[IAWA] Prerequisites Shared Understanding

Started by Jonathan Walton, May 01, 2008, 03:06:19 PM

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Jonathan Walton

Hey Vincent,

Sorry to have emoted all over that last thread.  I've just been really frustrated both times I've tried to play IAWA and have further frustrated by not being able to understand what the problems have been.  Here's what I really want to ask:

I feel like there are unspoken (unwritten?) requirements for the kinds of players who will be able to successfully play IAWA together.  I'd rather not talk about Creative Agendas at all, because I don't think that tells the whole story, but there's a certain kind of buy-in that I suspect is necessary, which goes beyond simply being excited about stabby, sexy Conan-esque stories.  The folks I've tried to play IAWA with are all over those kinds of stories (or, at least, think they are).  And it wasn't at all clear to me, the first couple times I read through IAWA, that there were these prerequisites for having a good time, much less what they were.  And, so, consequently, it took my group failing to have fun twice, despite a large amount of enthusiasm, for me to figure this out. Which is what has led to my supreme frustration.

Here's some examples of what I mean, which I hope you can either verify or clarify.

1. Players have to be willing to focus on the fiction instead of the mechanics, despite several mechanical incentives.

By comparison, in Dogs, the mechanics point players at where (some of) the good fiction is.  If you follow the mechanical incentives that lead you towards winning conflicts, it naturally leads you to escalation and fallout and all this other good stuff.  You end up committing these violent acts in an attempt to keep the peace, which circles the Fruitful Void like water going down the drain.  Very easy to follow. 

In contrast, in IAWA, the mechanics don't really point at anything or, rather, they point at several different things that, when taken together, seem confusing to folks trying to find the mechanical incentives and follow them to the bloody story meat and don't lead to better fiction. For instance, there's a mechanical incentive to get on the We Owe List, but that can be done by rolling dice that don't necessarily give you much worse odds, so my players were trying to hit that sweet spot of "about even odds, but we get on the list," suspecting that there was story meat hidden there or, if not, that it would at least give them a mechanical advantage.  It's not as if my players are always trying to hold onto the dice with their cold dead fingers, min-maxing games and playing them tactically, but, because there are some tactical incentives in IAWA (like getting on the list), they go into tactics mode hardcore instead of playing IAWA more like they approach PTA or another game that it would be nearly impossible to approach tactically.

This long question basically boils down to: how much should you pay attention to tactics in IAWA? There seems to be a pretty low limit, in my experience, where playing tactically ceases to increase the level of fun, but I'm not entirely clear where that limit is.  Are you supposed to ignore tactics entirely and just get on the We Owe List largely by accident, when your dice turn up lower?  Or are you supposed to be tweaking your play here and there to try to get on the We Owe List?  Does doing that tweaking shape your play to be more like what you want it to look like, Vincent?  Is that why the mechanical incentive is there?

Here are a few sub-suspicions that come out of this larger one...

2. Players cannot look to action sequences to generate interesting narrative complications on their own.

In many indie games, reaching for the dice generally makes things more interesting, without players having to do much.  You set stakes, and so the status quo changes, whatever way things are resolved.  Players are incentivized into invoking traits that they wouldn't normally reach for, bringing out characters' weaknesses and a wider variety of personal details than might otherwise be revealed.  Plus, in many games, players are incentivized during resolution negotiations to cross moral or relationship boundaries, committing terrible acts or betraying people.

None of that necessarily happens in IAWA.  Instead, most everything that happens during an action sequence is fully up to the invention of the players and there aren't really mechanical incentives that lead them towards making thematically appropriate choices.  The action sequences provide structure to the ensuring maneuvers, but they don't really shape their narrative content, aside from determining who has the advantage.  As such, you can't go into a conflict looking for what the conflict will ultimately be about, assured that you will find it somewhere along the way.  You have to bring the narrative complications yourself, by actually doing stuff, without further support or mechanical incentives.

3. Players have to be willing to attempt things that their character will be bad at, accepting the consolation prize of being on the We Owe List instead of a strong chance at victory, but also can't view this as "playing to lose," since action sequences should still be hard fought and not entered into lightly, just to get on the List.

This basically means players need to roll forms that are less optimal, not rolling their best dice all the time, despite the mechanical incentive to always take the tactic that you're best at.  Clearly, this is intended to be a learned behavior, as players who refuse to roll low dice don't get their characters on the We Owe List and become "villain of the week" types, but I had some players declaring that they were going to "throw" one conflict, to get on the List, and then roll their big dice in most other occasions.  Unlike in Dogs, where there are mechanical incentives that keep people from relying only on certain tactics (like always shooting people to get what you want), in IAWA, there seems to be more room for abuse here, without social contract stuff in place to keep people from attempting to game the system.

All of which is to say that, this is what I suspect about IAWA...

In IAWA, the "core mechanics" are basically the Oracles and Best Interests, which provide inspiration for the bulk of play which takes place largely through freeform.  The mechanics are there merely to provide loose support underneath the freeform, structuring and providing consequences to inter-character disputes when they do arise (though not really resolving them) and determining which characters are present in the next installment.  This is partially why there's so much emphasis on negotiating rather than looking to the dice to resolve disputes.  The mechanics themselves don't really "do" much, which may be why folks are so confused about them.

