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)
  • PSYCHE (as ADRPG)
  • ENDURANCE (as ADRPG)
  • WARFARE (as ADRPG)
  • 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.

Published by adamgamer

Husband, father, attorney by day, tabletop RPG game writer, designer and enthusiast by night. A long time fan and player/GM of Amber Diceless RPG and a contributor to Rite Publishing's Lords of Gossamer and Shadow Diceless RPG and a freelance writer for other game publishers.

6 thoughts on “In the Beginning – Pondering Attributes in Amber Diceless RPG

    1. I like some of the ideas like physicality, but it really seems geared to move away from roleplay and more into a strategic gaming mindset (e.g. D&D). Essentially now you can avoid RPing both interpersonal conversations and investigations. Just tell the GM your stat and they tell you what happens. I get that’s a plus for players who are uncomfortable with RP, but I tend to question why players in that situation would embrace a game like Amber in the first place (seems like they might enjoy D&D or GURPS much more). As in all things, if you love it, use it! But probably not for me, if anything I tend to reduce mechanics for story.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cort – thanks for reading and commenting!

        I agree with your notion that you never want mechanics to override player’s roleplaying and agency – its almost like there is a hierarchy of elements here : player agency/roleplaying, story, mechanics – in that order. What I was suggesting – perhaps not artfully – was that a GM should not assume all players are equal in roleplaying skill – not all actors are equal in acting ability for example – so that hierarchy becomes necessary to ensure every player can equally enjoy the game. Some rely on their skill as role-players, some may need to lean into mechanics more. Definitely true that those less comfortable with pure roleplaying may find more comfort in games like D&D etc.

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    2. Thanks for reading and commenting Arref!

      I have seen others suggest a modification of Stuff to call it Karma but I think the blending of the notions of luck and charisma are both captured in the concept of karma (though I am not an expert) and I like the way it captures both.

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  1. Please go back and re-read the Strength section in the ADRPG. By the rules as written, Strength is not just muscle.

    The fact that so many GMs change the rules to make Strength into nothing but muscle is one of the most annoying things in Amber gaming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rain, thanks for reading the blog and commenting!

      I agree that its always instructive to go back and read the rules as written. I did that as I put this post together and I confess I may be missing what you read in the Strength entry from Wujick. It heavily emphasizes that Strength is muscle – in fact the very first words in the section on Strength are “Strength rates the character’s muscles…” (ADRPG page 17). It does expand on that in the ‘Potential of Strength” section on page 18 by noting that Strength breaks into three aspects: (1) Hand to Hand Skill 9e..g ability in hand to hand fighting styles like Aikido), 2) Exertion described as “the pure muscle end of things” and 3. Resistance which is described as “Covered with a layer of muscle , just as a prize fighter conditioned to absorb punches…”

      What aspects of Strength do you think the rules as written are covering beyond that? Does your notion of Strength cover what I describe in the post as Physicality or is it something else?

      I think, to your final point, the fact is many GMs adapt and adjust the scope and application of Attributes – some applying narrow rules as written, some more wide ranging and it can often be a surprise when a player expects Attributes applied in one way and encounters a situation where the GM does something completely different – trust I feel your plan. I last year at a con encounter a GM who applied different Attributes to a sword fight defending on the type of sword – rapiers were Warfare and claymores were Strength.

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