Passionate Game Design


Dirty Secrets of the Mad City

For a while now I’ve wanted to play Dirty Secrets set in the Mad City from Don’t Rest Your Head. I’ve finally nailed down the ruleset application I’d use. My goal whenever I create a “hack” is to use as much of the existing rule set as possible. So what I’ve done here is try and figure out what Nightmares and Madness “mean” in a Dirty Secrets game. Enjoy.


The Mad City is a dream like version of Your Home Town, Every Time and No Time.

Violence serves the role of Exhaustion (with one exception) in Don’t Rest Your Head. The Violence rules are otherwise unchanged.

The Corrupt Investigator rules are always in play for reasons you’ll see in a minute.

Madness Die: In addition to the Red Violence Die used in Investigation Scenes, use a Blue Madness Die in similar fashion (i.e. one public, one for the investigator, one for the authority).

Unlike Violence, Madness may always be distributed.

For each point of Madness delivered to a character the assigner may do one of the following:
Apply the Mistaken Identity rules without using up a Character card.
Apply the Alias rules without using up a Character Card.
Change one demographic on the Character Card.
Run the Revelation Scene rules with that character fixed as one of the two people involved in the relationship. In this case the decisions normally made by the Investigator are made by the winner of the conflict that generated the madness, and the decisions normally made by the Authority are made by the loser.

Yes, all of the above applies to the Investigator.

Just to be clear, there is no new special “Madness Scene” similar to “Violence Scenes” (See the Nightmare rules instead).

The Madness Die is NOT used in the Finale. The Investigator needs some stability in the climax.

Nightmares: Every Crime generates a Nightmare. Whoever declares a Crime should also declare a Nightmare spawned from that Crime. During Setup the Investigator declares the Nightmare spawned from the Crime.

Nightmares may be used as the basis for a Violence scene or “show up” as the basis for converting an Investigation scene into a Violence scene (under the normal Pushing rules). When this happens their Special Ability is in play.

When a Nightmare is created it should be given one of the following Special Abilities.

Generates Violence (This means that when used as the basis for a Violence Scene it generates Violence as per the normal rules)
Generates Madness (Instead of generating Violence the scene generates Madness instead)
Generates Exhaustion (Instead of generating Violence or Madness the Nightmare causes Dice Loss as if this were an Investigation Scene)

When a Nightmare is used as the basis for a Violence Scene the Witness does NOT move at the end of the conflict.

A Nightmare can be included in a Revelation Scene (even on the random side of a Madness generated one).

A Nightmare can not be written down on the Crime Grid.

A Nightmare can not receive Madness at all.

A Nightmare can not be the victim of a Crime.

A Nightmare can not be included in an Alias or Mistaken Identity.

A Nightmare can not receive three points of Violence in a conflict until the Crime that spawned it has been resolved.

Just to be clear, a Nightmare can not be killed or otherwise destroyed until the Crime that spawned it has been resolved.


My main point of curiosity is whether the resulting narrative can maintain any kind of thematic coherency. Or if it’s just going to turn into one crazy mess.

Jonathan Walton On The Extraordinarily Horrible Children of Raven’s Hollow

Jonathan Walton, the originator of the Murderland contest, has kind words to say about The Extraordinarily Horrible Children of Raven’s Hollow.  Thank you Jonathan!

“Premise: Players take on the roles of children, adults, and ravens in a Edward Gory picture book. The children dare each other to do things that are potentially deadly for either the child attempting it or the adult it’s attempted on. Dice are rolled and gradually move around the table between various children and the pools representing the adults and ravens (who intervene in these proceedings). The endgame is triggered when only one child is left alive.

“Thoughts: Brilliantly conceived and executed. While the dice mechanic most likely needs to be playtested thoroughly, to ensure that the endgame doesn’t come too soon or too late and that there’s a nice amount of give and take, the rules are simple, direct, and very clear. The only thing lacking — in my mind — is more formal descriptive guidelines, since the Gory tone seems as important as having children die in horrible accidents (which might not otherwise be amusing). More closely limiting players to storybook phrasings, very short, terse phrases (“So Saul placed his head in the alligator’s mouth”), seems like it would be more effective than the florid descriptive passages Jesse recommends. Honestly, I feel like the visual details of the Gory-esque landscape might be best left to the imagination. Still, that’s more of a personal preference than a problem with the game. However the events of play are described, I can’t wait to play this one.

“Conclusion: Baked.”

Mechanics Flowing In The Wrong Direction

Last night we played the first session of Silent Sound. It went well in terms of the fiction and in terms of productive play testing. It didn’t go so well in terms of the mechanics doing their intended job. Such is the perils of trying to move a game from Alpha through Play-testing.

