The Forge Archives

General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: Lisa Padol on May 14, 2006, 01:27:53 PM

Title: [Sorcerer] Our Eighth Session: Part One
Post by: Lisa Padol on May 14, 2006, 01:27:53 PM
I've posted this write up to my livejournal, I'm expecting to break it up into several posts here, as the Forge has a very limited word count per post, and I tend to be very wordy.

Eighth Sorcerer Session -- April 18, 2006

The description of the characters and the write up of the first session are here:

The write up of the second session is here:

The write up of the third session is here:

The write up of the fourth session is here:

The write up of the fifth session is here:

The write up of the sixth session is here:

The write up of the seventh session is here:

Demons are limited to Passers (in animal form) and Possessors (without Hop).

This is a session that quite possibly should not have happened, but it was also extremely educational, and I think that we did a better job with the following sessions because of what we learned from this one. Julian accurately nailed it by saying that he, the rules, and I combined forces to make things fall flat. I've collated some of the email discussion, using {Name} and {/Name} to show who said what.


GM: Lisa Padol

Elizabeth Bartley
David Demast
Pamela Gutman
Joshua Kronengolh
Julian Lighton

A day or so before the session, I sent out the usual "See you all at the game" email. This generally results in utter silence, followed by everyone showing up pretty much on time. Startled me the first couple of times, but I quickly got used to it.

This time, Dave emailed to say that he must have dropped the ball or missed an email, but he hadn't been aware there was a session, and he was cross scheduled. Pamela said she'd have to show up late. I asked if I should go ahead and run, or cancel.

Beth said canceling was the way to go -- unless we thought it'd make sense to do Niccolo's side trip to Italy. I'd been pondering that option myself, and Josh had, too. Julian said that he wanted to be sure Dave was cool with this, but wasn't about to object if Dave were. Dave okayed it, and I figured that we would basically focus on Niccolo, not touch anything involving Andreas (most of the non-Niccolo stuff), and have the other players play the various demons Niccolo was attempting to banish.

It seemed to make sense. After all, Niccolo was going off on his own, and I wasn't sure how well that would combine with a regular session in the first place. At the same time, we wanted to see what would happen when Niccolo went on a banishing spree. This seemed an opportune time to find out.

In retrospect, I probably should've said to cancel once Dave couldn't make it. With nobody else able to do anything because Andreas isn't available, the session becomes the Niccolo Show, and lives or dies on my ability to make it entertaining.

And I'm not up to it. Yeah, there were other factors, but still, I dropped the ball a few times.

It also means that the GM can't cut away to regroup if things aren't going well.

I'm also pretty sure I could have communicated Niccolo's motivations better, giving you more hooks on which he can get tangled up.

Now, the rule of thumb in my circles tends to be: When you have four or more players, say four to six, (not including GM) it's okay to run if one player can't make it, but once two can't, cancel the session. This is a reasonable rule for the NYC workforce gamers, as scheduling tends to be tricky, and once we've got a schedule planned, it's really a bummer to cancel it.

However, this is not a good rule of thumb for Sorcerer. We all knew this. The reason we decided to run anyway was that Julian's plans for Niccolo felt easy enough to separate from a regular session. I think it was still the correct call, but more because of the learning experience than for the reason we actually did it.

It is also worth noting that Sorcerer is better run with fewer than five players. Three plus GM feels ideal. In general, the more players you have, the trickier it is to balance limelight, gm attention and the like, and Sorcerer tends to to encourage both a lot of PCs doing their own thing, rather than acting as part of a group. You're supposed to be engaged in other people's scenes, even when you don't have a character there, something trickier to pull off as the number of players gets larger.

Another factor was that not everyone realized they'd be playing pretty much exclusively demons.

This was a framing issue.

I think the other players assumed that by "the players will play the people in Italy" that we'd be protagonists in Italy, not just the monsters in fight scenes.

As one-off monsters, we didn't have a protagonist nature -- we couldn't drive the story in any reasonable fashion -- which both reduced our interest in the game and made it impossible for us to pick up the slack when you and Lisa were lacking.

