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What Dream Pod 9 Can Learn From David Bowie

by Roger Taylor

In which the author examines the future of roleplaying, and looks closely at an example of this future

 

The usual discussions found in role-playing forums were disrupted recently by the acquisition of Wizards of the Coast by Hasbro. Following closely on the heels of the announcement, doomsayers began raising the cry of the death of the RPG industry, the loss of originality through mass-marketing, and the eradication of the accepted cornerstone of the gaming industry, the venerable Dungeons and Dragons. The reaction of dismissal from the opposing camp was equivocal and equally flawed, amounting to the claim that gaming will persevere unaltered in the face of such changes. When other mainstream cultural intrusions into role-playing are considered, such as the usurping of the term RPG by the computer game industry, it is evident that role-playing as we know it will evolve, whether we like it or not. The long-term effects of the adoption of role-playing into the mainstream are likely to be subtler than the death of the industry, while more substantive than undetectable ripples. Will the face of RPGs remain unaltered by this event? The answer might be before us, taking the form of unusual trends, which are slowly becoming the standard. The face of role-playing has already changed and we have yet to recognize it.

Gaming shops, once the sole provider of RPG supplies to the gaming community, have now become more akin to social clubs. They serve as a place for gamers to meet through chance encounters and bulletin boards, a space to game, and sometimes to still fulfil the role of providing adequate gaming products. The widespread use of the internet, however, is supplanting the neighbourhood shop as a source for RPGs and support products. Dozens of online suppliers now ship a huge selection of games to the purchaser, and many of these sites offer extensive used and discounted selections as well. Even general online suppliers of books are now getting in on the act, with Amazon.com, for one, offering an increasingly diverse selection of role-playing products. In all likelihood, gaming shops are going the way of the dinosaurs in the US, and many other countries have necessarily relied solely upon mail order and internet suppliers from the outset.

What about collectors, you ask? Those old souls who enjoy the feel of paper on their fingertips, relish the whiff of dust in the nostrils, and insist on perusing all gaming books prior to purchase? (We're not that old! Ed) Surely they would never stand for the extinction of the gaming shop. The answer to this is evident by looking to the music industry, specifically the phenomenon of the record store. Local record stores were once the sole option for buying music, and the consumer was able to see, feel, and even hear the product prior to purchase. With the rise of chain music stores, many local specialty shops which stocked used and unusual music were forced to close. The appearance of the versatile MP3 format has now virtually eliminated the necessity of visiting any sort of music store at all, chain or specialty. Music can now be previewed, downloaded, and burned onto CD with an affordable CD-R drive. All from the comfort of your bedroom or office.

Artists like David Bowie are now releasing entire albums in the MP3 format. As much as music purists object, the overwhelming popularity of the MP3 format with the majority of the music-buying public will result in a largely online music market in time. Used and rare vinyl and CD stores are disappearing for the most part, save in the largest cities. For the population at large, the future of music is online. The same could be said for RPGs.

The online distribution of gaming products mentioned above is simply one step on the evolutionary path the RPG industry is following, analogous to the appearance of chain stores in the music example. Of far greater importance is the appearance of fully electronic games, which fill the role of the MP3 format. Not electronic as in computer games, but rule systems which are only available online as an electronic file which can then be manipulated and printed at the buyer's convenience upon download.

The flexibility of the electronic RPG is evident both to the designer and the consumer. From a design perspective, electronic publishing eliminates most of the expense associated with a printed game, especially the printing itself that tends to be quite expensive. At the baseline, a designer requires only a concept, a computer, and available server space. Thus online game design shares much with the attitude of garage rock and the DIY credo. But this is not a medium suited solely to the independent-minded garage designers.

The flexibility of the electronic format also allows larger gaming companies to publish high-quality products for less. An example of this is the CD compendia of AD&D products available from TSR for a fraction of their hardcopy cost. The advantages of adopting an electronic-only format are available to both the one-off title and the heavily supported product lines. For the consumer, the electronic format represents unprecedented convenience and substantial price reductions, as print savings are passed on, as well as the added savings from eliminating distribution mark-ups.

