AmberCon NorthWest 2005

         I went to AmberCon NorthWest (ACNW) following two attendees who were friends of mine: Madeline (part of my regular Buffy game) and an online friend Lee. This is a small but well-organized game convention -- the closest equivalent to something like Knutepunkt that I've seen in the U.S. It was held at a hotel and brewery on a historical site, which was a great location. It has a number of cheap rooms (from $40) as well as good food.

         There were 85 people registered. Naturally most people were from the Northwest or Northern California -- though there were a dozen or so from the Midwest and 7 from England. Compared to mainstream gaming conventions, I saw relatively more couples and families attending. In registration, the organizers made an important point that all games should be classified as "teen friendly" or not -- something I rarely see in mainstream games. There were only three teens playing this year (one 13, two 15); but it was a nice gesture. Also, the percentage of women was greater -- 45% (38 out of 85) compared to what I would estimate as 15-20% at my local gaming conventions like ConQuest and DundraCon. What was even more notable was that there were many more games GMed by women: 30 by men, 20 by women, and 12 by both. That's much more than I've seen in either mainstream game conventions or surveys of gamers, where female GMs are generally less than 10%.

         I played in two games of Amber DRPG, plus Primetime Adventures, Lee Short's tarot-based system Star, Moon, and Cross, and a Dogs in the Vineyard variant. I also ran two games. First was Ben Lehman's Polaris, which I chose as the most Amber-like of the indie games I was interested in -- a magical city, chaotic demons, etc. Second was a straight Amber DRPG game, where I kept at least close to the system as written and follow the spirit of the books (in a sense). This one I titled "Princesses in Rebma", and was an intrigue and reversal-filled prequel to the first Amber series.

         Of the games, I was quite favorably impressed with Ben Lehman's Polaris and Lee Short's Star, Moon, and Cross. Both were well received by the players new to it, though there were only a handful in each case.

Slot #1: "The Chronicles of Corwynne Stormlord!"

GM Madeline Ferwerda
Thursday, November 17, 2005 - 7pm to midnight

         This was a tongue-in-cheek adventure using pretty much the Amber Diceless system. The PCs were plastic action figures in a toy store who came to life, and eventually had to go save their die-cast molds from being blown up. So the action was roughly in the vein of the movie Toy Story -- but a twist was that these were action figures for an imaginary Amber television animated series. So there were odd parallels to the Amber books.

         I tend to pick last among the players from pre-generated characters, since I'm pretty flexible in my characters and I enjoy a challenge. For this game, I played "Dino-Man Gerard" -- a strong Prince of Amber who in the television series had been raised by dinosaurs, and rescued by Corwynne (who didn't appear in this game since no one picked him). All of the characters were plastic dolls who came to life inside a toy store for mysterious reasons, but reverted to immobility if a human was watching them. The characters sheets were amusingly in-character, like:

Dino-Man Gerard!
"Grrrrah! Gerard smash!"

         Corwynne Stormlord rescued Dino-Man Gerard from the distant past! He has all the strength of his dinosaur foster-parents, and his heart is as big as a pterosaur egg!

         Dino-Man Gerard can lift anything!

         Council of Toys Facts:
Cleverness: 5
Durability: 50
Battery Life: 30
Coolness: 25

The Council of Toys recommends clever toys, which encourage non-violent conflict resolution. All measures based on extensive testing and surveys. All character names &tm; The Amber Corporation, 1984
© The Amber Corporation, 1988

         The plot had a roughly fixed endpoint: the PCs had to get to the Amber Corporation factory down the street and rescue their figure molds. At least for me, that we would eventually do this wasn't really in doubt -- the issue was how and what we would overcome to get there. As it turned out, Chaos-based living toys had infiltrated the company and had a plan to blow up the rival Amber toys' molds. So play was slanted to ensure that this plot would eventually be thwarted, but there was enough time for a lot of leeway and messing around in reaching that goal.