In a strong contrast to most roleplaying games, there is no mechanical basis justifying what happens in the story.  The most important aspects of the story are likely to be non-mechanical and have no mechanical weight when invoked in action sequences (for example, the ring or your desire for it).  The mechanics don't take into consideration what the players want to have happen or what will be most appropriate for the story. The mechanics simply give you an ultimate victor at the end of an action sequence, based on what you've "told" the mechanics about what happening in your fiction (by assigning form dice and such).  There are no mechanical choices that players can make once the action sequence has begun (unlike, say, in Dogs, when a great deal of mechanical decisions are made in the midst of conflict); they can only negotiate for a different outcome that what the dice render.  This leaves many players feeling trapped, like the outcomes are fixed and they can't affect them. They don't realize that this is meant to indicate that the mechanical outcome is secondary or even superfluous in the face of the narrative outcome, which can be anything the players agree upon.

How much of this is me finally understanding what you're trying to do with IAWA and how much of this is me getting it wrong?


Before I can answer, I have to understand something:

When your player declares that she's going to throw one roll, then roll her best dice from then on, which is she saying?
- "I'm going to have my character act for herself and covertly from then on, whenever possible;" or
- "I'm going to roll my 'for myself' and my 'covertly' from then on, no matter how my character acts."


Jonathan Walton

The first one.  Like, "my character is a sneaky, selfish bastard, but I'll do something else so they can get on the list and be in the next session."


Cool, that's fine. That makes good tactical sense.

So, you say that they're trying to hit that sweet spot where they're rolling a d12 and a d8 against my d12 and d10, for instance, right? Is that the same thing? Like, "let's see, I'm going up against the butcher's wife, so I'm going to want to act ... for others and directly. So I go straight up to her and I say, 'look, my people are hungry, and your husband has meat to spare...'" Is that what you mean when you say that they go into tactics mode hardcore?


Jonathan Walton

Yeah, that's part of it anyway.  The other part is framing scenes so that they can always roll their highest dice in all other cases, right?  So, like aside from the scene with the butcher's wife, they'd make sure they had plenty of sneaky bastard scenes, or whatever their trope was.  Which led to characters seeming really one-dimensional after a while, since they always used the same tactics, based on where their biggest dice were.  It meant that, in most cases, characters might as well have one had two stats that they rolled in every conflict.  It also meant that people were often rolling the exact same dice, meaning that no one got on the We Owe List.


So my answer is no, you shouldn't ever have to ignore the game's mechanical incentives in order to make it fun or to do interesting things. You need to connect the game's fiction to its mechanics correctly - that is, you should correctly match dice to action and action to dice - but if you're doing that, you should be able to play tactically as hard as you want.

...But if nobody cares about going on the owe list, I don't know what to do about that. It's half the game, tactically. Did nobody do the math and realize that crossing your name off the owe list gives you a serious advantage? Has nobody come up with a character that they'd like to play a second time? Playing the game without the owe list is like playing Dogs without towns.

When you sat down to play, was it with the expectation that you were starting a long-term game?


Jonathan Walton

Well, no, does anybody sit down with a brand new game and decide they're going to commit to multiple sessions?  I generally don't.  I sit down with some folks and we give the game a run-through to see how we like it, and if we like it enough, maybe we'll decide to play it again and, after the second session, decide we want to play a bunch of it.  We've run Agon the past three weeks at SGBoston, and it was always one-shots with different people playing, since we can't have 9 people play at the same time.  We haven't used the Fate rules, which are a large part of Agon, but the game still works okay without them.  But now enough people have experienced it and are interested, so Eric's thinking about running a campaign of it.  If IAWA was going to become a long-term game, I'd have to sell people on it first, and that's much less likely to happen if I can't make it fun for them in one-shots.  But if the We Owe List is more critical to IAWA play than the Fate track is to Agon... I'm not sure how to make that work.  Maybe I can hack the We Owe List to make it more immediately applicable?  I'm not sure.


In a Wicked Age is a multiple session game. It's not fun for one shots. You can make a single session fun, but it pretty much requires everybody to think of it as the first session of many and to play accordingly. Even so a single session will never be as fun as the game in long-term play.

Now, that said, the owe list is already applicable in single session play, for the advantage dice. You shouldn't need to hack it beyond that - pointing out that it's worth serious dice should be enough, if your players have any tactical sense. I suppose you could try putting a couple of their characters' names on the owe list to start the game, and then encourage them to cross them off for the advantage at the first opportunity. Kick start the owe list arms race, you see.


Jonathan Walton

Okay, well, I'll see if I can convince folks to give it another try.  I like the idea of starting out with a couple people on the list, that might help.  Honestly, the first two times we played it, people didn't get on the list often enough (because everyone was rolling the same, highest dice) to realize the advantage of being on the list.

