As I said in this previous post I realize that the way I handle the preparation of a Sorcerer game pushes me in a paralyzing swamp that impede me to GM the game. It's the third time I experience this for the game, as GM, with three paused games for the same reason. Here is the detail of how I approach the prep, play with materials, express doubts and finally get inside this cycle of revising every choices without getting to a satisfying place to start with.
I have incredible material from the creation. But I paused the game because I’m getting lost of looking for difficult associations, to build a coherent and dense backstory that will be set in motion in the following sessions. This is the second Sorcerer game that I pause for this same reason: prep paralysis. Having read the 2 excellent discussions about intuitive continuity and emergent plot (Star Wars Dark Times and a few sessions of dnd), I realized I’m stuck every time I’m launching a Sorcerer game, generally at the same moment: building the backstory.
My first difficulty is to build the demon’s identity. What desire, and why? I make decisions, but then I come back to that. I realize now that I ended up with far too much complex personalities of these demons. I simplified it into this:
Arété, (Desire: Dominance). It’s a possessive and protective object. It feels superior to the other and wants to prove it. It loves humiliation and domination in the most obvious way possible, juste crude humiliation. In every situation possible, it wants respect. It is also an intimate object, who also embodies deception and intimacy. It aims for abuse in every way available. At Bind -4, Arété is very authoritative about Hélène. It wants to dominate her and wants her to dominate others.
Ophélia. (Desire: Being Worship). Ophelia is the embodiment of the social effect of Sanctity. Even if not canonized, she’s the essence of a Saint. She wants to be worshipped, adulate, prayed, summoned. It’s a very intimate demon who expects worship from anything that is not a Saint and will communicate in whispers about it.
[This is the last version I got. I considered this at the first time, but after a few sleeps and rereading came up with the Worship version. I’ve read Sorcerer & Swords again during this time and took inspiration in the Xar Demons and Sorcery. I changed because I felt the Worship version would be easier to play. This was the previous version: Ophélia. (Desire: Suffering). She’s a secretive demon, who likes physical and mental abuse. She loves to understand one’s weaknesses to exploit it against him. She’s into observing, exercising, or witnessing any kind of suffering. She embodies the principle of a dramatic Shakespearian tragedy.]
Rage. (Desire: Ruin). Rage is wrathful, and embodies conflict, being a cold calculator as well as wrathful warrior. To myself, I take this note: play it like Stormbringer, but if it was inside Elric instead of its blade. Whatever it touches, it will corrupt it, at the greater scale possible.
Now I need to do the crossings, to make sense of these elements and to generate a backstory. Here simple things that came first in my mind:
- The Cat’s Tails have a specific relationship to sorcery. Demons are ghost of dead peoples, and they ritualize the first sorcery with a personal sacrifice. Murder is not mandatory, but possible. Sorcery is a gift that allows to constrain Evil. Cat’s Tails believe that they summon tortured souls from Hell, and they fill Hell with these souls to control them. For some reason, Ophelia had to be sinful, or corrupted, we don’t know in which way. This is a possible “class” of Demons in this setting. Another interpretation could be that they also summon Saints, helping them to fight Evil in non-understandable ways. This could fit to Ophelia’s Desire They could be sacrificing their own Honor to engineer God’s Will. I decided to let this open to interpretation, as an internal debate in the Cat’s Tails and to expand on this later if needed.
- Rage has been summoned in Paris’s Catacombs, out of Charles’s suffering, by showing him some ways. I imagine a solitary way for Sorcerer to become demons themselves.
- Madame de Launoy is Hélène’s Mentor. This feels as an invitation to another relationship to sorcery. Arété is an object, as is the Rapier given to Mme de Launoy to Hélène. We can imagine a sorcery focused on extremely fine Mastery objects, the Rapier being a Demon, and a huge competitive “culture” between Sorcerer of this tradition (to gain Lore, to kill/abuse each other, etc).
A few questions arise from the players’ material and specifically the kicker:
- Why is the Comtesse d’Anjou the perfect copy of Ophelia?
- Why does Madame de Launoy want Charles dead, and why doesn’t she do it herself?
