This is the second draft of this. I’d tried writing up something before and it didn’t really address Amber specifically. So I tried to think about what I like in an Amber game and what feeds in to making that sort of quality Amber game. And really, they are the same things that feed into making any game excellent. (Or, rather, my idea of excellent.) Amber just provides a minimal system that makes what I like in gaming even better. The challenge, though, is that the same thing that makes Amber awesome can also lead to a lot of suck.
I’ll warn you that at times this becomes a little ranty. If you feel like you’ve been called out anonymously in this description, keep in mind that in none of the cases where my frustration is with focused more on the players is it a matter of just one (or two, or even three) people who have frustrated me.
I’m sure everyone who plays Amber has their own favorite thing they like. For me it’s the heavy character interaction, the immediacy of the environment and love for the setting.
The rules are so minimalist that you can go an entire session without having to use them. Instead it’s more about just roleplaying. If you want to shoot some mook in the head, there’s no die rolling or looking at your sheet. Just “bang, he’s dead.” My favorite Amber games have had an equal blend of character driven plot and PC-on-PC interaction, where you are so into your character’s headspace that you just know what you are going to do. There’s no interruption of the flow of action with dice rolling or looking stuff up in books or looking at your character sheet. In order to have that really strong character portrayal and interaction requires a lot of work on the part of the players. It’s where character quizes and journals become mission critical, not to mention heavy communication with the GM and other players.
And the setting. I’ve come to know it intimately. I’m overdue for another readthrough of the books. (Maybe I’ll do that after I finish Atrocity Archives, assuming the wife isn’t finished with Who Loves Dies Well.) But I used to be known as the Canon Nazi on the Amber Mailing List and could quickly find a quotes that relate to a particular situation. And after over a decade of PBEMs and campaigns and one-shots at cons, I’ve got a pretty robust “game” Amber that I can draw upon as needed. The canon characters (I hate the term “Elders”) all take up an increasingly large portion of my cerebral brain space. Some take a little longer to load up (especially the women) but overall I have a good sense of how they react to things in my game universe. And I have enough old PCs and NPCs I’ve used in the past that I never have a lack of characters I can insert as needed.
This all is why it’s my favorite game. And it’s also why I hate to GM it. A lot of it is really just “people suck and Amber helps them suck.”
Let’s start with the emphasis on roleplay. Providing balance here often means giving equal camera time and story share to each of the players. Which can be frustrating when a player hits a dead-end and you don’t know how to dislodge him without just handing over the whole damn thing. Then their camera time revolves around beating their head against the wall while you frantically try to think of how to ease their frustration while trying to pace the story.
But you also run into the problem of people who are not very interested in sharing the spotlight. The best games have a strong (dare I say, “sparklypoo”) focus on the PCs. And some people take that very seriously. They are delighted if they get more than their share of camera time, but heaven help the GM who dares to give them less than their share. If you’re feeling uninspired or the player is in a dead-end that the you don’t know how to deal with or they aren’t biting any of the hooks you’re throwing their way or you try to curtail them in their camera hording because they don’t let go… Well, sucks to be you.
From there you get to the question of getting people to work to make the game better: communicate with the GM, do a character quiz, do a character journal, show up reliably, etc. Invariably this means work for the player. With the rules as written, you get the 10 points up front (when you are most heinously craving points) and then you have this contribution shackle around your foot. In the first few campaigns I played in it was common to follow the rules and offer 10 points during character creation if you sell your soul up front with the commitment to do a contribution. Which usually ensured that everyone would offer to do a contribution and (especially if your GM gave you Bad Stuff when you failed to do your contribution), you would definitely do it. On the downside, you got a lot of half-ass contributions done. And you will find yourself shackled to the same contribution long after you’ve gained any benefit from it. On the other hand, if you go with a pay-as-you-go model, then players feel little obligation to contribute anything outside of the game.
Toss in people who do not show up regularly, who do not let you know when they will not show up, who are unreliable about any sort of communication with the GM… And then you just get people who show up for the game expecting to be entertained without providing input on what they want, what they don’t want or anything else to help the GM in preparing. This is a relatively minor thing if you’re doing something mission-based or beer-and-pretzels like D&D or Shadowrun. It’s a monster headache if you’re wanting to run a character-oriented Amber game. I’ve tried to get worked up about it less lately just because I recognize how hard it can be to find the time to really contribute outside of the game. It was easy when I was 24, single and had little else going on in my life. Much harder when I’m 32, married and have four different games I’m GMing on top of the care and feeding of my marriage and other smaller obligations. I’ve gotten to the age where most of my gaming peers have kids as well. Their time for gaming is constrained and it is a miracle that they can get out of the house once every other week for 6 hours to do something with other grown-ups. So do I bust their chops for having real lives that distract them from my game, even if it decreases the overall quality of the game?
