Sorcerer(s) in Space: Mad Science of Tomorrow

edited September 2017 in Actual Play
This is my new Sorcerer game.
Session 0 report:
Rafu said:

Space SF setting with horror/fantasy elements, optional rules from Sorcerer & Sword enabled. I'm going to GM, and the three of us have played Sorcerer together before (which is why we are now experimenting with alternate settings).
The setting concept - mostly of my making - is far future with space travel, after humankind's diaspora among the stars. The twist is, SF clichés such as faster-than-light travel, beam weapons, teleporting, downloading and copying a human mind - anything which would be impossible according to 21st century science - do exist, as extraordinary one-of-a-kind occurrences, due to sorceries. Sorcerers in this universe are seen as scientific geniuses and elite technicians who make the impossible possible. Their existence is acknowledged, but there are few; interstellar travel and communication depend on them, but still they don't run things, probably because they're the weirdest of the weird.
In our pre-game discussion we managed to arrive at a sensible, actionable understanding of Humanity in this setting ("sympathy for others + belonging as a member of our species") from the exceedingly navel-gazy philosophical starting point I had provided (something about understanding "humanity" as a collective noun, not a singular, solipsism in the loneliness of space and reality as a shared consensus).

I've put together this small campaign notebook by stapling together scrap paper, as usual, and it reads:

Look & feel: a new Renaissance in the far future, after humankind's diaspora amongst the stars. Distances in both space and time are immense.

Demons are: scientifically impossible technology. Sorcery is the ability to make such technology work, indistinguishable from bona fide science by laypeople, but mad rambling techno-babble to the scientist.

Humanity is: empathy with others + belonging as a member of the human species.
(The 2-part definition might enable some advanced tricks in weird edge cases.)

I'm skipping the list of Stamina/Will/Lore descriptors and the fictional conditions for Humanity trading & Humanity capping rules (from S&Sword, both in effect).
If you've heard me complain about playing Sorcerer before, you might remember I'm really, really bad at on-the-spot quantitative (as opposed to qualitative) judgments, so that I find handing out bonus dice as a GM immensely distracting - and I usually forget to do so. It helps me to establish some criteria in advance and physically put distinctive dice on the table to represent those (a la My Life with Master) so that I can better elicit other players' complicity in handing out - or claiming - those bonus dice. For this game, there are 4 bonus dice representing the standard possibilities of material advantage, well thought-out plan, powerful emotion and dramatic plot furthering (see the Green Goblin & pie example in The Annotated Sorcerer), plus the following setting-specific, theme-specific categories:
More advanced technology: +1 bonus die.
Common sense: +1 bonus die for sensible action, +2 bonus dice for redefining (not just defying) common sense.
Scale and consequentiality: +1 bonus die for action affecting others, +2 bonus dice if a lot of other people, +3 if literally everybody else.

I'm confident you can see how just having that last one die on the table is a lot of fun, even if we never get to use it. ;-D

[to be continued]

Comments

  • Players' characters (and their backstory):

    Aion is the boyish-looking sole survivor of a space tragedy. He can't remember why - and not just because he was too young - but he was one of a thousand or so people set to sleep though an interstellar journey. He awoke to discover he was alone on the ship, adrift in space, feeling cold, and learned the ship itself felt cold too... That's when they bound. In game terms, the spaceship is his bound demon, of course, and its need is to eat up Aion's memories. Which is probably why he can't remember where he came from, what the original destination of the ship was, or even his own proper name (they ended up calling him "Aion" after capsule A-10/n where he had awoken).
    The ship was eventually retrieved by people from Centauri, who found everybody else on board had died in their sleep. They discovered the ship was somehow capable of faster-than-light travel, via impossible "jumps" that came to be called the HOP Drive and believed to be captured, cutting-edge foreign technology. They named the ship Pandora and set it on a mission to contact other star systems, suddenly making their dream of an interstellar federation come true. For almost 15 years, the Pandora has been traveling as a messenger to expand the outer boundaries of and maintain communications within the newborn Centaurian Federation, but captain Alyssa Rivera of course knows that only the weird young man who's lived on the ship since forever (and appears to age at about 2/3 normal speed) can actually operate the HOP Drive.