For many small and amateur companies, the electronic alternative is already the norm. Both free and priced systems are available in abundance on the internet, as a quick perusal of Uncle Bear or other sites will reveal, and the number is expanding. Futhermore, Wizards of the Coast have recently announced their new RPG Dragonfist will have a purely electronic release. But are these systems as entertaining and developed as the rules available in the $40 book with the hardcover and the glossy pages?

Some of the better known electronically available games include The Window, Puppetland, FUDGE, Two-Fisted Tales, Outlaws of the Water Margin, Multiverser and Sorcerer. The author of the last system, Ron Edwards, has addressed re-evaluating the traditional concept of what an RPG is in his article, The Nuked Apple Cart. It is fitting, therefore, to choose his system as an example of what electronic RPG publishing offers currently, and as an indicator of what the future might hold.

Sorcerer is available for purchase online, with a simple and regularly updated website as support. The core rules cost US$10 (approx. $15 Canadian, $16 Australian, 6 in the UK), and come (via email) as an archive of seven pdf files which can be viewed with Adobe Acrobat Reader. Supplemental material is also available for purchase and download at the site, and errata and rules additions are posted there as well. The fact that the site is the major source of advertising and support for the game demands that it be updated on a regular basis, this being a welcome change from many support pages for printed RPGs which are sorely neglected. The aforementioned low price is another advantage gained by use of an electronic format.

The rules are 92 pages in length, with a clean single-column layout and minimal artwork that tends to fall into two camps: effective and ineffective. The former tend to be moody, bold-lined pieces conveying the dark tone of the setting, while the latter are anaemic pen-and-ink drawings typical of RPG art from the mid-80's. As the game works best when set in the present day, the absence of profuse illustrations is not a liability. Each paragraph is separated by double-spacing, and bold font denotes each section and sub-section. There are no unusual or elaborate type-settings, and examples are presented in simple boxes. The table of contents is adequate but not comprehensive, and there is no index included. This inconvenience is compounded here, as the chapters are each separate Acrobat files making browsing for a specific rule without printing difficult. The writing is clear and there are only a handful of typos, which is a better record than most printed games. The electronic format also allows any errors to be corrected without necessitating a second printing or edition. Indeed, these corrected files could be available to consumers, making the concept of obsolete editions a thing of the past.

Chapter One: Introduction the Game

This chapter is preceded by the usual content disclaimer. Significantly, it is noted that Sorcerer is intended for the experienced gamer who is familiar with the usual range of RPG jargon. The caveat ends with the statement that the game is

"the role-playing equivalent of hard liquor, simple in nature but powerful and complex in effect, best utilized in small quantities by people who know what they're doing."

This statement seems odd coming as it does within the game, rather than as ad copy. There is no need to endorse a game to those who have already purchased it, and the implicit defensiveness heightened my expectation of potential shortcomings. The first expected fault being that the contents refer to a "chapter" one, while the actual section is entitled "Part One". Not an overwhelming flaw, but glaring coming on the heels of the writer's self-congratulations.

The chapter, or part, opens with an explanation of what magic means within the context of the game. The nature of magic, as defined by Sorcerer, is that magical effects are the result of demons that are summoned and bound by extremely rare and gifted individuals, the titular sorcerers. It is emphasized that the characters will be the focus, interacting with a "rather sketchy world." Role-playing over dice rolling is obviously the idea here, with the characters being the paramount to mechanics and setting. The following section emphasizes the importance of role-playing through a summary of the mechanics of the system.

The unique dice-rolling conventions are a clear strength of Sorcerer. No specific die type is required for the playing of the game, the only requirement being that all players utilize the same type. This is achieved by making all rolls opposed. For example, an action between a character with a rating of 4 and an NPC with a 6 would require the player to roll 4 dice and the GM to roll 6 of the same sort (whether 4- or 20-sided). The values would then be compared, with the "winner" being the individual with the highest single value. Degree of success is determined by the number of Victories: i.e. the number of dice with higher values than the opposition's highest roll. Bonuses and penalties come in the form of dice added or subtracted to the number rolled, and this is where the system shines. Role-playing and greater player description are rewarded with extra dice, and poor role-playing penalized with less. This is a terrific metagame system for encouraging role-playing. The system approaches pure story telling while retaining the element of random chance through numbers.

