The Amber Game

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 accomplished with the game.

Go check it out.



*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.

**Seriously. Never.

***Including a parachuting narwhal. This one I showed to my players as a cautionary tale of what I would not allow.

The Bribe(TM)

So, what do you do if you want to make sure that your players produce a little bit of character background?

I want my players’ characters to be tied into the game world. I want them to have home towns, family, and reasons for doing what they do. It gives me handles for writing adventures that will appeal to them and hook them in, and it lets me give certain characters a little bit of the spotlight when needed by pulling in something from their backstory.

Some players will automatically write up a complete history for their character. Sometimes it’ll be multiple pages, with great detail, family trees, accounts of first love and best friends, and all the secret tragedies of their lives. They do this as a matter of course, in an attempt to solidify their characters before play begins. I tend to fall into this category.

Others come up with a name, then sit back with an exhausted sigh, glad all the heavy lifting’s done.

And, as gamers get older and develop outside lives and families and jobs and interests, some start out to be the first kind, but wind up being the second kind.

What to do?

The first thing I tried was to make three pages of character background mandatory: if you want to play in my game, you’ve got to write three pages of background for your character.

Bad idea.

See, I’m a word-whore. I’m a technical writer by profession. I’ll write a thousand words about what I had for breakfast. I toss off three-page backgrounds in my sleep. So, three pages is nothing to me.

Three pages is a lot to some people, though. And when I made it mandatory, I got people promising to get it to me and never delivering. I got players deciding not to play in my game, because they’d have to write the background. Worse, I got people deciding not to play in my game because their significant other didn’t want to play because of having to write the background.

Not the effect I was looking for, at all.

So, I decided to steal from Amber. Say what I will about Amber, there’s a ton of good ideas in the game.

In Amber, you can make contributions to the game in order to get extra points to build your characters. This is a rather stunning idea because:

  1. The contributions are OUTSIDE of play. Things like recording quotes, bringing snacks, creating stories and art, etc.
  2. The reward is MECHANICAL. You actually get stuff that helps your character in the game.
  3. It is VOLUNTARY. No one has to make a contribution.
  4. It is SEDUCTIVE. Almost everyone winds up making a contribution. Certainly everyone in the game I ran did.

And so I instituted The Bribe(TM)*.

I did not require background from my characters anymore, except for some very basic things demanded by the system (Race and class in D&D, the phases in SotC and DFRPG, etc.) Instead, I offer some game benefit for each page of background they give me, up to a maximum (usually three). They can give me more, but the benefits top out at the maximum.

Sometimes, I make special requests, such as having a short list of questions that must be answered in the background, or asking them to create a little bit of the world outside their character. In cases like this, I usually set the minimum amount of material at a half-page. Format doesn’t matter; full prose is fine, bullet lists are fine; hell, if they want to write it in a series of sonnets, I’m good with that.

So far, in the games where I’ve used this (most of the games I run, that is), everyone has gone for the full bribe. Even the people who hate writing up background.

To use the Bribe(TM) most effectively, I’ve found the following considerations useful:

  • Make the reward significant. If the reward is an extra bonus to an attribute, the players will go for it. If it’s a healing potion, they probably won’t. It’s got to be something that will make a difference throughout play.
  • Give them options. Give them a number of options of things that count towards the Bribe(TM). Let them pick from a list of rewards.
  • Make them choose. If you’ve got a list of rewards, limit the number of times they can take a given reward. I usually say that you can choose each item only once.
  • Not all rewards need to be equal. The first time I used this in a D&D game, the rewards were +2 to a single stat, an extra feat, and a masterwork item. The first two rewards are pretty tempting, but the third one is only useful until magic items start cropping up**. Still, everyone wound up with a masterwork item because, if you’ve written two pages of background, you might as well write a third, even if the reward isn’t as cool.
  • Be aware that you are changing the power of the starting characters. Adjust the challenges accordingly, or they’re just going to dance through the adventures. This will follow them throughout the game, so bear it in mind. Just toughen up the opposition a little.
  • Use the stuff they give you. Show them that it’s valued and appreciated, and incorporate it into the game. DO NOT use it to smack them down, but DO use it to personalize things. This is a tough balancing act, but pay attention to how your players react to things to find the sweet spot.
  • Set a deadline. Do not start play until you have all the Bribes(TM) delivered to you, or take away the rewards from the late folks. You can return the rewards later, once the Bribes(TM) are complete, but make sure that only people who complete the Bribe(TM) get the rewards. Otherwise, you wind up with the same discrepancy in material I started this whole mess with.

Give it a try with the next game you start. Hell, you don’t have to wait that long; easy enough to drop it into an ongoing campaign, and give the players the rewards to improve their characters.

Just a little something that I’ve found useful.

*I added the (TM) later, after I decided that it worked, the players liked it, and the other GMs in our group started using it. Standard question when talking about creating characters for a new game is, “What’s the Bribe(TM)?”

**This was not actually the case in that campaign, because of some house rules on weapons acquiring enchantment based on the heroic deeds they were used for, but anyway…