Amber Diceless Roleplaying by Rulebook Heavily
IntroductionOriginal SA post
So how about I write just thousands and thousands of words about something I kind of like for a change.
Amber Diceless Roleplaying
trippy as fuck
Writing about this game is hard, or at least writing about it the way I intend to will be. Explaining this game/novel/thing to people unfamiliar with them will take some doing.
Start with the basics. Amber Diceless Roleplaying is called the first diceless rpg, diceless as in "no randomizer" rather than literally not having dice. (It's not actually the first but no one really cares unless they're total nerds (I am), but it's certainly the one that popularized the concept). It is inextricably bound up with a series of novels by one Roger Zelazny which are, in short, a noir-grounded tale shot through with classical literature references of a powerful near-immortal family duking it out over the rulership of all possible realities.
Yeah, we're already hitting a stumbling block.
I'm not going to assume you're familiar with the novels, but you really can't understand the game (or at least not very well) without grounding in them, so I'm going to do what the game itself does: intersperse quotes and comments on the novels plus some summaries as we go along. But let's consider the people involved.
Erick Wujcik and Roger Zelazny
Wujcik might be familiar to some of you. He wrote a great many RPG books for Palladium publishing, mostly After the Bomb and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lines as well as Ninjas and Superspies, all very popular products for their time. And as of the time of writing Amber, his RPG resume was solely Palladium products, which makes you wonder how on earth a diceless RPG by such a man is going to look.
Zelazny, by contrast, is known and highly regarded for his novels, most notably the ten-book Chronicles of Amber and Lord of Light. He frequently wrote on the subject of gods and/or immortal beings from various mythologies. He also frequently played with form and technique. One of his novels has the final chapter structured as a play, with the rest being written in the present tense. Another can be read in a circle, with the final chapter linking to the first and the narrative being told backwards in time. And, important for this game, he frequently returned to the idea of infinite worlds; if infinite worlds exist, than surely every world that could possibly be imagined exists. His characters sometimes have the ability to traverse those worlds to any configuration they desire, and the Amberites have this in spades.
These two people ended up collaborating on what would become Amber Diceless Roleplaying, although mostly it's Wujcik's baby.
The Amber Universe
A man wakes up on a hospital bed in New York. He has no memory of who he is, though he soon learns his name is Corwin. He also swiftly learns that he heals incredibly quickly, is very strong of arm and that someone's been paying his doctor to keep him unconscious. He meets a mysterious woman named Flora, or Florimel (who is his sister) and successfully conceals his loss of memory from her, as well as another man called Random who comes to call followed by shadowy men and their shadowy hounds.
Random and Corwin end up running away, and their path "home" leads through a series of strange worlds. The universe subtly changes around them as Random drives them on until at last they come to Amber.
Amber is the center of the universe, or as near as to not matter. From that center radiate infinite Shadows, which are all imaginable universes. Earth is a Shadow, and so is every fictional or hypothetical world you've ever enjoyed, and so are all the other worlds you don't. The scions of Amber, its royal family, walk a construct called the Pattern which among other things make them effectively unaging and grants them the ability to walk between Shadows at will. Are all these universes real all the time, or are they created by the Pattern walkers? Who knows, and most of them don't really care. They are lords of what they survey, and what they survey is all possible universes. Would you care?
Corwin, Random, Flora and many others are members of this royal family of misfits, gamblers and fools whose games involve becoming the next Lord of Amber. I'll get to more of that when it's important, but for now it's enough to say that Amber Diceless takes place after the dust settles and the second generation of Amberites- the children of these squabbling royals- start mucking things up. That's you, the players.
Yes, that does sound like the least interesting possible starting point, doesn't it? This game is a child of its time, which is the late eighties and early nineties. It's the glory days of superpowered NPCs doing all the important shit.
I do like the game, but boy oh boy. Oh boy, me boyos.
You thought we were here already, didn't you?
The introduction is... spectactuarly unhelpful, shall we say, for anyone who hasn't read all ten Amber novels. It introduces us (in flowery prose) the core concepts of Amber by introducing them in backwards order of the novels, starting with the Courts of Chaos (opposed to the Order of Amber) to shapeshifters to masters of Logrus, with pit stops at plot-important NPCs and MacGuffins such as Dworkin and the Jewel of Judgment, until it finally ends up at what I've explained above. Rest assured that I'll get around to most of that when it's relevant. But here comes one of Amber Diceless' signature stylistic choices, that of the author speaking directly to the audience.
I loved reading Zelazny's saga. And I didn't want it to end. Not then, not now, not ever! For me, the designer of this system of role-playing, Amber is alive, and pregnant with opportunity.
Why can't we go back to Amber, again and again, to make our own stories there? Why not? There are an infinite number of shadows yet to be explored. Each eternal Prince or Princess, must surely have daughters and sons. Why not role-play one of these new immortals?
Starting in 1985 Amber became a place where players burst out with enthusiasm, as their characters came to life, lived and loved, and made Amber live for a few hours each month. Other Game Masters picked up the torch, and the role-playing of Amber spread across the world.
Now, gentle players, and cunning Game Masters, Amber is no longer a private domain. What gave birth in Roger's brain, what took unsteady steps behind closed doors, what bold and rash scenarios graved the privileged few, that is now before you. Throw open the gates of Amber!
Let the role-play begin...
Yes, even the core mechanics are written like this at times. Erick didn't so much just write a game as he opened a portal into his head from which his thoughts could spill, which given how Zelazny sometimes approach Amber is appropriate enough. This is followed by the usual "what is a role-playing game" spiel, although it hadn't hit on the same old explanations at this point yet. They don't make a single reference to children's games or acting classes or anything! Liberally sprinkled in there are terms from the glossary, game mechanics, a bit of gamer jargon and so on.
All in all, it's really not a bad introduction to how things actually work out, it's just a bit unstructured. We get introduced to two of the most important concepts in the game, though; The Attributes and the Attribute Auction, which is this game's character creation system.
-Strength is your character's physical strength and combat without weapons. Spending nothing on this gets you a charcter strong enough to lift a small car. Amberites are powerful creatures.
-Warfare is weapon-based combat as well as, well, warfare. Spending nothing on this makes you the equal of all earth-based military geniuses.
-Endurance is your ability to take punishment. Spending nothing on this means you can fight with a sword against someone else for an entire night and day before becoming winded. You and me might last a couple of minutes.
-Psyche is probably the most hotly debated attribute in the Amber RPG community, but it involves your ability at mental tasks. Not "doing math in your head", rather "winning psychic duels with other people". Also magic. Buying nothing in this means you actually know some real actual magical concepts and can stare things into mental submission, which is not really a human trait.
So why would you buy these attributes up at all since you're clearly some kind of masturbatory Randian übermensch already? Because everyone else will, too, and the only thing that can counter a proper Amberite is an Amberite. (Well, mostly.) And achieving first rank means being the best bugger in all possible universes at that thing, utterly unbeatable in a fair match and a hard sell in even a really unfair one. The ones you're competing against for this honor is the other players. This is not your average party-goes-to-place-and-does-shit game.
And aside from a small selection of special abilities, these are all the stats you have. Next time , we explain why these Attributes all the most important Attribute in the Attribute Auction (And also your great grandpa fucked a unicorn).
The Attribute AuctionOriginal SA post Amber Diceless Roleplaying: The Attribute Auction (Or how I learned to parry invisible people)
I made it back to the bed, stretched out and thought. I was sweating and shaking. Visions of sugarplums, etc.
In the State of Denmark there was the odor of decay. . .
The Attribute Auction
The Attribute Auction is ADRs most famous mechanic, possibly because it's one of the only actual mechanics in the game. Rather than constructing your character with point-buy or whatever, you have to bid against the other players for ranking in the various Attributes and compete with them for the rank you want. It is certainly memorable, and unfortunately it's often more fun than the resulting gameplay thanks to other issues.
The auction constructs a system of Ranks for each Attribute. All contests in the game are resolved by comparing ranks, with the higher always winning unless there's some significant advantage or disadvantage at play (what constitutes "significant" being up to the GM). If you spend any points at all on an Attribute, you are Ranked and therefore better than the non-Ranked. The Ranks are simply numbered, from First to however many people bid on the Auction. The base Rank of zero points spent is called Amber Rank, which outranks Chaos Rank (powerful denizens of Shadow and people from the Courts of Chaos are at this Rank), and below that is the puny Human rank. Basically:
Now that the word "Rank" has ceased to have any meaning to you, here's a few things to remember about the auction. You have 100 points. You'll want to save a bunch of those for after the auction, because you can use them to buy special stuff like items, flunkies and the ability to walk in Shadow to any world you want.
