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The Sodden Lands of Sian Mer

I'm gearing up to run my second game of Sorcerer and taking my first stab at the Sorcerer and Sword variant. On the GM prep side, things are a bit more involved. For Sorcerer, I created one statement about demons, one about the setting, defined Humanity, and collected a couple pictures for inspiration. At that point,I was good to go. Since I set my Sorcerer game in the present day, world creation was an easier affair.

With Sorcerer and Sword, I'm coming up with an imagined setting, so there's more legwork to do. To get the ball rolling on the game, I've come up with:

  • a basic geography (which has significant implications for political organization and cultural development), 
  • a foundational myth,
  • and rumors about the "mystic otherworlds" (which reside somewhere in the unexplored swamps).

Sorcerer and Sword has a general default definition for Humanity: Having feelings for other as people. The myth I came up with adds heft to this idea. I'm imaging that the harsh world of Snia regularly breaks people down, pushing theminto the same "Screw it" attitude that characterizes its primary deity. As they give into this temptation, they stop caring about others . . .  and eventually, they lose themselves.

Below is the world description I've put together. At this stage, I'm planning to let this description simmer on the back burner until I gather together with the players for character creation. Their ideas and input will guide me in creating NPCs, specific settings, and other elements. 

Reactions and comments are welcome:

The Sodden Lands of Snia Mer

Snia Mer, or Snia for short, is a swamp world teeming with cryptozoological wonders and wrapped in a stifling, humid haze. Sights of surreal beauty abound. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of Snia are too busy fending off encroaching beasts and water to notice.

Human settlements take on forms as varied and bizarre as the insects and amphibians lurking in the bogs that surround them. Structures are built on rare ridges of dry land that have emerged from the muck. In most cases, villages are small and isolated, developing curious ideas and practices independently.  But there are occasionally land masses large enough to sustain entire cities. In other cases, small kingdoms have formed out of swamp-islands that are close enough to be connected by artificial berms.

Religious and philosophical attitudes in settlements vary, but the roots of beliefs can almost always be traced to a core myth:

It is said that, eons ago, Snia possessed entire continents surrounded by blue oceans, and that civilizations arose that rivalled the cities of the gods. These divinities were typically callous and indifferent when it came to human affairs, but this challenge jostled them out of their apathetic slumber. Reluctant, but feeling that something had to be done, Yzal, the indolent prime deity, roused the oceans and sent a deluge down to snuff out human life. It was initially an impressive display, but Yzal could not sustain his attention. On the 17th day of the flood, he said, “Screw it!”* He and the other gods turned their backs on Snia and went off to who knows where to continue their divine dalliances. And so the world was neither destroyed nor saved on that day, and instead Snia remained mired in its curiously aborted, semi-flooded state. 

*It is as this point that accounts radically diverge. Some replace Yzal’s terse exclamation with an elaborate, dignified speech wherein he justifies the interminable swamp as a just punishment for human wickedness. Others provide him with an equally long, delirious rant filled with obscenities and non sequiturs. And yet other manuscripts trail off at this point with shaky handwriting that suggests the scribe is either bored, angry, or confused.

And what of the swamp itself? Most of it is unexplored. Inhabitants try to map the bog around their settlements, but such maps are almost always out of date and unreliable, as the swamp is in a state of constant flux. Most of Snia’s inhabitants focus on eking out an existence on the ridges of lands. Those who venture into the swamp are either insane or desperate for release. Rumors and legends abound. Some religious zealots claim that the gates to salvation lie on a mountain rising out of the bog and climbing to clear skies about the mist. Those with more earthly aspirations entertain tales that a single vast continent, ripe for conquest or exploitation, still exists on Snia Mer.

Demonic forms: 

  • Luminous butterflies
  • Polychromatic haze 

(Note: Players should not be constrained by these demonic forms when creating their own demons.

Humanity: 
Sorcerer and Sword says “In this setting, unlike most modern day stories, Humanity concerns only close relationships. Murder, robbery, and rapine are only bady (i.e. prompt Humanity loss rolls) insofar as they harm people the hero knows or has shared danger with.”

