“The place plus everything else …That is Amber.”

This last weekend I picked up a couple of game books. My intro got long, so I’m putting the whole damn thing behind a cut. What’s behind the cut? A couple mini reviews and some commentary on baggage with roleplaying games.


The first book I got was the Runner Companion for Shadowrun 4e. I’d been waiting almost since the 4th edition came out for two sourcebooks to come out: this one and Unwired. Instead these two books were the last they put out in terms of “core books.” (That’s another rant entirely.) Unwired still sits in my box, since I couldn’t afford to get all the books that had come in for me. But these two books represent the last of what I’d want for playing Shadowrun. (Well, aside from awesome roleplayers who could also handle the mathastic rules for SR in order to play an off the beaten path, roleplaying intensive game. Especially one that had nothing to do with shadowrunning. I know the common question: Why don’t I play Shadowrun with a different system or just put the elements of the setting I like into a rule system I like? It’s complicated. Another time.)

There are lots of things in the new Runner Companion I don’t care for or care much about (yet – that could change), but the the rules for non-standard character types (metatypes, SURGE changelings, drakes, AI, free spirits, etc) just totally rocks and I’m glad they finally updated these to 4e. Lack of backwards compatibility between editions of games, especially games set in the same universe, drives me nuts. One of the sadder moments I had in playing D&D 3.X was the realization that my first character (the Bolthy for which I will always be known) could not be updated with any degree of accuracy to 3rd edition.

And then there’s Houses of the Blooded. I’ve had very complicated feelings regarding the game. As a long time fan of John Wick’s earlier works (especially 7th Sea and Playing Dirty), I was quickly excited when I read his initial descriptions of the game. But after about a year of reading his blog, combined with playing some indy games and seeing the style of game he was making Houses into, I was much less excited. I still planned on buying the book, but I was getting grumpier about it as time went on. A friend tried giving me a copy of the PDF to stave off my frumping on the topic (since I was belligerently planning on buying the book, but was already cross about the cost of the book since I was unlikely to get much use out of it). But I’d already put in my pre-order at my FLGS and I wasn’t really getting much use out of my PDF. I procrastinated on trying to get a printed copy of it to read. I could have done it, I just didn’t.

And so… I bought the book.

I’ve been doing something that I almost never do with game books: I’m reading it cover to cover. If I was going to be cross about it, I wanted to have a firm basis for more ire. What I found was that it’s pretty fun to read. I think I’d been far enough away from Wick’s blog that I’d decompressed enough to enjoy it. Reading the setting chapter reminded me of what originally appealed to me about the setting. Compiled into one place, approached as a whole, I found that it was lush and beautiful. I’d been a little dubious, with his claims of it being historical research and his examples of their language. It could have crumbled under pretention. But instead I was drawn in. It’s lush and beautiful, tapping into the same place in my heart that loves 7th Sea, Nobilis, Exalted: Fair Folk. The rules… I’m still not happy about. The core mechanic is elegantly done. It is perhaps the coolest story game mechanic I’ve seen as yet. But, as I’ve whined repeatedly, story games don’t scratch my roleplaying itch. They can be fun, but only in the same way that miniature combat in D&D 4e can be fun.

As the book’s gone on, the momentum spurred forward by the love of the setting has diminished. The Revenge and Romance chapters slowed it a bit. The land management rules a la Settlers of Cataan are grinding my joy to a halt.

On the other hand, the book has given me some great ideas for D&D games set in Shanri.

I’m tempted to write a review of the game, especially since the only thing you really turn up for it are occasional discussion threads and one review on RPG.net based off of a playtest. But I can’t decide. I’ll hold off until I’ve at least finished reading the book. I’m hoping the chapters after “Seasons” pick up significantly.

But, as Arlo Guthrie has said, that’s not what I’m here to tell you about.

In trying to find reviews by other people about Houses of the Blooded, I’ve infrequently come across the comparison to Amber. To some, Amber is pretty much synonymous with screwing over your friends. It’s one of the things I’m most commonly asked about when people who play other roleplaying games are curious about Amber. And since I’m such a vocal player of Amber, surely I must be hip to Machiavellian scheming.

I honestly don’t like those games and it isn’t why I play Amber. Mostly I’ve just had some bad experiences from both sides of the GM screen. As a GM running PvP games at Ambercons, I’ve seen the lameness of players come out in those games and I’m just tired of it. As a player in those games, I generally get routinely screwed. I’m not ruthless or cunning enough for those games and so I always regret playing in them. To the point where it’s one of a couple categories of games that I actively avoid at AmberCons.

