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Sorcerer: Getting Started

November 2, 2014

A lot of people end up having a really hard time starting Sorcerer.  The Annotated Sorcerer edition gives a lot better tools and advice, but I think part of it is that Sorcerer expects people to come in to play already with a really good sense of savvy about media and story structure, and zero-hand-holding for traditional RPG gamers.  

This post is basically my “easier go” primer at how you need to be looking at the set up process to make your game fly.

A real world situation that means something to you

Sorcerer draws a lot from horror, and horror often takes a normal, real world situation that has emotional stakes, and then adds weirdness to it.  It bends or breaks the boundaries so we can see a bit more about what people really feel, or what they might do, or show themselves to be, under weird conditions.

Start with a normal, real world situation that means something to you, emotionally.  Romance, family, kids who are bullied, people who have just lost their job, religion, people trying to escape a rut – something real.  This is what I consider to be the “third leg” to the triangle formed by the Two Statements method described on pg. 15 of Annotated Sorcerer.

This doesn’t have to be set to the highest stakes – like it’s very easy to go to child abuse and dark dark places, but it makes sense to start somewhere less intense, a little more easier to digest.  Think about what general kind of characters are under what kind of pressure – and how that might be individually or as a result of the place they live in:

– People who feel trapped in a small town, with little prospects for a different life

– Teenagers feeling helpless as their families deal with an economic bubble bursting around them

– People who have committed a crime they’ve never considered before, and now are trying to hide it

– People who just lost a loved one, and can’t get past the grief

– Prodigies, people who have skyrocketed to the top of their competitive fields, fighting off rivals, breaking glass ceilings, dealing with the old guard

Although the protagonists of Sorcerer do not need to be part of a group, or even know each other, this kind of thing produces a common theme among characters in a nice way.

The players should be able to relate to the idea on some level – you can at least empathize and there’s a bit of an emotional kick for you, not necessarily that you’ve lived through it… if not, either the players are not going to be a good fit for this campaign, or you need a different angle.

(You can, of course, go much more afield than the normal, modern world for your situation, but you should find some way to key into real human situations/emotions.  If your campaign is going to be about sci-fi space travelers, be sure to tie into family, romance, etc. as the things that don’t change…)

Getting power doesn’t always solve problems

So you had characters under pressure, right?  Then they get magical power via sorcery.  When you’re making your protagonists, did they:

a) solve their problems/alleviate the pressure using sorcery?

b) choose the escapism of success – find a way to be successful/popular while their real problems remain in place or grow?

c) choose the escapism of the forbidden – use their sorcery to punish people, gain pleasure, wealth, etc. in a way that’s more like a drug kick or addiction than deal with their problems at all?

Even though option A seems like the best, understand your protagonist might never have developed the skills to deal with these problems without sorcery AND, on top of that, now they have this secret they have to keep about how they navigated those issues at all.

No matter what, your sorcerer is generally successful and doing well with their sorcery – if any problems exist, they haven’t caught up to you… yet.  (pg. 25-i in Annotated Sorcerer quotes Christopher Kubasik and goes into some detail about this.)

Kickers and real trouble

The Kicker is a problem your protagonist faces.  Notice now you’ve got a lot of places where problems can crop up – the pressure of the normal situation (and your normal life), your new “successful” situation you’ve created, keeping your sorcery a secret, and dealing with weird drama sorcery, demons, and sorcerers bring into things as well.

Generic but useful Kicker seeds:

– A friend, family member, or lover is leaving you… you have to do something.

– Someone or something threatens the secrecy of your sorcery- your secret might get out

– Your normal life is falling apart – you have to make a change.

– The power has gone to your head – you’ve made enemies and now they’re coming for you

– Your demon did something terrible, and now you’ve got to cover the trail

– You want out of the sorcery game, and an opportunity has opened itself up for you.

– The thing which you pursue passionately – you’ve found a clue to some form of enlightenment/ultimate experience – how far will you go to see the truth?

– Something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time, you finally see a chance.  Revenge? Professional success?  Love?

