Month: October 2015

The Big Model: A Cognitive Map

I wanted to understand the Big Model; but the problem is, as an outsider who was never part of the Forge, I don’t have the grounding in the language to make the intuitive leaps between topics as presented in the wiki. I needed a map, so I drew one.

Cognitive Mapping is a technique developed by Joseph Novak. It looks superficially like Buzan’s Mind Mapping but it is subtly but importantly distinct in two areas:

  1. A C-Map is decentralised compared to a Mind Map; no implied hierarchy or priority
  2. A C-Map has contextual links between nodes.

C-Maps have more potential as pedagogical tools. As this post says:

This map does not show how I intend thinking about this problem. Rather it shows the results of my thinking.

However this one is still pretty big, so will take some effort to follow. Colour coding to help (see the legend in the bottom left corner).

BIg Model v1

PDF version here.

This doesn’t have everything in the Big Model wiki (but it has most of it). Some immediate impressions:

  • It’s messier than the Big Model Onion thing, but it does retain the high concept with colour coding, though not the progression through layers.
  • I don’t see everything as subordinate to the Social Contract (e.g. Whiff Factor).
  • I am not sold on the layers, at least not as implied to be discrete objects. There is feedback between the areas. Techniques must inform the norms established by the group, even if those norms (leading to permissions and Authority) are a social issue
  • I see a single principle motive, Reward; the motives for behaving badly (turtling, prima donna, railroading and deprotagonism) aren’t so clear. Is it a consequence of incoherence?

The big gap I can see in the model is acknowledging cognitive load or the role of decision making. It does in places (e.g. seek and handling time, IIEE) but a great deal is spent on social issues. Could those issues, which frequently come from misalignment between players, be fixed by addressing cognitive load? Certain “incoherence” and cognitive burden must be related, as incoherence involves orthogonal procedures and decision making.

The antidote to this incoherence in storygames is frequently to reduce, simplify around a set of base assumptions, and reduce the scope of action by making implied permissions explicit. But I think this has consequences: I’ve said before that Apocalypse World seems to drive every decision towards a Type II decision making model; with that in mind, the mantra that “every rule breaks immersion” becomes self-fulfilling.

Breaking Waves

I’ve been thinking about this “wave” business a bit more. Not with the view to putting things in boxes, but more what it means as a pop-sociological analysis.

  1. Waves of things are characterised by peaks and troughs; they’re frequently discontinuous (q.v. first, second and third-wave feminism).
  2. Waves mean a resurgence of interest, after a period of low activity. The OSR itself is a second wave.
  3. A wave can be a response to the deficiencies of the previous wave (or the trough that came after it).

It looks like the “second wave retroclone” monicker was coined as early as 2011.

‘Second-wave’ retroclones is a name I made up for those systems that a) are built on the work of the original wave, which used the OGL and reverse-engineered the d20 SRD to make it possible to publish stuff that emulated older editions and b) are now focused on supporting a specific style of play rather than a particular edition. I will repeat this term until it sticks.

(Matt Finch’s article appears gone but a lot of the other links work. Later Tavis Allison calls back to this post here)

Anyway, if you want to stick to this kind of “wave” analysis, the period we’re looking at is around 3 years for the OSR. Compare that with the 5 year cycle of design evolution proposed by Vincent Baker (Narrative Control ep. 82). Compare that with how long games are generally in development.

What is the rate-determining step for these changes? Games aren’t designed in a vacuum, so it may be the social component — how quickly ideas propagate through forums, get support and willing playtesters. That’s a separate issue from the logistics of getting the thing made.

Who benefits from calling these first, second and third wave products? Allison is an advocate of the transition from first to second wave products, with the benefits of better product definition, commercial focus and higher professional standards. But if the design cycle’s rate determining step is social propagation then talking in these terms is also likely to reduce those barriers, lubricating the wheels of design and shortening the interval. By that analysis, a 3 year cycle may be a credible proposition.

Third Wave Things

Third Wave Feminism is a topic I know little about, but thankfully there’s Wikipedia.

