[Review] Sorcerer (Core Game); Let him who have understanding reckon the Number of the Beast…

[Core Rulebook]
Sorcerer (2001)
Ron Edwards (Adept Press)
Summary: Hellblazer + Hellraiser

“I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe … Have ye Wordes for laying at all times readie, and stopp not to be sure when there is any Doubte of Whom you have … 3 Talkes with What was therein inhum’d …”
– H.P Lovecraft, The Curious Case of Charles Dexter Ward

My reasons for reviewing story-games are wildly dissimilar from any other content on the blog. With almost every other module or game supplement I go in at least mildly positive towards the medium and source material that inspired it and thus I can expect to like it at least theoretically [1]. At times I will be pleasantly surprised, at times bitterly disappointed. Story-games are different. I don’t like storygames because the mindset and design philosophy is utterly alien to me and thus I fully expect to hate or dislike them when I read them. I go into them because mockery and spite provide a different creative drive and I enjoy few things less then ranting at things I dislike.

But what started story-games? Who makes them? Why do they even exist at all? While the actual history of these troubling intruders into the elfgame ecosystem lies far beyond the scope of this review and the author’s knowledge [2] there are few people that left their mark on it as strongly as Ron Edwards. Essentially the Saul Alinsky of Roleplaying games, it was Edward’s by now thoroughly discredited GNS theory [3] that led to the spawning of the Forge and the eventual proliferation of the hated storygames upon the once unspoiled hobby. Credited with stating that DnD damaged the minds of the people who played it [4] and original windmill to Tarnowski’s Don Quixote, Edwards is a once blazing star of controversy now since faded to a gently shimmering ember that still creates the odd game or two when he is not still railing that Fireballs cause Autism or whatever.

Today we gaze at the original serpent, the game that may not have started it all but that is certainly one of the progenitors of modern storygames; Ron Edward’s Sorcerer!

What frustrates me about many storygames is that the ideas that they are based on are often pretty creative but the execution is terrible because the fundamental assumptions about human behavior are incorrect. Like the storygames it would eventually begat, the premise of Sorcerer is likewise intriguing. You take on the role of the archetypal Sorcerer, a terrifying man of iron willpower and forbidden knowledge that conjures up and binds demons to serve his own ends. Faust. John Constantine. Joseph Curwen. Elric of Melniboné. A man who bargains with dark powers to gain what he desires most at the cost of his humanity and very soul.

Sorcerer is a bit of an odd duck; simultaneously a very radically innovative game and a throwback because it is very much a setting-less system in a time when system and setting where getting increasingly conjoined. The rules facilitate the central premise of Sorcerer (i.e you are a guy who can summon demons who must constantly struggle to retain his humanity) but leave the definition of just what Sorcery or Humanity is almost entirely in the hands of the Dungeon Master. In fact, if anything surprised me it was the maturity with which Edwards treats the GM. This game is neither WoD-style railroad where the players get to sit on their hands while the GM reads boxed text, nor a modern storygame where the GM is rendered an impotent stooge, forced to caper and eat garbage for the amusement of the player base. Instead Sorcerer assumes the GM is a strutting, big-dicked alpha male who has no time for the frivolous imaginings of lesser men, and who runs the game exactly as he damn well pleases, with players that hang out in coffee shops with berets and tiny sunglasses that smoke black cigarettes but also like motorcycle chases and double uzis.

If anything else surprised me it was the lack of pretension in most source material and the examples. While Edwards can’t help but bring up Medea by Euripides as the most important novel in his appendix N, it is clear he draws as much inspiration from popular 80s and 90s movies and some pretty bitching fantasy series like Conan, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, Elric and Howard Philips Lovecraft and the captivating (if at times cringily left-wing) Hellblazer series. In fact, though Edwards cannot disguise his contempt for DnD even in this product, he comes across not as deranged elitist but mostly as a nerd with too much time on his hands, just like the rest of us. His frequent reference to popular movies in his roleplaying examples is not exactly the height of creativity but it does make it very easy to understand what he is getting at.

Sorcerer is not really a storygame, it still resembles an RPG in the traditional sense. Characters have ability scores, gain XP, and have a great deal of personal initiative. At the same time, the game makes it abundantly clear it is not about gaining power but about creating satisfying dramatic situations, with the Character’s life, soul and sanity at the core.

Central Mechanics:

All situations in Sorcerer are resolved by rolling a number of dice equal to the relevant stat plus any bonuses or penalties vs either a number of dice equal to the opponents stat or a fixed number (if one is trying to overcome, say, an inanimate object). The highest single dice roll determines victory, and the number of dice that are higher than the highest roll of the opponent determines the degree of victory.

What is bizarre is that Edwards does not define the type of dice used, leaving that in the hands of the GM. He does point out that the type of dice one uses will determine how much of a difference there will be between powerful and weak characters, citing that low polyhedral dice will make it more likely that a weaker opponent prevails whereas higher numbers will virtually ensure that the entity with the higher statt (number of rolls) will triumph [5].

The game actively encourages roleplaying by penalizing routine or particularly foolhardy actions whilst rewarding particularly flavorful descriptions of an action, quips, plot-advancing courses of action and clever tactics. These modifiers are essential to beating the odds in Sorcerer, thereby giving the players an incentive to think on their feet and preserving the atmosphere of the game. To put it simple, if you want to be good at the game, you have to be clever and you have to roleplay. Somehow this method of incentivizing desirable behavior would fall by the wayside in later storygames, being replaced with, as is so often the case, nothing. The game actually goes so far as to hardcode penalizing petty, obstructive actions into the game, which is useless, since petty, obstructive actions are often indicative of deep-seated problems and therefore best resolved via a stern talking too or even removal from the game in question. Giving people an ingame penalty for all but the lightest cases is rather pointless.

