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Sorcerer Musik - three sessions in

This game is pure gut-punch Sorcerer, but there's a little history underlying it.

Almost three years ago, a determined person contacted me with a bevy of questions about whatever on earth I must be thinking about role-playing. That led to what ended up as 120 single-spaced pages of dialogue, and also to the presentation you can see right now in the Phenomenology series in Seminar.

I didn't think much of that was worth anything without play, so about a year ago, I made my way to Washington D.C. for a weekend with Zac, the above-named instigator, and Jann. We and a couple of their friends played Cold Soldier (described elsewhere here in Actual Play), Trollbabe, Zero, and The Great Ork Gods. I'd planned on starting more regular play with them and finally got around to it - to find that Jann had set her sights upon Sorcerer.

Organizing it on-line brought us Pedro, who lives in Finland, and thus it was. Our first discussion wasn't recorded, but it yielded the notions of "a big modern city" and demons defined as "technological music." Pedro thought up the character idea of an astronomer who blissed out listening to musical communications from the center of a black hole, Jann came up with a young musician whose demonic guitar makes her a star, and Zac spun it a little differently by thinking about a retro-mafioso and a sinister old pianola.

The session presented here launched us into play. The first fifteen minutes nailed down the starting characters, finishing up the demons from what the players had sent me by email, and getting me enough information for their diagrams. About the next ten minutes went for the Binding rolls.

At 27 minutes in, we started play. As usual, for me, it's mainly just feeling my way into role-playing the various characters, because the situation for each player-character is pretty clear based on their diagrams. You'll hear me start with a lot of "you could do this" and "you could do that," which I present as scaffolding so people know how the rules work, and which I typically stop doing in the second session.

Also as usual, that "feeling my way" stage tends to be dramatically more productive in retrospect than anyone could imagine. Just putting one character into the vicinity of another is good enough. You'll also see an example of what's called Spiking, which is to say, taking a Kicker (the attack on Zac's character's sister) and introducing a lot more mystery and danger into it (an attack on Michael through a demon possessing her).

I'm really bummed not to have the visual for what follows. This group is notable for overcoming the limitations of screen-based play entirely - the exchanges of expressions, the small or not-quite-voiced indications of listening, even the body positioning, created a genuine together-here atmosphere, which has only become nicer and more fun with every session. It was especially clear at the end of this one, when Pedro and Jann further discussed their demons' potential, and each visual response among us fueled further inspiration.

Fortunately the later sessions are captured on video and you'll see what I mean.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
Sorcerer

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture
Jannica Porcu's picture

Hey everyone. I'm the aforementioned Jann.
 
I've been chopping at the bit to play Sorcerer for a while now, so Ron, thanks for your willingness to indulge me! The give-take relationship between the sorcerer and his or her demon just ignited my imagination.
 
So far, I've been surprised by the gameplay. I didn't expect to quite so intimate, creatively challenging, and for the story to be actually emergent. That's been an awesome experience so far.
 
A huge experiential standout so far is how much more the gameplay demands of me than I was expecting. Turns out, I'm used to relying on dice to guide my decisions more than I realized, and I don't always have immediate ideas for what to do with the amount of freedom (and power) Sorcerer is granting me. It's like blank-canvas paralyzation. Sometimes Ron will ask, "okay, what do you do?" and I have to pause to think about that for a moment. Do I go with my gut, or will that get me in trouble? How carefully do I need to think about this? What are my character's goals, and what is she willing to do to achieve them? Will her goals drive her away from interacting with the other characters in the story? Should I worry about that? It's been surprisingly more difficult for me to play my character in a way that's a little disconnected from me as a player. It could just be me, but the overlap has startled me.
 
That's been an awesome exercise for flexing my agency as a player, and as a person. It helps that Ron takes a firm grasp on the wheel of the story, but he's ready, willing, and probably looking to change direction when any of us have ideas. We've already ended up discussing together what we feel like would make the best story in several situations. This amount of guided freedom in story development has lead to me fantasizing less between sessions about a developing headcanon, and instead, I'm looking forward to the next session to see what we'll make together. I'm finding myself feeling like dreaming up the story in my head is ridiculous, so it's not occurring to me to do it — the group effort really feels like an integral part of the story's creation. So far that's been a unique and exciting tabletop experience.
 
The gameplay experience seems to be maturing with time, too. It seems like the better we learn to communicate with each other, figure out our relationships to one another, and discover the limits and possibilities of the game together, the creative aspect of the game is becoming increasingly interesting and enjoyable. In other games I've played, interest generally decays over time, but I'm finding myself becoming more invested over time. Plus, we're barely playing for an hour to an hour and a half, tops, but so much happens every session. That's some serious value — I'm getting a ton of those good, satisfying feelings you get after a good session in such a short amount of time, and I'm finding that the value on that time is appreciating.
 