- Why did Charles killed the Marquise, how is Rage involved in that?
I realized by rereading the annotated Sorcerer rulebook that, on page 41-I, I've been pushed to answer to these questions by the following annotation :
The only thing I can think of is to speak to someone as if I were about to play a
character in a Sorcerer game they were organizing, and for which they were the GM.
1. Don’t fucking drop the ball on me. You have my Kicker. If it’s a mystery, you’re
supposed to know what’s going on. If it’s an action-event, you’re supposed to round
out its human and motivational side. If it’s just freaky, you’re supposed to embrace
the weirdness. Don’t cop out. Above all, our shared agreement is that this Kicker is
going to matter, and that means not only to at least one other character besides my
own, but also to us, the people, here, during play. I know it matters to me, in its
unbaked, unspiked form. You make sure your deeper/prepped version of it matters
This act as a strong intencive for me to have this perfectly refined prep, the mystery of Ophelia's ressemblance to the countess, the why Rage is getting more and more.. wrathful, why does Madame de Launoy wants Charles killed by Hélène?
But also, I discover this other annotations, which seems now contradictory, on p. 84.
Because the GM is not a “storyteller,” and because the plot emerges only via the events of play, you must face the blunt reality that, therefore, a given story created by playing Sorcerer does not always wind up coherent. The villain who’s responsible for it all, the Swiss-watch precision with which tiny details are recognized as indicators of important processes or activities, the clarity of why this person did that thing at that precise moment, the stunning revelations delivered with perfect timing … none of these are guaranteed to work out effectively.
I love using the tattoo-artist game for examples of all sorts of things, and here’s another: ultimately, the story as a whole made little sense. I never did manage to explain why one
corpse’s skin had been hung in the shower of one of the characters, nor were a particular dead character’s motives for some of his actions ever developed convincingly.
This is quite confusing, it empowers me to just go with it, without trying to fine details everything… but the players gave me a kicker, and according to the very serious advice of p. 41-i, I need to know what's going on …. maybe with the risk of creating a "you must unveil the story" session, which I try to avoid. I'm in the swamp before I could realize it.
The first scenes
Let’s look and the different elements of the first scenes. I came up with ideas, but I struggle when I have to cross them and build a coherent backstory that will serve as a situation provider.
Charles. Kicker: he killed the Countess’s mother, and the countess knows it. Elements: Marquise d’Anjou, Comtesse d’Anjou, Rage, Charles’s Manor, the weapon’s collection, Charles’s agressivity.
Questions I ask to myself to clarify the setup: how did he kill her? How did the countess discover it?
Ideas: Something is influencing Rage and pushes him to lose control. A very powerful demon able to shape others demon behaviors, that has been released. Or maybe we just need to play it, in media res, and define this during the scene?
Hélène. Kicker: Madame de Launoy sent her on the mission of killing Charles., under specific conditions (use this specific rapier that she gave, during a full moon). According to Mme de Launoy, this ritual will lead her to a new path. Elements: Charles, a royal fencing spectacle, Mme de Launoy, Arété, the Rapier, the full moon.
Abélart. Kicker: the Comtesse d’Anjou is the exact copy of Ophelia. Elements: the Comtesse, Ophelia, the Cat’s Tails, Charles.
A few things can be noticed and some elements cries to be crossed:
- Everything seems to happen in Charles’s manor.
- All the character’s demon are involved.
I also note different elements that are not in the bull’s eye of the first scenes: Madame de Montluçon (Abélart’s friend who connected him with the Comtesse d’Anjou), Irina (Mme de Launoy’s demon), the Rebel friends of Hélène, and Hélène’s sisters.
Now, I feel that my role is twofold:
- I need to know exactly what is going on, and the answers asked by each character’s kicker. What happened? Who are involved? What are the strong motivations of these NPC? Aka p. XX of sorcerer.
- Setup the starting situation of each character.
Building the backstory
I’m making a note for myself: the whole humanity concept is Honor, as in Dumas’s three musketeers, and as defined in the Sorcerer & Soul supplement. So basically, sorcerous influence should be related to dishonorable situations.
