This article originally appeared in Pyramid #6
Living proof of the old adage "better late than never," Phage Press has pleased a vocal horde of fans with the release of Shadow Knight, the first supplement for Amber Diceless.
By Loyd Blankenship
A Preview of New Source Material for
Amber Diceless RPG
After over a year of delays, the pent-up demand for this product will guarantee great sales. There are few groups as loyal as die-hard Amber gamers -- even though some fans have proved Erick Wujcik's most vocal critics over the Shadow Knight delays (see here for the true story behind the ship date). But was the book worth the wait?
The BookShadow Knight weighs in at 256 pages and a $23.95 suggested retail. (For retailer types: stock #0101, ISBN 1-880494-01-9.) The bulk of the book was written by Wujcik himself, though Mark Jason Durall, Catherine Klessig, Joe Saul, Jim Kenny and Carol Dodd are all listed as contributors. The cover is by artist Michael Kucharski.
After a brief introduction by Wujcik, the Glossary is the first thing presented. While this is a bit unusual, it proves a great aid to anyone unfamiliar with the books -- or with the game's interpretation of the books. From there, the book gets to the good stuff -- new powers.
Broken PatternSure to be a favorite among the crowd that always grotesquely overbids during the Attribute Auction, Broken Pattern provides a 10-point way to walk shadow (as opposed to regular Pattern Imprint, which costs 50 points). As with everything that looks like a good deal, there are a number of catches.
Like everything else, the Primal Pattern reflects versions through shadow. In those shadows close in to the Primal Pattern -- Amber and surrounding shadows -- the reflection of the pattern is flawless. But as you move further outward, imperfections begin to creep in. A crack here, a blotch there -- a subtle marring. As you go further, the breaks become larger, and more dangerous. Broken Pattern initiates walk shadow by moving along these cracks and imperfections at the intersection of shadows. And these pathways seem to always travel through the worst neighborhoods . . .
To make it worse, if the initiate accidentally falls into one of these chasms, they're killed instantly. And the Broken Pattern won't work at all when you get near Amber -- there are no more imperfections. Not quite the bargain it seemed at first.
For an additional 25 points, the character can become a Broken Pattern Adept, which allows further advantages and control of the image.
High CompellingThis is an advanced form of Conjuration (and is cheaper to purchase if you already have that discipline). It adds the ability to "conjure" feelings and emotions, and strong desires, as well as implant false memories and even (given enough time) to completely remap a victim's personality. It requires some sort of memory link, but if you're loaded on Psyche, a Trump contact will suffice. That should start making low-Psyche characters cringe every time they allow a Trump call . . .
ImplantsThese are a new type of artifact -- basically just an item that has the added quality of being an integral part of your body -- Martin's cyberjack, for example. It seems to be an unnecessary addition -- it was implicit under the original rules. Still, it only takes up one page, and may serve to stimulate an item concept that a player otherwise wouldn't have thought of.
ConstructsThis is one of the biggest new concepts in the book (and, according to Wujcik, its difficult development was one of the primary reasons Shadow Knight was delayed for so long). Characters now have the ability to construct whole new powers (literary examples include Merlin's Ghostwheel and Luke's Tragoliths). These constructs are able to draw on the power of the shadows they're in. They're neither Items of Power, nor Shadows, but a combination of the two.
The Amberite creates a custom shadow that has the proper physical/magical/whateverical properties to support the function of the Construct, and then drops the Con-struct in the middle. The Construct can be anything from a sentient waterfall to a crystal matrix that blankets the surface of a planet. Some Constructs cover more than one shadow -- such as the Fount of Power at the Keep of Four Worlds. Some constructs can also create manifestations of themselves in other shadows.
The basic power behind the construct is then chosen. These can be any of the Powers available to a character -- from Pattern to Trump to the Jewel of Judgment. One of the two big rules about Constructs is that their powers are limited to those available to PCs.
A wide menu of options is presented to determine the cost of the Construct, with new multipliers such as Shadow Conduit and Flux-Pin. But once the final cost is determined, a player would do well to remember Rule #2 for Constructs: Constructs are controlled by the game master . . . and not by the player that builds them!
After the point stuff is out of the way, there's a short section answering common questions about Constructs, offering GMing advice, and providing sample Constructs from the GenCon '93 playtest session.
Campaign IdeasThis 25-page section is great for would-be GMs -- but less useful for players. Sure, it makes very interesting reading, but also has the potential for short-circuiting a campaign if GMs don't modify the information for their campaign. Still, Amber GMs have proven remarkably creative in warping the basic information contained in the series, so this shouldn't be too much of a problem!
This chapter includes 1-2 page discussions of a wide range of topics as they relate to a campaign. Topics brushed on include Spikards, Vampires, Corwin's Pattern, the Cult of Amberite Worship, Castle Amber and Under-shadow. The section on Retainers of Amber is the longest, and covers such important NPCs as Baron Bayle (brewer of Bayle's Piss), Droppa (the Court Jester) and others in the cast of characters that are found in Castle Amber and the surrounding shadows.