Given the foundational myth above, Humanity in Snia relies especially on care and concern. When a character succumbs to the “Screw it” attitude of Yzal, Humanity is on the line.

Insprational Reading
Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories.

 

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

It's a great start and the crucial point I have is, don't do more than this to start. From here, it's all the players' job, including that when they pitch you any "what about" and "how about," you say, "whatever."

The logic works in reverse from usual: what you've provided is just scribbles on a cocktail napkin so they can make heroes they want to play. Then you, through your pinpoint-location prep per adventures, and they, through their actions and input, create the setting through play. Remember, Fritz Leiber didn't know he was writing in "Lankhmar" until quite a few stories in! And Clark Ashton Smith never really world-built in the way we think of it at all.

robowist's picture

I keep up my own blog site, but given the focus of the game, I'll continue to cross-post videos and actual play reports in this thread. See below for some observations about Sorcerer and Sword and a link to our session.

We held our first session of “The Sodden Lands of Snia Mer,” which is using Ron Edwards “Sorcerer and Sword” setting for his game Sorcerer. If you want to see the video, click here. I should note that this session comes on the heels of a one-page setting sketch and a 2-hour “Session Zero” where the players created their characters and started to fill in the setting.

Sorcerer is a game that favors small groups: 2-3 players with a GM is, in my mind, the ideal size.  You’ll see me open the session by letting the players know that there was no expectation that they wind up with each other. They had established during character creation that they lived in the same proximity and had an acquaintance with each other. The players also imagined characters that had some experiences in common: Most importantly, both have experienced devastation at the hands of the Ado Empire. But I emphasized that this didn’t need to a “party adventure game.”

At the same time, the characters they created had kickers that were begging for some interweaving. Here, in brief, are the kickers:

  • Nagimo, who has a parasite demon of a catfish spirit, hears that a member of his destroyed tribe might be alive and working for the enemy that brought desolation to his people. 
  • Balder, who has a very formidable object demon (a gem) fused to his chest, gets a vision of another object demon which could provide him even more formidable powers. 

I won’t provide too many spoilers here, but there was plenty for me to work with as I prepared for the opening session, and I wasn’t holding back on the opportunity to create some points of contact between the kickers.

A few items of note for this particular session:

First, with the demise of Hangouts On-Air, I have been trying to get back into the recording of some actual play. So I used some Christmas gift funds to purchase a modest “gaming computer,” loaded up OBS (a free, open-source video recording program), and learned how to use Microsoft’s Video Editor (which came already provided to me via Microsoft Windows). I’ve had some bumps and blips. My computer apparently has two video cards, which initially confused OBS. And I forgot to hit “Record” during our session zero. But I managed to get everything working for Session One, and I love the fact that I can now take out some distracting interruptions and add some text notes (which I wasn’t able to do when using Hangouts On-Air).

My goal is humble: I’m not looking for a slick, professional video production, but I’d like a video that shows a GM and some players in the trenches and working hard at playing a challenging ttrpg. In this particular project, I’d like the videos to give interested parties a sense of how “Sorcerer and Sword” operates. If it also sparks some discussion of techniques at the table, so much the better. I’m open to suggestions that will help me with this new chapter in putting together some solid actual play material.

For Session One, the spotlight is the kickers. Both players had provided me with the key crisis or concern which was troubling their characters, and instead of putting the kickers in the past, I brought them vividly into the present. So the kickers really get some meat (and intrigue) added to them as we play. The Sorcerer Chart--which helps to spotlight relationships between elements of kickers, price, lore, and past/cover--was a key part of my prep, and the play benefited from attending to those elements. If you decide to play Sorcerer, don't neglect that chart! And I would say that that chart can be adapted and repurposed for other games. It will give you a good way of taking elements provided by your players and weaving them into situations that will propel their characters.

This was, in my mind, an instructive “Session One” of Sorcerer. The players are working to flesh out the nature of their demons, some intriguing NPCs are shifting about in the shadows, there is some good scaffolding work done in terms of the resolution mechanics, and Balder opted to seek out Nagimo (as a result of a vision), so it seems like the two protagonists will be joining forces during r the immediate future.

