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Author Topic: Amber, Structure, and Conflict  (Read 8086 times)
Andrew Norris

Posts: 253

« on: August 07, 2005, 09:58:58 AM »

Hi folks,

I'm running a campaign based on Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, using a home-brew system that lifts heavily from Primetime Adventures and Nine Worlds. (I'll be honest -- if possible, I would have used Nine Worlds straight. The players weren't comfortable with the mechanics.) I've cribbed a few ideas from Amber Diceless Roleplaying, but I'm actively rejecting most of that book because it's style works against what we want to do.   

We're not using any of the main characters from the novels, except Eric (the initial antagonist).

I started talking about the campaign here, in an excited but hard-to-parse fashion. This time, I have several real issues to talk about, so I'll be sure not to gush. I'd love your input. There are a lot of issues that can be teased out of this, and I could use your help identifying them.

(If somehow one of our players stumbles on this, I'll mention secrets you've asked me to not reveal to the other players. You really don't want to read further.)

Here's the setup. I'm the GM. I've run FATE and Sorcerer with these players before, incorporating more Narrativist techniques in each game. E. is my fiancee, a fan of the novels, and a player in the Sorcerer game. M. is a close friend who's GMed a lot of traditional games in the past. J. is an acquaintance who regularly runs D&D. S. is an aspiring writer whose only roleplaying experience before Sorcerer was online collaborative fanfic. We all consider each other friends; some started as gaming acquaintances but six months of getting together to have dinner, talk about our lives, and then play Sorcerer for a few hours brought us all closer together.

E. and I decided on Amber as a setting for this campaign, despite the fact that we're the only ones who have read Zelazny's novels. We had a few reasons for this:

- Inspiration. E. and I were out antiqueing one Sunday, and out of the blue she suggested playing a game like the Amber novels. We immediately bounced ideas off of each other for hours. Political intrigue, high action, large scope -- we were jazzed.

- Front-loaded Situation. The Sorcerer game started slow. Looking back on the Kickers, they boil down to "Hey, I'm a Sorcerer now." We struggled to get traction. I wanted the players to start from a position of power, with complex relationships and a clear initial conflict. So everyone started in a situation similar to Corwin in the first novel, minus the amnesia -- off in Shadow, opposed to a brother who's regent of Amber and is moving to become king.

- Visible Relationship Map. If you're a Prince or Princess of Amber, not many people in the universe can keep you from your goals except for your siblings. You know who they are, and you have strong opinions about every one of them. We wanted the r-map to be an explicit tool for players and GM.

- Extreme Player Empowerment. I wanted play to be heavily player-driven. I wanted our turtles to open up. I wanted people to try things instead of worrying about whether they could pull them off. Hence characters who could trivially defeat mundane opposition and had built-in Director stance.

Character creation and the first session went as I described in the first thread. Everyone had an iconic character with a clear schtick, a home Shadow with its own issues, a complicated history with the other PCs, and a clear Kicker that threatened their home and the things most important to them.

The previous thread talks about what went well; now I want to get to our issues.
Andrew Norris

Posts: 253

« Reply #1 on: August 07, 2005, 10:59:19 AM »

Our second session looked nothing like the first, and it took me a while to wrap my head around that. We talked on our game blog, and in person, about the issues I saw. I think we made a lot of headway, but I won't really know until we play again this week.

It might be helpful to look at the rules I've posted. Resolution is similar to PTA using playing cards, with a relevant attribute (Warfare, Intrigue, or Lore) replacing Screen Presence. Players pick their highest card, and narration proceeds from low to high. High card gets the stated stakes for the conflict. (That bit's taken from Nine Worlds.) There's an additional metagame currency in the form of Trumps, which I'll avoid talking about for now.

Here are the players, their characters, and a helpful stereotype. (I promise the character's aren't this one dimensional, but if there was a casting call, this'd be it.)

