Just some Sorcerer actual play, right? But pay attention to how a story came to be without a story in place. I’d like you to identify any rules of the game that interest you, regarding how they did or didn’t play into what happened. If you don’t know Sorcerer enough to be specific, then ask how any content that interested you happened systemically.
Sorcerer is almost supernaturally badly suited to convention play. I’ve struggled for years to come up with a good way to mix pre-generated content with the proper degree of player agency, and to reconcile the convention expectation that this session will in fact be an already-prepared “watchable” episode of some kind with the fact that the game is built to permit you to fumble or fail at doing just that.
That’s a lesson for anyone who cares: that the essence of a game that empowers Story Now is to allow, structurally, design-wise, for the people playing to fail at producing a maximally-publishable, automatically-entertaining story. To do otherwise is to take away their agency regarding that very endeavor. It’s precisely the opposite of what people mean in gaming-culture parlance, in which playing “for the story” means overriding agency such that some such product is forced to happen.
All of which led me to wonder why I’d decided upon Sorcerer for my sign-up session at GenCon 2017. I decided almost at the last minute to “speedball” my conceptual preparation – first, to go with the game’s strength instead of reaching for awesome in some external high concept, and second, just to write the ideas down linearly without second-guessing and massaging anything.
I began by staying very low-down and personal, setting play in any beat-up American city where no one ever set a TV show, in a region never featured as a familiar stereotype. The one thing I specified that was it included one of those huge, stone decayed-downtown churches that’s about four sizes too big for its current cultural identity, and in this case is not chopped up into a community center, but has remained as a limping-along thing that hardly anyone notices.
I specified that every character has ended up there for one reason or another, many years ago or just now or anything in between. Why? Don’t over-think it. Each character’s actual religious outlook and goals, if anything, will be up to the player, and you’ll see what I mean about that as I go along.
Oh – in the latter stages of working this out, Vincent was hanging out with me at the hotel room, and provided some encouragement for this approach.
Having previously tried just about every way to parse the game’s character components into different combinations for grab-and-go play, this is what I came up with this time. I provided several cards each of two independent types:
- a name, a Cover, descriptors for Stamina and Will, a Price, and a couple of items each for Cover and Price
- a descriptor for Lore, a Telltale, a couple of items associated with Lore, and a fully-built demon with Power 4
I initially came up with four of each, but was enjoying myself so much I made two more of the “person” ones. I figured I’d just let the players pick one of each and go with it. Planning for four players, this would provide me as well with two strong NPCs who would not be sorcerers. See the attached files for scans of the original notecards I used, partly transcribed below.
- Reverend Keenan James, marginal reverend: Scrapper, Belief System; Scarred -1, conversations, first impressions; Cover items: congregation, city councilman; Price items: old political files locked away
- Charlene Reaves, edgy veteran: Military Training, Self-Esteem; Mean -1, proactive Humanity rolls; Cover items: cold .38; Price items: prescription grab bag, restraining order case officer
- Perry, homeless poet: Natural vigor, User/manipulative; Submissive -1, dealing with authority; Cover items: poetry, public transit pass; Price items: shopping cart with cleaning stuff
- Bev Bell, would-be activist: Self-defense training, Zest for life; Square peg -1, helping and coordinating action; Cover items: struggling weblog; Price items: ready-to-go beater car
- Cecee Wheaton, ex-academic: Chemically heightened, Vengeful; Strung out -1, dealing with surprises; Cover items: jumbled beaten-up library; Price items: the necessary gear
- Russ Laski, ex-cop; Police training, Belief system; Brain injury -1, anything except action; Cover items: pension apartment; Price items: what-to-do flashcards
LORE + DEMONS
- Adept, Lore 4; Telltale = prison style eye tattoo; Lore items: [to be filled in]; Parasite demon: XA: Emergent eyes, anywhere, multiple; Telltale = closed eyeslits; Desire: Sensation, Need: observance; Perception (others’ strong agenda of the moment), Hint, Taint; all confer to host
- Mad, Lore 4 (Flaw -2); Telltale = weird vocal resonance; Lore items: [to be filled in]; Inconspicuous demon: GRE: Surreal, ruined-wings vortex; Telltale = graffiti; Desire: Knowledge, Need: observance; Warp, Daze, Vitality (confers to other), [Cloak]
- Coven, Lore 3; Telltale = modified cross pendant: Lore items: [to be filled in]; Inconspicuous demon: U: Disturbingly humanoid hound dog; Telltale = dog smell; Desire: Competition, Need: observance; Perception (small problems & opportunities), Protection (confers to other), Fast, [Cloak]
- Coven, Lore 2; Telltale = modified cross pendant; Lore items: [to be filled in]; Passing demon: unappealing, silent child; Telltale = no recognition from other kids or potentially concerned adults; Desire: Mayhem, Need: observance; Cover (badly treated child), Big, Special Damage
The keyboard isn’t helping me here, but you can see on the cards that each demon’s name includes a blotch or scribble. It began as a literal scratch-out as I was writing with a pen, but then I realized that it was kind of cool to have the demonic names be partly graphic grot.
