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Advantages of Amber: Diceless Gaming

By Loz Newman

Why go diceless?

I've GM'ed Amber for multiple years now, at irregular intervals and I intend to keep on doing so for many years more. In my opinion diceless role-playing has many advantages, and some problems.

The Advantages

Speed! No more fumbling with dice, with tables, with special maneuver bonuses, environmental modifiers, length-of-weapons initiative questions, special exceptions due to special Class options. No more "Curses! I can't find the paragraph on the Special Modified Cross-referencing Rules for the Effects of Amour Weight on Social Skills Underwater (Bard's sub-table)...." Players imagine a maneuver and describe it creatively. The GM compares their Characteristic (often with a few Bonuses) with a difficulty level in his head and fires back a description of the result. No dice wandering off under the table, no wails of "wait, wait, I can't find my lucky d10!". No "rules-twisting" debates. Amber jettisons just about everything except the actual ROLE-playing.

In a five hour Amber session we've found we can fit in about twice as much actual ROLE-playing as with some systems.... Without dice, "Roll"-Playing and Hack-and-Slash become that much more difficult.

Flexibility. This is universe-related. In Zelazny's Amber universe anything can and does exist. Purple tri-headed regenerating basilisks? Easy. Crystal caverns of shimmering music tended by vampiric maidens? No problem. Millennium-old cabals of intricate scheming and untold resources? By the dozen! All the genres can be explored: Post-apocalyptic, Horror, Medieval, Tech. Only Space Opera isn't really well represented (possibly because most PCs don't understand High Tech, and drawing swords against Disintegration Rays is a losing proposition). The GM is positively encouraged to blow their Players minds (in moderation).

The freshly-minted PCs are bursting onto a scene where anything can and may appear to plague, aid or manipulate them. The GM has very few limits....

Role-playing, not roll-playing. Vastly powerful NPCs, who are still open to a well reasoned argument but can punish impudent PCs with a casual instruction to entire armies of elite troops, are commonplace. So Hack-and-Slash generally becomes Hack-and-blast-I-need-a-new-Character....
No more "Hey, I rolled a Critical Fast Talk roll! Wow, I'm good!", instead it has to be "(suave voice) My Lord Castellane, I thought you might like to hear about your mistress's latest.... activities.... Before the rumors start to spread...."

Or : "Why yes I broke into your bedroom last night, Prince. For I knew full well who I'd find already there, looting the place...". Courage and diplomacy take the place of random dice rolls. Hey, look! No more Critical Misses! (No more Critical Hits, either, but that's a plus mostly for the GM)

Creativity. Unable to rely on luck, on that special table, or on careful accumulation of minor benefits due to rules-bending, many players have to fall back on their wits – on their ability to surprise their opponents by creative improvisation. They have to jettison the "I attack for 14 points of damage" and start thinking in terms of "I leap to his left and try to trip his partner into his way". Good GMs encourage this, and so does diceless role-playing.

The Disadvantages

As a good citizen, I'll take the time to mention the solutions our gaming group has developed for the following problems.

Predictability. Same stats, same old results. In Amber Characters evolve by spurts at very long intervals. E.g., without major help the same PC will ALWAYS lose to the same NPC, every time.
Solution :

1) Give out a (very) few XP at the end of each gaming session, and a smaller bonus at the end of every "sub-campaign" (i.e., when players fulfill a major project such as Taking Control of Senevi House or Stealing the Contents of Prince Cain's Treasure Vault). Allow minor Characteristic improvement and Partial-Power purchase during sub-campaigns.

2) Quantify the Five basic Attitudes allowed in Amber (ranging from "Ultra-defensive" to "Kamikaze") as multiplier of the basic Characteristic (e.g., "Aggressive" gives +50% for attack, but 50% for defending oneself). Have a one-page multiplication table of Characteristics to allow the GM to instantly find the new effective level of stats.

Allow further additive bonuses for imaginative maneuvers, good role-playing, sneaky preparations, mismatched armament, etc. The GM improvises this rapidly on a case-by-case basis (don't worry, you'll soon get the feel for it) because often the PCs will be snatching up footstools, leaping over fallen tree trunks and generally exploiting the combat environment (which the GM MUST describe fully) in all sorts of weird and most definitely wonderful ways.

Apply the margin as an effect against (numerically quantified) armor, defensive powers, etc. [I have an Excel file for this.]