I'm thrilled to see how this will pan out! Can't wait until the next session.
Ron Edwards's picture

I can only agree and express appreciation. This is what the game can allow people to do. That weird, unplanned, yet in retrospect inevitable-seeming drive ... remember when we listened to this

and you commented on how it was somehow both incredibly driving yet unhurried? My aesthetic in designing/playing the game (I maintain it wrote itself through play) was absolutely tuned to this sort of rock and roll.

My only quibble or mod for what you said concerns this:

discussing together what we feel like would make the best story

... which, I think, may give the wrong impression for what we're doing. I think I know what you mean, but the discussion is composed of what each person does in response to what just happened. There's no conferencing or workshopping, but rather a kind of effective discussion based on intuitive, do-what's-next motion.

PedroPereira's picture

I’m Pedro, one of the players in this game. So, it seems the comments are working fine now. So, without further ado...
Regarding Alain’s demon, Singularity, and the “technological music” notion. This comes from one of the procedures during first session prep in which the players decide on some “themes”, very short statements really, that serve to establish some kind of unifying thematic vision for sorcery and demons. I confess I wasn’t expecting music to be it (I think it was Jann that came up with that?). I thought that we’d go for something more visual, and therefore more malleable, so it took me by surprise. Although I love music (who doesn’t) I really didn’t want to go for the rock star thing, or the demon musical instrument thing, not because it’s not cool (it is, and you just have to check the stuff Zac and Jann came up with) but because it doesn’t jive with me personally. And when it comes to Sorcerer, you have to feel it in your guts, you have to be excited for what you just created, or it will fall flat during gameplay because you'll lack the motivation and creative drive to push it visually and thematically.
So, I ended up twisting things a bit, and going for a “music of the spheres” approach, with my demon Singularity being inspired by the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*. The “music” is basically static noise and sensor captured electromagnetic waves that are computer converted to sound waves. You can get the vibe of what I’m going for here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWTC7P1Dprw&t=668s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJ0DIg82zSc&t=2446s
 

Ron Edwards's picture

I tell myself that I'm ready for any concepts for basic-setting and demon-aesthetics that players, one each, might toss out for play, and that the best thing to do is take the first suggestion and go, rather than pitch and process it. One of my favorites to date is "boring suburbia"+ "fleshy Frazetta demons."

Jann's suggestion about the music - in practice, our directive, as she spoke up and that's that - is one of those which would probably get rejected in a group discussion, for reasons like you described. In particular, the notion that we're all rockers who all have demon instruments imposes a sameness which lacks drive. Not that anyone suggested that directly, but just as you imply, it could arise in discussion and the attendant emotional drain-down would probably lead to some other base suggestion.

So it was better simply to let people run wild with the sketchiest phrase, and sure enough, we ended up with three rather different approaches which harmonize rather than play the same note. Rock music as sensation and mass-message, astrophysics music/noise as cosmic and non-verbal insight, and lonely piano improv as, I think, ideology and personal soundtrack. That's part of the source of the rush I am experiencing, characteristic of Sorcerer, at this point. I have all sorts of things to write about the process of prep for our upcoming session, after we play.

PedroPereira's picture

Alain's demon, Singularity (Sig for friends), is a set of headphones that Alain uses most of the time.

Regarding building the starting demons, we basically unloaded all the hard work on Ron. We just went on like "I see my demon doing this, or perhaps this would be cool also", yada yada yada, with Ron riffing from that and vice versa. So we were just enjoying the whole thing, while Ron was doing the heavy work. Works for me.

I was quite surprised with Ron's observation that
"This group is notable for overcoming the limitations of screen-based play entirely - the exchanges of expressions, the small or not-quite-voiced indications of listening, even the body positioning, created a genuine together-here atmosphere, which has only become nicer and more fun with every session."
I had never played online before; all my play had been "at the table" until now, even though I'm part of a G+ community that has heavily invested into locally organised high-quality online play (mostly because of time scheduling incompatibilities). I did notice that the four of us quickly fell into a very casual, comfortable way of interacting with each other, specially by the second session, but it's difficult for me to say in what way it differs from other gameplay I've watched online. I'm curious to know what Zac and Jann think of this.

