This article originally appeared in Pyramid #2

Pyramid Pick


Designed by Eric Wujcik
Based on The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
Interior Art by Michael Kucharski
Cover art by Stephen Hickman
Cover price $22.95

In the late 1980s, the RPG industry was filled with rumors and lies about a new system based on Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. While stories of new systems or licenses are nothing new, the interesting thing about Amber was that it wasn't going to use any dice. I remember hearing (on separate occasions) that R. Talsorian Games, Palladium Games, or possibly Mayfair Games were going to publish it. I even had someone tell me that Steve Jackson Games had acquired the license for GURPS!

In November, 1991 the tales were finally put to rest when a new company, Phage Press, published the Amber roleplaying game - a completely diceless system designed by Erick Wujcik.

Some critics sniff and point out that this really isn't a new idea - people have been playing "freestyle" RPGs for years (the first time I recall playing without dice was in 1980 with a group at Southwest Texas State University). While that may be true, Amber represents the first major game system built completely around the idea that dice are unnecessary.

For starters, don't even think about playing Amber if you haven't read Zelazny's books. Not only are they a fantastic read, but they provide the background necessary to understand the world of Amber. While the Introduction provides a one-page summary of the Chronicles, a player is going to be completely lost without a lot of handholding (and it's never too wise to trust a fellow player to be your guide . . .) without the books.

For those who haven't read them, the essential thing to know about Amber PCs is that they are in some ways like gods. Indeed, the games' 4 attributes - Psyche, Strength, Endurance and Warfare - are ranked at one of three levels; Human, Chaos and Amber. Amber is the highest rank, and all PCs have Amber-level stats for free. The average Amberite is stronger, smarter, tougher and faster than even the best-trained humans. They heal quickly, and are nearly immortal if not slain by an irate relative. A character can gain extra points by reducing her stats to a lower level, however.

The second thing that makes Amber characters so powerful is their inborn ability to change reality. Of all the millions of universes, only Amber is real - everything else is a reflection (a "shadow") of Amber. Amberites who have undergone the initiation of walking the Pattern can move through these universes at will, until they find the exact world of their heart's desire.

Characters are created by an attribute auction. While there are several possible variants on how the auction is run, it comes down to all the players bidding for position on the four stats. If Sebastian bids 36 points on Psyche while Rogar bids 22 points and Ariana bids 0 points, then Sebastian would be ranked 1st, Rogar 2nd and Ariana 3rd in the attribute. This process would be repeated for each of the four attributes. These rankings become very important for the GM to when resolving conflicts between players. Simply stated, if you're number 1 in Strength, you're going to be able to beat anyone in a contest of strength - arm wrestling, weightlifting, etc. - unless your opponent comes up with an innovative way to cheat (he poisons your water bottle, for instance).

The Trump of Gilva of Hendrake, by Mike Kucharski, from the upcoming Amber book Shadow Knight.
Once the auction is over, players may spend leftover points on various abilities such as Pattern Imprint (the ability to shift worlds), Trump Artistry, Sorcery, or on Artifacts (very rare, personalized magic items).

Most of the time, players will start with 100 to 150 points. If a player has leftover points, he can spend them on "Good Stuff." Conversely, if a player needs a few extra points, she can take "Bad Stuff." Stuff should be though of as sort of like Karma - not charisma. it's a measure of how the breaks go for you. If Robin (2nd in Warfare) is fighting a duel with Arterio (5th in Warfare), she would normally kick his butt. But Arterio has 6 points of Good Stuff, while Robin has 13 of Bad (she really wanted an extra spell or three). During their duel, at the exact moment that Robin is going to skewer her cousin, she catches her foot on a rock and stumbles, allowing Arterio to get in a good cut at her arm . . .

Once the numerics of character creation are out of the way, the real work begins. Each player is required to answer an in-depth character questionnaire, designed to elicit such important facts as "What was the name of your first pet?" and so forth. While some of the suggested questions seem a bit trivial, they really do help the player get a well-fleshed-out character (not to mention helping the GM figure out how to integrate the character into the campaign).

Once the game starts, the hard part is over for the players - all they have left to concentrate on is roleplaying. The GM, however, has her work cut out for her. Amber is, without doubt, the most GM-intensive RPG on the market. While it is possible to spend hours and hours preparing and running a campaign using any game system, Amber requires this kind of dedication.

Without dice, the onus for all decisions falls upon the GM. Can Ferrin pick the lock on Robin's door? In most systems, the GM would assign a difficulty modifier for that particular lock and roll versus a lockpicking skill of some sort. In Amber, the GM has to decide what happens based on the plot. Would it be good for the ongoing game if Ferrin gets in? Has Robin taken above-average security precautions? How much time has Ferrin spent learning to pick locks?

The Amber rulebook is full of advice to the GM about how to make good decisions, but if the players are distrustful of their referee, or if he comes across as arbitrary or biased, the game isn't going to work. If your group loves nothing more than catching the GM forgetting a -1 modifier on his reload roll for an NPC's pistol, then abusing him about it, you aren't going to enjoy an Amber game. Stick to Car Wars.

But if you play in a group that really loves to roleplay - hours spent sitting around, in character, talking and arguing and planning and scheming - then Amber is worth a look.

In addition to advice about how to resolve questions without resorting to dice, the rulebook also offers a great deal of excellent commentary on adventure and campaign construction. As with Machiavelli's The Prince, it should be required reading for anyone who strives to run a campaign that rises beyond the "kill the big evil threatening the land and take its treasure" level.

Because Amberites are so much more powerful than mere mortals, their only competition tends to come from within the family. It would be very unusual for all the PCs to be allied. There are wheels within wheels as alliances shift and flow, and a great deal of player-to-player (with no GM present) is encouraged. In fact, because of all the one-on-one work the GM will find herself doing, the players had better be able to continue play without a GM present or they'll find themselves spending a lot of time twiddling their thumbs. The game encourages the players to get very in-depth into their character - writing diaries, songs, poems, roleplaying incidents in their past, etc.

Since its release, Amber has been reprinted twice, and has sold over 15,000. It has gathered an incredibly devoted core of followers, especially on computer nets (where diceless roleplaying is the norm rather than the exception). While some are obnoxiously arrogant (if you use dice, you're a step down on the evolutionary RPG ladder), most Amber players like nothing more than to proselytize about the game in a friendly fashion.

There are some downsides to the game - it is not a system for a novice GM. Looking back at my own personal development as a game master, I'd say I couldn't have GMed Amber well until the mid-80s - seven years after I ran my first D&D game. Conversely, the system is friendly to novice players, as it doesn't require them to learn much in the way of rules; just to roleplay. I also think that Wujcik is a little too heavy-handed at time about how "Amber is the One True Future of Gaming," but this can be excused as fatherly pride. The rulebook needs to spend a great deal more space explaining how to use the various powers such as Trump, Advanced Pattern, etc. These parts are glossed over with handwaving and the phrase "The GM will have to decide how these work . . .".

These aside, 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.

As this goes to press, Wujcik is in the final agonizing throes of editing Shadow Knight, the long-awaited (and very late) sourcebook covering Zelazny's Merlin books - the sequels to the Chronicles. We were able to get some early art, but the text wasn't ready to go out. I'm going to try and have an early look at Shadow Knight in Pyramid #3 . . .

-- Loyd Blankenship

Article publication date: August 1, 1993

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