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[Sorcerer] Introducing a New Player

Started by Bret Gillan, February 02, 2005, 07:57:53 AM

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Bret Gillan

My girlfriend Sarah is interested in checking out roleplaying games. She's a long-time writer who dabbled in some collaborative writing that sounds very much to me to be a roleplaying game. However, her first experience with a gaming group was an unpleasant D&D game. It put her off to gaming until she met me, and I described to her why I love games and what I feel a roleplaying game should be. She likes my philosophy of gaming (which is lifted almost entirely from the writings of Mr. Edwards) and wants to give it another shot.

Since she seems to be a hardcore narrativist in the making (or it might be more likely that she's been one for a long time and didn't know it), I chose to run Sorcerer for her re-introduction to gaming. Even though she doesn't have much of a basis for comparison, I thought she'd appreciate the control over the story that a Kicker gives her.

I decided to run with a "vanilla" Sorcerer setting, or as close as one can get to such a thing. The game will take place in the present in New Orleans, or rather my vague, impressionistic ideas about what New Orleans is like since I've never been there.

Sorcery itself is a recent discovery, deciphered from the ramblings of a madman who was haunted by strange phenomena in the 1850's. Rituals are accomplished by inscribing arcane symbols and speaking nigh-unpronounceable words which rend reality itself and bring forth horrific, mind-wrecking nightmares from some void beyond existance.

Humanity in this game represents the sorcerer's grip on reality and their sanity. The more contact they have with gibbering monstrosities or anything else that would damage an individual's psyche, the closer they come to becoming a gibbering (unplayable) psychotic. Banishing demons helps to restore an individual's sanity as they help restore sanity to reality itself. Intense psychotherapy can be of help here, too.

Demons are Lovecraftian creatures that are ancient, alien, and hungry.

Her character is Alana, a tough-minded and free-willed bicycle courier whose been making it on her own for quite awhile. She ended up falling in love with a young, neglected girl named Emma and taking her in to occasionally shelter her from the abuses of her alcoholic father. And then, Emma disappeared, "sold" by her father to pay off a debt. Alana then uses sorcery to find out what happened to the little girl she loves.

Things are a little cloudy here in that I'm not sure how or why her character was approached by her mentor to learn sorcery, but that can be cleared up next time I talk to her.

Her demon is Salomondeus, an Inconspicuous demon who takes the form of a bizarre, alien-looking necklace, occasionally slithering off of her to take on the shape of a tentacled, multi-eyed nightmare to feed or fight. The abilities he confers on her are mostly tied investigating and sneaking about. He feeds on Fresh Blood, and desires Mayhem.

So, since this is going to be her first (hopefully) non-crappy gaming experience ever, I want to do things right. All I really have in mind is that the purchaser of Emma is a near-insane, weak-willed sorcerer who simply exists to obey the powerful demon he's summoned.

The demon feeds on children and desires corruption, so he doesn't kill them right away. He holds them captive in the empty well that is his haven, urging them to do horrible things to each other, promising their release if they do. Most of them, as a result of his presence and the things he makes them do, go completely mad. This will be the state Emma will be in when and if Alana reaches her. I think Sarah is expecting her to be dead, but I thought this would be a more interesting problem for Alana to grapple with.

I'm also imagining the sorcerer appealing to Alana's pity and asking for aid. It'll be interesting to see whether she pities him or smacks him down for his involvement.

The only NPC of interest I can think of at the moment is a black market go-between, a back-alley slimeball who finds things that people need that they can't get legally and procures it for them. The sorcerer would be a regular client of his. He'll have several heavily-armed bodyguards on hand. Between this and the powerful demon, Alana's going to have her work cut out for her if she decides she wants to get violent.

Now, my worry is that this is a little too simplistic. While the real story will come from Alana and the choices she makes, I want to create a rich setting for her to interact with. So far I have a handful of NPCs and a pretty linear plot progression. Any ideas or suggestions for improvements I could make?


