My Advice to Myself for the Next Time I GM Sorcerer

I just finished GMing my first season/story arc (?) of Sorcerer. I’ve had a lot of experience playing the game, but this was my first successful attempt of actually running it (there were two “didn’t make it past character creation” episodes in my past).

There were two players, and we played 21 sessions via video (90-120 minutes per session, enough time to get through 3-4 scenes each time), though there was a significant break in time between the first 19 sessions and the last 2. We all really enjoyed it and we’re planning on jumping right back in for more Sorcerer (although, this time it will be “and Sword”). The game was set in 1977 New York City, with a look and feel inspired by low rent exploitation movies by filmmakers like Larry Cohen, William Lustig, and early-in-his-career-Abel Ferrara. The two PCs were Larry,  an underground filmmaker looking for his break into big budget filmmaking; his demon was a Passer, a beautiful woman who took the role of his assistant;  and Rudy, a patent lawyer who also dabbled in his spare time with the phone phreaking culture; he was part of a coven who had all bound Inconspicuous demons described as some kind of electromagnetic spectrum entity (inspired by Craig Baldwin’s underground movies as well as some of the visuals from the third season of Twin Peaks).

Despite it being, overall, a success, I realized there were a couple of things I missed/fumbled as GM. None of them undermined our engagement/enjoyment (though some of my misses are responsible for the game going 21 sessions and being less focused than it might have been otherwise), but I started to jot down some reminders for me for when we start up our next series. 

Here is that list, so far:

1. Hit Humanity harder

In retrospect, I missed calling a lot of Humanity checks that I should have. Both PCs behaved quite ruthlessly throughout, and for the initial 19 sessions, I really only called for Humanity checks for the very most ruthless actions. I think the relative laxness on my part was one contributing factor to things going on for 21 sessions, rather than staying more focused. When we came back for the final two sessions, I pushed Humanity checks more forcefully, and it paid off immensely; it heightened tension and made it feel like much more was on the line in each scene. It put constraints on the players’ choices that felt uncomfortable in some ways, but led to more powerful moments because the choices had more weight behind them. And it led to memorable endings for both characters: Larry’s player had rolled well throughout the entire game, and continued to do so at the end. He was not only massively successful in his final actions — throwing a police detective off his trail and finishing up his movie without any outside interference — but he passed many of his Humanity checks for some pretty nasty behavior (ending up with a Humanity of 2). Rudy’s player, on the other hand, had had pretty terrible luck with the dice throughout the game, including with Humanity rolls, and entered the last session with a Humanity of 1: but in his last series of rolls, dealing with him deceiving and then murdering a rival lawyer (who, to be fair, had tried to have him killed multiple times by that point), he was completely successful. And when he came down to roll his Humanity check, he succeeded, narrowly escaping a Humanity drop to zero. We took this to mean that in both cases, the PCs had almost, but not quite, descended to the level of their enemies. 

2. Don’t use as many Bangs

The other reason we went 21 sessions, I think, is that I was Bang happy at the beginning. Looking back, I was really afraid of having a session where “nothing happened”, and so, at the beginning especially, I was throwing in Bang after Bang. The Bangs weren't bad in and of themselves (some were pretty juicy, I think), and they were mostly derived from (or at least inspired by) looking at the “X”’s on the back of the character sheets, but as I threw new ones in almost before the last had settled, we ended up with too many balls in the air, too many active NPCs, too many unresolved situations. I figured this out after driving one last Bang in session 10, and realizing, afterwards, that things really had enough momentum at that point that another complication wouldn’t really help things. (And, in fact, we ended up dropping the thread that that Bang introduced, more or less).

3. Pay attention to Price and Telltale

I completely dropped the ball on Price. We didn’t enforce it at all, but, in retrospect, there were a number of cases where both Larry’s (obsession) and Rudy’s (submissive to authority) Prices should have played a part.

4. No NPC Sorcerers except those that arise directly from the X-diagrams

The advice warning against extra NPC Sorcerers in the Annotated edition is right on. I only had one “extra” NPC Sorcerer, and she ended up being a kind of shady Big Bad, who felt only vaguely connected to the meat of both PCs’ stories, and who none of us really cared that much about by the end. As opposed to the two NPC Sorcerers taken directly from Rudy’s sheet (the members of his Coven), one of whom became an engagingly annoying ally for Rudy (he had an obnoxious habit of trying to act as Rudy’s conscience) and the other who became an important antagonist for Rudy.