M. - Mackenzie - Rob Roy
J. - Macvayne - Roland from The Dark Tower played by Christian Bale
E. - Inara - Inara from Firefly mixed with Fiona from the books
S. - Zarker - Milla Jovovich from The Fifth Element and Resident Evil

Our first session used a strict turn order borrowed from PTA, but with the active player framing the scene. I give someone the floor, they frame, we rapidly reach a conflict. Cards are drawn, narration order established, stakes are resolved. I close the scene shortly afterwards and we move to the next player.

Second session? None of that actually happened. Oops.

I start with Mackenzie sailing back to his home Shadow (named Nova Scotia), having just rescued Inara from exile. M. starts talking about the port city, how it looks, the political structure, etc., going back and forth between description and dialogue. It keeps going on, and I see no conflict in the making, and no way for me to inject one. So I cut and move around the table.

Now S. is up, and I'm ready with a conflict. Zarker's come to Nova Scotia after spending a long time in a brutal high-tech Shadow. I figure she's spoiling for a fight. But no, she's sitting in a park, chain-smoking, trying to come to terms with the fact that for once she doesn't have to fight. Who am I to argue with that? So we get some walking around and some good characterization, but no conflict.

Back over to E., and she goes with the flow, right? She's shopping for clothes, flirting with the bodyguard M.'s assigned to her, getting a feel for the place. Again, it's good stuff, but there's no stakes and no conflict. (Okay, there's eventually conflict over whether she or the bodyguard, who's a key supporting character for M., are in control of the situation. But both sides are playing it subtly enough that they actively reject naming explicit stakes and throwing down cards.)

I'm a little uncomfortable at this point, especially because my biggest Bang (J.'s character shows up, in trouble, with hell itself on his heels) is off because J. is home sick. I've got other Bangs ready, but all of them would be jarring. Everybody at the table is exploring and riffing off the current locale, and my Bangs all threaten it. I felt like the situation was still baking.

We go back and forth for a while, the characters all meet for the first time, there's a lot of dialogue, yadda yadda. They're having fun, I'm taking notes, but I don't really need to be there, do I? I start to inject a Bang or two, don't feel comfortable with stepping all over what they're doing, leave it as "Something's in the works." Lame. But they're having fun, and set up several situations that are begging for Bangs next session, so everybody else is really happy, and I'm kinda happy.

So after the session, I think about it for a while, and it hits me. M. was GMing. Seriously, it was deja vu from the time he ran D&D and I played a couple of years ago. Setting the stage in great detail, providing lots of fodder for characterization but no "in your face" conflicts. And he's good at that kind of thing, so good that the other players got into it and went along. Later in the week, over a beer I brought it up and he agreed. He said, "Yeah, I figured you were going to jump in with Bangs at some point. I did kind of go on a bit."

I slap my forehead. The players were developing situation, waiting for me to jump in and introduce conflict. I was holding back, both because I didn't want to step on their toes, and (I think more importantly) I was waiting for them to introduce conflict.

This is the point where I felt like ADRPG "infected" me a bit. (Ginger, if you read this, the "characters all being interpreted as petty s**theads" comment totally zinged me, in a good way.) The PCs have strong personalities, they're arrogant at times, they have clear goals -- but they're not asses. I was waiting for Inara to seduce one of Mackenzie's close friends and set him spying for her, or Zarker to take over the local criminal element. That's just not what these characters are about. They don't get along that well, they're catty and have their own agendas -- but they're family. Family's complicated. Yes, they're using each other, but it's subtle and not necessarily malicious.

That's enough setup. Next, a few questions I'm still struggling with.

Andrew Norris

Posts: 253

« Reply #2 on: August 07, 2005, 11:32:50 AM »

Our group talked about the session for a while, later, and I think we did a really good job of discussing differing expectations. Here's a few things that came out of those conversations. This is the stuff that I'm still thinking hard about and could use a hand on.