What, you thought that last bit came free just because you're playing a game based on a series with that ability as its central tenet? Fuck no. It costs fifty points, half your total allotment. There are cheaper alternatives but they all come with their own drawbacks and risks (such as making yourself go insane in order to travel anywhere). This ain't your grandma's Amber, and Erick Wujcik won't let you forget it from this point on. Also, no takebacks; you bid your points, you spent them.
Probably the most important thing to remember is someting I already touched on. Straight from the horse's mouth, it goes:
Dominant Rank . First place holders in the auction hold a very special place in the rankings. Even if they're only a point ahead, even if somebody buys up with enough points to get ahead of them, they're still way out in front when it comes to any kind of contest. Those with first place Rank aren't just better, they're superior.
This is what the system promises you'll get for Rank 1. I want you to remember that.
There's one last strategic wrinkle in all this, which is that you can "buy down" an attribute if you spend nothing on it during the auction. Reducing yourself from Amber to Chaos nets you ten extra points to spend post-auction, and going all the way down to Human (don't do this) gets you 25 points (seriously DO NOT EVEN).
There's a long chapter on how to conduct the attribute auction which is essentially a truncated sample transcript of an actual auction interspersed with auction strategies from the players. It's probably the most fun read in the book. To really show this game's age, there are eight players taking part in the auction.
GM: Okay folks, settle down, it's time for the bidding war. The first item of The Bidding War is Psyche. The winner will be the person with the strongest psychic sense and will. Is everybody ready?
Beth: Almost. Can I ask a question?
GM: Yes, please! Remember everyone, it's for real this time. Any bids will be permanent. You can't get your points back, so make sure you ask your questions before we get rolling. Beth?
Beth: How important is Psyche compared to the other attributes?
GM: It's the most important Attribute.
As the guideline says, you should be a salesman to the players. They touch on some subjects, like who in the novels is the strongest in Psyche (no one because it doesn't exist there in the way it does here but for the sake of the argument it's either Brand (who we haven't met yet) or Fiona (same) and Wujcik is of the opinion that it's Fiona). Then they get to bidding, and the top two entrants end up in a bidding war. The final ranks are:
Psyche Person Rank Points Willy 1st 52 Kevin 2nd 51 Beth 3rd 23 Peggy 4th 20 Alex 5th 11 Mick 6th 5 Cindy Amber no bid Ted Amber no bid
And remember, you only get 100 points. The top two entrants here have already screwed themselves over quite a bit. So what's the next attribute and how important is it?
Strength's description here conflicts with Endurance later in that Strength is claimed to be resistance to damage. This is not the last time there will be an internal contradiction. The strongest Amberite is Gérard, no contest; he's introduced as such and that is his character, essentially a Thor kind of archetype. Strength exists in this game solely because Gérard was described this way once.
GM: Our next Attribute Auction will be for Strength. Strength determines the winner in hand to hand combat, which is just about any time you can grab somebody. A character with higher strength can literally break a weaker character.
Beth: How does strength compare with the other attributes?
GM: Strength is the most important attribute.
Er... Yeah. Now you might think that this is a clever descriptive flourish for each attribute, as in "this attribute is the most important BECAUSE", but...
Beth: Didn't you say that for Psyche?
GM: You must be mistaken. Strength is far more important than Psyche.
Cindy: He's lying!
Beth: Yeah, you said Psyche was the most important.
GM: Don't be ridiculous. The Game Master never lies.
Yeah, that would be the charitable interpretation. Uncharitably, he just lies to the players to get them to screw themselves over. And this is not hypothetical, this is from an actual game. Not the last time this happens in this book! To be fair, each attribute does have a short blurb that actually explains why you'd want to buy it over the others, but the above kind of speaks for itself.
You don't really need to see the point results; suffice to say that people are more frugal and First is won for a mere 24 points, with four players bidding nothing.
Amberites can regenerate lost limbs. Corwin regenerates his poked-out eyes in four years' time at one point. That's really his one big advantage among the Amberites, and he's easily considered to be First here. Can you guess how important it is?
Beth: I don't suppose you'll tell us how Endurance compares to the other attributes?
GM: Sure! Endurance is, of course, the most important of all the attributes.
Willy: I told you, he's going to say that for everything!
Alex: No bid for me.
Cindy: No bid.
First is won on a mere 16 points, with five players bidding nothing. A steal if you ask me. This is what happens when you get openly antagonistic Game Mastering.
Ah. Yes. Warfare.
I guess this qualifies as warfare in this book
Beth: I don't know why I'm bothering to ask, but I suppose Warfare is the most important attribute?
GM: All together now...
Everybody: Warfare is the most important attribute.
GM: I'm glad you agree. Any other questions?
The top Warfare guy in the novels is named Benedict. You don't want to be his enemy because you will not beat him . It's also not so far off to claim that Warfare really is the most important attribute as advertised, as it covers all warfare and useage of weapons and even strategy games. I invite people to give examples of their own.
First goes for 46 points, and in a frightening move it goes to the same player that wins first in Endurance. You will not beat him in tactics or swordsmanship, and you will not outlast him if you try. That's a scary combo! That brings us to one problem a lot of people bring up; the system doesn't even try to pretend to give balanced results for points spent.
Also, here's how Wujcik says you should interpret first rank in Warfare, and hence why it's so important in this game. He recounts an event where one player snuck up on the First ranked one while invisible, and the first-ranked one parried the attack even though there was no sign that there was an attacker. Why?
"Well, he's awfully good," says the Game Master. "Good enough so he assumes there are always invisible opponents around, and he always moves to counter them."
Leaving aside how ridiculous this is, It's completely unsupported in the novels. Benedict does suffer significant setbacks on occasion, and the first time we meet him he's lost his hand in a duel (which he still won handily, but still). He also falls for a landmine trap later in the same book. Point being that you'll never beat Benedict... in a straight confrontation. Having some kind of overwhelming advantage (or a sneaky trap) should grant you some kind of victory, or at least set the First rank back. Not to Erick Wujcik, though!
Warfare and its possibilities get the longest and most lovingly detailed description in the book, so I kind of get the impression that Wujcik was a Benedict fanboy (as so many are) and just wrote that in there to support that. Sure, Corwin says repeatedly that Benedict is to be feared, but... c'mon.
He's not Batman.
Why this rigmarole? It's to do with how the protagonist of the first half of the series, Corwin, looks at his siblings and the universe in general, which is inevitable considering that the narrative is entirely from the first person. He is constantly measuring himself against his siblings, seeking any advantage he can. When I last left off my story recap, Corwin had returned to Amber and walked the Pattern again which restored his memory (it's kind of a handy MacGuffin that way). He immediately declared war on his brother Eric, who was the mastermind behind trying to assassinate Corwin on Earth and then keep him sedated when that failed to take, or so Corwin believes at the time. He breaks into Amber castle in order to get an artifact called a Trump Deck (later!) and gets into a kerfluffle with Eric.
Nine Princes in Amber posted:
And he lunged then and beat me back, and I felt suddenly that for all my work he was still my master. He was perhaps one of the greatest swordsmen I had ever faced. I suddenly had the feeling that I couldn’t take him, and I parried like mad and retreated in the same fashion as he beat me back, step by step. We’d both had centuries under the greatest masters of the blade in business. The greatest alive, I knew, was brother Benedict, and he wasn’t around to help, one way or the other. So I snatched things off the desk with my left hand and threw them at Eric. But he dodged everything and came on strong, and I circled to his left and all like that, but I couldn’t draw the point of his blade from my left eye. And I was afraid. The man was magnificent. If I didn’t hate him so, I would have applauded his performance. I kept backing away, and the fear and the knowledge came upon me: I knew I still couldn’t take him. . . .
. . .At first, in the battle, I had been awed by the man who had beaten me before. Now, though, I wondered. Perhaps those centuries on the Shadow Earth were not a waste. Maybe I had actually gotten better during that time. Now I felt that I might be Eric’s equal with the weapon. This made me feel good. If we met again, as I was sure we would, and there was no outside
Corwin won by making it a contest of Endurance here, so take this as you will.
