Say that name among my players, and it generates a nostalgic pause, a wistful silence, and a sad smile.
We’ve played games that lasted longer, that worked out better, that were just plain more fun, but the Amber game is the one we look at as our greatest moments in roleplaying.
Also, our biggest headaches in gaming.
It was a grand experiment for us, and, while not an unmitigated success, really colours pretty much every game we’ve played since in one way or another.
For those of you who are unaware of the game, Phage Press released a book called Amber Diceless Role-Playing back in 1991. It was – in my opinion at the time – a truly brilliant evolution of the roleplaying game. See, when they talked about it being diceless, they didn’t mean they used playing cards or coin tosses or any other sort of randomizer to take the place of dice. Nothing in the game was randomized. And everything was focused on character development.
Very intriguing to me at the time.
Well, I bought the book, and the sequel Shadow Knight that came out in 1993, and several issues of Amberzine as they became available. Not only did I love the idea of the game, but also the setting, which was based on one of my all-time favourite series: Roger Zelazny‘s* Chronicles of Amber.
It took a while before I found a group that was willing to give the game a try. When I did, I jumped for joy.
Our campaign lasted just over a year, running 13 sessions. It gave us some of the best and worst moments in our collective lives as gamers.
See, the Amber game was immensely demanding, not only of the GM, but also of the players. It strained our abilities, and stressed our friendships. And then, right when you think you’re ready to pack it all in, it hits you with such a brilliant, untouchable moment of roleplaying that you forgive it all its foibles.
I loved it and I hated it. It made me a better roleplayer, a better GM, a better writer, and drew all of us who played it closer.
And I will never, ever, EVER run it again**.
It came close to killing me, I think. I was so stressed out about the games that I sometimes had nightmares about them. Still, I soldiered on, until the laptop on which I had been keeping a vast database of game information crashed its hard drive and I lost it all. When I found out how much it was going to cost to recover the data, I couldn’t justify it. Not just for a game.
So Amber died.
That, I think, may be my biggest regret about the whole situation – that the decision to end the game was kind of forced on me, and I wasn’t able to bring things to a close and exit with any kind of dignity. Nope. Computer crash equals game crash. No closure, no warning. Just bam.
At the same time, I was a little relieved. It lifted a huge burden from my mind and my time, but I didn’t want it to happen that way.
None of us regret the Amber game. We all still talk about it from time to time, which is why I’m writing this. Indeed, every now and then, someone starts pestering me to run it again. We’d all be better at it, they say; we’d make it easier on you; you’re a better GM now, it wouldn’t be so hard…
I say to them, “Here’s the books. You run it. I’ll play.”
And then they look at me with fear in their eyes and change the subject. Because they remember how much work it was to run.
What’s wrong with Amber? Well, I’ll tell you, but I expect that there will be an outcry from those who love the game. And those who love it love it so very, very much. But here’s what I found to be problematic:
- The game sets up a default adversarial relationship between the GM and the players. All through the books, it emphasizes that the GM is going to try and mess with the characters, and that he or she will use all sorts of dirty tricks to do so. I don’t like that; it creates a lack of trust that I find almost essential to good roleplaying. And it leads the GM to begin to consider all the ways to screw over the characters – and the players.
- The lack of randomization. At first, it doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but sometimes its nice, as a GM, to let the dice decide. Players respect the dice; they don’t always respect the GM saying, “No.” See, what I found happened was that the players would try something, I’d think about whether or not it should succeed, based on what I knew to be arrayed against them, and say, “It doesn’t work.” And they would try it again, in a slightly different manner. Or they would ask why. Or they would argue with me. And then everything would grind to a halt for the ten minutes (or fifteen, or ninety) that were necessary to get over this hump, when a simple die roll – even if I had made it behind a screen and they never saw the number – would have had them thinking, “Huh. Guess I just didn’t roll well enough.” This is tied to the first point, of course.
- The GM is responsible for all the stats. Including the characters’ stats. After character creation, the characters never really know what their stats are again. This makes sense, to a degree: you may know you’re strong, but how do you know you’re stronger than Bill? All you know is that, the last time you arm wrestled, you beat him. But maybe he’s been going to the gym, and maybe you’ve let yourself go, and maybe you’re not sure if you can beat him this time. So, yeah, it makes sense. But it’s a huge pain in the butt, both for the bookkeeping to keep everything straight once characters start progressing, and to compare stats between two opponents to see who wins.
- Trying to work my head around the n-dimensional physics of the universe, so that I had a decent idea of what was and was not possible with the multiple parallel worlds on different timestreams. Now, you don’t really need to do that, but I wanted a solid enough concept in my head about how the Shadows worked that I could come up with consistent, interesting, and understandable guidelines about what you could or could not do. And then, of course, once I had generated my idea of how it worked, trying to explain it to my players was another huge hurdle.
- The game sets up a default atmosphere of distrust and paranoia among the players. You don’t just roll up characters, or build them with points and a shopping list, you actually have to bid against the other players to see who’s strongest, who’s got the most powerful magic, etc. And that can lead to rivalries and feuds right from the get-go.
- You pretty much need to read at least the first five books of the Chronicles of Amber to understand the underlying physics and assumptions of the game world. We had a player or two that didn’t and it made for a lot of explaining.
- Sometimes, there were just too many options. There was more than one game session spent with the characters (and players) sitting around and coming up with plans for quite literally hours, and then putting them into action when we had maybe an hour left in the session. This was because of all the things their characters could do, and all the things they had to account for their adversaries doing.
Now, having said that, there are some things about the game that I absolutely loved:
- It was wide open. You could create pretty much any type of character you wanted***, with whatever sorts of abilities you wanted, living in whatever sort of world you wanted. And it would all work together.
- Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, took a back seat to character development. And not in the matter of stats; it was all about building your character’s story. Everyone managed to weave interesting, surprising, and just plain awesome stories for their characters out of the play sessions.
- The banter. We kept a quotes page, because of the neat back and forth that came out of the game.
- The concept of the contributions. Rewarding people for making the game better for everyone – keeping track of the quotes, writing diary entries or stories, creating their own trumps, bringing nice snacks to the game… All that stuff.
- The amazing highs that came when the game was working.
Yeah, we still think about Amber. We still talk about it. Many of the catch phrases in our gaming group hearken back to the Amber game. And we produced a fair quantity of interesting material. The site still exists, maintained out of nostalgia and respect for what we accomplishedÂ with the game.
*I had the great good fortune to meet Mr. Zelazny shortly before his death, and got to tell him how much I enjoyed his work. He was a very gracious, generous author.
***Including a parachuting narwhal. This one I showed to my players as a cautionary tale of what I would not allow.