Posted on September 4, 2006 by Flames
Written by Jared Sorensen
Schism is a short supplement for Sorcerer, the role playing game by Ron Edwards that achieved a great deal of critical acclaim and a number of awards. Sorcerer provides a modern-day setting in which some people, the player characters included among them, are able to summon up demons from whatever hell they may reside in and bind them into suitable objects. Such demons may then be forced to perform various supernatural acts which appear to offer magical powers to the one controlling the binding. The demons concerned, of course, are rarely pleased to be treated like this and will take such opportunities as may come along to make their feelings known. This leads to what Mr Edwards likes to call ‘an intense role-playing game,’ in which desperate characters, shunned by society, wrench powerful effects from their demons to achieve their dreams of power, sex and money. Imagine Elric in a suit and with a sword-substitute.
Schism both builds on this game and subverts it almost completely. In Schism, there are no demons – instead, characters receive extraordinary psychic abilities that are, partly as a result of the accelerating pace of global change and its effect on the tortured human psyche, suddenly prevalent in society. Indeed, the title page uses the term ‘virulent setting.’ However, the virus of psychic abilities does not come without a price and in Schism that price tends to be psychic disorders and physical deformation. Anyone who has played (or perhaps tried to play) the Nephilim game will be familiar with at least this physical aspect. Characters in Schism progressively become more and more removed from basic humanity but have the advantage of being able to bring about powerful effects to further their own ends and those of the cabal (a kind of more or less secret organization) that they wish. Ultimately, and this is stated quite explicitly in the rules, characters are willfully traveling on a trajectory towards their deaths: “If you, the player, decide that your character has come to terms with his life and if you demonstrate this through play during that final session, then the character will gain back his Humanity. If not, then his Humanity will remain at 0. Either way, the character dies (either through exterior circumstances or internal stress) and that person’s story ends. While this might seem insignificant (after all, your character is now dead…why does it matter what his Humanity score is?), it is the most important part of Schism. If there is a way to win or lose the game, this is it. Human beings define their own reality. Right and wrong only exist in the human mind and therefore it is our choice to determine what is right and what is wrong. Dying with Humanity means that your character’s life had some kind of meaning … that it wasn’t all in vain. That in spite of everything, he made the right choice when it was most important. In the end, the character can act heroically. He can make a difference. He can define his own reality rather than simply accept the reality of others” (p.7).
Clearly, this kind of moralistic nihilism is not going to appeal to everyone. And it is also not what we non-Americans are led to believe is going on in America these days. It is irreligious – which is far from being a bad thing. But, oppression by modern society and technology seems a little modernistic for the post-modern society in which we live. Be that as it may, I can imagine many people being excited about these ideas and wishing to take part in it. However, groups will have to be careful in playing because of the intensity of the physical and moral degeneration and because of the importance of the death scenes. In my experience and I could of course be wrong, intensity of this type runs the danger of inspiring players to become attention-selfish. What’s a climactic death scene towards which a player has been moving for multiple sessions if I has to be cut short because the other players are getting bored or want to advance their own schemes? In other words, Schism is likely to work best with a single player and GM or else with the other players taking some kind of pivotal NPC roles during each other’s death scenes. Again, this will not suit everyone or every group. Readers can judge for themselves whether they think this is a game which they will enjoy playing.
As for the book itself, it is just 35 pages long and those pages do have a reasonable amount of white space on them. By far the greatest amount of space is devoted to the character creation concepts and these are laid out such that players will have a foreshadowing knowledge of their character’s likely life, career and death from the very beginning. The psychogenetic effects are established, as are the cabals involved and the PC’s relationship with the cabal and, indeed, with the rest of society. There is some good advice for the GM on how to handle the style of game envisaged by the designer but the actual mechanics of how to run the game depends upon the original Sorcerer rules. The writing style is quite clear and it feels like it has been subjected to review and the suggestions of an editor, which is always a good thing.
I am pleased to note that there is not a lot of artwork getting in the way of the text. However, I am aware that other people disagree with my preferences and want lots of pictures.
This is certainly an interesting product and well worth reading and thinking about and I would recommend it on that basis.
Reviewer: John Walsh
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