Amber, Aspects, Resource Management

I just wrapped up a six-session Amber campaign. (It was intentionally six sessions. It wasn’t a matter of me just snapping, deciding I hate everyone and just killing the game. I’ve only done that a couple times. Really.) It had involved a good chunk of experimentation with blending in elements of a few other games, including Apects from FATE/Spirit of the Century. I had mixed experiences with the mechanical portion of the game, so I thought I’d share what I dragged into this game, how I felt about it and then wrap it all up with a broader discussion on the concept of resource management and how I fail with it.

I’m really horrible about poaching ideas from one game and trying to import them into another game. Sometimes it works well, other times… not so much. I’ve been using “fan mail” from Primetime Adventures in games for a while now, with some success, so that of course made it into the game. I’ve been melding it with 7th Sea‘s Drama Dice mechanic, in that any left over points at the end of the session rolls over into XP. It’s been an excellent replacement for “roleplaying” awards in games.

When running Amber, there seem to be things that always seem to crave tinkering with. Sorcery is a big one, but I’ve mostly found a place where I’m comfortable with it. But items, allies and Shadows always drove me a little nuts. Invariably people want to put in rules for disadvantages and enemies as well. The problem I always have with Advantages/Disadvantages in any system, though, is that it’s hard to really get a sense how much they will really be worth. Having run for some players that delight in milking the most out of their characters, I’m always a little gun-shy of having to just punt with a point cost. Haggling with players over point costs is something I distinctly dislike. And when you’re just having to make up numbers for whatever crazy power or disadvantage the players want, it’s always a bit nightmarish. I pray to Bodhisattva Dave that I never hear the phrase, “I want my character to be a living spikard” ever again.

But I like having things that encourage players to create interesting hooks for their characters, and that’s really something that Amber doesn’t encourage in character creation. It just expects players to behave themselves, which I’ll admit has a certain merit to it. I’m not a big fan of cute little dice mechanics, but I do like things that help players create a character that encourages plot elements.

Originally I’d been considering trying to adapt Backgrounds from 7th Sea, as I liked the thought of having players invest points for a flaw that will then reward them as it comes up in game. But johnpaul613 started posting about using Aspects in his own Amber game, so I felt inspired to give it a whirl. Aspects seemed appealing because it made advantages and disadvantages pay their way. The more often an advantage comes up in play, the more it costs you. The more often you get screwed over by an disadvantage, the more it rewards you. It seemed beautiful and elegant.

So, my master plan was to fuse Aspects with the fan mail system and an earn-as-you-go contribution system that seems to be relatively common in Amber games. The points you got for contributions and fan mail were the same points used to fuel Aspects. It seemed like a neat and tidy system. You can see what I did here. This was not the first time I tried to have a “drama point” system in place, but this time I had tried to at least codify things a bit better.

There were some problems with execution.

To open up with, I did something of a half-ass job of reading through Spirit of the Century to get a feel for how they were supposed to be done. I had the basics of mechanics. I missed the whole thing about “choosing Aspects based off of phases of your life and have Aspects that tie into other player characters.” So that was a missed opportunity.

Then there was the communication of the rules. One person didn’t read the information sent out. Some others just didn’t understand how it worked. Teaching rules as we go is not a strong point of mine. Teaching rules I don’t know so well is worse. Teaching rules that I’ve mashed together, never really used and don’t entirely know how they’ll work? Nightmarish. (This? This is one of many reasons I’m not a game designer.) This would probably have been a good thing to play around with in a casual environment with people who could actively offer input on the rules. Trying this out in a game intended for heavy roleplay, a fixed-length story arc and players who are not big on rules in the first place? Yeah, poor choice on my part.