There is another bizarre postmodernist design decision; Sorcerer doesn’t seem to believe in any sort of universal standard of ability. All difficulty is relative to the creature that attempts to overcome it. The number of dice you must roll to perform a feat is based solely on the GM’s arbitration on whether or not the feat would be difficult for that particular character and is always set against a fraction or multiple of the character’s ability scores. There is no fixed difficulty in dice in Sorcerer, beyond the trivial (automatic success) and the impossible (automatic failure).

A last crucial mechanic of Sorcerer is that failure or success CARRIES OVER into the next roll, meaning situations tend to snowball pretty quickly. The number of successes which you achieve in one action are added to your dice pool for the next roll. Edwards is pretty vague on when it applies, just that it applies a lot “…any action in which the first roll conceivably affects the success of the second.”

Character Creation:

Sorcerers have the bare minimum of primary abilities to make them somewhat mechanically distinct and interesting, which can be put down at 3. Every Sorcerer begins play with 10 points, which he may divide between Stamina, Will and Lore. Stamina governs all physical actions, Will all mental actions (e.g all nonphysical including social situations) and Lore governs Sorcery. Scores are directly representative of the number of dice rolled (e.g a Lore of 2 means your dice pool is 2).

Each of these ability scores is given a short list of descriptors like “Athletic regime,” “High-self esteem,” “Scrapper” or “Specialized combat training.” These descriptors have no mechanical effect but provide additional context to what the ability scores mean in the context of the ingame universe.

While these three abilities are relatively static, they define one’s starting Humanity, the 4th primary and arguably most important ability. The central premise of Sorcerer is to risk one’s Humanity in order to achieve whatever goal the Sorcerer sets out to achieve. Trafficking, summoning and binding Demons puts you at risk of losing your Humanity whilst Banishing Demons from the mortal realm (that you yourself have not summoned) automatically increases it. Beyond that, the GM is supposed to force rolls against your own score whenever the PC commits an act that is clearly beyond the pale. Humanity starts as the highest of either your Stamina or Will, incentivizing specialization (and flawed characters) and cementing Lore as an Inhuman attribute.

What is again rather bizarre is that nowhere in his tract does Edwards properly define humanity, and indeed, he feels it is not his place as the author, placing that responsibility in the hands of the GM as the creator of the actual setting. To his credit, he does offer some alternatives, from simple sanity to actual spiritual damnation. What exactly happens when one reaches 0 humanity is left vague, but it does mean the player falls, temporarily or even permanently under the control of the GM.

There are some further derivatives of these central ability scores. Your Cover is based off either your Stamina or Will, and functions as a sort of skill list. The rationale is that Sorcerers in Sorcerer are fairly rare (the game recommends a maximum of 100 sorcerers in the world at any time) and are very much NOT an accepted part of society, therefore your Sorcerer needs a dayjob. You are supposed to pick any suitable profession, from FBI Agent to Lawyer, and the Cover is used as a score for any tasks that that profession would normally be able to do. In addition, you possess any equipment someone of that occupation would possess.
Cover is the first truly overpowered game mechanic, which is likely to invite rampant abuse if not checked by the Experienced GM. Since there are relatively few guidelines on what is appropriate, the GM is left with no recourse but to figure shit out by himself, which is not a good thing if you are new to the game. Finally, you select or create based on examples, one character flaw that gives you an automatic penalty to certain actions and you add a telltale, something that subtly gives away your sorcerous nature to those in the know (all sorcerers and demons in Sorcerer have this).

After this, you and the GM create a Kicker, something that stirs up your protagonist from the status quo and gets him to protagonize. This section is well written, and again the examples make comprehensible and even easy such a relatively formidable and open ended task. A murdered master, a series of brutal crimes all connected with the player or even a sudden windfall are all made comprehensible and easy to replicate with simple, utilitarian examples, and the sample characters included in this chapter illustrate the process fairly well. The recurring mention of popular nerd media and series like Highlander, Terminator 2, Twin Peaks and the Ninth Gate drive home the atmosphere and central concept of Sorcerer effectively and comprehensively.  For all the subsequent pseudo-intellectual blathering of its creator, Sorcerer is never presented as some sort of high-brow entertainment, being just as content to involve itself with explosions and demon fights as it is with grappling with questions of temptation and damnation.

It goes without saying that every other NPC does with these same stats, and non-sorcerers don’t even have a (nor need) a Lore score. The game is kind enough to give us some indications of what we can expect and what kind of ability scores rival sorcerers should have, recommending that antagonists should be made powerful when compared to PCs, to facilitate risk taking and boldness in their approach to dealing with them (this is my kind of game).

To illustrate the creation process, we shall make a sample Sorcerer, going with John Constantine as the first candidate for such a game that comes to mind. We have 10 points to distribute. Now if we recall from the comics, Constantine is actually a terrible physical combatant that repeatedly gets his ass kicked (the smoking doesn’t help I imagine) so we shall put his Stamina on 2 (Chemically Heightened). He is one cheeky fucker and arguably a master manipulator so we Place his Will at 4 (User/Manipulator). This leaves us with 4 points to put in Lore and since he is not mad, we select Solitary Adept (appropriate for 4 Lore). John Constantine has 4 Humanity as a result of his Will and we will select the Cover “Punk Rock Singer.” John has many vices and flaws but we pick the Price Arrogant, giving us a -1 on all perception rolls (which are never defined very clearly). Source material Constantine didn’t really have a Telltale so we pick One Blue Eye, One Green so as to denote one marked by dark powers.

