I’ve watched dozen of the Runequest Spelenhus games and took a great pleasure to see people enjoying roleplaying. A few things I liked, the cult approach to society, and building the settings through play, according needs arising from play. After a few exchanges in the comments, I chose to hold off on Runequest 2nd, and focus only on my « settings though play » desire. Two games seemed to suit what I wanted to do. I have talked with individual players of my regular groups about Trollbabe, Sorcerer & Sword, and The Clay that Woke (nothing to do with what I wanted to do with the two others… But I want to gm more of that game, so I made it an option). Sorcerer & Sword seemed to be the best choice. Here how it goes according to my goal.
We already tried a game of Sorcerer with this group that I messed up. It taught me a lot. I was trying to engineer the relationship map as a web with complex cogs and relationships, and not everybody bought into the aesthetic given randomly by one of the players as I have asked him (“steampunk”). After a few sessions, I stopped that game and we did something else. I was kind of reluctant of bringing back Sorcerer with this group, but it seemed to fit everyone’s expectations.
First, I realized I had not so much original ideas. I have recently read the Kane stories, most of the 30-40s sources mentioned in the Sorcerer & Sword bibliography (Howard, Leiber, Ashton Smith), and Tanith Lee’s Night’ss Master. I have been much influenced by Ashton Smith Hyperborean stories (I only read Zothique before that). I have shared the bibliography, assuring that everyone had read some of those fantasy stories. Everyone had at least read Ashton Smith’s Zothique and a few Conan’s short stories such as the Scarlet Citadel.
I induced a mixed setting from Azur’s Archipel setting campaign you can read on this site and Azz’karn from the Sorcerer Supplements, but one of the players did not buy the insect world. She was benevolent, like “I’ll try to like it”, but my previous experience made me realized how much buying the shared aesthetic were essential. Crazy thing is that I was pretty SURE that she would love it and brought this insect things specially for her. Proposing the aesthetic in a one sheet permitted to destroy this assumption before play. I said no, don’t try to like it, I will propose something else, and again faced a creativity oblivion The previous discussions were crystal clear, everybody was up for some very old school sword & sorcery: ambitious queens, giant snakes, necromantic gods in the deserts, Frazetta style classics. “Anyway, let’s go with Xar”. I love Xar. It suited totally. I took the descriptions from the book, created a one sheet, grabbed four frazetta illustrations (the Egyptian queen!) that I put on the cover of the pdf with a XAR in caps, and sent it to the players. But now, how could I develop a setting through play when I came up with description for the book? Well, see how our Xar is developing.
Our definition of sorcery is bit different. It is the same description that the one from the book: flamboyant demons leading cults, flashy special effects with colors. I also asked for eroticism and intimacy with weird elements in every demons and rituals. I summarized that sorcery is about intensity of senses and emotions, to the point of being unbearable to humans, ecstatic trances, etc. I introduced the necromancy almost as in the book, as the opposite of both humanity and sorcery: the annihilation and neutralization of every human emotions. Humanity is default Sorcerer & Sword, but I pushed it a bit. You can lose humanity when you betray, kill, abandon to death one of your relative or people with whom you affront danger, or if you isolate yourself from society to long. You can win humanity when you trust an unknown person, when you reveal secrets or weaknesses about yourself, or when you engage in a new intimate relationship (love or friendship).
The player who did not bought the insect thing realized we were playing sorcerer, and kind of hold off. She was trying to choose descriptor and made her character with that and felt constrained. We discussed a bit about that, and I told her to do the character she wants without worrying too much with the rules. She wanted to play Kemisi, a “princess”, “half-demon”, “daughter of the leader of a big cult of a feathered snake” (her mother) and “a giant feathered snake”, called Vishriqqa, “that can breathe fire and fly, and fade into its direct environment, such as a chameleon”. She was not sure about being a classical sorcerer with rituals, summoning demons in pentagrams and smokes, etc. “Sure! We’ll use the same rules, but I think it can work”. I designed a parasite demon, named “a part of Vishriqqa”, gave it the associated powers (transport [fly], travel, sp. Damage [fire], cloak, vitality), and said, “listen, this part of your father flowing in your blood makes you not perfectly human, and has some kind of self-consciousness that need something, and desire something else, look at the sorcery description and list of desire/need” (I provided an adapted list from Sorcerer & Sword for demon desires). Her kicker is about leaving the cult with a freed slave she is in love with.
Then I decided that this cult could be the religion of the unique god. I’ve read Ron’s cult writeups for his Runequest game and I draw from it to describe this cult. After creation, I had written a two pages cult write up. Keynotes: this cult is present in every big cities of the region, attracting poor people and giving them work, mainly professional soldiers or workers, but to most people it is a religion. Most of the sorcerous practices of the Hierophant, Kemisi’s mother, and the aristocracy of the cult is unknown to the people. Oh! I wanted to have dinosaurs, so this cult specificity is also the domestication of dinosaurs for wars, triceratops for agrarian work and pterodactyls to fly. Rare stuffs but everyone in this setting can see them at least once in his life.
