Thoughts, philosophies, ideologies, and demons

About when I think it’s time to retire the old email for good, as it mostly delivers spam whose algorithm is clearly confused, someone uses it for the only reason anyone should. Ransom contacted me to ask some questions about Sorcerer which led to this conversation. They were pretty deep questions, including positions regarding the occult and general thematic or intentional issues.

In our emails before setting up to talk, I asked that we keep our eye on the differences among these topics: (i) personal convictions and questions, (ii) fiction as expression about important things, and (iii) role-playing as a creative medium. That worked out well overall, although during the first fifteen minutes, I managed to wander off into the weeds about fantasy fiction, which I don’t think helped the conversation, so try not to get distracted by it.

I hope I don’t contribute to that distraction when I try to clarify here: in the 1990s, I wanted to counteract the neutralizing of fantasy overall and of Howard’s legacy in particular, which had been buried under a mound of Hollywood. At the time, it seemed insurmountable; today’s re-publications and scholarship which separate and explain the difference between the original work and its multiple co-options didn’t exist then.

But back to reality: please ask or develop anything you’d like from this conversation. I think it’s a good opportunity.

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10 responses to “Thoughts, philosophies, ideologies, and demons”

  1. Humanity

    When the topic of humanity was brought up, it triggered (perhaps faulty) memories of daily discussions of Humanity on the Forge. But it also made me wonder about that kind of aspect of systems and why we do not see it much today? That may be impossible to answer of course, but in my mind Humanity is crucial to playing Sorcerer and getting humanity "right" for your game can make or break it. Thinking about it, perhaps I was always overthinking it. 

    • Historically, I think most of

      Historically, I think most of the discussion about "getting Humanity right" in terms of definition went badly awry, into genre and away from genuine interpersonal contact. It's a good example of jumping too fast into the supplements, in this case The Sorcerer's Soul, without being grounded and actively enjoying the core game.

      One of the most important features of Sorcerer, and this is related to my point below about the fantastic (as adjective), is not to let go of the ordinary … and not to let the fantastic be, itself, normalized. It's important for demons not to belong in, not to be part of the setting.

      I don't know why I'm trending toward literary references today, but the one which comes to mind is Robertson Davies' work, especially the Deptford trilogy, beloved of those wacky Jungians everywhere. I enjoy them quite a bit as novels – but philosophically, my own work is profoundly opposed to his often-repeated phrase that the wondrous (spectacular, magical, fantastic) is "only an aspect of the real." As a mystic, he is not speaking in secular terms that such things are material, but rather the opposite, that the real is itself a fantastic phenomenon.

      All of my fantastic work defies that concept. It relies on the utter presence of the material and real, no matter how far-future or crazy-cosmic past, or whatever idiom one has alighted upon. I take it and I break it – on a good day, to impossibly fulfill its hopes or even to transcend its flaws; on a bad, to violate it. For this to operate, in my chosen medium, the real must be … very real. The Humanity mechanic is all about staying in touch with that, even as one may go too far astray.

      Admittedly there's a classic Romantic element in this conflicted-rebel construct which has its somewhat stupid side. There's also an existential one, which is still pretty Romantic although better grounded in issues of suffering. But whatever critique one may apply, the necessity for play is to value what one is breaking, and in this I point to the people playing, with the characters and fiction as expressions thereof. The term, game mechanic, and diagram sector called Price is relevant.

    • “That may be impossible to

      "That may be impossible to answer of course, but in my mind Humanity is crucial to playing Sorcerer and getting humanity "right" for your game can make or break it. Thinking about it, perhaps I was always overthinking it. "

      Humanity is indeed (in my opinion) crucial. But I think that much of what you saw at the Forge was people starting on the wrong foot, with the idea in mind that every time you start a game you should try to find the best definition of Humanity for it. I think the most functional way is to simply assume that the definition for any game is the default one found in the book, and change it only if there's any clear reason to do so. From what I remember when reading many of those Sorcerer APs at the Forge archives, I think that perhaps most of the definition changes where ill conceived and those games would have been better served by simply using the default. The same goes for Sorcerer & Sword and its own default definition. Humanity is already "right" for most gaming. I understand that the temptation to fuck around with it is high, especially after one reads & Soul and our brain is going all cosmic with "oh, the possibilities!", but if it's not broken don't fix it. The vast majority of time the default is just right.


