Author Topic: Review of Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game  (Read 1732 times)

Offline Nanshork

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Review of Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game
« on: April 21, 2021, 12:19:28 PM »

This review was done at the request of nijineko who asked for it last year and I finally finished my backlog so here you go!

According to Wikipedia, Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game (I'll just call it Amber) was written by the co-founder of Palladium Books and set in a fictional universe of some books written by Roger Zelazny.  It was published in 1991, and is the official webpage of the game.  I expect strange and probably terrible things.

As is standard I have no idea what I'm getting into (I've never even read the books).  This book is a little over 200 pages and has a layout that basically goes like this (emphasis very much not mine):
 - Introduction
 - Playing a Princess (or Prince) of Amber
 - Creating Player Characters
 - Glossary of Amber Terms & Concepts
 - Player Character Powers
 - A Player's Guide to Role-Playing
 - A Game Master's Guide to Amber Mechanics
 - A Game Master's Guide to Campaign Construction
 - A Game Master's Guide to Elder Amberites
 - Game Master Techniques
 - Index
 - Character Sheet
 - Artifact Work Sheet

Before I even get into the Intro I feel like pointing out that we have a game master section that is before the game master section (and appears to be a section and not a chapter) and that the guide to elder amberites is after the elder amberites.  As I said, strange.


Unsurprisingly, this game was written with the idea that you'd know the source material but it does give a basic summary of the ideas behind the books so that's something.  Then we get an introduction to roleplaying (which talks about some mechanics without explaining them which I don't like) and honestly this game sounds really weird with Shadow-Earth being mentioned and players not all playing in the same time frame.

Next we get some terms.  There are four attributes: Psyche, Strength, Endurance, and Warfare (Psyche is mental power and Warfare is fighting ability).  Also the game is not only diceless but completely devoid of any type of chance.  I've also learned that this game is designed with the idea of tournament play and cross-over tournaments where different campaigns interact.

Playing a Princess (or Prince) of Amber

You know how most RPG books have a written out script of what game play would look like?  This game has that as it's own chapter and is throwing terms around that I probably won't know what they mean for a long time to come.  Also the setting involves infinite planes that maybe aren't real?  I'm still not sure how this "Shadow" stuff works but it is way more than just Shadow-Earth.

This seems like a choose your own adventure game where every player is reading a different book. 

Creating Player Characters

Okay, right off we're getting a little too optimistic here.  "Remember, this is your immortal character.  One you'll want to play for years and years."  I've never been in any game that lasted for years and years.

And now it is getting weird.  Attribute allocation is done by auction competing with the other players.  Everyone gets 100 points (which are also used to by powers and extras).  More points can be gained by reducing your attributes below base "free" level (or taking bad stuff or by agreeing to a "regular on-going chore that the player promises to do for the Game Master. Examples include keeping a diary for your character, taking note for the whole group, or drawing a picture every game session.") and you can't reduce an attribute after you've bid on it. 

Basically the amount you bid is written down secretly and the GM announces the results.  From there it becomes an open bid with people just saying whatever and the GM acting as auctioneer.  Once someone has a top bid that nobody else is willing to beat, everyone loses the amount of points that their final bids were for and are ranked accordingly.  First rank in an attribute is the best and none of the other characters can ever beat them.  The "free" rank is Rank 0 so any rank of an actual number (even if it is 9th) beats a 0.  This happens for each attribute.

Psyche is mental strength, force of will, and affects some of what I assume are powers.  The relative ranking in Psyche will determine all contests of the mind.  If you get first rank in the Psyche bid then you will always beat the other players in Psyche all the time no matter what (although NPCs might still beat you).  As an aside, the example bidding for Psyche lists eight players.  Eight.  Also the GM is trying to get everyone to spend all of their points on the first attribute auction.  We also get some examples of what a character from the books with really high Psyche could do but I don't really understand half of them.

Strength is literal strength which impacts damage both dealt and received.  It is also used for wrestling.  The example uses here make way more sense as they're all physical things that a character from the book did.

Endurance is endurance which can make you win by default if your opponent over-exerts themselves.  It also affects how fast you can heal, which apparently includes regeneration.  As you might expect the example uses for this one is a pretty short list.

Warfare is fighting in anything that isn't hand-to-hand combat (which is covered by Strength).  Tactics and strategy also fall under this attribute.  The examples here are actually the longest list, divided into four whole sections. 

With attributes out of the way we move on to powers.  There are three major types of powers with basic and advanced versions of each, and they are all very expensive.  Pattern means that you're a member of the ruling family of Amber and have immortality along with other things that aren't mentioned.  Logrus means that you're of the reigning family of the Courts of Chaos which oppose Amber and they can shape shift (if they spend the points).  Trump is the "art of mystic images" whatever that means.  There are also the minor powers of power words (used for defense), sorcery, and conjuration which are all much cheaper.