Sounds like the start of a great and fun game.  Can't wait to hear about how it plays out.

Quote from: Bret Gillan
So far I have a handful of NPCs and a pretty linear plot progression. Any ideas or suggestions for improvements I could make?

I'd suggest ditching the linear plot progression in lieu of bangs.

For example:

* Emma's older brother, a 12 year old kid who works for a local drug dealer as a look-out confides in Alana that he's been having bad dreams about her since she's gone.  He won't talk about where she was sent or why because he sees the family needing the money as his failure bu the might talk about the dream.

* A box drops off of Alana's bike and it turns out to be a box of pictures of dirty little local children, scabby with wounds, looking hungry and obviously abused.  She was to deliver them to an art dealer uptown.

* A social worker comes looking for Emma and talks to Alana about the little girl's whereabouts since the family won't talk.

* A co-worker down at the messenger dispatch is talking about a video of children viciously fighting in a dry well that has recently surfaced on the internet and one of the kids is Emma.

This way you have an easily changed to suit the direction of the adventure series of events that don't go in any particular order.  You can throw one out or make one the entire adventure.  There is no linear, giving your players the freedom to go in any direction they choose, with no wrong answer.

Does that make sense?

Good luck.

Eero Tuovinen

First: I love the idea behind the demon. Very creepy. But the rest...

Yeah, I could see adding a complication or two. However, more importantly, the set-up seems somewhat static to me. What do these NPCs actually do:
- Father of Emma has already done his worst.
- The sorcerer languishes as a slave to the demon.
- The demon sits over his well, content.
- The black market slimeball waits in his headquarters.
- The PC's demon waits for mayhem to happen.

This smacks somewhat of a passive, dungeon crawl set-up. The NPCs are there just waiting for the PC to come along. Nothing is happening before the party opens the door of the room.

What you need to do is work out a bandolier of bangs: ideas about situations where the setting comes to the PC, not the other way around. You see, the current set-up has the player doing things and you reacting, while the relationship should really be a two-way street. Think up ways to act (in your role as the rest of the world) in interesting ways, instead of preparing just props the player can act towards.

Also, the relationships between your NPCs are somewhat disparate. Let's see what relationships there are:
- The sorcerer hates the demon.
- The PC's demon serves the PC.
- ... that's it. The commercial relationship between the sorcerer and the slimeball doesn't count, because there's no passion in it. The sorcerer is just another client. Likewise the demon has no relationships, the PC's demon has no relationships, and the slimeball has no relatioships. Thus, apart from the sorcerer-demon duo, the building blocks of your scenario are connected very tenuously.

The result of such design is that your NPCs have very few degrees of freedom in action: they don't have motivations to act or react, really, apart from saving themselves from a PC-delivered beating. It all comes again down to events relevant to the PC: there aren't any. We see it in your own words:

The only NPC of interest I can think of at the moment is a black market go-between, a back-alley slimeball who finds things that people need that they can't get legally and procures it for them. The sorcerer would be a regular client of his. He'll have several heavily-armed bodyguards on hand. Between this and the powerful demon, Alana's going to have her work cut out for her if she decides she wants to get violent.

Read that again. That looks like you're protecting the plot against overly violent PCs! There's this order of scenes you have in your head, and you've metered out suitable challenges for the PC to meet on the way. We can do better than that, surely...

Let's spice up the set-up somewhat: add a couple of NPCs to connect the characters to each other, and work out some bangs, ideas about what those NPCs could do. Here's some random notions:

A couple of NPCs to offer more varied points of contact:
- One of those missing children has a father, a police detective. A heroic, somewhat hard-boiled guy, who's fervently trying to find his child. He's researched the human slave market for years, and already knows our black market slimeball for what he is. Somewhat low on humanity, perhaps. The perfect sidekick/romantic counterpart/contrast for Alana.
- The mentor of Alana's knows about the sorcerer, but has not done anything about the situation. Perhaps it's an old rivalry come to a head, or he has a deal with the demon to not interfere in exhange for something.

