REVIEW: Sorcerer & Sword by Ron Edwards

Friday , 12, August 2016 2 Comments

Nearly a decade ago, I remember this guy holding forth on rpgs at a friend’s house. I took an instant dislike to him. In the first place, I kind of got the drift that he’d maybe take a dim view of the sort of vintage games I like. He was also threatening to take my most reliable opponent away from me, too. Mainly, though… the guy was just too danged hip.

He was all over some hot new game: Burning Wheel. This game was so cool, right…? From what I recollect, you didn’t just roll up a new character with it… you burned them. I didn’t get how it could be such a big deal. And for some reason, I kind of wanted to punch this guy. (What, like “3d6 in order isn’t good” enough you…?!) But then he said something that really blew my mind. He pointed out how in rpgs, the players could change the game world, create new objects, have something fleshed out on the spot– they could do all of that just by asking a question or making a suggestion. And yeah, computer games couldn’t do that stuff.

Yep, total gaming hipster there. But I’d really never heard anything like that before. I was stunned. And I am almost certain that this idea caused me to want to play and gamemaster and study and write about rpgs. It’s that compelling of a thought.

I totally stole that bit from that guy, too. And I’m sure I’ve written about that same thing a good dozen times since then, most recently in my discussions with Lewis Pulsipher about the definition of role-playing games and even in reviews of Tunnels & Trolls and so forth. It’s just such a great point with so many implications to explore. It’s smart. It makes you sound smart. (Heck, even Misha made the point again here just the other day.)

I never credited that guy for it. Not that you’d need to. Who’s going to footnote some half-drunken conversation from a decades past party that nobody remembers…?! But it never crossed my mind that the idea may have originated from somewhere else. Reading Sorcerer and Sword, it finally hit my what had happened: Ron Edwards happened, that’s what! The Forge happened. Sorcerer and its supplements happened.


Director stance. The player exerts control over external circumstances of the game-world, usually those affecting the character in some way, in the fashion traditionally reserved for the gm.
The simplest example of Director stance is so subtle you’ve probably seen it or done it without thinking: the player introduces the character into an already-occurring scene with a phrase like, “I show up.”
Another minor example is when the player makes use of a handy prop without the prop’s presence being previously described. “I pick up the nearby tire iron and slug him,” for instance, when all that had been established so far was that the character was in a car garage.
In either case, the player has exerted immense power over the game-world, altering time, space, and the actions of others relative to
his or her character. Easy, wasn’t it?

I wouldn’t be surprised if this really was the first time that this idea was published. I also would not be surprised if a good chunk of the countless people talking about this and repeating it were (like me just a couple weeks ago) completely ignorant of where it came from. Forge stuff is like that. If you’ve ever been exasperated with reviews, playtest reports, and game supplements created by people that haven’t even played the game in question, you’re liable to mark your blog posts with an “Actual Play” tag just to differentiate it from the usual “shoot from the hip” style game discussion. And yeah, that’s something that is straight out of Ron Edwards’s manifesto.

Does crediting him matter? I think it does. All the more so since it’s weirdly fashionable these days not to. In my case, though, I don’t think I can honestly neglect it. Ron Edwards not only wrote about the greatness of the pulps and publishing’s betrayal of the swords and sorcery genre starting in the late seventies, he did so well over a decade before I decided to delve into the same topic.

What’s in here?

  • The best swords and sorcery reading list you’ll find anywhere, with some classic authors that few people are discussing while also going beyond the “Appendix N” era that I have covered in depth.
  • A chapter on fantasy settings that starts off with the point that you don’t need elaborate pre-story world building in order to start playing. (This is the original repudiation of role-playing’s marriage to hokey, overwrought pink slime “Tolkienesque” wannabe novelist settings.)
  • Game rules and and gaming advice that is loaded with references to classic swords & sorcery and criticism of more recent fantasy conventions.
  • A serious attempt to get what you see in the old stories into the magic rules.
  • A breakdown of what kind of assumptions D&D gaming lends to the genre, with extensive direction on how to break out of this frame in order to get gameplay that is more in tune with the pulps.

It is that last point there that really gets me. I’ve been in the game blog scene for over a decade now and I thought I had seen everything. I’m more of a Car Wars guy than a TSR fanboy, so I really pride myself on breaking outside the bounds of the usual D&D-oriented assumptions. Reading this, I realize that I haven’t even scratched the surface on that. There are still things about role-playing that I never imagined could be challenged… and what’s more, until I read this book, I didn’t know that I didn’t know about it.

But it’s all right here laid out in a game supplement that illustrates its most difficult points with references to the pulp stories I’ve been writing about for the past two years.

People ask me to create “Appendix N: The Game” every once in a while and I typically brush that off by saying that we already have classic Dungeons & Dragons. Most people get the point, but a lot of people really are looking for someone to really give that sort of project the attention it deserves. If that’s you, then you need to realize that somebody already did that in 2001. You’ll definitely want to track down a copy.

Note: For an in depth review of the base game, see my post on The Annotated Sorcerer.

  • Jon M says:

    The earliest example I know of where a ruleset explicitly placed that sort of power into the hands of the players was Robin Laws’ Feng Shui, in 1996. There may be earlier instances.

    Feng Sui didn’t make a big deal out of it. It really was just an explicit statement of what most people were doing anyway.

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