    • I think the most functional

      I think the most functional way is to simply assume that the definition for any game is the default one found in the book, and change it only if there’s any clear reason to do so.

      Pedro, would you be willing to specify what you mean by “the default” Humanity definition? This sounds like great advice, and had me leafing through my 1st edition text right away.

      I’m guessing you mean, “empathy, social consciousness, honor, or… soul” from page 31. But every place where the book elaborates on Humanity (pages 31, 43–44, and 64) hint at a custom definition and point the reader to The Sorcerer’s Soul.

      Re-reading it, I see that the text isn’t as strident in pushing this as I remembered. On one hand the GM “should” determine what happens at Humanity 0 (44), and the GM “should” set personal standards for Humanity checks (64). But when it comes to arriving at an artisan definition of Humanity, the group “may” (31) or the GM “can” (64). I always thought this was one of the open concepts that must be localized, like demons, but I see now I was mistaken.

      I’m aware that this might be covered in the annotations, which I don’t have handy on this computer. I intend to look into that tomorrow.

    • Hi John,

      Hi John,

      I don't want to presume to be giving you "great advice", so take what I say with a grain of salt and contingent on Ron's own comments if he decides to chime in on this. There are also other discussions at Adept Play where Humanity is dicussed. But I'll give you my view on the subject, based on gameplay and bazilions of hours spent reading Forge threads and the occasional discussion with Ron.

      I would have to go back to the game text and read every reference to Humanity, but I think the phrase "empathy, social consciousness, honor, or… soul" is somewhat a reference to the customizable nature of Humanity and a pointer towards Sorcerer & Soul, and not strictly the baseline assumed in vanilla Sorcerer. It's possible that the game text keeps it somewhat vague, but in discussions at the Forge and my own contact in gameplay with Ron, the basic default definition could be better described as "empathy & social consciousness", with perhaps also a somewhat "metaphysical" nature to it that is hard to describe and that would fit "soul" in a very general, non-religious sense. Let's see if I can illustrate this with an example:

      Let's say your character is attacked by someone and, in pure self defence, you end up killing the guy because there was no other way out. Morally speaking, especially in terms of western social moral constructs including law, we could say that you were justified in doing so, otherwise you would have been killed yourself. So what you did was "understandable and OK" even if "sad that it came to that, but don't blame yourself". Thing is, this would actually still be worth a Humanity check. You see, Humanity checks aren't about "why you did it", no matter how morally justifiable, but about the act itself. And the act itself, in this context, is bad, transgressive, shocking. "My god, I just killed a man!" sort of thing. That's the empathy & social consciousness right there, with some loose, metaphysical dose of "soul degradation" if you will. Does that make sense?

      "But when it comes to arriving at an artisan definition of Humanity, the group “may” (31) or the GM “can” (64). I always thought this was one of the open concepts that must be localized, like demons, but I see now I was mistaken."

      I can't say you really are mistaken: again, take my opinion as simply that, an opinion. I think that, generally speaking, you are right that it needs to be localised, but take that "group may" and "GM can" as possibilities, not "this is supposed to change in every game, so discuss what you want Humanity to be this time around", flavour-of-the-month style. My take is that in most cases the default definition (at least my interpretation of it) is the most suitable one, and should only be changed if you have a good reason for it.

      Hopefully what I said above is not far off the mark of what Ron was going for.

    • Thanks!


      Now I see the annotation on page 64 is very helpful here:

      Humanity – yes, a definition is important, but don’t get bogged down. First, a written definition is good, but don’t treat it as a legal document, merely as a door opening up judgment calls of your own. You might not even need such a definition….

