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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

Pit of Vipers

One of the more interesting developments with Amber Diceless, Pit of Vipers is a one shot scenario run at AmberCon and AmberCon Northwest that features a more robust auction setup that builds more story between the characters. The auction itself has been reused multiple times because of the dynamic that it builds. These documents are shared with the permission of Guy Gascoigne-Piggford, Kristen Nyht, David Golden, and Jack Schleick.

You can download it here.

Below is the original game description.

Game Overview

“The familiar bonds of love and friendship may be formed in mere moments, whereas a seething web of hatred and deceit takes years to create.”

Fatherly advice from Oberon

The one great truth in Amber is that you can’t trust your siblings. While Zelazny told us this, we know very little of the early years in Amber and the cause of all those petty jealousies and hatreds. This game explores the nature of Amber’s love and hate, trust and suspicion, truth and deception with brand-new elders where the players create (or more likely destroy) the web of trust and innocence. When dark things threaten and opportunity looms, will your new elders rise above their hatreds? Or will the cycle of Amber begin anew?

This game will be heavy on role-play — be ready to really get into your character, and be ready to be vicious. The knives are out and the innocents will be slaughtered. And just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

Setting: Alternate elders Amber, before the events of the Chronicles.

Character Instructions: Characters will be 300-ish point Amber elders, created on site with a novel form of background creation. Details will be provided in advance by e-mail or at the convention. Advanced powers and cheesy items likely to be heavily restricted — this game is about interaction, not the powers. Yes, there’s an auction, and we know that usually sucks, but we promise that it will be worth it and will have a major impact on the web of hatred. Trust us. Wink, wink.

Players need not contact the GM(s) in advance of the convention.

Run History: ACNW 2001, ACUS 2002, ACUS 2003


In the Beginning – Pondering Attributes in Amber Diceless RPG

Introductory Author’s Note: The focus here is on the Amber Diceless Role Playing Game (ADRPG) published by Phage Press however reference will be made to similar Diceless games such as Lords of Olympus from Precis Intermediary and Lords of Gossamer and Shadow by Rite Publishing which licenses the Amber DRPG system from Diceless by Design.

Attributes are the term used for the basic building blocks of defining a character’s inherent abilities and traits.  The ADPRG was not the first RPG to use attributes or stats to define a character of course – many of us were weaned in our RPG youth on the six stats used by the world’s oldest RPG rolled up using three six-sided dice: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma. Thus the use of “attributes” to define a character for mechanical gameplay is not new.

There were a couple ways in which the ADRPG was more innovative with respect to attributes.  The most obvious is that Diceless games don’t use dice to generate attribute “scores” in character creation.  Diceless typically uses a pool of points that players either bid for scores in Attributes or use to purchase a score in that Attribute.

Another way in which Diceless departed from earlier RPGs was in using a “less is more” mantra to define a character’s inherent characteristics. The ADEPG system limited Attributes to four broad traits: Strength, Endurance, Psyche and Warfare. These four attributes are utilized to determine a character’s ability to accomplish certain feats and as a primary means of resolving conflicts and challenges encountered in the game. The attributes are used to resolve these conflicts and challenges whether directly or as the foundation of the use of various powers in the game (such as Sorcery).

This is a design choice I suspect that was made to engender more friction points for players as the attributes are often determined though a competitive auction where players bid points for a ranking in an Attribute which then drives conflict resolution in game play.  The fewer attributes – the more conflict can be engendered both in character creation process and during game play and Amber is a game that often thrives on player conflict to drive story and game play.

ADRPG defines the attributes as follows:

  • Psyche is a sweeping rating of mental strength, willpower and adeptness at manipulating powers like Pattern, Logrus, Sorcery etc.
  • Strength is “muscle” and the ADRPG translates that into three aspects: hand to-hand fighting (e.g wrestling, fist fight etc.); exertion (e.g. ability to move a giant boulder) and resistance (e.g. ability to take a punch, absorb impact of a fall etc.).
  • Endurance is the rating of energy reserves a character has – both physical and mental – as well as their ability to heal, resist disease etc.
  • Warfare is another wide-ranging stat which encompasses ability in combat (e.g. sword fighting), leadership, tactical vision and reaction time.

For purposes of this discussion, I would argue there is one additional “attribute” known as “Stuff”. While the ADRPG doesn’t call Stuff an attribute as it is generated not through the Attribute Auction or a point buy like the Attributes.  Stuff is determined as a credit of unspent points in character creation or a debit of overspent points. Stuff is used to determine a character’s overall luck and karma.  More on Stuff in a later post in this series.

