Fixing a Hole Where the Lame Gets In

In my big “things that piss me off about running Amber” post, blue_monsta said, “I am eagerly awaiting the next post to read what you think should be done to fix these issues/problems.” I felt a little called out. I always hate it when people bitch about a situation without offering solutions, and that’s really what I was doing. I had no real intention of presenting solutions. I was just venting.

So here are my thoughts on solutions to my hated aspects. I’d started to work up something that covers all of how I tweak Amber to suit my needs, but decided to pare this down to just the stuff that addresses the aspects I hate.


This Would Be a Great Game Without The All Those People
A large chunk of my frustration with Amber comes not from rules but from human nature and how it interacts with the game’s quirks. Amber’s system light rules really require mutual trust not to be a wanker. But there does come the point where it needs to be recognized that there is no such thing as a perfect player. A while back in my private blog I posted this Buddhist quote:

The true is not an ideal, a myth, but the actual. The actual can be understood and dealt with. The understanding of the actual cannot breed enmity, whereas ideals do.

Ideals can never bring about a fundamental revolution, but only a modified continuity of the old.

There is a fundamental and constant revolution only in action from moment to moment which is not based on an ideal and so is free of conclusion.

~J. Krishnamurti

And that’s something I need to remember. It’s always easy to think that, “If I only had players that fit my all my criteria, I’d have a good game.” But the fact of the matter is that everyone I play with is going to have some quirk that I find annoying. (And, likewise, I’ve got my own flaws as a player and GM that I constantly struggle with.) If I was that hot shit, I would never have players drop out of my games in frustration and I wouldn’t have GMs that won’t invite me back.

So I try to find for myself where that line is between “tolerable quirkiness” and “genuine detriment to the gaming group.” I tend to be patient to a fault. By the time someone makes it to my, “You know, I’m done inviting this person to my games,” we’re barely talking to each other anyway.

You can mitigate some of the lame with solid rules, but that’s not a perfect solution. I’ve seen groups where there was a constant conflict of “GMs making rules to fix player lameness” and “players finding new ways to work around the rules.” That sort of thing just seems to escalate. Or rules like talking sticks and hour glasses to keep people from hogging the GM’s time. I often feel like, “If you’re going through this much work to get people to act like adults, something’s gotta be wrong.”

Otherwise… most of this seems like it can be resolved by establishing a good social contract in advance. Which I always like the idea behind, but starting the conversation is a challenge.

The only GMing technique I specifically use is moving the camera around between players quickly. I can’t guarantee that every character will get exactly their share of camera time. But I can try and make sure no one is waiting long for the camera. It means that there isn’t much opportunity to have those deep and prolonged conversations with NPCs, but I think it’s a small price to pay to keep everyone involved.

What Does It All Mean, Elwood?

So how do I interpret the rules? Overall I go with the more human approach to the Amber characters. I can go on for pages on just how I reinterpet the attributes and stuff, but overall I keep things a lot lower powered than the rules would describe. My main priority is to try and recreate the power level in the canon.

As for how I actually handle the hard decisions when adjudicating, let me start with a dirty confession: I’ve given up on statting out my NPCs. A lot of it is laziness. I can try and validate it with narrative freedom or a lack of desire to try and detail what partial powers the canon characters have chosen, but mostly it’s laziness. I try to use a mix of what makes sense to me and what I think makes a good story. I’ve long known that I can’t out-think players, so I try to just go with what seems reasonable to me. The challenge with this is that what seems reasonable to me may not seem reasonable to others. Then comes the question of, “Well, how do I get past that?” And how do I make confrontations seem realistic and challenging without making people feel stonewalled? Especially with believability being so subjective. (Have I mentioned I want to write a post called “I think I’m reasonable, you think I’m an asshole?”)

But overall, it’s just comes down to trying to be believable and make a good story. How long can someone with 50 Endurance run with a bullet wound? Longer than the person with a 25 Endurance and long enough to make a good story. Most people seem fine with that, but some people just can’t stand it.

Contributions (And Advancement. And Attendance.)

I’ve long decided that the 10 point character creation bonus for contributions are not the solution for me. I like the pay as you go model, but it has problems.

