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Sorcerer Resolution - How I Use It, Why I Love It

Started by emaise, June 16, 2006, 01:13:22 AM

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Sorcerer's resolution mechanic provides Karma, Drama, and Fortune mixed in just the right proportions to suit my tastes.

I view Karma, Drama, and Fortune as "what would happen, "what should happen", and "what could happen", respectively.  The strong guy would beat the weak guy, which makes the game world internally consistent.  The weak guy should beat the strong guy, because that makes for an interesting story.  And either the strong or the weak guy could win, which makes the progress of the story unpredictable and forces you to create a good story out of whatever fate hands you - a story you would never have come up with on your own if you plotted it out from start to finish.

In Sorcerer, Karma comes from the raw stats.  A Will 4 versus a Will 4 is an even matchup; a Sta 5 versus a Sta 2 will be a blowout.  Drama comes in the form of bonus dice, which lets the players and the GM decide for themselves what makes for "a good story" (at the level of an individual die roll, anyway).  If it's important to a player that their guy win, well, they can make it pretty likely by piling on the bonus dice - but they have to earn them by adding interesting things to the narration, which means the narration focuses on the events and results that the players consider important.  And Fortune, of course, comes from using dice in the first place.

I'll make this an Actual Play post by drawing upon my experience so far with Sorcerer.  I'm currently running a game: my first game in quite a while, and my first Sorcerer game ever.  We have six players, split up into two groups of three, plus me and my co-GM (we both GM for both groups).  Each group plays one night a month for about four hours; this is a slow pace, but it accomodates the schedules of eight very busy people.  Both groups are playing in the same world, which we created collaboratively and have been continuing to build during play, both improvisationally during sessions and deliberately between sessions.  We've been playing for six months, so everyone has played six sessions and I have run twelve.

We haven't done much die-rolling in our sessions so far.  There's only been a few combats; our die-rolls outside of combat have been for spotting telltales, investigation, perception, and a few acts of sorcery.  Most things are handled without any game mechanics at all, even some things that probably could be.  I'm very comfortable with a rules-light system and could probably even do freeform without difficulty; several of my players and I have experience in theatrical improvisation.  But we're using dice and rules anyway.  I like what they have to offer us: Karma, Drama, and Fortune, and from them consistency, satisfaction, and possibility.

Let me illustrate with an example from our last session.

The setting is 1899 steampunk.  The PC scientist responsible for most of the recent technological developments has returned home with his NPC bodyguard to find smoke coming from his house.  Fearing for the safety of his household staff and his research assistant (who happens to be his demon and who he believes is in the house), the PC and his bodyguard rush into the burning building.  They get the butler, maid, and cook out safely, then run back upstairs to the lab.  The house has been ransacked and the lab is on fire.  Smoke fills the house.  Inside the lab are three men lying on the floor, men he has never met.  One body is already just burnt flesh; the second body has a gaping hole in his chest.  The third man is moving, struggling to stand up.  The PC yells at the bodyguard to get him out of the house; the bodyguard helps him up and carries him out of the lab.  The PC stays behind to get into the safe where he keeps his most valuable trade secret, a container of Element 148 (steampunk, remember?).

As he pockets the container and turns to leave, he finds the third man standing right behind him, about to clobber him with his fist.  We thus enter combat.

The PC (call him Chris) manages to jump backwards and avoid the blow from his attacker (call him Billy).  Billy is between Chris and the only way out of a burning building.  Chris grabs at a crowbar from a nearby workbench, but Billy tackles him and knocks them both to the ground.  Billy is on top of Chris about to pound his face to a pulp when Chris knees Billy in the nuts, hard.  Billy's face goes white, then red with rage, then Billy lands one hell of a punch on the side of Chris' head.  Billy reaches behind him to grab the crowbar Chris had been going for; as he swings it, Chris rolls to one side, and the crowbar hits a chunk of metal from the smashed machinery still scattered about the lab.  CLANG!!  Billy drops the crowbar from the shock of metal hitting metal.

