There’s a game I’d like to write up in full that I never will. Two reasons:
One is simply that almost all of the mechanics of the thing are based off of a great indie game called Trollbabe. While the author might be (in fact, probably is) down with people riffing off his game, to do him justice I should be charging for it and making sure he gets his due. This conflicts with the second thing; making money off of it would be illegal, in that setting a game in Amber is the right of someone else in the gaming world. (Not that they’re doing anything with that right, but there it is.)
So, the only way I could do it as a complete rules set for Amber would be to make it free, which screws the original game’s author, which I won’t do.
So this is best I can do: kind of an OGL “You must own this book to use these rules” type of deal — go buy Trollbabe, by Ron Edwards. Just do it. It’s ten damn dollars and probably the best money you’ll spend, per dollar, on any game. If you disagree I’ll pay you back.
Jesus, still hedging?
Well, you can go read the review here, which should give you enough rough understanding of the rules to get you though the rest of the post, but really you should just cough up the tenner.
For those of you who’ve got Trollbabe, but don’t know about the setting of Amber, go buy the five books of Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber series and read them, or just ignore this post.
Now then, you’ve bought. You’ve read.
Everyone on the same page? Good. Let’s try out a game called Amberite.

I’ve asked this before: What is an Amberite?
Here’s my answer.
Simply put, an Amberite is somewhere between a human and a god — functionally different (vaguely noir), and tied into a setting thick with conflict: political, familial, violent, romantic… you name it, they’ve got it. An Amberite might be a friend or enemy of any other characters in the setting, but one thing they aren’t ever going to be is neutral.
In old-school RPG terms, an Amberite’s Race is Protagonist; their character class is Catalyst — it’s what they do, it’s who they are — their presence cannot help but mess the status quo in any particular situation. Things happen when they arrive.
The story is always about them… just ask them.
Trollbabe is a role-playing game by Ron Edwards (creator of the excellent Sorcerer). It lets you tell stories like that.
How do I use the game to do Amber?
Most of the character generation stuff is the same. Pick your number. The three stats that derive off of that work the same way, but some get different names: Fighting becomes… Prowess (or whatever trips your trigger), Magic becomes Powers, and Social stays the same.
Specialties work a bit differently for the Powers stat: Whatever you pick as your Powers specialty is at the normal value; every other Power you have is at -2 from the normal value (unless that would take the chance of success below the range of possible numbers, in which case it just drops to minimum). Such secondary powers (of which you might not have any or might have a half-dozen) must be acquired through play or okayed by the GM if desired at the start of play (a good rule of thumb might be to allow Number/3 in secondary powers at the start of play, but YMMV.)
I doubt I need to give a list of standard ‘canon’ Powers to anyone familiar with Amber. 🙂
Some GM’s may want to add a rule in which the areas that you don’t pick as your Prowess speciality are at -2 or -1 as well. I wouldn’t, but some might. Ditto Social specialties, though my resistance there is much lower — it might be more useful and thematic there for someone whose Social speciality is “Scary” to face a penalty when trying to charm someone at a party.
Scale is terribly useful when playing Amberite; all the Elders have a Scale associated with them — by default, when dealing with an Elder as a starting PC, you are operating at a smaller Scale than the Elder and suffer penalties accordingly. I’d start the most powerful elders at the highest Scale in the game (“state” or at least “demesne”) and work down from there. I might also add a step or two to the scale for things like Dworkin, Oberon, and the Unicorn.
Character progression is easy: as the PC’s own scale rises, they move closer to playing at the Scale of the Elders.
