TFT: Wizard and Sorcerer origins

Started by Ron Edwards, August 17, 2010, 03:10:55 PM

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Ron Edwards

This thread has a sister topic in the Actual Play forum: [The Fantasy Trip: Wizard] One little pamphlet = 100,000 words.

If we were to look only at fictional content or what I (much) later called Premise, then it's easy to see that RPGs had not mined the classic summoner/Faust/Thoth-Amon material particularly well. The game which had come the closest was Stormbringer, and in playing it, I saw some ideas that I liked a lot, including demon creation as a part of play. But after playing it a fair amount, and after coming to my own ideas about Moorcock's work, and after deciding that I was after something more general than a celebration of a single fictional source, I gave thought to a game in which such magic was the only magic - or better, there was no magic, only blasphemous disruption of reality. Various other influences are named in the book and/or discussed throughout the history of this forum.

There was another game involved too, the original Wizard (origins discussed in the sister thread), because although it included a broad range of magic, one subset had a neat combination of possible things to conjure up. Image, illusion, and summoned beings were indistinguishable by observation, but the images could be destroyed at a touch (and couldn't affect anything, vanishing if they touched something), the illusions were just like real things up to and including being killed, but could be disbelieved, and the summoned beings couldn't be disbelieved but you had to pay ST (which was actually also your hit points) to keep them around.

When I worked up a kind of Melee-Wizard-my-way game in the early 1990s (more on that below), I focused strongly on developing these rules, eventually calling any such being a "demon" and thinking of the image/illusion/summon trichotomy as three applications of the same act. It so happened as well that I really enjoyed role-playing them (as opposed to the dumb automata they were in Wizard), best articulated by Ray, one of the players: "I get the idea these things are like horrible scary Toons running around."

None of that really looks at the system, though, and here, my primary influence concerned the nigh-pure currency exchange: a character point = a pip on a die = target number unit = a unit of attribute description = unit of spell-casting fuel = a unit of damage. The game included no conversions at any step. Here, let me show you, with the information you'd find (and it'd be all you found) on a Wizard character write-up (there were no "character sheets").

Rava the Enchantress
ST 10
DX 13
IQ 9
Spells: Staff, Blur, Image, Summon Wolf, Avert, Fire, Reveal Magic, Confusion, Clumsiness
Carries a staff, Movement Allowance 10

So you get these numbers by allocating 8 points across the three attributes which all start at 8. The Strength 10 means that rolled damage (in pips) will be subtracted from this value; and also that casting spells will deduct their cost from the same value in the same units. The Dexterity 13 means that I roll 3d6 and hope to get 13 or less in order for her to cast spells or strike someone successfully (this value is adjusted by armor and damage). The Intelligence of 9 means that I can choose spells only from the IQ 8 and IQ 9 lists (the two lowest; they go up to 16) and that she knows 10 spells total.

What you spend is what you see, and what you see is what you use in play, and there are no other numbers. The Fantasy Trip games are, I think, the first RPGs or semi-RPGs to utilize this principle, and I cannot think of a single other game which did so prior to 2001. (Well, shoot, I'm fibbing about two things. When defending oi dodging, the number of dice rolled by the attacker changes rather than the total value receiving a penalty; this is the only deviation from 3d6 in these games. Also, you get experience points for fighting and surviving, especially for winning, and they aren't in the same units. If you kill a guy in a straight-up duel, that's worth 50 points. Various other possibilities net various other amounts. 100 experience points = gain 1 character point.)

What does all this have to do with Sorcerer? Ummm ... everything.

i) My original mechanics for the concept, based on sword-and-sorcery fantasy, used the Interlock System, or original Cyberpunk. I sent it to R. Talsorian in 1990 or so, and predictably received a boilerplate "thanks, didn't look at it, go away" letter, so I decided to write my own. I floundered around various permutations of Champions and Rolemaster, getting nowhere. However, I was simultaneously playing a lot of the old solo Fighting Fantasy, discovering Over the Edge and Prince Valiant, and repeatedly pulling out Wizard and wondering what I was looking at that "felt right" but wasn't quite gelling.

