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.

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.


  1. The Good …

    IAWA Oracles were, almost straight out of the book perfect for Amber (I read through the list in the book — let alone customized Oracles — and 90% of what was there would work perfectly in any standard Amber setting.

    The Bad …

    That said, yes, having had a single Oracle to work with would have made this work a bit more solidly.

    The I-Dunno …

    The first bout vs the Birds, I intentionally led with my chin, since the benefits of getting on the I Owe list were highly touted. Since the consequences of losing were such that I would have injured my best advantages, I passed (and thus didn’t get the I Owe benefit).

    The second time out, I went with my strengths … and continued to roll the most craptastic dice I could imagine (in all my rolls that game, my highest value die — d10 or d12 — was never the highest roll, whereas you were rolling 11 on a d12 almost every round).

    The Hmmmm …

    This was probably my biggest gotcha — a cautious player to start with, I sort of had an Amber mindset of “I know nothing yet, I must gather intel,” whereas the game seemed to expect me to be in media res pursuing my goals in the heat of conflict. That’s not wrong, per se, but it took me a bit to make that adjustment.

    The D’oh! …

    I actually considered arguing that the tree should (through a crevice in its trunk) give me a possible advantage in fending off the crows. I should have done so, even not knowing the idea that I could dictate such a fact.



    It’s funny … having been reading the books recently, I was thinking about Amber gaming, and the comfort/challenge of that relatively familiar setting. That consideration didn’t actually serve me well in this IAWA scenario, but it was one reason why I leapt on the opportunity to do IAWAmber … and why I’d like to do more.

    (I really have no idea who my character’s parent(s) are. I just liked throwing some hooks out there, on the generic assumption that I have at least one Royal’s blood in me.)

    It was all quite fun, and I want to do more (don’t take the decision to run off with my wife to a movie to be a lack of interest in the game).

  2. Re: The Birds. That first bout, as you say, went south too fast. You didn’t get on the We Owe list because you ‘gave in’, but because you were beaten in the first round. Them’s the breaks, sometimes, but yeah… you dice HATED you that day. Man.

    That said: I completely forgot that you should have gotten on the We Owe list following your exchange with Randy — again, it’s not that you have to lose, but that you make it through the first round against better dice than yours (which he, barely, had, I think). If you’d been on the list prior to your second bout with the birds, I believe the second bout would have tipped your way.

    The situation with the tree is a tricky one. As has come up in my musing over IaWA before, it’s not the fiction that determines benefits you might get mechanically, but the mechanics that determine if the fiction is in your favor.

    – During the course of the action, I narrate something about how the birds back you up against a large, dead tree.
    – The dice are resolved for the round, and either you or I get the Advantage (Die).
    – If *I* (the birds) get the advantage die, than “what the tree means” in the fiction is that your pinned down, unable to avoid incoming attacks as well, and generally sort of backed up against a wall.
    – If *you* get the advantage die, then “what the tree means” goes much more along the lines of what you suggested: crevice in the trunk, fighting while backed into a corner, say, rather than a wall.

    See what I’m getting at? The dice (and also use of the We Owe list for a ‘permanent’ advantage die – which is usually MUCH more effective than your mean dice allowed) determine everything about what the stuff introduced in the fiction means, mechanically; the fiction never affects the mechanics.

    THAT (and, yes, also the ingrained ‘gather intel’ Amber mindset) may be the biggest hurdle to jumping from ADRPG to IaWA for playing Amber — because in IaWA the fiction reflects but does not affect the mechanics, while in ADRPG the fiction IS the mechanics, wholly.

    I’ve another thing to post about this, but it’s enough of a subject change that I’m putting it in another reply.)

    *I* want to play it again, also, so we should DO something about that, soon. 🙂 (And I’m glad you in particular are interested in more because, frankly, the game system beat you up the most, which I’d feel worse about if it weren’t totally the dice hating you.)

