Why I wouldn’t use IAWA to run Amber (at least not with Amber players)

Wednesday night rolled around, and we were set to play In a Wicked Age. This was going to be my fourth or so time running the game, the second time for both Tim and Chris to play (revisiting the same characters) and the first time for both Meera and Randy.

Participant background

It’s not unimportant to note that I have a lot of play time with various story-games (not as much as I’d like) and that Tim and Chris have been playing quite a few different games with me in the last year or so, including Galactic, Dogs in the Vineyard, Inspectres, IAWA, and a couple others (I think). Meera’s played a couple of these types of games as well, most notably (in my head) Primetime Adventures. Randy’s played a little PTA, some Dogs, some Sorcerer, and I think that’s about it.

Significant (to me, at least) is that both Meera and Randy have a lot of play time with Amber DRPG (or some variation thereon) – enough that I think it’s fair to say that their experience with that game strongly informs and establishes their modes of play. I don’t say that to malign – I love em both, but the habits that Amber establishes are there, demonstrable, detectable even if you don’t know that’s what you’re seeing, and hard to break.

I bring that up because it mattered in play.

Now, first off, I think the game went well. We had a fun oracle to start out with, and there was a lot of stuff going on.

WHEN WE LAST LEFT OUR HEROES (read: last session)
* Farid Dafir, the marketplace snake charmer, had just reclaimed his rightful place at the head of the animal cult, ousting the woman Eil Bet.
* “Regano” al Aiqtanq, his cousin, had at least temporarily snared the heart of Kianna, the sneak-thief who’d gotten the whole mess with the released genii and the evil spirit started in the first place.

Chris was left at the top of the We Owe list. He picked NEST OF VIPERS as the Oracle and selected the first one. Tim crossed himself off the We Owe list to “just be” in the story.

The Oracles elements (from which one selects a character) are:
* A band of slavers, bold and incorrigible
* A moon gazer, possessed by 10 rival spirits
* Burglary of the storehouse of a powerful robber merchant
* The warden-ghost of the place, generous to the good-willed

Possible Characters, implied or implicit
* Any one of the slavers, including their leader, 2nd in command, or whoever
* Any one of the slaves, ditto
* The moon gazer, possessed
* Any one of the people burgling the storehouse
* The robber merchant, or one of his people
* The warden-ghost

From that, we came up with:

* Chris, playing his cult-leader/animal-charmer Fariq, who is also the moon-gazer with the 10 angry spirits within.
* Tim, playing Regano.
* Meera, playing Jessemyn, one of the slavers, who are all working for…
* Randy, playing Kadashman, the robber merchant and sorcerer.

The NPCs were:
* Natan, Kadashman’s eunuch major-domo, conniving to replace his master.
* Kianna, the thief from the first session, reincorporated as the burglar of the robber merchants ‘storehouse’.
* Saahi, the head of the slavers, in love with Kadashman.
* “Precious Dove”, Kadashman’s prime concubine, his conduit to the spirits he controls through sorcery, the one person who can put Fariq’s spirits at peace, the person Kianna was sent in to “borrow” (kidnap) by Fariq.

Much wackiness ensued. In the end, Fariq had his spirits sorted out, the concubines had all fled, Regaro had kept Kianna safe from the eunuch (who was rolled up in a large rug), and Saahi and Jessemyn were riding out into the desert with an unconscious Kadashman draped over the saddle. It was a pretty good session.

But there were still a few disconnects and weirdness. I, for one, automatically went into post-conflict narration once something wrapped up, and (a) that’s not always my job and (b) the results of the conflict hadn’t been negotiated yet, so I was totally going cart before the horse.

That wasn’t all of it, though. There were a few points in the game when what was going on at the table was sort of churning the water without doing anything, and a few points where the action ground to a halt when I’d turn to a player, ask what they were doing, and get a kind of deer in the headlights look. Analysis Paralysis, Tim calls it, and mmmmmmaybe that’s right. I’m not sure, though.

I am sure (pretty sure) what was causing it though.

Over on his blog, Vincent has been talking about different resolution systems. Specifically, talking about the ways in which the different games’ fictional stuff affects their system stuff, and vice versa.

The cloud means the game’s fictional stuff; the cubes mean its real-world stuff. If you can point to it on the table, pick it up and hand it to someone, erase it from a character sheet, it goes in the cubes. If you can’t, if it exists only in your imagination and conversation, it goes in the cloud.

Bear with me, guys, I’m going somewhere with this.

His first example is your basic DnD-type game.

Resolution system #1 is for an imaginary game that’s just like any game you might have played in 1990:
“I take position on the crest of the hill.”
“When he comes close, I attack him!”

Translation: In #1, the only thing happening is story-stuff, and all it does is inform other story-stuff.

When your character attacks mine, roll dice.

…And if your character has the high ground, add 2 to your roll.

#3 is a big one for certain kinds of players (I’m one of them): with some use of the fictional game elements (terrain, cover, high ground, et cetera), you garner bonuses that give you an edge in the system. THIS PART IS IMPORTANT TO MY EVENTUAL POINT. REMEMBER IT.

Now I’m going to try to give an example of Amber DRPG


“I take position on the crest of the hill… with a gun ready… the King’s sword… my armor on… and all prepped up.”
“When he comes close, I attack him!”

In a typical game, the only thing happening there is story-stuff, and all it does is inform other story-stuff. In ADRPG, however, it’s also feeding into the “system” (read: the GM’s head).

