What is a sorcerer’s role in a sword and sorcery RPG’s setting? I think the selection of spells typically presented for a sorcerer in FRPGs, D&D in particular, tend to obscure what a sorcerer really should be doing in the world. That is, to live off fear.
Yup, that’s right. A sorcerer uses their arts and powers to live off peoples’ fear of them. In myths and folktales, from sources as widely spread apart as Russia’s koldun and the mangkukulam from my own country, the sorcerer or witch is depicted as making demands backed up by threats of curses, essentially blackmailing the community. In other words, terrorism.
Classic sword and sorcery stories follow the theme, with the sorcerer often shown as scheming his way to greater power by controlling or supplanting monarchs, as in REH’s Hour of the Dragon.
Quite a few ‘adventuring’ spells fit this purpose very well. Anything that can cause physical harm, or affect the mind, or call up an agent to harass or threaten a victim, have very obvious uses in the sorcerer’s private campaign to achieve dominance.
What’s lacking is rules for their use in non-combat situations, but this is something any experienced GM should be able to handle. Easy enough to say, “All right, so you want to cast Influence on the Duke. If he fails his save, he’ll do exactly what you tell him and exile your rival Viridis of the Green Tower.” What’s important is that you know you can do this, and that you can get concrete game or story benefits from it.
But the real strength of magic, as it’s depicted in our source fiction, is the sorcerer’s ability to use it remotely, and to hit their victims where it hurts the most – sustenance and posterity. Blights and murrains on crops and livestock can bring a population to its knees. Infertility, or finding ways to kill off an important person’s heirs, will also be considered a nightmare in a society where inheritance of lands and titles plays a major role.
Granted, such spells should be rare – but they should be available, perhaps in the form of single-use scrolls or as very resource-intensive rituals.
Also, like real-world terrorists, sorcerers would do best to operate in secret, or to surround themselves with such mystery and security in some remote stronghold that it’s almost impossible to get at them. That, or protect themselves by openly seizing power, as revolutionary groups have done from time to time in Third World countries.
So far, these ideas have been more suited for NPC, especially villain, sorcerers. What about the PC sorcerer? How to take this idea for your character and still be a hero? My idea is to take the Batman route – your sorcerer is the dark power on the side of justice, feared by other sorcerers because you know all their dirty tricks.