One item that I feel I nailed well was the handling of failures on rolls. For example, at about the 1:05 mark, you will see Balder using his demon to pick up some potential weak spots in a prison. After a failed Perception, I allowed Balder to draw some conclusions, but that action also triggered some mockery from a couple guards who happened to see Balder doing his surveillance (with the use of a demonic ability). Ozeman, Balder’s demon, has a need to be worshipped and adored, so obviously this mockery (brought about by the failed Perception roll) was a stinging blow that required some type of “saving face” action. That got us into a brief combat. Balder opted not to push things as far as he could, but there might be repercussions down the road, as Ozeman is still, no doubt, resentful, and the guards who have now encountered a Psychic Blast, might be passing on information to others.

Nagimo also failed when trying to hire out a fellow swamp dweller to join him on a bit of spy work. Instead of making this a whiff, I made the “hire” more costly. To achieve his goal of getting Skintu (the NPC) to join him, he had to offer the entire amount of coins provided by a scout named Masho as his payment, and he has also promised that, if successful, his “hireling” will share in the spoils.

robowist's picture

Click here to see the actual play video of session two of my “Sodden Lands of Snia Mer” campaign.

A few comments:

I often consider myself a “slow burn” type—I’m a GM who enjoys the gradual build-ups. But I often worry how this will come across to my players, who might be interested in a more pulse-pounding pacing. As I was editing this video, there are some signs of payoff to my slow burn approach:

The start of the session involves the two sorcerers meeting up on the destroyed village of Tainu. After some Q and A, the two settle in for the night, but Nagimo wakes up to find that his NPC companion has gone missing, and he makes a search, which leads him to his hireling Skintu and a discovery that there is some strange presence on the island. There is plenty of mystery that is mounting here, but it is a slowly rising arc. If you are looking for an actual play session to be the same as a rapid fire, Hollywood movie, you will be disappointed.

But then, leap to half way through the video—to the part carrying the subtitle “Demon Contact.” The other sorcerer, Balder, has joined Nagimo to get to the bottom of what lured Skintu onto the island in the middle of the night, and this leads to a decision to attempt a Contact ritual. The ritual succeeds (at the price of Humanity loss), and there is a suitably creepy exchange between the sorcerers and a “Sentinel Demon” named Asmund.

I notice a number of things clicking in the scene. When the demon calls his refrain, “Come closer,” there is some genuine, unsettled laughter around the table: All of us realized that this was a scene that was dripping with consequence, but we also didn’t know exactly where the fiction was going to break, so this resulted in some pregnant, high-level suspense. The scene also had some duration, and the nervous energy was sustained for the length. This energy wouldn’t have been possible without the slow build. Nor would it have been possible if I had scripted a narrative in advance. Part of what made it all work was the perceived sense that the outcome depended on what the sorcerers were deciding (and upon the outcome of some key dice rolls).

The sorcerers ultimately acceded to caution and opted not to push a confrontation with the demon. I think some GMs might have been disappointed with that direction, but I was delighted. The fact that they didn’t force a conflict with Asmund means that there is a powerful chord of mystery and tension playing in the background. Of course, I would have been happy to play along with other decisions as well, but I’m relishing the rich suspense created by that unresolved encounter.

At the close of the session, the sorcerers run across a hybrid monstrosity—a combination crocodile and bear—and you’ll see us working through the combat mechanics. It was an exciting encounter, though I’m also working hard to keep faithful to the mechanics. Here again, some might fault me for slowing down the pace to get the rules right. But for the fans of the slow burn, there are continued payoffs, such as one roll where Nagimo and the “Beardile” monstrosity match their highest three dice, so Nagimo finally gets a victory on his fourth highest die.

Due to schedules, we skipped this past Friday, but session three is lined up for this week. The sorcerers are landing at the garrison of Muskcross Grange, and it’s quite possible that at least one of the kickers will be resolved. Nagimo has heard that one of his tribe is working at the garrison for the enemy, and he is determined to find out what’s up with that apparent act of double-cross. Will he discover the truth behind his friend? And if so, where will that lead him? I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out.