Voila, we have a Sorcerer.

Sorcerer doesn’t truly begin suffering from its wishy-washiness and its refusal to paint when it can get away with sketching until it comes to its second most important part; the Demon Section.

The Demon Section.

As previously stated, Sorcerers in Sorcerer don’t actually know any spells or have any inherent supernatural powers. They are powerful only by virtue of the entities they command. As can be expected from the game thus far, the actual nature of the Demon is left up to the GM, but it does have several attributes that are fixed. Demons are not easily detected and are actually GREAT at hiding from the public eye, to the extent that they will refuse to do anything that will expose them [6]. Demons MUST be summoned and MUST be bound by Sorcerers in order to exist in the material world for any appreciable length of time, something which they CRAVE since the mortal world gives them a chance to fulfill their single burning Need and Desire, attributes which are meant to be a source of conflict between the demon and the sorcerer. The only problem is that as written Need and Desire can very easily be defined as mere nuisances and only the almighty GM’s discretion is employed, along with some bad examples of Desire and Need, to ward off making a door stop out of this all important failsafe against rampant player abuse.

This is where the game really needed to step up its shit and make it count. It needed an explanation of the purpose BEHIND Need and methods to achieve that purpose but instead it is content with giving us a few bland and generic examples of what can constitute a Need or a Desire. The examples are far more illustrative of the operation of the mechanic then the description of the mechanic itself.

If anything, the abilities of Demons and their generation is even more vague. Like humans Demons have the 3 different ability scores (often pretty high ones) and an ability termed Power, which is its most important feature, and determines which, among other things, the number of special abilities it has. Demons come in different general categories; Inconspicuous, Object, Possessor, Parasite and Passing, all of which blurr into eachother occasionally but they function as general categories which Demons tend to fall into.

The special abilities is where the game gets too abstract for my taste. Abilities can either be bestowed upon the Sorcerer, the Host or Wielder or upon the Demon itself. The short descriptions give one a general idea of what the ability is supposed to achieve but again the Gm’s discretion is needed to sort things out.

I always feel that an example can serve to illustrate what a thousand blathery words about vaguely defined rulesystems cannot so we will pick another example from Sorcerer’s appendix N and see how well we can make it work. Although probably not appropriate for a modern setting, the blade Stormbringer is an emminently suitable candidate for an Object Demon.

Stormbringer is a mighty weapon indeed, and virtually indestructible. We don’t really know what would be (appropriate) for a high Stamina since it’s a poorly defined ability but we choose 8 since there are very few things that can destroy this mighty weapon. It’s type shall be Object and its Telltale is a faint keening when it is drawn. It’s lore determines its number of abilities but we will have to do that one from the bottom up since we are trying to replicate a thing from fiction so we will simply add abilities to taste. The Object Demon’s Will is at least one higher then its highest ability score, so it will be at least Nine.

As we puzzle through the ability list, we give it the Boost Ability, allowing it to add its considerable Stamina of 8 to the ability score of the wielder (though multiple such boosts are sure to confuse or even injure the player). It is also given Special Damage (Soul-Drain) to allow it to beat the shit out of things, which it bestows upon its wielder. Now it also needs to be able to compel its owner into taking the lives of its friends and loved ones, but unfortunately there is no ability to control humans (for objects that is, a possessor has complete control of its host), any vile acts committed must be voluntary. Sighing, we take Taint, which allows Stormbringer to temporarily lower the Humanity in others and finally Vitality for its user, which allows its user to rapidly restore damage and resist aging. Stormbringer will at first bestow this Vitality and then retract it unless it is given what it desires, which is to feed on the souls of your loved ones and companions.

Now all we need is a Desire and a Need. It’s Need is simply to feed on Human Souls and its Desire is to have its owner slay his Loved Ones and Companions with it. There we go. That was a lot easier then I thought it would be.

Actually playing A Motherfucking Sorcerer

There is a very odd section in the middle of the Sorcerer corebook. After Edwards explains what a Sorcerer is and how to generate a Demon he leaves off explaining how Sorcery works until the end of the book, instead focusing on the particulars of actually running a Sorcerer game, a bizarre decision considering he goes into a very similar topic near the end of the book.

To its credit, the game outlines pretty well what questions the GM needs to answer before he can begin a game of Sorcerer, even if it neglects to provide those answers itself in favor of the almighty GM fiat. Questions such as: what is Sorcery, what does it look like, what are demons and what are they like, how does everyone know eachother and why are they working together, what is the tone of my campaign etc. etc.

I was surprised to find a pretty good and comprehensive outline of different means of getting player characters to co-operate with one another (though I cannot help but roll my eyes at Edwards contemptuous snarling at the  “dungeon method”). The pitfalls and advantages of each method are briefly described, though the GM is left with a clear impression that Ron Edwards thinks you are a faggot if you use anything but the “Hard” method he mentions last.

On the whole, the use of the by now familiar unpretentious, cinematically inspired methods of generating a campaign by starting everything off with a bang to get the plot going serves to make the game feel less daunting, something which is probably required if the game is attract players away from shinier, more properly codified roleplaying games with bigger rulesets and better art. The advice is resoundingly practical, dealing with issues of pacing and even frequently used player tactics to abuse certain abilities. It is an eminently practical chapter, utterly at odds with the pretentious meandering of White Wolf and it makes one realize that, for all the terrible nonsense that he created afterward or the foam-at-the-mouth raging at the most compelling and popular roleplaying game of all time, Edwards is still a fucking nerd that can enjoy a good motorcycle chase when you get down to brass tacks. Whatever may be said about the guy, its pretty obvious a lot of people actually played this game and probably had a ball doing so.

