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The tale of the D.C. Beltway Sniper – a man and a teenage boy terrorize D.C. with a sniper rifle over several weeks – is a Sorcerer tale.  A teenage boy in Alabama was going through hell, and none of the adults in his life would give him the help he needed.  In his desperation, he created a demon in the form of his childhood hero: a revered uncle who had just died in Afghanistan.    A demon with a Desire to protect the boy, and a Need to kill.  The demon hunted down and shot the boy’s tormentor, but it didn’t end there.  As more bullies and less-favourite teachers turned up dead, the boy realized that he had endangered his whole town.  He tried to unsummon the demon, but it proved too strong.  That’s when it kidnapped him, stole a car, and took the killing spree on the road.

The boy struggled between his fear of discovery and his fear of the murderous fiend in the shape of his uncle.  He nudged the roadtrip towards the nation’s capital, hoping to be captured there.  Once, he mastered himself long enough to telephone for help.  It was a few more days before the authorities caught up with the pair.  They couldn’t have subdued the demon without the boy’s help.

What really happened between their arrest in 2002 and the demon’s “execution” in 2009, we’ll never know.

– – –

The setting-and-character generation session is still a week away, so this is how I exercise my creative energy (and exorcise my obsession).

I’ve just finished re-reading the Annotated Sorcerer, the re-issue of the Sorcerer rulebook complete with the author’s extensive observations and comments on 15+ years of play (his and ours) and discussion on The Forge forums.  It’s a great resource.  I still wish Ron Edwards had updated or rewritten the rulebook, because finding the definitive version of a rule requires perusing both the original text and the nearby notations.  But the annotations taken together comprise a master class in running/playing Sorcerer, and in Forge-style play.  Valuable, fascinating reading.

Since our game’s scenario will be based on the characters’ kickers, this (re-reading the rulebooks, and finding sorcerous tales in pop culture and current events) is the only “prep” that I can do.

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This is my pitch for a new game of Sorcerer that I’m putting together.  It will be unique in a couple of ways.  First, the pitch, which was aimed at players who are totally unfamiliar with the Sorcerer RPG:

“Know this: all the traditions, cultures, rituals, and bodies of knowledge surrounding what we call magic or the occult are wrong. It is hogwash, flimflam, swindlery, and lies. But even so, here and now in the modern world, there are perhaps several dozen sorcerers in existence. They do summon demons and bind them to their will. They do have an inkling, although no surety, about the unnatural laws.

You are one of them.”  –Ron Edwards, Sorcerer (rulebook)

Sorcerer is a game that explores “what do you WANT, and how far are you willing to go to get it?” As you can imagine, summoning and bargaining with demons can be… hazardous.  There is no secret school of magic, no accepted body of sorcerous knowledge. Besides your fellow PCs, you maybe know one other sorcerer. You’re pretty much on your own in dealing with these crafty, extra-planar fuckers. You have no magic, no powers of your own, except the ability to summon, bind and banish demons. But demons can give you almost any power imaginable – for a price. Want to be invulnerable to weapons? Want to be able to fly? Want a slavering beast that’ll tear apart your enemies? No problem, as long as you can pay their price. Need more? Demons will give you all the power you want. They are the ultimate loan-sharks.

Why Sorcerer kicks ass:

  • Combat is flexible, cinematic and fast. A fight usually resolves within 5-10 minutes, and with serious consequences.
  • Players have lots of creative input. By the choices you make for your PC during character creation, YOU basically tell ME what you want to see and do in the game. And then I go and create a situation based on your characters.
  • Your creative control continues throughout the game. The GM does not plan an adventure from beginning to end; he runs the world and provides opposition, but YOU take the story wherever you want to.
  • A demon can be almost anything: a red, pointy-tailed devil, a kid’s imaginary friend, a parasite that lives in your gut, an intelligent magic item, a rogue AI, etc..
  • The system is fairly simple, I can teach it as we go. No homework will be assigned. 😉

What do you think? Want to see if you can use the ultimate users, and come out on top?

The pitch worked, the players are IN, and I can’t wait to get started.  Why this game will be unique (for me):

  • The players are traditional D&D players who are willing to try something new.  They tend to play very dramatically and collaboratively, but are unused to rules sets that support that kind of play directly.
  • I’ve run Sorcerer in Melniboné and in 1941 Casablanca, I’ve played Sorcerer in Mu, but I’ve never played or run it straight-up, by the book, in the here-and-now, as this game will be.
  • I’ve always used the relationship-map method of scenario creation.  This time, I’m just going to go with the advice in the core book.  I think this will bring maximal focus on the PCs’ kickers.

I look forward to introducing these players to Forge-style play.  They’re pretty pro-active players already, so I don’t think it’ll be much of a culture shock.  And I look forward to going in with an open mind, hearing their character concepts, awesoming-up their kickers, and then taking a week to come up with a scenario based entirely on that.

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Some brilliant game designs have arrived that encourage invention at the table, which allows play with little or no prior preparation and gives players more creative input into the emergent story.

I realized today that I really miss certain elements of the old way of role-playing, of playing in worlds that were prepared by the GM or a publisher: exploration and discovery.

