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.