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Tweaks to the Sorcerer RPG, based on experiences from our last game and plans for our next one:
(once again, thanks to the guys in my gaming group for chewing this over with me)

Ad Hoc Bonus Dice

Bonuses, like taxes, should encourage desired behaviour.  According to the rules, ad hoc bonus dice should be awarded anytime for:

  • smart tactics
  • adding detail
  • strong role-playing

You want to encourage players to think about smart tactics.  That’s what makes the difference between “I hit him.  I hit him again,” and “I pick up the big candle and splash hot wax in his eyes, then kick his legs out so Sofia can brain him with a stool.”  It just makes play more cinematic and fresh.

You want to encourage the players to narrate in their own details into the scene.  The GM can’t think of everything.  With everyone at the table adding detail, you get a very rich environment – which means better story-telling and more tactical options for everybody.  Says the player: “The walls are covered with hunting trophies, okay?  Weird beasts.  One of the heads is from something that looks like a rhino with huge tusks.  I pick up the necromancer and try to impale him on it.”  In the next round, one of the other player-characters tears a trophy head off the wall and uses it as a weapon.  Cool!

Bonuses for strong role-playing?  Yes, role-playing is something we want to encourage, but how to adjudicate the awarding of bonuses?  Either you’ll give the same +2 dice to every attempt, or you’ll end up having to say things like “Mike’s role-playing was better than that; no bonus dice for you.”  Let’s avoid beauty contests and take this bonus off the table.  In my group, good role-playing is always a priority so this isn’t an issue.  Alternately, I’d advise GMs to award this bonus only when someone picks good role-playing over some other in-game advantage.  “I know he’s going to cream me if I don’t wait for back-up, but damnit, he killed my partner!  I can’t hold back,  I go in now, guns blazing!”

Once More, with Conviction!

For encouraging derring-do, Ry likes the Conviction Dice mechanic.  In Sorcerer, it would work something like this:

  • Each PC starts the game with a pool of Conviction dice equal to his Humanity score (for example)
  • At any time, PCs can add Conviction dice to any roll: combat, sorcery, ability check, etc. (but not to Humanity checks!)
  • Whenever the PC succeeds at a Humanity (loss or gain) check, his Conviction pool refreshes.

The deal is, a PC doesn’t just use his Conviction dice whenever he needs a boost, even if the situation is dire.  Let Story happen.   He should use them when the situation is really central to his character’s core motivation.

“I can’t fail now that we’re so close to rescuing my betrothed!  I’m adding all my Conviction dice to this roll!”

It’s the stuff that theme music is made of.  But that reminds me of the “Mastering oneself” mechanic that’s already present in the Sorcerer rules.  The difference is: by mastering yourself, you have one last chance at an heroic (but doomed) gesture.  You can only do it when you’re nearly dead.  With Conviction dice, you can choose your moment and be sure to own it.  There’s probably room for both mechanics in this game.  I guess it’s all about what kind of stories you want to tell.  I’m still thinking about this one.

Swing From The Chandelier – Please!

Further to encouraging cool tactics: the game’s damage rules seem to do the opposite.  Let’s compare two possible moves:

A: “I leap, swing from the chandelier and land behind him.”  The PC succeeds with 2 victories, which we apply as a penalty to his opponent’s next action.

B: “I punch him.”  The PC succeeds with 2 victories, doing 2 next-action damage and 1 lasting damage.  His opponent now has a 3-dice penalty to his next action, plus a 1-die penalty that will last til the end of the scene.

Notice in case-B, the PC is more effective when he’s just attacking instead of using smart tactics.  Multiply this effect several times if he’s doing Special Damage.  The damage rules provide a perverse incentive to just attack rather than to look for clever ways to gain the upper hand.

