in the Shadow of Greatness


July 23, 2006

compared: Amber DRPG Attributes & Zelazny’s Chronicles

First an important note: the game is authorized by Roger Zelazny and Eric Wujcik had face-to-face meetings with Roger. To suppose that something in the game design does not have Zelazny’s approval would hardly be logical.

That said; let’s look at the game Attributes versus the Zelazny chronicles.

The game supposes that all meaningful dramatic conflicts happen based on what you spend your points for. So while the major conflicts are going to be Warfare, Strength, Endurance and Psyche, there are also Trump, Pattern, Sorcery and other power conflicts.

Players and GMs debate the game structure compared to Zelazny's complete series and authorized supplements. Part of the discourse? While most readers acknowledge that the novel's characters deliberately obscure and lie about their powers, abilities, actions and motives, the narrator’s inconsistencies also allow ‘wiggle room’ between the rules and the Chronicles.

We can also see that Zelazny missed a few things himself now and then during the course of the series.


Warfare is combat strategy, tactics and physical weapons. Formal training in Warfare is assumed for all members of the royal family. Warfare is called the “most feared” and “most decisive” attribute by the rules. Warfare includes the talent and analysis to pick up new Warfare tricks.

Warfare in the rules allows you to win chess, predict opposing generals, estimate the use of weapons you have not seen before, guess about hidden weapons on an opponent, deflect and/or trade blows with invisible opponents.

Nowhere in the chronicles is battle with invisible attackers shown, however, blind athletes do fence and historic fencers practiced while blindfolded. Thus precedent suggests this is mild extrapolation and might not work with challenging invisible opponents.

People with high warfare in the books make many mistakes in Warfare judgment, something to consider.

Verdict: the game allows Warfare to emulate the books, but designer's emphasis is extrapolation


Strength is hand-to-hand combat skill and resistance to damage. Strength is also the art of picking up new maneuvers that will allow you to master tricks the Strength talent hasn’t seen yet. Hand blows from high Strength characters can be deadly.

Strength in the rules allows you to “toss around small automobiles.” Nowhere in the chronicles is this level of action demonstrated. Note that bulky furniture and boulders are used as weapons by characters. Note that some human martial artists also practice their skills blindfolded.

I suppose it is also worth including that just a little bit of research will show that skinny little Random needs to be about 13X stronger than average folks to do his half-lift of Florimel's Mercedes(canon example.) Corwin notes that Random said, "something about lesser gravitation, but I didn't feel that light." So even if the GM tweaks this downward, amberite strength in canon is plenty dangerous.

Verdict: the game allows Strength to emulate the books, but designer's emphasis is exaggerated


Endurance is the action battery that allows for “holding out” in all types of conflicts. The rules point out that Endurance comes into play in every conflict, whether tangible combat or intangible powers. Endurance is called the ultimate defensive tiebreaker in conflict. Endurance also permits resistance to stress, shock, toxins and supernatural forces.

Endurance allows healing and regeneration from injury and loss of body parts. Amberites need good Endurance to survive the Pattern walk. Common wisdom holds that the Pattern will kill those who do not have sufficient Endurance and the rules support this: the rules hold that Endurance of Chaos rank is not sufficient to walk the Pattern. Chaos ranked Endurance will regenerate missing body parts in a “century or two” by the rules. Nowhere in the chronicles is Chaos Endurance demonstrated to be this poor though various Chaosi burst into flames from simple wounds. Perhaps Chaosi are somewhat unstable? Dara survives the Pattern and is several generations Chaosi but of the line of Benedict. Jurt walks Corwin's Pattern and has (perhaps) Chaosi blood on both sides.

Verdict: the game allows Endurance to emulate the books, but designer's emphasis is exaggerated


Psyche determines ability to manipulate powers, bring force of will to bear, survive adverse Trump contacts, and engage in magical duels. It includes the ability to sense intangible and supernatural forces as well as intuit or detect hidden presence.

Psyche presents the most extrapolated range of abilities compared to the canon text. With the other Attributes, Zelazny shows us actions and consequences we grasp easily. Readers understand the physical skills and possibilities of amberites are beyond normal. But the reader is not familiar with powers like sorcery and Pattern. While Corwin senses intangible disturbances at various points in the tale, he does not spend much time narrating with regards to the powers. There are a few key scenes: Eric attacking Corwin across the Trumps, Corwin defending himself from unwanted Trump calls, Corwin crossing the black road, Corwin initiating the jewel and, of course, the Pattern walks.

