An Intense Review: Sorcerer
I cover my face with my hands. I am agonizing over a choice: my wife, or my art? My commitments, or what I want? Her life, or my desire? My heart is beating. Literally nothing is more important than what you want out of a situation.
I am playing Sorcerer.
I played eight or ten sessions of Sorcerer a couple months ago. I struggled to write this review until I had some distance from the game. Playing Sorcerer is a matter of having an intense character embroiled in an unstable situation, and finding out what happens. What does my character really want? What is he willing to exchange for his desires? Getting a little breathing room from the pressure-cooker that is Sorcerer was necessary for me to be able to process my experience.
Some History And Very Rigorous Science
Sorcerer is a notable game for a number of reasons, which mostly no one cares about. The designer Ron Edwards has said that while making the game he didn’t think there were very many people out there interested in this kind of roleplaying, in this Story Now. Turns out he was wrong, as Sorcerer is not just an influential game but also a seminal product, one of the earliest showing that subset of gamer who also likes to design that yes, they can make their game, publish it on their own terms, and get paid (at least a little, and sometimes a lot).
That’s how Sorcerer was published: first on the web, then in a book, by one dude. There was no dealing with game publishers or the traditional distribution system; the Creator works for/sells the game to the Publisher who sells it to the Distributor who sells it to the Stores who sell it to Customers. In this case, it’s Creator to Customer (or Creator to Store to Customer), bam! Everyone’s happy.
When I say “mostly no one cares about” the reasons Sorcerer is notable, I’m talking about all that self-publishing and -distributing talk up there. It’s a huge deal to self-publishing RPG designers and a big influence on the arc of design over the last ten years or more! But it doesn’t matter that much to your average person who plays games.
What should matter to them (obviously I’m not “them”, and as such give a shit about how Sorcerer changed the publishing game) is that Sorcerer is also notable for its design, which is to say that it’s also notable for how it works as a game, which is to say, of course: play it. It won the only U.S. tabletop game award that really matters, the Diana Jones Award. It brought Story Now to the table in a real way. That’s us making Story Now, as we play, rather than a GM preparing a Story Before or us looking back on the confusing mess of play and concocting a comprehensible Story After.
It was published in its final book form in 2001, eleven years ago, and despite the internet-speed of life in 2012, Sorcerer hasn’t been “surpassed” or “done better” by those who took lessons from it, design-wise or publishing-wise. It’s its own thing, just as worth engaging with now as it was then.
And though the (experienced) pace of your life has been changed by the internet, gravity remains the same. Have you ever thought about how the very air is pushing down on your head? How the height of your jump is truncated by the Earth pulling you back to itself? Has it ever seemed like zero gravity is the natural state of things, freer and more pure? You probably feel a little heavier now. Perhaps your head has slightly bowed, unconsciously feeling the weight of all that atmosphere sitting on top of it. The truth is, zero gravity is the natural state of things, but without that mathematically verifiable system of the attraction between two bodies, without atmospheric pressure, we wouldn’t have the sport of basketball.
Or dice rolls.
Sorcerer exerts a particular kind of pressure on you, such that if you give it any thought at all you realize you have been living in zero-grav up to this point, and Jesus isn’t the air heavy? This begins as you make your character, and continues throughout. You have the basic elements of character creation: Lore, Will, Stamina, Cover, Humanity, with numbers of dice that you’ll roll when using them (the most important of these is Humanity, which I’ll come back to). You pick preset Descriptors for your Lore, Will, and Stamina scores to tell us what these things mean. A Stamina Descriptor might be Athletic Regime or Chemically Heightened while a Lore Descriptor might be Apprentice or Coven Member.
Creating your Cover further solidifies our sense of who your character is: what does your sorcerer do in the workaday world? You don’t walk around telling people you’re a sorcerer. This back story is then organized visually, with characters and places and stuff spaced out on the character sheet according to how they’re related in the fiction you’re making up, and how they’re related thematically to your character: Are they a part of your Cover, your daily life and job? Your Price, a drawback related to your sorcery? Your Lore, that sorcerous knowledge and practice itself?
Or your Kicker, the place where the pressure really starts to squeeze? The Kicker is that unstable situation I mentioned a while back, that thing that puts your character into motion and makes her a character. By the time you write your Kicker you have a pretty good sense of the tone of the game, the feel of the world, ancillary characters, the other player’s sorcerers, and your sorcerer’s life. Which you need, because writing the Kicker spraypaints all over the wall of that life, or smashes its mirror, or scatters wild seeds into its well-manicured garden. My character, a married, successful graphic designer with a foot in the door of the more authentic local art scene, had this rather straightforward Kicker: “I just found out I have a teenage daughter.” There goes that tidy little life.