First off I made a GM blunder in terms of starting the game off. Part of the intention of the design is to get the characters to interact with reflections not only of their own crimes but of the other character’s crimes as all. The idea is to get a cross pollination of behavior across the characters. I think my situation setup is fine in creating an interlocking web of characters that have overlap between elements of the character’s crimes.

The problem is, that in order to foster a creepier or more subtle tone I started off two of the characters encountering material relevant to their Memory rather than their Lures. It turns out that Memory and Lure do NOT carry equal resonating weight with the players. It was suggested that I reverse my thinking. My attempt at “subtle” instead turned into the players feeling a little lost and disoriented. I should hit the players immediately with stuff relevant to their Lure and their own crimes and then introduce elements form their Memory to draw them into the cross pollination. Fortunately, I think situation I created is fine for that I just have to use it differently. As I put it last night, “The instrument isn’t broken; I just have to play different notes.”

The mechanics on the other hand are not working as intended at all. They aren’t driving the fiction forward in any way. If anything they’re grinding it to a halt. Colin felt the mechanics actively support turtle-ing. I’m not sure I agree fully with that but what I did observe was that the players were very eager to engage certain aspects of the mechanics much earlier than were “necessary.” Engaging with those mechanics carry a risk and thus the players felt they were being punished for engaging in something they thought was cool.

In particular I’m referring to the Flashback mechanic. In the game you can frame Flashback scenes to situations involving your crime. Mechanically this allows you to increase your base stats. What you’re risking is an increase to your Shadow score which is bad for you come endgame. The intended dynamic was that the GM would hammer the players with opposition which decreases their base stats thus *forcing* them into Flashbacks to recover.

Here’s the thing, doing that would take probably six or seven scenes and the players, fictionally, wanted to introduce flashbacks much, much sooner. Hence they seemed like a punishment because now they were risking Shadow for no reason other than introducing cool content. I have to think about this because I like the idea of a reflective “refresh” but if that’s the case then stats need to go “down” much, much faster or I have to decouple Flashbacks from “healing.”

Possible Solution: Instead of being fixed numbers, players spend their base stats like a resource.

With regards to the GM providing opposition the system has a serious problem here. There are two scores called Town Influence and Guilt. These two scores specify the base number of dice the GM rolls in a conflict. These numbers go up and down based on conflict outcomes. From day one of my design I saw the problem of the game becoming a death spiral for the GM so I added this mechanic called the Shadow Pool. The Shadow Pool is basically a resource the GM spends to add dice to his pool.

I’ve NEVER liked the Shadow Pool. First of all, it’s always been a tacked on hack to prevent the death spiral. Second of all, I’ve never really known how large to initially set it or a good way to refresh it. If I could, I’d get rid of it and last night it became apparent that I HAVE to get rid of it.

Here’s the thing, it is providing one thing that isn’t just about the death spiral hack. I like to be able to lend “emotional weight” to my die rolls. The limited resource allows me to demonstrate how much something is “worth” to me mechanically. Even if I fix the death spiral problem I’m not really sure I’d be satisfied with a static number that I had no way to influence.

Possible Solution: The GM can just add dice to his pool, but has to give the opposing player Judgment on a 1-to-1 basis. Judgment is currently a resource players can spend to influence the outcome of other player’s characters.

Another observation is that the endgame is WAY too compelling. The game has epilogue constraints based on the outcome of the final conflict die roll. I don’t mind glancing at the state of the mechanics to decide when to shift tone or direction or how to play your next scene to setup something else. But the players were looking at the system in a way that looked like eight or nine moves ahead like a chess match and that’s getting too “gamey” for my tastes. I want mechanical choices to be about the state of the fiction and what the player wants to express in the short term.

This is largely because the system as currently formulated is a giant machine which is clearly too complex. In fact, I’m pretty sure it computes logarithms as a side effect of play. I need to reformulate the machine so that (a) the long term effects are still present and visible but are a back burner concern and (b) the immediate short term decisions are more interesting.

Part of the problem is that there are a lot of levers that I deliberately put in the player’s hands because as GM I wanted to focus on playing the components of the town and not have to worry about certain pacing concerns. The problem is that these levers when pulled set off a series of gears that have layered consequences. It was my intention that the levers were to be pulled based on the immediate emotional desires of the players and that the machine would happily do its job unregarded. Turns out this is a little bit like me placing the lever of a guillotine into someone’s hand and saying, “Pull this when you fall in love.” Their rather natural response is, “But it will cut my head off.” And me saying, “Never mind that, just pull it when you fall in love” probably isn’t going to cut it.

There are NUMEROUS examples of this through out the system and is probably the biggest design flaw. The largest is the way Shadow works. You don’t want Shadow because it reflects on your character badly in the endgame. There are two ways to gain Shadow and both are entirely voluntary. The first is the Flashback mechanic I described earlier. The second way is by taking on Shadow to earn bonus dice on conflicts while in the Shadow world.