I need to play bass, already. You're not really "playing bass" if you throw a few licks in from time to time, and back off whenever the guitarist starts to go somewhere. I know better than that. The group wants me to push hard, make them go with the changes rather than the other way around. They love having extensive player authorship rights, but they need structure to push against for those rights to mean something to them.

Take-home lesson for me: If players aren't in motion, unless they really want a breather, I need to break out a Bang from the bandolier. (And that means I need to fill that thing -- three Bangs prepared means one might be relevant.) It's also my responsibility to handle pacing; the players want to focus on what they want to do, and trust me to cut away and cut back later.

Nobody goes for the throat right away. Even with a loaded situation where the PCs are at odds, they're not going to start explicitly opposing each other out of the starting gate. That's unsubtle and uninteresting to them. I was doing what Ron says when he talks about scenario creation having 90% of the story done. The players don't want to walk in on the last reel. As front-loaded as the situation is, they want it to build.

Take-home lesson: It's my responsibility to create and shape events that push the characters so hard that the players demand conflict resolution. Once that happens, and the stakes are high enough, the players will either pit their characters against each other, or deal with their differences and pull together. It's not my call which happens, but I should push until they have to do one or the other.

NPCs as points of pressure. By "points of pressure" I mean methods for delivering GM force. M. had an excellent observation -- he told me that in all our previous games, the way I delivered Force was through the actions of NPCs. That's a damn good point, and I had no idea it was true until he said it. My best Bangs come through actions of NPCs in the r-map. Even when it comes to scene framing, I tend to rely heavily on "NPC changes the situation" as the time when I cut away.

I didn't have any meaningful points of pressure last session, so Force showed up in terms of "Hey, Andrew wants to cut to the next scene." And I can see now that I was pretty sparse with that, because I didn't want them to hear, "Hey, Andrew thinks this is boring." We've talked about it, and everybody promises they won't be offended when I move the camera off of them. But how weird is that that I was thinking that way, without realizing it?

M. had another good point, which tied into the fact that the PCs are so powerful that they outclass mere mortals. One reason I held off on pushing with NPCs was that I was thinking the only meaningful opposition would include NPC family members, and I wasn't ready to include them. That's obviously not true, of course. We listen to and react to people all the time who don't have life-or-death power over us.

Take-home lesson: NPCs don't have to provide a mechanical challenge. They do have to have strong motivations and goals. The conflicts that come out of competing goals will involve stakes larger than "What does this NPC" do, and those stakes will provide the mechanical challenge.

I feel like what I've been doing is trying to create the real System, in terms of "How do we actually want to play?" I had a huge divide between Rules and System, and it gave me a headache. I think this is all "rubber meets road" theory stuff. What really makes me think is, I've been thinking about this stuff since the campaign was a glimmer in my eye, and still haven't nailed it all down. It's like Tony said a while back: "How did I learn to GM? I'm still learning."

Posts: 221

Fresno, California

« Reply #3 on: August 08, 2005, 09:58:07 AM »

Sounds like you've got a lot of it sorted out.  That was some pretty nice analysis; is there any point you're unsure about, or are you happy with what you've figured out?

It does sound like you can use more action-- even random action, but you've already figured that out.  Some "random" disputes with general shadow folk might help them solidify characters.  If they get to experience being overwhelming a time or two, it might make it easier for them to throw in insignifigant opposition into their scenes with the expectation that they'll mop up.  Which might give you an opportunity to reveal a pattern behind the attacks, or to back one of the attacks with a sibling's planning, or something else entirely.  Rephrased: If you throw in some easy conflicts, they might follow suit. That'll give you a chance to respond to their conflicts with interest-- make them more significant with bangs (the Regent's henchman helped plan the attack, they're armed with weapons from another shadow, etc.)

