Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Review of Amber Diceless



Amber Diceless is one of the most interesting games I've read. It has a highly original and distinct self and a powerful, coherent and forcefully presented point of view on what a game is and should be.

I had an equally powerful reaction to it. I was deeply impressed by large parts and almost revolted by others.

It is a very primal game. I'm not deeply read enough in RPG history to say this with absolute conviction, but, based on what I do know, Amber seems unlike anything that came before it and seems to have had a huge influence on many strands of thinking that came afterwards.

A big fat game from the 90's golden age of big fat original ideas, it stumbles into our Age of Rust like a charismatic megafauna into a rotting theme park.



COMPLEXITY

Nothing is ever simple.

Amber has 4 stats, 3 kinds of universal magic power, no dice and it takes 250+ pages of US Letter Size to tell you what to do with them.

One of interesting the ways it does this is with an extensive range of typed 'actual play' dialogue segments. I have never seen them used with such frequency in anything else. Few pages go by without a living example of the rules in the text. I think some elements of the rules might show up *only* in these actual plays. This this continual flow of imagined social interaction becomes something like a rules-chourus textual system. Like a proto-Youtube, text mimicking neo-orality.

(Like almost all examples of this kind, these sections are not actual actual play, but imagined actual play. Though likely based on situations the creator encountered in playtesting.)

There are few diagrams, simple layout, some images, but usually general idea-pool intensifiers, rarely examples.

The playtest and development environment for Amber (from what I can infer) also comes from that misty golden age of no internet, stable social networks, long, looooong persistent play groups and educated people having plenty of free time.

Development seems to have taken about 5 years (!), with Wujicik saying he read the full Amber series about 40 times, and ran multi-hour sessions weekly with a stable coterie of players for all of that time.

I'll start by talking about two of the harder elements, the opening Auction and the Combat, and how they interrelate with and express the games general conception.



THE AUCTION

So far as I know no-one has used the attribute auction system before Amber and no-one has used it since. (Corrections in the comments as usual please.)

There are four Attributes which decide conflicts between players and between players and NPC's;

Psyche - Brain Stuff and SUPER MAGIC.
Strength - Strength.
Endurance - Keeping going.
Warfare - All Fights Ever.

Each player starts with a character concept, which the rules tell them to work out in detail and picture clearly before starting, and 100 points to fulfil it.

Points can be spent on various powers, objects and pocket realities, but the main thing they buy are those four Attributes.

If two players come into conflict with each other, depending on its nature the conflict will be based on one of those attributes. Whoever has the higher attribute wins.

(It's more complex than that but we will get into that in the combat system below.)

So Attributes, particularly having a higher attribute than another player, particularly having the highest attribute of all players, is vitally important. To a large degree it lets you decide how the game goes.

Players can get more than 100 points by 'selling down' Attributes below zero, but I think once you do that spending those points in the same attribute you just sold down is pointless so its effectively a transfer system of a kind.

The Auction starts with a written bid from each player. Then open bidding. Then finally it closes.

Notable things about the Auction in play;

- It creates PvP conflict right from character generation. Everyone has a character concept which they are meant to have worked out in advance, and which is VERY IMPORTANT since, as the game repeats many, many times, your Character is more important than the rules.

So probably no-one will get exactly their desired character and probably this will be because they got into a conflict with another player.

- The bitterness of this is deepened as points can't be taken back. So if you get into a bidding war with someone and both of you break away from the herd, and the other person wins, that makes you permanent Second Best at that particular thing and you arguably 'wasted' all those points.

- A BEST PERSON is always produced and whoever is best at a particular attribute is clear, known to all and cannot be subverted by any means. So everyone knows who is the strongest or the best fighter or whatever. This sets up known unbeatable situations.

- The hierarchy below this is occluded. Everyone can see what everyone else bid, but after the bidding is done players can use remaining points to secretly buy their way up the ladder. The only rule is that a player can't become the BEST via this process.

So everyone *thinks* they know where they are relative to everyone else but no-one can be absolutely sure, other than they know for certain who is the best.

- Those who are willing to take risks in bidding and *roll deep* show up right away, conversely so are those who plan carefully and delegate resources conservatively. (Patricks and Brendans)

- The main SUPERMAGICS that PCs use to navigate around the multiverse which makes up the play space are very powerful, available from the start and cost a LOT. Pattern Imprint is the standard power and costs 50 points. Logrus is a secondary power and can't be used without Shape Shifting, together these cost 80 points.

And Wujcik turns up, in a special little box, to say this -



So you can have any character you want but in fact the system is carefully weighted towards a certain kind of character.

- Wujcik also advises the DM to tell first time players that each power they bid on is the most important, without reference to the others. I have no idea if this is intended to be taken seriously but if it is its Gygaxian Riddlemaster bullshit to a high degree.