         The characters were more comical than anything. I went particularly over the top with my character, Gerard, who was absurdly stupid but went maudlin about "Mommy" dinosaur. There were some assumption clashes over what animated six-inch action figures could really do, but it went smoothly for the most part.

Slot #2: "Keys of Amber - A Fable"

GMs Chris Lightfoot, Nick Lightfoot
Friday, November 18, 2005 - 9am to 1pm

         This was my second Amber Diceless game. This was the only game where I got my second choice, but I was still interested by the described premise: re-casting all of the children of Oberon as all being children at the same time, ranging from age 8 to age 18. I picked late again, and chose Eric -- age 17, who within the books would make himself king supported by several of the younger siblings, but would be killed by his full younger brother Corwin in a fight for the crown.

         The game was GMed by a father and teenage son pair. There were ten players: two teenagers (both girls), three women, and five men. During the weeks prior to the convention, there was some nice email dialogue between some of the players of in-character chat between the PCs, which I took part in. They were:

Player Character Age
Katie Benedict18
John Eric 17
Amy Corwin 16
- Caine 15
Michele Dierdre 14
KingsleyFiona 13
Cort Bleys 13
- Llewella12
Kat Florimel12
Adam Brand 11
- Julian 10
Patrick Gerard 9
Tori Random 8

         As it turned out, this was an extremely linear scenario. There was an opening scene where the PCs were all witness to an event where their father Oberon disappeared. They were then all hustled into a team scavenger hunt, which had a series of formulaic sequences. In each sequence, one PC was designated as the one to solve the puzzle. Each one was usually very easy, but if the player didn't solve it, then play just stopped until they did. The background had set up rivalries between the PCs, but there wasn't really any way to progress. After the test was passed, the designated PC would get a key, and one of the other PCs would then find a clue for where to go for the next sequence.

         In practice, I found it extremely dull. It was designated "teen friendly", and I think the very easy puzzles and anti-competitive setup were intended to make it more kidsy -- but I think was too simplistic. It was game-mastered by a father/son pair, as I said. Unfortunately, there were some points of disagreement between them during play, which were awkward for the rest of the players. It reminded me how I ran convention games when I was 16 and 17, years ago. If it were a teen I knew, I would advise him on design to a fun, non-linear scenario -- but then stay in the background during the actual running of the game.

Slot #3: "Polaris"

Organizer John Kim
Friday, November 18, 2005 - 2pm to 6:30pm

         This was my tryout of Ben Lehman's new game Polaris, subtitled "Chivalric tragedy at the utmost north". I had picked this as one of the indie games I was most interested in that was also closest to the background of Amber in spirit. It is about a race of perfect people living in the remnants of a magical city at the farthest North, named Polaris. The magical city and perfect race of people were the points of similarity. It is a GMless game ideally designed for four people to play, but possible with 3 to 5. Thus, I said minimum 2 and maximum 4 players, and unsurprisingly got the maximum of 4 plus myself for five total. Unfortunately, it was also in one of the shorter time slots: four and a half hours in the middle of the day, and we started a little late due to some problems getting into the room.

         So the five players were: myself, Melissa, Pôl, Michelle, and Val. Pôl and Melissa were familiar with other recent indie games but new to Polaris. Michelle and Val seemed totally new to this sort of GMless, player-narrated game -- but they took to it pretty easily. With four hours, a little under than half the time was spent learning the background, making characters, and learning the basics of the system.

         We had around six or so rounds of scenes. The five Protagonist knights never directly met, but they had some shared NPCs between their stories. Naturally, we were still getting used to the feel of the mechanics. In the first conflict, Michelle's Protagonist Caelum beheaded the Solaris Knight at the price of being swallowed whole by the worm he was riding and survived with a hand lost. This went smoothly but we were still testing around how much to shoot for.

