Any love for In a Wicked Age? Where is its heritage?

Do you remember In a Wicked Age? It was an indie darling for a short period around 2008 and it had so many innovative ideas.

1/ cooperative generation of a roost of characters and their relationships
2/ designed to create PvP situations via relationship generation and strong scene framing
3/ negotiation of consequences (“negotiate with a stick”) which also put great narrative power in the hands of players
4/ the Owe List, used to make sure that the characters that risked most would become protagonists in future stories and the ones with more mechanical advantages would be the villains
5/ self contained sessions and an anthological structure to “campaigns”
6/ oracle-based generation of character seeds, thick with mood and atmosphere

Is there any spiritual descendant of this game? Anyone still in love with it?

The main problems of the system, as I remember it, were a steep death spiral, the handling of some edge cases between narrative and mechanics, and the handling of characters that were narratively overpowered but mechanically bound (eg a dragon vs a human in physical combat).

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“Wicked Archipelago” is a thing, you take the oracle settings and then play a game using the Archipelago (2) rules.

I have seen Wicked Archipelago. Oracles have also been used in other games.
I am surprised that the Owe List and the anthological approach are not more popular though.

I have thought about this game for a long time, and even played it recently (online).

A fascinating game with many beautiful features and unusual format for play!

It certainly is playable as-is, and I know many people who have had successful campaign play with it.

There are some issues with the mechanics (which you point out, more or less). One of my pet projects is to rewrite the game somewhat at a point in the future and playtest that. I even have a bizarre PbtA-esque version of it in my drafts.

I agree with you that the game, despite being flawed, had a really powerful premise and format that no one else has been able to recreate or improve upon. I’d love to see some descendants of this game in the wild.

As I remember it, the game was extremely popular for a while, until Vincent Baker (the author) announced that he was not overly happy with it; at that point, people stopped paying as close attention to it.

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@Paul_T if you like we could exchange notes and maybe extrapolate some mechanics that could become a hack of another game - for instance Trophy mechanics with anthology procedures

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Absolutely! I like the idea of sharing ideas with others. Message me!

The person who I learned the most about IaWA from was Ryan Stoughton. There is a good interview with him here, by our own @RichRogers:

Worth a listen!

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I listened to the podcast episode, very interesting: what I identified as a problem Ryan sees as a feature… the different power levels and the swingy outcomes.

I still have trouble justifying it narratively. Do you just accept the dice result and then try to justify it narratively or do you need supporting fiction even before going to the dice? (for instance I like how in Trophy Gold you have to declare in advance what you put at the risk, whereas in IAWA it gets negotiated after the fact)

I always thought it was a huge miss to include a GM in In A Wicked Age and we always played without one, even when it was still Art, Grace & Guts. The roll-or-choose lists in IAWA definitely influenced Fiasco.

I agree, the system points the characters towards one another, then you just follow up from these premises. Mostly the GM job is aggressive scene framing in IAWA.

@Jmstar how did you play it gmless, any hint?

What about the mechanics not capturing the narrative power difference between characters?

IAWA also had a lasseiz-faire attitude towards the choice of dice for conflicts. What mattered was to create situations of narrative negotiation and mixed results. I see the same in games like trophy… it doesn’t matter so much how many dice you roll (it is left very much to the interpretation of positioning) but that you have choices to make

In a Wicked Age makes the forms/dice decisions fairly abstract in order to enable you to play the long term game: do you go i with stronger dice and get “played out of the story”, or do you go with lower dice to try to get on the Owe List?

I have some ideas for a PbtA-ish rewrite of the mechanics which could represent power differentials a little better/more smoothly, but I agree that the unpredictability of the dice can be a strong feature. (Those David vs Goliath moments can be really interesting and dramatic story points/developments!)

It’s worth noting/remembering that Ryan played this game a LOT, so his commentary comes from hard earned experience.

As for GMless, I agree that it could be nice to play it that way. There is a certain charm to having a GM “start off” the game, and I understand why Vincent did it that way. (If you rotate GMs after the first few chapters, as the book suggests, it does effectively feel GMless in long term play.)

I’ve had a successful loosely GMless game of this: I was GMing but had a PC and handed off GM responsibilities in scenes where she was present, basically.

However, I also know a lot of people tried to play this GMless and failed - without someone to push hard with the NPCs and other forms of opposition, the game could grind down quite a bit. So do give that a thought if you choose to go in that direction!