Hope this is the direction you wanted to take the discussion.
-- Scott

Hey, I'm Scott Martin. I sometimes scribble over on my blog, llamafodder. Some good threads are here: RPG styles.
Andrew Norris

Posts: 253

« Reply #4 on: August 08, 2005, 10:51:51 AM »

Thanks, Scott. That's, er, a really good point -- I started out my last post as a series of questions, and as I went through them ended up writing out my answers instead. Our next session is in a few days, so I'll make sure I report back on whether my self-analysis bore any fruit.

I'm planning to do just what you described, by putting putting pressure on M.'s Shadow. Actually, that's an area I'm a little nervous about, and thinking about it helped me realize why I was so hands-off last session.

Okay, M. has this world that he's created. It's like Rob Roy and Braveheart if everything had worked out perfectly for the noble clansman. It's a Scottish Disneyland. Mackenzie's united the clans, brought peace to the Highlands, the works. I kid you not, when we were talking about the castle in his port city, he says, "No one lives there. We take turns." It's an anarcho-syndicist commune straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except he wasn't trying to be funny.

It's not a stable situation. Mackenzie's explicitly using his control over Shadow, combined with his preternatural diplomatic skills, to keep a bunch of prideful warlike people at peace. Nearby countries are hungrily eyeing the natural resources. And the main port trades with nearby Shadows, which means it's only a matter of time before someone says, "Hey, Mackenzie, if you love these people so damn much, why the hell aren't you importing penicillin?"

So here's my comfort level issue. M. is really invested in this stuff. In the Scottish theme, and in the whole "people can all just get along" social vibe. These are things he cares about that he's brought into the game. I want to reward him for such heartfelt input, but I also want to put it at risk, and so do the other players. (We've had a conversation where one of the other PCs insinuated that the only reason this place even exists is because Mackenzie's imposing his unrealistic political views on reality.)

So I'm going to have criminals importing opium, and old clan feuds flaring up as they return to a wartime footing. I'll push hard. I just kind of feel like I might step over a line somewhere. I'm not so much worried that I'll hurt his feelings as that I'll hold back when I shouldn't.

It also leaves me with a situation where only two of the players are invested in things outside themselves yet, and I'm worried about the other players feeling like they need to involve themselves in what's happening rather than invest themselves in issues of their own. I realize that's overthinking it -- if they're interested in these issues, they'll get involved, if not they'll go back to their own goals.

So I guess the questions on my mind are: How have people dealt with Bangs that not only threaten what the character cares about, but what the player cares about? And have you experienced pitfalls with vastly different scopes within a game, say, personal vs. societal conflicts? (For that last question, I need to go back to Sorcerer & Sword, as I think Ron's Az'Arkn game had some characters with personal conflicts and other dealing with the pressures of governing.)

Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 16490

« Reply #5 on: August 08, 2005, 01:35:55 PM »


Sigh ...

A player goes to all this trouble to pay the points (he's playing a game where you pay points for this) to create a bar, which his character owns and runs. This is "Joe's Bar," and the player-character is Joe. The players even draws a map of the bar and enjoys thinking about what songs get played. Joe invites all the other characters to meet at the bar once in a while. The player is looking forward to the various adventures for Joe and isn't hiding. He really likes the idea of his character owning the bar.

What does the GM always, always do? First thing he does, he blows up the bar.

I don't know why, frankly. It's on a par with why mothers occasionally go into this weird head-space that makes them throw out their kid's comics.

Andrew Norris

Posts: 253

« Reply #6 on: August 08, 2005, 02:12:28 PM »

Hi, Ron.

See, that's why I'm struggling with the issue. During character creation M. kept coming up with potential conflicts, lots of bad things that could happen to his stuff. (For reference, the Kicker he came up with involves his brother pressuring him for a mutual aid treaty. That could leave his homeland garrisoned with semi-hostile troops. The character hates that idea. The player was grinning when he came up with it.)

So he wants to be challenged. He wants Braveheart. I want to do that without blowing up the bar, right? Avoiding blowing up the bar is why I've been softballing my Bangs.

