Ruminations on Amber, Gaming, and other Stuff.

The Amber Diceless Roleplaying game is the greatest diceless RPG of all time. That is a statement of opinion but one that I will joyously discuss with anyone to explain the virtues of this most excellent system. To say that Amber DRPG changed my life would be a bit melodramatic. To say that it changed me as a gamer and a game master, not so much.

I had not even read the Amber novels when I was drawn into the game by the spectacular Phage Press ad which ran in Dragon Magazine. I was sold without even knowing the setting. I wanted to play this game with a “mature and demanding” character creation system and its weird auction rules that forced character creation to be both collaborative and competitive. As someone whose gaming life up until that point was dominated by D&D and GURPS, I couldn’t even imagine how profoundly I would be shaped by the ideas presented in that book and then explored through years of campaigns.

Amber is the prototype for me. It is my touchstone game. When I need inspiration, advice, or just to feel better about my hobby again, I go back to Amber. I’ve read about others who turn back to the first edition DMG, or other books for inspiration or to re-examine old lessons. That will always be Amber for me. There are sections of this book about loving your character, being an engaged player, how to navigate a game where – in all reality (realities?) – your chance of success or failure at any given task should be beholden to a hard and fast number on your character sheet. Only have a 25 in Warfare? Well, too bad the guy you’re facing has a 30. Except only sometimes.

When it comes to loving your character, the game is strangely light on mechanics. You have four attributes, a handful of vague powers, and maybe an artifact or creature or two, and that’s it. But characters that my players create in Amber feel alive in a way that transcends those simple numbers. I’m amazed by the response I get once I see the lightbulb come on in a new player’s mind at the contradiction inherent in Amber. For players used to heavily mechanical systems where their PC is covered in numbers and modifiers and feats and stuff… it is often a realignment to realize that they are now playing a virtual demigod who can make their own universes but that they will have to rely on their own imaginations to interpret, navigate, and negotiate for their successes rather than asking, “what do I learn with a 25 on my ‘I know stuff’ check?”

That sounds disparaging toward D&D, Pathfinder, and their ilk. It’s not really meant to be. I quite enjoy the new edition of D&D, have had a lot of fun playing Pathfinder, and some old school games like Adventurer Conqueror King System have become modern favorites of mine. It also goes without saying that some people just will not love the way Amber does things and they prefer a more mechanically sound system. Nothing wrong with that and nothing wrong with any of those games. But even for them I recommend trying an experience like Amber because it broadens your perception of gaming in a new way.

Amber did something for me as a player and gamemaster that I have to constantly remind myself of when I play and run other games. It made me realize that it really is okay to just wing it sometimes. Amber – as a system – legislates so little of what is available to characters as a choice or a range of experiences that it provides the perfect platform to explore the most ridiculous ideas. It almost invites players to make choices that lead the GM to lean in, smile, and say, “Yes, but…” One of my favorites is, “Well, you’ve never heard of anyone trying this before so, you want to do it?” Players love to answer that question with an enthusiastic, “yes.” They can’t seem to help themselves.

The other thing Amber does really well is that it builds a powerful, back door kind of trust in a gaming group. Because you know that the other players have hidden stats and unique traits that you know nothing about – and they certainly have secrets they don’t want you to know, there is a lot of acceptance of the inevitable in Amber games I’ve run. No one ever seems to expect an easy win or even a fair fight. We just go on blithely understanding that the universe hates us and we’re the ones who made it that way so it’s all our fault.

The implicit assumption of the typical Amber campaign, “What would another generation have been like?” is brilliant. It instantly binds a group together and tears them apart. It instantly provides a built-in mechanism for competition while also supplying a really good reason to work together. After all, we’ll never take down the Elders alone, right?

More than anything though, when I look at a lot of the innovations in modern gaming, a lot of the conversations I see going on around the web, I see the lessons my groups learned from Amber without even knowing we were doing it. The concept of fiction first play, the concept of narrative control, the concept of “Yes and…” and “Yes, but…” and the idea of failing forward all crept into our Amber games without any need to have someone spell it out for us or create rules for it. Amber is a game that almost inevitably leads to those types of play by its very nature.

This is not meant to sound smug but I think I often find myself surprised by a lot of games that fall under the “Story Game” label because they are held up as mechanically doing something that I often ask, “but haven’t we been doing that all along?” Again, don’t take that the wrong way, there are some ridiculously brilliant story games out there. Polaris is a work of genius that I wish I was playing. Trollbabe (Ron Edwards) is not a game I think I’ll ever play but I am fascinated by its structures and the way it gets where it wants to go. If you haven’t read Lacuna Part I, you are missing out. I’d read a phone book if Jared Sorenson wrote it… His games blow me away. There are plenty of others – those three just stand out to me as exceptional examples that I love to talk about.

