As I said in this previous post I realize that the way I handle the preparation of a Sorcerer game pushes me in a paralyzing swamp that impede me to GM the game. It's the third time I experience this for the game, as GM, with three paused games for the same reason. Here is the detail of how I approach the prep, play with materials, express doubts and finally get inside this cycle of revising every choices without getting to a satisfying place to start with.
I have incredible material from the creation. But I paused the game because I’m getting lost of looking for difficult associations, to build a coherent and dense backstory that will be set in motion in the following sessions. This is the second Sorcerer game that I pause for this same reason: prep paralysis. Having read the 2 excellent discussions about intuitive continuity and emergent plot (Star Wars Dark Times and a few sessions of dnd), I realized I’m stuck every time I’m launching a Sorcerer game, generally at the same moment: building the backstory.
My first difficulty is to build the demon’s identity. What desire, and why? I make decisions, but then I come back to that. I realize now that I ended up with far too much complex personalities of these demons. I simplified it into this:
Arété, (Desire: Dominance). It’s a possessive and protective object. It feels superior to the other and wants to prove it. It loves humiliation and domination in the most obvious way possible, juste crude humiliation. In every situation possible, it wants respect. It is also an intimate object, who also embodies deception and intimacy. It aims for abuse in every way available. At Bind -4, Arété is very authoritative about Hélène. It wants to dominate her and wants her to dominate others.
Ophélia. (Desire: Being Worship). Ophelia is the embodiment of the social effect of Sanctity. Even if not canonized, she’s the essence of a Saint. She wants to be worshipped, adulate, prayed, summoned. It’s a very intimate demon who expects worship from anything that is not a Saint and will communicate in whispers about it.
[This is the last version I got. I considered this at the first time, but after a few sleeps and rereading came up with the Worship version. I’ve read Sorcerer & Swords again during this time and took inspiration in the Xar Demons and Sorcery. I changed because I felt the Worship version would be easier to play. This was the previous version: Ophélia. (Desire: Suffering). She’s a secretive demon, who likes physical and mental abuse. She loves to understand one’s weaknesses to exploit it against him. She’s into observing, exercising, or witnessing any kind of suffering. She embodies the principle of a dramatic Shakespearian tragedy.]
Rage. (Desire: Ruin). Rage is wrathful, and embodies conflict, being a cold calculator as well as wrathful warrior. To myself, I take this note: play it like Stormbringer, but if it was inside Elric instead of its blade. Whatever it touches, it will corrupt it, at the greater scale possible.
Now I need to do the crossings, to make sense of these elements and to generate a backstory. Here simple things that came first in my mind:
- The Cat’s Tails have a specific relationship to sorcery. Demons are ghost of dead peoples, and they ritualize the first sorcery with a personal sacrifice. Murder is not mandatory, but possible. Sorcery is a gift that allows to constrain Evil. Cat’s Tails believe that they summon tortured souls from Hell, and they fill Hell with these souls to control them. For some reason, Ophelia had to be sinful, or corrupted, we don’t know in which way. This is a possible “class” of Demons in this setting. Another interpretation could be that they also summon Saints, helping them to fight Evil in non-understandable ways. This could fit to Ophelia’s Desire They could be sacrificing their own Honor to engineer God’s Will. I decided to let this open to interpretation, as an internal debate in the Cat’s Tails and to expand on this later if needed.
- Rage has been summoned in Paris’s Catacombs, out of Charles’s suffering, by showing him some ways. I imagine a solitary way for Sorcerer to become demons themselves.
- Madame de Launoy is Hélène’s Mentor. This feels as an invitation to another relationship to sorcery. Arété is an object, as is the Rapier given to Mme de Launoy to Hélène. We can imagine a sorcery focused on extremely fine Mastery objects, the Rapier being a Demon, and a huge competitive “culture” between Sorcerer of this tradition (to gain Lore, to kill/abuse each other, etc).
A few questions arise from the players’ material and specifically the kicker:
- Why is the Comtesse d’Anjou the perfect copy of Ophelia?
- Why does Madame de Launoy want Charles dead, and why doesn’t she do it herself?
- Why did Charles killed the Marquise, how is Rage involved in that?
I realized by rereading the annotated Sorcerer rulebook that, on page 41-I, I've been pushed to answer to these questions by the following annotation :
The only thing I can think of is to speak to someone as if I were about to play a
character in a Sorcerer game they were organizing, and for which they were the GM.
1. Don’t fucking drop the ball on me. You have my Kicker. If it’s a mystery, you’re
supposed to know what’s going on. If it’s an action-event, you’re supposed to round
out its human and motivational side. If it’s just freaky, you’re supposed to embrace
the weirdness. Don’t cop out. Above all, our shared agreement is that this Kicker is
going to matter, and that means not only to at least one other character besides my
own, but also to us, the people, here, during play. I know it matters to me, in its
unbaked, unspiked form. You make sure your deeper/prepped version of it matters
This act as a strong intencive for me to have this perfectly refined prep, the mystery of Ophelia's ressemblance to the countess, the why Rage is getting more and more.. wrathful, why does Madame de Launoy wants Charles killed by Hélène?
