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Sorcerer Atchison

I have played 15 sessions of Sorcerer since April, resolving one set of Kickers with my Runequest buddy David and his brother (another Noah), then a second set with the brothers plus Sam.

Inspired by the form of Mansfeld’s posts, I’m going to describe the Sorcerers in our game, their Kickers (for PC Sorcerers) and how they were resolved. 

My purpose here is celebration, and also inspiration for others to play this game. Sorcerer has a reputation for being difficult. Nothing could be further from the truth. Terrifying? Funny in a Freddy Krueger way? Potentially revelatory? Absolutely. But only difficult insofar as participants try to impose control. If you are capable of actual play (which is so much easier than nerd culture makes it out to be), Sorcerer is effortless joy.

As GM, I brought the following two Statements:

Atchison, KS; poverty, industrial decay and spiritual rot

Gothic stonework; the names of angels in Latin and Arabic; Catholicism and blood

The players created and played these Sorcerers:

Doyle (David’s Sorcerer)

Owner of a demonic bed & breakfast, The Bird & the Bee, whose Need was sexual voyeurism. Doyle was mentored by the B&B’s previous master Leffy, who tutored Doyle in his sorcerous philosophy of “Power, Prosperity, Longevity.” Doyle’s daughter Hip lived with him inside the demon.

First Kicker: The B&B spurred two of its guests to such sexual athleticism in pursuit of its Need that they expired mid-coitus. 

Kicker Resolution: After disposing of the bodies and using the B&B’s powers to ensure even the best forensics couldn’t pin the murder on him, Doyle summoned a demonic girlfriend (the actual Whore of Babylon herself, aka “Delilah”) to ensure a steady supply for the B&B’s Need; Hip befriended the dead couple’s middle aged daughter, helped her look for her parents (to no avail), and invited her to dinner. Doyle, Hip, the daughter, Delilah, and Leffy had a wonderful dinner together inside the B&B, and Doyle was grateful he had managed to keep his family together.

Tobias Finney (Brother Noah’s first Sorcerer)

Mad caretaker of the dilapidated Sallie House, a renowned haunted house in Atchison. Addicted to snorting the termite dust of the house. Master of Tarfatil, guardian of hell in the shape of a cat whose Need was warmth.

Kicker: A “Condemned by the City of Atchison” notice on his front door. This was orchestrated by Tobias’s sister-in-law, who hoped to dislodge him from the house and get him help (though “help” here meant forced institutionalization, a horrifying topic I learned a lot about during prep).

Kicker Resolution: After many mad hijinx (including presenting a plan to turn the house into a nightclub to the Atchison City Council under the demonic disguise of a Talisman Shirt), Tobias was brutally murdered by Leffy in the woods outside town, the first murder Leffy committed to feed Pete, an enormous demon trapped in one of the foundation stones of St. Benedict’s abby. Leffy went to Doyle’s family dinner right after.

Erwin (Brother Noah’s second Sorcerer)

130-year-old man hiding out in the beautiful Prairie Havens nursing home with his demonic cane, Quercus.

Kicker: Brenda, fellow Prairie Havens resident and the love of Erwin’s life, died unexpectedly, and Erwin is convinced there was some kind of foul play.

Kicker Resolution: After discovering that Prairie Havens is built on land tainted by Cold War nuclear weapons production, and that the number of residents dying from resultant cancers (including Brenda) is well within “risk tolerances” for the management and environmental regulators, Erwin teamed up with Vietnam vet Opie to burn Prairie Havens to the ground. Erwin tried to extend the life of his, Opie’s, and Brenda’s friend Lola through demonic means, but after the demon Marked her and her grandchildren, Opie told Erwin that he’s thoughtlessly brought contamination into her life, just like the managers of Prairie Havens. Using Quercus, Erwin kills his other demons, then throws his cane (and the source of his Vitality) onto the fire. Quercus and Irwin watched each other burn.

Doyle’s Second Kicker: Hip is in a relationship with a Sorcerer.

Leffy’s Resolution: Knifed in the back and pushed down the basement stairs by Delilah, Doyle’s demon lover. She hoped to make Doyle a mighty Sorcerer. When he refused and Contained her, she called Hip and told her about the murders and crimes committed by Leffy and Doyle. This imploded Hip and Doyle’s relationship and made Doyle a man on the run.

Elijah (Sam’s Sorcerer)

High-school kid, apprentice agricultural welder, leader of a spiritual group made up of fellow high schoolers. He uses his demon, a shard of stained glass with the Virgin Mary’s left eye on it, to Taint people with transcendent angelic perfection, granting visions and allowing them to experience divine purpose. 

Kicker: Elijah and the rest of his group graduates from high school.

Kicker Resolution for Elijah and Doyle: After unsuccessfully trying to hold his friend group together, Elijah formed a new one using desperate people he befriended in AA meetings. The demon’s Taint power was monstrously successful, and Elijah and his followers became brainwashed, white robe wearing cultists.

