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Sunday 10 May 2015

10th Anniversary Rant: Amber: The 23-dagger Solution to The Swine (or "That Time the Pundit Vampire-LARPed")

There's a thread going on right now on about the Amber Diceless RPG. In it, a number of whiny bitches are misleading some poor guy (a certain AJFixer) who asked what was great about the RPG. They are responding by talking all kinds of shit about the game, MY game, probably the best RPG of all time.

There is a word for these people: Swine.
But there is also another word, and that word is "Losers". Not in the general sense, but in the very specific sense that I figure most of those writing on that thread are people who have LOST at the game of Amber, which is different than most RPGs in the sense that there are very clear winners and losers, and that the players compete to win and lose.

This is one of the brilliant things about that RPG, it creates a competitive atmosphere of paranoia that, well, puts a game like Paranoia to shame. It creates epic combat that makes Exalted seem like the cheap Dragon Ball Z knockoff that it is. It deals with archetypal themes and epic myth without having even a drop of pretentiousness (unlike say Nobilis, which attempts to do the same and instead ends up with something closer to a Dawson's Creek fan club than Mount Olympus).

And finally, it does scheming and plotting in a way that makes Vampire look like a kid's game.

Ah yes. This fact hit home to me a year ago, when I actually participated in a Vampire LARP. Yes, me, in a vampire LARP. I did it mostly because some friends of mine were doing it, and I was only in it for a few months.
In any case, I hadn't played Vampire in years; and here I went in, and in my first session with hardly a drop of effort I had engineered a plot where I ended up (through a series of double-feints) taking the position of Seneschal, without ever having publicly postulated for it. Within a couple of months, I had overthrown the prince, and even though my plot was found out I was untouchable because of the contacts I'd carefully established with the elders. All this in a game I am well known to despise and without really giving a shit; in other words, without even really trying.

So basically I, of all people, pwned about 30 vampire players at playing Vampire.

How did I do this? Simple. Years of playing Amber. These guys' plots were infantile compared to what the Elder Amberites (or any PC Amberite worth his salt) do on a regular basis in any decent Amber campaign. Manipulating them all was unbelievably easy, when one was used to trying to manipulate generally far smarter Amber players.

And that's what pisses the Losers off more than anything. I would wager that most of them came from a few (or a great many) campaigns of Vampire: The Masquerade, where they pranced about in full pretentiousness and engaged in very "clever" conspiracies to replace the Prince's blood with beet juice or to make the Toreador have a slightly embarrassing incident at the art gallery. They came into Amber convinced that they would have no problem with the scheming, plotting, manipulating nature of the game.

The problem is, sending vampies into an Amber game is a bit like taking people who've been trained in scheming through the inter-office politics of their Ladies' Club, and putting them into the court of the Borgias in the Italian city states. They might think they're hot shit, but they're actually children, and the Borgia will eat them alive.

(These two?  They make any Vampire ever seem about as Machiavellian or threatening as Linus from Peanuts by comparison)

So all these stupid "dark" motherfuckers think they're going to play a gracious and oh-so witty game of showing up their fellow Amberites, and in the first five minutes of the game they end up with 23 stab wounds in their back and groin and find themselves being thrown into the "inescapable" abyss while being courteously told that all the people they've ever cared about will be systematically assassinated one at a time by a strange faceless rubbery demon. (this is a fairly survivable and rectifiable situation in Amber, in case you didn't know)

(and quick, kiddies, just from my description, guess which elder Amberite I was thinking of as the mastermind of that plot?)

So of course, the vampire-swine who thought he would be king of the castle ends up getting his pseudo-intellectual ass handed to him on a platter, and notices that there's very little preening in amber, and hardly any prancing or flouncing (except maybe for Julian, when no one is looking), and decide that Amber must be a "bad game".
Right... its the game that's at fault.
Not your inability to actually play it well.
You stupid gang of shitheads.

