Passionate Game Design


Sorcerer Unbound: Fiction Matters

Imagine for a moment that I put a blank sheet of paper and a pencil in front of you and tell you to write. Imagine that I tell you to write a paragraph. Imagine I tell you to write a paragraph about an apple. Imagine that I tell you to write a paragraph describing an apple. Imagine that I tell you to write a paragraph describing an apple that doesn’t use the words red or green.

Now, notice that each time I add something I limit what you can write in some way. Or if you don’t see it as limiting, I’m at least giving your writing some definitive shape or direction. My main point of this post is to point out that these are as much rules as telling you to roll dice and subtract the total from your stat. If you hand me a sonnet about a girl eating red cherries in the green trees you will have broken the rules.

Sorcerer has many, many rules of this nature besides its albeit powerful and central resolution mechanic and currency system. Descriptors are perhaps the most obvious example. Two things about descriptors is that they are chosen from a fixed list (not made up on the fly) and that the list be customized to give direction to the kinds of characters that are appropriate to any given vision of the game.

Consider, for example, the Will Descriptor from the book, “Belief System.” For my Gothic Fantasy setting there is no “Belief System” on my Will Descriptor list. In the source material, the late 18th Century Gothic Novel, Catholicism is a big deal. So in my custom descriptor list there is “Faith in The Church.” Also in the source material, nature vs. the will of man is a big deal. So I also have, “Paganism” as a descriptor but it’s not a Will descriptor, it’s a LORE descriptor. I will note that “Church Heresy” is also on my Lore descriptor list.

I’m willing to discuss why one is a Will descriptor and the other is a Lore descriptor, if you’re curious, but I’d prefer to do so in another thread. But let me say that I have given it serious thought and it’s intentional on my part. It is by design. It is a rule for my Gothic Fantasy incarnation of Sorcerer.

Another example of what I’m talking about in Sorcerer is a Demon’s Desire and Need. These are not merely, “guidelines” for the Demon’s “personality.” Unlike descriptors, which are not character behavior limiting, Desire and Need are demon behavior limiting. Like the paragraph describing the apple without using red or green, Desire and Need limit what a GM can have a Demon do.

The GM should not just wave off a Demon’s Need simply because he feels it’s not appropriate right now. That’s breaking the rules. If the situation dictates the Demon goes into Need, it goes into Need period. The GM should not have the Demon act counter to its Desire just because he feels like it. There’s a reason ordering a demon to do something counter to its Desire incurs a huge die penalty.

Now, I will grant that there is no objective timer for when a Demon goes into Need (although see the rules about Ability usage and Stamina). Identifying the situational context for proper application of the Desire and Need rules is a skill that takes practice and requires cultivation. However, I would like to assert that cultivating this skill is really no different than learning how to identify a conflict and reaching for the dice when one is spotted. For what it’s worth, applying Desire and Need appropriately is probably one of my weakest skills as a Sorcerer GM.

Everything I’m describing applies in full to all of chapter four of the core book. Chapter four gives people, including myself, a weird feeling the first time you read it because it appears out of place. It comes between character/demon creation and the rest of the mechanical rules of the game. This is because those of us familiar with other RPG texts are used to the material in chapter 4 being “suggestions” or “advice” and thus at the END of the book.

Chapter four is not “advice” it’s more rules. Chapter four provides the framework that gives everything in the follow chapters meaning. Games of Sorcerer that don’t work out can often be tracked back to a failure on the groups part to do something described in chapter four.

Example Complaint: Sorcery seemed ridiculously hard and not very useful.
Likely Cause: Failure to define the Sorcery Technicality. What’s that? It’s in chapter four and basically comes down to defining the look and feel of sorcery as well as defining exactly what can be accomplished with Lore. Without a Sorcery Technicality there is no context for earning bonus dice or roll over victories for rituals. There is no direction for how demons move and behave. Lore becomes a fairly useless and meaningless score.

Sorcerer, the game, is a much much broader thing than just its resolution system. It is a very specific narrative structure and framework all of which is outlined in the core book. Ron selected these narrative components very carefully by design. They are not just color, suggestions, advice or guidelines. They are rules. The game will not work if you do not apply them correctly.

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.