In the Sorcerer & Soul Day of the Dupe “scenario”, we have powerful fencing demon with a need for chaos (like Arété!), who exploits the dishonorable behavior. But reading this material I drop this idea and start to build something from the material.
Here I’m struggling to do some choices, or maybe overprep? Here some thoughts:
The Comtesse d’Anjou can be:
(OPTION A) No direction link with sorcery. The human double of Ophelia. If this option is chosen, I could grab the whole Ellroy’s Black Dalhia relationship map and make it fit for this game. In this backstory, The Comtesse would in fact be the daughter for the Marquise and her not-so-secret lover (yet to determine, but a crazy NPC, let’s call him The Abbot). She would be in a weird love relationship with her “believed-to-be-so” father, the Marquis. Ophelia would have been a perfect double of the Comtesse, spotted during an orgy organized in the Marquis’s property. By hateful and indirect vengeance, The Abbot and the Marquise would have spotted the Low born Ophelia and ask for a death, which results on why the Cat’s Tails has specifically asked for her sacrifice during Abélart’s first summoning.
(OPTION B) Direct link with sorcery. It could be different thing.
B1 – The Comtesse is a demon. Again a few choices are possible. Either she knows it or she doesn’t realize that she is a demon, but she is the source the influence Rage’s behavior, binding reality. If it’s the case, why does she have the appearance of Ophelia? What is its profound link between Abélart and/or Abélart’s Demon? Why did Charles didn’t notice it earlier? Maybe it’s new, and it could be the “Skin Demon” in the example of the Sorcerer’s rulebook.
B2 – She is human, but shaped by another powerful demon, the same that affects Rage’s behavior.
Maybe I can mix option A and option B1 (the skin demon who forgets he’s a demon, and influences Rage’s behavior)? But isn’t it too much complex?
It feels overwhelming. We still have two kickers to write and crosses to make.
Madame de Launoy could want Charles dead because:
(OPTION A) No link with sorcery. There are non-sorcerous reasons. Maybe she doesn’t even know that Charles a sorcerer, but if so, why set specific sorcerous conditions for the killing?
(OPTION B) Sorcerous link with the demon. She has an old rivalry with his Rage. Either she wants to release it from Charles’s body, or she wants to dominate him. Charles’s just a vessel for her, collateral casualty. Maybe he was her own Mentor, and she killed him, but for some reasons he could come back or be contained and became a Demon. This option fits very well with the idea that Demons has been people beforehand, as induced by Abélart’s demon. Also, this could give some idea to Hélène once she knows that you can kill your mentor to get Lore, for instance. It leads to an interesting question: will Hélène help Charles or betray her Mentor?
The Rapier could have been an old Demon bound by Rage, when he was a powerful sorcerer. Or maybe it’s not a demon but just its old Rapier, and Madame de Launoy is just joking about it.
(OPTION C) Sorcerous link with some other demon. In this scenario, weird things are happening. Demons behaviors are shaped by another powerful demon. Madame de Launoy misunderstands what’s happening and targets Charles, but it’s an error. The real source of disruption is the other Demon, whether it’s the Skin Demon Countess, or the Other Undefined Demon. If I choose this option, there’s no need to make a Skin Demon Countess, as I feel it’s too much weirdness and adversity. But again, I’m wondering if I worry too much.
Rage is getting more and more influenced into rage because:
The influence of some sorcerous treachery. Best thing seems to be another demon. Here I have to choose if the Comtesse is a demon or not, if she is the one influencing Rage or if he is influenced by something else. I realize it takes me lot of time during prep to go back and forth these different possible choices.
My main concern here is that Rage could become a main antagonist of Charles, where it should be firstly his best resource. But is it a problem?
Prepping the initial situations
Here again I’m lost in choices. The main question is this one: do we start directly while the kicker is happening, or a few times after it happened.
Hélène. It’s easy for her, it feels that it can only be the starting scene, and not a consequence of her mission, so well start in the manor, during. The scene: it’s a fencing spectacle/competition in presence of the King, in Charles’s Manor. Helene is participating the competition. I’ll ask how she planned to kill Charles, just to understand what is ready.