But wait! This is a public auction! How could this scene play out? How could they not just know where they all stood? Well, that's for next time when we delve into some post-auction character options. (But seriously, your great grandfather fucked a unicorn. This is still a fact. For which you'll pay points.)
Other Things To BuyOriginal SA post Amber Diceless Roleplaying: Other Things To Buy (or "you shouldn't play favorites but I do and here they are")
Someone mentioned earlier that Benedict in the Amber RPG could be taken out by a sniper.
Benedict, unless he's somehow restrained, trapped, or hit with an inescapable barrage, can dodge all incoming long-range fire.
Nope! Wujcik's too much of a Benedict fan. This is why you always need to inject a dose of sanity in your games of Amber.
So what have we learned from the auction? Well, the value of a point in Amber's attribute auction is entirely arbitrary and subjective to the wants of each gaming group. One group might value Psyche ranks at fifty points. Another will let them go at twenty or even less. A point is not the same thing as a point depending on each attribute, game and group. It's a neat gauge of what the players want to do and the challenges they expect to face.
So naturally Wujcik decided that following a system where a "point's" meaning is flexible and entirely arbitrary, he'd put in a strict system of additional point-buy abilities based on fixed costs. Hooray! Here's what you can buy with your leftover points.
Again, this game is about being an immortal prince who can travel between universes, so naturally you have to spend exorbitant amounts of your starting points on actually playing that. Oh, 80's game design. Here's some special things you can buy to give your character new capabilities.
For 50 points, you gain Pattern. The Pattern is an artifact in Castle Amber's dungeons, and walking it means proving you're the scion of the King of Amber, Oberon, who as of the time of the novels has been missing for a long time. Oberon's dad is named Dworkin and his mother is the Unicorn, royal symbol of Amber, and no that's not a euphemism it's literally a magic horse. You buy the fact that your great grandfather fucked a magic horse for fifty points. Enjoy. Advanced Pattern is also available with its own powers for 75 points. It allows you to mentally scry through shadow, detect Chaos influences and similar stuff which isn't nearly as valuable as walking between universes and sampling their infinite resources.
If you're not keen on the whole unicorn thing, you can instead be from the Courts of Chaos and have Logrus. the Courts are on the opposite side of Shadow from Amber (which is at the center so basically go far enough in any direction), and they are enemies in the later Corwin books. Logrus is not as reliable as Pattern, as it renders you insane while you use it to travel and exposes you to horrible things, and the touch of anything from the Pattern will actually shatter the Logrus. On the other hand, you can summon items from Shadow without travelling to them with "Logrus Tendrils". Masters of Logrus also tend to be great sorcerers. Basic Logrus comes in at 45 points, but you need Shapeshifting (35 points) to use it well. Advanced Logrus (70) lets you summon chaos creatures like demons, change individual Shadows (like altering their physical laws) and conjure total destruction, which unfortunately is blocked by anything touched by the Pattern.
Shape Shifting is... eh. Basically it has its own two forms but comes with so many caveats you're essentially buying your ST a license to fuck with you. Otherwise it's exactly what it implies, the ability to take the shape of other things like animals. Advanced (65) lets you assume powerful combat forms (which, uh, do nothing in the resolution mechanics) and make creatures from your blood.
After this come the more magical things. Power Words are magic words with specific effects. Buying this costs 10 , and gets you a couple of words for free with more buyable later. It's stuff like "Stun!" and you're stunned. More on that in another post. Sorcery is magic and is complicated and bullshit. Conjuration is a method of conjuring servants and is also complicated and somewhat bullshit. They go for 15 and 20 respectively, and Sorcery in particular doesn't mesh well with most magic in the books aside from how one character in particular approaches it. We'll cover that later as well. Trump Artistry is kind of a special case, and too complicated to explain quickly, but it's effectively an instant messenger system you can physically step through. 40 points , and I'll explain it next time.
That's it for powers. Next up is...
You can have whatever you want for free, within reasonable limits; something like a good horse, some nice equipment and good food to travel on for when you're away from Amber and some nice chambers back home at the Castle when you're not. So why spend anything on items? Because you're buying plot protection, items that are an integral part of your character. (Wujcik will later give you advice to ignore this protection and fuck up their shit anyway.) However, items also come with their own complicated point-buy mini system, so that too will be covered later!
If you're getting the sense that character creation in this system is kind of bad after the Auction, you're pretty much right. The rest is just points juggling.
Oh yes, you have to buy Shadows too. You can go to literally any shadow and have it work any way you want in play, but if you want one that no one else will mess with you have to spend points. (Wujcik will also tell you to ignore this protection.) Normally costs just 1 point, with 2 buying you one close to Amber and 4 getting you a "Primal Plane", something as old as Amber itself or even as old as Chaos, solid and real. You can also buy additional features, which makes no sense because you can just decide to go to shadows with those features in play anyway.
Earth can be said to be a personal shadow of Corwin, as Earth became slightly more real when he stayed here. He took part in our history as far back as the Napoleonic Wars. He has acquaintances here, whom he even goes so far as to call friends - and Amber's scions do not mingle with mere Shadow folk casually. It's fair to say that he came here in a state of confusion, losing his memory for hundreds of years, with only fragmentary bits remaining - things like the Unicorn and other bits of our culture on earth. He came here walking through shadow, only vaguely remembering those parts, and thus he came to a Shadow which had those things in it.
Earth, and notably Paris, is thus one of the few places Corwin has ever called "Home". Only 1 character point!
Yes, friends don't come free. If you ever want to learn how to walk the Pattern but don't have enough points now, you must buy a position in court - a position where someone loves you, presumably one of the scions of Amber. This costs 6 points, and nets you a great grandfather with at least one count of xenobestiality without any of the fabulous powers associated with it. There's a similar thing going if you ever want to learn to use Logrus.
Other than that, you can buy simpler allies, such as the captain of the guard in Castle Amber. These cost 1 point. Allies in the Family costs 2.
But wait! You don't get to pick who your allies, friends or even parents are.
Who will it be? Sorry, it's not up to you. Choosing your Family Friend is up to the Game Master. Worse yet, the Game Master isn't going to tell you who your character's friend really is . Amberites always fear that their friends and loved ones may be used against them, so they will be reluctant to ever reveal their true feelings.
If, by some chance, the Game Master does mention the name of your Family Friend, remember, sometimes the Game Master lies.
Wow. And by the way, you don't get to pick your parents because you don't get to do so in real life. Immersion!
So we're down to the last thing we can get with points. This is called Stuff.
Stuff comes in two varieties; Good Stuff and Bad Stuff . There's also "neutral" stuff, but it just means you don't have anything spent on this.
Stuff is essentially your leftover character points. If you don't spend all your points (and this system is geared to make you spend them on the most trivial shit so that ain't easy), you essentially get good Karma. The universe smiles back at you, you make friends easily, and whenever luck would decide a situation it goes in your favor - assuming the other guy doesn't have even better Stuff.
Conversely, there's Bad Stuff. Let's say you screwed yourself over in the Attribute Auction. No worries! You can overspend a little bit, but you end up with Bad Stuff. You're unlucky, people are suspicious of you, you get into fights easily, and things never seem to go exactly as you want them. And as long as you owe points of Bad Stuff, it never goes away even for a moment. There's no defined limit on how much Bad Stuff you can have in the game, and there's not even a suggestion to that effect, but most GMs will set it at 25 or 50 points max.
In the books, you could say Corwin has Bad Stuff. He carries a sword everywhere because he constantly expects fighting, which happens. His military advantages can be massive, but he'll still be in want of a nail. He has trouble recognizing allies from enemies. And when he lost the war against his brother Eric (which I touched on last time), his brother put out his eyes and stuck him in a dungeon for four years . He's the classic noir protagonist this way, but fortunately he's first in Endurance and tends to be able to take it.
The problem with Amber Diceless Roleplaying as written is that Corwin is the protagonist, and Wujcik seems to assume that he has no Stuff as opposed to Bad Stuff. Horrible shit like what happened to Corwin - a unique event in the history of Amber - is something Wujcik advices should happen a lot in Amber games in general. He takes a very adversarial GMing stance, in other words, and even people with Good Stuff in his games tend to have trouble with the ways of the universe despite the advertised benefit.