As a last, bizarre addition to this middle section Edwards creates some sort of sample adventure based on the Amityville Horror (e.g a creepy sorceress attempts to lure the characters into her evil demonic house that eats other demons by throwing a party). That is it. Statts for the chick and the demon AAAAAND we are off. An outline in all but name. I don’t even know what to say about it. Why is it placed in the middle of the book while we know NOTHING of Sorcery?

Actual motherfucking Sorcery.

So we finally get to the motherfucking Sorcery, which should seem familiar to anyone who has ever played Carcosa, and there is little doubt Mckinney took the mechanics from Sorcerer and ported them almost directly into his wonderful/terrible bizarro campaign setting. A Sorcerer’s power can be used as follows:

Contact (a prerequisite for anything else, allows you to talk to, but not interact with the demon). Psychedelics may be employed to boost this attempt at the risk of temporarily or permanently lowering one’s will.
Summon (brings the demon into this world, humanity loss likely if living sacrifice, particularly human sacrifice is used)
Binding (negotiates a contract with the demon where the creature’s Need is fulfilled in exchange for its servitude). Demons always want to be bound, but the success of this roll will determine how easy the creature is to control and how easy it can rebel subsequently.
Banishing is how you get rid of the fuckers, but if you don’t take several hours you only get a single dice (which can still be modified by good tactics, roleplaying or whathaveyou).
Punishing the Demon is what you do if you want to teach your buddy a lesson. Temporarily lowers the Power of the Demon, making it easier to control, but also weaker (and your enemies should be lurking around every corner).
Containing the Demon is the deep storage variant of Binding one. You imprison the creature within an object where it cannot exercise its abilities but where it is also free from

An interesting feature of Sorcery appears to be that PCs can conjure up a demon with whatever traits they dream off, though the GM is given leeway to subtly alter and modify that which is summoned on even a single failed roll, keeping an element of risk and uncertainty in the game that is essential to maintaining the vibe (or I should probably say Vibes) of Sorcerer. There is no telepathy in Sorcerer, your Demon can pretend to be your friend for years before it suddenly turns on you in a fit of apocalyptic rage. Only keeping its Needs and Desires catered to should assuage its wrath.

It becomes increasingly clear to me why Edwards recommends Sorcerer be played with a maximum of 4 players (3 being ideal). There is no real material bottleneck to Sorcery, only time and the increasingly unwieldy nature of the demons that are conjured forth. Even against an opponent of superior mettle, a Sorcerer could easily conjure a suitably formidable demon, given that it is possible to summon a Demon to boost one’s abilities which can then be used to Summon a Bigger Demon. The fact that this is bound to lead to eventual (and probably rapid) damnation is very much a feature of the game, not a bug.

The Rules for Sorcery as written DO work but again, a lot of the heavy lifting and the balancing is going to be up to the GM. Any aspiring Sorcerer-GMs had better have a broad back and some broad shoulders because you are going to be carrying most of the game. This is a problem I have with Edward’s particular approach to rules-lite gaming. Edwards seems to regard the imposition of balancing mechanisms (like, say, money) within a game meant to create interesting dramatic narratives centered around hubris and powergaming as an evil while those very mechanisms are often put into play to prevent the very excess Sorcerer cautions GM’s against in the first place!

As written, Sorcerer requires power to have consequences but leaves the responsibility for doing so almost entirely in the hands of the GM. This might SEEM fine, but only if your GM is unusually subtle, for a GM must appear to be IMPARTIAL or at least FAIR as well as CONSISTENT if he is to maintain the interest and respect of his players. I’d recommend Sorcerer only to the most cunning and subtle of GMs, perpetually elevated above their players, able to move in the absences between their perceptions and play them for fools without them even knowing.

Combat in Sorcerer

Combat in Sorcerer is a frenetic affair of exploding Dice Chains, elaborately roleplayed rabbit punches and double uzis with infinite reloads. Rounds are 2 seconds long and begin with everyone declaring their actions and acting in order of the highest value rolled (the best go first). Everyone gets a vague sort of action, which can be an attack, a command to the demon, shifting position, a total defence or whatever else the GM feels you can do in the span of 2 seconds.

Attacks come in different types but are always based on stamina and the damage is always based on the number of victories (i.e at least one). All damage is subtracted as a penalty to the character’s total dice rolls. If A Sorcerer ever takes more then his Stamina in Damage, he can still make an (unpenalized ) Will roll against the number of dice he wants to use next round (up to his maximum) in a mechanism that is best summarized as “Hey Batdad I didn’t hear no bell!.” Even the toughest most stubborn Sorcerer will still pass out if he takes more then twice his Stamina in permanent penalties however.

What is interesting is that characters that have already acted may opt to defend against any attack taken later that round using their full Stamina as a defence roll but characters that have yet to act may either abort their action to use their full defence or use only a single dice to defend against any attacks (it is unclear whether this die is modified further by roleplaying) in a sort of parry-mechanic reminiscent of Warhammer Fantasy. Anyone timid enough to do nothing but defend the entire round gets to roll double his rolls for being a big sissy.

Given the exploding nature of violence in Sorcerer and the persistent penalties that constitute damage, combat in Sorcerer is unlikely to last long, particularly if lethal force is used. While nonlethal weaponry like Fists inflict only a single permanent point (but your number of victories in a penalty next round), knives and guns inflict the full number or even a multiple thereof, virtually ensuring that without demonic protection your Average sorcerer can be dropped in as little as two good hits.