When you know that the whole world exists outside of your game, that it was created a priori before you decided to play in it, then you are exploring something greater than yourself and your group of friends. The feeling is akin to that of reading The Lord of The Rings for the first time; except not just experiencing it linearly, but stepping into it and turning over the rocks yourself.

Emergent play has its revelatory merits too; you explore your own creative ideas, you experience and are perhaps surprised by your friends’ contributions. Players certainly have more creative input into the action. This kind of play can be extremely rewarding, and I won’t say that one kind is better than the other.

But in extemporaneous play, I never get that sense of awe that comes with stomping around in a world that feels real and permanent and old and full of secrets.

And I miss that.

——————

How could I design some mechanics to evoke that feeling of exploring a rich world, in a story-now game?  This question just launched me into a serious brainstorming session.  But I’m going to work on these thoughts a bit before sharing them.  What ideas do you have?

-J

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I found some really interesting ideas in the playtest version of Caoimhe Ora Snow’s current Kickstarter project: The Queen’s Cavaliers RPG.  I backed the project so that I could download the playtest document and get a look at the mechanics.

The Queen’s Cavaliers is a role-playing game that evokes stylish and heroic swashbuckling tales like Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (but with a “clockpunk” twist that frankly is of secondary interest to me).  I’ve tried, as both a player and a GM, to create swashbuckling action in my D&D games in the past — swinging from chandeliers, harrowing fights in a ship’s rigging, duels atop runaway carriages! — tried and failed.  I don’t know if it’s the rules or the culture, but D&D favours a stand-and-deliver style of combat that would put Errol Flynn to sleep.

A quote from The Queen’s Cavaliers’ Kickstarter page:

TQC’s combat system is flexible and designed to be entertaining, with more options than simply doing damage from round to round. Want to swing on a chandelier to gain advantage over your foes, or recite an epic poem to build style points? These are all valid and effective strategies in TQC.

So I wanted to get a look under the hood to see how the game achieves its claims.

In TQC, a successful combat roll results not in hit-point damage but in a number of Success Points.  You then spend those points according to the skill that you were using.  For example, the Feint skill (each cross is a Success Point):

feint

 

I like the idea that you can achieve anything from gaining the upper hand to disarming your foe, or a combination of things, with a single roll.  Combat seems focused on making creative, cinematic manoeuvres and getting your opponent to yield.  Style Points can be spent to add dice to future rolls, and players are encouraged to narrate how the extra die allows them to succeed with style and flair, just like those unshakable Musketeers.

Overall, the resolution system is pretty detailed compared to most indie games — I might put it on par with D&D — but it’s very well organized, self-consistent and easy to understand.  Best of all, I can really see myself swinging from the chandeliers!

-J

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I don’t get enough gaming.

I listen to gaming podcasts during my commute.  Sometimes I’m really inspired by what I hear, or I pick up some great advice that I want to apply to my gaming.  But then I forget most of it.  What I really need to do is take notes, or blog afterwards about what inspired me.  But who has time for that?  When I’m listening, I’m driving.  When I stop listening, I’m at work, or I’m arriving home and it’s family time.

Narrative Control, the podcast, is my latest discovery (I’ll post a list of good RPGing podcasts one of these days).  In their episode about mysteries, they started out talking about how to give effective clues that engage players, and ended up coming to a really interesting conclusion: that setting establishment and clue revelation can look very much the same from the players’ point of view.  For example, in your first session, an advisor is seen arguing with the prince.  Is this setting establishment, i.e. this advisor is argumentative or the prince encourages open dialogue or the court is wrestling with a thorny problem; or is this a clue, i.e. this advisor is so desperate about something that he dares to argue with his prince in public?  If this is supposed to be a clue, but the social rules of the setting haven’t already been firmly established, then the players aren’t going to get it.

Another good point was that every clue revelation should also be, or be coincident with, a call to action.  The players’ reaction to a clue should never be allowed to be “oh well that’s interesting I guess.”  Either the clue directly drives them into action, or at least some kind of action should be coincident with them finding the clue.  Players want to DO stuff, and unraveling a mystery is rarely top of their list.  There’s a fine line between puzzlement and frustration.  Give the players opportunities to take action and be awesome, to keep it fun and to cement the clues in their minds.

I’m thinking back to the game that we most recently wrapped.  I wasn’t GMing this one.  It happened a few times that the GM revealed some fact and we all went “huh,” and then he had to follow up by saying something like: “just like the one you saw in the cave, remember?” or “that’s the name that the Earl’s daughter heard in her dream, remember?”  Clearly this was meant to be a big “ah-hah” moment for us, but we needed it to be spelled out.  I’m not criticizing the GM; I think he did it better than I did in my Elric campaign.  I remember having to do the same thing a lot, explaining the implications of new facts or reminding the players who key NPCs were and which noble house they belonged to.  I think I had just made my intrigues too sprawling and complex, and my clues too subtle, forgetting that I was fully immersed in this setting every night, whereas the players encountered it one night every two weeks.  Anyway, I think both of us could learn a few things from this podcast.

