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The bouncing function of Sorcerer’s diagram

Ron’s Numeracy course puts an important focus on the fact that:

  1. RPG is about bounce, which means that the collective reincorporation of fictional elements provided by each person of the table creates fictional content that no single one of those people anticipated.
  2. Bounce starts with the intersection of the four authorities.
  3. Stochastic procedures only reinforce the bouncing quality of this interaction.

My last realization, playing Sorcerer & Sword with Rod and Robbie, is the amazing bouncing function of Sorcerer’s Diagram. I will provide videos of how did it at some point, but I wanted to highlight the fundamenal property of the diagram before I find the time to edit and compress the videos.

Rod is playing Nayo, a languid “prince of the moon” wandering in Xar to get some excitements. From his kicker, he starts the opening scene of the first session by listening to the song of a condemned man and “not being able to this song out of his head.”

Robbie is playing Rrorim, a street urchin leaving at “The Heap”, an island in a Lake who serve as the garbage dump of all the cities around. His kicker is finding a amputated hand with the ring of an undetermined faction.

Sheets are provided in the annexed file. Robbie mentioned rumors of cannibalistic people in the mountain, where treasures are hidden. I decide that the song of the condemned tell the story of the ancient civilization in ruins in those mountains. Lacking inspiration, I put a very traditional “degenerated” people from this civilization turned into wolverine-people (inspired by Kane’s Bloodstone, but there are many instances of this trope in Sword & Sorcery literature). I also decide that those ruins are the rest of a forgotten colony of Nayo’s moon civilization.

Then, following Sorcerer & Sword’s advices for setting up a situation, I come with stuff from my own. I wanted to play a badass witch queen making a coup – a very classical trope, but one that I never played! So, the locale is the city of Thrax, the king is just dead with his sons from a previous marriage, and royal funeral ceremonies are going on with everyone saying that the current queen poisoned him, which she did. Based on Rod’s kicker, I declare that the queen has dissolved the main military institutions of the city: the Screaming Guard, mainly composed of an external ethnic group from the mountains, that has been incorporated in the city, and the Temple of the Golden Hawk, the Elite Guard of the King. The survivors of those institutions fled and try to organize a guerilla resistance, led by Thyrin, the former Spearmaster of the Screaming Guard (an elite military troupe who rides domesticated pterosaurus). The condemned people singing the song in Nayo’s kicker are member of the Screaming Guard. The ring found by Rrorim has the sigil of the Golden Hawk.

This kicker lasted 5 sessions and each session was full of bouncing moment that may be commented elsewhere. Let’s just focus on the diagram’s function.

At the beginning of session 5, the diagrams are packed with dozens of elements.

To summarize briefly the previous sessions, Nayo fled to the ancient city where he found a contained demon of war that he banished the second he saw it (surprising me as this demon was the situation’s macguffin to “win the war” depending on who find it: the Queen Yaslina or the Spearmaster Thyrin), has been given this world by his mother, the Empress of the Moon, who thinks this world should be destroyed, and joined the resistance against the queen. Rrorim discovered another contained demon in the Temple of the Golden Hawk, a beast with whom he failed to pact, and that want to be properly worshiped by the royal lineage (… and more). Events lead the queen to meet the Golden Hawk (who is really more a weird sphinx than an actual hawk), and I’ve decided during my preparation just before the session that she tries a pact with the Beast to get help controlling the city back. I’ve made rolls and the Queen had 4 victories. During this prep before the session, I’ve stated that the Queen’s goal is to reunite with her ancestor lineage, the people of the moon (I’ve described her ethnic group origin myth as being descendant of the moon), and she appointed Nayo as her favorite lover at the beginning of the game (without asking for his consent) and wants her future scions to be from the Moon’s lineage.

Bouncing Nayo

Here is Nayo’s diagram. In red and blue, the elements who are really in the center, the other ones in black are just attracted by them. Red elements are attracting each other, as are blue elements. In the previous session, Nayo was joining the Screaming Guard in their camps in the mountain to prepare an assault against the Queen’s new guard (the Amber Guard). The Pillars are immanent demons planted by the College of the Moon in various planets/worlds so the Empress of the Moon can teleport there whenever they want (see sheet in the reference document I join). There is one Pillar in the College of the Moon, and one in the city in ruins.

