Passionate Game Design

Sorcerer Unbound: Introduction

The whole idea of games that take practice has been floating around my head for a few days now. When push comes to shove the game I always want to play and the game I always want to get better at is Sorcerer. So, this is a first in a series (of how many I don’t know) of posts about how to play Sorcerer better. This post is primarily about why I think Sorcerer is worth practicing.

Sorcerer’s appeal is very much rooted in my play history. I started with Red Box D&D when I was about 8 years old. As I got older I blossomed into a very story minded pre-teen and teen. My exposure to fantasy fiction was very minimal and something I struggled with in D&D was how monsters made stories. Clash of the Titans was a favorite of mine and yet the rules for a Medusa didn’t quite fit the scene in that movie. The rules for Vampires didn’t really seem to have anything to do with Dracula. I got very caught up in the confusion that the primary purpose of D&D was to create quality fantasy fiction.

Eventually, I discovered other games, most notably Chill. Ah! Now here was a game that suddenly made sense to me. In particular it had monsters that conformed to some kind of human agenda. The Mean Old Neighbor Lady being a classic. And the Ghosts! Oh God, did I love the ghosts: the spurned lover, the wrongfully executed criminal, all behaviors and motivations that made sense to me. A friend of mine once commented, “They’re villains, not obstacles.” This was the beginning of my understanding of Situation.

In my history we’re up to post-college but pre-Forge. I was running Chill on a regular basis and here’s what I learned: I must be a horrible GM. I learned this because I could not get the players to follow the plot. My clues were not clear enough and the players didn’t know what to do next or they would wander off in wholly unpredictable ways or worse jump to conclusions too soon. I could not keep the players on my clue based scene chain to properly pace the narrative from mystery to “revelation.”

Then one day I wrote a Chill scenario called The Art Gecko. Going all the way back to my D&D roots I never understood why the Chill books contained classic monsters like a Basilisk. I just had no clue how to make such a monster jive with the more human like ghosts, vampires and witches. So I set before myself a challenge. Pick one of these classic monsters and make it work. And so I chose the Basilisk.

I imagined a woman who so desperately wanted to be a great sculptor but had no talent. One day she came across an “exotic” animal shop and was sold by the mysterious proprietor a reptile he claimed to be a genuine Basilisk. Low and behold the woman was shocked to discover that the creature was indeed genuine. So she hatched an idea. First she gauged out her own eyes to protect her from the creature’s gaze and then started luring people into her home where she exposed them to the creature. Soon, she found fame and fortune as the “blind sculptress” who could, by feel alone, craft the most lifelike statues you have ever seen.

Around her I created an artist’s community rife with other problems and secrets. There was even a plain old murder over blackmail involved. I had a web of artists and the desperate things they were willing to do for success. Little did I know, I’d created a Sorcerer scenario before I’d even heard of the game. However, I was still attached to the notion that I had to pre-plot play. I threaded a very careful clue-chain through the situation I had created in order to build up suspense and work the players through the secrets of the community from least heinous all the way up to the Basilisk reveal.

It worked overall better than any of the previous Chill games I had run. But I discovered something rather amazing when I took the scenario to a con. I was concerned about the time crunch in the con environment so on a whim I abandoned the linear plot structure in favor of just handing out information and clues in any order when the players did anything remotely worthy of them. And a miracle happened.

As I had feared the players figured out the basilisk trick rather early on, about an hour into play. However, the other events in the town proved grabby enough that they ended up seeking them all out on their own anyway. They didn’t rush to take out the sculptor and call it a night just cause they knew where the Big Bad was. They wanted to know what the hell was up with all this other stuff in the community FIRST.

And that was my first real taste of the power of Situation, Premise and Relationship-Maps, and Human-Monster relationships. However, I never really put it together until much later.

Somewhere in the middle of all that Chill playing I encountered Sorcerer, Ron Edwards and The Forge. At first I dismissed Sorcerer as White-Wolf-Lite (Note: Unlike many I have NO play experience with these games). But I was extremely fascinated by Ron and his claims. Here was a man who very clearly wanted out of gaming what I wanted out of gaming but his suggestion that Theme (as the Big Model defines it) could be a function of play itself rather than preset and front-loaded seemed impossible to me. At the time I was very hung up on the idea of the Auteur and that Theme was something communicated on high from a singular vision down to an enthralled audience. In RPGs that was the GM.

So I hunkered down determined to make heads or tails of this game and its author’s radical claims. And thus I began my long in depth study of Sorcerer and the literature behind it. In that time the game and Ron have:

a) Radically redefined my experience of stories.

b) Radically redefined my worldview on the human experience.

c) Introduced me to fantasy fiction that doesn’t read like a made-up high school history text.

d) Taught me to enjoy hardboiled detective fiction as something other than an unfair puzzle.

And that doesn’t even touch on the entire “How to do Story Now” stuff. What I enjoy most about Sorcerer is that every time I play it, I learn something about myself and I learn something about those I play it with.

There are a lot game play features of Sorcerer I enjoy that I don’t see in a lot of other designs. Elaborating on these is the primary goal of these essays.

Conflict resolution with out goals or stakes.

Conflict granularity that preserves the back-n-forth fun of a struggle.

Social conflict resolution that preserves player-character sovereignty.

Resolution with massively situation altering impact in a single pass through of the dice.

A currency process that eliminates fiat by establishing narrative constraints.

Extreme uncertainty relative to adversity.

The opportunity for rapid mid-resolution change in character priorities.

And more I’m probably not thinking of.

I hope I’ve at least captured your interest.

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