         An interesting case came when Val's Protagonist Er Rai was in a scene where he was threatened with being exiled because of his relationship with a demon princess. He was ordered to kill her or go into exile. Melissa was acting as the Mistaken, and it was a very long dialogue scene going back and forth. I wanted to push it harder, but I was sitting out this one (i.e. I was the Dummy position). At least one of the moons (Michelle) agreed that it was more interesting to play out the attempts at dialogue. Eventually, Val had Er Rai accept exile without making it a conflict. My instincts would have been to push the scene more to its limits, and I privately suggested to Melissa that the demon princess kill his commander who was ordering Er Rai to kill her. However, she preferred to hold him to the original ultimatum, and Val did but took a long time making his decision.

         Overall, I was extremely pleased with this. Val and Michelle were suitably impressed, I think, with how the GMless scenes and conflicts worked. Pôl said that he wasn't thrilled by the tragic genre, and spent a while trying to wrap his head around the system. As he wrote in a Forge thread on ACNW:

I spent a lot of time just trying to wrap my head around the rules - learning when I could use what phrases, the roles of the Moons, etc. As a result, there were only a few moments during the game where I was really jazzed by what was going on. (John: I loved that bit where the tunnel collapses, leaving just your hand sticking out of the rubble. And that picture Michelle drew of the demon lover! Brilliant! You've got to scan & post that, if you still have it.) I also had very different expectations when it came to scene framing than some of the other characters did. I was looking for punchy, short scenes; at least one other player wanted long, intense conversations. One session of play wasn't long enough for us to get comfortable with our respective styles. But! I learned a lot about how to play Polaris, which was the primary thing I was looking for in the session.
I'm sure that there was more stuff under the surface here, but I think everyone was fairly pleased.

Slot #4: "Primetime Adventures"

GM Pôl Jackson
Friday, November 18, 2005 - 8pm to midnight

         This was a completely non-Amber-related game -- a straight run of Matt Wilson's Primetime Adventures, second edition. This was also a shorter time slot. Pôl described it as 'the worst game of PTA I've ever been involved in, by which I mean it was only "really good" instead of "brilliant".' I had a number of problems with it, and from my point of view I would rate it as fair at best.

         We discussed concepts generally and came up with a show about the lives of low-grade thugs of a Bond villain. There were some tricky nuances here, since it wasn't a clear genre. To my mind, we were at a nebulous point somewhere between a crime comedy/drama (like "The Sopranos") and an action film spoof. We didn't have any real spoof elements of Bond, but we weren't gritty crime, either. I brought up the idea of having the master villain as a PC, but no one else went for it. We eventually titled it "Other Side".

         Then we came up with PCs. Eventually, we came up with:

         As I discussed in feedback to Pôl in a Forge thread, I was not very taken by this game. After hashing out the series and characters, we did a brief introductory scene with everyone; then a brief mission where all the PCs were breaking into a chemical factory; then a round of individual personal scenes; then a capping action scene as we're driving a van with a bomb in the back.

         Personally, I felt the drive for consensus stifling. There was open discussion before each scene, and then fairly soon after a scene started there was discussion over the conflict. Then the conflict was resolved by the card mechanism and in most cases there was kibbitzing and comments over how to narrate it. I had a number of ideas during series generation that were shot down, and two or three scene ideas that were shot down during play. This was a low acceptance rate in the game given only a two individual scenes per player.

         Also, I felt like the characters were fairly flat. I think it comes down to that I don't like having a defined main Issue for the character. This is probably a personal thing. You suggested a rule of thumb that a Conflict should relate to a character's Issue only once per game. To me, simply having a singular Issue defined made the characters seem less interesting. Rather than having the pre-defined Issue lead the character, I would prefer for the issues to be generated in play.

