Horror in Sorcerer: Does it happen, is it different?

Started by Jaakko Koivula, June 23, 2010, 09:10:02 AM

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Jaakko Koivula


Im doing a small bit about horror in indie-games in a finnish convention (http://2010.tracon.fi/). If it's ok, I'd like to strike up conversation about what do Ron and people in here think about horror in Sorcerer and indie games.

My thoughts:

I have this hunch, that old-school horror is somehow tied to a pretty strong GM. In traditional RPG:ing this doesn't really show. Call of Cthulhu has basically same sort of GM as D&D or Stormbringer. The GM is maybe supposed to keep the players "more in the dark" about the statistics of monsters etc. to preserve the mystery and fear of unknown. If the players know how many HP the Great Cthulhu has, they might just start calculating how many bazookas they need to kill it, instead of being utterly terrified by it.

In Forge-styled games the GM rarely is the sort of "I arbitrarely inflict horros upon you hapless mortals" -kind of narrator/director. But in Dead of Night for example, the GM actually is quite powerful again. He throws the punches and the players go running "eek!" and "aak!" around. The game is straightly aimed at scaring the players.

But how about Sorcerer or perhaps My Life With The Master? In Sorcerer all sorts of horror film -stuff happens. Demons devour everyone and their summoners or drive people insane with fear and magiks etc. But is it horror for the players? They've pretty much responsible for most of the stuff and usually know what they've got into, so can it scare the player horror-style? If you're the bastard that's causing all the horror to happen, can you get scared by it? Or do you need to be more of a helpless victim?

Im guessing my point is, how does the system matter concerning horror? Is simulationism more "suitable" for horror in sort of: "oh crap oh crap, that werewolf is going to eat me" -way, than narrativism? Im not trying to flame up any "getting  immersed in character works better in simulationism than in narrativism" -quarrel, but it's just a thought I had.

Eero Tuovinen

I'd say that the concept of "horror" is something you should qualify and analyze a bit for your lecture. It seems to be at the root of the concern here.

My experience with games like Sorcerer and MLwM is that they do horror, but it's a bit different sort than the dread and visceral panic you mostly get in games like Call of Cthulhu or Dead of Night. The "narrativist horror" is a gut-wrenching existential desperation in the face of awful reality. It's caused by getting the player to buy into the situation (the same as visceral horror) before representing the repulsive truth that is all too credible in the situation you sold.

(Somebody has written about terror vs. horror somewhere - Lovecraft, I think. Might be useful.)

Perhaps the difference is most clearly seen in the content that is typical of these slightly different emotional reactions? Terror and desperation are caused by feelings of immediacy and confusion, a pressing need to do something right or face terrible consequences. This is what you're mostly striving for in a game like Dead of Night, and you do it by building an atmosphere and expectations, then revealing the monster, causing horrible consequences for wrong choices, making it clear that there is no God out there to save the player character from his terrible fate. In comparison, horror in a narrativist game is usually consternation at observing and experiencing an inhuman static situation with no way out. Typical of it is a strong feeling of sympathy the players have for the poor character, and typical is that the character is somehow at least symbolically responsible for his condition.

I don't off-hand see why these types of horror couldn't be mixed in one game - arguably Call of Cthulhu strives for that. There's probably not any immediate creative agenda reason for preferring one over the other, except perhaps the idea that terror does not require choices, while horror does: terror is a passive experiental state, while horror seems to have something to do with moral repulsion and consequences of your actions. A slasher killing an innocent victim is a terror element, while a sorcerer opting to summon a demon and ending up growing a second, evil head out of his armpit is horror. It might be that we usually see terror paired with simulationism and horror paired with narrativism because the viewpoints are more facilely compatible with a specific creative agenda that way - it's sort of like you're spinning your wheels doing secondary stuff if you spend a session of Sorcerer doing atmosphere and hunting the PCs through an abandoned city with an axe when you could be getting down to the business of growing demon heads out of armpits, instead. (Could do the terrorful hunt thing afterwards, though - atmospheric terror fits in a focused narrativist game easily enough in the role of consequence) So economy of expression drives individual games towards the things they really want to do.

Hmm... MLwM actually has a minor role for experiental terror in the form of Horror Revealed (was that the English name?) - now and then the players get to narrate horror vignettes that are really rather similar to the "terror" I postulate above. A natural fit for that type of content in a narrativist game seems to be as a consequence of action.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


D. Marshall Burns has written about horror in his draft of Rustbelt in the GM Guide section :

This game is about horror.  I don't mean that's about fear, or even revulsion; that's not what horror is.  Horror is when something WRONG happens.  Which probably triggers fear and/or revulsion, sure, but those aren't in themselves horror.