We have two locations in the center: Thrax and the city in ruins. Based on those elements, this is the scene I frame as the opening scene for this session: after one week of preparation the Screaming Guard is assaulting Queen Yaslina’s Amber Guard. We are in the middle of the assault. Nayo is flying on a pterosaurus and is facing the queen, somewhere over Thrax. He lost the screaming guard during the attack as he is facing the queen, who rides the Golden Hawk, her Amber Guard around. Yaslina is asking Nayo to bring her to the pillar in the ancient ruins so she can join his palace in the moon.

Rod’s response was Nayo bringing the queen (convincing her to quit the Golden Hawk), surrounded by her guard (and her special bodyguard, Ester), to the ruins. He knew there were wolverine-people haunting them and that they didn’t attack him (because he appealed to their low 1 humanity – the wolverine-people were designed based on the Man-Ape people from Sorcerer & Sword), but they may attack the guard.

He brings the queen there, trying to distance her from the Amber Guard. When he enters, Rod asks how the Wolverine-people react to them so he can separate the queen from the Guard. He rolls his cover vs Esther's cover (she's the leader of the Amber Guard and the queen's bodyguard) and wins. He leads the queen to the Pillars while the Amber Guard tries to defend against the Wolverine-people. There, he presents the queen to his mother and say he will marry her if she receives a proper lunar education. The queen accepts (as it absolutely fits what she wants in my prep). Then he asks the pillar of the moon to transport him whenever i wants, and he ends up on another gritty swamp in a mercurial planet, full of dangerous wildlands, where he plays frenetically music on his demon to satisfy it needs, closing his kicker.

Considerations. Without the diagram, I would not have thought about the queen asking Nayo anything about the pillar or going to the moon. We didn’t establish that she knew about anything the pillars, but it didn’t contradict established facts: we all knew that the Queen heard the songs telling the tales of the ancient civilization, mentioning its treasures and practices, and in a previous session the Queen even asked more about that to Nayo.

After the session, I asked Rod’s his primary intention before we framed the opening scene, and he answered that he was going to feed pterosaurus with the queen. Let’s consider what happened. The previous session finished with Nayo in the Screaming Guard’s rebels camp in the mountain. We considered the assault’s preparation as the “downtime” between our session. Then we are directly here in Thrax, in the assault again the queen, facing the queen herself! The Pillar played a specific constrains for me, which I had to narrated and I chose to narrate it as the Queen asking to bring her there. I felt full agency as I still has to narrate how those elements are brought up in the scene, and I think Rod’s response, adapting his plan to reincorporate the queen’s statement is bouncing us toward the Empress’s Palace. See how this bounce is only our mutual agency bumping into each other.

Bouncing Rrorim

We have a similar situation on Rrorim’s diagram: two different locations in the center. “Vengeance” is Rrorim’s gang of street urchins, and in my previous preparation I’ve stated that they are looking for him. You can see lots of elements, some of them identical to the one in Nayo’s diagram – because we are at the 5th session and lots of crossings happened.

Here, I use another procedure to include two locations in the same scene. In Nayo’s scene, I made a NPC, Queen Yaslina in Thrax, mention another location, the pillar of the ancient city. Here, this is what I do.

Opening scene. Rorrim is in his cache, inside a mausoleum in Thrax’s cemetery. The tomb’s lid opens and, a member of vengeance, Somas, gets out f it. He explains that he was looking for him and found this way by searching his old cache in The Heap. Thyrin's rebels are fighting the city and are losing, and that Vengeance wants to help him since their last interaction. Rorrim mistrusts this statement.

The way I chose to solve this constraint was to introduce sorcery/weirdness.

Robbi’s response is to make Rrorim takes his things and go through the tunnel, and arrive in his old cache in the Heap, obviously through magical mean. I didn’t make it a mystic otherworld, but I described the passage as a dark sorcerous tunnel that shows him harassing nightmares (“think of all the failure you made during all the session of the two previous kickers you played, that’s what you see and feel”). I’ve stated that it could be an access to a mystic otherworld if he would traverse it in the right state of mind.