Slot #5: "Amber Shadows"

Organizer Lee Short
Saturday, November 19, 2005 - 9am to 4:30pm

         This was a game still in development being run by the author, Lee Short. I had been chatting with Lee for some time before this, so I some idea what to expect, but was still surprised (and pleased) at the results. The game is based around a tarot deck -- actually several different tarot decks shuffled together in our case. There is no game-master. Instead, play proceeds going around in turns. During newsreel scenes, each player takes a turn as an initiator and all the other players elaborate on their additon. In action scenes, different players take turns, and the player to the left acts as game-master.

         The newsreel mechanic worked excellently in this case -- all of the players generated very smoothly a fun and interesting scenario. The central mechanic is that there is an open "kitty" of nine cards laid face-up in front of the deck. So each turn, you can choose one of those nine cards or draw from the top of the deck. Each round, one player starts by playing a card and making a fitting statement about what is happening. Then each other player plays a card and elaborates on that.

         The conflict mechanic for action scenes was more confusing and didn't work quite as well, but still went fairly. The active players are using a hand of cards, which they are allowed redraws depending on their character's stats. The GM draws from the kitty to oppose. I had some problems setting difficulty levels, and there were a few unclear points in action with multiple PCs. Still, it worked reasonably well.

         Lee has a LiveJournal entry on how this particular game went, but I will add my own overview. The game was set in the backdrop of the Patternfall War which was towards the end of the first Amber series. The PCs were all pregenerated children of the elder Amberites, with a predrawn a hand of cards. I played Mio -- a daughter of the sneaky knife-wielder Caine. What I particularly enjoyed was saying "Ooh, shiny!" when a bad card (like The Tower or The Devil or Death) was sitting in the kitty; and then picking it up to introduce trouble. This was how we established what was to become the core of the adventure: that the seneschal of Amber, Marcus, was a traitor to Chaos.

         I think a particularly strong thing that the system enforces is that the adventure is not about finding out what is going on, but how we are going to stop it. This is similar to, say, My Life With Master, but in contrast to Dogs in the Vineyard -- which is an excellent game, but still has the GM prepare the town in secret from the players.

Slot #6: "Amber's Watchdogs"

GM Michael Sullivan
Saturday, November 19, 2005 - 7pm to midnight

         This was a game set in the canonical Amber universe, run using a variant of the Dogs in the Vineyard system (DitV). The GM was Michael Sullivan. There were a large set of pre-made characters, which were all the children of Oberon in the Amber universe. It was set many centuries before the novels by Zelazny, at a time when the young princes and princesses of Amber were competing for King Oberon's approval by seeing who could best deal with an invading army (the Moon-riders of Ganesh). The GM Michael was very explicit that it was assured that we would eventually defeat the army -- the competition was over how well, how quickly, and how impressively we could do so to win Oberon's favor.

         The basic dice mechanic was retained, but there were many key differences. The setting was completely different and hence no towns; the characters were pregenerated; relationship dice were minimal; equipment was dropped; there were no pseudo-NPCs; the options to add d4 traits for long-term Fallout were removed; and experience was ignored as this was a one-shot. Essentially, this was using the core mechanic to run a very different, more tactical game. The GM laid out a map of the valley, and as the enemy armies advanced into it, he put down markers for the five armies marked with the size of each (i.e. 10,000 vs 20,000 and so forth). The army sizes didn't matter directly for the mechanics, but presumably had some influence.

         Bernie and I were the last to pick characters, since both of us were fairly flexible. I was torn between taking Llewella (who would be paired with Fiona) and taking Corwin (who would be paired with Eric). I went with Llewella, which strongly colored how I took the rest of the scenario. I took on all of the challenges in a "girly" manner, making the most of my big 3d8 trait "Easy to Underestimate" -- which could be dragged into almost any conflict if set up right. I also noted that combat was a real loser's game in this system, since the damage was always permanent loss of ability.

