Shadows and beauty in Marseille

We’ve been playing Sorcerer for two months! Five meetings and four sessions of play so far, and ongoing. This is with Laura and Grégory, both located in France, and thus set in Marseille. I was nonplussed to discover that neither had ever set a game they’d played in their own country. I went a little nuts with the two statements, aiming at maximum provocation, with:

  • Sorcerery/demons are all about shadows and beauty.
  • Militant social activism (I’ve been following the Yellow Vests closely so couldn’t resist)

I’ve embedded session 1 part 1 below, and here’s the prep session that came before that (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6). The latter is a little bit long, maybe not all that scintillant viewing unless you are interested in my scaffolding techniques for this game. When Grégory got a little scattered with his concept, I knew, and I emphasize this very strongly, that the worst thing I could do is save him with content of my own. We worked on it more via email, and I managed to arrive at these diagrams (I’d love to talk more about these diagrams when we get the chance, and why I used two colors for one of them):



Even so we had to take a little time during session 1 to get some clarity on Livia’s Kicker.

All that is stated too negatively, because the game is full of enthusiasm, clipped along with considerable intrinsic force, and rapidly became extremely emotiona. As happens with Sorcerer, it’s also punctuated by dark or wry humor even as things get weird. Here’s the rest of session 1: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Let’s see … oh yeah, you may recall that another Sorcerer game presented here at Adept Play includes a demonic church and another, a pop singer with a demonic voice. For some reason, both of those show up again in this game, as far as I can tell, completely coincidentally, without input from me and without reference to those.

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20 responses to “Shadows and beauty in Marseille”

  1. Another new Sorcerer

    This Actual Play comes at an opportune time. I've got a group of players together to give Sorcerer a shot, and it looks like we might have our first session next week. Only one of us has played the game before, but all are seasoned with roleplaying games of various stripes.

    I'll be running the game, and I'm inclined to go with the "here and now" option for setting (which would probably land us in Central Florida or somewhere in California). But with respect to those two opening statements, does the GM generally supply those for the group? Or do you let the group hash those out?

    • The best practice is for the

      The best practice is for the GM to supply them, like I did in this case.

      I have sometimes had the players do it – but not in open hash-it-out discussion, which is very severely contra-indicated for this game. I might say, Bob, you say the first statement, what do demons and sorcery look like; and then, after he does, Alice, you say the second, where are we and what does that sort of mean? And we all go with what Bob and Alice say, do not pass Go, do not collect hours of fruitless second-guessing what-ifing discussion.

      To clarify, I don't have any reason to pick Bob and Alice specifically, either as distinguished from the other people playing, or in relation to which statement each one gets. And sometimes I pose the first statement as a question to the group, and it's simply whoever answers first, and that person is recused from the same thing for the second statement. That's what we did for the Sorcerer Musik game.

    • I’m thinking of these two

      I'm thinking of these two statements (and I won't release these to the players until our Session 0 meeting):

      1.  Demons consume social media.

      2.  The happiest, most magical place on Earth.

      I'm hoping to do write-ups throughout and plan to record the sessions provided the players are o.k. with that. I think my background teaching high school English will come in handy: It has given me some good listening and reactive skills, and the game's insistence that we should allow things to happen at the table without pre-planning or scripting is something that I can handle (and, if need be, insist upon).

      The one player who has played the game before said that his initial impression is the game was too crunchy, which is a curious comment since the mechanics of Sorcerer are pretty stripped down and clean. I wonder whether he means something else–that Sorcerer demands a lot of the players and the GM during actual play.

      My impression is that the mechanics are not what the challenge will be, but that the insistence that everyone be "all in" will be the major hurdle for us to focus on. Players do need to be aware of what their demon's abilities are and how to use them (which they should be able to pick up between Session 0 and Session 1), but apart from that and the basic dice mechanic of the system, it doesn't seem like an especially daunting task. What I would call crunchy games require investment in tactics, but beyond that, they often don't require so much from the players. The heart of Sorcerer involves issues of Humanity and the Faustian bargains made by the characters: Mechanics factor into this, but beneath the dice rolling, I need pull out the heart, which means getting the players to consider how they wish to conceive of their characters' humanity and why they are willing to put their humanity on the line. Towards that end, it is brilliant that the game's first "encounter" involves that dice roll to bind the demons: So I can use that to demonstrate how the dice sytem works while also emphasizing the double-edged sword that the characters have taken up. I'm hoping that in Session 0 I can bring some real dramatic weight to those initial demon bindings.

