in the Shadow of Greatness


July 5, 2007

IMC :: physics, metaphysics and narrative power in the conflict rules

I had an epiphany today. A lot of folks will get into details or comparisons to earthly or mortal examples when trying to approximate (or simulate) amber feats of prowess.

And when they do, they often do two things that get them in trouble with their player groups at some point.

1. Comparisons to earth-like skills are suggestive and not prescriptive. Yes, the players need to understand what sort of things they can easily accomplish, but the more actions you compare to the mundane, the more 'science' is held up as a yardstick. Physics isn't the same everywhere. Amberites are mythic.
2. Logic and extrapolation is good. However, second-guessing the degree of what's possible is a bias you should try not to lay down on top of the Attribute rank system. The ranking system is the logic you need to support.

Another way of looking at this that might be useful:

Ranks demonstrate the narrative power of the character to remain the empowered protagonist.

IOW, physics be damned. If twenty guys with machine guns burst into the library to kill First Rank warfare PC, the PC may not be able to escape unscathed, but she will survive and take some of those twenty down as she leaves.

That's what you buy with your ranks: narrative power and expertise.

Another weird insight: the rules tell you that First Rank will win this example contest. The canon tells you that the amberite will run away. Twenty armed mortals have huge advantage (multiple wounds per round weapons, don't have to get close to the amberite, surprise, etc.) but those mortals will die by ones and twos over the next few rounds and most rounds to follow. The First Rank will be in amongst them by choice where they will shoot each other as well as injure the First Rank. What appears a lopsided battle of numbers isn't quite; every action of the First Rank will have huge narrative success by comparison to each action by the Twenty Attackers.

IOW, the GM should not apply 'mundane' bias to the Attribute conflict (such as, "No one could survive that, it just isn't logical!") Let the Player describe choices and apply bias. If bad choices accumulate, so does damage. The GM should keep the pressure on and find out how the Player narrates the PC out of that situation—with the GM accounting for the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'.

How much more important Endurance becomes when narrative damage is handed out along with narrative drama. Those wounds are a badge of success—and soak the 'mundane extrapolation' up.

Filed under : Amber, IMC at 05.07.2007
Sol says...

Arref, I'm finding your next to last paragraph strikes me as both brilliant and confused. (The latter may be my confusion rather than yours.)

I think the quick way to summarize my problem here is -- given "the GM should not apply mundane bias", how does the GM recognize "bad choices"?

I mean, I can kind of imagine Simone's blog post in this light -- the hellhounds get her because she choses to attack Julian rather than defend herself. That isn't necessarily a "bad choice", but she does show strong willingness to take (extreme?) damage to try to accomplish her goal.

But in general, how does a GM recognize a choice as bad? If it's simply the player's perception, then doesn't that automatically empower the players who try to get away with murder?

And much as I like the appeal of the notion, it's not clear to me it's a workable game mechanic. How do you determine how the 2nd rank warfare PC does against the 20? The fifth rank? If the person is just Amber rank, do mundane considerations suddenly enter into again?

I want to know, because it feels like you're really hot on the trail of something cool here, but I can't quite see how it would all work yet...

Posted July 5, 2007 5:14 PM
Arref says...

You're very right. I'm not clear. I was a bit excited and went into hyperbole.

How can you recognize 'bad choices'? How does it apply?

Firstly, by setting a logic scale. How 'good' is the average Amber Rank default? How 'much better' is the First Rank? Once you've done this, you've set the 'genre rank range' for action and consequence.

One GM may like amberites swatting mortals like cardboard and another may feel amberites are merely humans maxed-out. Now you share that 'genre rank range' with your players as part of genre expectations. You have a public foundation for what follows.

'Bad choices' is hardly the ideal language. Heroes do things that get themselves hurt. Those wounds are 'success badges' that validate the choice had meaningful consequence. (Hopefully.)

Do I think that First Rank can survive a room full of attackers (20) with machine guns? Well, I don't know how just on paper. The PC is going to have to talk themselves out of that room.

Here's what excites me:
What I'm recognizing is that the PC always chooses how the damage falls out. The GM should avoid choosing if at all possible.

