Sorcerer: inaction and consequence

After 7 years of anticipation, pondering, forum reading and false starts, I played an extremely satisfying game of Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer with some friends. Jesse Burneko of the Play Passionately blog and Actual People, Actual Play podcast was the gamemaster.

Jesse brought a craft and focus to the game that finally made Sorcerer “click” with me. I’d already learned a lot from my own failures with the game, but the “negative learning” of working out what not to do just didn’t compare with the positive learning of seeing what a well-run, super-charged and engaged game of Sorcerer looks like. It was the final piece in the puzzle of consistently fun and rewarding play of the game, for me.

Our game was called “Down by the Sea,” set in a West Coast town modeled on Venice Beach in California. Home to bohemian artsy types, small-business entrepreneurs and homeless beach campers, this cozy community was the backdrop for three characters: Sebastian, hedonistic nightclub owner  who led a cult of Dynonisian hedonism and whose club was a powerful demon that hungered for decadent acts to be performed within its walls. Kelly, an art director whose Demon, Kennedy, was a smoking hot babe determined to see him go far in the art world, at any cost. Gunther, a homeless anarchist shit-kicker whose leather jacket was a Demon named Vildgrim that craved mayhem and battle.

In Sorcerer, play begins with a “Kicker,” a player-authored event that dramatically upsets the life of their character. An arc of play proceeds until the Kickers are resolved for good, ill or otherwise. Sebastian’s Kicker was a sacred harlot of his cult found dead on his property, Kelly’s was the teenage daughter he didn’t know he had turning up on his doorstep, and Gunther’s was an idealistic film student intent on following him around to produce a documentary on the face of homelessness.

Things only went downhill from there!

Gunther’s traveling buddy Gecko, it turns out, was a sociopath who liked to chain girls up in a church basement and “play” with them. When he did this with Alison, the film student, Gunther beat him up and rescued her, but she fingered Gunther as her attacker. It turned out to go much deeper than appearances: Alison was a Senator’s daughter, and Gecko was no bum, but rather the wayward son of a local megachurch Reverend, friend and contributor to the Senator. The whole thing was a frameup by the good Rev. to cover for his boy’s indiscretions.

The other two characters  aced similarly deteriorating circumstances… Kelly’s Demon talent agent eviscerated his wife because she was an obstacle to his career, and was preparing to ruthlessly exploit his newly discovered daughter via reality TV, while the Megachurch Reverend and the daughter retaliated with sexual assault allegations. Sebastian’s charmingly sociopathic attempts to stall for time and cover for the dead body on his property led to an attempt on his life, a stay in jail, and a cult priestess out for blood.

Gunther ended up turning himself in rather than let his beach-bum community get brutalized by the cops, hoping he could convince a friendly police captain hat the real perp was still out there. No such luck, and Gunther found himself rotting in a cell… until his friend Jackie, his arcane tattoo artist and Sorcerer in her own right, came to the rescue; in the lethal form of a Possessing Valkyrie spirit shed summoned into herself. With the bloodthirsty Valkyrie at his disposal, Gunther was able to escape jail, get to the bottom of the web of corruption, confront Gecko and his father and do marginally right by Alison. He was NOT, however, able to restore a comfortable status quo, or able to free Jackie from the Demon controlling her. He had to settle for hitting the road, a wandering warrior with a lethal Angel at his side.

I found that the primary element of Sorcerer play was pressure: the situation around your protagonist keeps getting worse and worse, cutting off more and more avenues of escape, until he simply has to take desperate action. And paralysis is the deadliest error. In Gunther’s case, as Jesse told me between sessions, “there was no way Gunther was going to solve his problems as a homeless man, so it was time to solve them as a Sorcerer. And since he wasn’t willing to, Jackie did it for him, and paid the price.”

When I heard that, it hurt—fictional situation, but real pain. Because Jesse was right: my character’s inaction, MY inaction, was having real and drastic consequences on everyone around  him/me. Earlier in the game, Gunther’s anarchist unwillingness to take a rapist to the cops, or a rape victim to a hospital, had a huge role in events spiraling into disaster. Sorcerer’s genius as a roleplaying game is that it’s a tiger by the tail: you can’t predict or control what will happen, as Gamemaster OR player. Actions have drastic consequences… and the consequences of inaction are worse.

I always find something of myself in this kind of game, and in this case I uncovered a real struggle I have with taking decisive action toward my life goals. This manifests in my actual life constantly, and is mirrored with my characters in games a lot.

It makes sense that Sorcerer, a game that pioneered Story Now play, would be ruthlessly demanding in the present moment of play. It was an incredibly fruitful struggle to have my creative paralysis confronted by the game, to be forced into a desperate corner where I had no choice but to act. I’m a stronger roleplayer for it, and I hope, a stronger person.



8 Responses to “Sorcerer: inaction and consequence”

  1. July 1, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Hi! Thanks for posting this.

    I find it instructive that about … I’d say, a third of the people who play Sorcerer characters spend all their energy frantically trying to restore the character’s pre-Kicker situation. I can say and say until I’m blue in the face, “The Kicker changes your character’s life forever,” and they go ahead and write Kickers that do exactly that – so all seems well – and then they play their characters absolutely determined to negate, deny, stifle, and run away from the Kickers.

    Since the Kickers are not going away, the characters find themselves entirely trapped. Strangely, they adopt a posture of powerlessness and shift into the tactics of deception and passive-aggression. They deflect their human connections rather than choosing to strengthen and defend them. They lie and cheat to the various characters they know, or even harm them through commission or more typically omission. They indulge or release their demons to frightening degrees, perhaps hoping that somehow this will “take care of things.”

