Posts Tagged ‘Sorcerer & Story’

A Terrific Book about Screenwriting and Storytelling

December 8, 2013

Film Critic Hulk has just published an ebook on screenwriting and storytelling.

He’s my favorite writer writing about movies and Hollywood these days. I recommend the book highly to anyone interested in screenwriting.

But, more importantly, he says things in the book I say to people all the time. If fact, you’ll see sentiments I’ve written on this blog echoed all over his book. (Both my manager and a friend of mine both thought I was secretly Film Critic Hulk because he and I say the same damned things over and over.)

Since so much of this blog, and Sorcerer, is about making story I thought I’d recommend it. For only $4.95 it’s a steal!

THE BROTHERHOOD 1: Actual Play and Sorcerer & Story

November 24, 2013

A while back I posted about a Sorcerer game I played with my friends called “The Brotherhood.” I just dug up a post I made about the game back in 2009 I wanted to share here about how play went down:


We had our fifth session of the Sorcerer game I’m running tonight.  The first sessions was character creation.  We’ve played four times.

First, here’s the breakdown of the setting that I sent out to possible Players:

The Brotherood

You’re all Prisoners in state penitentiary located in the middle of nowhere somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Your character might have been guilty. He might have been innocent. But he ended up in The System.

Your character knew no sorcery before getting into prison. But there are a few teachers there — people who know how to get by by summoning the unnatural powers within the walls of the old prison.

Demons are tattoos, shivs, razor blades, cocaine, cigarettes, money, shadows, pin-ups, fantasies of the world outside and all things prison.

The Lore of Sorcery are acts of domination and submission between men.

Humanity is standing up for your own moral code.

It’s important to remember that the word “demon” in this game doesn’t mean “things from hell.” Think more of the girl from “The Ring” — where something has gone WRONG with the fabric of reality. We’re building our own specific and self-contained story, with it’s own specific mythology and world.

The PCs are:

1) VISILI (player: Colin): a Lifer in the prison who’s demon is a cell block; he doesn’t want to leave because he’s very comfortable where he is. He was part of a russian mob, and while he has ties to his family and is loyal to them, he’s pretty much cut off from the world in the safety of his cell block.  (He’s been up for parole several times and has always managed to screw it up on purpose.)

His Kicker was this his nephew arrived at the penitentiary and is making a move to take control of his cell block.

2) DAVID KING (player: Eric): a man who committed a crime and bound a demon to confront the  cult leader who rules a nationwide organization from inside the prison. (The cult killed the man’s daughter.) His demons are snakes down his forearm, and a second demon that is the tattoo of a third eye on his forehead that let’s him “astrally” project when he mediates on the cot of his cell and learn more about what’s happening many places.

His Kicker was that he found out his daughter was still alive.  (His sister-in-law brought his daughter to jail to visit him.  David’s wife went mad from the “death” of their daughter and is in an asylum.)

During play he used Third Eye to go visit his sister-in-law’s house and discovers a cult member living there — as well as the corpse of his sister-in-law and two “doll like” versions of his sister-in-law and his daughter.

3) ROMAN STUBBS (player: Vasco): a corrupt cop sent to jail for killing a fellow police officer who summoned and bound a demon to survive a place where cops are the biggest targets short of child molesters. HIs demon are tattoos that cover his body (he looks just like a criminal now!) that let him to internal damage to people and let him withstand a lot of damage… All while looking like all he did was maybe give you a friendly slap on the shoulder. The tattoos shift and change, showing a collage of all people he beat the hell out of.

His Kicker was someone in his crew ratted him out and set him up to be killed.

Eric is a fellow writer and buddy.  We met two years ago writing for an internet project and became fast friends.  He LOVES games — and we spend a lot of time killing terrorists on the XBOX.

I met both Colin and Vasco at the local cons.  We’ve played together in several games.  (Vasco was in a Sorcerer & Sword game I ran at a local con — again, there’s an AP around here somewhere.)

