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[Sorcerer] Swords of Theringia

Here a game of Sorcerer I am playing with Rod Anderson and Jon Hastings. I'm GMing and following the instructions in the Sorcerer and Sword supplement to create a Howardesque fantasy setting. Attached are PDFs of the setting document I used to launch the game, along with the PDFs of their chracters, including context wheels. I'll talk more about the game later in the comments and also post links to our subsequent sessions as we complete them. 

Department: 
Actual Play

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We play the first session for Yalu and Hamze. We're still getting a handle on handling the scope of conflcit resolution -- ie how much and what does a roll resolve. I ran several extended conflicts: one social, where Yalu competed with a rival troubador, and one physical where Hamze struggled to escape a pack of rats in the dark tunnels beneath the city of Shadrazar. We have a discussion about use of conflict resolution starting at 1h33m.  https://youtu.be/6TLk21jtLDw

Rod_A's picture

After Alan turned off the camera, we talked a little more and I formulated my thoughts a little more eloquently -- however, I've since forgotten what I said (sorry, Alan!). But on watching the video again, I think I expressed myself adequately after all. I'm very excited for the game, it's feeling full of fun and anticipation, and not fraught at all.

Greg's picture

Hey all. I'm the process of watching the videos and currently in the middle of part 3. 

First, I really enjoy seeing you play guys. Although it's clear that it's not one of those big thespian drama, it's really enjoyable to see you use the procedures of the game and reincorporating each other's inputs. First thing I feel is: "Hey, I want to play with those guys!". 

Rod has started to talk about that, I would like to ask you what do you think you are learning, each of you, while playing. I noticed that the interaction between playing as player (thanks to Rod), and gming the game has an interesting effect : I take conscious of skill that I'm acquiring for one or the other (playing or gming) + I take conscious of other skills still to acquire but I'm not there at this stage of my own development of the practice.

Some skills I think I developped, not really intrinsec to Sorcerer, but maybe its design helped me to see them:

  • Organizing my preparation for each session: not too much, not too little, and just the right amount of bringing something out of me.
  • Understanding the diagram, use them with more and more ease.
  • Understanding what aspect of the game needs to be teached for this specific group, and which aspect has to wait - because it will be too much.
  • Building the Demons, which can be break down to other point: disconnecting the power description from any fictional effect, and reconnecting it to this specific definition of sorcery + allowing some space for different "special effects" according to each specific situation of is application ;  articulate those powers to generrate generate my vision of this demonic effect, etc.
  • Playing the demons (ie. not "humanly" intelligents).
  • How to use the bonus die (ie : not a "roleplaying dice", not a "tagline dice", but as a tool for aknowledging both reincorporation or collective engagement in the game - difficult to describe, and there are many ways of uses, I think)
  • Operating the rules, specially the economy, 
  • Etc.

Rod presented a new skill you acquire, that I didn't thought about before: calibrating the situation through rolls.

Each of you, what skill do you think you acquire by playing the game ?

I think each of you have also gm and played the game. What did you learn when you were gming that helped you to play the game as PC, and what did you learn by playing as PC that helps you as GM?

I notice for instance a lot of hesitation, specially John when making decision for his character, or Alan when making decision for some NPC. I think it's a very good signal when playing sorcerer. I realize I hesitate a lot, specially after dice rolls. I think more than any other game, but also I think that I'm getting faster to make those decision.

A third layer I'm interested to explore, if any of you is interested, is how the game endorsed Author Stance. At this stage of my own play, I'm beginning to notice how some mechancis endorse author stance by moment. Any thought on that?

Response to Greg

When playing as player, I learned to watch for when next action dice penalties put an opponent at a one-time disadvantage. When GMing our current game, I've reminded the players when they have a big opportunity to achieve something because of their opponent's temporary disadvantage.

As player I hesitate a lot less than when I GM. As a player I tend to act on gut response to what would my character do and not spend a lot of time on assessing how best to exploit the game rules. (Actually, I usually learn the game rules well enough to already have some ideas of how to exploit them, so I don't have to spend time thinking in play.)

As GM I'm not actually hesitating -- I often stop to think of one or both of two things: what does each NPC want to achieve (which may mean what are they doing off-stage), and how do apply the game rules. I'm not a thespian, and never have been, so I focus on meaningful action in play. I do however, like to interject "one-liners" or quips when I think of them. (I learned that from Schwartzenegger movies of the 80s). 

Also responding to Greg:

Interestingly, I don't feel like I'm hesitating: I usually have a very strong sense of what Hamze wants to do, and if it takes me some time to articulate it, that is often because that strong sense of what Hamze wants to do in the moment is sometimes very different from what I thought he wanted to do. 

I've been thinking about your question of what I took from my experience GMing Sorcerer and have applied to playing it, but I'm not sure I can point to any specific thing. Maybe this, though: I feel very confident (maybe not the right word) that I can  play my character without having to worry about how that will affect Alan's tasks as GM.