1. First Rank surrenders. That's sensible. No damage. She sneers at her captors. Cool scene.

2. First Rank switches to Psyche, grabs a trump and tries to do the prismatic fade. That sucks. Takes two rounds because first action is activating trump and second is getting hauled out (if someone answers.) How many times will she be shot while dodging behind furniture staring at the card? Bullets pass through most furniture. This will be a wild combat, very visual, maybe she pulls it off and arrives with ten holes in her. Still, it's a cool scene. Endurance matters.

3. First Rank doesn't draw blade, she switches to Strength. Jumps into the body of men. Close quarters martial arts scene. Awesome. Men flying. Guns going off inches away. Bad guys shooting bad guys. Incredible choices every round as the First Rank Warfare actually uses a lesser Attribute to confuse and hamstring the enemy. Yes, First Rank gets shot. More than once. Some total evil bastard shoots his own men to get the First Rank. Damn, cool scene. Maybe an escape here. A chase. Lots of edge of the seat moments.

4. First Rank jumps into body of men and grabs gun away from a bad guy. Even more shooting now. More wounds. All bad guys are freaking because its not pinning a disarmed guy, its a free-for-all with room lights shot out and every shot possibly coming from someone on your side. And you betcha First Rank Warfare is gonna walk out of that room because even shot up, anyone else with a gun is the enemy. Another cool scene.

Your question about 2nd or 5th rank PCs in the same situation is Very Important.

This gets back to Endurance, the 'silent Attribute'.

Your Strength, Warfare, Psyche Attributes are a huge amount about what you dish out and how likely you deflect trouble. It's a question of attack and avoidance.

No matter your rank, you won't avoid damage from a room full of folks with guns. But your rank will say something about how many times you'll pay a price to get out of that scene. How long will it take you to come out on top if you can?

Your Endurance Attribute does better than the other three: it gives you TIME. Every scrape and wound is a tick of the clock and a chance to dish more hurt on your foes.

The PC talks the GM through how they spend that finite TIME. How do the 'bad things' accrue to the PC in the scene? How does the PC accept risk and damage?

I'm still not sure I'm explaining what I'm thinking.

Posted July 5, 2007 10:49 PM
Paul says...

Firstly, by setting a logic scale. How 'good' is the average Amber Rank default? How 'much better' is the First Rank? Once you've done this, you've set the 'genre rank range' for action and consequence.

Are you talking about relative ranks here, or absolute ranks (such as your scale of stats and ranks)? That is to say, is it an absolute or a relative, campaign/scenario based scale?

Posted July 6, 2007 9:36 AM
Arref says...

While I prefer absolute ranking for a few reasons in my play, a relative ranking would work.

I think the answer is "what does the play group want?"

Pulp feel versus Noir versus Zelazny canon versus High Fantasy are all ways I've seen Amber genre done successfully. I think there would be a slightly different ranking for each.

Posted July 6, 2007 10:48 AM
Arref says...

Forget 'mundane bias' as a concept. Here's a better shot at what I was feeling above.

The GM should not preempt the PC's narrative power with mundane scale, but partner with the Player to walk, step by step through knocking down the "opposition/obstacle" with the PC's narrative power.

There is a certainty that the PC can change the situation for the better at some cost.

PC choices determine "fallout" and prices.

Posted July 6, 2007 9:58 PM
Sol says...

Arref, sorry, I got caught up in life and completely forgot about this discussion. I really want to go into this further soon. (I was going to say but I can't now, but Jen just got a phone call, so it may be a while before we leave after all...)

Posted July 8, 2007 12:56 PM
Sol says...

Okay, I'm with you 100% on the PC choosing how the damage falls out. I'd actually say that's a cornerstone of good diceless GMing. (And maybe the "diceless" there is unnecessary.)

My problem with this discussion, though, is that nothing you've said tells you what the PC can actually do -- and it's crucial that the player has a pretty solid notion of what her PC is capable of in order to make an informed decision, and it's crucial for the GM to understand it even better.

If I'm the player going up against 20 guys with machine guns in your scenario, here's a few of the things I want to know if at all possible:

1) If I just surrender, what's likely to happen to me?

2) How am I likely to do against them in combat?

3) How long is a trump likely to take to activate and is there cover?

4) How many bullet wounds am I likely to survive?

It seems to me points 2-4 are heavily dependent on how your attributes rack up -- against the mundanes in #2, against the use of trump in #3, against wounds in #4. And I think this sort of thing has to be defined by the GM... (gotta run now, probably more later)

Posted July 8, 2007 1:22 PM
Arref says...

