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Title: [June Retreat 2007 – Sorcerer I] Victorian London - Disconnects and game death
Post by: JMendes on July 21, 2007, 10:56:27 AM
Hello, all, :)

This is the second of my long series of posts on the games we played during our eleven-day RPG retreat.

(The first one was on PTA and lives here ( And in case you care, a full list of accounts, with links, will surface here (

We actually played two different games of Sorcerer during those eleven days. In this post, I want to talk about the first one, which died a horrible, horrible death, at a point where virtually everybody at the table was disconnected from the game.

Fortunately, we're all hardy folks, and the second game went much more smoothly, but that's the subject for another thread.

On to the setup:

Even though we were all relative newbies at Sorcerer, we decided to construct a setting. We did this because we had a setting preparation session for other games we were going to take to the retreat, namely PtA and Mortal Coil, and we had a vague notion, from reading the book one too few times, that Sorcerer was a game that required this of the players.

We decided to set our game in Victorian London, with all its high society and propriety rules and its penchant for intrigue and behind-the-scenes manipulation, which really seemed ideal for the concept of the game. (How wrong we were, how naive...)

As we discussed possible definitions for Humanity, an "anti-vanilla" sentiment arose around the table (and I'm using "vanilla" in its prosaic meaning of "standard", rather than the forge technical meaning of "high points of contact"), and so we quickly discarded the usual concept of empathy and soul and whatnot. In figuring out what makes a person human in Victorian society, we arrived at the concept of Humanity as Social Integration, which includes public face, as well as a sense of belonging, and it seemed to fit well.

From there, the definition of Sorcery as consisting of highly impure and dirty rituals, involving various bodily fluids, was natural and immediate.

At a loss as to the true nature of Demons, we settled on half-baked angry spirits from ancient civilizations.

Right off the bat, we were going against advice in the book, in two important ways. One, as relative newcomers to the game, we really should hae stuck to the default modern setting. Two, the definitions of Humanity and Sorcery and the nature of Demons really ought to be considered as part of the situation, or in other words, as part of prep, meaning although I, as GM, may take input from the other players, ultimately, these decisions are my responsibility, as I am the one faced with the obligation of banging the players within the framework that these definitions create.

The characters:

Ana, my wife, played Cecilia Harsgrove, an aristocratic socialte, introduced into the mysteries of Sorcery by her very own grandmother. Her cover was that of a high society belle, with many suitors among the rich and powerful. As a woman, Cecilia was driven by a strong desire for personal independence, and her kicker was that her grandmother informed her that a powerful foreign sorcerer was trying to take over the Harsgrove estate, an opportunity created by the lack of male heirs to the property. Cecilia's initial demon was Athekanon, an object demon in the form of a large green emerald incrusted in a golden necklace, who desires to be polished nightly under the moonlight, and needs a drop of Cecilia's blood every morning.

Cecilia's back of the sheet detailed a number of suitors, included their relationships to each other, a few members of their families, a few friends, and the turkish merchant who was pursuing the acquisition of the estate. A nice final touch was the inclusion of a rejected ex-suitor.

António played Dr. Vincent Moore, a physician with an office in a local hospital and a frequent presence in high society circles. His cover, oddly enough, was that of a doctor. Vincent was full of contempt for other so-called "doctors" and wanted his own genius recognized for generations to come. His kicker was finding out that a powerful masonic society was hunting down and exterminating sorcerers, a situation he became aware of when he found a former competing sorcerer had just escaped from them, only to be admitted to the hospital, in a state of total lunacy. Vincent's initial demon was Sasteth, an object demon in the form of a set of ragged, dirty, used old bandages, whose desire is to be stretched out and re-rolled-up on a daily basis, and whose need was to have a small amount of human flesh tossed into the middle of the bandages.

Vincent's back of the sheet detailed a number of persons at the hospital, a bad relationship with Myrtle Harsgrove, Cecilia's grandmother and Vincent's former master, the now crazy ex-rival, who happened to be a police detective, and a number of police constables and other detectives, involved in the investigation of his rival's mishap, and suspecting of Vincent's involvement in the matter.

Diogo played John Smythe. (Yes, he has a problem with names, and all his characters end up as variations of John Smith.) Anyway, John was a young, independently wealthy and rather good looking bachelor, whose fortune is based on a number of different business enterprises owned and operated by his family. His cover was that of a socially competent dilletante. John was extremly vain, to be point of wishing to be immortalized as the most beautiful being on the planet. His kicker, however, was that he discovered that a mysterious company was screwing with his family businesses, having just driven one of his import-export firms into bankrupcy. His initial demon was Salaresh, a parasitic being that lived in his blood, with a desire for sensual gratification and a need to bathe in human blood.

