Returning to the Eternal City

Since ACNW ’07, Amber has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve also started re-reading the Amber series. I’m in the early part of Guns of Avalon as of this morning. I’ve been thinking about what I’d want the next Amber campaign I run to be like. It’s also prompted me to look up some of the old maxims that people have posted over the years, such as those posted by Arref and Sol.

Assorted thoughts behind the cut.

I’ve been fascinated by the re-read of the books. There are so many assumption breakers in there, both in terms of what becomes familiar from the rest of the series as well as how you start to assume Amber works from playing in it.

Some of it is just minor differences that don’t survive through the rest of the series, like Julian’s dogs being “Storm Hounds” instead of hell hounds. Or forgetting just how wide the stairs to Rebma are (and how they mirror to Amber). Or forgetting that fire does seem to burn in Rebma, for that matter. Or remembering that, despite their legendary healing and endurance, the royal family of Amber can get drunk just as well as a human can. And then there are the lines that slip through the cracks. I did not recall that at the end of NPiA that Corwin had alluded to Avalon by saying, “It was a place which had vanished into Chaos ages ago, but of which a Shadow must somewhere survive.”

(Total tangent: but while poking around in Wikipedia I discovered that Avalon‘s name can be interpreted as “the Isle of Apples.” In Buddhist cosmology, the “continent of Earth” is called Jambudvipa, which can be translated as “Rose Apple Island.”)

I also find that my model for Pattern use doesn’t match up with NPiA too well. I think part of my thinking was that I had a different view of some of what they did in the books. But now on a fresh read-through… my opinions on the subject are shifting. (I’ve already begun the partial power structures in my head.)

I’ve also found it fascinating how bloodthirsty the characters are towards one another. A common trope of Amber games is the idea that family goes out of the way to avoid killing family. In NPiA, on the other hand, everyone seems out for each other’s blood. Corwin seems restrained by his new found compassion for the most part, but that doesn’t slake his desire for Eric’s death. (Hell, half the characters seem to want Eric dead.) Later in the book he’s eager to kill Julian as well. Caine asked for Random’s head in exchange for his support. Random’s eager to kill half the people he comes across. (Homicidal fink indeed.) One could make the case that they are all talk, and their lack of actual deaths (unless you count Bleys’ cliff diving adventure) indicates that they talk big but don’t follow through. But some of the instances look pretty sincere. Consider Random’s commentary on the value of killing Julian after that first scene in Arden. Is he being a smart-ass, or does he really mean that he’d probably kill Julian if he was calling the shots?

So, anyway, here are some things I’d like to include next time I run Amber.


I don’t mean epic, at least not as others have phrased it. I think there are wussy Amberites. I think the epic balls-to-the-wall attitude is a great ideal for PCs in any setting, but I don’t think it’s requisite for the scions of Amber. As presented in the books, I find very little epic or balls to the wall about characters like Flora or Llewella. I guess when I think “mythic” I think of it more as “mythic whether you like it or not.”

Corwin from Corwin’s point of view isn’t always epic or balls-to-the-wall. (Corwin from Merlin’s POV, on the other hand, tends towards larger than life.) He is at times moody, petulant, smarmy, easily distracted by anything with a pretty face and a picnic basket. But he can’t seem to avoid an assortment of symbolism associated with him. If he shifts shadow to find any creature or piece of equipment, odds are it will be black and silver. When he stops for the night, he may very well find that there’s a prophecy involving the archangel Corwin coming through and doing something. He can’t go on extended hellrides without chicks throwing silver roses or ladies next to lakes trying to invite him by for a bit of quality time. He doesn’t just have a magic sword, he has Greyswandir, etched with a portion of the Pattern, forged on the steps to Tir-na Nog’th. Simply holding this blade conveys a feeling of tragedy. His list of friends and associates during his time in the Shadow Earth is a who’s who of world history, from Van Gogh to Sigmund Freud. But even with all this, it doesn’t stop him from being a pill just to annoy Eric during his coronation nor does it stop him from tripping over his sword as he’s overcome with grief at the sight of Lorraine in Tir-na Nog’th.

Even Merlin, as dorky as he is, has his elements of myth: His strangling cord Frakir (has a name and a story), his colors manifesting when hit with a weird magical effect. Hell, he couldn’t lead a normal life if he tried. Look at his friends from college: His best friend is secretly the son of Brand and has been plotting Merlin’s demise for years and his best friend’s girlfriend is possessed by a demon sent by Dara to protect Merlin. Hell, even his mundane and mortal girlfriend ends up becoming a sorcerer and uber-villain just to show him up for dumping her.

