REVIEW: The Annotated Sorcerer by Ron Edwards

Monday , 5, January 2015 3 Comments

Before I review this work, I have to be up front about the fact that I am not the target audience of this sort of product. I am perfectly happy playing vintage role-playing games like Classic Traveller, Moldvay Basic D&D, and Car Wars. I am simply not looking for a replacement for those games and I feel like the rpg “industry” (such as it is) left me at some point rather than the reverse. Furthermore, I run games with my kids at home and at conventions I end up game mastering for all stripes of people. Because of that, incorporating the explicit “adult” and occult type themes of Sorcerer just isn’t in the cards for me.In spite of this, I have to say that Ron Edwards is far more interesting than the self styled pundits of gaming make him out to be. While he is more often associated with the experimental “new wave” of role-playing that emerged at the tail end of the twentieth century, he nevertheless came up on classic games like The Fantasy Trip and Champions and played the heck out of them. He not only knows his Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft better than the run-of-the-mill D&D fan, but he has crafted game mechanics that bring their respective takes on the mystic arts to the tabletop in ways that few games have even come close to attempting. And given the horrors that develop whenever game masters attempt to impose story on the medium of role-playing games, it actually is pretty interesting to see what exactly he’s done in order to encourage story to emerge naturally in the course of gameplay.

While I now readily admit that Ron Edwards is a far more significant game designer than I imagined before reading through this groundbreaking game, I also have to say that I am really irritated with the whole premise of these annotations. I mean, I have an annotated edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; it’s incredibly handy to have some of the language and cultural differences spelled out there. But this game’s not even two decades old– it’s just a bit much to see it get the “study bible” treatment. Sure, that’s basically a gazillion years ago in internet time; I just don’t see why a revision, a designers notes article, a retrospective, or even the addition of GURPS style sidebars wouldn’t have been good enough to handle the problems created by the text’s relative antiquity.

Yet even though the format bugs me, I have to admit that the information contained in the annotations really is essential to understanding the implications of the system. This game really is different from just about every other role-playing game I’ve seen. The rules are not tied to a specific setting. In fact, they could just as easily adapted to playing swords and sorcery, a gritty blend of Twin Peaks, Highlander, and Miami Vice, or even science fiction and cyberpunk. At the same time, this is not a generic game. It is completely focused on themes of forbidden knowledge, demon summoning, relationships with those beings over time, and the balance between risk and corruption in a dangerous world. While the game leaves nailing down the exact nature of magic and the supernatural as an exercise for the referee, it nevertheless requires a world where sorcery is both rare and secret. So while there is no “official” Sorcerer setting, the rules nevertheless imply a great deal about your Sorcerer setting. You do not turn dials to adapt the system to your tastes as in GURPS. It’s yours to change and modify as you please, of course, but the primary avenue through which a referee adapts the rules to his campaign is via defining the game’s terms. This gives the game an almost Euclidean level of applicability and it’s really instructive to see how the designer pulled that off.

The Heart of the Game

The core mechanic of Sorcerer is interesting in that it only comes into play for the sort of thing GURPS players would call “a contest of skill.” The vast majority of skill checks and so forth that other games would make you do are simply declared to just work. They’re literally hand-waved in the players’ favor. The basic throw of the game is each character’s player rolling a certain number of dice based on their relevant stat. (The actual type of dice used doesn’t matter as long as everyone is using the same thing– now’s your chance to break out a big mess of d12’s!) Success goes to the person with the highest showing value. (Yes, there are allowances for tie-breakers.) That person’s degree of success is “the number of dice that show higher values than the highest of the loser’s dice.” (Don’t get crazy and try to line the dice up in order like in Risk– just read them exactly like I just said.) The degree of success is folded into the subsequent rolls as bonus dice, encouraging players to try to set up difficult tasks by playing to their strengths with one action before following through with another.