John's back of the sheet integrated a lot of people already in the back of the other two players' sheets, specifically creating opposing relationships with them. For instance, Cecilia's rejected suitor became John's best friend. As well, Diogo went the extra mile in specifying the relationship between the PCs, saying that Cecilia was a cool gal who knows lots of stuff, and that Vincent was his supplier of human blood to bathe in. Beyond that, the sheet also detailed a creditor to the Smythe family who wanted his money back, a irrelevant man who hated him for sleeping with his wife, and a weird and spooky guy who worked for the aforementioned aggressive and mysterious company.

Three interesting points of note: one, the kickers and back sheets of all players were ripe with conflict and bang material for me to make use of; two, all those conflicts and potential bangs were extremely disconnected from each other, and it fell to me to create a cohesive story out of the jubled mess, a task which was actually easier that it seems, but whose fruits were mercilessly discarded when the game died its horrid death; and three, virtually all the characters went with demons incapable of independent action, a move they no doubt considered tactically sound, but which proved to be a severe limitation on their actions later on.

The game:

Because the game was about high society, I started it off with a high society party. Everybody who was anybody who was listed at the back of any of the sheets was there. It was hosted by one Ali Baroush, an arab, who was conspicuous for his absence at his own party. I used the party as an excuse to actually frame the scenes where each of the PCs is given the information that actually comprises the kicker, which worked well, and to establish the seeds for the conflicts I intended to frame throughout the game.

A number of scenes followed where the PCs were trying to find out more information on their particular predicament and trying to decide where to go next. I took cues from their investigative efforts in order to flesh out the source of the adversity, then proceeded to my first big confrontation scene.

I knew that John was headed for Cecilia's house in order to share relevant information and build a plan of action. I also knew that John had arranged to meet with Vincent later that night. So, I had John see a number of shady characters staking out the Harsgrove mantion, waiting for an opportunity to break in and thrash the place. In response, Diogo had his character send a message to António's character, via London's unique small boy messenger service ("may I have a sixpence, sir"), and decided to stay out of sight, to figure out how things would play out.

As the shady characters were still waiting for an opportunity to act, I had Vincent receive the message and expected some kind of active reaction from him, which António never materialized. Now, in many circumstances, this would have been a perfectly valid choice, but as it was, it was the first symptom of the massive disconnect which was to follow. This will become obvious later on, but bear with me for now.

As soon as it became obvious that António wasn't going to involve his character, I had the shady dudes make their move. They knocked on the door to the mantion and quickly punched the buttler's lights out. One of them then stood guard by the door, while the other two rushed into the room where Cecilia and her grandmother were awaiting John's visit. Once there, they proceeded to menace the two ladies into compliance with the turkish merchant's desires for acquisition. As expected, Cecilia resisted these threats, and I had the situation escalate to physical confrontation. At this point, I had John become aware of said escalation, and in response, Diogo had his character engage the door guard.

The fight was a naturally unbalanced one, in the favor of the shady dudes, and although a bit of extra luck on the part of the PCs might have won them the day, the dice were entirely average on the whole, and so Cecilia's character quickly converged to zero dice. At this point, having no desire to impart permanent damage on her, I had the dudes state their purpose once more and prepare to leave. Ana viewed this as a clear affront on her dignity (and thus on her public face, and thus, on her humanity) and summoned up the will to lunge at the trespassers once more. Again, extra luck might have won her the day, but it was not to be, and in response, I had the dudes give her a very thorough thrashing, leaving her with some lasting bruises and perhaps a broken bone or two. By this time, John was finally able to dispose of the door guard, but it was too late for him to be of any real help to Cecilia.

Death of a session:

Throughout the whole fight, Ana was very much engaged with the dice, with a vague lok of desperation in her face. I interpreted this as her living her character's desperate situation very intensely, and that was one of the worst misreadsever, in my long and distinguished RPG career. The expression on her face was actually the externalization of her extreme feeling of deprotagonization at having her character in so optionless a situation. After the last round of battle, when Cecilia was finally utterly defeated, Ana stood up, turned to me and said, "what the hell am I supposed to do now", and I had no idea what she was talking about.

