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.