We finished our second session of Sorcerer, and the Kickers with aid of the character diagrams continue to gain traction. You will find the video below. With so many dynamic elements at work in my game, I’m going to focus this report on the interrelated issues of depth and duration.
I have been catching up on The Grognard Files, a podcast from England involving players who have decades of experience playing a small handful of games together (especially Runequest). On an episode devoted to the Player’s Handbook of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the two principles had a kind of wizarding face-off which involved delving into their favorite spells. Notably absent were the heavy artillery standbys like Fireball and Lightning Bolt. Instead, the two discussed spells like Shrink (the reversal of Enlarge), Magic Mouth, and Phantasmal Force. They were quick to point out the situational versatility of those spells—the way that a quick-witted magic user can find applications for those incantations that the game designers (or the DM) probably never even considered. It is clear from their discussion that they have been steeped in the game for a while, and their familiarity with the game mechanics and setting has given them a creativity and insight that the newcomers or more dilettante gamers would not perceive. There is a depth to their gaming experience, and this is related to the duration of acquaintance with the game. The example of individual spell may seem trivial, but it is related to other, more consequential types of depth that such committed players can achieve.
As a GM who has never played Sorcerer before, and who is now running his first sessions for a group of similar novices, I feel a bit the way I do when I teach a piece of literature to my classes: In those cases, the students are so busy trying to get their bearings that many of the subtle nuances and rewards of the text are only glanced at. I already sense that Sorcerer is the type of game where we will finish up the Kickers in a month or so, and we will then say, “O.K., we are starting to understand the game. Now we are ready to play it in earnest!” It’s the kind of reaction I have when I have finished a particularly satisfying novel, story, or poem: Upon finishing it, I feel like I’m paradoxically in a position genuinely to start reading it.
This raises the question of how best to approach the game with first-time players. There is a delicate balance to be worked out between directing the game and letting the players develop insights (and make mistakes) on their own. At points, I feel like I’m a bit too forward in creating insights for the players, but if I don’t take some leading steps, they might completely miss the boat on resources in the game. And if they miss out on gaining an understanding early on, they will find themselves hamstrung as the stories develop.
Here’s a concrete example. In session two, the character named Shawn McEwan writes a blog and spearheads some social media outreach for a cult named The Eighth Laurel. (Note: The cult itself is not actually sorcerous, but Shawn’s master, who is in the cult’s hierarchy, is.) Shawn’s Kicker involves a strange surge in the popularity of his blog and social media presence, and this has thrust him into the limelight, which is giving him a sense of meaning and belonging that he is desperate for. In session two, his mentor (a sorcerer named Diana) tells Shawn that she is happy about the success he is achieving, and suggests running a social media experiment. This involves trying to lace some of the cult’s tweets and postings with phrases, hyperlinks, and hashtags that might impact weak-willed and impressionable members of the internet audience. Shawn and his demon named Aaron (whose need involves influencing the beliefs and actions of others) set to work.
Partly through roleplaying Aaron, I suggested that Shawn use a sequence of Perception, Confuse, and Taint in combination with a small social media blitz for the cult. Granted, those demonic abilities are written with face-to-face situations in mind, but Lore is being defined in my game as “Algorithmic Alchemy” and sorcery is generated through some mysterious powers conferred by the internet and the darker recesses of the web. So, for our game, it seems like internet contact is as important (or maybe more important) than physical proximity.
The rolls were successful (they were up against a countering roll of 4 Will, which I used to represent the will of a potentially malleable audience open to the teaching of the cult). Granted, the impact of this application of sorcery is hard to measure. Indeed, it’s possible that it didn’t even work. But there is an uptick in the popularity of the blog. People are even recording short videos of themselves spouting teachings of The Eight Laurel in varied settings. One such person sustains injuries when he produces a live video of himself climbing up the scaffolding of a building under construction as a goofy stunt. He’s posing and reciting some tenets of the Eighth Laurel’s belief system during his daring climb, but he then loses his grip and plummets to the ground, sustaining some serious injuries. The demon Aaron is gleeful, and he gets that look that shows his Need is being satisfied. Shawn is appalled by the event, and sends a condolence message to the victim. He’s in disbelief that he could have caused such an event. I’ve left it ambiguous: It might be a result of sorcery, or it might just be that the video streamer was just being stupid.
Through this sequence, I as the GM was offering more suggestions than I would if we were all more familiar with the game, but I’m now up to a test case to see if Shawn is ready to take flight. The player in control of Shawn has, on a number of occasions, mentioned that there are internet trolls who especially raise Shawn’s hackles. So, for our next session, I’ll have one of the trolls raise his ugly head and see whether Shawn, without prompting, will lash out on his own with some nasty sorcery to take down that hater.
Here, the “personal range” rules of demon abilities will have to be stretched. But my thinking is this: If sorcery derives from the power of social media and dabblings in the internet, and if a sorcerer is in direct, one-on-one contact with a target through messaging, video conference, etc., then that would qualify as personal range.
I sense that I will need to do some similar preparatory work in order to get the players to realize the utility of the rituals. No player has mentioned yet mentioned Contact, but it seems like that would be quite powerful in the social media context of our game. I also would like to see the players actively going after bonuses on their rolls, and I’ll try to provide some direct instruction for this. They seemed to be more onto the bonus aspect in session 1, but that dimension fell off the radar in session 2.
These reflections raise a topic for another day: The tabletop roleplaying game scene is having a renaissance, but games are being produced and published in such a white heat, that there is less of a market for sustained, deep play. This is not to say that there aren’t games being created that reward such type of careful attention and long-term commitment. But when there are dozens of games being Kickstarted, published on DriveThru, etc. every week, the market forces seem to be saying “buy something new” instead of nestling in with a deep game. And this is also telling designers to slant towards one-shots or games that will play out in a few sessions as opposed to designing games requiring long campaigns. It seems like the “long form game” is something that is being driven out of the indie game market. If long form games are produced for the indie market, I wonder how many are only read as opposed to being played.
One specific rules question. There are abilities where the user must provide a crucial definition. For example, with Perception, “exactly what is perceived must be defined at the outset.” Do you make this definition when you first get the demon (in which case, the demon would be locked into that particular type of perception for the game), or do you make the definition whenever you want to employ the ability (in which case, the type of perception can vary from situation to situation)?
A similar question occurs with Special Damage. One of the characters in my game wanted to have both lethal and non-lethal forms of Special Damage, so I counted that as two abilities. The character also wanted ranged attacks. So I’m allowing her Ranged ability to apply to both types of attack.