In Melee, the brief introductory text includes the idea of folding it into existing games. I'm not sure how sincere this was, but it's true that many RPGs of that time resolved combat in pretty big chunks of in-game time, without any attention to moment-to-moment physical events. In Wizard, this usage is also mentioned but more space is devoted to marking off territory for The Fantasy Trip as its own role-playing game. That excited me, as a kid, and when TFT: In the Labyrinth appeared, I was in heaven. Over the years, despite my never-ending love affair with it as an idea, I eventually realized that it was not, actually, working toward the strengths of the original system, nor was it taking them in a direction that excited me very much. I suppose there existed, in my head, a Fantasy Trip RPG spun from Melee and Wizard that never happened.

ii) I tried to organize a game among some friends in 1993 using a very modified version of Wizards because I finally realized that ITL had gone a direction I didn't want to follow. I thought of making 40 points the maximum, with further increases being equivalence to increased competence but not to describe the characters "selves" changing. I changed skill costs to 1 each, to make them like spells, and cut the skill list down considerably; I also preserved the notion that all player-characters would be wizards. I asked the players to read The Dying Earth, which was sort of the thematic daddy of what I had in mind, along with some Fafhrd and Mouser stories. The game was a disaster for social reasons but I thought the design work wasn't too bad.

iii) I thought a lot about why the design of GURPS had extended its expansion of the attributes into the physical, adding Health to Strength and Dexterity, but had left both force of personality and intellectual range embedded within Intelligence. Influenced by the games I mentioned in (i), I decided that the reverse made a lot more sense to me. I collapsed all physical effect upon the world into one score, and conceived a single score, Will, that would encompass the technicalities of EGO in Champions, the far more interesting PRE from the same game, and the score Presence from Prince Valiant (which had only two scores), in which Stafford had brilliantly defined as including "presence of mind" as well as impressiveness. This was also attractive because of how Will attributes in many games I'd played ended up doing very little in play. Then the technical side of IQ from Wizard could do its own job of representing specifically magical , or in this case sorcerous, expertise.

iv) Exposure to Amber and Over the Edge had taught me that the widespread obsession with skills may be misplaced, or at least could be considered part of a toolkit for game design rather than a required foundation. These games helped me get back in time past In the Labyrinth and look again at the attributes-only system in the original Wizard. H'mmm, I said. None of these characters has to pay points in order to be a wizard - they just know spells, and the points and stuff tell you which ones. The game is called "wizard," and that's all the justification you need.

v) I found myself returning to an interesting detail in the rules, one of the fib/exceptions to the Currency that I mentioned above. Nearly every modifier in the game concerned bonuses and penalties to pips to affect the total thrown, and for resolution (as opposed to damage), the number of dice was fixed at 3d6. But for parrying and dodging, and then for several other things like perception rolls in In the Labyrinth, there was this other way to modify the dice, by varying the number of them being rolled. I looked at that. Then I looked at Prince Valiant's system based on varying numbers of coins, which were effectively two-sided dice (1/0). I looked back at the 3d6, 4d6, 5d6, 6d6 rolls in The Fantasy Trip. Hey, I said. Maybe you could use dice like those coins. It took a while to file away the actual target values, but it clinched when I realized that the heads on one Prince Valiant coin throw weren't being compared to the number of tails in the same throw, but against the other guy's heads. And target numbers, and the individual meaning of any numerical property of the dice values, vanished. I was looking at a solely rank-ordered dice mechanic which still had its origins firmly in the parry/dodge rules of The Fantasy Trip.

Funny thing, too. In TFT, you used three dice, focusing on pip currency and scaling the attribute scores directly to those values. if you shift to dice currency, and if you're thinking in terms of that particular numerical scale (and preserving the number of attributes, three), then you need to divide by three (for three dice), dropping to whole numbers ... and 32 divided by 3 = 10 in that case, hence that's how I ended up with 10 points to allocate for the Sorcerer scores.

