Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler




by Allen Varney

[Published as a sidebar to Lester Smith's review of Amber Diceless Roleplaying (Phage Press, 1992) in Dragon #182, June 1992]

My friend John Brunkhart tells about a 1989 game session at Iron Crown Enterprises. John, who had recently joined Customer Service at ICE, had played the Hero System for years but had never tried ICE's SPACE MASTER science-fiction RPG. An ICE hanger-on who ran a campaign invited John to sit in. He spent two hours generating a character and joined the veteran players (mostly fellow ICE employees) as a new adventure got underway.

For starters, the characters embarked on a space journey to the world where they would receive their mission. En route, their ship entered a dangerous asteroid belt. John rolled his character's Piloting skill and achieved a critical success. Like Han Solo, he sent the ship barreling flawlessly through the field. Except....

As I understand it, in SPACE MASTER there is an unmodified percentage chance that a ship in an asteroid field will hit something. The gamemaster rolled this chance, right out where everyone could see the dice: collision! Then he rolled the size of the surprise asteroid: about as big as the Moon, the way John tells it. Then he rolled for location: the drives. Then he rolled damage: maximum. Before the scenario had properly begun, the ship exploded, killing all aboard.

The gamemaster apologized but didn't retract the results. He wanted to keep the players' respect by respecting the dice. It worked, mostly. These guys played ICE games, after all, and they obeyed dice slavishly. "Yeah," they told each other, "that's probably what would really happen -- asteroid fields are dangerous --" But John, who had expected to take part in an adventure story, was baffled and apoplectic by turns.

Narration or (putative) simulation? Die-roll fudging or relentless justice? Here in a nutshell -- or better, in a dice bag -- we have one of the great religious schisms of our hobby, ranking with "realism vs. playability." I strongly favor story and roleplaying values. If you want dice to rule your destiny, you could play SPACE MASTER, but why not go to Vegas and shoot crap instead? You'll probably have a better story to tell afterward.

Recalling John's horror story and many like it, I salute the courage and integrity of Erick Wujcik's AMBER DICELESS ROLEPLAYING. I have some random (pardon the term) musings:

  • The "attribute auction" in character generation is brilliant and elegant. This fun system produces several nice effects apparent only after close study. At first it seems canny (and cooperative) players could fix attribute prices at artificially low levels -- but this oligopoly backfires as soon as the PCs receive their first advancement points, when everyone can easily buy up to every top rank!

    The auction system could easily work with other point-based RPGs. It does need a large player group to work best. In my experience the specified 100 points cannot create a well-rounded Amber character. I offer more points and free Pattern Imprint.

  • Another AMBER breakthrough, the idea of gaining extra points to improve your character through extra-campaign activity (character diaries, artwork, campaign logs), depends on the honor of the players. But then, so does much else in this game. (I wonder how long before some penurious gamemaster starts offering extra points in a real auction.)

  • Advancement comes slowly, perhaps too slowly. Players have little idea how their own characters improve, let alone others'. Still, this effect mimics Roger Zelazny's Amber novels. There our hero, Corwin, doesn't know whether (for instance) he can defeat his brother Eric in fencing until they actually go at it. This game system cultivates suspicion, caution, even paranoia, all survival traits in Amber.

  • Likewise, I believe the game's non-random approach suits Amber well. Others disagree. Yet in the novels, Corwin seldom says, "If it hadn't been for [the wind/the sun in my opponent's eyes/the phase of the moon], I'd never have scraped by. The situation could have gone either way." No, when Corwin achieves something, he overcomes random circumstances. Story logic, not some lucky break, usually motivates the occasional last-minute rescue. As in the novels, so it works in the game, and bravo.

  • An Amber RPG should be non-random -- but that doesn't mean the Amber milieu works well for roleplaying. The setting selects for loners, because an individual PC (1) is vastly capable and (2) has reason to mistrust other PCs. Players routinely go haring off in their own directions. They form factions and retreat from the game room to plot. The characters have Trumps that can negate traps or blow open mysteries. They can mess with time or find anything they want in infinite parallel universes, free.

    Experienced gamemasters can accommodate all this, and AMBER clearly targets the most experienced GMs (and players!). But it's tough work. Proceed with caution.

    On the same note, I'd be reluctant to run this game for players who aren't familiar with the first five Amber novels, Nine Princes in Amber through The Courts of Chaos. (Regrettably, the second Amber sequence is only a Shadow of the first's reality.)

  • "Diceless" does not necessarily imply "rule-less." But AMBER dispenses with most rules as righteously as it throws out dice. At every point Wujcik asserts the primacy of story values over systems. Notably, the Combat chapter describes tactics and their likely success, different wound levels, and so on, all in plain words with few rules and no numbers. It's rather curious reading.

    To be honest, this bold approach unsettles me. Politically I must applaud the dominance of story values over rules. The text offers copious advice, including scripts that advise GMs how to stage a fight at varying levels of detail. But I betray my upbringing. I keep looking for a way to sequence combat, hit points, all those training wheels I grew up with.

    Yet the intensity of AMBER indicates Wujcik is on to something. When success in every action depends on the role and not the roll, players develop a sense of both control and urgency, along with creativity that borders on mania.

I once heard a second-hand remark attributed to E. Gary Gygax, designer of AD&D, to the effect that, "The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules." Now AMBER has exposed the truth. Soon, I hope, we can safely enter an asteroid field.

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Copyright ©1992 Allen Varney