Some Realizations

Had a couple thoughts that have been bubbling up regarding the gaming aspect of roleplaying games and how that indirectly ties into Amber Diceless.

The first isn’t really a new revelation. It’s something I’ve snarked about before, that nebulous line between “roleplaying” and “game.” Between a few conversations with friends, plus a blog post that a friend linked to, the game aspect of the hobby has become more in my attention lately. For the most part I don’t tend to think about that too heavily. It’s not overly relevant to what I like to get out of my games, aside from some exasperation with friends who prefer the game side of things. The rise of technology doesn’t aid my roleplaying in any sense. I’ve run a freeform game where Eric Cartman, Yoda, Doctor Doom, Lady Macbeth and an undead Abraham Lincoln were on a team in the suburbs trying to rescue the Jewel of Judgement. I can’t just pull that out of my head an put it into an AR environment or cute iPhone app. (Well, not yet anyway.)

And, as an aside, I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of “games” in general. I like video games or the occasional pickup game of Lunch Money. I like to go to game nights at friends’ houses and try out a bunch of stuff. But most of the time I’ve found that when you have a get together and someone pulls out a board game to “make things more fun,” the fun socializing tends to diminish. It may be replaced by the fun of the game, but it definitely kills the momentum of fun from earlier. This doesn’t even go into the Demetri Martin philosophy of, “All games are essentially ‘which of my friends is a competitive asshole?'”

And yet… the game is what makes this a business and an industry. It’s what you sell and how you make money, regardless of what form it takes. D&D, Star Wars Saga Edition, not to mention many story games, are tightly crafted games. It is something you should buy in order to play the game.

There is not as much “game” in something like the new World of Darkness and significantly less in Amber Diceless. It’s a basic system to resolve conflicts, and otherwise you are left to do… whatever the hell you want. Which I love. But I can also see it being a harder thing to sell. First off, if you are a guy walking in off the street and come across some roleplaying games, D&D makes sense. You make a hero with some friends, another friend sketches out a dungeon, you go into the dungeon and kill monsters. You make up a little bit of story to go with it, and maybe have your character say things. Hell, there are video games that do just about the same thing, so it’s an easy leap.

(In fact, one of the early things the kids liked in the kids’ games I ran was that they could go off the map in ways that the video games didn’t let them. They could finally beat the crap out of those unhelpful villagers who didn’t have a lot of information.)

Amber? You don’t need a book to play Amber. Especially not a 256-page book. Probably not even the amount of space used to explain the rules in the book. I can verbally explain damn near all of the rules of Amber. (The chief exception being the item and creature rules.) Most of the book is filled with suggestions on how to adjudicate the rules, roleplaying tips, different approaches to statting out the canon characters and some story seeds. I’m not sure what a newcomer to RPGs would think picking up a copy of Amber Diceless. Or even some of the other less game-y RPGs. “So, you make a character… And the GM creates this big problem. Your character’s stats are almost meaningless. You mostly just play 20 Questions trying to guess what the GM imagines is the solution to the problem? I paid $30 bucks for this?”

So it’s with a certain level of sobering realization that I see why D&D sells significantly better than some of the roleplaying-oriented games. Well, aside from the fact that roleplaying is a weird hobby that most people don’t get in the first place. It goes right on the shelf with improv and community theater. Oh, and those weirdos that do costuming at conventions. (Like my girlfriend.) D&D is a great game. World of Darkness is… improv with a dice mechanic and the GM having a bunch of secrets.

(And, as an aside, I do recognize that none of the “roleplay” oriented games specifically foster good roleplay. I’ve played in plenty of hack-and-slash Vampire and Amber games. I’ve played in the occasional roleplay heavy D&D. But overall I’ve found that the games foster different cultures and the D&D rules, especially in 4e, have a much larger emphasis on combat. I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but really all I’ve got to go on is my inflated opinion of my ideas. ;))

Conceivably these games could become more game-like, embracing the “system matters” mantra and create tightly crafted works of gaming. Vampire: The Masquerade could become an elaborate story-game where you are in a constant balancing act between your ability to feed, your political aspirations and your sense of humanity. Amber could become… well, Houses of the Blooded.

Such a situation reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Pride and Prejudice:

“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

It’s not that I specifically dislike games like D&D or the like. They just… don’t do well at providing what brings me to the hobby.

So, the indirect connection to Amber.

I tinker with Amber a lot. It’s a simple enough system that it’s easy to tinker with.

The rules defines your character abilities in damn broad brush-strokes. To the point where you find your character good at things that may not fit into your concept. I know many GMs that don’t like merits/flaws that are happy to let you hamstring your character without any recompense. But that always feels like a one-way ticket to misery-ville. I’ve done it a few times, and invariably regretted it when the GMs handed me a problem outside of my narrow focus.

Overall I like the ability to tailor your character to your desires, and encouragement to have plot hooks and problems part of your character. I think they make for better play and adds more depth, and sometimes you need to put a carrot out there to encourage people to do that. If you put it on the character sheet, players will use it.

