Review: Sorcerer

Peter Adkison, Gary Adkison (Peter's dad), Rob Heinsoo, and I got together for a session of Sorcerer, the first session for all of us. Ron Edwards, the author, was gracious enough to send me a draft of a demo kit to use. Normally the demo kit is for conventions and in-store demos. What follows are my comments on the session and on the game system itself.

RPG Summary
Sorcerer, by Ron Edwards, is basically a set of rules for how sorcery works in the modern day, sorcery defined as dealing with demons. The only supernatural power in the world is the use of powers a demon grants you or using the demon itself. Each PC starts as a sorcerer with a single bound demon. The game is at once free-form and defined. The game defines the basic rules of sorcery, while the details are up to the folks setting up their campaigns or defining their characters. The game is remarkable in how much leeway it leaves the GM and players in a campaign. It gives suggestions, but it leaves it up to you to define key game concepts: what the Humanity stat represents, how sorcerers relate to each other, even what demons are. (In my campaign, I'd probably have them be bulgy, slimy, and tentacular.)

Ron puts it this way: the Premise is defined, but the Setting is customizable, and the Situation is initially authored by the players.

The theme of Sorcerer is "What do you want, and what will you do to get it?" Given a theme like that, it's appropriate that big questions are left up the GM and players.

Sorcerer is remarkable for the amount of RPG theory in includes, both in practical application and exposition. Ron Edwards has obviously thought a lot about roleplaying, and he shares what he knows. (He doesn't use the terms "fortune," "fate," and "drama" the way I meant them in Everway, but he's welcome to appropriate the terms.)

If you like to see new and worthy ideas in RPG design, Sorcerer is certainly worth buying.

Core System
Dice Rolls: The dice system is a stroke of genius. I consider it a contender for the best universal free-form dice mechanic. It handles success and degrees of success smoothly, and it scales up and down nicely. Basically, how good you are at a given task is rated by a single number, which is the number of dice you roll. All bonuses or penalties are configured as rolling additional or fewer dice. All dice rolls are opposed rolls. Compare the opposed rolls' highest dice, and the high roller wins. If both rolls have the same highest die, compare the second highest, and so on. The number of dice the winner has that are higher than the loser's highest die (discounting tied dice) is the number of "victories" the winner scores. It's smooth. It scales much more nicely than OTE's WaRP system. It generates degrees of success that feel very natural.

Example: a roll of 6, 5, 3, 3, 2 versus 4, 2, 1 is a success with two victories (as the 6 and 5 are higher than the other roll's highest die).

Example: a roll of 6, 5, 3, 3, 2 versus 6, 4, 4 is a success with one victory (as the 6s cancel, leaving the 5 as higher than the 4).

You can use any kind of die, as long as everyone uses the same dice. I recommend d6s because you often want to physically rearrange the dice or save a roll for a while, and d6s are stable.

Victories and Bonus Dice: The really sweet bit is that you can often use victories from one roll as additional dice on another. This works when a character uses one stunt or action to benefit a second, or when one character helps another. For example, in our demo session, one sorcerer used his demon to boost his Stamina (like Body, not Constitution). Then he shook the hand of a drunken bully and squeezed really hard. He rolled his Stamina versus the bully's, and he scored a few victories. Next, he told the bully to buzz off, trying to intimidate him. This was a Will versus Will roll, with the victories from the handshake used as additional dice for the sorcerer. The sorcerer again scored several victories, and the bully backed off, mumbling impotent profanities.

Roleplaying Bonuses: Like Over the Edge, Sorcerer penalizes you if your stated actions are boring, like "I try to hit it." Sorcerer goes further, allowing bonuses for good tactics, exciting descriptions, or even for moving the plot along. I was dubious about these bonuses, but after seeing them in action I like them. It's nice to have players thinking hard about doing something cool. I'd have to play with them more before I could tell whether I like them a lot.

1-Die Tie: If you're rolling only one die, and you tie the other guy's highest die (and your opponent's rolling 2+ dice), then the opponent only scores one victory. For example, 5, 4, 4, 3, 3, 1, 1 is only one victory versus a roll 5, but it's 5 victories versus 5, 4. This rule is a crock as it provides a discontinuous and ambiguous advantage to rolling a single die over rolling two dice The rule should simply be that if all your dice tie the opponent's and cancel out, then you limit the opponent to only one victory.

Total Success: If all your dice exceed all your opponent's dice, then you get a total success, like a crit. This rule is a crock because it means that the more dice you roll the less likely you are to score a total success. The smooth and flexible concept of victories is all the game needs, and the idea of total victory can go away. Still, there's no stated game effect for a total victory, so it's more of an offense againt mathematical sensibilities than an actual problem in play.

More System Stuff
Characters: The characters are chock full of good roleplaying details: descriptors for traits, a telltale that can give the character away as a sorcerer, a "kicker" that impels the character into the action at the start of the first session. Each sorcerer starts with a demon of the player's design. I could have used more examples of good starting demons (but then in general I could have used more direction).

The kicker is a startling intro your character's career, something that they can't ignore. Like maybe, "Bobby swings by his girlfriend's apartment, to which he has a key. He finds her dead, apparently for several days. Which is weird because he's been chatting with her online, exchanging e-mails, and even talking on the phone as early as this morning." (I don't know, I'm just making this up.)

