What Amber Does to Make it Work (A Diceless Design thinkpost)

This may be a little bit stream-of-consciousness rather than a deeply organized look at what makes the Amber DRPG successful as an rpg. I’ve run and played Amber a lot(!) over the years — sometimes going for stretches of years where it was the only game I was running. And Amber is an odd duck. It is difficult to really get a grip on the “mechanics” of Amber and yet, it plays well and has an internal consistency that is intelligent (and hypocritical when necessary).

Before coming to Amber DRPG — I was a player of D&D and it’s clones, Star Wars D6 system, Battletech, Shadowrun, and had forayed into the World of Darkness (mostly Mage, I loved me some Mage)… I had tinkered with Witchcraft, Castle Falkenstein, Teenagers from Outer Space, HERO System and GURPS (loved me some GURPS too) and others — so I had some solid grounding in games with dice and even cards. I point this out because Amber — without dice — is the first time I’d ever really felt like I was a Great GM, and it was also the first time I felt like a Great player.

But how does it work? Well, without rehashing the Amber system here (and if you know nothing about Amber then I’d send you to Cogito, ergo ludo where the author has written several interesting posts about the Amber system and is interested in diceless as well). Feel free to check those out — but I’m going to try to focus down a little and see more “inside” the Amber system. I hate “game theory” style posts, so I’m hoping this will be more practical than speculative, but we’ll see where I end up.

Part One: Every Lock on Every Door is Important
In Amber, the basis of every task resolution is comparing the abilities of two characters. On pages 105 to 106 of the Amber rules is a very interesting discussion of picking a lock. The difficulty of picking a lock is set by the Warfare attribute of the lock’s builder. What this means is — you won’t find any tables in the book full of the “standard DCs” for different difficulties of locks… Every time your character attempts to pick a lock you are comparing your Warfare to the Warfare of another character in the universe…

But what if a lock really is just, you know, a lock? Well, if that is the case, then why make it an obstacle at all? If the player’s ability to pick the lock is a foregone conclusion — why bother with rolling the dice? And if a lock is important enough that its difficulty is important to the game, then it should be more important than just “Lock, hard: DC 30.”

Now, this works in Amber better than in some other games because the game system itself assumes that any PC can effectively have any skill — and probably is a master of those skills they do have. Just comes with being immortal and having access to limitless universes to play in… this becomes much more difficult to successfully model for a game designer looking to create a system where PCs have concrete skill numbers and use those skills in a more “realistic, normal people” kind of way.

But the concept is still sound. Especially in light of the sheer number of variables and opportunities that playing this way creates. Because even though the basis of Amber’s system is, for example: “compare Warfare vs. Warfare” that’s not even remotely where task resolution ends.

Part Two: Stuff

In Amber, characters make their own luck. Or, to be more accurate, they buy their own luck. (Amber DRPG 25)

Characters in Amber have a trait called Stuff. They can either have Good Stuff, Bad Stuff, or Zero (0) Stuff. From a math point of view, Stuff is simply the number of points you have left over after creating your character (or the amount you are in debt from overspending). Stuff is hopefully not an accident of character creation though. The choice of how much Stuff you have should be something you are making as you plan your way through the character creation process. If you want to be lucky, have good karma, and have the universe tend to smile on you no matter what — you take Good Stuff. If you want to have a little rougher time of it, have the universe coming for you, and generally have people frowning behind your back no matter what you do — you take Bad Stuff. Zero stuff is a sign that you are independent or unconcerned with the whims of chance and you make your own way — you have neutral “luck” as it were.

Stuff is used in the game system as one part of the means of determining the intangibles often left to dice in other games. Just look at how the system sells Good Stuff to players:

No more bad rolls! They never have to worry about things turning out badly just because some regular solids roll badly on a flat surface. (25)

Obviously, I was sold on this idea immediately… I like diceless. But there is another important component to Stuff that goes beyond the rulebook (sort of). Each group of players sets their own bar for good/bad stuff. That is to say, just like Lockpicking in part one, there is no chart that says, “Bad Stuff 1-10 pts = X penalties, 11-20 pts…” You get the idea. Let’s say in your group that one guy has 1 point of Bad Stuff and another guy has 20. Then let’s say that they are in a contest where all other things are equal… See where this is going? And there is no concrete limit on Stuff. You could have 100 points of Good Stuff and be the luckiest guy EVER — unless everyone else in the game has 99, then you’re just a little more lucky. I appreciate the fact that the game scales to each group playing it. It works well in play (in my experience) and it is a very interactive element for players, which I also appreciate — but it’s not fiddly.

This is long, so I’ll come back to other thoughts later.

Thanks for reading.

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One response

  1. I picked up a copy of the game from the link you left. In reading the post I began to wonder how much the setting contributes to the success of the mechanics and sort of mirrors the Aberites, for example no one was going to challenge Benedict to a sword fight because they new he was the best, even one-handed.

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