    • Thank you for the audio reply

      Thank you for the audio reply. I've been making notes on it, and I've been diving into your archives on the site to look at some other "Session 0" segments. Christopher Kubasik's blog is also still up and is a treasure trove of ideas and advise.

      I did some tweaking to my opening statements, and put together some light-handed advice for the players, mainly to make sure they didn't go into the game with some misguided assumptions, preconceptions, or back stories. So here's what I gave them:

      Some food for thought concerning our Sorcerer game on Saturday. The rules suggest starting with two very brief anchoring statements to serve as seeds for the setting and the nature of the demons. I would like to propose these: "Demons are social media junkies"; and "The Most Magical Place on Earth: Orlando's Theme Park Empires." A few clarifications: I don't want these statements to deceive you into thinking our game will be about fluff or trivial topics. Also, the game emphasizes that real magic in the world is an aberration and that the characters/sorcerers are dealing with forces that are "Not Supposed to Be Here." Disney and others may talk about themselves as being magical places, but for them, "magical" is simply a catch term used for advertising. By contrast, your characters will be in touch with forces that have actual magical effects. If you have time to think, you might come up with 2-4 character ideas for the game. But keep a light hand: A brief phrase or statement for each is best. 

      I'm looking forward to a fun and intense creative session with my group bright and early on Saturday morning. I'll plan to start up a separate Actual Play thread on the site when we get rolling.

    • I’m probably going to sound

      I'm probably going to sound like a broken record, but it's worth repeating (or so I think) that a Sorcerer prep session isn't a pitch session. It's very important not to establish that they are submitting things for your approval. And yet, on the other hand, it is your role to keep them from tumbling or ambling into habits learned from other games or from their concept of what role-playing is or must resort to.

      It's more like an amplification or mixing board situation, in which the organizing person listens, repeats what they hear, perhaps "amplifies" it with aspects of Sorcerer as a system, or reiterates different things the person has said to see what they sound like in combination (the "mix"), and asks questions. I have often found that keeping people from talking themselves out of something they said is more important than eliciting or prompting things. Another function is to recognize when someone is flailing or just piling on "stuff," and to decide to follow up with that person privately instead of going into repair or reorientation mode in the group. 

    • In some free moments today, I

      In some free moments today, I was skimming through some Actual Play notes you put together at the Forge, and in those, you made mention of a sequence of player handouts you introduced at various stages of a game you were running. The links to the handouts are now dead, but I remain intrigued by what kind of information you put on those items and whether that's something that you still consider doing when you are GMing a Sorcerer series.

      I've done a little digging into the Nordic Noir and Marseilles videos here at Adept Play, but I haven't run across handouts being used. I have also read that provocative handout on pp. 65-66 of the annotated Sorcerer. I could see the handouts as a good way of reminding players of key concepts that have developed and perhaps giving a couple of images or other creative seeds (lyrics, poems, links to videos, etc.) to generate enthusiasm or provoke ideas. When sessions are a week apart, the memory sometimes gets fuzzy, and a mid-week spark could be useful. 

    • I didn’t send or pass out

      I didn't send or pass out anything between sessions. I typically brought handouts for each session, and each player had a folder that collected their things as we continued to play. I have tons of folders from dozens and dozens of games, with character sheets and handouts and notes. I've been doing this pretty steadily since 1986; I have plenty of old notes and stuff from before then, but I didn't have player folders and so it's less organized.

      Since I developed these habits before easy scanning tech was available, most of my efforts were low-tech, with scissors and photocopies, and aren't preserved digitally.

      Here are some from way back, over 15 years ago, which I presented at the Forge. I am not 100% happy with some of the content in retrospect, but it's not a bad example of what you're talking about.

      Opening handout

      Collages based on initial character creation

      A few NPCs and free-associations after a couple sessions of play

      Also, the relationship map I used as GM material

  2. First considerations


    I don't have time to go further but here some first thoughts from a new GM perspective, thinks I did not understood until I play:

    – You actually play the kicker! It didn't occur to me that it was the case. This changes everything. I thought the kicker was a kind of backstory that could be bring in the first scene. No: it is the first scene.

    – You ask players to put 3-4 elements by diagram parts. I thought the GM had to fill it after a discussion with the player. It's a far more elegant way to ask the player to fill elements.

    More next week!

    • There is some wiggle room

      There is some wiggle room regarding how much of the explicitly-written Kicker is played.

      When I understand a Kicker very well, or feel as if I know what the player knows about how that player-character became involved or did what they did, and have a strong idea of what some character I control will do because of it, then I typically play "just after," beginning with that action.