Third-wave feminism refers to several diverse strains of feminist activity and study, whose exact boundaries in the history of feminism are a subject of debate, but are generally marked as beginning in the early 1990s and continuing to the present. The movement arose partially as a response to the perceived failures of… second-wave feminism during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s [which focused on] the experiences of white, middle-class women and was not a proper representation of all women. [The third] wave of feminism expands the topic of feminism to include a diverse group of women with a diverse set of identities. Rebecca Walker coined the term “third-wave feminism” in a 1992 essay.

Emphasis is mine.

What this tells us is that it’s perfectly legitimate to coin the term as a forward-thinking exercise; although obviously to be credible your peers must agree.

(there’s a payoff for being the one who said it first, of course)

The other point is that by the Third Wave it’s much more likely to diverge to many points than converge to a single one. The reason for this should be plain to see — increases in diversity with expanding audiences and advocates.

That doesn’t mean that when one person says “the Third Wave is this” they’re wrong; just that it’s only their singular vision.

With that in mind, this is my alternative, slightly more diverse vision. The Third Wave of the OSR, if such a thing is even a thing, will be characterised thus:

  1. a divergence of intent through system. Some games like Into the Odd refine the perceived experience of dungeon crawling by cutting out the fat in the system. Others like Beyond the Wall refocus the kind of narrative or genre, while keeping the advantage of compatibility, etc.
  2. a divergence of format that challenges established formats — production values, artwork, products that look good on the coffee table, zines, even digest sized products as an alternative to traditional formats. All this means is, people are more and more open to different content delivery methods.
  3. a divergence of experience. These are the settings and adventures, which are already present as the true OSR brand ambassadors; this has been diverging ever since the so-called First Wave.

Claiming that something is Third Wave anything is fair game; it should be debated and challenged constantly, and we’re better off for those discussions. Not as an exercise in cultural demarcation, but to show us where the gaps are and what new territories remain. Just be wary of someone using the term for marketing purposes.


Idea: people mix up dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres for two reasons:

  1. the precedent for many dystopias is a collapse or near collapse and significant loss, and hierarchies are put in place to mitigate against a repeat event (erroneously, disingenuously, or earnestly). Terrible concessions are forced on a population, justified through fear of The Past.
  2. we wish the protagonists to survive on their own terms in both cases. Also, both concern the struggle to be human in a dehumanising environment.

Dystopia is about control, restriction of freedom, acceptance of hierarchy, acceptance of inequality, loopholes and technicalities, banal certainty of the future, the struggle to be human within a confining structure, and to escape society.

Post-apocalypse is about loss of control, loss of shelter, horrible uncertainty of the future, the struggle to form a society and be more human within it than the environment will allow you to be outside it.

Dystopia can naturally follow a post-apocalyptic scenario, where the fear of external threats is used as a justification for the awful things that the survivors must endure, things that become commonplace. Perhaps there is a period of brief optimism when society is reformed; positive vision is needed to survive, and the dystopia can only be realised after the walls of utopia have been rebuilt. The switch happens once the citizens are no longer able to see clear into the abyss of the violent outside, once they have erected walls and turned their attention inwards, only listening to their leaders reminding them how much worse it is out there, and not bothering to check for themselves.

Some might ask why I make a fuss. I think it’s helpful to keep in mind for games or fiction, because you need to know in which direction your protagonists are running. So my handy rule of thumb is:

  • if they’re running into the settlement, it’s Post Apocalypse.
  • if they’re running out of the settlement, it’s Dystopia.

Job done.

Clomping Feet, Part 3: Settings and the 3rd Wave

Someone on the internet voiced this opinion last week:

Rpg settings not only solve problems that I don’t have, they create problems that I don’t need

…which was summarily trampled by the great clomping feet of worldbuilders everywhere. For context, links curated here.

I’m picking it up because

  1. I resemble that remark (here, here and here)
  2. I want to talk about what it means to have “no use” for a setting
  3. Some interesting discussion about “3rd Wave OSR” products.