Demons & Desires
Things will never be what they were in that back story, and you shouldn’t try to make it that way, because it won’t work. That can be surprisingly hard to forget in play, when you’re trying to field the difficult decisions; “I just want my guy to have some breathing room!” Nope. It shouldn’t be difficult to forget that life has irrevocably changed for your character, though, because this other big thing about Sorcerer is that, hey, your character has a Demon that they’ve summoned into existence. Which is what makes ‘em a sorcerer, don’tcha know? When I say your sorcerer has a Demon, I mean has and not “hangs around with” or “partners with.” It’s a specific kind of symbiotic, fucked-up relationship: you have your Demon, and it has you.
And it also has cool powers and stuff that you get to pick, and it has a Desire and a Need. My character’s Demon had Desire: Competition and Need: To Inflict Pain on Humans. Can you guess whose responsibility it is to keep their Demon’s Desire and Need sated? I’ll bet you can! Oh, is that putting a little more pressure on you? Are you starting to feel a bit stressed? I’m sorry! That’s just what big boys and girls have to deal with when they summon a fucking Demon into existence.
If the question “How far will you go to get what you want?” gets us on the road to understanding Sorcerer, and the Demons move us down the path a ways, the concept of Humanity in Sorcerer gets us the rest of the way, or as far as you can go.
Humanity is, in its most basic form, an ability attached to a number of dice that you risk losing when you do bad stuff. Like, I don’t know, helping your Demon to get its Desire and Need met so it’ll do what you tell it to when you tell it to. If you ever reach zero (0) Humanity, that character is almost certainly over–dead, mad, out of your control, somehow. You can gain Humanity by doing things that confirm you as a decent human being, but that’s hard to do with powerful desires and the infernal power to get what you want.
Humanity can be a little more complex if you want to define it more strictly, to produce a different focus and tone in the game. Humanity = Love is an obvious (but not bad) choice. In the game we played we set out with Humanity as Authenticity, and the setting we made up was a pseudo-Venice Beach, drifters and artists down by the sea. Are you a real artist? Are you a real [anything]? As we played, it was extremely difficult to keep Humanity within the scope, and it drifted back to the default concept of moral humanity. That didn’t hurt the game, per se, but it did mean we didn’t come out of it with a story about authenticity, which is what we were aiming for when we went in.
When To Roll The Dice
If our game wasn’t about authenticity, it was certainly about struggle, and that all-encompassing pressure I keep going on about. The game does this through the fact that the main resolution system deals only in opposition (by “resolution system” I mean “how the game reads and reacts to player input”).
If I’m doing something that another character (player character or GM character) wants to stop, or change, or interfere with, we go to the dice. If the other characters don’t have a problem with what I’m doing, it happens and we don’t go to the dice.
There was one session when I nearly didn’t roll dice for my character at all. I think I only rolled one time. It was frightening once I understood the implications of the resolution rules and realized why. It was because everything I was doing was playing right into the hands of my Demon and other characters who may oppose me: what I wanted was what they wanted, which could not be good. I wasn’t pushing hard enough for what my character was after, or my character didn’t care enough about things to be after anything in an intense way. It was the latter, which proved problematic for me in this game. More on that later.
To review: when I want to do something, and someone’s opposing me, we pick up the dice. Which dice we pick up depends on how I’m doing it: Lore (sorcerous knowledge/ritual), Stamina (physicality), Will (social interaction), Cover (my character’s face to the “real world”–If I’m a married art director, Cover encompasses all of those things related to my professional/personal life). Myself and my opposition roll. Whoever has the highest single die wins, with dice over your opponent’s highest rolled into the next conflict. If I win by, say, 3 dice, I can then roll three extra dice in a conflict that leads directly from the conflict I just won. You’re rewarded for taking your victory and pushing harder off of that victory for what you want.
Yeah, He Just Says It Better
I’m going to let Jesse Burneko, the GM of the game I played in and by all accounts (mine included) a Sorcerer master GM, elucidate further what rolls mean in Sorcerer:
So, Sorcerer is all about “What do you want, right here, in this moment.” It takes a pretty hard line on the “Now” in Story Now. What’s resolved is whether or not you get that one thing via your current tactic.
Rolling in Sorcerer is about winning the upper hand, moment-to-moment. If you can take those victories and keep pushing, you’re in a good spot. Conversely, when someone wins against you and keeps pushing, you feel cornered, pressured. It’s hard to climb out. This is often where getting your Demon to do your dirty work for you helps, as they’re a lot more effective at getting you what you want. You have no magic. The only thing that makes you a sorcerer is that you can call up and command Demons. Of course, they have their own motivations, desires, and needs, and that help comes with strings very much attached. More Jesse:
When you see [how the resolution system works] clearly, it becomes almost uncomfortably obvious how much the game rewards raw aggression. I’ve often described Sorcerer as being very martial arts-like. Caution and defensiveness are a sure way to get you fucked up, and well-timed, confident, and coordinated strikes are the path to victory.