Stephen King wrote a lot about this, terror and fear, also.
My name is Guillaume, I'm french.

Jaakko Koivula

Eero: I like the terror - horror split! Now I'd just have to think how I can translate that into finnish...

But that's an excellent point of approach. And I think it might also be pretty nearly the only possible one. Actually it illuminates nicely what Nocker wrote in the other comment. Horror as something WRONG happening is a totally different beast, than being afraid that the guy with a meathook kills you in five horrible ways. Looking at Sorcerer, Im more inclined to see WRONG horror, and less terror. It's an interesting point.

If terror is a passive thing, then that would naturally demand that someone else than the players are laying down the horrible on the characters. You can say that your character is passive and just randomly gets devoured by a demon, but if you as a player narrate it, it propably doesn't work as terror that much. Horror on the other hand might be more easily doable in a shared narrative -type of game. Everyone can individually descent into as much madness and depravity as they want, without the GM kicking in the door and making the cops interrupt all the child-molesting and necrophilia. No-one has anyone else to blame etc.

Hmm. I like this distinction. Gotta give more thought on this.

Eero Tuovinen

Most fortunate that we could be helpful here - I thought that everybody's encountered the old saw about terror vs. horror before. I agree with Nocker that King has written something about it, too.

My pick for Finnish translation of the distinction would be "kauhu" vs. "kammo". Needs definition, but so do the English concepts - my understanding is that standard English doesn't really differentiate between those two in any generally accepted manner.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

The current absence of the older Forge threads is griping my ass. We discussed quite a bit about horror and role-playing in the early days, and I think we aired the issues so well as to make it unnecessary to go over it again. And here we are. I'll try to recall what I can.


1. The essence of horror is a distinct realization of some kind. It can be about any number of things: back-story, revelation of an event or about a person, introspection (what one is capable of, or what one is, and similar), revelation of cosmic influence (or worse, lack thereof), and others. The core content is a sense of upset, overturning of previously-held beliefs, disorientation, alienation - a shock to the value system.

It's important to distinguish between character and (for purposes of this paragraph) the reader, because the realization is only horrific when it comes to the reader. Whether it is experienced by the character or not, should be considered a device which may or may not be employed. Also, when it occurs, relative to reading the story (seeing the movie, sitting in the play, blah blah, adapt as needed) doesn't matter either. If it strikes you years later, then it worked.

To clarify and stave off a potential misunderstanding: despite the phrasing I used in the above two paragraphs, horror is not necessarily intellectual or verbalized. It's effectiveness relies in fact more on empathy and identification, in that the events of the horrific story seem indubitably relevant to one's own life.

2. The essence of terror is emotional experience, "the chills" - to contrast with horror, terror is a shock to the nervous system. However, it's more profound than mere startlement (which we immediately dismissed as unimportant in the discussions, except as a useful minor device), because it taps into dread. For example, one might become quite willing to dredge up a childhood safety ritual when terrified.

With dread in mind, a core feature of terror is that it may operate both during the experience (reading, et cetera), and in a lingering way afterwards. As a personal example, the most terrifying part of the movie The Sixth Sense occurred, for me, about a month after seeing it when I was walking my dog in the pitch-black morning (3 AM) in an urban neighborhood. We were returning home through a dark alley, and I was suddenly and fully convinced, that right around the brick corner we were about to turn, was standing a dead man, who would be staring at me.

This lingering dread cannot be shaken, and - perhaps most affecting - once experienced, one realizes that it can happen again. I became a little scared to go out on nighttime walks for a while after that, because I knew that I might be hit by a similar sensation or what would seem, in the moment, to be a fantastic visitation.

3. One thing I implied in both of the above numbered points is the distinction between what one experiences right there while engaged with the book (movie, et cetera), as opposed to afterwards. Although I focused a bit more on the latter, clearly something has to be enjoyed or experienced during the engagement itself. I currently think that whatever that is can vary greatly. One might enjoy a story at what seems like a very comfortable level, only to react more profoundly later. As an example, the film Man Bites Dog seemed like a quirky, well-done, mildly gross curiosity when I saw it, but it stuck with me so badly and so upsettingly that I can't even look at the DVD on the shelf in a video store today, and I saw it in 1993. Whereas in other cases, the terror or the horror is quite profound during the engagement itself.