Over the years I’ve played with alternate stats, specialty systems, flaws, alternate item rules.

My most recent Amber games specifically have used some variation on drama points. I tried just flat drama points in lieu of XP awards for contributions in one campaign. In my more recent game, I tried using Aspects instead, to try and add more variety. There were some serious execution flaws on my part in both instances, which can be easily addressed.

But, more significantly, I think the problem I ran into was ignoring the strengths of Amber specifically. What makes Amber fun for me is that invisibility of the rules. Everything, including the combat, is all narrative. What little adjudication comes up is handled easily by the GM, since the system is so simple. All you need to do is roleplay.

Having Aspects or Drama Points in play makes the rules significantly less transparent. It brings it out of the realm of roleplay and into the realm of game. And I don’t want that. I like the encouragement to think of your character in greater depth, but I don’t like the roleplay being interrupted by negotiation of drama points or whatever. But without a carrot (or a stick), those background elements lack teeth. Players invariably start to turtle up once you start poking their backgrounds.

There is probably a way to do this that I’m not thinking of. Anima Prime showed me that you can have mechanics that encourage roleplay that don’t get in the way of roleplay. But I don’t know how to apply that to Amber while still maintaining the spirit of the game.

6 thoughts on “Some Realizations

  1. admin Post author

    Re: … just to say …

    I’m glad you like it. After I had a nap and thought about it some more, I was half debating deleting it because I was sure it was crap and people would poke holes in it.

    Yeah, being home sick gives me time to doodle on the Internet more.

  2. mtfierce

    But is that how people RUN Amber, let alone play it?

    I want an Amber game that makes me think, where I’m rewarded for really working with (if not through) the other players. Where we’re using the narrative to collaborate from that ineffable concentrate of being in a shared headspace.

    I don’t get them – we have Throne Wars and dungeon crawls and the highlight seems to be, “Can we outthink the GMs puzzle? How many times and different ways can we hit the stupid door?”

    I don’t know if it’s the rules, or the lack of them. Habit? Are we hobbled from more “traditional” rulesets?

    (I am ABSOLUTELY guilty of this same behaviour, and it’s why I refuse to run Amber anymore until I can break myself of it.)

    (And I don’t mean to sound angry. I did yell at someone for looking to me as “GM” for permission the other day in another game, when they had control of the narrative, but again, “breaking” is definitely the word for it.)

  3. admin Post author

    Is “stats don’t matter/20 Questions” how people run Amber? Often.

    Is it descriptive of most Amber campaigns I’ve played in? Pretty much. The only time stats really mattered were when you really sucked at one.

    Is it descriptive of most games I’ve played at cons? Ish. Not always.

    Is that how games went playing with Erick? In the weekend I gamed with him, that was my impression. He was an excellent storyteller, but was very much the sort of GM that his game encouraged.

    Is it in the rules? It’s the sort of game that seems to come out of what you read. You’re told to have a big, epic threat to encourage the PCs to set aside differences and deal with it. One of the examples given is a giant dragon devouring all of Shadow, and the only thing that will stop it is to destroy this innocuous jar that one of the PCs has. (Can you imagine what that game must have been like? How maddening it must have been to be the players in that game?)

    Throne Wars, to be technical, involves players trying to outsmart each other. It’s a different sort of beast from the “standard” Amber model.

    I’ve tried running a game where there wasn’t a big threat, just a series of smaller threats. It kinda sucked. It just sorta meandered, didn’t have teeth and didn’t have a clearly defined end. We just wrapped a few things up and then killed it. There’s probably a middle ground, and I think Cort sought that out more successfully than I did. But I like having the big story arc to define things well.

  4. admin Post author

    I think the other part of this is: What sort of game do you see fulfilling that?

    I mean, there’s probably a bunch of story games that build off of player collaboration to one level or another. Primetime Adventures springs instantly to mind, since you don’t have a win/fail system and everyone is contributing suggestions on how to resolve it. But that pulls you away from roleplaying and into game and (dare I say it?) director stance. Where your head is less in looking through your characters eyes and more in “what would make this a great story.” The latter is a good thing to keep in mind when roleplaying, but it’s a very different emphasis in something like PTA.

    If you’re wanting to maintain a roleplay-heavy model, you need to approach it differently. What sort of challenges can the GM present you with that don’t involve guessing games or outthinking his (or her) puzzles and encourage working with the other players and makes you think? For a narrative arc, there needs to be some sort of challenge, whether it’s a mystery to solve, an enemy to overcome or whatever. Without the conflict, I think you risk it either meandering mindlessly or becoming a scenery-chewing circle-jerk.

    Also, I should ammend my previous comment: In campaigns I’ve played, stats also mattered when another PC or PC-scale NPC came after you.

  5. admin Post author

    You know, looking back at my post, I realize I should have said, “So, you make a character… And the GM creates this big problem. Your character’s stats are almost meaningless, even though the GM told you that each one was the most important attribute. You mostly just play 20 Questions trying to guess what the GM imagines is the solution to the problem? I paid $30 bucks for this?”


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