This is where Colin’s “turtle-ing” comment is probably most appropriate. I assumed that the conflicts at hand would eventually take on such importance to the players that doing these voluntary things would become worth it. Turns out they don’t. Or at least don’t fast enough (again see my problems with pacing and opposition above).

Possible Solution: I have been considering swapping the labels of the GM stat Guilt and the player stat Shadow for some time because that more accurately reflects their function. I mentioned this and it was suggested that rather than having Shadow thrust upon the player through opposition (which was the intent) make Guilt something the player starts with and has to proactively “burn off.” I like this idea.

It goes along with that discussion in the first thread about whether or not fictionally it’s important for the characters to feel guilty about their own crimes. I realize that I setup the whole Shadow mechanic with the assumption that the character’s had largely forgotten about their crimes and now Silent Sound has shown up to “remind” them by thrusting it in their face.

Oddly, I think this comes from me misinterpreting my source material, the video game Silent Hill 2. In the game James’s crime is a reveal that happens about 3/4th of the way through the story. For some reason I had gotten it into my head that James is in denial about his crime. That effectively he blocked out what he did and the ordeal of Silent Hill draws it out of him.

But that’s not right. I’m mistaking the audience experience of not being fully in the know regarding James’s motives with James himself not being in the know about his motives. I’m further mistaking his eventual admission with remembrance. On reflection it’s clear that James’s guilt is driving him the whole time. I think that confusion comes from the weird identity confusion that can happen in third person video games. If I don’t know something James must not know something because I am James, right?

In any event, I include that as a note to other designers basing games on the thematics of established source material. Make sure you really understand the thematics of your source material.

The group is taking a two week hiatus to give me time to think all of this over and retool the system and then we’re going to take another stab at it.

Silent Sound Playtest #1: Character Creation

So I finally got over my terror and pulled together some people to play test my game Silent Sound. The game is inspired by much of the color and thematics of the Silent Hill video game series and in particular the storyline of Silent Hill 2. However, while the video game is largely about exploration, surviving monsters and solving puzzles, my game is about addressing guilt. That’s much more fun.

Basically, the PCs are characters who have all committed a moral crime (which may or may not also be illegal). Silent Sound is a supernatural place of judgment that has lured the PCs there to face their crimes. The game is about whether or not these characters come to terms with their crimes through the metaphor of whether or not the town metaphorically devours them.

Last night we did character generation and it went very, very well. The players I have assembled are Christopher Kubasik (CK!), Eric and Colin. The first step of character creation is picking a Theme for the character’s crimes. These guys don’t pull their punches and went with: Kids. From that CK created a man who lost his son while he wasn’t playing attention. Eric created a school teacher who when he was a kid took one of friends out into the woods and then left him there, never to come home. Colin created a priest who broke his vow of celibacy and then abandoned the child that came from that.

The next step of character creation is for the players to create Memory of a time when they visited Silent Sound before and Lure which is something that has happened and compels them to come to Silent Sound right now. Both of these must imply a character who is effectively a player created NPC for the GM to play with. CK’s Memory was of playing in the sand with his son and his Lure was a letter from someone in Silent Sound claiming they have his son. Eric’s Memory was of his first kiss at the Silent Sound carnival and his Lure was that the brother of the kid he abandoned in the woods and who has been looking for him most his life thinks he may be in Silent Sound. Colin’s Memory was of fishing on the lake with his dad, and his Lure was that the mother of the child Colin abandoned has called asking to meet him in Silent Sound.

The final step of character creation involves discussing The Shadow. Silent Sound exists on two planes of existence. The normal world which may be odd or weird but not overtly supernatural and The Shadow Plane which is can be a full on nightmare. The mechanics of the game involve the characters shifting back and forth between these planes. During character creation a Look & Feel for this shadow plan is decided upon. The group went with: Rundown Coney Island-esq Amusement Park.

From that the players take the NPCs they’ve created and describe how they appear in the Shadow Plane. CK’s son appears normal except with a broken jaw, and the mysterious man who sent the letter appears as a clown. Eric’s first love appears as a doll, like you’d win at a carnival game, and the brother he’s catching up with appears as a security guard for the amusement park. Colin’s father is a carnival barker and the mother of his child is a lion tamer.

I’m very pleased with how it all went and Colin said it best: “Before I was interested in the game, and now I’m *excited* about the game.” And so am I.

Points of Consideration

One of the questions I asked was, “Do you think your character feels guilty for what he did and do you think that’s important.” There was a unanimous “YES!” heard round the table. Everyone thought it was super important not only for their character to feel guilty but that the Lure directly scratches the “itch” of that guilt. This was very interesting to me as I had intended the game to be neutral on whether or not the character felt guilt.