Julian was playing Niccolo di Tarci, a talented artist who would want to be Leonardo da Vinci if he'd ever heard of him. He had summoned a Possessor demon into Teresa, the daughter of his patron, and was horrified by what he'd done, and doing his best to avoid deciding what to do with his now pregnant demon. Teresa's Need is physical intimacy; her Desire is Love. Niccolo has been meeting her Need, but not her Desire.

Niccolo learned sorcery from a fragmentary manuscript. He later learned that this belonged to Teresa's brother, Marcello, who used it to summon Possessors into his children. Upon seeing one such child, Renato, and learning that there were seven more, Niccolo decided to Do Something about this. He would Summon a Passer horse demon by painting a horse, then breaking the painting. It was a bit more complicated than that in practice, and Josh's character, Sebastian, helped.

Julian lost the initial Contact roll, and we decided that, rather than roll again with ever increasing penalties as Niccolo attempted a task we all wanted him to succeed at and without which there would be no story, the failure meant that the horse wouldn't be exactly what Niccolo wanted. Josh said that it might be the spirit of Marcello, but Julian didn't like that idea, and I thought that it was the wrong kind of animal for Marcello to be. I did agree that a demon possessing an animal probably had once been a human. I know who the human who is now a possessor demon was, and gave a single clue: It doesn't like Sebastian.

This actually opened up a can of worms, given individual expectations, how assumptions changed during the game, and how information failed to get communicated. That's an issue for another time, though, and seems to have been largely resolved via talking things over between sessions to see what the player level expectations, desires, and, most importantly, anti-desires were.

Julian said that the horse's Desire was to be admired and that I should feel free to impose a non-wimpy Need. I had one idea, and Josh came up with a couple more. This was a horse that could travel to Italy in a night. Perhaps it needed to travel 100 miles a night? Or perhaps it needed to see a new place?

The idea we all liked best was my original idea. Created from a painting of a horse, the demon Needed to be touched up every night. Josh pointed out that this added the complication of doing this privately. I pointed out that the horse could want ever fancier and more expensive decorations. Julian pointed out that Teresa was, after all, providing a non-wimpy need, and we decided to go with the themtically appropriate Need: To be touched up.

Julian said the demon would be named after the man who died bringing the news of the victory at Marathon. Josh looked this up on the internet connection on his Sidekick, and the horse was dubbed Phaidippides.

Niccolo went with Teresa and Phaidippides to the house  where he'd left Marcello's wife, Bianca, and her child, Renato. Julian reminded me that Niccolo had turned the house into a contain for the demon. I had only a hazy memory of this and rolled to see if Renato had broken the contain. He had.

I think that having the binding be broken was probably a mistake - it forced me to tie up the loose end first, rather than come back home, relieved that the worst of it was over, and find out that the kid was gone. (Or something, but it's the most obvious complication.)

Mm, point. I was thinking Renato should have used his power to know what was up, but a) no need for that and b) that power is Hint, conferred on Bianca, who gets subjected to Cordy-like painful visionity, and the contain wouldn't have prevented that.

For those not familiar with the tv show Angel, there was a character, Cordelia, who got visions. When having one, she was in great physical pain.

The problem here was that, as I'd forgotten a detail, I was making a snap, rather than a thought out, decision, and I made the wrong one.

Finding the Contain broken gave Niccolo an increased sense of urgency, and this flavored his dealings with Bianca, and hence, how I played Bianca. I'd inadvertently thrown us off kilter, and the effect was increasing.

So, Niccolo had to deal with Bianca, as she knew where the rest of the kids were. This is what Julian believed, and he believed it because I had decided it was true.

Only, there was no need for it to be. As things went further south, I realized that Teresa, who had Cover: Teresa, might well know where her brother's house was and where his mistresses lived. I used this idea later on.

There was, I think. If I can avoid dealing with Bianca at all, there's a lot less punch to it all.

But right then, Niccolo was dealing with Bianca, trying to find out where her other kids were and duck her questions of what would become of them. This, ah, inspired (?) me to make Bianca suddenly protective of her demon children, where I'd previously played her as terrified of them.

As Bianca grew more concerned, Niccolo made a decision.

