Not Amber – Coincidence and Communication

In the realm of curious coincidence, my ramblings about not-amber coincide with someone else’s much more focused thoughts about the same. The ever talented Jason Durall made his contribution numbers to create Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, using the Erick Wujcik’s Diceless Roleplaying system. For amber fans, this is pretty fascinating in more than a few ways. So far as I understand, EWDRP is basically the system from the ADRPG with all references to Amber and Zelazny copyrights removed.[1] So bear that in mind and realize that if you know the ADRPG, you probably know Jason Durall’s name as a luminary strong associated with the previous game. The man is clever as hell, and the quality of his AmberCon Northwest games (which I never had the pleasure to play, but heard about unendingly from those who did) was one of the things that set the bar high for Evil Hat when we ran ours.

So with that in mind, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow looks like his not-amber, and I am excited to see this product when it comes out, and regret I missed the window to contribute some money to the project (though I’m told they nailed their numbers early). I’m avoiding looking at it during development because I’ve got my own not-amber to work through, but rite publishing has forums where I suspect the curious can find out more.

So, back to my own not-Amber.

One of the most powerful things in Amber are trumps. I don’t speak in terms of in-game power (though in some games that’s true) but in terms of gameplay, they’re a perfect tool. When you have strongly empowered characters who are capable of haring off in different directions at a moment’s notice, you absolutely want them to have an easy way to communicate and get back together. In Amber, that role is filled by trumps; tarot-like cards with the images of people one them which, if focused on, allow you to communicate with, travel to, summon or attack the person depicted.[2] Zelazny had originally conceived them as portraits, but ended up liking the card idea better, which is good because it’s cooler and much more gameable.

The thing about this idea is it works best when it feels meaningful. Cards tap into tarot imagery, and while I want something that serves a similar role in my game, I don’t want to just lift trumps wholesale. The problem lies in finding something that could equally feasibly be used for communication that also carried a fair amount of meaning, in the way cards do. I found it in an unlikely corner.

When I was originally pondering this problem, I was listening to the audiobook of David Shenks’ The Immortal Game, a history of chess, and I was struck by an image of someone playing on half a board, and using that as a means of communication. Thus, in Argent, every member of the royal family has several king chess pieces (sometimes called keystones) which are identical, though each set is uniquely reflective of the subject[3]. They gift them to family members and they can be used to initiate communication over a chessboard, by setting up the board, using you and your target’s king pieces. The subject knows the game has started and can set up the pieces on their end, at which point they may see and speak to each other over their halves of the chessboard.

I love this image, and it opens up the setting to the use of chess imagery which is, I think, underused outside of Wonderland. I’m still undecided on movement. Stylistically the thing to do is say if both sides have both kingspieces, then the players may castle (switch spots) but that’s inconvenient for play, since you want to bring people together. Instead, I’m tempted to say loser gets pulled to the winner (“captured”) unless both opt to pause or end the game, since that adds back in a certain element of risk.

In the grand scheme of things it’s a very small matter, but I think it’s one of those small matters with large repercussions for playability.

1 – I could swear there had been a page with just the rules somewhere, but I can no longer find it.
2 – That last added an element of risk to trump use, which was nice, but it also opened the door to most of the really stupid mind-warfare stuff in the DRPG.

3 – While not quite as cool as describing your trump image, describing the design, style, color and material of your keystone is still kind of a fun thing.

23 thoughts on “Not Amber – Coincidence and Communication

  1. Jvstin Tomorrow

    Re: Point 1. I do know that at least one acquaintance of mine in the Amber family did a PDF of a distilled version of the rules. Can’t find her PDF online, either.

    Re Point 2: Trump mind warfare bored me enough that I created a different sort of visualization on mind (and later Dream) combats that made it much more interesting.

    Re Point 3: Chess?! Hell, yes. Like this idea a lot.

  2. boulet

    Also RPGPundit is working on his own ADRPG derived game : Lords of Olympus. He opted for the Greek Mythos for his background and it should feel quite different from Amber in many ways.

    I’m quite surprised by this designer crowd getting all pumped up about Amber at the same time. As we say in French : “les grands esprits se rencontrent”

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @boulet Amber fans may be the most sanely passionate group of gamers out there, at least to my experience. I cannot think of another game that gave its players such a strong sense of ownership of their games, and that was rewarded by open floodgates of loyalty and creativity. But it’s been in limbo long enough that I guess people are starting to chomp at the bit for it. It’s a curious coincidence of timing, but also an awesome one. Hell, pundit and I see eye to eye on very few issues, but I will still throw him a hi-5 from this end of the internet, because he’s in a place of awesome.

  4. RobertSlaughter

    One thing it sounds like: with the chess-pieces: at some point the two individuals will have had to meet face-to-face and exchange pieces, or have them come to them via indirect exchange. It sounds like you just can’t create one and ‘attune’ it to someone else to reach out to them (improvised trumps). And I like that.

  5. Rob Donoghue

    @robertslaughter I actually hadn’t considered the “Try to sketch a trump of a stranger” element, but yes, now that you mention it, this nicely blocks that. So, er, yes, I meant to do that!