So, rules for running a mystery or intrigue effectively:

  • Strongly establish the setting first
  • Use the reactions of NPCs to show social rules, or show that a social rule has been broken
  • Keep intrigues relatively simple.  You can ramp up the complexity in subsequent scenarios in the same setting
  • Don’t be subtle with clues
  • Make every clue a call to action, or coincident with a reason to act
  • Make things personal for the PCs: have developments directly affect them or their loved ones or assets

There were a lot of other good points in the podcast that I’m already forgetting.  I need to listen to it again and make notes.

Tangent: Zero-Prep GMing

My group has been talking about moving to zero-prep GMing as a way to continue gaming when we’re all too busy to prep a game.  And I realized something this morning.  Zero-prep GMing doesn’t just entail a change of approach for the GM.  Zero prep entails a different style of play for the players, too.  The responsibility for creating and running the world can be more shared by everybody.  In an early episode of Narrative Control, they mention a technique from John Wick’s book Play Dirty, in which NPCs are farmed out to the players.  When you interact with the innkeeper, somebody besides the GM plays him.  When you’re called in to talk to your station chief, one of the other players takes up the role.  This gives the players greater agency to establish things in the setting, which ultimately makes the game better for everybody.  This could be expanded to other elements besides NPCs.

This is a train of thought that I want to explore some more.  Zero-prep GMing kind-of scares me.  But if we can figure out zero-prep playing, then we could end up supercharging our whole play experience.

-J

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I recently discovered a new game that blew my mind when I read it: Swords Without Master, by Epidiah Ravachol.

Its genre is sword & sorcery — think Conan the Barbarian, although the author specifically cites Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories as inspiration.

What blew my mind was the game mechanics.  They are entirely focused on directing and inspiring storytelling.  There is no conflict resolution mechanic!  The dice are used to set the tone of narration, to trigger plot twists, to cue a new mystery, but never to determine a character’s success or failure (sometimes they’ll do that anyway, but that won’t be why you’re rolling).

It is as if the author asked himself: “Can I distill short-story writing down to a formula?  Now, can I make the formula into a group activity?  Now can I add rules and dice to make it fun?” And Swords Without Master is the result.  It’s group improv story-telling, with just enough direction from the rules to challenge and inspire, and to bring forth story elements like themes, morals, tension, and pacing.

Upon first read, it seemed completely different than anything else I’d ever seen.  Now, I can see the family resemblance to other story games like Fiasco (which I’ve only read) and 1001 Nights (which I’ve only read about).

It’s clear from the manuscript that Ravachol knows and loves the genre, and the art of writing.  The game text is economical and evocative like a good short story.

Just as interesting is the game’s packaging.  Ravachol publishes an e-zine of sword & sorcery short fiction and games, called Worlds Without Master.  This game, Swords Without Master, was included in issue 3.  The game was arguably his reason for starting the zine, and all of the zine’s other articles (thus far) can be seen as supplemental or inspirational material for the game.

I haven’t played the game yet.  But I know that I have to.  Not only because I’m a big fan of sword & sorcery fiction, but because one of my big fascinations with role-playing games (and fiction) is to explore the secrets of story structure.  This game does that directly.  My only question is: will any of my regular gaming buddies want to try it?

-J

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But unlike Ol’ Blue Eyes, I think mine are worth mentioning.  And pondering, and learning from.  My regrets are the big “Dead End” signs on the road to improving as a GM and a player.  I want to remember where they are so I can steer clear of them in future.

I remember the time…

…when Ryan was in a duel to the death with Yrkoon over the Runeswords, Stormbringer and Mourneblade. Ryan was about to be defeated, which would have meant the annihilation of his character’s soul. The stakes were absolutely clear. We all looked at each other in horror – it should have been a great moment – and I fudged a rule to allow him one more round. He won the duel. I think we all felt dirty after that moment, like we’d cheated ourselves.

My mistake was not being willing to let the PCs fail, not trusting in our ability to make failure interesting – even though defeat in that duel would have meant the end of Ry’s character. That kind of curveball is what drives emergent story at the table! I should have been willing to let it happen. Ry would have re-entered the story as another character, we would have turned it into something interesting.  Instead, we went for the hollow happy ending.

I remember the time…

…when, in the first session of a new campaign, the PCs captured and disarmed the guy whom I was going to turn into the master villain! I panicked, I was seeing all my carefully laid plans spiraling down the toilet – and I engineered the villain’s immediate escape.

My mistake was that I took away the players’ agency. They were driving the story by taking bold and provocative action, and I shut them down. I made them adjuncts to MY vision, instead of partners in storytelling. I strongly regret it now.

My other mistake was that I was too attached to my own plans. I didn’t have faith in my ability to still build a cool (but different) story around an unexpected outcome. It would have been simple: this would-be villain was the head of a family of powerful politicians and sorcerers. Kidnapping him as the PCs did would have instantly set off a war between noble houses! And the patriarch’s nephew would have made a fine arch enemy in his place. But I couldn’t see any of that, I had panicked.  I should have rolled with it.

I have more regrets, but those are the biggest that rattle around in my head.  If I can take the lessons from these, then I’ll make big strides towards becoming the kind of GM that I want to be.

-J

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