    Such players may take their characters over the moral event horizon so thoroughly that their characters effectively become the villains of the piece. They wonder why this game “made” them do this, or why I as the GM did not help them in some way, perhaps provide the way out that they expected me to have in my pocket. Whereas the other players and I are experiencing what any audience experiences when characters in a story go this far (particularly in the service of inaction and denial) – a sense that this character will rightly deserve whatever misery and damnation are about to ensue.

    It’s not always a terrible or negative game experience, although for some it certainly has been. In some cases the player returns to play in a new game loaded for bear this time – that’s Jesse, for instance. In others, they write off the game as somehow impossible, “the way to win is not to play” trap; or they say that the game offers you no story in a tin that you can rely on to occur and hence is “not a Story Game.”

    I could understand these reactions better if the GM had written the Kickers and therefore the player could fairly say they’d been written into a box. But they’d written these Kickers themselves, and not only that, they knew the GM’s explicit job was to adopt them as mandates (not mere “flags”) and to apply that exact pressure you described. Furthermore it is one of the few RPGs in which you genuinely, fully, and freely *play this character* with no constraints on actions, and in fact, a consequence mechanic which is attenuated and random. Given these two points, I’ve concluded that the game acts as a litmus test for not only Story Now preferences, but for Story Now passion.

    There’s a central image in Russell Hoban’s novel The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (a book which I think you’d like very much, Joel): the king’s archer’s have filled the lion full of arrows, his chariot has overridden him, and now the dying animal bites at the wheel even as it turns upon him. When I’m playing the game, I can always see the moment in which I know whether a given player is biting with everything he or she has. The character played by that player has a chance. The character played by the player who cannot or will not bite in this fashion … well, that character does not.

    This is precisely one of the components which lead me to describe the game as tequila.

    • July 2, 2012 at 7:24 pm

      Sorry, Ron, but… whom are you preaching to, exactly, in this post? I’m slightly perplexed.

    • August 11, 2012 at 4:18 pm

      This may be the first time I agree with something you wrote about Sorcerer outside the pages of Sorcerer. :) Good insight into desperately trying to restore the pre-Kicker situation. I have seen that.

      I think the opening situation in RPGs is really powerful. It’s the first place we imagine ourselves into the character. So we are loathe to leave it far behind. We don’t like to see it change forever, certainly not suddenly. We don’t LIKE it. And that, in a way, gives it its power. Maybe I do agree with John Wick in Play Dirty after all.

  2. 5 Joel
    July 2, 2012 at 1:07 am

    Hahaha, yep! I choked on the tequila, for sure, but I DID stick around and drain the glass. Like I said, it was a good struggle for me and I’m stronger for it.

    It’s funny, I didn’t think of myself/Gunther as trying to restore the status quo, but you’re right; that’s exactly what he was doing (ineffectually), every step of the way. I think the onrush of Sorcerer’s flood of moment-to-moment situation put me so on the defensive that I felt if I could JUST get things back to “normal” for JUST A MOMENT, just catch my breath and get my bearings, THEN I could start to get shit done. When of course what I really needed to do was ride the wave.

    It was interesting to compare arcs between the characters. Sebastian was solidly an amoral fuckhead from start to finish; it was a marvel watching him scramble to tell someone just what they needed to hear to keep them happy for the next TEN MINUTES, unflappably confident he’d figure out the next “stage” in the “plan” when the time came. He Summoned his darkest self as a Possessor, and no matter how heinously Dark Sebastian acted the real Sebastian was basically, you know, cool with it. Kelly on the other hand was kind of a flake but trying to be “nice.” It seemed like he might go down a dark path when Kennedy slaughtered his wife and he accepted it, but later when she tried to manipulate his daughter enough was enough and he managed to Banish her with Sebastian’s help. He ended up reconciling with his hyper-religious ex-wife and the the three of them went off into the sunset, apparently to be a happy family together. And then there was Gunther.

    The main FICTIONAL cause of Gunther’s paralysis, I think, lay in the fact that he was passionate about proving that Anarchism was more than mere thuggery… but he had a Demon that was only good for thuggery. When he finally did kick into gear, he plucked out his eye and summoned Odin’s sight as a Parasite with
    Hint for oracular visions and Perception for finding his enemies. So, still thuggery. At first I think G came off as a bumbling oaf, but then he took a really dark turn–not all the way into the abyss, but close. We noted that he seemed to “switch genres” quite a bit, as did Sebastian, as if the two characters were trading off between “slice of life” and “occult horror.”

    Anyway, great game, and I want to thank you for that, Ron. Both as the game’s originator and as someone who spent a lot of time on the internet helping me approach the game and work out my general issues with roleplaying and the play I want. This is a huge milestone for me, besides being a fucking blast!

  3. July 7, 2012 at 12:37 am

    (I played Kelly, the art director)

    Hoo boy, great write-up, Joel. I had similar issues in play as you; in particular your comment about JUST wanting to get things slowed down FOR A MOMENT was something I felt. I don’t know that I was trying to go back on my Kicker, but I definitely was not pushing hard for my goals. After our game I discussed a bit with everyone how I didn’t feel like I ever had a real bead on Kelly’s character, and that he and his actions (that I took) didn’t make sense to me. I think that’s a result of him not WANTING enough. Remember this line from the text, kiddies: Literally nothing is more important than what you want from a situation.

    When I play Sorcerer again (and I will), I am going to fucking remember that. I have my own review that should go up next week; I’ll post here when it does. When I do, you’ll see that you and I, Joel, both independently picked one word to describe the feeling of Sorcerer play: Pressure.

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