Passionate Play #4: Epic Fail… Maybe Not So Epic

I very recently had a Sorcerer game fail. It didn’t fail because of scheduling conflicts. It didn’t fail because of lack of creative synergy or social cohesion from the group (Will and Laura whom I play with a lot). It just plain came to a screeching halt in a dead end of No Fun. Sorcerer is a game that requires the GM be a strong leader. Therefore, I take full responsibility for what happened. This article is my letter of resignation.

The biggest mistake I made was forgetting that neither player had every played a full, from scratch, game of Sorcerer. So there were some choices I made based on my experience with the game that don’t work well with beginning players. Probably the biggest of these was neglecting to come up with cohesive look & feel for sorcery.

A lot of people get worked up about defining Humanity as the central point of Sorcerer prep. I much prefer to start with flavor. What kinds of people are Sorcerers? What does sorcery look like? What shape and form do demons take? When strong enough that kind of stuff tends to cluster around some general issues from which some notions about Humanity become apparent. Whether you need to spell it out or not varies from group to group.

I didn’t do that. Nor did I customize the descriptor list. What I did was ask the group what kind of Sorcerer game they’d like to play. It was decided to do something historical set in the American Civil War. I thought this was very similar to when I ran my game set in New Orleans just after the Katrina disaster. Except that time I DID come up with a coherent look and feel for sorcery and I did customize the descriptor list. I just forgot I did that.

The result of this was the players ended up creating two very different “schools” of sorcery. Laura’s demon was the ghost of her dead brother and Will’s demon was the fire that burned Atlanta. That by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. What went wrong is that I failed to properly consider the two schools. This made it very easy for me to play the brother demon but I struggled to play the fire demon in any meaningful manner. It wasn’t even until near the end of the second session that I had any inkling regarding what it wanted or even how it communicated.

Another mistake I made was not enforcing the zero humanity means the story is over for your character rule. I’m not a fan of that rule. I much prefer the suggestions in Sorcerer Soul. In my New Orleans game there was a ritual where THREE PCs went to zero humanity simultaneously and we gave each one of them different consequences for doing so. I tried to apply the same methodology here and it didn’t work.

What happened was Will’s character ended up going to zero Humanity as he murdered a Union Captain in order to force his ghost to give up some information. I had made it clear that I wasn’t going to use the “game over” rules. Instead I unbound the fire demon and sent it on a rampage. I also had the contact ritual Will’s character performed to talk to the Union Captain’s ghost be stuck open. I liked the metaphor of Will’s character being “haunted” by his actions.

Now all of that was fine. However, when you allow a character to go to zero Humanity and bounce back that should be a character redefining moment. The problem was there wasn’t enough established in the fiction or from character creation for Will to find a new direction for his character. In fact, the immediate circumstances now facing him, given his original drives and motivations would only send him bouncing back up and down and up and down against zero Humanity.

I found out why allowing characters to go to zero Humanity is an advanced technique first hand. Will found himself creatively stuck. Not being experienced with the game he found his character lacking the nuances necessary to bolster his Humanity or reverse direction in his current crisis point. I think had I enforced the zero Humanity means game over rule that wouldn’t have been as big a problem. It would have been easier to brainstorm alternatives to killing the Union Captain or to decide that it was a short and swift end to that character than it was to deal with the more complicated situation given how the character was conceived.

Laura’s character suffered from the opposite problem. Her character had lots of nuances but lacked the drive that keeps a sorcerer moving forward. In this case I had failed to make it clear that a Sorcerer game really is all about whatever it is you write on your character sheet. Laura’s character’s parents were dead and she was living at her aunt and uncle’s place. Her Will descriptor was “Rageful and Vengeful.” Her demon was her brother hosted in her own body. His Desire was Competition and his Need was to go whoring. Her Kicker was that her cousin who helped her summon the demon had gone missing.

What I saw here was a woman who was so angered by what the war had done to her family that she was willing to do anything including summing the dead to keep them together or avenge them. So I thought I was speaking to all of that when I had her missing cousin entangled in a plot to refine his “gift“ to raise an undead confederate army and when I played her brother as a willing-to-do-anything for the cause but confounded by his rivalry with a fellow soldier over the affections of a prostitute.

Instead I ended up locking Laura into a place of creative confusion as well. She made it clear that these elements were way too intense and she just wanted her character to go home. I do have a tendency to drive my Sorcerer games very hard which may have contributed to the “intensity” being louder than it needed to be. That’s a problem I have in general.

In the end Will’s character had the drive without the nuances necessary to prevent his character from being a villain. Laura’s character had the nuances but without the drive to be a protagonist. When I saw both players were absolutely struggling with “what to do next.” I asked a few questions which uncovered these problems. It was clear the game had dead locked into a zone of No Fun. So I suggested we call the game.

Here’s the point I want to make about all this. We failed. It sucks. But you know what? That’s okay. Next time, Will will make a more subtle character so that he doesn’t dive into humanity zero land. Laura will construct a more driven character with elements she doesn’t mind being the absolute focus of the game. I will bring more focused prep and try not to play so loudly. We learn. We move on. We practice.

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