There were a handful of people I wanted in the game, but I had decided to max the number to three players.  These were the first three who said yes as I went down the list.

We play at Eric’s place.  We all bring food and drinks.  One of the things I like best is the social atmosphere.  Sometimes we don’t get going for an hour or two.  We talk about video games, or P&P RPGs, or movies, or The Shield or The Wire or BSG.  Sometimes we order in pizza.  Sometimes we don’t.  If we wrap early we might play a boardgame (Z-man’s PANDEMIC rocks, by the way) or some Call of Duty shoot ’em up.  It’s all very fun.

So, here’s the incident wanted to bring up.  Last night David backs Roman up when Roman goes to confront Stubbs, one of the men Roman thought he murdered — but who, in fact, is still very much alive, comfortably ensconced in another cell block and is one of the players making a move to take control of the pentintiary.

Stubbs had offered Roman a settlement — kill David and all wrongs would be forgiven.  Roman chose not to do this, told David Stubbs was gunning for him, and after almost getting slaughtered by three members of Stubb’s Sorcerous crew, go to confront Stubbs.

Stubbs and Roman go at it with some Will rolls, trying to shake the other up.  But then David steps out of the shadows and Stubbs is thrown.  I don’t want to go into detail here about what Stubbs does and doesn’t know and what his agendas are, but I’ll say what was said.

David assumes that Stubbs is working with Carver.  Stubbs laughs, says he’s not.  He surprised when he realizes David thinks his daughter is dead.  Now, David’s Kicker is that his daughter was alive.  But then he checked it out and it looked like that was a trick, and his daughter was really dead.  But Stubbs was adament that David’s daughter was alive.

So David CHARGES Stubbs and grabs him and shakes him — and Eric’s doing this great job of just being  man on the breaking point for so many reasons —

And they make Will rolls, with David trying to make sure Stubbs is going to tell him the truth.  And David wins the roll.  And Stubbs says, “Okay, but I need you to step back.”

And David shakes him again and shouts, “Why!”

And Stubbs says, “Because I don’t wnat to be next to you when you hear the truth.”

These are the things Stubbs revealed:

  • David’s daughter, Melodie, is alive.
  • David’s wife, Lisa, is a decendent of Louis Landsfield, the man who built Landsfield Peniteniary in the 19th century.  (and is, they all discovered last night, apparently a liche-sorcerer living in the prison).  Carver wanted to get a child of Landsfield’s blood to dominate the child in ritual in the prison for his own ends.
  • Not only that — but Carver wanted the child to be of his own blood as well, to make the ritual especially potent… so he seduced David’s wife years ago.  Melodie is not David’s child!
  • Someone used sorcery to make a “fake” Melody and hid the real one.  Carver killed the fake girl when he found out she was a fake.  The real Melodie out there somewhere…

Eric and I were discussing the game via email, and I wrote to Eric:

You really turned on the mojo on that one.  It was great.  It’s like, that’s what sorcerer is about.  Ultimately there’s nothing as scary, even the demons, as the passions of people activated.

And that, in turn, reminded me of an interview I just read with Shawn Ryan [The Shield].

The Interviewer asked, “What did you learn while working on Angel with Joss Wheadon?”

And Ryan replied:

The main thing I learned from him is to approach stories from a character point of view, as opposed to a plot point of view. Forget about the plot in the beginning, because if you know what emotional journey you want to take your character on, the rest will follow. We break our crime stories [on The Shield] not in terms of who did this and what’s the clue; it’s what do we want our cops to go through on this particular story. Once we know that, the plot will come later.

And that’s what I’m finding works in Sorcerer — and is easy as pie in Sorcerer if you focus on the Kickers, the Bangs, the Relationship Map and the Humanity.  A much as possible I’m just trying to go from one emotionally strong choice/beat to the next, letting the “plot” grow out of the choices engengered by the emotionally strong Bangs and scene framing.

So far, the game is a blast.