After nearly dying during an intense Summoning attempt in the woods, Doyle was revived (and Tainted) by the cult. When both Sorcerers regained their senses, the group had brought on dozens of members, had taken over several buildings in Elijah’s apartment complex, and were cleaning up unsightly areas of town, including the husk of Prairie Homes.

Elijah and Doyle recognized each other as Sorcerers and left the apartment complex together. Elijah was horrified and disappointed by what his demon had done. Doyle was convinced that the demon had given him true happiness and begged Elijah to help him find Hip so they could be angelic zombies forever.

On an abandoned stretch of road, Elijah pulled the car over and incinerated Doyle with demonic fire (Doyle succeeded in a snapshot Summon, but still took enough Special Damage to be killed). Doyle’s Kicker resolved with his charred corpse still crawling toward Elijah, hand outstretched toward sorcerous power. Elijah’s Kicker resolved with him leaving Atchison to hunt down other Sorcerers, convinced he is the only practitioner with the strength of will to wield demons responsibly. 

I was deeply moved because the burnings (Quercus, Erwin, and Doyle) occurred back-to-back in the final session. To me, the twin conflagrations of Erwin voluntarily giving up his demons and Doyle grasping after someone else’s marked the moral poles of our grim, uproarious game.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
Sorcerer

Comments

Hans's picture

I could see it all vividly; your enthusiasm is palpable.

Sorcerer has a reputation for being difficult. Nothing could be further from the truth. Terrifying? Funny in a Freddy Krueger way? Potentially revelatory? Absolutely. But only difficult insofar as participants try to impose control. If you are capable of actual play (which is so much easier than nerd culture makes it out to be), Sorcerer is effortless joy.

Could you talk more about the ease of Sorcerer and not imposing control? I realize this may be akin to asking Bukowski's headstone "tell me how you do this 'don't try' thing", but hey, I'm asking.

Ron Edwards's picture

I want to hop in with my own qualifier. From Noah's post:

If you are capable of actual play (which is so much easier than nerd culture makes it out to be), Sorcerer is effortless joy. [and the entirety of this paragraph - RE]

It's bad strategy to deny a great bumper sticker regarding one's own game, but I think this is over-selling it. It borders on victim blaming, even profiling a person as incapable or don't-even-bother, based on insufficient criteria. I have encountered exactly such people, but saying so is a very individualized matter, after I've gone too many extra miles to doubt it.

Regarding everyone else, which is the ethical default, I think two things matter a lot, regarding any and every good role-playing system.

  • Effortless activities - or so they look or feel like - may require considerable learning curves before they get that way, so a person entering into that curve shouldn't be told, "hey, it's effortless, or you're doing it wrong."
  • Play is a group phenomenon, and a person may be bumped off the curve or diverted in some way due to what another person imposes or merely does, so that the troubles may arise more from the gulf that's created rather than a specific thing all by itself.

I know of two recent Sorcerer games, including one I played in, that didn't go very well at all. I can point exactly to those two bullet points and not to any incapability or obstruction, or at least, only one that arose as a late-stage reaction.

Hans, it is a good question, and Noah, I think your answer will be good too, but I want to make sure that we are grounded in a less binary model of learning and enjoying the game.

noah's picture

Hi Hans, glad my joy came through -- this was one of my favorite games ever. To try to answer your question, let me break ‘ease’ down into three overlapping components. I think this may also address Ron’s qualifiers from the side (I agree with him that my bumper-sticker framing should be crossed out as victim-blaming).

  1. For all its arcane reputation, I found Sorcerer’s systems beautifully nimble. There were several learning curves our group experienced (Kickers, orthogonal conflicts, and the diagrams spring to mind), but the curves had a rather unique shape for us. Our group’s collective ascent from ineptitude to skilled-enough-to-play was short and gentle. After rapidly reaching that first summit of functional play as a group, each of us experienced highly individualized and often steep ascents within different systems. After fifteen sessions, we each had the distinct sense that, for all our improvement, we were still far from reaching the “skill ceiling” of the game, and that one’s path to such an upper limit (if one exists at all) would be a highly individualized artistic process.

    To give two examples: After a brief effort to understand “What is a Kicker?” adequately enough to write one, the question for each player rapidly became, “Does this Kicker meet my needs, desires and standards as a practitioner of this game?” The other Noah’s growth in between his first and second Kickers was particularly noticeable. Each player will be honing their own answer to that question for as long as they play Sorcerer.

    As a more procedural example, our first orthogonal conflict was a halting affair, but within two rounds we had grokked the procedures well enough to get the job done. As we played, my own ability to use the conflict system as an expressive instrument grew and grew. A personal favorite moment was when I realized how I could use it to resolve a conflict between Doyle (armed with a nasty demonic flail) and the layers of earth, roots, and house that were trapping him in the basement of the B&B.
     