Preparing for sessions proved problematic. In a normal Amber game, using an element from a PC’s background is just a matter of jotting it into your notes. There’s no permission asked. It’s just assumed that if you give the GM something to torture your character with, your GM will torture your character with that. If he doesn’t, he’s failed as a GM. Spirit of the Century, on the other hand, has an offer-accept mechanic when pushing one of the character’s flaws. There is a bit in the rules about giving a player a point for using one of his Aspects as a background plot element, as sort of a thank you for letting you-as-GM use it. But it didn’t seem well explained from what I could tell, so I was unsure how much they intend for GMs to just run ramshod over Aspects. (“Oh, yes, I had your trusted lackey, who represents one of your aspects, beat by Belgian anarchists and dumped onto your doorstep as part of my evil plot that I’ve concocted. Here’s a FATE point.”)

This, combined with getting read the riot act from one player regarding how compels were supposed to work, I ended up feeling very cautious about how I approached it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at pre-game prep and anticipating how players will likely react. I wasn’t sure how much freedom I should take with beating player’s over the head with their Aspects. Especially since I wasn’t sure what to do if carefully layered elements of plot were vetoed by a player not accepting a compel.

And, it was hard thinking of what to do for compels. Some of this could have been avoided with experience and knowledge of what sort of Aspects work and what don’t. But I didn’t know. I just let people choose whatever the hell they wanted. So a portion of each game prep revolved around me staring at the Aspects players had and racking my brain to think of possible compels. If I was lucky, I might come up with one per player for the game session. jhkimrpg, on the other hand, has opined that a successful SotC game involves heavy use of compels throughout the session.

Yeah. Hrm.

Then came the question of where to balance out Amber style task and conflict resolution with using of Aspects. Amber is very high on narration and low on numbers. In theory the players describe what they want to do, the GM consults relevant numbers, mulls over story impact, how clever the player’s idea is, maybe discreetly flips a coin, maybe consults his freezer with the anticipation that the number of ice cream sandwiches left in there will determine the result, and then spits out how well it the action turns out. The mechanic for Aspects is that you spend points to improve chance of success or gain a degree of narrative control. I was also using these points to fuel assets that normally get exploited heavily in games, primarily fast time Shadows, allies and vaguely defined resources that aren’t personal magic items.

On paper this sounded fine. In practice it seemed problematic. In a conflict, how much weight should I give clever ideas and shifting of arenas of conflict and how much weight should I give to spending points on Aspects. And how much should I nudge people to spend points on Aspects in these conflicts? If a player arbitrarily decides he’s got some crazy resource out in Shadow, but hasn’t spent points on it or made it an Aspect, how do I arbitrate that? In Amber, the GM is advised to laugh maniacally and make the player’s life a living hell. With Aspects involved… do I ask if he wants to spend something to gain that Aspect? Do I only allow it if he has an Aspect?

For the most part, the Aspects mainly got used by the players to give themselves an edge in a conflict or to draw some asset into play. I didn’t do much in the way of compels and I never had NPCs use them on their own behalf outside of one occurance of tagging a PC’s Aspect to get an edge in a fight. Otherwise I mainly just handled things as though it was an Amber game. In one of the last conflicts of the game, and one of the few that involved notable use of Aspects, the flow of action was mostly performed Amber style, with us simply describing back and forth how the combat was going. When it became clear that the PC was at a disadvantage in the fight, the player dumped points into relevant Aspects to tilt the odds in his favor and won the day.

Afterwards the player noted disappointment that there wasn’t more back and forth action involving invoking Aspects, tagging Aspects, compels, tossing points down, etc. My explanation at the time was that I hadn’t entirely resolved how to balance out conflict resolution between traditional Amber and trying to blend in Aspects. Which was true, of course. But when he said that, a deeper part of me said, “No.” It was a subtle thing at the time, but the voice has gotten louder.