After two sessions, characters and their environment were more concrete, and I wrote a whole new description of sorcery based on Kemisi, something I did not envision in the onesheet, that came up with Kemisi’s character and still fit in our shared aesthetics! Here it is.
Some demons are excessively powerful, to the level of gods or old ones. They enjoy being worshipped by masses or cults, and people sees them as gods and hide their transgressive natures behind practice forgetting them. Those Demons can make their substances flows in Xar, taking the form of smaller demons at any level of Power. They breed with humans and creates half-demon lineages, bearing a part of their essence into them.
Taking Half-Demon as a lore descriptor is playing a member of one of those lineages. They use the same rules of sorcery than anyone else, but it expression is different. As half-demon, they have access to demon powers that are resting in their blood. They can choose to find those power in themselves, unleash them, or refrain them. It is part of them. In the fiction, they have this strong power from their demon relative in them and it can awake at any time. In rules terms, nothing changes when they want a power to “awake”, they have to contact it, to summon it in them, to bind it. In rules term, it is always a parasite demon, with individual need, desire, scores powers and agency. In fiction term, the boundary between this demon and their own personality is blurred: they are just dealing with something which is a sleeping part of themselves. Awakening some powers has a cost, but here, the cost is also in the identity of the Half-Demon. This part of themselves has an agency and they will have to struggle with it if they do not suit their need. In the fiction, those Half-Demon does not use the traditional sorcery aesthetic described in the one sheet. Their practice is naïve, it is something “natural” for her, natural in the sense of their demonic part. Surely not natural according to the “human” part. They can indeed use this type of sorcery too if they have another lore descriptor. But when related to their Half-Demon sorcery, they do not have to do a proper “ritual”. In rules term, they do. For instance, to awaken “something related to their demoniac lineage“ they want, they have to take the time of ritual (30min to 4 hours), they can just discover it (contact), express it in the real world (summon), they can learn to master it and keep it (bind), or refrain it inside them (punish), or struggle to make it disappear from them (banish). The blood of their ancestor is still in their blood. In the fiction, this can take several unconscious form: the contact can be a long introspective meditation, or hours of strong fever with awakened dreams, or specific ritualized act unknown to sorcerer and necromants, to engage conversations with their ancestors.
Also, the “World of the dead” had become an unexpected important thing. It appeared as the element in two characters diagrams, without them coordinating to much to do it, but making crosses as right as they found their mutual interests. One character, Fanté, a kind of Kane-meets-grey-mouser-in-a-hyperborean-story type, has been killed during in a duel in the main arena of an Arena-city. He went into the World of the dead and where he came back with a demon. The other one is Ashtrix, the priestess of a giant Golden Owl cult, with the Golden owl being a beast wanting to be worshipped, and that went into the World of the dead then found a way to flee, stating it was a physical place situated somewhere in this land. Also, she is “inhuman” and decided she came from a species of birds who want and do become humans. And she came back pregnant of Fanté, who does not know about it! Nobody knows want happened in this World of the dead, and maybe we will know. Kickers have some good characters crosses by the way: Ashtrix’s kicker is that she is prisoner of the Cult of Vishriqqa that is going to kill her tomorrow, Fanté has found an old tomb where secrets are hidden that could bring back his taste (a link with his price), Kemisi is fleeing the biggest ceremony of this decade, her own wedding with her sorcerous brother.
I still must write something about those things: more about the golden owl and those beast cults, the “inhumans” bird-related, the Arena City, and maybe the World of dead, but I don’t feel I have to absolutely do it now, and wait that more things get established. The World of dead had clearly become a Mystic Otherworld different from the ones presented in Xar. This mirroring effect of Necromancy/Sorcery is taking root in play and I really don’t know where it is going, but I can feel it is becoming a dialectical process that could lead to some drama and maybe become central to this game. It is really cool.
According to my goals, even if I’m still struggling a bit (checking the rules, looking for my lost npc sheets, thinking about the next actions, crossings, but also having 3 totally separated stories, crossing together sometimes), I’m really happy with what’s happening.
I really like this property of Sorcerer, that I am discovering through this game, how a whole aesthetic of sorcery specific to a character (Kemisi). I think the rules are really supporting something coming from a player and that makes sense in the shared aesthetic. That is what I wanted to emphasis here!
I’m taking this first adventure in Xar as an experimental game, not worrying too much about gming mistakes as I’ve done with previous games (I did big ones! Forgetting an activated power that lead a powerful necromancer to die in the first minutes), and my plan is to do a second one “A long time after this”, presented as “the last adventures of our characters” after that, and maybe more adventure chronologically in between those two after that, if the players enjoy the experience!
I join the current handouts for this game in French and let your online translate skills do the rest if you wish!