  6. Rob Donoghue

    @boulet correct, which I’m ok with play-wise (I admit to a history of trump abuse). There might be other magics of that vein, but that’s still up in the air.

  7. Rob Donoghue

    More broadly, it removes location trumps entirely. There are a few abuses this quashes, but that’s not the real reason this appeals to me. What I like is that it means fast-travel always has a social component.

  8. Rob Donoghue

    Randomly, I think that games MUST end in a capture or concession. So if you want to renew a conversation with someone, you need to remember where the game left off. Just a color thing, but I like that idea of people carrying chessgames around in their head or notes.

  9. Jvstin Tomorrow

    There are certainly chessmasters who can carry games in their heads, or even play multiple games at once. I don’t find it a stretch.

    And yes, I concur, Amber gamers are weirdly passionate about the game. It’s a small community, but a fierce one.

  10. Reverance Pavane

    Rather than focusing on the king as the critical piece, consider the entire set to be custom. Characters are assigned a piece when a set is made.

    To enable communication with a specific character the pieces must be moved to represent the “location” of the character with respect to the one initiating the contact. Intent, being the activating factor, so that there is only one set of right moves to establish communication.

    The other character could always respond with his own set of moves to secure the channel and “locate” the other character, and use the chess set as a portal (in which case the two sets become one with the players sitting in opposition).

    The interesting thing is that the movement of the pieces is itself divinatory of the status of the other “pieces” that can be interpreted by an Advanced Chess Master.

    What would it mean if to reach someone else and lock a panel, one of the pieces is taken and disappears from the board…

  11. Rob Donoghue

    @rev Those are actually some ideas I’m considering for other elements of magic, so I definitely want to play in that space.

    I’m a little torn on the oracular chess model if only because I now how games go, and no one wants to be a pawn and, like, 7 guys are going to be knights. If I knew I had a fixed cast, I would absolutely assign pieces to people, but I’m erring on the side of expandability because Amber games get big, so I assume not amber games do too.

  12. Dotan Dimet

    I’d recommend reading Ian Watson’s Queenmagic, Kingmagic for a fantasy that explores the Chess imagery and which reminded me a bit of Amber, with its Royal family with magical powers, although Watson’s story is both darker and more comic than Zelazney’s.

  13. Reverance Pavane

    The thing is, as I see it, there would be lots of “different” sets in existence, rather than a single specific set. The maker of each set determines the identity of the piece. Don’t like the roll you are given in your set? Commission a new set for yourself.

    So the Royal Unamber set of course matches the make up of the Royal court. But you would also have other, lesser sets, with a different hierarchy. Of course, having a set which closely matches the Royal Set, albeit say with a few position swaps (such as yourself for the King), might be viewed with some degree of suspicion.

    Two people could play with different sets completely, but as long as each had the other represented as a piece then a passage could be created, even if the character is a bishop in one set and a pawn in the other.

    You could also extend it to powers of individual pieces.

    Naturally a Chess Master would probably prefer a personal set where they are King, simply because there is less risk involved for the King when using the set. After all, it tends to stay behind on the last rank, protected by the other pieces from happenstance. But other pieces might allow you to perform Chess acts more quickly or effectively, according to the nature of the piece. For example a Knight might allow jumps, while a Bishop can slide through worlds. A queen can slide (diagonal), shift (sideways), or travel (forwards), much faster than a King, but at the risk of being unprotected.

  14. Reverance Pavane

    Actually the idea of translating the various moves of the chess pieces into movement through the Nonshadows is really growing on me.

    Knights would obviously jump from one space to another without travelling through the intervening spaces.

    Rooks, pawns, queens and kings would travel to their destinations, probably in the same manner as Amberite plainshifting, although, possibly a much more natural progression.

    Bishops, queens, and kings could slide, which would be somewhat akin to move forwards whilst travelling sideways. [Perhaps this is more akin to rapid planeshifting, in that you are forcing changes to get where you want.

    Rooks, queens and kings could also shift sideways while remaining in place. Perhaps seeking the most favourable probability/parallel universe for what you are after.

    Just some thoughts, but they’ve remained stuck in my head. [At least, hopefully, until I have commented them out here.]

  15. Uncle Dark

    I’m not sure about the chess thing. While I agree that the image of a character brooding over a magical chessboard is awesome, this sounds like it’s getting, or could get, a bit complex.

    Or maybe it’s just that I suck at chess.

    I’m thinking of the 1st ed DMG entry for the Hand of Vecna, where there were dozens of powers, each linked to a particular positioning of fingers. Index and middle finger extended, all others curled in = Mass Charm spell.

    The idea of configuring the board to indicate position in the universe/multiverse, or some other magical doodad, invites that level of detail. The risk is in creating a sub-game that becomes either/and too intriguing or too complicated, drawing focus away from the game overall.

  16. Rob Donoghue

    Uncle Dark speaks exactly to why I don’t want to put it too front and center. I think there is a game that could be designed by really putting chess as the foundation for everything, and it would probably be pretty cool, but it would also be quite stylized, moreso than I’m really going for. The relationship I want is closer to the way Tarot has a role in the Amber novels, which is to say, very little, but it makes a certain amount of sense when it shows up.


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