What happens next is Rrorim asking Somas to bring him to the battle to talk with the rebels inside the cit. But it's full chaos and he doesn't find an opportunity to talk with the rebels (failing his cover roll). With the Queen and Esther absent, the Amber Guard, who are just a mass of recruited thugs and slaves, cannot win against the rebels who are trained and organized elite soldiers. The rebels win.  Rorrim asks for some of them to get back in the Heap and hunt Shodin, the self appointed “King of the Heap”, a tyrant, and after some roll, becomes the new king of the Heap, closing his kicker.

Without the diagram, I wouldn’t have framed this scene, making a direct physical connection between Thrax and the Heap. It’s interesting to note that those Cache exists because of Rrorim’s price – “paranoid” to have his things stolen. I wouldn’t have brought Vengeance so easily, but I knew from my prep that they were looking for him.

And I don’t even think that Shodin would have been a thing – he didn’t appear himself in any previous session (although we knew what he was doing through other NPC’s rumors).

I’m really excited. Embracing the diagrams as creative constraint really feel like a skill to acquire and I feel I’m just beginning to handle it – but sufficiently to find it incredibly exciting. I don’t have the habit of framing scene based on associations. I also think it’s really important that “times has passed” between sessions for the diagram to make sense, not finishing with a cliffhanger that will be resumed later.

An important remark

I think people throw themselves too fast in Sorcerer & Sword, without having played Sorcerer itself. I played a lot of  "here & now" Sorcerer and I think it's necessary to internalize core concepts before getting into the exciting phase of Fantasy weirdness. 

The Diagram is a good example of that, and I'll provide more examples of "here and now" Sorcerer where people just play "normal" people - normal until they became Sorcerers. The weirdness implied by Sword & Sorcery's aesthetics distracts from the bouncing function that need to be internalized. So please people, play more "here and now normal Sorcerer" and share it!

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Greg's picture

I actually think the video for this last session can be uploaded without editing.

This session was particular. I've redone all the associations with the Diagram by explaining what I do. Don't consider it as "the right true way finally deciphered", but as I mention in the video, still an experimental/learning process for me. And let's consider this material as useful for discussiong the technique in itself.

Link to the session on YouTube 

Jesse Burneko's picture

Quick question, Greg: Have you or the players been updating the diagrams between sessions?

Greg's picture

Jesse, we didn't "update the diagram" between each session, but we drawed new diagrams at the beginning of each session. Here was our procedure, which is a "we learn the process together" procedure, not "the true way":

1. The players comes with their lists of elements (which element is in each quadrant). Without bothering or thinking about their actual position or movement. Just the elements.

2. At the beginning of the session, the player moves the elements. The diagram cannot work without player input. If the GM do it because the player is not able to do it, the GM will need to ask questions. For instance her: "hey Robbie, where are your mushrooms, do you have them on you or are they in your cache?".

3. After the player moved their elements, I consider the diagram and move elements according to things I know. The player doesn't know where all the elements are, specifically the NPC, so the diagram he gives me is either incomplete or lack some elements that I need to add.

4. Looking at what is the center, making a decision for everything and framing the opening scene with that. 

In a not so distand future where we would have internalized it, Rod and Robbie would give me their diagram already made, full of elements and positioned in the right places through their association, and I would modify them without discussing anything with them.

Here useful things that worked for me, but please take in account that it didn't work for everyone, for instance it didn't work very well for Rod, but I couldn't find a better pedagogy - reason why I did all the things on that last session so play could proceed: 

A. Clear distinction in steps between "session preparation" and "using the diagram". Those are distinct procedures. In this game, imagine me, 2 hours before the session, writing my "notes for session 5" in the reference documents. Which means: "How is the queen evaluates the current situation? What does she want to do?" "What does Thyrin want, what did do and will do to get it?", with an eye towards being "grabby" towards the players characters. See how the Empress or the Queen are grabby in my session notes. This was a really important lesson form: Diagram are not a session prep tool, and assumes asymetric information between GM and player characters. You generally can't frame a scene without asking players question. On session 2, I had nothing in the center of Nayo's diagram. So I said, "Hey Nayo, given what happened during the last session, where are you right now, and what are you doing?"

B. Clear distinction in steps between "writing the new elements in a new blank from scratch in the right quadrants" and "moving the elements through association". Those are distinct procedures. 

 

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