To reveal more of my initial thinking, I had already decided that there would be no demonic content in the session aside from the player-characters themselves. This was to be a 100% mundane scenario aside from them – no lurking occult menace, no crazed ancient sorcerer, no weirdly-influential objects, none of that.
You can see, I hope, how that goes with the grungy and generally down-low human context I described earlier. The idea was, if people became sorcerers because they already wanted something, let’s not inject super-charged but essentially distracting crisis, but instead see how that’s working out.
In a deliberate defiance of my usual insistence regarding player-authored Kickers, I said there’d be a single, shared Kicker I’d provide at the outset of play. If you know Sorcerer, you know what a dangerous rules-tweak that is – perilously close to “the GM’s adventure,” a problem to solve, a canned conflict laid out for them to step into. In this case, I hoped that all the other aspects of prep would keep that from happening.
Here’s the Kicker: today is the day that it’s determined, do not pass Go, that the church is in fact scheduled to be torn down. All appeals, whether to the community, the government, the law, and the external religious organizations, have failed. The ‘dozers aren’t here yet, but the contractors and banks are all on board and the day is now on the city government calendar, eight to ten weeks and counting.
I hope you see now what I mean about the characters’ religious outlook. It doesn’t matter what your character specifically believes, only that they care. That’s why I had provided merely hints and bits of religious content scattered through the Covers and Lores, ranging from the strong connection for Keenan to the basically-blank Perry. I’d also played this on-but-off provision of not-quite information regarding each character’s ethnicity. I told the players the truth, that I’d conceived of Cecee and Keenan as black, and of Russ as white, but had no notions about the others, and that in every case, it was up to each player to arrive at whatever seemed to make the most sense based on what they were looking at. (Names, for instance, may or may not be determiners for that decision; it depends on the player, and real-people names aren’t quite as tag-like as they are on TV.)
As I’d hoped, those two points of agency and judgment regarding character creation “snapped” each player-character into a unique state based on that particular player, as evidenced in nothing written, but in the fluid way each player began stating actions and dialogue almost before I’d finished describing the Kicker.
Our game: preparation
Usually, I find myself swamped with players at a convention Sorcerer game, whether demo or scheduled session, and have to grit my teeth at the annoying muddle of content; this time, as a paid event, I was feeling happy about knowing it’d be four. As it happened, I wound up with only two. One was Ed Heil, long-time associate and frequenter of Sorcerer play at cons, and the other was Gabriel, completely new to the game.
I still don’t know if this was a good idea, but I decided to let each player pick two Lores, which makes them somewhat more beefy characters. Partuly this was because I’d fallen in love with all four demons and had looked forward to playing them.
As usual for Sorcerer, I discouraged workshopping and connection-building during character creation, as one of the game’s strengths concerns fortuitous or un-fortuitous intersections, rather than a Swiss watch of prepped rising action.