The number of dice a player throws in these opposed roll situations is also modified based on how dramatic the player is being, whether or not the action is specific and well described, how smart the move is, and whether or not the action moves the plot along. (But not the plot the game master has envisioned in advance for the session, mind you.) It reminds me somewhat of how character point awards are handed out in GURPS at the end of each session: there’s a couple of points the game master is supposed to award based on how well he thought the players role played. I for one am loathe to make a completely arbitrary judgement call like that… and yet, Sorcerer seems to be making me do it on every stinking roll. What’s worse, the game is supposed to be set up in such a way that the players really have to be getting these bonuses in order to have any chance of succeeding or even just living. There’s no way around it! Ron Edwards himself even criticizes his own system as falling into the “whoring for dice” trap, but he takes pains in the annotations to spell out that the bonus dice are not incentives. They are supposed to be handed out based on an objective assessment of how much fun has increased and whether or not player-driven story is actually emerging.

Can this core mechanic actually deliver on what it promises to do? Does this work with regular, non-beret wearing types…? I don’t know! But I really want to emphasize that this system takes something I tend to avoid at all costs when I referee my more traditional role-playing games… and then goes and makes it central and fundamental to gameplay. I’ll say it again: I really do not like having to make assessments or judgments on how people actually role-play or imagine or engage. That’s a really personal thing. I mean, I’ll kill your characters with cycle gangs, spiked pit traps, and aliens exploding from their chests and then laugh at you while you work up a new one. In a heartbeat, even. But I would never single out Bob’s funny voices as being inferior to the way Sally’s hi-jinks end up creating this insanely funny scenes that some how get everyone engaged in the action and hanging on every die roll even though they have disastrous tactical consequences in terms of what the game is “supposed” to be about. Sally rocks my table, no doubt. At least, I enjoy the zany action that ensues when she sits down to game with me. But who am I to decide that this is best for everybody when everyone else might be too nice to point out the complete lunacy of her actions directly? And how can I tell that any given action of hers is the thing that’s going to make the entire adventure a thing? Can I openly make calls on that sort without making people feel bad or jealous or unappreciated or snubbed or left out?

You know, honestly… I tend to play to an emerging group dynamic, not to individual players. I love it when someone goes all “army of one” and then dies a completely ignoble, undramatic death. I love it when someone is not being a team player and then, when the other players have had it, they collectively decide to frag that guy as soon as they get out of the dungeon. And I absolutely despise this notion of “spotlight time” that everyone seems to think they’re entitled to now. (Since when?!) On the other hand, the biggest thing I see the players of role-playing games mess up on is that they play the rules as they think them to be rather than the game as the referee runs it. Time and again, I see players start to do something awesome, then remember some odd nuance of the rules, then think out loud about it for a moment while bringing play to a halt, and then finally retract their action without once asking the referee what he thinks about all of it. Why can’t they just describe their actions or explain what they want to do and let the game master tell you how it is in his game? It’s like these people don’t know what role-playing games are or how they actually work! They are certainly cutting themselves off from the sort of exciting things that set the medium apart from every other type of game in existence.

So, what then is the fundamental thing that these rules do to get really emergent story going without having the game master baby it along all the time with railroads and sleight-of-story tricks? First, everything that isn’t essential to developing conflict and action is hand-waved. (“It just worked!” and “Okay, you’re there.”) Second, the players are immediately rewarded for describing their actions and playing in terms of imagination rather than a byzantine mastery of some kind of gaming codex. Finally, the game master is pushed outside of his role as a neutral judge and encouraged to actively pour fuel on the fire whenever things are clicking and players are doing things that increase the engagement and immersion levels of everyone at the table.

After numerous false starts and countless playtest sessions… this is the basic outline of what Ron Edwards discovered could solve the problem of creating story in the context of a role-playing game session. Whether his answer is your thing or not, there is no doubt about the fact that his  innovations are born out of actual play and refined though an iterative design approach. And even if you don’t adopt his methods wholesale, there are insights that can be garnered here that can be just as easily applied to more traditional games. However, I would argue that a lot of good game masters are already running their games along these lines, even if their rules don’t explicitly back them up in this or encourage it.