"wahh waahh the ranks are bad, first place always wins". Wrong again, shithead. I've beaten more first ranks (and seen more first-ranks beaten) than I could shake a stick at. In my Amber campaigns there have been countless occasions where the guy who was 1st in warfare, or strength, or psyche, got his testicles caved in by PCs who didn't have a single 1st place rank, even by PCs who were drastically underpowered.
The point is, Amber forces you to actually think and work out environmental or conditional differences that take away the first-ranked player's advantage.

"wahh waahhh its all DM-fiat"
What? Don't you lily-livered narrativists LIKE DM-fiat? Aren't you always playing "experimental" Forge games that are all about the "narrative" and containing much flimsier excuses for systems than Amber's system, which is actually complete and well defined?
Oh, I see. You like that, IN THEORY.
Like communism works, IN THEORY.
The problem is in your theory, the DM fiat was made so that you in particular would get to show off your own special snowflake rainbow-wonderfulness, not so that you would get your spleen chopped into little bits by the much smarter Amber player to your left.

In reality, the DM has no more "fiat" in Amber than in any other game. Often, I've found he has less. Amber is like Chess. There's not a lot of "fiat" in Chess. You make your moves, the opponent makes his, and there are some very set results. There's little objectivity necessary once you qualify different attacks into grades, and compare them to the difference in ranks between the two fighters' attributes.

Yes, Amber does require a GOOD GM to be run well. Its not for beginners to DM (though a beginner certainly can play). But that's nothing to do with any question of fiat.

"waah waaahh in Amber the player who is most social or smart irl will win!!"
Damn right they will. So what? The fact that there's an RPG out there that actually is set up so that social or mental defectives need not apply is to me a source of constant comfort. Yes, the way Amber is set up, you as a player have to be smart IRL (that's "In Real Life"). And you have to have social skills.
Isn't Vampire all about social skills?
Oh, wait. Guess not. Its actually about simulating social skills with d10 rolls. How very "sophisticated".

So basically, Amber does what a game like Vampire only ever claimed to do. It's truly smart. Truly Machiavellian. Truly based on social interaction. Truly innovative as an RPG, too.

Vampire, for all its blowing of its own horn, had nothing particularly innovative about it. The essential system, of rolls and checks, was the same at the skeletal level as D&D or any other RPG. Most RPGs are basically the same, rolling dice to add/subtract/compare to statistics.

Amber is one of only a very tiny handful of RPGs that can claim true innovation on the level of system. None of the Forge games that I've seen can, neither can any of the White Wolf games. And this just kills the Swine.

But what REALLY kills them is that Amber is not pretentious in the least. It doesn't proclaim itself art, it doesn't put down other RPGs, it doesn't wrap itself in the bad misquotes from goth-favoured poets. It just does the fucking job.

If Swinedom is the disease, then Amber is the cure. Its no surprise that many of the people behind D20 are fans of the game. Here's hoping that Guardians of Order, who have just about built their company around the love of the Amber game, will be able to get over their financial issues and release a 2nd edition of Amber, unsullied by the massive efforts of the swine to subvert it (and believe me, on the old GoO boards, they have made every effort). And meanwhile lets hope Mr. AJFixer and curious people like him look elsewhere than Swine central for an honest opinion of what Amber is all about.


(Originally posted August 27 2005)


  1. So you keep talking about Amber but I still have no idea what it's about or what the point of the game is. And don't direct me to the novels 'cause I'm not gonna read 'em just to see what a game is about.

    1. In brief, the point of the game is that the PCs are all members of a large dysfunctional family of immortal demigods, who have centuries-old issues with each other (not to mention father-issues) and who fight for position, petty vendettas, and sometimes true power over the throne of the very multiverse.

      Just like the greek gods do in Lords of Olympus.

  2. How are things resolves sans dice?

    1. Through actual ROLE play. The more descriptive and detailed you are, the better you do. Attribute Rank also plays a part in this; though can be subverted through decent ROLE play. Basically, the less dependent you are on random outcomes, the better your chances at Amber/LoO.