On Usefulness

From here:

I fail to understand people who claim they have no use for published settings. It’s like a musician saying he doesn’t need to listen to any records other than his own.

That analogy would work if people lived in a vacuum with no access to other sources. But anyway, here are some reasons:

  1. Lack of utility on the table, for any number of reasons (presentation, gaps, lack of tools, etc.)
  2. Effort in engaging is greater than the reward I get from it (especially if I have to wade through 90% of dross to get the useful 10%). Prep should be proportional to play. I prefer material I can read in one sitting.
  3. I already have plenty of primary source material and this thing doesn’t tell me anything new.

My expectations are low, my confidence in my ability to DIY is high.

(Plus my philosophical objections to worldbuilding; I am a Harrison fan, and never loved Tolkien. Other people have already written rebuttals to Harrison, e.g. rebuttal here, no need to hash that out here)

Mostly I don’t feel the need for new setting material because I’ve already got a bookcase of textbooks and manuals. So with limited shelf space, what would it take to sell me on a new setting?


These are the regulars of the setting book format:

  • History of past events that justify the current climate (including myths, metaphysical incidents, and possibly future milestones)
  • Things that can happen: events, triggers, and adventures
  • Geography (with maps and locations)
  • Individual NPCs
  • Organised factions
  • Monsters
  • New degrees of freedom for characters, including classes, powers, etc.
  • Setting-relevent technical bits e.g. how to construct a castle

Sometimes these things are clumped together in chapters, sometimes they’re scattered or crammed into appendices or sidebars, sometimes they’re only implied.

I propose looking at those elements by functionality. I have three categories:

  1. Things that state or justify the status quo. This includes history, myth, people and factions, geography, culture, and so forth.
  2. Things that serve to upset the status quo. This includes tools to manage changes in factions, potential events (triggers or “bangs”, etc.) and tools for dynamic expansion of the play area (e.g. sandbox generation in Sine Nomine’s games).
  3. Subsystems for specific circumstances (if we meet this monster, if we build a castle, if I pick this character class, etc.)

My beef with setting books is they are preoccupied with #1 and leave the GM to muddle through #2, which is where the game actually happens. Much as I love Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor it fails in this regard — it implies a status quo that the PCs should be upsetting, but it leaves the mechanism for causing that upset entirely to the GM (hooks and links sheets are not enough).

Category 2 is where the GM and players take ownership of the campaign — which should be the design goal of all published settings. Settings should be written from a GM-player perspective; too many are written from an author-reader perspective, and do not acknowledge the need for these mechanisms, and are incomplete products as a consequence.

The “Third Wave” of the OSR

3rd Wave OSR: Innovation of Setting.  Games where the interesting part was less about what rules were being changed as how the D&D-type rules were being applied to fit radically different settings.  Vornheim. Arrows of Indra. Yoon-Suin. Dark Albion.


Which would mean that Third Wave products refocus the brand identity from the game system (DCC, LotFP) to the actual adventure/environment (Deep Carbon Observatory, Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon Suin).


One. Innovation

The setting sourcebook is well-trodden ground. Systems are diverging within their broad categories (whether it’s OSR/OGL, FATE, BRP/Openquest) and more and more it’s the setting that forms the brand identity. So if the OSR is doing this, it’s not new; and if copying this model represents the height of OSR innovation, I’m a bit disappointed.

The “innovation of setting” that I see in OSR product is this: providing dynamic tools to grow the setting with the expanding perceptions of the characters — faction management (Silent Legions and other Sine Nomine games), growing sandbox boundaries (Sine Nomine, Further Afield), dynamic city generation (Vornheim). Basically, paying attention to category 2 (q.v.).

Without that dynamic it’s the same old same old — a monolithic textbook as a vehicle for pretty art and prose and a static collection of facts. That’s been a staple for the last 30 years (I’m going back to Titan for Fighting Fantasy) and it’s thoroughly respectable — a well written and researched sourcebook is just that — but the market is saturated and my bookshelf is groaning.

