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No Sword, a Sorcerer, and Competency

Due to some weird circumstances, I ran a 1-shot last night for a group I am an actual player in (as opposed to mostly GMing). It was for three of the players as the others could no make it (hence the 1-shot). The barrier was partially a social one: I do not know one of the players very well and one of the players had anxiety (for personal reasons) for learning a new system (more on this later). I knew I needed something quick and easy that I knew well and landed on Stormbringer 4th/Elric!/Magic World. I curated the system down to the basics, which was not difficult really, re-named a few spells, and made three characters for the players to use.

Backdrop

Have you seen The Sword & The Sorcerer? If not, I recommend it not as a great film, but as a fun romp that still manages to exemplify what I think good sword & sorcery is about. Also Richard Lynch, the best 80s villain-character actor. In the movie there is an 11ish year gap between the beginning and the meat of the story. I set the game halfway between those parts. A selection of nobles of Ehdan sought out "volunteers" to resurrect another sorcerer to combat the evil King Titus Cromwell. One was a knight of Ehdan who escaped the destruction of good King Richard's army. Another was a barbarian mercenary, there for the money, and the third was a witch who was helping so that she could be left in peace by the society who despised such things as magic and witches.

Situation & Prep

The goal was to enjoy some B-movie hack n slash. I built Sorcerer Isle and placed three sorcerers on it inside of two old towers and a cave. Each sorcerer was different and had a different motif. They only needed one of them, but I did not give more clues. The players did not know how many sorcerers were on the island or where to find them, at least not at first. I placed a few minor foes, nothing too difficult, though it turns out the one actual combat was against the weirdest foe (other than the sorcerers).

Oh there was a volcano that rumbled, mostly for color, and a lighthouse that had some clues in it.

Play

The three landed on the island, received the ominous warning from their boatman, and immediately investigated the old lighthouse. Ser Paulos nearly drowned falling down into the basement ofthe lighthouse where the tide had been encroaching. They found a few maps, one of which had circles and sorcerous writings around the towers and the cave. The characters moved to the swamp tower, where some careless throwing of coptic-style jars released six preserved horse tongues that attacked the characters. 

Here I forget completely to have anyone, character or animated tongue, parry or dodge even though I had gone over the parry and dodge rules. The fight had a bit of tension and was satisfying from a thematic point of view with the characters scrambling to avoid being tongue-lashed. The characters did encounter the first sorcerer but they did not recognize as such, partly due to a failed lore roll. The sorcerer was a pack of rats that covered a tree just outside the tower. I had individual rats do tricks, but the players did not seem that interested and neither did their characters, so I did not try to make it more interesting. They moved onto the tower in the forest, by a lake.

Here they did encounter Kul (not Kull, not cool, kuuuul) a druid-sorcerer. Kul agreed to be resurrected to fight off Cromwell if he could have the flesh of one of the characters. The knight volunteered, knowing full well that Kul would take his body and leave nothing of him left.

The witch performed the ritual and I had the player make a power roll for each line of the ritual. If they succeeded, which they did for all four lines. they lost 1d6 MP. If they failed it would have been 2d6 and if the character had run low, they would have had to borrow from nearby sources, ie, one of the other characters. In the end, the dice were with the characters and Ser Paulos sacrificed his immortal soul so that Kul could live and fight against Cromwell.

Tropes and small-s Situation

The scenario relied heavily on playing into tropes. For these players, I avoided the heavy metaphysical questions and relied on knowledge of the movie and/or the idioms of sword&sorcery. I did not make the play on rails: they had a choice of where to go and what to do in service to the overall theme, but they knew they were there to get a sorcerer and they got one. I feel there was some bounce, but not a ton of it, and that's because I did not plan for a huge amount. The choices were small, some obvious and some not, and the encounters fed into that backdrop.

I like having tropes in play, mostly to play against, but in this case leaning hard into them. It made for a quirky play experience, that did not have a ton of surprises. And it created some constraints on the character's actions. I was not disatisfied with how play grew out of the prep.

Contrast this one shot with the larger amount of prep and play for the 3.5 game I recently ran here and here and talked about some in Tommi's post here as well. I feel like I did a better job this time conveying the situation through idiom than I did in the 3.5 game.

When Not to roll on % Skills

The player who had some anxiety said that they liked the system. While it has intricasies, there is no version of the Chaosium Stormbringer run that its overly complex, IMHO. The experience of rolling for armor to see how much it resisted was new the players, but that turned out to be a positive as well.

One thng that I had in mind while running and prepping the game was conversations about when not to ask for a roll. I do not think I had played a %, roll low skill system since those conversations popped here at Adept Play (and other places). How do you judge when a character is "good enough" to not have to roll?

In this case, any skill that a player had added points to during the brief character creation was a skill I felt they had real experience in. So if they came across a situation where there was no life or death, I just handed them the basic information. 

And I will be honest, I did not miss rolling for every fucking listen or search or atheltic feat at all! I really did not miss asking for those rolls. Now, it might have been different had this been a longer set of sessions where improvment was important, but even then I could see asking for less rolling.

 

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

I’m pulling these out, out of order, to reinforce your point, not to challenge it. It’s a tough topic until a person gets through it – one of those things which seems insurmountable or necessarily handled in familiar controlling ways, until the person says, “Wait, why was that a problem in the first place.”

One thng that I had in mind while running and prepping the game was conversations about when not to ask for a roll. I do not think I had played a %, roll low skill system since those conversations popped here at Adept Play (and other places). How do you judge when a character is "good enough" to not have to roll?

In this case, any skill that a player had added points to during the brief character creation was a skill I felt they had real experience in. So if they came across a situation where there was no life or death, I just handed them the basic information. 