Abélart. Does he realize for the first time the familiar appearance of the Comtesse? Or we can say that this scene already happens. We discussed like it was already done, so in this case Abélart is there during the spectacle, with the mission to protect the countess. So we can expect some bang.
Charles de Hautfort. Does he murder the Marquise in front of the Countess eye (we start with the Marquise dead), or during a confrontation with the Countess about that? In the first case, it’s interesting because now there’s a body to dispose, a Countess to deal with, a blind rage to understand. In the second case, I would use “the countess’s body is disposed humiliated and naked in the front of the manor in a ritual matter” as a possible bang, something done by our Powerful Undefined Demon (inspired from the original Day of the dupe scenario).
NPC and motivations
Here are some thoughts about NPC motivations, which will drive the game. If I understood well, NPC:
- The Countess, if she’s not a demon, she tries to protect her family’s honor by hiding everything about it and tries to protect her relationship with her father/lover. She knows everything, as does the Marquis, the Abbot. If she’s a demon, I have to design her.
- Le Marquis, the Comtesse “father/lover”, wants to hide the truth about Ophelia’s death. He can buy witnesses or buy mercenary to kill them. He will protect his love with the Countess, whatever it takes.
- La Marquise wanted to psychologically hurt its legal husband, badly.
- The Abbot was trying to psychologically hurt his daughter, the Countess, badly. He is a disabled old friend of the Marquis, disfigured by a previous war. He could not hurt his old friend the Marquis, because of how the Marquis took care of him during years. But maybe the ability to bind a demon would change this.
- Madame de Launoy wants to banish, or to bind Rage, for Lore Seeking. Binding your old mentor would surely help to gain some lore from him.
The unsatisfying swamp
Here I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done. I feel I need NPC with strong motivations, but the ones I end up with seems to me more “story explanations” than “gm devices to drive the action”. I'm posting it because I want to go somewhere at some time, but I feel the need to revise the previous section to have good NPC with clear motivations leading straight to actions, which I don't feel I have right now.
I feel I have to add stuffs. But the more I add stuff, the more I end up with problems and the feeling that I have. Then I revise my first choice : maybe I have to change the demons's desire ? Maybe I have to change their powers? Let's if Ophelia is the skin demon. Let's if she's not. Etc.
In fact, my main concern is this: the kicker’s resolution has to be good. But also, the kickers have to be intertwined. So I end up refining and refining it, drowning and drownning in an eternal swamp.
9 responses to “The day of the Dupes (2) : the paralyzing swamp of Sorcerous prep”
Sorcerer is a Demon
I am not going to talk about the game, which has been talked about in abundance, or your prep, which seems to be too much but also looks fantastic. But what I can talk about is Sorcerer as a white wale that has sunk more Ahabs (games) than can be counted.
Sorcerer is a unique game that appears hard to master; it looks like graduate level play though I would not characterize it as that complex. It is a game that demands that you not just mail it in, in terms of play and prep. You have to eject more than a few assumptions about RPGs. For the game to be rewarding it does require a bit of work.
A bit of work is the key here. We, those who have run Sorcerer, tend to create text books of prep for games that never run or run one session. They fail because we do not think we can live up the high standards of the game. Standards that exist soley in our minds.
That is pure bullshit magical thinking. Anyone can (and should) run and play Sorcerer. But what happens if it sucks? Well what happens if your game of Stormbringer sucks? Or Traveller? You sand off the rough edges, add some new screws, and keep going. Sorcerer works the same way. I learned that its not pass/fail; I am not trying to impress the author with my masterful understanding of his art. I just want to play a game of wizards and their co-depenedent demons. Because that is fucking cool.
I know folks come here for a break down of the issues, like someone was breaking down a soccer game. Everything you have shared looks amazing! Now it is time to play. If it sucks, fine, it sucks, but you cannot say you did not try. And PLAY is where you will find your answers. Once I figured this out (a lesson I learn over and over actually), I had a much better time. I may try and dig up my Metahumanity SF Sorcerer thread because I think that could be useful. If I find it, I will link it.
You have done good work. Now go play!