Last night I couldn’t quite properly articulate why but today I have clearer thoughts. First of all there’s a mechanic in the game called Judgment. Judgment is a resource pool that can be spent on *either* side of a conflict your character is NOT involved in. I’m curious with such sympathetic characters if Judgment is will ever be played against one another. I obviously won’t know until play.

Second, what the three guys created last night was three characters struggling to come to terms with what they did. I had originally intended to support a second kind of character who believed there was nothing wrong with what he did but Silent Sound has a different opinion. Such a story would be a character struggling to *defend* what he did. A character who stands up and says, “Fuck you, Silent Sound, I don’t give a shit what you say there’s nothing wrong with what I did!”

Question: Is that second idea workable?

That second character (theoretical) character concept dovetails with my second thought. The players were really excited about these characters and so am I but as I was driving home something was gnawing at me. Something seemed “off” about the characters and finally realized what it was.

In all my thinking about the game it has always been about character’s who have a crime in the past *that they have no way of ever dealing with in an external manner.* It’s over and done, with no hope of ever going back. But that’s NOT what I have with these characters. With these characters people *directly* related and involved in the original crime are still present and active in the situation.

This is an issue because I’m not 100% sure my situation creation process as formulated supports that. The basis of my situation creation system is predicated on the idea that the situations are *reflections* of the character’s crimes without actually *being* the character’s crimes. Essentially the game as originally formulated was about people confronting their crimes over and over and over again from an objective and ultimately *outsider* perspective.

That’s where that second character type above comes from. Silent Sound constantly confronting the character with situations similar to their crime and forcing them evaluate, “Would you do the same thing in this context? How about this one? How about that over there? What about NOW? Would you? Would you? Would you?!”

Now what the players did was so easy and natural and exciting I WANT to support it. In fact I’m pretty sure what they did was BETTER than my original idea. I’ve never been happy with my situation process and I think perhaps that’s because I knew this was going. In fact even BEFORE things started I knew CK in particular was probably going to do something I hadn’t anticipated because of his passion for creating these uber-focused characters. Notice: Crime: Missing Son. Memory: Missing Son. Lure: Missing Son.

Here’s the basis for my situation creation. Right now the GM is expected to create two NPCs from each of the player’s crimes. The names are dumb but I call one The Rejecter and one the Perpetuator. The Perpetuator is victimizing someone because they are committing a crime similar to that of the PC. The Rejecter is someone who is victimizing someone because they are *not* committing a crime similar to that of the PC.

So each PC has 4 NPCs associated with them. You basically then take the Perpetuator and the Rejecter and have them victimizing one of the 4 NPCs associated with a different character. Next you create a stressor which is someone or something that is putting pressure on that victimization. This yields essentially two micro-situations per PC that are reflective of their crimes. At this point you combine and collapse any of these characters. The only rule is that the original Memory and Lure characters must remain distinct but they may be combined with Perpetuators, Rejecters or Stressors.

Finally, you transform the whole thing into the The Shadow like you did with the two Memory or Lure characters during character creation. In particular at this stage Stressors become Monsters, truly horrible demonic things that are making things really bad for the situation.

I’m going to more or less stick to this process for now and see where it takes me with these characters. But all this was created with the idea that the players would be facing only *reflections* of their crimes, not actually engaging elements from their crimes.

Another thing I noticed was that the players were leaning towards making pretty much their own Monsters during character creation, the clown, the security guard, at one point Colin proposed having his father be a huge spider like thing which I clamped down on because of the Stressor to Monster mechanic during situation creation. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that instead, simply noting the fact that the players have handed me monsters and that I should simply endeavor to reverse engineer them into Stressors in the normal town.

Fight Sphere: Futuristic Gladiatorial Combat

Fight Sphere

The Role-Playing Game of Futuristic Gladiatorial Combat

The Sphere is the size of a large city. Those who walk within its layers do so with the aid of a strong artificial gravity field. From its surface can be seen an eternal night sky above and below it a flat never ending desert. No one knows where the Sphere is. No one knows who built it. No one knows why it exists. No one knows how they got there.

Every inhabitant of the sphere was plucked from their former lives and woke up here. Some survive, some die. No one leaves. On the sphere there is no government and there are no rules. A select few are different. These few wake up with a weapon beside them and a digital display device embedded in their left hand. The device constantly cycles a sequence of names and faces. The sequence ends with a simple phrase, “Kill or Be Killed…” These few are called “Gladiators.” No one is really sure what happens to the last one standing, maybe you’ll find out.


This is a game about playing Gladiators, people plucked from their former lives and forced to kill each other for an unknown prize. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. A lot more people than the Gladiators have been snatched from their former lives and forced to live on The Sphere. These people have formed their own gangs, tribes, governments and other communities and come with all the complications of everyday human life.

