GHR: Amber Diceless Role-Playing

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

Amber is an almost perfect candidate for this series as while I never got to play the game all that much, its ideas were burned into my memory. Radical in a way that seems faintly surreal given current understandings of what the RPG industry was like back when the game was first published, Amber is one of those games that falls so far outside of the current discourse that it feels like it could have fallen through the cracks from another universe, which is entirely apt given the game’s subject matter.

I can still remember the first time I encountered the idea of Amber. It was in the form of an advert at the back of Dragon magazine and I seem to remember that it featured a warrior squaring off against a load of hairless, featureless humanoids with barcodes tattooed across their bald pates. I can remember pointing out the advert to the guy who introduced me to RPGs and he did that very adolescent male 1990s thing of pulling a face and saying it was probably shit despite the fact that he knew absolutely nothing about it. I would later see the book for sale at the Virgin Game Centre but I didn’t buy it because I couldn’t parse what the game was about… its cover art was a load of weird images from half a dozen different genres and the terracotta back cover of the book made reference to novels I hadn’t read as well as claiming to be a game that was both “demanding” and “time-consuming”, which is a very strange thing to put on the back of a book you are trying to sell.

Image borrowed from the Zelazny blog Where there had been Darkness

Those Dragon magazine adverts were still lurking at the back of my mind when the game received a French translation. At the time, the French RPG industry was a constant stream of weird settings with even-weirder rules but what captured my attention was the fact that whoever published the French edition of the game had managed to line-up a clever bit of cross-promotion with a book publisher as the person who did the cover art for the French translation of the game also did the cover art for the French translation of the novels. At the time, getting hold of the game required me to travel to another town on public transport but the novels were available from a bookshop opposite where I used to get lunch. I was already familiar with the idea of licensed products and RPG-adjacent novels but the artistic continuity between the novels and the game made the game feel incredibly accessible. It also didn’t hurt that those novels were fucking brilliant.

The Amber novels open with an amnesiac waking up in a private hospital. The protagonist has no idea who he is, where he is, or how he came to be in hospital but the orderlies seem overly eager to sedate him and that makes him suspicious. Within about fifteen minutes, he’s lied his way into the hospital administrator’s office and blackmailed them into giving him a load of cash and a gun. He also gets a name, that of a woman professing to be his sister. Still complete amnesic, the protagonist bluffs his way into his sister’s home and tricks her into revealing a load of things about the rivalries in his family and their attachment to a place called ‘Amber’. Then the phone rings, it’s someone purporting to be the protagonist’s brother and he’s being chased by some kind of beast-men. The brother arrives, followed by the beast-men and the siblings effortlessly dispatch them in a manner displaying a level of skill and physical prowess that suggests they are far more than human. The only way to discover the truth about the beast-men and for the protagonist to get his memory back is for the brothers to travel to Amber.

The Amber universe is rooted in the concept of world-walking. Amber, it turns out, is the sole point of order in a universe made up of an infinite number of universes all subtly different from each other. By virtue of their connection to Amber, the protagonist (who turns out to be named Corwin) and his siblings are able to move between the worlds in a way that is subjectively indistinguishable from changing the nature of the world a detail at a time. For example, when moving through Shadow (everything outside of Amber is said to be a ‘shadow’ of Amber) you might want to travel from Earth to a place where you can eat a vanilla-flavoured T-bone steak on the bridge of a star-ship and so you’d start by moving to a universe where the sky is a slightly different colour, then a place with slightly different vegetation, then a place with slightly different animals or technology levels and so on and so forth.

Because of their ability to move between universes at will, Amberites spend their lives hanging out in a variety of utopian universes where they acquire skills, have affairs, and generally live their best lives. However, despite living for ever and never wanting for anything, the children of Amber all maintain a connection to their point of origin. This connection combined with the fact that they are all wealthy spoiled kids with centuries of beef between them manifests as a strange desire to possess, dominate, and control Amber. Despite having an infinite number of universes in which to spend their time, everyone and his brother wants to rule Amber and those who don’t want to rule Amber want to be the monarch’s regent. As far as this generation of kids is concerned, Amber is the only ‘real’ thing in the universe and they all want it.