Zelazny does not give us additional viewpoints or break from the first person though Merlin’s narrative goes a bit further in describing the practical side of intangible powers.

But the redheaded trio who wield 'advanced powers' in the chronicles do not share their secrets via the narrative. So we see a first-person observer's view of what those secret powers can do. The Amber DRPG rules attempt to parallel the extraordinary feats of the tangible conflicts for such feats in the mental arena.

And this extrapolation had Zelazny’s approval.

So the rules say Psyche talents can sense injuries in others and locate nearby minds though hidden, or hypnotize others, or press contact through magic or Trump for dominance of another individual, or send mental energy through eye contact or touch, or detect the use of powers if they are familiar ones, or intuit danger in the environ, or get extra information from the minds of others in normal Trump connections, or detect lies by careful observation of a speaker or with mental touch identify the true nature of a disguised shaper.

That seems like an amazing list, but many of things from the list happen or are discussed during the chronicles. Eric and Corwin fight across the Trumps for dominance and talk about it in those terms. Three princes are paralyzed by mental effort through magic or Trump at different points in the story. Supernatural beasts recognize Corwin by making contact with his gaze in two places and no overt magic is present.

The chronicles support some of these points directly and allow others to be inferred.
And the rules point out that you can tweak your campaign differently.

Since readers are not expert in Psyche, specific rule suggestions for mental combat are offered. Two conditions are required by the rules: First is mental contact before mental combat. You cannot fight on the mental level without first establishing contact (just as you can seldom use your Strength unless in contact with a target). Contact can be physical flesh-to-flesh, or magical, or Trump. Within arm’s length, eye-to-eye contact will work for expert Psyche users as a special case.

Within certain kinds of psychic shadows, the Psyche connections are much easier to establish than these defaults, just as special shadows might affect other Attributes.

The second rules requirement is a respect for the speed and sequence during combat. We won’t detail the speed and sequence rules here (please see page 95 in the rules for that vital information.) However, Zelazny does show Corwin using several defensive techniques once he is under mental assault or when he suspects it might happen. And there is always Endurance to prolong a contest until something changes in your favor.

Techniques listed for those with Psyche advantage in mental combat are: mind lock paralysis (Eric’s attack on Corwin, Brand’s attack on Benedict, Fiona’s attack on Brand), damage assault (Corwin’s response to Eric’s Trump attack), suggestion (not seen in canon, Corwin says the personalities of shadow folk are not subject to Pattern manipulation), mind rape (supernatural beasts twice get information from Corwin as to his identity) and domination (which Eric says he fears Corwin will do if he loses the Trump attack against Corwin. Merlin also refers to this technique later in the series but magic is involved.)

Loss of battle on the mental front can be deadly (damage assault.) Nowhere in the chronicles is this level of skill shown though the attack form is demonstrated and discussed in passing.

Verdict: the game allows Psyche to expand the books and account for suggestions not seen in narrative, but designer's emphasis is exaggerated

Conflict resolution.

Clarity for attribute conflict can be a problem in a system where characters will surely be using different conflict attributes (in effect trying to use their best attributes) at the same time. The rules point out that ‘phasing’ players in turn and sticking to the sequence of which attributes are faster is essential. Fair choices to each player involved are emphasized.

And remember that even if your Attribute attack succeeds there are no ‘instant wins’ unless the opponent is already helpless or unconscious. That's per the rules as well. Elsewhere in this blog I suggest there are at least three rounds (each Player gets three choices in turn) to resolve any important conflict.

Peruse the web looking at actual games being run. One of the prime tweaks to the basic rules is limiting Psyche so that 'Brand has no chance to ambush Corwin early in the chronicles and win before the story starts.' If all the Psyche options are on the table (so the notion goes) then Brand would have ambushed all the family and won easily. Between Trump access to his opponents and Living Trump teleports, Brand might have been unstoppable.

The first Psyche rule to go is usually eye or flesh contact opportunity.

Does this help verify Zelazny's canon? Well, no.