There's a bunch of example characters, mostly drawn from the attribute auction example from earlier. It outlines that it's entirely possible to achieve the same result in this system by spending 70 points versus spending 20, thanks to how complicated the item and conjuration rules are, but here is one area where Wujcik suggests that you should help your players with. Why here? I don't know.
Wujcik also says you shouldn't play favorites, which is why he lists his most favorite Amber RPG characters of all time. Yes, really. He turns it into a "flaws in chargen make you roleplay better" thing.
Don Woodward came up with Carolan, noble and forthright, an honest innocent among the cynics of Amber.
Mike Kucharski came up with Morgan, vile and underhanded, a rat among men.
Carolan has good stuff, and Morgan has bad.
Carolan was a Good Stuff kind of guy. Trusting, honest, and earnest about Amber. As Game Master I stomped all over him, abused his trust, and sent the worst of the elder Amberites to manipulate him shamelessly.
Morgan invested in Bad Stuff and loved it. No good guy he. He enjoyed back stabbing, murder and mayhem. In response to his Bad Stuff his luck was always out, and behind every door the Game Master placed enemies seeking his blood.
If you think Morgan got off lighter for having bought bad luck than Carolan for having bought good, congratulations! You're normal and sane. As I said, Wujcik assumes that Corwin's status as a noir character applies to everyone and then he amplifies it to even more dickish levels. And they're his favorite characters because the first player acted bitter and starting acting like a Bad Stuff person, while the latter enjoyed exactly what he bought.
Don, [Carolan's] player, complained bitterly about a game where nothing was "fun" and where he found pain everywhere. Worse, he seemed to bring pain to everyone he loved.
And Morgan? He's loved by Wujcik because he roleplayed a good dad to another character. Hoorah. This is how Wujcik suggests running the game, not one page after he writes guidelines on not doing this. Sure, the point buy VS arbitrary value thing is just bad mechanics, but this attitude more than anything is the poison that kills this game for so many people.
My advice is to ignore about 90% of the book when running this game. Wujcik would have considered this a sign of success in his design, and I consider it a success as a person that I do it, so on this we both agree.
Next Time; Complicated and Bullshit
SubsystemsOriginal SA post Amber Diceless Roleplaying: Magic, Items and Trump (or subsystems uuuuugh)
The item, magic and conjuration rules are how Erick Wujcik tells people he hates them.
So, last time I promised to talk about Trump. Trump isn't actually all that well defined as a power in the books, but Trump Decks are an integral part of the setting. An Amberite can travel through Shadow just fine, but sometimes they just want to talk to or find their siblings, and that is accomplished with a Trump Deck.
Trumps are essentially cards, similar to Tarot. On each card is a picture, usually of an Amber family member but sometimes of locations as well. Focusing on these cards allows an Amberite to mentally contact their siblings at any time and through vast "distances" in shadow, if and when distance means anything (plot). Siblings can also step through Trump cards to arrive at their siblings' location, though for that to work usually means that the recipient at the other end has to extend an invitation, so no ambushing people through Trump.
So how important is this in the setting? Well, travel and communication is everything in Amber. It is the royal prerogative, the means by which Corwin assembled allies among the Amberites and coordinated war on Amber itself. Corwin risked breaking into the enemy's fortress and duelling Eric personally for a Trump deck, which are considered a birthright of the royal family. And it's also one means by which he lost the war, as mental contact through Trump is not without risk; he was kept paralyzed by one of his brothers during such contact. (This incidentally is the sole justification for the existance of the Psyche ability.) Thus, anyone who can actually make Trumps wields considerable power.
In the early Amber books there's only one known Trump artist, and that is mad old Dworkin, not even considered a member of the royal family at the time. Buying Trump artistry lets you make pictures of any place you've been to and step through them, travelling through Shadow instantly. In fact, this is how Corwin escapes his cell in Amber after he's regenerated his eyes; Dworkin appears one day and draws a picture on the wall.
Wujcik apparently didn't feel this was enough power, so he added the ability to "keep trump in mind" to become immune to all mental influences or to capture enemies in playing cards if you buy the advanced version. Nope, no examples of that happening in the setting, why do you ask?
Wait, so Trump Decks are items, right? Why are they and their construction not included in the item rules? Because, that's why.
the Item Construction rules are how you create anything that's useful to your character. That includes animals and people. In fact, humans are the baseline power for items. Why are they called item creation rules then? My guess is that Wujcik made revisions but never bothered to rethink the name of the system.
Items are how you get things like a pack of hounds, such as the one guarding Amber's forest border, or special weapons like Corwin's sword Greyswandir (which incidentally can't be made with these rules because it's too special or something, hooray). Nominally, items are meant to be easily found by their owners and can never be permanently lost. At one point, Corwin actually loses Greyswandir, then wanders around shadow a bit and reaches into a tree stump which just happens to have the sword in it. Not a copy, the actual thing. It's weird. These rules are also how the Conjuration magic power works, allowing you to quickly construct temporary useful items or minions with magic.
They also let you cheese the system like a motherfucker. Let's do so!
Item creation has five steps. You begin by selecting a mundane object (which, again, includes humans. Yes you can create humans and give them powers.) Step two is adding Qualities, which are things like intelligence, strength and so on. Third is Powers, which are like the powers you can buy - you can give an item the ability to traverse Shadow, or specific Magic spells. Fourth is Transference, allowing the item to pass its power to a wielder or wearer, obviously only useful if you're going to make that sort of thing, and fifth is the Quantity multiplier for when you want to make not just one but four nubile young attendants. Buying an above-average human who can walk and talk and fight and think costs 4 points, if you're curious.
Let's say I want to make a belt that makes a human being incredibly strong and durable (i.e. as strong as an Amberite), inspired by Thor's belt from Norse mythology. For four points,I buy Amber level strength (or "vitality" because using the same term for the same thing is lame or something). For four more, I buy Endurance that's better than First rank in Endurance. Wait, what ?
Yes, really. Vitality for four points grants someone Amber level regeneration and the power to never get tired. Even First rank in Endurance suffers fatigue. Remember how it went for just 16 points in chargen? That person paid too much.
I don't need to buy mobility (it's a belt and doesn't need to move under its own power), though I could buy it "engine speed" which has a listed example of "cheetah". Yeah. I could buy it Agression for personal combat, though in this case it doesn't grant you strategic prowess - you can only get better-than-First in some abilites. Psyche I also leave out, because giving an item Psyche makes it vulnerable to psychic assault with not a lot of benefit. There's a bunch of other options (so MANY) which I also ignore, and they all cost points you probably don't have.
One thing you can't put into an item at all is the ability to traverse shadow with anything approaching the same kind of ease as an Amberite. At best you can tell it to follow a familiar or predesignated trail, or to seek a specific thing and face tons of dangers on the way.
Now I go to transferal. Allowing an item to pass its power to a wielder costs five points per Quality. I have two qualities in my might-belt, so that's ten points for a total of 18. The item will only ever be temporarily lost because I paid points for it, too. So basically, there's nothing stopping me from buying down Strength and Endurance to Human level, gain 50 extra points by doing that and then buying a plot protected item for 18 points making me superhumanly mighty anyway and which grants me a greater benefit than first rank Endurance. Game design!
Wujcik would say it's balanced because he ignores the "can not be permanently lost" bit. There's an infamous story of Wujcik running Amber at a con and getting a player who bought everything down and then used all the points on creating a dragon companion for his normal human. Wujcik began the game, had the dragon take one look at the human and then take off into shadow, never to be seen again. Game balance!
There's a couple of instances of Corwin and Benedict shouting a magic word and causing a short and simple thing to happen, a bit like the dragon words in Skyrim. Naturally this was expended into a big ol' subsystem in Amber Diceless. For the basic 10 points the Power costs you, you gain five (out of twenty), and they can't be switched out later. Learning more words in play costs 1 point each. Unlike every other power, there's no Advanced version.
Wujcik also decided to actually include words which you'd say aloud during play for each one. This may seem neat, but imagine that one player at your table that just won't stop shouting FUS ROH DAH at any given moment. Yeah, like that except the words are even sillier. Here's a few examples.
NOGTZ! Magic Negation. This only works on yourself, negating magic things that affect you. You can time it so a magical trap never affects you at all.
KROLAK! Neural Disrupt. Causes someone to twitch a little bit. Can be used to gain advantage in Warfare, except Wujcik neglects to give a system for how that works.