Amber is also not the only diceless game I’ve run and played. Everway is a keen little game that may have been before its time. The Marvel diceless game that played with stones is one step away from being amazing (the basic economy of the resource was just wonky enough that it kept it from working well in play). Ultimately, these games were great examples of playing without a randomizing element (well, mostly) and they comprise a niche genre that I wish had more cachet with modern gamers.

What brought this on? Well, I’ve been quietly working on a little diceless game of my own for about the last two years and this weekend I’m putting it into the wild to be playtested by a group that I have nothing to do with. Totally hands off and external. It’s terrifying. (As an aside, I’m cripplingly self-loathing when it comes to my own work so I don’t talk about it much.) As I was writing I kept complicating things, tinkering, trying to account for everything. But I always just asked myself a simple question that kept the process moving, “what would Amber do?” It’s silly, but it kept me sane.

Amber is not only my favorite Diceless RPG, it is my favorite RPG. It feeds me and keeps me happy in a hobby that sometimes depresses the heck out of me. There are so many RPGs, so many games out there to play that we’ll never have time to play them all. No matter what though, I recommend to everyone that they make time to try Amber just once. Might just change your life.

Coming to Theory: A few thoughts

I am often skeptical of “theory” when it comes to gaming. While I agree that there is an art and a science to running a good game, the variety of what constitutes a good game and the ways to achieve that seem to be far more rooted in individual preference and group-based communication principles than game design…

That said, I am also fascinated by the variety of games in existence and the attempts to parse out the endless variety of “what happens at the table” into thoughtful mechanics. While I sometimes struggle with some of the more radical approaches to “story game,” I also find many of these creations to be overwhelmingly awesome in terms of what they are trying to accomplish.

It’s also fair to say that after more than 30 years as a gamer, I have only dabbled in design and find that it’s only in the last 5 years or so that I’m finding my way toward wanting to understand the hobby more through that lens. Going back to the beginnings of my blogging efforts, I wrote about my difficulty with the way attributes were represented in games and between 4th Edition D&D and Mutants and Masterminds I really struggled with the whole “RPG as Math Problem” question. I think the roots of this issue for me go back to John Wick’s series of game design journals when he set out to create Orkworld. I wish I could find links to those online somewhere still – they were some excellent work to consider for a person just starting to interrogate the hobby in new ways. My real awakening as a gamer came with the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. Amber taught me two things that have always stuck with me as being fundamental to a “good” game.

1. Player (and GM – though that is often easier to get) investment is more valuable to a good game experience than any system of rules or set of character options.

2. A small set of interesting (and largely freeform) options is equally – if not more – powerful for creating characters that players are deeply invested in and want to really experience.

Of course, these two points open up whole other volumes of questions. Why, with the groups I’ve played with, does Amber create such strong investment? Is it my passion as a GM when I introduce new people to the system/world? Is it the ridiculous ease with which new players can feel as accomplished as old hands due to the simplicity of the game system? Is it the epic power level combined with a freedom to create a character that just fits what you want without worrying too much about the numbers?

Also, as you can see from my notations above… my experiences with Amber have led me to a place where I find that the primary point of investment for players is their characters. This means creating characters that players are really happy with strikes me as being the first and most important inroad to getting buy-in with a game/campaign. As if it were always that easy, right? I suppose that this was also driven home to me the last time I played Pathfinder and I realized that having the option to swap out one of the halfling’s racial abilities to allow my halfling to have a 30′ speed made all the difference in convincing me to play a halfling. I love halflings but mechanically I have often felt compromised by playing one. To have such a simple freedom presented to me over what is – probably to many players – a minor mechanical difference just allowed me to engage the halfling in a new way mentally. My point is not that all halflings should move 30′ (they should!) from a balance perspective or that this mechanical change is the be all and end all of playing a halfling. My point is that a small change led me to a new perspective – mainly based around the fact that I could now mechanically choose to build the character I wanted (and without house-ruling).

As I ruminate on this, I find myself being pushed toward several other questions and attempts at personal answers. I won’t go too deep on any of these yet but I figure it’s worth putting out there to possibly begin some discussion.

1. I’m fascinated by the experiments in some games that work off the principle of allowing the play group to completely design the game world (or primarily design the game world) along with the GM. Again, I hearken back to the lesson of Amber. The game world is very well-defined and character options are admittedly few (you are most likely an Amberite or a Lord of Chaos) but within those bounds you have nearly unlimited freedom to engage your own imagination. Think of it as reversing the lamentation of the genie from Disney’s Aladdin. Instead of “phenomenal cosmic power – itty bitty little living space” it’s more, “boundless realms of imagination – highly bounded initial setting design.” Houses of the Blooded also does this well – with it’s concept of the Ven (that’s what you play – a Ven – there really aren’t other character options) but everything about how you structure your stories, the way the domains interact, all of it, is done in such a way as to create this feeling of wide open wonder that players can fill in with their own imaginations.