Demons: The demons are nicely laid out, with different types and abilities. Demons are the way a character does magic, sometimes using powers that the demon grants and sometimes using the demon itself. The rules are abstract and open-ended, which invites the GM to delineate how demons work in their own campaign: what types of demons have what powers, what sorts of desires and needs demons have, etc.

Demons don't communicate telepathically with their sorcerers. In our game, we all wanted the sorcerers to be able to interact more readily with their demons because that seemed like part of the fun. But you can't talk to your gleaming black ring in public. We agreed that if we were to play more, we'd probably just rule that you can usually whisper to your demon and get away with it.

Demons are somewhat balanced in that the more powers a demon has the higher its Lore is. The higher its Lore, the higher your demon's Will is, and the weaker your binding probably is. So the more powers you give your demon, the weaker your binding probably is. You can assign your demon a Stamina score up to its Lore without making it any harder to control, and Stamina is good even for demons that don't fight because it limits how many powers they can use in a fight. The rules don't point this out (saying, "You're a fool not to assign your demon a Stamina at least equal to its Power"), and that irritates me because it left me reading and rereading the rules. I needed to confirm that there's no cost to giving your demon Stamina as high as its power. (It's like the Dying Earth RPG not pointing out that you're a fool not to have a Magic score.) I hate that.

Sorcery: The various sorcerous rituals are the heart of the game. Sorcerers can contact, summon, bind, punish, banish, and contain demons using hour-long rituals. (You can do rituals fast, too, but at a big penalty.) In the demo, a good scene was when the sorcerers worked together to contact and summon a demon that had been stolen from one of the sorcerers. In an otherwise free-form game, these fixed capabilities form a nicely solid piece of game reality for characters to relate to.

What I can't really get my head around is that sorcerers are able to try to summon up pretty much whatever demons they wish and bind them. The players even gets to stat the demon up almost completely. Thus, a PC sorcerer could summon up and bind a demon with the very abilities that the sorcerer needs to accomplish a particular goal. I can imagine a PC, for example, trapped in a dungeon summoning up a demon with a "walk through walls" ability. A lot of player work and time go into creating a demon, and it's something a sorcerer could try any time, so it seems like it would sometimes disrupt the game. The action might be forced to a halt while a player does the work to detail the demon that they want to summon.

Initiative: Initiative sounds straightforward but it left us wondering how it's really supposed to work. First, everyone states an action. In a bold break with typical roleplaying practice, players are free to restate their own actions based on other characters' actions. The turn does not go forward until everyone's happy with their actions, in light of everyone else's actions. Then everyone rolls for their action (like, roll Stamina for a physical attack), and each character acts in order from high roller to low. Your roll is both how effective your action is and your initiative roll in one. If you get attacked before your action, you only get 1 die on defense, unless you give up your action. What we couldn't figure out is how the timing works for the various things that can affect dice rolls: bonus dice for good tactics or roleplaying and penalty dice for wounds suffered during the round (and applied somehow to dice already rolled).

Any problems with initiative are doubled because every character also has a demon (or more than one), and the demon takes its own action on its own initiative score.

If I were to run Sorcerer again, I'd try the initiative system as written some more. The first hack I'd try (if it seemed like a good idea) would be to have players talk up their actions as they resolve instead of during the intentions phase. Bonus and penalty dice for good roleplaying would apply at this point, rather than on the initial roll. If the initiative system still didn't work out, I'd probably switch to rolling separately for initiative each round, and then rolling for your attack (or whatever) on your turn. Considering how much time goes into a combat round, a little more time for an extra dice roll (for each character) doesn't seem like too much.

Cyclic initiative (as in Over the Edge) wouldn't work because the defense rules make losing initiative really harsh. If you lost initiative every round you'd be hosed.

One of the reasons we were confused about initiative is that the example combat round in the rulebook doesn't showcase the initiative rules very well, to the point of making an error in how damage interacts with initiative. If you want to try Sorcerer, check out my gloss on the example of combat.

Damage: We didn't use damage much. It seems like a dynamic system, but it's complicated. Damage is treated as penalties on actions (nice), with some damage from each blow affecting one's next action and some affecting actions for the rest of the combat. (Half of the "rest of combat" damage also lasts until the character heals.) This could be a lot of bookkeeping, but it has a nice feel to it, and I would like it to work.

Free-Form and Definition: I found Sorcerer remarkably difficult to penetrate. It took me quite a while to figure out what how the game works; in fact, I don't think I had a good handle on it until I read Ron's demo. I think that's because it combines free-form and defined elements in one game. It doesn't spell everything out for you, the way a defined game does, allowing you to connect the dots and create a character or adventure. (Dying Earth RPG is a defined game.) Nor is it free-wheeling, like Sketch or even Over the Edge, where you can sort of create whatever kind of character or adventure you fancy. The point is to allow the GM or play group to define the campaign for themselves. This approach rewards campaign play but makes a one-shot difficult.

Experience: When you resolve your "kicker," you have a chance for your scores to go up. Also, your Humanity can go up and down as you interact with demons. You can also get more powerful by binding more demons (though that can cost you Humanity, and it can be hard to satisfy the needs of several demons).

Intro Adventure: Like any good RPG, Sorcerer has an introductory adventure. Since building a personal campaign foundation is supposed to be part of the Sorcerer experience, Ron seems a little reluctant to trot out a one-shot adventure. I ran a demo adventure, so I don't know how the intro adventure in the book runs, but it looks good.

July, August 2002

Playing Sorcerer: notes to help you play your first game