Chris and Billy both rush to stand up.  Billy backs up a step.  They square off at each other like prizefighters looking for an opening.  The lab is still burning around them, and Billy is still between Chris and the exit.  Chris reaches into his jacket and pulls out the cannister: "This is what you came here for, right?"  He is imagining industrial sabotage from a competitor.  Billy: "I came here for God."  "WHAT?"  Chris is furious - his lab is destroyed because some nutcase is hearing voices from GOD?!?  Billy charges at Chris, swinging hard.  Chris ducks down and lunges forward, knocking Billy off his feet and throwing him over Chris' back.  Chris bolts for the exit.  In the hallway, he sees his bodyguard (call him Tom) struggling to his feet; Chris hauls Tom up and pulls him down the hallway: "We've got to get out, now!"  Tom, staggering backwards, suddenly stands up straight, pushes Chris to one side, draws his pistol, and shoots Billy dead.  Billy's body crumples to the floor in the hallway, the crowbar still in his hand.

Chris and Tom run out of the house and collapse on the steps as a crowd gathers on the street.

All of the above could have been done completely freeform without any rules or dice at all.  With one person calling all the shots it would have been GM fiat; an improv troupe or practiced group of freeform roleplayers might have done it all collaboratively.

First, let's add Fortune.  At any point where a result was needed (whether Chris or Billy grabbed the crowbar first, say) we could have just flipped a coin.  An improv troupe would be fine with this.  Improv teaches you that it doesn't matter what happens, i.e. anything that anyone makes up on the spot is good.  The important thing is to accept it and build on it.  So if any result is as good as another, you might as well flip a coin.  Some improv theater games actually work like that.  There's one where the actors start a scene, and at various moments in the scene a sentence is chosen randomly, say by flipping open a book to a page and reading the first sentence; that sentence is then used as the next line of dialog in the scene.  The idea is that by introducing uncertainty you spur creativity.  If you don't know for sure whether Chris will get past Billy, you'll focus your attention on what's happening right now rather than trying to plan what you'll do once you get past him.

Now, let's add Karma.  Sure, we don't want everything to always go as expected, but we want things that would usually happen to usually happen.  If Goliath loses half the fights he gets into against shepherd boys, something seems wrong with the world.  So we use stats.  If we just use stats, like Amber, then the shepherd boys never win, which also seems wrong.  So we use stats and dice, Karma and Fortune together.

A strict Sim player would say that that's enough.  You've made a model, the model either reflects or defines reality in a satisfactory way, you're done.  Some Sim players may want a more complex model than Sorcerer gives them, but other Sim players may be perfectly content going rules-light.  Heck, some may be satisfied with freeform.  But whether lightweight or heavyweight, Fortune and Karma are enough.

But now let's add Drama.  "Wouldn't it be cool if Chris was beaten within an inch of his life, but at the last minute, Billy said 'Now see what happens to sinners in the hands of God!', and right then the ceiling cracked, and a flaming roof beam came swinging down and hit Billy broadsides!" "Yeah, that would be cool.  Okay, that's what happens!"  Some things are just more satisfying when they work out a certain way.  Now we're back to GM fiat (usually bad) or collaborative narration (usually good).  Freeformers and improvers shoot for collaborative narration without any mechanics, relying on trust and respect to make it work out well.  Universalis and Theatrix let you spend resources to have your vision of Drama hold sway.  But I really like Sorcerer's mechanic: bonus dice.  Everyone gets to influence the results just because they think it would be cool, but you have to earn it by adding something cool to the narration.

Sorcerer brings these elements together in a way I can only describe as elegant.

(Continued and concluded next post.)


Part II: How I Use It.

Back to actual play.

My play style preference is for a mix of Sim and Nar.  The sessions so far have been largely Sim, with the players (and me!) exploring the world that we've built together and all of the interesting characters and situations that have been created.  Over the next few sessions I'll be pushing us more towards Nar through a combination of out-of-game discussion and a heavier use of the Humanity mechanics.  But Humanity is a macro-level Nar device.  This post is about the micro-level of Sorcerer's resolution system and how I believe it supports my style preference.

Even if we never started using the macro-level Narrative method of revealing theme by addressing premise (and thus by some definitions being Sim) I would not give up the micro-level method of including Drama in the form of bonus dice (and thus by some definitions not being Sim).  I'm also not giving up Karma or Fortune.  They're all tools in my toolbox and I want to get the best use of them that I can.