Solution?  I’m still thinking about this one.  First of all, the “smart tactics” bonus, if applied liberally, might even the odds in favour of cinematic action.  One other possible solution might be:

  • 1 bonus victory is awarded to successful actions that don’t do damage (in combat situations)

Well, the game does provide a cumulative 1-die penalty for unimaginatively repeating the same action.  So “attack, attack, attack” has a mechanical disincentive.  Is that enough?  In Sorcerer’s short combats, repeating the same action rarely becomes an issue anyway…

Two Hits

“Me hittin’ you, you hittin’ the floor.”  Fights in Sorcerer tend to go this way: one-round combats in which the loser is down before he can even take a swing.  A character is out when damage exceeds his Stamina score (3-5 usually, or higher for big demons), while anyone with the Special Damage ability is doing 3X+Power of total damage per hit (where X is victories rolled).  Even with 1 victory, a Power-5 demon is doing enough damage to knock out any mere mortal with one blow.  And even if you’re not down, remember that all damage counts as penalties against your scores.  You take a few points of damage, you’re effectively down on one knee.  It’s the “Spiral of death.”

So now it’s an arms race: everybody and his demon has to have Armor and Big if they want to survive past the first round, and Special Damage if they expect to win any fights, not to mention Boost (Stamina), Vitality, Cover (trained killer), etc..  Suddenly it’s not safe to walk out your front door without a Power-8 demon at your back, and it’s a game of superheroes in which “normals” don’t stand a chance.

Solution?  I’m still toying with some ideas:

  • disallow the Special Damage ability, or seriously scale it back
  • delay the spiral of death: penalties don’t accrue until damage exceeds Stamina.  So, penalties = damage – Stamina, and “stunned” doesn’t occur until damage > 2x Stamina.
  • make it much harder to keep a fucking big demon (see related tweak, below)

Your Big Cuddly Friend

Any character with a bound demon is essentially a one man army.  If your demon is Power-8, make that a superbeing.  Really, I think in past games we have been too easy on characters that summon up the equivalent of Satan himself, and order him around like a well-trained attack dog.

Any demon whose Power exceeds every one of its master’s scores (typically 5 or 6 max) should be fucking hard to handle, should be a stronger narrative force than the PC himself. The demon should be constantly pushing its sorcerer around, demanding that it’s Need be fed, demanding that the sorcerer’s plans feed into its Desires, and being difficult whenever it’s not getting its way.  Binding a Power-8 demon should be seen as suicidal even by other sorcerers.  Any stability should be short lived.  For as long as that uber-demon is around, the sorcerer/demon dynamic should become the main conflict of that PC’s story.

Demons aren’t cuddly.

Sorcerer players, let me know what you think of these tweaks, and share any house rules or experiences of your own!  Cheers,

-Johnny 0.

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So now there’s a new “red box set,” a simplified version of the current edition of the D&D game.  Somehow, I don’t see this one sparking the same revolution that the original 1983 Basic D&D box set did.  Needless to say (?), my gaming blog is named for the original, but the contrast between story gaming and tactical wargaming is even starker when the current product is considered.

Managing Big Conflicts in Sorcerer

With every PC and NPC sorcerer having at least one demon, combat scenes in Sorcerer tend to involve a lot of characters, and all the demons are role-played as separate characters.  Our first few conflicts felt quite unmanageable, and a lot got overlooked.  Now at the end of our second full Sorcerer game (about 12 sessions total), we finally feel like we’ve had a major conflict that went smoothly.  Here’s how we did it.

Tips

  • Cards numbered 1 thru 15. Red on one side, blue on the other. After initiative order is determined, give everyone a numbered card showing their initiative rank – red side up.  Now everyone takes their turn in order.  As characters act OR roll full defence, turn their card over. This helps to track initiative order as well as who has given up their action to defend themselves.
  • Build dice pools from different coloured dice, for:
    • stats
    • ad hoc bonuses
    • carried-over victories
  • Immediately after winning an opposed action, put dice for carryover-able victories on the chr sheet, so next round you will remember you have them.
  • For tracking damage of NPCs and Demons without chr sheets, we used post-it notes: Stamina, Next-action dmg and Lasting dmg.
  • Don’t get hypnotized into attack-attack-attack, not everything is a fight to the death.  Each new round, consider the motivations of each chr.   Some of them are just trying to escape, rescue a hostage, destroy or capture an item, restrain someone, etc. etc.   Some of them aren’t invested and would rather break and run.

