Diceless Play, Choices, Amber, and Reinventing the Wheel

Ask anyone who plays with me and they’ll tell you — I’m an Amber guy. I’ve read the first five books of the series so many times I can practically recite them, I’ve passed them on to at least twenty people, if not more — and I love the Amber DRPG. So I’ve been reading along as Tommi Brander has been posting about his recent experiences with the game. I’ve been enjoying the read, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the game lately as I’ve been tinkering with the idea of systems again.

Amber is the game that taught me how to be a Game Master. I mean, I’d run games before Amber, and I’d run some good ones. I’ve run other games since and some have been a lot of fun — but Amber taught me the lessons I’ve really taken to heart. I learned how to say Yes (which is interesting since I hate the “always say yes” mentality and what it does to games). I learned how to make players feel like their characters really mattered. I learned how to make personal impacts be the most important stakes PCs face in a game and how to make that count. I learned how to wing it and not get bogged down if I make a mistake as the GM. I learned how to be tricky and sneaky without abusing player trust… this list could go on, but it makes a point.

One of the important things I’d like to point out is that last one. In Amber, the rules and the expectations that come with them, make it possible to pretty much pull whatever you want out at a moment’s notice — and doing so judiciously can really change the stakes in any encounter, from social to combat. And it can be done with the players full cooperation. The funny thing is — even after GMing for 20(ish) years, I still can’t just do that in other games… I feel like, if I let an NPC do something, I have to be able to explain it under the rules and it must be something a PC could do, with the right (mechanical) powers and inclination. Now, I realize that in Amber this is tied up as much in setting expectation as it is in actual mechanics, but this mental block still frustrates me as a GM even though I am actively aware of it. Why? Because I’m a really fair-minded GM. And because as a player I tend to expect the same from the GMs I play with. I want a game to be internally consistent. It doesn’t have to be realistic, or make sense outside its own context, or be like any other game — but internally, within itself — I need it to be consistent.

And ultimately, this is also my problem with Diceless systems in general. I’ve played a few others besides Amber — as far as I know, there really aren’t that many of them. I’ve played Everway (though technically it can use a randomizer, of sorts, with the cards), the Marvel supers game that used Stones and measured everything in terms of Effort (actually a good game, the mechanic almost works just right), things like the WoD MET (again, has rock-paper-scissors), and the original Cthulhu Live which just had static traits and a “is it higher” mentality. I’m sure I’ve missed something on this list, but these are the standouts. The point being, Amber works as a completely diceless game because of its internal expectations. The attribute auction is sheer brilliance. It sets up a sense of competition right from the beginning, it creates a clear hierarchy of ability (while still allowing for secrets), and it serves a solid mechanical function in setting up the resolution mechanic for attribute contests. The resolution mechanic ultimately falls a little flat without the ranking idea. But this mechanic only really works because of nature of the setting material. Without that connection the auction idea becomes a little odd. Imagine a standard D&D-style fantasy game with the Amber auction mechanic… does it work for you?

Then there is the idea of Good Stuff/Zero Stuff/Bad Stuff. This mechanic takes the place of ‘randomizer’ in the game and allows PCs to set their own luck (as it were) by choosing to have good stuff (things just go your way), bad stuff (they really just don’t) or zero stuff (you make your own way without the vicissitudes of fate). The GM uses your rankings, raw score, and Stuff all jumbled together to decide how actions come out — with the additional layer of Roleplaying — added on top. I used the big R because that’s the point. If you are really into it and roleplaying then you can usually get more out of a scene than the numbers might imply. It was interesting to read a piece by Wujcick (Amber’s designer) that was linked by Tommi Brander (thanks for that) where that actual topic seems to be discussed. The value of being invested deeply in the game is implicit in all parts of the Amber DRPG system — and investment is actually one of the reasons I don’t really run the game much anymore. It’s hard to find players who are willing to be deeply invested in a game. Read whatever you want into that statement, I’m not taking that any further.

As I played around with making my own games (once upon a time) and I’ve been tinkering with some system ideas since then, I always consider how much I’d enjoy writing my own, completely diceless game — but my attempts have shown me that it is frustrating and full of pitfalls. Since this is getting a little on the long side I’m going to leave off here and when I get back, I think I’ll discuss how skills are a problem in diceless play (in my mind) and how Amber sidesteps the issue (thus being absolutely no help at all).

Thanks for reading. And in the meantime — check out Tommi Brander writing about Amber, it’s a fun read.


2 responses

  1. how many times have you read the second five books? 🙂 I really loved that series to, so much so that in our runequest games back when I was in high school that I created trump cards form the “visual guide to castle amber” for use in our game.

    I am intrigued by this game and have been looking to score a copy, although it seems like I might not be the best gm for the game I need a little more structure and am not the best with too much improvization

  2. I’ve only read the second five about four times all the way through. I’m not as big a fan of some of the changes made to the underpinnings of the universe in the second five, and Merlin is often portrayed as kinda, dumb for plot’s sake. Though I do enjoy getting to see more of the Courts of Chaos — and honestly most of my campaigns revolve around the Courts.

    I highly recommend the game (obviously, right?) and I think you can get it in pdf form from DriveThruRPG (and the Shadow Knight book). You might be surprised at how smoothly it plays… maybe.


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