Sorcerer: Some Things It Does Well; Some Things It Doesn’t

Last year I came up with a Sorcerer setting I called “Hidden Gods.” I came up with it to play with folks I already played with and as a tool to introduce a new player.

Just around that time my life and the life of everyone who might have played exploded with new romances, new education, and new success at passion-careers. Figuring out how to manage our time with all this newness became a challenge alongside everything else.

Now the dust has settled and everyone has a better sense of what time is available and how they want to use it – and more gaming is on the table. Also, I’ve met more folks who haven’t played these crazy new games that have come out in the last decade, but want to give them a whirl.

I’ve been whipping up a variety of Sorcerer settings to send out, along with Hero Wars using Glorantha, to see who is interested in what.

My plan is to have a Sorcerer SF setting (“Future Perfect”), a modern day Sorcerer setting (“Hidden Gods”) and a fantasy Sorcerer setting (“Mythic Age” – which I’ll be posting soon.)

If you click on the link above to “Hidden Gods” you’ll find a document that is a little bit different from the one I posted last year.

The difference in the documents is what I want to post about. Something had always been nagging at me about the way I’d set up “Hidden Gods,” and after opening up the doc again recently and mulling it over, I figured out the problem. Significantly, the changes I’ve made to the document touch on the way Sorcerer works in general, so I wanted to do a write-up on the matter.

Last year, the concept of “Hidden Gods” was that there were these Hidden Gods, Lovecraft-type things that were “out there.” The Demons would be the servants of the Gods. I wanted a kind of mythos that we’d all be making up, with cultists and the whole deal. Some Player Characters might be cultists, others might be cops investigating ritual murders that lead them into investigations that make them want to stop the cultists. Others might be journalists investigating the murders that lead them to start tapping the powers of the demons to learn more… And so on.

What I wanted was the whole Cthulhu Mythos mystery-that-is-bigger-than us thing.

I’m sure I still want to make a game like this. But after mulling over “Hidden Gods” I realized that using Sorcerer to do this would be the effect I wanted. Sorcerer can do some things well, and other things not so well.

After my experiment with “Traveller: Holy War,” where I used the GDW Traveller setting with the Sorcerer rules, I had a better understanding of how the Sorcerer rules channel the fiction and started paying more attention to how the Sorcerer rules work or don’t work with certain kinds of stories.

To sum up the Traveller game quickly, we ended up with a fantastic series of sessions of play that that had the tonal feel of SciFi channel’s Battlestar Galactica. I also saw, clearly, that the Sorcerer rules do not care about your big setting. Once the Kickers are activated and the Players and GM are engaged, Sorcerer drives the game toward a strong narrative arc worthy of a long form TV show, focusing on the Player Characters, their choices and their actions above all else. The phrase I’ve come up with is this from these lessons: “In Sorcerer, the setting is what is left in the wake of the character’s actions.”

Looking over the “Hidden Gods” setting I remembered that Ron Edwards has written many times that there should be no “secret reality” that only the PCs know about; no curtain over world we know that, if you only pulled it back, you could see the way the world really works.

Of course, Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos is ALL ABOUT the notion that there is a secret reality to the way the world really is. But I still, at first, could not see why it would not work well.

After examining the issue again, it occurred to me the core issue is this: Sorcerer is about relationships. (Ron once said that the relationship between sorcerers and demons is a dysfunctional relationship. Some people took this to mean the game is about — and only deals with — dysfunctional relationships. But of course this isn’t the case at all. There need to be many relationships in a game of Sorcerer to make the game work – most of them not with demons, and some dysfunctional and some not.)

But the protagonists of a Cthulhu Mythos don’t have a relationship with the mythos gods. They interact, sometimes, with people who have relationships with those gods; they find clues/documents/statues that offer more proof of the dark gods; they come to intellectual understanding of the implications of what they have found…. But they do not have relationships with the mythos gods.

Without that relationship, the connection between the protagonist and the gods becomes one of understanding — understanding of insignificance; of the true, dark nature of the universe; of the frailty of human beings and the weakness of civilization. This is all fun stuff!

But it has no gears for the Sorcerer rules to engage with. I think Ron’s admonishment about not having “the secret reality” is all about this one point. To go down the path of the “secret reality” is to risk walking down a path of intellectual understand — and leaving the playing field of relationships and how the relationships affect each other.

If a sorcerer can’t have a relationship with his new understanding, then how does such an understanding fit effectively into play? How does it avoid becoming an intellectual exercise that avoids the interlocking teeth of the Sorcerer mechanics? Because Sorcerer should never be an intellectual exercise; those teeth are all about being visceral and emotional.

At this time, my answer to both questions is, it can’t. Without personifying the “new understanding” in some sort of relationship, I don’t think the understanding can be anything but solipsistic and intellectual for the Player Characters, and I don’t think such a bit of fiction will fit comfortably with the mechanical gears of Sorcerer play.

To be clear, here are some of the teeth I’m talking about: The definition of Humanity, the definition of Demons, the definition of Lore, and Demon Needs and Wants. All of these might look like they are abstract or intellectual at first glance, but their real purpose is to define a Player Character by the actions he takes, what he does with and to strangers and loved ones; how he conducts himself in pursuit of the things he wants.

Without those elements, you might be having a great time (and you probably would!) finding the cool clues and playing out the implications of your PC coming to understand the secret truth of the world — but there’s a very good chance you would no longer be playing Sorcerer. You could stop using the game’s elements and just have the GM feed you cool new bits of reality. Again, fun! It’s a game I want to play. But it’s no longer Sorcerer for all the reasons I’ve listed above about Sorcerer being about relationships and behavior, not intellectual understanding.

So, when I looked over the “Hidden Gods” setting material, I saw that I was close to making a Sorcerer setting, but had placed some structural elements that would, in the long run, weaken the game.

I ended up taking out the Gods. I kept all the stuff about Lore being about seeing the secret patterns of reality. And then the Demons, rather than being servants of the Hidden Gods, are ability of the sorcerers to take that understanding of the secret patterns of reality and take that understanding to re-shape reality to their whim.

So, yes, I have kept a portion of the notion of the “secret reality” — the sorcerers can see the reality that others cannot. But it isn’t “out there.” It is tangible and concrete to the sorcerers. They have a relationship with the Tarot Deck they use, or the Glass Eye that lets them hidden truths in newspaper articles, and so on. They see the secret reality immediately and can engage with it immediately. It isn’t “out there” — it’s at their fingertips, forcing them to make choices about how they’ll act now that these powers are at hand to use.

This only strengthened my understanding of the game — this notion that the game is really, really about relationships. Not just the relationship between the sorcerer and his demon, but the sorcerer and all the relationships the Player writes down on his character’s sheet. It is the concrete interaction of behaviors, choices and people that make the game sing.

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