And then comes the system. The system is borderline freeform. It does some things well. The auction instills a sense of conflict against the PCs. It’s also used to fritter up your points so that you really have to wonder how you’re going afford all those high ticket powers. And the system is light and easy. Want to become a surgeon? Spend a few years in a fast-time shadow learning how to be a surgeon. Want to become an expert on Rebman number theory? Keif a whole bunch of books and go to the fast-time Shadow to read them. None of this nonsense about assigning skill ranks to Knowledge (Math) or whatever.
(Granted, few people I’ve played with use the system as written. Most skip the attribute auction and use a partial point system that breaks what few clever bits the system have.)
What the system is not so hot with is, “Well, how good is that? How do you use all these numbers?” It’s fine if all you’re doing is comparing stats and the only important thing is, “Who is better in this conflict?” And the book offers some suggestions on unopposed problems. But what can you lift with Amber Strength? How about 50 in Strength? How long can you run with a bleeding gunshot wound with a 25 Endurance? Can someone with a 50 in Warfare take on six noble fops with dueling swords and not get touched? And then come the ugly situations where two PCs are in conflict and two-to-three stats are being drawn into things. There’s no clear way on how to decide on it. The tactic I’ve finally come down to is “When in doubt, what seems like it would make a good story?” Which doesn’t really satisfy everyone either. That shit is hard as hell to learn. (rob_donoghue had an excellent post on this sort of thing. For me it’s something of a Holy Grail of GMing.)
As an added bonus, no one agrees on what the numbers mean. Even something as baseline as “Amber .” There are the game rules and there’s what you see in the books by Zelazny. Neither really matches up with the other, and people usually orbit around one or the other but may not necessarily really hit spot on. (And then there’s all sorts of weird compromises people make to include stuff from the Merlin series and still maintain a semblance of balance.) Clearly you can just punt, but some players will remember (and hold you to) those on-the-spot rulings. I love not having charts to wade through. I hate fumbling in the dark. It doesn’t help that it’s all so subjective: what I find realistic and fitting within the game, someone else might not, and vice versa. (I’ve been wanting to do an entire post called “I think I’m reasonable, you think I’m an asshole” revolving around what happens when subjective experiences collide.)
And because things are so nebulously defined, some players will push for every last inch in the wiggle room of the rooms. The most mild are those who will just ignore in-game consequences for their action. Missing a hand? In a body cast? Doesn’t really deter them from repeating their mistakes. And I’m not the hard-ass who will just outright kill characters. The worst, though, are the power-gamers who will milk their abilities for all they are worth, pushing the very edge of things. The will exploit cosmological weirdness, GM distraction or just try something so unexpected that you can’t foresee the long-term ramifications of it for you campaign. Or, my personal favorite: a prolonged argument about how it’s just reasonable for the power to work that way and no the player doesn’t want to just go with my ruling and discuss it further after the game.
Some GMs are hard-ass enough to just lay down the law and really just keep people in check. But I lack that sort of force of personality. I’m an easy-going, flaky GM who isn’t that hot at playing NPCs or doing the sinister mind-fucks. And the rules don’t support that.
And the setting that I love so much? It gets a little old after a while. You can only mix up permutations of “We are the next generation of Amber facing down scary threats!” before it gets a big repetative. And then there’s the cliché of “Big Threat Faces Amber! ZOMG!” There’s a reason why big, looming enemies are recommended: they unite the players against a common foe and give them a reason to interact instead of going off alone and basking in hedonistic delight. I tried one game that was more player oriented and less about “Oooo, big scary enemy.” And I thought the game sucked. It just sort of meandered around a lot without a whole lot of energy.
This is how I end up running such weird stuff at the con. I’m always curious to play around with obscure parts of the Amber universe that I haven’t dabbled with. Everyone and their dog has run a street-level “normal people” Amber game. And it’s fun and easy to do. I ended up running Pulp Chaos, in part, because I thought to myself: what the hell do the poor parts of Chaos look like? And so DaggerWays was born. I’ve been considering doing the same with Rebma. Coming up with some new iteration of “ZOMG, Pattern has cooties! Find new reason why the PCs are the only ones who can solve a problem!!!1!eleven” But that’s a hard sell for people who want to play “Amber Diceless!” (That said, I did come up with a plot that I liked the other day. Not sure what I’ll do with it though.)
I have some other thoughts, but I’ll come back to them in a later post.