The year 1991 gave the hobby two radical roleplaying games. Both focused on plots, intrigue, and story. One was Vampire: The Masquerade
, which introduced us to the World of Darkness and playing monsters almost as a kind of unnatural superhero roleplaying game, and did so in a stunning looking book. It would go on to win the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Rules of 1991
. The other was Amber Diceless Role-Playing
, which as the title suggests, was radical in a wholly different way.
Amber Diceless Role-Playing
is a licensed roleplaying game based on the Chronicles of Amber
, the ten-book series by Roger Zelazny. The books are set in the one true reality that is the kingdom of Amber with every other world or realm being a reflection or ‘Shadow’ of the kingdom—including Earth—all the way out to the Courts of Chaos. Amber is ruled by one family with many members who plot and scheme for the throne and who have mental and physical powers that are almost godlike. Not only that, but they also have the ability to walk through and manipulate the Shadows after having walked the Pattern, a symbol of the order of the universe, as well as use Trumps. These are playing card-sized decks illustrated with members of the family which can be used to contact each other, transport between their respective locations if they are willing, and even scry on each other—if they are careful. Given their long life and their ability to step out into a Shadow where time might run faster, an Amberite can also have almost any skill he wants, but ultimately that skill may not matter against the true mental and physical abilities of an Amberite. There are seventeen or so brothers and sisters in the Amber royal family, all the children of Oberon, the first King of Amber who has disappeared at the time of the first book, Nine Princes in Amber
. However, the players do not take the roles of these princes of Amber, but their children, and they can be as fractious as their parents and their aunts and uncles—and even towards their parents and their aunts and uncles. The fourth novel in the series, Hand of Oberon
, asked, “What would have another generation have been like?” Amber Diceless Role-Playing
sets out to answer that question.
A character or Amberite in Amber Diceless Role-Playing is defined by four attributes—Psyche, Strength, Endurance, and Warfare. Warfare covers fighting and strategy of any kind; Endurance is health, fortitude, and tenacity; Strength is raw physical power; and Psyche is mental strength and ability with a host of different magical powers. A Player Character begins play with all four attributes at Amberite level, which means that he is capable of defeating almost every person or creature that he might meet out in Shadow. At that level though, any Amberite with a higher value—even a slightly higher value—in an attribute will nearly always beat him. They can also be lower—Chaos or Human level. However, most Amberites will have attributes higher, much higher. Plus, there is no limit to how high an attribute can go. A Player Character can also have Powers. Pattern Imprint and Trump Artistry are common to most Amberites, whilst Logrus Mastery and Shapeshifting are found amongst the members of the Courts of Chaos. All are incredibly powerful and can be used with relative ease, often reflexively once known, whereas Magic takes time, effort, and study. Magic comes in three forms: Power Words are instantaneous effects primarily used defensively, Conjuration covers the creation and empowering of artefacts and creatures, and Sorcery details more complex, but inordinately more time-consuming spells. In addition, a Player Character can have allies, his own Shadow, and signature artefacts—arms and armour are common since swords are the most often wielded weapons in the setting.
Character creation in Amber Diceless Role-Playing is not only diceless, but co-operative and adversarial. Diceless because no dice are rolled, co-operative because it done together, and adversarial because the Player Characters will be better in one or more of the attributes than their cousins. This is because character creation is handled as an auction, the player bidding in each of the four attributes, if not to be the best, then at least be better than their potential rivals. This automatically sets up rivalries between the characters with the players outbidding each to see whose character is the best. Points bid are lost—or rather expended—to determine where each of the Player Characters ranked in terms of the four attributes, with a higher ranked character nearly always able to beat a lower ranked character. However, a player can decide to pass and buy up to just under another character’s in an attribute and do so in secret, adding a degree of uncertainty in deciding or knowing who is better. Then beyond the four attributes, a player is free to purchase the Powers, Shadows, allies, artefacts, and so that he wants his character to have. The problem here is that no player has enough points for all of this.
At the start of the attribute auction, each player has one hundred points on which to bid on his character’s attributes and purchase his powers. Each of the Powers is really good—and that is before a player considers the advanced versions, and the auction can get fiercely competitive, especially in the key Psyche and Warfare attributes. Options then might be for the player to decide to buy down at attribute, either to Chaos or even Human level. Then a player might opt to help the Game Master by contributing a diary or keeping a campaign log, or even writing poetry or stories, or he might opt for his character to have Bad Stuff. Essentially, Bad Stuff is bad luck and means that things invariably do not go the character’s way and that he suffers from a poor reputation. Should a player have points left over from character creation, they are converted to Good Stuff. Having Good Stuff means that the things invariably do go the character’s way and he benefits from a positive reputation.