We also realized that we were doing a couple things wrong, but I don’t think I need to go into that here.  If you too are having trouble figuring out how to apply Sorcerer’s mechanics in all situations, you’re not alone.  The rulebook is not organized for quick reference, and some points have been redacted or changed since publication.  In my next post, I’ll go over some realizations and talk about some house rules that we’ll be implementing for our next game.

-J

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Another great session of Sorcerer!  The plots are starting to twist deliciously.  Again, I’ve posted the synopsis on The Forge, here.

The third session was last night, and it was shocking!  Really, jaws hit the table.  I’ll write about it soon-soon.  Cheers,

-J

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(10th chapter in a “book” of thoughts and learnings from a GM who is studying Ron Edwards’ game of Sorcerer in preparation for his first game)

We had our Sorcerer planning session on Tuesday, and it went great.  In the coming days I’ll be sharing our One-Sheet and excellent characters, backstories and kickers.  For today, here is the last of the posts that I wrote while re-reading the rulebooks and trolling The Forge to develop a GM’s level understanding of the game.

-Johnny 0.

Damage Dice

The whole combat, damage and penalties thing was a bit confusing for me at first. Ron explains it forwards. I’d prefer it explained backwards…:

Damage, like everything else, is counted in “dice.” If you have 2 damage, then you suffer a 2-dice penalty to all scores (Stamina, Will and Lore) for as long as the damage persists.

How long does damage persist? There are two types of damage: “next-action” and “lasting.”. When you take a hit in combat, you’ll usually take a bit of both types (according to the Damage Table on pg.107).

  • “Next-action” damage applies as a penalty to your next action, after which it goes away. Think of it as you being momentarily disoriented after being injured in the fight.
  • “Lasting” damage persists until you get a chance to rest, after which it is halved. The remaining half of your lasting damage sticks around for a few days or weeks, to be determined by the GM and commensurate with the type of injuries you’ve received.

How much damage does an attack do? Take the number of victories of the attack and look it up on the Damage Table (pg.107). For example, attacking with fists does X next-action damage and 1 lasting damage, where X is the number of victories rolled.

How will we track two types of damage? See the paperclip method and the two-zones method, described on pg.109. To my players: given our small table, I recommend the former.

How many hit points do I have? Look at your Stamina score. While your total damage (next-action + lasting) exceeds your Stamina, “pain incapacitates movement or action,” but you still have options. If total damage exceeds 2x Stamina, you are “stunned into helplessness.” Notice there’s no explicit point at which death occurs. That’s a post for another day.

I hope that gives you a conceptual grasp of Sorcerer’s damage system. It’s not the whole story, but it should set you up to get more out of the rulebook’s Chapter 6. Go read it now.

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(9th chapter in a book of thoughts and learnings from a GM who is studying Ron Edwards’ game of Sorcerer in preparation for his first game)

The simple genius of the Sorcerer mechanics is that points are dice, and all points are transferable.  A victory point this round is a bonus die next round, a point of damage is one less die to roll with, and a bonus for you can instead be a penalty for me.

1 Score Point = 1 die = 1 victory = 1 bonus = 1 penalty

This is not a hard concept to grasp, but its flexibility and vast reach are not immediately apparent.  Here’s a great example of applying the currency-nature of the dice to adjudicate situations that aren’t explicitly covered by the rulebook:

“Bob wants to shoot Carl. Carl wants to pull Alice in front of him to use her as a shield. [Alice rolls total defence.]

“Let’s say Carl comes up first and Alice fails to defend so she gets dragged in front of Carl. The obvious application here is to take the victory dice from Carl’s action against Alice and roll them over to his defense roll against Bob’s shot. Let’s assume that Carl’s defense roll is successful against Bob’s shot. But here’s a perfectly obvious question with maybe a not so obvious solution: Does Alice get shot instead? Do we have anything at out disposal that could answer this question for us so that we don’t have to rely on fiat?