I don’t play Amber, or really any roleplaying game, because of the game aspect. I play it for the roleplaying. I can usually cope with mechanics pretty well as a player, as long as we’re not talking about something stupid like the Hero System. But as a GM, when trying to provide an immersive environment (or, at least as immersive as I can make it with my short attention span and my oddball sense of humor) I will readily just ignore game mechanics if they get in the way of the roleplaying. After that session, the topic of Star Wars Saga Edition came up, and my highest praise I could come up with for it was, “It’s inoffensive.” Some felt that wasn’t a strong selling point, but for me it is. I want a game system to do its job when needed, as unobtrusively as possible, and then will shut up and sit in the corner until I need it again. The more I’ve run and played Amber over the years, the less patience I have with lots of game mechanics that pull you away from roleplay.

Which all roughly segues into the next (and final) challenge I dealt with: Resource management. It’s a concept that I’ve heard bandied about for a few different games. By my best understanding, it’s the notion that some game mechanics revolve around the accrual and spending of some resource. In D&D you have a lot of these: Experience Points, gold pieces, etc. Hell, you could probably argue that hit points count as a resource. In Nobilis you have miracle points. In FATE-derived systems, you’ve got these points. (FATE points, Style points, Merit points, whatever the hell you want to call them.) By accruing more of these resources, you become more effective in the game.

As a GM I tend to suck when it comes to enabling resource management, particularly with games I intend to be roleplaying heavy. I don’t think the realization really crystalized until this game. Because I play fast and loose with mechanics, I rarely call for die-rolls in roleplay driven games and I really get bored with minutiae, quantified resources are often less relevant in my games.

This would go a long way towards explaining why I’ve had such a disconnect with people who dislike the resource management aspect of Nobilis (as opposed to those who dislike the beautiful madness which is Rebecca Borgstrom’s Jenna K. Moran’s writing): In the handful of times I’ve played it (twice as a GM, once as a player under my lovely-but-not-rules-oriented wife), the Miracle Points were largely irrelevant. Most of the game revolved around basic social interaction. With a bit of finesse, it was easy to accomplish tasks with the abilities you had without having to drop a lot of MPs into it. You had to really, really want something specific and outrageous in order to burn through MPs. Similarly, when I’ve run something like D&D when it wasn’t beer-and-pretzels style play, I’m pretty blasé about silly things like gold pieces, experience points, whatever.

Strangely, the less roleplaying oriented games I run, like the World of Darkness game I run for the kids and the beer-and-pretzels games I’ve run, resources have been more relevant. The kids, especially, will go through great lengths to get more XP so they can learn more skills and powers to keep themsevles from getting killed in the very perilous supernatural underworld of Seattle.

Going back to the Aspects in the Amber game, I sort of shot myself in the foot with it. Because I didn’t really emphasize mechanics or the use of Aspects a whole lot, spending these points became less relevant and then there was less need to earn them. Clearly I can run a game where these resources are important. I just seem to lean away from it when there’s an emphasis on roleplay, story arcs, etc., as opposed to “ZOMG, mission/monster/villain of the week! Beat them up!” Part of it, I think, may depend on the sorts of players each type of game attracts. Another part may just be my ability to juggle plot threads in my head, or mechanics, but not both.

I find this aspect particularly frustrating, because I like to have some sort of mechanic or aspect of character creation that encourages players to develop depth and story hooks for their characters to make roleplaying more interesting. But if such mechanics end up less relevant because the emphasis is on social interaction and roleplaying, then such mechanics seem less meaningful. And I’ve found that just telling people, “If you do this, I will be able to make the game better for you” never seems to gather much energy. People like nuggets of power, not vague promises.

There’s clearly a middle ground, but I’m not certain what it is. I know that I’ve had a lot of insights into my GMing and the game mechanics I use for these games, but I haven’t figured out much regarding this particular aspect.

Big picture, then, is that I feel that there is merit to be had in some sort of system like Aspects or Drama Points or whatever for Amber, but I don’t know what it is. This worked better than my last foray into such a realm, but still wasn’t satisfying. At this moment I’m a little fried on GMing, so I’m not up for playtesting such mechanics into the ground. So I’m not immediately sure where to go from here. Clearly a large element of the problem lies within my own talents and limits as a GM, which makes it harder to figure out a good solution.

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