[In a Wicked Age ...] Out-of-sequence episode play

Started by Ron Edwards, August 10, 2010, 05:12:11 PM

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Ron Edwards


I've posted a previous thread about our ongoing game in [In A Wicked Age ...] Particular strengths accumulating through the stories. In this one, I'm staying consistent with the idea that I want to talk about one feature of the system, with hopes that we at the Forge can compare what happens in my game with what happens in yours, for that feature. The focus for this thread is playing new episodes which are set within the chronology of the already-played episodes.

I have a long history with this issue. I really tried to do interwoven time-travel drama with my Champions games back in the mid-80s, with variable success; and lobbied for playing Sorcerer stories in reverse chronological order in the end chapter of the core book, something I still haven't done to the extent I'd like, and extended that idea further with character-centric scenario placement in fictional time in Sorcerer & Sword, which I have done. Since IAWA includes Sorcerer & Sword as a primary influence, I see it as part of an ongoing dialogue in game design about how fictional time relates to the play-experience and play-procedures, specifically for Story Now goals.

In the case of In a Wicked Age,* the player whose character heads the Owe list states the upcoming story's chronological placement at a distinct step in the preparation process, and it can go absolutely any-"when" among the already-played stories. What I discovered is that it can be very fun and effective to leave the "cementing" of the causal links from story to story up to play itself, and the best interest rules turned out to be much more instrumental in doing this than I had conceived. I say "conceived" because I didn't point to the best interests and say, "Oh, that's how things will link up," prior to play. I had no idea at all how it might happen, but after we were finished, it was clear that the best interests, how they were played, and how they turned out, were the linchpin for establishing the link-ups and by extension the chronological integrity of our saga.

Our timeline for the first three stories, played in chronological order (the years only indicate relative position, not an in-game calendar):

Year 0: The secret cult under the City was taken over by a power-hungry sorceress named Aurya, but she could not breach its most sacred tomb, due to its guardian (crafted by Jila) and the tomb's occupant's heir, Adar. This story ended with Jila escaping the city and both Adar and Aurya in advantageous positions, but with their next actions left for further development.

Year 1: The southern kingdoms mounted a huge offensive against the lands of the City, but the armies' general was hampered by a courier who lost important papers (Natan), the spy who stole them (Parya), and a troublesome local chieftain with a powerful new guest, a master artificer (Jila, who headed the Owe list). This story ended with the general thinking that he was doing well, and pardoning both Natan and Parya, but with a secret artifact that gave the local chieftain (now married to Jila) a significant advantage. The outcome of the war was left entirely unknown.

Year 30: In a far southern kingdom, after the demon war which devastated it, Adar (who headed the Owe list) and Aurya (who fit one of the Oracles very well) travel there from the City to plumb its secrets. They are now in their 40s or 50s, married, and she is pregnant by him. This story ended with the failure of an assassin to kill Adar but with her, the assassin's, successful aid in protecting the unborn child from an undead enemy. Whether they left the city in terms of a visit or vacation from positions of power, or whether they fled from being deposed there, and how they came to be allied lovers and spouses, were all unknowns both before and after the story. The causes of the demon war were also left mysterious, especially since this was a far-flung southern place not connected to the specific and significant geography of the first two stories.

This was the situation as we went into preparing for the fourth story. Tod's character Natan led the Owe list. Tod also chose The local lord's daughter, tramping after strawwberries. When we reconveneed, Tod decided to set the story between the second and third ones, at about Year 15, in the very spot which would later become the blasted left-over from a war among demons.

Since this was a "southern kingdom," part of the Empire which had sent its armies against the City, we figured that Natan had been rewarded by Kadashman-Enlil by marrying him to the female heir to one of these kingdoms. I'm mixing up a couple of steps here, because this decision was integrated with our Oracle draws, including a noble house. In fact, the three additional draws yielded: A small group of mothers, led by a midwife, fighting to protect their children from demons of illness; A raving prophet, preaching the transience of life and advocating a full indulgence of every appetite; A practitioner of luck magics traveling ahead of a ferocious storm. So Natan is a local lord in the sense of only right here in this spot and at this time, with a landed gentry wife and a teenage daughter.

OK, I'm trying not to get into a full story recap. My point is that we had "demons" right there in our Oracle information, and we all knew that sometime in a few decades, demons would wage a fierce war that would blast and devastate this very land, leaving one as the victor. With this in mind, the storm, the transience of life, the indulgence, the demons of illness, and the luck magics could all be integrated, although not enitrely synonymously, into a big fun thing.