Ed chose Cecee, taking Mad with the inconspicuous demon + the Coven with the dog demon. He specified her to be a black woman in her late 40s, local, formerly associated with the city university.
Gabriel chose Bev, taking Adept with the parasite demon + the Coven with the child demon. He specified her to be a white woman in her mid-20s, from out of town, and from out of town before that too.
Keep in mind that these are the only sorcerers and demons in play. Therefore Keenan, Charlene, Perry, and Russ are all NPCs now, and not sorcerers. I decided I didn’t need so many and focused only on Charlene and Keenan.
One thing that played out from these combinations is that each character wears the same distinctive modified-cross pendant, and therefore it’s an easy step to think of them as knowing one another and acting as allies or at least fellow seekers. This isn’t necessary in Sorcerer, far from it, but when it clicks with zero effort, as I’d set up those two Lores to do, that’s OK too.
All of these went quickly, given that Ed and Gabriel had apparently quickly grasped my starting aesthetic, and they had no trouble listing a few things for their Lore, e.g. Cecee’s personal room in the church that she’s set up as a secondary altar space. Given the Church as the key item for the shared Kicker, the character diagrams were then easy to draw.
Our game: what happened
We’re talking about … what, three-plus hours of play? With me, one player reasonably experienced with Sorcerer, and one completely unfamiliar with it. Play went snappy, actions and events flew in and resolved, every “next thing” grew from what just happened. It even ended! By the rules, too, to the extent simply of resolving the Kicker, and without it becoming “run the GM’s adventure” at all.
In brief, both characters struggled with their efforts to confront the city’s power structure. Cecee did so proactively, seeking to slay the dragon, as it were, in its corporate-legal headquarters; Bev did so more reactively, first trying to rally the community but getting ID’d as a troublemaker by the police and arrested. Given the outcomes of those situations, they decided to change-up entirely and Summon a monster demon into a Contain, where its Cloak would render the church immune to political-legal perception. Basically, it’d let the church fly under the establishment radar indefinitely.
In other words, they acted like sorcerers, not like powers-wielding snarky action heroes. That final ritual was especially brutal as Cecee went full druggie and hit Humanity 1 – but given Bev’s help and a plethora of emergent minor rules-effects that most people don’t notice, it worked.
Where the demons shone was extricating the characters from threatening situations, even severe ones. Bev walked away unscratched from a crumpled, burning police car and two traumatized, badly-injured officers – it helps to have an effective ogre on your side to flip the car and toss it at them. Cecee’s got that dog, and with it, you step right out of impending dangers and right into whatever will work best for you next, so after her tactical meltdown in the high-rise, she could also simply walk away.
Cecee’s arc bears careful inspection – grabbing Charlene as a sidekick, trying to confront the lawyers, getting nowhere as well as getting Charlene killed; then switching up entirely to the protective strategy.
I see it as a kind of in-game realization that we’re not playing Shadowrun. You don’t grab the “fighter” for muscle and go use your “wizard” powers to confront the Big Bad source of villainy, converting the whole thing into an outlaw action movie. Nor can you confront the “brain guy” of the villainy as if he or she were the GM’s avatar, to convince or force that character to change their plans.
I’m talking here about system in action, not fiat. I didn’t have to disallow or say “you can’t do that” or anything of the sort. If the string of rolls required by Cecee’s actions had been successful, then she might actually have saved the church that way … but statistically, winning that many rolls, with those kinds of opposing forces, wasn’t likely. Ed’s version of Cecee was a little crazy (the Mad descriptor) which exacerbated her Price of dealing badly with surprises. Even worse, doing all this relied on coercing Charlene against her own moral standards through each setback, thus burning her Humanity as a kind of sacrifice to Cecee’s ego.
After the ritual, and a little bit of unconstructed group riffing on the church’s new look or feel, we went to the “resolved Kicker” rules to finish out the game.
Ed was a little shaken by the arc he’s taken/been in with Cecee. He said at the end that she was really going to self-assess from this point, staying with the church and taking a less arrogant path. This reached back as well to some of Ed’s early moments with the character, where he’d been playing Cecee as more-or-less co-opting the church leadership away from Keenan.