This is not to say that I want Amber games to be a hand-holding drum-circle peacenik experience. I love friction between characters and that break away from the “party” mentality that is prevalent even in games like World of Darkness. I love contentious relationships, conflicting agendas, etc. They are the grist for exciting and engaging inter-character drama. But there comes a point for me where it goes from being good natured one-upmanship to doing something that will severely impact the fun of the other player. The full-on PvP style of play is something I’ve mostly only encountered in con environments and even then not so often. It is very rare to run into it in games that aren’t flagged “Throne War” or the like. And in ongoing campaigns, I’ve almost never seen it. (Note the bitter keyword “almost.”) Having it blindside you is like having a friendly game of water polo and having someone deciding it would fun to hold another player under the water and laugh while the person flails and panics.

If this was just a game of screwing your neighbor over, this wouldn’t be a problem. But it’s a game that encourages you to love your character and people come to really love their characters. (If you thought “Let me tell you about my character” was lame when you’re talking to D&D player about their 20th level paladin with a flying unicorn mount, you’ve never been cornered at breakfast by someone who wants to tell you about how their daughter of Florimel outwitted Bleys.) When another player surprises you by horribly maiming your character… that’s rough.

Primetime Adventures introduced the term “ensemble cast” to my vocabulary and, looking back, that’s what the best Amber games have represented for me: characters that are thematically linked, often facing a common plot but not under the contrived mantle of an adventuring party or a team of mercenaries or a coterie of vampires. In the best games there have also been personal subplots tailored to your character, introducing things for you to struggle with and tough decisions to make.

This highlights a larger problem of the baggage that games accumulate. ogremarco pointed out to me once how hard it is to run a game with an established canon, especially if you want to run contrary to canon. I hadn’t quite believed him until I ran an Exalted game for a couple die hard Exalted fans. Their knowledge base was damn useful when I wanted some filler information about the setting that I didn’t care about. It was a challenge when I was trying to change something about the canon.

Plus there’s the culture that a game attracts. Shadowrun or D&D tends to attract a certain style of player. I know wonderful people who do not fall into those stereotypes for those games, but they are more the exception that proves the rule. Which is great if you are looking for an old school D&D dungeon crawl. You pull a note card off of a game store’s bulletin board advertising a game starting up, you kinda know what you’re gonna get. If you’re a roleplaying obsessed dork who only has minimal interest in a hack and slash game that doesn’t involve alcohol… well, disappointment time.

Amber has both problems, sometimes in unusual ways. There are, at the very least, two sets of canon. There’s the original novels and then the version of the canon you get from the game book. There’s often that nebulous canon that people carry with them based heavily off of the first game they played in. Trying to have a consistent setting for your own game is a particular challenge. Experienced players are used to running into different opinions about canon, so they will know to ask some questions to clarify. But sometimes someone just goes in thinking they know the setting and ignore dissenting opinions. I’ve had a few occasions where someone’s just plowed ahead and I just couldn’t tell if it was the player or the character was just being belligerent. (Another post: Learning to ask questions before the scene spirals out of control.)

With this is the very diverse opinions of what you do in an Amber game. I sign up for a game at Ambercon where we play canon characters. I go in as Random with the intention of smarming about, gesturing with a cigarette a lot and trying to solve the GM’s plot. Someone else comes in as Julian with the intention to sneer, make snide comments, solve the GM’s plot and have Random’s head on a pike by the end of the game. (Surprise!) The whole head on a pike thing can be a buzzkill if it’s not what you went into a game expecting. (“The game description said ‘Mystery’ and ‘A festive romp in Castle Amber!'”)

I have no great solutions on how to help communicate setting to players: what you’re changing about assumptions to create interesting background, what has stayed the same, doing so without telegraphing the plot you’re presenting, etc. You do handouts, the players don’t read them. You try to have it come out through roleplay and the players misinterpret it. As a player I try to ask lots of clarifying questions: Is this something our characters would know? What would be the appropriate form of address for this situation? Is this still true in your game universe? I find it useful, but not all players approach games the same way I do.

Nor do I have any great suggestions about finding out what players want or expect from a game. I’ve often asked players what their limits are, what they want out of a game, whatever. Sometimes I get a good answer about it. More often I don’t. Sometimes the players are bad at communicating it. Sometimes the players don’t realize they need to say “I don’t want other players to put my head on a pike” until someone puts their head on a pike.

*glances up at what he’s written*

I don’t know that I’ve come to any great insights or said anything noteworthy, but maybe someone can find sense from the madness I’ve spewed. I’m starting to fade. I think I’ve had too much sugar at the Wayward tonight.

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