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Author Topic: [Sorcerer] McCarthy Era  (Read 6013 times)

Posts: 1012

« on: May 21, 2005, 01:28:32 PM »

McCarthy Era Sorcerer

We started a Sorcerer game here in Seattle.  I'm GM and I have two
players: James, who's played Sorcerer before with Clinton, and
Kristian, who's relatively new to indie games.  I'm excited about
what we've got and I want to share it with the Forge.

For this "campaign" I decided that, instead of developing a one-sheet
in advance, I would use the first session to define Humanity and
other elements.  I think this worked because both James and I have
played before, and I've done a _lot_ of reading and studying about
the game.

I had Kristian read the back of the book and gave a really short
summary of how Sorcerer play might be different from previous
experiences.  Then we started bouncing ideas about genre and milieu.  
We quickly settled on McCarthyist 1950s.  This suggested some ideas
for Humanity.  We probably spent a half hour hashing out what
humanity was, until James suggested "The Ability to Think for
Oneself," which clicked with everyone.  That quickly led to
definitions for 0 humanity, rituals, and demons.

Then we moved on to character creation.  I think we kept issues of
power, ideology, and conformity in mind while bouncing around
character ideas.  This produced the Heir to an Industrial Empire and
a TV Talk show Host.  I'll let the one-sheet, character and demon
sheets speak for themselves below.

Our session stretched to 3 hours, and we did not finish naming characters or filling out the context wheel.  We'll be doing that by email before the first session.  Once I have that information, I'll make up a relationship map and demonize it a bit.  Ranks of possessed G-men march lock-step through my imagination...



Early 1950s New York, at the height of McCarthyist paranoia.


Humanity is the Ability to Think for Yourself.  It can be rolled to
detect BS.

0 Humanity means the character is thoroughly brainwashed by some

Demons come from a realm of platonic ideals.  They will encourage
ideology, conformity, and narrow-mindedness.

Rituals require delving into conformity of some sort, often in
violation of common sense or empathy.  



STAMINA   2   Chemically Enhanced (Benzos)
WILL   5   High Self-Esteem, Social Competence
LORE   3   Coven Member

COVER   5   TV Host
Price   -1   ?
Telltale   Cuff links with Coven Symbol

Kicker: G-men pressure him to use show to attack someone (who?  
someone he cares about?)

Coven: a circle of Beat types who pass around different ideologies
like drugs.  Also source of benzos?

BOUND DEMON  +1 binding strength
First Binding Ritual: Coven prepared incantations by collaging
words from library books.  Surrounded by chanting coven, James eats
the incantations.  (Rolled Lore.)

Telltale: typescript Words occasional emerge on host's skin
Desire: Learning secrets
Need: Destroy a library book

WILL   4
LORE   3

Perception (See in the dark)
Psychic Force


STAMINA   3   Natural Vigor
WILL   5   Ragefull, vengfull
LORE   2   Naif

COVER   5   Heir (with business experience, I suppose)
Price   -1   Paranoia (-1 to social interactions over company)
Telltale   Scar behind right ear, the shape of cane handle

Kicker: Hostile takeover - may involve one or more brothers

BOUND DEMON  +2 binding strength
First Binding Ritual: On his deathbed, father, with cane lying
across his blankets, demands that one of the siblings step forward.  
(Kristian) steps forward and masters the cane.  (Rolled Will.)

OBJECT (Ornate Cane with ivory handle)
Telltale: subtle change in patterns on cane
Desire: Wealth
Need: Dominate another person, physically or mentally

WILL   5
LORE   4

Perception - bluff (I'll interpret this to inlcude any false front, I think.)

(Some ideas both from the session and my post-session thinking)

Spawning demon as conformist menace
Possessor demon as agent of enemy
Summons to Congressional hearing
G-man blackmail
Company dealings with "socialist" Canada
Dock quarter / labor unrest
Truth police
Adopt a mind tunnel
Subliminal Messages

Anyone know of a source for history of the McCarthy hearings?  New
York in the 50s and Beat culture are also of interest to me here.  
Any sources that are easy to assimilate and don't require hours of
reading would be wonderful.

- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com

Posts: 263

« Reply #1 on: May 25, 2005, 06:06:30 AM »

I've done some googling for you (least I could do as I ripped off your ideas):


If you're looking for fiction, I highly recommend The Book of Daniel by EL Doctorow. It's told through the eyes of the son of a couple executed for espionage in 50s US.

AKA Jeff Zahari
Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 16490

« Reply #2 on: May 25, 2005, 06:16:32 AM »


Alan, I apologize for not getting to this earlier. I think you'll find this quote interesting:

The risk was that you would get people who would be susceptible to political considerations as opposed to national security considerations, or who would construe political considerations to be national security considerations, to move from the kid with the bomb to the kid with the picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.

It's from Tom Huston, the attorney who wrote up Nixon's infamous Huston Plan, which the president adopted but then revoked 13 days later. The quote is from Huston's testimony to the Senate in 1976. I got it from The CIA's Black Ops, by Nutter.

I realize that it does not come from the McCarthy era ... or does it? You are probably aware of where and how Nixon cut his political teeth.

I think it's a nice summary of Humanity considerations during that time. And well, during other times as well. I'm being a little euphemistic.


Posts: 198

« Reply #3 on: May 25, 2005, 09:54:17 AM »

The James Ellroy book "The Big Nowhere" has a major subplot involving cops trying to infiltrate communists and busting up unions.  

The movie "The Sweet Smell of Success", while not directly about McCarthyism, is a brilliant film-noir about an incredibly powerful newspaper columnist and his schemes to control his sister's life, filmed it 1957, it should give you lots of color and flavor to work with, and the poisonous atmosphere of paranoia and rumor would translate really well into your setting.

I believe in peace and science.

Posts: 1012

« Reply #4 on: May 31, 2005, 08:22:34 AM »

Thanks for the links, Droog, and for the movie suggestion, Danny -- I watched it over the weekend.  The dialog in Sweet Smell of Success can be hard to follow because the character's impassive expressions don't coincide with the emotional content of their dialog.  Feature or bug?  I think it's part of the theme.

Ron - it's interesting that you bring up a quote about blurring lines of interpretation.  Here's what James had to say about how his character's coven works:

"This coven was started by a Brazilian philosopher living in Greenwich Village, Nazario Branco.  He had a game he would play with himself in which he would randomly combine two belief systems and then attempt to fervently believe the end result."

Thanks for the help and suggestions.

- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com

Posts: 1012

« Reply #5 on: May 31, 2005, 08:41:26 AM »

James' TV show host is Larry Vale - of the Larry Vale Show on WLBN, NY, NY, which airs weekday afternoons and is popular with house wives.  Larry's demon may be called Anagram or Gamaran -- James hasn't decided.  (Heck, maybe the demon just has a mutable monicker.)

I'm not sure how important daytime talkshows were in 1953, or whether they even existed -- but if not, we'll anachronize to the '58 or so.  In any case, the show would be live, with no time delay for censoring.  Imagine: a live on air rant!

Kristian's industrial Heir is Bentley Templewood.  He comes with three siblings, including an older brother, which suggests some interesting conflicts when the kicker kicks in and his siblings try a boardroom coup.  Also, Bentley is a naive sorcerer, so he has yet to realize that his father created the Chairman's Office as a summoning sanctum.

Both players have provided a significant and interesting cast of supporting NPCs -- Larry's co-workers and coven members, and Bentley's family.  I think I'll use them for the Rmap and only create my own rmap NPCs to tie the existing NPC cast together.

Brought to you by Chock Full O Nuts...smooth coffee...It's the only coffee we use here on The Larry Vale show.  Mm...the taste of America!

- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com

Posts: 1012

« Reply #6 on: June 04, 2005, 08:44:09 AM »

Tastes like America...