One of the design goals of Fight Sphere is to focus the game on the Gladiators’ interactions with these communities. The more the characters engage with the situations and conflicts found among these people the greater their chances of surviving Gladiatorial Encounters.

The primary influences on this game are the films Series 7, Cube and Escape From New York. Episodic television series such as The Fugitive and The Hulk are also major influences. The mechanics borrow heavily from the games The Pool, Trollbabe, My Life With Master and The Farm.

Character Creation

At the start of the game each player makes up two (or more, for longer games) Gladiators. One Gladiator will be the player’s own character. The other(s) will become NPCs. Regardless they are created the exact same way and it is recommended that the player make the characters first and then pick which one they prefer to play.

Note: There are some mechanical concepts referenced here that will not be explained until later. Your patience and cross-referencing skills are appreciated.

Who Was I?

The first thing to decide is who your character was before they were brought to The Sphere. Gladiators come from all walks of life. There’s nothing more frightening that a school teacher with a machine gun. Players should write up a 50 to 100 word summary of the character’s back story.

Whenever a detail from the character’s back story is relevant to a conflict the player gains a single bonus die for that roll.

Death wish or Reason To Live

Next the player should choose either a Death wish or a Reason To Live. A Death wish is some element of the character that drives them towards death. A character may have had his whole family die in a car accident or been diagnosed with cancer before being brought to The Sphere. Conversely, a Reason to Live is something that propels the character towards life. The character may have just found out his wife was pregnant or he may be driven to find out who’s behind The Sphere.

Gladiators opposing a character with a Death wish add a number of dice equal to the number of Relationships the Death wish character has to their Conflict Pool at the start of a Gladiatorial Encounter. However, all of the character’s Relationships are rated one die higher than their actual value.

Characters with a Reason To Live add a number of dice equal to the number of

Relationships they have to their Conflict Pool at the start of a Gladiatorial Encounter. However, all the character’s Relationships are rated one die less than their actual value.

Once per game (the whole run of play), a character may trade a Death wish for a Reason to Live or vice versa. This switch should be rooted in in-game events. The switch can not happen during an Episode.


Every character wakes up in The Sphere with a weapon nearby. The player should define what weapon the character found near them.

This has no mechanical effect whatsoever but a lot can be said about a character from the weapon chosen for them.

Conflict Pool

Each character starts out with a Conflict Pool value of 5.

Game Structure

The Sphere is constructed like an onion with many inner Layers that ultimately end up in The Core. Each character engages in one Episode (adventure, scenario, whatever) per Layer. There may be multiple simultaneous Episodes running on each

Layer depending on whether the PCs choose to be in the same Episodes or not (see below). There must always be at least two Gladiators in an episode, even if one of them is an NPC.

Each player takes turns in a round-robin fashion. On his turn a player may frame their character into a Scene or have the GM frame their character into a Scene. Within the Scene their must be a Conflict. The Scene ends when the Conflict is resolved.

An Episode ends when there is only one Gladiator left standing. Note: PCs are guaranteed to reach The Core. If they are defeated on an earlier Layer they are “left for dead” or “fall through the ground into the darkness” or otherwise exit the Episode and recover in the next Episode on the next Layer. NPC Gladiators are always considered dead when they are defeated.

The game progresses through Episodes and Layers until all NPC Gladiators are dead. The next Episode is the last Episode and takes place at The Sphere’s Core. This is just one single Episode and all the PCs must be present within it. Player character defeats are considered permanent at The Core and the game ends when there is only one player character left standing.

Episodes & Layers

At the start of each Layer (the first being the surface of the sphere) the players should decide if their characters are going to be in Episodes with each other or not. There must be at least two Gladiators in each Episode, so the GM should fill out any gaps with an NPC Gladiator. If there are no NPC Gladiators then the players need to collapse their episodes together until there are no more lone Gladiators. The GM is free to insert as many NPC Gladiators (from those available) as he likes but does not have to use all of them.


Alice, Bob, Cary, Danny, Elmer are all playing together. Alice and Cary decide their characters will share an Episode. Bob and Danny decide their characters will share an Episode. The GM picks an NPC Gladiator for Elmer’s Episode and decides to make things interesting and throws an NPC Gladiator into Alice and Carry’s Episode. Assuming this is the top of the game that leaves three unused NPC Gladiators who will not be appearing in any Episode on this Layer. The GM now needs to prep three Episodes that will be running concurrently on this Layer.


At the top of a much deeper Layer, Alice, Bob and Danny all decide to join an Episode together. Cary and Elmer each want an Episode to themselves but alas, there is only one NPC Gladiator left. Cary and Elmer can join together in their own Episode or one or both of them can join Alice, Bob and Danny in their Episode. The GM can assign the NPC Gladiator as he sees fit.