Two. The Adventure, The Brand

From this interview with James Raggi IV (Contessa; warning, wee bit of nudity):

I don’t consider myself a game designer, really. More like a terraformer. I would have been happy just doing adventures and supplements except you can’t really get a lot of coverage and market penetration just doing 3rd party supplements for small-press games, so I was sort of obligated to create my own game…

Arguably LotFP has always been Third Wave (and therefore remarkably prescient). It’s the modules that people talk about; the system just helps hold the brand together.

This is also not a new thing. Call of Cthulhu’s identity as a game has always been in supplemental campaigns (Masks of Nyarlathotep, etc.) that largely stood alone (i.e. consumer not obliged to get on the supplement treadmill or subscribe to metaplot).

Setting Evaluation Sheet

Here’s a sheet to go through and work out what the setting offers in terms of Category 2. Still a work in progress with spaces for more questions. The goal is to evaluate the product as a useful object. The general process:

  1. Fill in Part One. This is what you would need to get your head around to pitch it to your group.
  2. Fill in Part Two. This gives you an idea of how much reading you have to do to tackle the whole thing, and where the bulk of the reading effort lies (also, which bits you can skip).
  3. Go through some questions in Part Three. The goal is to tease out the actual stuff you might use during play.
  4. Since the questions in Part Three can’t anticipate all of the useful features, use Part Four to write down the mechanical bits that really stand out and would add something to the game. Random tables, location tagging, fronts, countdown clocks.

Note that History is all the stuff you can’t change. If this part dominates the book, that should be a flag. If the history sounds more interesting than what the PCs will get up to, that should be another flag. Mentioning it here as it’s a common complaint.

RPG Third and Final Look: Sorcerer

Sorcerer Concept Art

This is my third and final attempt to read Ron Edwards’ Annotated Sorcerer which I backed in 2013, wrote several posts about it, then ran out of steam. I was pretty positive with the original 2001 text, but when it came to the annotations I made a couple of posts and then quit abruptly.

I was a bit harsh. And while I stand by the thoughts and ideas I had at the time, I do feel a bit bad about leaving it like that, for a few reasons:

  1. I hadn’t even touched the supplements.
  2. I don’t like being negative in general, and if I’m talking about a product it’s because it something good to offer.
  3. The posts are way too focused on details, not enough of a high-level or holistic view.

Also, I’ve since talked with Ron Edwards on social media (not about this game). Maybe it’s foolish of me to admit to that bias, but a lot of my communication for work is impersonal. I don’t want to be impersonal, even if I am a misanthrope. Ending on a low point didn’t feel right.

OK, so why didn’t I take to the annotations first time around?

Part of the problem was reading the file on my iPad — OK for the original text, but once I started on the annotations it was no good. You need to read the book in the intended print format with the orignal on the left and the annotations on the right. I bit the bullet and killed a tree printing out the text and supplements in A4 landscape, then went through the whole thing making margin notes. I won’t say it transformed my opinions but it removed a significant barrier to the reading process.

So, this is my full and final impressions of the original, annotations, and supplements. Here we go.

Sorcerer, 2001


I tend to treat RPG manuals like other procedures, test methods and papers; I’ll scan the whole document looking for patterns and then prioritise my reading of different parts based on the information I expect to get. For a game manual my priorities tend to be:

  1. core concepts, objects, definitions
  2. procedures
  3. examples of those procedures
  4. lists of powers
  5. author spew
  6. setting fluff

By “author spew” I mean those essays in Vampire and the like that talk vaguely about principles and techniques but don’t offer any real instructions. In truth 5 and 6 change position depending on my mood.

I know this is at odds with some designers who say you need to read their book cover to cover. I’ll tolerate that as long as their priorities in writing are the same as mine in reading. The order above is what you need if you’re learning the game as a new skill to be practiced; and yet very often those priorities are reversed. World of Darkness and Nobilis are particularly tedious. I probably have a strong unconscious bias to ignore anything dressed as fiction in a RPG.