    Sander Cross was the lead engineer of a space station in the Ross 154 star system, a scientific operation and colonization effort owned by powerful Barnard's Star system-based corporation Nova Group. While living a regular space-frontier life there with his family, he also had a pet project of his own: he earnestly believed one could digitize human consciousness, turning it into software.
    One day, a high-speed object was found to be set on a collision route with the space station. On closer telescopic observation, the object looked impossibly weird, resembling a giant, part-mechanical cephalopod. Sander declared it to be an alien spaceship and had no doubt what to do: digitize his own consciousness to turn into a computer virus and have his colleagues transmit "him" to the monstrous spacecraft. Despite this plan being deranged and obviously impossible to implement, it did succeed.
    Sander, now a piece of software, bound with the alien mind of the unmanned, living craft he later came to call Gehenna and learned... it was unable to self-reboot its own brain for scheduled maintenance, which made it desperately in need of help. As he commanded it to turn away from the space station, Gehenna accelerated to impossible speed, covering millions of light years in the blink of an eye. As it disappeared from screen, his family and colleagues thought they had fallen to a group hallucination, while Sander had killed himself volunteering for an ill-conceived experiment.
    While in fact he'd now become a consciousness within an immensely powerful alien body, and wandered galaxies while also exploring the impossible knowledge to be found in Gehenna's data stores. Ten Earth years had passed - though but a moment to him - when Sander Cross set route for Ross 154 again to reunite with his loved ones.

    Thus, both starting demons are immensely powerful (Power in the 10-15 range) spaceships capable of ridiculously fast interstellar travel in a universe where virtually everybody else is stuck with <10% speed of light. What can go wrong? ;-D
  • Nice writeup! A very interesting setup.

    I'd love to hear more about how you plan to play the Demons, and what the Kickers are.
  • You're right. I got very simple kickers - so simple, in fact, that in the week I had to mull about those before the first session I wondered "are they kickers at all?". In practice, though, they turned out to be just fine: they did kick the game started.

    Aion's kicker: Captain Rivera has just died.

    Sander's kicker: I've just found out where my wife is.

    As for playing the demons, I dunno... I find them easier to play than human NPCs. Any specific questions?
  • So, what I did to start the 1st session was weave together the kickers (and more elements from the diagrams) into one situation...

    Sander Cross meant no harm to anybody in returning to Ross 154, but the reappearance of "ghost ship" Gehenna upset most of the Nova space station population to the point that wild claims of an alien invasion didn't feel unbelievable anymore. As the Pandora was also passing through Ross 154, hundreds of Nova employees asked for passage back to their motherland system, which Captain Alyssa Rivera agreed to provide, deviating from the scheduled travel plan and immediately HOPping to Barnard.
    They had already reached Barnard's system - a key member in the Centaurian Federation - and were approaching its capitol planet Vandekamp when Cpt. Rivera died under suspicious circumstances! Her aide, senior officer Sutherland, took up command ad interim, but orders came from Vandekamp to the effect that:
    - Rivera's death was to be assumed a possible murder until further investigated by local authorities;
    - everyone on board, crew or passenger, was therefore a potential suspect; and
    - a local officer was flying out of Vandekamp to assume command of the Pandora.
    This basically upset the whole crew, from Sutherland - angered and disappointed of not being allowed to succeed the former captain - to the ship's doctor - frustrated at not being allowed to carry out her autopsy.
    As part of their exchange with Vandekamp, Pandora's crew also broadcast a message from Kay Cross - Sander's wife and the space station's head media liaison - applying for refuge status on behalf of all passengers and asking for permission to land. This, Gehenna's impossibly advanced sensors intercepted (the demon has a Perception ability to catch signals at interstellar distances).

    Thus, our first session proper began with Aion mourning his closest - or rather his only - human friend, while Sander had Gehenna fly to Barnard at impossible speed, making contact with the Pandora mere seconds since Kay's message had been transmitted.
  • ...and then I was like: "What do you do?"

    Sander had Gehenna approach the Pandora politely as any regular spacecraft would, and started a back-and-forth with captain-ad-interim Gram Sutherland. He just introduced himself as Sander Cross from Nova, asked for confirmation whether Kay Cross was on board and politely demanded to talk to her.
    Sutherland was understandably upset at an unidentified (and unidentifiable) craft approaching undetected and alerted Vandekamp planetary control first; then sent for Kay, who replied her husband had been dead ten years and was, too, understandably upset at what appeared to be a bad joke. Sutherland kept asking Sander for identification, and Sander kept answering with the mere factual truth - their conversation stalled.

    Meanwhile, Aion was basically being briefed - by ship doctor Corinne Lynch - about the whole lot of shit currently happening he didn't give a fuck about, as he was busy brooding and mourning. To him, bringing Alyssa's body back to Centauri and telling her family was the one and only priority, and all the current military drama and bureaucratic bullshit was just getting in the way of the only sensible thing to do. But there was also something factual bugging Aion he couldn't quite focus on.
    At first, trying to involve Pandora in this conversation just lead to an attempted experiment in developing a scale for measuring sadness empirically by adding increasing amounts of saccharine to tea (I promise that did make sense in context... well, some sense at least). Finally, Aion was able to piece together that:
    - the late Captain Rivera had once told him, as a confidence, that she'd been offered a huge promotion and had declined it to stay with her crew; and
    - they were in Barnard when this conversation happened.