4. Clearly horror and terror can be present at the same time, or more broadly, may be produced in whatever degrees by the same artistic work. Perhaps this point deserves a second look.

5. "Fear" should be recognized as an unhelpful term. Either it's only one emotion, such that many sensations or reactions associated with the above two terms are left out; or it's too broad to be useful, including many distinct emotions.

6. Humor deserves a very deep discussion in terms of how it may be intertwined with either terror or horror. I don't think we got very far about that, except to say that humor is often a valid component of either one, and that these were deep waters and not subject to quick or off-hand comments. Oh yes, and to say that self-referential parody was both (i) utterly off-topic, regardless of any or all "horror" (et cetera) motifs, and not what we're talking about at all; and (ii) so identified with the term "horror" in cinema today that talking sensibly about genuine horror (or terror) means literally tearing whole chunks of habit out of our thinking and talking in order to make any sense.


We quickly realized that most talk about horror or fear in role-playing, before 1999-2000, was wish-fulfillment or worse, rank ignorance. I'll repeat here my claim that although it may be that groups here and there, over the years, have experienced genuine horror or terror while playing Call of Cthulhu, there was no evidence at all that playing this game consistently generated such things, and the evidence pointed to more general tendencies toward Halloween-style scare-fun (often at conventions), genre emulation (and I specifically point to August Derleth as the primary influence on the game, not H. P. Lovecraft), and the opportunity to cut-up because you are not obliged to keep your character alive, much as in Paranoia. There was some kind of widespread belief among gamers, we found, that playing Call of Cthulhu was horror, such that the cart had become the horse. As a later-date note, Jesse's recent comments about how he, as a young person, thought of RPG texts as genre Cliff's Notes, are profoundly important here.

To be blunt: there wasn't any horror or terror that we could see in terms of RPG design out there. That's not to say that those things didn't happen, ever, but that whatever made them happen was going on in ways which either ignored or radically retooled the rules in question.

A couple of the issues of how horror or terror can be found in (or via) role-playing should jump out given my listed points above. First, it tied into a core point of early Forge discussions, which was that most post-game talk was wildly unreliable and often entailed people making up a fun experience that they came to believe actually happened. In the presence of this very common phenomenon, trying to discuss the immediate vs. delayed effects of either horror or terror was impossible. Second, genre emulation was something of a trap, when it became an end in itself rather than a device or means.


1. Regardless of what you may mean to think so far, I don't intend here to disrespect the game Call of Cthulhu. It has many virtues, and it certainly contributed astonishing details and content to role-playing design culture. There's a reason that people kept genuinely playing it for decades, with or without a recent revision to fan the flames, and keep doing so. However, again, here I'm talking about terror and horror, and I think that Call of Cthulhu is a great example - perhaps even a gorgeous example - of the genre emulation trap. I guess the only way I can put it is, there are too many layers. To summarize, playing the game is an emulation of the sourcebook/scenario content, the sourcebook/scenario content is an emulation of Derleth's Lovecraftiana, and Derleth's Lovecraftiana is an emulation of Lovecraft's fiction. These layers are themselves incredibly enjoyable (I'll play a CoC game with ya, no question), but they also serve as a buffer against both terror and horror. Pickman's Model is a horrifying story. Nothing relating to that story's content in the rulebooks and scenarios of the game Call of Cthulhu is horrific.

(Personal note, for purposes of clarification. Of Lovecraft's outright horror fiction, I call Pickman's Model, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Thing on the Doorstep, and The Picture in the House the best. The latter is raw terror, incidentally. The story The Call of Cthulhu, by contrast, blows chunks - utterly stupid, dull, and ineffective. You can agree or disagree or whatever; I'm saying this so you know where the person writing this post is coming from.)

2. Little Fears was probably the first RPG designed toward terror; Jason Blair insisted that it be called the game of childhood terror on this basis. I wrote about it extensively in my review and in some actual play threads you can find in the old Little Fears forum.

The following games had not yet been published during the older discussions.

3. Under the Bed strikes me as a very insightful horror design, not the least because inventing and playing childhood toys seems pleasant enough at first. But we were so grief-stricken at the breaking and loss of the little tinker-toy helicopter that we could hardly continue to play. Maybe that's not horror, merely sentiment, but I can say that I did in fact suppress any musings about my own real childhood toys for a long time afterwards. I didn't want to think about it.

