Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Sorcerously Advanced

Where to get it: drivethrurpg

Ah, so what we've got here is a fantasy version of sci-fi Nobilis. . .

You can't see me right now, but I'm chuckling pretty heartily at how colossally bad a take that would be. Sorcerously Advanced, despite being a diceless rpg set in a deeply layered fantasy multiverse with ubiquitous magic, isn't really that much like Nobilis at all. I think it might be an outgrowth of its provenance as a science fiction game. You still have these broadly-defined traits that reflect the setting's metaphysics (the "Natures" - Communion, Industry, Mystery, Self, Trickery, and War), but they are much more carefully defined and feel much more like material processes. They are also much more concrete in scope. The "physical strength" magic caps out at "Lift massive timbers and stones" instead of "sleight of hand the moon, like you're in some kind of avant garde cartoon." You can still work effects that could potentially affect the whole universe, you just have to use the ritual system and be willing to devote the necessary time, though for the life of me, I could not figure out what's supposed to happen if your modifiers wind up pushing the ritual time past the top of the chart (100 years). Nevertheless, it's notionally possible to do things like create new planets or alter the nature of time. There are even organizations in the setting who have done so.

Strangely enough, though, the overall effect winds up feeling more grounded than Sufficiently Advanced. I think it's because I'm more inclined to take fantasy at face value than I am science fiction. You present me with a civilization that uses nanotech to digitally scan people down to the molecular level and then simulate them inside a high-resolution virtual world, where they then proceed to have a very conventional form of captialism, and I start to ask questions . . . about the metaphysics of the self, and what it means to live in a simulated world, and how it's even possible to have a society in which the wealthy have monetized even the very fabric of existence itself, such that if you can't pay your rent they throttle the simulation so that you're living in a scaled-down, pixelated world for no discernible practical purpose aside from allowing the rentiers to remind you that they own your reality. Whereas, if, in your fantasy setting, you have a faction that uses time magic to recreate physical echoes of ancient ruins and then populates them with their own descendants, pulled them backwards in time in an effort to colonize the whole planet with their ever-expanding, immortal progeny, well for that, I'll just nod and say, "it seems like a bit of a paradox."

Which is to say that when talk about the unexpected implications of a physical universe that doesn't necessarily conform to our naively developed intuitions, that somehow feels like the art is less literal than a fantasy world that often does make intuitive sense, even in situations that would lead to a logical contradiction. The GM section calls this "an ascientific world." Laws have exceptions, so the giant eagle can fly, weight ratios be damned. And, logically that shouldn't happen. A world where that could happen is one that would quickly run into all sorts of paradoxes, but they don't, because "it's like a bird, but bigger, so I'm not surprised to see it in the air" is a thought that makes perfect sense.

The most direct comparison would be between Sufficiently Advanced's wormholes and Sorcerously Advanced's travel lattice. An infinite void, filled with bridges that are always precisely 10 miles long which connect arbitrary points all over the multiverse is a pretty whimsical idea, and something that could never actually exist, but it works exactly like you think it would - cross the bridge, get to the place. Wormholes are not nearly so baroque. You pass through and are instantaneously transported to another location in the same universe, but because of the weird rules of relativity, every wormhole is, by necessity, also a potential time machine. Wormholes could exist in the real world, and it's kind of weird that of the two methods of travel, the only one where you run the risk of bumping into yourself heading the opposite direction is the one that is not, technically, magical.

It's probably on purpose. Sufficiently Advanced gets its title from that Arthur C Clark quote - it's about technology that's indistinguishable from magic. Presumably, Sorcerously Advanced comes at it from the other direction - magic that's indistinguishable from technology. So the games have subtly different feels to them, though they're both pretty great in their own way.

The central premise in Sorcerously Advanced is that, up until about 400 years ago, it had a fairly standard distribution of magical power - a privileged few were born with magical talent, and they lorded it over everyone else. Then, without warning, the Gift happened, and everyone got the ability to do magic, often at levels "that rivaled the most powerful wizards at the time."