Your questions are extremely pertinent. And I know plenty (perhaps a majority) of rpg players feel Amber Diceless is BROKEN because that information is hard to come by from the rules.

Pg. 20 includes strong advice about 'Potential of Endurance' that is more prescriptive than info for any other attribute. You could take the same logic and apply it to the other Attributes.

Or you could create ranking tables, as I have, so that any Player can answer the question of "how much can I do?"

But actually, when those questions (just to use yours as example) come up, they are almost always immersive, roleplay questions. And the answers (and each GM is going to have to have those answers) lead to roleplay choices.

And the roleplay choices, lead to damage or not.

One of the funnest parts for me, GMing, is when Players look at the scene and cringe! Then the Player goes ahead and sets their PCs loose to make the choice to get hurt (and save the day, naturally.)

Another way of saying this is: the protagonist is not going to die. However, there are fates worse than death, including getting so trashed by mortals that your cousin laughs his ass off. Failure, and refining the logic of failure (not death, as in many games) is the key.

Looking at your 1 thru 4 that way, almost allows the Player to answer without a GM, especially if you have published range of action/ranks.

1. Your PC's social status will determine how treated when captured. Or are they assassins?
2. Your PC could probably kill/elude any four of them at the same time. What would your approach to winning be?
3. There's almost always concealment, less so cover. Technically, 'cover' stops bullets. Most trump calls activate in proportion to the distance from caller to callee. Two to five minutes is normal: a loooooong time in combat.
4. You've been shot how many times in the past? Well, you hope you could take twice as much damage as that and still be effective.

The choices driving a scene, like "I can't be captured now" or "my Psyche is so good, I'm going to chance the trump" or "with my Strength, I'll jump into them and use them as cover" or "y'know, I heard once from Caine that he got shot nine times and walked out of the fight", are the real flags to narrative power.

Most of my players never ask about "rules, ranks or damage". They do ask about escaping. Pure canon there.

Posted July 8, 2007 7:36 PM
Jvstin says...

Choices driving a scene. I can get behind that.

This works better, though, in a campaign where the GM and players have a chance to build the rapport necessary. With a one-shot, its going to be far more difficult in the short time frame available.

Posted July 8, 2007 8:08 PM
Arref says...

That's true.

My Amber Revised stuff addresses this directly by making the 'attribute rankings' as transparent as Everway does. Basically, refining the notion of 'story value' so narrative empowerment is clearly your attribute value.

And even taking this notion further, applying it to powers, items and multiple threats. The Amber Diceless rules have an example for multiple threat combat, but it is poor because one PC steps up and says, "I'll handle these chumps".

It would be more helpful to diceless GMs to run a 'losing example' of 'ranked PC' against twenty men. Which I think is part of Sol's point above.

Posted July 8, 2007 9:25 PM
Sol says...

I guess a big part of my problem here is that if this idea requires a full, detailed explanation of how the rankings work relative to each other (like your Amber Revised), then I don't really see what's novel about this idea, other than the way you're expressing it.

Does that make sense? I guess I'm trying to figure out whether the GM is really "not applying mundane bias" to the conflict, or if it's just a matter of checking a chart to see how many mundanes someone with this rank warfare can take out.

I think I'm very confused...

Posted July 8, 2007 11:26 PM
Arref says...

Well, we are trying to cover a lot of ground. Maybe we should be on a forum board with this. The back and forth might be easier.

My expression of the idea might be the only novel thing. I'm thinking of this as a 'Monarda Law' for Amber drama. GM says, "yes, but..." to the Players in conflicts to reinforce their narrative power.

Try it this way: mundane bias is distant last consideration with ranked PCs. The ranked conflicts need charts. It is Very Rare that un-ranked opponents in any numbers will defeat ranked opponents, it is more a matter of story choices, properly supplied by the Player.

Depending on story, Ranked PCs can take out huge numbers of mundanes to the limit of Endurance and damage accrued.

In no Amber game I've played—would 20 guys with bows, swords or guns really be a 20x threat against Ranked PCs. It might be a 'grinder scene' with lots of damage, but the PC choices would actually determine the outcome more than paper ranks.

Posted July 9, 2007 9:03 AM
Sol says...

I think your last two paragraphs come close to the problem I'm having here.

"To the limit of Endurance and damage accrued" -- ie Endurance and Warfare, moderated by story. We're right back where we started.