2. Heavy meta-plot is less effective than heavily implied metaplot(s).

3. The rules should get out of the way but still be present as powerful guides to play. Amber is a stark and startling case here. As a diceless game – with no “randomizer” to speak of, the game is very easy to play, creates caution and bravado in equal measure, and refocuses the action of the game off of combat as a primary solution to problems (not to say that there isn’t awesome combat in Amber, it is just approached differently). Ultimately, though, the difficulty here lies in the fact that the game requires the players and the GM to be very Active participants because otherwise it is all too easy to simply declare, “Higher Warfare? You die.” And that loses both the spirit and the joy of the game, which is alluded to and written about in numerous ways throughout the text.

4. I’m not so much interested in What players/characters do at the table (in-game) as Why they do those things. For instance, in Dungeon World, there is an attempt to take the standard “actions” that we often find players doing over and over in games (attacking, making knowledge checks, jumping over cliffs) and turning them into highly categorized “Moves.” D&D 4e also embraced this “What players/characters DO” idea in their attempt to create Roles that helped party members fill a niche like Defender or Leader or Striker. But I find that I’m less interested in the actual action a character takes and far more interested in what is motivating that action/what outcomes they are hoping for. This is a thought I hope to explore more very soon.

5. This one is personal – not really a tenant of good design or in any way necessary, it just appeals to me… but I like it when the writers of a game talk to me through their writing. The author’s/designers voice is very strong in early D&D and disappears more and more through the editions. In Amber, the writers are constantly talking to me about what is going on behind the rules. In many of the best indie games I read, that author’s voice conveying nuances of the game is something I love to have in my mind as I’m reading.

This is long. I want to come back to some of these thoughts and explore them in more detail. For now, I’d love to hear what any of you think.

As always, thanks for reading.

Character Class as Goal Setting

I’ve been writing long posts recently and I thought I’d take a breather and explore a small idea I had today.

Character classes are a strange thing. Some people absolutely hate class-based systems, some people love them. I fall into a bit of a middle ground. I find class-based characters to be interesting but I also enjoy the ability to make a completely freeform character.

At the heart of a lot of complaints about class-based systems (at least that I hear) seems to be the unnatural manner of “leveling up” which involves just spontaneously having new abilities when you hit the appropriate level and the oddity of being locked into a class progression for a whole game/campaign/whatever.

When I was playing Adventurer Conqueror King a while ago, I was really enamored of the classes and as I’ve been thinking a lot about domains for my current campaign (I’m back to messing with Birthright again) I find that there is another small angle that old school puts on character class which I’d never considered before.

What would happen if we viewed character class selection through the lens of goal-setting?

That is to say; what if we looked at a player’s choice of class as a series of goals which are accomplished as the character levels?

Suppose, for example, that I choose to play a fighter in ACKS. I’m saying something immediately with this choice. I want to be tough, fight on the front lines. strength is probably my best stat and I intend to use it.

But I’m saying more. I’m also saying that I want to develop certain abilities across my career. I’m saying that my gold is going to get saved up to buy a certain kind of stronghold and that I might have dreams of conquest. I’m saying that I want to grow my character into one of the best warriors in the world.

These things happen as a natural part of leveling. I get better with weapons, I gain certain abilities, and eventually, I attract the followers I need to staff my stronghold. But instead of seeing these things as part of a rigid progression which forces my character down this path, what happens if I start down this path with the thought that the end is actually where I want to be? It’s a very small perspective shift really. I imagine that some players always make their characters this way.

Try it out the next time you are considering what class to play and see if it changes your thinking about your character. Let me know if it does.

Thanks for reading.

Interesting Times – The Campaign Newsletter

Around the year 2000, my girlfriend was going away for the summer. In order to stay in touch, I planned to write her a series of letter-style short stories which would seem to come from a fantasy world based on the city we lived in and its surrounding areas. I only did a few of those – but the planning for that project led directly to the creation of my longest-lasting homebrew world, Irona, which became the setting for my 3rd edition D&D games and later was adapted to work with Warhammer Fantasy RPG, second edition, 4th edition D&D, and even Barbarians of Lemuria as I tried out all of those systems.

Over the last 14 years, Irona has grown and changed quite a bit. I’ve tinkered, jiggered, added in suggestions from players, built histories and delved back into the past. Ultimately, it’s become a big place with a lot of information written about it.