SCHANG! Resume True Form. Causes someone or something shapeshifted to resume true form.
MAGIQUE! Process Surge. Causes a process to, er, surge. Like a fire burns hotter, an engine would give a quick burst of extra speed, that sort of thing.
OMBRE! Shade. Conjure spooky shadows. Actually described as working "with no real effect".
VOILE! Pain Attack. Causes the victim to feel pain, probably the only canonical example of an actual thing the Amberites do with a quick magic word in the books.
Yeah, there's no way you're not going to feel stupid for using this as intended.
uggghhh fuck youuuuu
Okay, so Wujcik works on two assumptions; first, most Amberites know sorcery. Second, most of them don't bother with it because its tricky and boring. So naturally he made the subsystem tricky and boring too! The difference between Sorcery and Power Words is time; power words are predetermined effects you can unleash in an instant, while a spell is something you have to carefully construct over time.
Erick Wujcik hates Sorcery posted:
A careful, well-prepared sorcerer should have a dozen or so spells on hand at any given time. Which means spending about twenty hours a week on nit-picky maintainance. How would you feel about spending twenty hours on the same chores, week after week?
Like a normal person. Y'know, a person who does chores. This tidbit reveals entirely too much about Wujcik's character, doesn't it?
To really emphasize that this isn't D&D, you can only ever memorize one spell at a time unless you "hang" them onto something like an artifact. Memorizing a spell means constant concentration, so if you get hit on the head or feel pain, you might lose it. Spells are also ridiculously niggly and specific. If you want a spell to be invisible, you have to actually define the exact reality in which it will make you invisible. An invisibility spell on Earth would not work in Amber. The reason Logrus masters make great sorcerers is that they can "hang" spells off of their Logrus, thus memorizing a bunch at a time. (the reason they don't is because sorcery sucks.)
The system relies on Lynchpins, and aaaaaaaargh I hate them. So niggly and boring. To construct a spell, you must select a series of lynchpins defining range, target, duration, location (such as which shadow you want it to work in), whether you want to be able to dispel it at will and so on. Each one adds to the casting time of the spell, which is at base at least one hour plus ten minutes per lynchpin.
Here's a sample spell; a Defensive Shield. It's fixed in place and will protect against things like weather, fire and weak attacks. The lynchpins you need are Magic of Shadow (defining exactly where the spell works), Placement of Shield (allowing you to place it), Dimensions of Shield. That gives you a base casting time of 90 minutes, which is bad for a spell that lasts a max of two hours. Optionally you also need Shape of Shield, Limits of Effectiveness (if you want it to block fewer forces than it does), Duration (which as far as I can tell does nothing) and Dispel Word.
So you can see one problem with the lynchpin system in that it's ridiculously niggly. Want to hear the other problem? There's no list of lynchpins or guidelines on making them. They're all included in run-on sentences in sample spell effects, and include crazy things like "Size of Lava Chunks". Also the durations of casting added by lynchpins are sometimes different for no apparent reaso and actually using lynchpins to make entirely new spell effects takes even more extra time even though that's the point of the system .
The worst part to me is that there's one character who describes magic working this way, but there's plenty of counterexamples in the books to suggest that he's really just being a total nerd about it or that you only need to do this kind of preparation for particularly complex effects. One character in the novels casually lights a cigarette without even saying a single word after having been imprisoned for months (though in this case it's not Corwin). To do that with Power Words he'd have to shout like a fool, and to do it with Sorcery would require lynchpins like Magic of Shadow (amber), Fire, Target (Cigarette) and at least ninety minutes to prepare. Out of all the niggly subsystems Wujcik created, Sorcery is by far the most frustrating, and it's because Wujcik deliberately set out to make it boring and frustrating.
That's still not close to being the most frustrating thing in the book, mind you.
Next Time: How Amberites Fail At Things
Roleplaying & CombatOriginal SA post Amber Diceless Roleplaying: Roleplaying and Combat
All this Amber talk makes me happy, as does that bit on Fate originally being a reaction to Amber mechanics.
The next section of Amber Diceless gets... well, personal. It's a "how to roleplay/what is a roleplaying game" section written pretty much straight from the author's heart, almost like an entirely too personal blog or a piece of a diary. And it's clearly aimed at the more experienced.
This is technically Yet Another Amber Subsystem, but I wanted to put this here because Shadows are one of the main tools players have for giving their characters scenery to chew. It has the usual points costs for buying a shadow the GM can't mess with (which is naturally ignored), but it does say a bunch of things about the people who can traverse Shadow at will.
Shadows can give you anything you want, and that includes all the time and training you could possibly need. The only universal constant for time is Amber time, but Shadows can run faster or slower than Amber time pretty much as you want. If you want to spend time earning a doctorate in medicine, you can just go to a shadow with a good medical school and spend seven or so years there and be back in Amber in time for the weekend. In fact, most Amberites do this with at least the "essential" skills, notably survival (they tend to travel alone), swordsmanship, medicine and other practical things. And as they're unaging, they don't need to worry about growing old!
There's also the part where most advanced technology just doesn't work in Amber, at least not yet. The physics are too different from Earth for Earth-based guns or computers to work in Amber. If you want to play around with that stuff, you'll want to go to Shadow. (In fact, Corwin manages to accidentally find a type of gunpowder that will actually work in Amber - jeweller's rouge, or diamond dust - and applies that to his knowledge of guns to equip an invasion army with rifles. Impossible if not for his knowledge of the relevant technology, so it can come in handy!)
These are all considerations you need to keep in mind when actually playing an Amberite, and essential when it comes to understanding the other mechanics. You'll note that character creation doesn't include mundane skills, because you can just decide your character knows them and if they don't you can easily learn them. (But more on how Wujcik uses that to screw you over in another post.)
How To Play A Character In Amber
And here Wujcik opens up to you.
Some players handle their characters better than others. Every player is capable of improvement. Role-playing may take a minute to learn, but it takes a life-time to master.
This chapter shows you how you can role-play better. Not just in Amber, but in any role-playing situation.
Yes, he did have an idea of what Roleplaying was all about and that one way was better than others. Does that really surprise you? That said, his advice isn't all that bad.
The first rule of role-playing in Amber is to love your character. ...
... Loving your character can be as simple as trying to stay alive. As simple as enjoying the details of the character's life. As simple as building a personality strong enough to make the character come completely alive.
Making a character come alive is an act of faith.
Walking down Baker Street in London with a thirteen-year-old, we noticed a memorial placard. Like thousands of others scattered all over the historical city, it announced the famous former resident of the building. "Sherlock Holmes, Private Investigator," it said.
"Sherlock Holmes isn't real!" said my thirteen-year-old friend, "is he?"
"He's real to me", I said. "I believe he's real."
Yeah okay he's not being literal, but he's making his point decently enough. He's a Holmes fan, and his love for the character has an impact on him and his life, and to him making a character in a roleplaying game should strive for that.
In the same way my Amber character Theazipha Jak will always be real to me.
uh wow that's a terrible name
But of course Wujcik has a reason for emphasizing that you have to love your character; because he will damn well shit on you for doing it.
It's also important because playing Amber is not always a pleasant experience. Sometimes it's uncomfortable, sometimes it's painful, and sometimes it's sheer mental torture.
"Sometimes my game is deliberately unfun! Hey, where are you going?"
Well, it's actually because Wujcik believes that misery is an essential part of character development, or even the only part. I don't actually agree with this interpretation, but it does give Wujcik's approach an actual reason, an essential rhyme. It's dickish, yes, but you can actually understand why he feels the way he does on the subject of putting players through the wringer.
Corwin, the main character in the Chronicles of Amber, goes through a lot of pain. Imagine you were the player, and Corwin was your character. How would you feel about being the helpless captive if your worst enemies? Would you still keep playing after Corwin's eyes (your eyes!) were burned out of his head? Would you come back, session after session, to endure Corwin's stay of years in a cramped dungeon cell, blind and with no hope?
You might. If you loved your character.
"If you were playing right "
Of course, story-wise, Corwin's four years in the cell take a couple of chapters at most to resolve in the story, so returning "session after session" itself misses the point (as all GMs who do this do). And as I've already mentioned, Corwin is a Noir protagonist; taking hits and enduring them is a specific archetypal thing Noir protagonists do, not something all protagonists have to go through to grow as characters. But at least I can understand where Wujcik's coming from.
