The Big Book of Vague Roleplay :
Greetings, I’ll stop you wasting your time, if you have not read the chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny then you would find it nearly impossible to run this game “properly”. So, hop on to the net, head for Amazon.co.uk and pick up a copy.
I’ll see you back here when you have read the book ... Well now you’re a little more familiar with the setting lets begin.
Amber the RPG is written and presents itself with the very strong assumption that you know the world of Amber, not just know it, but that you’re able to quote it in your sleep, underwater and with the lights off.
If you enjoyed the books or enjoy the concept of the setting from anything else you have read on the subject then you might just become addicted to this game as so many others have. The reason for reading the actual books is simple. The RPG book does not explain the setting to those who do not know it. Furthermore, it also assumes you would rather lie down in the road than give up your copy of the novel. In short, if you really love the setting you will love the game, if you’re unsure, try and browse a copy from somewhere before parting with your hard earned cash.
Assuming you crack the spine, what can you expect?
The first page of the book, calls Amber "the grandest setting of them all", and goes on to explain that everybody reading this book have one thing in common, they all wonder what another generation would have been like. If, like many, you have no clue what that means, then it’s a long hard road to familiarity. Ultimately as you will see you, the players, take the rolls of the next generation of amber. The RPG is packed with quotes from the novels; if you like the sound of them there's a fair chance that Amber is really going to grab you. Unless, of course, your just here for the beer, or rather, the dice less mechanics.
As the name suggests, Amber Dice less Roleplaying is in fact dice less, feign surprise. If, like many (including myself when I first started), you're not a fan of dice less mechanics or infact have never considered the concept, you'll probably have another reason not to be rushing out to buy this game. That being said, it’s a nice addition to any RPG’rs shelf on the basis that it’s out of print and highly sought after. It’s also worth mentioning that in retrospect of having played the game, you couldn’t use any other system. There is just too much to consider using a numerical system.
The other thing you need to know is that Amber is a little caught up in its dice less status, and has few other problems with superiority (players as well as books). It was published back in the early nineties, when rpg gaming was going through its "one true way" period, when RPGs believed that their way of roleplaying was the “only way”, that drama and story were religious above all (type in father Ramos on the net to read more), and that roleplaying games not being games at all was somehow a positive thing, and they felt obligated to tell you all this in superior condescending tones.
Be warned: Amber includes the sentences "[Amber] is not a game" and "the best kind of roleplaying is pure roleplaying. No rules, no points, and no mechanics." Those of you sensitive to such things should be warned against impulses to moan and groan and certainly have friends standing by who can catch the book when you throw it across the room.
So far things are looking pretty bleak, so let’s balance things up with some sunshine. The writing style is fluid, conversational and mostly readable, infact the RPG is nearly as good a read as the novels.
It is also redeemed by the inclusion of player dialogues. Not only are these amusing and fun to read, they're also an ingenious method of teaching any part of the game. The book is also made up with sections of text from the books to provide examples for everything, which is great as it at least gives you a feel for the setting. Infact the hardest thing to grasp about the setting is its infinity; the characters can come from anywhere and be anything, all too often you find yourself with a medieval knight cruising round in a Ferrari or space cruiser.
On the subject of presentation, the layout of the book is excellent, using the standard Palladium two-column format, but using it a lot more prettily than in most Palladium works. The editing is exceptionally high quality and the index and contents are very thorough. The art is excellent - a few pictures are a little surreal, but none are grim and most are nicely ambient. The exception is the cover painting which tries to claw your eyes out of your skull and forbids you to comprehend what they were thinking when they decided on it.
Now, to the real spaghetti sauce, the game itself. For those who still don't know, Amber is a multi-reality multiverse which was detailed in two five-book fantasy series written by Robert Zelazny, in which a bunch of multiversing, reality-shaping, beyond god-powerful, universe-ruling arguing all mightys spend a lot of time trying to kill and betray their friends and relatives and playing other such games of courtly secession, and also kick some damned cool Chaos monster ass from time to time. On the plus side, they wear seriously cool custom fitted threads and tend to carry really big swords or guns a lot.
Amber the RPG casts the PCs as the next generation of all powerful relatives, the children of the characters of the first two books, both good and evil, once again aspiring for secession of the throne and holding back enemies old and new. For those who've read the books then, this wires them right into the important and familiar events of the past and stands them ready to do important and often disastrous things themselves. The game then is designed for seriously long-term campaign play with a very strong focus on PC interaction, and is particularly suited to larger groups.
So with all these godly invincible (well almost) characters walking around, some who can parry bullets from an AK 47 with a rapier, whilst others turn your tea into coffee with a single thought, what kind of game system could make this interesting?