Ron Edwards's picture

Which I suppose is of no special importance, but truly, knowing all of you and your long-term interaction with this game, this is a treat and, as it turns out, a major stress-reliever, a source of life-enjoyment, for me at this time.

I'll try to say something relevant sooner or later, I suppose.

I'm very happy to be playing Sorcerer & Sword again.

During the first session of play, I had one of those moments that happens  regularly when playing Sorcerer and not so regularly with other games (although our recent James Bond 007 had a lot of moments like this for me): where I'll start a scene with a very clear conception of my character's motivations and goals, and then we get into a conflict, dice are rolled, and, all of a sudden, my take on my character's motivations has changed. In this case, I had the idea that Hamze wouldn't want to confront Buzur without doing some careful recon first: but the sequence of rolls starting with the failure to find an approrpiate cat's paw, which then led to a successful roll (with 3 successes) to impress/intimidate the enforcer made me realize that Hamze was in no mood to tiptoe around while Buzur sat on his throne.

Had the dice not fallen that way, I wouldn't have gone for the direct approach; as they did fall that way, I couldn't see any way forward (based on how I was conceiving Hamze's character) except the direct approach. I don't think I can explain the alchemy that happens in a moment like this: my conception, bouncing off the results of the dice, bouncing the details of the opposition as played by Alan, bouncing off another roll of the dice... with those extra sucesses in the second roll very much mattering to me in terms of how I should play things: partly because they opened up the possibility of being able to use them as roll-over dice in a subsequent conflict, but also because they seemed to represent (to me) Hamze's theme music starting to play.

And so my character ended up surprising me.

I remember this same kind of happening the first time I played Sorcerer & Sword, but, not expecting it and not having ever played anything like it, I was upset! The game seemed to have turned on me; the character not who I wanted them to be. I felt the game master was unfairly putting me in a spot and not letting me "play my character." I'm not sure exactly how I made the mental shift from thinking about it like that to seeing it in these terms: it happened over the course of that first series of Sorcerer & Sword games, and was solidly in place by the time we played it again.

I'm looking forward to the further suprises Hamze has in store for me. (Also looking forward to seeing if I'll end up causing trouble for Yalu, too!)

https://youtu.be/KlQFm2Z01X0

Hamze proceeds openly through the streets and tunnels towards the Beggar's Hall, where the usurper Buzur awaits. En route he encounter's Ashara's handmaid, who informs him that she has slipped out of her father's house to seek him. Then they encounter Ashara's brothers, who accuse Hamze of stealing their sister. Hamze intimidates them and they back off. Later, in the main "highway" tunnel to the Beggar's Hall, Hamze faces off with four of Buzur's thugs. Calling on the power of Gissu, his demonic cloak, his stamina is enormously amplified. In one single round, he devastates and demoralizes his opponents.

Meanwhile, Yalu seeks the location of the Hall of the Yellow king. He starts in the Emir's library and finds a book purported to have the information (unbenknownst to him, he has beaten his rival, Atis of Athur, to the book.) Alas, wading through the book consumes time, until the young Emir himself shows up and demands the book. As Yalu leaves, perhaps to return another day, the Emir appears to be agitatedly seeking something in the book. In the courtyard, Yalu spots Atis lurking and slips past him.

Yalu reasons that the beggar underworld must have some knowledge of the hidden ways under the city, so he hatches a plan to seek help. He disguises himself as a lowly street-musician and goes to the lower quarter. There he improvises on the theme of the Lost Instrument of the Old Ones he seeks. In fact, he finds himself caught in a vision, seeing the Hall of the Yellow King and eerie stringed twanging coming from within a sarcophagus. He's drawns closer, but then repelled. He awakes with a headache and a missing purse. 

But he has drawn the attention of Old Tarsh, the knowledge keeper of the beggar's kingdom. Old Tarsh makes a deal with him: Tarsh will lead Yalu to the Hall, if Yalu will aid Tarsh in acquiring a special arcane fungus from a chamber near to it. 

The session ends there. Much of what I recorded here was mediated by dice rolls: for example, deciding whether Atis got to the book before Yalu. And Yalu's song was rolled as a contact ritual (which failed). Also of note: Hamze's use of Boost Stamina gave him a 7 dice advantage in one -- count em! -- one round of combat and result in taking out four  thugs of 4 stamina -- one with an attack and three others with two total victories on defence and one less victory on defense. Seven dice boost, plus carryover from each previous roll had Jon rolling about 15 dice! 'Course, now Gissu is going to start jonesing for some need.

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Alan! One of the topics I've been working out lately is the interplay between those things which do include dice (or anything like them) and those things that don't - especially when "things" mean a strong or sudden narrowing of options, or increase in danger, or probably both.

