On hitting a sweet spot with Sorcerer

I feel another Adept Play post simmering, I just don’t know quite how to say it. We are six sessions into our Sorcerer & Sword game now, and every session feels like the best role-playing I’ve had the good fortune to be part of in years.

With our recent Freebooters game which spanned 58 sessions, I had that feeling maybe once or twice in ten sessions. I was consistently having a lot of fun, and I guess I thought that was the best it could be.

There are some external factors which contribute: As I get older and keep practicing, role-playing in general keeps getting richer. And this specific group has been playing together and developing good creative rapport for a while—that practice together is no doubt part of it.

But that doesn’t account for the sea change, or maybe a phase change, since we got started with Sorcerer specifically.

It’s not that Sorcerer is inherently easier for us. Our first complex conflict that included three player characters and several NPCs felt a little like trying to learn how to play a clarinet in the middle of a symphony. And that’s not all. I think each session has probably revealed at least one misunderstanding or mismatched expectation.

I guess I have a lot of patience with the learning curve: My past experience with Sorcerer tells me it’s worth it. And it pays off more and more as each of us develop more skill with the instrument.

But there’s something about it that fills me with unexpected electricity every single session, like a gift. And I can’t put my finger on it.

8 responses to “On hitting a sweet spot with Sorcerer”

  1. Something inspiring, something uninspiring

    I feel that for a lot of people roleplaying, they only get that "oh I'm doing something cool!" every now and then. They think that's that, that's the hobby, that you can't get it all the time.

    Not that I want to talk down to anyone, I've been having this feeling too sometimes, and less so in the present. But it's uninspiring and a bit sad that many people are content with this and don't want to get more from the hobby. And doubly uninspiring that some people seem to design games with this in mind …

    Happy that you managed to get to this point with this game! I definitely want to get to organizing my own Sorcerer campaign at some point. I think one of the best things of this site is to manage to showcase what we can really get, see other people grow, and get inspired to do so ourselves.

    • Thanks, FroggyC!

      Thanks, FroggyC!

      Just to clarify, the tendency toward inspiration is where I would rate most of my role-playing in the last few years: Overall, the “oh, we’re doing something cool!” is something I’m getting more often than not.

      What I was struggling to articulate is something beyond that. Like, our last campaign with Freebooters had really riveting play with natural ebbs and escalations that felt more-or-less innevitable, natural, and fairly satisfying. Even prior to this Sorcerer run, I would say that we were uncovering some of the best role-playing of my life so far.

      But the last six sessions with Sorcerer have been more thoroughly and consistently riveting (for me, at least). And the fact that these six sessions came one after another rather than spread across 12 or 24 feels significant.

  2. Some terms from the coursework

    Having taught "Introduction to Design" three times and now teaching "Design Depth" for the first time, I might actually be able to talk about this in a non-disingenuous way. A lot of people have had similar experiences and now there's a chance to address it technically.

    I acknowledge up-front that I'm justly proud of my work with this game, and that long ago, Sorcerer was dubbed the Velvet Underground of role-playing, both for publishing and as the game that you might play only once, but it's likely to change the way you play forever. So no false modesty – but maybe we can figure out why.

    Here are some terms from my coursework. They're all part of a big "Re-Inspiration" diagram I use in my consulting; people who've watched those videos will probably remember it.

    Inspiration: Visualizing and internalizing what "imagined stuff" looks like or what could be happening, based on looking at the book or on what someone is telling you, all the way through preparation including (in many games) character creation or scenario prep. Think of it as what you're hoping to experience, or feel it's being promised, and you want it.

    Situation: This is as diagrammed in Circle of Hands. One may think of it as "the part of setting we can touch," but the fact is that real setting is an emergent phenomenon of experiencing situations. (I am not referring to textual setting, which as such is not available to play – no matter how elaborate, it can only provide material for situations.) Player-characters as usually conceived are subsets of situation. Critically, one or more parts of a situation are liable to change based on what's happened in play, whether physically or in terms of knowledge or whatever.

    Authorities: Who gets to say or nail down which piece of play becomes fictionally "happening" or "happened." Cue more explanation, which is back in the Phenomenology videos and scattered all through the Consulting material.

    IIEE: How speaking, listening, and game instrumentation are integrated to establish high-impact actions by characters or character-like entities. "Combat rules" if you want to be a bit loose with the language, especially if you consider a wide range of activities eligible for "combat."

    Bounce: The nuances or effects of procedures which are not under any single person's control.

    Agency: The effect on play and events which this person has because they are this person and no other.

    Change: not to numbers or rules-designated play, but instead to anything which was intially visualized or internalized as the original inspiration, and which validates that original inspiration as having been justified. Also, given agency, knowledge that this change could not have happened in this way unless you and the others were personally involved, and were using this specific set of procedures.

    Re-inspiration: If one were to continue to play, or to play again, this "changed" thing is now the new starting point, either literally or in spirit. Having played, you are no longer inspired by potential (basically just a promise and a hope), but supercharged through knowledge that this can happen, you did it, what we did was good or at least a good solid experiene thereof, you can do it, it works, and we like doing this together.