"PC choices would actually determine the outcome more than paper ranks" -- I think this is my big stumbling point. Obviously PC choice will make a big difference in what happens. But it seems to me the ranks play a crucial role in determining what happens when the choices are made -- and the player's understanding of how the ranks empower the PC is crucial to making the choices.

Does that make sense? Taking your example of 20 gunmen versus one unarmed PC -- if I say my PC is charging into the fray and grabbing a gun, you cannot tell me how well my PC will come out of it until you have looked at my Warfare and Endurance. My choice determines where the scene is going, but the ranks determine how it is going. Both components are key to understanding the scene. And of course, whether or not I choose that course of action depends on how well I think my PC can do in combat against 20 armed guys.

It is true that clever player choices can frequently bypass attribute conflict -- but that's dodging the question. (And of course a lot of the choices will depend on relative ranks too!)

This all is especially interesting to me because I'm trying to figure out how to balance "Yes, but" with dramatic combat sequences in my Star Wars game...

Posted July 9, 2007 2:13 PM
Simone says...

Just a side note on this very cool discussion:

The phrase "grinder scene" really needs to be used more.

Posted July 9, 2007 3:21 PM
Arref says...

Mmm. Star Wars. Tempting. Well, I'll stick with Amber for now.

I give you the first objection: yes, the GM needs to understand the mechanical framework. Endurance and damage accrued has to be logical. You need something on paper there. Step by step. But is that actually the focus of the process?

The second notion is the fascinating part to me: PC choices more than ranks.

Twenty armed mortals charge into a room with a Ranked PC. It matters the PC is ranked and they are not, but let's say the PC is mid-ranked or 3x the Amber rank in every Attribute.

On paper, this looks like a cliche 'GM overkill' and many Players would roll eyes at the ceiling and say, "My PC surrenders."

So, try this radical idea. Part of what I'm thinking is that while ranks, mortal competency, mundane logic says this scene is fait accompli, while Amber Diceless rules probably rate this a done deal, and my house rules rate this a done deal, it isn't.

It's a cool scene of potential narrative power. As GMs, we should encourage the cool scene.

My bad, here's where I haven't communicated the kernel idea yet:

"you cannot tell me how well my PC will come out of it until you have looked at my Warfare and Endurance"

1. GM cannot tell 'how you come out' period and should not
2. GM can 'guess' based on PC background/Attributes
3. PC chooses 'go/no go'
4. PC describes "step one conflict"
5. GM describes "consequence one"
6. PC "step two"
7. GM "consequence two"

OK, big idea now, this example isn't:
3xPC versus 20x mortals

I think it is:
3xPC in twenty simultaneous .5x fights

Who is gonna win (maybe)?
The protagonist
Gonna find a way to avoid as much damage as possible while knocking off the attackers one by one.

Is there any doubt that 3xPC can beat .5x mortal (almost despite weapon or advantage or chart reference?)

Repeat twenty times and don't let the GM catch you with your pants down. That's why I'm saying some of these conflicts don't need a chart. I just need the PC to choose momentum and avoid 'bad choice'.

I'm not exactly dismissing ranks, I'm elevating 'good narrative' when the odds are so in favor of the PC competence that ranks are only for 'oops'!

Posted July 9, 2007 5:03 PM
Arref says...

Simone, can I quote you on that?

Posted July 9, 2007 7:18 PM
Sol says...

I was going to go around in another circle, but I'm starting to suspect we're just talking past each other, because I agree 1000% with "some of these conflicts don't need a chart." In fact, I'd say this is why Amber Diceless works so well despite not defining "the chart" in any meaningful way.

I'd go a step further and say much (most?) of the time it is to the player's advantage to arrange things so that "the chart" is never needed. Any time you can keep the GM from worrying about your ranks you will be better off.

At it's heart, it seems to me you're just observing that the normal action / consequence resolution system doesn't stop when the fight starts.

Posted July 9, 2007 8:30 PM
Arref says...


Any time you can keep the GM from worrying about your ranks you will be better off.

See, that should be a diceless kata. Maybe it is. Well said.

Likewise, any time the GM can get Your combat choices without you worrying about your ranks, you will be better off.

I guess we are talking the same thing.

Conflict becomes a long grinder when the ranks are closer. Are two 2xRanks better than a 3xRank in a face off? Some of the same principles apply, but must be watched more closely across each round of accrual.