Niccolo: I might as well start here.

He went into the house, closing the door behind him, and tried a snapshot banish.

At this point, I handed Beth the card with Renato's stats and gave Josh Teresa. I played Bianca. Her first action was to open the door, and she succeeded in this.

However, the others remained locked in stalemate. Teresa kept Renato from being effective, but Niccolo kept failing his attempts to banish Renato. Bianca remained generally ineffective.

I think the usual situation was more like:

Niccolo beats Renato in the timing, because the snap-shot banish has a fair number of dice.

Renato aborts to defense, and easily fails to be banished.

Teresa does something in there, but it's not usually effective. She used Confuse a few times, but since it doesn't stop defense, it didn't do anything.

Rinse, lather, repeat, scream in pain.

After far too long of this, we remembered the key words: Conflict Resolution. Stakes. It wasn't about whether Niccolo banished the demon. It was about whether Niccolo banished the demon without killing the 2-year-old child in the process. We liked this much better.

Niccolo banished the demon, but the child died. This satisfied all of us. Okay, it didn't please Niccolo, but that was fine.

Title: [Sorcerer] Our Eighth Session: Part Two
Post by: Lisa Padol on May 14, 2006, 01:29:58 PM
Once we did kick the rules to the curb and shift into actual conflict resolution mode, we failed to stick with it. We actually set good stakes (Do I get rid of the demon without just killing the body), but we were so burned by the pointless die-rolling that preceded it that we didn't run with them and deal with the consequences, it was just "yay! conflict's over!" We later dropped straight back into task resolution.

Lesson learned: set explicit stakes. A lot. If we're not setting stakes, it ought to be because they're clear and it's obvious we'll be resolving them quickly.

Lesson learned: Set Stakes. Use Conflict Resolution. Make the combat fun.

Now, this and the fact that using the system as writ in the core book alone (as opposed to the core book plus the supplements and the online apparatus) was simply not viable for me was something that I needed a session like this to see. That is:

Normally, I have five players and several plotlines, and I cut back and forth between them, and my default assumption is that any problems with combat is due to my not being a good combat GM, and to the general confusion of there being, well, five players and several plotlines, and much of my brain focusing on cutting between them.

This time, I had one plot line. I was running the easiest character to run, the helpless Bianca. We had three copies of the core rule book. I had three players who internalize mechanics better than I did. The only time anything was unclear was when we tried to decided how much Teresa's "Fast" should let her get away with.

Yes, I now know that it's in the wiki here: ( The wiki is helpful, but is not a substitute for the text, especially during actual play, where pulling the Internet out of one's pocket, even when feasible, is awkward, nor does it validate problems with the text. There is no way any of us would have derived what was in the wiki from the text.

"Fast" aside, any time I had a question about the rules, Beth, Julian, or Josh had the answer to hand. We did free and clears, we rolled the dice, and we knew pretty much exactly what was going on.

And, it was awful. It was utterly no fun. And, I had to see this in action to understand that it wasn't solely due to my lack of tolerance for crunchy bits. I had to see this in action to understand on a visceral level the need for stakes. This is part of why it is vital to give lots of examples in games, especially when introducing new concepts. If you don't hammer a point home with examples, it isn't easy to remember to apply it, to figure out how to apply it, und so weiter.

On the plus side, this was one lesson that seemed to carry to the following session, where Josh praised me for not having any pointless die rolling.

On the minus side, I'm finding the comparison of die numbers becoming an ever greater annoyance. I'm curious to know what size die other groups use. We are sticking with d10s for this campaign, but I'm likely to switch to d6s next time.

As the combat / banishment was resolved, I made a decision that may have been utterly wrong, essentially by fiat allowing Bianca to ride off to Italy on Niccolo's horse.

I think so, mostly because of the horse, not because of the situation it created.

Of course, I don't know what my botched contact roll got me, so it could be quite appropriate.

Josh's theory was that Bianca said to it, "Oh, what a beautiful horse! If only you could carry me to Italy overnight, you would be the best horse in the world!"

I'm not sure, but it gives more of a justification than I did.

