If there is one game I could say that I love more than any other, it would be Amber DRP. Based on the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny it is the game that still challenges and fascinates me after all the many, many times I’ve run it. I could ramble on pleasantly about the Amber novels for a couple dozen posts but if you know Amber already then I don’t want to take up your time. If you don’t know Amber already then stop reading this post, go out and get the Great Book of Amber and start reading! Seriously. It won’t let you down.
But what about the game? Well, let me say that it is the game that taught me what I really want out of gaming. I’ve had some excellent GMs who have run some excellent games and I owe them all for helping me as a gamer but I’ll put this out there — I learned more from reading, running, and playing Amber than any other game.
It’s hard to quantify what, exactly, it is about Amber that still amazes me so much. It is a very different kind of game. I think one place to start though is right on the back cover of the book. As part of the back cover text is a list of features of the game and one point there describes it as, “A mature, demanding, and time-consuming system that puts character development above all else!” (the bolding and exclamation points are like that on the book…) That statement says more than anything — I think — what captures me about the game. Simply, the game expects you to come to the game with a mature attitude, it expects that if you are playing the game you are committed and actual want to be playing the game, and it expects that you’re willing to be invested in your character. Each of these are ideas and ideals for gaming that I highly appreciate.
Gaming Without Dice?
Yeah. Amber is the game that began my lifelong love affair with diceless games. It’s important to distinguish this point — when I say diceless I mean, without dice, cards, spinners, coins, rock-paper-scissors… no randomiser at all. I’ve seen the word diceless attached to game using cards and that’s not really the same thing. Amber works well as a diceless game for two mechanical reasons. There are a host of non-mechanical reasons that Amber works as well as it does but for this post I want to focus on the mechanical stuff.
First, building off of the implied hierarchies of ability in the Amber family, when you make a character in Amber you are “ranked” in each of your attributes. So once a ranking is established it becomes fairly easy to compare the level of ability of competing characters (I’ve left out several layers of complexity here for the sake of simplicity in my explanation). One thing that does bear discussion is the Attribute Auction. When the game begins, the players all use a pool of points to build their characters but the first part comes as the PCs bid against each other for their rankings in the four main attributes. It’s an amazing mechanic that immediately builds a sense of drama and identity into character creation (and really forces the player group to actually be together for character creation, something I also value highly).
Second, Amber has a mechanic I love that is simply called “Stuff.” Your character can have Good Stuff, Bad Stuff, or Zero Stuff. Stuff takes the place of the random element in Amber. See, if you have Good Stuff the universe likes you and things tend to fall your way. Bad Stuff is the opposite. Zero Stuff is always an interesting choice because it means that your character ignores fate, destiny, and the interference of the universe and forges their own path. Stuff is such a simple idea, so elegant in execution with such a silly name and it just works. These days we all talk a lot about how games should “have mechanics that do what we want” and “letting the player tell the GM exactly what they expect in the mechanics” and “letting the rules legislate our play” and here’s Amber, doing it better than I think I’ve ever seen before or since with a very simple mechanic that conveys more in one application of points than most other rules that take up a 500 page rulebook.
The main thing I love about the Amber game though is that the rules are full of stories, and tips, and suggestions, and ideas. The game book is practically a primer on great roleplaying at the same time it is a set of game rules. And the game isn’t full of “little rewards.” The game never talks down to me, never holds my hand and pats me on the head for being a good little player. The game establishes that what it’s about is making a character, loving your character, and playing your character… something that I try to establish at every table I join.
I could go on and on about Amber, discuss all the systems quirks and nuances, but really, it’s a game that you either love or not. It relies on proactive players, mature GMing, and a willingness to accept that rules are less important than rulings (while still giving you a great framework to make rulings from) and that player skill is something worth growing and nurturing — not shying away from.
In other words, it is my perfect game.
Thanks for reading.
PS – of course, I’m starting to believe it might actually be my perfect game since my own attempts to work on a diceless game always leave me feeling inferior compared to Amber… oh well, I keep plugging away.