Wujcik has a bunch of other advice to give you, ranging from being in character to keeping your secrets. This is partly an antagonistic game; the only people you can really measure yourself are your fellow Amberites. You're supposed to keep your attributes secret after chargen! And who knows, maybe the guy who spent nothing on his Endurance actually spent points on it after the auction to raise his rank above yours! (you can do that, except when you spend points to "match" a rank, you're actually considered to be a half-rank below it, so spending enough to get "2" actually nets you 2,5. Auction spending has an advantage.)
He also recommends keeping a character diary, for which you'll get extra experience points as well as character development opportunities. Why yes, doing extracurricular things gets you in-game bennies! This is Wujcik, after all.
Wujcik also tells players to ask very specific questions, because a GM may just omit important details unless you ask for them specifically. Yeah, really. He says this is especially important in combat.
This chapter is huge compared to all the others. I'll just sum up the rules: "Wing it."
No, really. That's how it works in the end. Usually higher rank wins, unless you can bullshit the GM into saying otherwise. Wujcik uses Corwin a lot as an example of how you should play combat out and thus encourages everyone to use really dirty tactics, except Corwin fights dirty not because it's especially effective but because he's a Noir protagonist and it's a deliberate stylistic choice by Zelazny to contrast that with courtly intrigue and duelling and whatnot.
Wujcik... well, he's kind of an Amber nerd. And the difference between a nerd's view of fiction and everyone else's is that the nerd tends to focus on surface details like this without considering implications or anything "meta". To go back to Sherlock Holmes, It's kind of like the difference between the Holmes fanbase's Watsonian interpretations and Doylist interpretations - in-universe explanations for things (like where Doctor Watson's bullet wound actually was, such as him having been hit twice) versus out of universe (Doyle didn't really care). Wujcik clearly leans towards the former, with the addition of the nerdy fan's obsessions, which is great for a fan discussion but not the view I'd want in an author trying to tell you about the setting, especially when it comes to the author's pet characters like Benedict.
Anyway. That sure was a digression.
So, how do dirty tricks and so on improve your relative rank? Answer: They don't, really. There's no measure of how many tricks you have to pull to gain a rank in combat. At all. It's literally just "whatever that feels right to the GM". This is... not a resolution system. It's literally incomplete. Also missing is any kind of concrete mechanical measure of how wounded you are, what wounds do to you and how hard it is to kill a person of relative rank in Endurance, or how difficult it should be to switch from Warfare to Strength to Endurance to Psyche. It's all just a bunch of vague examples of GM favoritism for fancy bullshit that go on for nearly thirty pages. Wujcik considered this to be excellent game design.
So what does a really light combat system with no actual mechanics have? Why, a complex system of "stances", of course. You can go "all out" and not defend, which... does nothing mechanical. Or you can go pure defensive, which also does nothing except be a fancy descriptor. And there are eight of these stances. Why, Wujcik? Why this detail that adds literally nothing?
WARNING: SOME OF THE DESCRIPTIONS OF WOUNDS AND DAMAGE ARE PRETTY DISGUSTING!
They are, too, enough so that I'm not going to reproduce them. What they aren't is meaningful to the actual mechanics of the game, except in terms of saying things like "A direct, completely fatal blow... is usual only when one character completely overmatches another". What does that even mean? Is First Rank always considered to do this or isn't it? How many ranks is the difference between total domination and survival? Who the hell knows. Armor may or may not do shit, wounds may or may not impact mobility (which itself has no rules), it's all just a big pile of descriptions with vague "this might happen in this occasion" with no definitions attached. There is not a single Amber GM who has not houseruled this game, and now you can understand why. Wujcik always considered this one of the game's main strengths.
And we're not even quite halfway through the book.
Next Time: Amberites Can't Open A Door
Skills and The Resolution MechanicOriginal SA post Amber Diceless Roleplaying: Skills and The Resolution Mechanic
Been a while, hasn't it? We've even had some of my favorite games crop up in between my updates (Mouse Guard ) and... others (RaHoWa). Damn.
So, skills. How to do things. Resolution mechanics. How does Amber do it?
Well, it begins with a very unusual assumption for 1991; Whenever you attempt something, unless one of three things block you, you're assumed to succeed. You always succeed at powers you bought, and so on. There's no need to compare ranks or spend any kind of points. Of course, it's in those three things that Wujcik flexes his immense dickery.
The first failure condition is Bad Stuff . Occasionally, someone with Bad Stuff will just fail at something through sheer misfortune. This is entirely left up to the GM.
The second is Inability. Now remember that Amberites can learn any skill they could possibly want to learn, and learn it within hours of Amber time if they honestly want. It's a fact of the Amber setting that every member of the royal family has gone through medical school at the very least, for instance. The thing is, during character creation you're allowed to fill in all kinds of detail about your character (except for things like who their parents are, because Wujcik). If you happened to not mention having gone to medical school during that time, the GM is supposed to interpret that as a lack of knowledge.
The problem with this is kind of obvious; there's no way you'll ever list everything your character has ever learned. The GM is supposed to infer that if you say your character spent time on a ranch it means they know how to ride, but that's about it. So in a setting where characters can learn skills really fast and are expected to know a certain baseline level of stuff, the GM is supposed to assume characters don't know things. Can you already see players spending huge amount of effort on making long lists of obscure things to know and telling the GM they go off to learn them in an hour or so? I sure can. I can also see them punching walls.
It doesn't help that the listed example for how this works involves a character failing to use their Pattern power properly, which has nothing to do with skills and contradicts the part where you always succeed at powers you bought. The example also has an entire shadow be arbitrarily destroyed, which in the setting is treated as a rare event as opposed to a simple fuckup. Dickery!
The third failure condition is Someone Opposing You. That means other players or similar critters with ranks, and it's only in those instances that ranks in Attributes are compared when trying to accomplish something outside of combat. In fact, here's how Wujcik envisions this kind of thing to work.
So how does Wujcik take those three things and demonstrate how they work? By making a bunch of immortal omniskilled beings be unable to open a door.
In the following example, three characters attempt to pick the lock that bars their way.
GM: The door is locked.
Beth: No it isn't. Using my Pattern, I determine that it's probably open, but that I turned it the wrong way. I'll turn it the other way, and open the door.
GM: No you didn't, it's still locked.
Beth: I thought I could manipulate shadow stuff?
GM: Well, it seems that this lock is real enough to resist your use of Pattern. What are you doing?
Beth: So I bash it in...
Ted: No! We don't want to leave any trace of our passage.
Well, it turns out Beth's character can't pick locks. But maybe Alex's character can!
Alex: Let me give a try at it. My character Harick has plenty of experience with this kind of thing.
GM: Okay, what are you doing?
Alex: I'll snap off a piece of wire, bend it into the right shape, and unlock the door.
GM (consults the character summary, and sees Harick's eight points of Bad Stuff): For some reason your wire feels really spongy. It just keeps wriggling around, without affecting the lock.
Yeah, for some reason the wire is like a sponge now. This is how bad luck works. Time for Kevin's character Roderick.
GM: Hmm, I don't remember anything about Roderick studying locks. Where did you get this experience?
Kevin: Hey, wasn't it part of my standard training out in the Courts of Chaos?
GM: As you look at the lock, you're reminded of the time you took off to learn skate boarding on Shadow Earth. It seems you missed quite a few of your classes, and a whole year's worth of exams. You seem to think lock-picking might have been part of that.
"I have arbitrarily decided your character's backstory, now shut up." Well, Kevin calls on Roderick's Logrus mastery where Pattern has failed, and inserts a filament of his power into the lock. (This character has Good Stuff, by the way.)
GM: The filament recoils in shock as it touches some remnant of Pattern in the lock. Not quite enough of a jolt to make your Logrus fall apart, but you didn't hold the contact for more than an instant. What are you doing?
There are precisely three artifacts in the entire Amber universe which have Pattern innately within them. Two of them are weapons, and the third was used to create it. Now let's add this random lock to that list because why not!
Time for Ted's character, whom Wujcik likes.
Ted: Okay, at least I know something abhout locks. I'll check it out.
GM: That's right, you're quite an expert as I recall. Hmmm. The brand here is unfamiliar, but it looks like your number six lock pick should open the lock.
Ted: Great! I open up the lock.
GM:(This time, consulting Ariel's Warfare Rank , the Game Master realizes that lock's builder was much higher.)