I spent a couple hours during the week preparing an Rmap, clarifying Kicker events, and listing three bang ideas for each player character.  Since the players had given me a wealth of interesting NPCs already, I decided to work them into an Rmap.  Also, I already had the idea of the Bentley family lawyer, and a sorcerer in government with bound possessor demon, and FBI agents, so I wanted to include them as well.

The Rmap proved to be a challenge because of the sheer number of NPCs the players themselves had already provided.  These NPCs all had names, a sentence or two of description, and an affiliation with the PC.  James had provided a half dozen covern members, a girlfriend, and a sister -- each with twenty to fifty words of relevant description.  Kristian gave Bentley three siblings, and his mother, and mentioned an ex-wife.  

I wanted to include as much of this material in the game's Rmap as possible.  I started by making connection maps for each player character.  These weren't relationship maps as used in Sorcerer, just lines of connection between the people and things.  I soon concluded that 16 was too many NPCs to tie together by blood or sex.

So I picked out the three NPCs in whom each player seemed to demonstrate the most interest.  With these 6, my laywer and my sorcerer, I started making a relationship map exclusively involving only connections of heredity or romance/sex.  I invented a couple more NPCs (one possessed by the sorcerer's demon) for the Rmap.  Also, for this rmap, I actually ignored some connections -- for example, Bentley's sister Penelope is in the map but his brother Timothy is not.  This exclusion was just for focus.

If there's interest, I'll post the actual Rmap -- after the players have explored it.


Building the Relationship map prompted many refinements to player kickers and suggested almost every bang I came up with.

I didn't have time to detail stats for either the NPC sorcerer or his demon, so when they appeared in play, I just estimated dice.  As it happens, this was sufficient.

During actual play of the first session, I realized that I had not put much thought into how to present bangs which involved our definition of humaity (Thinking for Oneself).  I'm a bit uncertain what I could do with it, but I'll leave that for another post.

- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com

Posts: 1012

« Reply #7 on: June 06, 2005, 08:48:36 AM »

We had our first session.  I'm writing a play report, but in the meantime, I could use some suggestions.

We've defined humanity as "Thinking for yourself."  In our first session, we had only one Humanity check as a result of player actions -- James had Larry face pressure to challenge a competing TV show by coming up with new outside-the-box ideas.  James got a Humanity increase check.

But I'm concerned that players haven't been temped to conform in big dramatic ways.   Given what I've provided so far, can anyone suggest some ways I can temp the players into having their characters not thinking for themselves?

- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com

Posts: 503

« Reply #8 on: June 06, 2005, 03:42:57 PM »

Humanity Loss temptations:

- There's a situation that the character is ill-equipped to deal with, and calling from outside help/advice is present and usefull, but the outside help may enforce it's own ideas on the situation and the character.

- A voice of authority is telling a character to do something.

- A situation involves being accepted by a conformist group of people.

- An outside force plays on innate drives in order to make the character think it's way: Fear, Egotism, lust, nationalism.

Posts: 3

« Reply #9 on: June 07, 2005, 04:53:48 AM »

Do any of Bentley’s interests advertise on Larry’s show?  

When Larry thinks outside the box for a program idea, does he come up with something that offends the status quo?  

Is there any Union activity with any of Bentley’s interests?

The FCC asks Larry to change something about his show.  Drop a guest, condemn a movie, something…

One of Bentley’s interests is tied in with United Fruit and the overthrow of governments in South America.
Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 16490

« Reply #10 on: June 07, 2005, 05:26:59 AM »

I say again: the GM always thinks the first session of Sorcerer was a dud. However, if he or she was merely playing NPCs, presenting stuff, working with the material on the backs of the character sheets, then everything worked fine. An extra special confirmation would be a Humanity roll of any kind, gain or check.

Do not attempt to make your players "feel" things or to "get it." You must resist the temptation to draw them in, which is only an excuse for control. You must instead present and play the NPCs and the demons, period.

It will work, and you are on schedule. Do not tweak at this time.

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