Obviously some kind of crazed mash-up of Bacchanal and The Masque of the Red Death was possible, but the "tramping after strawberries" and our own inclinations led to a more pastoral, peaceful concept, with the storm very definitely approaching rather than already here, and with the demons of illness being the only part that was established as already happening.

By doing it this way, we left available a very broad spectrum regarding how this story (whatever it turned out to be) would relate to the upcoming one: at one end, nothing, resulting in a complete story of "before the war" but leaving the causal origins of the war in total mystery; at the other, everything, not only explaining but initiating the demon war, possibly even resulting in the one demon's victory. Speaking for us all, I'm certain that none of us found it satisfying to lock in the causal connection in prep for this story.

Another example of the influence of the later, already-established story is my decision to combine the prophet and the practitioner of luck magics, in part because the later story included An ambitious petty-wizard, quick to take offense, who as it turned out used a lot of little charms and tokens and stuff like that. This wasn't the same guy (mainly because the "later," first-told guy had been fairly young), but I decided to reinforce the motif. This new guy, for the chronologically-earlier story we were prepping, became a kind of Abyssinian Jim Morrison whose luck-magics were opening the opportunities and paving the way for more powerful chaotic forces and demons. Natan was obviously a player-character, and the other two were his daughter and the midwife. The NPCs were the noble-born wife and mother, the sick children (with "Our mothers" as a particular strength), the prophet/practitioner of luck magics, and what I decided to call The Storm as a blanket concept (but very tangible, with a character-like presence) including base appetites and illness, with the particular strength Chaos.

Still, and see how easy it is to be distracted, the present topic concerns the demons of illness, the storm, and the associated issues of indulging every appetite. Would these be the demons, or some of them, involved in the future demon war? Would the demon war be initiated during our current story? If so, about what? Would the land be devastated by the current story, and if so, how? If the war were not directly initiated, would it be heavily foreshadowed or set up in a way which effectively answered the question of how it would begin? Again, I want to stress that we did not front-load any of the answers to these questions and were happy with the answers falling at any point along the above-described spectrum. We'd play the characters, use the system, and see how that particular variable turned out through play itself.

Now it's time to look at how best interests factored into this during play and how important that turned out to be. They fell into three sets: family soap opera, concerning the daughter's love interest and marriage prospects; a local social power struggle, concerning the midwife vs. the lord as well as the prophet against both, which eventually included the mothers and the local priesthood; and the overall demonic threat, which was directed against against the lord and against his daughter (as she still qualified as a child), and was also the target of one of the midwife's interests, to destroy the demons. I'll see if I can get a graphic chart posted to illustrate it.

To look at it a little differently, they also fell into three levels: very personal passionate concerns, a community problem, both of which applied in the typical criss-crossy ways to all three player-characters; and the larger issue of the fate of the land, which as I said only existed at this point as potential story content rather than anything fixed.

It makes most sense to start by saying that we experienced particularly good emergent NPC play this time, intertwined with the player-characters' actions, emotions, and situation. The children, the prophet, the priests, the servants, and others all had room to develop, and the changes arising from various roll-situations played a very big roll in re-defining "the landscape" of the next scenes. The wife became a surprisingly positive character as it turned out, even considering that she was steamrolled by the prophet and got all twitchy when the prophet went after the daughter (and rather innocently, vice versa), even getting into a kind of Madame Butterfly moment with her ancestor's sword.

This is relevant for two reasons. First, that the best interests all had effects at all three levels that I talked about. At the personal level, the prophet did not destroy the marriage, the parents actually overcame their social-status discrepancy, and the daughter ran off with the prophet. I'm saying that play was very strong at this level, in part due to how various rolls concerning this level worked out to form explosive future confrontations. At the social level, the issues of who had the most status in town went lord first, midwife second, prophet last, fairly early, which affected the personal level because the lord could attend to his family, and because the prophet was forced to concentrate on the family as well. All of this provided immense context for the battle against the demons about halfway through the session, which, as it turned out, featured a team-up between the lord and midwife despite their differences and power-clash.

Let's look at the best interests involved. Demons: corrupt Natan's rule. I stress that they did not have an articulated best interest against Setareh because her best interest that was relevant in this conflict was to destroy the demons, and so they already had a "responsive" one against her (i.e. doing something awful to her if they won). Adar's best interests did not include an articulated one against the demons for the same reason; as they had a nasty one directed against him, his rolls toward them had a sort of automatic best interest implicit in them already.