Finally, playing with Ron, Zac, and Jann has been a really great experience, and I'm very happy that we got this going, and they extended me the opportunity to join in. Ron, if you want me to further comment on some aspects of gameplay etc, just shoot.
Yours,
Pedro

John Willson's picture

Hi folks, I'm enjoying listening to the recording so far (I'm in the middle of video #2).  Just some constructive feedback on the audio: Ron's channel is much quieter than everyone else's.  You might not notice it, if you're listening in low-noise conditions.  But I'm listening while driving (don't worry, I'm not watching the video!), and road noise means a truncated signal/noise ratio for me.  The same would be true for anyone riding public transit, sharing space with other conversations, etc..  I have to crank up the volume when Ron is talking, and then my eardrums get blown in whenever anyone else speaks (or rolls dice... Zak!), and I have to dive for the volume control again.  It's frustrating, but I'm persisting because I want to hear how this all turns out.

So, for future recordings, if there's anything you can do to normalize the audio channels, us commuters would appreciate it!

Thanks, keep up the great work!

Ron Edwards's picture

I am sympathetic to your blasted-brain driving (and a little scared to know about it), but you'd laugh out loud if you saw how I shot and recorded those videos. It was before buying my spiff new equipment, and believe me, it wasn't much better than those tape recorders we had when we were kids ...

I don't claim any great quality yet, but at least now I've got the right gear and am improving a tiny bit with each new piece.

Self: learn to produce audio tracks: noted.

Love D's picture

Hi! These sessions was very fun and interesting to see, especially in light of Ron’s phenomenology talks and the talk about the Pool. What a terrific group of nice people. I love how the spontaneous demonic song during the concert break in the first session reached the waves and, later, connected the characters. That is one creepy hit song. Everyone consumes it happily without reflecting on its super dull or wrong lyrics that should feel totally out of place.

Jann, it was interesting to read about your thoughts during the shift to emergent play, or from thinking more of story and headcanon between sessions, to just playing with the notion that the fiction is emergent. The group that I recently started to play with has some problems with this ”shift”, or should I say “process”, with way more thinking and rethinking of the choices of action than what at least I perceived in your group. So I wouldn’t worry too much about that! 

 

I think your sessions show that as long as everybody keeps acknowledging what has happened in the fiction and situation – and that their characters very much are in that building situation – there’s really no wrong move. I mean, if it feels right or even just possible in the situation, it’s probably best to just go with the gut feeling or drive the character towards his/her goal. It works because every decision will, coupled with the unpredictability of the dice, necessarily build upon the groups contributions, by way of real consequences. That is, if the system or rules are built to support just that, which seems to be the case with Sorcerer.

 

Maybe I missed something in that paragraph, apart from the crucial trust in the fellow players, respect and such. There is that reflection on what course of action is the most fun for everyone or most fun right now. That reflection must be necessary as a general outlook in most games, I think. Though in the quite recent past, I have been consumed by such reflections, worrying about the coherence of the fiction and of the fun too much. I think the reason was that I didn’t really trust the system or rules of the game we played to help me. This is probably why these sessions, coupled with Ron’s videos on phenomology — and a little bit earlier, the talk about the Pool on youtube — got me so happy.

 

Some questions and mental notes popped up when I saw especially the first session of your game, mostly pertaining to what I mentioned above.

 

Session 1 - “Taming the shark”

I love how the actions and rolls of Jann and Pedro during the first session created such a powerful effect on the whole game and all the player characters. It seems like the “trick” was nothing more than acknowledging the established situation, and taking consequential action on/within that situation according to the rules. The crossing and/or weaving (?) being part of that.

 

At 52:38, At first, I didn’t realize that the twisted lyrics of Jann’s “Taming the shark”-song was a direct mechanical consequence of Pedro’s failed Lore roll. I went back and reheard the segment where Pedro failed (37:00): that roll explicitly got the characters demons talking to each other (their demon music overlapped). As Ron points out in the overlay text in the video, this proves to be really important (and possibly bad for Pedro). When Jann decided that “I definitely will have to change his mind.” and rolled a 3 victory success, it not only convinced the record label guy Terry (the hammer-head shark) of her musical talent – it also made the song viral. And the song’s lyrics naturally got mixed up and complicated by Pedro’s failed roll and the established overlap between the two demons music.  

 

I have two questions on this: 

(1) Ron, is this crossing or weaving, in action? The lore roll establishing connection between the demons, and the subsequent “eavesdropped conversation” lyrics.

(2) is it telling that it was a very proactive action that acted as a vehicle for the whole thing? (Jann’s influence roll and subsequent viral hit).