Guns are better than melee weapons (though magic is better then guns in its turn) and an automatic weapon can quickly inflict as much as 3x the victories in penalty (2x for lasting damage). I feel an opportunity has definitely been missed by making all melee weaponry do the same damage, though even I can extrapolate that you could easily have a katana do x2 (x1 for lasting damage), putting it about on par with a rifle or a heavy pistol. Guns are not QUITE god in this game, as it takes one action to draw a weapon and a further action to aim it (firing without aiming means a penalty of 2 dice), in addition, without the appropriate Cover, expect to take further penalties. All that being said firearms are still the go to for personal protection and their lethality means getting yourself some Demonic protection to soak that damage becomes vital VERY quickly.

If I must gripe further about this section because it illustrates a very important principle in game design and why a lot of rules-light design is actually fucking bullshit; Edwards offhandedly describes armor but it is clear he did not mean for it to be used in any practical sense (since the game has no money), the lack of in game currency means that any PCs that have a cover that is compatible with firearms will quickly resemble Neo in the lobby shootout scene if the GM does not quickly install a veritable army of metal detectors, stop-and-frisks and other such obstacles or guns will almost always be brought everywhere. The heavy pistol is far more effective than the regular pistol, therefore any PC with the appropriate Cover will probably use it in lieu of the normal pistol since there are no rules for ROF or price or ammo availability or whatever. There might be narrative barriers for not using heavy guns but the narrative barrier for not using heavy guns are a lot less heavy then the narrative rules for using guns period. The GM can either do the same and accept that from now on all pistols are heavy pistols or attempt to add some sort of complication, say, ease of concealment. What eventually happens is that situations occur often enough to form guidelines and finally rules. In making this section of his game “rules light”, Edwards has actually put way more effort into your hands, taking up cognitive space that would otherwise be used for COOL POWERZ.

I am all about rules light shit since I like OSR games but Sorcerer combat is not so much light as it is underdeveloped. In something as rudimentary as the combat section, we can see the flaw in Edward’s more developed G/N/S theory, namely that even in a game whose primary purpose is to create a dramatic struggle and a satisfying narrative, balancing and thus, resoundingly gamist mechanisms are a necessity to ensure that the stakes of the struggle remain suitably uncertain and volatile. Simulatonism keeps the story grounded while gamism keeps the struggle exciting.

On Demons; while demons are very likely to be the most powerful participants in any combat (as they should be), they cannot use their powers willy nilly, being limited to their stamina for the number of times they can use their powers in a single encounter, after which they accumulate penalties with each subsequent use.

Injury, even lasting injury, in Sorcerer, does not seem to result in death for the protagonist (though it can certainly kill any daemons), but depending on the degree of damage increasing time and resources are required for recovery. Anyone taking more then 2x their stamina in damage is essentially hospitalized. There are, curiously enough, no rules for death (reaching 0 humanity is a defeat condition). I always took this to mean that whilst one of your PCs is still not at  – 2X stamina the game continues with possible death afterwards but Edwards would take it a lot further in subsequent supplements [7].

Wrap-up and Conclusion.

It’s time to wrap things up; The vague and often undefined nature of Sorcerer is not the result of carelessness or laziness, merely design philosophy. Edwards outlines a sample take on Sorcery that he himself uses, a vision rooted in 80s diabolism, orgies, demonic parasites, psychedelic conjuration and Highlander-esque katana fights with bound demon swords. It would be as much at home in a 90s edgy Marvel comic as it would on the big screen (though one imagines the effects are a slightly better in Sorcerer).

Sorcerer is an interesting, if obtuse game. If it gets one thing right it is the central premise. Its unwillingness to properly codify itself diminishes its power in all segments but its Core. For all its tendency to mould itself to the GMs whims, giving only advice or possibility, it is very clear about what Sorcery is supposed to be ABOUT. Sorcerer describes itself not in terms of what it is but what it IS ABOUT, trusting the GM to paint it in colors that are suitable to whatever particular gaming group it is meant for.

Sorcerer is rules light but its rules nevertheless take some time to absorb. After reviewing it I think I understand and could run it, so it is at least functional. Its unwillingness to define Humanity is ultimately trivial, for whatever definition is given to Humanity, under the rules it is a certainty that A) there will be conflicts, B) those conflicts will involve summoned demons and C) Demons means lowered Humanity. We are left to conclude that in this game of narrative over realism and mechanism. While a defenition of Humanity enriches the game and gives it more context, it is unimportant to the operation of the Humanity mechanism.  If it represents Damnation it works even if the only Sin is Demonology, for it is the only Sin that sets the Sorcerer apart and gives him power over others. In a way, it is brilliant.

It is not up to me to recommend or disrecommend Sorcerer in this day and age. Like its ruleset, the description will either resound with you or leave you cold and apathetic. Its 90s animated cover art glares blurrily from beneath a cheezy font. Its art is reminiscent of Vertigo Comics, by which I mean it is evocative but sub par. I don’t think it explores the paradox of power, hubris and sacrifice as well as any game ever, that is an honor reserved for the likes of Unknown Armies. But it explores one very interesting idea, that of classical sorcery, and makes a system around it that can be used to have adventures that are unlike anything on the market at the time (or even today). It is, at the very least, an interesting, if flawed game. Long-winded but never pretentious. Transgressive but never edgy for egde’s sake. Not actually a fucking storygame so I can grade it and you could theoretically play it. 6 out of 10.

