Game-related ramblings.

Scratching That Itch: Electric Ghosts

This is the sixty-seventh entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Once again, we have a random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. It’s Electric Ghosts by greyorm (AKA Raven Daegmorgan), and its tagline in the bundle reads:

Electric Ghosts – a Sorcerer mini-supplement

As this implies, Electric Ghosts is not a complete game on its own. Rather, it is a supplement for the tabletop role-playing game Sorcerer, by Adept Press (who appear to be Swedish). Sorcerer is not included in the bundle, so players would need to get that separately if they wanted to actually play Electric Ghosts. Or, they could do what I did, and just read through the 40-page book and think about it.

Daegmorgan describes Electric Ghosts as a way to play Sorcerer, not necessarily a complete fleshed out scenario or society, but rather a way to interpret some of Sorcerer’s vaguely defined elements. Specifically, it imagines the demons from Sorcerer as entities which live within the capital-G Grid, consciousnesses that inhabit the very electrical circuits and machinery upon which human society now depends. In the fiction of Electric Ghosts, electronics do not behave according to clean, logical laws of physics — or rather they do, but they are also simultaneously and paradoxically illogical, mysterious and alien, home to all manner of living things that watch us and even interfere with our lives. Most people live in ignorant bliss, but those few who become aware of this truth become sorcerers, able to communicate with and sometimes control the ghosts, daemons and gremlins that infest the Grid, harnessing their powers but losing some of their humanity in the process.

I admit I was initially incredulous about this premise. The book emphasizes that sorcerers are very rare, perhaps only a hundred exist worldwide. I find it very hard to believe that no one else would have noticed living beings in our electrical systems. Surely people would find evidence of the gremlins that constantly break electronic equipment? See the ghosts that manifest in the circuitry? Wouldn’t electrical systems fail to obey the laws of electricity and magnetism if these electrical denizens are constantly interfering? But no, only one person out of seventy-seven million has figured this out. I have a similar problem with other genre fiction which involves some secret reality hidden away from everyone else, like vampires or wizards hiding among us, doing all sorts of supernatural shenanigans yet somehow avoiding alerting anyone else to what’s going on.

I also found the idea of ghosts and daemons living in the electrical Grid a bit odd, because it struck me as somehow less imaginative than the reality. While the behavior of electricity and magnetism can be described simply and elegantly with Maxwell’s equations, the origin of magnetism can only be described with quantum theory, and quantum theory gets pretty weird. The electrons in our circuitry are simultaneously particles, which have specific positions in space, and waves, which exist everywhere at once. It is physically impossible to precisely know where an electron is at any given time. This isn’t a limit of our current technology, an insufficient resolution on our instruments. It’s a fundamental physical limit. The better one knows the position of an electron, the less certain one is of its momentum (i.e. where it is going). This fuzziness and uncertainty is inherent, a fundamental aspect of how the universe works, manifesting most strongly for things with very small mass, like electrons or other sub-atomic particles. In fact, one of the quotes peppered throughout Electric Ghosts references such quantum phenomena:

This quote is, essentially, true. Fundamentally, the electrons in that calculator run on probabilities and uncertainties, are changed if one observes them, are both particles and waves. There’s no need to invoke ghosts and daemons to get at this “mojo”. In fact, to do so is to anthropomorphize something that is far stranger than a ghost. Spirits in the circuitry, however strange their desires or actions, are still recognizable living things. Actual electrons are far harder to understand.

But it’s clear that Electric Ghosts wants to tackle broader questions about technology and society. At the end, there’s an epilogue which directly talks about these ideas, asking whether humanity has lost something of itself as it has created tools and come to rely on them. It ponders what the right balance is between humanity and technology, and goes so far as to ask whether technology has actually made people happy, and why the “promise of technology” has not yet been realized. These questions are pet peeves of mine. It’s so clear to me that technology does make people happier. Not just in the easily measurable ways, like longer lifespans and better health, which the epilogue dismisses as tangential to its question. But in qualitative ways, enriching people and making them happier. Technology has allowed me to play all manner of fascinating and touching games. It has let me watch funny and beautiful films, to find and listen to wonderful music. It has let me travel around the world and interact with other cultures. I use it to write this very blog, an activity which brings me joy. I even used it to obtain and read Electric Ghosts, which I never would have encountered otherwise. To me, the suggestion that technology might be detrimental is crazy. The fault, I believe, lies in that very “promise of technology” that the epilogue mentions. It is not elaborated upon, but I can guess at what is meant: the idea that technology would usher in a utopia, that with it humanity would ascend to some higher existence. That technology would have no downsides whatsoever. That was never going to happen. Humans are still humans, they will still get sad and unhappy, they will still fight and wage war, they will still oppress each other, and sometimes they will use technology to do so. Technology will not change human behavior. But on the whole, it has undoubtedly improved our lives.