When your character attacks mine, the System comes into play to determine result. It looks like this…


GM says: “Well, the guy you attacked has a higher Warfare than you, so he wins.”
Then you say…

Well, I had high ground…” And the GM says “Okay…”

And I was ready for him…” And the GM says “Okay…”

And I have the King’s sword…” And the GM says “Okay…”

And I’m wearing armor…” And the GM says “Okay…”

And I have a gun…” And the GM says “Okay…”


GM says: “Well, with all that prep work, even though the guy you attacked has a higher Warfare than you, he loses.”

See, ADRPG has a system. The system is “Convince the GM you should win.” ((NOTE: In many traditional games – say Basic DnD and AD&D1 and 2, this System is also how Anything-Not-Combat is handled.) The only way to use that System successfully is to use preparation and situational advantages to garner strong arguments in favor of “you win.” In these diagrams, that preparation all looks like right-facing arrows: stuff happening in the story that affects the results of the System.

Statistically, if you don’t do that in ADRPG, you will probably lose.

IN FACT: In ADRPG, jumping into a conflict off the cuff, spur of the moment, usually means you fail, for two reasons:

1. You didn’t prepare enough to put things clearly toward your advantage.
2. The GM wasn’t ready for it, and human beings tend to say “no” when they’re surprised by stuff. Sugar coat it however you like, but that’s human nature.

Let me take that assertion one more step: Play enough ADRPG, and you’ll begin to believe that this is how you handle conflicts in any game. (This is not ADRPG’s fault – that kind of habitualization-to-the-system-you-play-a-lot will happen with any game, if you play it enough.)

Now, I will let Vincent explain the resolution system for In A Wicked Age:








What’s absent in the IAWA diagrams?

Rightward-pointing arrows.

The things that are critically important to success in ADRPG have no bearing on the IAWA system a’tall. They have plenty bearing on the GAME, but it looks like this:

“That’s nice, Doyce, but where are you going with this?”

I saw two big, jarring things happening in the game last night, mostly with the ADRPG-experienced players, and I think this sort of explains why.

Thing #1: Lots of Churning Activity in the Cloud, with the Expectation it would Affect the System

The basic gist of this is that there is no allowance in IAWA for “I’m up on a table, for a height advantage that gives me a +2.”

You can achieve a similar type of effect by using the We Owe list to “commoditize” your situational advantage, buy that bonus, and color it appropriately (as one does with Aspects and Fate Points in Spirit of the Century), but that’s not the same thing: that’s the rules affecting the rules, with a sideswipe at the ‘story’ to color it.

So there’s a bit of a disconnect there, because if you’re Randy, you’re immediately laying out Amber-style groundwork as soon as you start play.

“Do I have connections to the Mayor?” “What are the defenses in my house?” “How many spirits can I control?’

And in IAWA, the answer to those questions is:

“Yes, if you take that connection as a Particular Strength.” “Your defense amount to the strength of your die rolls in a conflict in which someone is sneaking in.” and “‘How many spirits’ = ‘however many you need to reflect what your dice say you accomplished’.”

Thing #2: “But… I can’t kill him, I haven’t prepared.”

I saw this almost every time I went to Randy or Meera with a ‘what are you doing now’, and I’m damned sorry about it, because I didn’t figure out what was going on until today, so I couldn’t help. The problem was, first, that there was a kind of deer-in-the-headlights thing going on, and when an action was determined, it was almost always prep, such as:

  • “I go talk to guy X, to see if we should work together” or
  • “I send X to investigate Y.”

…or something like that.

The deer-in-headlights thing, I see as this: IAWA has players set up Best Interests during character generation. In a nutshell, this is where you pick other characters in the game and say “I want X from them”, and it can (and should) be things like “I want to sleep with X” or “I want X to love me” or “I want X exiled, maimed, shamed, or dead.” Stuff like that.

Why? Because IAWA is meant to simulate the genre of Sword and Sorcery fiction of Robert Howard and Tanith Lee. It’s about action, reaction, brief thought, briefer planning, and MORE ACTION. The game rewards jumping in and ACTING, being fluid, and letting your original character concept change and be mutable and defined as you go.

Amber, by contrast, (and here, I’m talking about the fiction the game is based on) is about subterfuge, planning, spying, more planning, preparation, more spying, more preparation, and finally ACTION. Also, significantly, your characters are supposed to be Largely Immutable Archetypes that Do Not Appreciably Change as a Result of Events. I should point out here that the ADRPG encourages that kind of story admirably, but lots of play in that system trains you to habits that run entirely counter to IAWA’s source material.

So: Deer-in-Headlights: It’s your turn to act, and you have several Best Interests you can jump in and start ACTING with, but all those things are VERY DIRECT, the system doesn’t mechanically reward preparation, and you’ve been taught by years of ADRPG that going in without prep means You Fail. The whole situation is impossible.

Damn. I’d freeze up too.

During the game, I got Randy into direct, immediate conflict by basically attacking HIM, and Meera went after someone she wanted to kill only after being left alone with him for the second time, while he was unarmed, with his back to her, giving her totally evil orders… and even then she was really… well, uncomfortable about it. She hadn’t prepared.

I didn’t see this then. I see it now. It’s fascinating.

I prescribe a lot more gaming to break this habit during games when that habit is not valuable.

Now, I had a lot more to say about this, and I wanted to give it a final pass to make sure that everything was all shiny and full of flowers and roses and couldn’t be taken as an attack on anyone, but I got interrupted a lot today, and I have to go, like, NOW, so…

  1. I love all you people.
  2. There’s nothing wrong with ADRPG, if that’s what you’re playing – it does what it means to do pretty well.
  3. IAWA isn’t a perfect system either – it does what it means to do pretty well.
  4. I’m simply observing behavior and learning what I can from it to be a better co-player.
  5. All typos and such in this post are entirely… um… Chris’ fault. Yeah. Totally.

Let conversation ensue within the comments.

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