[IAWA] The Royal Undertaker and the Magical Coin

edited December 2008 in Actual Play
I ran a game of 'In A Wicked Age' (IAWA) last night for some friends. It was great fun, and everyone enjoyed themselves, although not all the game mechanics worked as smoothly as I was hoping.

Following is an AP from my first time running this game, posted partly in hopes that any comments might improve my next game, and partly because I'm such a fan of the game that I want to share the experience with others. The AP, being long, is divided into two posts, story generation/set-up and the game itself.

***

The group was a mix of gamers and non-gamers, all close friends. In addition to myself, there was James (who regularly plays RPGs), Mary (who said she thought I was bringing a board game, and said that I had "tricked" her), Edward (who has played some D&D in the past, and was not all that into it), and Chris (who has never played an RPG and previously was only willing to do so if he "lost a bet"). Part of the reason for selecting IAWA was that it was very different from traditional RPGs, which I knew would not go over very well.

Everyone was willing to play, however, and the game set-up went great. I thought I'd explain the rules as we went along, so we jumped right into generating story elements and characters. The group agreed on "The Unquiet Past" as an oracle, and each player chose a card. The elements we ended up with were:

-- The secret shrine of a temple to forbidden gods
-- A long-dead queen, still trying to defend her realm
-- The awakening of three powerful and malignant genii
-- A necromancer who steals the knowledge of the dying

There were some obvious characters in the elements (the queen's spirit, the necromancer, the three genii, and the last priest of the forbidden gods), to which the players added an evil monarch (who had overthrown the queen), the king's daughter (who loved the necromancer), and (for some reason) a magical coin possessed of a split personality. This first part of the game went beautifully. Everyone got right into creating the characters and setting with very little prompting from me, and came up with many cool bits.

-- Chris' character: The necromancer/royal undertaker, who had learned about how good things used to be back in the days of the old queen during his routine theft of knowledge from the dying (which he did merely as a way to pass the time), and who was newly dedicated to the overthrow of the evil king.

-- Edward's character: The evil king, who wanted an "interesting life" for his daughter, and had a terrible fear of the magical coin.

-- James' character: The three genii (yes, all three), who were nominally in the employ of the evil king, but who really just wanted to sow chaos and see human misery.

-- Mary' character: The last priest of the forbidden gods, who wanted to see the evil king overthrown, but did not want to get involved with helping the necromancer.

The actual mechanics of character creation went fairly smoothly. Assigning dice to the forms is pretty intuitive (once the non-gamers got past the weirdness and social stigma of polyhedral dice), as is assigning best interests. I stressed the need to have everyone's best interests in conflict, and the players did that well. We also put together a relationship map, which I started, but Mary understood and helped with (She must have encountered that concept in some non-gaming context, but I forgot to ask her about it).

The only part that was a bit difficult was particular strengths. The idea is not hard to explain, but I think I threw the doors open too wide in my examples, because everyone chose a pretty abstract concept for their strength (no fear of death, the ability to sense motives, terrible allure, and stillness amidst chaos). I put some emphasis on the mythic, fairy-tale nature of the game, and everyone made their strength a little more concrete and supernatural (for example, the king's ability to sense the motives of others was dependent on him being close enough to breathe in their breath). The hard part was assigning forms and a power to the strengths. At this point we hadn't been over the conflict rules in much detail, so those things didn't mean a lot yet. Since we had been working on this for a while, I hurried things along, and I think everyone just kind of picked something without much thought ("Okay, uh, I'll say 'broad'. What the hell, right?"). Which was not such a big deal.

Character creation was a big success, and an enjoyable part of the game in and of itself.

Comments

  • After we had characters, I went over the conflict rules briefly, and we got right into it, with the opening scene being a room in the castle where the headstrong princess was demanding that the undertaker (Chris' character) immediately ask her father for her hand in marriage, which he did not really want to do. The scene moved quickly to the throne room, where we added the king (Edward's character) and the evil, scheming genii (James' characters). It was a long, funny scene, and everyone enjoyed it.

    In fact, the plot we had all been implying in the creation stage (a rebellion led by the undertaker against the tyrannical king, in the name of the old queen) never quite materialized. The plot turned into more of a wacky comedy, with everyone conspiring to get the undertaker married off to the princess against his will, and the genii running around making life hard for everyone else. The king also turned out to not be so big a villain after all. Edward said afterwards that once he was playing the character, he didn't really want him to be such a bad guy.

    There were only a few issues (I wouldn't call them problems, since the game overall was very successful).