Describe the result.

Arbitrary GM decisions/adjudicating between success and failure. This is a biggie, because with diceless role-playing there are so many ways that players need you to be fair and consistent – to be able to rely on your judgment. In diceless role-playing a GM is constantly under pressure to deliver decisions, information, results of players' efforts. He also has lost the right to roll dice, stall for time by looking for a table, etc. He must compare PCs Stats and Players ruses against the levels of resistance offered by the environment, by NPCs, and so forth. The risk is inconsistency, and thus loss of faith in the GM's impartiality, in his judgment, in his campaign.

Solution: The major GM bulwark against arbitrariness is consistency. And if you make a mistake, don't be afraid to correct it publicly with apologies to the Players.

The ONLY non-genius way to handle this "on the fly" without pausing for thought (and breaking the mood) is to have resolved the maximum possible number of questions before you even begin to play. You, as the GM, should have full stats on every significant NPC they will fight and on the combat system you will apply (numerical values, modifiers, etc.). Have notes on the personalities and secret fears and ambitions of the people they will seek to influence or who will seek to influence them. Entire plots and factions should be defined, at least loosely. The good news: for staple NPC goons (and "improvised" worlds) just decide on the stats they should have as you go along, and play them like the good little stereotypical cannon-fodder they undoubtedly are (N.B.: Special NPCs must get special attention).

The GM must be able to improvise upon a pre-decided base, consistently. Good GM Prep Prevents Poor Performance.

Also, note down any decision about using Powers, and incorporate them into the written description of that Power. If you later discover you were wrong, don't hesitate to apologize, correct your mistake and move on. Perpetuating errors to avoid losing face is almost never a good idea.

It's not for beginners. Can't do much about this, except define the most desirable qualities for a good gaming group and encourage you to cultivate these qualities in your self and your players:

Players :
Creative ideas (or ones stolen from quality sources...)
Enjoys intrigue, social clashes.
Dislikes Hack-and-Slash, "Roll"-playing
Good descriptive skills.
Can take defeat gracefully but really tries hard to avoid it.

GM :
Good descriptive skills
Strong knowledge of the gaming universe.
Strong improvisational skills under pressure: able to make reliable snap judgments.
Good preparation AND memory/notes of previous decisions.
Enjoys watching meritorious players succeed.

Tips drawn from previous Amber campaigns.

Generating suspense. Suspense isn't a function of random dice rolls. That's danger of failure, not suspense. Suspense is when you suspect something may be about to happen, but don't know when it will happen, or maybe not even what form it will take. In between players, suspense is lacking (they know each others characters and maybe even their Characteristics, Powers and so forth). This isn't such a bad thing, actually, as it cuts down on squabbles for status. Bullying (when one player pounds on another he knows he can beat) is to be repressed immediately, please.

True suspense comes from NPCs. What are they up to? Can they be trusted? When (and not if) will they try to take their revenge? How? What are their options, allies, limits, advantages? Subtle indicators of true intentions should be scattered before the PCs, and their attempts to divine the future on incomplete or maybe untrustworthy data are what generate that paranoid feeling that leads to true suspense.... Note that the GM can rule such that the PCs only manage to gain partial information – or adjust his NPCs by giving them bonuses for having prepared the situation. Players should feel at home with the things they have the right to know (e.g., information on the Powers they have). Information about NPCs should be considerably more important, and thus harder to come by. Control the information flow and you control the players' range of possible deductions.

Don't overdo this. Too little information leads to feelings of hopelessness, poor PC planning and failed missions. Try to modulate the information flow to encourage them to seek more info (which means more PC/NPC interactions, favor-trading, blackmail – i.e., Role-playing).

NPC projects move forward even when PCs are elsewhere. To make your world feel "alive", the projects of those multiple NPC factions must move forward even while the PCs are elsewhere – even if it means that one faction suddenly – publicly – triumphs over another without PC intervention: it adds even more depth to that "living world" feeling. Events may happen that aren't explained, but that, five scenarios down the road, players suddenly realize, "Hey, THAT could mean that....". This is beyond foreshadowing, this is a living world that doesn't revolve around the PCs... and if they can't keep up, the plans of some of the bad guys WILL come to fruition. And what DON'T the Players know about...? This pressure on the PCs, seasoned with a little GM fiddling with the timing, will add another layer to their thought processes, thus enriching their experience.