A Reader Asks About Getting the Characters Together in Sorcerer

November 10, 2013


Belinda wrote:

My problem with Sorcerer (at least when I looked at it a few years ago; haven’t checked it out for a while) was that the players make up all of these interesting characters with kickers and bangs and relationships – and the characters are all in silos from each other.

What sort of mechanisms does the game have for forming a party of connected individuals that have a reason to interact with each other?

Like with your Conan-esque example from earlier; while both characters are very interesting, what do they have in common with each other and why would they get involved in each other’s stuff? How did you set this up as a GM and how did you make it work effectively?

I replied:

Hi, good questions. I don’t know if this answer is going to satisfy you, but here goes. (This is the quick answer. Future posts will address this.)

1. The Characters aren’t in silos. Silos implies they’re cut off from one another, with concrete and deep earth between them. That isn’t the case. They are eau their own Characters, but they’re in the same geographical area (established before Character Creation begins) so they can easily get to each other if they way.

2. Sorcerer has no concern with party. There is no reason for them to interact with each other, other than any reason created by the Players themselves.

3. In practice this means the scenes rotate from one Player Character after another.

3a. This is one reason that Sorcerer play is best with two to three Players plus a GM. Four Players and a GM max.

3b. This works fine because… The journey of the Characters are actually interesting because of all the prep with the Kickers and relationships and stuff. it’s vital to understand that when a Player’s Character is not “onscreen” the Player is watching and listening to the fictional events involving the others Player Characters. You might not believe me about this, but it’s true. I’ve seen it happen again and again. A story is unfolding. People pay attention.

3c. This works fine because… the GM often (but not always) cuts away from the Player Character when the Player is confronted with some sort of choice or dilemma. The Players often need a moment to figure out what they want their character to do. It is NICE to get a break when we cut to another character because we suddenly NEED a break.

3d. This works fine because… the GM is working with Demons from a look and feel (along with the game’s location) established before Character Creation. This also affects Lore. The Players are paying attention to each other and the fiction the other Players are creating because they are looking for clues about Lore and about how the Demons work. Remember, we’re all making this up on the fly — and we’re sharing it. We want to see what has been added in terms of details — because we’re going to be adding on those details when the scene focus comes around to us.

3e. There works fine because… there is no reason to assume that the character’s don’t have connections between them. I mean this fully in the “Six Degrees of Separation” sense. The Players might not have written down these mutual connectors, or even be aware of them. But when the GM goes off to do her prep, there’s no reason to think as she’s brainstorming about the Characters and their NPC relationships that there won’t be elements that conned the PCs that the Players get to *discover.*

3f. This works fine because… What is interesting to one sorcerer might well end up being interesting to another sorcerer. Remember, the Players are listening as audience to what the other Players are doing. This means that they might hear about a power item of muckety-muck. Or a sorcerer cult. Or a whatever. And the listening Player’s imagination might think, “Hey, I could use that!” Or, “I hate guys like that.” And then the Player will position himself fictionally on a course to meet up or track down that thing or those people.

3g. Given 3e. and 3f. there’s every reason to assume that the Character might, indeed, meet up. it’s not required, it’s not a goal. But Players like to have their Characters show up where interesting things are happening. As Characters generate interesting things happening, the Players tend to move their Characters toward each other.

4. There is precedent for this kind of storytelling. Look at a show like HEROES, or the novels of Stephen King or Michael Crichton. Or look at the structure of Gibson’s Neuromancer books. We cut from one scene or chapter focusing one character to another scene or chapter focusing on a different character. Often these character are not near each other, and often are not aware of each other. But as we read the stories we, on the outside, are aware of the larger picture that is growing. Sorcerer is often experienced just like that. And just like in those stories, the further into the game we progress, the more aware of each other the characters often become and the more entwined their stories become. I’m going to repeat myself here: you might not think this is true or will work. I’m telling you, it does.

5. Remember that even when there is “a party” only one person can speak at a time. Sure, people can try to jump all over verbally to get the GM’s attention. But the truth is, only one person is going to be speaking/describing what their doing at a time. We take turns between players *even when there is a party.* Now, the unit of turn taking might be longer in the kind of play described above (but maybe not!) but let’s not kid ourselves: We do this all the time in party play.

