, someone asked me to articulate some core principles which informed all the aspects of the game. Here they are:

Plot cannot be prepped.
No one games the universe.
Nothing is sacred.

I bring them up here because they were front-and-center in my mind as I went through all three of these fun sessions at GenCon. I'm not willing to explain how each of these factors into every single feature of the game in a comprehensive way, mainly because that's the point of all my annotations for the new release and it's a huge job. But if anyone wants to try out any interpretations of their own, or to ask any specific questions about a particular rule, I'm happy to talk about it.

Best, Ron
edited to fix diagrams link
Damn it! Having a little trouble with the file. Will fix ASAP
Done it, I think


This is an exceptionally rich thread, equal to the "Art Deco Melodrama" threads (can't find links, booo) and the "Modern Necromancy" threads (one two).  Can I, as a reader, request that some of this get taken to daughter-threads?

Here is my pet peeve
Quote from: Ron EdwardsThere should be absolutely no discussion between the two, whether "why we're together" (because that does not matter) or further processing of setting material (which should emerge from PC creation, not established here)

Intellectually I understand the need to avoid pre-play of this kind in my role as a participant, but as an audience member this is always kind if dissatisfying.  I keep asking myself, "Why the hell are all these sorcerers in the same place at the same time?!"  And it's almost always some dumb-ass little town in the middle of nowhere, too, and the protagonists are just kicking their heels doing penny-ante stuff.

I would think that when two sorcerers are anywhere near each other, that's a cataclysmic event.  Either these guys are bumping into each other for the first time, or their extremely unstable modus vivendi looms large in each character's backstory.

I dunno, I'm weird.  Never mind me.

Here is my more serious comment/question[/u]
Jesse took the "around / at" distinction in a direction very differently than I would have.  Here's my question: how do you reconcile "just play the NPC's!" with "driving with bangs"?  I think there's an implied bit of scene-framing in there, and I think it could stand to be made explicit.

When I'm GM'ing Sorcerer, I'm not just playing the NPC's.  I'm filtering for NPC's whose natural inclinations will provoke interesting responses from the PC.  If your mom doesn't really care that your demon made you shoot the bank CEO, well, your mom isn't going to be in the next scene no matter what irrelevant tidbit of information she may have about the neighbors.

In that sense, I certainly am aiming to provoke a reaction (of some kind, not caring what the player will do).  But I'm "lending" my agency to the interested NPC. 

David Berg

James, here's a thought on "just" playing NPCs:

If you have designed them absolutely perfectly in prep to bang into the PCs in the right ways, then you can just play them.

If you have designed them imperfectly in prep, then in play, you both play them and manipulate them (e.g. authoring new positions and desires during scenes or right before scenes) to get the most out of them.

Personally, when my GM instructed me on how to fill out the 4-triangle square, he was reading from the book but didn't give me much guidance.  I certainly had no concept of what "close to the center" meant.  So maybe it's no surprise that he had some damn imperfect NPCs in the mix.  Maybe I'll give this thread a more thorough read and try to figure out the optimal NPC-prep technique here (I skimmed some of the long bits).
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Quote from: David Berg on August 24, 2011, 07:59:44 AM
James, here's a thought on "just" playing NPCs:

If you have designed them absolutely perfectly in prep to bang into the PCs in the right ways, then you can just play them.


My feeling, gut, something-I-can't-describe-well, feels that playing NPC's as people who react, rather than as pawns that make players do things is more of an internal shift, more of a "every tool is a weapon if you hold it right" kinda thing and not an imperfect tool kinda thing.

I'm not sure where or how that shift happens, exactly, though and that isn't helpful at all.

David Berg

I think my personal default is actually to view NPCs as people who react!  I only turn them into pawns when their reactions don't produce what the game needs.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

This is directed toward James' earlier post.

I'm not seeing how the plausibility or logistics of the sorcerers' presence in a given location applies. I don't think I mandated that the characters be in one another's laps; if the described environment is big enough, they could well be out of one another's perceived spheres (although able to affect one another indirectly). And as for multiple sorcerers in an isolated location, that strikes me as a feature of a certain kind of story, no different from having the tough-ass outlaw, the idealistic new lawman, and the corrupt rancher all being in the same hick town in the same hick county in the same hick state.

QuoteHere's my question: how do you reconcile "just play the NPC's!" with "driving with bangs"?  I think there's an implied bit of scene-framing in there, and I think it could stand to be made explicit.

I confess bafflement. The two concepts don't need reconciling; they're complementary to the point of being synonymous. And yes, scene framing is not only implied, but utterly integrated with them, because part of scene framing is casting. I really don't know what else to say.

QuoteWhen I'm GM'ing Sorcerer, I'm not just playing the NPC's.  I'm filtering for NPC's whose natural inclinations will provoke interesting responses from the PC.  If your mom doesn't really care that your demon made you shoot the bank CEO, well, your mom isn't going to be in the next scene no matter what irrelevant tidbit of information she may have about the neighbors.