But also, I discover this other annotations, which seems now contradictory, on p. 84.
Because the GM is not a “storyteller,” and because the plot emerges only via the events of play, you must face the blunt reality that, therefore, a given story created by playing Sorcerer does not always wind up coherent. The villain who’s responsible for it all, the Swiss-watch precision with which tiny details are recognized as indicators of important processes or activities, the clarity of why this person did that thing at that precise moment, the stunning revelations delivered with perfect timing … none of these are guaranteed to work out effectively.
I love using the tattoo-artist game for examples of all sorts of things, and here’s another: ultimately, the story as a whole made little sense. I never did manage to explain why one
corpse’s skin had been hung in the shower of one of the characters, nor were a particular dead character’s motives for some of his actions ever developed convincingly.
This is quite confusing, it empowers me to just go with it, without trying to fine details everything... but the players gave me a kicker, and according to the very serious advice of p. 41-i, I need to know what's going on .... maybe with the risk of creating a "you must unveil the story" session, which I try to avoid. I'm in the swamp before I could realize it.
The first scenes
Let’s look and the different elements of the first scenes. I came up with ideas, but I struggle when I have to cross them and build a coherent backstory that will serve as a situation provider.
Charles. Kicker: he killed the Countess’s mother, and the countess knows it. Elements: Marquise d’Anjou, Comtesse d’Anjou, Rage, Charles’s Manor, the weapon’s collection, Charles’s agressivity.
Questions I ask to myself to clarify the setup: how did he kill her? How did the countess discover it?
Ideas: Something is influencing Rage and pushes him to lose control. A very powerful demon able to shape others demon behaviors, that has been released. Or maybe we just need to play it, in media res, and define this during the scene?
Hélène. Kicker: Madame de Launoy sent her on the mission of killing Charles., under specific conditions (use this specific rapier that she gave, during a full moon). According to Mme de Launoy, this ritual will lead her to a new path. Elements: Charles, a royal fencing spectacle, Mme de Launoy, Arété, the Rapier, the full moon.
Abélart. Kicker: the Comtesse d’Anjou is the exact copy of Ophelia. Elements: the Comtesse, Ophelia, the Cat’s Tails, Charles.
A few things can be noticed and some elements cries to be crossed:
- Everything seems to happen in Charles’s manor.
- All the character’s demon are involved.
I also note different elements that are not in the bull’s eye of the first scenes: Madame de Montluçon (Abélart’s friend who connected him with the Comtesse d’Anjou), Irina (Mme de Launoy’s demon), the Rebel friends of Hélène, and Hélène’s sisters.
Now, I feel that my role is twofold:
- I need to know exactly what is going on, and the answers asked by each character’s kicker. What happened? Who are involved? What are the strong motivations of these NPC? Aka p. XX of sorcerer.
- Setup the starting situation of each character.
Building the backstory
I’m making a note for myself: the whole humanity concept is Honor, as in Dumas’s three musketeers, and as defined in the Sorcerer & Soul supplement. So basically, sorcerous influence should be related to dishonorable situations.
In the Sorcerer & Soul Day of the Dupe “scenario”, we have powerful fencing demon with a need for chaos (like Arété!), who exploits the dishonorable behavior. But reading this material I drop this idea and start to build something from the material.
Here I’m struggling to do some choices, or maybe overprep? Here some thoughts:
The Comtesse d’Anjou can be:
(OPTION A) No direction link with sorcery. The human double of Ophelia. If this option is chosen, I could grab the whole Ellroy’s Black Dalhia relationship map and make it fit for this game. In this backstory, The Comtesse would in fact be the daughter for the Marquise and her not-so-secret lover (yet to determine, but a crazy NPC, let’s call him The Abbot). She would be in a weird love relationship with her “believed-to-be-so” father, the Marquis. Ophelia would have been a perfect double of the Comtesse, spotted during an orgy organized in the Marquis’s property. By hateful and indirect vengeance, The Abbot and the Marquise would have spotted the Low born Ophelia and ask for a death, which results on why the Cat’s Tails has specifically asked for her sacrifice during Abélart’s first summoning.
(OPTION B) Direct link with sorcery. It could be different thing.
B1 – The Comtesse is a demon. Again a few choices are possible. Either she knows it or she doesn’t realize that she is a demon, but she is the source the influence Rage’s behavior, binding reality. If it’s the case, why does she have the appearance of Ophelia? What is its profound link between Abélart and/or Abélart’s Demon? Why did Charles didn’t notice it earlier? Maybe it’s new, and it could be the “Skin Demon” in the example of the Sorcerer’s rulebook.
B2 – She is human, but shaped by another powerful demon, the same that affects Rage’s behavior.