A couple of relationships to make the characters more interesting:
- Alana has to have some kind of relationship to the one who taught her sorcery. How does the peculiar nature of the world's sorcery affect the relationship? The mentor might well have been one of the original students of the guy who deciphered the first sorcery! The circles are still likely very small. What are the conditions under which sorcerers teach their secrets?
- The demon knows the mentor from years past, but the nature of the relationship remains to be seen.
- The slimeball fears and hates the sorcerer, and has awful dreams over what he imagines the sorcerer to be doing. He dares not do anything, because he's seen some magic.

Finally, some bangs. Judd's bangs are pretty sweet for the first part of the adventure (the video is one creepy idea), here's some more ideas focused on the relationships:
- After she makes some headway, Alana stumbles over the research of the detective, above. For example, she finds him brutally interrogating Emma's father, to find out the kidnapping ring. Will the two interpret each other's motives as hostile or useful?
- Alana finds her mentor's name as a hint: a web-page for an occult cult connected with the kidnappings, some of those textual documents Judd mentioned, or something like that, whatever route of investigation she chooses. How will she react?
- When Alana has already some notion of what's happened, the mentor reveals to her the dire danger the children are put into. The mentor approximates that Emma has perhaps a day or two to live before succumbing to ultimate madness and death. This "time limit" can then be put to good use, when Alana has to choose between speed and other considerations.
- The slimeball offers to sell the information on the sorcerer's den for a great deal of money. This is effectively an additional price ("Dirt poor" at -2 or even more) Alana has to take, unless she figures out some way of making money that doesn't mean selling her bike.
- When the situation has gone on for a while, the detective tries hitting on Alana. He sees her as being ultimately in the same situation he is, so it's no wonder his stressed mind works that out. He's married, but unhappy (Ever seen a hard-boiled detective happily married for long?). How does Alana react?
- As you yourself said, the sorcerer appealing to Alana's pity is a great bang. Nothing to add on that one. He might even send mysterious letters without the demon's knowledge, trying to help Alana to find the well.
- If Alana manages to seem threatening, the demon might offer her a binding. Will she take the peaceful way out, even when the demon is likely too much for her?
- If the situation goes on for multiple days, Alana's job might be threatened, especially if she opts to spend all her time in investigation. Likewise for her social life. If she chooses to bow out of the situation, throw in a really obvious clue to draw her back in.
- Don't forget Alana's demon: Salomondeus is pretty gross itself, so have the Need and Desire feature in appropriate situations. She should be put under pressure to choose whether to obey the demon, or to let it wait.

The point of the bandolier is that you don't have a linear plot, you only have potential situations. Just pick the most interesting ones for each slow moment, and no other plot is needed. I also suggest leaving the fate of Emma open, for now: it's much more interesting if you can let the player make the choice over her fate in the game. She might be rescued and allright, or traumatized, or completely cuckoo, or even dead, all depending on the choices and rolls the player makes. Also, don't forget to use the other children for contrast: while some survive, others do not.

Also, this kind of scenario has some danger of devolving into a clue-hunt mystery. I suggest that you should carefully think out if this is what you're going for. If it's not, make sure to have those bangs ready when the player gets stumped, or better yet, a little before that. Don't hesitate to feed the bangs through the PC as well: you can just tell of how she finds some clue, there's no need to roll for it or the player to take initiative for that. And some clues come to her without her action, as well.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Bret Gillan

Wow, you guys are amazing.

I realized I had a linear plot down and I desperately wanted some bangs but I was groping for them. I blame the fact that I'm back in college so my brain has been squeezed dry of all its awesomeness.

But now I'm practically swimming in bangs. Thanks a lot, guys. Hopefully I'll even be able to come up with my own at some point.


I'm sorry, Bret, I shouldn't have just vomitted out bangs but given advice on how to write 'em.  I apologize for being pushy.  Your e-mail inspired with your girlfriend's character concept and the NPC's were definitely inspiring.  You have good material to work with there.