Scenes and Conflicts

Each player takes turns in a round-robin fashion. On their turn a player may frame his character into a Scene or have the GM frame his character into a Scene. Each scene should center around a Conflict. The Scene ends when the dice are rolled and the Conflict is resolved. Play then proceeds to the next player.

Conflict Resolution

Each Layer has a Threshold Value. This Threshold Value is the number of six-sided dice the GM rolls in opposition to the player. The object is to roll more ones with your die pool than the opposing side rolls. The Threshold Value starts at five at the surface and increases by one each time the characters descend to a new Layer. Each player rolls a minimum of one die.


. Background: If the Conflict is relevant to the character’s background before coming to The Sphere then a one die bonus is granted. “Relevant” can be anything from skill sets to emotional triggers.

. Gambling: The player may gamble (see Conflict Outcome) any number of dice from his Conflict Pool and add them to the roll.

. Relationships: By spending a die from the character’s Conflict Pool the player may bring in an NPC they have formed a Relationship with. The player must narrate how the character is involved in the conflict (even as an enemy, if necessary). The player may then add a number of dice equal to the Relationship’s value to his roll.

Conflict Outcome

Regardless of Success or Failure the Scene should be role-played to a satisfactory conclusion based on the Conflict outcome. Narrated details should clearly express the consequences of the success or failure as this is good material for setting up subsequent scenes.


If the character succeeds the player may do ONE of the following:

. Add one die to the character’s Conflict Pool.

. Create a Relationship with an NPC involved in the Scene. The Relationship starts at a value of two if the character has a Death wish, or zero if the character has a Reason To Live.

. Add one to an existing Relationship. The Relationship in question must have been present in the Scene but need not have been purchased as a modifier for the Conflict roll.


If the character fails the player must do ALL of the following.

. Dice Gambled from the Conflict Pool are lost.

. All Relationships used as modifiers can not be used again for a number of Conflicts equal to the Relationship’s value. These characters may appear in Scenes they just can not be used as modifiers. Also, while role-playing the end of the Scene something bad should happen to these NPCs as part of the consequences narrated.

In addition, when a character fails the GM should narrate a short cut-scene involving one of the surviving NPC Gladiators. This NPC need not be in the current Episode or any Episode at all. When doing so the GM may do one of the following for that NPC:

. Add one die to the NPC’s Conflict Pool.

. Create a Relationship between the NPC Gladiator and a non-gladiator NPC involved in the Scene. The Relationship starts at a value of two if the NPC Gladiator has a Death Wish, or zero if the NPC Gladiator has a Reason To Live.

. Add one to an existing Relationship. The Relationship in question should be part of the short cut-scene the GM narrates.

Alternatively, instead of narrating a cut-scene, the GM may opt to resume a

Gladiatorial Encounter that was previously Disengaged between the failing character and an NPC Gladiator. This happens the next time the failing player has a turn and the NPC Gladiator is considered to have the Initiative. The GM may NOT use this option to initiate a Gladiatorial Encounter, only resume one that had been broken off by Disengagement.


Relationships exist between Gladiators and Non-Gladiator NPCs. Gladiators can

not form relationships with each other. When a relationship is formed the GM continues to play the NPC as normal but should make an effort to include that NPC in subsequent Episodes that the Gladiator is involved in. However, when purchasing a Relationship to be used as a modifier for a Conflict the player has full control over what the NPC’s role is in the scene, although the GM role-plays the details.

Shared Relationships

It is legal for two or more Gladiators to have the same NPC as a Relationship.

The value of the Relationship is tracked separately for each Gladiator. However, during Gladiatorial Encounters (see below) it only requires one Gladiator to purchase a Relationship as a modifier for ALL the Gladiators to gain the modifiers from their Relationships with the same NPC.

Gladiatorial Encounters

Eventually, two or more Gladiators will meet in a Scene. When this happens the

Conflict must be between the Gladiators. The actual clash need not be physical but the fallout will always be devastating. Also, all Gladiators recognize each other on sight. Attempts to hide or disguise oneself simply fail (although attempts to do so might add some interesting color to the setup of a Gladiatorial Encounter).

Starting a Gladiatorial Encounter

To start a Gladiatorial Encounter a player must frame his character into a Scene with another Gladiator who is in the same Episode. Only players can do this. The GM can not frame Gladiatorial Encounters even for NPC Gladiators (see the conflict failure rules, for the one exception). For this reason players should know which NPC Gladiators (if any) are in the Episode with them at the start of the Episode.