    One was the lack of conflicts. Entire scenes would go by with no dice hitting the table, and most of the conflicts were me pushing the characters into something with an NPC. We only had one conflict at the end of the game between players. The scenes were great, and the level of role-playing was absolutely terrific, so a couple of times the conflicts seemed almost forced.

    The characters had been well-designed, and were well-played, so were almost constantly in "conflict" in a descriptive sense, but it was mostly clashes of words and motivations. The game rules are quite explicit about not using dice to resolve those kinds of confrontations, we I didn't. A couple times, the players were ready to use dice, but it just didn't seem appropriate, such as when the genii (James) wanted to convince the undertaker (Chris) to marry the princess and kill her off (or something like that). I was tempted to use the conflict rules more like Burning Wheel's Duel of Wits, but the game text seemed firm on that, so I settled for pushing the players to escalate conflicts to action of some sort.

    I may have been off in my ideas about when the conflict resolution rules should enter the game, or perhaps, being mostly non-gamers, were more content than most to simply role-play their way to the next plot development. Like I said, the story was enjoyable, so it wasn't a big issue. There were maybe 4-5 dice conflicts in the course of a three-hour session (not including an hour of prep/set-up).

    The dice rules themselves worked pretty well, even though we didn't go to them often. Despite my lack of familiarity with the rules, I didn't need to consult the text more than once or twice. Advantage dice make sense, and I can see how they work, although the players didn't quite get that bit, and always seemed surprised (but pleased) when they had earned an advantage die. At first I wasn't sure whether particular strength dice were added to the high roll, or were just an extra number you could use. I went with the latter, which I *think* is correct.

    The players didn't use their dice very strategically, until the final conflict, when they were crafting their responses to make use of their best forms. I guess that just comes with experience.

    Another issue was that no one made it to the "We Owe" list. I explained the concept, and everyone got it, but the conditions never worked out to get anyone on the list. Probably because we had so few dice-based conflicts. Edward explained the list as representing what the story itself owed to the characters, which I thought was an awesome way to put it.

    Finally, the NPCs fell by the wayside somewhat. We never lacked for forward story momentum, so I think that was fine; better to have the player-characters drive the action. One NPC, the princess, was in quite a few scenes, and drove a lot of action. Another, the queen's spirit, never made it into the story at all, despite a couple half-assed attempts on my part. The third was the magical coin, which we all liked (it's best interests were to protect the evil king and to destroy him; it had an image of the king engraved on one side, and an image of the overthrown queen on the other), but it's really hard to work a coin into scenes without having it turn into the One Ring. It showed up in one scene, in a bag of ill-gotten gold, and it got into kind of a fight with the evil king, but after that it disappeared.

    So all in all, the game was a big success, and everyone had a good time. Everyone was startled at how late it was when we wrapped up, which is always good. We discussed it a bit afterwards, and everyone agreed its not something they would have ordinarily done, but they'd like to play again. We didn't really talk about another chapter in game terms, but we agreed it would be cool to go back and see how the evil king managed to overthrow the old queen, and figure out what the hell was up with that weird coin.

    I definitely intend to run this game again, hopefully with both this group and others. I'd like to see the dice hit the table more often, but maybe that will come naturally when the players have a better understanding of the rules.

    Often, after I run a game for the first time, my main goal for the next time is to understand the rules better (pretty much every BW game I've ever played), but that wasn't a problem at all with IAWA. I'd run it again tonight with no prep. That is OUTSTANDING, and nothing I've ever experienced before.

    In case I haven't made it clear, this is a terrific game, and beautifully-suited to introducing non-gamers to role-playing. The issues raised above were more along the lines of things that didn't work like I expected, not things that didn't work.
  • Hey, congratulations! I'm glad it went well.
  • Interesting. I've been throwing buying this game around, and this thread pushes me towards springing for it.

    A question, however:

    Most of the gamers I play with are very "traditional." They find things like Houses of the Blooded's player-created setting material challenging and like to have jealous control of their own characters, like characters that are real, singular people (rather than groups of people, coins, or other such weirdness) - stuff like that. Does In A Wicked Age support more traditional imagining of character and narrative, or will people like my people find it frustrating. Alternately, will they find it playable - even fun - but will the game lose something in the translation?
  • Mark

    In my play of this game, I've only ever played the game with singular real people as characters. The characters can be demons and gods, but it's pretty rare for them to actually be more than one person. Also, I'm unsure of how a REALLY trad group would handle it because there is a bit of setting-building at the beginning of a game but that can be glossed over and done really GM-directed in style. Otherwise, uh it should be golden. The conflict mechanics are even described in traditional game terms in one of the subheadings.
  • edited December 2008
    If, by "traditional" characters, you mean swordsmen and wizards and pirates instead of coins and talking rabbits, then you have nothing to fear. Even based on my limited experience, I'm sure the vast majority of IAWA characters are of the more straightforward variety.