Character Creation

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in store for people unfamiliar with this game is that Steve Jackson’s 1978 MicroGame Wizard provides the basic overall foundation for it. If you aren’t familiar with that classic piece of Metagaming history, it was an inexpensive tactical combat game that originally came in a small plastic baggie. Instead of rolling up a character, you designed them with an elegant point-build system. Instead a lot of strange ratings and odd sounding “saving throw” scores, just about everything in the game derived from the core three character attributes. Instead of combat being played out loosely in the “theater of the mind” style with rules geared towards miniatures wargames that would have been nearly incomprehensible to the average role-player, everything in Wizard was played out on a hex map with concise rules and comprehensible range and movement specifications. Instead of being a game that you had to be initiated into by people that already knew how it was supposed to work, Wizard could be learned by kids straight from the rule book and played at the lunch table at school.

The game was a masterpiece, but it is not well known outside of a few dedicated fans of vintage games. (Some people would argue that it wasn’t really a true role-playing game, but really… in practice, anything that isn’t related to characters and combat can mostly be made up on the spot. A great many game mastering tomes boil down to little more than a prop.) Its release was a landmark event in game design history, but it just is not the sort of game that I would associate with the sort of people that are typically into “indie” role-playing games. It is almost dumbfounding to consider it, but all of the wild theory and experimentation that came out of the Forge this past decade or so can be chased back to one guy that was eaten up with how awesome this game was and that was using it as a vehicle for addressing one of the biggest open problems in role-playing game design. That’s just cool.

Players in Sorcerer have ten points to divide up between three attributes: Stamina, Will, and Lore. Each score is also given a descriptor which explains why the score is what it is. I don’t see any direct application for them per se, but somehow… they turn what would otherwise be a meaningless list of numbers into a real character that is very easy to imagine. (It’s subtle, but similar to how you end up imagining a real person when you roll up a character in classic Traveller’s “life path” style generation system.) Instead of a detailed list of mundane skills and social advantages, the character gets a catch-all cover score with its own descriptor. (That’s another place where the game’s implied setting shows up again: sorcery is necessarily both secret and uncommon in this game.) Instead of hit points, there is a humanity score which can be lowered due to the practice of dark magic-related acts and raised when a player character banishes a demon that isn’t bound to him. What it actually means is something that the game master has to nail down at the start of the game, and even the meaning of what “dropping to zero humanity” entails will be different from campaign to campaign. Instead of choosing from a menu of diverse disadvantages that are difficult to keep up with in the heat of a session, a sorcerer character chooses a single price that levies a stiff one die penalty in a fairly large range of situations. Finally, a telltale is also chosen that gives away the fact that the player character is a sorcerer to people that pick up on it.

The most challenging part of character design in Sorcerer lies in the choice of a kicker. One thing you see in a lot of role-playing groups is that everyone comes up exactly the character they want to play… and then when they get together, the group has this problem of figuring out why the player characters are together and why they would bother with whatever the game master has in mind. This is exactly what the concept of a kicker is supposed to help address. It might be a shocking discovery that launched the player character on adventure where he is in need of an unlikely set of allies. It might be a crazy opportunity that has turned up that makes the player character get involved in something wild. It might be bizarre mystery that scares the pants of anyone that knows about it: the player-character has to do something or who knows what will happen! The idea behind this aspect of the game is to set things up in such a way that stories and action and mayhem can emerge from the course of play right from the get go without it having to be imposed unilaterally by the game master via some sort of stock scenario structure. (It’s also one of the key features of the game that makes it better suited to just three or four players; juggling a half dozen of these things may not be all that workable!)