OK, rant over. Sorcerer gets a lot of the learning priorities right, even in the 2001 form. There are parts where the text gets ahead of itself (e.g. the dice mechanic, which the annotations admits is premature) but overall it does the job. The first three chapters give us premise, how to generate the sorcerer, and how to generate the demons. I know from the outset that this game is about people, and people who summon demons, and that’s all I ever really wanted from my urban fantasy games — because the rest of it, the city landscape and the implied connections with other sorcerers (or vampires, or whatever) are things that I can and want to work out on my own.

Here are some high points, some of which I’m reiterating from previous posts:

  • The system is light and functional; what I would call “mid nineties lite”, not surprising as Edwards cites Everway, Over the Edge and Zero. On the Myers-Briggs N-S axis it’s N (that iNtuitive, not Narrative).
  • I strongly approve of Stamina as a physical trait (I wrote this a couple of years ago) and Will as a mental/social one. Doesn’t change function, but does challenge preconception about where physical and social competence comes from, and feels particularly appropriate for the sorcerer.
  • Sorcerers aren’t point-and-click sorcerers, they need containers for their powers. I’ve been in love with this idea since I read the Stormbringer RPG (1-3e, not 4e, and yes, I know the game deviates from Moorcock’s books, I’ve read those too).
  • Demon binding is non-binary. Other games will either have you bind the thing and use it like artillery, or fail and it uses you like a suppository. Here, it’s all about the relationship, and what Needs are satisfied.
  • The four-corner Lore-Kicker-Cover-Price diagram is fantastic. I’m a sucker for a good diagram. Some of the fan character sheets morph the rectangle into a circle (e.g. here). Looks familiar? No bad thing, IMO.
  • Story Now, Kickers and Bangs: I don’t think these anti-railroading principles were ever new to me, I internalised them a long time ago. But good to see them in print.

four corners

There are other innovations which are easier to overlook — where something looks like a list of powers it gets mentally filed in the further reading section next to the scenarios: not critical for understanding right now. When there’s something useful mixed up with that content, it will get filed too.

I never expected Sorcerer to be flawless; what I did expect, and what the original delivers, is an answer to the World of Darkness’ disconnect between the game-as-written and the game that we actually played (see here)).

The Annotations, 2013


Now, the annotations seem to fall into one of three kinds:

  • rules clarifications / amendments
  • better examples
  • places where Edwards says yes, I really meant this or no, I got this wrong or other bits of historical context.

If it’s not already obvious, you need to read the annotations in the context of the original text; this is why you need to read the book in the layout suggested. But then I found the whole thing a bit jarring to go from one side to another. Not terribly, for the most part, but not a smooth reading experience.

Some of the annotations are great, for example the diagram that faces the start of each chapter and discusses the transition from initial discussion and characters to Preparing Play; this fits really well with my learning expectations (q.v.). The diagram is discussed on p40. The Four Big Outcomes are talked about further. There are the places where we’re told not to wimp out, which is useful and necessary because left alone we will tend to do this (Chris McDowall addresses this for Into the Odd, and of course Apocalypse World tackles this with hard moves; it’s endemic and pernicious).

But I did get frustrated more than once. Some annotations are terse where I want more exposition, others are long when I feel the point has already been made. And a few times, the advice that’s needed is everywhere but the one place it should be. For example on page 14 of the original, Edwards says:

they do not “cast spells.” Instead, they break the rules of reality to summon beings that are Not Supposed to Be Here.

Sounds like the usual spooky things-that-should-not-be fluff, but I know that it’s more significant than that. The key is that it’s not our world’s laws that the fiction breaks, it’s the fictional world’s laws that are broken by the existence of demons. I know this from a podcast interview (I forget which one, it was somewhere noisy, talking about a super-socialist with a demon factory). That annotation belongs right here, it’s important. There is something but it’s much later, in the closing remarks on p61. Easily overlooked, and I found it because I was hunting for it.

I got more from the annotations second time around, but even with the printout I was suffering cognitive dissonance on going from one side of the page to the other. Maybe there’s a benefit there, because it forces more careful reading, but I honestly think it hurts comprehension of the game for people who were never there first time around.