Over the last couple campaigns I ran, the concept of myth formed a backbone for how some things in the universe worked. Your magic sword always came back to you because it was part of your myth. You regenerated in order to return to your archetypal form, but you could similarly not simply use shapeshifting to heal yourself either. Random looked older as king because his myth had changed from Fool to Emperor. Similarly, there was a lot of secret importance to colors. They formed a language of politics in Amber (which was vaguely inspired by a few snippets from the series). I think in the future I’m going to be more explicit. The only equipment that returns to you are those integral to your myth. You can spend 4 points to get a Deadly Damage sword, but as long it’s just a generic magic sword it won’t come back to you if you lose it. When you shift shadow, you have to make a conscious effort not to revert to your colors. If I go the fan mail/drama point option, I may even steal a bit of the Legend Points system from Scion: Hero, so that anything you spend drama points to influence becomes irrevocably wrapped up in your myth. (Hell, you know… the more I think about it, the more I think Scion: Hero might be a good resource for preparing for such a game.)

Looking back over what I wrote, it occurs to me that it might seem like the difference is academic. I guess for me the difference is: Corwin can spend a weekend with Bleys and Random drinking sake and watching old samurai films, generally hiding from the world, and circumstances would still conspire against him. Demons would show up to challenge them to duels, damsels in distress would turn up at the doorstep, etc.


I think I almost prefer the word twee for the style of baroque I like with Nobilis, because it’s a different thing than what I mean here. Amber, according to NPiA, has a history that extends back countless thousands of years. It’s been the stomping ground of over a dozen unruly superhumans who have been there some portion of its history. It’s just got to have all sorts of weird stuff going for it in terms of legacies left behind by the princes and princesses. And I really like having that sort of feel. All too often the world just feels too… new. With some GMs it has a nice organic touch, but doesn’t have a whole lot of depth to it. With others it feels like Amber as laid out in a corporate org chart. But really I want Amber to feel ancient. I have a bunch of random stuff I’ve come up with over the years that I can use to populate the place, from old knightly orders to Benedict’s diary from when he was 15. But it doesn’t quite have the depth I would like. And I don’t know how to do that differently. The attribute auction can, if the group is in the right mindsight, convey that sense of having a past with your peers. But it also feels like auctions fulfill one specific role in things, and I’m not necessarily interested in the sort of game that would support that. And I don’t know how to introduce that without feeling like I’m just shoving my tastes down the players’ throats.

The Merlin Series and the Short Stories

I’ll say it up front: I like the Merlin series and the short stories. While they lack the timeless mythic qualities of the Corwin series, I still find them fun. I’ll be honest: I read the Merlin series at an age where my where my discerning taste in fiction wasn’t at its highest. But unlike other aspects of my life at that time, I continue to enjoy them. While there are some notably dubious aspects to the later Amber stuff, there’s also a lot of stuff that I like.

For most of the stuff I’ve run over the years (at least the stuff that actually involves Amber and isn’t some weird hybrid or alternate vision of Amber), I’ve usually treated the Merlin books (and the short stories, once I read them) as canon. On the other hand, I’ve almost never run a game that takes place after the Merlin series and never after the short stories. Usually I aim for that sweet spot of Gérard’s regency/early reign of Random.

I think it would be fun to explore a continuation of the books where Zelazny left off. Hrm…

13 thoughts on “Returning to the Eternal City

  1. colomon

    Okay, what’s amusing about those links up there is that the link marked “Sol” is me rounding up quotes I liked from other people — and the link marked “Arref” has a big huge quote from me. (Also amusing is if I made the same list today (that one is from 1996 or so) it would have a bunch of Arref quotes in it, I’m sure.)

  2. admin Post author

    I also find it interesting that I generally agree with most of the points that you made in the email that Arref quoted (but not his touting of First Series Purism), but I did not generally agree with most of your quotes that you used from other people. =)

  3. arrefmak

    I have to fix the text if you thought I was touting FSP (I was trying to explain it and why it exists.) I’m one of the few GMs I know that uses the entire Zelazny canon through the short stories as the basis of my running campaign.

  4. mtfierce


    …In my Black Ops Amber is a scary SOB, with a sense of humour and a technical approach to magic that made him far more of an opponent than previously expected. Until Julia stole what she thought was his “little black book.”

    I like some of the Merlin concepts. I don’t like what it did to Chaos. There is plenty of opportunity there.

  5. arrefmak

    Nods. My concern (at the time I wrote the page) was that Snooty First Series Purists were not very transparent as to what they were snooty about.

  6. admin Post author

    Re: Merlin…

    I guess part of my frustration with first series purists (or others who heavily re-imagine Merlin-esque stuff) is that there is infrequently the conceit that they can do better than Zelazny. I’ve seen GM’s with game submissions that literally said, “Merlin-books, for all I’m fond of ’em, will not be canon. My Chaos could eat his Chaos for breakfast and still have room for french toast.”

    While I’m hardly in a position to criticise people for omitting aspects of a setting for purposes of a game, or playing around with behind the scenes mechanics to try and reconcile some of the discrepencies from the books, Amber ultimately comes from one man’s head. It may have been a constantly evolving vision, with an increasing weirdness towards the end, but it was first and foremost Zelazny’s world. Like it or not… that’s the source material. And once you start pulling things apart, the less like his world it becomes.

    Or so I feel.

  7. mtfierce

    I am _SO_ not the person to have this discussion.

    > the conceit that they can do better than Zelazny.