Maybe I can mix option A and option B1 (the skin demon who forgets he’s a demon, and influences Rage’s behavior)? But isn’t it too much complex?
It feels overwhelming. We still have two kickers to write and crosses to make.
Madame de Launoy could want Charles dead because:
(OPTION A) No link with sorcery. There are non-sorcerous reasons. Maybe she doesn’t even know that Charles a sorcerer, but if so, why set specific sorcerous conditions for the killing?
(OPTION B) Sorcerous link with the demon. She has an old rivalry with his Rage. Either she wants to release it from Charles’s body, or she wants to dominate him. Charles’s just a vessel for her, collateral casualty. Maybe he was her own Mentor, and she killed him, but for some reasons he could come back or be contained and became a Demon. This option fits very well with the idea that Demons has been people beforehand, as induced by Abélart’s demon. Also, this could give some idea to Hélène once she knows that you can kill your mentor to get Lore, for instance. It leads to an interesting question: will Hélène help Charles or betray her Mentor?
The Rapier could have been an old Demon bound by Rage, when he was a powerful sorcerer. Or maybe it’s not a demon but just its old Rapier, and Madame de Launoy is just joking about it.
(OPTION C) Sorcerous link with some other demon. In this scenario, weird things are happening. Demons behaviors are shaped by another powerful demon. Madame de Launoy misunderstands what’s happening and targets Charles, but it’s an error. The real source of disruption is the other Demon, whether it’s the Skin Demon Countess, or the Other Undefined Demon. If I choose this option, there’s no need to make a Skin Demon Countess, as I feel it’s too much weirdness and adversity. But again, I’m wondering if I worry too much.
Rage is getting more and more influenced into rage because:
The influence of some sorcerous treachery. Best thing seems to be another demon. Here I have to choose if the Comtesse is a demon or not, if she is the one influencing Rage or if he is influenced by something else. I realize it takes me lot of time during prep to go back and forth these different possible choices.
My main concern here is that Rage could become a main antagonist of Charles, where it should be firstly his best resource. But is it a problem?
Prepping the initial situations
Here again I’m lost in choices. The main question is this one: do we start directly while the kicker is happening, or a few times after it happened.
Hélène. It’s easy for her, it feels that it can only be the starting scene, and not a consequence of her mission, so well start in the manor, during. The scene: it’s a fencing spectacle/competition in presence of the King, in Charles’s Manor. Helene is participating the competition. I’ll ask how she planned to kill Charles, just to understand what is ready.
Abélart. Does he realize for the first time the familiar appearance of the Comtesse? Or we can say that this scene already happens. We discussed like it was already done, so in this case Abélart is there during the spectacle, with the mission to protect the countess. So we can expect some bang.
Charles de Hautfort. Does he murder the Marquise in front of the Countess eye (we start with the Marquise dead), or during a confrontation with the Countess about that? In the first case, it’s interesting because now there’s a body to dispose, a Countess to deal with, a blind rage to understand. In the second case, I would use “the countess’s body is disposed humiliated and naked in the front of the manor in a ritual matter” as a possible bang, something done by our Powerful Undefined Demon (inspired from the original Day of the dupe scenario).
NPC and motivations
Here are some thoughts about NPC motivations, which will drive the game. If I understood well, NPC:
- The Countess, if she’s not a demon, she tries to protect her family’s honor by hiding everything about it and tries to protect her relationship with her father/lover. She knows everything, as does the Marquis, the Abbot. If she’s a demon, I have to design her.
- Le Marquis, the Comtesse “father/lover”, wants to hide the truth about Ophelia’s death. He can buy witnesses or buy mercenary to kill them. He will protect his love with the Countess, whatever it takes.
- La Marquise wanted to psychologically hurt its legal husband, badly.
- The Abbot was trying to psychologically hurt his daughter, the Countess, badly. He is a disabled old friend of the Marquis, disfigured by a previous war. He could not hurt his old friend the Marquis, because of how the Marquis took care of him during years. But maybe the ability to bind a demon would change this.
- Madame de Launoy wants to banish, or to bind Rage, for Lore Seeking. Binding your old mentor would surely help to gain some lore from him.
The unsatisfying swamp
Here I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done. I feel I need NPC with strong motivations, but the ones I end up with seems to me more “story explanations” than “gm devices to drive the action”. I'm posting it because I want to go somewhere at some time, but I feel the need to revise the previous section to have good NPC with clear motivations leading straight to actions, which I don't feel I have right now.
I feel I have to add stuffs. But the more I add stuff, the more I end up with problems and the feeling that I have. Then I revise my first choice : maybe I have to change the demons's desire ? Maybe I have to change their powers? Let's if Ophelia is the skin demon. Let's if she's not. Etc.
In fact, my main concern is this: the kicker’s resolution has to be good. But also, the kickers have to be intertwined. So I end up refining and refining it, drowning and drownning in an eternal swamp.