Gabriel said Bev got in her busted-up old car and drove away – this had been perhaps the single win in the character’s troubled history with activism, and buoyed by it, she was traveling on to see what she could do next.
I regret that I didn’t finish with the rolls for score improvement and the descriptor changes. I suspect that the latter might have seen some pretty cool alterations.
In a follow-up discussion, Ed wrote:
A correction — Cecee didn’t have the dog, she had the graffiti demon. [correct, I screwed that up in the write-up – RE] Very important — two of its powers were responsible for two of the most memorable moments of the story: when Cecee defeated Charlene’s attempt at suicide (Vitality conferred on other) and when she used Warp to dramatically escape through walls and floors of a downtown building, after she and Charlene had gone in to “slay the dragon.”
Also important because Cecee had the two less obviously “personal” demons — the tats and the graffiti, not the child or the dog. She’s not a people person. Not even a demon people person.
Also her Lore was taken from the parasite demon; she was an Adept. Ex-academic, lost in her books.
It was Bev who had the coven — her rather unique Bible study group which considered her a quasi-messiah.
I got a visual on Cecee quickly because I’d chatted with a woman earlier that day at the food trucks — a writer visiting GenCon for the first time, she was cool — who was visually perfect for Cecee, give or take five or ten extra years of age and a certain amount of burnout.
I took the “ex-Academic” in the worst possible sense; she was brilliant and talented and the academy chewed her up and spat her out. The drug addiction was something she picked up on the way out. The sorcery was something she also picked up on the way out, and the church was the place she disappeared into with her books. It was there she created her most powerful “grimoire,” which was a densely annotated and cross-annotated and cross-cross-annotated King James Bible. (This came up towards the end of the game; I think she gave it to Bev when the latter left the church.)
The “trying to play Shadowrun with Sorcerer” phenomenon you mention was hard, yeah. I tried to save the day with Cecee’s magic, first by saving Charlene when she tried to kill herself (guess what, it didn’t make everything all better, in fact, it made her ready to be ruthlessly violent to someone else). And then by taking Charlene up on her offer to go kick some ass and finding the closest thing we could get to a Big Bad (guess what, it mostly just put more blood on Charlene’s hands and trauma in her head, and while it was satisfying in a way to go “kill a bad guy” it didn’t make a damn bit of difference in what we cared about. Oh, and after the horror of participating in the sorcery-aided assassination, Charlene would try again to commit suicide and Cecee wouldn’t stop her this time. Because she had pretty much lost faith in her ability to make anything better.)
Gabriel realizing (with the gentlest of nudges from Ron) that we could just decide what we wanted to do and summon a demon to do it, which is supposed to be the POINT of Sorcerer, made me feel like kind of an idiot for not going there earlier. Turned out it was pretty easy — well, not easy but *straightforward* — to find sorcery that would do the right thing. Turn the church into a demon that could protect itself? Perfect. That’s what the rules are for.
It was not easy on Cecee helping out with it, but nothing about the game was easy on Cecee.
I guess when it comes to Sorcerer I have a hard time sometimes because to be honest I’m not used to a game world being as “real” as it is in the Sorcerer games you run, Ron! “You did that? OK, here are the logical negative consequences it has for the people around you.” Crap. Why do my actions have to have consequences??
I think that if I had been thinking on a higher sorcerous level like we were at the end, well, I’m sure I’d still have to deal with the fallout of my actions but at least my actions would constitute less of a trainwreck.
Either way, was a great game. Crazy, dramatic, frustrating and kind of depressing, but with a satisfying, and almost uplifting ending. After all that it seemed right that Cecee burn out and take refuge. I think she’ll heal and find a new way forward after time.
Visuals-wise, btw, I just cannot get over CeCee warping her and Charlene’s way out of the office building, floor by floor, opening up holes in the walls and floors, with, I think, the Eye demon helping us find a safe way out, away from the approaching security and cops. I would love to see that on screen.