4. Dead of Night deserves intensive discussion, which you can find on my part anyway via the Actual Play threads. I have at least four of them, I think. Briefly, it manages to utilize genre emulation rather than fall into it as a trap, and it also manages to stay solidly based on the Simulationist agenda. I wrote about about how its order/IIEE techniques actually promote terror physiologically, and although I don't think that technique would work in isolation, it's extremely strong in combination with other features of the game.

5. I haven't played Dread, or rather, the game by that name which uses the Jenga technique. Frank Tarcikowski wrote about it in Actual Play and if I remember correctly, he talked about the immediate terror and tension involved and how well it worked.

Well, that was a real data-dump and a lot of outright assertions. I'll hold off on how this might or might not be relevant to Sorcerer. Jaakko, my impression is that your inquiry wasn't very conceptually grounded. I'm not saying it's a bad question or topic, but it would help a lot if you could say, clearly, exactly what you mean by "horror," especially in terms of a role-playing experience.

Best, Ron

Marshall Burns

Hey, somebody beat me to it. I gots fans!

But, yeah, if you want clarification on what I meant, Ron just gave it:
QuoteThe core content is a sense of upset, overturning of previously-held beliefs, disorientation, alienation - a shock to the value system.

Thus, magic in Conan stories is horrifying, because it shouldn't exist. Dracula is horrifying because he can't exist. On a more mundane level, someone pointing a gun at you in the middle of your quiet, suburban gated community is horrifying because it isn't supposed to be possible.

Terror is an interesting thing, too. If I ever get American Wizards off the ground, it'll be an important part of it. See, horror involves a certain identification, or understanding. You know that people can't come back from the dead and live off human blood, but you understand that Dracula does anyway, so that's horrifying. Terror happens without understanding or identification.


Christopher Kubasik


Everyone beat me to what I might have said.

And I think Ron's points about the "genre-trap" can't be overstated enough. I have come to get a horrible tension up my arms whenever people use the word "genre" in an RPG conversation.

I want to add, building I think on what Marshall said, that in my view horror comes down to an awareness on the part of the character that something is wrong. The horror reaches critical mass when the character engages in the wrongness. This engagement can be full comprehension (the mother in THE RING realizing what happened in the family that generated the ghostly girl) or action (the mother's decision and method to save her son at the end of THE RING.)

It's the moment when the veneer of what is possible in human wrongness is made apparent and that even you or I can do the things that are wrong.

In this respect, I think Sorcerer is full of potential for horror. Vampire, as it was advertised, did the same, by the way.

But, as Ron points out, horror comes from engagement with... well, horror. Not the pushing of genre pieces around the board. The differences between the two goals are severe.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

And I want to add...

Ron pointed out that we need to make a distinction between the character and the audience/reader. Which is true. What matters is delivering to the audience/reader.

My own habits/craft/techniques use characters as a "delivery system" to the audience. Especially because I work in the form of dramatic narrative (plays/movie/tv) where the story is told specifically through the words and deeds of and between characters. That might just be a preference on my part. And different media (novels and more) allow many other options to transfer story and information to the audience/reader without using the character as the medium.

But Ron's point stands. That's my point. If the character in an RPG is saying, "Oh, I've been touched the horror of what I've just seen," but the players aren't moved at all, we're doing a great H.P. Lovecraft Halloween Pageant. But it ain't horror.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Paul Czege

The RPG.net Game Index doesn't think My Life with Master is horror. As contrary evidence I offer the following two incidents of actual play from the very first multi-session playtest (excerpted from Google's cache of the Forge forums from 2002).

From the second session of the game:

    Tom is playing a hunchbacked minion named Hiram, who has a connection to Catharine Dowkins: he enjoys listening to her singing while she draws water at the well. It was revealed by my scene framing, in the first scene of the first session of the game that Gideon, Matt Gwinn's playwright minion, had written a challenging role for the Master, that of a "sympathetic rapist who can sing." And in the first session the minions abducted a wanted rapist, a singing rapist named Jack Hervey, from the Constable and his honest men, just as they were about to hang him for his crimes.

