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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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(8th 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)

Today I had the good fortune to exchange correspondence with Ron Edwards, author of Sorcerer, on his forum The Forge.  For a revered game designer, he is remarkably accessible and generous with his time, and displays infinite patience in entertaining questions from newbies.  Here was my query:

Communicating with Demons

A quick line of mechanics questioning for anyone out there. Object Demons generally only communicate by conferring (or withholding) their abilities. That is, when they are in the real world (ie. already summoned). But do they communicate more directly, by speech or otherwise, during the Contact ritual? How about during Binding, which is post-Summoning, can they bargain verbally, play at riddles, arm-wrestle? Who decides what form an Object Demon takes, the sorcerer or the Demon?

And his reply shall be found here, on The Forge (direct link to his post).

As with many things in Sorcerer, the answer is up to the group, and depends on what sort of story they wish to tell.  So, what do you think?  How verbose or reticent should demons be?  How constant, or labile?  And how would that affect the tone of the  game?  What sort of theme would it serve?

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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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(5th 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)

I have a bunch of posts in the works about the game’s unique dice mechanics, and they (the posts) assume that you’ve read the rulebook once but didn’t really get it (I didn’t). So to give you one more day to finish reading Sorcerer, here’s our to-do list for the pre-game session:

Things I Need To Prep Before Planning Session:

  • Names List for Demons

Sorcerer Pre-Game Session(s):

  1. Discuss the game. Any confusion w. the rules? Ready to move forward?
  2. Discuss setting: Era and location and flavour
  3. Brainstorm character concepts
  4. Discussion of types of stories of interest leads to meanings of: Humanity, Demons, Sorcery.
  5. Fill in top half of the One Sheet
  6. Crystalize character concepts:
    • Stats and descriptors (front of chr sheet)
    • Back stories, kickers, and some related “people, demons, places, possessions” (back of the sheet)
  7. Draw “Relationship Map A”, 3 distinct characters and their related people, demons, places, possessions. Maybe 3 disctinct constellations, but merge where appropriate/interesting.
  8. PCs roll up starting Demons
  9. GM makes copies of all PCs and PC-Demons

Your Kicker Should Be:

  • immediate and urgent — impossible for your PC to ignore
  • personal (ties in to something on the back of your sheet – though your chr doesn’t have to know how, yet)

Your Backstory Should:

  • explain how and why you became a sorcerer
  • tie into your kicker
  • describe the circumstances of acquiring your first demon
  • introduce some people whom you need and/or care about

GM Prep After First Session:

  1. Review Kickers and backstories.  Merge PC’s relationship map and GM’s secret relationship map.
  2. Create and detail-out NPCs & demons, their motivations and goals, and where the juicy conflicts lie.
  3. Review PCs’ demons. Make changes as necessary. Consider personality of each.
  4. Plan some Bangs. A bunch of Bangs. A variety of Bangs.
  5. Create any other details required by Kickers and Bangs: maps, locations, stats of bad guys and their demons, etc.
  6. Write short descriptions of people, demons, rituals, places, etc. with an emphasis on creating ATMOSPHERE. To give your GMing some imagery and flavour.
  7. a Demons Sheet: one page to track PC demons: binding strengths, mood vs rebellion, Need and feeding, etc.

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I want to let the players define the game’s setting, theme and story as much as possible. I just have some guidelines in mind.

Required Reading:

Just the main Sorcerer rulebook. Although reading Chapter-1 of Sorcerer’s Soul will certainly up your game.

Standard Setting:

Since this is our first Sorcerer game, let’s keep it simple, and save our grand creative outbursts for subsequent games. I know there is no “standard setting” in the rulebook, but let’s borrow unabashedly from the examples provided. We’ll pick our definition of Humanity from one of the four offered in the book (pg44, or Sorcerer’s Soul pg16).

And unless you’re feeling especially inspired, feel free to lift your PC’s Score descriptions, Price, Kicker type (pg35) and maybe even your whole character concept (ideas pg37-38) right from the book.

Demons:

There’s a wide range of possible definitions of Demons given in the book (pg58), from “fallen angels” to “fighter jets with AI.” I’d like to stick to a fairly traditional definition of Demons: extraplanar creatures, banished djinni, spirits of the dead, something like that. Beings that have a crappy half-existence Elsewhere, but really prefer to mix it up with humans on our plane.

