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Eric: For all the fifteen year olds out there? Yes, you can summon succubi in the game. Yeesh

Sorcerer!
The thing about Sorcerer is it's short.

Seriously. A hundred and thirty one pages in an attractive hardback that itself is six and a half by ten. It's a tiny little thing. The size of a hardcover comic book, really. And at least three of the pages is an essay elaborating Edwards's GNS Theory. (Said theory has since been deprecated and incorporated into the Big Model. Speaking as a literary and critical theorist, the GNS and Big Model theories are fascinating reading, if a hair structural for my taste. At some point, I should really codify my own theories of collaborative roleplaying as improvisational performance art, but -- as happens so often -- I digress.)

And yet, despite the economy of text, Sorcerer is dynamite. It really is. You read through the pages and it blows your preconceptions out of the water. That shows real economy of text.

The way Edwards accomplishes this is twofold: first, there is economy of text. Edwards is a master of using four words the way a more florid writer (me, say) would use twelve.

Secondly, Sorcerer is a book of concepts. Thematic concepts, practical concepts, mechanical concepts all alike, but concepts. Many if not most RPGs or sourcebooks to come out in the last fifteen years -- certainly since the heyday of White Wolf -- have been executions of concept. If you read Vampire: The Masquerade, to use a now-outdated but classic and well known example, you are reading a book about a realized world. The mechanics woven through the text highlight and derive inexorably from the specifics of the campaign world that the system is modeling, and as a result that system is altered contextually when it's woven through a different role playing game. This is even true of the modern World of Darkness game -- it is more streamlined and "universal," but Vampire: The Requiem doesn't simply add on to the World of Darkness rules -- it recontextualizes them.

Not so with Sorcerer. This is a very specific book, but it is not a book of execution. The core mechanics elaborated so simply and clearly here suggest a plethora of different possible executions. Edwards gives some suggestions and examples, but you find yourself coming up with different paradigms the system works for just naturally. What is left unsaid is as interesting and evocative as what is said.

This isn't to say Sorcerer lacks assumptions. You can't develop a realized role-playing game without assumptions. Even the bare bones System Reference Document that is the cornerstone of d20 -- perhaps the polar opposite of Sorcerer -- is chock full of assumptions. And the most basic assumption of any role playing game are the words "what if."

Seriously. Think about it.

"What if Vampires were real, and were quietly moving behind the scenes, eking out an existence and forming a society within our society."

"What if superheroes really existed, in a world that conformed to the four color adventures of the comics of our youth?"

"What if brave adventurers in a pseudo-medival society crawled through underground passages, killing everything they find, sacking ancient burial mounds and catacombs for their treasure?"

The Role Playing Game is an attempt to answer that question -- preferably having fun while you do it.

Well, Sorcerer's "what if" is pretty simple. "What if the only paranormal power in the world came from intentionally summoning demons?"

That's it.

Note that "what if" doesn't encode what demons are. It might be the Abrahamic demons of the major current world religions. It might be the original Greek ideal of the dæmon -- a creature between a mortal and a god, possessing wisdom or knowledge, possibly petty, possibly noble. It might be a computer daemon given form. It might be a Ferengi ship captain, and man -- would the price of power be worth it?

As I said -- this is a game of concepts, not executions. The concept is simple. The execution is up to the gamemaster.

Which is how these games used to be presented, back in the days of mimeographed and hobbyist roleplayers building and presenting games. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was incredibly detailed and complex -- it was all about the execution -- but the details of the world were entirely left up to the Dungeon Master. Hell, even buying the sprawling original World of Greyhawk product gave you a pile of names, a hex map, and a few very general comments about places like Blackmoor, but the specifics were left up to the the Dungeon Master's discretion. The Dungeon Master filled in the core gaps in the theory, and the players drove the execution in practice. Compare that with the next generation's Seattle Sourcebook for Shadowrun (which is still one of my favorite products, it's worth noting). This was an incredibly detailed Sixth World retelling of the greater Metropolitan Seattle area in a magipunk universe, right down to where you could get Ork food in Puyallup -- with the additional layer of actual Shadowrunners hacking into the files and leaving their own comments about what you'd really find in these places.

Not so with Sorcerer. It's got all the rules you need to create a sorcerer, to go through the process of contacting, summoning, binding and commanding the spirits, to create the statistics for those demons and to elaborate the powers innate to those demons. But it has no assumptions as to what those demons are, what kind of people the sorcerers are, how this has impacted society, or anything else. The rules exist as a theory. It's up to the gamemaster and the player to figure out the execution.