Edmund grew up an orphan out on a Shadow and only began to discover his heritage when he found Witherbrand, renowned for its cutting remarks, which began to teach him about the true nature of the universe. He has yet to discover which of the sons and daughters of Amber is his true parent and that is his primary goal.
PSYCHE: 5th [16 points]
STRENGTH: 5th [5 points]
ENDURANCE: 3rd [10 points]
WARFARE: 3rd [24 points]
55 Total Points in Attributes
Pattern Imprint [50 points]
WITHERBRAND – Sword [14 points]
Deadly Damage [4 points]
Able to Speak in Tongues and Voices [4 points]
Sensitivity to Danger [2 points]
Shadow Path [2 points]
Alternate Forms, named and numbered [2 points]
Bad Stuff [1 point]
Personal Diary [+10 points]
Mechanically, in Amber Diceless Role-Playing—because it is diceless, a character can do almost anything as long he has the capability and can narrate it, and long as it is not challenging or he is not opposed. Further, Powers such as Pattern Imprint and Logrus enable a Player Character to literally manipulate the worlds around him. If a character is opposed, combat can ensue and whilst the character with the highest rank will likely win, there are circumstances when another attribute will influence the outcome. For example, in a contest of Warfare, the character with the higher Endurance might be able to outlast his opponent or laying his hands on his opponent with his higher Strength defeat him in a grapple. Like the rest of the game, combat is handled narratively, whether that is simple matter of affirming that a Player Character defeats an opponent out on a Shadow or when faced by one of his rival Amberite cousins or an agent from the Courts of Chaos, played out blow-by-blow, right down to the stances assumed and the manoeuvres made. If this sounds all too simple, then on one level it is. Yet, at the level of the blow-by-blow account of a duel—whether using swords, armies, magic, or even wits, it is far from simple. It takes narrative skill and judgement upon the part of the Game Master to unfold the outcome of such an encounter effectively and reasonably—though not necessarily fairly because stories are not always like that and a Player Character may just have some Bad Stuff which will probably influence the outcome too.
Fortunately, the handling of combat is liberally illustrated with not one, but eight examples of play, depending on the skill of the combatants. It is these examples where Amber Diceless Role-Playing begins to shine. There are not just examples of combat and of play, but a complete example of auctions for all four attributes, followed by examples of the Game Master working through the resulting characters with her players to get better more playable results that match their concepts. In addition, all of the Powers and the types of magic are explored in depth and detail, not just to understand how they work, but also how they can be brought into a campaign in interesting ways to challenge the Player Characters. To be fair, the advanced versions are not explored in as great depth as the standard versions, but the likelihood is that few of the Player Characters are going access to those at the start of a campaign. This is followed by an examination of twenty of the Elder Amberites, including different versions built with differing number of points, suggesting their roles in a campaign, and what each would be like as a parent. Plus allies and artefacts. Any fan of the Chronicles of Amber will enjoy both the examinations of the various powers and the Amberites in particular, especially the latter where the designer begins to diverge away from the baseline narrative and point of view that is Corwin’s in the first five books of the series.
For the Game Master there is advice on running the game, which though may look obvious today, at the time of roleplaying game’s release would have been perhaps not quite as widely accepted. Much of this caps the advice throughout Amber Diceless Role-Playing, covering character backgrounds, outline hints for the rules of engagement for character information, choices, and other narrative elements. It even goes one step further into the radical by suggesting that “The best kind of roleplaying is pure role-playing. No rules, no points, and no mechanics.” and the playing group best ditch everything from character creation, points, magic, rules, and even the Game Master! This though may be step too far though given how much of a step change even the diceless, narrative style of play in Amber Diceless Role-Playing would have been at the time of its publication.
Rounding out Amber Diceless Role-Playing is a set of three scenarios, each of a differing nature. ‘The Throne War’ is an experimental way to play, intentionally designed as the opposite of an atypical game of Amber Diceless Role-Playing. In this, everything from attributes to Powers is up for bid in the auction and the Player Characters are actively campaigning—and thus the players playing—against each other in a bid to become King of Amber. As the first scenario in the book it is literally a swerve away from the way the game is typically played and is not really suitable as a first scenario. It is followed by ‘Battleground on Shadow Earth’ which is framework for a battle between Law and Chaos which the Player Characters need to cleave through to get to the source of the problem. The third scenario, ‘Opening the Abyess’ which does open with a deus ex machina, but is otherwise a better plotted and more interesting set-up at the very least, which the Game Master can extend into a campaign.
