[Sorcerer] Humanity as social empathy

Started by Neon White, July 05, 2009, 08:03:06 AM

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Neon White

Hi all, I'd like your input on interpreting some of nuances inherent in a defintion of humanity as 'social empathy'.  For context, the game is to be set in 1930s depression era London (and please let me know if you need more on this to make the discussion relevant).  Action is likely to be intimate and personal rather than dealing with nation-spanning conspiracies, political intrigue and so forth.

The definition of humanity as 'social empathy' is plucked out of Sorcerer & Soul (if I recall correctly) and I have used some of the text from that source when discussing it with the players.

Here is the full text:

Within this particular game, I would like to define Humanity as a form of social empathy, in a rather broad sense.

    * A person of zero humanity is specifically sociopathic: they can't see others as being 'real'. they can't even perceive
      social conventions or habits that smooth the way being people, and they cannot distinguish between lying and telling the truth.

    * Humanity therefore carries with it not only a 'sanity grade' in medical terms, but also a sense of social responsibility and competence.

    * With Humanity defined in this way, the conflicts that arise will tend to centre around human conflicts, needs and relationships.

Some questions may be asked, and the answers all hinge around our definition of humanity as a form of social empathy:

    * What are the conditions for Humanity loss and gain rolls?
    * What are Demons ?
    * What is meant by a demon's power score?
    * What is the basis for beginning Lore and the means for increasing it?
    * What kind of actions may be associated with sorcerous rituals?

Working through some possible answers (and please feel free to contribute to refining these thoughts):

If Humanity means social empathy, the actual score might refer to a person's capacity to to share feelings and understand another's emotion and feelings. It may be characterised as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes," or in some way experience what the other person is feeling. Empathy does not necessarily imply compassion, sympathy, or empathic concern because this capacity can be present in context of compassionate or cruel behavior.

Humanity in this case is both a private inner score and a social, interactive issue because it is only through the lens of others reactions that a person can become aware of their humanity.

In this context, Demons could be defined in part as things which challenge the ability to relate to others and understand others emotions and feelings. Demonic Power would thus be defined as the strength of that challenge. Sorcerous thinking would include understanding others through pure self-reference, pre-formulated systemic thinking, or rigid logical analysis without regard to others' perspective.

Defining humanity as empathy also affects what Lore is. In this case it would be defined as a matter of holding one's mind steady to a purpose, without regard for the sensitive concern of others.

    * Contacting might require the equivalent of seeking a place of extreme inner isolation or emptiness.
    * Summoning may require generating a stable state of 'mind-blindness' into which a demon can materialise.
    * Binding ...
    * Containing...
    * Banishing may be a process of somehow rejecting (healing from) the brand of mind-blindness represented by that demon.

This kicked-off a discussion with one of the players, which I will summarise in the next post and which was essentially around my comment above that empathy does not necessarily imply compassion, sympathy, or empathic concern because this capacity can be present in context of compassionate or cruel behavior.

More to follow...


Neon White

My player asked for a clarification about whether this definition of humanity depends entirely on the motivation for actions and the sense of connectedness the perpetrator feels for the target. He asked whether a character performs a noble or depraved action is immaterial for purposes of a humanity check.  A humanity check would be occasioned by acting purely to satisfy internal desires, free from reference to the feelings of others.

Here is where I started getting myself mixed up.  On the one hand I agree with him that empathy need not imply corresponding action (do unto others..).  Emotionally dissociated and actively sociopathic characters fit as examples of zero humanity, as does strong forms of autism.  They're acting out of pure self interest/gratification/by reference to their own code, without regard for the effect on another. But there's examples of vile behaviour that are driven by a full realisation and desire to affect another: torturing someone as an act of revenge, committing murder to gain or maintain the affections of another, brutally punishing a student in the belief it will teach them a valuable lesson.

Where connectedness is the motive (or a high degree of connectedness is shown by the player/character) does this qualify as high humanity regardless of the actual act itself?