The horse carried Bianca to her home in Italy, where she sent all the servants away and told the children to hide from the bad man coming to hurt them. Phaidippides then returned to Niccolo, and happily carried him and Teresa to Bianca's house. However, this meant that Niccolo was forced to walk into a situation with three demons and poor chances of snap shot rituals.

Or, you know, have a plan.

Oh yeah. Indecisive.

"Indecisive" is Niccolo's price.

By now, Pamela had arrived. Three demons, three players who weren't Julian. So, I handed out cards. Beth got Giovanni, the five year old possessed by a Fly spirit. Giovanni stuck to the ceiling and waited.

Josh got Maria, the three year old possessed by a worm demon, whose need was to dig. Josh looked at the situation and made the logical decision: Maria went into the tunnels she'd dug and kept digging, happily out of reach of Niccolo.

Pamela got Antonio, the four year old possessed by a cat demon. Antonio was sulky. Need: Attention. Desire: Praise. Antonio had been getting far too little of either, as, even before Marcello went to Vindabona and got murdered, he was neglecting Antonio for all of the new demons he was summoning up.

Pamela: Hm, I don't know if I want to work with the others.

Julian noted that Antonio's logical course of action was to run away before Niccolo arrived, and Pamela agreed.

So, Niccolo and Teresa were only facing Giovanni and Bianca. Niccolo had prepared a few Contains, but had no chance to use them. He tried to grab Bianca, failing to notice Giovanni until Giovanni spit caustic saliva at Niccolo, doing a lot of damage. How much? Ah, that was a good question.

Julian thought at the time that odds were that Giovanni's was enough damage that Niccolo should be dead. This was a problem because, on the one hand, I wanted to avoid the cheat of saying, "Well, it actually isn't as bad as the rules say", but on the other, Niccolo dying in this way would have been dramatically dull. This session was intended to be for clearing up a side plot. Then, someone asked the key question: Did Giovanni's attack do lethal or non-lethal damage?

Lisa: It does Special Damage.

Julian: Yes, but Special Lethal or Special Non-Lethal?

Lisa (blankly): Huh?

We looked at the index card. It said, "Special Damage". My brain had lumped all Freaky Demony Damage into its own category of Special. Well, as I hadn't specified which it was, I made what I considered a fiat ruling, and said it was non-lethal damage. I wasn't satisfied with this, considering it the least bad ruling, but not an actually good ruling.

Feh. You made a good call. Things were going south, and you had an out to fix it.

(Anyway, the entire system has a heavy fiat element, it's just hidden behind 'bonus dice'.)

Okay, I'll take that out.

Julian later noted that lethal damage probably wouldn't have killed Niccolo. Regardless, this gets into the issue of demon calibration, something I hadn't actually considered before. A bit more on that later.

In any case, Giovanni hurt Niccolo badly. Teresa grabbed Bianca.

Teresa: I'll let your person go, and you'll let mine go.

Giovanni: If you come back, I kill him.

Phaiddipides carried the two away. As Niccolo recovered, he and Teresa agreed that perhaps burning down the house would be a good solution.

This was good. It's very in-character for Teresa. She doesn't give a damn about Antonio. She just wants to keep her pet sorcerer alive, at least until she can dump him for somebody more likely to give her what she wants.

If anything, she should be resisting making a second attempt a lot more than she seems to be.

I also think that the scene was improved by having others play the demons.

Yes. Josh and Pamela made reasonable decisions for their demons, and Beth made a sensible tactical decision for hers that kicked my ass.

Niccolo and Teresa now went to find Marcello's mistresses, and I decided that Teresa did know where they were. On reading that last sentence, Julian said that he'd assumed Niccolo had already extracted that information from Bianca. Either way, we all knew Niccolo had to know where they were, and no one was worrying about how he'd learned this.

Mistress #1, Bella, eagerly handed kids to Niccolo when he claimed to have come from Marcello's father. She said that the children had, ah, special needs. Niccolo said that he was aware of this, and agreed with Bella's suggestion of bringing them to a church.