Physically, Amber Diceless Role-Playing is clearly written and laid out with some excellent black and white artwork. In terms of tone and style, it is clear that the author loves the Chronicles of Amber and is thoroughly engaged with the series and wants the reader to love it just as much. This infectious pervades the pages of Amber Diceless Role-Playing from start to finish and the book is an immensely enjoyable read.
If perhaps there is a downside to Amber Diceless Role-Playing, the most obvious is that the roleplaying game is a step too far into the radical and away from the accepted notions of what a roleplaying is and how a roleplaying game is actually played and run. They should have dice and a resolution mechanic, and the players should not have to compete for aspects of their characters like their attributes. Yet make that a hurdle to overcome and is it really a downside rather than an adjustment to be made, even if one that is not for everyone? Perhaps then the downside is the evangelising tone which the author of Amber Diceless Role-Playing takes in places, such as when it pushes the aforementioned radical step of ditching the rules or describes Amber as the grandest of settings or when it states that it is the Game Master’s job to encourage and teach good roleplaying and is accompanied by advice on how to deal with players who prefer bashing monsters, are indifferent, or rules lawyers. Perhaps it does go too far, but is it any worse than any other roleplaying game designer espousing ‘the one true way’? Certainly there have been plenty of tomes of advice on being a good Game Master and a good player, and the differences between them and Amber Diceless Role-Playing look negligible in hindsight. Lastly, there may be an issue with just how much detail there is in Amber Diceless Role-Playing and that it does not cover everything in the Chronicles of Amber in sufficient detail. Fair enough, but it is just the one book. There is Shadow Knight, a second supplement which explores the Courts of Chaos in more detail, as well issues of the fanzine, Amberzine.
Dirk DeJong reviewed Amber Diceless Role-Playing in Challenge Issue 65 (October 1992) as a fan of the novels. He identified that, “The biggest problem with this endeavor, and its downfall, is the nature of the conflict systems. First, they are diceless, and don’t involve any sort of random factors at all, aside from those that you can introduce by roleplaying them out.” …although he countered with “Admitted, this does force more cautious play, as most fights are simply to test your opponent’s prowess, rather than for your blood.” He also said, “In Amber’s favor, I have to say the gamemaster help sections, the sections for players on how to be better roleplayer, and the amount of time spent on how to really create a flesh-out character were excellent. If more RPGs had this quality of work and obvious love of roleplaying put into them, the entire industry would benefit.” In his Evaluation, he said, “As to whether or not you should buy “Amber,” I have to profess that it is really up to you. If you love Zelazny and the Amber series, jump on it, as this is the premier sourcebook for the running an Amber campaign. Just don’t expect miracles from the game system itself. Personally, I just can’t get tuned on by a system that expects me to either be content with a simple subtraction of numbers to find out who won, or to describe an entire combat blow by blow, just so that I can attempt some trick to win. In my final estimation, the good and the bad pretty much balance out, leaving me with “Zero Stuff.””
Amber Diceless Role-Playing was given a feature review in White Wolf Magazine #31 (May/June 1992) which included opinions from multiple contributors. The lead reviewer, Steve Crow readily identified flaws in its auction attribute system, the combat rules and firearms, and the fact that “Amber is not a game for beginning gamemasters or players. Understandably, it is impossible to deal with every permutation of Zelazny's concepts in 256 pages. The gamemaster must have a good grasp of the material. If nothing else, he’ll need to know the material so he can explain it to theplayers and interpret their actions.” He concluded though with “Amber is, overall, an appealing game. It encourages the use of imagination, character development, and problem solving. Its main flaw is that it is, more often than not inaccessible to novice gamers and individuals unfamiliar with Zelazny’s work. It is undoubtedly a game for experienced gamers. While I would not recommend Amber to novices, it is a must buy for experienced gamemasters and players looking for new challenges.” He gave it a rating of four.