    What Sorcerer does – and I think this claim can be traced to specific and obvious things – is to make all of the above its only priority, specifically excluding (i) genre, (ii) what "player" and "GM" mean outside of their strictly local arrangement of Authorities, (iii) designated protagonism, (iv) safety net of any kind for resulting plot, and (v) control over outcomes. I think what you're experiencing is the "supercharge," the knowledge that one does not have to insert the changes, or to mitigate Bounce, or to manage the IIEE, in order for the re-inspiration to occur.

    A critical point, too, is that it comes with no guarantee at all. It's a guitar, not Guitar Hero. There is no reliability, consistency, predictability, or even possibility that if you press this button at this end, then "good story" comes out at the other. It's inherent to the game that if you play without being distracted by a bunch of hobby culture cruft, then if you like what you get, you can rightly say we did that … with these procedures, not in spite of them.

  3. Credits Roll

    My Sorcerer & Sword game ended like a thundeclap yesterday, at the conclusion of the 15th session.

    At the end of session 14 one week ago, I was expecting more conflict: when someone asked, I estimated about 6 sessions more. But then the player characters all spontaneously united in the same place, for the first time in this run, and escaped from the adventure location.

    As we were walking out to the parking lot, there was like and electric current among us. Someone said, “That’s a good stopping point”, and everyone agreed. It wasn’t until afterward that I realized ALL THEIR KICKERS ARE RESOLVED!

    What they did not figure out was the “meaning” behind it all. It was like the end of a horror movie where the survivors escape, and the credits roll without any coherent theory explaining the nightmares and mysteries and sheer WTF they experienced.

    I had hoped they would put more of the pieces together. (It was all on their diagrams.) But having this recognized as the clear and definite “end” feels oddly and deeply satisfying.

    If we come back to it, it will be with new Kickers. Those may or may not give us a chance to shed new light on what they have gone through, but I’m guessing a whole new stew of complications will distract from that. 😀

    • That is so fantastic. I wrote

      That is so fantastic. I wrote the game very strongly to "arc" in terms of the Kickers, not in terms of discovery regarding what the GM had prepared for discovery. As I built the rules for someone GMing Sorcerer, their preparation – no matter how brilliant, elaborate, and logical – only does for their play what any one else's preparation (in this case, character-centric) does for theirs.

      It is hugely difficult to get this across to people. Even when they process the idea that plot outcomes are not to be guided or molded by a careful one-step-removed, quality-control "master of it all" at the able, they still find it hard to get away from the idea that the players are there to see what they (the GM) has so masterfully done for them.

      Greg, this is all about you regarding this game. Can you share any thoughts you have or have developed about this?

    • Ok, I think I’ve hit a sweet

      Ok, I think I've hit a sweet spot too. This is a very narrow comment, I have so much to say, but I want to focus on one thing.

      My last game of sorcerer was easy. We struggled at the first session, with murky play, because we were trying to "to play a clarinet in the middle of a symphony" as John has so wonderfully stated – with lots of NPC in two simultaneous battle conflict.

      But, contrary to my previous experience,  the prep was easy. In fact, the game feels more like a "light prep" game we can easily start. Players wrote their elements, I didn't try to make connections between them, and I just took NPC for what they were worth. "So, what would this priestess wants in life according to the situation she is now, defind by the kicker". I'll write a more detailed post later when I can articulate better what I'm grasping. I took the elements that inspired me, and didn't try to know anything more on the ones that wasn't giving me a sudden creative inspiration. I did not try to write everything in the backstory that could explain the presence of the elements there. When it was obvious, I noted it. When it was not, I didn't. 

      The most striking realisation for me is this: Sorcerer is an easy game to prep and to GM. It is obviously made to be easy. The difficult thing is to understand that, and not complicating everything based on other assumptions. Now it seems so obvious, and so easy to say "hey, you know what, let's describe two elements and create your characters and we'll just play sorcerer next week".

      What helped me to do that? I still need to write something about that, because I'm not sure. What I'm sure is that playing Sorcerer with Robbie and Rod helped me, playing Circle of Hands with Chris and Laura helped me too, reading and re-reading Trollbabe and Circles of hands helped a lot.  But also playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess here, and watching and discussiong the two Runequest games, the Spelenhus game and the Coming of Age  a few other discussions. When I say "playing", I really mean "playing and reflecting on it".  Some specific discussions and comments on the site helped, and I think I can retrace it easily for a next post.




    • Greg, it’s really heartening

      Greg, it's really heartening to hear you say that. I've been having my own thoughts about how to approach the game when I get back to it, and the things you've said here make me think, or hope, I'm on the right track. Incidentally,  is there a specific Clark Ashton Smith story or stories that you used for inspiration? (I recently re-read "The Abominations of Yondo" and immediately started daydreaming some setting ideas.)

    • Rod, I for one took heavy

      Rod, I for one took heavy inspiration from the sorcerers that crop up in CAS's Hyperborea cycle. I love the sorcerer in The Seven Geases, for example. But my favorite sorcerer that I encountered in his stories is in the story The Maze of Maal Dweb. The sorcery used in that provided inspiration for my sorcerer, who is one of the most evil characters I have ever played. It is not as related, but I looooove his story Genius Loci as well. 

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