I've played in seven Amber campaigns and GM'd one. What I like most about Amber is getting into a character's head to the point where I don't have to think about what he or she would do, I know. I sort of got there with Finnvarra, and did hit it with Madelon, Dolon, Quinn, Niccolo and Vaerrek. Currently I'm playing in AMBRE.
Skip's Game: The first lasted only three sessions but did manage to whet my appetite for more. The GM was Skip Hanson (I'm not entirely sure of the last name) and it was played at SAIGE, an RPGA affiliate club. There were about twenty people bidding in the auction, six people who showed up for the first session and two people for the third -- me and John Ellegood. Skip gave it up at that point. I played Basil, nerd of Hendrake and had a good time. Skip let me use Logrus like a half-assed Green Lantern Power Ring. I made a bunch of Trumps for the game in a burst of enthusiasm.
Zircon: A month or so after Skip gave up the Amber game, and just before SAIGE gave up the ghost, three guys showed up at a meeting looking for new blood in their Amber campaign. Todd Goblirsch (GM), Stan Pedzick and James Schrecengost had been playing for a little over a year along with another guy who had to quit due to Real Life -- an new baby. I joined. Zircon (the name was chosen because you could pronounce it in reverse: 'Nocriz') was Todd's first Amber game. It was high-point and high-powered -- I started with, I think, 260 points -- and everyone's turns were done in secret unless they were interacting with another pc. Zircon involved new major power sources such as Corwin's Grand Design, the Paragon (Trump-based super-duper transport and Trump enhancement) and the Exemplar (Conjuration-based variable stat enhancer). Each source had an array of seven associated Jewels of Power. I played Finnvarra, son of Llewella and some Chaosian whose name escapes me. 'The hardest-working hedonist in the universe.' I made more Trumps for this game. John Ellegood and John Barnes joined the group a while later and lasted through the end. Zircon died in a flurry of alternate universes and time travel. Todd had been GM'ing it for three years, playing every two weeks when we could manage it, usually for 6 - 8 hours at a shot. (6 - 8 hours is normal for Ambre and Schist as well.)
Onyx: In Todd's second campaign he naturally tried to fix all the things that had gone wrong with the first one. For instance, Trumps were scarce, really scarce. You'd go out and find the shadow of an Elder's personal Trump Artist (a shadow schmuck himself), offer him a lot of money or even a shadow found to his specifications, and be damned glad to have his weenie, half-assed Trumps. Todd made up his own partial powers system, one which the group has used, with mild modifications, in Ambre and Schist. Onyx didn't last nearly as long as Zircon -- GM burnout. I played my first female Amber character, Madelon. She was a warfare goddess, more or less a female version of James Bond crossed with Grimjack. Again, I made Trumps for this campaign. Will and Noel Chandler joined. (Will and Noel are Chaos Bringers. Should one of them want to join your campaign let them in, even if you're full up already. Wackiness will ensue.) I have Madelon's diaries starting from my purchase of a word processor, a Smith-Corona POS.
Concerning Zircon and Onyx, GM Todd Goblirsch says, ----------
Zircon, a Look BackZircon was my first Amber game. Yes, I was DMing a system in which I had never played. I planned on using the straight rules for everything. Bidding was low key, everyone stuck to the number the wanted, and didnt really try for first rank. All the players had a well thought out character, complete with a background. We decided to play out of the room. That is, only the players with a character present where the action was were allowed in the room with the DM. This worked very well for the hidden intrigue aspect of the game, but got boring for the players. Notes work much better for the gaming atmosphere. On the other hand, one the players didnt find out that Oberon had been killed for 10-12 sessions.
My first thought was, "What can I possibly do for a dungeon plot?" I quickly realized that standard dungeon crawls would not work (though there were a few efforts to break into guarded shadows that ended up closely resembling these). This was only a couple of months after the games release, and I had never seen anything in print for dungeons (I later took to calling them scenarios). Also, I had trouble accepting a game without magic items. So, I made the Jewel of Judgment one of a family of seven gems, each with comparable powers. Later, this was expanded to a family of seven for every major power source. I dont recommend this, especially if youre planning on introducing additional power sources. Balancing the gems, and keeping track of them was a nightmare. On the other hand, starting with 14 gems took care of a lot of scenarios in the early game.