A bibliography of books, comics, films, and television programs deemed suggestive of the tone concludes this chapter, which is always useful. The listed literary influences range from Barker and Lovecraft to Marlowe and Euripides, providing an indication of the ambitious nature of the game.

Chapter Two: Creating Sorcerers

Character creation in Sorcerer is point-based, and the numbers that define a sorcerer are few. There are scores for only Stamina (all things physical), Will (all things mental and social), and Lore, the measure of the character's knowledge of sorcery. Obviously, if abstract systems are troubling, then this is definitely not the system to choose. It does, however, promote the feeling of telling a story, as opposed to playing a game with dice. Each Score gets a Description of the player's choice, which summarizes why the number is at the current level. This helps in distinguishing a body-builder with Stamina 4 from the gymnast with Stamina 4.

Characters then choose a Cover - a day job - and a Price, being some flaw, cost or condition suffered in exchange for the ability to practice sorcery, such as lame, paranoid, or cynical. Sorcerers also choose a Telltale, an outward sign of their "otherness." This concept is a bit vague, coming as it does as a requirement, and includes such peculiarities as dress and hairstyle. It is never made clear how dealing with demons might affect one's hair. There are then suggestions for plot kickers to thrust characters into a story, and a list of sources to utilize if the players are stumped.

The final defining trait of the character is the form in which their starting demon takes. The role demons play is not fully explained until later in the rules, but a bound demon might take the form of a gun or a seemingly faithful hound. The chapter closes with 3 examples of sorcerer characters, which nicely illustrates the preceding rules. Again, the elements of play outlined reinforce the idea of acting within a role, and numbers are forsaken for descriptors and atmosphere.

Chapter Three: Demons

As with the prior chapter, a boxed summary of the steps required to create demons starts things off; a handy reference. The process is straight-forward, much like character generation, and creating demons on the fly proved quite simple after a bit of practice. There are five types of demons, and each has access to a large range of supernatural abilities. The real fun in creating demons, from the GM's perspective, comes in the form of Desire and Need. While the abilities show what it can do, these terms define what it wants to do and must be allowed to do by the Master sorcerer. A sorcerer assumes the responsibility of providing a bound demon with its need, and any breech of this contract results in a rebellious demon. This is a bad thing.

There are rules that every demon abides by, including the Rule of Secrecy, which prevents them from acting if the consequence is a widespread knowledge of their existence. This explains why the world of mundane humanity is oblivious to the existence of sorcerers. While relying more on number ratings to define the demonic abilities, the game retains the storytelling feel in this chapter.

Chapter Four: Setting Up and Running a Game

This chapter details exactly what the title describes, and does it quite well. There are suggestions on how to emphasize the thoughts over the numbers, tips on setting tone, and wrapping up loose ends in the plot. There are enlightening opinions on how to handle characters who insist on attempting the impossible, and how to avoid telling the characters what they feel and how they react.

The suggestions on how to assemble a group of extremely rare, often dysfunctional, individuals while providing an impetus for their continued association point to one of the greatest shortcomings of Sorcerer: that it essentially is an easy short-term game or a difficult long-term one. The rarity of sorcerers, coupled with their quirky, misanthropical nature and the necessity of remaining hidden, severely limits the options when creating long-term games. The rules even state as much. Games with extensive settings and backgrounds might be nothing more than fiction wrapped around a set of rules, but the alternative in this case is a very limited world in which to try and motivate characters to act.

The chapter ends with a sample scenario. It is not very long, but the stated intent is to provide a fun way to learn the rules. I did use it for that purpose, and it reinforced the episodic nature of the setting. The system did promote a great level of role-playing, and the sorcerers were able to become quite formidable through judicious demon use. The players had fun, and the rules were readily understood all around, but as a GM I was left wondering how to motivate the characters over any length of time without resorting to a heavy-handed approach.