What I saw was a woman who was willing to risk extreme bodily injury in order to protect her public image. What Ana saw was a woman who was forced to fight a fight she could not win. I saw a very cool statement at the table, Ana saw a no-way-out situation that was bound to result in the loss of her character.

In the meantime, António was sitting there, pleased with himself at having "accurately saved his character from combat", but oddly puzzling at how exactly it was that the in-game events were possible at all. Where was the police? Where were the rest of the household staff? What was the grandmother doing?

Lastly, Diogo was trying to figure out how it was that they had managed to lose "the encounter", and how it was that they could have built more mechanical effectiveness into their characters, when the point of the fight wasn't win or lose at all.

The "game" then transformed into a ten-minute out-of-character discussion about the nature of that scene, which actually got bitter at a point or two, after which the fabric of the game was utterly destroyed, and which ultimately lead to us simply abandoning the game in favor of a session of conversation about the underlying assumptions in Sorcerer.

Sources of disconnect:

In the following paragraphs, I'll try to detail the various sources of disconnect that converged on that particular scene. I should note, however, that because some time has passed, it is entirely possible that my account is not all that accurate.

One of the points of Sorcerer is that violent confrontation is a part of the game. Checking for combat readiness, in fact, is one of the steps in character creation. However, António was thoroughly convinced that combat was extremely lethal, and so, he built his character to be as adverse to combat as posible, and as adept at avoiding it as possible. His decision not to engage with the scene at the Harsgrove mantion was ultimately motivated by this, rather than by a conscious decision to see what the consequences of his absence would be.

By the same token, Ana became thoroughly convinced that Cecilia was lost as a character, because of the massive damage she took during the fight. These expectations were supported by a number of years of playing games with detailed combat and injury subsystems, in which a loss of hit points is invariably lethal. As a result she became hurt with such an arbitrary show of force on my part, which, in her mind, basically invalidated all the effort she put into the background and characterisation of Cecilia Harsgrove.

Even after I explained to Ana that the actual long-term consequences of that fight were a lot softer than would appear, she was still somewhat angry with me at having thrown such a hard and unbalanced fight at her. Again, this was borne from a long number of years of playing RPGs where conflilct is strictly combat-based and where balance is the word du jour.

By the same token, Diogo was trying to find out what he could have done to win that fight, thinking he had failed some sort of tactical challenge that was never on the table. In my mind, the characters all had a lot of options, namely fight or flight, simple submission, or even an attempt at feigning said submission, but both Diogo and Ana were looking at the fight as a traditional encounter.

What I had in mind was simply tough opposition, against which a fight was one but certainly not the only option, although all other options were perhaps less palatable. In my mind, I was asking them, "how far are you willing to go not to fight", and they were answering "not that far at all", which was all well and good, but was going to have some serious consequences. Only, instead of looking at the actual consequences, they were fixating on the fact that they had lost the fight.

Finally, there was the general disconnect at the table on the intended role of various NPCs. To my mind, Sorcerer NPCs will never be a resource available to the PCs to solve their problems. Rather, they will be a source of motivation or a source of adversity, and if ever some NPC becomes available to help with a problem, then that means that's not the real problem, rather just a side distraction, which the NPC is happy to take from the PC's hands. To me, this philosophy is necessary to create an atmosphere of tough choices for the players, and of hard consequences for those choices.

Both António and Ana, however, kept waiting for external help to arrive, in the form of the police or the rest of the household staff. Now, given enough time, it was certain that NPCs would arrive on the scene, but I framed the fight in a manner that enough time was simply not given. This was necessary to give Ana an opportunity to make a statement. If she could simply sit back and wait for the NPCs to solve the problem, there would be no statement to make. However, Ana was simply not looking to make a statement, at that point, and António was still much too gounded in the philosophy of "what the NPCs would do", and so they failed to connect to the events of the SIS, to a point that the Shared Imagined Space simply ceased to be shared at all.


After the discussion subsided, we adjourned from the table to the couch, for a more subdued conversation about what we wanted from a game of Sorcerer and what we expected from it. We all had enough interest in the game that we wanted to continue at it, but I no longer had a real connection to the prepped material to feel comfortable continuing to run that particular game. Plus, in order to remove from the situation any and all feelings of guilt and hurtfulness, I immediately withdrew the option to continue the game. I wanted to try again, but with a different game, a different set of assumptions, and different definitions of sorcery and humanity.