Anyway, all of this was extremely deliberate on my part, and although I sort of groped my way to it bit by bit, I did it with open eyes. The implications fascinated me. Back in late 1998, I wrote System Does Matter in hopes of clearing the air about easy things (or so I thought) such as (i) what would eventually be called Creative Agenda and (ii) resolution, in order to get right to what I wanted to discuss, these same issues of Currency exchange and reward systems (which I thought of as character improvement at the time). That is really what I've been wanting to talk about all along. Little did I know how thoroughly Agenda-clash had been baked into published game texts when I wasn't paying attention.

There's a little more to the story too, although more along the lines of the path not taken. I thought about the physical format of Melee and Wizard when first conceiving additional Sorcerer material, including dark urban stuff centered on rats, a kind of bug-warrior hybrid fantasy, something to do with incubating a monster but loving it, and more. I received absolutely zero interest when I talked to retailers about it (despite the dozens of similar-sized d20 products on their shelves, or maybe because of them), and all of the ideas eventually found their way into the supplements instead.

Best, Ron

P.S. I always wanted a solid role-playing game, not just supplements, that fit into this form factor. Most things that approach it are parodies or novelties. Jeff Dee did it with Pocket Universe, and along with being a really good game, I enjoy its look & feel greatly.

edited to establish interlinks


What a great thread, Ron. I'm always interested in the creative process that goes into RPG creation, and getting to see what was in your head from the very start is just fantastic!

Thanks for sharing this!
Marv (Finarvyn)
Sorcerer * Dresden Files RPG * Amber Diceless
Forge Member since 2004
OD&D Player since 1975

Ron Edwards

I'm glad you liked it!

But looking over this post, I realized I hadn't introduced it well, still being in the mind-set of the other thread.

A necessary introductory paragraph would include the following:

1. When I talked about "if we were to look at fictional content," it should be in the context of about 1990. I didn't make it clear that I was providing a portrait of my thought processes at that time. As far as experiences with published games go, at that time I'd played D&D since 1978 or so (of three types: the 77 Holmes version, AD&D of the 78-80 vintage, and several mash-ups based on different people's experiences and combinations of the rules), TFT: In the Labyrinth (I kept returning to this), a little bit of RuneQuest, a solid stab at Stormbringer, a metric ton of Champions (mostly 3rd edition with a strong reliance on 2nd edition supplementary materials), Fantasy Hero, GURPS (which we thought was the Holy Grail and used for both fantasy and a Cynosure game), Basic D&D (Moldvay 81), Rolemaster (fantasy and a cyberpunk home-version), Cyberpunk first edition 89, plus a few snippets of stuff like Justice Inc. I might have missed some others; I also pored over Villains & Vigilantes, Tunnels & Trolls, and Glorantha material in detail, but without play at that point. Note the glaring lack of contact with AD&D 2nd edition or any of its novel-based, metaplot-based supplements.

2. I realized I missed a couple of crucial steps in personal design. Three games or proto-games should be mentioned here.

i) A notebook-only, fun fantasy-adventure game which was kind of a stripped-down Champions using TFT logic, dating from about 1987. I remember having an incredibly fun time with this, which never really gained a name. Its content was consonant with (not literally taken from, but aesthetically similar) to books like The Eyes of the Overworld and the famous Fighting Fantasy series: quirky, colorful, violent, full of sudden upsets. I know I have those notebooks somewhere.

ii) A kind of breakthrough system that I meandered through making in 1991-1992. My only existing draft lacks the really good damage and armor rules, or rather, what I remember as being really good. I called the system BSL for "Bullshit-Less." It was pure "vision-first," in the sense that would find later expression in Sorcerer & Sword. In fact, its setting was Xar, and some of the Xar text in Sorcerer & Sword was taken from BSL. I played it only a little bit, unfortunatey, and one group that tried it found it edgy and house-ruled some things to a more traditional form, calling it "Bullshit-Lite."