Sam Chupp also gave Amber Diceless Role-Playing a rating of four and said that, “This is a game for expert roleplayers, people who have outgrown Monty Haul and killer-dungeon style games and who are looking for something challenging.” Mark Rein-Hagen increased the rating to five and said, “Amber is an extraordinary game. Not so much because it is well put together and fun to play (though it is), but because it is something entirely new.” describing Amber as “…[A] revolutionary work in roleplaying, deserving the highest accolades, but it is pioneering work and is not all it should be. I can hardly wait to see what is coming next. Whatever it is, it will owe a great deal to Amber.” before concluding that, “If you want to see what roleplaying might someday become, read Amber.”
However Robert Hatch only gave Amber Diceless Role-Playing a rating of three, saying that “As a sourcebook for Zelazny’s world, this product is unparalleled. As an actual game - well, it's not one, really, any more than a Choose Your Own Adventure book is. While Amber could work in the hands of a very talented GM, I think all too many other campaigns will fail.” Lastly, Stewart Wieck was more positive and also gave it a rating of four. He said, “The game is certainly most valuable and understandable to those who read and enjoyed Zelazny’s exciting books, but the roleplaying conventions employed and introduced make this a game that really needs to be investigated by anyone interested in seeing this hobby develop. Additionally, the game would be less with dice.” He finished by saying, “In the end, Amber can be approached one of two ways. Either read it merely as an experience in “mature” roleplaying, or prepare to dig in and enjoy a long and complicated campaign.”
Amber Diceless Role-Playing was reviewed not once, but twice in Dragon Magazine #182 (June 1992). First by Lester Smith, who wrote, “As impressed as I am with the game, do I think it is the “end-all” of role-playing games, or that diceless systems are the wave of the future? I’ll give a firm “No” on both counts. First, the AMBER game is pretty much Amber-specific.” and “Second, as fun as the AMBER game can be, there are certainly times when I’m not up to such intense role-playing and would rather take part in a dungeon crawl.” He concluded that, “…[T]he AMBER DICELESS ROLE-PLAYING game is destined for great popularity and a niche among the most respected of role-playing game designs.”
This was followed by a second opinion from Allen Varney. He was clear that, “The “attribute auction” in character generation is brilliant and elegant.”, but criticised it because, “Advancement comes slowly, perhaps too slowly. Players have little idea how their own characters improve, let alone other players’ characters.” He also advised that, “…AMBER game clearly targets the most experienced GMs (and players!). But it’s tough work. Proceed with caution.” Overall, he commented that Amber’s “…[B]old approach unsettles me. Politically, I must applaud the dominance of story values over rules. The text offers copious advice, including scripts that advise GMs how to stage a fight at varying levels of detail. But I betray my upbringing. I keep looking for a way to sequence combat, hit points, and all those training wheels I grew up with.”, before concluding that, “Yet the intensity of the AMBER game indicates Wujcik is on to something. When success in every action depends on the role and not the roll, players develop a sense of both control and urgency, along with creativity that borders on mania.”
Loyd Blankenship reviewed Amber Diceless Role-Playing in Pyramid #2 (July/Aug., 1993). He stated that “Amber is a valuable resource to a GM - even if he isn't running an Amber game. For gamers who have an aspiring actor or actress lurking within their breast, or for someone running a campaign via electronic mail or message base, Amber should be given serious consideration.”
Amber Diceless Role-Playing is a fantastic sourcebook for any devotee of the Amber Chronicles, presenting the setting and its very many characters in an accessible fashion and exploring every facet of both them and their powers. However, when it came to the gaming, Amber Diceless Role-Playing broke every conceived notion of designing a roleplaying game, for although it had rules, it had no mechanics in terms of a resolution system, no means of randomly generating the outcome of an action. Instead, its resolution system consisted of the roleplaying skill and storytelling ability of both the player and the Game Master, as well as the capacity of the Game Master to interpret and narrate the rules and narrative as fairly as possible. In doing so, it not only emphasised storytelling capacity and skills, but demanded a high level of trust between player and Game Master that they both be the best roleplayers that they could. This is perhaps as demanding and as pure a roleplaying game as ever there was in making such demands.
As a roleplaying game based upon the Chronicles of Amber, there can be no doubt that AAmber Diceless Role-Playing is a superb adaptation, and a satisfying examination of the setting and characters of Amber. As a roleplaying game or book just to read, it is an engaging, even enthralling joy to read from start to finish, whether in the rules examples and ideas or its exploration of the setting. Few roleplaying games are quite as much fun.
In 1991, Amber Diceless Role-Playing was a ground-breaking design and it looks as radical now as was upon its release. Many of conventions ideas have been disseminated into designs since, but Amber Diceless Role-Playing was the pioneer.