    If, however, by "traditional" characters, you mean that the players want their guy to be cool and do cool stuff and win conflicts, I guess that might be tougher. Not that the rules wouldn't support that kind of play, but the game wouldn't really give you the kind of experience it's intended to. Kind of the wrong tool for the job, I suppose.

    I think the PDF is only ten bucks. Not a significant investment, even if you only play one session.

    PS - The guy who played three genii really played them as a singular entity. The fact of the character(s) as a trio was more comedic flavor text than anything. It had no mechanical effect.
  • I've played a session with those three genii in it. We've also played ghosts and dead Gods and whatever. I seem to recall somebody playing a bandit army. It's pretty protagonist-neutral that way.
  • edited December 2008
    Posted By: BWAIf, however, by "traditional" characters, you mean that the players want their guy to be cool and do cool stuff and win conflicts, I guess that might be tougher.
    The person who plays that way usually ends up playing the villain of the chapter, which is all manner of fun.
  • John Harper, this is very true. Most of the time I've been a player, I enjoyed playing in this way, because I get to just drive the entire game to a satisfying and bloody conclusion.
  • In the game I just played (see above), one player chose the villain character, and stated his intention to play him to the hilt, but he actually changed things up in play, so the evil, tyrannical king ended up as a sort of perplexed, harried administrator, constantly asking whey everyone hated him. It was funny

    I asked him about this after the game, and he said that once the king was HIS character, he didn't want the guy to be the villain anymore.
  • As you play more you'll see that "villain" is a role you can't really identify until the story is done.
  • Posted By: John HarperAs you play more you'll see that "villain" is a role you can't really identify until the story is done.
    Quoted for truth.

    I think that it's partly because every main character has at least one person at the table advocating for him and, therefore, finds him to be understandable or at least worthy of being understood.

    "Emergent protagonism" has been thrown around a lot, but I think that games like IaWA also end up having "emergent antagonism". Which I think is awesome.

    Our group has seen this play out. One character is consistently pointed at as being the villain by everyone except the player of that character, who insists that he is simply being misunderstood and abused by the table. And, the really awesome thing is that we all might be correct. Kiragalzu has become one of my favorite villains precisely because his player refuses to "give in" to his being a villain.

    Seth Ben-Ezra
    Great Wolf
  • How come no one made it onto the Owe List?

    Do you mean that people made it onto the list, but scratched their names off the list for in-play advantage dice?
  • No, we never had a single name on the Owe list. I'm not quite sure why. My only guess is that we didn't go to the dice very often.

    I'm gonna play again with this group next week. Hopefully the murky bits will demurk somewhat, including the Owe list.
  • Hmmm.

    You said you had 4-5 dice conflicts. Normally, most conflicts should generate at least one name for the Owe List.

    Make sure you're not misinterpreting the rules somehow! :)
  • edited December 2008
    If you have smaller dice and don't lose on the first roll of the series, you go on the list.
  • Yeah, that's fairly straightfoward. Still, nobody made it.

    There was only one dice conflict between players. The rest were between players and me (NPCs). And I didn't spend that much time planning out dice for the NPCs, so maybe I just kept picking the lower NPC dice, so no players ever went in with lower dice.

    On the other hand, the players did have a good grasp of "higher dice is better" (coupled with a fairly low concept of "failure isn't bad"), so maybe they were just always arranging their conflict choices to favor their high-dice forms.
  • It sounds as if you let people go soft on having opposed best interests... but that's just my theory. Can you say a bit more about that part of character creation?

    (And of course, if everyone has fun and no one misses the We Owe list, this isn't an issue at all.)
  • (no fear of death, the ability to sense motives, terrible allure, and stillness amidst chaos)

    Those are pretty excellent Particular Strengths.

    A couple times, the players were ready to use dice, but it just didn't seem appropriate, such as when the genii (James) wanted to convince the undertaker (Chris) to marry the princess and kill her off (or something like that).

    You hit the dice when one character does something and another one stops them. "I convince you" doesn't work. "I possess your soul and drive you mad with lust for the Princess" does. Think of the dice as coercive.