The first series of books follows Corwin as he repeatedly tries to take control of Amber. At first, he literally tries to invade with a million-strong army of shadow-dwelling monsters who just happen to worship him as a god. Then, after spending a number of years locked in an oubliette after having his eyes burned out, he escapes and returns to Amber only to discover that the place is under siege by an army sent by the courts of Chaos. Chaos, it turns out, is just as real as Amber but while Amber represents unchanging order, the Courts of Chaos are mind-bogglingly strange place whose residents are all natural shape-shifters.

Amber Diceless Role-playing is pitched as a means of telling stories about the generation that comes after that of Corwin. Though weaker and less mystically-endowed than their parents, these kids nonetheless share their parents’ will-to-power and so Amber’s Session Zero begins with an auction where the players are encouraged to bid against each other in an effort to be the most powerful of their generation. The power in question flows from four distinct characteristics: Psyche, Warfare, Strength, and Endurance.

Raw power matters in Amber because the game has no skills and no randomisers. While it is possible to ‘stack the deck’ using dirty tricks and clever manoeuvers, in-game conflicts always end with the person with the greatest number of points taking the victory. This is true to the source material where Corwin’s siblings all have their own areas of expertise. For example, Benedict is the greatest warrior in existence but Gerard is the strongest being to ever have lived so a confrontation between Benedict and Gerard would involve Benedict trying to get his hands on a weapon while Gerard tries to keep him unarmed.

While the importance of relative power-levels between player characters is true to the source material, it felt somewhat old-fashioned back in the 1990s. I can remember auctions in which the GM would try to get everyone to spend more points by reminding us that even a one-point difference in Psychic power would mean that player A could literally lobotomise player B should they ever be in psychic contact. Thirty years later and I would argue that Erick Wujcik’s decision to make relative power-levels ‘real’ was decades ahead of its time.

I’ll unpack what I mean by this: At a basic level, all RPGs are games of make-believe. RPG mechanics exist as a means of resolving disagreements over not only how the story should unfold but also how the story should be understood. In Dungeons & Dragons, disagreements are resolved through appeals to the rules and mastering the rules is often a neat way of putting your thumb on the scales when it comes to resolving disputes and steering the story in one direction or another because, while each gaming group is free use whatever mad shit happens to pop into their collective transoms, the rules of the game are ‘real’ in that they are used to settle all disputes.

While Amber follows D&D in using system to resolve most disagreements, its rules are so many levels of abstraction less detailed than those of D&D that it is better to talk of systems than rules. For example, once the players have participated in the auction and purchased their powers, the details of character building are left entirely up to the players. There is literally nothing stopping you from starting play with a character that has spent 10,000 years studying martial arts as well as accumulating a dozen PhDs and training to be a world-class trauma surgeon. The reason I think it’s worth talking about systems rather than rules with regards to Amber is that all of those skills are dealt with by what contemporary gamers would call GM Fiat. Can you treat this kind of injury given that you trained in a science-fictional shadow? Sure, you lived as a tracker and woodsman but how relevant are those skills in the airless deserts of a lifeless planetoid drifting between stars? With an infinite number of universes in which to play, the GM is left with an enormous amount of power to interpret the character’s actions. The reasons for this become even more obvious when you look beyond the characteristics and consider the powers themselves.

Aside from their characteristics, characters are defined by their choice of powers. Some of these powers are relatively cheap and low-level such as the (quite poorly described) sorcery and conjuring rules as well as the power-words that are effectively a way for players to nudge the narrative in their favour. Beyond those, the game offers an array of powers based on the big mystical arenas of the universe. In the novels, all of the children of Amber are assumed to have a mystical link to Pattern, the source of law that provides the city of Amber with its immortal stability. However, players can also choose to be shape-shifters like the denizens of Chaos and those players who do elect to play shape-shifters can also elect to attune themselves to Logrus, a source of mystical power far older than Pattern that works by allowing characters to send tentacles slithering through the fabric of reality.

The thing about these powers is that they are so powerful and so abstract that it would be impossible to encode them in the manner of most RPG powers. To make matters worse,  Zelazny was never all that clear on how any of these powers work and so (particularly for the more advanced iterations of each power) Wujcik was forced to not only make his own interpretation but also to encourage players and GMs to come up with interpretations of their own. No rule system could deal with this level of abstract speculation and so Amber replaces concrete rules with a load of GM fiat and systems of arbitration where stat numbers determine who wins in conflicts with the role of chance governed by the Stuff stat which determines how charmed an existence a particular character happens to live.