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm inclined to say "My work here is done" and simply enjoy the videos.

So you know, though, I have a little memo to myself to revisit your thoughts on the slow burn after a few more sessions.

I have a regular group of myself and four others. I'd like to run Sorcerer and Sword, but I don't want to exclude someone. What could I do to help support four players?

Ron Edwards's picture

I have some notions which are intended to work together. See what you think ...

Keep the opening idea (Chapter 3) simple, based on raw imagery, nothing that needs explaining.

Encourage similar simplicity in the player-characters (Chapter 4), aiming at nice solid fantasy cover-art and no deeper, and hold off on the Kickers.

Skipping to pages 88-92, hit pretty hard, with a very tangible situation that doesn't name or involve the characters. I think I mention "Rogues in the House" at one point - the idea being that the GM would only have come up with "the Red Priest has gone too far," and since the players have already come up with Murilo and Conan, therefore, in response to this phrase, they have independently brought their respective crisis points at the beginning of the story, i.e., their Kickers.

This ties in well with the the list for playing Azk'Arn on page 86 of Sex & Sorcery. This is tricky for role-playing because traditionally we think of such things in terms of tasks (the legacy of the original adventure modules), but here, it's supposed to provide the context for the players to write their Kickers, and those, together, provide any complexity or immediate situational prep. Anyway, in this case, I suggest that you personally pick/invent one thing of this kind and just do it, no conference or choices from them, andsee what the Kickers give you from there.

Be ready for initial play to seem "not like much," in story and plot terms, from a GM's perspective. You may be surprised at how much it actually contains, as far as the players are concerned.

So here's my take away from what you wrote:

Keep the opening setting idea (Chapter 3) simple, based on raw imagery, nothing that needs explaining.
Encourage similar simplicity in the player-characters (Chapter 4 Character Creation), aiming at nice solid fantasy cover-art and no deeper
Hold off on the Kickers.
Skipping to S&Sword pages 88-92, Situation Creation, hit pretty hard, with a very tangible situation that doesn't name or involve the characters. Keep it to a sentence or so.
(Perhaps provide more than one situation and ask the PCs to choose.)
(See also page 86 of Sex & Sorcery)
Now players choose to insert themselves into the situation and write kickers based on that.

-----------

A comment on the Azk-Arn in Sex and Sorcery p. 87 example: the players all choose to be involved in the same one of several possible situations. It seems to me that having them share only one situation is important. I'm thinking that the focus on one situation promotes greater joint interest in the developing situation because everyone has some stake in part of the same thing. I also see how it is important to start with only a sketch of the setting and let the players develop diverse heroes before they learn the situation. That helps avoid the formation of a unified "party" that goes everywhere together. (I think my group, like many, has the habit of always moving towards "let's join forces" so I may have to explicitly encourage independance.)

Ron Edwards's picture

(to Alan) I am not sure, but just in case, I will clarify something - for the Azk'Arn game, I did not offer those choices to the players and say, "pick one each," with the coincidental outcome that they all chose the same one. I asked them to pick one of them, collectively. They were to be in the same general area by default.

An unrelated but interesting point: as it happens, the three characters acted almost completely independently throughout that area, and although their actions' outcomes affected one another, I'm pretty sure that none of them met at any point.

Ron Edwards's picture

Your use of the Kickers is excellent. When the content begs for Weaving, so mote it be, right? And so much easier and fun that requiring it or forcing it.

I completely emphasize with your recording woes, as my own path in the last couple of years is littered with outrageous pains in the ass. But I think you’re on the right track, or at least, from my biased perspective which favors “real people real play” rather than stagey performances.

So, about failures on rolls, with a tactic tie-in to our recent discussion about Legendary Lives. I have never felt quite right about my presentation regarding “failures that don’t fail,” because they only make sense in tandem with failures that do, in fact, fail.

