RPG First and Second Look: The Annotated Sorcerer (part 1)

A friend complained that Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer is so badly written that he had to produce an annotated version just to make it playable. I’m not sure if they were joking.

I backed the kickstarter after trying and failing to get a hard copy. As a good faith gesture the backers got draft versions without cover art–which, when it arrives from Thomas Denmark will look something like this:

Sorcerer Concept Art

I assume Denmark will do some polishing for the final image, but I like the rough quality–Sorcerer is proud of its indie roots and this cover makes it feel like a homegrown game. It’s not sanitized, it’s full of flavour. Man, I can’t wait to see the finished version.

I wanted to get to the bottom of the aforementioned complaint, so this will be a 2-pass process. First I’ll try to just read the original text (copyright 2001) and then I’ll re-read with the annotations (copyright 2012).

Sorcerer is the first of Edwards’ games, and arguably the most conventional. Its reason for existence is White Wolf and their failure to deliver a story-telling game. I don’t quite share Edwards’ moral outrage although I do feel the WW lines collapsed under their own weight around the time of Sorcerer’s first draft (1996). Mage, the game I have most affinity with1 is a mess of weak magic rules that we mostly ignored in favour of freeform play. Also, I have no patience for metaplot.

I realised a while ago that I should have been running Over The Edge, not Mage in those years. It would have served exactly the same purpose–a few skeleton abilities and maybe fringe powers, and voila–instant Magick User. Given OTE’s influence on Sorcerer, this is going to be an interesting comparison.

First Pass: Sorcerer, circa 2001

The book’s seven chapters are Introduction, Creating Sorcerers, Demons, Playing Sorcerer, Rules for Sorcery, Rules for Everything Else, and Theme and Meaning.

There is no setting to speak of. This game is a framework for playing characters who have some kind of power that most people don’t have. The only reference to the setting Edwards makes is in the video above–to point out that demons and magic aren’t part of the setting where the PCs are, and yet the PCs have all managed to summon demons.

More than anything this recalls Clive Barker’s Great and Secret Show, with the character Jaffe divining the Art from cryptic code found in a dead letter office in Omaha. The concept of awakening in this way–through self-motivated discovery of a magical world–is how Mage: The Ascension should be, but in Mage the process of awakening is an automatic2 membership into a particular magic-hat-wearing club (whether you want it or not). Sorcerers are private; they have chosen to work magic and summon demons; they don’t answer to anyone and they certainly don’t get to whine about how a talent they didn’t want was thrust upon them.

A lot of this is my inference, because the starting text is “sorcerers–demons–how to roll dice–go!” Edwards explicitly says that sorcerers aren’t spell slingers, and they are arrogant. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

The dice system isn’t much to speak of–it’s a dice pool where the highest single roll wins. I am completely fine with that. I’m also fine with tossing coins. Later in the book Edwards mentions the currency of the game with one die equalling one success equalling one point of damage and so on; I like this concept a lot, and I don’t understand why it isn’t in the introduction.

Building Sorcerers

The second chapter doesn’t waste time: the steps to creating a sorcerer are itemised into nine steps including picking your stats, your demon, your Cover and Price. The system is text light and buzzword heavy, though I never found it ambiguous.

The character generation does a few interesting things. For a start it counts the “body” stat as Stamina and the “mind” stat as Will. There’s an explanation why Edwards doesn’t use the (horribly loaded) staple terms like INT and DEX. I found the approach very refreshing.

There are no skills, with the exception of Lore (the magical stat that all sorcerers have). The Cover is your “day job” and encompasses a range of implied skills as well as attitudes, knowledge and resources. I found this approach very satisfying.

Price and Humanity round out the sorcerer. Price is a penalty for doing magic, and Humanity changes as a consequence of actions. These are all Effectiveness measures (in GNS parlance), though Humanity doubles up as Resource. I think I’m correct in saying none of them are Metagame measures, that is modifiers on behaviour or outcomes based on relationships (if handled differently both Price and Humanity could be metagame, but they’re not).

The most remarkable part of the whole thing is “The Diagram”. Since I’m a sucker for visual organisation aids, I just ate this concept up. Unfortunately it’s presented very badly in the book, to the extent that it’s almost impossible to use without (I guess) seeking clarification from the sorcerer-playing community online.