Finally, page 71 of SORCERER addresses concerns about “the party” (with additional comments now in the annotation).

And if you haven’t read it yet, Chapter 7 of SORCERER & SWORD (“The Anatomy of Authored Role-Playing”) goes into this matter extensively. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet and you’re interested in SORCERER I can’t recommend it to you highly enough.

A final repeat: I know that because of how we’ve played other games for years we assume that this sort of play isn’t possible or can’t work. But I assure you, it can.

* * *
To address the example of the Savage Born setting I played in… My Players did all the work. (Players tend to be intrigued with each other’s characters. At least my Players are!)

Colin decided his character wanted to attack the fort where Jesse’s character had just arrived to serve as a priest. And Jesse’s Kicker was that his assistant was kidnapped. Well, the most likely culprits were the orc tribe that Colin’s character was a part of. So they pointed their Characters right at each other.

Sometimes Players will do that. Sometimes they won’t. But it certainly isn’t required. Sometimes they’ll end up pointing their Characters at each other later in play — as described above out of their own curiosity and/or need.

Jesse Burneko’s “State of the Union” Post from PLAY PASSIONATELY

November 10, 2013

"No, I am your father."

If you’re not familiar with Jesse Burneko’s Play Passionately blog… well, if you’re interested in Sorcerer, you should really check it out.

In particular, his State of the Union post on how he approaches games like Sorcerer is a brilliant summation of his thoughts about the kind of play he seeks when he plays. When I was working on Play Sorcerer as a book, I was going to ask if the essay could be the forward.

It begins like this:

Story is a problematic word when it comes to RPGs.  To some, a story is just a causal sequence of fictional events and a good story is one that simply indulges the imagination.  If the character got to ride a dinosaur on the moon and stave off an invasion of Martian vampires then that was a good story.  Such a definition of story has never been satisfying for me and the fiction produced from such play has always felt hollow and devoid of emotional truth.  To me, a good story must reveal something about the characters as real human beings no matter how fantastical their circumstances.  I crave a certain kind of emotional intimacy, revelation and resolution that speaks to recognizable human issues.

Since role-playing happens face-to-face getting that kind of emotional resonance requires a degree of honesty, self-reflection and social vulnerability in ways that I think many gamers find uncomfortable.  Indeed I think that a great number of “story oriented” gamers have spent a great deal of time and energy developing techniques that remove that need for vulnerability.  By removing that risk these techniques not only diminish the emotional rewards of story creation but also unintentionally introduce new social tensions and stresses that further complicate the role-playing experience.  It is my intention to layout a few “best practices” for opening yourself to the levels of creative risk that routinely produces high-impact emotional narratives.  Collectively I refer to the philosophy underlying these techniques as Play Passionately.

And later he writes this:

I was running a game of Sorcerer and after the first session one of the players commented that she didn’t like how much the die system redefined her character.  When I asked for clarification it turned out that there had been certain key moments where she had failed a die roll and in those moments her character concept had been redefined because the character she wanted to play “would have” succeeded at those things.  She had failed in those moments and her actual idea of who the character was had been altered.

The key to avoiding this disappointment is to shift focus away from thinking about what the character is supposed to accomplish and start thinking about the character in terms of what crisis he is confronting.  When a player invests in the character’s crisis the paths to satisfaction become less confined.  If my character is defined by his struggle with his religion then any set of events and resolutions which speak to that struggle will be satisfactory.  Maybe he drives his family away with his zealousness.  Maybe he abandons it all together.  Maybe he learns to keep it quiet so he can co-exist with his best friend.  What happens almost doesn’t matter because what the player and the group care about is the character’s struggle with his religion.

I recommend reading the whole thing.

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

January 24, 2010

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.

The Basis of Reality; The Basis of Fiction

January 2, 2010

As I continue working away on Play Sorcerer — and I do! — my brain constantly sees what I read and how I’m writing other projects in terms of the book.

