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Descriptors (split from Demon Cops)

Started by Bailywolf, May 01, 2002, 07:13:35 PM

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Whoh.  ::sound of brakes screeching:: I was given to understand (and in fact have told my players) that Descriptors were to be made-up to better suit character concept... I can understand throwing out some descriptors as examples of setting-specific concerns (as in Sorcerer and Sword)...but actualy limiting people to a set list?  Seems antithetical to the whole Sorcerer mojo.  I take pride in making up intresting descriptors for my character's scores.

Please explain your thoughts on this more.

Ron Edwards


Take another look at the rules. The descriptors are not pulled out of the aether, player by player. In the basic book, it says, "from the following descriptors," and same goes for Sword. In neither case does it say, "Make up your own individually, and here are some examples." I'm perfectly happy with customizing the lists per group, but nowhere, ever, have I said that descriptors are merely catch-as-catch-can elements of character design.

There's a reason for this. Sorcerer is not, no matter how many people may think so, a "freeform" game. I contend that in application it has more fixed identity than nearly any other RPG ever written, and it's meant to. When you look over the list of Descriptors for a given play situation, it creates a perceived range of what sorcerers are like which is very valuable in terms of people understanding both the setting and one another's characters.

Now, I have no beef against the group sitting down and coming up with the pool of Descriptors for each score, together. There's your "personal customizing deal" going on right there, so I'm not taking it away from you.



Intresting.  It sort of changes a few things regarding setting design.  I can't say I'm totaly hip to the idea of such a limited swath of character options though.  I withhold judgement.  Let me reread and ruminate a bit.

Thanks Ron


I remember thinking the same thing the first time I read the Sorcerer rules.  They are, as I recall, pretty explicit about the descriptors being the ONLY choices available.  My first thought was..."what the heck is that about, talk about your stupid ideas"

However, I've since come to realize the point behind them.  They are actually very powerful tools which will tie your player's character concepts to the group designed world concept.  A Sorcerer setting should have a very distinct feel about what sorcerers in general are like.  The limited number of descriptors should be based on what that feel is in a particular game setting.  In this way the characters that are created fit within the world view of the game.  In a way they are mini archetypes.

Ron intentionally did very little hand holding in the actual  rules about stuff like this (a design philosophy choice I personally disagree with).  The down side is it can be a pain in the ass to figure out how the game comes together and a lot of really powerful tools can easily be missed by the novice GM (I have my suspicions that Sorcerer play by those who are not active readers of the Sorcerer forums probably misses many of the cool things that are revealed here).  The upside is that that the resulting epiphany from figuring out this stuff the hard way can be more powerful and compelling than if it had been more explicitly described.

Ron Edwards

Hey Ralph,

That design philosophy choice you mention is definitely problematic; one seems doomed to go either one way or the other ...

I have to admit that my application/choice for it was driven by temperament and the way my "creative side" operates, rather than by openly sitting and comparing the two different approaches.

Thanks for your point about the descriptors. You stated it very, very well, and I'll be pointing people to it when necessary.

BW, I also want to say, the group is free to include many more descriptors than I tend to list. So, say you all come up with ten per score, whereas I tend to use four to six. That's cool! So "diversity" doesn't have to be wholly sacrificed either.


Mike Holmes

And, hey, some curmudgeonly bastards who always modify the game text, anyhow, will just make up their own anyway. For example, I might know of a character in a game being played right now that has a couple of descriptors that weren't in any suggested list. I'd say it's still imperative for the GM to OK such changes, but assuming that happened, just call it that player putting their imprint on the gme world post facto. Remember exceptions are what makes the rule.

This is not to say that a well defined list isn't a good idea. It actually very important. But allowing someone a little leeway isn't all bad, either. That's what GMs are for, to interperet the boundaries. Sorcerer can be played well withing it's boundaries. But it can also be stretched effectively.


Mike "who rarely plays by the rules" Holmes
Member of Indie Netgaming
-Get your indie game fix online.


You know, this brings up something I'm actualy a bit hazy on.  I'll reread the section when I get home tonight, but while Ron is aimed at the issue, I'd like to get his (and others) feedbacks.  

What are descriptors actualy for?

I'm talking actualy function supporing form here.  What do they do beyond providing 'soft definition' for a character (as oposed to 'hard definition'- functional system mechanical stuff)?  How do they influence actual play?  When are they relevent during the dynamic process of play-conflict and resolution?  

Part of my mental hickup on Descriptors comes from games like Over the Edge with its signs for each trait.  There they are more soft definition than hard- providing a quick 'tell' for the character's traits.

Anyone help me out with this one?

Gordon C. Landis

What are descriptors for?  Here's an uninformed-by-actual-play opinion - they give the player and GM guidance about how to narrate the results of a roll (an important aspect of good Narrativist systems, IMO) - we know you failed your Bind attempt, but *how* did you fail?  Was it a mistake in the ritual?  Ignorance?  Outside interference?  The descriptors help make that determination.  Which feeds into the whole conflict/resolution cycle.

As far as "hard" vs. "soft" . . . I don't think design (at least in Sorcerer) breaks down that cleanly.  Especially with descriptors, it's both "hard" (you *are* X-descrpitor, no question about it) and "soft" - the specifics of what it means will vary by situation, but WILL impact the resulting narration.