The typical Sorcerer game just won’t begin with each character meeting at a tavern to hear from the little old man what the adventure is about. Each character is liable to end up beginning play getting into trouble individually, with the players ultimately joining forces later on as the situation develops and their stories get entangled. If a character resolves their kicker, they are out of the game unless they can work with the game master to come up with a new one. Instead of potentially endless grinding resulting in a default story of “zero to hero,” Sorcerer is designed to focus on the same kind of arcs that characters in movies and novels undergo.

Demons and Magic

The character creation rules are thus little more than a few stats, some color, a bit of background, a disadvantage, and a sort of “story” instigator. That is only half of the process, however: your character is not complete until you’ve also designed his associated demon and played out the binding process.

Now, before we get into this I have to point out that this stuff is actually unnerving if not actually scary. Seeing as it’s just a game, I’m trying to think why that’s the case and I can only explain it by way of analogy. Car Wars is something I’ve played countless times and in spite of its relatively brutal theme– televised vehicular death matches– its gameplay is still relatively tame. I would have thought that Peter Dell-Orto’s Deathball would have been right up my alley as well, but I just… couldn’t… play it. There’s something about having more fully realized characters with more or less realistic damage effects and hit locations that make the game far more gruesome and graphic than what I’d normally be up for. For some reason, Car Wars just doesn’t seem like “real” violence when the focus is squarely on little cars swerving and skidding and shooting and rolling and catching on fire. You can enjoy the intensity of the contest without getting hung up on the poor penniless autoduelists that get rushed to the local Gold Cross facility to have their brains scanned for imprinting on a new clone. (Really, it’s more distressing that these guys don’t have enough petrol around to keep their 973 Ford Falcon XB GT Coupes running. Almost as bad is the fact that they have to eat algae instead of hamburger. Those poor saps!)

Likewise, it’s obvious that the people responsible for the D&D hysteria of the early eighties had not directly experienced the world’s most popular fantasy role-playing game. I mean, there is not the slightest hint of “real” occult or witchcraft elements  involved in the casting of the game’s Sleep spell or Magic Missile. (Vancian magic is of course an artifact of science fantasy, not anything remotely like “real” magical traditions or myths.) Sorcerer in contrast has all of the game’s powers, advantages, and special abilities are locked away in these demonic entities that are controlled by the game master. That right there is evil in and of itself just from a game design standpoint, but it gets worse. These creatures are each assigned a desire, which amounts to a vice that the pressure their associated player character for. Further, they also have a need, which is often gross if not outright wicked. If these… things… are not getting what they want, they become gradually more unreliable if not actively dangerous to the person they ostensibly serve.

I have to say that these demonic creatures are nuanced enough that I just don’t know right off how to whip one up under GURPS. Are they an ally or an enemy? Yes! And every interaction with these things is through ritual magic which actually has to be described and played out. This is not a system where magery comes off as a stand in for technology. It’s time consuming, difficult, unreliable, costly, and it takes its toll. I could see a Van Helsing type character retaining some semblance of humanity while banishing demons, containing them, and punishing them. But executing the contact, binding, and summoning rituals sound utterly horrific– not just because of what these creatures represent, but also because how many ways these things can go awry. It’s bad enough that a player character might sacrifice an animal in order to improve their chances of summoning a demon. A character that does so will likely accrue greater and greater penalties to their ability to banish demons, however. The possibility that a demon will end up poorly bound is similarly frightening: the number of victories it obtains on the roll become a penalty for every subsequent interaction with it!

Of course, as far as what this game is attempting to achieve, this is all gasoline on the fire. You’ve already got three or four player characters, each with their own “kicker” driving the play toward “the bangs” (that’s Ron Edward’s term for engaging scenes) right from the start. You have these creatures tied to each of the players pushing them towards mayhem and various sketchy activities. The players are describing their actions and attempting to increase the level of group interaction on every single roll. And to top it off, the players are going to be in grave danger due to whatever BAD STUFF the game master has turned loose. The players will end up in situations where they have to use sorcery in order to have a chance to deal with their problems, which in itself is not entirely predictable and is even liable to go terribly wrong. When a group sits down to that, there is just no way that they could have even a remote idea of how it will all play out in advance. This is not at all like what the people that were heavy into Vampire and Werewolf back in the nineties tended to do in practice. Instead, this is a credible attempt to bring to life the sort of things that “story” advocates claimed to want to experience at the tabletop. All with relatively simple rules instead of game master fiat.