Anyway, my first scenario had an elder attempting to gain power and influence using a gem with a broken pattern. All the players were given a different entry into the scenario, and came in with different points of view. The players realized what each other were doing, and teamed up. This went on for 6 sessions, before everything was wrapped up. Then, the players wanted some points to spend. Also, I had found out that I was interpreting the powers in the rulebook much more conservatively than the players. So, we worked out a compromise. All of the rules for the powers were played by the weakest possible definition. But, it was possible to go beyond advanced to exalted. For 50 points, the player could acquire more use of the power. Of course, the game had to be high points so the players could afford these exalted powers. Later, superlative powers were introduce for 100 points. This worked well until the players got up to 250-300 points. Then the players abilities starting making it hard to come up with plot lines that didnt threaten the universe.
More players joined the game in progress. They were given about 90% of the points as the existing characters, and could not be first rank in any statistic. Most of the transitions were smooth, with the player diving right into the thick of things by the end of his second session.
I found several things that greatly improved my DMing. First, I stopped trying to come up with possible solutions for the scenarios. I just posed the problem to the characters, and left it up to them to solve it. I had several ideas on what wouldnt work, but never had a way to fix the situation. This works extremely well, as it forces the players to be creative, and makes the DM be open to different ideas, sometimes radically different solutions. However, players not used to this style of DMing are hopelessly lost, usually looking for a hint to the solution, which I couldnt give to them. Also, I now have trouble playing with DMs that have a solution to the problem in mind, as my creative ideas are never accepted.
I gradually started playing all of the NPCs as if they were my PCs. This allowed them to be more responsive to what was happening, and more interesting to the players. This takes a great amount of preparations, and is difficult to keep straight. Especially when trying to remember what lies were told to who by who, and what was believed by each.
I began to offer up 3-4 possible scenarios at a time. These were only in the developmental stages, and had very few details worked out. If the players showed interest in one of the scenarios, I worked out the details for the next session. So, usually there were 6-8 scenarios going on at any given time. All were in different stages, and any given player usually only knew of the existence of half of them. Some of my best scenario ideas came from the players, in attempted solution ideas. Also, a lot of ideas came from the post-game casual discussion. These were interesting, unless the players expected me to DM an idea. (Actually, I took the post-game discussions as a complement, as the players had just been playing for up to 10 hours, it was 3-4 hours past bedtime, there was an hour drive ahead for some players, and they still wanted to hang out and talk about the game.) I usually took these ideas, modified them some, and introduced them as new scenarios several sessions later. Often, introduced scenarios were ignored. I usually modified these slightly, and re-introduced them. Sometimes, I took the ignored scenario, and blew it up into a major problem. My logic was that whichever elder was behind it was successful, and was now using it for a push for the throne. The players really didnt like it when I did this. The most interesting/useful part of this system was when players mixed two completely unrelated scenarios. At times, I changed what I had planned into what the player thought it was, if his idea was better than mine.
Other times, players leapt at an intro-scenario, and began to vigorously pursue it. This forced me to work out the details on the spot, which we call winging it. This actually works out fairly well, developing a scenario with the players direct input. Until you create a major contradiction, that is. I became fairly skilled at winging it. I found it useful to have a list of names. Character names, organization names, and place names. No definitions, just the names. That way, when winging it, and introducing a new character, you can look down at your notes for the name. The player wont know if the scenario is planned out or not. Once, an ambush occurred at a non-descript shadow. Two players decided that there was something important there. Ignoring my subtle hints that nothing was, they started exploring the shadow. They met people, looked into guilds and businesses, and visited important landmarks. For two full sessions I had nothing planned for this shadow, I just made it up as they went along. Finally, one player, with a pained expression on his face, realized that I was just winging it.
This gives a great amount of freedom to the players. They were rarely forced into doing something that they werent interested in doing. They were allowed to pursue whatever interested them, or their characters. Most of the players tried to ally themselves with one of the elders. This usually worked better for me than for the player, as it aided me in getting them to look into the scenario I was most interested in/prepared for. I dont recommend this for DMs of players who arent self-motivated.