I'm sorry, were you under the impression that Warfare had limits? It literally does everything. Wujcik thinks that "putting complex locks together is as much tactics as anything else". The example ends with the immortals being unable to pick a goddamn lock, which in some cases would be humorous but here is just so very sad.
Moving on to rank comparisons. Here's how Wujcik wants everything in Amber to work when it comes to comparing ranks, technically taken from the combat chapter but basically reiterated in a more boring way in the skills chapter so I'm taking the more interesting description.
In Amber the character with the higher Attribute rank should win against anyone with a lower rank.
Compare this with Chess.
Chess is a game of pure thought. No luck, no chance. Just pure strategy.
Every one of the billions of people in the world can be ranked in the hierarchy of chess players. You, you the player, are probably ranked rather low in the scheme of chess masters. Maybe you don't know how to play at all, in which case you'd be so much meat for anyone who knows the rules.
Note how Wujcik immediately assumes that the players of Amber are schlubs at things.
Moving up the ranks, the higher the number, the better the player. Players ranked close together, say a couple of guys ranked 1150 and 1170, are so close it's hard to tell which will win any particular game. But take any two guys with a spread of a couple of hundred points, and you can bet hard money the guy with the higher ranking is going to win. Masters, with over 2000 points, can cream everybody else, Grand Masters are even better, and they can do tricks like play forty people, all at the same time, while wearing a blindfold.
Wujcik paid a lot of attention to chess, the game. But how does a player influence this? Like, what if you, you the schlub, had to play a grand master?
Let's say, for some odd reason, you had to play this guy. Not for fun, but for something really, really serious, like the fate of the world, and, as a side bet, your own life.
What do you think, should you play fair?
We'll call your opponent Kurmenkov, one of the Russian's top chess guns. Flat out, the best there is.
Here's what you might do.
First, you make a few arrangements. Like learning the game, but also getting a team of the finest chess coaches money can buy, and a little microphone so you can hear their advice.
Then, you set up the room where the game is going to take place. Figure out everything Kurmenkov hates, heat, loud colors, rock music, whatever. Give him the works, but only at critical moments, on or off.
Er. Does anyone else get the sense that Wujcik thought way too hard about this?
And if that isn't enough?
Then you go for some real equalizers. Have his wife call, mid-game, threatening divorce, madness, and/or suicide.
Still not enough?
When his back is turned, steal pieces from the board. Drug him, and move twice for every move he makes. At least once, during some critical move, just as Kurmenkov reached for a piece, have someone put a gun to his head and offer to blow his brains out if he makes that particular move.
Now could you win?
Jesus Christ what the hell did Kurmenkov do to you. And yes, this is how he'll treat your character and how he expects your characters to treat people of higher rank when it matters to them, and also how he expects GMs to resolve things in the game. And if I didn't know how players tend to approach games, I'd call this some kind of psychopathy. And as Wujcik points out, when in war, a whole hell of a lot goes! But this can't possibly foster healthy gaming.
Wujcik decides to use this next opportunity to plug books that never ended up existing. Titles like "An Amber Master's Book of Trump" to explain how you can fuck people over with Trump, stuff like that. Why? Because Amber characters have no limits, so you have to fuck them over. Until those nonexistent supplements come out, he tides us over with examples of how the powers players spent points on being 100% effective aren't, like derailing someone walking through Shadow into the kind the GM wants, explaining that Trump "works entirely too well when used from player character to player character" and that is why he makes up major disadvantages for it and advocates tricking people with rhetorical assholery, and an entire chapter on how Shape Shifting will almost never allow you to resume your normal shape if even the tiniest thing goes wrong, like some horrible GM dickery version of the Fly.
There's one particularly special bit which relates to my personal experience with this game.
Yes, spells are powerful. The problem is, spells are also a royal pain.
As a Game Master, the trick is to make the player aware of the time, effort and trouble in keeping the spells "hung".
You do this by nagging them fucking constantly over having less than half a job. Also magic fails when faced with any of the "real" Powers like Pattern or Logrus. Congratulations for wanting to be a sorcerer, dillweed, here's your load of shit. We're not playing Amber to have fun, after all.
Next time: Character Advancement (or Mother May I (Hell No))
GM Advice and Character AdvancementOriginal SA post Amber Diceless Roleplaying: GM Advice and Character Advancement
I am still doing these gawd dangit
Yes, the book has a specific GM advice section. Actually, it's a "campaign construction" section offering lots of advice on making the Amber setting your own.
As Zelazny's setting isn't at all concerned with metaphysics (at least until the Merlin cycle), there's lots of spergin' fan discussion opportunities and free space for individual GMs to decide the nature of Amber and its Shadows and Chaos and all the Powers at work. For instance, all we know about the capital city of Amber (called "City Amber") is that it's a port town, that it does trade with other Shadows and that there's bars there. That leaves plenty of space for a group to make the capital city at the center of the universe an important location in their games, even if it wasn't in Corwin's story. the lands surrounding Amber Castle consist of a sea, a forest, the occasional silver staircase into the heavens, a path that leads to the mirror-Amber at the bottom of the sea called Rebma and... that's about it. The Forest is considered the "border" of Amber, but that's also about it for strategic positioning. No map of the place exists. It's empty space for you to make shit up in.
What this section does is to offer ideas, but mostly it just points out where these holes are. It even - Gasp! - points out that Corwin may possibly be an unreliable narrator . And if this is news to anyone who's read Amber, they're denser than a lead moron.
For some reason, it also offers a character option. For ten points, you can attune yourself to the Jewel of Judgment, the big MacGuffin of the Amber series (again until the Merlin cycle where everything is a bloody MacGuffin). It controls the weather in Amber and elsewhere, it can mold and shape shadows without you having to physically be there, it can speed you up (or rather time just works strangely around it) and occasionally it does other Weird Plot Shit. The wearer of the Jewel of Judgment is also the Monarch of Amber, so don't get any ideas about buying this thing in chargen.
It even gives you ideas for ignoring the setting entirely, setting the whole thing in an Alternate Pattern with different rules (with precedent in the setting- Corwin makes one of these at one point with the Jewel) and even how two Amber DRP groups can "cross over" with one another with the thinnest of excuses. Wujcik is also uncharacteristically forward when he says that, first and last, the game is about the people playing it. The GM should mold the universe to fit the needs of the characters and the challenges they'll face, even incorporating Stuff. (He is careful to note that bad things should happen to every character, of course.)
All in all, the details of this chapter are only of real interest to people familiar with the series, but to those people it's a pretty good chapter. It can't last.
The old saying "practice makes perfect" has to be wrong.
In Amber it has to be "practice can't make perfect".
Think about it.
Now that's the Wujcik we know and love. But essentially he just means "characters get experience points from stuff that isn't learning and practicing", which is a familiar enough concept to any hack and slasher.
First, Wujcik takes care to note that points are not a measure of true character power and are in fact entirely arbitrary because sometimes 100pt characters beat 200pt ones. Oh gee thanks for making the system so complicated then . Then he dives into awarding points to players.
As a rough guideline [RBH: As if you offered any other kind Wujcik], it should be possible for players to earn a couple of points for every couple of sessions of play. There's no requirement that players ever be rewarded with advancement points.
Character advancement dick move number one: Sometimes you get one or two points every one or two sessions in a game where powers can cost upwards of 75 points. Sometimes you don't get any at all.
Characters can spend a lot of time chatting with each other, exercisin their role-playing muscles, and generally having a good time. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It's just that the player characters aren't facing any threats, and so they won't get any advancement points.
Dick move number two; The system doesn't reward you for doing what it's harped on and hounded you to do for the preceding 130 pages.
And if you're lucky, you might get 5% of the points value of any threat you overcome, assuming it has a point value and assuming you do so permanently. Hooray. But that's just the section on awarding XP: Where things start getting really hilarious is in how you spend it.
First, players write down all the things they want for their character that can be bought with points. Then they write down how much good/bad stuff they want to be at.
And then comes the catch.
The players are not told how many points they're getting. They arrange their wish lists in priority order, starting with the things they'd most like, and working down to the thing they want least. For each item they should specify whether or not they are willing to take Bad Stuff.
This contributes to the mystery of the game, and makes engaging in player versus player conflict a tad more interesting, since the players can no longer be certain (at all!) of their own scores.