Coordinated attacks are not simply additive.

Posted July 9, 2007 10:51 PM
Sol says...

Actually, I mildly disagree about getting combat choices without worrying about your ranks -- I think having a clear idea what you are capable of in combat helps you make choices.

And I disagree about coordinated attacks being additive -- I think they are to some degree. On the simplest level, with our one versus twenty, if the one is standing in the open trying to pick off the twenty one-by-one, he's effectively being attacked by all twenty while only attacking one. That is a drastically different situation than facing a sequence of twenty guys one-on-one.

My point was just that the player's best strategy is to figure out how to minimize this effect. Figuring out how to keep all twenty from effectively attacking you while you whittle down their numbers is the key to success here. (Well, a key to success -- figuring out how to avoid the combat altogether would be even better!)

Posted July 10, 2007 7:44 AM
Arref says...

Coordinated attacks are additive in damage and spending Endurance and time by defender. They don't combine offense unless there is elite group training of some kind. I only meant they are not 'simply additive'. That's a rule I see a lot of GM's struggle with.

How do you usually work the 'additive factor' in your games?

Agree completely that the focus is 'minimize all twenty' potential hits while attacking one. So for example, "all out attack" or "all defense" would be a bad choices. Using the numbers against you as obstacles is key.

Star Wars' Jedi have something of that same feat.

Posted July 10, 2007 8:06 AM
Sol says...

Honestly? Running Amber, I just fudge the "additive factor" and rely on the players' desire to maximize their chances by not fighting one on many to keep me from needing to make tough calls. (Remember, too, it's been about a decade since I had a regular Amber game to run.)

For Dashing Blades of Amber the system is to sum two raised to the power of the stat (with the stat range being 1 to 5 normally). So one Combat 3 character is equal to two Combat 2 characters. That gets a little crazy at the edges, but seems to work pretty well in practice.

The Star Wars rules I'm using scale the stats to roughly d20 equivalent, and the rule for a group of people is that you take the highest warfare from the group, and then add the helping bonus (if applicable) for each other character (+1 for Warfare 15-17, +2 for Warfare 18-20, etc). But I realized a couple of months ago that this system is completely broken -- by the way the rules are written, one character with Warfare 11 can take out an infinite number of characters with Warfare 10! That's just wrong, and I'm trying to figure out a graceful way to fix it -- maybe add +1 for any character Warfare 8-14, then +2 for 15-17, etc?

Posted July 10, 2007 10:19 AM
Simone says...

I've long used bell-curve-shaped stats (3 or 4 d6 for example) for making out the character-build cost for diceless resolution systems. It also is useful in helping players picture what are "normal" and what are "protagonist" levels of skill. In resolving conflicts, I can then ask myself "how much did that stat _cost_ the player(s) involved?" It's another part of the comparison. Things like "guns guns guns" add a fixed amount to the cost, rather than a scaling amount -- hence why guns are disproportionately equalizing :-)

I can explain in more detail if that's not clear...

Posted July 12, 2007 11:34 PM
Arref says...

I understand the 'guns fixed add' but I'm not sure I follow the "players' picture" you create, though it sounds like the same thing I do with my 'ladder ranks'. Could you talk about the curve and how it is a visual aid?

Posted July 13, 2007 8:22 AM
Simone says...

Let's say you know that other people's abilities lie on a bell curve, and you know the shape of that curve. If the average Joe 7-11 clerk is a low average (say a 9, 10 or 11 on 3d6) in just about anything, you can also picture what it means to be in a smaller and smaller subset better than or worse than that. That the top and bottom ends represent vanishingly small portions of the population helps players visualize what that means. So, I know only... 50 people in the whole world are Olympic gold-medal level weight-lift champions. I'm there (18) or above there (super-human) or kinda halfway there (15) like a lot more people but still a relatively small proportion of the population. I can also picture how many people are better than me and how many are not as good as me.

As GM I could apply the curve to any subset of the population that are the PCs' peers. Note that while I don't think this would work well for Amber, in the Amber example the curve might extend from Human to... Bleys, with the current "zero Amber rank" being the middle and Benedict being an outlier.

Does that explain what you were asking?

Posted July 13, 2007 12:29 PM
Arref says...

Right. Thanks!

Posted July 13, 2007 12:50 PM