    A sequence of play in this second session begins with the Master giving Hiram a very distinctive knife stolen from Lucian Sterling, the son of the Constable, Masheck Sterling, and instructions to wait by the well at dawn, kill a woman who comes to draw water, and leave the knife behind. "Masheck Sterling will be distracted from his efforts to investigate the whereabouts of his rapist by our implicating his son in a grisly crime." Not surprisingly, Tom had Hiram resist. He suggested an alternative to the Master's plan, offering that it would be better to kill someone close to the son, and got the Desperation die for that. And he won the roll.

    And then he called for a scene with his Connection, Catharine Dowkins. So I framed Hiram hiding in the bushes behind the home where Lucian Sterling's fiance Claudia lives, and hearing the singing of Catherine as she passes by on her way to the well. Tom has Hiram leave the knife behind and pursue Catherine. After a bit of group brainstorming, he decides Hiram's overture will be to give Catherine a skinned rabbit. We roll. He fails, so she recoils and he gets the Self-Loathing as well as the Love. I go to roleplay her reaction, and Danielle says, "Don't make her a vegetarian." I ask why. "There wasn't any such thing in 1805." So Catharine responds, "Meat, on a Friday?" and looks horrified. He is clearly no Christian. Hiram thrusts the rabbit into her hands and says, "Make it on Saturday." And bolts from the scene.

    Next scene for Hiram, before I even frame anything, Tom launches into a painful roleplay of Hiram stabbing Claudia Repton, muttering, "gave her a rabbit..." and "stupid, stupid, stupid" as stabs her again and again.

From the fourth session of the game:

    In an earlier session I'd framed Matt Gwinn's character Gideon into a scene with the Master, Attor Fusae, in the conservatory of the home of an outsider, Lord Barlow. His daughter Phoebe Barlow, 15, was playing the pianoforte as her friend Molly Irish, also 15, and chaperone Dame Claire Augusta, 63, looked on. "Isn't she beautiful, Gideon?" said the Master. "I have promised her and Miss Molly the box seats at our first performance of your brilliant play. Does that make you happy?...You must do something for me. The ladies will wish to see me after the performance. You must make sure they find their way to my dressing room...and that their unfortunate chaperone is otherwise detained separately." It was a command that Gideon wouldn't act on until last Monday, two game sessions later.

    The intervening session featured the stage performance of the play, in which the Master, having consumed the wrong subject, delivered a grotesque and incoherent performance that culminated with him professing his love, sotto voce, to Danielle's character Ambrose, and commanding Ambrose to "take my love inside you," right there on stage. Of course, most of the audience had already departed. Ambrose's attempt to resist, "I will always be second to your love of the stage," was unsuccessful.

    So last Monday: The session began with Matt's effort to satisfy the Master's command to make sure Miss Phoebe and Miss Molly find their way to his chambers. He tossed local actor Uriah VanSickle from the box where he'd spent most of the performance chatting the girls up, to the floor of the theatre, an act which resulted in the man's death. Motive? It was largely the presence of VanSickle in the box that had disoriented the Master to the point of ruining the performance of Gideon's play. Gideon botched an attempt to knife Dame Claire, snapping his blade against the boning of her corset, and took a ferocious and bloody bite to the nose from the old woman as a response, and had to suffer the consequence of her yelling for the young girls to flee for their lives. But he succeeded ultimately in murdering Dame Claire and Miss Phoebe.

    Next scene I framed Ambrose out sitting on the porch of the theatre, and negotiated with Danielle what he might be doing there. She settled on the idea that he was engaged in nursing a bottle of gin in response to his recent molestation. I described Miss Molly bursting from the theatre, disheveled, and throwing herself at Ambrose's feet. She begged for help. Danielle decided that Ambrose was unmoved. But as Gideon, covered in blood, emerged to take Molly into custody, Danielle described how Ambrose stopped him for a second so he could take the girl's shoes, because "he likes them." Sheer Authorial power on Danielle's part, and I think it pretty much creeped the shit out of everyone in the room.

Two thoughts:

In both cases the horror was very much elective and creatively inspired on the part of the player. My sense is that horror in Sorcerer is the same. If so, if horror isn't driven by mechanics but is somehow inspired, then what is it about My Life with Master and Sorcerer that inspires it that's not there in Call of Cthulhu and other pre-1999 RPGs?

In the first case, Tom's roleplay of Hiram's butchery of Claudia, the other players all laughed. In the second case of Danielle's taking of Miss Molly's shoes, no one laughed. Everyone was just really quiet. There is definitely a connection between humor and horror, but for all I've seen in playing My Life with Master over the years I don't have a good sense of what makes certain horrific events also humorous.