      • (concept) He relies on amphetamines, he's addicted to them, he is an ex-child star and now a trophy husband, his sorcery utilizes the drugs' effects, his sorcery plays a big role in his wife's professional/political success.
      • (Kicker) His wife puts him into rehab.

      In this situation, all of this was authored very easily and clearly by the player, and I perceive the whole situation in a way I feel to be complete. I began with the character saying goodbye to his wife and daughter as they left (to take the daughter to school), on his first day at the clinic. I didn't begin with the wife telling him "I've made a decision," or before she did so.

      When I find the Kicker a little more difficult to understand, or perceive that the player is themself not too sure or clear about what their character is doing, or even why they did something, then I typically play it, either right in the middle or just before. That way we will have a shared understand of exactly what it is, because we played it together.

      • (concept) She is an ex-convict, she is used to solving problems with violence, she wants to live normally and needs the demon to do so, she runs a cult in a scary run-down church, her family is totally scattered and full of conflict
      • (Kicker) She fights with her lover, hurting him, in front of other cult members

      I don't mind telling you I found this character to be a little bit of a mess, and the above summary is after I asked the player to focus and trim it after initial character creation. I couldn't see an explicit relation between the Kicker and anything in the other conceptual material, and the Kicker itself was murky, i.e., I didn't know what the fight was about or why she would be that brutal.

      I did come up with some back-story content to solve some of that, without demanding it from the player, and I began play with the opening bits of the confrontation, but included asking the player very specifically what they were arguing about.

      The key point is that I did not demand a rewrite of the character or Kicker, and I especially did not replace it with a "good" Kicker written by me (the worst possible thing to do). The solution was to play into it, to "really write it" via play which included asking the player the necessary substantive questions.

      I especially want to clarify that this is not about a distinction between a "good" vs. a "bad" Kicker. The above two are both very good. But they require different ways for them to be good, in terms of play.

    • This is a really good input

      This is a really good input for me as a wanna-be Sorcerer GM.

      The 3 times I did characters, the players were struggling with the kicker too (surely because of some lack of clarification in my our mind). So it makes sense that the "play the kicker" solution makes sense for me.  I remember something like this :

      (concept) He is an ex-convict working for a mexican cartel who now wants to control the cartel. He prays Death Spirits – some kind of Llorona death culture, as an adept, something he discovered in prison. 

      (kicker) He is called by the Cartel boss for an unknown reason.

      I was puzzled about what to do with this diagram, because the kicker was not clear in my mind. I was tempted to ask details or modifications. But playing it would solve the issue. It's still a nice input to understand that it's only an option to continue with the player's input. Really helpful for a new gm!

    • Two things to add :

      Two things to add :

      – I thought the character was messy too! I had a first idea and tried to built something on that, but then I realized the concept did not work so well. I did not have time to think about it because of overwork. After a few days, I finally found somet time and reworked the character then sent it to Ron. I was really tempted to redo a whole new character, but didn't like the idea to start everything from scratch as I knew Ron surely thought about stuffs. I'm glad we could find something that worked.

      – Another think I learned, useful for me as a new Sorcerer GM (correct me if I'm wrong) : the demon actually uses its powers to fulfill its desire, not just to serve its master. That's what heritage did. I don't know why it didn't occur in my mind, I was looking at the powers as something the Demons uses only for its sorcerer, and the desire as something he's trying to achieve, well, without its power (it makes no sense now that I think about it). 

      – Also, the scene where I (Livia) interact  with Epiphany to ask advices is really instructive to understand how a demon works, and is an excellent exemple of how a demon is caricatural. It's more a "incarnated" desire/need than an intellectual entity.

    • Looking back on the process

      Looking back on the process now, I think the only really difficult feature for Livia was that you'd stated she used sorcery in order to have a normal life – but she was an ex-convict with severe anger issues, she led a cult, she lived in a rundown church in a rough part of town, she created a sanctuary or safety zone around it partly to maintain a carceral state of mind, her family was utterly scattered and still emotionally tied to her in different ways per indivdual, and, apparently, she just violently destabilized the one good relationship she had. In other words, if she was using sorcery to establish a normal life, it obviously wasn't working.

      And that is exactly what you don't want in the initial sorcerer concept; you want someone for whom being a sorcerer is succeeding. Then the Kicker comes along to disrupt that. So in this case, we have nothing but unstable and difficult circumstances, so a Kicker only adds more craziness and isn't easy to conceive of (since one is already a bit exhausted from the extant diverse and flailing details).