      Second, “That’s how they see it in the setting” is not a sufficient explanation for Humanity. The touchstone for Humanity checks and gain rolls is never anything more nor less than the GM’s personal sense of right and wrong…. That sense may be nuanced or focused by the fictional setting, but the fictional setting cannot replace the real-world, real-person’s role.

      I spent a bajillion hours reading Sorcerer threads on the Forge, too, which shaped my way of looking at the game. In most ways, that discussion was constructive to my understanding.

      But I see now that the culture of souping up Humanity I sopped up was led me to misread the “mays” and “cans” of customization as imperatives. “The GM’s personal sense of right and wrong” is primary.

      Honestly, though, the times I have actually played with a custom Humanity definition, the custom definition was a way of stating my personal sense of right and wrong.

    • I’m only chiming in as

      I'm only chiming in as invited …

      John, you addressed your question to Pedro, but I think you went ahead in the same comment and answered it fully and legitimately by yourself. You've read the text accurately: there is a working default definition of Humanity, and it is deliberately built to invoke the GM's real and existing sense of right and wrong. That's why it's stated with three terms which obviously vary in relative importance by person.

      I suggest, if it's at all possible, blowtorching the idea of accumulated "internet wisdom of Sorcerer," most of which seems to me generally wrongheaded and distorted. It proceeds from the apparently collective agreement that the game is obscure and difficult into all sorts of suggested best-practices or stated principles.

      Why don't we try starting with something else: that the core game is not deficient, unclear, incomplete, undeveloped, experimental, or insufficient. I don't want to veer into textual purity in the sense of the book being the encyclopedia and legal guarantor of perfect play – which is the opposite fallacy – but let's stack it up against any role-playing text for rules which do indeed work fine, where I think it stands up well in any comparison. From there, well, I'm good with any questions or concerns, but I really think they are quite few.

    • It wasn’t all bad! I still

      It wasn’t all bad! I still benefit from re-reading certain exchanges, like several conversations between thee and Jesse Burneko.

      I never swallowed the idea that the Sorcerer rulebook was inadequate as a text in itself. It sure spoke to me. I got the impression that the communication breakdown was more about the originality of it. Trollbabe, for example, had the benefit of of language developed to express certain concepts that were not part of Sorcerer’s original vocabulary.

      When you want to say something different than what people have heard before, I think that misinterpretation is inevitable. Maybe most of all among people who really really want what the text was trying to communicate, and had a lot of hard knocks getting there with other games.

      I think I was lucky in that respect, that I didn’t really know I wanted what Sorcerer was doing until I found out about Sorcerer.


  2. Fantasy

    Much of this may be found in your Three Fantasies course, but when the discussion on sword & sorcery and Conan and such came up, it occurred to me that many so-called fantasy games fail at situation prep. They are too broad in scope. Holmes D&D works because it is focused. Circle of Hands, the same. It seems focused on the idoms at hand, instead of trying to be a broad spectrum of fantasy possibilities. 

    • I think you can see that I’m

      I think you can see that I'm unwilling to try to put it all in one pithy statement, but a big concept in the course is that "fantasy" is a descriptive term, not really a noun of its own. That's what's happened in pop culture and especially fandom – which in this case is not distinguishable from a frantic captive market – to turn it into a noun, something with this-or-that feature or a specified/known series of events.

      As it happens, just now I'm reading a collection of Lester Bangs' reviews and semi-essays, and wondering as he does occasionally whether I'm merely an aging crank. Anyway …

      Role-playing, or rather the identification-label "gamer" or "fantasy role-player," as hobby and sales venue, played a bigger part in this nominalization process than its comparatively feeble economics or cultural presence might suggest. Even people who genuinely knew and felt fantastic with their imagined content made some decisions or bought into some practices which not only failed to transfer it, but actively ruined it.

      The focus you're talking about, and I agree it's present in Holmes D&D, means we're not talking about fantasy the noun. We're talking about how this, whatever it is, is fantastic.

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