Thanks for taking the time to
Thanks for taking the time to read this and engage with me Sean. Here is the situation: I just can't go and play, because I'm in the swamp. On one hand, I have this p.41-I annotation that commands me to know what I'm doing, and other end, this p.80 advice that tells me that I prepped too much and want to simplify it. In fact, I kinda I have the impression that I'm doing exactly what I should not do, but then I get back to the need to know what's the resolution of the kickers (am I wrong with that?) So I can't settle choices (option A ? option B ? option C ? option throw out all the option and play ?). I started to play on my two other games, but I stopped one and I paused another, so I think it's not a "just play" problem.
The heart of this internal swamp is the relation to the kicker. I'll give another example.
Here what would help me: if I have done too much prep: what parts are too much? If I have to reject assumptions, what are those assumptions that you can see in my account?
In the Sorcerer Archipel game, I just launch the game with 0 prep, and played the situation. Then I realized that Sorcerer was not a No prep game, and I borrowed a relationship map, with NPC with strong motivations, directly from a Kane Novel (Darkness Weaves). I was satisfied, but then again I realized was not sure about something. I had this r-map, but no explanation for the kicker (in summary, it's a S&S game where the player is a Pirate Queen, and an island just appeared in the front of her own Island, and she's going to investigate it). So I can come up with some explanations "the island is a gigantic monster invoked by her sorcerous rival who's working for (The-Other-Sorcerous-Efrel-Type Queen) !" but it's more "patching" the kicker to fit the r-map. The backstory I borrowed is interesting, but does not focus around the kicker. The kicker seems secondary to the r-map where I suppose it should be central.
Am I worrying too much? Should I just say: the countess is a skin demon influencing things around him, Madame de Launoy wants to contain Rage within the Rapier she gave to Hélène, and drop out all this Ellroy backstory to allow something to emerge from play?
What's puzzling for me is that when I apply Sorcerer's principles to any other game rules (such as Cthulhu Dark where I just follow the characters in their day-to-day life introducing emergent bangs), I really feel ok. The main difference I see is the kicker as a feature and I can't see what kind of expectations, I'm trying to understand this.
Towards a solution
I realize something else is puzzling me. The fact that "antagonism" are directly made from a character's demon (here, Rage against Mme de Launoy). I'm not sure what to think about it. But it's getting deeper into the swamp.
I've read again our discussions about the Sorcerer Archipel game, specifically Ron's answer to this comment. I'm struck with this comment:
It seems to me as if you are describing a performance process, in which their discovery of the story or situation is the payoff – well, "discovery" in the sense of uncovering something which was already created and placed in a difficult but not impossible place.
Damn, I feel sorry to be stuck at this place. The more I think about it, the more I'm getting to this thought:
From this, I should have a very much simpler prep, by asking those different questions.
Now, I got this prepped situation:
This prep doesn’t answer to my previous questions, but the rephrasing seems to lead me to answers that get me out of the swamp.
I don’t know the whole story behind the kicker. But I know something about all the elements of the kickers, and I’ve done some crossing.
I’m thinking to put the Day of the Dupe betrayer’s list as a mcguffin somewhere, but I’m not sure it’s necessary now. No need to get back in the swamp!
I’m interested in this
I'm interested in this account, and if I can carve out some time, I'll work to provide more reflection.
I was struck by your comment earlier that you are concerned about the resolutions of the kicker–you want to ensure that the resolutions were good. I wouldn't dwell too much on that concern. In the two Sorcerer campaigns I've run, no one could have predicted the resolutions that occurred. The kickers set things in motion, but I would advise against thinking too far into the future. My prep involves building the 4-quadrant charts, looking at the elements being pulled into the center, and thinking of an opening scene for each character which will create some type of conflict or provoke a response.
If you are concerned with weaving and intertwining the characters, that doesn't necessarily need to involve the kickers all the time. If an element from one character's Cover can be connected to another character's Lore, that might be enough to start building a relationship between the two. If the Kicker-to-Kicker connection doesn't work for two characters, don't sweat it.
You are trying to bear so much of the burden for running the game. I'd try to shift some of that burden to the players and their characters. There might be some elements of the kicker that you as the GM fill in, but I would also ask the player questions and use their answers to provide added information that you can then throw back at the characters in play. It's fine to continue asking the players questions about their character and situations in upcoming sessions. And if you're stuck for what would make for a good next scene, ask the characters for suggestions.