Yes, really. You award them XP in secret, and then the players won't know whether they've improved their attributes once they're done in chargen or even how much Stuff they have. Ever. The character ability charts are literally kept hidden from them. They might (MIGHT!) know when they've learned a new Power, but that's it.
And that's not all! When you buy your Attributes up, you get half-ranks. Basically, say you start at 4th Rank and want to buy up to 3rd Rank. In order to get there, you need to spend the difference in points from 4th to 3rd as determined in the Auction. When you do, your rank doesn't shift to 3rd; it actually becomes "3.5 Rank". Still below third. Buying up from 3rd (or 3.5) to 2nd will net you 2.5, and so on.
Also, and here's a possibility that was never mentioned in chargen, you can bank unspent points into Good Stuff... for your other stuff. Your Shadow can become generally more fortunate and prosperous. Your allies and items do better. Artifacts work better, are lost more rarely and so on. Depending on the GM, this could very well be the best option; you always know what you're capable of, and everything just becomes rosier.
Anything else you get for your character is a potential liability.
Next Time: NPCs (people under 300 points need not apply)
on NPCs and Being A Colossal DickbagOriginal SA post Amber Diceless Roleplaying: on NPCs and Being A Colossal Dickbag (LAST UPDATE)
Hey guess what I'm still doing! But only for this post, because it's the final Amber Diceless update from me. I make no excuse for how long it took.
A little recap on what's going to be relevant here now that it's been far too long between updates.
RANKS ARE EVERYTHING THEY ARE GOD
Well guess what, now we're going to talk about NPCs. Now there arose a question from several people after the attribute auction system. What's to stop the players from just colluding beforehand for the top ranks, since the ranks are so important? One dude can just get First for two points by cutting a deal, right?
Well guess what, buckos. That's because ranks don't mean shit when it comes to NPCs. The entire section ahead in the book is all (superpowered) NPC stats, but Wujcik wrote himself into a corner with the system he made. The Rank system is entirely arbitrary and subjective, so he couldn't just write down "Benedict has First Rank in warfare (that is even better than anything your players could ever ppossibly have)" without breaking his own rules. Instead, all the NPCs are written by how many points they have in their respective Attributes, and for NPCs you're not supposed to compare rank, but point totals. And most NPCs have around 4-6 points in every stat and well over 20 in those you're supposed to be able to beat, presumably to curb this exact behaviour.
Yes, this does also completely break all the rules established thus far, negate all the examples of how ranks work in play and turns points from an arbitrary unit of campaign-dependent measurement into a hard and fast measure of how good you are. Erick Wujcik has a message for you, and that message is "Suck It".
But surely you have a chance against some of these NPCs even if you play the Auction straight, right? Remember, your PC gets around 100 points total. If you put all of it in Warfare surely
Oberon = 145 points Warfare
Benedict = 200 points Warfare
Bleys = 115 points Warfare
Corwin = 135 points Warfare
Dierdre = 185 points Warfare
Eric = 175 points Warfare
Well, let's be fair. Wujcik managed to at least partly embrace the idea that Corwin is an unreliable narrator, and puts his own spin on things besides. Each NPC has multiple versions, and some of them do indeed have Warfare stats that can be beat. However, the DM is encouraged to select them by what the campaign is going to focus on, so for instance in a Warfare-focuses campaign every superpowered NPC has Warfare, and in magic/intrigue they all have superpowered Psyche. This is so the players can't beat the Elder Amberites.
The stats are far more useful for plot hooks. Fully half of each character's writeup is just speculation as to what could motivate them, what they could be doing, what they intend to do short and long term and so on. In that sense, Amber' NPC chapter is actually a great chapter. As usual, though, it's always in terms of ignoring something Wujcik said.
More GM Advice
The final chapter in the book is... another GM advice chapter. In particular, it talks about the Amber GM being fair.
Wujcik actually wrote this and was serious posted:
A little history.
Back in World War 1, in the war for East Africa, the Germans would send raiders across the desert, to harass and loot the better-equipped, but poorly defended, outposts [ed: and place their commas all over the place goddamn].
The survival of these commando missions, and the men who performed them, depended on an exact knowledge of the whereabouts of fresh water holes. In the African heat, that water was the difference between life and death, because a light, fast-moving force couldn't carry enough water. This fact was obvious to both sides.
Eventually the Germans were forced to abandon their raids.
One by one, all the critical water holes were found marked with Skull-and-Crossbones signs reading "Poison!" in several languages, and surrounded with the bloated bodies of dead animals.
After the War, the Germans protested. "The use of poison," they said, "is expressly prohibited by the Geneva Convention. You have broken the rules of conduct and should be charged as war criminals!"
The British protested that they were completely innocent. They never used poison.
As they pointed out, "Where in the rules of the Geneva Convention does it prohibit posting signs and scattering about a few dead animals?"
If you want to keep someone from using a water hole, it doesn't matter if it contains poison. What matters is whether or not you can get them to believe that the hole is poison.
Nothing in the rules prevented the British from lying.
This is how Wujcik suggests being fair. Keep in mind that as GM, he has ultimate authority in the game, so he can just decide whatever is true anyway. Apparently lying about whatever you can arbitrarily decide is true is "playing fair". Oh, Wujcik.
But he does lay down some ground rules; the GM can't lie about what the PCs remember is true. He doesn't control PC actions. Death should be "fair" (although given that he thinks lying to people he's playing with is "fair" you should take that with a salt mine). There should never be an obstacle which the PCs can't solve (getting a superpowered NPC to do everything counts as a "solution"). And the GM shouldn't have friends at the table. YES REALLY.
YES REALLY. I am not kidding, it is right there on the page in black on white. It is the number one thing he considers to be absolutely important in the game. Although, and once again I must be fair, he says that it's not "realism", it's just the appearance of seeming real to the audience. He has to sell what he's saying about the scene to the players right, with proper descriptions and plenty of showing VS telling, allowing the PCs to leave permanent marks on the setting to hammer it in.
But what is the ultimate goal of Amber teaching you the True Path of roleplaying through suffering?
Ultimately, I hope you can toss this book.
The best kind of role-playing is pure role-playing. No rules, no points and no mechanics.
If there is such a thing as an "improved" version of Amber, it's something that goes straight for the story telling.
Don't like something here? Toss it out!
Don't mind if I do.
Aside from campaign notes on how to run a war between several groups (...yeah), going entirely GM-less freeform, and some further campaign concepts, that's it. That's Amber Diceless.
Now you've probably noted that I have had plenty of vitriol to toss around in these posts. You may also recall that I started this whole thing by saying this was a game I "kind of liked". And I do!
Amber taught me a great deal about gaming in this hobby. Mostly it taught me by being so violently disagreeable about everything that I was forced to form some kind of coherent opposing opinion just to counter what I was reading and gaming with, because yes I did once play a campaign where the advice was run absolutely straight and it was awful. I still don't talk to some of the people involved for the sheer dickbaggery they displayed, up to and including interrupting real life affairs. Still not quite the worst experience I've ever had with a game, but close. It taught me to think outside of dice, but also outside of what was written on the page or the opinions of RPG authors too concerned with niggly detail and the contents of their own arses to make a decently playable game. And there still are bits of Amber I like, such as the concept of the Attribute Auction shaping the game the players want to play.
And ultimately, by forming my own design ethos, by tossing out what was in the book and substituting my own stuff, I managed to have one of my best times in gaming I've ever had. It was so good it intruded on my every waking moment. Not quite the best, but close. And that's the one really big thing I can't fault Amber Diceless for, because that is exactly what it was designed to do. It says so at the beginning, it says so at the end, it even says it in the one solitary supplement that was ever produced for it. That I think it's kind of a shit thing to design for today doesn't change that Amber was wildly successful at making people want to make their own stuff for it, even if they virulently hated it, just to make it better. It has one of the most DIY-oriented communities in a hobby that's very much DIY oriented. It was designed for a particular goal and it succeeded, and that's something I feel is worth striving for in any RPG design I do.
One day, I want to take this book's advice. I want to make my Amber. It won't be "improved" Amber, or Amber "second edition". It will just be my own take on it, sitting next to the take that came before and hopefully takes that will follow. And maybe someone will virulently disagree with me too, and all will be right with the world.
Now if only the license wasn't held by a bunch of people seemingly determined on doing nothing with it!
So. The review of Amber Diceless is done. I'll do a post or two covering its supplement Shadow Knight next, as time permits.