  2. Sorcerer is the first game I’ve played where really, truly each participant’s job is “to play my character(s).” The systems are instruments, not widgets, for this purpose and this purpose alone. They will provide focal points for how to play your characters (e.g., Needs), produce aesthetically inspiring material (e.g., Tell-tales) or coincidence-fuel (e.g., Mark) for playing them, and ensure brutal Bounce when you do (looking at you, Lethal Special Damage). But they will not play your characters for you or give you any room to hide from the responsibility of doing so. 

    Writing it out like this, I see that this feature of Sorcerer is potentially terrifying. I experienced it as liberating on a number of fronts. To take one example: in between games, I did zero prep. As long as I had a sense of who my characters were as people (this includes non-human entities like demons and buildings and weather) I had everything I needed to play and more.
     

  3. Finally, The Annotated Sorcerer is the most honest game text I have ever encountered. It clearly spells out every responsibility that is not “play my character,” whether the job is as simple as marking that a Demon is one tick closer to being in Need or as freaky-fraught as when to call for a Humanity check.

    I never once felt that I had ‘excavated’ a beautiful procedure or best practice that the text merely implied (this occurs nearly every time I play D&D 4e), or that I had to dig and scratch and scrape to free a functional rule that had been buried beneath calcified layers of control (which is, more and more, how I think about Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha).

    The game tells each player what they need to do to play. It leaves what they want or feel they should do entirely up to their individual agency.

I hope that this is a helpful answer, and as well that you can see the places where an individual could be “bumped off the curve or diverted” through no fault of their own.

Hans's picture

Thanks for your response.

It’s very helpful and as I say below a few times, I will be thinking about much of this the next time I read and play Sorcerer. I have a few reactions to specific things you said:

To give two examples: After a brief effort to understand “What is a Kicker?” adequately enough to write one, the question for each player rapidly became, “Does this Kicker meet my needs, desires and standards as a practitioner of this game?”

Kickers in Sorcerer and Beliefs in Burning Wheel are two very different things, but all the same your discussion of learning curve regarding Kickers has me thinking about Beliefs. I have seen and experienced a lot of anxiety about correct and gameable Belief-writing in Burning Wheel. I think it’s not so difficult, but once people answer the first question (“What is a Belief”), something about the game or the culture of play or the culture of the game’s interpretation on the internet shunts people away from approaching the second question more deeply (“Does this Belief meet my needs, desires, and standards as a practitioner of this game”) and a loop is entered where we obsess about whether the Belief is “good enough” or “works”: is it gonna get me my Artha? Is it challengeable by the GM? It is probably easier for Kickers to move to the second question because they happen once and you move on—you are not continuously angling for them as you play.

Sorcerer is the first game I’ve played where really, truly each participant’s job is “to play my character(s).” 

I had to read your whole second point twice, as the first time through I for some reason mentally excised the GM from inclusion in the “each participant” category. I can see (through the haze of nearly the decade (!) it’s been since I ran Sorcerer & Sword) that parts of the difficulty, and perhaps large parts, of that halting, semi-successful game could have been mitigated if I had internalized this point. This is going to be something I keep in mind when I next read Sorcerer in preparation for play, which hopefully will be soon.

I never once felt that...I had to dig and scratch and scrape to free a functional rule that had been buried beneath calcified layers of control (which is, more and more, how I think about Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha).

Side point, but: I’ve been recently immersed in the RQG starter set after having read the core book two years ago, and I identify with this. Many things I look at and think “this is great, as long as I ignore everything they say about how to use it”. Getting back to Sorcerer, I think that may be one of the famed “difficulties” with the book: many RPG texts seem to require us to read between the lines, make connections, erase little parts, bolt on other things, and we’ve done it for so long that it doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything. It feels like we’re simply reading an RPG text. So you read Sorcerer and you start to do that because that’s how you read, right, and everything gets gummed up from the get-go.

The game tells each player what they need to do to play. It leaves what they want or feel they should do entirely up to their individual agency.

There are so many unspoken* “shoulds” in roleplaying (GM: I should be entertaining the players. Players: I should be playing along nice and pat with what the GM wants me to do) that when the game relies on these not being there it can leave people floundering. I have also seen this in my limited Sorcerer play and I’m thankful that you’ve called out this issue so clearly so I can keep it top of mind moving forward.

*although I suppose the examples I gave are pretty often and pretty loudly spoken.

noah's picture

I'm glad these thoughts are helpful! This is a bit sideways of our conversation, but I feel that I've been producing my best play while GMing. I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on what made this run successful and am hoping to put it to use when I'm not in the GM seat. 

I know our time zones might not align for a while, but I'd love the opportunity to play Sorcerer with you if we can ever make it happen.

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