As I started my 5th Edition D&D game, I went back to Irona and my creations there. I decided that I was going to start over – in a way – and begin the game with the same timeline and set up which originally shaped that first 3rd edition campaign. After all, only one of my players had ever played in Irona before – this is an almost entirely new group with no history or connection to this world.

And as that presented a problem of its own, I dug into my DM toolbox and pulled out another old tool I hadn’t used in a long time – the Campaign Newsletter – an information sharing technique I’ve used with several games before and that I find very helpful. I thought I’d take a minute to explore my way of structuring one of these, show an example, and offer my insights about what works and what doesn’t. I’d also love to hear anything any of you are doing in a similar manner.

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Appendix R: My Gaming Inspirations (week two)

I was eight years old when I got my first D&D box set. So I date that as the beginning of my time as a gamer. Really though, I’d been introduced to gaming even earlier with Dungeon (the 1981 Third Edition) and Fantasy Forest from TSR, as well as copies of the RPGs owned by my friends. And I’d been introduced to fantasy from the time I could understand movies and stories by a mother who instilled a deep love of all things geeky in me.

And I was one of those kids who, when I got ahold of the reading lists offered by the games of the time, well, I just wanted to read it all…

…and one of the earliest and longest-lasting relationships I made with books in those days was the work of James P. Blaylock.

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5th Edition D&D: Mourning Low-Level Play

So far, my admiration for 5e D&D has probably been pretty obvious on my blog. I’m really enjoying the game I’m running and overall, my perception of the way the game plays is very positive.

But I do have, I suppose, one complaint. It’s a really personal complaint so I don’t expect it to resonate with everyone… But it has been a stark moment for me.

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Appendix R: My Gaming Inspirations

I was eight years old when I got my first D&D box set. So I date that as the beginning of my time as a gamer. Really though, I’d been introduced to gaming even earlier with Dungeon (the 1981 Third Edition) and Fantasy Forest from TSR, as well as copies of the RPGs owned by my friends. And I’d been introduced to fantasy from the time I could understand movies and stories by a mother who instilled a deep love of all things geeky in me.

And I was one of those kids who, when I got ahold of the reading lists offered by the games of the time, well, I just wanted to read it all…
…And Peter S. Beagle, while probably not the most profound influence on my style of gaming, is probably the most long-lasting and joyous influence on my love of fantasy.

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Deities and Design

I used to worry a lot about domains. When doing world building or even just character creation, I often found myself thinking about deities in terms dictated by their portfolios more than their personalities. And by their portfolios, I mean their domains. This is an affliction tied very much to the concept of domains as mechanical effects used in 3rd and 4th edition D&D (and Pathfinder) but I can see its influence in many types of design and even fiction. It’s important to have boxes we can put ideas in. Portfolios for gods serve many purposes in design and discussion.

Creating a very defined portfolio for our fictional deities is useful because it provides clear talking points for the faith. When I explain my storm god to a gamer trying to make a cleric it is pretty easy to say, “well – just imaging Thor and that’s a good place to start.” But as I mentioned in my last post, expectations can be fluid between my image of Thor and my player’s image of Thor. I mean, I might have read a lot of Thor comics and the old Deities and Demigods entry about Thor but my player might actually read Norse mythology… Turns out Thor was associated with a lot more than storms. Hold that thought… I’ll be coming back to it.

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That Fifth Ed Feel…

So I’ve started a D&D 5e game. And I like it. I’m a fan – as my review noted – but now with character creation and two full sessions under our belt, it seems that 5e is going to work for me. A few of my immediate observations, which I’m looking forward to writing about more, have to do with the incredible ease of character creation (the first player I helped create a character we were done in under 10 minutes), and the easy, freewheeling sense I have that I can just do whatever the heck I want (and so can my players) during a session. I don’t feel the obsessive, painful need for three full working days worth of prep just to get an adventure right. Maybe I was doing that to myself… but maybe the games I was playing had something to do with it as well. I think it’s a little of both.

Anyway, my real inspiration for this post came when one of my players – during character creation – asked a pivotal question of his fellow gamers, “Do you pronounce it Drow or Drow?”

The range of responses was pretty spectacular, from “what is that?” to “Oh, definitely this way.” to “does it matter?” Of course it matters!

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5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons Review, Part Three

Whew. Been sick as a dog for going on two weeks now. It’s been unpleasant. Finally, here is the last part of my ruminations on the new, 5th Edition Player’s Handbook.

As I mentioned in my other posts, I’m a huge fan of what I’m seeing from 5e. I’ve also alluded to the fact that some of my favorite changes are in the way magic works. I finally get to talk about why.

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