These complaints may say more about me than about Electric Ghosts. Or rather, they indicate that I’m not the target audience. If the idea of communing with ghosts within the electric ether sounds intriguing, please do not take my curmudgeonly comments too seriously. In fact, as I kept reading, even I found some interesting ideas within. Electric Ghosts is surprisingly detailed, spending time to rigorously explain the nature of ghosts, who may or may not be the spirits of the departed but often believe themselves to be, and have strange desires that must be met if sorcerers wish to work with them. Ghosts are, of course, completely different to daemons, who are more like automatons that run specific machinery or electrical systems, and can be more easily commanded and controlled. And they’re very different from gremlins, beings of pure mischief who seek only to ruin circuits and equipment, and can seriously mess up any sorcerers who try to tame them.

I also really enjoyed the description of the Grid itself, into which brave sorcerers can venture, though not without risk. Electric Ghosts makes it clear up front that the Grid is nothing like cyberspace as it is often portrayed in cyberpunk literature. The Grid is altogether more alien, a place of chaos into which human electronics have tapped. Any sorcerer entering the Grid casts a shadow upon it, a reflection of themselves, their own sacrifices or flaws made manifest. Thus any travel through the Grid pits sorcerers against themselves. Electric Ghosts does not explain the rules of the base Sorcerer game, but I gather that much of the rules pertain to challenges against spirits, pitting one the sorcerer’s statistics — Lore, say, or Stamina — against their opponent. But sorcerers in the Grid roll against themselves, their Humanity dice going up against their Lore dice, a reflection of their connection to the physical world and the ethereal world of the Grid, respectively. This opens up all sorts of interesting narrative possibilities for players to explore their characters’ psyches, fears and desires.

Of course, there’s plenty of rolling against spirits too, and detailed descriptions for how to summon, communicate or attempt to bind ghosts and daemons. One interesting detail is that more traditional occult practices are included, along with the expected computers and circuitry. They’re listed almost as an afterthought, which makes me wonder if the base Sorcerer book goes into more detail, but blood rites, pentagrams, weird ingredients in bubbling potions and the like can all be mixed with the machinery and electricity when practicing sorcery. Perhaps my favorite detail, however, is the concept of Ghost-tech. Sorcerers may attempt to bind a ghost within a specially designed piece of equipment that they graft to their body, in order to harness and use the ghost’s powers. Essentially, sorcerers are able to become cyborgs, and indeed are the only ones able to do so — cybernetic enhancements are a sure sign of a sorcerer. Ghost-tech comes at a cost to one’s Humanity, however, and should not be crafted lightly. I enjoyed this take on the classic trope of cybernetics, which takes on an altogether creepier tone than the usual cyberpunk fare.

Up to this point, everything I read had me imagining scenarios set in the present day. But Electric Ghosts actually encourages players to try other time periods. The final section of the book covers campaign settings, and suggestions include the early days after the discovery of electricity, when scientists may have become the first sorcerers as they met entities within their laboratory equipment. Or perhaps players might explore the future instead, when sorcerers are employed by massive corporations vying for dominance, or even farther ahead when humanity has taken to the stars. Perhaps new sources of energy have made the Grid obsolete, and with it sorcerers are rapidly losing their power and influence. Or maybe sorcerers are actively resisting this, shutting down any research into more efficient energy so they may continue to ply the Grid. These suggestions set my mind spinning, imagining all sorts of interesting scenarios.

There are several specific scenario suggestions included too, although most are mere seeds of ideas. Disappointingly, the only fully fleshed out scenario is set in the modern day, but not where I expected. It takes place in the deserts of Syria, where an archaeological find is stirring up trouble. It’s a legendary artifact from ancient Persia that supposedly uses sorcery, despite being made hundreds of years before the Grid existed. A giant corporation has the site on lockdown, but can’t get to the artifact since it’s behind some kind of puzzle lock and guarded by a zealous djinn (who is actually, of course, a ghost from the Grid powerful enough to manifest in the physical world… but what is its source of power?). There’s a whole cast of characters created for this one, all of whom players can engage with in order to sort out the convoluted situation. This will be a nice scenario for new players who aren’t quite sure how Electric Ghosts stories should work. I did notice, however, that there are no women in the scenario. In fact, throughout the book there are many references to sorcerers as men, indicative of a (likely unconscious) failure to imagine any roles for women in Electric Ghosts at all. Which is odd, since I would think that the rarity of sorcerers would serve to eliminate any gender-based discrimination that might exist within larger society, giving space for some interesting worldbuilding in the sorcerous community.