Sorcerer Unbound: Sorcery As Conflict

Some people find it odd that Sorcery is disproportionately difficult to do relative to anything else in a game called Sorcerer. Other people think the rituals in the game are task resolution complete with a whiff factor. These two misconceptions are related. Let’s take a look at the most conceptually difficult ritual: Contact. Contact is a Lore vs. Power roll which in most cases make it look almost impossible to pull off since you’re often looking at ratios like 3:8. Similarly, if a Contact fails, nothing seems to happen. It can feel like a whiff.

First of all, a Contact ritual isn’t like a fireball spell in D&D. You don’t just say, “Hey, I’m going to Contact” and reach for the dice. That isn’t going to work due to the disproportionate amount of difficulty. You need to get bonus dice and helper rolls. Remember that I said those two things are about refining the details of the situation. This is key to understanding what happens when a Contact fails. You NEED those details if failure is going to make any sense which is why the game forces you to strive for them. Remember that bonus dice are only awarded if at least one person is emotionally moved by the detail which means elements of the Contact must have meaning relative to the greater narrative.

So even after you stack on the bonus dice and helper rolls, how is a Contact ritual a conflict? I can tell you right now that you are not in conflict with the Demon. Remember, in Sorcerer, Demons do not exist. What you are in conflict with is…


Contemplate that for a moment. Since Demons do not exist, if you are attempting to Contact one that puts you in conflict with Reality. Further, remember that Reality in Sorcerer is an emotional narrative construct. It is not a simulated imagined world. As such it can have an agenda just the way inanimate objects can appear to have an agenda. So question: Is there anything in Sorcerer that can serve as Reality’s agenda?

How about the Humanity definition?

When a Contact ritual fails, the Reality that demons do not exist and the Reality of the humanity definition come down on the Sorcerer in a crushing manner. You did not *fail* to Contact a demon who exists out there somewhere, there is no demon to Contact. Thus the consequences for failing a Contact ritual are tied up in the specifics of its attempt.

I played a Southern Gothic game of Sorcerer where the Humanity definition was about walking the line between respect for community and family traditions while retaining your own identity. One of the PCs was married to a woman who was related to a powerful sorcery driven family and she had put a lot of effort in distancing herself from that family. At one point the PC’s daughter was kidnapped by people the PC owed money.

The PC decided he was going to try to Contact a demon. He gathered all these ritual items, including elements he had used to contact this particular demon before (it was a demon he had banished earlier in the story), into his daughter’s bedroom. The Contact failed and the sad reality of the fact that there is no magical incantation that will bring your daughter back came crashing home. He was alone in a room with a bunch of junk and some superstitious poetry. His wife walked in on him and grew very angry! She worked hard to keep herself away from this stuff, to keep her daughter from that crazy side of the family, and now he’s brought it into her home. His daughter was out there somewhere and the BEST he could manage as a father was this superstitious BULLSHIT. How pathetic.

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.

Sorcerer Unbound: Conflicts With Inanimate Objects

In my thread on conflict subtleties I talked about the case where a man is chasing a woman and there’s a fence between. I noted that the fence was not a character in conflict with the man but rather a modifier on his conflict with the woman. There are, however, some cases where a character can be in conflict with an inanimate object.

The key to identifying when this is appropriate is to determine if it’s possible to view the object as if it were willfully acting on some kind of agenda. Consider the scene in a lot of movies where a character is trapped in a malfunctioning elevator. Ever notice how the elevator behaves as if it were intelligent and doing everything to proactively thwart the character’s attempts at escape? That’s how you do conflict with an inanimate object.

In Sorcerer the GM just assigns the object some dice. There’s a chart in the book guiding how many dice should be assigned but Ron has admitted to defaulting to three. Then you just run the conflict as normal with the GM announcing “actions” for the object. These can even be physical attacks like, “The cable snaps and whips violently at you.”

Much simpler situations can sometimes warrant such things. Consider the example of a gun sliding around on the roof a train. The player could just roll Stamina for the purposes of ordering his attempt to grab the gun relative to the other action in the scene and when he’s turn comes up he just grabs the gun. But man, doesn’t it seem sometimes like that gun is *purposefully* crawling away out of reach? Hmmm…. Grab some dice.

If a player is attempting to do something to an inanimate object and the object can be treated as if it had an agenda that opposes the player then it’s a conflict and you should roll like any other conflict.