What the annotations do is illustrate Edwards’ changing views of his own game and the climate that came out of it. I wrote a couple of times in my own notes “has he changed his mind?” The tone of the original game taps into the hermetic scholar archetype (safe, draws comparison with Mage, etc.), but the annotations show the true intent in using “demons” and “magic” as placeholder terms for a particular type of story about relationships and power. Take the “live by the gun” setting in the Playing Sorcerer chapter — if you have a sophomoric robes-and-candles impression of what this game is, that example challenges it forcefully.

The Supplements


There was always a risk that the supplements would be treated as an afterthought. As it says in the “Indie Manifesto” in the appendix to Sorcerer and Sword:

“Support” is a myth – supplements may be good in and of themselves, but their existence is not required to make an rpg good or to validate its existence.

The irony is that while you don’t need to read Sorcerer’s supplements, they massively improve the overall impression of the game. They help make the conceptual leap from this game as rooted in urban fantasy and horror to a framework where demons are an allegorical tool. Edwards’ writing is incisive and focused, getting to the heart of each subject.

This is my theory: the original Sorcerer has some radical notions (at least radical on page, if not in the actual minds of players) that require some re-orienting; the Annotated Sorcerer spends a lot of time placing those ideas in context, defending and reinforcing them.

But when it comes to the supplements, Edwards is no longer fighting to establish principles and common language, and all that energy can be turned to genre exploration — which incidentally is something he does very well, as well as being right up my street.

I do wonder how these supplements benefitted from momentum at the time. I can imagine Sorcerer being the new hawtness, and the supplements benefit from a number of ideas arising from the Forge. Clearly there was a lot of energy for that kind of discussion.

Sorcerer and Sword

This book transitions Sorcerer to a pulp fantasy genre. There’s a fantastic bibliography where Edwards name-checks the usual suspects, and crucially divides it into three eras of fantasy publishing (‘20s to ‘50s pulp including R.E. Howard and Clark Ashton-Smith, ’50s to ’70s pulp fans including Leiber and Moorcock, and the late ‘70s where heroic fantasy was “betrayed” and mostly vanished).

Basically this is fantasy collaborative settings and emergent play, with a method for how to adapt the core rules to take care of necromancy, natural creatures, etc. The genre deconstruction is good, if a bit uncomfortable at first glance, for example the admission that the worlds are typically both objectively racist and sexist and with few female heroes. That’s not endorsement, it’s something to be sensitive to and work with.

Three examples of emergent shared worlds run through the book (Xar, Black Forest, Clicking Sands) and are used to demonstrate the grounding principles for Lore, Humanity, colour and tone that you need to think about. All in all this is my favourite of the three, the supplement I read and thought “hell yes, I want to run this”.

Other features: a discussion about destiny and knowing the future, and the analysis of “stance” (actor, author and director) which I read in isolation as a Forge essay.

The Sorcerer’s Soul

This is the in-depth treatment and interpretations of humanity (as sanity, etc.), and the modern investigative genre. Here, Edwards is going after both Call of Cthulhu and Vampire. There’s a lot of discussion about transformation and growth of demons, human-demon hybrids (in the sense of transitioning identity, not in the “I’m half fairy in our twee urban fantasy” sense). The section on Angels where the binding relationship is reversed (it’s the Angel meeting the Needs of the sorcerer) and where Angels can intercede and bestow “grace” is also great.

Edwards also deconstructs some investigative novels for the relationships within as a means of mapping transgressions. While I only skimmed this part (it’s a scenario exercise in my priority ladder) it was a useful point.

With the demonic transformations, the primary use I considered was to retool it to run Nephilim. The spirit inside begins as a parasite, then posesser, and finally passer, with an increasing number of telltales.

Sex and Sorcery

This last one is a bit difficult to get to grips with in a way that won’t give a negative impression. It’s about a number of topics — gender and gendered stories, transgressions, dysfunctional relationships. It also explicitly discusses Lines and Veils which tends to be a commonplace term whose origins are not well known — I assume it came from the Forge and was then clarified here.

