[Sorcerer] How Do You Handle Failed Contacts and Summons?

Started by Joel Rojas, April 28, 2011, 02:13:23 AM

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Joel Rojas

So the player does the cool narration, is moving the story forward, and engages the mechanics by having the character drop some LSD... picks up a bucket of dice when they turn against him and fails the roll.  What now?  I know the conventional wisdom: make failures interesting by addressing it as conflict resolution versus task resolution.  Except, in the case of sorcery, I cannot divorce it from task resolution.  The table itself is centered around micro-managing the parts: first contact, followed by summon, then bind.  I'm pretty sure shrugging your shoulders to the player and announcing a failure is not it, but what then?


Hey there,

Context is SUPER, SUPER important.  It's probably easiest to demonstrate with an example that happened in my play.

So the PC's daughter was kidnapped by some people he owes money to.  So he gathers up some of her belongings and takes them into her room where he sets up a ritual.  He's going to summon a demon to find his daughter.  The Contact roll fails.  So what happens?

His wife walks in on him.  She sees all this stuff strewn around.  This game is set it New Orleans and her family has strong voodoo roots.  Roots she's worked HARD to get away from and now, here is all this ritualistic BULLSHIT.  THIS?  This superstitious NONSENSE is her husband's idea of what to do about their kidnapped daughter?  The scene that ensued was the biggest demonstration of the PC's failings as a father in the entire game.

This is what I call The Universe slapping you in the face.  Remember that in Sorcerer, demons do not "exist" in a fantasy-logic manner.  Sorcerer's are outlaws who break the rules of reality.  When a Sorcerous roll goes bad The Universe and its laws (the real laws as we understand them today) win.  In that moment the PC was reminded that there are no demons.  He was a man, in a room with a bunch of sentimental junk.  It was a sad desperate act by a failing father.

Does that help?


Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Jesse's advice is tremendous and often more usable than it seems at first glance, but at times, I've found myself GMing and "Yeah, you fail," is about all I can come up with.

At that point, I like to think of those three rituals, but particularly Contact, as a kind of fight - which in this case, the sorcerer lost. I don't inflict mechanical damage, but I narrate fictional content that sure looks and feels like it.

It seems to be appreciated around the table, so I've stuck with it as a technique.

Best, Ron

Joel Rojas

Okay, I think between those I can work something out that is good for the game. Thanks.


I think a really iconic example of a failed Contact/Summon is the Elric brothers' origin story from Fullmetal Alchemist.

This isn't the best quality, but: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Snsvx3LG2Y
-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?"

John S

Anybody who enjoys the Hellboy comics by Mike Mignola might remember that Hellboy came to this world via a "failed" summoning. The Nazis held their ritual to summon the beast of the Apocalypse at a circle of standing stones, but Hellboy appeared instead at a church where he was discovered by Allied Forces. As a result, he lent his power to the Connecticut-based Department of Paranormal Research and Defense, and explicitly rejects his role as a harbinger of doom.

Depending on your local definition of sorcery, you might decide that a Contact or Summon ritual never fails, it just triggers events elsewhere. It might seem like nothing happens right then and there, and later you find out how it went haywire: a failed Contact might cause your estranged daughter to have nightmares in which she converses with the demon who bumps her Lore from zero to one. A failed Summon might land your demon in the domicile of your worst enemy, hungry and desperate to be bound.

I love the examples and ideas already posted, but I wanted to throw this in because I hate whiffs and I'm a major proponent of the idea that "nothing never happens" when it comes to magic.


Context is key but I've been thinking about building this into the setting.

I've had this idea for a long time about demons being derived from the different suits of playing cards and when you fail a summoning or contact, you get the wrong demon.  So, in some ways, summoning would be like drawing from a deck of cards...if you can count the cards, then you can narrow down the odds, get the demon you want.

So, yes, I agree with Jesse, context is key but I think a menu of results could be jotted down when some details about the demons are figured out before play begins.


As I recall the rule book, on like page 91, has rules similar to Judd's proposal for failed summoning rituals: you get a demon, just not the one you wanted.  Those always seemed like fun rules to play around with.

Joel Rojas

I'm surprised by the spectrum of responses for something that is so procedurally laid out in the text.  I guess it ultimately comes down to interpretation of context and die rolls.  I'm cool with that.  Thanks, everyone.

Ron Edwards

Hi Joel,

I think there's a sharp distinction between the rules and some of the suggestions in the thread.

The rules are straightforward: if you fail the Contact, no demon is contacted, and if you fail the Summons, no demon is summoned. Jesse's suggestion and mine are about plot content and colorful detail which enhance and provide context for these results, and are the only ones which are "by the rules."

John S's suggestion is to modify the rules in the book. This is obviously not a sin, but if we're talking about what the rules say, well, it's not by the rules.

James' point is mistaken regarding the rules: in the text, the alterations to a summoned demon are based on the victories of a successful roll, and do not apply to failed rolls. I'm not saying what he's suggesting is a bad way to play, but like John's suggestion, it's not what the rules say.

Judd's post is hard to interpret. I can't tell if he means using actual playing cards in some way, in which case it's not part of the textual rules at all, or presenting an analogy or conceptual device, in which case I can't tell how it's supposed to be employed.

So my interpretation of the thread so far is that the rules-consistent suggestions are limited, and that most of the range of suggestions deviate from the rules. Again, this does not mean I'm saying those suggestions should be avoided. I'm responding to your point about the range.

Best, Ron




Ooops!  Didn't mean to hit "post" there!  Accident.

Anyway: Joel, the trick with "nothing happens" is that as the GM you need to set up context where "nothing happens" is an interesting and meaningful outcome. 

Couple broad ways to do that would be:

* Getting to this point in the ritual was a huge pain in the butt.  Did the ritual require you to steal something extremely valuable?  Do you owe someone a huge favor?  Did the Contact have consequences which will mess you up if the demon isn't Summoned?  etc. etc.  You've run up a huge debt, and any minute now "they" are going to be coming to collect and you've got nothing to show for it.  This type of response is especially appropriate if the Summoning involved a sacrificial victim, or if there were plenty of juicy roll-overs involved.

* You only have one shot at this.  Due to whatever is going on in the game, this Summoning ritual is going to be your only opportunity to ____________.  It's absolutely critical you pull it off . . . and you blew it.  This is related to the point listed above, and can be used in combination, but the idea is that you had limited resources which (in hindsight) were totally wasted.  Here, the problem isn't the cost that went into the ritual, but rather the opportunity cost: doing the ritual meant you didn't do something else that was important, and now you've got regrets.

* Your ability to pull off the ritual is important in some social context (or indeed any context).  Thinking very small-scale, the reason to Summon a demon is so you can Bind it.  But it might also serve some other function in the fiction--like impressing a bunch of the Witch-King's minions so they'll aid you against the Jarl of Spiders or something.  When you screw up the ritual, everyone laughs at you and you don't get your help. This doesn't have to be a one-shot wasted resource like the option above, only that other people will be affected by your failure.

Overall these still require the GM to do a lot of huffing-and-puffing to explain why you didn't whiff, though--and it has to be set up in advance, so that's kind of hard too.  I kinda prefer my (erroneous) response, frankly, because at least something still happens and it's easy to implement on the fly. 

Summoning is the cruelest part of Sorcerer.

Joel Rojas

Thanks for clearing that up, Ron, and everyone for the advice.  Sorcerer is a dense little game.  At least my understanding of the rules were not far off, nor how I handled a failed summon in a game from many of the other suggestions.  It's important to me that I understand the rules as written before messing with them.