Am I right about #2 up there, though?  Is the lack of tactical choices once action sequences start supposed to put the emphasis on negotiating for outcomes other than what the dice render (at least as a strong possibility)?  I didn't really emphasize that in the first couple games, which may have been a problem.


About #2: Maybe?

Did you read this, from this other thread?
Quote from: lumpley on April 30, 2008, 02:00:45 PM
I win initiative.
I challenge: "I snatch the ring out of your hand!"
You win on the defense.
You answer, blocking: "You snatch for it but I've hidden it somewhere on my person, it's not in my hand anymore. I have the advantage!"
Or else you answer, taking the blow: "Have it. While you're admiring it I sneak around you and into your home where your husband's sleeping, drawing my knife. I have the advantage!"

The action, the raise, was about the ring. The advantage may not having anything to do with the ring at all.

In the middle of an action sequence, you don't make (many) tactical decisions about your dice, but you do make all kinds of tactical decisions about what your character does. Those, ultimately, set the stage for the outcome, whether it's exhaustion or injury or something else.

So I'd say that the lack of tactical dice choices once action sequences start doesn't bespeak a lack of tactical character choices, up to and including negotiating outcomes.

But either way, yes, exhaustion and injury are limited, limited outcomes, and everybody should be right there negotiating for outcomes they like better. As the GM for a first-time group, it might be good for you to launch the first couple of action sequences NPC vs PC, and then lead negotiations yourself at the end, so that your players can see it in action.

And, you know I'd love it if your group played it and had a good time, but I'm also realistic that not every group will.


Jonathan Walton

Cool, that definitely helps.  There are definitely folks in SGBoston who aren't used to thinking of non-dice-based choices as tactical, because they primarily engage with a system through the dice odds of resolution, but you're probably right that modeling a few conflicts might help.

We definitely learned, through playing the game, that injury and exhaustion (and shame) were not very interesting outcomes, so I think people may not be motivated to negotiate for something better.  People didn't really negotiate at all, in either of our games, because I think they seemed to view negotiating as stepping outside the system instead of engaging with the system.  I almost feel like constructing a set of fixed negotiation guidelines would help, so that negotiation was a bit more structured and Polaris-y.  Like 1) make an offer, 2) make a counter offer, 3) accept the counter offer or offer a compromise, 4) if neither offer is accepted, move on.

I'm also realistic that the game still might not work for the current SGBoston regulars, but I'd like to at least have it work enough that I can sense how it's supposed to work, especially since I've got the Water Margin hack on the backburner because I don't understand the original game enough.  The Water Margin hack will work better for SGBoston, I think, but I want to properly understand IAWA before I break it apart and reassemble it.

John Harper

Here's a thing:

When you go in with bigger dice, you are more likely to be the challenger, and to win the stick at the end.

When you go in with smaller dice, you are more likely to be the answerer, and you get to say what happens.

If everyone is always reaching for their biggest dice, they are missing this very important distinction. The person rolling the high numbers is not the person with the most say over what happens during the action sequence. It's reversed.

Your big dice are for winning the stick, and then leaning on the other player to give you something you want. Your small dice are for going into danger (the other player will get the stick!) but getting the answerer position so you have more say over the events of the action sequence.

Picking dice which are only slightly smaller will get you on the list, but they're not likely to make you the answerer. That's why you sometimes need your d6 d4. Sure, you get put in a bad position for the negotiation (or you get hosed in the first round even), but you're in control of the fiction, which is huge.

Also, the Owe List kicks so much ass in a one shot. I'm pretty surprised that didn't come out in your games. Get your name on three times (while everyone else is rolling their big fat dice), and then watch how much of a terror you become. When you can suddenly threaten death to anyone else (you can almost certainly win three fights in a row and take their character to zero), you are the 800 lb. gorilla.
Agon: An ancient Greek RPG. Prove the glory of your name!


I would suggest that this:

QuoteBad habit 4: limiting consequences to the mechanical

- From now on, whenever anybody gets exhausted or injured, have the winner describe how. It must fully account for genuine exhaustion or a serious injury, so keep prodding until it does; otherwise, no input from anybody, especially the loser.

Me: Nah, I'd rather be exhausted or injured.
Mitch: Okay, exhausted. You sail away but I'm behind you. We chase through the archipelago for four days, and finally I corner you on some rocky barren island. You're starving and bone-weary from the chase.
Me: Crap, dude.

is mandatory for one shot play, to the extent that I'd make it the official rule.

The reason is because the We Owe List isn't the only aspect that relies on multi session play for part of its juice.  The other oft forgetten rule is that when you do come back...you come back "as is".  Any damage you take you're stuck with.  So if you do want to come back, taking damage is a HUGE deal...and provides ample motivation to negotiate.

If there is no coming back (as in a one shot) taking damage isn't as huge a deal and thus provides less motivation for negotiation.  The above rule replaces that motivation factor pretty solidly, although I'd argue its probably the first training wheel you can throw away in a campaign setting.


Shit, I hadn't noticed that the rule for coming back is "chose one" not "chose all"

That's a rather large oversight on my part.
- Brand Robins


I made the same mistake first time I read/played, we were bring back using "resort dice" to heal up and also adding to PS's.