Sorcerer Playtest Review by Eric Brennan on 10/06/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
The Sorcerer RPG is a fine addition to the pantheon of modern occult games that meets every goal it sets for itself.
Author: Ron Edwards
Company/Publisher: Adept Press
Line: Sorcerer RPG
Page count: 144
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: yes
Playtest Review by Eric Brennan on 10/06/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Horror
[Two caveats before I begin the review. Caveat the first—the review is late. Mea Culpa. Real life and the actual task of arranging to have people get together to play the game, rather than just scroll off a Capsule Review, led me to be late, as well as deaths, natural disasters, finals, and a paying job. So—apologies all around, with the note that it all probably led to this being a better review.
Caveat the Second: I’ve talked to Ron Edwards via email on several occasions, and he’s a good guy. I don’t post often at www.indie-rpgs.com, I don’t heavily follow G/N/S, and frankly, even if I did any of those things, I don’t think it affects this review. I am, however, stating it right up front.]
Sorcerer is a bunch of things. It’s a roleplaying game; it’s a testament to independent RPG production; and it’s an example of someone taking a design philosophy and applying it to an actual printed game. I mention the latter two items not because they affect the actual content of the game, but because a preface and an appendix are set aside to discuss them, and I feel they bear mentioning. One could easily skip the preface and think they’re reading any other RPG out there, and one could ignore the appendix and not worry about the “System Does Matter” essay. I think you’d be a fool to do either, given that the preface is a nice blueprint concerning creation of your own RPG, and the appendix has some interesting things to say.
As to specifics, Sorcerer is a 144-page game from Adept Press, and is written by Ron Edwards. It’s hardcover and retails for $20.00, with black and white interior art and a color dust jacket. I normally don’t mention designer web-presence or company websites in reviews, but Sorcerer clearly points out that there is a Sorcerer website that is fully supported and loaded with goodies, and that the forums there are frequented by helpful people.
As for the game, Sorcerer is a game of occult power. The theme of the game, baldly stated, is, “How does one accomplish a task with methods that can be defined as evil?” The entire game is structured around this question, and the vehicle used is that PCs are sorcerers. The game’s conception of a sorcerer lies in a wizard in the medieval sense, a Faust if you will, summoning demons and compelling them to perform his will.
And that’s the game. Really. The rules support this concept with a very light touch. There are only a few stats. Stamina represents physical capability in all its forms, while Will sums up mental capacity in its myriad shapes. Lore, the key stat for Sorcerers, describes their grasp of the magics involved in summoning, binding, punishing, and containing a demon. Players’ stats also include Cover, which describes their real world skill set, and Price, essentially the telltale sign that the PC is dealing with demons.
A final statistic, Humanity, represents the cost to the Sorcerer of his actions. Humanity is an ambiguous stat, defined by the GM. In one game, in which we only generated characters, Humanity was defined as “peace of mind,” while in the game I actually ran, it was described as Empathy. Summoning demons usually costs the sorcerer Humanity, while banishing them raises Humanity. Humanity is central to the game.
Character actions are driven by “kickers,” events that the player designs to kick off the campaign, a puzzle or situation that play is meant to resolve. In addition, there are also “bangs,” events which occur and tell the players they have a problem right now. (In all fairness, “bangs” have been written into just about every GM advice section I can remember in one form or another, but here they have a catchy name.) These aids for the GM occur in-play, but the book itself is full of solid advice, campaign ideas, a sample adventure, and lots of sorcerous groups and tips. The GM is not just left to his own devices— here is a lot of internal support for the GM.
The system revolves around rolling pools of dice equal to relevant stats, against the pool of an adversary or the GM. You get a bonus for good description of the task, and the roll’s successes all carry over into the next action in a sequence. So if you were breaking into a house, and rolled very well to get in the window, you would add those successes when opening the safe. This means that clearly described “plans” will be more likely to succeed, a facet of the system which goes a long way toward pushing players toward description. The type of dice chosen for rolling purposes is left up to the GM—if he wants to use d4 or d30, he can, although the game notes that this will affect resolution.
Every sorcerer has a demon, and demons all have powers. There are different types of demons, ranging from Possessors to Objects, which define the demons form and abilities. The definition of what a demon actually is, in a larger metaphysical sense, has been left to the GM to decide, much like Humanity. In my first game (which never got to be played,) demons were expressions of the worldwide super-consciousness, while in the second game demons were damned souls, hoping to damn others in exchange for their freedom. Demons are really central to the game, both because it’s a game of occult horror and as the device that pushes a sorcerer to zero humanity, or that can make him human again.