This leads to a very action packed game. A new player once commented, "There is something I want to try to do, but I think Ill wait for a break in the game". To which several more experienced plyers replied, in unison, "There is never a break in this game. This is as slow as it gets!" On the other hand, I began to feel myself losing control of the game. We also had a major problem with the time line as some one added up that less that 3 weeks passed in Amber over the entire game.
The game ended with one final attempt (by me) to destroy the universe. I had really planned on ending the game this way, but the players all worked together in a way I hadnt seen since the very earliest parts of the game, and managed to save themselves. The final tally: 71 sessions (6-10 hours each, for over 500 hours of game-play) over 3.5 years, 12 different players (2 of which played all the way through, and 2 of which played the final 50 sessions, maxing out at 8 at once (I got a third couch)), characters that were approaching 500 points, 50% elder death rate (and Oberon ended up having had a lot of kids), 7 major power sources (Pattern, Logrus, Grand Design (Corwins Pattern), Exemplar, Paragon, a network of minor power sources (the keep of the four worlds was one), and one name which escapes me), 3 separate universes (all attempts to cut them off were foiled by other PCs), 0 character deaths (everyone had an exalted Oh st, I have to get out of here), about 3000 cans of Dew (we all began to bring snacks, and had some impressive smorgasbords), 3 full notebooks, and one very burned-out DM.
Onyx, A Cringe Back
First off, I should have never started DMing Onyx, and I again apologize to the players who sat through it. Now, we rotate DMs, with about 6 months for a stretch. My only goal for Onyx was to not have Zircon. I did several things which ended up being very good ideas, but all of these were thought up during Zircon, as a I wish I had done it this way.
Onyx was face to face, with a lot of note passing. Im talking about pads of notes. I came up with a Partial Power concept, dividing all of the parts of the powers into 5 point segments (I believe this is somewhere else on this web-site). Players earned 3 points per session, with spends every 5 sessions. Bonus points were given for remarkable feats or ideas. Only a few were ever handed out. Bids were written down, and submitted in secret. This works very well, as the players had no idea who won each bid. Then again, the first few sessions were mainly an attempt to figure out everyones ranks.
I started with a pre-game introduction. I ran a bunch of 5 minute scenarios, at various stages of the characters young life. The idea was to give the players a starting point in the relationship with various elders, and help them create a background. This didnt work out. There were too many conflicts with existing notions of their characters backgrounds. A few minor alliances resulted. The only interesting outcome was Stans character, who ended up helping the guys trying to kill Julian. So, they became mortal enemies. On the second or third session, Julian was planning on invading a minor golden circle kingdom, where he believed these same people were hiding. Without any prompting from me, and without my prior knowledge, Stan begins to try to get the governorship of this very same shadow. Deciding to let him have it was the longest 3 seconds of my DMing career. I still dont think Stan accepts this as merely a coincidence. But, the war between Julian and Stans character was the highlight of Onyx.
The third set of major scenarios included two that ended up being unsolvable. I guess I didnt adjust enough for the lower point characters. But the players were cooperating with each other, and had solved the first two sets of major scenarios quite easily. One was an invasion of Onyx by transformed shadowites, that could infect more (rather like vampires). This was only stopped by the other scenario, which started by one of the elders making the Primal Pattern more real, to keep out the riffraff (otherwise known as the PCs). The process got out of control, and continuously became more real, as did all of the reflections. The players ignored this scenario until it was way too late, then reacted by simple moving out to Broken Patterns, which were now stronger than the starting Pattern, and moving again when the area became too real for them to function. This is where it stood when the game abruptly ended. Im still asked what the solution was, to which I have no idea, as explained above.
My Game: Oh, yeah. My game. First time Amber GM. Didn't last long. The base concept was using the only good answer I could could come up with to the question, "Why did Dworkin put the Jewel of Judgement in Coral's eye socket?" Then, about two sessions into it, I decided that Corwin Lied About Everything He Could. Everything where there were no witnesses still living at the end of CoC; this works surprisingly well. My main problem, I think, was that I was too enthusiastic about all these neat ideas in my head, so I trotted things out way too fast. Then there was the ubiquitous New Amber GM mistake of planning for what I thought the PCs would do rather than give myself room to react to the crazy things (or smarter-than-my-idea things) they actually did. Sentient Powers (and lots of them: Pattern, Corwin's Pattern, Logrus, Ghostwheel, the Hag, Agamotto, the War God, Morningstar...) didn't hurt too much, but they would have if the game had lasted longer. A learning experience.