The One-Sheet:

By the time we are ready to begin play, we will have filled in all the blanks on the One-Sheet, which is a handy one-page summary of our game parameters, and which looks like this:

  • Notes on Theme, Setting and Genre (mention any inspirational material)
  • What are Demons?
  • What are Sorcerers/What is Sorcery?
  • What is Lore?
  • What is Humanity?
  • —–What acts risk reducing your personal Humanity?
  • —–What acts can redeem your personal Humanity?
  • —–At zero Humanity, you are…
  • —–Demons will…
  • —–Humanity check to…
  • —–Rituals are based on…
  • What is the setting: Location and Era?
  • Descriptors: Stamina, Will, and Lore

Again, since we’re using the examples offered in the book as much as possible, it won’t take us long to answer these questions. I’ll send out a filled-in One-Sheet after our pre-game session. It will replace this, becoming the GM’s hand-out.

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Demons Conceptually

There’s a wide range of possible definitions of Demons given in the book (pg58), from “fallen angels” to “fighter jets with AI.” I’d like to stick to a fairly traditional definition of Demons for our first game: extraplanar spirits, banished djinni, ghosts of the dead, something like that. Beings that have a crappy half-existence Elsewhere and really prefer to mix it up with humans on our own plane. But I’d also like to avoid anything that smacks of a biblical angels-vs.-demons-type cosmological struggle. The game should be about sorcerer vs. demon (or, vs. self, really).

Do all Demons know each other? Is there some sort of common demonic agenda? Or are they all purely individual? What do Demons look like in our game? Things to decide as a group.

Your Demon’s Desire and Need: with reference to the examples given on pg57-58, I’m open to any of those, or similar ones, except the “Trivial” ones.

Demons Mechanically

Demons are just as detailed as PCs, but with more options available. If we are rolling up starting Demons together, then we’ll certainly need two planning sessions before play begins. Let me know if y’all are comfortable rolling up your own demons and sending them to me at least 1 week before the start of play.

Note that PCs do not control their Demons. They can ask or tell or Command their demons to do stuff, but compliance is always up to the Demon.

Yes, your Demon can go off on missions on its own. And yes, you are morally responsible for its actions. If you send your Demon to spy on Mr. X, and it kills someone in the process, you’ll be rolling a Humanity check!

Note that at the start of play, your PC already has his starting Demon. We don’t have to play out the Contact and Summoning rituals (and the attendant Humanity checks – whew!), but we will play out the Binding roll together. You’ll see your own roll, but you won’t see the Demon’s, so you’ll never really know how strongly you have bound it…

Note also that, with the exception of their starting Demons, the PCs can only specify the Demons they Contact and Summon in the most general terms. Such rituals begin not with the player handing the GM a completed Demon character sheet, but instead with words like “I’d like to Contact a powerful Passer Demon that confers the ‘Boost Lore’ ability.” The GM rolls up the Demon that responds to your Contact, and it may or may not meet your expectations. Yes, sorcery is unpredictable! The exception to this rule is an attempt to reach a specific Demon whom the PC has dealt with before or at least knows by name. Since the GM has to roll up any new Demons, players should give the GM at least a few days’ notice!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Demons, guys.

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I want to take another shot at putting into words what I was trying to verbalize in ACTS 1:1-11.  That issue was the result of my struggling with the question: “So, our characters power up by summoning demons; does that mean we have to play Evil masterminds?”  The tone of the Sorcerer rulebook didn’t seem to suggest that this was a game about players taking over the world or destroying it (in true James-Bond-villain style), but I just couldn’t see how PCs that treat with demons could be “Good.”

Several hours of reading at The Forge later, I came to understand that demons aren’t inherently Evil, they’re inherently Dangerous.  They’re selfish and wiley and not always easy to control.  That makes them no more evil than guard dogs, or credit cards.  Demons are the classic two-edged sword, the Pandora’s box, the (insert favourite metaphor here).  Striking a bargain with a demon is like lighting the fuse on a stick of dynamite.  Sure, people will do as you say while you’re waving a lit rod of TNT.  But you’re going to want to throw it away before too long…

And that makes the sorcerer… what?  Crazy?  Crazy characters don’t make interesting PCs.  Desperate?  Quite possibly.  He feels he doesn’t have any other options.  There’s something he wants so badly that he’ll risk losing his Humanity to achieve it.  Maybe self-sacrifice for a loved one, or a higher ideal: there’s no better definition of “Good.”  Arrogant?  I could see that.  The sorcerer believes he’s stronger or smarter than those other fools who’ve lost their lives to demons they couldn’t control.  Or naive?  Certainly, that would work too.  Like young Regan in The Exorcist, with “Captain Howdy.”  Uncontrollably curious?  It didn’t work out well for the cat…