This system is far from perfect and when people talk about Amber being a game for experienced players, I think what they’re talking about is that Amber is a game that requires a good deal of trust in one’s GM. Stats, power levels, and degrees of Stuff can resolve a lot of disputes but at the end of the day it is quite clear that almost all of the power resides with the GM. I would argue that the focus on relative power-levels amongst PCs is a way of pre-empting the kind of conscious or unconscious favouritism that destroys all trust at a gaming table. It’s one thing for the GM to present a harsher version of the Amber universe than the one you inferred from the novels, it is quite another for a GM to present a version of the Amber universe that is harder on some characters than others. When I say that Amber may well have been decades ahead of its time, I mean that the importance of fairness amongst the players recalls the way that a lot of story games will anchor their sessions by having the character relationships be ‘real’.

Amber was also ahead of its time in moving away from the tendency of licensed RPGs to present ‘official’ stat blocks for characters in the source material. Rather than taking the approach that Gandalf and Luke Skywalker were significantly more powerful than the PCs could ever hope of becoming, Wujcik ended the book with a variety of different interpretations of each character. Indeed, one of the major plot points of the opening series of novels is that a character who was assumed to be a hapless nerd actually turns out to be not just incredibly powerful but also a master manipulator who has spent the entire series pulling strings from the shadows. Wujcik starts from the assumption that people playing his game would want to pull a similar trick with one of the other Amberites and so he starts with a ‘vanilla’ version of the character that matches all of Corwin’s assumptions before reaching further and further for wilder and wilder interpretations. To be honest, all this means in practice is that NPC stat blocks start out maybe twice as powerful as the PCs and then accelerate away at high-warp but I really like the idea of licensed materials providing really out-there interpretations of the characters in the source material. Wujcik encourages Amber players to read the books critically and some of his theories are a true delight (particularly the idea that the Corwin of the books is not the Corwin that the other Amberites remember).

A couple of years after its initial release, Amber received a supplement in the form of Shadow Knight. As far as I recall, Shadow Knight had a lot less impact than the original game and may explain why no further supplements were ever produced. This lack of critical success may be due to the fact that Shadow Knight drew quite heavily on the second series of Amber novels and that these were less well received than the originals. Shadow Knight worked from the assumption that the children of the characters in the opening series would share their parents’ will-to-power but would respond to the events of the first series by taking a smarter approach to the accumulation of power. Indeed, the second series revolves around Corwin’s son Merlin who, though not physically incompetent, is a far less martial character than his father so has spent his youth experimenting with magic and technology before creating a magical super-computer that operates as a power-source similar to Logrus and Pattern. Merlin is not the only third-generation Amberite to experiment with weird magical technologies and so Shadow Knight is a combination of additional character interpretations and a few additional power sources. Personally, I didn’t feel any of the additional power sources worked all that well as Amber’s powers are easily-interpreted abstract forces like law and chaos whereas the additional powers are a good deal more specific and so less fun and easy to engage with. There were also rules for coming up with your own power sources, something (given the source material) you might expect to form the focus for an Amber campaign, but the rules were abstract, under-written and under-sold and so came across as an unfinished afterthought in a supplement full of unfinished thoughts.

While Amber’s only official supplement was something of a let-down, the game’s publishers Phage Press also put out a regular fanzine called Amberzine. While these did contain some rules and mechanical clarifications they were primarily a platform for people to publish write-ups and artwork from their own campaigns and these were almost universally excellent as they showed quite how vibrant and creative a typical Amber campaign could become. At the time, I remember thinking that Amberzine was a bit of an old school affectation but in truth I think that these kinds of professionally-published zines are a great way of not only building a creative community around a game but also allowing players to give something back to a game they enjoy. I first played Amber around the turn of the Millennium and part of what made the zines feel old-fashioned was the fact that the internet was allowing people to put their own RPG stuff online. However, as time has passed and much of the internet has been rendered invisible except when perceived through the lens of social media, I think there is real value in RPG companies saying ‘look… our players did this with our products’ and one of the absolute best things about contemporary gaming is the fact that more and more RPG companies are following in Phage Press’s footsteps.

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