There are four attributes in Amber the RPG - Psyche (magical/psychic power), Strength, Endurance and Warfare, the latter of which is absolutely any type of fighting, strategy or competition at all, except wrestling people (Strength) and magical combat (Psyche). Strength also covers general “well ardness”, how much damage you can take, but Endurance is still important as it is the "stamina" that keeps you standing up in any fight using the other three.
Now, being all-powerful, a stat in your abilities isn't really important. What matters is whose ass you can kick, who can kick your asst, and why you bear a strong grudge against both of them. In a brilliant concept and the centre of the system, the author, Wujcik, ensures such abilities come about by auctioning off the ranks in each attribute.
Every player has 100 points to spend on both the auction and powers later on. The bidding is for top rank, but any points spent bidding are lost, and how much you bid determines your final attribute rank.
The GM is encouraged to rile the players to make them “spend, spend, spend” at the auction, and the “who wand’s to be top dog” nature of an auction will keep players on each other's backs (or sticking knives in them at least). Wujcik accessorises each attribute description with a full dialogue of an auction for that attribute. Once again, a perfect example and fun to read.
After this, it provides descriptions of what the powerful inheritors of those attributes can do, based on further examples from the book. However, due to the very nature of the setting, almost all tasks will either be possible (because the heroes are massively powerful types), impossible (because it involves interacting with actual reality or someone’s magical construct) or opposed (because whenever you do anything in Amber, you're messing up somebody else's plans). Want to climb a cliff? You can, unless it's actually impossible, or somebody deliberately made it impossible to climb to the upper hand (then, compare Warfare stats).
After the attribute options, players then spend their remaining points. They can purchase levels in attributes after the auction, by paying the same amount as another bidder to be ranked just below. These bids are kept “hush, hush” from the others, to drive up the old “paranoia” another nail biting notch. They can also buy some seriously cool powers, friends, equipment, home worlds and Good and Bad Stuff. We'll go through these one by one.
The major powers cost a lot (e.g. 50 points for the most basic) but are quite awesome.
Pattern allows you to walk between worlds, and shift reality within worlds, and without it, you're pretty much lame in the world of Amber. It's opposed by Logrus, the power of Chaos, which has a fairly similar level of power.
Finally, there is Trump which is basically a powerful communication and travel device, spying and fortune-telling art through playing cards featuring important people in the major arcane - all amberites and chaos can use these cards, but Trump Mastery allows a lot more options.
Like attributes, these powers are described in length, but only vaguely defined in the way we commonly expect powers to be.
For the scholars out there, more advanced versions of the powers are also available, and come with warnings that they should only be used by experienced players. Which is a good juncture to point out that much like rules-heavy games like pendragon and witchcraft; this is a game which can be mastered.
Moving on we have lesser powers, which include Power Words (fast but limited spells), Sorcery and Conjuration (which between them cover the magic of more common fantasy RPGs). Allies are fairly obvious. Items include animal companions and have fairly complex rules for their design - assigning various point values for a whole bevy of different aspects. Anyone who's ever read a Wujcik Palladium book knows he's the master of this sort of thing. A similar points-purchasing system also appears for buying personal universes or Shadows as they call them in Amber. It's VERY nice to see that Amber doesn't take Dice less to mean rules-light.
Finally, left over points become Good Stuff, and negative points become Bad Stuff. These are basically good and bad luck, the universe loves you or hates you, with extras. Those with Good Stuff tend to have things go their way, have people like them more easily, and see the best of everything, and Bad Stuff types get the opposite.
Players can get more points by selling down their attributes or by helping out the GM with meta-game tasks like drawing pictures or writing fiction. Yes, the game actually gives points for out of game contributions. While this has its theory and intentions in the right place, I think it's seriously risky because it is nigh-impossible to judge fairly.
There are no skills in chagrin because Amberites can just hop into a slow-time moving universe and learn all the skills they want. Then effectively return to the present 5 minutes later having studied at a Buddhist monastery for 80 years. So you can go insane in that department, but there are no promises, of course, that your skills will still be applicable, or even make sense, in the new universe.
After chagrin, we have a big section detailing all the above traits and their costs and so on. Then we have a few pages of tips for players, some of which are pretty lame - like "stay in character", thanks for the tip - but some of which are quite useful. Especially if you're into the whole 'mastering the game' detail. Then we cautiously hit the game master section.
We start off with combat, which basically comes down to five possible situations, or actually three, since two are reversible. Either one person is hugely better than the other, clearly better than the other, or closes enough for things to be a photo finish. In the last case, the rule is simply that "if the combat keeps going, whoever has the better attribute will give more wounds than he receives." And that's basically the system.