This past summer I was reading Endless Things, the last book in John Crowley’s amazing Aegypt cycle. I was with my family at Spofford Lake in New Hampshire and came across a passage I meant to reference for Play Sorcerer.

I ended up putting Endless Things down so I could Game Master a game of Sorcerer for my nephews and nieces over several days. It’s the end of the year and I’ve only picked the book back up. I started again at that passage I found. It struck me again, and so I thought I’d share it here:

“Except for brief moments of ontological doubt such as anyone would have, Kraft had always known that the physical world – this earth and its universe of stars, its gravity and mass and elements, its living and dying stuff – was the base layer of reality. What we think about it is mere evanescence and spendthrift; what we hope dies with each day; we impose our inexistent notions and grids upon it, but earth and the flesh abide.

“According to Dr. Pons, though, it was actually just the opposite. To him, physical matter had no real existence at all; it wasn’t different from human, or divine, ignorance. It was an illusion, in fact a hoax. The slightest and smallest human emotion felt by the inward incarcerated soul is more real than any aspect of materiality. And more real in turn than all those emotions, all tears and laughter and love and hate, are the conceptions of the mind – Beauty, Truth, Order, Wisdom – which give to materiality whatever form and worth it has. Most real of all is the world beyond nature and even Mind: the realm Without, utterly out of reach, the realm of the Fullness and God.

“What Kraft had learned, in those first joyous labors of imagination long ago, was that, different as Dr. Pons’s inverted universe might be from what is in fact the case, it is necessarily very much like the world inside a work of fiction.

“All the myriad material things that we, in our universe, touch and use and love and hate and depend on – our food, our flesh, or breath; cities and towns, roads and houses – in a book these things have no true reality at all. They’re just nouns. But emotions are quite real; there are tears of things, and they are really shed, and real laughter is laughed. Of course. And in a book intellectual order is the most real of all, governing, sustaining reality – the Logos, the tale issuing from its absent, hidden Author.”

I find this passage revelatory for the difference in the kinds of focus different people want to bring to their roleplaying games, what they want from them, and where the fun is for different people.

For some, building a “world” that feels as substantial as the real one is the goal. Knowing where every item is and what is at hand is the goal and pleasure. Or, I’m sure, to the greatest extent that is possible in the circumstances of a roleplaying game session.

For others, and this would include me, the “reality” of the game is as described by Crowley via Kraft in the character’s notes about fiction: The substance of fiction is not the tables or bread, but the hearts of the characters.

This does not mean the tables or bread do not matter. It means that they are present with less force than what the characters feel. And, in turn, it is what the characters feel that strikes the flint of action, which makes the tale move forward.

If you look at games like Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age…, Polaris, Hero Wars, Riddles of Steel, Burning Wheel, Primetimes Adventures among others, with their Beliefs, Spiritual Attributes, Kickers, Forms and so on, you see “narrative mechanics,” not “physics mechanics” driving the game. These narrative mechanics become the chain drive for the game, with the descriptive elements of how hard someone lands a blow being added on top of why someone landed the blow. But the why is the part that matters most.

I suppose I don’t need to, but I will, note how huge the difference is between folks who want to make sure the world is “real” and those looking to build story first. The anger and frustration that “the other side” exists has wasted so much bandwidth it’s ridiculous. It’s hard to discuss these things on the Internet, it seems to me, because people assume all sorts of crazy things. Several people have assured me, in conversations over the years, that in a narrative focused game, things will just happen willy-nilly-all-crazy “just to make a better story.” Ignoring the fact, of course, that if any of us was reading a novel and things were happening all willy-nilly, we’d put the book down pretty fast. The obligations of fiction remain obligations, no matter what the medium.

