Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game

This review is going to be a little different than most. I'm looking at the Amber Diceless RPG, which, like the Black Road War, was inspired by, but not written by Roger Zelazny.

I've been a gamer (a term I prefer to role-player, even if it has been co-opted by the gambling industry) for a long time. I've mentioned the hobby from to time, and it's probably apparent in some of my writing here, even in the posts that don't mention it specifically. I started at about ten years old. That was back in the mid-80s, when you could still find kids playing Dungeons & Dragons during lunch in public schools. So I already had something of the gamer's perspective when I found the Amber novels.

I've touched on the RPG previously. My first exposure to the game was an ad for the Amber Diceless Role-playing game (ADRPG) in a friend's issue of Dragon magazine in about 1992 or 1993. My check was in the mail as soon as I got home, and I had the book in my hands literally a week later, which was an astonishing turnaround. Phage Press couldn't have even waited for my check to clear before they sent it out.

Palladium RPG had an magazine called Gateways, and Erick Wujcik wrote an essay about role-playing without randomizers. He talked about the character which brought him to the concept, a thief he rolled up with "an appalling shortage of hit points". To keep his character alive, he would avoid rolling the dice whenever possible, and when faced with combat, he running, bartering, even surrendering. I think he said that he rolled the dice about twelve times on his way to level six. This got him thinking that dice were not really as essential an element as everyone held them to be.

He segued into an account of his personal Amber campaign and mentioned that Bleys was a prominent NPC with the option to contact one of two PCs via Trump. Wujcik said the only time that he rolled the dice in the entire campaign was then, to pick which player character Bleys would contact, and that he regretted it and if he had to do it again, he would put himself in Bleys's shoes and try to figure out what he would do.

That was a revelation for me. Not only that somebody was out there playing an Amber game, but the concept really crawling into a character's head and making a decision like that. I can't overstate the significance. I'd been a gamer for a couple years at that point, but this changed not only how I played RPGs, but how I approached my life. It sent me in a new direction of logically following evidence to its conclusion and shaped the person I became as an adult. (I had the chance to correspond with Wujcik before he passed away and I mentioned this to him, and he said that I'm not the first person to tell him a story along those lines.)

The game itself is pretty novel. Each player has a pool of 100 points to buy powers and abilities. Powers are things like Pattern Imprint, Trump Artistry, sorcery, that kind of thing. The four abilities are Psyche, Strength, Warfare and Endurance, which should be pretty self-explanatory. You buy the powers directly, but for the attributes, you bid against your fellow players in Amber's famous attribute auction. Whichever character has the highest rank in an ability is considered the best of his or her generation, even if the difference in points is small. (For instance if I get the highest rank in warfare by bidding 51 points, I'm leaps and bounds better than Chris's character who bought second place with 50 points)

It's funny. I would have only be a fan of Zelazny's work for two or three years at most, by that point, but for me, the period before I found the RPG remains a distinctive era in my mind. One thing I really liked about the Amber RPG is Erick Wujcik's almost pathological belief that there was more going on than what Zelazny showed us. I think I've internalized that to an extent, because I tend to view at the novels through the lens of game. Not so much in the terms of thinking "Benedict has a warfare score of 185", but in the sense that I'm critical of the somewhat facile explanations Corwin gives of his siblings' motivations.

For instance the RPG gives three or four different possible explanations for each Amberite. Maybe Gerard really was the simple, honest man he seemed. Or maybe he was the keeper of Amber's greatest secrets, a theory Wujcik supports with the fact that Oberon kept Gerard behind in Amber when he dispatched everyone else to deal with Courts of Chaos. I get a lot of enjoyment considering these different possibilities as I reread the Chronicles. (As an aside, I think I'd really enjoy GoA from Benedict's Point of View. I can imagine his staccato narration, with the undercurrent of "What's Corwin really up to?" and "Why can't my siblings be happy with what they've got?")

I don't think you need to reach far outside the text to reconcile the other Amberites having personalities as complex as Corwin's with his superficial understanding of them. He's been away a long time, and they are all powerful and secretive. In addition, I think there is a certain element of narcissism in the royal family. Llewella may have as rich an inner life as Corwin, but he just doesn't care about it. (Nor is it really relevant to his story.)

It's not without its flaws. Most of the criticism I've seen directed against it is the much higher power level depicted here as opposed to the Chronicles. Amberites can control shadow dwellers through force of will alone, all the children of Oberon are Machiavellian masterminds and Benedict is capable of parrying invisible attackers trivially. (I kind of touched on that in this post. If I'd known at the time that I'd cover the RPG in its own post, I would have saved those observations for this one.)

I'm inclined to be forgiving of these flaws, for the reason that players in RPGs tend to be much more ruthless and pragmatic than characters in books (even characters in Amber books!) and if you didn't ramp up the existing characters, they'd just be grist for the PCs.

The game is playable with just the core book. One supplement, Shadow Knight, was released. It covered the Merlin Chronicles, and I like it more than the main book in some ways. It will probably get its own review down the line. Also of interest were the Amberzines, limited run fanzines which had all sorts of campaign logs, short stories, comics, personal ads from Amberites and more. Those were a lot of fun too. I was by far the biggest fan of Zelazny in my little circle of geeks and in the dark pre-Internet days, I think Amberzines were the best way for fans of the game to share their bubbling enthusiasm with the wider world.

ADRPG is still going strong, with the next Ambercon coming up in April of 2012. I've never been to one, but I think I'd like to make the pilgrimage one of these days.


  1. "One supplement, Shadow Knight, was released. It covered the Merlin Chronicles, and I like it more than the main book in some ways."

    That's just because you're such a big Merlin fan, Josh!

  2. I have the main book and the supplement but haven't ever played it. Although several highschool chums of mine were fans of Amber, none were into roleplaying games and neither was I. But if the opportunity presented itself I'd certainly give it a try. I wonder how big those AmberCons are, anyway? It's certainly interesting that there are sufficient devotees to justify the conventions to be ongoing years later in several places.

  3. "That's just because you're such a big Merlin fan, Josh!"

    *Twitch, twitch* Okay, time to stick pins in my Merlin voodoo doll, just like my therapist suggested.

  4. CK: "It's certainly interesting that there are sufficient devotees to justify the conventions to be ongoing years later in several places."

    You bring up a good point that I neglected to mention, that there are *several* Ambercons held at different locations each year. http://www.ambercons.com/ is a link to the various sites, for anyone who is interested.

    There are a lot of really interesting variations on the Amber theme there. I think my favorite was Nine Princes in Hong Kong (http://www.noneuclidianstaircase.com/games/9pinhk/9pinhk.html) because I'm a big fan of HK cinema too.

  5. Hello, if you are interested by this fanzine, i am selling the 10 first issues (very rare) on ebay at this link : http://cgi.ebay.fr/Fanzine-americain-Amberzine-Ambre-de-Roger-Zelazny-10-premiers-numeros-/350580859271?pt=FR_YO_Jeux_JeuxSociete_JeuxRoles&hash=item51a03f6187#ht_500wt_1413

    My name on ebay is godzibouille.

    Thanks, Jennifer