iii) When Magic: the Gathering came out, I gave a lot of thought to Currency and how RPGs might benefit from the clarity of resource-use in CCGs. I wrote a pretty good little game called Grey Magic that used white and black counters on a matrix, and it ended up working well in play. Naively, I sent it to Wizards of the Coast under the misbegotten notion that this was how you did things, and it was promptly sent back with a cover letter saying they did not want it and had not read it. The counters thing worked like this - every wizard could use any and every spell, and every spell was "white" or "black." You put counters onto the matrix based on the energy you'd poured into spells, and every spell had a base cost plus a "pumping" mechanic. If you filled your matrix with one color, then the matrix cleared and stuff happened, "advancement" in the technical sense, but very thematic for that color. There was no restriction on what color you might choose in any given situation, so you could "stay grey" or "go black" or "go white" as you saw fit, no matter what you'd done already.

So all of these factored heavily into the process of making Sorcerer. To stay with the point of this thread, which concerns the origins of Sorcerer in Wizard, these three games illustrate the evolution of a key point: that in Wizard, magic was strategically limited by too many things. (i) ST cost, (ii) IQ spell level, (iii) IQ maximum number of spells, (iv) DX competence which is linked to the type of spell as well. In other words, you couldn't really strategize by any one of these because the others constrained your choices too much. I was learning that at least a couple had to go. I wanted to retain a raw physical component to magic, but had learned through Champions that "Endurance" rules were often discarded in play, and I figured that either resource or knowledge level was sufficient as a limiting factor, but not both. I threw out the idea that individuals knew "different magic" in mechanics terms, but retained a score to affect competence, and made it scholarly, and divorced from other personality/mental features. Over the Edge helped me a lot with that.

Much later, and after Sorcerer was under way (the breakthrough being late 1994), and after I was really starting to think critically about systems, I wrote two proto-games, one based on sketchy characters and a specific setting for them to develop in, and the other based on rich characters and a more sketchy setting concept that each group would specify and develop themselves. The first was called Fantasy for Real and was based largely on Vance's Cugel stories, using a suggestion from my friend John Marron that spell names would be combinations of funny terms from lists (we were cranking about how Talislanta dropped the ball on this). My contribution concerned rolling on the lists and using the number of syllables as the basis for spell effects, which had to be improvised on the fly under a time limit. This sounds clunky but was surprisingly fun in play. The game never gelled in terms of anything but the magic, but the draft had direct effects on Clinton's Donjon (Elfs and InSpectres factored into that too) and The Shadow of Yesterday.

Not relevant to the other point, but for completeness' sake, the other game was called The Human Machine and was heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell and Robocop; it played frighteningly well but was never developed because I mined its most substantive content for The Sorcerer's Soul - that's where I came up with the relationship map as a responsive and inspirational tool for play, as opposed to being kind of a social dungeon with people being rooms.

I need to dig all this stuff up, scan them (the files are probably long gone), and post them some day.

Best, Ron


Not to be totally dense here, but I'm trying to read through both threads "in order" to get the best context. It would appear that one should:
1) begin with the other thread
2) move onto the OP of this thread
3) then things become more complex, as your most recent post seems to blend ideas from both (I think). The "necessary introductory paragraph" seems to follow paragraph #1 of the OP of this thread. Then the "personal design" steps appear to follow after the sentence "What does all this have to do with Sorcerer? Ummm ... everything." from the OP of this thread.

Do I have the sequence more-or-less in order?
Marv (Finarvyn)
Sorcerer * Dresden Files RPG * Amber Diceless
Forge Member since 2004
OD&D Player since 1975

Ron Edwards

My guess:

1. The Actual Play thread.

2. The introductory section in my second post here.

3. The rest of what I posted here, in the first post of the thread.

But whatever works you is fine.

Best, Ron