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Kickers and Bangs

Characters also have Kickers, and later on the GM introduces Bangs. I’m still not exactly sure whether Bangs are the province of the GM alone, or if players can introduce Bangs as well. Kickers are disruptive events that start the player off on their adventure, and they’re very well expressed in the character section. Really, they’re a great idea for any roleplaying game.

Bangs are a great idea too. But honestly, I don’t think they were invented in Sorcerer other than in name. A bang is a provocative event, pre-planned and then dropped into the game for PCs to react to. Great, that’s pretty much how I and everyone I know runs their games today.

The funny thing about Bangs is, for a game that considers emergent story it certainly sounds like scene planning to me. Edwards is right to say the Act/Scene structure in WoD can give rise to “monstrous railroading“, but for the most part we run Scenes in an emergent fashion, with plenty of Bangs to get the PCs moving. Even stranger is the insistence of the text to “get to the bangs!” with advice on how to move a dense party onto a pre-planned bang event. Sounds a bit like railroading to me.

It’s the demons, stupid

I fell in love with the Stormbringer way of doing magic with demons as capricious reservoirs of power–it means spell casters really are meddling with forces that could destroy them. Sorcerer’s magic has exactly the same appeal, though stripped of Stormbringer’s complexity. Demons get their own character sheet (which the GM holds: the players get to look at their first demon sheet before it’s whisked away). They’re otherwise defined by Needs, Desires, their various Abilities and so forth.

Although “demon” is a loaded term, the text (in the Roleplaying Demons section) calls it an “open concept” and cites many different kinds of things that work as demons–from the souls of the damned dredged up from hell, to advanced technology that’s intrinsically tied to the PC.

Naturally demons must be bound. Some demons must be hosted. Here’s where it gets interesting. Most games with summoning have a binary condition–either the demon is bound to the caster’s will, or it isn’t. In this game, the demon will be bound, no matter what. The twist is that the winner of the binding role has the advantage in future negotiations. So your sorcerer can have their demon, but if it was bound badly then good luck keeping it under control.

The system for defining demons is (as you would expect) the most granular part of the book. There are abilities and different kinds of demon, from parasites and posessors to objects and passing demons. Most interestingly the different types of demons determine who has the power to switch the demon’s Abilities on and off–sometimes the demon chooses, sometimes the sorcerer.

The assumption in this game, as stated previously, is that demons and magic aren’t a part of the world–nevertheless they’re a part of the PC’s world. The PCs therefore have something in common, belonging to a subculture of sorcerers who number dozens worldwide. The Lore stat determines pecking order as well as overall effectiveness, but every sorcerer can perform the basic tasks such as contacting, summoning and binding demons. We know they’re all part of the same magician’s club, so there’s really no need for more detail than where it’s already been placed–the types, the abilities, the needs, and the overall currency.

Themes, etc

I’ve skipped the section on system, because the system is so light I hardly think it’s worth noting. The Themes section rounds out the book (aside from the System Does Matter essay in the appendix).

Themes and Meaning really speaks to me. It’s strongly integrated with the concept of demons and of sorcerers being self-reliant, arrogant characters, very small in number and both privileged and cursed. A lot of the sense of exclusivity I got from Vampire 1st edition (before the cartoon violence) is here. The GM is encouraged to think about why sorcery exists and what it represents. I can think of a few ways to translate Vampire into Sorcerer (e.g. with parasite demons). Overall Sorcerer is a credible alternative to the World of Darkness, stripped of metaplot and gothy pretensions and with actually nasty supernaturals instead of fluffy balls of angst.

Closing Remarks

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p>This post is already too long to dive into the annotations. My first look at Sorcerer has revealed a game at least I find pretty compelling–but not without numerous flaws.

Is it as incoherent as my friend’s comment suggests? Well, I’ve read commercially produced games that are longer and more rambling (Wild Talents, I’m looking at you). Sorcerer is unencumbered by difficult system or setting terminology, so it’s obtuse areas are easy to discover and not too hard to guess at or work around.

The game does bring a new set of labels and in some cases fails to capitalise on those labels as new concepts. Bangs are a good concept, but not new in the way they’re presented3 (I don’t think they were ever new). The Diagram is both a good concept and new–would it have killed Edwards to provide an example?

In both cases I want more. I think he got that message–I know that Bangs, the Diagram and a host of other features are heavily annotated. It is a shame they weren’t covered first time around, but Sorcerer is still a playable and very compelling game without them.