"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton

Larry L.


"H.P. Lovecraft Halloween Pageant"? Oh, that's good! I'm using that phrase in the future.

Jaakko Koivula

Cheers for all the answers and musings, this is extremely interesting. And sorry if the subject is a bit of an undead horse for most already.

Ron: The last bit about "what you mean about horror?" is pretty much my problem also. I was asked to participate to a panel discussion and Im now trying to find out what I think about the subject. I just had this hunch, that Sorcerer might be about the most harrowing game that anyone can play.. but would it be "horror" in the sense that horror is usually understood? The subject of the panel is basically how horror, fantasy and gaming interact and mix.

My original thought went somehow like this: "Game of Sorcerer can have all the bits that a good horror story/movie has. It has demons, death, hauntings etc. Still, I haven't heard it described as a horror game. Why is this? Are there actually any horror games that scare you like a good H.P. Lovecraft -story does?"

I've played Call of Cthulhu just a few times and always with really brilliant GMs, so I might have a pretty skewed view of the game. In retrospect it's rather painfully obvious that those games could have been played using any other gaming system ever. Call of Cthulhu propably didn't make the horror happen, it just didn't get in the way either. As Ron pointed out, CoC still pretty much is the de-facto horror game. If someone says they're playing horror, they're propably playing CoC.

And that means, that if I want to speak about horror and gaming, I've got to say something about CoC too. You guys have really helped me about this bit. I personally might have needed that "CoC doesn't naturally lead into great horror" -nudge.

Looking at the definition of horror we are arriving at in this thread, Sorcerer seems to be about nothing else than it! Calling demons is hyper-wrong, impossible and bad.. and still you decide to do it. Pretty much taking what Christopher and Marshall said to the max.

Im still feeling, that old school players of CoC would be more willing to accept Dead of Night as a "proper" horror game more readily, because of the simulationism aspect. But Im not sure if that actually has most to do about how hard it is to get old school to accept non-simulationist games in general...

But on the subject:

I love the observation that Dead of Night's system actually promote terror. This is actually the real meat of what Im personally interested in. System, that does matter about horror. CoC has rules about sanity loss and stats for The Cthulhu, but it's just sort of assumed that those actually make the game more horrible. "Auugh, yog-Soggoth, crap! Where do I run? .. oh wait, gotta roll for my sanity first. Damn, lost 2d4 + 3 points." It maybe makes the game look more like a lovecraftian novel with characters going insane, but does it intensify the experience the players get from the game? There might be the re-enacting the genre -trap for you again.

I haven't played Dread either, but the Jenga-system sounds like that might really work with horror. "Does the passing monster notice Im hiding in the cupboard?" and there's the diegetic tension of being eaten and the concrete tension about drawing the block and it just sounds like it might mesh beautifully. You can prolong pulling a block way longer and more appropriately, than just tossing a dice and finding out if you die. Also, success and failure are immediately more spectacular and demand less interpretation. Slightly different than in a normal RPG, where first you throw the dice and the GM thinks and shuffles the book for a really long time if he can save your character by giving enough obscure bonuses to your ridicilously low roll, etc.

I really don't know much anything about game designing, so in this area I really have to rely on others. Do sanity rolls make the game more horrible? Or is it better to have the players make the characters go insane of fear on their own?


I want to share an experience of terror also.

We watched The Grudge with my roommates and got pretty terrorised about it. It's a rather stupid and cheap movie, but still. Worked on us. After the movie, my roomies went drinking and I went home, honestly slightly worried about being in a big, old house by myself the whole evening. At about 04:00, I suddenly woke up to that "hgrrr hgrrr hgrrr" sound the ghost in the movie made. Roommate had come home from bar and was making the sound at my door. It was extremely hilarious, but goddamn. I mean, goddamn!


Something I wanted to add this discussion.  Sometimes I run into people who are struggling with how to play Sorcerer in a way that doesn't really have much to do with the rules or the play style assumptions but rather the setting.  They're struggling to understand what "the world" of Sorcerer looks like.  This is because they're thinking of Sorcerer as an "Urban Fantasy" game like the World of Darkness games or the Dresden Files books.  They think it's a place where there's a hidden reality where demons and Sorcerers battle for the souls of mortals or something like that.

