in the Shadow of Greatness


December 31, 2003

Amber :: Three People or Less

The 20' By 20' Room: Amber in Three People has a comment space for adding your thoughts.

Small Cast, Big Plans
by Arref Mak

I've been asked to write a bit about Amber games with smaller casts.

When you are playing a game based on "Nine Princes in Amber" it is natural to think of a large cast of important protagonists.

But what about Amber for three, two, or one Player? What are the joys? The difficulties? Does the GM 'burn-out' faster because of less input from Players? Do the plots have to be 'down-sized' to account for a single Royal following their own story? Does the sense of story become too linear because there are no "side plots" or "interruptions" from other input? No natural organic feel to the campaign?

I've done Amber gaming from one PC up to ten PCs. Generally, I prefer smaller casts with more spotlight for each PC. I often arrange my games so that even in con games where I could easily get a larger cast—I stop at five or six people.

If you are trying to put a group of gamers together consistently, larger casts are troublesome. The only solution I know of is fixing a date and cycle for play that everyone will work real-life around. With smaller casts, you can play more often, or even unexpectedly when folks are available on short notice.

I mentioned 'spotlight time.' The math is easy. In an hour, two people can get 30 minutes each. Four will share fifteen minutes each. Once you are at six, you only get ten minutes apiece. This does work, but gives the other players a downtime that is a burden. Expecting major group play in an Amber game is expecting a lot. As soon as agendas are outlined, they often send PCs into their own plotline, perhaps far from Amber.

Good Stuff
In my own GMing, I find that fewer PCs means more immersion in the genre. It means more of the style of Corwin's own story: one point of view, sometimes stacked against many others; sometimes finding allies or strange events to bring back to the family chest of knowledge.

In this way, plot arcs tend to run around one PC. If there are skills or knowledge areas that the PC doesn't have—they more often Improvise Ingeniously. They do not always pull out their Trumps and call an Elder/brother/cousin who has a gadget they don't have. They make do. They are independant problem solvers. This also cleves to genre canon.

In a larger cast, the distribution of niches encourages the "party of experts" gaming basis. Nothing wrong with this—but daily Trump calls between cousins doesn't "feel" right to my Amber gaming. And if the cast is even slightly cold to each other, is it really needful to have a larger cast to do that sort of "cool cousin" theme?

"Nine Princes in Amber" and the two succeeding books basically move based on the antipathy between Eric and Corwin. Amber games can do more with less. Less Elders on-screen. Less cousins. Less access to answers. I find this promotes then a game of social dynamics. Where 'daily/weekly' sorts of changes are significant. Where immersive conversations between peers or associates are most of the game.

Like a family.

Gaming Genre
This last directly contrasts with the normal expectation of "save the universe" plots and games that hinge on competition between peers or exaggerated treachery within the family. While these three plot foundations (universe in danger, family competition, and family traitor) can be called canon elements of the 'Chronicles of Amber', they are counter-productive to long-term small cast games.

I could make a case they are overused in large cast games as well—but every trend has a cycle.

The Royal Family talks a lot of "competition," but by and large they prefer to talk and manuever for it, not "end the game" as it were. They all want the captive audience and sending someone to certain death, or trapped in stasis, or lost at sea isn't the way to get that audience.

Unless it really will come out 'right' in the end and provide fodder for your legendary ability to show up your cousins.

Joy Shared is Doubled
OK. If Family is good. If all these elements are good. Why a small cast?

Because joy is in the details, not the plot.

While there is nothing at all wrong with a "save the universe" game of Amber, it has a an equal chance of breaking the campaign or the GM. Think about it this way: if you fail, the genre is broken; if you succeed, the premise might be broken—as it almost is at the end of "Courts of Chaos." The plot is so big that it changes the lives of your Characters.

But, if you are immersed in the many details of these Interesting People, you can keep the campaign going indefinitely. You can add or subtract Players as they come and go. You can shift to a younger generation of Players after the game has run for six years.

You can "peel" Amber's mysteries like an onion.

That's what I've been able to do with a small game.

The story belongs more closely to the few Players that enrich it.

I think a larger group "uses up" stories faster. Uses up the GM juice faster. Intrinsically, the GM won't fight you for spotlight. And the Elders should be old hands that don't fight you for spotlight either.

Players fight you for spotlight. Even if they are "team players" and 'sticky' as you could want, the nature of Amber royals is a bit of arrogance and pride with the ability to get in over your head. A recipe for spotlight hogging.

Small casts work more to the genre and mechanics that make everything feel more Amber.

caveat: if you really—I mean really—have a co-GM that works with you like a fine machine, you can expand these ideas quite a bit. Two GMs are worth much more than the sum of parts if they are simpatico. It is hard to have that sort of practice, trust, and vision shared between two GMs, let alone more.

Filed under : Amber at 31.12.2003