5. No cults

I went into preparing for this game knowing all about how easy it is to fall into hacky genre conventions when you introduce a cult as “the bad guys”, but I convinced myself that I could escape those traps because MY cult (a) was really expressive of these great thematic ideas I wanted to get across and (b) it was inspired by (though, admittedly, not directly implied by) things on the PCs’ X-diagrams. When we started playing though it was just really, really hard to make the cult seem like anything but a generic creepy cult, so that all my “interesting” thematic ideas (essentially, What If Scientology was founded by Andy Warhol?) were ignored in play (even by me). 

This parallels some of the snags I’ve hit (though not to this extent) in my Champions Now game, which is that there is a notable difference between content that I prepare that arises directly from the characters’ sheets or that is directly implied by what is on the characters’ sheets versus content that is merely inspired by what is on the characters’ sheets. The latter is just not as compelling, and the lesson for me as a GM (at least with these games) is that I need to do more with what the players give me and do less of my own stuff.

6. Redraw the X-diagrams at the beginning of each session of play

I missed this advice when I was rereading the Annotated edition prior to starting this game, but it jumped out at me when I was rereading prior to resuming for the last 2 sessions. I think this would have helped keep things more focused, and would have helped with a number of other things I already mentioned: it would have kept their Prices more in my mind; it would have maybe led me to not bringing in brand new Bangs but rather working from what was already there.

7. Keep track of demon desire and need better

I lost sight of these things for sessions at a time. Again, this was probably a contributing factor to things sprawling around like they did. Paying attention to this would have kept more pressure up and would have focused things a bit more, I think. More generally, I also needed to…

8. …pay more attention to demon personalities and motivations

I was only able to internalize the advice to play them like Toons during the very final sessions. For the most part, I played the demons too flat, which in retrospect, may be part of why it seemed like there was a vacuum that I needed to fill up with Bangs, NPC Sorcerers, and hackneyed genre tropes.

Anyway, as I said up at the top, we’re all excited to keep playing Sorcerer. Our next venture will be with “and Sword”, but we all want to come back to these characters after that. I think the players both appreciated the greater focus during the final two sessions, and that it came about, in part, by me ratcheting up the pressure through Humanity checks and playing their Demons more forcefully. And I should point out that though I’ve written this post in a way that emphasizes “what I did wrong”, we did a lot right, and the story was full of exciting moments, dynamic conflicts, and very memorable characterizations. I hope my notes on my experience, though, are helpful to anyone else learning how to GM this game.

2 responses to “My Advice to Myself for the Next Time I GM Sorcerer”

  1. Don’t mind the maggots

    I think you’ve nailed it all with this post, and I can’t find any place or point which needs my input.

    So this is merely to celebrate the great influences and inspirations which you all chose and developed, as the grotty Seventies Big Apple, as visualized through the style, topics, and tech of those filmmakers, is pure inspiration for Sorcerer through and through.

    Oh! And …

    … there is a notable difference between content that I prepare that arises directly from the characters’ sheets or that is directly implied by what is on the characters’ sheets versus content that is merely inspired by what is on the characters’ sheets. The latter is just not as compelling, and the lesson for me as a GM (at least with these games) is that I need to do more with what the players give me and do less of my own stuff.

    As someone who’s struggled with this for many years and via many systems’ details (e.g. Relationship rules of any sort), I suggest that – for this sort of game, with heavy character situations baked-in – a pinch of one’s own inspired material among the characgter-generated material is a very, very good thing. If one goes with the dichotomy you’ve posed, that their stuff is compelling and yours isn’t, the answer would appear to be “well, use only theirs.” But for whatever reason, that one pinch of yours in the bigger mix of theirs seems to be the most enjoyable method.

  2. Very useful

    I will be embarking on some Sorcerer in the near future, and this is useful to me. I Appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

    In particualr (4) is something that I have had an issue with. I had a bad habit of imposing NPC sorcerers on the group and it never works out.

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