You can also spend points on items which turns them into integral parts of your character and can't be permanently removed from it in any way.  You can spend points on a shadow realm which has a construction guide later on.  You can spend points on allies (which are secret, you don't even know who they are).  Lastly there's "good stuff" (luck and alignment and some wishy-washy stuff) "bad stuff" (gives you free points but you're a bad person who bad things can happen to) and "zero stuff" (neutral all around, no points in good or bad stuff because you can take both).  The "stuff" is all very wishy-washy and the GM is supposed to take it into account when they describe what happens.

Of course you can't forget the player contributions where you get points for doing chores!  No more than 20 points though, the book says so.

Lastly we get examples of all eight players and their character creation, which gives me a better idea of how this is all supposed to work but now i know there's going to be some crunch heavy chapters in the future because they're referencing things we haven't learned about yet.

Appearance, Age, Skills, and Equipment are all listed as freebies!  Why skills are free, who knows, but the suggestion is to write chapters about your life experiences instead of just writing down "brain surgeon".  Equipment that you didn't spend points on can appear and disappear due to Shadow.

The GM controls your history, background, parents, friends, devotees, and how old you are in Amber since different Shadows can have different time flows (slow or fast).

We get a little personal note from the author at the end of this chapter where he talks about his two favorite characters he has GM'd for in his six year campaign.  Six years.  One game.  Think about it.


It's a glossary. 


Here we learn what the different powers we can buy during character creation do.  Pattern is about Shadow, moving through it and finding things in it and leading other people through it and adjusting the flow of time.  Things like that.  Advanced Pattern allows for even fancier things, but they're almost all storytelling devices.

Logrus requires shape-shifting and creates Logrus tendris to fight or find things.  Advanced logrus can summon things or make servants or things of that nature.  Logrus is vulnerable to Pattern and Trump.

Trump is about making images and linking them to reality.  Trump makes Trumps, whatever that means.  Advanced Trump can spy and open dooorways or capture people in Trumps.

Shape Shifting is just that, and can be used for healing or disguise or turning into another form altogether.  You can lose yourself in your shifted shape so there are dangers here.  Advanced Shape Shifting lets you change the appearance of your mind so you aren't detected and being able to better become other people even to the point of taking on their personality.

Power Words are defensive words (like SCHANG! and MAGIQUE!) that you know and can use.  Sorcery is spellcasting which is super specific and honestly seems kind of useless compared to everything else.  Conjuration is for conjuring things and can be combined with power words and spell casting.

The rules for making your personal items you spent points on are also in this chapter.  Basically you pick qualities or powers to imbue your item with and spend the listed number of points on them and there you go.  You can do the same with creatures (like a special horse or cat or whatnot).

You can also spend points to have your own shadow with its own qualities.

How to Play a Character in Amber

This is a chapter about how to role-play.

Step One: Love Your Character
Step Two: Play in Character
Step Three: Live your Character
Step Four: Keeping Secrets

I don't really agree with all of the points here but everybody role-plays differently (which maybe the author forgot about).


Right away, combat is boiled down to two main steps.  Step one, compare the attribute raks of the participants.  Step two, hist attribute rank wins.  Everything else is just the GM describing things (with most likely some exceptions).  Honestly this feels pretty meh to me.

Then book then goes on to basically say that the way to beat people of higher rank is to stack the odds in your favor, usually by cheating (like if you're in a duel then break the rules of the duel without other people finding out).

Basically combat is 100% storytelling.  The GM looks at the abilities of everyone involved and says what happens and the players involved say what they do and then the GM narrates further, etc.  This is more of a storyteller game than most storyteller games.

We get a whole section about what kind of details to focus on in combat and when things can be glossed over, with multiple examples of how combat can play out depending on the amount of detail you want to give as the GM.

We then get into some more detailed information about how to adjudicate combat with more than two people and how to judge combat depending on how far apart the attributes of the participants are (with more examples).

Then, for some reason, this chapter starts a deep dive into stuff despite the fact that we already know how combat works.

Types of combat are broken down into three types: swords, bodies, and mind.  Cheating is possible in all front.  Sword combat is really any melee combat that isn't hand-to-hand, and we get pages and pages of combat choices and strategies and combining attributes (say bunching someone during a sword fight) and I guess this is all here just to make the storytelling better?  Strength combat is laid out the same way (although not as long because there aren't as many fancy moves you can do when boxing or wrestling).  Mind combat is fought with the Psyche attribute and is all jedi mind tricks and psychic domination stuff.

Then we get some basic information on combat and time (since different types of combat can take different amounts of time but this game doesn't have rounds or an equivalent).  We also learn about other factors in combat (this is a place where good stuff/bad stuff/zero stuff can come into play) and damage (remember, no HP in this game) and armor and death.  Honestly I could never run this game and I don't understand how it doesn't turn into arguments of "yes I did, no you didn't" with new GMs because everything is so wishy-washy.

The Mechanics of Amber: A Game Master's Toolbox

Have you noticed that these chapter names are the same as what is listed in the table of contents?  I have.

Basically what this boils down to is that if a character tries something that is within their abilities, it works.  However, if they're using powers things might not work the way they expect.  Experimentation is a thing, and the GM basically just makes up how they want things to work out.  The most common reason for a character to fail entirely is because they are being opposed (such as during combat).  Once again, good stuff/bad stuff comes into play as well.