Combat: Initiative and Sequencing

Every role-playing game does this a little bit differently. Some games do initiative by side, others do individual initiative. Some games reroll initiative every single round, other games keep whatever sequence is established in the first round until the end of the combat. GURPS did away with initiative entirely and just had everyone go in order of their Basic Speed attribute. (The fact that everyone gets a “free” defensive action by default is what allows for the elimination of something that would otherwise appear to be integral to the tabletop role-playing idiom.) Combat games like Car Wars and Star Fleet Battles worked up elaborate phased movement systems, often with numerous points where secret and simultaneous declarations had to be managed by the referee. In contrast, BattleTech produced an almost chess-like feel with each side alternating the execution of a unit’s full movement and then again taking turns to execute torso-twists and then attacks. Other games with a similar degree of granularity worked out elaborate systems for interrupts in order to allow players to cover certain regions with their rifles and so forth.

Sorcerer, though, opens each round with everyone declaring their actions at once. If people hear something they don’t like or get a better idea based on what everyone else is choosing, they can alter their choices as much as they want. This goes on until everyone is satisfied with how things stand. (Note: more or less this same method was recently used to simplify Federation Commander and make it more playable than its progenitor Star Fleet Battles.) From there, the game master determines how many dice each each character gets to roll based on their relevant scores and modifiers. Actions are then resolved in order from best to worst rolls, as determined by the core mechanic. (That is, the highest number wins, using other dice as tiebreakers if necessary.) If a player ends up being attacked before he can execute his declared action, he has the option to change it to a defensive move. If he doesn’t, he’s liable to be taken out before he can act.

The “free and clear” stage where everyone is declaring their actions at once combined with the many bonuses for role-playing even in combat can do a lot to create more cinematic action than what tends to happen in “I go you go” type systems. As it’s described in the annotations, it’s possible to perfectly capture scenes like you see in Quentin Tarantino movies where everyone is pointing a gun at someone else and everyone is threatening to shoot at once. It’s even possible for the initiative rolls to come up and then everyone opt to defend instead of shoot one after another. This drama comes at a price because working out what happens and when is a bit fiddly in that the game master will have make weird little flowchart diagrams to keep up with it every round. Other than that, this an extremely lean system that accomplishes a great deal with very few rules. Also note that this system can be applied to non-combat situations as well.

Now what’s so interesting about this is that it is terribly old school. It may even be that the original fantasy role playing game was meant to be played somewhat like this. I’m not sure– the rules for the sequence of play were always a bit of a hash and I don’t think I’ve ever quite played them like they were intended. Just going by what Matt Finch says in his Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, a lot of people had a problem with combat in early editions of D&D just dissolving into “I roll to hit. They roll to hit. I roll to hit.” His advice for how to avoid that are quite clearly in the same spirit as the combat rules in this section, but the difference is that Ron Edwards has completely nailed down understandable rules that can be implemented in order to consistently produce the kind of freewheeling action that Matt Finch upholds as the sine qua non of old school gaming. I know I’ve enjoyed it when combats happen to play out in ways that no rules system could ever completely account for. It appears that Ron Edwards is cognizant of exactly what that je ne sais quoi is; even better he can explain how to harness it without going all “zen” on us. That’s significant.