Some of the challenges you are facing might have to do with the setting. The intrigue of the French court is dripping with potential, but the source material typically involves some rather complex and heavy relationship webs. That might be leading you to believe that you have to have a baroque architecture thoroughly in place before the opening session. Try to be more modest in the prep and get the game to the table. Sean's advice is sage. Use the game play to help build the personality of the Demons and to continue filling out the details of Lore, Cover, Price, and Kicker.
I get the impression that you are moving forward with the game. I'll be interested in seeing how things develop.
Thank you too for engaging
Thank you too for engaging the discussion robotwist. I was thinking about it yesterday, and I realized that my solution was a solution to the wrong problem. I'm really glad I can have help from Sean and you to think about it. In the end of this comment, I'll talk a bit about my previous games.
Also, this swamp travel made me read the rulebook again and I realized how much rules I was wrong, mainly in demon building, but also in combat rules and prep play. I don't remember where, but I've read the prep shouldn't include any elements thare are not already there in the diagrams.
So here's my plan for now: I dropped out most of the previous prep. I've redesigned the Demons after a better understanding of some powers and demon design. I drop out most of my plans and even "sorcerous technicalities" to only focus on elements existing in the diagrams: there's no skin demon, no Marquis, no Abbot, etc. I drawed a new relationship map by putting the diagram elements and made some connections to them (I realized some elements mentioned by the players was not even there in my first and second versions), without having a whole explanation for these connections. I'm not adding anything for the moment, as, after reviewing the characters and their demons and a bit of discussions with the players, they is already some internal tensions. And finally I'm setting up a game for next week to play with this, and see what is constructed in play.
Here are the new demons with corrections in bold:
Arété (Objet, Military vest). Need : Mayhem. Desire : Competition. Powers didn't change : Armor (self), Cover (Duellist), Link, Fast, Protection (poison), Shapeshift, Cloak.
Mayhem, defined as social disputes, brawling, chaotic environnment, was Laura's first choice, and we had a discussion about how the need shouldn't be something to difficult to get from the demon. But a few discussion later, that's really what Laura wants. Also I realized I presented the need with a bias: the idea that it should absolutly be an act of the sorcerer towards its demon. By reading demon descriptions in the books, I realized most of them could satisfy their needs themselves, even if the Bind is an explicit contract stating that the sorcerer has the final responsability of the demon getting its need. I think my interpretation of this responsability was narrowed to "the Sorcerer provides the need", instead of "the Sorcerer is responsible for assuring the conditions in which the demon get its need".
Ophelia (Inconspuous). Need : Watching Abélart's whipping himself. Desire : Being worshiped. Cloak, Cover (Courtier), Perception (Past from a location and from someone in interaction), Hint, Confuse, Vitality.
For unknown reasons, I thought that perception has to be taken once by definition, but I couldn't find this in the rulebook.
Rage (Possessor). Need : to cuddle weapon that have killed. Desire : Ruins. Armor, Cover (War diplomat), Perception (imminent threats to Master), Confuse, Fast, Cloak, Taint.
I've dropped out Big, Hold, Ranged, by confuse and fast, just by understanding better the powers. I added taint because it's a possessor, after I've read an annotation about having cloak/inconspuous, vitality/parasite, taint/possessors and cover/passing as mandatory abilities for these demon types, with the power counting for the lore. Also my calculations about Rage's stats was wrong. I keep it like this, as the demon is already powerful with 8 in power, and threatening.
For the moment, Taint could be the reason why Charles experience bursts of rages. I didn't need an external threat affecting the demons's behaviour in the beginning of the game finally. Let's just see what happens and how he deals with that.
Ther's 2 things I would like to account that I didn't write to avoid an endless post.