This he did, using two of his Contains. The contains were in the form of nets. One child was possessed by a trout spirit and had gills. The other was possessed by a horse spirit and had hooves. The Contain with the trout Possessor held, and Niccolo banished the demon, winding up with a corpse, as Teresa had long ago told him would happen. The other Contain didn't hold, and the horse Possessor ran away. Niccolo told Phaidippides to go after and kill the runaway demon. We decided that, as this was offstage, I could fiat declare it worked.

Horse is faster and has special damage (lethal). Rolling dice would be pointless and tedious, unless that kid was way tougher than I think it was. Say yes or roll the dice.

Niccolo buried the bodies. He and Teresa went to the home of Mistress #2, Flora. She had twins, and said that she didn't think that Marcello's father owed it to her to take in the children after his son's death. Niccolo pressed, especially when she said that one of the children would probably die soon. This was possessed by a sparrow spirit, and the Need was to feed from Marcello's mouth. Niccolo said that this was all the more reason that Marcello's father should see them. Flora thought about this, then agreed, and made it clear that she was going to accompany the infants.

Flora's agenda changed many times during her interaction with Niccolo. When she first heard of Marcello's death, she planned to hold on to the kids and try to figure out how to bind them to her. When Niccolo insisted on bringing them to Marcello's father, she decided that this might give her a chance to carry out Marcello's plan of disposing of his father.

Niccolo did not guess the specifics, but he wasn't about to leave matters to chance. He made Phaiddipides keep to a pace that Flora's horse could keep up with, and everyone rode until nightfall. Then, they took two rooms in an inn, one for Flora, Teresa, and the children; the other for Niccolo. Teresa waited until Flora was asleep, then brought the children to Niccolo. Niccolo successfully banished both. Again, there were two dead children, further supporting Teresa's claim. Note that this was not a question of stakes, but of how banishing a Possessor worked.

Niccolo had Teresa bring the children to his room, then told Flora, who, IIRC, had woken up and left her room by now, that Teresa had gone for a doctor, as the children were very ill. Flora asked where the children were, and Niccolo told her that they were in his room. He probably should have told her that Teresa had taken them with her.

Flora naturally wanted to see the children. Niccolo let her into his room and switched strategy, having determined that she wasn't especially attached to the demon-possessed kids. He leveled with Flora, mostly, leaving out some personal stuff. Flora decided that she was willing to switch allegiances and back Niccolo, until he convinced her that he had no workable plan.

He specializes in it.

He wasn't willing to go to Marcello's father until he'd dealt with Bianca's demons, but he described no viable plan for doing so. He told Flora to go home for now. She departed.

Niccolo and Teresa went to the stables where Phaiddipides was. The horse told him which road Flora had taken. It was not the road to her home. It was the road to the estate of Teresa's and Marcello's father. Teresa and Niccolo mounted Phaidippides, and they quickly overtook Flora. We agreed to cut here.

In retrospect, I don't think things went as badly as they might have. It was mostly that the first fight sucked all the energy out of the game, and we never got back on track.

Anyway, on to fixing the communication gap:

Niccolo feels that he's wronged Antonio Mantuo. He has, but Niccolo's actually taking on more guilt than he deserves. As far as he's concerned, the problem is his responsibility, and so he has to fix it himself.

Antonio's also about to recieve some rather upsetting news about Marcello and Leonardo. Niccolo doesn't want to add to that burden. ("Hi, one son is dead, another is horribly changed forever. Oh yeah, and your grandkids are horrible monsters that want to kill you.")

He's got two main goals for his desired conversation with Antonio:

- Break the news about Marcello and Leonardo himself.

- Apologize for having so wronged a man who did nothing to him. He doesn't want forgiveness - he doesn't think he deserves it - but he wants to apologize.

(There's also a third issue that could potentially come up - Teresa and the child. No idea if it will, or how that one will go. Niccolo could help Antonio save some face on the subject.)

And all of this is also a great way to avoid confronting the one problem that he really needs to.

Hm. And I'm noting -- not saying it will or won't be an issue -- that none of the above addresses the getting out alive issue either.

It doesn't?

Gee. I'd never noticed...


