Thinking About Combat: Generating/Exploiting Opportunities

Michael Sullivan sent this essay to the Amber Mailing List in 2018. It is reprinted here with his permission.

I’ve been tinkering around with combat systems for the last couple of years, trying to find games that play a little less “roll to hit, roll to damage” than is the norm. Recently, I came across kind of a frame of thinking that I feel may be useful to Amber GMs that are trying to make combat a little less scalar or arbitrary than the default system provides.

(By that I mean: in Amber, you generally have little mechanical ability to differentiate combat characters. Probably most combat comes down to “compare Warfares, plus non-mechanical discussion/negotiation/ruling.” With maybe a little side role for Strength and Endurance and maybe artifacts or something. So this technique that I’m going to describe would be useful for people who want to see a little more of a scenario in which Albert is better than Beatrice in some situations, but worse in other situations, mechanically.)

The technique that we’re talking about here is separating the offensive part of combat into a two-stage process: GENERATING opportunities versus EXPLOITING opportunities. Think here of a feint. There’s one skill where you’re good at selling the feint. Where you convince your opponent to parry where your sword is not. There’s a different skill at then taking advantage of that opening. When your opponent parries where your sword is not, do you run him through, killing him? Or maybe you just wound him. Perhaps just a light scratch. Maybe you don’t manage to make contact with him at all, but you put him on the back foot, forcing him into a more defensive posture.

The ability to generate opportunities is, more or less, the ability to win a combat. If you’re generating opportunities consistently, and your opponent is not, then even if it takes you a while to capitalize on your opportunities, you’ll win. Meanwhile, if you have lots of ability to exploit opportunities, but no ability to generate them, well… you can’t exploit what’s not there.

However, the ability to exploit opportunities is the ability to win a combat QUICKLY. Which also means that it’s the ability to handle lots of lesser opponents successfully. Corwin was able to generate opportunities in his duel with Eric in the beginning of Nine Princes, but before he could turn that potential into an actual win, he was interrupted. And if you’re fighting ten guys, you just don’t get a chance to put one of those guys into a more and more compromised position before you’re finally able to take him out — you’ll get interrupted by a sword to the back.

If you’re mechanically inclined, think of it this way: Suppose that you have three stats for combat: generate, exploit, and defense. Each “round” or time that the GM gives you an opportunity to discuss your actions or whatever, you get a certain amount of “opportunity,” which is an intermediate stage of damage. Depending on the difference between your generate and your opponent’s defense. But you have to build up a certain amount of opportunity, depending on your exploit score, before that “damage” actually turns into real DAMAGE. And if you don’t get to continue to press your opponent, if you have to turn your attention to something else, that opportunity “damage” vanishes into nothing.

This has some knock-on effects. If Albert has generate 5, exploit 8, defense 5, and Beatrice has generate 7, exploit 3, defense 7, then Beatrice probably generally wrecks Albert (assuming like a 1-10 scale and a 2 point difference being significant). But if Beatrice is compromised in some way, maybe already wounded or set up in a bad situation, then Albert is a “give him an inch, he’ll take a mile” guy. If Beatrice is on her game, she wins. But as soon as she’s a little compromised, Albert’s ability to rapidly take an edge and turn it into a win looms large.

In Amber, you might think of Strength’s role as being largely one of Exploit. Strength is no good if your opponent can keep you from every making much contact. But if you CAN get an opportunity, Strength makes it easy to turn that opportunity into a brutal game-winning advantage. Exploit is, don’t get me wrong, generally worse than Generate in one-on-one fights. But if you think of it this way, you can more clearly see opportunities to turn that around.

This also gives you a mode to think about how Endurance plays into combat. Endurance again mitigates the advantage of Generate. If you need to fight for a long time to get the win, that obviously plays into whether we should look at your Endurance versus your opponents’.

You can use this frame formally in the game, giving people actual scores (whether primary attributes or as derived values) in generate/exploit, or just as one of several modes to think about a given fight in. Hopefully it lets you imagine and communicate more interesting fights than you otherwise would.

One Take on The Courts of Chaos

I’ve run a one-shots and campaigns that focused around the Courts of Chaos, and have spent a lot of time puzzling out details from the books and expanding on them in order to provide a more robust setting to play around with. Some of the setting details I’ve also cribbed from Kit Kindred.

It is hard to write about the Courts of Chaos in a way that both evokes the canon and is inclusive. Despite depicting a society of shapeshifters in a place where notions of physics break down, Zelazny’s Courts of Chaos is still patriarchal, heteronormative, and Eurocentric. The titles commonly seen in his Courts of Chaos (lord, lady, prince, princess, duke) do not have well established gender neutral options. Where I can, I will offer options for alternate titles beyond just the standard.