Chapter Five: Rules for Sorcery

This chapter details the range of abilities characters can call upon, which go far beyond the usual spell effects associated with mages in other games. There are six rituals available to all sorcerers, which is anyone with a Lore attribute, and all PCs. The rituals are Contacting, Summoning, Binding, Punishing, Banishing, and Containing. All of these tasks take the form of Sorcerer's attribute versus the Demon's attribute (usually Power), and the roll is sometimes modified by extenuating circumstances (such as a sacrifice). These rolls are summarized in yet another convenient box for quick reference. Without detailing every ritual, it can be said that sorcerers are able to communicate with demons for valuable information, call forth and command demons of varying abilities and Power, punish a rebellious demon, and bind demons for long-term servitude. As there are a range of demons, with a range of abilities, the player characters effectively command a very wide array of supernatural powers.

One problem evident in this chapter, which should be made clear to players before the game begins, is that despite the range of powers sorcerers command, the game is "not about accumulating more and more powerful stuff"; it is written to enforce limits on ambition and power. As it is doubtful players will read this far into the rules, this theme of the game should have been stated in Chapter One or amongst the character creation rules. In fact, on page 8 the rules state that the characters can do any sorcery they want, and seemingly encourage the summoning and binding of demons as the point of the game. Coming, as it does, so late in the rules, and advising the GM to "bring the full weight of the system down on anyone who forgets it," this virtually unstated and conflicting theme of reserve could result in some rather unhappy players indeed.

Chapter Six: Rules for Everything Else

This chapter is a short, ten pages in length, and fully five of those pages are concerned with combat which severely limits the space allotted rules for "everything else." There are several boxes summarizing formulae for weapon types and combat actions. The simple rule of Victories is a bit muddied by some simple algebra. Still, the system is incredibly light on dice rolling and mechanics, encouraging the GM to determine bonuses and negatives based on role-playing. The invisible mechanics is at the cost of verisimilitude, of course, and rules for the usual gaming stunts such as vehicular combat and chases are absent. It must be emphasized, taken from the text, that "the rules are bound to be disappointing for those players fascinated with hollow-point rounds, bursts per second, ammunition capacity, and other details of gun design." I would expand that to include players who are concerned with any sort of detailed rules for combat modifiers.

Chapter Seven: Doing It Your Way

Confusingly, this is labelled Chapter Seven in the table of contents and Part Five in the actual file. This chapter goes a long way towards providing the GM with story ideas beyond the few sketches provided in Chapter Four. That is not to say that the options are endless, but a GM concerned with the bleak long-term gaming outlook will find some ideas from the writer's own games to utilize. For example, an alternative to the "everyone is a sorcerer" game is suggested, in allowing some players take on the role of demons. That is not to say the ideas gleamed from this chapter will solve the problems of running a long-term campaign, but it did provide interesting suggestions for imposing structure on games.

In summary, the game offers some interesting ideas on role-playing, and innovative mechanics, but would benefit greatly from the addition of a more detailed world setting. It is, however, well worth the price, and provides an entertaining, if possibly limited, setting and system for demonic role-playing.

As an example of the first generation of strictly electronic role-playing games, Sorcerer delivers as a traditional RPG while exploiting the perks of paperless publishing. The price is low, being roughly a third of the typical price of printed and bound core rules. The online presence allows for convenient previewing of the product, and ease of download. The typos noted above can be easily corrected without demanding a further printing. Online support for the product is strong and frequently updated. The writer, Ron Edwards, is also the layout supervisor, copy editor, and game designer, which eliminates further price increases and allows for a cohesive creative vision.

This is final point is perhaps the strongest promise offered by the electronic publishing route: the possibility of stimulating new ideas from creative individuals who might lack the resources for publishing and marketing their game in the traditional, and increasingly outdated, manner.

 

Roger is a 3000-year old starspawn who enjoys crochet and Irish dancing. He is currently plotting mankind's downfall while working as a speed bump in the South Bronx. When not roleplaying, he exposes himself to small furry animals. He has yet to give us a bio.

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