OK, the big controversial things: “male” and “female” type stories, and separate rules for male and female players:

When I first began hinting about this on-line, oh, you wouldn’t believe how many people clutched their hair and alternately grieved and swore how intolerable and insupportable any such thing would be. They had immediately assumed that these rules would dictate what either gender of player, especially the female one, would not be permitted to do. However, the goal is exactly the opposite. I’m aiming at more attention and enjoyment to various options during play, not less, as only cross-character interactions among players of different genders will reveal the full range of the rules.

Now, concerning “male and female stories”:

what I’m presenting are not the male and female story types, and frankly, they have nothing to do with Jungian or similar “archetypes.” They are, instead, just two types of stories, plucked out of the myriads of potential types. They typically have male and female protagonists, respectively, but even this is not a given, and I see no reason to think that each story type “validates” the gender of the protagonist.

Using more neutral language, “male” stories are focused on power through social contact, and “female” stories are power through affirmation or rejection of reproduction. Also, the gender of the hero in each type of story has significance, and reversing the gender has an influence.

What turns these from story themes to a game is how you interpret the humanity check — as is the general case. I think I’ll leave it at that, and encourage anyone who is interested to engage with the text first, then discuss.

Closing Remarks

I encourage you to read Sorcerer and if you do, I really recommend reading the supplements as well. I think I would print and read the original (a pain to set up the printer, but OK), then the supplements, then come back for the annotations. Trying to read the annotated version as a complete document from a standing start was two different authors speaking to me at once.

Now, the question is, who are the annotations for? Primarily I think it’s Old Forgies, who were there 10-15 years ago when Sorcerer was a hot topic; they’ve been through the process of dissecting and interpreting and crucially playing the original. While Sorcerer railed against the cultural inertia in RPG design (over-focus on setting, metaplot, product line support) the trend of here and now persists in Indie RPG culture, particularly where Kickstarters include an active playtesting component with community involvement. That’s a statement of fact rather than criticism. Those games will go through a peak of activity where the game is both explicit (rules as written) and tacit (game as communicated), and over time the tacit understanding is lost as players diminish, and all that will be left is the written word.

The Annotated Sorcerer captures at least some of that tacit, behavioural stuff. That’s its value, as a thing, a roleplaying cultural artefact. But Sorcerer IMHO needs complete reading in chronological order to be fully appreciated. Am I glad I made the effort? Yes. I expected it to tick all of my post-WoD, 90s minimalist system, intense urban fantasy boxes, and it does, and more. This is a game I would run, which I don’t say often.

Beyond The Waves: Big Fish


Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

God tells Job how powerless he is against the Leviathan. Is it allegory for Satan, whom only God can oppose? Or is Leviathan a force of nature or indifferent deity, for whom mankind is an irrelevance?

Let’s discuss big fish in Beyond the Waves.



These include the Aspidochelone or Kraken. Malign creatures that exist to drag humans below the waves, and personifications of cosmic evil.


(source: wikipedia)


Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun references Undines, gigantic women who are the concubines of Abaia, a gigantic, eldrich underwater monster. The undines are submarine giants. Perhaps they were once human, forced to exist in water once they became too massive to live on land. Crossing from land to water could be a magical trial, where the magician must survive in water through force of will, or perish. Over time they transform, gaining webbed hands and feet, etc.

Fish Riders

The mystical nature of the giant fish might also come from some associated human hero such as Paikea. The creature represents a force of nature and the rider is the spiritual force that directs it, for good or evil.

These are ideas for the GM — whatever the origin the sea creature various island religions may have different interpretations of what the Leviathan means (see the tables below).


How does each island culture regard the Leviathan?

  1. Does it feature in greetings, blessings, or curses?
  2. Do people wear amulets, charms? Do they inscribe images of the fish over their doors, in their boats, tattoos on their bodies?
  3. What does the fish mean to the islanders? Is it a demon, a wish-granter, a gateway to the other side of the ocean?