Sorcerer Unbound: Social Conflict

Physical conflicts in Sorcerer are fairly straightforward because their consequences are rather obvious from the declared action. If I’m trying to shoot you and I succeed you have a bullet ripping through you. However, social conflicts require a bit of special attention because Sorcerer preserves player (GM included) autonomy over his or her character (NPCs included). No one can force another character into action even through social conflict. The exception is when a Sorcerer orders a Demon to do something.

So how does social conflict work in Sorcerer? Again the lack of stakes helps. Let’s say a man is trying to pick up a woman in a bar. It should be noted that it is perfectly fine and dandy for the player of the man to say, “I really want her to go home with me and have sex.” In fact that helps clarify the nature of the situation at hand but it isn’t Stakes in the Dogs in the Vineyard or Primetime Adventures sense of the word. If the man wins the roll that doesn’t necessarily guarantee the woman will go home with him and have sex with him.

Now let’s add the fact the woman is an NPC and the GM knows that the woman has an abusive boyfriend but the player of the man doesn’t know that. It gets to the point where the man is being chatty and flirty with the woman and the woman is acting all nervous trying to get away. We have a conflict of interest and so a Will vs. Will role is made. Let’s say the man wins.

At this point the GM is shifting in his seat uncomfortably (a LOT of Sorcerer rules are based on this sense of unease that other games can sometimes back you into) because as a creative participant in the game with autonomy over his character, the woman, he’s thinking, “There’s just no way she’d go with this guy. She’s TERRIFIED of her boyfriend.” But the roll has gone in the favor of the man.

Here’s the key point: The GM is free to narrate ANY follow up action on the part of the woman he wants. What the dice do at this point is give the man roll over victories against that action. Here are some viable options for the GM.

The GM could have the woman blurt out something about being scared of her boyfriend. This complies with man’s win because the woman is now giving up something useful to the man. The player of the man might then choose to take the victories from his roll and roll them over to a new roll about trying to get the woman to explain why she’s afraid of her boyfriend.


The GM could have the woman try to run away. Notice this goes totally AGAINST the outcome of the first die roll in terms of the woman’s behavior but that’s perfectly fine because the player of the man can roll over his victories into a new roll, say to snag her arm and stop her from fleeing. “Hey, doll, what’s the rush?”

The idea is that rolls force the situation to CHANGE and victories describe the DIRECTION OF CHANGE. The GM can’t have the woman just sit there stubbornly resisting, he has to have her do something else but it’s perfectly fine to continue to follow his own agenda for the character, the player of the man just has the momentum of the situation going in his favor.

Here’s another point: conflicts always resolve the immediate situation at hand and only for the short term (in story time). It might very well be that the GM just says, “Fuck it, she goes home with you.” And then starts the very next scene the next morning with the woman incredibly hostile, maybe even violently so, screaming, “You bastard! Why did I listen to you! Oh my god, he’s going to KILL ME!”


Maybe he decides that the woman sees a way out in the man, goes home with him and the next morning she’s all cuddled up to him and says to him, “Honey, uh, there’s something I didn’t tell you…”

All of these are valid creative riffs off that initial die roll. This principle applies regardless of whether it’s NPC vs. NPC, PC vs. NPC or even, yes, PC. vs. PC.

In particular notice how this rather simply solves the problem of two players endlessly bickering in character about something without resorting to bullying one of the two players either socially or systematically. As soon as the two characters (in the fiction) are in an argument go to Will vs. Will. We now instantly know who has the upper hand in the argument. The loser can either go, “I lost the argument, fair enough” and comply with appropriate behavior OR if he’s STILL committed to “his way” he has to switch tactics to something other than arguing (or at minimum a new course of argument) and the winner has victory dice to oppose that new tactic if he so chooses.

Sorcerer Unbound: The Nature of Conflict

I’ve encountered some people who seem to be under the impression that Sorcerer uses task resolution rather than conflict resolution. Sometimes this is because of the lack of techniques like stakes and sometimes this is because of the scale of resolution such as resolving a single whack with a crowbar. Stakes and scale do not conflict resolution make. Sorcerer does not use the term conflict resolution because The Forge theory had not yet settled on that phrase to describe the technique.

Conflict resolution means that the system operates at the level of resolving conflicting interests between characters. We only need to identify that the interests of two or more characters are in conflict and have the resolution in some way sort those interests to have conflict resolution. We don’t even need to articulate what the interests are and the interests in question can be of any level of granularity.