Scenario setup in Trollbabe includes the determination of any built-in penalties and bonuses for the setting/story, and this works well for Amberite as well: Being in Amber is -2 or -3 to most Powers checks, while being near the Courts is probably the reverse. Read the Trollbabe rules and examples will occur to you.
Finally (and best of all), this game is based on a diced mechanic that relies so intrinsically on story-telling that it utterly obliterates the ‘d20’ problem of deprotagonizing your character through failures that don’t ‘work’ with you character concept. You can fail, certainly, but when that happens you will always fail on terms that work within the concept of your character’s story. It’s one of the most powerful concepts in the game…. any game, for that matter.
Why would I use the game to do Amber?
It’s my personal opinion that one of the main reasons that the players who play Amber do so because they desire more control over the story — by playing in the Amber setting, you have a tremendous amount of say over what’s happening to your character and the world around them — it’s that kind of setting. (Maybe not that kind of game (vanilla ADRPG), but that kind of setting.)
Trollbabe gives the player more of that kind of control through a built-in mechanic that lets the player have a HUGE amount of influence over the story.
Let me repeat that: not just over the character; over the story.
Quick example from the game system: my character is sitting on a rock somewhere. I tell the GM that I want to keep an eye out for anyone sneaking up on me. The wording is key here: in calling for a conflict resolution of some sort, I’m also calling for conflict: saying “I want to be ready if anyone sneaks up on me.” automatically means that someone IS sneaking up on me — the roll merely determines if I’m ready or not. If I say, “I want to avoid anyone sneaking up on me,” then the sneaking up is now part of the story — the check is to see if I avoided it.
Did you notice that the player’s the one who determines what’s happening to them?
Let’s use a more Amberesque example: I, as a GM, am not that great at coming up with Political Stuff. One of my players is, and more to the point really likes that style of play.
The scene is a Party in the Castle. I ask the player what they’re up to, and they say “I want to mingle and see what I can pick up from various rumors and whatnot.”
Now, for the purposes of the system, this isn’t specific enough. The player needs to give me a Goal. I ask them what their goal is, and they tell me, “I want to see if Lord Feldane is trying to outmanuver me regarding the grain embargo I’ve put into place against Shadow Hyrmsmir.”
A ha.
See, it doesn’t matter if they make their Social check or not… I as the GM now know that this is a story element the player wants for their character. It is, in fact, now part of the story — the question is only whether or not the character knows about it. 🙂 (Obviously, the player does.)
GMs: Ever feel as though, even when you’re firing on all cylinders, you’re still only giving the players — even those you know well — a really good scene about 50% of the time, just because you can’t always know what they find interesting at the moment, or what they’re in the mood for?
I wonder if the player can be wrong about that. I really don’t think so.
Why not just incorporate the whole mechanic into the DRPG?
Frankly, I’m not sure you can. With heavily narrativist, player-empowered games like Trollbabe and InSpectres, there is a built-in mechanic that clearly determines who has influence on the Story at each moment — it’s a protected process and rightfully so, since the possibility of resentment can run high in this kind of game.
I suggest using the mechanic as part of the whole system because I don’t personally think the mechanic can be ported successfully into a diceless game — such things require a system to determine success and failure in Conflict that does not involve direct character-character interaction, and the two diceless systems I’m passing-familiar with (ADRPG and Nobilis) don’t have that — the only real chance of failure/success comes from facing off against a peer — left to their own devices with no opposing actions, an Amberite or Noble *will* succeed, and that mechanic doesn’t feed back into determining Narrative Control very well.
Anyway. There’s my game thoughts for the evening. Go play.
Update: Some more discussion here.