There could be more than one big fish, or there could be more than one interpretation of the big fish. See the tables.


The Leviathan will turn up in various sea or land hexes. Treat these as Further Afield major locations. Settlements and cities will be on land, so the Leviathan should be sighted near the settlement (and no doubt will feature in that people’s religion). Ruins could be wrecks or underwater ruins. Monsters should be self-explanatory, and Otherworld or Source of Power could refer to mystical attributes of the creature itself. These can be Seen, Heard or Read About per the rules.

On Sea

  1. When the fish is seen, is it near or far?
  2. What signs are there that the fish is coming, or has been here? Wreckage, fish, strange colours in the sea?
  3. If the party encounter the fish on the water, how dangerous is it?

On Land

  1. How does the Fish influence local culture, religion, superstition?


(No pun intended)

  1. The creature is a source of ambergris, which can make an enchanted potion. Scavengers follow in its wake, collecting marine and faecal smelling floating matter, because someone pays for that stuff.
  2. The god grants wishes to those that can catch it by the tail.
  3. A mariner escorting the party between islands has a grievance against the fish, and deviates from their course when it is sighted.
  4. Pirates hunt it for its skin, which will allow them to walk between worlds.
  5. A magical harpoon is stuck in its hide.
  6. You may ride to the underworld in the fish’s mouth, as long as you have enough rare incense to burn that it doesn’t swallow you.

Random Tables

To answer the questions, roll a dice or choose the answer that fits. Work in progress.

What does the fish mean to these islanders?

  1. The Fish is a force of nature. At times it may be cruel or benign. It exists to remind humans of their place in nature
  2. The Fish is a god of bounty, representing harvests, and appearing when the plankton blooms are plentiful.
  3. The Fish is a trickster, intent on luring sailors to their deaths.
  4. The Fish represents death, and carries dead souls across the Ocean.
  5. The Fish represents destruction, and where it appears violence will not be far behind. It can be appeased with a sacrifice.
  6. The Fish represents knowledge, which can be heard in its songs if you listen in the right way.
  7. The Fish is a transformed human, cursed to live in the sea.
  8. The Fish was once a human but is now a god with its own appetites.

Who talks about the Fish?

  1. It’s not discussed; it’s a pagan superstition at best, and frowned upon.
  2. It’s commonly referred to in a blessing of good luck, or polite greeting.
  3. It’s commonly used as a curse.
  4. It appears regularly in imagery.
  5. A hermit tries to warn people of the fish, but no-one will listen.
  6. There is a church and an organised religion.
  7. There’s a cranky magician at the edge of the island on an observation tower.
  8. A society (of assassins, magicians, or cultists) reveres the creature, and prays to it in secret. People fear talk of the Fish because they fear those that worship it. Tekeli li, etc.

What symbols do people carry of the Fish?

These can be worn as amulets to ward off its wrath, or to encourage its favour.

  1. Tribal tattoos.
  2. A charm, worn around the neck or as a bracelet, or on an earring.
  3. A plaque or carving into the hull of a boat for good fortune and strength.
  4. Paintings, murals, or tapestries depicting the Fish in the background of human events.
  5. A carving in the lintel of every front door in the village.
  6. A giant stone, laid in the centre of a stone circle, carved into the likeness of the fish and worn by the elements.

What tells you that the Fish may be near?

  1. Strange colours in the sky at night.
  2. The water turns a limpid green, as if you could see to the bottom.
  3. The water becomes opaque and reddish-black.
  4. Suddenly, a shoal of fish arrives, fleeing something.
  5. A whirlpool appears.
  6. On land, sudden and unexplained acts of violence or hot tempers.
  7. On land, mad proclamations by a seer.
  8. A terrible wind.
  9. A sudden calm and a break in the clouds.
  10. A human survivor, on a wreck, last of their crew, once swallowed and regurgitated.
  11. Ambergris, and possibly someone trying to collect it.
  12. Another ship in trouble.


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