Death wish and Reason to Live

The first time two Gladiators meet in an Episode the Death wish and Reason to

Live Conflict Pool bonuses should be given out appropriately. The opponents of a

Gladiator with a Death wish receive a Conflict Pool bonus equal to the number of

Relationships the character with the Death wish has. A character with a Reason to Live receives a Conflict Pool bonus equal to the number of Relationships that character has for each Gladiator in the encounter they have not previously met in this Episode.


The player who framed the Scene has the Initiative. What this means is they construct their Conflict Roll first. They declare how many dice (if any) they are gambling from their Conflict Pool and purchase any Relationship modifiers.

Then, in normal turn order, the other Gladiators construct their roll with one limitation. They can not gamble more dice from their Conflict Pool than the player with the Initiative did.


The Threshold Value is irrelevant for Gladiatorial Encounters. The winner is the Gladiator who rolled more ones than his opponent. The difference between the winner’s and loser’s number of ones is the number of Victories. The loser must do all of the following:

In addition to his Gamble the loser loses a number of dice equal to the number of Victories from his Conflict Pool. If this brings the Conflict Pool to less than zero then the losing Gladiator is dead. For NPC Gladiators this truly means deaths. For player characters this means they are out of the current Episode unless this is The Core Episode in which case they are dead.

Also, the loser must subtract from the value of the Relationships purchased as modifiers a total number of points equal to the number of Victories. This may be distributed across the Relationships used anyway the player wishes. If this brings the Relationship Value to less than zero, then that NPC dies, goes irrevocably insane or otherwise permanently removed from the game. If this NPC was shared those Gladiators lose this Relationship as well.


Alice loses to Bob who won with three victories. Alice loses three additional dice from her Conflict Pool. Alice also used two relationships as modifiers on her roll one at three and one at two. She could apply all three points to the two point Relationship and lose it or she could lose two points from the three point Relationship and one point from the two point Relationship, or any other distribution of three points across the two used Relationships.

Multiple Gladiators

Conflicts in a Gladiatorial Encounter are not targeted. All Gladiators are presumed to be working against each other. When there are more than two Gladiators in a Gladiatorial Encounter simply compare every possible pair of Gladiators and apply the above Resolution method.

Disengaging from a Gladiatorial Encounter

When a Gladiatorial Conflict is resolved the Scene ends as normal. However, the

Gladiatorial Encounter does not. Instead, the next time a player involved in a Gladiator Encounter has a turn he MUST frame a scene that continues that Gladiatorial Encounter although the time, location and any other details may be vastly different from the previous Scene. This, of course, means this player now has the Initiative for this Conflict.

However, a player may attempt to Disengage from a Gladiatorial Encounter by declaring that his Conflict is an attempt to Disengage. This happens after the player with the Initiative sets the gamble limit. If the roll succeeds (against EVERYONE if there are multiple Gladiators) then the character disengages from the Gladiatorial Encounter and play returns to normal for that player.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

It is possible for two Gladiators to declare a temporary truce. This option is

ONLY available if the Gladiators are not the only two gladiators in the Episode. Also the truce ends the moment they become the only two Gladiators in the Episode.

Two Gladiators who have a truce can share Scenes without it being a Gladiatorial

Encounter. However, the Conflict of the Scene can not be between them and they must each face their own separate Conflicts, even if one is a subset of the other. There is no way for two Gladiators to truly “team up” or “aid another” or “pool resources” or anything like that.

Also, two gladiators who have a truce do not need to compare their rolls in a Gladiatorial Encounter. However, truces are double edged swords. If a gladiator decides to betray a truce during a Gladiatorial Encounter (the player declares this after everyone is done constructing their conflict rolls) then that player gains a bonus to his Conflict Pool equal to the Threshold Value of the current Layer.

Death, Last Man Standing and the Judgment Pool

As mentioned, if a character dies in an Episode that is not The Core Episode they are simply knocked out of the Episode. They will recover in a new Episode on the next Layer. Their Conflict Pool will be equal to the Threshold Value of the new Layer.

On the other hand, the Episode also ends if the character is the Last Man Standing (the only Gladiator left in the Episode). That character proceeds to the next Episode and Layer with a Conflict Pool equal to its previous value plus the Threshold Value of the new Layer.

Players can not advance to a new Episode and Layer until ALL the players are done with their Episodes on that Layer. This means that characters can be out of the game for a while. However, this does not mean that the player is out of the game. Players whose characters can no longer participate in the game either through knock out, last man standing, or death in The Core receive a Judgment Pool of dice equal the Threshold Value of the current Layer plus the number of Relationships their character has.

Players with characters still active in Episodes can request that a player with a Judgment Pool frame a scene for them instead of the GM or themselves. Also, players with Judgment Pools may gamble dice from it in an attempt to sway any Conflict going on in the game. The consequences for this gamble are reversed from that of the normal Conflict Pool. The player only loses the dice from his Judgment Pool if the side he gambled on succeeds.