We can talk more about this little mental gymnastic I seem to have developed about best interests. To say briefly, our group avoids having one PC "go after the other" and the target PC "defend against the first." We figure the defensive statement is implicit and can be both reactive and proactive in play, based on the initial, single stated best interest. So all the stated best interests are very direct and offer maximum potential for crossing rather than merely blocking. I ask that we hold off talking about this until I can get the chart uploaded, maybe even all the charts for the four stories.

Anyway, finally, here's the thing, the most important thing in this post. In this conflict, Maura stated that her goal was to exorcise the demons from the children, sending them away from the immediate vicinity, "get them out of here" if I recall correctly. She got killer rolls and despite my best efforts and die-hard insistence on all three rounds, they were knocked out of the story via a second Form being taken to 0 ... but see what that means? It means (i) the demons were exorcised from the children and out of immediate perception, and (ii) they were taken out of the story, but (iii) were not destroyed. By phrasing the goal in the conflict the way she did, and by choosing to Exhaust/Injure (can't remember which) the demons to the point of story-removal ... she effectively ruined her own character's chance of fulfilling her (the character's) best interest to destroy them. From this point on, the demons in this story were out of the range of further conflicts, but they had not been destroyed.

- which at first seemed anticlimactic right there and then, at least in GM terms or in terms of some residual expectation that this story would set up the demon war in full, but in terms of causation, actually turned out to be entirely enjoyable. In story terms, the demons were ultimately ignored, effectively, in favor of raw passionate personal concerns, especially surrounding the prophet's best interest to destroy the marriage via the wife, and the daughter's best interest to fall in love with the prophet. Therefore the story-to-story interpretation is that the demons now lurk, being present, malevolent, frustrated, and vengeful. Another way to look at it is that the characters, being wrapped up in their family and local power struggles, did not attend to the larger threat and only wrapped it further around this land and this place through their failure to address it fully.

In fact, to me at least, such an ending makes it superfluous to play a further story bridging this one (#3 in the #1-4 chronology so far) to the next (#4). The set-up is so strong that one can imagine that any in-road permitting demonic strife would unleash a holocaust. Now, obviously, that is merely my own aesthetic judgment and if some player whose character heads the Owe list wants a bridging story, then we'll have one. All I'm saying is that this one is sufficient in purely story-cause terms.

My first conclusion is that when playing out-of-chronology episodes, keeping the full spectrum of possible story-connections open can be very rewarding. It can give rise to unexpected but rewarding ties among stories, and even a fairly tenuous one - mere foreshadowing - can be immensely enjoyable, perhaps just as much as a direct and incontrovertible, in-motion connector might be.

But my second conclusion relies on being clear about one thing: the stories could have been more explicitly tied to one another in terms of cause, via exactly the same techniques, given different goals statements during conflicts and different dice outcomes. As in Trollbabe, conflict outcomes have a way of establishing which NPC is the in-fiction badass, and that turned out to be the wife and mother, with the prophet at a middling level (hard for the father and daughter, easy for the midwife), and the demons as, in this story, not especially powerful in terms of immediate effect. But even that effect has to be considered in light of Maura's decision to knock them out of the story via "banish them from the children," which was emphatically against her character's best interest to destroy them, and guaranteed their presence as a lurking threat for the future.

My second conclusion is to be very careful to apply all the rules-components of this game, specifically the goals statements, getting removed from the story via damage, and the best interests' moments of being successful or failed. If you do all of them right, plot events, or more specifically, outcomes in game mechanics terms, are astoundingly decisive, strong, and meaningful. In this case, that interaction played a fine role in helping to make our stories into a saga, via non-chronological scenario creation. I don't think we had much inclination to front-load too much into this story prep, but if we did, out of fear that "it might not hook together when it should" regarding the story chronology, and if any of the causality among the stories or among the characters had been tweaked through raw fiat over outcomes, then railroading could have sneaked in very easily. I speak here from experience in trying to do this stuff a lot prior to developing Sorcerer & Sword.

Who's created stories with In a Wicked Age in which the episodes were played out of chronological sequence? What rules effects, constraints, outcomes, or other features emerged? Ralph, you and I talked a little bit about this in person, so if you or Seth could participate, I'd appreciate it.