Take the scene with [player character] Gunther in the Auger Group conference room. For most of the scene Gunther was espousing lots of heart felt rage and philosophy but it wasn’t until he pointed at the hard drive and said, “Give me back my fucking life”, did he actually DO anything. It’s those discrete moments of directed action that the mechanics are there to resolve.
That’s what I mean when I say struggle. What did I say in the first paragraph? Literally nothing is more important than what you want out of a situation. That’s a phrase directly from the book, and nowhere does it hold its water more than when engaging the conflict system. It’s not just the heart of the game but the game itself, really.
There’s also a complex conflict system, so five characters can be all going for various things at once and getting in each others’ way, but ultimately describing that in detail isn’t important here. It’s enough to say that the complex conflict stuff handles many characters in conflict moment-to-moment very elegantly. It’s also possible that I didn’t internalize that part of the system as well, playing as I was on a virtual tabletop over G+ Hangouts. It was harder to understand what the dice were doing in complex situations when I couldn’t see them hitting a table, especially when my virtual tabletop stopped recording the dice rolls.
Wanna Hear A Story?
Enough game crap (note: not actually crap)! This is the part where your limbs start to twitch and you can feel the energy being sucked from your soul through your face and you say “Uh Huh-Uh Huh-Uh Huh” interspersed with an “mmm” or two whilst inside your skull your mind searches for a way to escape because let me tell you about my character.
My character is Kelly Brandon, a middle-aged male, successful, married art director at the auspiciously-named firm “The Augur Group”. Before play I described how he had been breaking into the local “real” art community through showings at a gallery. This, of course, was all helped along by Kennedy, his Demon. She’s a Passer, which means she walks around passing for human. She’s also Kelly’s art agent, and let me tell you, she’s so nice and helpful! My Kicker, which I’ve previously mentioned, was that I’ve just discovered that I have a teenage daughter, Liliana, from a previous relationship.
What happened next was that shit went pear-shaped (in the way you want it to go when playing a dramatic game):
- My wife ended up being killed by my Demon Kennedy, bleeding out in a parking lot (she was standing in the way of my desire to be with my daughter and be a real artist, after all)
- I eventually Banished Kennedy with the help of another player’s character (Banishing a Demon out of existence is one of the many ways to meaningfully interact with Demons in the resolution system; you can also Summon new ones and Bind them, for example)
- And at the end of a long trail of blood, lies, and manipulation, I ended up going off with my new-found daughter back into the arms of her mother’s religious cult
Why am I telling you the kind of story that would make you want to stab me at a party? Because it gets at the bloody core of Sorcerer that I’ve been trying to talk about this whole time. Kelly got batted around by his Demon Kennedy the whole game, because I could never figure out just what to do with him. I had real difficulty with my suspension-of-disbelief being broken by my own character’s motivations and actions. That’s a direct result of Sorcerer’s mechanics that reward “raw aggression,” as Jesse says.
I kept equivocating in play. I would go for something, perhaps confronting my daughter Liliana’s overbearing mother that she was staying with me now, but I would be uncomfortable at what it took to follow through and really go for what Kelly wanted–I mean, look what happened to his wife. To be clear, what I mean by “uncomfortable” is not that the fiction of the game was going places I couldn’t handle, or that it was dealing with issues I didn’t want to address. I just mean that I really agonized over the decisions that were set before me. They weren’t easy to make.
To me this is evidence that the pressure the system puts on the character and the player squeezed Kelly and he (I?) came up wanting. He Banished his Demon and meekly ran off into the arms of the people he’d been fighting against. When he got a taste of real power, he yelled “Oh shit!”, dropped it like a smoking gun, and ran the other way.
Which, paradoxically, is a great Sorcerer story. It’s been a few months since playing it, and I can almost feel myself start to leave the ground, free-floating in a pressure-less system. I kind of want to feel that weight again, to feel like things are real and they matter. I can hear the demons coming.
* * *
Play this if:
- You like emotionally intense games
- You want to play a powerful character with the means to accomplish their goals
- You want to make story now, with all the creative effort and challenge that implies
Don’t play this if:
- You don’t like dealing with pressure and intensity in your leisure time
- You like to play games where you can take a passive role if you feel like it
- You want a roleplaying game to make the story for you
(You can find Sorcerer and Ron Edwards at the Adept Press website. Jesse Burneko can be found at Play Passionately and the Actual People Actual Play podcast. You can also find another perspective on the particular game of Sorcerer I played at Story by the Throat.)