The Core

Once the last NPC Gladiator dies and everyone finishes out their current Episode the very next Episode is the final Episode and it takes place at The Sphere’s Core. This Episode plays out exactly like the previous Episodes with a few exceptions. First of all, there are no NPC Gladiators present because they are all dead by this point. Second, all the player characters must be present in the single unified Episode. Finally, player character death is permanent. The Episode (and the game) ends when there is only one surviving player character left.

What is its Purpose?

So, we’re down to the last player character, what happens? What do they win?

What was the meaning of it all? Actually, I don’t know. The player of the surviving character gets to decide. That player should narrate an epilogue that happens after the last Gladiatorial Encounter ends. This can be as short or as complex as that player likes. Whatever he decides, he should take a moment to consider the events of the game. A good epilogue is one that reflects on the contents of the game as whole.

GM Advice

The Sphere

To better visualize The Sphere think of an extremely high powered magnet that sucked together all the scrap and junk in the universe that was even remotely magnetic. Then dump a bunch of people on it who take all that scrap and start building tunnels and cities and colonies out of it. That’s the Sphere. You can also think Escape From New York meets M. C. Escher.

Who Lives There?

People wake up on The Sphere and not all of them are marked as Gladiators.

These people must survive in what ways they can. These people and their problems make up the meat of the GM’s prep work for each Episode. Here are some ideas:


Gangs are your basic group of thugs who have banded together for mutual protection and aggressive pillaging. All kinds of gangs exist on The Sphere.


Similar to gangs but these people have banded together over a common faith or ideology.

Media Hounds

A crude broadcasting system exists on The Sphere and some people are out to find the truth (or not) and disseminate it to the masses. And who knows, if you keep broadcasting maybe someone off The Sphere will pick it up.


Slightly bigger than gangs and (usually) less aggressive some people have opted to setup a small form of local government controlled by the usual array of tyrants and bureaucrats.

Native Sphere Tech

Occasionally, entities that appear to be native to The Sphere appear. They might be Robotic sweeper teams that wipe out a Micro-Nation for no apparent reason or floating devices that appear to be taking some kind of census. These robots, traps and other unintelligible devices appear to be under the control (or at least built) by whoever constructed The Sphere in the first place. They occur with much more frequency as you get closer to The Core.

Ask Only the Essential Questions

The Sphere is not a place designed to make sense. If you want a biker gang in your Episode you might find yourself asking, “But where does the gas come from?”

Don’t. Just don’t. From the above description of The Sphere one might very well ask, “Where does the food and water come from?” Don’t ask. Don’t tell.

Alternatively, you could make these kinds of questions central to an Episode. A biker gang invading a micro-nation because they’re running out of gasoline is a pretty good basis for an Episode. Ask only the questions that interest you.

The Core

Since ultimately The Sphere’s purpose is decided by the player of the surviving character it doesn’t do much good for a GM to nail down in advance what’s at the core or what the function of The Sphere Tech is. However, the GM might want to develop some vague notions and sprinkle pieces of those notions throughout the Episodes. Remember, that a good Epilogue is one that reflects on ALL of the game content including the GM’s contributions.

The World They Came From

It is worth noting that all of the inhabitants of The Sphere come from the same place. They are not gathered from around the universe or across dimensions or anything like that. The group should discuss what the world they came from was like. Was it already a futuristic place or was it more like our modern times?


The model here is early episodic television, like The Fugitive, or The Hulk, or even Star Trek. The idea is that there is an existing situation Out There that is rife with problematic human conflict. Then enters the main cast who quickly starts making judgment calls, taking sides and separating the wheat from the chaff. The GM’s job is to create those outstanding independent situations for each Episode and then give the Gladiators the room to start getting involved.

Something to keep in mind is that everyone who lives on The Sphere knows about the Gladiators and can recognize one on sight. People know that Gladiators bring death and destruction and some even view them them as a kind of “chosen one.” More than likely people will try and want to get the Gladiator’s involved in their problems and be that asking for special aid or trying to manipulate them to nefarious ends.

A Final Word On Engaging Situations

The initial setup leaves each Gladiator alone and without any established ties. The only apparent concern is surviving and eliminating the other Gladiators. Initially, it may be a little difficult to see why we should care about the Gladiators as characters or indeed why the Gladiators should care about anything other than their immediate survival.

The idea is to re-construct the Gladiator’s personal value system from the ground up during play. Players should decide what their Gladiator values and apply those values to the Episodic situations provided by the GM. Consider Snake from the film Escape From New York. In the beginning he only cares about getting the poison out of his system by finding the president and getting out. However, as soon as he comes into contact with the locals he starts making judgments and taking sides. Although, he ultimately succeeds in his original goal, he manages to get everyone he cares about killed in the process. Maybe you can do better.

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.