Passionate Game Design

Sorcerer Unbound: System Transforms Situation

This post is going to be the hardest to write because in some sense this is where I stop telling you how to play chords and start telling you how to compose music. This is a serious look at how the mechanics of Sorcerer touch the narrative. Just what is the toolkit designed to DO? Here’s the answer as best as I can put it: The Sorcerer mechanics are designed to first establish non-obvious details of situation and then to transform that situation into an unexpected new situation.

Let’s look at the core pieces one at a time.

The bonus dice at first look like GM bennies awarded for good player behaviors. That is not the case. In practice they operate a little more like fan mail in Primetime Adventures. Basically bonus dice should be awarded for establishing details of the situation that in some way creatively stir the group. Yes, the GM is the arbiter of this but if something makes a player go “Oooooooo” or “Oh crap!” it’s worth a bonus die and if the GM fails to notice (as I personally am prone to do) then the players should say something.

Bonus dice are not about long winded narrations full of purple prose or sound and fury signifying nothing. The things that usually earn bonus are stuff that actually establishes details of the situation that add nuance to the conflict at hand that was not immediately obvious. Such nuances are often cool pieces of tactical and logistical texturing. This is why they apply to the immediate role at hand are not stored up like Fan Mail because they are about refining the details of the here and now situation. I’m not just hitting you with a crowbar, I’m holding it with both hands and thrusting it spear like into your chest.

These details are important because they make answering questions that may arise later easier to answer. The clearer picture we have of what the character is actually doing the less confusing interpreting later rule applications become. In some sense it narrows the acceptable narrative space.

Helper rolls as previously stated are about resolving larger chunks of ambiguous situation space. Do I know anything about the demon? Are there men loyal to me in the area? Is my dragon style better than your chicken style? The degree to which the answers these questions are useful are of course measured by the victories scored on the roll.

It should be noted if the answer to any of these questions are obvious from previously established fiction then no roll is needed. For example it might have been stipulated early on that the character has never been to this area in his life. Thus the question, “Are there men loyal to me in the area?” is pretty pointless. The answer is an obvious, “No.” This applies to things the players may not know. For example, it might be part of the GMs pre-play prep that the entire village is really a hallucination generated by a demon. It’s perfectly fine for the GM to just say, “No” because he knows that the village isn’t real. But if judgment call is needed to answer the question then it should be decided by the dice rather than fiat.

Now here’s the part where the creative context of the group matters. Let’s say I sequester myself for two hours reading the Necronomicon for two hours before performing a summoning ritual. Is this a bonus die situation or is this a helper roll situation? Frankly, it could be either and which it is depends on the groups’ investment in this bit of description. You kind of have to trust me when I say that in the context of play it is usually pretty obvious but I know that won’t be satisfying to everyone so here’s a guideline. If the purpose of the description is just to show the character’s process of summoning it’s probably a bonus die. If on the other hand, the purpose of the narration is to glean information that will then be applied in some manner to something else, then it’s probably a helper roll.

At this point we have the details of the pre-roll situation. From this point the mechanics are about transforming those in motion details into a new situation in a meaningful manner. Any single die roll gives us two pieces of information the direction the narrative is going and the degree to which that direction matters. In some sense Sorcerer die rolls are story vectors giving us a direction and a magnitude. At this stage any ambiguities in the situation can often be resolved by comparing dice or applying victories.

Example of Comparing Dice

Imagine a situation in which two characters are wresting on the ground a third character wishes to strike down on the tussle. The third character is clearly unconcerned with which of the two wrestlers actually gets struck. Let’s say that the striking character’s action comes up first. Which of the two wrestlers gets struck?

Here’s one solution: Since everyone rolls at once we can compare the dice pools of the wrestlers. Even though their actions have not happened yet we can see “who has the upper hand” at the time the striking blow comes in. That is the wrestler who gets struck because we can say with confidence that he is on top of the dog pile at the time of the strike.

Example of Applying Victories

Bob wants to shoot Carl. Carl wants to pull Alice in front of him to use her as a shield. We’ll leave Alice’s action out of it to keep it simple.

Let’s say Carl comes up first and Alice fails to defend so she gets dragged in front of Carl. The obvious application here is to take the victory dice from Carl’s action against Alice and roll them over to his defense roll against Bob’s shot. Let’s assume that Carl’s defense roll is successful against Bob’s shot. But here’s a perfectly obvious question with maybe a not so obvious solution: Does Alice get shot instead? Do we have anything at out disposal that could answer this question for us so that we don’t have to rely on fiat?

Yes, we do. We have the victories from Carl’s defense roll against Bob’s shot of which Alice’s role as human shield was a part of. We can take those victories and immediately apply them as mid-round attack on Alice. Notice that how Alice narrates her defense against getting shot herself could have a rather significant impact on the situation. If Alice says something like, “I throw myself to the ground dragging Carl with me if I have to” and she succeeds in defending against the bullet it might very well be the case that Carl is now prone on the ground, a situational transformation that wasn’t even part of the apparent possible outcomes at the top of the situation.

Some of you might be asking where in the rule book this miraculous application of mechanics is listed: A secondary mid-round attack? Where is THAT listed? It isn’t. It isn’t because this isn’t a separate rule. Nor is it something I just made up. It’s an example of the application of currency. And that is the artistry of playing Sorcerer: learning to use the currency to resolve ambiguities in the situation without falling back on fiat. That is what takes practice.

Even more so there may be more than one way to legally resolve that ambiguity and which of the options is more appropriate depends entirely on the greater creative context of the narrative. I alluded to such a situation in my post about conflicts with inanimate objects. Consider the gun lying on the ground that a player wants to pick up. When that action comes up does he just pick it up unhindered his with roll effectively only establishing when the action happens relative to the rest of the situation OR does the gun in some way oppose his attempt? The question relies entirely on the greater creative context of the narrative. Again, I can only say that it’s usually fairly obvious in play but I’ll offer up another guideline? Where is the groups’ investment in the gun? Is what’s at stake in the greater narrative just whose hands the gun ends up in? Or is it more like the opening scene of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom where we’re interested in watching the gun run around a bit like the diamond?

Now let me touch on one more aspect of the system that hasn’t been touched on: Total Victory we’re back to adding depth and detail to the situation. By design Total Victory has no mechanical effect instead it allows a player to add another level of situational detail to the outcome of a conflict. If the character was swinging a crowbar at the enemy’s head and score total victory did he break his jaw or gouge his eye out? Again, it’s about narrowing down that narrative space with more detail that will seriously inform follow up narration and rules applications.

I have no idea if I’d made things clearer or more confusing but this is my best shot at explaining how the rules and the narrative interact.

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