On the one hand, people don’t feel pressured to do contributions if you just say, “Hey free advancement points to anyone who wants them!” And telling people, “You know, the game will be better if you’re actively involved and work with me on what you want” doesn’t encourage people to put forth extra effort any more than if I didn’t say it.

On the other end, there’s the problem of the glut off half-ass contributions. The worst are Photoshop Trumps. I’ve had people just churn these out for contribution points. With one person it wasn’t even necessarily something from the game. Random image of a riding dragon? “Oh, yeah. This is something my character got out in Shadow. It’s his mount now.” (The solution for this one is a bit simpler and pretty obvious but I had to see someone else do it to figure it out: You put a cap on how much XP they can get between sessions by doing contributions.)

I have a few ideas regarding how to deal with this, but first I need to explain some stuff I’ve done with other games.

With other games I’ve gotten into the habit of using Fan Mail, which I stole from Primetime Adventures: I put a bowl of glass beads in the middle of the room, and anytime someone is impressed with another player they can reward the impressive player with “fan mail.” I’ve combined this a little bit with Hero Points from Zorcerer of Zo and Drama Dice from 7th Sea. So they can use these to improve die rolls in the game and if they have any left at the end they convert over to XP. I use these instead of roleplay awards in the game.

So then the standard format I’ve used in games is that there’s a base XP award for showing up, and then everything else they get is based off of contributions and fan mail. I used to give out a partial award for players so they’d still advance even if they weren’t able to make it.

But as I’ve been thinking about it lately, I’ve been considering a few things, which I could impliment in part or in total:

  • Giving no base award for showing up. Have all XP be based off of contributions and fan mail.
  • Subtracting XP if they don’t show up.
  • Subtracting more if they give little to no warning that they won’t make it.

    Because on a certain level, just showing up doesn’t really make the game awesome. In fact, just showing up and doing little else doesn’t make the game a fun experience for everyone. I guess whether or not I impliment this depends on how much of a hard-ass I feel like. Usually I chicken out before getting this draconian. But the thought of it makes me a little hot.

    Recycling the Setting

    I don’t have any great solutions for the repetitive nature of the default setting. I mainly fix it by doing squirrely things with obscure parts of the universe. Which is fine, but my weird street-level Chaos game (while it has its fans) is not what draws most people to Amber. And so the challenge is finding some new large threat to unite the PCs together and pace it well enough that it lasts for more than a few sessions. While I could explain how to go about it, actually carrying it out is something that only really comes well with practice. I’ve had to screw up a lot of games before figuring out a simple mechanism for it. I think my long term solution is really finding ways to mine the dark corners of the canon while still running a game that people are interest in. A challenge indeed.

  • 10 thoughts on “Fixing a Hole Where the Lame Gets In

    1. blue_monsta

      I am eagerly awaiting the next post to read what you think should be done to fix these issues/problems. ;)

      “This….”
      You do the moving camera thing extremely well. That’s something I’ve been working on in recent years. Next year I plan to run one small game as a solo GM at Amber, so hopefully I’ve improved in this regard.

      “What…?”
      As a player, I don’t care what the monsters/NPC’s stats are. “Better or worse than me” and “Good enough to do X” or “Plot Level” are great. They may even be better than numbers ’cause then I don’t have to ever resort to math in-game.

      In one of Eric Todd’s games, I played Oberon vs. multiple other players. Eric told me “You can beat anyone at anything one-on-one, but if four of them gang up on you, you may be in trouble. F more or fewer opponents your mileage may vary (paraphrased).” I loved that description and it affected my game play just enough to matter.

      “Contributions.”
      The first ADRPG I ever played in was a year-long campaign wherein I met Michele (and Dennis, technically). I wrote a three-page log and a fifteen page character journal after each session. Rewards were promised; the game ended before we got any advancement points, however. Waaah!!!

      If I run an Amber campaign in the future, I’m giving out a set number of points for contributions immediately after the contributions are made.

      “Recycling….”
      I really liked the low-level Chaos game and will sign up for it next year if there isn’t a huge LARP that I want to be in (or I’m GM’ing at the same damn time).