Mask of Chaos: I answered an add posted at a game store and joined found myself in Dave Hill's campaign. I played Dolon, son of Bleys -- very much Bleys, Jr. -- ruler of the Primal Shadow Argannel (Arthurian/Celtic Otherworld), master of the King Oak sorcery-Pattern construct, bon-vivant, finest wild party host in Amber (2 points) and general full-forward maximum Well Adjusted Amber Princeling. Dolon and Quinn (in TiHE, which started up two or three months into MoC) were both sorcerers and ended up with a lot of the same spells. I couldn't help it. Dolon was another Amberite with an elfin mother, in this case one based on Kade Carrion in Martha Wells' "The Element of Fire". (An excellent book. I like all her books so far but EoF and "the Death of the Necromancer" are best.) Among many other fine GMing qualities, Dave does the best Dworkin I've seen. I've got Dolon's diaries and some Trumps.
Concerning MoC, GM Dave Hill says, ----------
I was hoping for a rollicking good time for all concerned, leavened with
dark intrigue, personal stories, and a sense for the players of doing their
utmost to hold on against a sea of plots and counter-plots -- with periodic
revelations (and discoveries) of just how deep in trouble the players were.
I was also hoping to have fun role-playing some very fun characters. It
turned out pretty well -- the players hit most of the plot points I was
aiming at, while in a number of places improving upon my plans. And I --
and the others -- seemed to have a good time. Couldn't ask for more.
Ambre: John Barnes stepped up to bat for the, um, Zirconid game group. John is an Evil GM. Demon Oyster Forks. Fingermen. The Man In Black. Maximum Leader Om. One player became an Icon to a power source -- and giant-roach mother to a thousand roachling young. Ambre is set in the normal Amber universe, more or less, just months before Eric and Corwin would have had their impromptu duel that ended in Corwin being dumped in Shadow Earth. I play Niccolo d'Este d'Ambre, bastard son of Random, born in Renaissance Italy as a minor member of the Ferraran ruling family -- the one Lucrezia Borgia married into. I have Niccolo's diaries and then logs -- I took the log over after Noel Chandler and her husband moved to the east coast -- and some Trumps. Ambre will be starting up again in late August or so.
Ambre did start up again with a Campaign Restart. John said that he'd forgotten too many details of what was going on and that there were some trends he could cut out. So a Plot Device carried the PCs and a few NPCs 4000 years into the future. Rey Herrera joined continuing players Noel Chandler, Dave Geissinger, Stan Pedzick, and moi.
Concerning Ambre, GM John Barnes says, -----------
My intention with Ambre was to provide a game
where the player
characters actually had a prayer of competing with some of the family elders
and yet still had to worry about those pesky shadowites. Intrigue was to play
a big part, so that the raw attributes of characters took second stage. I was
aiming for a campaign where the PC's actions actually had consequences...in
this I think I succeeded. I made the elders somewhat weaker than most
campaigns and made minions of shadow stronger. The PCs were able to directly
influence a number of major plots in ways I had not originally anticipated.
If I could change anything about how I proceeded, I would have made the
elders less extreme in their personalities. I would make Fiona less ruthless,
Eric less narcissistic, Corwyn less obsessed, Random less irresponsible, etc. I
would also have toned down the frequency and effectiveness of psychic combat.
In Ambre, mind raping is common and perhaps it should not be. Still, overall
the campaign has been fun to run and I hope fun to play in.
Things In Heaven And Earth: Maybe you've heard of it. Here's a link to GM Doyce Testerman's TiHE extravaganza.
Concerning TiHE, GM Doyce Testerman says, ----------
What I started with:
First off, all I am is lucky. I stumble and trip and fall into great storylines. My only talent is realizing that I've fallen into something good. All the very best things that happened in TiHE were not things I expected or planned. The premise, at least the idea for the beginning section, was that Zelazny didn't get the facts of the Amber Story exactly right, or in the right order, or had things happening to the wrong people, and TiHE would tell it like it Really Happened. I included elements of the original Amber story, but altered key facts so that the whole point of the first 9 or 10 sessions was to establish 'The Amber books didn't get the facts straight.' The story was called "Things in Heaven and Earth", referencing the Hamlet quote, because I also wanted to make it clear that there were Things Amberites didn't know -- in fact, there were Many, Many things they didn't know -- they knew a Little, and thought they were Omniscient... I wanted to prove them wrong. :)
How did it go?