On the other hand, I think that reference to social norms is also very relevant. 'Humane' (i.e. high empathy) motivation or connectedness to the target is likely to be much more difficult to demonstrate in carrying out a depraved act than an altruistic one. It isn't enough to generate what might be considered a spurious justification for acting and then expect to avoid a humanity check (indeed, such spurious justification is perhaps exactly how a sociopath may justify his actions to himself).

So this extends the idea of empathy into not just the feeling of connectedness but also a suitable and corresponding act...

Does anyone have any thoughts here on how to clarify the concept?  Perhaps some ideas of when a humanity check would be called for under this approach?

thanks in advance,


Christopher Kubasik

Hi Adam,

In general, Humanity rolls (for losses or gains) are made because of actions -- not internal states. 

I believe Ron has explicitly made this point.  My own experience with the game has taught me the game works best this way -- for the very reasons you are stumbling around with right now.

A man might say, "Because I loved her, I did [X]...."  But we all know that [X] might be a beautiful, romantic gesture, or something spooky and stalkerish, or something grotesque and violent that harms the woman.

What Sorcerer cares about is [X].  A Player Character's motivations matter -- they are part of the fiction.  ("Because I love her, I'm going to do [X]...")  But when it comes to the mechanics of Humanity, it's what one does.  If I have "empathy" for someone, but torture that person anyway, my Humanity is at risk.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Ron Edwards

Also, although the definition of Humanity is important (and often central), this game mechanic doesn't concern the in-fiction meaning of the terms, but rather what you, the real people, find evocative and important.

In other words, instead of diving deeper into the fiction to find out whether Humanity is mechanically involved ("deeper into the fiction" meaning the character's head/thoughts), step up and out of the fiction and into the reality, where you, the real people, are involved in the story as audience as well as authors.

As the GM, you have a unique responsibility at that level (the real people) - to mandate Humanity checks and Humanity gain rolls based on what you the person think of the characters and what they've done. This is non-negotiable. Because it is based strictly on your real-person sincere and actual reaction to the fictional events, it can't be gamed or logic-chopped as your friend is trying to do. By playing Sorcerer with you as GM, he must accept that you carry that responsibility. His alternative is not to play.

Best, Ron

Neon White

Ok, thanks Ron and Christopher.  I suppose I'll work out a way to ensure that there is a relatively clear set of actions that demonstrate an observable lack of empathy (and therefore occasion a humanity check).  Of course it will be contextual and subject to my final ruling as GM.  It's only fair however, to give the players a clear idea in advance of what my interpretation of the definition is, and how I will apply it. In absence of that they don't have a yardstick by which to judge their character's actions and I risk being inconsistent in my rulings. The discussion with my players is to that end...

Ron, I'm pretty clear that my friend was seeking clarity on the application of the rules and the definition of Humanity rather than making any effort to set up conditions allowing him to bypass the spirit of the rules (and thus negating the dramatic impact of Humanity as a rule-element).

I understood his question as such because I had and still have to some extent, the same concern with applying typical definitions of empathy to specific actions.  Most definitions do place it as an internally occurring event.  Sympathy manifests itself consistently.  Empathy not so.

I think I can resolve the issue by applying the following two-part definition:

Simon Baron-Cohen (2003): Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person's thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be [...]There are two major elements to empathy. The first is the cognitive component: Understanding the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective [...] the second element to empathy is the affective component. This is an observers appropriate emotional response to another person's emotional state. (Source: Wikipedia)

Most definitions of empathy I have read focus just on the cognitive component, however the affective component (as highlighted in gold above) should provide the additional part of the definition I need to link empathy to action in a consistent way.

Thanks for your thoughts,


Ron Edwards

That works for me. I've definitely found concrete examples like you're talking about to be helpful: "if someone does this, I'd call for a Humanity check." Which is not to say a rigorous list so much as examples of general ideas.

You know your friends and fellow-role-players, and I don't. My concern arises from what I've encountered every so often, and so if it doesn't apply in your case, that's a good thing.

Best, Ron