CharactersThe next 125 pages are devoted to discussing NPCs. First up are the newcomers in the Merlin books: Coral, Dalt, Dara, Delwin, Despil, Gilva, Jasra, Julia, Jurt, Luke, Mandor, Martin, Merlin, Nayda, Bill Roth, Sand, Suhuy and Vialle. This results in no glaring omissions, although almost every reader will have at least one character that they feel was shunned. In the manner of the original rulebook, different versions of each character are proposed, each with a slightly different function and point cost.
In both rulebooks, this is one of the strongest tools that Wujcik gives the GM. Even if the players read the book -- especially if they read the book -- they'll be off-balance about exactly who they're facing. Is your friend Merlin really a 200-point kid, or a 300-point power fiend trying to position himself to run both Amber and the Courts of Chaos? And would you be able to tell the difference if he didn't want you to?
Following is a section updating the Elder Activities -- like a "Where Are They Now?" update in a class reunion program. These characters, too, come in several different versions each.
"Zelazny as Game Master"This is an 18-page section broken into three parts. The first six pages discuss campaign philosophy and relate it to Zelazny's plotting and ideas and the GM's meta-campaign philosophy. While this might be interesting stuff in an Amberzine article, or as a 300-message thread on Internet, it really doesn't add much value to the rulebook. Six more pages of examples of various types would have been more welcome.
This is followed by a five-page section on different avenues from which the GM can approach roleplaying elder Amberites. Again, it strays heavily into campaign design philosophy.
The final seven pages are once again pure campaign philosophy -- this time on the subject of trust: trusting yourself as a game master, listening to your instincts, etc. It reads a bit like literature from a 12-step support group, and could have been cut down to a page.
DemonsThe book springs back to the good again, however, with the Demon creation rules. This section is heavily labeled, with topics such as summoning demons, containing demons, inviting demons, and (of course) entertaining demons. Different forms of demonic bargains are discussed, as well as rules for binding and compelling them if your entertainment fails to please . . .
A demon worksheet is provided at the end of the book, which makes demon construction somewhat easier. Essentially, demons have their own set of rankings in the four attributes, much like Amberites, and the GM designs each new demon according to his place in that ranking.
Demonic qualities are also purchased, from natural armor and armament to shadow manipulation, shape shifting, magical abilities and so forth. Several examples are provided, including old friends Glait, Gryll, Kergma, the Fire Angel, and the Dweller on the Threshold (who wondered why a Lord of Chaos would journey all that way just to go two out of three falls with a Dweller . . .).
DuelsThis provides several pages on the proper way to conduct duels, from Amber to the Courts of Chaos, including seconds, challenges and different duel types. While interesting, again this seems more suited to a magazine article -- it isn't really anything new or earth-shattering.
The EndThere is also a sample campaign ("The Quest for Frakir"), a complete set of plot summaries for all of Zelazny's books, two pages of Amber Q&A, an Index, and worksheets for Demons, Shadows, Constructs, Artifact & Creatures and Characters.
SummaryAll in all, this is a great book. As you might have gleaned, I think there are some problems. The first is that nearly every page of the book has a chunk quoted from one of the Merlin books. While useful and illustrative in places, there are also whole pages of gratuitous quotes that should have been used for useful material. The second problem is that the sections of the book are uneven. This may be because several of the sections were written by authors other than Wujcik. For whatever reason, though, about 15%-20% of the book is fluff, put in largely (I suspect) to get the book to length so that it could be published (this may have something to with the large number of quoted sections as well).
But 85% is still a B, and that's how I believe Shadow Knight grades out. Anyone GMing an Amber campaign should consider it a must-have. Players can be guided by their level of fanaticism and their pocketbook -- there are really only about 30 pages of material that players need to see. GMs of other systems might find some of the discussion about running a campaign useful as well.
Interview with Erick Wujcik
I spoke with Erick Wujcik on the phone and discussed a variety of issues.
Loyd Blankenship: Let's start with the tough question -- why was Shadow Knight almost two years late?
EW: Several writers had attempted the project, but I ultimately ended up doing it myself. When I started working on it, I felt like I had to redesign it to get it right. This meant that I really had to delve into the books over and over again to get across new concepts. I had a lot of problems with some of them. Ghostwheel, in particular, was critical. I had to figure out how to present it as something that a PC could obtain. I very much see Merlin as a PC -- if he can get it, others should be able to as well. And, it was just a hard year for me in a number of ways at a personal level.
LB: Do distributors finally believe it's coming?
EW: Orders are good -- they're champing at the bit, ready to start selling it.
LB: Now that Shadow Knight is out of the way, what projects can we expect to from you personally?