Although you've answered the question for me. It really ought to be off limits. Not necessarily the physical integrity, but the social integrity. He's really interested in being a master diplomat, so I can refocus and make this into a border dispute, or a problem between two nearby nations (he's acted as arbitrator before).. That gives him a real conflict and hard decisions. But the "worm in the apple" stuff is right out.
Mark Woodhouse

Posts: 121

« Reply #7 on: August 08, 2005, 06:11:27 PM »

Just to complicate things for you, Andrew... Continuing with the Joe's Bar analogy, there's also the other dysfunctional thing GMs do with Joe's Bar, and your proposed refocusing of conflict might be treading in that direction.

Joe's Bar becomes downtime central. It is color. Nothing bad ever happens to it, but it's pretty much a character quirk that comes up from time to time. Joe has put a lot into that bar - so how come all the stuff that matters never happens there? There is a lot of turf between "blow up the bar" and "the bar is just a set".

Sounds to me like you and Mackenzie's player have a bit of talking about lines & veils to do. What kinds of conflicts and risks are OK to subject his Shadow to? For example, you mentioned that another PC had questioned whether his society could only exist because he was warping reality to allow it - is the player willing and interested to confront that issue, having things break down and rot when Mackenzie is distracted? This strikes me as classic Amber material. On the other hand, maybe the player is just making a statement about what his ideal world would be - Shadows are a great metaphor for that - and doesn't want his personal utopia deconstructed.

BTW, really liking these APs - they are actually making Amber sound fun to me again for the first time in ages.
Andrew Norris

Posts: 253

« Reply #8 on: August 08, 2005, 09:53:34 PM »

Thanks, Mark, that makes me feel better about discussing this here, rather than just blogging it. 

. This is uncharted territory for our group, and that's intentional. I know I can run a fun campaign that pays lip service to Premise and occasionally uses novel techniques, but as a group we want to push our comfort zone.  I've run D20, FATE, and Sorcerer in the last two years, but the System as used at the table is the same every time: I present conflict, players engage but kinda treat it like a plot hook, mechanical resolution only occurs when I prompt it.  I want System elements like conflict resolution and scene framing to be tools the players consistently reach for to pursue their goals. As I understand it, I need to apply pressure to make that happen, or we'll "just roleplay" along through Story Eventually.

I definately don't want M.'s contributions to become "downtime central".  The way the mechanics are set up, permanently changing a PC's Shadow or NPCs is almost as hard as killing the character. (If you've claimed something as yours, you can use your full attributes and metagame resources to protect it.) But I understand that even the threat of "burning down the bar" can be a bad thing. I agree that it's a lines and veils issue, and I need to sit down with the player and hash that out.

I think talking about lines for every player has to happen soon, because everyone's personal contributions are thematically loaded.One person's Shadow is a ruined wasteland due to their own failings, and they're trying to redeem themselves by putting the pieces back together. Another is a high-tech dystopia where everyone's alone in a crowd. (That player's sole supporting NPC is a waifish, mute orphan; boy, do those fit together.) The last is a Renaissance-level culture heavy on sexual power dynamics.

So what I really need to ask is, are the players interested in the color of Rob Roy, Mad Max, The Fifth Element, and Dangerous Beauty, or are they interested in the themes those movies contain? My guess is (and please, help me out if I'm off base), if it's the color, then I don't push for conflicts that challenge those themes -- the premises within have already been answered by the players. If it's the themes, though, I should challenge them, so that through play we can come up with our own answers to those premises.

Andrew Norris

Posts: 253

« Reply #9 on: August 10, 2005, 08:36:50 PM »

We had our third session tonight, and some things were better while others weren't. I've got one player in particular that I have no idea what to do with, so another talk is in the making.