  3. So here’s the thing about how a known setting is reflected and filtered by a given game system.

    In AmberDRPG, each Amberite is different, mechanically. Random is simply never going to be a in a situation where he is going to purely out-muscle Gerard. It’s an entirely justifiable, literal take on the amber books — that each Amberite is sort of super-powered in that way (and in others).

    IaWA takes a different tack, and it colors the way one must view the setting, somewhat. In IaWA, every character (PC or named antagonist) has the exact same ball of dice to work with: a d12, d10, d8, 2d6, and a d4. That’s it. Those dice never change, ever. From a metaphysical point of view, all Amberites = all other Amberites. Every Amberite (in the IaWA-flavored world view) starts as the same basic stone block of potential. Expressed in ADRPG terminology, everyone in IaWA is “Amberite level” in everything — what MATTERS is the stuff you CARE about — that’s where one Amberite can beat another.

    Seen through the IaWA filter, Corwin is different because during his time on Earth he’s moved his dice around so that “with love” and “for others” is much higher than it is with his brothers. Catch a prince in a situation where they don’t have as much emotionally invested in in the outcome as you do (when they are using forms with weaker dice) and you have the advantage.

    Because of the way IaWA’s structured, every conflict is seen through that lens of WHY you’re doing it — or for whom. It’s a very interesting way to look at that setting — I just reread the first book with that in mind, and I keep seeing Corwin pulling out wins where no one expects him to because of the people he’s responsible for (his troops, Random, Bleys in one case), rather than for himself.

    Now, all of this doesn’t mean you can’t give Benedict or Gerard a big mechanical advantage — it’s a simple as giving them a few more ‘levels’ worth Particular Strengths. Benedict with a ‘potent’ (d10), ‘broad’ (applies to any Direct, For Others, With Violence conflict) “Tactical Genius” particular strength gives him an extra 10 to roll pretty much all the time, and will probably give him the Advantage die tout de suite. The same could be said of Gerard’s strength, Fiona’s sorcery, Greyswandir, et cetera.

  4. What we did was more like Amber-flavored IAWA-fantasy. An Elders game, though… that would be spot-on.

  5. Amber Diceless is by FAR my favorite RPG of all time. And I don’t say that lightly.

    The thing about playing amber is not the actual conflict, but the intrigue that revolves around that conflict. One never knows if an opponent LET them beat their Warfare, so that they might have an advantage later, Is that EVEN who you think it is, or is it Dworkin shapeshifted? Even advancing with Xp is secret, so no one knows if the ‘truth’ they knew before is still true!

    At it’s heart, it’s about uncertainty and point of view. That’s hard to capture, and Amberdiceless had to strip away almost all of the traditional mechanics of game system to achieve it.

  6. Sixteen years after I first started playing Amber, and I still haven’t finished getting the taste out of my mouth.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree about the relative strengths of the game system — I’ll readily agree, however, that few systems do what ADRPG does during in play.

    Thankfully, my goal when I run anything ‘amber’ these days is not to recreate the system, but to recreate the setting, which is quite a different thing. My (eventual — it took well over eight years of play) disappointment with the system has helped me divorce the two — Amber and ADRPG — without too much acrimony.

  7. @doycet: “It’s a very interesting way to look at that setting — I just reread the first book with that in mind, and I keep seeing Corwin pulling out wins where no one expects him to because of the people he’s responsible for (his troops, Random, Bleys in one case), rather than for himself.”

    Arguably that’s the theme of the entire book — Corwin’s growth from arrogant SoB of a Prince (aided by a lengthy amnesia) into someone who actually could be a decent king. At which point he realizes that’s not really what he wants after all.

    I agree with your analysis overall, though. It’s simply a different way to channel the character’s personalities into a gaming structure (and, thus, comes up with some different results).

    @Kevin: Some of my favorite games I ever played were in ADRPG. That said, it was in spite of the mechanic system, not because of it. Indeed, the more the stories were joint narrative — trusting the the GM to produce the outcome — and the less it was necessary to return to the book, the better things were.

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