    2. So what happens when player A says "I beat the shit out of character B" and player B says "No, I stab character A in the chest."

    3. If I was GM, my first question to both would be "ok, HOW do you do that?" In an Amber game (counting Lords of Olympus) you need to be more descriptive.

    4. Okay, then they describe how and then what resolves it? Your response is a non-answer

    5. Pardon for the intrusion and absolutely unacceptable English, but the need to answer such a question is more powerful than staying reasonable.

      One must remember that Amber is a very narrative game. Let's put more emphasis on this fact. Amber is VERY narrative. Descriptions, staying in role, preparing the scene and using whatever is available at the moment are as crucial as character's actions and their outcome.

      Effectively, Amber is played by people who put plenty of effort into style. Simple "I'll gut this fookah with rusty knife of mine" won't do. You're there to explain how suddenly get up on your feet, jump over the table and while in mid air, you're pointing your only weapon - old, rusty knife that surely had seen better days - in the direction of your opponent's guts, trying to stab him like a giant bee.

      ...only to find yourself piercing the air, since the enemy is there no more, he disappeared before your very eyes, courtesy of his high Warfare.

      ...surprised, you're almost off balance, but since you're no beginner (and your Warfare rank proves that), you're landing on your feet and make a wild slash in one of two directions your enemy has to be now...

      ...and so on, and so forth.

      Even if it's Juggernaut vs Hulk, there's still a stream of descriptions behind their titanic punches and angry roars. It's Inigo Montoya vs the Masked Man and their mastery of swordplay when they fought on high cliff. It's James Bond's or Jackie Chan's control over the surroundings. It's whole history that paved the way for the duel between Musashi Myamoto and Sasaki Kojiro, not those three or four slashes that ended the entire fight

      It's about descriptions and style, even if you simply sneak and emerge behind the back of some guard, only to pull some fast technique (courtesy of Krav Maga like combat) resulting in his instant knock-out.

      You might say "screw it, every fight would be mentally exhausting and there's the risk that it'll take ages to complete". Yes. It's possible, but insane as it might sound, that's why you've chosen to play this game. Because you appreciate the fact, that even simple encounter is never "that simple" and might result in something unexpected if you'' let your guard down.

      BTW, here's a simple example of combat, written by someone who know both English and Amber far better than I'll ever do:

    6. In every case, you have to describe in careful detail what you want to do (that's the Players job, in Amber/LoO). The GM then assesses what you are doing, what the opponent is doing, what pre-conditions exist for both (is either injured? Exhausted?), what ability/attribute they are using based on the type of action they're taking, what their relative rank/class in that attribute/ability might be, whether either is taking advantage of some detail of their environment, or have any other form of help or hindrance in the situation, their relative state of endurance vis-a-vis their level of injury or exhaustion, and finally if there is a significant disparity of stuff/luck between the combatants.

      He then judges the result of that specific exchange; this might change some factors for the subsequent actions each character takes (for example, if one or both just took a new injury, or shifted/were-shifted to a more advantageous or disadvantageous physical position in the environment, etc), and he goes on from there.

      In Amber, part of the problem that caused the accusation that "its just comparing ranks and that's it" is that Erick Wujcik put a lot of the guidance for how to run combat in very non game-type form, and often in his examples (which people often skipped over rather than read). You kind of had to deduce how to run things through careful analysis of his writing.

      In Lords of Olympus, I made a real effort to be less abstract and much more direct about how to run the mechanics of conflict using the rules and why it is definitely NOT either 'highest rank always wins' or 'just GM fiat'.

    7. Cool, thanks for the informative answer!

  3. I'd be interested in reading your opinion on Lords of Gossamer & Shadow and how you think it compares to the original Amber game.

    1. I know you didn't ask me, but LoGaS is basically the same game without Zelazny's setting. Its nice but doesn't have the same sparkle (for me) and not *quite* the same level of scheming and inter-party paranoia... but if you've never read the Amber books it'll probably seem much better. But if you're an Amber fan, it'll always be the poor cousin.