At first, Ana protested. Because she was the first to actually externalize her disconnect, she felt personally responsible for the demise of the game. But as soon as she understood why it was that I was killing it outright, and especially, as soon as she understood that basically, everybody was disconnected from everybody else, she was ok with this.

So, the rest of the night was spent reading excerpts from the book, discussing the implications of those excerpts, and basically, engaging in a sort of cathartic healing of the emotional flesh wounds that were caused by that scene and its subsequent arguments.

In conclusion:

Sorcerer is an altogether non-trivial game. The game author has said time and again that the game was written for people who already know how to play, and that is immediately apparent to anyone who reads it. Unfortunately, we, as a group, do not have access to people who already know how to play.

We're a stubborn bunch, however, willing to suffer through a few bad sessions in order to play the game right and experience the game in the way that the designer intended. If we were not, we would never have played PtA at this retreat, for instance, as our very first experiences ( with that particular game were exremely frustrating. But, we stuck with it, and now, the game is a consistent source of great fun for us.

So, and hopefully my post on our second Sorcerer game will demonstrate this, we're willing to learn. :)



Title: Re: [June Retreat 2007 – Sorcerer I] Victorian London - Disconnects and game dea
Post by: Ron Edwards on July 21, 2007, 11:16:57 AM

I have often been astonished at what the game teaches me, as I play it again and again. But I can also say now, with ten years' feedback of how the "map" of the game constantly re-encounters the "real world" of players, that I'm fortunate to have people like you and your friends be involved in the process.

One thing did stand out about the first part of preparation. I actually don't think that the full group-creation of the setting was a source of trouble, or at least not a major one ... but my concern lies with defining the demons and sorcery. My perception is that you and the rest of the group defined demons and sorcery as the way they are for that particular setting, as opposed only to defining their look and feel. The difference is subtle but important. Defining their look and feel, as well as a strong sense of what sorcery is like in terms of rituals and Color, permits an enormous amount of creativity and material for Story Now. But defining what they "really are" in the setting has an opposite effect - one of shutting creativity down and of associating "material" with GM prep to be funneled to the others during play.

However, all my perceptions about that may simply be a function of mis-reading your post or perhaps of a slight subtlety in phrasing that hasn't crossed the language boundary. Let me know if my point is relevant.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [June Retreat 2007 – Sorcerer I] Victorian London - Disconnects and game death
Post by: JMendes on July 22, 2007, 02:27:15 PM
Hey, Ron, :)

First off, thanks for chiming in.

In all honesty, I'm not sure if the point is relevant or not. Yes, your assessment of what it is we did is correct. However, the fact is that sorcery itself never really came up in that particular game. That fight scene was the first 'bang' I had for the players. The one assumption we all shared at the table is that summoning demons has a very high cost and you only go to it when you know exactly what it is you need the new demon for. Thus, the game simply died too soon for sorcery to become a factor.

Let me know if I made sense, and if there's anything else I can tell you.

Also, we're all glad to be a part of the process as well. :)


Title: Re: [June Retreat 2007 – Sorcerer I] Victorian London - Disconnects and game dea
Post by: Ron Edwards on July 22, 2007, 05:06:01 PM

No sorcery? I think I understand now. A quick fight scene for, effectively, no reason except to watch the characters' mechanics strut a little, is a common staple in certain forms of role-playing. It's a really bad idea in Sorcerer. Check out the older thread Running survivalist scenes in a Sorcerer "N" game ( If you substitute "fight" for "sandstorm," I think you'll see what I mean.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [June Retreat 2007 – Sorcerer I] Victorian London - Disconnects and game death
Post by: JMendes on July 23, 2007, 09:35:12 AM
Hey, Ron, :)

I understand what you're shooting at, but I think you're way off the mark. This wasn't a quick fight scene, and I had no intention of watching the mechanics strut.

For starters, it didn't even begin as a fight scene at all, although it certainly had a very high potential to escalate into one. The way I saw it, from the very start of the scene, the players had several options: flee, submit, attempt to negotiate, fight, or some other option I hadn't considered at all. Now, whether they realized they had options, depends on whether I communicated the situation effectively or not. In retrospect, that bit may well have been on me. But the scene was emphatically not, "let's just have a fight scene to see what happens", nor was it a "four weak guards pick a fight with you" flavor scene.