    2. blue_monsta

      Fan Mail

      “With other games I’ve gotten into the habit of using Fan Mail, which I stole from Primetime Adventures: I put a bowl of glass beads in the middle of the room, and anytime someone is impressed with another player they can reward the impressive player with “fan mail.” I’ve combined this a little bit with Hero Points from Zorcerer of Zo and Drama Dice from 7th Sea. So they can use these to improve die rolls in the game and if they have any left at the end they convert over to XP. I use these instead of roleplay awards in the game.”

      This sounds like a great idea for my anti-diceless/pro-all-combat D&D group. However, I don’t use XP, but I’ll think of something.

    3. admin Post author

      Re: Fan Mail

      You could use it like Hero Points/Force Points from d20 Modern/Star Wars. Maybe allow them to get some bonus goodie if they save them up.

    4. a2macgeek

      The only problem I’ve seen with using Fan Mail, Drama Points, etc., is in a PC vs. PC combat. It tends to engender unhappiness on the part of the player of the PC who was winning until the drama point was thrown into the mix, especially if the explanation for the change in outcome is left at “his drama point lets him get away”. It nearly ruined one Amber game I was in. In games where PCs are using them against NPCs (and vice-versa), it seems to work better.

    5. admin Post author

      I guess in my favor: I’m pulling away from heavy PvP action. I just found I can’t stand GMing them. I’ve run a few one-shots and… it’s not what I love about Amber. I like the hidden agendas and the rivalries and pissing matches, but not full-scale conflict between PCs.

    6. admin Post author

      I guess it’s an equal mix of plot structure and luck.

      For one-shots, I just tend not to run scenarios that encourage them. Lately my motif is primarily mystery games or games with some specific problem to solve. There isn’t any specific benefit to be gained by by screwing over the other players. The plot is structured less so that the players are forced to take each other on and more that there’s a problem that they need to work together to solve. There are occasional side interests that come into conflict. In the second Pulp Chaos, one of the PCs was working to make sure that the MacGuffin got into the hands of his employer. But they didn’t come down to running sword fights through the Ways of Chaos.

      With campaigns the same holds true, but I do try to include in my character creation guidelines my emphasis on ensemble casts and the difference between conflicting agendas and “I stab you in face.” And players usually cooperate with that.

      And then there’s just luck. Most of the people I play with don’t have the old school Amber mentality of “we betray each others lots!” Locally, most of the players I’m with come from non-Amber gaming backgrounds and don’t have the indoctrination that says you must screw each other over. And at cons I don’t usually seem to attract the players who are into the heavy backstabbing.

      There do come occasions of direct conflict and invariably that just means I nerf things a bit so that each PC has a chance to get out of the conflict with his or her skin intact. When I thought about ‘s post above, I did mull it around further and thought I should just put a rule in place (should I use this system) that you can’t use Drama Points against fellow PCs. =P

    7. jdettman

      Recycling the Setting

      I don’t have any great solutions for the repetitive nature of the default setting. I mainly fix it by doing squirrely things with obscure parts of the universe. Which is fine, but my weird street-level Chaos game (while it has its fans) is not what draws most people to Amber. And so the challenge is finding some new large threat to unite the PCs together and pace it well enough that it lasts for more than a few sessions. While I could explain how to go about it, actually carrying it out is something that only really comes well with practice. I’ve had to screw up a lot of games before figuring out a simple mechanism for it. I think my long term solution is really finding ways to mine the dark corners of the canon while still running a game that people are interest in. A challenge indeed.

      Interesting. I’ve found that whenever I create new weirdness in the setting my players try to stick to the familiar and comfortable parts unless they are forced to deal with the new weirdness.

      In the last couple of campaigns that I’ve run, I’ve found that the players are more engaged with smaller changes to the setting. Little things that propagate out and make it ours.

      MMV, of course.

    8. admin Post author

      I run a lot of crazy stuff at Ambercons and usually get away with it. I put out on the table what I’m planning on running and they only sign up for it if they’re willing to try something weird. But it doesn’t have the draw of, say, the Firefly games that have a score of people clammoring to get in.

      But otherwise… I’ve been trying to use stuff from the Rebma sourcebook for… well, as long as I’ve had the Rebma sourcebook. Almost no one gives a poop about the Rebma sourcebook. (But then, I think every underwater sourcebook for every RPG that has ever existed has met with a lack of interest outside of whackjobs like me.)

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