If you are going to suppose a paranoid Brand coming down from Tir after seeing Corwin kicking Brand's 'grand scheme' to the curb, then you have to think Brand would have planned a way to leverage his Psyche on Corwin by Trump before Corwin knew what was what. Eric tries just this trick on Corwin. If Brand had done the same, end of chronicles.

Except it didn't turn out that way, so what's a GM to do?

The fast answer is throw out Psyche battles completely. Leave magic in and let mental combat drop. Except that the novels obviously have those dramatic mental battles. And as outlined above, they are obviously significant to the royals.

So why didn't Brand win? Why did he make lame shots at Corwin with a crossbow instead of a Trump attack to his brother's mind?

It seems that Psyche is a chancy attack where defense is usually easy. Perhaps there is natural resistance and training to an amberite mind. Add Endurance boosts to the fact that defense is easier than attack and you see why trying this on Corwin might be pointless.

Even if you set aside that Corwin blocks several Trump attempts simply by not picking up the calls. Set aside that putting your hand over a card shuts it off immediately. Set aside that shifting your eyes away or distracting your opponent with physical combat usually ends a Psyche contact.

The one thing the game design keeps that you should never set aside is that you must have mental contact a phase before you can start mental combat. Psyche combat is a two-step process. And what this means is that a physical action can always attempt to interrupt the Psyche combat follow-up (or even in some cases interrupt ongoing Psyche battle with an Attribute switch.)

You slam me with a Trump attack I can't refuse? I put everything into defense and call my Endurance reserves. Why shouldn't siege strategies work for the fortress of the mind? Corwin makes this work with Eric's attack. And then he actually counters and surprises Eric. Defense is traditionally accepted as the more effective form of combat in our history. Taking fortified positions away from defenders usually calls for attacker advantages of from three-to-one to seven-to-one.

I would educate all Psyche players to the above theme. Of course, many shadow cultures will not have mental training. But your peers are likely to be prepared. The Chaosians certainly are.

I take a Trump call that I shouldn't have and you open up a full mental assault getting ready to chew my brain to bits? I throw a knife into you through the very strong connection. Corwin says, "If either of us dared divert our attention for an instant, we could come into physical contact..." When you have Gerard's strength or Corwin's toughness, you can dare to take a blow and get your hands on your mental attacker. Martin escaped Brand through such a deadly contact.

You spell me from the castle roof with a mental connection? Well, magic isn't that easy in Amber. Or I use my own Trump to defend my mind. Or I use Pattern to break your spell. Or I stab myself to shove pain feedback through the mental connection and top your Endurance. Or I scream for help and ruin your subtle attack. Generally magic is line of sight attack and so you put yourself in harm's way by trying spells to gain mind access. But a magical sniper might be effective.

Can we find any canon example where magic or mental attack wins the day? Brand is successful against Benedict, but a trick interferes. Fiona is successful against Brand, but can't finish him. Brand damages Martin badly, but can't finish him. Eric causes Corwin to lose a battle, but can't finish him.

The emphasis is that Psyche combat has to connect, then attack, and so it is vulnerable to all sorts of strategy and interrupt. It is not as sure or fast as a blade or fist, which is pretty much how everyone in the stories reacts. Brand wasn't sure he would win with only his mind. Players shouldn't be either.

Creative Attribute battles are never a sure thing even when the ranks are clear.
Verdict: educate the Players that nothing is decided by one-shot conflict.

[last edit: 05.01.08]

Filed under : Amber at 23.07.2006
J.A. Dettman says...

Yes, Zelazny approved the ADRPG but I think an important question regarding that is: Did Zelazny have the roleplaying background to grok the implications of Wujick's design decisions?

I've heard that Zelazny roleplayed some but what was the timeline? Did he RP before or after the design of ADRPG?

My other comments aside, I liked your assessment. I've been wondering lately whether the tweaks I've made to the ADRPG in the past are because I'm actually seeing a problem or I just like tweaking systems, and this makes me want to play it as written again to find out.

Posted August 18, 2006 6:07 PM
Arref says...

Thanks for the comment!

Lots of folks critique the game play based on the Designers enthusiastic exaggerations. Some people have played with a GM doing system shortcuts or tweaks and then complained that the game play is not like the books.

I think if you stay with what is intended, you really get close to the canon.

Posted August 22, 2006 8:18 PM