I think your game is off to a great start.  Good luck with it.  Let us know how it goes.

Bret Gillan

It's never too late for advice. :) I'd appreciate it.

Ron Edwards

Hi Bret!

My apologies for not joining this thread sooner. This is right along the lines of what excites me about the hobby these days.

All of Judd's and Eero's advice is pure gold, and I hope that you are pretty comfortable with trying (a) lots of solid preparation but also (b) no pre-planned outcomes for any scene. You see, who  I'm concerned about isn't Sarah at all - it's you. All of my experiences with Sorcerer, and that's going on ten years plus now, suggest that newcomers to role-playing have no difficulty with it at all, but that most gamers are absolutely baffled - and unfortunately, that bafflement is hidden to them until the dice hit the table. They think they're all set, but they aren't, and in play, the net effect resembles brain damage. Yeah, it's that bad.

And this effect is most pronounced with GMs.

I know all about this because I'm no exception. From 1994 through 1998, my experiences with Sorcerer demonstrated to me that I was simply going to have to abandon most of the skills I'd developed in the previous decade and a half, and that all of my in-game practices about preparation and character and story were going to have to be re-tooled. Conceptually, I was on the right track - the various references and ideas currently expressed in my Narrativism essay were definitely my guiding aesthetic - but how to do it was ... not working. And every time I played Sorcerer, it worked a little better, often in spite of what I was trying to do at the interactive ground level.

All of the "but you didn't say it that way" objections to Sorcerer as a text are correct. That's because the game taught me, not the other way around. My answers to various queries, here in this forum over the last four years plus, are all derived from play-experience and were revelations to me at the time.

So I suggest that Sarah should be taken for granted as an effective, powerful, and prepared Sorcerer player, and that you should consider yourself to be, oh, a recovering crippled person, in terms of the game. Not very edifying, huh? I can only say that to you because that's how I had to consider myself in order to learn how to play this game.


Assuming that you're still speaking to me after what might seem like gratuitously insulting you ... here are some practical suggestions.

1. Take the back of the character sheet very seriously. If you don't quite see how to use it, ask, and I'll point you to some helpful threads. Without it, no game.

2. Check out the Art-Deco Melodrama threads in this forum. You can find them linked in the Actual Play page of the Sorcerer website. Lotta reading, but I'm told it's fun.

3. Try to find a third person. I think this is pretty important, because two-person dynamics within a couple are ... well, shall we say, loaded. Every interaction and decision turns out to have two steps: (a) the playin'-the-game one, and (b) the relationship-relevant one. The trouble with the two-person context is that (b), which is an inevitable part of role-playing with one's partner or a potential partner in any case, is not subject to the moderating/modifying influence of a social situation (as opposed to a private relationship-situation). It is perhaps over-exposed.

4. Don't develop your setting on your own any more. However, do develop it! Let the rest of it come from the character sheet and from general inspiration from Sarah to you.

A lot of people seem to enjoy my interactions with them about Sorcerer, and say things like how attentive or helpful I was. Looking over this post, I'm not sure I was able to do that. On the one hand, I tell you that you must be a bad GM, and on the other, I'm in your face about how you're interacting with your girlfriend. Talk about violating boundaries ... Anyway, I hope that you two do play Sorcerer, and it's very clear that you're setting up a great and wonderful context for play.


Bret Gillan

Hey Ron, thanks for responding. It means a lot that the author of the book will take time to help people who are running the game and give advice.

The situation has me pretty excited too - excited and terrified. I'm feeling like the fate of a potential gamer is balanced on how well I run this game. If it stinks, she'll swear them off for good, and if it's decent we may have a new member of the gaming a community - and a female at that! Gosh!

I'm taking Judd's and Eero's advice to heart, and I'm stealing a lot of their bangs as well as modifying some to suit the thematics that I was going for, and to incorporate some NPCs that Sarah's come up with since then. I want to be prepared to run this story arc from start to finish since I have the feeling that with one player the game will fly by fast. I know you suggested another player, but I'll get to that in a second.