I had always planned on the story going about 100 sessions... maybe less, maybe a little more. The nebulous end result I imagined would involve the Universe reverting back to an Older Order -- shedding the bindings that had been set upon it by 'foolish youngsters' like Dworkin. In that regard, it turned out exactly as I'd hoped, and absolutely nothing at all the way I had originally envisioned. It took 2 years and more to tell the story, so my vision changed, other visions were added, and the ending changed by necessity... but only cosmetically. I'm completely happy with TiHE
Schist: Having learned the hard way, the 'Zirconid' group now works to avoid GM burnout by switching off to a different game after 15 - 25 sessions. Stan took up the GM challenge with 'Schist'. Schist is a non-traditional Amber campaign. Chaos is more or less 'normal' but outside of Dworkin no Zelazny Amberite characters were about. Amber itself was far bigger, more Romanesque. The family (the very large family) was inspired by equal measures of 'Gormenghast' and 'I, Claudius'. I played Vaerrek of House Larcan until recently. Vaerrek maintained his loyalties to Larcan, then the remnants of Larcan, and Chaos in general no matter the cost. He got memory-wiped and compelled to the point where he really was an npc. I now play Marcus, something of a mafioso. Here are the logs for Schist.
Concerning Schist, GM Stan Pedzick says:
Schist was my first time GM'ing an Amber game and some of the
early sessions show this. My first thoughts, when I started to come up with ideas
for a game universe, was to explore ideas and concepts that I had read in several of the
books that love.
The concept that I had when creating Schist was to make something in which the PC's would be "babes in the woods". One thing that I did was to ditch all of the elders except for Dworkin. I wanted the PC's to make up their own minds about who was evil and who was good. I also wanted to keep them guessing as to what the Elders stats were, and who was number one in anything. I gladly admit to copying John Barnes idea of making the Elders a threat but kill-able, and making Shadowites powerful and a threat.
One idea that I had which has provided much of the "playground" was to make the Shadows "hard". That there would be space in between the shadows, and people that may or maynot be to happy about a bunch of Amberites running about.
Another idea that I wanted to try was to put the PC's in to several different "camps" and put them at odds with each other right from the beginning. This somewhat worked, but in the end the Players actions brought about real alliances.
And yes, I too made a big first time Amber GM'ing Mistake....I thought that none of the PC's would kill off the "plot" in their first trun...I was wrong. This caused a dilimma in which Two of the PC's were not happy with my solution. One thing, After having been a player in four different games, was not to have a fixed outcome/solution to any plot. This worked far better then one would expect.
I Claudius: Simply for the family, the intrigue, and of course the back stabbing.
Gormenghast: I loved the Idea of an "Endless" castle, and borrowed some of the Characters. I felt Giving the PC's the option of trudging through an area of inner-shadow, and what they would do with this would provide another area for them to seek control of.
Dr. Who/Cats: Some of the climatic action took place in an area taken from a Dr. Who episode, and nicknamed "Catland" and having to name the bleeding creatures, I used the character names from Cats. I also pilfered "castrovalva" which became the dumping ground of anybody of a low Psyche.
Neverwhere: I used this as the background for the very "base" Base of the universe, and one Hereditary "Power".
And lastly, I wanted to provide a clean slate for the Players to make an imprint on. Allowing them to follow any path, no matter how silly or strange. Kudos to Randy's Character Vaerrek...The only PC not to be Corrupted in the game, and he died unsullied.
P.S. Ask Randy about "Hamster Balls".
P.P.S. If John Barnes or Noel Chandler want to join Your game please let them. They are two of the best people/players that I have seen. They will destroy, maim. change, and self-generate more and better plots than you can shake a stick at.
CRY HAVOC: Ambre's going into
hiatus due to player loss and difficulties of shoehorning new players in. Doyce and Jackie
Testerman are joining and I had the only campaign halfway ready to run. A low-power
canonesque game. The Testermans, John Barnes, Noel Chandler, Dave Geissinger and Stan
Pedzick are supposed to play. More later.