First is my previous attempt to GM the game, which failed (which is not a big deal, but that's what happened). I started the game with a perfectly done relationship map, in a very fuzzy world described in two words by the players. The game didn't go very well, due to multiple reasons. One of the reason is that I was trying to "engineer" (I can't find a better word) the r-map. PC 1 was doing this, I was watching the r-map, thinking about what was going in the background, moving NPC between scenes. I didn't have any plan, or events that I wanted to be played, so I don't think I was railroading or "intuitively continuing" the thing, because I wasn't trying to control the outcomes. But I was trying to engineer the dynamic of the elements of the r-map as a consequence of the actions played. This was painful, difficult, not a great experience of gming, and I'm sure not a great experience of play. We stopped at the third sessions, because (1) it was painful to gm, (2) nobody really got emotionnaly engaged in the game.
Second is my Sorcerer Archipel game, that has only one PC, Azur, and is a Sorcerer & Sword game around a Pirate Queen in a boiling seas world. I just "played" as Sean adviced and it was great. In this game, the Pirate queen was assaulted by a ship fleat in her fortress, and a new island has just emerged from the sea just in front of her own island (this emerged island is the kicker). We stopped when she wanted to go the the island.
Then for the second session, I borrowed this r-map from Darkness Weaves, and realized I didn't have an explanation for the island. We still haven't play this game because I'm wondering why has the island emerged? But it's weird, because the diagrams tells me what are the elements in the scene, even if I don't really make sense of them right now. Again, the Kicker act as my Siren, driving my game ship in the rocky swamp of overprepping.
What is really weird is, like I've described in this comment of my first Sorcerer game, I don't have this problem with other games, and I can't see why.
Okay next post will be after first session!
Answering to myself two years later
This is me, years later, answering to my own me from 2020 with what I learned.
This was my problem: I had a very narrow conception of the kicker, giving it too much importance. I treated the kicker a fundamental “big thing”. I was trying to create a whole backstory under the constrains of the kicker. It was making things more complicated than they are.
There is not one “big secret” to decipher in Sorcerer. The kicker is really what its name says: “something kicking” the story. The backstory doesn’t need to be an intricated explanation for how a character arrives at this specific event, a backstory that should be discovered.
The kicker is just something we have so we can start the first scene. When the rulebook says that we all agree that the kicker matters, it doesn’t mean that the kicker is the “full story in which we are getting engaged”.
That’s why spiking the kicker is easy: if you don’t even enough, you spike the scene toward some ethical problem. This ethical problem is not what the game, this specific set of multiple sessions, will be about (this what I was believing a few years ago). It’s just the first motion – the rest will be determined by NPC actions and motivations, PC actions and motivations, and the narration of outcomes of the dice rolls. I was making this too complicated by forcing myself to design the backstory from the kicker themselves by starting from the assumption that “if play is about resolving the kicker, then I need to design a whole backstory mixing the kickers together”. Sorcerer is really simpler than that. Now I take elements from the diagram, see how I can “taint” or “integrate” some of them with my own backstory, with one or two elements that are not in the diagrams for the pleasure of a bit of discovery. I don’t need to create a whole backdrop of events that explains how the player arrives at this specific moment of the kicker description. I just need to know how their kicker relate to a bit of sorcerous backstory.
For this particular game, just deciding that the Comtesse is a demon would have been sufficient for our game. I was trying to connect the death Ophelia with a coherent backstory, but it was not needed for play. I had sufficient material to get things in motion.
One of the many lessons Sorcerer taught me is that all the elements that constitute the Sorcerer system are not important things to “get” or “decipher” and that I was trying to see things that are not there in them. They are simple screws that just fit well together – we need all of them, but they are small pieces of a larger part. We need a simple kicker, a simple price, a cover and a simple demon – and with all those simple elements, all of them inspired by the same color and aesthetics. With that, we have the basis for a functional game. Maybe not an amazing story, maybe not even a good story, but definitely a story starting in motion and produced from bounce (story being defined as the outcome of play, really what I described above: narrations of outcomes of dices rolls for NPC and PC actions).
The fact is that the story doesn’t need to be good once we retroactively look at it – and thinking in these terms is just stressful. What he needs to be good is playing the game, making characters that want things for real, and acts for real towards those goals, and enjoying the activity of doing it.