Inara and Zarker's players jumped right into the thick of things, seducing people and/or killing them left and right to get what they want. Twenty minutes into the session they've got all the supplies they need, passage on a ship to Amber, and magical disguises for when they arrive. (They wrote their characters as having their abilities blocked, so they need to walk the Pattern in Rebma before they can really "get things started". If I did it over again, I wouldn't let anyone do this.)

Then we screech to a halt. Mackenzie's player's had his character go off investigating something in the highlands, and he's taken Zarker's NPC (the mute little girl) with him. He's not taking Trump calls, and didn't tell anyone where he was headed. We're all ready to go, but Zarker won't leave without the little girl.

We putter around for a while and Mackenzie's player decides, hey, I want to go to Amber after all. (He's spent like two and a half hours over two sessions witholding the aid the other PCs needed to get there. Now out of the blue, he's going. Face-palm.)

The ladies get to Amber, travel incognito, get to Rebma, meet a relative, get dispensation to walk the Pattern, all in the last hour and a half or so. Lots happening there.

Mackenzie? He has a great scene in Forest Arden where he's attacked by fae wolves and wrestles his way into becoming the alpha of the pack, which I thought was really inspired. Mostly, though, he's passive. He's met by forces in Arden, "escorted" to the castle, taken up to a high tower and put into comfortable quarters under armed guard. There's some negotiation via Trump (because when he knows it's not a PC, he'll take the call), but nothing's really decided. I think he was having fun doing passive resistance, but c'mon, he's walked into the lion's den with no escape plan.

Biggest issue: Mackenzie's player still "GMs" his narration. At one point Zarker breaks into Mackenzie's business to find out where he's taken the little girl. She loses the draw, so she narrates breaking in, then he can narrate what she found (and can prevent her from winning the Stakes.) We hear about where the coffee's stored in the basement, all the books in his library, locations and descriptions of five different homes he keeps, etc. I'm trying to hurry things along, but I don't want to negate his contributions, so we basically get the experience of being a player while the GM reads flavor text.

On the bright side, the other players are firmly on board. At one point Zarker's player keeps adding "Can I..." to her actions, and I say, "I can't say no. The most I can make you do is draw cards for it." I see a lightbulb over her head.

So people, please, help me out here. Mackenzie's being played as "If everybody leaves me alone, I'll be happy." Posturing aside, I don't want to "blow up the bar" by overly threatening his home Shadow, so as far as I can tell, he can go home, see to his family, and live happily ever after. I'm talking with the player to find out what kind of things they'd like to be involved in, but I'm frustrated, because I hammered "Must be proactive. Must have to deal with their Kicker." into the players heads time and again, and talked to this player about the issue out of game, but no dice.


Posts: 3702

« Reply #10 on: August 11, 2005, 03:44:10 AM »

You don't blow up the bar.  You don't protect the bar from ever being hurt.  You, the GM, don't unilaterally decide anything.  You make contributions.  The game is a community project, and you're acting like you can't take part in that without dominating play.  Man do I know that feeling... but honestly, it doesn't sound like the other players are such push-overs for GM fiat that you need to worry about that.  You've given the other players (particularly M., but also everyone else) the power to protect the bar if they want it enough, so now you should threaten it very seriously.

MacKenzie's brother is pressuring him for a mutual aid treaty, yes?  So have somebody attack the world.  Not somebody that MacKenzie and his forces can't drive off, but someone they can't drive off without serious cost.  Now, who would he rather have bear that cost?  Himself personally?  His friendly Disney-Scots?  Or his brothers troops, who would be only to ready to die in his people's place in exchange for just a tiny little measure of their freedom?

This "somebody," of course, should be family... so that whatever choice MacKenzie makes, however much it tears him up, he has somewhere to direct that rage and aggression.

You don't have to do this thing, particularly (especially if they've moved on from Scots-world).  But I think you'll have an easier time if you get past the idea that the players are helpless before your limitless GM power.  It sounds like, under your system, they've got a pretty good chance of kicking your hindquarters if you try something they don't like.  Liberating, ain't it?

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