[1] White Wolf’s World of Darkness games are probably a borderline case where I go in knowing I have a strong predisposition to dislike them but where I at least accept the possibility that there might be a supplement out there that I can appreciate. I recall I didn’t hate Chicago by Night for example.

[2] I suspect some sort of book on the history of roleplaying games like the Designer’s & Dragons series will probably satisfy your craving for knowledge, though I should caution any prospective reader when elfgames are concerned, the mere possession of a serious scholarly work constitutes an even greater source of embarrassment then playing elfgames, writing about elfgames or writing elfgames combined. Hell, even Larping is less embarassing.

[3] A pseudo-scientific essay that essentially boils down games into 3 categories; Narrative, Simulationist and Gameist. Any subsequent assertion of GNS theory beyond this simple categorization falls apart under closer scrutiny because it assumes that games can only satisfy one of these urges at the same time and should thus focus on it to the exclusion of all others. GNS theory posits that a game can’t be both realistic, balanced/mechanically exciting and create dramatically satisfying narratives, but fails to accept that Rpgs that abandon any one of these categories cease to be rpgs altogether. In short: An elfgame without narrativism is a wargame, an elfgame without simulationism is so abstracted from reality it cannot generate an interesting narrative and an elfgame without some sort of balance, mechanical differentiation and so is merely an elf. We can quibble about the specifics but the empirical fact remains that games constructed under the principles of G/N/S theory have failed to outclass games that were not in terms of sales and popularity and the precepts of G/N/S have not been adoped by game designers the world over, therefore it is fair to state it has failed.
This post is meant to be an elaborate deconstruction of G/N/S theory and should be treated only as a summary of my problem with the thing. I don’t recommend anyone actually wasting their time reading the entire thing but you can find it online if you are interested.

[4] Specific Quote  “More specific to your question, Vincent, I’ll say this: that protagonism was so badly injured during the history of role-playing (1970-ish through the present, with the height of the effect being the early 1990s), that participants in that hobby are perhaps the very last people on earth who could be expected to produce *all* the components of a functional story. No, the most functional among them can only be counted on to seize protagonism in their stump-fingered hands and scream protectively. You can tag Sorcerer with this diagnosis, instantly.

[The most damaged participants are too horrible even to look upon, much less to describe. This has nothing to do with geekery. When I say “brain damage,” I mean it literally. Their minds have been *harmed.*]”

[5] A simple illustration of the principle in action. Let us consider a 2 vs 1 advantage with a d2 a d3 and a d4. Keep in mind a draw means a reroll and is therefore only of academic interest. Let us call Sorcerer d2 situation A, Sorcerer d3 situation B and Sorcerer d4 situation C. Let us designate the superior entity (with statt 2) as Albert Whesker and the inferior entity (statt 1) as Chris Redfield.

In situation A Albert Wesker wins in 3 possible situations (1,2v1, 2,1v1 and 2,2v1) gets a draw in 4 possible situations (1,1v1, 2,1v2, 1,2v2 and 2,2v2) and loses only in one situation (1,1v2). The probability of getting a condition is derived taking the number of situations wherein the condition takes place and dividing it against the total number of possible conditions. We can actually just ignore the draws in this case since they only result in a reroll. Albert Whesker has a 75% chance of beating Chris Redfield with a 2 v 1 advantage.

In situation B Albert Whesker actually wins in 9 possible situations (3,3v1, 3,3v2, 2,3v1, 2,3v2, 3,2v1, 3,2v2, 2,2v1, 2,1v1, 1,2v1) he gets a draw in 9 times (3,3v3, 3,2v3, 2,3v3, 3,1v3, 1,3v3,  2,2v2, 2,1v2, 1,2v2 and 1,1v1) and only loses in 5 cases (1,1v3, 1,2v3, 2,1v3, 2,2v3 and 1,1v2). In this case, Albert Whesker is actually MORE likely to lose with only a 64% win rate.

In situation C Albert Whesker is the belle of the ball, winning in 34 possible situations (4,4v1, 4,3v1, 3,4v1, 4,2v1, 2,4v1, 4,1v1, 1,4v1, 3,3v1, 2,3v1, 3,2v1, 3,1v1, 1,3v1, 2,2v1, 2,1v1, 1,2v1, 4,4v2, 4,3v2, 4,2v2, 2,4v2, 4,1v2, 1,4v2, 3,4v2, 3,3v2, 2,3v2, 3,2v2, 3,1v2, 1,3v2, 4,4v3, 4,3v3, 3,4v3, 4,2v3, 2,4v3, 4,1v3, 1,4v3) and loses in 14 possible situations (1,1v4, 1,1v3, 1,1v2, 2,1v4, 2,1v3, 1,2v4, 1,2v3, 1,3v4, 3,1v4, 2,2v3, 2,2v4, 2,3v4, 3,2v4, 3,3v4). Whesker has a 70.8% chance of winning.

With the exception of the d2, the bigger the dice, the higher the chance of victory for the superior DNA.

[6] Which is not to say that murderous rampages are not possible, only that those rampages will either take place where the creature cannot be clearly observed or be made to look like some sort of horrific accident, crime scene etc. etc.

[7] I believe it was Sorcerer & Soul where Edwards mentions that he believes PC death to be agency breaking and dramatically unsatisfying, citing examples from fiction where the protagonist cannot die or the story is over. Again, Edwards does not grasp that in order for a dramatically satisfying struggle to occur in an interactive medium, some stakes are very much needed. There might be no ‘winning’ DnD but few games are as unsatisfying as games where the GM is too soft and content to railroad the PCs through any adversity so no one ever truly dies.