This leads to a lot of really interesting, high-powered fantasy concepts - there's a faction that invades Hell, enslaving the demons as revenge for their tormenting humanity before the Gift. That's pretty metal. So there's this permission there to go as big as you want with it.

Where I have an issue with the worldbuilding is when it comes down to portraying whole societies of super-mages without ever getting into the nitty-gritty details. There's a sidebar about childhood education and it sets the benchmark for learning the default magical Expressions at age 20. It also says that people are taught how to gain immortality as part of their standard education, but even if they weren't, they "tend to figure it out around age 50, if their Self score is high enough."

And the question becomes, "what do scores really mean." You need a Self of 2 to stop aging and Self 3 for broad immunity to most things that can kill you. Are 2-point scores the equivalent of a high school education, or do you just develop them without trying? How much work is getting up to a rank 3? Or a rank 5? Is that like "professor at my local community college" level or "Michael Jordan-esque once-in-a-generation talent" level? What about multiple 5s? 

I tried to make some inferences based on the sample character templates. None of the characters from the main civilizations had even a single Nature score at rating 1. Some characters from the less powerful civilizations of "the Unruly lands" did have the occasional 1, but only the "Bonded Healer" had more than one (and their other scores were a 5, a 4, and a 3, making them a pretty hefty character nonetheless). My guess is that level 2 magic is like basic literacy. It's a skill. You need infrastructure and support to learn it, but it's a very realistic goal at nearly any stage of life and it doesn't take a lot of effort to maintain it.

I also averaged the first twelve template arrays, just to get an idea about what the "typical" stat range should be and the mean was 18 points, spread across the six natures. Which means that a score of 3 is pretty unremarkable. The two characters I saw with straight 3s were "the First Responder," "the Idler" and "the New Arrival," and it was rare to see a character who didn't have at least 3 of the stats at 3 or higher. I guess I'd peg that level as "the parts of your education that stuck." You passed the driving test and you drive every day, so you have driving 3. Only if you were a notably bad driver would you be reduced to level 2.

Rating 4 seems . . . unsurprising. The guys I mentioned with the straight 3s and "the Gardner" (3 3s and 3 2s) were the only major civilization characters to not have at least one Nature at rating 4 or higher. This seems to track with an area of professional focus, but is not necessarily associated with a particular level of fame or prestige. You're a chef at a restaurant, you've got Cooking 4, but that place isn't getting any Michelin Stars.

Rating 5 is a bit more selective, but not shockingly so. You figure that an "Architect" or a "Merchant" or a "Healer" is a person with some special skill, and the status that comes along with it. Maybe your restaurant does get that Michelin Star, but not necessarily more than one. It probably is roughly equivalent to a typical PhD, but maybe you teach at a state university.

Which is kind of a long digression, but I needed the baselines so I could go back to the Nature descriptions and find the baseline level of power, possessed by almost everyone you're going to meet. You could walk down the street in the Sorcerously Advanced universe and see people throwing fireballs, creating elaborate illusions, shapeshifting into animals, having accurate visions of the past, conjuring useful objects from thin air, and healing bruises by laying on of hands, and at no point would you think, "wow, I saw a wizard today."

I guess there is still room for society to exist. There are still specialized jobs. Nearly everyone can conjure nourishing food for themselves, but it takes notable effort unless you've made a point to study conjuration, and the book says default conjured food is pretty bland. And despite the fact that nearly everybody regenerates completely from nearly any injury, there is a benefit to having a healer speed you along. And the cooperative magic rules do incentivize gathering a bunch of average people to do the bulk of your work during major rituals.

And yet, it all seems like it should be radically voluntary, because it doesn't require very much at all for an individual to be completely self sufficient. Expand that to any random group of 20 people who just happen to share similar aspirations and values, and that's a recipe for massive millenarian exoduses that really should decimate any society that makes things too unpleasant for its lower classes.

