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…