As for your concerns about my sanity, don't worry - they were taken as I'm sure they were meant which was as a word of caution to prepare myself, and not as an insult. I've run a single Sorcerer campaign in the past that turned out to be a smashing success and left one of my players saying, "Wow... that could have been a graphic novel." It's been awhile, though, so I'd essentially forgotten about some of the more important aspects like Bangs. I've always been a reactive GM, letting the PCs do their own things, and have instead just created situations for them to interact with since before I even heard about the Forge. In essence, I'm sure this will be a challenge, but I think I'm not at too great a disadvantage having been a Narrativist since I started gaming in the second grade. I do have some problems that I need to work at, as Eero pointed out with my "protecting" an NPC against a violent PC. But, as an old woman said to me the other day, there was one perfect man and they crucified him. I do appreciate having these things pointed out.

And I'm trying to take Sarah exactly as you've described her - as someone who already knows what she's doing. She's already very passionate about her character and has been doing a lot of thinking about who she is and how she'd react to different situations. She's needed a little guidance, though, for example she effectively had the entire story arc written out before I had to say, "Well, Sarah, we do need something to make it a roleplaying game and not a short story." Basically she just needed to clearly define where her Kicker ended and where the first game session began. I encouraged her to be as detailed as she wanted with her Kicker, though, and once the game gets rolling I'm hoping that she'll be as enthusiastic about developing the game world and setting scenes - one thing I was never able to get my experienced roleplayers to do.

I appreciate your suggestions in terms of game advice and for resources on this forum.

As for the finding another player thing, the one-on-one game was at her insistance, and even if she weren't on the shy side, I'm not sure if I could find another player. I haven't found anyone else interested in playing in a game of Sorcerer - they're too busy playing Exalted. Even if they were interested, she's basically said that she wants to play alone so she can get the hang of things before she plays with other people so that she doesn't "annoy them with her ignorance." I've assured her that it wouldn't be this way, but she's still most comfortable with a one-on-one game, and I don't want to thrust her into an uncomfortable situation.

Also, we're both mature adults, and we've already talked about the relationship/game seperation. That doesn't mean there's no possibility of problems, but I'm feeling pretty safe about it.

I plan on posting my experiences here since I thought the first story arc of a new gamer with Sorcerer would be of interest to you guys. Should I post here or in Actual Play?

And again, thanks for the advice, and I took it as well-intentioned advice and not as insults. :)

Eero Tuovinen

Quote from: Bret Gillan
I plan on posting my experiences here since I thought the first story arc of a new gamer with Sorcerer would be of interest to you guys. Should I post here or in Actual Play?

Actual Play would be fun, this looks to be a session to remember.

Just wanted to wish you luck. It seems you have all the good things on your side, so just breathe slowly and the game should be a piece of cake. I totally understand your point about pressure and wanting to play one-on-one. One thing I'd be on the lookout for with a new, inspired player are the rules - take the enthusiastic situations as springboards into utilizing the rules, instead of setting them aside as easily happens. What is lost in speed or some such is multiply gained in all the bounty rules provide. Even if you personally agree about everything, make a point of it.

Also, if the session goes well, perhaps you can play some Trollbabe, too. I'm told that it comes to it's own with newbie female solo adventures :D
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards


Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Bret, who is an example of the rulebook's actual intended audience.


Bret Gillan

Thanks Ron, that's actually really gratifying to hear.

I posted my thoughts on the first session in an enormous post in Actual Play. Also, Sarah plans on writing up her thoughts on the game and the rules once we're done with the first story arc. When she heard that you read this forum and take a lot of interest in the game and how it's played, she thought you'd appreciate the thoughts of a brand-new roleplayer on your game and how your game affected her introduction to the hobby.

Ron Edwards

She's right. I'll be responding to your extensive post in Actual Play when I get the chance, and I'll look forward to Sarah's contributions.