One Crazy Party: “Demons are Social Media Junkies,” Sessions 4 and 5

I continue to play Sorcerer with three players from The Gauntlet, an online roleplaying game community. We are now through five sessions (plus a session zero) of our “Demons are Social Media Junkies” campaign. For reference, here are the links for our most recent gatherings:
Session 4:
Session 5:
I’d like to focus this actual play report on two topics:
  • The flexible nature of the Demon Abilities, using Hint as a specific example.
  • Players grappling with the idea that the GM wants them to do something (when the GM is in fact  simply offering opportunities for the players to do with as they wish).
I have three players whose characters know each other, but are unaware of their identities as sorcerers. For sessions 4 and 5, I used a heavily modified version of the “Training Scenario” in Sorcerer. The characters were each invited to a classy party at the mansion of a reclusive, behind-the-scenes executive producer named Richard Barfield. Barfield is known for brokering deals between entertainment companies, but he is mysteriously absent from his own party. 
Taking a Hint and Running with It
Shawn is an Apprentice Sorcerer who has bound a Possessor Demon named Aaron. Aaron’s need is to influence people to believe and to act in irrational ways. When choosing abilities for his demon, Shawn selected Hint, with the idea that this ability could be used to implant suggestions (or hints) in the minds of others. Being relatively new to the game, I had not fully drilled into this ability, so didn’t know enough to warn the player away from this choice. I’m wondering if my ignorance about Hint was actually fortuitous–either that or I was just being daft..
At the big party, Shawn was looking for an opportunity to satisfy his demon’s need, and the issue of using Hint came up. So we read the book, and it was dawning on us that the original intent of Hint was to have it serve as a type of divination: The target would typically be the sorcerer or another player character, and it would be used so that a character could get some truthful information from the GM. 
But Shawn wanted to do something very different with the ability. He spied a young celebrity couple which had recently reconciled after a period of conflict. The relationship had been in the tabloids. He would walk up to the couple and engage one of them in a conversation. Meanwhile, the demonic Aaron would set to work and use Hint on the other half. But he would use the ability to implant a false idea–namely that Shawn and his interlocutor were engaged in heavy flirting with the intention of making the other partner insanely jealous.
We rolled Aaron’s Power vs. his target’s Will, and Aaron succeeded, so we interpreted this to mean that some hallucination would be involved, and that this hallucination would reinforce the idea of heavy flirtation. The target succeeded in the second roll [and also a subsequent Taint was ineffective]. But since the target’s Will had been overcome by the demon’s Power in the first roll, I ruled that the Hint had some impact, and that the target was overcome by jealousy, creating an embarrassing public scene caught on Aaron’s smartphone camera.
This sequence raises a more general point about other Demon Abilities (and, even more generally, about how other games conceive of spells and other supernatural influences). I like the fact that Sorcerer demands work from the player and the GM to define the details of most of the demon abilities in actual play situations. This is especially the case when abilities get used in tandem, but even when used individually, there are delicious possibilities available. 
I’m sure some would take issue with the way Hint got used in this case, but I would point out that the usage did not violate the strict stipulation against mind control: The target was already susceptible to the suggestion that his partner might cheat on him, and the Hint was used as a communicative ability to implant an idea that would amplify those pre-existing doubts. One issue is whether the demon using Hint in this way could also use it in the more normal prescribed manner: I’m tempted to say “no” since these two types of Hints are so different in intent and operation.
What Would the GM Have Me Do?
All the characters came to the big party at the Barfield mansion under different pretexts. One was serving as security; another was there to provide entertainment; and a third was there as a young minor celebrity. The players knew that the party might offer opportunities for the characters to recognize each other as sorcerers, and I allowed them to observe events that put them into the orbits of other characters. In some cases, those orbits were quite close. Chuck saved Dylan from the clutches of two demon thugs, but neither of them were fully aware of the demonic identities of those thugs or of the sorcerous identities of each other. They did note the sharpened teeth of the thugs, but they assumed that maybe that was just some strange practice or oddball cosmetic choice. And Shawn (a somewhat naive member of a new age cult) was able to see Dylan’s demon running off to help after a rather vicious bludgeoning assault of a party guest . . . but Shawn wasn’t understanding the import of all this (though, of course, the player of Shawn was). 
At one point, Shawn’s player asked me if I wanted his character to do something or to move in order to be part of a dramatic scene in progress and thus to force some type of revelation.  I was adamant in insisting that I really didn’t need his character to take any specific course of action and that he should play the character as he saw fit. So Shawn stayed at the soiree, mostly taking note (with wide eyes) of a sequence of puzzling events swirling around him. 
The characters are now in the process of leaving the party, and the air is laced with dramatic irony.  The characters are still in the dark about what exactly was going on . . . and they still do not realize the identity of the others as sorcerers. So the flood waters continue to rise, and the suspense for the players is mounting! At the end of the session, the players were excited about what was in store. After some high action scenes, they are looking forward to some “hanging out” time where the characters will begin (perhaps) to piece some things together. That will potentially lead to some humanity-shattering revelations. But this is still only potential.
When it comes to aesthetics, I’m a fan of the slow burn build-up, so this gradual development is my jam. During the session, Shawn’s player (who was asking if I wanted or needed Shawn to act in a prescribed manner) was perhaps thinking of other games (or GM styles) which involve shunting characters down prescribed narrative paths. 
My answer to the question “What would the GM have me do” is “As you (and your character) wish.” Many of us were thinking that the play session would involve major revelations and that sorcerer characters would pick up on the demonic powers swirling around them. 
That didn’t happen.
The end result was an action-packed session ending with plenty of future developments waiting in the wings. The conclusion of session five wasn’t planned, and it’s all the more exciting and satisfying because it wasn’t forced. As a GM for Sorcerer I see my role as one of constantly reviewing and revising the character diagram, and using that to create situations filled with potential for the characters. The operative word is potential. It’s ultimately the players who must make the decisions to activate those fireworks.
I was worried that the players would be disappointed with the session as I worked through the mechanics and tried to figure out (partly on the fly) the Hint move. The fact that there was an almost palpable deferral of major revelations was also weighing on me. 
But my concerns were not justified: During the debrief of session five, all three players were excited about where the next session would lead, and they quite enjoyed the fact that their characters were brushing up against each other yet not making the connections. [Side note: The same may not hold true of the character’s demons: I will be making some rolls to determine how that side of the equation works out.]