EW: Personally, I'm not going to work on any Amber stuff for a few months -- I've got a lot of projects to finish off for Palladium. Mystic China is hideously overdue. I could name a dozen things on the list, but that's up first.
The next Amber book I want to do is Chaos Rules -- a complete book of the Courts of Chaos and the Chaos/Logrus Powers. This is going to be a complete roleplaying rulebook in that you will be able to run a campaign set in the Courts without owning the original Amber game. I want it to have a completely different attitude, so that playing Chaos Rules will feel like an entirely different game than Amber, even though they're using the same basic system.
LB: What about freelancers? What will Phage be putting out in the near (or far) future?
EW: We're working with several freelancers on things. There are some problems with freelancers -- it showed up in Shadow Knight when three different people didn't work out. It wasn't that they weren't competent, but just the twofold problem that a) they were inexperienced and b) writing Amber stuff is very, very different, a whole new style of writing a roleplaying supplement.
I'm most encouraged about a Rebma sourcebook from Mark Jason Durall, and a book called Beyonders, based on Don Anderson's campaign. Don came up with a place that's a precursor to Amber and the Courts of Chaos, where the beings operate on pure will. It's a place where one's will imposes reality on the surrounding environment.
There's also a one-line reference in one of the chronicles that mentions the stone city of Herat. Anne Harris is working on a book that develops that city, but it's in the very early stages of development.
LB: So how is Beyonders set in relation to Amber?
EW: It is beyond the influence of Pattern and Logrus, and in fact predates them both.
LB: Beyond these, what kind of things will you be trying to publish further down the line for Amber?
EW: Well, we're going to be working on books on the individual powers -- the book on Trumps, for instance, should end up being as long as Shadow Knight, just concentrating on that one power! I'd like to do a book on each power.
LB: I understand there's going to be an original Roger Zelazny short story in Amberzine #6. That's exciting . . .
EW: Yes, it's called The Salesman's Tale. It's the first in a projected series of Amber short stories. Zelazny has told me he plans on compiling the short stories into a book that serves as a bridge between the Merlin series and the next Amber series that he writes.
The Salesman's Tale is told from the point of view of Luke, and is set at the end of Prince of Chaos. It introduces the next big problem that the Amberites will have to face. From what I understand, the second short story in the series will be told from Corwin's point of view.
LB: Are you going to get the Corwin short as well? That's bound to be wildly anticipated by Amber fans.
EW: I certainly hope so!
LB: What else is going on with Amberzine?
EW: Matt Hauer, the author of Those Annoying Post Brothers, is doing an Amber/Bugtown crossover. It'll be a three-part series, with the first installment appearing in issue 6. And either issue #9 or issue #10 is going to be a special 420-page issue. I can't talk about what's in it yet, but when I told Zelazny about it, his response was "Oh, cool! When can I get mine?"
[ed: Amberzine is a roughly quarterly magazine devoted to the Amber game. Each issue is contractually limited to 1,000 copies. Subscriptions are $40 for 5 issues, and there are still a limited number of compilations of issues 1-5 available for $50. Contact Phage Press at PO Box 519, Detroit, MI, 43231-0519 for more information.]
LB: Is Phage going to be developing any new product lines beyond the Amber series?
EW: We've negotiated with Matt Hauer and we'll be doing a Bugtown RPG. James Wallis is doing the design for us. It looks real cool, it's been playtested a lot, and it's a lot of fun. The main difficulty I'm having is that the creators (James and Matt) are being incredibly imaginative and ambitious with the packaging. Right now we're anticipating a 360-page book, half of which is going to be reprints of the comic. It will certainly be the biggest Post Brothers anthology ever printed. The remainder is an illustrated walkthru of Bugtown with instructions on how to roleplay in it. Rules will be kept to a minimum -- there's talk about possibly printing all the rules on the back cover with a tagline that says "See Inside For Hype."
LB: Will this be another diceless system?
EW: Absolutely. Phage is committed to releasing revolutionary rpgs. In my definition, this means that any systems we release after Amber will have to be just as pure. The closer we can get to being able to run a game if you're the imprisoned Count of Monte Cristo -- whispering through the pipes -- the better.
LB: Who exactly is Phage Press?
EW: We don't have any full-time employees. It's me on the creative side, and Lisa Seymour (my cousin) and Ron Seymour handling the business side of things.
LB: Do you have any plans of going full time with it?
EW: I hope not. I really hope not. I have no ambitions of being a publisher. I'd be happy as a clam to sell Phage and get out of the publishing end completely. I anticipate my future involvement being as limited as possible. I'm a freelance writer -- that's all I want to be. If my life's plan had gone perfectly, I'd be in Ulan Bator right now, or somewhere else on a trip around the world.
Although this article was originally intended as a preview, Shadow Knight should be available when you read this magazine!
This article's art is excerpted from Shadow Knight, and is © 1994 Erick Wujcik.
Article publication date: April 1, 1994
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