And the player does get to participate. One of the cooler (and more eminently stealable) concepts of the game is the kicker. This is the final part of character creation, and it is essentially a player authored upturning of the character's anthill. One of the core elements of the English novel is the establishment of the norm and the introduction of something that breaks the norm, introducing conflict. That's the kicker. From before you start playing, there's something that has the character out of his happy place... and it's something the player brings to the table instead of the gamemaster.

That's cool.

I've been turning these things over in my brain for a few days. I've been bouncing them off my usual gaming cohorts. I've had story ideas burble up -- it's a fertile field. There's lots of little touches I like (the total and intentional lack of telepathy or "magic evil detection vision" for one. You never realize what a crutch such effects are until you take them out of your game world entirely), but they're all designed to make me think about what kind of world I would make out of these concepts.

None of this is new insight. Sorcerer has been making the rounds for years. Ron Edwards received the Diana Jones Award -- perhaps the most prestigious (and certainly the most difficult to receive) award in the RPG Design community -- largely on the strength of Sorcerer back in 2002. Five years is an eternity in these terms, and Sorcerer's been sitting on my shelf for most of that five years. Hell, it looks like actually buying the game is difficult at the moment -- it's still listed as 'in print,' but it's out of stock. And unlike most modern RPGs -- especially from independent and small press publishers -- it's not available in PDF form.

As a side note -- I am a total RPG PDF junkie now. Give me a way to put my collection on my laptop hard drive and carry it with me? Yes please thank you. Make it searchable to boot and I will be your absolute best friend.

But that's as may be. Right now, I'm turning Sorcerer over and over in my brain, and coming up with things and thoughts, of which this is just a few.

And isn't that a cool thing for a role playing game?

(Auction updates -- most are ended or ending, and it's gone really well! I'm going to put some more things up later today or tomorrow, to keep the cycle moving forward as money is very helpful and I'd like to get ahead on things I've gotten behind on, but for the most part thank you everyone for bidding and participating. And man who thought Amber would go for almost seventy dollars?)

Posted by Eric Burns-White at March 27, 2007 11:26 AM

Comments

Comment from: Sempiternity [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 12:20 PM

Ah - for a moment i had hoped you were auctioning off a copy of Sorcerer! ;)

I've been hoping for a second edition - with all of the clarifications from the Adept forum, and maybe the supplements/extensions, woven together in one package.

But i love your game reviews! Have you done one for Dictionary of Mu yet?

Comment from: TeleriB [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 12:30 PM

At some point, I should really codify my own theories of collaborative roleplaying as improvisational performance art, but -- as happens so often -- I digress.

FYI, someone has written a book on RPGs as exactly that, I believe as his MA thesis. Complete with descriptions of his high-level, evil character and all the "kewl stuff" they did in their game.

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 1:11 PM

Wait, someone wrote up an RPG book as his Masters of Art thesis? Why am I in the wrong profession?

I could see Sorceror be one of those Japanese-Chinese tales of demons that weren't evil, but weren't good either. Without it turning into Inyusasha fan fiction.

I agree with you completely about the RPG-PDFs. I got Shadowrun 4th edition as a PDF as well as all of the Arcana Evolved. I wish they would start putting out more D&D stuff as PDFs (particularly the character sheets. Yes, I know there's a lot of self-made character sheets made by people who have way too much free time on their hands.)

Comment from: Amadan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 1:31 PM

I'm running an online message-based Sorcerer game now. You are right about the sparse yet evocative economy of the text. Something about the game lends itself to players coming up with the most devious and diverse character ideas.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 1:35 PM

Amadan -- it doesn't surprise me you're running a Sorcerer game. This game practically screams your name.

Er, you know. Quietly. With a sense of decorum.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 1:36 PM

Rereading... man, do I use the words "economy of text" enough up there? Did I lose the whole concept of synonyms or paragraph flow or what?

Comment from: The Weasel King [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 1:59 PM

I'm reminded of Harlequin-Maus' game Metal Opera, where the start of every story involves the GM going around the table and each player taking turns explaining HOW everything's gone to shit.

And what they come up with is the current story.

Comment from: siwangmu [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 2:05 PM

Eric's brain:
It's short, yet full of meaning and ideas... how would you put that? It's like... economy of text!
That's a great idea!
And somehow, it just doesn't seem to use many words... it's like some sort of... economy... of text!
That's a great idea!
But how do you suppose so much can be communicated evocatively in a small space?

(And sure, you can summon succubi, but I'm pretty sure if I were running it they would eat your head or enslave you or something, just for fun)

Comment from: siwangmu [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 2:07 PM

Oh, and both the "kicker" and this Harlequin-Maus (oh my God I love that name) thing sound super-awesome. I've only done a middling amount of role-playing, but that sort of thing just sounds too cool.