Over the years I have played primarily with the ADRPG Attributes in a “rules as written” approach but not without observing some flaws/gaps in the Attributes as designed and experimenting with or observing alternate approaches in games in which I have played. Today I am going to focus on assessing some of the “gaps” and considerations for addressing those gaps.

I start with a very rudimentary comparison to the world’s oldest role playing game and its six canon attributes: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma.

There are two direct analogues: Strength in ADRPG is very much correlated to Strength in the original RPG and Amber’s Endurance maps pretty well with Constitution. 

Amber doesn’t have any intelligence or wisdom stat. Psyche is very different in that it is mental strength and willpower which has no correlation to intelligence and wisdom.  We all know plenty of stupid people with the willpower of a stubborn mule. There is no correlated Warfare attribute in the original RPG because the aspects of Warfare (e.g. sword fighting) were a matter of skills in that system not inherent attributes of a character. Dexterity or agility is referenced not at all by ADRPG except as a factor in Strength or Warfare contests.

One of the other Diceless sourcebooks(Lords of Olympus) noted that certain “attributes” like Charisma and Intelligence were omitted on purpose to allow those to be defined by the player’s portrayal of their character.  In other words, the character’s intelligence and social skill should be a function of the player’s roleplaying of the character.  I personally object to this approach – because truth be told I am not the world’s greatest role player (call it stage fright and inherent tendency to introversion) and so giving an accurate portrayal of a very intelligent or incredibly charismatic person is probably beyond my ability.  Furthermore, that rationale confuses the character’s abilities with the player’s ability and inconsistent with the treatment of other Attributes.  I cannot portray the strength of Gerard (I am not that strong after all) – hence the game recognizes my character needs a strength Attribute, why would other inherent traits like intelligence or charisma be different?

However, recall one of the aspects of attributes in ADRPG is the “less is more” approach to engender more conflict and player to player resolution of conflict. I like that aspect so I don’t want to see a dilution of Attributes too far.  So one option is to incorporate the gap elements into the scope of existing Attributes. What are the gaps?  Thus far I have mentioned the attributes from the original RPG that don’t have a direct corollary in ADRPG:   intelligence, wisdom, dexterity and charisma.  Of these, I think Dexterity could be combined with the Amber DRPG’s Strength and be re-labeled as Physicality.

As to charisma in ADRPG games, I have observed that a character’s charisma comes into play most often in social encounters with NPCs as a means of gauging reactions to the player character by NPC to determine the outcome of that encounter. Absent other factors (e.g. use of Sorcery to cast a charm spell for example) these situations are resolved in ADRPG by reference to Stuff – a Good Stuff character (one with a credit of points in Stuff) gets a favorable reaction, learns more etc. and a Bad Stuff character (one with a debit of points in Stuff) gets an adverse reaction or learns less than he/she might learn otherwise.

As an aspect of Stuff as karma/luck, I think this works just fine to address “charisma” in those circumstances but what about player character to player character interactions?  I think it should be a factor in such interactions as well while allowing player agency for the character interaction roleplaying to influence the outcome appropriately as the Lords of Olympus designers proposed. In order to accomplish this I think the name of Stuff should be altered to make clear this utility of the attribute for social reaction/interactions.  However, it still needs to encompass the “luck” aspect for other conflicts/challenges as well.  Thus I would propose the 5th Attribute be not “Stuff” but Karma which encompasses the aspects of fate, luck and charisma in the way the re-named Strength/Physicality Attribute would encompasses muscle, dexterity , exertion and resistance.

One component of the change would also to be adjust how this Attribute is determined. I would suggest that it is Auctioned and ranked in a ladder in the same fashion as the other Attributes but with a twist.  You would bid and spend points for Karma but it would also be adjusted upward or downward based on final tally of points spent in overall character creation so your initial position could be adjusted up or down to adjust your Karma (including the ability to go negative).

Okay so that leaves us with intelligence/wisdom.  In my experience, conflicts that arise in Amber ADRPG rarely need to get addressed as a matter of intelligence or wisdom but there are cases that arise where a character (and sometimes a player) needs information to address a challenge or conflict. It is the situation that I believe should have an Attribute that can be used to define the character’s inherent ability. This ability would be a combination of aspects of intelligence and wisdom that go to perception and insight.