    The shuttle from Vandekamp had been approaching all the while. It made contact at last and the new Captain, Sir Hermes Baston Arcpenny (a scion of the distinguished Arcpenny family of Vandekamp, no less, and son to the current Barnardian Minister of Space) got on board, escorted by his trusted PA, Ms. Peth Ducell. He immediately took up the task of communicating with the unknown spacecraft. He was also immediately confirmed as the obnoxiously arrogant, forked-tongued career politician everybody expected him to be. It was pretty much obvious to everybody that Barnard authorities were using Cpt. Rivera's death as an excuse to seize control of the Pandora, by far the most valuable spaceship in the Federation - they weren't even being any subtle about it.

    I almost forgot mentioning there's actually a third faster-than-light craft (or, actually, a squad) involved in this mess. They come straight out of Sander's diagram: "the Alpha Ceti space navy, chasing me". I created them as a fighter squad led by a sorcerer whose demon can, well, open windows through the psychic maelstrom and let the whole squad through? Something like that. These guys reached the Barnard system minutes after Gehenna got there: I told Sander sensors had detected them, and he was considerate enough as to inform the Pandora and Vandekamp ground control as well.

    Anyway, Sander repeated himself and then went on to tell Arcpenny the whole story ("I'm glad you asked, at last!"), up to and including having turned into a computer virus and being "temporarily" without a human body to inhabit, and his ship being an artifact from some extra-galactic alien species (remember all of the above sounds equally crazy to regular people in the game setting as it would to us in the 21st Century!).
    He then projected a "holographic" image of himself into the Pandora's command room (this being how we'd agreed to have Sander approach functioning as a human-like character) - an unstable, constantly shape-shifting, scary image with a strange compound voice. At the same time, Pandora made visual contact with Gehenna and its appearance as a hideous monster-cuttlefish teeming with weapons of war was displayed on the big screen. Everyone in the command room was shocked and horrified - except Aion, who, touched by Sander's story and not disbelieving a single word, started chatting to him - this is how we learned that Sander's daughter Pria was on the Pandora as well and had made friends with Aion.
    Arcpenny reacted second, his greed for an extraordinary career opportunity (not one, but two faster-than-light spacecrafts!) overcoming even his horror. He sent for Kay Cross and started negotiating with Sander "on behalf of Barnard authorities", promising the full help of "Barnard's best scientific minds" to research how to put Sander back into a body. Than Kay arrived, recognized Sander (actually a tense conflict, this one) and after a while Arcpenny ostensibly obliged Aion's suggestion that they left husband and wife alone, ordering everybody else out of the control room.

    Actually, he gathered those same Pandora crew officers in a separate room and briefed them about how, "in order to prevent massive public hysteria" they had to keep everything they'd just heard and seen strictly confidential - or else, he'd punish them for "high treason". He then arranged to fly back to Vandekamp to meet with the government in person, leaving Peth behind to be his ears and eyes. The Pandora was to keep orbiting Vandekamp, without anybody else getting on or off, and maintain absolute radio silence until he was back with new orders from his bosses. But Aion was of a different mind...
    Mere minutes later, Sander was enjoying a good chat with Kay, piecing together details of his own life he couldn't recall correctly, when they heard Aion's voice through the loudspeakers:
    "Crew and passengers, brace for HOP in 30-29-28..."

    So, yeah, the very moment Arcpenny's shuttle had left, Aion went ahead and committed "high treason" in full style, by commanding Pandora to hop to Centauri - which of course it did on the count of one, no problem at all, piece of cake.
    In Centauri, he'd reasoned, he could give Alyssa's body back to her loved ones... plus, high command would confirm Sutherland as the new captain and put an end to all the drama.
    Sander's "holographic image" was left hanging in the middle of empty space, alone. He of course called the shuttle and demanded an explanation of Arcpenny, who - while every bit as flummoxed as Sander - pretended to be in control and that the disappearance had been arranged for blablablah reasons. But we all know he wasn't smiling to himself anymore as he landed - he'd better seize (and hold) this interstellar craft, now! Or else...

    This was our first session.
  • Very interesting!

    What are the Demons' Needs and what are they up to? How will they put pressure on the characters?
  • Paul_T said:

    Very interesting!

    Thanks!
    Paul_T said:

    What are the Demons' Needs and what are they up to?