OK, to explain this, let’s ignore actual successes entirely, for the moment, and look strictly at failures. Regarding those, stories differ between (i) a larger matrix of ongoing outright failures in which the occasional “you failed but you did fine” maintains protagonism, and (ii) a larger matrix of “looking good despite failures” which provides the bedrock for sympathy for the occasional “oh man that was a total bust” moment.

I was trying to get at the idea that every group will find its own balance between (i) and (ii), and that people are typically very good at knowing which works best or feels best or makes most sense for the moment. That’s why I’ve spent some time in the last couple of years focusing on (ii) and harping on that “Aragorn trips on the stairs” moment in The Lord of the Rings (the book).

Looking back, I think the Sorcerer & Sword text errs a bit too far on the “make everyone look good” side, mainly because role-playing texts and history erred the other way. And that’s a complex topic of its own, because when people (“we,” me, and I bet lots of people reading this) correctedit in play via narration, we’d go especially too far that way by overriding the failure itself, rather than just the way we talked about it.

The narration rules in Trollbabe arose directly from my “in the studio” musing about this issue after playing quite a lot of Azk’Arn, because I was paying attention to how players find and maintain their preferred mix of (i) and (ii). Since Sorcerer specifically permits narration to be whoever-says-whatever, I looked at how people actually composed narrating failures at our table, and those became the rules for the new game.

Just in case – I’m not suggesting adopting the rules for Trollbabe into your game or into any version of Sorcerer, which benefits greatly from the whoever-says-whatever. I provide all of this as food for thought as your group finds its way, as it’s supposed to.

robowist's picture

I'm again cross-posting this at my Ludoverse site. I'm already having Sorcerer withdrawal!

After eight sessions, we brought an end to our mini-campaign using Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer and Sword supplement.  You can access the video by clicking here.

I’ve now run two games of Sorcerer, and in both cases it took a full 7-8 sessions to bring the kickers to a satisfactory resolution. The players for this series literally ranged around the globe: I’m in central Florida, Rod is in Texas, and Aybars is in Istanbul. To state the obvious, scheduling was a challenge, and it’s a testament to our commitment that we pulled this off.

I have some more sessions recorded, and we’ll see if I have the time to get those edited. This session, however, provides much food for thought, so rather than wait, I’m releasing it now.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I tend to run games that operate on a slow burn, and despite the fact that our session builds to a dramatic crescendo, there are signs of that deliberate style in ample evidence here. Some players will balk at my approach, but I like the way all of this developed in our game. In terms of why the slow burn occurs, I can put my finger on a number of sources.

First, I’m not making it easy on the players. I regularly introduce situations or scenes where you will see the players mulling over their options . . .  and I let them linger in their uncertainty. You’ll see a number of examples in this session.

At the start, for instance, the two Sorcerers have to decide whether to drug their friend (Zeki) who is experiencing an intense withdrawal, or to leave him behind to complete the process. You’ll see them working over that question, until Nagimo (played by Rod) opts for a low-dose drug option, only to have Balder (played by Aybars) rescue the situation by creatively coming up with a creative placebo option (aided by a successful roll of the dice).

And, towards the end of the session, you’ll see the duo encountering a number of fraught situations where they are thoughtfully debating what the best course of action might be: Do we sneak into the compound of the necromancer (named The Prime Herald) or do we take a more direct approach and ask for an audience? Do we try to contact the powerful demon named The Chryxen Butterfly, and if so, what should that timing be? Afterward, should Balder risk a binding with that demon, realizing that, by doing so, he will be initiated into the necromantic arts? The dilemmas come streaming down, and one consequence is that the game sometimes veers into anguished debates over tactics and morality instead of pulse-pounding action.

This session features a number of Humanity rolls. I love the way Balder/Aybars comes to a gradual realization that necromancy is nasty business . . . and there’s even a spot where he tries to justify (mostly to himself) dabbling in this very dark and wicked art (see the sequence starting at 1:14:00). Aybars is in fine form as he works through the ethics, and eventually he arrives at that favorite refuge of morally ambiguous decisions (at 1:18:00): “I have no other choice. . . I’m too deep in this!”