But there are differences of focus. And this is the main point I want to touch on. When Crowley writes: “And in a book intellectual order is the most real of all, governing, sustaining reality – the Logos, the tale issuing from its absent, hidden Author,” he is touching on the organizing order of the games I listed above. Beliefs in Burning Wheel and Forms in In A Wicked Age… are part of the reality of the fiction — with greater substance than any sword. Does this mean, once more, that swords do not matter? No. But they are tools used to express the qualities of the characters, the qualities being their feelings and emotions and desires and hopes and hatreds.

The Author of a game of Sorcerer is in fact the Authors — all of them, sitting at the table. The intellectual order is based on the definition of Humanity; the definition of Demons; the Prices; the Telltales; the Kickers; the NPCs, the Objects, the Locations the Players have written on their character sheets; the values of Stamina, Will, Cover and Lore; the descriptors; the Starting Demons; and situation and background notes the GM has made.

Boom. Everything grows from that. And everything is on the table, known to all the players apart from the Game Master’s notes — and these notes should have been grown from the open notes of the Players’ character sheets. (And what are the character sheets in a game of Sorcerer but the Player’s notes, comparable to the Game Master’s notes, but simply known to all.)

These are the elements of the “intellectual order” that Crowley mentions as the basis of fiction. The elements with the numbers — the Scores of Stamina, Will, Cover and Lore — are just portions of the order of the game. Their purpose in the mechanics is simple and elegant. As noted many times, they do not serve the function of Abilities found in some other games: One cannot uses a Score in Sorcerer simply to see how strong a character is, as one could quantify Strength in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Stamina in Sorcerer is only used when tested in conflict with another character or force; when a player has said, “This conflict is worth it to my character.” This quality of “worth it” is, of course, what the game is about. This is the heartbeat of characters in the kind of fiction Sorcerer creates. “Worth it” is not about conflict — it is about the characters and objects and locations on the Player Character sheet — the daughters, friends, lovers, books of knowledge, graves and so on… the things that mean something to a Player’s character.

It is the issue of “worth it” that drives the stories. The Game Master does not have a story or plot or encounters or climax prepped out in any form, because who knows what the Players will decided is worth it for their Player Characters three sessions in. Five sessions in. Ultimately what Sorcerer play is about is the Players discovering over time what they think their characters truly do value.

And what is this value based on? The “smallest human emotion felt by the inward incarcerated soul.” And how do we measure how these values are being acted on? “…the conceptions of the mind – Beauty, Truth, Order, Wisdom.” Or, in the case of Sorcerer, the particular concept of Humanity. And how are these concepts moved into action to reveal these emotions of the characters? Not through a “world” that would hum along even if no one was around to play with it, but through the actions and decisions of the tales Authors.

Long Form TV, Sorcerer, Story and Structure

February 12, 2009


This morning I dove into the chapter about the concept of “story” in Play Sorcerer. (This is, of course, a complicated, moist and slippery topic. Imagine opening the hood of your car and finding it filled not with a clean, metal engine block, but some sort of early David Cronenberg thing of flesh and internal organs…. That’s what writing about story is like. But it must be done!)

I had just finished describing all the formats of storytelling that exist (comic books, movies, novels, multi-volume novels, plays and so on..) which I stumbled across this statement from Josh Roby over at Cultures of Play:

…I’d contend that ‘nar’ games require abandoning a recognizable format; they aren’t stories in any formal sense, but moral encounters shrouded in theater ephemera.

To which my first thought was, “You mean like, Dexter? Or Battlestar Galactica? Or The Shield? Or the granddaddy of them all, Twin Peaks?

The point isn’t that Josh is wrong, it’s that he’s thinking too narrowly. I think most of us fall into this trap, by the way, since the minute you start thinking about one format, and really puzzling out how to do it well, other formats seem troublesome, if not sometimes wrong. The needs of an episode of Law & Order are very different from, say, the needs for Rosanne, and the brain is going to pick and choose whatever helps it sink into the puzzle it’s trying to solve. But the key is, no single format has a monopoly on a story format, as there are dozens upon dozens of formats for story-like-things, each with formats or techniques or tools of construction that either make viewing/reading/hearing the story effective or not.