Best, Ron

* I have decided to stop using ellipses in game titles in the body text of my posts. It's kind of a pain to write them.

Bret Gillan

We have done this. It's been some time but in my first game of In a Wicked Age, Drago the opportunistic cutthroat and soldier, died at the end of the game - frozen by a whimsical ice giant and then his own throat was cut by the ghost of a wounded soldier he'd murdered while scavenging a battlefield.

The next game was a prequel for Drago, showing him as a semi-idealistic treasure hunter. The game ended with him being impressed into the service of the company he was in in the later game, which is something he fought tooth and nail. It was cool to see him, at one time, not be a horrible scumbag.

And then another game actually followed the ice giant feuding with another ice giant and getting caught up in the affairs of mortals nearby.

Between the three of these we developed some strong, supernatural forces that didn't care anything for men, and the presence of a powerful, imperial force fighting an ongoing war and conquering territory. I can't point to anything in the rules that say, "Oh, this is what made this work," apart from the Owed list and the natural inclination to want to make things make sense and tie them together.

Ron Edwards

Hi Bret,

Can you recall what Drago's best interests were in the prequel scenario? Did it have anything to do with not being pressed into service by the company (some kind of mercenary group, or bandits, or something like that)? Or was that conflict entirely constructed during play?

Best, Ron

Bret Gillan


If I remember correctly it was to escape the anger of some demon who's trinket he'd stolen. The impressment into service is something that emerged during play as he tried to maneuver a military force in the town between himself and the demon. So the tying into the previous game seemed mainly to be some fictional juggling that we all did. It sounds like you have a lot more experience than I do with an ongoing game though. This was only 3-5 sessions so doing it that way might fall apart in ongoing play.

Ron Edwards

Correction to my post: all references to Adar during the adventure should be Natan. I got Tod's two characters' names mixed up in my head while typing.

Adar: young treasure-seeker with Noble Blood, later to become a Great Man married to the sorceress Aurya and the founder of a new religion
Natan: luckless military courier with good Organizing skills, later to become Not Easily Deceived and married by decree and love to a noble house

Best, Ron


Our highly successful campaign was played out of order in, I think 3 or 4 different time spots.  Its been too long to remember all the details now but the first story started with a pirate queen attacking a town a general and military advisor were defending.  In this story the advisor manipulated events thoroughly to throw some other characters under the bus while making the attack look much larger then it was in order to engineer the whole thing to be a great victory for the general which he offered her as a gift to prove his love for her.  The pirate queen wound up captured and for a while it looked like she would be the key character in the saga, she wound up married to the king and we flashed back to when she was a girl and offered as a sacrifice to a fertility god only to be "rescued" by a creepy sorcerer, but it turned out she was really just the Macguffin.

The real stories wound up being the unrequited love of the advisor for the general, which noone (including the actual players) believed was genuine until the end when they wound up married with a daughter and the advisor wound up dead and being played as a ghost.  And also the story of the creepy sorcerer who was also truly in love (with the pirate queen / girl) which no one believed was genuine.  This character was fascinating because he was played consistently as trying to do the right thing throughout but due to him being a creepy sorcerer with sometimes questionable best interests the other players interacted with him as if he was a villain...essentially turning him into a villain even though the player was trying to make him a good guy. 

Not front loading is key key key.  The only truly bad session we had was when we decided we'd been playing long enough, wanted to have the final session be a capstone on the saga, and so rather than just trust the oracle and best interests we manipulated things by forcing the interpretations of the oracle to fit preconceived ideas of what was necessary to wrap up.  This session was the suck as we'd essentially story boarded the whole situation so tightly that there was nothing fun left to play.  As I recall we canned it half way through and never did get another session in.  The story boarding became something of an epilogue rather than an actual session.

If the oracle and session structure has a weakness its that there isn't a "wrap things up" technique to help reincoporate and draw things together.  An interesting hack might be some kind of "create as you go" oracle that you populate with stuff you want to see again and then use that oracle for the last session.  As it is, each oracle creates more and more loose threads and an ever expanding base of characters and events, but doesn't much help with the drawing things back together to a satisfying conclusion.  Trying to force that conclusion with play-before-you play doesn't work.

Bret Gillan

That is a really good idea Ralph. I'd been feeling for awhile that there needs to be some way for the fiction you make at the table to interact with the Oracles or build a new one completely. Doing that and using it to close the game with is a solid idea.