    I guess for certain values of “better than,” yeah. Just as you said, the development of the books was far more organic, and I think someone taking a careful look at the series could probably provide a more consistent development of ideas. I think that we, as gamers, often do that; take a section of the books and improve on them. It’s like a lot of the good fanfic out there: we have more time to develop odds and ends, more inclination to see something *different* through, and as a result, there’s something “better” where the original author was writing his/her own story, not necessarily as interested in that one.

    (And, alas, may not see their characters as gay. Erm. Have I been reading slash forums again? Bad Fierce. Lots of biscuits.)

    > Like it or not… that’s the source material. And once you start
    > pulling things apart, the less like his world it becomes.

    But I’ve been straight up in my intentions: I can’t play in Zelazny’s world. I’m not in his head, and I only took certain visions and experiences away. I merge them with my own to find something I find fun I can share with others, at least in part. I know my husband comes away from my games with different views than I had. That’s part of the beauty of sharing and focusing: it makes things more interesting.

    [And that’s not even mentioning that I don’t care that it’s his books and his characters – Fiona is pronounced starting “Fee,” not “Fie,” and that’s what I’m staying with, darnit.]

  8. admin Post author

    Re: I am _SO_ not the person to have this discussion.

    And I do agree that we each bring our own experiences to the table. My Amber is not necessarily Zelazny’s Amber. I try to cleave closely while trying to make it useful for a game, trying to figure out what Zelazny intended. This isn’t to say that I won’t do weird stuff where I re-imagine the setting. For a while now I’ve been mulling around an idea for a first-series only take on the Courts of Chaos inspired by Exalted: Fair Folk.

    And there is the situation where some people love playing Amber but hate the books. They came to it through the RPG (which as an entirely different rant) and hence have less attachment to the world that Zelazny created. Since some of have been the best GMs I’ve ever known, I can’t complain too much.

    I guess what drives me bonkers is the hubris. And while I’ve been that early-20-something who was very full of himself and his opinions on…. well, anything in general and Amber in specific. But it gets tiresome. Snooty First Series Purists who would rather shut their eyes than acknowledge Zelazny’s full view of Amber or people who like to tout how much cooler they are than Zelazny?

    Unrelated, but, honestly: I find most fanfic to be eye-gougingly bad. There have been rare occasions where I’ve found stuff I like, but it’s been the exception that proves the rule.

  9. mtfierce

    Not the fish.

    > trying to figure out what Zelazny intended.


    I don’t mean to sound like it’s a bad idea, I’m just curious as to what draws you into that particular direction. I mean, looking at what you’re saying with, say, Ms. Bear’s “Rule of Epic Amberites,” I think capturing the feel might be less a matter of what Zelazny had in mind and more a stylistic decision. Breaking magic down to programming is fun…but I didn’t think it felt the same as the, “I refuse you three times,” showdown with Stryllgalldwir. [I think I added an “l.” It’s been a while.]

    > I guess what drives me bonkers is the hubris.

    Which, to me, is an entirely different discussion, and is not unique in any way, shape, or form to Amber Diceless. [grinning]

    > Snooty First Series Purists who would rather shut their eyes than…

    I think that SFSPs are just a regular phenomenon in Fandom. I see it in Harry Potter: “Books Six and Seven don’t exist.” I see it in Elfquest: “Everything after the first series is noncanon and should never have been written.” I see it in Darkover: “Only the Thendara-centered books `count.'” [shrug] “Ghostbusters II never happened.” Well, sometimes the SFSPs are right.

    > people who like to tout how much cooler they are than Zelazny?

    Well, I can’t claim I’m cooler than Zelazny anymore. After all, 1) he’s dead, so there can’t be a duel, and 2) he’s dead, so his ambient temperature is probably measurable in comparison, and likely, he wins, although if I took off my sweater…

    > I find most fanfic to be eye-gougingly bad.

    Sturgeon’s Revelation, and from my experience, including having written fanfiction, I have to agree. I don’t quite gouge out my own eyes reading my own stuff, which I hear makes me a little better at it these days. [snort] But I won’t pretend.

  10. admin Post author

    Re: Not the fish.


    Why does Corwin feel that ruling in Amber proper has more value than ruling over a Shadow of it?

    I could make my own setting whole cloth, and I have at times done that. I’ve also done all sorts of weird riffs. But the main thing that drew me to Amber (and draws me back) is really the books. Sure, there were the weird ads in Dragon Magazine for it. There was the friend in high school who got us all to read the books and wanted to run an Amber campaign. But the main thing that stuck? The setting created by Zelazny. Maybe it’s a teenage boy thing. I read the whole series when I was 17 or so. Corwin and Merlin one-lining their way through a universe filled with myth and grandeur. Good stuff.

    This isn’t to say that I won’t try something weird. Break canon in unusual or spectacular ways. A lot of my ideas for games these days come from finding ways to stave off boredom. I feel like I’ve beat “traditional Amber” to death. (This is as opposed to my original method of coming up with games, which was “combine Amber with something else!!”)

    As for the rest of it your comment: yeah, I know, the lameness of human nature is not confined to Amber. I just get fussier when it does.

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