And I will be honest, I did not miss rolling for every fucking listen or search or atheltic feat at all! I really did not miss asking for those rolls.

...

The characters did encounter the first sorcerer but they did not recognize as such, partly due to a failed lore roll. The sorcerer was a pack of rats that covered a tree just outside the tower. I had individual rats do tricks, but the players did not seem that interested and neither did their characters, so I did not try to make it more interesting. They moved onto the tower in the forest, by a lake.

An overly-critical reading, right here, would tag it as a lapse. A failed roll ruins a valuable encounter! There are even two routes for scolding. (1) You tried to entice them with weirdness (“looky, looky here!”), but you must not have been enticing enough, or clever enough to fudge the roll in the first place. Or, (2) given what you said in the other section, what’s all this about being “noticing;” after all, if they were supposed to meet this sorcerer, then you should have just said “here is a sorcerer,” or something like that.

As I hope you can see, such scolding isn’t the point. I do want to indicate that your own phrasing shows traces of the attitudes behind 1 and 2, but they’re only traces, and we can move on to real topics.

Specifically, using the vocabulary I've been developing at this site - when situational authority is subject to a randomized constraint, what value is added? The answer is certainly not a blanket "none," in the sense that (for instance) a perception or comprehension roll is necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it's contained in the profile of all the other variables that feed into and out of this one moment in this one scene in this overall situation. For this game, given the way you were playing, what are those other variables?

Sean_RDP's picture

Bounce was heavy on my mind (and is on my mind) outside the obvious constraints of a formal dungeon where content . I struggle with how we use agency in parlance here, but I can say that within the confines of the color and backdrop, I certainly wanted the player’s decisions to be organic and authentic, not merely a nod to conceits of trope and of it being a one-shot. By the same token, I cut down the textual rules we used to clear away potential confusion as this was the first time two of the players had touched a system like this.

when situational authority is subject to a randomized constraint, what value is added? 

In my plain language, non-negotiation of outcomes or non-negotiated outcomes. In terms of who says what, when, this is entirely in the player’s hands for narrating their reactions to the dice. They failed a roll*; I offer no further information other than what I had provided. From that piece of intelligence, they tell me whether they continue in the same direction using a new avenue of exploration, possibly triggering another roll, or veer off in an entirely new direction. In the case of the rat sorcerer, they found nothing compelling to continue in that direction, so they left that location in pursuit of the forest tower. Had they succeeded I would have provided a key piece of information, but they still would have the choices: pursue this or veer off and the ball was in their court to say what happens next.

But the information they did possess, and this may be part of the variables, already provided them with the context that there was at least one sorcerer on the island and sorcerers are weird as fuck. If every time they miss some content, I say “well you do think this is weird” what is the point of using a roll in the firs place? I don’t like that. I have never liked that, even though I was tempted (dancing rats).

* An aside, I realized when I wrote "failed a roll" that it did not sit well even though in system terms, yes the roll was failed. Content is not a checkbox or not meant to be. The roll did not provide further information is how I would frame it. They did not miss content; they did not gain enough information for the content to seem relevant to the characters.

I’ll stop here. Short answer is the uncertainty of outcomes and a degree of bounce.

Ron Edwards's picture

Me: ... when situational authority is subject to a randomized constraint, what value is added? 

Sean: In my plain language, non-negotiation of outcomes or non-negotiated outcomes.

This is a good opportunity to be precise about something. Gaming history has established an artifact: to call the numerical result of any randomized method an “outcome.” I totally get why that makes sense as a term ... except that it doesn’t track to what we, working in a fiction medium, need to understand about outcomes.

In fictional terms, the question I’m asking (quoted above) isn’t about outcomes, but about orientation. In my with-any-luck easy, usable terms, it’s not into outcome authority territory yet at all, but situational authority. Specifically, the precise in-the-moment unit of a scene. I’m distinguishing between what is going on vs. changing what is going on.

That’s part one for this reply, and given your comments since then in Narration Authority is where it's AT, I understand better why I stalled out when drafting this response (for here) and then forgot about it until now. Outcomes happen inside scenes. I’m talking about orienting within a scene, but not at a point when we know we have to move into outcomes.

The good news, for this reply’s second part, is that I agree very strongly with your description of the “rat roll” or anything like it. Bounce can be found anywhere, in orientation just as well as in actions/events.

After all, scene content is best understood as answered questions: where are we, who is here, what is here, where are we specifically inside “here,” what can be discerned further; ultimately, what do we know and what is our best estimate of what we do not know? These apply to the opening of a scene, but also to its ongoing content, so that saying “I walk across the room” is merely continuing to answer that question of where, in an ongoing fashion.

To repeat (probably unnecessarily) my question above, all of these questions can be established without rolling dice, or any equivalent randomizer or indicator. Most of them are, most of the time. The question is, for which do we include such constraining devices and, when we do, why? You say it yourself here perfectly.

If every time they miss some content, I say “well you do think this is weird” what is the point of using a roll in the firs place? I don’t like that. I have never liked that, even though I was tempted (dancing rats).

The urge to override the roll with a strong hint (“no, really, look here!”) is incredibly strong, isn’t it? Even though I trained myself as of twenty years ago to stop overriding rolls for actions (outcomes, fictionally), overriding or eliding them for orientation has proven far stickier and harder to deny. And yet, as I think you’re describing here yourself, denying this temptation and instead honoring the systemic procedures we’re claiming to be using is liberating. It seemed like a pit of chaos and the unknown when I considered abandoning this particular sphere of interfering control, and yet, once achieved, the sensation of relief and enjoyment, and “what on earth was I so afraid of” is even greater than the one experienced from no longer fudging damage rolls.

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