Questions regarding apparently non-sentient Demons (f. ex. technological)

Started by lachek, October 27, 2009, 10:10:17 PM

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We've run a couple of sessions of Sorcerer in an Afterglow-based post-apocalyptic setting. Things got a bit messy, both with the game and with scheduling the game, and it may be a while until we return to it. In the meantime I'd love to get some feedback on some problems we ran into regarding the exact nature of demons given this one-sheet.

The players' demons were:

  • a nanotech colony (Parasite) who protects the host from toxins and repairs tissue
  • a giant robot (Passer) intended as a teaching companion for small children
  • a HUD combat helmet (Object) yielding preternatural reflexes in combat
  • an ocular implant (Parasite) with the ability to sense guilt

My intention was to allow the players to identify the things that caused civilization to fall by specifying what tech is demonic and what tech isn't. I also wanted to keep the question of whether or not demons truly had a will of their own or not open-ended. Same thing regarding whether or not they respond to "magical" thinking - we know mechanically that it's easier to control a flamethrower if you mix the blood of a chicken into the napalm, but in the fiction we ought to be able to call that coincidence rather than true cause/effect. Make sense?

As it turns out there were a few problems with this.

First off, it became very difficult to portray the demons as malevolent without giving them any kind of personality. "Teddy", the giant robot, had something resembling a personality but still had to respond to his master in a rather simplistic fashion to maintain the illusion that he was not driven by a higher consciousness. As the other demons were uncommunicative, it was difficult to portray their nature as hostile to human life - the closest I ever got to it was the HUD combat helmet, which on a few occasions responded to purely social hostility by transforming the image of the person to a paper doll and flashing HOSTILE TARGET ACQUIRED across the screen to incite a violent response.

Unsurprisingly, keeping up the illusion of the demons as inert tech became increasingly difficult. I found myself floundering quite a bit when I didn't have a plausible method of simply voicing my main NPCs' wishes to the PCs but instead had to cushion it in machine-like behaviour. It was a continuous two-step process of thinking "what would a demon do" and then "how would a sentient machine do that while keeping up appearances of non-sentience", which was rather exhausting.

One suggestion from the players was to limit "demons" to technology which is both antagonistic to human life and fully capable of communication, with at least a rudimentary AI . While I see how that might work, it nullifies one big aspect of what I thought was cool about the one-sheet, which is for the players to make commentary on what technology they see as capable of destroying the world and why.

It was also a bit tricky to determine how Contacting might work when demons are physical and scarce. According to my one-sheet, it's "Locating, Researching, Recycling, Testing". That all seemed good and well in theory, but in practice it's a bit grating when a player says "Alright, so, I'm going to try to locate some kind of weapon in this robot factory - it'll have Special Damage Lethal and Boost Stamina". In vanilla Sorcerer, it's perfectly reasonable for a sorcerer to contact a demon from beyond time and space anywhere, anytime. Even if using a one-sheet like "demons are drugs" it's pretty easy to justify why a sorcerer would have near instant access to a bottle of rum or a crate of Nyquil. But when demons are rare, obscure technological artifacts it seems less reasonable that a PC would trip over one whenever they have an hour or two to bind it. I figure many settings treat demons as rare in the same way (Judd's solar system setting springs to mind), and I wonder how others handle that problem?

Finally, it was pretty cumbersome to play all those demons, along with other NPC antagonists, especially in the one major conflict we've had so far. Which got me thinking, what are people's thoughts regarding offloading "everyday" demon decision making and characterization to other players, with final say by the GM? I think in theory, handing over control of that ocular implant to some other player to inflict pain on its owner so the GM doesn't have to constantly think about it might be useful. I envision it handled a bit like the Shadow-player in Wraith, except for the fact that the GM can take back control at any time to serve her needs. I can't be the first person to have thought of that - any experiences or thoughts you could share?

To sum it up:

  • How to properly portray and play demons when demons do not have or cannot display a personality
  • How to play demons with no fictionally apparent sentience or motivation (but where sentience and motivation must exist as per the mechanics)
  • How to handle demon scarcity, when Contacting rules call for it being possible most anytime the player feels it ought to be
  • How to offload (some of) the playing of demons onto other players

Thanks in advance for your insights.

Ron Edwards


As a general point and first impression, I think you over-intellectualized just about everything about play.

Regarding your main concern, my answer may be frustrating to you. As I see it, the GM should always play the demons as if they were deliberate, goals-directed creatures. The whole business of "mechanical," "inert," or "non-intelligent," or whatever you want to call it, should remain a feature of narration (i.e. in-game cause and presentation) alone.

Doing this is a skill. Developing skills often takes practice and includes false steps or failed tries. I think you're working through developing the skill, and encountering predictable difficulties, and all I can say is, "it's a process, keep going." My only advice is that you conceive of such demons as having more intense Desires, rather than less.

Regarding your Contact scenario and question, it seems apparent to me (and again I'm only going from your account here) that "tripping over it" is a counter-productive interpolation of your own. Given that no sorcerous ritual can be conducted by accident, by definition, then "locating, researching, recycling, testing" (from your one-sheet) all require proactive and imaginative work on the part of the character.