Related to the second question, the perception power first looked like some sort of passive information-gathering action that you could do without worrying about consequence, but now I’m not so sure! Eavesdropping like that is invasive as hell, and thus a choice of action with moral implications and possibly grave consequences. Then, I guess there are no truly “passive” actions except for maybe full defense in combat, which we saw in the third session.

 

Looking forward to the next session!

 

Best regards,

Love

Ron Edwards's picture

Hello! Wonderful observations and great questions.

... is this crossing or weaving, in action? The lore roll establishing connection between the demons, and the subsequent “eavesdropped conversation” lyrics.

Weaving, because I took what was happening and made it "stronger," in terms of player-characters affecting one another. As opposed to Crossing, which doesn't establish connections that way, but merely puts characters and/or their past effects on things within the event framework of whatever some other character is doing right now.

I didn't initiate the path-crossing of the demons; that emerged simply because the actions of the characters activated both demons' powers in the same location. So the "and now you're singing the conversation" was in no way planned or imposed, and although I did obviously conceive and say it, as GM, it operated very much the same as if a character said, "I punch him," rolled successfully, and then I or someone said, "He reels from your blow."

There was one prevailing concept that permitted that causality or connectivity to be available to me, which was the unifying aesthetic among the demons, which in this case happens to be a literal in-fiction aesthetic as well. Once that's known, as it always should be (and can be practically anything, e.g. the "fleshy Frazetta" concept I mentioned), then such causality and connectivity is incredibly strong given circumstances that make sense for it.

... is it telling that it was a very proactive action that acted as a vehicle for the whole thing? (Jann’s influence roll and subsequent viral hit).

Related to the second question, the perception power first looked like some sort of passive information-gathering action that you could do without worrying about consequence, but now I’m not so sure! Eavesdropping like that is invasive as hell, and thus a choice of action with moral implications and possibly grave consequences. Then, I guess there are no truly “passive” actions except for maybe full defense in combat, which we saw in the third session.

I think that you answered your own question way better than anything I coudl say, so, "yes, like that." Given that three demons have at least one form of Perception as an ability, and I think the total abilities of that kind total six among them, the available context for overlap is enormous. Especially since I'm treating the audience/zeitgeist aspects of rock and roll, the dark web, the interior state of self-hood associated with enjoying music, and cosmic/galactic "space noise" as the same things.

Jesse Burneko's picture

I've been thinking about what play would look like using the diagams exactly as described in the later made diagram videos.  I see now that Locations become more important.  I had actually begin to wonder why there was anything other than people and demons on the chart.  It seemed to me the chart was most useful for showing strong and weak bonds among the characters in the PC's life.  I was never quite sure what I was supposed to do with "shitty appartment" or "ritual dagger".

I listened to the first two recordings of Sorcerer Musik and I admit the transition from the first session to the second session seemed incredibly jaring. The first session ended with Maxine chaneling the conversation Alaine was listening to into a song.  The second session immediately started with Alaine at the office the following morning for the requested meeting.  And my brain was all, "WHOA! WHOA!  What happened at the nightclub?"

I wanted to know what Alaine's immediate reaction was to hearing the convesation come out of this woman on a stage! (I realized later in the recording that apparently Alaine didn't actually hear or know that happened so that made a little more sense).  Even so, I was still wondering what Maxine's immediate reaction to these weird words spilling forth.  I would have started that session looking at Maxine's player saying, "Okay, so these weird words flow out of you in song, what do you do?" right there, still in the night club. And here we were already with the song leaked to the public and going viral.

So, I was thinking, "Whoa!  Is this what happens when you use the diagrams session to session?"  Now, I know that those players were communicating between sessions, so I don't know what was said there.  Also, if I'm understanding things correctly, Ron was kind of managing the diagrams himself which he wouldn't normally do.  But still I felt there was a HUGE amount of play that should have happened between the end of Session 1 and the set of circumstances that opened Session 2.

PedroPereira's picture

I will make a post either later today or tomorrow about the diagrams as a technique per se, but for the moment I'll just make a comment regarding a detail Jesse mentioned:

So, I was thinking, "Whoa!  Is this what happens when you use the diagrams session to session?"  Now, I know that those players were communicating between sessions, so I don't know what was said there.  Also, if I'm understanding things correctly, Ron was kind of managing the diagrams himself which he wouldn't normally do.  But still I felt there was a HUGE amount of play that should have happened between the end of Session 1 and the set of circumstances that opened Session 2.

For clarification, we (the players) weren't talking between ourselves between sessions at all. All our communications were public in the form of posts in the corresponding session threads.  Ron was indeed taking care of the diagrams as a teaching approach, but technically it should have been us.