Another thing I discovered is that it’s quite easy to play the game in any genre without an Oracle.

Decide on your setting/genre and then have each player write two Oracle elements. Throw them all into a hat, and draw four.

At the start of each new Chapter (or the end of each Chapter), each player writes one more and adds it to the hat.

All you need to decide is whether elements used go back into the hat or not (you could vote or just go by consensus).

After a full game, you have a new Oracle :slight_smile:

We did this with a Space Opera game, and it worked great (so long as players understand the Oracle concept well enough to be able to write good elements, of course - but it’s not hard to learn).

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@Paul_T I love the Oracle building system!

Paul, is Ryan also here in the Gauntlet forums? Where is he reachable otherwise? Twitter?

There are so many questions I would like to ask about the narrative vs mechanics topic, which actually apply to much more than IAWA.

Let’s start from NPCs.

IAWA has an inbuilt system that wears down PCs by degrading their forms (attributes) after a confrontation and acting as a pacing mechanism. The initial setup generates PCs and NPCs that can confront each other, but in theory isn’t any character in the game potentially an NPC? Or is the character just some fictional colour that the PC can defeat automatically? Which could be acceptable for minions, but what about a child PC confronting a soldier? Do you just accept that the child can win over the soldier? Do you ask the player to describe a more narratively-coherent way she can confront the soldier? Do you roll with it, accepting that the child suddenly has some strange powers? Or do you turn the soldier in an NPC with stats… which adds to the death spiral of the game?

(Substitute the soldier with dragons, gods or efreeti for more dramatic effect and to remark the point.)

In a traditional RPG, based on a principle of simulation, every enemy or obstacle would get stats and require confrontation with mechanics following narrative. Here somehow this feels wrong…

Sure, good questions!

I am not aware of Ryan being active anywhere on the Internet, but don’t take that as anything other than what I know. He could be, for all I know!

He had lots of good threads about IaWA on Story Games, if you want to do a search, like:

As for NPCs, it’s a bit of an open question whether we should treat all NPCs as having stats, or just the ones we write up at the beginning of a Chapter.

I will say this:

  • The basic premise of the game is that there is a limited cast of characters. There are relatively few important people in this story, and we will focus on conflicts between them as we play. So we should all aim towards that as we play. Generally, we are only interested in characters who have Best Interests which make good story; we don’t or shouldn’t frame too many scenes which don’t address that directly.

  • That said, conflicts between PCs and “unnamed” NPCs could come up. If they do, we have a basic choice to make:

Is this a significant conflict, one that matters? If so, this NPC matters, too, and should get stats. It just means we didn’t know that yet when we were setting up to play. No problem!

The GM often improvises NPCs in this game. That often means improvising stats for them, too. Ryan had a good thread on “NPC Totems” somewhere… I’ll see if I can find it.

However, we can often say, “this isn’t a significant story conflict” - maybe we don’t really care what happens with the guards at the gate when the Sorcerer shows up. We care what’s going to happen when he is face to face with the vizier. So we just quickly narrate the encounter with the guards and we move on to the important one.

A few more good links here, as I come across them:

I will give you an example of where I get stuck between narrative and mechanics.

Suppose that a PC is a king and he is in conflict with another PC that is an adventurer. The king could send all kinds of troops, assassins and spirits after the adventurer.

There are several possibilities here:
1/ the adventurer will have to confront a number of new NPCs before getting to the king… and his forms/attributes will get hurt in the process
2/ the adventurer will have to confront a number of soldiers, but it would be the king to roll for soldiers, using the king’s forms, as the soldiers are an extension of the will of the king, from a narrative standpoint
3/ the GM frames a scene against one or more guards, but they get narratively dispatched by the adventurer as minions and we get to a confrontation scene between the king and the adventurer
4/ something in between… maybe a confrontation with some guards, statted as an NPC, followed by a confrontation with the king

I am left at a loss of what to do as a GM… what principles and practices should I follow?

But the big question is: why do I feel so uneasy making a choice?

Why do I get stuck on this in IAWA and not in a traditional game? In a trad game, obviously you would stat the guards and any other obstacle. As a GM you would make some call about how many guards you meet etc probably following your instinct. So why do I feel this awkwardness here in IAWA (or Trophy etc)? Could it be that the use of narrative mechanics (rather than simulation mechanics) is making me question the balance of my choices once I don’t have some kind of “realistic simulation” as my reference frame?