So the character is in a warehouse and wants to Contact a demon with abilities thus-and-such. "Trip over it" is inadmissible and therefore not an issue in the first place. What does the character do to Contact it? That's the question. It has to be something that taps into the look-and-feel for demons in the game.

I can think of about a dozen things off the top of my head. I'm having a little trouble seeing why you didn't, but I also know that in the heat of play, a certain forgetfulness or density does crop up some time. The question is whether you can think of about a dozen things off the top of your head now.

Best, Ron


Hi Ron,

Over-intellectualizing Sorcerer play is actually becoming part of my daily routine, in case you haven't noticed.

Your answer actually isn't frustrating at all and I think it's in line with my understanding. As the GM, I'm supposed to assume the demons work as fire-and-brimstone demons should. I'm then supposed to take the action the demon ought to take but translate it into something that makes fictional sense given the one-sheet. It'd be rather nonsensical to have the nanobot colony take control of its sorcerer's vocal chords, for example, but it might be totally reasonable for it to secretly communicate with a data terminal by touch.

The players should do the same - accept the Faustian theme of characters getting in (possibly) over their head, accept their abilities as fire-and-brimstone sorcerers, and then translate their actions into something that makes fictional sense given the one-sheet. Your comment about Contacting makes good sense in this regard. While the player in question didn't literally narrate tripping over a demon, it was definitely a "gimme" rather than a true Contacting ceremony which the player was invested in playing out, and resulted in a bland demon mostly made up of a few mostly beneficial numbers rather than of true demon-stuff. Rather than saying "yes" to the player at that point, I should've said "what do you do specifically to locate such a terrible, deadly object?"

As you say, doing this thinking in the heat of play is definitely at the core of these problems. I recognize that with practice, we'll all get better at it. To be blunt, the question is whether or not we'll have an opportunity to get this practice the long and hard way before we tire of it. I suppose what I'm asking for are some shortcuts - not shortcuts to mastery, but to a more enjoyable game in the interim. That's the reason I'm asking for people's ideas regarding distributing characterization responsibilities of demons to other players, for example. If a player could take responsibility for just one of the demons, s/he would have more compute time to consider plausible characterization of that demon than the GM, who has to take so many more things into account at any given time.

Something which became immediately obvious to me right after play began was that if we'd played a traditional Faustian sorcerer game, that second step of brain-grinding to get the demonic behaviours to fit within the fiction would not be necessary - just play the demons the way demons ought to be played. Similarly, Contacting could be done anywhere, anytime - as demons don't exist anyway, it doesn't matter where and when you contact them, and nobody would get strange ideas like "it's perfectly reasonable that there should be a fire-breathing Hell Imp in this factory". So I guess what I'm really looking for are ways to drift my one-sheet to function as much as possible as Faustian sorcery does without invalidating the cool parts.

I think it'd be useful to know how other people portrayed tech-as-demons in their games, if nothing else but to give me some inspiration. If there are any AP posts someone could point me to I'd appreciate it, or if someone wants to tell me something illustrative that happened in their own game. Once again, Judd's solar system setting is interesting to me as many of the conceits overlap and the definition of demons are quite similar.


Hah. I realized (after over-over-intellectualizing and coming out the other side) that another method would be to simply say: Fuck the metaphor, demons are demons and work exactly the way the mechanics and source material say they do. Your sorcerer thought that was a HUD combat helmet, huh? Well, surprise, you're actually wearing a hellspawn on your head. A hellspawn who's totally free to munch on your head if it feels like it, or sprout legs and run away, scientific explanations be damned.

It feels like a bit of a cop-out though, and would be undermining the players' trust in the one-sheet. But it's an idea that sounds pretty workable.


-My real name is Jules

"Now that we know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, how do we determine how many angels are dancing, at a given time, on the head of a given pin?"
"What if angels from another pin engaged them in melee combat?"


Thanks Jules, I hadn't seen that thread and it's great. Unfortunately it doesn't provide a lot of answers, though - it serves more to confirm my apprehension. I need to treat the demons as narrative elements with desires and needs - not as inert tech - but then I also have to portray them plausibly within the fiction to retain the players' suspension of disbelief. I can see why David was reluctant to go there, and why Ron and others gave him the alternative of just having tech be tech and let the demons be something else. In my setting that'd defeat the purpose, as a major play goal is to explore the repercussions of dealing with tech that's "against humanity".

Right now I feel a bit like someone who's boldly declared he's going to scale a Mt. Everest, and then goes to gripe on the mountaineering board that climbing is hard.

Ron Edwards

This forum is always a fine place to vent such feelings.