Sorcery and accompanying Humanity rolls are firing on all cylinders as things come to a close. At the 48:30 mark, Balder decides to contact the Chryxen Butterfly, and he uses a wonderfully described blood ritual along with some group sorcery to build up a sizable pool of dice to pull off the Contact. This again takes time (about 15 minutes of game play, some of which is edited out), but it builds up to some memorable rolls and some dramatic and satisfying outcomes.

During planning, I had determined that the Chryxen Butterfly was in a rebellious state with respect to his “current” master, The Prime Herald, though this fact was not known to the players. With the successful Contact roll and some nice role-playing on the part of the Sorcerers, the demon breaks free of The Prime Herald, and Balder then attempts to Bind the demon, In the fiction, this involves a gruesome and excruciating moments as the object demon fuses itself onto Balder’s skull. Normally, the sequence goes Contact ⇒ Summon ⇒ Bind. But since this was a case of an unbound, rebellious demon, we rolled the successes from the Contact directly into the Binding roll. There didn't seem to be any need to Summon a demon who was already there.

Balder ends up losing one of his Humanity checks, which was clearly making Aybars nervous. The session then ends with Nagimo and Balder trying to get the Chryxen Butterfly to reverse the soul entrapment afflicting Nagimo’s friend Zeki (start around 1:30:00). Eventually, the demon comes around to the idea, but notes that this type of reversal draws on necromantic forces--meaning, of course, that a human life is required. The two creatively decide to offer up the life of a former nemesis (the giant named Baseer) whom they knew to be at the complex. So the dark designs set in motion just continued to cascade!

The reversal of the soul entrapment was a puzzle for me: On the one hand it required a human sacrifice, which clearly risked a Humanity loss. But at the same time, the effect was one that was beneficent, restoring a human life (Zeki) to wholeness. In the end, I ordered Aybars/Balder to make two Humanity checks: One to see if he lost a point of Humanity for mercilessly sacrificing the giant Baseer; the other to see if he gained a point of Humanity for restoring Zeki’s soul. He succeeded in both rolls, meaning he ultimately gained a point of Humanity.

With that, the kickers were wrapped up. Nagimo had not only found his friend Zeki, but managed to have him healed. And Balder had achieved his drive for power . . . though I wonder how long it will take for him to wither in corruption like the previous Prime Herald.

As you can tell from this account, Balder had the spotlight in this session. Nagimo in fact had contemplated whether he even needed to travel to the Prime Herald to bring things to a satisfactory (or at least liveable) conclusion. Had the two Sorcerers decided on a secretive operation when they landed , then Nagimo’s superior physical abilities would no doubt have come into play. Thinking about the sessions as a whole, I believe Nagimo commanded a number of key spotlight moments throughout. Still, given that we knew this was driving towards a concluding moment, I would have liked to have found some way to give Rod more of a closing aria. It may be some consolation that Nagimo clearly has more potential as an enduring character in an ongoing saga.

We have a short session debrief at the end, which will provide some insights from Rod and Aybars. I invite them or anyone else interested to offer additional commentary here. We decided to set the game aside, though as I noted to them, it still lies ready in the dock, and I look forward to continuing to develop the setting if others are interested in trudging through the sodden lands of Snia Mer.

I’m itching to take another dive into Sorcerer. Given the frightening COVID-19 pandemic, I’m mulling over Jared Sorenson’s Schism (which is aptly subtitled “A Virulent Setting for Sorcerer”) as a timely supplement in these dark days.

Ron Edwards's picture

The slow burn reminds me of the non-Glorantha RuneQuest that I played with Gordon, Ian, and Matt a couple of years ago and presented here. At the time, I was concerned that our rather moody, thoughful, not overtly crisis-ridden sessions would be boring. In retrospect, I found them to contain plenty of action, and for the players' offhand thoughts or need for out-of-play conversation to drive directly into play and its ensuing decisions. I'm finding the same with these.

Role-playing culture has taught us that either there's frenetic action ("a fight") vs. soooo borrrrring "talk," or, conversely, ho-hum meaningless action ("oh shit, just tell me when it's my turn to hit") vs. a duel of wits to control how things go. That culture has been wrong all along.

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