We all value different aspects of these formats and techniques over others. There’s nothing strange or wrong about that. If you sit down to paint a painting you need to make some decisions about what you consider to be a “good” painting. Even if you don’t think about it much, you’re still making a lot of decisions along these lines. Everyone must, in no matter what medium. There is no “right” way to write a screenplay. But you must put a lot of thought into what makes a good screenplay for you.

If you walk into the Norton-Simon museum in Pasadena you’ll find a gallery with a Picasso, a Van Gogh and a Cezanne — and each of them is very different. They’re all great paintings, but each man chose what he valued as to what makes a “good” painting to create very different effects.

So, there are lots of formats for what makes story. I like lots of them, myself.

I would agree with Josh that Sorcerer (as a Nar game) might be less like other format than we are used to. But I think it fascinating that there is a whole new genre of long form TV now that is actually the closest thing we’ve ever had to long form RPG play in the “popular” popular culture. (As opposed to, say, comic books or serialized comic strips.)

When Sorcerer first hit print Ron Edwards couldn’t reference story structures like Lost, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos or Damages because such shows didn’t exist. But now we have plenty of multi-character, multi-plot thread, long form serialized content that rises to a climax each season, and heads for a climax for the series run.

It’s an accident of history, of course. But these days when I’m describing the structure of Sorcerer to people I just point at the long form shows on AMC, HBO, SHOWTIME, F/X and the networks and say, “Like that.”

But, to be clear, that’s a great thing to point to. But any RPG is going to be, ultimately, it’s own thing. What will matter is if play delivers what the players who are looking for “story” most value about story.

The Rules and The Fiction

August 12, 2008

This past weekend I got together with a bunch of folks from the Los Angeles story games crew I hang out with and played some games. We gather every few months at Game Empire in Pasadena and break out RPGs and Board Games. I saw a lot of familiar faces I’m happy to see, and met some folks I’d never met before. (If you’re interested in tracking down details for local area events, go check out NerdSoCal.)

Several games were played, including Spione, In a Wicked Age…, Spirit of the Century, Conquer the Horizon, My Life With Master, and the boardgame Pandemic.

I arrived a little late due to a meeting earlier that day, but managed to jump into a game of Spione while Jesse and Laura were breaking out the rules to everyone (other players will Will, Joshua, and Vasco). After some Korean BBQ down the street for lunch, we returned and I played in a game of In a Wicked Age… GM’d by Vasco and with Laura as my fellow player.

The Spione game really didn’t grab me, and the In A Wicked Age… game did. Really did. Like, we’re planning on continuing the game with a new chapter at the local game convention at the end of the month.

Now, I’m not going to be doing an actual play here. Nor am I going to be directly discussing the merits of either Spione or In A Wicked Age…. First, I’ve never read Spione and have only played it once, as a one shot, in a game store, with what might have been too many people. Second, there’s only one point I want to address right now by comparing the two experiences.

In the Spione game my brain was fiddling really hard with the rules. I was trying to grasp what to do; how come the sheet with info I needed to brainstorm scenes always seemed so far away; whether I was trying to cross characters off the info sheets, or get the agents Into the Cold; whether when Ron used the word “annulment” at one point in the book he really meant what Jesse said he meant; and so on…

The game’s fiction seemed somewhat haphazard, with details created out like a very wild Jazz improv set than a story. By that I mean, what had been established before wasn’t built on, new details were added that kept spreading the story out rather than forward, and some details were added the were so obscure in their meaning or intent that usually four or five other players would just stop, cocking their heads like confused puppies trying to figure out what the person narrating meant. I mostly just wanted to get to the cards, cause the cards were cool and the cards seemed to focus everyone’s brains on specific image, color and action — which I found much more pleasing than the wandering scene work we tossed out.

Some of these qualities may or may not be features of Spione, simply handled badly. Some of these qualities may have something to do with the the issue I want to address here:

When people pick up a new game (and I’m including myself here under the category of “people”) we tend to focus on the rules. The rules we pick up (especially around here) are full of new, interesting mechanics and do-hinkey’s and we tend to make the play about the rules.