A Brief History of Chaos

According to the Book of the Serpent Hung Upon the Tree of Matter, the progenitor of the Chaos royal blood was a woman named Lilith. Consort to the Serpent, she gave form to Shadow by drawing upon the energies of a node of raw Chaos known as the Pit. The construct she created to accomplish this became known as the Logrus, and she was the first Keeper of the Logrus.

From her unions with the Serpent, many a child was produced. Each was a Noble of Chaos capable of initiating into the Logrus. Each in turn begat their own lineages. These came to be known as the Houses of Chaos. These Houses formed an oligarchy over Chaos, each sharing rule of the land. Thus was born the “Courts” of Chaos.

After countless eons, Houses died or split into new Houses. Their only common tie was their descent from Lilith and the Serpent. It was from a relatively new and insignificant House that treachery was born. A power-mad genius named Dworkin stole potent artifacts from Chaos and fled into deepest untamed Shadow to create his own node of power. This new icon of power was abhorrent to behold, and nearly tore all of existence asunder. Many died in the Shadowstorms wrought by this malignant artifact.

In the ensuing confusion and civil revolt one noble, named Swayvill, rose up and established peace in the Courts of Chaos. The price for this unification was steep. Swayvill made himself King, and exalted the Houses each of his children founded, while marginalizing the others.

Swayvill ruled for thousands of years before the scions of the Betrayer made contact with the Courts. Three of Dworkin’s descendants, claiming to hail from a place called Amber, sought to gain power over the realm that Dworkin had founded. The Houses of Chaos were divided regarding what stance to take with regards to Amber, but Swayvill pushed for an agenda of war. The war turned ugly, and Chaos ultimately lost to the baleful forces of Amber.

Chaos Nobility

“… I heard so much from my father of the succession in Amber, with all its cabals, intrigues, and double crosses, that I almost feel an authority on the subject. I imagine it could be that way here, too, among the Houses of Swayvill’s descendants, there being many more generations involved.”

Roger Zelazny, Prince of Chaos

The Houses of Chaos fall into three general groups, though intermarriage can make the definitions fuzzy around the edges.

Major Houses are those descended from King Swayvill. Most of the Houses mentioned in the Merlin series are Major Houses: Hendrake, Sawall, Jesby, Chanicut and Helgram. In my campaigns the Major Houses are the ones most likely to have a human-like form. Their titles are the top level noble titles: Duke, Duchess, Duchexx, Herzog, Voivode, Emir, Kōshaku, Regal, etc.

Old Houses are those that existed prior to Swayvill’s rise to power. Some that did not curry favor with Swayvill early on received demotions to lesser titles. This is where I add in the more alien Houses, such as House Triton, where they are more divorced from human-seeming forms. Their titles are more reflective of mid-level nobility: Marquess, Earl, Countexx, Landgrave, Hakushaku, Shishaku.

Minor Houses are those founded by decree. They were either founded by younger members of existing Houses who earned special attention or else were established by prominent gentry or demons. Many do not have any connection to Lilith, and hence are unable to walk the Logrus. Some Minor Houses try to arrange marriages with scions of Major and Old Houses to gain that power. Their titles tend towards the low end of noble titles with the occasional knights in the mix: Baron, Baronexx, Graf, Danshaku.


At the far end of existence is a roiling node of Chaos called the Pit. It is a constant cycle of creation and destruction. Near to the Pit is the Core, a rock of Reality within which the Logrus is housed. Atop the Core are also many of the central buildings of the Courts of Chaos: the Thelbane, the Cathedral of the Serpent, the Plaza at the End of the World.

Attached to the Core are the Ways, the patchwork web of Shadow fragments that form the homes of the Nobles of Chaos. Only the Major Houses have their Ways connected to the Core. The rest of the Ways of Chaos are connected by “common Ways” which belong to no particular House and also house the unaffiliated common folk of the Courts of Chaos.

A Most Foul and Unnatural Murder

David Golden has been kind enough to share his game notes for some of his past campaigns. Today I’m highlighting his murder mystery. Download now.

Original Description from ACNW:

Event Title: “A Most Foul and Unnatural Murder”
Players: 4-8 (6 preferred or I’ll need another GM)

Type of event: FF,CR

The first anniversary of the reign of King Random the First is upon us. What are the odds that it passes peacefully? Has Random’s luck has run out? Can you save the day or are you, in fact, the villain? Trust no one and watch your back… it’s party time in Amber.

Character restrictions:
There will be a blitz-auction to start. Characters based on 150 points. Must be related to Amber (Chaos also OK). Must have a reason to want Random dead — the more sordid and twisted the better. 10 point bonus for discussing character background with GM prior to the con. See web-page for rules on powers and items and more.

Download files.

Time, Space, and Judgment: An Origin Myth

In my last campaign, I had an idea for the origin of the universe, partially inspired by Jenna K. Moran’s work on Exalted: Fair Folk. I never found a direct use for it in the game, but I thought I’d share it here. 