Regarding your last remark, hum, I don't really remember the details (that was back in early 2018) but I don't remember being jarred by the transition.  In play, for us as players, the transition felt natural. I would have to go back to those videos and check, but I think it came down to two things: first, as players, we had a much clearer idea of what was happening than the characters. Second, all characters were sorcerers, so the "weird" aspect of the situation wasn't that alien for the characters either. The characters (just like the players) "sensed" what was going on in those scenes and that was enough as far as the situation was concerned. I didn't find it jarring when the next session was about Alain going to the meeting at all. Duno if what I said here clarifies anything, but if you have any questions feel free to ask, Jesse.

 

Ron Edwards's picture

Replying to this (Jesse’s inquiry) is tricky. For one thing, I have an easy Get Out of Jail Free card to play, but for another, I don’t want to use it, as I’d rather answer the question more generally, out of this specific context, for general application.

Here’s the card: in this game, the initial diagrams were completely borked. No player had any idea about making them, so I had to do it, and I struggled with the information in Zac’s case especially. As I thought was acknowledged in these posts, we effectively rebooted his character entirely for the second session.

That’s why the first session was not much more than merely looking at the characters, effectively a step in character creation, to learn what the items for the diagrams even were. In Jann’s and Pedro’s (shared) case, that was coherent and clear enough for the relevant items to tie together fast upon their first appearance, but still unconstructed in diagram terms. The hard transition to the second session, therefore, is the first use of diagrams in this game, not the second (i.e., corresponding to the second session). And it wasn’t a very strong first use either, as at least one diagram was still pretty shaky.

You see my point, I hope: that the melding/emergence of the song is best understood as a Kicker or spiked pair of Kickers, i.e., a part of character creation, and the second session is best understood as the first session of really playing. The collision of demons in the form of the song was at the center for Jann.

So much for the “card.” More generally and taking your inquiry seriously, let's say such a hard cut occurred at all. It could have been either in the middle of a session or at a session's beginning. You are saying, that seems too hard, skipping ahead too far. My response is, so what? Who cares if there’s a hard transition? Who cares if you, an observer, have some sort of aesthetic desire or question about what you’d “like” to see? Pleasing an observer isn’t a priority, and of all the media I’ve experienced throughout my life, the gap in scene or chapter transitions varies so widely in the magnitude of skipped content that I know there’s literally no actual standard for too much or too little.

I do understand it as a creator’s concern. One of my least favorite features of long-form non-episodic television is the professional writer’s skill at closing a scene with what looks like a consequential confrontation ... and opening the next scene or episode with the relevant characters’ relationship untouched, rebooted back to before any such confrontation.

  • (end of scene with Jane and Bob) Bob: Well, thank goodness that’s over. Are you OK?
  • Jane: You can’t fool me, Bob. I know how Billy died. This isn’t over.
  • Bob: reaction shot, plus ominous music
  • (next scene featuring these characters, maybe in this episode, but probably in the next episode) Bob and Jane are doing something normal that they would ordinarily do, no tension between them, and the issue of Billy’s death is not mentioned

Writers can spin this shit out for years, and in fact, being a “good” TV writer is effectively defined by exactly that. So I absolutely acknowledge that there are good reasons not to cut away from something important in order to negate it.

In this case, it’s the opposite: rather than negating it, I cut to its major consequences. I didn’t feel like (want to, prefer to, whatever you want to call it) staying with the events in the nightclub and singing the song as the character experienced it. I wanted to establish what this event caused. Now, if Jann felt differently about playing her character’s specific reaction in the moment, she would have options: one is simply to object and say she wanted to pick up from where we left off. What to do about that is anyone’s guess, but I know that I take such statements seriously enough at least to consider it; in this case it wouldn’t violate what I (and dice) had determined would be the wider effect of the song. The other is to refer back to that reaction as memory as she played her character in the present that I established, and there’s nothing wrong or difficult about that either, as nothing about framing forward means that nothing happened in the interim.

Am I always this insouciant about the degree of a cut? No. Sometimes I look back on one and say, just as you have, geez, that was too much stuff skipped. Well, that's how it goes. No one said I or a given group or anyone makes perfect fiction, always, or perhaps, even at all. I make no such claim and promise no such thing. In this case, even disregarding the previous special pleading/circumstances, I'm OK with it. I like this cut.

Might you have done that differently? Sure. Would it be “bad play” if you did, just because it’s what I didn’t do? No. Does it matter in any sense of learning or critiquing the rules for this game? I don’t think it does.

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