Anyway, here are some more threads of interest:

Sherman tank demon (split)
Why would I even want to play this game? (the parent thread to the above; slightly dubious utility, but some posts are relevant to the present question)
[Sorcerer] Demons as natural forces and appropriate Stamina scores ... (similar to the alchemy one - on reflection, the guy realizes he doesn't want to make his tech, or similar stuff, into demons at all)

Best, Ron



  • How to properly portray and play demons when demons do not have or cannot display a personality
    How to play demons with no fictionally apparent sentience or motivation (but where sentience and motivation must exist as per the mechanics)

Okay, so I work in IT, and this all makes a lot of sense to me. See, when people are new to computers, they think of them as strange possessed machines with an intelligence all their own, right? The computer does things that are strange and mysterious, which require getting your friend the IT Guy (with some points in Lore) to come appease the machine.

Then folks usually get some experience and understand that, no, computers are just machines that are basically logical, though occasionally unreliable.

Then, some of those folks get into IT, where they discover that computers are strange possessed machines with an intelligence all their own. And now it's your responsibility to appease them or to find someone else with Lore who can give you some rollover successes on your Punish roll.

I kid you not. Modern-day computers are totally demons.

My old work laptop was cranky. I'd boot it up sometimes, and it would sulk and refuse to work. I'd have to turn it off and then turn it back on before it would actually work. Then the sound card would turn off from time to time, usually when I was in the middle of a Skype call. Rebooting worked...sometimes....

Now I have a new laptop, which is generally better behaved, though it doesn't like going to sleep sometimes.

See what I did there? Those two laptops were characters. I ascribed to them personality and motive. That's because I really do ascribe personality and motive to computers. My mind tells me that they are just machines, but I'm not always totally sure.

Make your "technology" the same way. So, that HUD helmet is unreliable in combat...unless it was properly charged last night and rebooted properly. Otherwise, it's kinda sulky and doesn't really work as well as it should. That ocular implant occasionally s-l-o-w-s d-o-w-n...unless it was appeased in some fashion.

Or Punished.

I mean, I yell at my computer. Don't you? Do you expect it to listen to you?

Because, on some level, I do.
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown


Seth, that's pure gold!

As it happens I'm also in IT and came to the same realization as you some time ago. With the completely inept and with my peers, I usually discuss computers in language which ascribes personality in that sense as I've found it communicates the point very well. With people who have achieved some degree of understanding, but who have not yet achieved the level of understanding where they realize they actually know very, very little (i.e. "power users") I avoid using such language as it tends to muddle and confuse. I can't believe I didn't consider using the same in this game.

In the fiction, the completely ignorant will treat the demons as magical implements, not mundane objects. Compare "boomstick". This is the vast majority of NPCs.
There are those who believe they know what's really going on - but they're not sorcerers. These folk might be able to piece together and operate vacuum cleaners or wind turbines, but they can't do anything with ancient "demon" tech - computer networks, biotech, advanced military equipment, etc - because they don't comprehend what powers make them tick.
And finally there are sorcerers, who are people with perhaps some comprehension of the science behind the demon tech, but definitely with a degree of comprehension of makes these demons really tick.

I can totally grok this idea and I think this will make it a lot easier for me both to run the game and convey the ideas behind it to the players. Thanks!


No much to add about the over-intellectualizing discussion part of the thread, but I wanted to mention to lachek that I really like his campaign link. Some really cool ideas hidden therein.
Marv (Finarvyn)
Sorcerer * Dresden Files RPG * Amber Diceless
Forge Member since 2004
OD&D Player since 1975


Marv, thanks! Just to make it clear, most of the ideas (text, even) is lifted directly from Afterglow. I've added a few details to flesh the world out in the direction I wanted to take it.

Quite a few subtle changes are needed to the one-sheet to incorporate Seth's suggestions into it. In particular, the overarching assumption that sorcery in the setting is science and technology needs to be turned on its head: science and technology exists, but is only useful for manipulation of perfectly mundane tech (which could still be represented with certain "demon" abilities). Sorcery is the application of magical thinking to the science. A sorcerer understands that a computer doesn't just need electricity to do its work - it needs (Needs!) respect, frequent attention, and (like my home PCs) a commitment demonstrated by the continuous and expensive acquisition of more parts.

The Dragon Master

Reading this has me totally wanting to run a post singularity/techno-animist Sorcerer game!

And GreatWolf? That's definitely been my experience with computers. When I was a kid I had a comodor64, followed by an IBM POS, both of which required certain rituals in order to keep them working. This led to me building my own PC, named Loki due to it's personality and the way it responded to every... single... change I made (change the background color? well now we need to reboot, clear the cache, reboot again, and better wipe the browsing history... ok, now it runs right... crap, forgot to update the IE version. Okay, reboot, clear the cache...)
Then I went to college for my AAS in Microsoft Networking Tech. Learned that most of the ritual Loki and I went through had nothing to do with the changes I was making. Went back home and... If I didn't follow the rituals (or at least punish Loki with loud voices and large thumping instruments) the changes either wouldn't take, or they'd take the system down.
I've been in tech support now for about two years and... yeah, they're sentient. They just don't want us to know yet. And I'm not going to spill their secret (they know where I live after all ;-).
"You get what everone gets. You get a lifetime." -Death of the Endless
The names Tony