I think, in the balance of its civilizations, that Sorcerously Advanced squares this circle a bit better than Sufficiently Advanced. Most of them feel like projects people could get excited about. Even when the average person is roughly ten miles from every other location in this universe and the next, you could understand why they might want to invade hell or live in space, monopolizing extraterrestrial ley lines. It's unclear how the Diadem is able to have a "penniless underclass," though it seems at least notionally possible to deny people access to the knowledge necessary to learn magic, provided you start young enough (those 1s in the Unruly lands have to come from somewhere). A little more guidance would have been nice to have, though.

When it comes to rules, the main thing you need to know is that prior knowledge of Sufficiently Advanced is not required. All of the base rules are reprinted here, suitably modified for the different genre. There are subtle changes to the way Twists (the meta-currency) works - you store it in your Natures (though each nature always has six points of storage, regardless of its rating) and your theme-equivalents are now tied to your six Natures, limiting which Twists you can spend on certain effects. I don't really know how I feel about this, though. I thought the super-categories in Sufficiently Advanced were kind of unnecessary, and this new scheme does at least give them a coherent structure. However, it also means that your plucky, Twist-focused near-mundane protagonist has to jump through a few more hoops to have the universe bend in their favor. My gut instinct here is that min-maxing for high Import is a little less satisfying than in the science fiction version of the game. Which is, again, surprising. "Small town nobody pulled, unprepared, into the world of legend" is kind of the foundational trope of fantasy.  You can still play Peregrin Took, but Sorcerously Advanced is going to make you work for it.

The only rules change that I actively dislike is the Tradition system. Traditions themselves are fine. They are a power source and a method for harnessing that power source and a short list of advanced techniques for your Natures (most techniques are accessible to all Traditions, barring certain Tradition-specific weaknesses, but you get a Reserve discount when using your Tradition's signature effects). And they work perfectly well.

But you can have more than one Tradition. And even that is no big deal. This family of games is super-permissive about character creation. You can give yourself all 5s on your stats, you can add a few bonus Expressions to your list. Why not? Maybe I'd charge a point of Import for the privilege, but it's not going to be dramatically effecting the game balance.

Where the Tradition system loses me is in the fact that your various Traditions have independent Nature ratings, and subsequently, independent Power and Import scores. You can only have one active at a time, but it's unclear what's actually happening in the fiction when you switch between them. And maybe it's irrational for me to feel this way, but I don't like the way it seems to invite you to manipulate the Import system. Sufficiently Advanced was pretty neat in its solution for balancing disparate power levels in the same party, and it kind of bugs me that "walking plot device"-type characters can swap over to having protagonist powers just by . . . choosing not to use some subset of their knowledge for a brief period of time? (I really have no idea what's happening when people change their active Tradition).

So that's my house rule for this post - you can have multiple Traditions, but they all share a fixed set of Nature ratings and you lose one point of Import for every six additional Core Expression you gain in this way.

Overall, I think Sorcerously Advanced is the superior of the two games. Its tone is easier to grok, its civilizations are more iconic, and its setting abounds with the best kind of fantasy audacity - the entire world is a giant bowl, two million miles across, held in the hands of a giant golden creator-god, and that's the least interesting thing about it. The Worlds chapter could have been ten times as long and I would not have gotten bored.

So I think I have to count this one as another unqualified recommendation. I'm grateful it's crossed my path.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of good stuff here, but I especially liked the Living Pantheon of the Unroyals. It's unclear whether they are actual independent entities, or just personas the Unroyals adopt when they're in the mode to try out a new identity (or when they need the persona's specific abilities), but I kind of like them as gods. My favorite is The Thief of the Unwanted, "who quietly relieves people of those things that bring them no joy."

1 comment:

  1. Interesting review! I hadn't heard of this one, so thank you!