PS - With luck, I'll be able to post Demon Cops Actual Play sometime this summer - I've caught the interest of one player . . . (under construction)


Should have defined my terms.  By 'hard' definition, I mean character description which bears directly on mechanics and resolution.  A number which grants that many dice to roll is hard.  Soft definition includes descriptions, styles, arttitudes, and background... now is the score descriptor in Sorcerer soft (acting to provide narrative structure) or Hard (somehow influencing the resolution mechanics or use of the stat in play).

Gordon C. Landis

I feel a bit odd responding to this - it's Ron's game, and I'm sure he'll get around to an answer.  But, since I started . . . by those definitions, descriptors are soft rather than hard.  But (as mentioned in my other reply), I'm not sure that kind of a hard/soft dichotomy really applies to the design of Sorcerer - and perhaps not really to any RPG design.  An awful lot of important things end up in the "soft" category . . .

Ah, let me edit in a little more clarification - here's a quote from Sorcerer:  "The Score Descriptor not only adds some depth to the character, it often allows the GM to decree [should prolly be "decide"] whether a character's attempt at a task should get penalty or bonus dice."  So . . . there is/can be a direct dice effect.  Does that make it "hard?"  Your call, I guess . . .

Gordon (under construction)



I reread the whole chapter last night.  I hereby recall all my previous confsed posts.  I must have overlooked that bonus dice thing.  Teach me to ask stupid questions...or any questions.  I'll just be quiet now.

As for hard/soft.  Considering the bouns dice, I'd say hard since it can bear directly on mechanic moderated event resolution.  If it just floated there as a cue for roleplaying, then I'd have to lable it soft.  

I sort of hijakced this thread...let me see if I can steer it back into something like where it began...

::reads first post::

I haven't played D.C. (I get to actualy play painfuly little Sorcerer) but I've built several characters I'd love to play.  The thing has a mojo that just begs for excess and overthetopkookyness.

Petter Sandelin

To spoil the attempt to get the thread back to where it started I'll present a fresh “actual character generation” example..

I'm the GM of a group starting a medival fairytale Sorcerer & Sword style. When the players picked descriptors I told them that they should use the ones in the book(&sword) but if they thought of something fitting they could use that too. Everyone started putting down descriptors and almost none of them were picked straight from the book. When I read this thread I checked them again and found that all of them were very fitting and sometimes similar to the ones in the book, but I’m quite sure the players felt they had made up all of them. It think we all had so strong ambitions about keeping everything in the setting that we didn’t need a set list of descriptors, all of them would have been on that list anyway. As a side note we translated everything into swedish to make it more folk, so that could have had some impact on the use of new descriptors.


Ron Edwards

Hi folks,

It had to happen, and the thread's been split.

I think Petter's experience is worth considering carefully. Role-players are accustomed, I think, to two choices when it comes to things like descriptors: a list of fixed options, no modulating allowed except by "cheating" as Mike calls it; and a free-form make-it-up spray of "whatever."

(Note that advantages and disadvantages in Champions, GURPS, Vampire, and related games are very much like descriptors.)

I consider the free-form method to be badly, badly flawed for a game like Sorcerer; all you get is schwa, mess, UA characters running around trying to Vulcan nerve-pinch one another. (Please note for a game like Sorcerer in this paragraph.)

I consider the fixed-form method to be flawed, but functional, and that's what I recommend for Sorcerer, for the first time, using the ones I provide in the main book.

Once a group more-or-less co-opts Sorcerer into their own priorities and customizing, it is neither extreme. Petter did it exactly right. "If they thought of something fitting, they could use that too." Bailywolf, that is exactly the kind of Group Concept thinking that I keep hammering you with. The problem is that I think you would interpret Petter's group as being more like the free-form, and it's not. It's more like the fixed-form; just using the group as authors, using the list as a starting point to greater or lesser degree.


Ron Edwards


I have two more things to say about score descriptors in Sorcerer, which are related to one another and represent a very difficult step for many people to grasp, based on their assumptions from other RPGs.

1) Mind-body duality, which is a staple of most RPG design, is not necessary in Sorcerer. "Military background," as a descriptor for Stamina, is not merely referring to the character's muscles and reflexes, but to spheres of knowledge as well. In many ways, it's like another Cover. Most of the descriptors have this "whole person" quality; a person with User/Manipulative for his Will descriptor has distinctive physical mannerisms as well as the more nebulous "mental skills" involved.

2) Therefore you have a little leeway in terms of getting your character just like you want him to be. You want a guy with a military twist, so you can put that in as Cover or as Stamina, depending on what you want ... if you want the guy to be a health nut, take the military stuff as Cover and use athletic regimen for Stamina. Or if you want the guy to be a Women's Studies professor who just happens to be a Special Forces badass, take the prof as Cover and pop the military background in for Stamina.

Now, this heavy overlap between Cover and (in this case) Stamina is not total. "FBI agent" has to be a Cover description; "Chemically heightened" has to be a Stamina description. But my real point is that both of them carry physical, social, and mental implications for future play.



I was diggin you right up to the last paragraph.

How does "FBI Agent" differ from "Military Background" such that one can be a descriptor but the other only a Cover.  Slap the word "Background" on it and I can't see any clear differentiation that could be used as a rule of thumb to define what is and isn't acceptable as a descriptor.  "Former FBI Agent" as a descriptor for Will seems just as legitimate as "Military Background" as a descriptor for Stamina to me.