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9 thoughts on “[Review] Sorcerer (Core Game); Let him who have understanding reckon the Number of the Beast…

  1. [A Fallacy?]

    “the lack of in game currency means that any PCs that have a cover that is compatible with firearms will quickly resemble Neo in the lobby shootout scene if the GM does not quickly install a veritable army of metal detectors, stop-and-frisks and other such obstacles or guns will almost always be brought everywhere.”

    Unless, of course, your players are buying into the theme/aesthetic/style of play and do not ask for all the AK-47s they can carry. Or if you are the kind of arrogant high-handed Eddison protagonist of a GM who can say “no, and fuck off for even asking”, like Edwards seems to think he is. No restriction is necessary if participants have the spiritual discipline to restrict themselves.

    It seems odd that Edwards would hang his hat on such a hook though, if:

    “The game actually goes so far as to hardcode penalizing petty, obstructive actions into the game, which is useless, since petty, obstructive actions are often indicative of deep-seated problems and therefore little removed from a stern talking too or even removal from the game that I wonder at the wisdom in penalizing them.”

    A step back toward Gamism seems essential even to Edwards, who recognises that some players simply do not respond to stimuli that don’t result in an in-game penalty. See also: docking XP for being a backseat-gaming fucking NERD. I’ve done that once and it hasn’t worked. As you say, I’m not these peoples’ counsellor; whatever psychic damage makes them unable to shut the fuck up and stop quibbling for five minutes needs more time and attention than I can give, but treating the symptoms doesn’t cure the disease.

    Speaking of which:

    [Edwards you giant fuckwit!]

    “More specific to your question, Vincent, I’ll say this: that protagonism was so badly injured during the history of role-playing (1970-ish through the present, with the height of the effect being the early 1990s), that participants in that hobby are perhaps the very last people on earth who could be expected to produce *all* the components of a functional story. No, the most functional among them can only be counted on to seize protagonism in their stump-fingered hands and scream protectively. You can tag Sorcerer with this diagnosis, instantly.”

    Correct, although even the most brain-damaged participant in the devil’s hobby can recognise that what makes a functional story is going to be different if that story is supposed to be interactive and experiential. I grow weary, in my middle age, of so-called ‘roleplayers’ regurgitating Advice To Writers as if it’s directly applicable to our bastard pastime (which is, as often remarked, more akin to devised or improv theatre, and I wish more theatre studies people would get involved in game studies instead of leaving it to fuckwit literary critics like what I am).

    The obligation of a Storyteller, i.e. a Writer, is to direct and reveal something already constructed, requiring that components be amassed and assembled on their own time (and this is why the White Wolf approach is a poisoned chalice, since from the very start they align themselves with writerly virtues – traits which are a vice when devising and running a game). Not so the Player of Games, whose role is to bring an agent or a supply of artefacts to the table and assemble them with the hands of others involved. Nobody involved in the Hobby is expected to do the whole job and the job itself is fundamentally different.

    This doesn’t mean that a lot of them aren’t shit at it – the ‘seize protagonism and scream’ school of acting like you and your character or plot are the most important things in the room. Edwards arrives at the proper position of seething contempt but I can’t help but feel he’s come at it from the wrong direction.

    “The most damaged participants are too horrible even to look upon, much less to describe. This has nothing to do with geekery. When I say “brain damage,” I mean it literally. Their minds have been *harmed.*”

    It has EVERYTHING to do with ‘geekery’ you knock-kneed fucktrumpet. The geek is the permanently baffled stooge who, apprehending nothing with accuracy or even insight, will be a victim all his life. The nerd is the obnoxious shrieking pedant whose love of detail turns to poisonous hatred of invention or collaboration. These things are mindsets – symptoms of a damaged brain if ever there were any.

    [Chicago By Night]

    … is the best of a bad lot. Long ago in the before-time it was suggested to me that By Night sourcebooks were as much use as a chocolate fireguard and the wise soul only paid attention to their titles, resolutely setting games in cities that didn’t have a Canon built up around them to ensnare the nerds, and buying a couple of good travelogues or tourist guides instead. Long has this been my Way and it has served me well.

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    1. Congratulations on being the first to make it through my one-stretch, no pee-breaks Sorcerer review.

      [Fallacy thy name is Ron Howard or Edward or Weasely or whatever ALL RONS MUST PERISH]

      Yeah but you saw the problem as you posed the question. Edwards seems to grasp that motivating players with hard coded game mechanics is generally a good idea because the social contract can only go so far but he seems to draw the bizarro world conclusion by incentivizing roleplaying with mechanical advantages (a great mechanic) whilst relegating power gaming to the social contract or GM’s discretion. For a man who thinks DnD is incoherent that is a damn incoherent game design decision my friend.

      [Stories and Gate-breaking]

      Ugh…fuck. I want to disagree with you on principle and claim the problem is not too many nerds but the very watering down so MORE people can play with an increasingly hazy frame of reference but I tend to agree and say that I have found no evidence that fucking nerds make for the best players, in fact, the opposite is often true. The only exception is myself and a very good friend of mine, who is a very good player but also a cringy fucking nerd, and I am of course, despite my handsomeness and charisma, a fucking Meganerd. I kill and eat Nerds and steal their powers. I tower over lesser nerds and casually disembowl star trek fans in trivia-thons. I make fantasy Nerds weep. ‘Have you even read Viriconium,’ I say with a contemptuous smirk as I turn into a fighter jet and destroy the sun.

      [Chicago by Night]

      I always regarded them more as campaign settings because of the pre-made collection of NPCs, pre-established relations with eachother and usually decent amount of hooks scattered throughout. The inherent realism of the place doesn’t excite me as much as the adventuring potential.