Here's what actually happened in the combat scene above.

First off, the building was on fire because I wanted to end the previous session on a cliffhanger.  The PC had been through the wringer since the start of the campaign and only just managed to catch his breath during the previous session.  Both the player and the character were starting to get overwhelmed by everything that was going on, so they both took about half the session to clear their heads.  It was something like the scene from Jurrasic Park where the rich guy is sitting and eating ice cream in the cafeteria - for a short while, the character, audience, and story took a time out.  Near the end of the session the player and character both started warming up again: making decisions, taking action, and looking for the storyline.  The storyline led to his house, so Chris and Tom rode there with concern and haste on their minds.  They arrived just as it got time to call it quits, and my co-GM had a flash of insight: "His house is on fire."

No mechanics, off-the-cuff, and completely responsive to the player's needs and desires.

The next session arrives.  I'm behind in my prepwork and still haven't figured out why the damn house is on fire.  Minutes before gametime it finally hits me - it's the cultists that we've seen before.  A ton of connecting storylines suddenly fall into place and I'm ready for the game.

The initial rescue of the staff was exciting and used no mechanics whatsoever.  The player got a lot of screentime and got deeper into his character.  Then he got to the lab.  The dead guys were there to raise the tension and to tie into other storylines.  The third one was alive because I knew it was time for a fight.  I thought there might be a shootout with the bodyguard, but Chris sent them both out of the lab before the cultist could come to.  So the cultist cold-cocked Tom in the hallway while Chris was opening his safe.

Fire: GM fiat.  Cultists: GM fiat.  The entire contents of the house, including the lab and the safe: Player fiat, all created on the fly.  Tom getting Billy out before Billy could start a fight like the GM intended: Player fiat.  Billy cold-cocking Tom off-screen: GM fiat.  Some of that counts as Karma, some of that counts as Drama.  No mechanics yet.

The fight itself used the Sorcerer mechanics.  I used Karma to stat out the cultist: he's one of the cult's thugs sent to break things and kill people, so he gets Sta 4 (the only stat I needed).  I didn't try to use Drama - if I had, I might have tried to make sure that his stats were good enough to make the fight "come out the right way", or even had multiple cultists there.  Going into it I had no idea what was going to happen and I didn't care; I knew no matter what happened, between me and the player we would make it interesting.

The player invented stuff like crazy - the crowbar, the equipment around them, kicking the guy in the nuts... and he got lots of bonus dice in the process.  There's the Drama at work.  Drama says "let's make it interesting."  The bonus dice mechanic says "if you make it interesting you'll get what you want."  So you offer bonus dice as incentives and the players end up doing all the work to make it entertaining for themselves.  Genius.

But dice are fickle and Sorcerer is harsh.  A few die rolls going the other way and the fight would have gone very differently.  The players have seen combats before and are well aware of the possible consequences; the player knew his character was in real danger and that anything could happen.  That focused his mind intensely on the immediate situation, and that intensity showed through in his roleplaying.  Thanks to Fortune.

As things turned out, Chris managed to make a break for it although the cultist wasn't down for the count.  Tom shooting the cultist was pure Drama, pure GM fiat.  But it fit with the characters and situation and mood; the players weren't expecting it, but as soon as I began to describe Tom's actions they knew exactly what was coming and they loved it.

To sum up: Karma, Drama, and Fortune are each vital parts of my roleplaying toolkit, each with their own purpose and value.  Sorcerer brings them together in an ideal mix, using no more mechanics than necessary to provide some of each of the three elements.  And while Sorcerer is a Narrativist game, the resolution mechanics work just fine for a macro-level Simulationist game, as long as you enjoy a little Drama in your micro-level mix.

Which I do.

  - Eddie

colin roald

All said well enough that there's not much to add to that.  Cool fight.
colin roald

i cannot, yet i must.  how do you calculate that?  at what point on the graph do `must' and `cannot' meet?  yet i must, but i cannot.
-- Ro-Man, the introspective gorilla-suited destroyer of worlds