My only disappointment is it’s probably not suitable for one-shot play, given the approach to character generation. That’s OK, though; one-shot play is usually about overcoming obstacles, not emergent play.


  1. Not WW’s best game, though–that honour goes to Wraith: The Oblivion. I’ll talk about that some other time. 

  2. Automatic and also traumatic–it is a WW game, naturally.

  3. I get the feeling that Bangs are supposed to be instant-on drama beats

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  • Bangs always struck me as an RPG-specific example of the old Irregular Nouns problem. When a Vampire GM introduces a set-piece for their players to interact with, it’s railroading (sorry, “Force”) but when a Sorcerer GM does it it’s a “Bang”.

    Less sardonically, I think that whether “Bangs” are railroading or not depends very much on what you think railroading is, and what you want out of a game.

    I tend to define railroading as “taking choices away from the players that the players wanted to make for themselves.” If you’ve got a group of players who want to explore a naturallistically evolving secondary world and attempt to manipulate its rules for their own benefit, then “Bangs” are railroading because the players probably don’t want to run into set-pieces at all. If you’re running a “story-telling” game where the GM is supposed to present the players with a story that they passively recieve (a style of play that neither I nor Ron Edwards enjoy but which some people actually do and more power to them) then “Bangs” are not roleplaying, because you expect set pieces anyway. If you’re running a “story-telling” game the way Ron Edwards seems to like them, then once again “Bangs” aren’t railroading because presenting players with set-pieces to which they react is what the game is about, almost by definition.

    I think that the problem is that “Bangs” are trying to define with specific terminology a particular type of set-piece which a particular type of player likes, and aren’t doing it very well.

    To go with a concrete example, let’s consider murders.

    Suppose there is a set-piece in a game in which the players witness a murder, and are then made suspects in the same crime.

    Some players (stereotypically White Wolf players, but a lot of trad roleplayers in general) will be completely happy with this because all they’re looking for is a situation to react to.

    Some players (a lot of D&D players in my experience, but also a lot of trad roleplayers in general) will be annoyed to witness a murder without getting any chance to stop it – especially if they technically have in-character abilities or a combat system which the set-piece has circumvented. For these players the murder itself is cheating because it circumvents the established parameters of the game (in which players have control over what happens, particularly when it comes to combat).

    Finally some players (including, I think, Ron Edwards but *still* including an awful lot of trad roleplayers) will be fine with the murder (because it gives them a situation to react to) but annoyed by being made suspects (because it then forces them into a particular role and directly frames the story as a classic “establish your innocence” plot).

    Where I think “Bangs” are a problem is that it seems to be trying to identify a *clear difference of type* between “You witness a murder”, “You witness a murder and are blamed for it”, and “Somebody tries to murder somebody in front of you.” In reality I think it’s more that people have complex sets of goals and expectations and can feel “railroaded” (or not) by any one of those scenarios (for example the very Edwardsy players might get annoyed by witnessing an *attempted* murder because they might feel that the GM was trying to Force them into intervening when they may not have wanted to).

    • I’m not convinced the murder is the best example–being suddenly framed for something you didn’t do isn’t railroading, though forcing the players through a series of court appearances might be. Suddenly being a murder suspect is a pretty good Kicker.

      The only caveat is that making the PCs murder suspects is likely to be very contrived unless skillfully done, so that could be seen as railroadig.

    • I wrote a long reply to this but it was eaten by my Blackberry.

      I agree that the murder wasn’t a great example (I picked it because it was a scenario I’d encountered recently in an Actual Play podcast which I thought *I* would have felt railroaded by but the players in that game clearly didn’t). The idea I was trying to grope towards was that “railroading” is very dependent on player expectations.

      There are some players for whom “Bangs” are railroading by definition – they’re things which are going to happen in the game no matter what the players do – like being forced to go through the Troll Room no matter which door you take out of the Room With The Orc And The Chest. There are other players who barely ever feel railroaded by anything and who specifically *want* the GM to decide what’s going to happen before the game starts.

      Where I think “Bangs” fall down is that they take player preference out of the equation. There’s no engagement (as I remember, it’s been years since I read Sorcerer) with the idea that what’s a Bang to one person might be an intrusive use of Force to another or vice-versa. A good example of this (although I admit one half-remembered from some time ago) is that I seem to recall “the villain’s sword falls at your feet” being cited by Edwards (or some smilar Forge luminary) as an example of “Force” when it could just as easily have been cited as an example of a “Bang”.