      Personally if I was taking a system like that and adding a new setting, I'd want to go all mythological and do scheming gods.... Hmmm, maybe something Greek? ;-)

    2. I had pointed out in the G+ thread on this blog entry, and i don't know if you were the same one who asked there, that I think LoGaS is awesome. But it focuses (very well) on the "multiversal adventure" rather than on what I think is the real central theme of Amber itself: a dysfunctional family of incredibly ruthless powerful people.

      If what you want is that kind of Machiavellian RP, I think that's where Lords of Olympus wins out. You can't beat the Greek Gods.

    3. Thank you. Now I have an excuse to check out both LoGaS and Lords of Olympus.

    4. Word of advice...

      Before embarking on a journey into the reality of Gossamer and Shadow, make sure to come up equipped with a few realities of your own. As in: something more than merely "uhhh, you know, it's friggin' big Sagrada Familia-like fortress floating in the darkness and it's, ummmm, floating... Also Smurf cyborgs".

      Underdeveloped and therefore boring worlds are the scourge of multi-reality settings.

    5. Smurf cyborgs would be awesome

    6. Add Gargamel as half-insane, cyber augmented shaman/bounty hunter (along the lines of Lundgren from "Johnny Mnemonic" movie) and you have the perfect recipe for quite an interesting session. :]

      Both "Nexus: the Infinite city" and "Over the Edge" seem like a good choice of settings for such a story.

    7. Thomas: Glad to hear it!

      Bucyrusmines: That's good advice in general; it's also why in Lords of Olympus I detail a number of important realms and locations.

      Over the Edge is another favorite game of mine.

    8. Plenty of developers forget that short, one paragraph descriptions (along the line of Mike Resnick's introductions to his characters and environment) are enough to give overall idea about whats and hows but not much more.

      While it's ok for a quick trespassing, players (and player characters) require much more than that to operate freely in new surroundings, decide what their next action is supposed to be, form some long term plans, etc, etc. No matter how creative their Storyteller is, inventing a coherent, plausible and deep reality on the fly is damn hard and here's where detailed (or at least "rich") descriptions are indispensable.

      Amber RPG? Powerful background. Not only Amber Chronicles, but also plenty of Zelazny's other works fit the reality very well. For example "Jack of Shadows", or "Creatures of Light and Darkness". Books like those two practically beg to be re-created as some shadow worlds of Amber.

      Similar case with Olympian adventures. Didn't have chance to read LoO so far, so this is purely assumptious (let's hope this is the correct word), but there are tons of material for it in form of original Hellenic mythology. Unless, of course, you steered its world away from traditional stories towards even more fantasy, but even then it's almost 100% possible to recycle originals.

      This can't be said about plenty of other games - their worlds/realities are too vague, too blurred to be of much value. Such products stand little to no chance to gain much recognition and attract followers for more than a few sessions.

      Thanks for the attention, Bucyrus out.

    9. 90% of the stuff on the Gods in Lords of Olympus is taken right from different parts of Greek Mythology. As you say, it's a rich source. And LoO may be the most complete RPG book on the Greek Gods ever.

  4. I had exactly the same experience with Vampire (both TT and LARP) back in the day with the White Wolfers. Amber is great training for your intrigue and persuasion muscles - at the table or IRL ;-)

    Amber is a truly great game and for me it's Erick Wujcik's magnum opus (Zelazny's too for that matter). Because of the competitive play and the fact there's no certainty to anything and no dice to take you out of your character's head, my group hasn't found anything in 20 years of gaming that can match it for invoking fear, worry, paranoia, passion and tension in players. I can't recommend it enough. Plus it has the best GM's section I've every read, which applies to just about every political/intrigue game - not just Amber itself.

    1. Can't disagree with any of that. Have you looked at Lords of Olympus?

  5. > and quick, kiddies, just from my description, guess which elder Amberite I was thinking of as the mastermind of that plot?

    Interesting. MO would suit Brand very well. Yet, Caine seems like a good match too.

    And the answer is...?