Overall, there are a lot of interesting ideas in here, even if the premise is not entirely to my taste. If you own Sorcerer, or if you just think the idea of messing around with ghosts in the machine sounds cool, why not take a look at Electric Ghosts? If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $6.

That’s 67 down, and only 1674 to go!


Which Witches? The Brigmore Witches


Scratching That Itch: Oath Of The Ambling Rose


  1. Thanks for your thoughts on Electric Ghosts! I always like hearing people’s reactions to it, even twenty years after it was first published.

    I found the note about the failure to include women a bit shocking, and went back through the document earlier only to discover you are correct. A female presence is only presented once, in a pull-quote from the bibliographical materials. This is clearly a glaring oversight on my part. The only defense I have is that this was my first published supplement and I hadn’t learned yet to check for subconscious gender bias. Thank you for pointing this deficiency out!

    Your reaction to the Epilogue is also interesting to me because I am, myself, also quite enamored of technology and its benefits. (I too prefer not living in caves and not dying from preventable diseases.)

    Yet we cannot escape that for all the good technology does for us, there is bad. This is not a statement that technology is bad, or a call to some kind of blinkered ‘return to nature’ utopianism (nature is red in tooth and claw, after all, and technology is really our only salvation from much of that impersonal brutality). The point was more about over-reliance on tools, about deifying technology in the way we have deified nature, as a balm or salve for all our ills. After all, does doom-scrolling on Facebook really enhance our lives? Does the addictive dopamine release of every ‘like’ on a post have value? Has technology bound us together more tightly on an interpersonal level, or pushed us apart and provided only the phantasm of connection?

    I don’t think there’s a real answer to that question, and I think the answer can depend on the phrasing of the question, but it is nevertheless an important question to consider, even if-not-especially never answered.

    Technology is, after all, the ultimate extension of ourselves: every tool is the creation of another person, the extension of another mind, either from some distant time in the past or within living memory. We don’t know who first came up with the idea for a screwdriver, for example; but there you have it, a ghost-limb of sorts, now broadly shared–the influence of the unknown creator now imprinted on the evolution of human history and the DNA of our future. Viewed this way, if you look around you, right now you are surrounded by such ghosts.

    Finally, I want to address the problem of one hundred sorcerers: one of the core conceits of Sorcerer is that there are only a few sorcerers in the world because sorcery is, by its nature, transgressive–it can’t be quantified, it’s outside nature, it is deleterious to human values and experience. Viewed in this way, the limited number of sorcerers makes more sense. It’s not that seven billion people didn’t notice demons, it’s that you can’t put demons under a microscope and say “Look! Demons!” because that’s not how they work. They are not real phenomena.

    It might be more accurate here to say seventy-six-million-nine-hundred-ninety-nine-thousand people out of seventy-seven-million people aren’t insane–they don’t see the ghosts because the ghosts don’t exist. Oh, they’re there, in a sense of ‘there’. If that doesn’t make logical sense: congratulations, you now understand. Yes, it’s all a little Alice in Wonderland; a little particles-but-waves-but-particles. It hurts to think about–and that’s the point.

    Anyways, thanks for reading the supplement and thanks for the review!

    • Thanks for your lengthy reply! I understand your arguments better now, and I generally agree. I’ve always felt that when technology is used for bad purposes — social media absolutely has been, as you point out — it’s a problem with people, not with technology. Technology in a general sense has done a lot more good than bad, in my opinion, but it’s undeniably true that it also enables some terrible things like global scale psychological manipulation through social media, or scarily efficient weapons of war. But I’m always annoyed when I see the blame placed on the technology itself, or see the implicit assumption that people will use technology for the worst imaginable purpose. Black Mirror, for example, has this problem (in my opinion). I guess I read some of that into Electric Ghosts, when it was not actually your intention!

      Also, since I didn’t have the base Sorcerer game to refer to, I probably should have given Electric Ghosts more benefit of the doubt in its worldbuilding. I did like a lot of the worldbuilding, though, as I hope is clear in the post.

      Lastly, I wouldn’t call this a real review since I didn’t actually play it. Not owning Sorcerer was a nice excuse in this case, but when I started this series I didn’t realize just how many tabletop games that need multiple players are in the bundle. I decided I was too lazy to organize play groups for them all, so I generally just write my impressions after reading the books. I’m sure if I actually played Electric Ghosts I’d have a lot more things to say about the experience.

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