Along with this rule, however, are lots and lots of guidelines to add detail and colour to such events. Combatants can attack furiously, be opportunistic or fight defensively. Then for each arena - Warfare, Strength and Psyche - they add even more detail with various typical manoeuvres to try and attitudes that can be struck. The Warfare info, about feints and blocks and deceptions, is most helpful for those of us who know nothing of fencing and the Psyche stuff is vital for adding flavour to fights where two guys just look at each other and sweat. Again, I'm impressed to see a dice less system that provides lots of combat detail. Most RPGs are made up of dice rolls to provide the language of combat; Amber takes them out, but makes sure to replace them with a new set of blue prints. In fact, most any GM would probably find this chapter a useful read to heighten their descriptive narrative.
The only weak spot is the section on describing different types and levels of carnage and destruction. Despite a "this may offend" warning at the start, these are ridiculously PG and decidedly tame.
The GM section then goes on to bridge the basic task resolution, as was mentioned above (easy, impossible or opposed), and then gives even more tips and guidelines for judgement , and running the use of the big-ass powers. The basic sentiment is 'give em enough rope' - despite their power, the PCs don't control their powers entirely, and there are many things out there that they don't comprehend, and can squash them like an ill placed slug.
The next twenty pages then cover campaign construction, beginning with the bog-standard beginning-middle-end stuff, but then going into much more useful “good stuff”. Each major element of the setting is described - powers, places, mysteries, items, creatures - and then suggestions are given about what else could be mixed into them, and how and why to use such things in a game. This is the advantage a licensed setting has - it needs to spend much less time describing the what, so it can concentrate on the far more important How.
Following this is a similar section, but covering each major character in the novel. This is probably the best read in the book, because Wujcik loves Zelazny, and Zelazny loves his characters, and his characters love amber. Indeed, Amber is most of all about character, with all the extra about Pattern and Logrus really just salad dressing.
For each major character - and there are 20 of these guys - a full description and full stats are provided for at least two but usually three different versions of them, at various points in the book or from various points of view and based on various numbers of creation points, depending on how and where you want to use them. Stats are not ranked, but the number of points spent on them gives a good indication of where they might be ranked. Included also are tips on just how to use the characters: what their plans and goals might be, how they might pursue them, and effective tricks to role-play them convincingly. All good, useful stuff.
We then close with a few fun jaunts around the multiversity that is Amber, one of which is simply a power gaming pile up, stack em high, free-for-all to grab the throne, and one of which is lacking in any significant detail but the third is nicely done, and again, surprisingly detailed for a game so lacking in absolute rules calls and so centred on character. We close with a uninspiring but functional character sheet and the aforementioned index.
The adventures include necessary number crunching for the bad guys and their powers, and sketches for the suitable power level of any monsters or goons they might flatten on their way, but beyond this and the 20 major Amberites, no other character stats are in the book. And you'll see, not without a grin, the only stats in the system are those devoted to character generation. Combat is summed up in a sentence, but building the precise item of power you desire to create is given pages of complex building rules. From a sword that turns into a dragon to an indestructible andrex puppy, all is possible. Powers get a few more rules, but because power struggles and politics are life in Amber, they're a big part of who you are so they're effectively part of the rules anyway.
In other words, this game is all about character, character playing, character interaction and character involvement. It balances out the big players sections with equally character enthralled setting info and lots and lots of handy tools, ideas, guidelines and tips to take all that and make it into a fun and in-depth game. Some of the tips are vague and annoying, but most of them are appropriate. Some of the power descriptions are just too lightly detailed, but with a good group and knowledge of the book, there shouldn't be any problems. The dice less-ness may get on your nerves but the points ensure balance and they and other rules provide a good structure.
In short, this game delivers the promise of RPG tales to be spoken of for years, actions that will live in the minds of your players for decades to come, and a damned good night round the universe with a six pack and a pizza. The system is simple but effective, fairly well conceived, mostly well explained and surprisingly well detailed, and it creates a good sense of character, rivalry and own-the-universe kind of powers. Despite moments of self superiority, it's well written, despite its niche mechanics it offers good support for novices, and despite a total assumption of knowledge of the books, it isn't entirely impenetrable and gets the feel of the genre across well.
To End, if you are a lover of Amber, and a fan of dice less roleplaying, you probably won't regret hunting and finding Amber Dice less Roleplaying. It's not Changeling or Fairy Meat, but it meets its specifications well. Of course, if you're a fan of neither dice less roleplaying or Amber, then best try a different shadow.