      As I've been trying to say frequently in these comments, though, I always say "better to go with it rather than demand rewrites." The idea is to get enough explicit commitment from the player, to find which features they will take responsibility for, even if it's a mystery-feature. If there are enough of those, then I can fill in other things as a response to them. (in your cartel example, for instance, I would set my mind to making up a very interesting person as the cartel boss)

      In our emails, I asked you which features you wanted to preserve for sure, e.g., which of the components in your three-in-one complicated Kickers did you really want to be the Kicker.

      In the prep session, I keep asking you direct questions, so that I knew which character details you were committed to. In many cases, when I do that, the player reviews the concept privately and intuitively, often "waking up next morning" with a much more focused and straightforward version.

      Pedro did that for the game set in Konya – for example, his original version gave his dog-demon the personality of his dead grandmother, basically just for weirdness as far as I can tell. I kept asking more about that, not for him to explain, but to describe, and a couple of days later he sent me the finished character with no grandmother involved.

      In this case, you remained pretty committed to many of these answers, so I said, all right, we will go with it, and I will focus on the safety/sanctuary aspect of the sorcery rather than the "normal." (I mention this outright in a couple of the play sessions.) That left the question about Omar and the fight as the only open confusion I had going into the session, which I felt willing to address in play – although as the video shows, I am very blunt in asking or even demanding that you to clarify what this situation is from Livia's point of view.

    • “Looking back on the process

      "Looking back on the process now, I think the only really difficult feature for Livia was that you'd stated she used sorcery in order to have a normal life – but she was an ex-convict with severe anger issues, she led a cult, she lived in a rundown church in a rough part of town, she created a sanctuary or safety zone around it partly to maintain a carceral state of mind, her family was utterly scattered and still emotionally tied to her in different ways per indivdual, and, apparently, she just violently destabilized the one good relationship she had. In other words, if she was using sorcery to establish a normal life, it obviously wasn't working."

      I was writing a comment two days ago and lost it before I posted it, but it was exactly the same conclusion. I totally agree with you.

      In retrospect I struggled with the idea that the sorcery was working to have a normal life, and the kicker was built upon this assumption. Actually, when I tried to GM character creation (3 times), I was confronted with the same difficulty from the players : a difficulty to set a situation where the character ahve the life he wants.

      In the apocalypse world game I'm actually gming, I tried the last session by asking a player (a Skinner) who has been kidpnapped by a weird psychic creature in love with him to describe exactly the life he wanted to have, and I was confronted again with the same problem: even when i followed him in its description of its paradise life (which was gonna be blown by the other characters), he was talking about this as a mind control/illusory life and was asking for dice rolls to "get out of this control", even when I insisted on "what do you want" and giving it to him.

      I don't know why, but it seems that this is one of the most difficult mindset to unsettle, the idea that "your character had the life he wants", and the kicker being a narrative twist in this perfect life, but not "the life that was when you didn't have sorcery"

    • PS : I see the importance of

      PS : I see the importance of the terminology here. Whan I was speaking about "a normal life", I think I meant two things :

      – The "utopic" vision of Livia. She wants a normal life, well what she thinks about a normal life, something actually opposite to what she built. I'm not sure to wich degree it was conscious, but I wanted to play somebody who actually act against her own interests. The character sheet and the demon choice was made with this logic. She wants a normal life, but she can't get it outside of a restricted geographical zone. She traded a carceral institution with a sorcerous practice, for the same results, except she is in control of the environment (but still not of her interets).

      – All this is intersesting to play for me, but doesn't help to set the elements we need for the game (I realize it by looking back). You totally interpreted correctly my concept when you translated "'normality/deviance" with "safety/unsafety". "Normality/deviance" is Livia's point of view of her situation, the character's perception of her situation, we could talk about the "emic" view of the game (from the character's experience). "Safety/unsafety" is a better way to interpret it as an "etic" view of the game (us, the players) to set the situations. Interesting here is how I, the player, couldn't describe the situation in its etic's dimension (needed to set the situations), but exclusively in its emic's terms, which lead to potential confusions (I think this emic/etic distinction shows it's not only about "in-character" and "out-of-character").

  3. Question about social influence

    In session 1 part 3 (around 6 minutes in), Chloe attempts to sway the crowd through song. I'm curious about what you're rolling at that point as the GM. Is it just a number of dice representing the "difficulty"? Or is she opposing a someone's Will—or a collective Will—in the crowd?

    I'm also interested to hear what you might have done if she failed the roll.