This is where basically we’re talking 180 degree difference compared to a pre-planned scenario – the players decide what the campaign is going to be about, what the “big problem” is for their character to overcome, and the GM follows that, instead of the GM planning it and the players following.

Sorcery means problems

Sorcery works best when you’ve defined it in some way that causes problems to the protagonists’ ties to the normal world.  The source of your power might in fact also be the source of your problems.

Some possibilities:

– Demon Needs require feeding people to it.  Who do you pick? Why? How do you hide the fact?

– Sorcery takes time and effort, enough that you have a hard time making normal life commitments

– Demons actively seek to sow discord or destroy relationships you have with normal people

– Demon Needs require your own memories.  How much of your past and identity do you give up? When do you stop?  Can you?

– How much do you have to lie to hide your Sorcery? How many people do you have to keep out?  Do they realize something is amiss?

Starting Demons

Each protagonist has one Demon already bound, which they are using to their benefit on one of the fashions listed above.  I like to think of the Demons thematically as my go-to before I start nailing down powers or appearances.

A particular Demon can be:

a) A representation of what the protagonist imagines their ideals to be, made concrete

Opportunity – show what happens when these ideals are taken to an extreme, show the limits of these ideals, etc.  show what happens to the protagonist when they get access to power and the chance to pursue their proclaimed ideals.

b) A representation of what the protagonist is in denial about as their ideals and desires – the demon pushes for these things as a personality, out of their Need, or provides the opportunity to do these things with it’s Abilities and powers.  

Opportunity – constantly show what the protagonist is thinking/desires, see how well they do at navigating acceptance, denial, etc., show what happens to the protagonist with they get access to power and the chance to do the things they deny themselves.

c) The opposite, personality-wise, of the protagonist.  The Demon constantly tests the protagonists’ beliefs and standards to see if they will hold, or what really underlies them.

Opportunity – the protagonist is constantly forced to show off their boundaries and sense of self, the demon is actually in competition with the protagonist in some way.

d) The Demon is a provider of security, safety and success – it is a pusher or drug dealer in a fashion.  It has the “answers” to all of your problems as long as you accept its answers above your own judgment, and whatever prices it asks of you in exchange for the reassurance.  

Opportunity – the protagonist has to develop their own backbone, find their own boundaries.

This is not a comprehensive list, but it’s a good set of ideas to go with.  You can start with the basic Statement of Environment & the Statement of the Look & Feel of Sorcery + Demons…. look at the situation that thematically pulls it together, come up with a normal person in this situation… then pick one of these themes and get a fun Demon from that, which plays off your character in an interesting way.

Depending on your game, the Demon may not actually be a source of real problems by pressuring hard – it can be a low-key pressure on top of other things – for example, a highly protective Demon might still push the protagonists to have to establish boundaries without necessarily going into seriously harming people.

Either way, this is a good way to get a quick idea of how to build a better Demon to meet your character, and, gives the GM something cool to figure out how to angle the Demon in roleplaying.

Defining Humanity

Here’s my easy go-to method in this:

What does it look like, story-wise, when you say a character’s soul is dead?

I don’t mean mystical soul, I mean their spirit, their heart, their emotional center and sense of self.  What things show us this character’s spirit is crushed/corrupted beyond any shadow of redemption or hope?  Is it committing acts of moral evil?  Is it having people run over their boundaries repeatedly until their will is crushed?  Is it giving up their hopes and dreams?  Cutting off everyone they love in pursuit of duty?  Letting go of their ideals?

Think about this especially in light of the mundane situation and pressure you’ve decided upon, then in context with what Sorcery means as far as creating further trouble.

What situation, could you imagine a character physically living through, but seeing it as they have lost, completely and utterly?

On the opposite end, are there any situations you could see a character physically dying, but protecting or living up to some ideal or value and seeing the story as they have triumphed in some way?

That’s my compass on Humanity.  Naturally, this is context specific to whatever you’ve got going on as the focus of your game, but these questions let you get a handle on it pretty easily.

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