Passionate Game Design

Sorcerer Unbound: Demon Abilities

So one of the topics it was requested of me to discuss is the application of demon abilities. Here is my number one tip for working with demon abilities: Do not look at the list of abilities while designing the demon. Start with imagining what the demon looks like an what you would like it to do, then go to the list of abilities and look for ways to combine them to produce the desired effect. When I GM Sorcerer I rarely have the players look at the list of abilities. I just ask them to tell me what the demon does and I write it up myself. After all, it’s my NPC anyway.

Playing the Build-a-Demon game is one of my favorite Sorcerer “exercises.” Let’s play a couple rounds right now. I’m thinking of little girl Sorcerer named Emily and her “imaginary” friend Billy. Billy is an inconspicuous demon that protects Emily from harm. Any damage done to Emily is done to Billy instead. So, how to best accomplish this?

Well the most obvious choice is Armor that confers to Emily. That will handle the damage reduction part but what about the transfer? The ability Link is a foundational start. I see two options for actually hurting Billy.

1) The Currency Way: For every victory converted to Fists damage by the Armor ability simply apply damage to Billy based on the original weapon chart.

2) The Ability Purest Way: Give Billy Special Damage (Non-Lethal). Every time Emily gets hit the GM simply has Billy attack himself the following round. That may sound kind of dumb but it’s not when you describe it correctly. Basically while Emily is standing there absorbing bullets, Billy is reeling around in pain. It’s kind of a creepy image.

Here’s one I got recently that was a bit of challenge. The player wanted her possessor demon (hosted in an animal) to be able to see past and future events. I pointed out the ability Hint but she felt that was overkill because she didn’t care about accuracy, reliability or deliberateness of it. She liked the idea of it being kind of dreamy, metaphorical and impossible to interpret. I realized that what she was doing was basically handing me a ready made Bang delivery system.

Here’s the core challenge: The animal host can’t talk and possessors can’t confer their abilities beyond their host. So how does the player character actually have access to this prophetic information? Well for obtaining the information itself I went with Perception (Short Range Time Stream). I noticed that Link includes a “general awareness” of the demon’s immediate surroundings so I figured that was sufficient to act as the “delivery system” for intentionally vague and dream-like “visions.” As a general note I wouldn’t have allowed this ability or would have insisted on using Hint if the player had wanted perfect “second sight” so to speak.

So, let’s get into the text of demon abilities a bit and discuss all those seemingly out of place complexities and details. First let me say that all the mechanical bits of demon abilities are just applications of the currency system used to adjudicate (the word “model” is inappropriate) “weird effects.” If your problem with demon abilities is that the mechanics of Armor converting victories to Fist damage seems like overkill relative to the rest of the system then I suggest that your understanding of the currency system is too simplistic. It isn’t that the demon abilities should be simplified to fit the rest of the system; it’s that the application of the system to other situations should be elevated to the complexity of the demon abilities. I suggest that adjudicating such things as suppressive automatic fire, grenades, lasting emotional distress, the narrative impact of “set pieces” or thematic objects, is much more akin to how demon abilities work than the simple victory roll-over mechanic. I suggest going over the rules with this in mind: All the “dice tricks” listed are not exceptions or special cases. They are examples of the currency applied to a few common situations but are no means “exhaustive” rules.

The trickier part of demon abilities is all the text that seems rather limiting compared to the customizable flexibility of the game. Examples include the size limitations listed under the ability Big, the duration limitations on Shapeshift or the speed limitations on Travel. Ron has admitted that this text is some of the weakest in the book. What I intend to do here is throw out a few basic principles that will hopefully make it easier to understand this text in a functional manner.

The first principle is that nothing in Sorcerer is instant, infinite, eternal or can be diminished to zero. The idea here is that even if your demon can teleport there is always the chance that something can interfere with that. If you go gallivanting around as a werewolf all night long that has consequences. When some action is successful it has some minimal impact and can’t be totally negated. Regardless of what an ability can do there are always opportunities for outside forces to interfere or take advantage of it.

The second principle is about understanding that the text was written with certain narrative assumptions (more on this in the third principle). Mainly, modern occult stories such as Hellblazer and The Exorcist and all the Swords & Sorcery stuff listed in that supplement. As such the abilities are all written with that particular look and feel in mind. A consequence of this is that some abilities may need customizing if your game steps outside those narrative assumptions. The text simply didn’t account for demonic black holes and virtual reality subroutines. This is really no different from customizing the list of descriptors to change the nature of appropriate Sorcerer character types.

The third principle is that the verb “model” is inappropriate when discussing Sorcerer. The rules of Sorcerer do not model anything. They do not model the fictional world. They do not model the fictional world as represented by the source fiction. They do not even model the source fiction itself. What they do is adjudicate the narrative weight of consequential action relative to the here and now fictional situation.

What this means for demon abilities is that stuff like duration and speed kick-in only when that would have weight in the narrative. If Jack Bauer can make it from Santa Monica to Downtown L.A. in 15 minutes through rush hour traffic than so can your demon moving at “normal human speed” right up until all of a sudden we’re stuck in traffic and that bomb is going to go off in 15 minutes. Those eight minutes of Shapeshift on your Power 8 werewolf demon start ticking when a character is locked in the basement and says, “If we can just make it until dawn then he’ll have worn himself out.”

So, that’s my attempt to get at the underlying principles behind Demon Abilities. I hope it has been useful.

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