    • For the crowd-influence event

      For the crowd-influence event, the key point is that you can’t directly mind-control in Sorcerer. In this case, what Jasmine can do is provide Cover for Chloe to use as a power (“I’m a celebrity singer”) and roll that against some dice I roll. The victories, if any, can then be rolled into whatever Chloe wants to do.

      I hope you see that I inquire explicitly what that is, i.e., to see whether Laura will be rolling Chloe’s Humanity or Will. That’s the same thing as when I asked how Livia is raising the topic of her pregnancy to Omar. Livia went with Will; Chloe went with Humanity.

      Anyway, so then Chloe’s action is based on Humanity, enhanced by the demon ability roll’s successes. So that’s two rolls vs. opposing dice in each case, with the first roll’s successes (if any, which in this case there were) modifiying one side of the second roll.

      In each case, what was the opposition? The annotations in the 2013 publications address this, that opposition should always be treated as someone or something’s Stamina or Will, and if that means momentarily anthropomorphizing an inanimate object, then it just does.

      In this case, the Power roll for the demon’s Cover ability was opposed by what I think of as “the universe’s normality,” which doesn’t “like” Power one bit, and for which 3 dice is a fine value. The Humanity roll for Chloe’s attempt to reach the audience’s authentic core was opposed by the audience members’ Will(s), treated as a single entity. Regular people have Will from 2 to 5; treated generically or “person you meet,” that’s also best represented by 3 dice.

      To complete the mechanics explanation, acknowledging that this isn’t what you asked, any such “influence” roll in Sorcerer is not guaranteed actually to make a person do anything. Whoever is playing the target character (having lost such a rolled conflict) has a choice. Either do as instructed or influenced, or carry on with whatever you were going to do, but incurring a penalty equal to the victories of the roll that defeated yours.

      When playing NPCs who have not been individually designated with immediate or extreme priorities, or when playing demons, I typically choose the former, as I did in this case.

    • For the “what if she failed”

      For the “what if she failed” question, I am seeking some way to answer which isn’t maddening. That moment didn’t happen, and since I play only in the moment, the question cannot be asked even as “might have,” thus an answer is two steps removed from possibility. Now go fetch water / meditate / hit the sparring pole.

      Not going to do that, although I wasn’t mature enough not to include it, partly to make fun of myself.

      OK, I can only go by other situations I’ve played in which some sort of highly-visible and far-reaching consequences applied due to failure. Translating those into this scene gives me something like, the full weight of security and police arrest descends upon Chloe, that particular community or foundation or whatever would be energized into a contrary position (extreme centrism in this case), and possibly Maximilian would still be “made” as he was in the real session, given how immediately he jumped into my mind at the time, except as a fiercely oppositional person. Her situation would then be turned into genuine personal danger, possibly incarceration.

      I knew that Adam had taken the notebook and the ring at this point, but how that might relate to any such outcome of that dice roll, I definitely can’t say. Something though, because he was present; as played, he didn’t run off until after Chloe was positively received.

      This situation should also be understood as purely the result of me asking Laura what Chloe was doing, to provide a context for learning about the death of her friend. I wasn’t planning or framing a thing; if she’d said that Chloe was at home making tea, then the same applies. Perhaps I’d have had Vanessa sending her phone-video bits from the protests, and Chloe would have directly seen it go badly.

    • Oh wait! That last bit about

      Oh wait! That last bit about making tea isn't quite right. Chloe had to start at a musical event, with her notebook and a potentially receptive crowd, because that's what her diagram snapped into its center. But I arrived at the details by asking her questions, e.g., that she was crashing a mainstream event rather than, perhaps, responding to a direct request to be at some alternate venue.

      If anyone's interested in the diagramming/session-prep technique, I did a little video about it in Sorcerer Musik – harmony and dissonance.

    • Thank you for the detailed

      Thank you for the detailed mechanical breakdown of what’s going on! That's very helpful.

      Thanks also for highlighting the distinction between Humanity and Will for "influence" situations. It never occured to me that Humanity could be employed like this—is this something spelled out in The Sorcerer's Soul? I only have the core rulebook and Sword.

      And I acutely appreciate the impossibility of answering what "might have" happened. I should have known better!

      In one game, we had a character usurp Death's power in order to undo the death of a favored NPC. By the rules, the GM was supposed to pick a character to die in their place—which might change history. In our case, we had to replay the scene in which the character originally died, in order to find out whom Death would take instead. It was such a counterfactual to the world as we knew it, it was impossible to determine who would live and die by mere fiat.

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