2 responses to “One Crazy Party: “Demons are Social Media Junkies,” Sessions 4 and 5”

  1. Who wants who to do what and for what

    Players grappling with the idea that the GM wants them to do something (when the GM is in fact simply offering opportunities for the players to do with as they wish).

    I’d like to investigate this part. First, yes, it’s a definite phenomenon, which I’ve talked about a bunch of times across different videos, posts, and older material. Second, I want to take the potential events one step further, if you (or I, anyone) actively tries to correct it. The usual phrasing is, “really, go ahead, you can do anything.”

    As a teacher, you are certainly familiar with that phase of a learning curve when people try to adjust the new information or claim into a recognizable form, using material they are not yet prepared to let go of, resulting in some strange twists.

    • Going into CRPG mode and start interacting randomly, i.e., poking into any nook or cranny, saying aggressive things to people, or sneaking and lurking around as if they were targets in an arcade game. The idea here is that The Thing (or Story, or whatever) must be “activated,” so basically, do anything until you find the button.
    • Thinking that the phrase “you can do anything” is a reassurance that The Story is buffered and immune to disruption or mistakes, because you will safely lay track to where things “need to go.”
    • And finally, staying put, playing minimally or at least with very cautious feeler behavior – lots of “how are they looking at me,” “what does it seem like she wants,” “what seems strange,” type dialogue. This is the opposite of the above item, in that the freedom to “do anything” connotes “and you could really screw up and it’ll be your fault.”

    I haven’t made it through the substantial video yet, and I’m not inclined to take a diagnostic approach anyway, so I’m not claiming anything specific about any of the people playing. I am a little bemused at five sessions of Sorcerer proceeding at a fairly measured pace; it’s not impossible or bad, but it’s distinctive.

    Question: what Humanity checks or gain rolls have occurred?

    • I haven’t had too many

      I haven't had too many Humanity Checks so far. A number of reasons exist for that, some having to do with the in-game fiction and others having to do with the game context:

      Inside the fiction. . . 

      • Sorcery in our game consists of "logorithmic alchemy," and it involves accessing powers that are generated through the internet, social media networks, the dark web, and other aspects of the digital frontier. This environment already makes individuals susceptible to strange "dehumanizing" behaviors, so it's sometimes hard for characters to identify what is sorcery and what is simply an outcome of the already-bizarre impacts of the digitally (dis)connected world.
      • Two of the characters are partially insulated by their ignorance: One of them is specifically playing a naif (Lore of 1) and another is a young adept who tends to react to strange events with a "WOW!" expression. The players are doing a great job of playing those roles, which means that sessions are getting laced with a heavy dose of dramatic irony.  One specific check was made in our last session with the naif, and the dice gods were smiling on that character, allowing Dylan to stay in his blissful ignorance.
      • In the encounter with the demon thugs, there was an effort made to keep the sorcery of those NPCs somewhat veiled, and the characters avoided a situation where a more obvious demonstration of sorcerery would have emerged.

      Outside the fiction . . . 

      • With this being the first time playing the game, I've been somewhat deliberate in wanting to work through different aspects of the mechanics. For example, I opened with situations involving some non-combat scenes, then moved to the modified "intro scenario" to get some combat on the table. On our next session, I'm going to remind the players of their ability to contact and summon demons: Their experiences might well make some of those rituals attractive at this point, so that will test my ability to handle that aspect of the game. Those rituals will necessarily bring Humanity Checks to the forefront, but my suspicion is that, as the characters begin to pull together some of their experiences through conversations with each other, Humanity is already going to face some tests.
      • The measured pace is a deeply rooted aesthetic sensibility of mine. I was the kid who was swept away by 2001: A Space Odyssey and by Solaris which most of my friends couldn't stand. This aesthetic sensibility is a challenge to be sure: As a GM, it requires constant careful calibration on my part to make sure everyone at the table is given regular moments of gratification (though those moments will not necessarily be action-packed ones). I also like the way that this approach can lead to some great all-hell-breaks-loose moments, and we might very well be building to one of those situations.

      The game is humming so far. I was especially happy that, at the end of our last session, is was clear that everyone was finding the game deeply satisfying. I had worries that my handling of some of the mechanics was impacting the fun factor of the game, but it turned out that those worries were unfounded.

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