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ACTS 2: It’s Complicated

Sorcerers are not heroes, they’re not champions of Good, but nor are they Evil incarnate.  In Sorcerer, Good and Evil is complex.  I think of a prohibition-era whisky runner.  Technically, what he does is against the law, but he’s a good man.  At first it was just easy money, but the level of subterfuge and violence quickly escalated.  So did the income.  He now keeps a machine gun on the boat, and is ready to kill off rival whisky gangs to protect his business.  But he’ still a loving family man, and didn’t he donate the money to build two new ice rinks in town?  He doesn’t get off on the violence, he just can’t see how else he can make a living  (to continue this example, we might say that a gangster who does get off on the violence has reached zero Humanity).

Humanity is a score on your character sheet, and it is possibly the most important concept in the game.  Sorcery is an affront to Humanity.  Acts of sorcery mock Humanity, they put your personal Humanity score at risk.  The sorcerer performs them not because he hates Humanity but because he is willing to gamble it for something else.  Sorcery turns the PC sorcerer’s stomach.

What does your sorcerer want so badly?  Money?  Power?  Revenge?  Answers?  I recently read a character concept in which the character just wanted some measure of control over his life.  Or I could see a socially awkward loser with a dead-end job turning to sorcery just to feel special.  One well known Sorcerer variant involves grade-schoolers and their “imaginary friends.”  Kids call up demons out of loneliness.

What does your sorcerer want so badly that he’ll gamble his Humanity to achieve it?

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ACTS of Sorcery will be a daily missive leading up to our first session of Sorcerer. There’s a lot to wrap one’s head around in this game. And I’ve dug up so many juicy nuggets of wisdom from forums and stuff that I want to share.

Let’s start with this. Sorcery is an act of desperation or arrogance. Nobody summons up demons for fun. A sorcerer is someone so desperate to achieve something that he will risk his Humanity to get it. And he is arrogant enough to hope to control the forces that he bargains with. [By ‘desperate and arrogant’ I don’t mean ‘Evil’. A sorcerer could be empowering himself with the best of intentions. You could also swap ‘arrogant’ for ‘naive’.]

Ron Edwards sees tales of sorcery in many stories that don’t contain literal demons. He cites Euripides’ Medea as the main blueprint for the Sorcerer game. I haven’t read it but I looked up a synopsis: there is no sorcerer in this story, not literally. Jason (of “and the Argonauts” fame) wants to reclaim the golden fleece, but first must perform several impossible tasks involving magical foes. He makes a deal with Medea, a witch: if she will help him to complete and survive the tasks, he agrees to marry her. In each of the tasks, and through the many trials that follow, Jason survives and succeeds thanks to Medea’s magical help. But in the end, he spurns her love to marry a princess. Medea poisons Jason’s fiancé and the father-in-law King Creon. She completes her revenge by murdering her own two children whom she’d had by Jason.

In game terms, Jason was “the Sorcerer,” Medea was “the Demon.”

The terms of any Binding ritual are that the sorcerer will provide the demon’s “Need,” and the demon will serve the sorcerer. Her Need was Jason’s Love. When the sorcerer stopped providing the demon’s Need, it rebelled, with disastrous results.

Demons have two key attributes: Desire and Need.

Desire – a role-playing “key” to the Demon’s behaviour

Need – payment, what the sorcerer agrees to pay the demon (regularly) for its services.

The demon’s Desire is like its religion, its political ideology, and its favorite hobby all rolled into one. The demon likes and enjoys its Desire, and at all times, it will try to perform the Desire, to observe it in action, or to influence others to do it too.

The demon’s Need is its addiction. It needs it at all times, but sometimes more desperately than others… Crucially, the demon will never satisfy its Need by itself. It relies wholly on the sorcerer to make sure the Need gets to it. The GM should always know whether the demon is currently ‘hungry,’ and play the demon accordingly.” -Ron Edwards

Yes that’s right, the GM plays all the demons… even yours. Never miss a feeding.

Watch the movie trailer (embedded above) for Youth In Revolt. This movie looks hilarious. And I’m seeing it as a Sorcerer tale. Replace “arrogance” with “naivety.” Nick is the naive “Sorcerer.” Francois is “the Demon,” and its Desire is pure egoism. Nick obviously rolled badly on the Binding ritual, because he seems incapable of controlling the demon he’s summoned!

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