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This is excellent! You’re asking the right questions, and giving the right answers, as well.

The basic understanding here is one of creative focus: what is the point of this game we’re playing?

If you’re the GM, your job is to create interesting opportunities for conflict, and opportunities for the characters to pursue their Best Interests. Everything else you do is basically just a stylistic flourish.

When you get to a situation like the one you’re describing, you have to make a choice. You’ve outlined your choices quite well, except for (perhaps) the option of framing straight to the conflict. (I think that, as you probably assumed yourself, skipping over this kind of devalues the King’s stated intent to send assassins and spirits after the adventurer. This is correct; but I can imagine some situations where that isn’t the case, as well. Sometimes it’s more interesting for all of us to skip that conflict.)

How do you make this choice?

In a traditional roleplaying game, it’s often your job to a) present challenges to the players, or b) arbitrate and adjudicate, like a referee, what’s happening in the fiction in a fair way.

In a story-oriented game like this, you don’t need to feel responsible for either of those things. Instead, focus on your real agenda (what I wrote above, and also as described in the thread I just linked to). Your job is to push the Chapter towards interesting confrontations between the main/named characters, and push on the themes in play. Does an encounter with the guards or the assassins do that, or not?

The game puts that choice in your hands; there’s not really a right or wrong choice, except your personal judgement of what would make this Chapter more interesting/memorable, and what would engage the players the most. Choosing one of those as seems most interesting to you is exactly what you’re supposed to do as the GM, here.

Think like the director of a movie or the author of a book: which scenes are going to be more dynamic and dramatic? Which will lead to interesting conflicts between named characters, or affect a major character’s Best Interests? Which are in-genre?

Sometimes it’s quite effective to ask the players, too, because they may have opinions: “Hey, how effective are your assassins? Do you think they really have a chance, catching a foreign barbarian warrior like Hrunk?” Or, perhaps, “How good is Hrunk at navigating these forests? Would a bunch of Royal Guardsmen have a chance to catch him out there, or is it pretty hopeless for them?”

Having said that, there are a few other wrinkles:

First, when we play, we make a point of codifying whether a character wants to have his extended reach function mechanically or not.

Your character can have soldiers and retainers and assassins and what-not, but, by default, they don’t carry mechanical weight. If you want them to, then you should take them as a Particular Strength (and “far-reaching” - that’s what this feature is for).

If you don’t, you still have them… but be prepared for them to be just set dressing sometimes. You can send your assassins out, and the GM can frame around them, or the adventurer can just describe getting past them. That’s the way it rolls.

If you want them to be useful reliably, you should take them as a Particular Strength, for sure.

Generally speaking, we only assign “NPC dice” to someone or something when it’s clear that this character has dramatic weight, potential, and possible Best Interests. Sometimes we didn’t know that when we started playing, and that’s OK. At the very least, they need a name, in any case - an Important Character. Nameless characters shouldn’t waste our highly valuable screen time rolling dice, in other words. (Don’t forget that Chapters are short, and scenes are few… we don’t have much time to waste!)

Would this person be played by a well-known actor, if this was a movie? Are they important, are they interesting? Do they have some agency and interests of their own?

It’s kind of an artistic decision: “Hey, look, at first these assassins just seemed like faceless mooks, but every really liked our descriptions of Moira the Blade, their leader, so I’m assigning her NPC status. She’s cool, right?” “Yeah. Ok!” It’s technically the GM’s decision, but it’s fine to go by consensus or vote or just poll the players and ask, too.

Finally, don’t get too hung up on “dice damage”. First of all, dice damage is pretty rare, in my experience. Usually, the fictional circumstances you’re negotiating for are more interesting to everyone involved, so the “dice damage” rarely actually happens.

If you’re the adventurer, and you’re trying to meet the King, would you rather fight the assassins and have your dice damaged (which potentially means you might have to fight them some more!), or to be taken captive by them and brought to the King?

And “dice damage” can be replenished with each Chapter, if you choose that option. Not quite as scary as it sounds, in other words (especially, as often happens, if you’re not using those stats all that much in this Chapter).

But, second, any dice roll is potentially good for your character, too. After all, you could end up on the Owe List, which is better for you than most alternatives: it’s the real currency of the game, both for your character recurring in the story and for mechanical weight (you can cross it off to get an advantage die against the King when you break free of your bonds and attack him in front of the court, after all).

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