For people who've taken the courses, I hope it's been clear that this isn't an either-or pair of separate options. Instead, I consider "dice-y" procedures (again, very broadly conceived) as subroutines of authorities, i.e., talking. As a casual example, the result of a wandering monster role informs or constrains your job of saying whether a monster attacks right now, particularly, a monster which is unmarked on the map. Basically, you have that job all the time in this game, and the roll, and the associated table, are instruments for doing it.

This concept can be misunderstood in many different ways so I hope no one takes a flying leap into the weeds at this point. The courses seem to have done pretty well in keeping things clear, but out here in the wild, well, we'll see.

Anyway, for Sorcerer & Sword specifically, the fictional concept of coincidence is a critical feature. I'm talking about the most literal sense, meaning, this thing happens right here and at the same time as that other thing. Or, related, that given a couple or more things, one of them happens first (and the others do not).

I maintain that this game (and many others) relies on you, the GM, providing a lot of "this happens now" content, based on what you think. The dice operate as an enjoyable subroutine for this job, which you must actually do and own. The dice can't do it alone; they aren't an automation.

What is your experience of these things in play? I totally recognize and celebrate using the dice as you've described, as a serious functional component of immediate situational framing But I think it's useful to identify, to own, and to celebrate the larger, contextual, non-dice decision-making and perspectives that call for the dice to come into it. Does that make any sense? What are your thoughts, for this game and especially for this session?

Hi Ron, Now that you mention the role of coincidence in sword and sorcery stories, I realize that I've been working on how to determine what components show up in a scene. As a foundation, I've been focusing on identifying NPC agendas and having them act on them offstage -- that approach was really reinforced by improved understanding of "The Now" from Champions Now play and text. 

I find I come to decision points as GM where I'm thinking: "okay, should I just bring in that NPC doing something and declare how well they have positioned themselves, or is there a conflict that I'd like to determine with dice?"

An example of GM fiat: I knew that Ashara, Hamze's lover, wanted to slip out of her father's mansion and go looking for the deposed king of beggars. I just decided she did that without a problem, but that her handmaid would go out looking for her when the maid discovered her mistress gone. Likewise, Ashara's brothers would go looking for their sister. When Jon declared that Hamze was just boldly marching through the streets on his way to confront Buzur, I decided to just have the handmaid encounter him, and then the brothers. I did use a dice roll to determine how much warning Hamze got about being spotted by the brothers. 

An example of dice mediation: Yalu spoke openly about his quest to find the Instrument of the Old Ones in front of his rival Atis -- and the lord of the house publically offered Yalu direction to a book in the Emir's library. So when Yalu went to the Emir's palace, I had him roll a conflict with Atis to determine who got there first. 

But later, when Yalu's naive and unconscious Contact ritual with the Instrument failed, I just gave him Old Tarsh, who would know how to find the Hall of the Yellow King.

Am I getting at what you are asking about?

Ron Edwards's picture

You are! Very clearly too.

I do need to quibble about one thing: the word "fiat" has no place in what we're talking about. Fiat means overriding known/desired means of doing things, or the rules, basically, for how we play. Fiat means someone rejects how we play and does something else instead.

I know that RPG culture has taken to using the term to mean "GM decides or does something," but I think this is quite wrong and damaging. As I recently mentioned somewhere (the Patreon?), there exists a terrible notion that something like "and that's when Harry shows up" must be either: 

  1. Utterly determined by some nonpersonal means, including but not limited to stochastic methods like a dice roll. By "utterly" I mean this includes even the decision to do it in the first place. The concept here is that the person speaking is merely following orders, "the dice made me do it."
  2. Made up for external purposes, typically a desired point to lead to, whether prepared ahead of time or spitballed. The concept here is that the person speaking is guiding play, "for the story." It includes the weary familiar nonsense about "ignoring the dice to get a better story," if some stochastic method was involved but is now ignored - this is where the term "fiat" comes from.

Again, I reject this dichotomy in its entirety. The whole idea is wrong.

It arises from misunderstanding or denial about #1. Dice or anything like them are utilized as subroutines for our designated jobs as speakers, or better, as listeners, meaning that we need known/designated speakers. Even a rather detailed stochastic method for introducing events, e.g., wandering monsters (whether, which ones, how many, etc), is carried out when intersections among speaking/listening parties, real people, call for it to be done.

When people misunderstand or deny this, only then do they find themselves in nonsensical or murky situations concerning using those methods, which ultimately lead to covert or overt versions of #2 to override or compensate for them. Basically, fake play is introduced to cover for or compensate for confused, asystemic play.

Therefore what you're describing isn't fiat at all. These things are your job, and you're doing them. Furthermore, the way you're doing them is known and valued by everyone; there is no role of overriding anything, whether words by dice or dice by words.

That's quite a bit of gabble for one little word, but I think it's worth the focus - and worth arriving at appreciation for what you're doing in play.