This perfectly understandable, of course. When you first get on a bicycle as a kid, the focus is on how to peddle fast enough to keep going, how to balance, keeping your feet on the pedals. You’re not thinking, “Ah, I can use this device to transport myself to new place cross town.” Your focus is: “How do I make this thing work!?!?”

Same with writing or painting or martial arts or whatever. There’s always an awkward phase where handling the tools and applying techniques dominates the brain. You’re not really making something. You’re using the tools of a craft or art or discipline to learn how the heck to use the tools or craft or discipline.

So it was for me at the Spione game. And I don’t think I was alone in this. There was some flailing. The fictional element left me cold and unconcerned and disengaged. But given where I (and other) were in our relationship to the rules, that made perfect sense.

I compare this now to the In A Wicked Age… game.

On the way home all I could think about was taking the narrative details we had created from the session and typing them up in the style of a Robert E. Howard short story. (I had to drive from Pasadena to Santa Monica, so I had plenty of time to let my mind roll ideas around…!)

When I say typing them up in the style of Robert E. Howard, I mean that that the story felt like a Robert E. Howard story. I also mean that I would probably lay the short story out scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat as we created them during the game. Our game play simply produced a story. I would keep many lines of dialogue and many bits of description stolen from out mouths. (My favorite bit of description was Laura, while describing the walls of a crypt as “…walls which had never seen light before…” as her spirit illuminated itself after bargaining with a wizard and getting free. I mean, that’s just good writing — evocative, in the moment, and implying a ton of world and backstory details with just a few words.)

Anyway, here’s the thing. The first time I played In A Wicked Age… was months ago at a local con — and it played a lot like the Spione game. Everyone focused on the rules. We threw out color left and right. It was great color, and I even had a great time, but it was somewhat chaotic. And the game seemed to be fun in spite of the mechanics.

Vasco was the GM of that game as well. And in the months since I have seen him make an Olympic worthy effort to MASTER THE RULES OF IN A WICKED AGE... I mean, really. He’s been talking about it. Scouring the forum boards. Working his way through (in my view) Vincent’s somewhat patchwork quilt prose style where he seems more interested in being casual and relaxed in how he writes — at the expense of any concern about expressing clearly any specific idea he’s trying to communicate.

He has worked the game.

And after the Spione game I was determined not to focus on the rules first, but to make the fiction a priority. This meant that whenever the rules baffled me (and they do!) I simply turned the reigns over to Vasco and said, “Just tell me when it’s time for me to describe something, and tell me when it’s time for me to roll dice.”

That didn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention to the rules. Nor was there any handwaving or “just making it up.” We used the rules. Hard. I fought to get my guy on the We Owe list. I I did! And I was excited about that! It really was cool to watch this emergent property of the rules about “Who is the protagonist?” not only rise from play, but inform the fiction and generate excitement from me. It was cool. I saw a lot more about how the game was built and why it was built.

Which brings me to the big point:

The In A Wicked Age… game rocked because everyone focused on the fiction first. The rules served as a bicycle to get us across town. We weren’t focused on pedaling (though sometimes I did grind things to a halt and say, essentially, “I don’t understand how to ride this thing. Explain this rule to me,”). Instead, we were focused on what we were using the bicycle to do — to get cross-town, to create a cool story.

My guess is the same thing could have happened with the Spione game if — as a group and as individuals — we had focused on making the story first, and figuring out how the rules supported that agenda. I’m not sure about that. But I think it’s true. And I think it’s very true that at some point every group and player has to decide this about these crazy story games: Is your focus the rules with some story, or story facilitated by the rules?

Because, and here’s the trick, no rules set can ever make story. They can get out of the way of story. And they can have very well designed points of focus for players that engender story (the We Owe list from In A Wicked Age… for example, or Kickers from Sorcerer. But just like a bike will just sit there without dedication and a destination from a rider, the game won’t produce anything but game play unless a goal beyond using the rules is chose.