As to actual play, I generated characters with two groups, one made up of experienced hands and one made up of a relative novice. The latter group is the only one to actually play, but in both cases character generation was illustrative. With the experienced group, we discussed a number of options for play, finally settling on an occult spy agency, modeled on the one in Tim Powers’ Declare (only American and high-tech rather than something out of Le Carre.) Inspired by the only answer the Prisoner ever gave as to why he retired (in the show of the same name) we defined Humanity as “Peace of Mind.” As players spiraled down the Humanity ladder, they would begin to distrust people who weren’t members of the intelligence community, doubt their friends and colleagues, and slip into increasing paranoia until all they had left was their “work—“ they would, in short, become drones, able to commit any atrocity in the name of national security. Demons were stated up front as biblical demons, but in actuality were planned to be expressions of humanity’s subconscious darker side.
While play never actually occurred with this group, I was impressed with how the game facilitated both the player’s vision of their characters and my vision of the setting.
Actual play occurred at the second attempt. In this case, not wanting to drown a relative novice in a wild concept, I stuck with the idea that had drawn me to Sorcerer in the first place—it’s place in the larger mass of modern occult games. Inspired by Unknown Armies, Humanity was defined as Empathy, and at zero Humanity the individual became a psychopath, incapable of human feeling. Demons were the dead, stripped of any biological imperative to protect their own kind. The adventure revolved around the player’s attempt to deal with another sorcerer’s predations in downtown D.C., cribbed slightly from an Unknown Armies adventure and Call of Cthulhu. It went well — the player was into the game, and the small number of stats that were on the sheet meant the player got into it quickly. The player was a little timid with the whole “demon as companion/tool” part of the game, but later got into it and eventually destroyed the sorcerer kidnapping children after a combat involving each party and their demons.
I did have a few problems with the game. The largest and the most glaring was in the initiative department – during combat, everyone rolls simultaneously and initiative is figured from those rolls. This would be fine if this was an “all-in-one roll” system like Godlike (maybe), but secondary rolls follow these initial ones, and the GM not only handles NPCs, but demons. That means a lot of pools of dice to keep track of on the table at once, and if I ran the game again I’d find some other way to handle initiative matters.
The demon rules seem to have as many permutations as the rest of the stats, combined. Contacting, Binding, Summoning, Containing, Punishing – there’s a lot for players to absorb, and while I understand that its central to the game, its an area of complexity that the rest of the rules don’t have, and it was something that made it difficult for my novice player to grasp how much power they wielded as a sorcerer. What’s the solution? I don’t know. Is this a problem for anyone but me? I don’t know. Should one even try to play this game with a novice? Hey, I don’t know. I just felt it bore mentioning.
Finally, loss of Humanity is wholly linked to demon summoning, and no guidelines are given to simulate other kinds of humanity loss. If the question is, “How does one accomplish a task with methods that can be defined as evil,” then there should be other rules for losing humanity based on doing evil. I can understand why this isn’t described in the game in any detail based on the GM-defined nature of the Humanity stat, but it would have been nice to see. At the same time, I’m still a little unclear on how banishing a demon should lead to regaining Humanity, if the deed is done for wholly selfish purposes.
Overall, I enjoyed Sorcerer, and what goals it sets for itself it easily achieves. It’s well-done, and most of all, complete. Anyone interested in a fairly player and GM-intensive game with a loose rules system would do well to look here. There are few rules in the game and the rules that do exist are there to push the author’s goals and guide players and GMs.
From a game design standpoint, Sorcerer is a solid game and earns an easy recommendation from me. I enjoyed reading and playing it. It stands as a testament to someone designing a game based on his or her own philosophy, and to independent game production. With that recommendation said, though, it is not a beer & pretzels game, and not something I could see pre-generating characters for and just playing for a night on a lark. At the same time, it also doesn’t seem to lend itself to long, endless repetitive adventuring—the goal of a character is to resolve their kickers.
As to what I’m going to do with it—I don’t know if I’ll play it again any time soon, since it seems ill-suited for the kind of large group I play with. I can’t imagine keeping track and doing justice to eight kickers. At the same time, it seems perfect for a small group with limited time (a few weeks) in which to play a short campaign arc, and that’s what I’ll use it for.
(In addition to the core rules, there is added “utility” for purchasers through the Sorcerer website and what appear to be add-on campaign packs available over the web (for a small fee.) Stock Sorcerer can do whatever you like, seemingly, and I wasn’t really driven by the need to purchase anything else. There are two supplements for Sorcerer available, called “Sorcerer’s Soul” and “Sorcerer and Sword.” The former expands the boundary of the game, and the latter brings Sorcerer into the same realm as Conan, Elric and other sword and sorcery characters. Neither is necessary in order to enjoy the main rulebook.)