In a Wicked Amber

I don’t listen very well, even to myself.

Short version of that post — following a session of In a Wicked Age, I came to the conclusion that there’s a certain approach to play that Amber encourages in its long-time players that isn’t exactly what IaWA is designed for, or necessarily rewards.

What do I do with that information?

Obviously, I decide to run an Amber game, using In a Wicked Age.

On the face of it, there’s a lot of fruitful overlap; Amber’s got some pulp weirdness elements to it — looking over the Oracles that are part of the ‘vanilla’ game, almost all the elements included fit into an Amber setting really well. Finally, one of the things I find most interesting about a well-known setting is (re)interpreting it through the lens of a different game. In this case, the six ‘forms’ that define each character in IaWA are consistently fascinating to me — when you act in a conflict, you don’t say “I use my ranged combat skill” or “I use persuasion” — you make decisions like “I act ‘With Love'” or “I act ‘For Others'” or “For Myself” — to me, that’s such a consistently compelling filter through which to see a story.

So, given the opportunity to run a one-shot yesterday, I cobbled together some notes on a more Amberized Oracle and ran a game.

The Good
The Oracle – As I said before, the basic IAWA oracles are remarkably ‘on theme’ for an Amber game. “A minor insult, spoken casually, but striking very, very deep?” Oh yeah. The oracle gave us some fun stuff to work with, and as per usual also took things in a some unexpected directions. The end result of our Oracle draw was an abandoned stone tower – the source of some great power – now home to many unsavory birds filled with blood-craving ‘uncouth spirits’. There was another more friendly spirit in the tower as well, and mixed into that was the young man who’d been sent to reclaim the tower as his property, the conjurer who was working with/summoning the spirits inside the birds… and a full-on princess of Amber, involved in the whole mess somewhat parenthetically.

Best Interests – I did better this time with encouraging everyone to make best interests that were all things the characters didn’t have — things they need to take action in order to get, not react to in order to keep. I failed a bit at that in the last session, and it came out better here.

The Bad
The Oracle – Yeah, yeah, I know I had that under ‘the good’, but as useful as it was, my cobbled-together version lacked the kind of focus and clarity I’d have liked. To use it seriously, it would need a lot of work on focus.

The I-Dunno
Between a late start, a couple scheduled interruptions, some wrestling with the oracle results, and my (bad) habit of stopping to explain the rules before/during/after every bloody step, we didn’t get a tremendous amount done. Everyone got at least one scene in, but we didn’t resolve anything significant in that time.

Also, poor Dave ended up needing to throw himself against a bit of a wall with his conflicts — facing off against “The Birds” in an area in which they were particularly strong (direct conflict where their Swarm particlar strength was most valuable, on their home territory). This lead to three series of conflicts against the birds in which – if they managed to get the advantage initially, they really, really kept it. I dunno if that was actually a problem-problem, except that I should have been better about setting up more interesting consequences for failure.

Finally, I jumped into a conflict involving multiple people without having a clear handle on how it should work (sue me: it’s been more than a year since I last ran it), and it got a little wierd. I think it wouldn’t *stay* weird, given familiarity, and it all worked out okay, but it was weird at the time.

The Hmm
In a Wicked Age wants you to throw yourself into the action right away. I don’t mean that every scene should include someone saying “I attack this guy”, but basically the game system doesn’t really care what you’re doing until someone does something that someone else doesn’t want to see happen. (The PG name of this is “the Oh No You Don’t rule”.) To be fair to the game, things are set up during character generation to help ensure you’re being proactive – so long as you’re working toward your best interests.

Amber (the old RPG, not the fiction it’s based on), on the other hand, encourages an intelligence gathering mindset. Let’s see what’s going on. Let’s touch base with our allies. Let’s ascertain the lay of the land. This doesn’t entirely gel with the “get in there and start acting” desires of IaWA. Rather than nag players about that, I just kept going until I got to some kind of concrete action… supply the information they wanted, then asked “now what”, and kept going until someone said something that someone else didn’t want to see happen.

Some of that was people being new to the system, and not having any clue about “this version of Amber”, and so forth. I’d like to go back and play again and see if some time-to-assimilate and the uses of the rules would help this at all.

The D’oh
There’s a rule in In a Wicked Age that gets overlooked too often. Basically, it says that whenever you narrate anything, you also need to introduce some concrete fact into the world — some sort of detail that lends more weight and reality to the setting. This is especially important in vanilla IaWA, because you’re really totally starting from scratch in your setting, but even in this game it would have been tremendously helpful — hell, it’s a good rule of thumb in any game, but it’s NOT a rule of thumb in IaWA, it’s a rule, and I didn’t observe it.

Why’s that matter? Well, say I back Dave’s character up against a big tree outside the tower. In my head, that tree is big, but dead; the bark’s been stripped away, and the wood beneath is the pale gray of driftwood — a mix of bone-dry and swamp-rotted.

But I never said. All Dave hears is “tree”, so that’s all he’s got to work with it. More detail — more concrete realization of the world around the characters — means more stuff to work with in terms of describing the action or investment and understanding of the scene.

Also, Dave should have been on the We Owe list one more time than I counted, and that would have helped him during later conflicts. Grr.

Again?
We didn’t finish the story for the Oracles we drew, and I very much hope we get a chance to do so. IaWA is an interesting game, designed to build a series of (potentially) out-of-sequence short stories. (People call the system the Anthology Engine.) From session to session, it’s possible to play the same character but, as/more interestingly, it’s also possible to come into the next story playing someone else entirely — to explore the setting from multiple points of view over the course of a longer game and, in fact, to swap GMs around every three or four sessions, should the desire exist.

I’d like doing that, provided the system is something people got comfortable with.

In any case, I really do like the IaWA system – there’s a lot more (western, anyone?) I’d like to do with it — it’s a neat lens to look at the world through.

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.

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