Conclusion

I am actually afraid to play this game– and not just because its rules are engineered from the ground up to push game masters like me out of their comfort zone and then keep them there. The convention where I’d be best be able to try this out is frequented by “nice”, geeky teen-aged girls, many of whom would be be liable to be on the lookout for their chance to try out role-playing games for the first time. Being of sort of a conservative purist bent, it’s more my style to bring someone into the hobby the same way I was: by being asked to roll 3d6 in order six times and then facing down a fairly strong chance of a total party kill. That’s not just because there’d be an off chance that one of the players’ dads would be eavesdropping from the next table, either.

I am not entirely comfortable with getting inside of the mind of a demon-like character, even one in a setting that has been stripped of the standard Christian connotations that people in the West typically bring to the subject matter. It’s one thing to go read The Screwtape Letters. But playing all this out? I’m leery… and I still come across people that hold all role-playing games to the same degree of disdain that they view Ouija Boards and people playing Led Zeppelin records backwards. Of course, that stuff is not half as scary as the fact that this game directly undermines almost every tool and technique that I lean on in order to keep control of a role playing game session. I mean… I thought I ran a wide open game where the players could do whatever they wanted. Now I have to wonder just how much of that is an illusion…!

Still, I have to say that this game had to be almost the perfect vehicle for kicking off a new scene of independent role-playing game designs. I can see now why the Forge could take off the way that it did and why it could become the center discussion about role-playing theory. Reading this book makes me want to design a role-playing game myself, very much like the many people that got ahold of the Soft Boys’ album “Underwater Moonlight” way back when and then went off and started a band after listening to it. This game challenges assumptions about the medium that I didn’t know I held. It provides a vocabulary for talking about what actually goes on in sessions that I’ve never seen before. Finally, it takes some of the core elements of iconic games like The Fantasy Trip and Champions… and then goes off in a direction with them that I could never have anticipated. But the roots of this game go even further back than that. Ron Edwards says in his list of inspirational reading section, “if you haven’t read the original, 1930s Conan fiction before, try it; it’s never been imitated successfully.” Sorcery and Sword, a followup supplement for this game “is based almost entirely on the conventions established by pulp-fantasy fiction in the 1930s and 1940s by authors such as Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber.” If you’re keen on really bringing the staples of the Appendix N literature into your tabletop adventures, then this is something you’ll want to seriously take a look at.

The real value in this game is not just in how well it captures the horrific nature of “real” sorcery. Yes, even if you stick with your preferred game system, just reading through this can really flesh out and juice up the bad guys your group’s player characters are out to beat up on. But beyond that, this short book is packed with wisdom that applies to most any role playing system. This passage, for instance, completely captures how I run everything from Basic D&D to Traveller and GURPS:

The game works wonderfully when you use what’s there, and it will make you suffer horribly if you try to beat it. In fact, I urge you to accept damage, including defeat, to interpret it merely as changing the arena of conflict. Remember how often the characters in the source material fail and suffer. When that happens to your character, let go of how you planned to win, because now, your story is about the guy who won anyway, or went down in glorious flames in trying. This is quite a subversive concept in role-playing, both to let go of the present and how you want or expect your character to look at the moment, and to let go of the future and of your dreams for what the character might become. (page 112)

That is some of the best advice that a novice game master is liable to ever be given. I wasn’t too clear on what all Ron Edwards had really accomplished before I sat down to review this game, but just based on that one paragraph alone it’s clear that he is an asset to the role-playing hobby. If you are a connoisseur of role-playing excellence, you really owe it to yourself to see what he’s accomplished.

3 Comments
  • castaliahouse says:

    Reading this, it sounds to me like the rules system might make for a fascinating basis for an SF/Cyberpunk RPG utilizing the Loa from Gibson’s Sprawl books.

    And that would surely be less problematic than hurling young DMs headlong into the darker depths of the occult.

    • Jeffro says:

      “I never should have written all those tank programs…!”

      Wait… the “demons” in Tron are all programs that look like the person that “conjured” them. And the Master Control Program looks like he knows the proper rituals to banish them…!

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