A few red herrings and currently irrelevant information will enhance the "natural" feel of the campaign atmosphere.

Richly detail the PC home base. The PCs will almost undoubtedly have one place they keep on returning to, as a home base (e.g., The Courts of Chaos). This place must be richly defined, well stocked with detailed NPCs, and attractively described. The players must be able to trust the GM in this one place above all others, so if they come up with a brilliant breakthrough that hamstrings a major NPC in this place.... Allow it!

Develop a "Knowledge base" available to some PCs. I have an Excel sheet (GM eyes only) with stats for hundreds of NPCs, ranging from Militia to the Royal Family and various NPCs. Some PCs gain some crumbs of this information on NPCs belonging to their faction/House/guild.... E.g., "He looks strong, but it's a big Metamorphosis bluff..."

I also have (in French) Word files that define many Noble Houses. For every one of twenty-odd Houses and twelve factions, Guilds, etc., I have defined:

  • Name and short history.
  • Public Knowledge of activities.
  • Activities known only by House/Faction members.
  • Members: Head of House, Most Influential Person, three to five of the most well known personalities – often with thumbnail images.
  • Publicly known projects, royal approval rating (and why),
    resources and orientation (commercial, military, etc),
    rivals.
  • 10 most well-known rumors.

This Knowledge base comforts and reinforces players deprived of their dice, their tables, etc. – it gives them something to base their Characters on and interact with. It provides me with handouts that can gain me some breathing time. Note that the PCs only have the right to consult items that should know about or manage to find out.

I also pull out all the stops in developing NPC Portrait Galleries, maps, explanations of Powers, Character Creation Process Sheets, and anything else that will help players avoid that "I'm lost" feeling.

More Prior Prep. Have several more-or-less generic Shadow-worlds and/or scenes defined in advance. If the Players suddenly zip off the anticipated path, haul out your prepared scene/world, and plug the NPC/place names into the blank spaces you so carefully left in place. The players will think you are a genius to have prepared so many things that even their wildest maneuvers were fully anticipated and prepped.

Be the one to keep track of the Players' Endurance points. This boosts the "atmosphere". No more, "Hey I'm still OK, he only does 12 points per hit and I've still got 13...". Now the players are all in that nerve-wracking world of "You're hurt, and badly, but you feel you might still have one more attempt in you. Possibly."

Create a sheet that recaps the Players' Stats and Power levels for reference during play. I have an Excel sheet (available upon request – warning: includes some French text) that links Player Stats to printable pages of their Character Sheets and to the afore-mentioned list of NPC Stats. I type a name into my recap sheet (e.g. "Corwin's Guard", or "Bleys"), and his stats are automatically inserted into the recap page.

Since my PCs' stats are also available I just type in the names of the PCs who will be played that evening and, bingo, they appear. In between scenarios I update the PCs' stats and print out new PC sheets, and then a copy of the Recap sheet.

Also on this sheet there are a dozen lines on the bottom to note down what happens during play. This later serves as a basic Campaign Journal/Time-line. There are squares for "XP awarded", Date of Scenario, and Scenario Number ("A .B", where A is the Sub-campaign and B is the Xth Scenario of that sub-campaign). There is also a square to name the scenario, but that always happens AFTER the scenario is over, and with the Players' consultation.

More Excel. For the Player Sheets I have a list of spells, numbered, with casting times, effects, etc. I type in a given number on a "Players N X's Grimoire" sheet and it brings up the details of the spell linked to that number. Then I print that out for the Player. No more tedious recopying of spells for that player!

Also I've created/adapted many spells over the years, and classified them by School of Magic on a second excel sheet. A player now only has to say "My Character is a Fire Mage", and I can print them out their standard spells, or they can customize their choices.

[As always: this is available on request, but the spells are all in French, even though there are some three hundred-odd of them...]

Create a small group of simple rules for combat. To increase player confidence in my impartiality and reliability I created a small group of simple rules to handle the numerical aspects in combat (Armour, Metamorphosis into a Combat Form, Magical Weapons bonuses, Attitude Bonuses, etc). Then I told my players "There IS a system" (quick flash of the single page of tables, just to prove it), "but players don't get to look at it. I'll keep track of your Endurance, too. This should speed things up, and totally eliminate rules-lawyering...."

Now who can argue with that?