I think you might be reading "playing" to mean talking in a characteristic way for that character, regardless of content. But by "play," I mean doing things. So necessarily, when I play an NPC, I am starting by grabbing one of them for whom circumstances are prompting action. In my quoted text above, I tried to dismiss the possibility of "playing an NPC" being taken to mean "stand there and bobble-head while talking about something unimportant, ever so perfectly in the character's accent."

Best, Ron


First, my context: I read the first page of the thread, got to the second page and realized that the last three posts (as of the time I'm starting this) bring up whole new things I want to comment on, so I have chosen not to read them until after I post this response, so as not to confuse myself.

Oh, hey, I don't remember how identifiable names are here, so I'm the "Nat" that Ron refers to in the Western game.

So, Ron is half right about what I came to the game for: it was definitely "when do I roll?", but there's a little more context to that. The short version is:
(1) Sorcerer is just like the way I've always played RPGs, and all the explanations (both in the book and elsewhere) are [unintentionally] obfuscating that fact--perhaps because those explanations are being made by people who didn't always play that way, so this *is* in fact a change, and they assume that everyone started out the way they started out, or,
(2) I actually don't understand Sorcerer, and there is some subtle distinction that I'm missing.

In order to address this, I really wish I'd gotten to play a little longer with Ron, and with at least one other player--this would give me the chance to see the rolls from the outside as well as when I'm involved in them. Nonetheless, I think I've gotten some insight into the whole thing, and my conclusion is that I was missing some subtleties of how the dice are used in Sorcerer, but that a large part of it was having it explained to me as "this is unlike the other games you've played" so I was looking for the differences when, in large part, it actually wasn't that different [from how I was playing "traditional" RPGs in the early 90s]. Different, yes; completely new, no.

However, the other thing I discovered by playing with Ron is that it is different in a completely different way than I was looking for. Specifically, he has a different notion than I had [from reading Sorcerer and some tentative attempts to play it] of not so much when to roll--though I'm not entirely sure we're on the same page yet--but in what to roll for.

Let me use a scene from our play to try and elucidate the distinction.

Our first scene was Jenkins, my character, going to Seamus' wagon to...well, I didn't know for certain until he got there. When he did, Ron described Seamus' partner sitting on the back step of the wagon, while the wagon was literally rocking with the activity inside. I tried to order him out of my way, but was unsuccessful. Hmmm...I have a recollection of having an extra die for my next roll, which would imply success, but that doesn't match up. Oh, right, I think I recall: he just sat there, grinned, and revealed the pistol under his coat. Jenkins was unarmed. I realized that Jenkins isn't particularly impressive at action stuff, and he doesn't think of himself as a powerful man--magically or otherwise--so he isn't about to go up against the armed guy. So, instead, he orders his "wife" out of the wagon, now! She flings the door open, nearly knocking Seamus' partner over, and stands there in the doorway, stark naked, glowering at Jenkins. Jenkins orders her to come home, and she responds, very matter-of-factly, that Seamus isn't finished yet. However, I won *this* die roll (that's where the bonus die came from, IIRC) vs. the demon (being rolled by Ron, of course), so she complied. The fact that Seamus said "oh, it's all right, you go on now" didn't even matter, because this was about the battle of wills between demon and sorcerer.

Up to this point, everything had happened exactly as I would have expected, mechanically speaking. Which things we rolled for, vs. role-played, vs. just accepted as a given, matched up with how I would've called it as a GM. Or, at worst, it was obvious in hindsight why Ron made the call he did. Right here is where it got interesting for me, in terms of understanding the mechanics. Seamus' partner pulled his gun to shoot Jenkins. Jenkins took off his coat and held it out for the demon, to cover her up. The demon came to Jenkins and used its armor to protect Jenkins. Now, I would've thought that my roll for Jenkins would be opposed by Ron's roll for Seamus' partner, maybe with a bonus from the demon's armor ability. But, if i recall correctly, Ron declared that the rolls were only to determined he order of these actions--that, basically, Jenkins' and Seamus' actions weren't in direct opposition--both could occur or fail independently. So the demon's roll beat the pants off Seamus' roll (I think it was like 9 dice vs 4), meaning I was protected regardless. Essentially because I'd succeeded at commanding the demon on the previous roll.

I'm gonna stop at this point, so that Ron can correct any misrememberings and add his interpretations and explanations, and so that I can sees what he specifically wants to address in this thread WRT "when to roll".
not necessarily speaking on behalf of
The Impossible Dream

Ron Edwards


I think we've developed two different threads. I'll split the posts about setting into their own thread and here we'll stay strictly with the details of the sessions at GenCon. I'll post replies and clarifiers for the two threads soon.

Best, Ron