The adventures of Yalu and Hamze continue. This episode is particularly notable on the subject of co-incidence, as character actions, dice rolls, and my GM decision brought he two player agendas _and_ a major NPC agenda together in one place. By the end of the session Hamze, Yalu, and the NPCs Ashara (Hamze's love), Fareed (Hamze's lieutenant), Old Tarsh (a wise man know to both PCs), and Zahir, the young emir, are now all trapped in the same chamber in the undercity by the revenant driven rat swarms. 

I note after the fact that I forgot, again, to remind players to make defensive rolls after attacks. I've gotten good at identifying the initiative order and the damage effects, but forgot to allow defense rolls. Oh well! Learning for next time.

Finally, we have a post-game discussion at 1h08m about what allowed the confluence of all these character and arrival in the same place. 

https://youtu.be/0abLhS54Ha0

Episode 5: Our heroes drive back the rat swarm with a ritual, reach the Hall of the Yellow King. There, Hamze, Yalu, and the young Emir destroy the revenant that was the murderer of the Emir's father. The revenant goes down relatively easily in the face of Hamze's Stamina Boost -- a lesson for future monsters: if a PC has stamina boost, give your big monster armor!

Episode 6: The group returns to the surface. Yalu evades Athis's attempt to steal the instrument of the old ones, only to give it up later. Meanwhile, Hamze plots to reclaim his throne and visits his apothacary friend for some paralyzing poisons. Yalu sends a challenge to Athis's master, proposing a music contest. Yalu is also visited by the mysterious being that sang the song that inspired Yalu to seek the instrument. The being teaches Yalu, a song that will feed the need of the Instrument should Yalu choose to bind it. Yalu also sends messages through the underworld to contact Hamze. Hamze, using the disgusing Cover of his cloak, Gissu, visits his rivals haunts and evedrops, only to learn that Buzur, the rival is holed up in the Beggar King's Court and has sent out some sort of beast to hunt him down. Hamze also overhears the buzz about Yalu looking for him. Hamze seeks out Yalu just as the sun is setting, when the beast happens upon them -- a giant carnivorous toad creature!

PedroPereira's picture

You guys are on fire! Loving the vibe of this game.

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm racing to catch up on the videos, but not getting there in time to comment on them yet.

One thing I've been focusing on lately, in all the games I'm involved in and those I'm seeing and reading about here ... is the question of "squeezing," or as the literary people call it, rising action. When things that happen affect other things which are happening, and everyone involved (in other media, the audience) knows that "this is what we have come to." It's not like previous events, which now are recognized as contextual and, retroactively, seem to have happened so that this current moment is now occurring.

A lot of Adept Play and prior efforts have focused on not scripting and running people through allegedly caused events which are no such thing, and I've been at some pains to stress that this concept applies both to pre-play preparation and during-play improvisation. That said, my next question of interest is how events of play do arrive at the phenomenon/experience I've described in the previous paragraph. Because I know they can, and I know that it's important that "can" is critical, as opposed to "will" - we have to know as fact that they are not guaranteed to do so.

But human attention and intuition are involved in how such "squeezing" happens. Yes, it is inauthentic when suddenly imposed, but it's not something you can leave up to a widget-like mechanical structure either. I'd like to consider what sort of attention and intuition are involved - in the recognition of authorities-in-play and the absence of control.

This game seems like the right place for me really to understand it better, based on my enjoyment of the videos and a sense of fictional content from that perspective, outside of play. I'm not looking for analysis particularly so much as thinking about if, when, and how that occurs, or the extent to which it has occurred, from the perspectives inside play.

"Squeezing" is definately increasing as our game continues. The development of the game has put the player characters in increasingly higher stakes circumstances. Examples: Yalu acquired the Instrument but became the direct target of violent action by his rivals; and Hamze, having taken action that exposed his intent to Buzur, the usurper, now faces Buzur's active exercise of his power in the criminal world of Shadrazar. This has emerged from the interplay of player decisions as the game progressed, my assessment of how the NPCs would respond, and some judgement (as we've discussed earlier in this thread) about the exercise of coincidence.

An obvious example of coincidence is the appearance of the hunting toad beast immediately after Yalu and Hamze meet to consult.

It occures to me that "squeezing" can occur naturally as the player characters and NPCs try to build advantage or preparation and either achieve or expend options they hope will lead to a resolution. Move/Counter Move/Try Harder/Dig more into resources.

It works well when all the players (GM included) are willing to turn their characters to face conflict and Rod and Jon have been good at that. 

I can imagine our game as a crucible, where the container is defined by the setting and the kickers. Then, powered by the heat of the player's willingness to engage in conflict, the participants seek and apply resources, and maneuver. Because of the constraints of the "crucible" and the turning toward conflict, the options run out and escalation happens as a result. 

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