    Gehenna has a need for software maintenance: somebody has to put in the work to reboot the system from time to time, defrag the hard drives, etc. This is actually a trivial need to satisfy, I know (but it being an alien, living spacecraft I can make maintenance arbitrarily difficult, should it ever feel interesting to do so).

    Pandora needs to eat up Aion's memories of time spent on planets, as opposed to on board the ship itself. This exacts a double toll on Aion... He's actually afraid of landing and only used to do so in the company of his best friend, the late captain - feeling insecure anywhere but on board the Pandora is his Price and being unable to sleep anywhere else is his Telltale. Plus, giving up one's memories - any memories - is tragic per se. In the 1st session we actually had an instance of Aion trying to ease his own pain by ceding specific memories (relating to Alyssa) to Pandora, and we had the player roll a Humanity check because of this (I'm not saying Pandora's need is technically to make Aion roll Humanity checks, but close).
    Paul_T said:

    How will they put pressure on the characters?

    I don't really know, because I don't plan in advance.
    However, in addition to the above and to both demon-ships being extremely valuable to all NPCs in the game, note how Gehenna is a combat spacecraft (a light scout class, according to Sander's player) built for an intergalactic war being fought between lovecraftian alien species somewhere out there, so it comes with that whole can of worms attached. There's also how we have no idea who made Pandora, where it - and Aion - came from, where it was originally bound to or whether anybody's ever coming looking for it. That's all bang-worthy material for a later time.
  • edited October 2017
    Wasn't Mike Holmes at some point developing a Sorcerer & Space supplement?

    Nice to see Sorcerer getting some love. Nice ideas you have there.

    One nitpick: why is it that in the "far future" everyone has names that make them sound like they're just a representative slice of early 21st century USA society?
  • edited October 2017
    @Rafu
    Sorry if I've asked this before but I don't have access to my old account. Where are you mostly publishing your games these days? Through Patreon? Somewhere else? Any hard copies in the future?
  • edited October 2017

    One nitpick: why is it that in the "far future" everyone has names that make them sound like they're just a representative slice of early 21st century USA society?

    LOL! We had a few lists of names handy and we just picked from those. Most of these names actually sound pretty exotic to us (our first language, and the one we use to play, is Italian). Apparently, when you just randomly match names and surnames from lists you have no idea what nationality or language are from, you get a slice of early 21st century USA? That's both funny and interesting. :-D

    Here is the exact setup:
    • the list of names in the back of Follow (the very first thing we had handy) is the main source for Centauri Federation people names: all of the "modern", "future" and "alien" sections, to be mixed and matched for names and surnames as we see fit in the moment. The "fantasy" lists, each having a certain coherence to it, are reserved for people coming from circumscribed locales within the federation, should the need arise. This is the only source we had on the table when first creating the character diagrams, and the near-totality of NPCs mentioned in my 1st session recap come from those, hence - I suppose - the trend you noticed.
    • the above list is complemented in my notes by "religious" names - Hermes Arcpenny is an example of an NPC bearing one of those. The majority religion of the Federation is defined in my notes as "syncretistic neo-pagan pan-European polytheism", though I imagine it having an internal complexity and variety of currents similar to modern Hinduism, and the inclusion of non-European sources is entirely possible. "Religious names" are, then, the names of any god or goddess I happen to know or remember - Greek, Latin, Norse, Celtic and Anglic so far, but I might include deities from non-European cultures as well. For these, I don't need to keep an actual written list, I just conjure them up.
    • I chose the "Englishy" list from the Story Games Names Project to represent people from Barnard's Star specifically, as the initial setup seemed to call for a lot of characters from there (and those sounded both cool and exotic, plus they meshed well with what we already had). These are being mixed up with all of the above, to represent cultural admixture within the federation, and I'm using the same for people from the Nova space station in the Ross 154 system as well, considering it culturally as a Barnardian colony.
    • another list from the Story Games Names Project, the invented Orrakachu language, I'm using for the people of distant Alpha Ceti, as called for by Sander's diagram.
  • @Rafu
    Sorry if I've asked this before but I don't have access to my old account. Where are you mostly publishing your games these days? Through Patreon? Somewhere else? Any hard copies in the future?

    Thank you for asking! The official answer ought to be: "Through my Patreon, which I'm going to revamp very soon."
    The ugly truth, though, is I'm not currently publishing. I'm playing and designing a lot, "in-house playtesting" too, but putting stuff down on paper is hard work (work which doesn't help pay bills though). And doubly so because English is a foreign language to me (while my native language isn't commonly understood anywhere but in my country, which has too small a population of "experimental" role-players - most of whom can read English anyway - to make it worth the effort).
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