In the Beginning

The idea starts with the universe as nothing. Maybe it was a roiling ball of chaos. Maybe it was just non-existence. No one was there to report on it. But something shifted. Time and Space gained independent existence, embodied by two entities. Suddenly events happened in a sequence and could occur in different locations. The absence of time and space was congealed down into a single object which ultimately would become the Jewel of Judgment. 

As Time and Space grew in power and awareness, they generated new entities by dividing the universe further into what it is and what it isn’t. As they culled away “what it isn’t,” some of that was layered onto the Jewel of Judgment and some was embodied in similar objects. These entities included things like Change, Form, Reflection, and others. And they became known by names like Serpent, Unicorn, Chameleon, Owl, and so forth. 

These entities in turn experimented with shaping existence further, creating realms and races in new ways. Shadow was born of this, but so were realms like Undershadow and the Shroud. The realms were not necessarily called such then. These are just the names that remain. 

Using in Your Game

The problem with big picture cosmology is that it’s not always useful to actual play. So here are some things that you an do with this.

  • The Early Kingdoms: A whole campaign could be built around the early days of existence, a patchwork of small universe-kingdoms, each ruled over by an individual god. Players could be the ruling family over one of these universe-kingdoms, or they could be the gods themselves.
  • Visiting Other Realms: The Merlin series and the short stories introduce places like the Shroud and Undershadow. Rather than weird anomalies, these could be potent realms in and of themselves still ruled over the first gods. They touch upon Shadow but are their own thing. This could even be a way to have crossovers with other multiverse settings like Lords of Gossamer & Shadow or Wizard101.
  • When the Stars are Right: Possibly overlapping with the ideas of other realms, it could be that the other gods are sealed away. The spikards, for example, are noted to draw upon sources of power like the “blood of the beast on the pole” and the “shell that is cracked at the center of the world.” It could be that these gods were sealed away by the creators of the spikards in order to power their artifacts. A “visionary” could even take it upon themselves to release these gods. The plot of the game could be to stop the return or to deal with the aftermath of such a return.
  • Shattered Judgment: What happens if the Jewel of Judgment is broken or destroyed? If it is crystallized anti-concepts, does time become disjointed? Does space become meaningless? What other anti-concepts might wreak havoc with existence?
  • Easter Eggs: Not everything has to be a plot device. Sometimes it just makes interesting color to find a fragment realm outside of Shadow or a bound primordial god. Some players will just ignore it, some will fixate on it as though they’ve found The Secret Plot, but it adds depth to a setting.

The Bright Pattern: A Take on Elemental Patterns

A popular concept early on was the notion of mapping the Patterns to the four classical elements, with the question of “what became of the Fire Pattern?” Below is Cort Odekirk’s take on the topic, reprinted with his permission.

Continue reading “The Bright Pattern: A Take on Elemental Patterns”

Review of the Rebma Sourcebook

“The archway loomed ahead, perhaps two hundred feet distant. Big, shining like alabaster, and carved with Tritons, sea nymphs, mermaids, and dolphins, it was.”

Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber

When Phage Press still spoke of publishing sourcebooks for Amber Diceless Roleplaying, Jason Durall produced As Above, So Below: The Rebma Sourcebook. Art had been commissioned, the manuscript was finished, the author was paid, but for an assortment of reasons the book never saw the light of day. Jason Durall wrote up an explanation of Rebma‘s fate in the back of Lords of Gossamer & Shadow and a bigger explanation on TheRPGSite. A PDF of the manuscript has circled around, passed hand to hand, granting a glimpse into what could have been. (Google shows that there’s currently a copy of the PDF posted on

For those who have never had the honor of seeing this apocryphal sourcebook, here’s a review and summary.

I’ll state right up front that I’ve always loved this book. I’ve stolen from it liberally for my own campaigns, tweaking and modifying it for my own purposes. There are some valid criticisms of it, which I’ll go into later, but I want to state my bias right up front.

Continue reading “Review of the Rebma Sourcebook”

Running Combat in Amber

In 2012, Michael Sullivan posted this essay to the Amber Mailing List. It is reprinted here with his permission, with only some minor formatting changes.

I got a couple of requests at ACNW to explain my techniques for running combat, which I kind of uncomfortably demurred from doing because I don’t really think of myself as having techniques per se. Nothing I’m terribly good at putting into words, at least. But it’s 4:30 on New Year’s Eve, I’m not going to do work, and this seems like a reasonable way to kill some time. So here’s my best shot at it:

Continue reading “Running Combat in Amber”

The Body In The Library: Intro & Opening Scene

An Amber Cross-Over to Lords of Gossamer and Shadow

Author’s Note: This is the second post in a series of blog posts which will set forth a complete adventure for use by Diceless GMs and Players. Today’s installment is the Introduction & Conflict. You can find the first in the series, Overview, posted on the blog as well. This will be followed by the following chapters over the next several weeks: Investigation & Complications, Climax & Resolution, and Conclusion & Aftermath. For many of the characters, places and ideas herein – having the Amber DRPG and Lords of Gossamer & Shadow Corebooks might be necessary or desired (e.g. you want a stat block for Brand or know what a Dwimmerlaik is or looks like etc.) – you can obtain copy of the Lords of Gossamer & Shadow Corebook as well as various supplements including The Long Walk (which is a massive supplemental rules and campaign book that contains a wealth of material) from various online retailers.