It's interesting but usually all I have to say to this kind of person is: "Sorcerer doesn't use fantasy story logic.  It uses horror story logic."  There's almost this instant re-orientation.  Here, "Fantasy" means complex imagined world (hidden or otherwise) with imagined factions and political agendas.  While "Horror" means ordinary everyday world encounters a singular, unknowable *thing* whose explanation ranges from unrevealed dark human truth to completely incomprehensible.



Interesting thread.

Not to hijack, but this whole discussion brings up a wider question.

Arguably, terror/horror/fear is an emotional response. So the OP's point becomes, is ruleset X better than ruleset Y at eliciting this particular response from the players?

My response is to ask:
Do any rulesets reliably elicit emotional responses, of any form, from the players?

I think there are some; MLWM, Vampires (the one based on Hungry, Desperate and Alone), probably loads of others. I wonder, though. The rulesets I mentioned play with very negative emotions. Are there any rulesets that aim to elicit positive emotions?

Ron Edwards

Kevin, that is a reasonable paraphrase of the question, but it's a given in this particular discussion community. It may help Jaakko immensely in his panel to make that clear, for sure.

You also hit the nail on the head by distinguishing between the content and the response. Or perhaps "use" is a good word for the latter too, as "use" and "response" are often indistinguishable for this activity.

My first thought was that Sorcerer horror is almost totally going to be about response, because the text is built as a musical instrument rather than an album or a karaoke machine. Reading the book doesn't produce substitute the same thing that play might produce, any more than looking at or studying a trumpet will produce a song ("studying" in the sense of not touching it).

Yet ... there are some content issues to point to.

1. As you wrote about in your first post, the concepts of demons and sorcery itself offer a degree of cognitive dissonance on several levels.

i) The "demons don't exist" concept is fundamental. It's important to understand that in most applications of Sorcerer, the demons do not exist in the setting you're playing in. They are 'wrong' in a basic way. You should never introduce the game as "demons exist and you bind them." You should say "magic doesn't work at all and your character has bound a demon." If the person you're talking to goes "Oh!", then you can play Sorcerer with them. If they say "Huh, what?", then drop the subject and play some other game.

ii) Given the awesome not-possible-but-you-did-it context for demons and sorcery, the real question is what could possibly be worth doing such a thing. In many ways, what matters most for a given character is not what sort of sorcery they do or what sort of demon they have, but what they are actively opposing or striking out against. Can you think of anything, here and now in the real world, that strikes you as so evil and wrong that you would break - in fact, disrupt and damage! - the universe in order to stop? I can.

2. The person as a sorcerer is only framework; the core for play is the Kicker. As Christopher says, first you have a person, then the person is a sorcerer, and then the sorcerer faces a Kicker. This means that an opportunity or a danger, or both, has arisen that will put everything implied by #1 above to its harshest test. Before play starts, the character is reasonably comfortable with his or her metaphysical trade-offs regarding sorcery. The Kicker should be the day in which that comes under question.

3. Check out these threads: (i) Sorcerer doesn't scare me. What's wrong with me?, and the older , which pretty much speak for themselves; and (ii) So, I'm flying a spaceship, in which you can see that the essential point ("horrifying" potentially) concerns Humanity, and its relevance to the real person, rather than details of technology and whatever it can or can't do by the game rules.

4. In terms of theme, the core book sticks with the basic concept of demon-bargaining, but with a strong dose of pre-1960s horror fiction and a certain emphasis on urban splatter action (e.g. Hong Kong cinema of the late 1980s). Sorcerer & Sword is profoundly existential; Sorcerer & Soul is about "sin" at the visceral level even for people without metaphysical convictions; Sex & Sorcery focuses on the raw uncertainty and potential chaos found in love, which we claim is the most reliable source of meaning and fulfillment in life (in addition to the points in that book about the real people who are playing). The Sorcerer line of books, in pure content terms, dances continually between two things: disrupting certainty about what you think you believe, and finding values and emergent certainty when you think or pose that you don't believe anything.

None of these is itself horrific to see in abstract form, whether here or in the books. Nor is any of them horrific in terms of simply describing game mechanics. But much as the various resolution and character creation mechanics of the game procedurally add up to, or prompt, something more, the various thematic components of the books, especially all together, procedurally add up to or prompt something which certainly includes the potential for horror.

Jaakko, that's the best I can for you, in terms of an author statement. I hope you've found it interesting or helpful.

Kevin, your wider questions about emotion and role-playing are good, but I think they are both broad enough and personal enough to merit a new thread by you in Actual Play, following the guidelines for posting in that forum.

Best, Ron