However, the "no sorcery" part seems to be significant, so I'll attempt to expand on it further. Before the scene in question, there were several scenes, about five or six, I think, where the characters were looking up several NPCs, trying to figure out what the relationship was, if any, between all of them, and between the PCs' various kickers. To me, the fact that they weren't using sorcery yet was no big deal. After all, they had yet to formulate a game plan as to how they were going to address their kickers, and none of us see sorcery as something you do just so you have two demons instead of one.

So, when the time felt right to me, I hit them with my first big bang, which was the scene in question. My thinking is, win or lose, if the opposition is significant enough, it will at least prompt (one of) them into seriously considering going to sorcery. Note also that it was never my intention to force them into sorcery, only to put them in the position to seriously consider it.


Title: Re: [June Retreat 2007 – Sorcerer I] Victorian London - Disconnects and game death
Post by: Ron Edwards on July 23, 2007, 12:49:14 PM
Hold on, hold on. I wasn't referring to that thread in reference to what you were expecting or doing during play. I am referring instead to the players' habits and their interpretation of those same events during play.

Furthermore, even if you all had discussed it in any way beforehand, these habits are very strong and automatic, in my experience. Does that make my point clearer?

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [June Retreat 2007 – Sorcerer I] Victorian London - Disconnects and game death
Post by: JMendes on July 23, 2007, 06:20:23 PM
Ahoy, :)

Maybe. Knowing the players, I have a strong suspicion that you're still off the mark, but I certainly can't be adamant about it.

I'm totally open to debating this point further, if you think it will be useful. However, I have a feeling the discussion might be more productive if I took your point at face value and asked you where you're going with it.

(Argh! In reading the above two paragraphs, there doesn't seem to be any way around the fact that I seem to be saying "you're wrong, and even if you're right, so what". Let me assure you that that's exactly what I mean, but in a totally really asking, non-defensive way. Also, I'm very thick-skinned, so don't feel that you have to hold back in any way.)

Also, I wanted to ask why the no sorcery bit was significant at all. No, the fight scene wasn't the very first scene, but still, it was relatively early in the game. In your experience, how early do you expect the typical knowledgeable Sorcerer player to turn to sorcery?


Title: Re: [June Retreat 2007 – Sorcerer I] Victorian London - Disconnects and game dea
Post by: Ron Edwards on July 24, 2007, 05:22:34 AM
There's no way for me to debate what is or isn't happening with members of your group. I'm not there. The only thing I'm doing is directing your attention to threads or issues that look like what you're describing with your group. If they fit, that's great; if they don't fit, that's great too. Please do not try to cast my posts into the form of a debate topic with you. I'm not posting in that fashion.

That also means that there is nowhere that I am going with these points, either. I'm not angling toward a particular conversational goal. If one or another point fits well for your group, then we can arrive at a meaningful goal together, but if they don't, then they don't. You can say "that doesn't fit" without having to defend yourself. It is not a matter of disagreement, defiance, or debate.

Regarding sorcery, I'm using the term very loosely: employing Lore in any way, commanding demons to do something interesting, spotting Telltales, and anything like that. It includes the rituals but is not confined to them. When a sorcerer game features extensive, full-group conflicts without any of that activity, I become a little bit interested - it's almost necessary to shy away from those features of the game in order not to include them.

Again, I am not stating or claiming that anyone in your group was shying away from sorcery (defined broadly) in that game. I am saying that, given the rules and the process of character creation, it's what I've observed to happen in games I've been in, and may or may not fit your situation. I'm offering it as an idea.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [June Retreat 2007 – Sorcerer I] Victorian London - Disconnects and game dea
Post by: JMendes on July 24, 2007, 05:55:13 PM
Ahey, :)



Regarding sorcery, I'm using the term very loosely: employing Lore in any way, commanding demons to do something interesting, spotting Telltales, and anything like that. It includes the rituals but is not confined to them.

Ah! Well... hmm... that... <blush and backtrack> ... yeah, there was some of that, especially the Lore and Telltale parts. As for commanding demons, not so much, because they all chose objects and parasites, which is something that struck me as odd and limitative at the time, so much so that I outright disallowed it in our second attempt.

So, back to your original point. I said earlier that your assessment of what we did was correct, and so, under this broader definition of sorcery, yes, your original point is relevant.

I have to confess, though, I have no idea what a definition of what they look and feel reads like. The various examples I've read, in the book or the forum, all sound a lot more definitional than descriptive, at least to my mind.

I also have no idea how (or even if) our definitions had any effect at all on what play looked like for those first few scenes.