“Yes, we do. We have the victories from Carl’s defense roll against Bob’s shot of which Alice’s role as human shield was a part of. We can take those victories and immediately apply them as mid-round attack on Alice. Notice that how Alice narrates her defense against getting shot herself could have a rather significant impact on the situation. If Alice says something like, “I throw myself to the ground dragging Carl with me if I have to” and she succeeds in defending against the bullet it might very well be the case that Carl is now prone on the ground, a situational transformation that wasn’t even part of the apparent possible outcomes at the top of the situation.

“Some of you might be asking where in the rule book this miraculous application of mechanics is listed: A secondary mid-round attack? Where is THAT listed? It isn’t. It isn’t because this isn’t a separate rule. Nor is it something I just made up. It’s an example of the application of currency. And that is the artistry of playing Sorcerer: learning to use the currency to resolve ambiguities in the situation without falling back on fiat. That is what takes practice.”

– Jesse Burneko, Mar 6 2008,

http://www.story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=5955

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(7th chapter in a book of thoughts and learnings from a GM who is studying Ron Edwards’ game of Sorcerer in preparation for his first game)

Dice are only rolled in this game when an action is opposed by another character or by challenging circumstances.  But the dice do not dictate the outcome. The dice determine who has narrative power.

Any single die roll gives us two pieces of information: the direction the narrative is going, and the degree to which that direction matters. In some sense Sorcerer die rolls are story vectors, giving us a direction and a magnitude.
-Jesse Burneko again

This is an important point. If you win a Will vs. Will roll against an NPC, for example, does that mean the NPC will obey you as if hypnotized?  No.  There are no jedi here.  But it does mean that the NPC, if they don’t give in entirely, has to at least give ground and change tactics. And your victories carry forward as bonus dice into your next roll.

Each round of rolling significantly transforms the narrative situation.

(Loser narrates? Is this an implicit assumption in Sorcerer?)

For a much better description of the above example, here is an excellent couple of posts that I put high on the recommended reading list:

[Practice: Sorcerer] Social Conflict

[Practice: Sorcerer] Conflict & Inanimate Objects

(you could skip the follow-up discussions, which get off track a bit)

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(6th chapter in a book of thoughts and learnings from a GM who is studying Ron Edwards’ game of Sorcerer in preparation for his first game)

This is something that GM and players alike need to remember: the characters, as written, will get their asses kicked by this game unless we remember the bonus dice! There are bonuses available in almost every action for detailed description, thoughtful tactics, and other “player contributions of cool details.”

“ROLE-PLAY BONUS!” “TACTICS BONUS!”
“COOL NARRATIVE DETAILS BONUS!”

Awarding bonus dice for good role-playing or good “acting” at the table makes me uncomfortable. But this is more. Here’s a great explanation/interpretation of this game feature that both clarifies the mechanic and shows why it’s useful in a story game.

“The bonus dice at first look like GM bennies awarded for good player behaviors. That is not the case. In practice they operate a little more like fan mail in Primetime Adventures. Basically bonus dice should be awarded for establishing details of the situation that in some way creatively stir the group. Yes, the GM is the arbiter of this but if something makes a player go “Oooooooo” or “Oh crap!” it’s worth a bonus die and if the GM fails to notice (as I personally am prone to do) then the players should say something.

“Bonus dice are not about long winded narrations full of purple prose or sound and fury signifying nothing. The things that usually earn bonus are stuff that actually establishes details of the situation that add nuance to the conflict at hand that was not immediately obvious. Such nuances are often cool pieces of tactical and logistical texturing. This is why they apply to the immediate role at hand, and are not stored up like Fan Mail, because they are about refining the details of the here and now situation. I’m not just hitting you with a crowbar, I’m holding it with both hands and thrusting it spear-like into your chest.

“These details are important because they make questions that may arise later easier to answer. The clearer the picture we have of what the character is actually doing, the less confusing interpreting later rule applications become. In some sense it narrows the acceptable narrative space.”

Jesse Burneko, Mar 6 2008

In other words, the bonus dice are incentive to take author’s stance pro-actively. They’re intended to encourage everyone to take an active hand in shaping the texture and atmosphere of the story, and the tactical options in the game.

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