Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Amber Diceless: Appendix N Taken to the Next Level

Previously, The Frisky Pagan discussed the important role the city of Amber played in inspiring the city of Sigil, the central location in D&D's Planescape setting.  In 1991, the Amber role-playing game hit the market.  Now commonly referred to as "Amber Diceless" for obvious reasons, it was written by the prolific Palladium game author Erick Wujcik. Unlike most games of its day, Amber Diceless was designed to focus more on relationships and political intrigue than pure action and combat.  It's other main selling point was the novel rule set that eschewed dice for a simple comparative skill comparison. 

This particular game had been on my radar for years, but having no exposure to the source material and favoring games that included at least an element of chance kept me away.  Having read the first book in the series, it's clear that the Amber universe is a rich mine of possibility for role-playing.  Apparently, the three major methods of doing so consist of 1. playing as the main characters from the book fighting for Oberon's throne, 2. playing as the children of the main characters in the book (during the time after the fifth book in the series), 3. chucking the characters from the book and making up your own children of Oberon fighting for the throne.  Each method gives a gaming table the prize macguffin and ready made conflict, and a whole multi-verse in which their god-like princes and princesses can stomp around.

It's worth pointing out that Amber Diceless was released the same year as another RPG that incorporated relationships and political struggle as a central premise - Vampire: The Gathering.  With its more gothic and bloody undertones,  and perhaps a beefier marketing machine behind it, Vampire: The Gathering took the gaming world by storm and largely overshadowed the smaller press Amber.  Amber also suffered for its strong tie-in to a source material less widely known outside of nerd and geek circles than the ubiquitous vampire.  (Ever seen a kid dressed as Corwin on Halloween?)

While the diceless game mechanics proved off-putting to many gamers, this rule set would prove to be a precursor to a whole RPG movement dedicated to promoting more story based games that rely less on chance than on narrative control.  Now commonly referred to as story games, they represent a full blown niche of their own within the larger RPG hobby.   While there may have been diceless games before Amber, none were as large, as well received, or enjoy the continuing cachet of Amber Diceless, which still boasts of periodic conventions dedicated solely to its play. 

Having read Nine Princes in Amber, it's easy to see how it influenced early iterations of D&D, and how a table full of friends could sit down to play out their own version of the fight for Oberon's crown.  That temptation still lingers two and a half decades after the publication of Amber Diceless, with a new title written exploring the same themes and potential adventures, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, published in 2013.  That these books could still be inspiring tabletop gaming more than 40 years after they were first recommended by E. Gary Gygax is both a testament to his tastes and the creativity of Roger Zelazny.  Clearly, these two men tapped into something that resonates with people in a profound way.

If you have any direct experience with Amber Diceless, just scroll down a little bit - there's a comment section right down there - we'd love to hear about what you did with Zelanzy's work and how well it works at the gaming table.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I don't know if it was "inpired" but they share some themes and similarities. In any event, it is true that the video game (PS Torment) draw from Zelazny's work.

    About the diceless game. I haven't play it, but the lack of dices makes some sense, even if it's an odd choice. I remember a few statements from the books were Corwin compared his skills (with the sword, for example) with those of his brothers, and he usually made the comparison in an ordinal sense (e.g. He is the best, I am the second, etc.) Since the Princes of Amber are superhuman and they are few in number, I guess it makes sense to make skill comparisons in an ordinal sense (first, second, and so on.)