- You can get points for doing session reports in character (I bribe my players with XP for this).

- You can also get points for taking 'Bad Stuff', which is luck, or fortune, or randomness. The results of potentially random situations are essentially a resource in the game, which you can pay for. 'Good Stuff' makes you perennially perma-lucky.

The DM is advised that the amount of Bad or Good stuff directly effects the way in which the world is described to the *player*. It effects the emotional tonality of what they see, the general heuristics of what they expect to happen or intuit from NPC's, it puts the DM in a slightly, but fundamentally different relation with the player.

This is only one of a wide range of ways that Wujcik puts the DM in a *very* complex relationship with the player and PC. Many of the other elements of the game are based around the DM carefully allowing and expressing some things while almost hiding others, and this shifts according to circumstance and event.

All this while also telling them - page 229, Rules of Engagement, Rule *1* - "Senses and memory must be truthful."

- There is also a bunch of other crap you can get, most of it relatively cheap compared to other games. A basic Amberite with Pattern but with no bids on any Attribute is essentially a god or demigod compared to any normal human.

..............

There are some powerful polarities or paradoxes here that show up throughout the book. It is in some ways a very 'soft' game. Its about Character and expression and the char gen is literally an adversarial competition.

Two Wujciks collaborated to make this game. Original Wujcick was kinda crafty and dirty and into numbers and systems and being clever, and he did a lot of the original work on the bones of the game and put in a lot of the cheeky, slightly nasty and manipulative stuff. Ascended Wujcik, after he has played for several years, is way past anything to do with competition and will directly tell you through the book that Amber isn't a game, its a tool for producing story and embodying Characters, which is the real, most important thing about it, the 'game' part of RPG can just be thrown out. They made Amber together, collaborating across time, and neither of them could have made it alone.



An aside - PvP

The characters are expected to be much more powerful than the worlds in which they adventure. Only a handful of super special NPCs can really threaten their lives. And family members and, of course, other PCs.

Is Amber, in some way descended from a PvP mindset? Like a dark distant ancestor whose bones are in the attic that no-one talks about directly?





COMBAT

Few things could be more elegant than Ambers combat system, but it only works because it is a vehicle for defeat rather than death, and for story rather than.. whatever the 'other' or opposite to story is. It is entirely a matter of description and 'fictional positioning' (not a fan of that phrase) mediated by the DM.

Victory is certain from the first contact, if things proceed, and the DM knows at all times who will win in any particular circumstance

So what is fighting in Amber?

- An experiment or game, or bluff, to find out how good someone really is.
- A trick, a PC intends to set up the use of some other element, either prepared or improvised.
- A Drama engine - all deaths have consequence, usually social consequence.
- Possibly a contest of thought and invention - if both have a complex mixture of close qualities.
- A testing of the wills of the PC (are they willing to get hurt?) and the players (are they willing to get their PC hurt?)

This means each duel or fight is like a complex game of exchanged description in which people likely approach each other slowly, aiming to find out as much as they can before they put themselves in danger, and usually pretending that they are more or less powerful, are another identity, have other motives or something else. Paradoxically, it has a *sense* of lethality and real danger. If someone has a higher attribute than you, they can simply kill you.

This is compared to D&D's actual, real unpredictable danger where a Goblin can maybe knife you at level one but which often feels like knockabout fun.

So people in Amber duels, which are often non-lethal, act a lot like people in real duels, feinting, shifting, being conservative, while people in D&D, which can kill you, act like mad tank people (sometimes).

And again, this puts the GM in a highly complex perceptual and moral position in relation to both the players and the PC's. The GM could be trying to accurately represent someone who is very effectively lying and bending the PCs perception based in their levels of Good or Bad stuff and doing all of this while trying to make sure that senses and memory are accurate and true.

So everything is thrown onto description and 'fictional positioning', in this its a lot like some OSR-esque rulesets like Into the Odd where much of the complexity is meant to come from placing yourself in the world.

The combat rules are 20 pages long, describing likely manoeuvres, tactics, common fencing or duelling ploys, as well as contextual elements like the meaning and results of any combat in the wider game. I would recommend that any game designer read it.

And all this delicate, precise fluidity is born of the absence of death.

Well, you *can* die, it's hard to. Even though Amber doesn't have hit points it does effectively have a wound system - being of a certain kind gives you what are essentially chances not to die

Amber rank is 3
Chaos Rank is 2
Human is 1, or zero

So the scum still die just not the reals. Should a Goblin have a chance to kill you? - is a question we all have to answer in our own way.

But in Amber I think you can push so much of the context for what happens in a fight onto the DM because it is not a field of lethal competition. D&D has hard, obvious rules because you can die.

".. there is a drawback to a purely just game. It tends to kill characters.

...