  1. Hmmmm …
    My one concern (largely because we never got to it) is in those character-vs-character bits. I haven’t seen how Trollbabe handles those yet (especially with two players trying to storytell on top of each other).
    My other 🙂 one concern is that while it’s keen to let the players do some story stuff, I kind of liked the baroque conspiracies and Everything You Know is Wrong aspects to GMing ADRPG. Giving the players an opportunity to add to that fabric is great, I want to set up the basic skein (and manipulate it) myself. While Trollbabe works well as a “your character is walking somewhere” kind of tale, putting that in the context of a cosmos-spanning multi-millennium plot by Lord Chantris to put his third daughter on the throne by creating a distraction to the other Chaoslords via his pawn, Dworkin, may be a bit more difficult.
    Or maybe not. Worth pondering.

  2. I imagine you could work up some sort of hybrid resolution for PC vs PC conflicts if you had to. I’ll have to pick up the book to see what the possibilities are. For me, the game mechanics are not as interesting as the setting/storyline. I could probably have a good time playing in an Amber setting using D20 rules for that matter.

  3. Which I’ve actually gone to the pain of creating, but will probably never play.
    Trollbabe does have a character-helping-character and character vs. character system already built in (certainly would have been a glaring omission if it’d been missed) — it’s a bit — there’s only one player checking for success, and it’s not who you’d think it would be, but it works. The GM is the sole narrator of outcome in that kind of situation, for obvious reasons.
    The trick for the GM of getting your cosmos-spanning multimillenium plot into the story is in the prep. No matter what the player decides is going on in a specific situation, it is the GM that is setting the Stakes and the Consequences for the story (again, that’s something that’s in the Trollbabe rules, if I left anyone behind there).
    For example, using the little Trollbabe game we ran: the Stakes for Margie’s story is the land between the two human villages. The Consequences of the story (which don’t necessarily have to be directly tied to the Stakes, and aren’t in this case) is that the Village Seer-woman is either going to live or die as part of this story.
    In Amber or any other long-term game, I can see a situation where you might want ‘nested’ Stakes and Consequences — some of them ‘short’ and some of them ‘long’, like a TV series. To use Buffy as an example: there might be Stakes (har) and consequences in each individual episode, but there are also Stakes and Consequences for each character’s story that overarc the whole season. (Season Two: The Stake is “Angel’s Soul”, and the Consequences (as usual) are “The world is destroyed or saved from yet another apocalypse.”)

  4. Arref wrote, further, on his blog:

    It is a fact, however, that most of the Players I’ve ever dealt with don’t want to be empowered with the story.
    It breaks their belief in what they are doing as characters. It crosses the streams. Short circuit.
    In Amber, it could work, but even so, what about the Players who can’t be that pro-active without getting their heads stuck in meta-game?

    I replied (at length, and so added it here):
    Nothing wrong with that — two different styles of play.
    The original and still primary motivation for lots of players is what folks over on the Forge call Simulation — don’t confuse this with combat simulation or war gaming — they are playing the game to experience what it’s like to *be* an Amberite. Well and good.
    What I’m positing is that some folks are playing at Amber games because it gets them closer to a game style they want that they may not even know they want — the ability to really control their character. I think you’ve said before (or someone did) that the reason that some folks keep coming back to the same character in d20 or Amber or whatever is because they never really felt like they’ve really gotten to ‘finish’ that character’s story — that’s not the only reason for character-regurge, but it’s one.
    If that’s a problem that a player’s trying to overcome, this might be the answer for them — they really get to set some of the scenes that they want their character in, contribute to the ‘small scenes’ of the character’s life and, (I think) most importantly, control the character’s failure.
    What’s that about? Well, the way that d20 de-protagonizes the character is though those lovely instances where you’ve got this great character that blows stuff he’s supposed to be good at. Eventually, that’s the character they become, and they aren’t the guy you wanted to play anymore.
    Can you fail in Trollbabe? Sure, but you control how that happens and looks and feels.
    Giving an example from a recent game, one of my players wanted to stop a village thug from backhanding and old seer. She rolls her ‘fight’ skill and misses the roll. Failure. (In Trollbabe, there are different levels of failure, depending on what you risked, so in this case, it’s the basic “you’re discommoded” failure.)
    Success falls to the GM to narrate. Failure falls to the Player — this ensures that the player can have the character fail in a way that fits their image of the character.
    Maybe one player will be happy with ‘just missing’ (boring). Some other player decides “I’m really drunk and slipped on a pool of beer and fell on my ass.” Someone else doesn’t want folks laughing at them, so, as they move forward to intervene, a bunch of allies of the village thug stand up and grab the character, keeping her from intervening. All these are failures (and in the game, are failures can you can try to recover from), but all things that work within each player’s mind.
    Again, it’s not going to be what every player wants, but I think that it’s something some folks may find interesting and playable and maybe even exciting, and one of those player-types that might be found more prevalently within the Amber gaming community.

  5. The irony of this discussion (and the one on 20×20 room) is that, outside of a short-run type of five-session playtest, I’m unlikely to ever use this thing 🙂
    Hellboy/Trollbabe? I’m there 🙂

  6. !?Hellboy via Trollbabe?!
    Sounds like a winner!
    For the Gamer who can realize that they already ‘improvise’ to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when they respond to GM narration, I think it is a very cool system.
    I’m very intrigued. Enough so that I would actually try to weld this to the Twylighters romp I’m still toying with. A game about “bringing back the magic” welded to a mechanic where PCs dictate reality would be tres cool.

  7. –had one more thought that I will try to solve myself with a bit of skullwork.
    If not here.
    IMC, I always use ‘failure’ as an immersive conduit of info. Every failure gives you information that a ‘success’ probably would not.
    If Players define failure–I have to find another way to pass sekrit info into the experience channel.

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