    At first I wasn't sure whether particular strength dice were added to the high roll, or were just an extra number you could use. I went with the latter, which I think is correct.

    Particular strength dice are just like any other dice. They're not like the Advantage die. So you did that right, I think.

    The players didn't use their dice very strategically, until the final conflict, when they were crafting their responses to make use of their best forms. I guess that just comes with experience.

    Totally.

    Another issue was that no one made it to the "We Owe" list. I explained the concept, and everyone got it, but the conditions never worked out to get anyone on the list. Probably because we had so few dice-based conflicts. Edward explained the list as representing what the story itself owed to the characters, which I thought was an awesome way to put it.

    If you want to make it onto the owe list, you have to either force your will on someone stronger than you or have someone force their will on you. (Then follow John's rules from above)

    Finally, the NPCs fell by the wayside somewhat.

    That's OK. Don't force it. Take the chapter where events are most exciting.

    it's really hard to work a coin into scenes without having it turn into the One Ring.

    It's OK. The One Ring comes from the Nibelungenlied, anyway, which starts out as the Rheingold, gold at the bottom of the river. You can feel free to replunder at will.

    PS - The guy who played three genii really played them as a singular entity. The fact of the character(s) as a trio was more comedic flavor text than anything. It had no mechanical effect.

    The mechanical effect would be the particular strength called numerous. It's not in In a Wicked Age, but it's in the Anthology Engine and, as a result, in the Beowulf ashcan. It gives you the ability to attack even though you've been attacked. It's also good for flurrying sword techniques, armies, and broods of foul offspring.

  • edited December 2008
    Misuba (sorry, I'm having trouble getting the "quote" feature to work for me),

    I think our best interests were good; most of them put the charcters into some sort of conflict. Two characters (the undertaker and the monk) had best interests that involved bringing down a third character (the evil king), but one of those two (the monk), had a second interest that prevented her from working with the other one (the undertaker). So there's a fairly complex web right there.

    Another character (the genii) had an interest about causing misery for humans, along with an interest about serving the most powerful character, so he was pretty tied in to things as well.

    As I mentioned before, I don't think the characters weren't created well, I think the players just didn't get involved in dice-worthy conflicts very often. And when they did, they had the advantage.

    I think, in a second game with this group, if the importance of the "We Owe" list was clearer, there might be an incentive to enter the kinds of conflicts that would earn them a place on the list.
  • I would totally not spend a moment worrying about the we owe list. Its completely appropriate for this session to have been your introduction to the world you're creating and the tone you're setting for it. Alls the We Owe List says is that "none of these characters will become the ultimate protagonist of our tale". Cool. Maybe your next characters will. Or maybe you'll have a series of unrelated short stories tied together only by the common color of the setting. Also cool.

    Totally not worth stressing about, so I recommend you continue to not worry.
  • Me too.

    -Vincent
  • Thanks to all for the help and responses. It was a super fun game, and I can't wait to play again. I've got another game scheduled with a different group .. again, mostly non-gamers. Woot!

    One of my favorite moments from the last month of my life was seeing my friend Chris, an ardent anti-nerd and longtime head-shaking skeptic of RPGs, holding polyhedral dice in his hand and enthusiastically describing the pirate-style leap-from-the-castle-window escape of his character.

    Lovely.
  • Brian,

    I'd like to hear more about how your "anti-RPG" friends were converted to agreeing to play and then having a good time.

    What kinds of things turn them off/make them distrustful about RPGs?

    How did your game(s) turn that around for them?
  • Well, I wouldn't want to give the impression that anyone I know was watching 'Mazes & Monsters' or joining BADD or anything. It's just not their thing.

    In my social network, I have some friends who have gamed for years and years, and others who have never gamed and have no interest in it. Surely it can't come as a surprise to anyone that the perception of role-playing games is not always positive.

    In this case, I'd been looking for a good game to play with some of my non-gamer friends. Not to make gamers out of them, just because I have creative and smart friends, and I thought we'd all enjoy it. I had considered some other games for this, most notably Dogs in the Vineyard and Spirit of the Century, but in both of those cases I felt like the inherent setting would have been too far out of context.

    The moment I read In A Wicked Age, I knew it was the perfect game for this, and I was absolutely correct. The "setting" doesn't require any explanation or buy-in (unlike DitV), the rules are fairly simple, and the character/story generation process is a great way to draw people into the game and get their creative energies flowing.

    * The one modification I made to IAWA's implied setting was to stress "myths and fairy tales" instead of "sword and sorcery".
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