Hey, Greg, I found myself
Hey, Greg, I found myself nodding along to your post with a deep sense of familiarity. I wrote here: A Series of Disappointing Events that a great deal of my struggle with the hobby has been a search for meaning. It doesn’t help that a lot of my favorite media are films that tackle esoterica (Pi, Cube) or have profound reveals (The Machinist, Franklyn) or plays that are simply people arguing (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Death and the Maiden).
This quest for meaning is scattered through a dozen unfinished game designs of mine which all deal with very internal and psychological issues such as guilt, reality perception, and sense of self. All of which usually contain some self-admonishing note that reads, “‘Be Psychic’ is not valid GM instruction.” In some ways, I’ve been trying to design for epiphany as if I can somehow achieve what many therapists have failed to achieve using a clever enough dice pool.
The majority of mass media doesn’t help us here either. Film critics love symmetry for example. “In the opening shots we first see the protagonist reflected in a shattered mirror (rigid and broken) and then in the closing shots we see the protagonist reflected in a lake (fluid but whole).” That kind of thing.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the gamer's desire to replicate the experiences of mass media are pretty harmful to the RPG medium. Too often we judge our play to be good because it structurally conforms to something else we deem to have been good. It does not surprise me that the majority of the inspiration behind Ron’s games comes from books and comics, and additionally ones written in eras with the least editorial (corporate) oversight.
With Sorcerer specifically there is a temptation to look at the triangle of Kicker-Demon-Humanity and assume it’s some kind of magic portal where “what it’s all about” lies at the center. You are then faced with the temptation of playing toward it.
The phrase “resolve the kicker” does tend to suggest that somehow the core conflict expressed in the kicker is supposed to be a microcosm of the core conflict as a whole. It feels like whatever the crux of the kicker is should also be the crux of the climax, just writ large and placed in the greater cosmological context of Humanity. Cinematic symmetry again intrudes: The Kicker is about a man distrubed by something alien happening to his son, so therefore the crux of the conflict must be something about fathers letting their sons grow into their own people. How do you pull that off?!
Pressure. Pressure. Make it meaningful. Make it profound.
In reality, playing Sorcerer is an exercise in letting go. Silencing your inner film critic. Putting away your inner literature professor. Simply letting the game exist, well, in the NOW. The constituent pieces of Sorcerer are very straightforward. The kicker is the first moment of significant choice. Demons really are just scary addict monsters with fun powers. Humanity is just the group’s own moral compass of right and wrong. It’s through using these pieces in concert that the game comes together to form something bigger.
This is both intellectually easy but also kind of emotionally difficult to accept. There is the great gaping void of uncertainty that lies ahead of everything in play. Meaning, if it exists at all, is found on the other side and then only when we land and look back over what we did. This is extremely thrilling but, to some, it is also profoundly terrifying. I think even Ron has observed some people reacting with panic. I know I have.
Hi Jesse! I don’t think there
Hi Jesse! I don't think there's anything wrong with being inspired by mass media of whatever type, but I strongly agree that trying to make a game unfold in a particular way is anathema. And the same goes for trying to make a certain game session have a particular meaning or message, for similar reasons (it winds up requiring one kind of railroad or another). You hit the nail on the head imho in your last paragraph, where you mentioned that meaning is something we can read into the story once it's done. And yes, I think unfortunately most gamers are absolutely terrified of playing without the railroad tracks.
Having said all that, it seems to me that backstory and genre are going to exercise a lot of influence over what meaning people will ultimately read into the story. In Finding Haven, for example, the backdrop is a world where the Ayn Rand way of thinking is taken to an extreme, and the consequences explored (imagine if humans aren't the most efficient and competitive species in known space), so we get a very grim biopunk/cyberpunk kinda world. So stories that emerge from playing this game will always have that as background, and the meaning we read into them will probably, it seems to me, involve reacting to that in one way or another.
Hi Jesse. I’m not sure about
Hi Jesse. I'm not sure about everything you said, but you wrote:
This captures exactly the mindset I was two years ago, when I wrote the original post. Getting out of this mindset through sorcerer play and my own realization of the painful process I was inflicting to myself was a key moment. Everything I gm is easier now. And I think reading and playing Circle of Hands + gming Sorcerer helped a lot with that.