(Also, when he's this fixated on dealing with a problem he feels he's responsible for, he's got a lot more potential for humanity loss. I don't think it will matter if the servants are back at Bianca's home when he gets there - he's going to torch it anyway, to flush out the demons. (And if he ever resolves to deal with Teresa, anything that gets in his way is going to need to look out.))

A couple of other issues that came up:

1. The way the session warped when Bianca went from a fearful woman who saw Niccolo as a potential savior to someone to defend her demon-possessed children against.

-- {Julian}
When Bianca went crazy-maternal over the demon kids, it kind of threw the pacing off, forcing Niccolo to deal with the demons before making his peace with Antonio (or, more likely, failing to do so). Now, nothing says I ought to get to set the pacing the way I want it to go, but you probably could have monkeywrenched more effectively if you'd known my general plans.

Perhaps. I might still have made the mistake. Bianca shouldn't have gone maternal, because it messed up the pacing and the fun. This might well not have happened if the contain hadn't been broken, and there was no real reason to do that, and I wonder if I'd have been more on the ball if I hadn't had to be reminded that there was a contain in the first place.

I'm not going to say she shouldn't have done so.

It wasn't handled right, though. It could have worked better.

Lesson: Prep carefully enough that when you change what an NPC is up to, it flows from the right things -- drama, immersion, logic of story, need of plot -- whatever criteria you are using. It doesn't matter which set you use so long as you're using something that works for your group. "Prep" can mean prepping before the session, but can also mean taking a minute before doing something in session.

2. The demons were too powerful.

I think you overstatted the demons. A non-combat character, assisted by his non-combat demon, is trying to take them out without outside assistance. Banishes are almost always going to be snap-shot, as demons aren't going to sit around to be banished, and Niccolo's not good enough a sorcerer to contain them first. High-power demons, even if they're not all that effective, turn into walls he runs up against.

I did overstat. Looking at the reasons, so I avoid this:

I know a bit about how to calibrate the humans, but not how to calibrate the demons.

I based them on what Marcello might want, without regard to the game effect.

Once one gives them X abilities, Lore, Will, and Power have set minimums, which is intentional, but was a pain here, and I should've taken that into account.

(Actually, it forces him to kill them physically. Or vice versa, and Niccolo getting killed here is going to feel like a letdown unless you're pretty clever about it - his story revolves around Teresa too much. Of course, if she sells him out here...)

Lesson: I need to learn how to calibrate demons. When I started running Sorcerer, I asked for a quick-and-dirty way of calibrating NPCs. I got one, and it has worked very well. How do I calibrate demons?

If you want snapshot banishes to be possible, the demon's power+will needs to be in the vicinity of the sorcerer's humanity.

3. The demons were too monstrous for the feel we had been going for.

I think you also made the demons too monstrous. Dealing with the kiddie demons feels to me like it should almost be secondary, and the fallout from doing so ought to be in the foreground. When the demons are obviously inhuman, it makes the fallout too weak. Renato seemed right - not really inhuman at all, just subtly wrong. It would make the 'kill them directly' option much more horrifying.

Mnn. Yes. The monsterous part here is killing kids.  Making them too much like monsters makes this too easy.

Hm. I should have had horse boy and fish boy try talking Niccolo out of the banishing, rather than having horse boy run. But yes, I had too much fun making creepy kiddies.

Lesson: Look at the context. Don't do what's Generally Cool. Do what is Cool for This Game, These People.

A couple more notes from Julian:

Still, there's a lot of meat available in the situation as it stands. Bianca's a big obstacle, and dealing with her has plenty of fallout potential. Antonio still remains to be dealt with, and Niccolo wants to stop Mistress #2, and has no good way to do so, because the reasons he wants to in the first place are really crappy. Then there's the demon that ran away. And Teresa, and all the ways his relationship with her can go further south, whether or not one of the kids survives a banish.

Hope this helps.

I've got a half-assed plan. I've got some prepped contains. I've got two demons to help me. It's all going to go horribly, horribly wrong, but there's no problem there. I think we have enough of a handle on why the last session went wrong that it won't happen that way again. (Conflict resolution, conflict resolution, conflict resolution. No endless combats of continual failure.)