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      1. [Ronald On Nomination]

        Indeed. One cannot count on gamers to self-regulate and so the only way to handle their worst tendencies is at the invitational/chargen stage, pulling up their ghastly tumescence by the root and having done with it. Of course, the Wise reject the fallacy that power gaming and gdrp are mutually exclusive (Tempus Stormwind, thou art avenged!) but there are few such callipygian supermen in these, the Last Days of Earth.

        [Nerdism]

        Good. Don’t let your desire to quibble with me get ahead of the core and basic truth: that nerdism is a mental poison. You read Viriconium. You have heard the Word of M. John Harrison and you have seen the Word made manifest.

        Theatre kids with a competitive streak make for more entertaining players even if you have to do half the sums for them.

        [Realism]

        I find the innate advantage of the WoD is that, being the Real World as seen through a glass darkly, one can turn to the Real World for all the greebles and oddities one would otherwise be forced to invent. On no occasion can the creativity of one or even several spods match the complexities produced by centuries or millennia of human activity combining to produce all of This, and with all of This harnessed at one’s back, one is able to devote one’s creative power, such as it is, to the differences, i.e. the stuff that actually matters. Realism is not to be celebrated for its own sake, merely for how it eases the process of creating and running yr. actual urban sandbox game.

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      2. [RonaldMcdonald]

        Yeah a sort of session zero or a tutorial (which can be used for all sorts of things besides setting the mood and teaching the players the expectations) is very conductive to a good game, almost essential.

        [Nerdism]

        Damnit Von. Do you not see?!? We ARE nerds. ALL OF US. If not for nerds people would be out on terraces, commenting on the stock market and frivolously wasting their time by talking to GIRLS. Instead they read fantasy novels, pretend to be elves, fingerbang the GM’s girlfriend, and get into all sorts of wacky hijinks (and also maybe team up with a dude called Malrex and write a kickass adventure wink wink nudge nudge).

        I go for the greater nerd archetype and stick with it. Anyone not at least cognizant of half a dozen nerdly tropes, IP, fantasy novels and other some such tripe tends to perform really well in the roleplaying part but usually flunks the adventure gaming part. I guess in that way the OSR is a godsend because people have less trouble marrying their great ideas and creativity to the system they are using, which is desirable. A good idea should be translatable into a GM’s ruling or a player strategy without having to do mental arithmatic.

        [Realism]

        A beautiful (and very autistic) paragraph. I completely concur, and would add that the more versimilitude a setting possesses the easier it becomes for players to make decisions and estimates in a make pretend world without having to consult with the GM, and thus the harnessing of cognitive energies becomes twofold. The players are more secure in acting and the GM can divert more attention to other persuits, secure in the knowledge that the elftrains all run on time in his world. Carpe Diem motherfucker!

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      3. [Ronald… Reagan?]

        Preludes are great. Oddly enough, a lot of WoD types seem to have skipped them despite them being one of VtM’s finest inbuilt features and a tidy solution to the problem of Out Of Character Knowledge (at least in the pre-Internet days before the contents of every sourcebook had been tirelessly summarised by Wiki-wranglers).

        [Nerdism]

        Denied. Nerdism is nothing to do with what one is interested in and everything to do with how one is interested in it. I feel like we’ve lost sight of what made ‘nerd shit’ nerdy – it was the ponderous, pedantic, obsessive mouthbreathing of the alleged people who liked it. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see ‘nerd shit’ reclaimed by people who are better human beings than me and can put it the fuck down sometimes.

        [Mental Arithmetic]

        Quite. Flow uber alles.

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      4. [Ronald Weasely]

        I don’t see them as necessarily solving the problem of ‘out of character knowledge’ so much as solving the problem of ‘player expectation.’ A good prelude doesn’t get the ball rolling but it provides foreshadowing for the type of game the characters can expect whilst instilling some subtle priming so your characters get (albeit subliminally) an idea of the general playstyle that will be expected of them.

        [Nerdism]

        I sense a lot of self-loathing, how come buddy?

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      5. [Ronnie Corbett]

        They do both. Preludes are great.

        [Nerds]

        The first step to overcoming your problems is admitting you have them. An obsession with petty details and ‘canonicity’ and doing things ‘right’ and tidily taxonomising everything on every damn world and who would win, right, in a fight between… it’s all mental sickness. Things aren’t right just because I do them.

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      6. [L.Ron Hubbard]

        Well said.

        [Nerdism]

        You confuse the trait for a binary condition, like blindness, deer in your lawn, aids or Islam, while it is really more of a spectrum phenomenon that need not be harmful in small dosages, like leftism, ESP or being gay for Brad Pitt.

        I agree with you in principle but I think your perception of the situation is too simple. A franchise without nerds to obsess over the trivial details tends to resemble either a soap opera with a sword here and there or a fucking J.J Abrahams movie of blinking lights, lens flares, cool powerz and explosions but no continuity. Pedantic pettyfoggery and the navelgazing of a thousand different match-ups merely comes as a side-effect of wanting to make sense of the fictional universe, and a degree of internal consistency is always required.

        To sum up without the edgelordery, long ass quasi-academic explanations or wacky metaphors:
        Von: Nerds Ruin everything
        Prince: Casuals ruin everything
        V&P: Yes.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. [False Binarism]

        I agree that not giving a fuck for the established themes and styles and resonances of a fictional universe is bound to mean you do a bad job of it. There’s a bit of a leap from that to counting the rivets on Daleks and having a “technically” quibble ready to derail any potentially interesting conversation with your collection of Lore Facts, though.

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