PLAY SORCERER 17: Our Moral Curiosity

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To play Sorcerer means being curious about people, their actions, their choices. If you already know everything there is to be know about being a good person, if you already know how to judge everyone else’s actions, and if you never have your own doubts about how you should behave, then Sorcerer play will probably be frustrating for you.

On the other hand, if you know there’s no reason not to do any damned thing you want, if you know that all this stuff about Humanity and making choices is just moral-frippery getting in the way of you summoning demons and describing all sorts of perverse things just for yuck among your friends, or if you are certain that stories are just for fun and that there’s no reason for a tale to exist outside of cool bits of fiction and action, then Sorcerer play is going to frustrate you as well.

Why?

Because Ron Edwards believes, and I believe this with him, that any story worth telling is a window into the complexity of being alive as a human being. In fact, both he and I agree that one of the definitional qualities of a story is a moral or ethical question concerning human interactions.

You don’t have to believe us, but there it is. And Sorcerer is built upon this premise.

Now, does this mean that you and your fellow players will lay out some dry, lame philosophical discourse as you play, dropping in bits of fiction like characters and dialogue to make something “like” a story?

No. It means, plainly, you are building a story. The same sorts of stories that you get caught up in a novel you love, or get caught up in when you watch a movie you love, or get caught up in when you watch a television show you love… and so on. And this is because the stories you love are full of moral or ethical questions concerning human interaction.

I’ve seen people get all confused about this because they assume that theses matters are all high-falutin’ top-down, Engligh-lit class, introductory-paragraph-three-main-paragraph-closing-paragraph essays.

No.

Look again at the phrase: “Moral or ethical questions concerning human interaction.” Put the emphasis at the end of the phrase. Once you see that we’re focusing on moral and ethical question specifically in the context of human interaction, you can’t help but see these questions all over any story you watch.

When Luke says he wants to leave the farm in Star Wars: A New Hope, and his Aunt and Uncle clearly don’t want him to go, Luke has to make a choice: Remain loyal to the people who raised him and honor their requests, or leave.

When Luke learns from C-3PO that R2-D2 has run off in search of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke has to decide whether to tell his aunt and uncle he’s let a droid they just bought escape, or deal with the problem himself.

When Obi-Wan offers Luke a chance to journey with him to Alderaan to rescue a princess—to, in fact, be trained to be a warrior like the father he never knew—he must choose the life of adventure that’s been placed right before him, or once again hold to his aunt and uncle’s wish that he remain a farm boy on Tatooine.

See how simple that is? Who is Luke loyal to—himself or his aunt and uncle? What matters more—a life of adventure or the stability of family? Which is the better life—to remain a simple farmer or pursue the path of missing father that everyone is afraid of talking about?

We haven’t even gotten to the big, dramatic beat of The Empire Strikes Back when Luke is offered the chance to finally be with his father once more. Some of these ethical and moral issues will be small, others will be large. So the point isn’t to move from one over-the-top melodramatic moment to the next. But the point is to give the Characters, one time after another, a chance to reveal who they are as they navigate the complications of how to behave as a person.

The way you tap this then, either as a Game Master or as a Player, is not to think in terms of jumping from one big, dramatic decisions or crisis to the next (though big dramatic decisions and big crisis are fun and part of any good story) but to tap all the human relationships and decisions that are sewn into the Characters’ Kickers, Price, Telltale, and all the elements in the Character Grid. It’s the simple stuff, it’s the mundane stuff, the simple relationships between people that will matter most in Sorcerer play.

But this only works if we ourselves are curious about something.

If I’m the Game Master and coming up with a few brushstrokes of setting, then my setting needs to be about something I’m curious about. This, ultimately, is what the definition of Humanity and what Lore is going to be about. The definition of Humanity is one side of this issue—a word that broad defines a set of behaviors that that stand for some sort of positive definition of what it means to be a human being. Lore is the other side—the actions that threaten the definition of Humanity.

But I, as the Game Master, need to be curious about Lore. I need to know that there’s a part of me that would be at least tempted to take the path of Lore to get what I want, that can see the value in it. If Lore is just “a horrible behavior that no one would ever, ever pursue unless they were a sociopath or crazy in some way,” then there is no curiosity and the game will be stillborn. Without curiosity about the path of Lore, every Player Character (by definition a sorcerer who uses Lore), will be a crazed sociopath unworthy of any empathy or concern or interest. And that’s not what we need to make a story work.

As a Player, the same agenda applies. Curiosity about the issues of humanity, about you, are the first principles.

When the Game Master relates the definitions of Humanity and Lore, I need to feel my way into them—not as abstract, intellectual concepts—but as pieces of choice and behavior and opportunity that matter to me. If Humanity is defined as “Loyalty” and Lore is rituals that involve selfishness, and alienation from and abuse of people you’re close to, then you have to imaginatively sink into those elements.

It isn’t enough to say, “Well, I’d never do anything selfish. I’d never do anything to alienate myself from those I’m close to.”

I mean, you might finally decide you never would. But I’m asking that you really examine what those concepts mean to you. Could you see yourself making a hard choice where you abandon your friends or family to get something that you’d really want? Before you say you never would, really thinking that through: What would you abandon friends and family for?

And I really mean that: What would you be willing to do that for? Because I’m telling you right now, there is something. It might not be on your mind every day. It might be something you think is beyond your ability to attain. But in the fiction of Sorcerer, you can build a Character that can get what he or she wants. Your Character can attain whatever dream would be the thing you’d risk your family and friends for. It might be utterly selfish, it might be completely based in concerns for someone else, but your Sorcerer Character can be caught up in circumstances the put on the line what you as a person most through the fictional Character you create.

When I speak of Moral Curiosity, this is what I mean—to find those points where you are uncertain about what you might or might not do; to find those issues that get under your skin where push comes to shove you might behave in a way uncertain; to examine the ethical and moral issues in your life that toss you a bit each day.

Because these issues do not exist in a vacuum. The exist in the relationships with people around us: the people we know, the people we don’t know, members of our family, the people we work with, the people of our faith, the people of our nation, community and so on, as well with ourselves (remember, always, each of us has a relationship with our self just as we have a relationship with anyone else).

In The Godfather, Michael Corleone has to decide to commit acts of murder to become closer to his father. Would you do that or not? In HBO’s series Rome, every character—all of them—have to decide again and again whom they will be loyal to. If you were forced to make hard choices about loyalty in your actual life, how would you make your decisions? In Die Hard, John McClane is trying to get back together with his wife—a woman who has moved three thousand miles from their home with the kids, taken a new job, has no intention of going back to New York City and has, for his visit in Los Angeles, arranged for him to sleep on the couch. And yet, when armed thugs arrive, he stays in the building in an effort to protect her. People try time and time again to get him to back out of the building, yet he sticks it out—despite the fact she has done everything she can to dismiss him from her life and declared their matrimonial relationship over. What would you do? Where would you draw the line in a commitment to someone else where you would risk your very life to protect him or her? Why and how would you be making those decisions? Because you were married? Because you were once married? When do we stop? When do we fight on?

These are the kinds of questions that not only Sorcerer but all stories tap in one way or another.

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