Comment from: Darrin_Bright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 2:50 PM

One minor quibble: Dave Arneson's Blackmoor wasn't officially part of Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk. Well, at one point it was vaguelly placed in the frozen wastes up north, but officially, Blackmoor was reworked as historical backstory for the Mystara campaign world.

But yeah, Sorcerer rocks on toast. Probably the best example of a kit-built hobby RPG... strips everything down to the chassis, gives you an engine, a steering wheel, and a few tools, and all you have to do is put in a little gas and *boom* you're ready to go.

And the same mind helped give birth to the whole GNS thing... truly a thing of divine beauty, absolutely guaranteed to turn any RPG-related thread into several hundred posts of epic wankery.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 3:41 PM

Hey, my giant world hex map had "Blackmoor" printed on it! I remember thinking that was a cool name (I was... rather young at the time) and was distressed I could find no more information about it.

Comment from: Copper Hamster [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 4:06 PM

I like games like this. Give you enough information to know how long the rope you are going to hang your players with is, and then let you loose in world building.

Personally, I like building worlds, designing the cosmos. It was one of the things I loved about BESM... the basic framework and flavor were there, but the world was up to you.

And I think Blackmoor has at least semi officially been in two or three places.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 4:23 PM

Argh! Now there's all sorts of concepts for this popping into my head. I need my brain for other things!

Comment from: roninkakuhito [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 4:47 PM

Miyaa
Um... WotC makes lots of Character Sheet PDFs for D&D, all of which are free.

Comment from: Honi Soit [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 5:12 PM

Man oh man, did anyone else go read up on the Metal Opera system? The words kind of sound like they could be the title of an anime, so I was expecting something with giant robots in space. And in a way, I was right. But no, it's a system based on the adventures of a heavy metal band. In space. Giant robots optional.

http://harlekin-maus.com/games/metalopera/metalopera.html

I don't know how it could work as a long-term campaign, but you have to respect a system where the optimal, *expected* outcome of every gaming session is essentially the 'Ninja, Please' script from 'Real Ultimate Power.'

Comment from: LurkerWithout [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 7:04 PM

I hate pdfs. A lot. Which is annoying because fiding POD stuff for Atomic Sock Monkey has been difficult. And I love my copy of Zantabulous Zorceror of Zo. (I've even got an idea for a campaign bubbling in the back of my head). So I really, really, REALLY want the other games. But I'm not spending that kind of money on something I need to print MYSELF.

And thanks for the review of Sorceror. Like I need another game system. Not that I'm not going to pick it up if I get a chance. Because I will. But then I don't like the new versions of the WoD settings and I still picked up Promethean. Because I'm a slut...

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 9:44 PM

You know, I'd come up with alot of words for Eric, but calling his ideas "short" isn't among them. I'm not saying he wastes nearly as much electrons as I do to post online... but I wouldn't call him short-winded.

The fun thing is, my friends and I usually play a system pretty open-ended, where we make up most of what we do as we go along. This culminated in the last time I ran the PDQ system (specifically, for Monkey Ninja Pirate Robot), and among the attributes created were the Neverending Bottle of Rum, Make Pasta Sauce, Do John Woo Shit, and Psychoactive Poop.

I've always found it's incredible fun to let the players much freedom in the game - it helps pull them in if they feel like they define that much in the game world.

Comment from: McMartin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 9:48 PM

Oh, God, the Threefold.

I remember that from back when Usenet was still a going concern.

I wonder if I still have my old notes for running Paranoia "straight" in a Gamist fashion...

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 27, 2007 9:51 PM

32: What were you drinking that night? Psychoactive Poop? Dude...

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 28, 2007 1:14 AM

Me? I was drinking good ol' A&W. And believe it or not, everyone else was also drinking soda. The setup was something laughable - there was a bridal shower being thrown for one of the seven weddings I'm invited to this year, so I invited the groom-to-be and other people who had SO's going to said bridal shower to my place for a role-playing anti-shower.

Also, we ate meat. Lots of meat. There was a huge shepherd's pie (well, cottage pie, if you want to be anal about mutton in a shepherd's pie), three different types of sausage, and we had venison for meatballs (which didn't get made because there was already enough meat to go around). So we might've been a bit protein-addled.

And truth be told, the Do John Woo Shit was the hit of the night. Particularly since the character using it did said John Woo Shit with flintlock pistols. Why? Because it was cool, damn it.

Comment from: Robotech_Master [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 28, 2007 11:23 AM

It seems to me that a lot of new games I've seen lately (if we define "lately" to be "in the last 5 years or so") have been this way to one degree or another—leaving the background indistinct to one degree or another, letting the GM players fill in the blanks. Universalis has the players create the gameworld entirely from scratch through the process of playing the game.

Sometimes I wonder: is this a feature of the "new wave" of gaming? Part of RPGs' evolution into whatever they're going to be next?

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