Continue reading “The Body In The Library: Intro & Opening Scene”

An Introduction to Partial Powers

The idea of “partial powers” in Amber Diceless Roleplaying is hardly new. It was an early concept when the game was released in the 90s, probably started by someone named Gideon Weinstein. Many Amber players are probably already familiar with this concept. But since it will come up in other pieces I write, I figured I’d lay out the basics. For those of you who have not heard of this, then I hope you enjoy this.

Continue reading “An Introduction to Partial Powers”

The Body in the Library: Overview

An Amber Cross-Over to Lords of Gossamer and Shadow

Author’s Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts which will set forth a complete adventure for use by Diceless GMs and Players.  Today’s installment is the Overview.  This will be followed by the following chapters: Introduction & Opening, Investigation & Complications, Climax & Resolution, and Conclusion & Aftermath

“The Body in the Library” is an introductory adventure for Amber DRPG groups to use as an entrée into the setting and modified Diceless RPG system of Lords of Gossamer & Shadow.

This adventure serves as a quick-and-dirty method of throwing player characters from Amber headlong into the world of Lords of Gossamer & Shadow, introducing them to the grand conflicts and major aspects of the setting. This adventure is purposefully written with a number of variable options to allow customization for a GM to adapt it to their campaign and group of players but nothing in here – or more importantly the absence of something here – should not preclude a GM and players from making changes that work for them and their game.

Adventure Overview

The characters find themselves in Castle Amber or something draws them to Amber – a resounding “alarm” transmitted through Trump that draws them to the Library in Amber for example.  They arrive at the library to find the door locked from within and once inside the body of a strange yet vaguely familiar figure is sprawled dead (or nearly dead) of odd wounds, clutching some Trump and a key in his hands.  The victim’s “attackers” are dark amorphous shapes buzzing and hovering about above the body.  The creatures can be dispatched and will flee through a strange rift into darkness if overmatched.  If the characters arrive soon enough the victim may yet be alive enough to identify himself as a much-changed Prince Brand and he will impart a dire yet cryptic warning that the Door must be sealed and Shatterlight must be warned or Amber and the Grand Stair will be destroyed.   The clues can lead the players to different avenues – most importantly, the Corridor of Mirrors where they may find the Door to match the Key held by the victim.

The shadow creatures return as the players investigate in the Library to pursue and attack whichever player character might hold the Key.  This time they are accompanied by two humanoid figures, Dwimmerlaik, who wield power and seem intent on destroying the player characters and demanding return of the Key and the location of the Door.  The players have to fend off this strange threat, follow the clues, find the Door, discover the Grand Stair and where Brand has been since falling in the Abyss, find out who the Dwimmerlaik are, what and where is Shatterlight, save Amber….oh and who locked the door to the library?

Steps of this Adventure

This adventure  follows the five-step adventure outline described in the Lords of Gossamer & Shadow Core Book, CHAPTER ELEVEN: CREATING ADVENTURES in that it provides an Introduction (the arrival of the player characters and the initial mystery – the titular Body in the Library), an immediate Conflict (an attack by mysterious creatures out of darkness), a Climax (discovery of the Door to the Grand Stair and all that entails), and can then lead to further Complications (there are multiple strange parties demanding the Key and the information the PC’s possess regarding the Door and its location and the fact that new dark and powerful enemies have nowentered Amber) and a longer-off… Resolution (sealing the Door in the Corridor of Mirrors which offers easy access from the Shadow of the Dwimmerlaik to Shatterlight and the Grand Stair as well as Amber itself).

This adventure also contains seeds and hooks for on-going adventures in the Grand Stair by introducing the PCs to key figures in the Grand Stair, the great conflict between the Dwimmerlaik and the Wardens of the Stair and even a mysterious group known as the Nine who’s agenda and allegiance are unknown. In the alternative, this adventure can be used in an Amber campaign with the Grand Stair as a set of shadow worlds offering a multitude of new possibilities for an Amber campaign, new connections to the mystery of the Abyss and more.  Finally, this adventure provides some modifiable components for adaptability to campaigns with variations – Brand’s already dead in your campaign?  No problem, the body is a different elder Amberite with a mysterious past etc. That’s the overview, next week we’ll post the second installment which provides the detailed Introduction & Conflict.