Example of Unarticulated Interests

A character in a bar starts getting flirty with a girl who clearly seems to be nervous about the man’s attentions.

That’s all we need to call for a Will vs. Will role in Sorcerer. We don’t know what the man wants from the woman exactly. It could be sex, information, just generally endearment. We don’t know why the woman is so nervous, maybe she’s gay or has an abusive boyfriend. We don’t know yet. All we know is that the man seems to want something and the woman seems unwilling to give it. We can establish more detail after the role decides who gets his or her way. No stakes. No goals.

Example of Small Scale

The man wants to sweep kick the legs of the woman who is about to shoot him. Clearly this is just a single moment in a much larger evolving situation. But it’s still a conflict and not a task because we have the incompatible interests of two characters. Note that we also have four possible outcomes. The man sweep kicks the woman whose shot goes wild as she falls. The woman shoots the man preventing him from kicking her. The man sweep kicks the woman but her shot lands against him as she goes down. The woman side steps the man’s kick which causes her shot to go wild. Again, notice that we have no idea what the larger scale situation is.

Contrasted with Task Resolution

A man needs to jump over a fence while chasing a woman. The fence is not a character in this situation. The man is not in conflict with the fence, he’s in conflict with the woman. To resolve the jump over the fence does not resolve the interests at hand. The fence is a complication on the conflict of the man trying to catch the woman and the woman trying to get away.

Now because there are no stakes and because conflicts can be of very small scale the result is that situation and character agenda can turn on a dime without much thought or articulation. Let me slightly reward the previous example. A woman wants to shoot a man and he wants to take the gun away from her.

After a SINGLE die roll:

The man could be bleeding from a wound as the woman menacingly advances cocking back the hammer for a second shot.

The man could be bleeding while holding a gun on an unarmed woman.

The man could be uninjured holding a gun on an unarmed woman.

The man could be prone after having just dodged a bullet.

All four of these situations are RADICALLY different from one another. I don’t know of another system that results in such RAPID changes in logistics after a single application of the mechanics. Notice that character agenda could shift immensely from the beginning of this conflict to the top of the next.

Consider that at the top of the conflict the woman could have been all about exacting revenge and by the end she might be all about begging for mercy. At the top of the conflict the man could have been trying to be sympathetic and open but by the end might decide that negotiations aren’t an option and she needs to be taken out.

Now keep in mind that the Humanity definition looms over all of this and you’ll see that the system is CONSTANTLY creating shifting opportunities for Humanity gain or loss – even mid-“combat” as unit of situation morphs into unit of situation.

Another point of confusion is the role of “helper” rolls. These can also feel like task resolution because they don’t really resolve anything at all. An example of the helper roll is the book where the character with Martial Artist Cover rolls that and then rolls over any victories to his primary Stamina roll. Another example might be rolling Lore against the Power of a demon to discover a weakness.

The reason these aren’t task resolution is because they only make sense in the context of an actual conflict. A character can only ask if his Martial Artist Cover is relevant if something else is at hand to be relevant about. Same goes for looking for the demon weakness. These rolls are a STEP in the conflict resolution procedures. They are not the resolution themselves.

I think people have difficulty figuring out when to use helper rolls. The purpose of these helper rolls is to eliminate GM Fiat when the answer to obviously relevant questions would VASTLY alter the nature of the situation. Think back to your GMing history and remember all the times a player would ask something that would require a judgment call on the part of the GM. I know these situations always made me uncomfortable because I knew my answer would greatly sway the momentum of the situation. I think some people who have been GMing for a long time have learned to shoot past that unease and make a snap judgment. I never did and now the Sorcerer rules mean I don’t have to.

Consider the situation where the player asks, “Hey, given all my knowledge of Sorcery do I know anything USEFUL about this demon?” That’s a damn good question and even if I made a judgment call we still wouldn’t know just how useful it is. The rules give us both. Roll Lore vs. Power. Roll the victories over to an action relevant to whatever it is it turns out you know. This is the idea behind the Past rules in Sorcerer & Sword. “Hey, I used to be the captain of the guard can I round up a few guys to go storm the castle?” Again, that’s a damn good question, make that Past roll. No fiat required.

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.