"That kind of mortality, where Amberites rarely die, should be true in role-playing Amber as well. The players investment in their Amber characters is just too great for them to die easily. It just doesn't make any sense for someone to put in two or three (or eight, or eighty) hours into a character, and have it wasted on a whim.

....

"As a Game Master you will sometimes be faced with a choice. Whether to run things justly, or whether to warp things to allow players to survive. Stick on the side of mercy, and, just to keep things "fair" give the same mercy to the non-player characters."

Combat as war.

Combat as sport.

Combat as story.



NO.

While I think that Amber is absolutely a brilliantly made and groundbreaking work, fully deserving of being included in the RPG hall of fame (despite not being a 'game'), I also dislike large parts of it.

I'll start with the first, most reasonable dislikes and then move onto to the formless Reaction.



GYGAXIAN DICKERY

Wujcik has a bad habit of manipulating people through play, this comes out worst in page 230 "Create Good Role-Players".

The way you 'create' them is to put them in holodeck episodes that teach handy little moral lessons.

Monster Bashers are to be tricked into killing innocents through limiting description of the event.

Rules Lawyers - "its important to side-step their rules and concerns", and in the example given, this isn't done through an out of game conversation but by literally shifting the reality of the game away from a testy but reasonable rules question.

"Why didn't my psychic cat notice this threat?"

Honest answer - "That's actually my fault, I forgot about the cat, we can rewind if you like or I can improv something from this point."

Wujciks answer -"It did! You just didn't *notice* it noticing!

Indifferent Players - Let them role play through ordinary shit to form an emotional connection and then the rush of power helps them get attached?

Ok, that might not be terrible but it is odd.

There is also one element of the book where Wujcik comes up with a bit of time-bending player dickery to nerf the power of the Trump deck because it makes players too powerful. Yes, an unstated in-world piece of manipulation to limit the power of a rule he himself created.

I think I can argue robustly that this is Bad Stuff regardless of where you stand on role playing.

We will now move on to...


FORMLESS REACTION

This is stuff I just strongly dislike but I don't have a deep intellectual reason I can give for hating it so stop reading now if you like.


CHARACTER OBSESSION

Stuff about playing in Character, i.e. not 'hearing' stuff if your PC hasn't heard it is ok. Stuff about 'Live your character' - "Don't be afraid of your characters emotions" - ok, not my cup of tea but I can deal.

"Love Your Character

...

Loving your character is really the main point of Amber, both the books and the role-playing.

Making a character come alive is an act of faith..

Waling down Baker Street in London with a thirteen year-old, we noticed a memorial placard. Like thousands of others scattered all over the historical city, it announced the famous former resident of the building. "Sherlock Holmes, Private Investigator," it said.

"Sherlock Holmes isn't real!" said my thriteen-year-old friend, "is he?"

"He's real to me," I said. "I believe he's real."

We had quite an argument my friend and I." - END QUOTE

You didn't need to bother, the kid was right.

There is also stuff after this about stuff that modern storygamers would call 'bleed', which I also generally don't like.


STORY

Yes the purpose of Amber is to MAKE A STORY.

Did you know that stories have beginnings, middles and ends? That the end of a story should be foreshadowed by its beginning? Why not retrofit world elements to make a better story?


CHARACTER INVESTMENT MIXED WITH CHARACTER SUFFERING

So you are meant to REALLY INVEST in your dude in Amber. And killing them would be unpleasant. So instead they suffer. Recommendations are Imprisoment & Torture, Destruction of Trust, Death of Comrades and Friends, Hatred, Fear and Loathing and Guilt.

All for this person where you are meant to be really FEELING what they FEEL.

I don't like this, it seems decadent and wrong to me.


WHY NOT THROW OUT THE RULES ENTIRELY!!!

"Ultimately. I hope you can toss this book.

The best kind of role-playing is pure role-playing. No rules, no points, and no mechanics.

If there is such a thing as an 'improved' version of Amber, its something that goes straight for the story-telling."

This is the later Ascended Wujcik speaking at the back of the book. What follows are suggestions for dumping, respectively, the Character Generation, the Points, the Magic System, the Rule and the Games Master.

So at this point you are larping, except larps actually have rules.


..............



Alright, that's all I got and its getting dark. Despite me kicking off on it at the end its still something you should read if you are deep into RPG's. It's an excellent book despite it being essentially the Liber Chaotica of all the things I hate about storygames.

11 comments:

  1. I'll need to read the rules again, but this:

    'The only rule is that a player can't become the BEST via this process.'

    Is not how we played. I suspect you are wrong here. My understanding is that you can surpass the person in the lead if you out spend them later with your secret XP expenditures. That is how we played anyway.

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    1. It's hidden in the goddamn Actual Play descriptions. From pagees 15 and 16;



      "G: So, here's the final tally for the Attribute Auction for Psyche. Top bid is fifty-two points from Willy, followed closely by Kevin with fifty-one...