         In the end, the three female characters -- Deirdre, Fiona, and myself as Llewella -- were the winners in the end. I ended up with the highest rating of Oberon's favor at 6d4. This involved a peculiar sort of social tactics, though. So I ended up setting up what I was doing first, and putting off the conflict until I had shown how I would accomplish it. In a game with crunchy rules and known background, I can state my plan in advance and show how it works. In this case, I had to cagily negotiate it. I tend to term this as "wheedling" -- the social counterpart to "rules-lawyering" in crunchier games. It was a bit socially awkward, though. Play was generally civil, but one player (Pôl) dropped out, while another player got his character killed and was frustrated about that.

Slot #7: "Princesses in Rebma"

GM John Kim
Sunday, November 20, 2005 - 10am to 4:30pm

         This was a game which I set up as an experiment where I was going to stick fairly closely to the Amber Diceless system -- following a Forge tendency to try to play games by the book. I had originally named it as a feminine counterpart to Zelazny's "Nine Princes in Amber" -- maneuvering within the magical underwater city of Rebma which was ruled by a matriarchy. I had all the players contact me by email before the game and make their characters by the original point system, but I didn't conduct an attribute auction.

         The game was set many years prior to the first Amber books by Zelazny, centered around an incident which would become somewhat important for events in the first novel. The characters I had were:

         The only one which I initially had a few misgivings about was Vialle, particularly over her blindness but also her lack of connections and her established personality in the Amber books as relatively passive. Lorna and Random would insert themselves fine, I thought. I started off the plot to strongly drawn in Alleya. My early thoughts were somewhat changed when I realized that her player Katie was a teenager, but that really just reinforced that I wanted to draw her into the game and make her character central to the plot rather than having her sit out. In retrospect I should have done similarly to draw in Vialle more as well.

         A brief summary of the plot: I started strongly by having a series of people (Princess Morganth and an ambassador) ask Alleya pointedly about her rock collection. Katie had put in a rock collection in Alleya's background, and jumping off from this I made the MacGuffin for my plot a Primal Stone -- which had been part of the accident which blinded Vialle and gave her secret Trump ability. This immediately set the tone for paranoid questioning and intrigue. Soon Lorna and the Queen would defend Alleya from competing forces which wanted the stone, Vialle keeping track of all this but not acting. Eventually it resolved that two Amberite princes, Bleys and Brand, wanted the stone -- who faced with the Queen moved to negotiating and making Alleya offers for the Stone. Random had involved himself in this for a while, but in the end backed out and eloped with Morganthe. Alleya didn't want to embroil her kingdom Rebma with the princes' enmity, but didn't want to give the stone away -- so she ran off into Shadow with it on her own and we left it there.

         The action was further tinged by foreknowledge. Brand and Bleys were the competing brothers who wanted the stone, and it became clear to the players (though not the characters) the stone would be a piece of how Brand eventually makes himself a living trump and nearly destroys the universe.

         For all this, I had the MacGuffin and the characters prepared -- but little plan for how it would proceed. I had a page listing out the characters, and in my notebook jotted down Amber stats for the major ones. The diagram I had was:

The sections marked "Kashfa" and "Begma" were competing delegations, of whom the Kashfan side was secretly in league with Brand. Lak and Marha were minor characters in the palace who never came into the action.

         Overall, I think this went very well. Play went smoothly, everyone was interested and drawn in by the involving plot, and they all had a good time. Once or twice, I may have been a bit pushy toward Lee, encouraging Random to be more of a jerk. And Vialle was not as involved as I would have liked, but Karen said at the beginning that she had to leave early which may have influenced me. Despite misgivings at some previous games, I convinced myself that under the right conditions, Amber Diceless works fine as a system.


         Basically, I had a lot of fun and hope to go again next year. The out-of-game socializing was good -- and I had some interesting discussions regarding games, and the venue was a nice place to hang around and drink at. Really, I enjoyed this more than the local Bay Area gaming conventions I've been to: ConQuest, DundraCon, and KublaCon. Though I'll still go to those, I think.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Mon Sep 25 16:58:33 2006