We also get some "all roads lead to Rome" language where basically the players decide what they want to do and then the GM continues on with whatever plans they already had because in the end every random thing can be justified logically.

Also for some reason the author in this chapter explicitly states "I've always liked the idea of player characters being given sufficient power to blow themselves to kingdom come".  In D&D optimization terms, everyone is Tier 1 unless they made an actively broken character (in a bad way).

We get into the behind the scenes of Pattern and Trump (Trump is apparently super complicated and based on Tarot decks).  Shape shifting shows up again as well, with what can happen when everything goes bad (for example if you lose your personality in the shift).  Sorcery gets a bit of screentime, and then we get pages about creating powers and adjusting existing ones.

Campaign Building

Don't use Zelazny's version of Amber, make your own!

Boiled down, this chapter is about how to tell a story with some example stories from the Amber books and some ideas that aren't in the books. 

Tacked on is some language about how advancement points should be awarded and applied.  After that is information on running tournaments and cross-over sessions.

Then we randomly get what is always a very problematic part of a game based off of existing media.  Attributes for major characters!  If you know who Oberon is and always wondered what is stats are, here you go!  You even get multiple versions (probably for different time periods in the books).  The same goes for other characters (and this goes on for a long time, there are lots of characters with lots of information).  After in depth profiles of all of the major characters of the books (along with spoilers) we got some basic information on how elder Amberites think and feel and see the world.

Techniques of Role-Playing

"Amber, in the years of play-testing, has been as much a matter of style as any set of specific rules."  This is the first sentence of this chapter.  All of the weird insanity so far is now completely explained.

First we get a guide to attribute auctions where the GM's goal is to get everyone to go broken spending all of their points competing with each other, with specific tips for each attribute being auctioned.  Second we get character quizzes where you have your players answer questions to get in depth psychological profiles of their characters.  We're talking "The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping.  Why aren't you helping?" kind of questions.  This thing is deep and a couple of pages long.

Third we get information how to to make characters develop a background and they want you to role-play that background.  Fourth we get the "rules of engagement".  Things like players control their own actions and things must be fair and don't be biased. 

Fifth we get "good game masters create good role-players".  According to this book, bad role-players include: murder hobos, rules lawyers, and players who aren't in love with their characters.  Nothing like some good old fashioned judgement against playstyles.

Sixth we get game mastering techniques like "verisimilitude" and "don't say it, show it".  Seventh we're up to tricks of the story-telling trade like foreshadowing and retrofitting the story (since this is a storytelling game and the story is all that matters since you're supposed to be playing the same campaign for years).

Last but not least we have what has to be the weirdest chapter(?) in the whole book.  Wrap-Up: Ultimate Amber Role-Playing.  The Amber RPG is not a game (despite the G for Game being in the title).  This book is over 250 pages and they want you to just throw it all away because "The best kind of role-playing is pure role-playing.  No rules, no points, and no mechanics."  There are even guidelines for dumping every single part of the game including the GM.  They want you to play magical tea party Amber.  Why the hell did they make this book in the first place then?

Scenarios & Campaigns

After talking about how we don't need rules there are some example scenarios to run to get people used to the rules.

Final Thoughts

I hate it, I hate this so much.  If this was written now it would be a short 'zine system like Mothership and probably much less terrible.  It felt like half of the book was just reading example play.  And that tidbit at the end about how rules are bullshit and get in the way of role-playing?  Ugh.

And what the hell is up with the terrible editing?  The table of contents doesn't match the chapter titles and the layout was just awful.

From a mechanics standpoint it is a lot better than Mistborn (which I also reviewed) but from a pretentious terrible storytelling game that is massively over-complicated it is probably on par (but I think I hate Mistborn more). 

This very well might be the worst game system I have ever read in my entire life (I haven't read FATAL and never will so don't try and make that comparison.

Offline ketaro

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Re: Review of Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game
« Reply #1 on: April 22, 2021, 03:15:42 AM »
This sounds exactly like what forum roleplays use to be like in the mid 2000s. Gosh, those were a horrible mess and retrospect backs that up. The guy that wrote that book sounds the an "um, actually" kind of DM; rewriting every action you just declared your character was going to do.

Offline Stratovarius

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Re: Review of Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game
« Reply #2 on: April 22, 2021, 04:46:04 AM »
The only thing I'll say in favour of this travesty is that the books are solid enough.

Offline nijineko

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Re: Review of Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game
« Reply #3 on: July 11, 2021, 06:31:25 PM »
I super appreciate you taking the time to puzzle your way through this. Especially since you have never read the novels (which are an interesting read if you like your character interactions politically heavy).

Your insights are very much appreciated by me.

I had to chuckle multiple times at your descriptions. =D

Since you hated this one so much (it is rather problematic despite it's fame for being the first major diceless rpg, as well as probably deserving a title as one of the early storytelling heavies), please do not ever ever review Synnibarr... it is even more, ah, challenging.

Offline Nanshork

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Re: Review of Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game
« Reply #4 on: July 11, 2021, 06:54:56 PM »
I am always happy to fulfill a request to never review something!