      Mick: Nits, both of 'em, nuts...

      GM: We'll see how nuts it is the first time you end up in a Trump contact. Third is beth with twenty-three points, twenty points makes Peggy fourth, Alex is fifth with eleven, and in last, sixth place, for a chintzy five points, is Mick.

      Cindy: What about Ted and I?

      GM: Currently you are considered average. That's far better than any normal human but no match for any of the bidders.

      Ted: Are we stuck with that?

      GM: No. Any time between now and when we actually start playing you can change your Psyche.

      Cindy: You mean we can buy a better placement?

      GM: Exactly. You do it secretly.

      Ted: Does that mean one of us could become better than Willy?

      GM: No, that's one thing you can't do. In fact, nobody can spend more than fifty-two total points on Psyche.

      Cindy: What if we spend fifty-two?

      GM: Then you'll be just behind Willy in ability, but ahead of everybody else.

      Peggy: I've already spent twenty points. Can I decide to spend more points?

      GM: Yes, but you can only match a higher bidder. in other words, you'll have to spend either another thirty-two, making you fifty-two, to match Willy, or thirty-one, to match Kevin, or just three, to match Beths twenty-three. And even then you'll be just below them."

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  2. Well it seems to have the endorsement of a very happy (and I'm told Herpes Free!) individual.

    It sounds interesting, I've looked at story games and I can conceptually get them and entertain enjoying them, but I can't seem to muster the desire to try to play one. It's too ephemeral, maybe it's a weakness but I need the rules and the dice to act as the bones of the game. Maybe I need the foundation of it being a game to get to the story, or maybe I'm just too socially anxious to engage in that level of pretend without the bounds of a traditional game like structure.

    I can get behind the "Is Sherlock Holmes real?" thing though. I feel some of my characters are real, it's a lesser nested reality dependent on the larger reality I exist in but it still exists. The events those characters took part in still happened. They are just confined to a very narrow band of reality. I think the scary randomness of d&d actually makes it feel more real, more like I'm engaging in a plausible reality because anything could happen and to a degree it's out of my hands. Though you are not wrong about the running around like mad tank people. It is a violent and mad exercise we engage in.
    Arguably Sherlock Holmes is as real as any historical figure from far enough in the past that no one still alive knew them. As open to interpretation and manipulation, as easy to "know" and "love" for things they did, or at least things we all agree they did based on what evidence is available. He's had an effect on society and the larger world and people's perceptions of it, spawned cultural memes and touchstones. He's more real in some ways than many people who no one remembers at all.

    Thanks for the review.

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    1. One of my problems with storygames (I have a couple) is that the conflation of player and GM robs the players of an opportunity to explore and discover a true (virtual) space.

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  3. From the "storygamers" I know, nobody seems to have played or to care about Amber Diceless.

    Pundit is a big fan though, to the point he wrote the spiritual sequel.

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    1. From what I saw it looks like he lifted Amber word for word and changed the world Amberite for Olympian and other similar things.

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  4. Hmmm. I think Dr. Zack Balo and Dr. Osato with their herbal plague cures would make pretty good NPC's...perhaps Patrick can do something with them?

    In any case reading this today made me look around for Amber sites. It turns out the internet is full of interesting mentions of Amber Diceless - a particularly intriguing one was Amberway, an Everway/Amber combo game. There were others too - and there was even a whole con once devoted to this game. But almost all of these sites are gone now. And the more I looked the more it felt like this is the future of the OSR - someday all these blogs and game sites we like will just be 404 sites with interesting names. Like the Amber ones are now.

    Er. Uhm. So anyway, interesting review.

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    1. Did you check archive.org? 'Cause there's lots of dead blogs in there.

      I laughed at how you tried to come back from the tangent about the mortality of all human acts at the end there. Blogging and internet-talking is like graffiti anyway. The point is to do it, not to leave this vasty legacy.

      But it is going to be weird as hell if blogspot ever comes down and all these urls I spent so much time on live in archive.org, the internet's graveyard.

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    2. You're not wrong. Some of the blogs I kept tabs on that had useful charts or ideas have disappeared over the years. It's gotten to the point where unless they've put out a product that has the stuff I like I just use an extension in Chrome to make a pdf of stuff I think I'm going to use later on.

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  5. Take a look at Lords of Gossamer and Shadow. It is Amber with a slightly different world, It also seems to be set up better for cooperative play. It uses a Licensed version of the Amber Diceless System.

    I would highly recommend finding an Amber or LoG&S game at a convention and play it. It all looks like mumbojumbo BS, but the game is a real blast to play. Even when playing in full on PvP mode it's fun.

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  6. Loved reading it back in the 90's. Only GMed it a few times and was semi-successful at creating that type of Amber experience. It seems just as much old school as proto-story game, so not sure where to place it.

    Regardless, Amber Diceless RPG has influenced me greatly!

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