Consider a situation where a player encounters a treasure chest.  In ADRPG the rules will tell you the ability for the player to open the chest without triggering the trap on the chest is a function of comparing the player character’s Warfare rank against that of whomever designed the trap on the chest. This assumes that the player finding the chest even realizes the chest is trapped.  Now this could be achieved by the player through roleplaying and asking certain questions about the chest etc. but I find relying solely  upon that can prevent the best experience of an unfolding story in the game but I prefer, much as with the use of Karma in social interactions, having it be a blend of the player and the character attributes.  In that vein I would propose the sixth (and final Attribute) be an attribute which encompasses a character’s perception and insight and be called “Insight”.  The Attribute would cover the physical senses and perceptions of the character as well as their ability to connect various pieces of information or data to gain insight and answers.  The one “sense” that would not be covered by this Attribute would be “danger sense” which is explicitly encompassed in the Psyche attribute in the ADRPG.

So this alternate Attributes system would include:

  • PHYSICALITY (formerly Strength but now encompassing dexterity/agility)
  • KARMA (adjusted Stuff from ADRPG to address charisma and social conflicts as well as luck)
  • INSIGHT (new attribute covering physical senses and insight into connections amongst data

This is just one option to adjusting ADRPG’s attributes as written – there are many alternate attribute schemes that have been used/suggested but hopefully this system offers a balance and plugs some gaps that serve to improve gameplay.  I’d welcome comments or questions or improvement suggestions.

Why Amber Diceless?

“Amber was the greatest city which had ever existed or ever would exist. Amber had always been and always would be, and every other city, everywhere every other city that existed was but a reflection of a shadow of some phase of Amber. Amber, Amber, Amber … I remember thee. I shall never forget thee again.”

Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber

For the inaugural post on this blog, I thought I’d try and answer: Why? Why Amber? Why diceless? And why this blog?

Robust setting

While there are criticisms that can be laid upon the source material, the concept as a whole offers a lot of room: a group of people with the ability to freely travel through a near infinite series of alternate universes. Within those infinite universes, you have a lot of freedom in terms of setting options, able to blend together characters from different genres.

The concept of alternate worlds is hardly unique in either roleplaying games or fiction. Zelazny cribbed from multiple sources for his world-building in the Amber universe. There have been multiple games that have used alternate worlds in their cosmology, both before and after Amber Diceless was released.

But many of these hinge on some constraint on the travel between worlds: gates or stairs or doors. In Amber, you have freedom to just walk (or sometimes teleport) anywhere you want. I’ve had games veer from high fantasy to modern day to space opera all in a single session.

And while it’s highly subjective, I just find the kingdom of Amber and its royal family to be iconic. The canon characters live on in my heart in a way that few fictional characters do. I’ve been playing around with the setting for 25+ years and it’s pretty ingrained into my psyche. There’s something that calls me back to it time and again.

Simple but robust rules

The rules are dead simple. Character creation can mostly be verbally explained. Once characters are created, players don’t even need to look at character sheets. The GM is expected to track attributes and relative ability to adjudicate the result of conflicts. It makes the game very approachable for players who are uncomfortable with the convoluted rules you might find in other roleplaying games.

And, because the rules are so simple, it’s very easy to tinker with the rules. In the nearly 30 years the game has been available, players have created more attributes, fewer attributes, different attributes, new powers, altered powers, reimagined powers, added in skill systems, or figured out how to run the game without stats at all.

Immersive roleplay

The game emphasizes getting into the head of your character. Because they don’t need to worry about their character sheet as much, players can focus on character interaction.

Mechanically this is supported by rewarding players for contributions to the game, particularly character diaries. The idea is that by writing from your character’s point of view, you better get into their mental space and develop their voice better.

Though I have conflicted feelings about the attribute auction, it does have the potential to build that sense of competition between the characters, simulating the dynamic of growing up together and having years (perhaps centuries) or interpersonal conflict.

So why a blog?

In the nearly 30 years that the game has been around, there’s been a lot of discussion about the game. But over 30 years, a lot of that discussion has faded away as well. Web sites have gone offline, mailing list emails go unarchived and the list itself goes fallow, dedicated forums disappear.

My hope is that this platform will stick around for a while, that we can re-collect some of the content that has disappeared, and start new conversations. And, if we happen to woo more people into enjoying Amber Diceless or other diceless games, all the better.