NoD #132 — Wizards Diceless

All right, let’s keep going with these Amber notes. Why not, it’s a virtue for the newsletter to be about what I’m currently considering.

My practical Ambering plans

I am in principle prepared to run Amber Diceless whenever the opportunity occurs; I grok the literary material now, and the rules. The game needs both a long campaign arc and a fair number of players (my ideal would be 5–8, which is a challenging number to reach around here) to go anywhere, though, so it naturally slots in the “one day” file.

A particular creative cornerstone of mine about playing Amber-qua-Amber is that my Amber would be a Simulationistic princess play affair. The game has kinda strategy game like PvP stylings to it, but in a vanilla Amber campaign project like this I would interpret those basically as roleplaying aides for a character-focused Sim affair, rather than as a basis for a Gamist wargame. (This is a major interpretation issue for Amber, I think; I believe that you could get a great Gamist game out of it too.) The overall setting, themes and aesthetics of Amber seem like they would be worthwhile to engage in a psychological princess play kind of way, encouraging the players to relate to the game in a relaxed wish-fulfillment kind of way.

However, that’s just the basic vanilla Amber situation. The game’s rules system and structure are quite clever and would suit well for some other types of campaign, too. And that Gam/Sim creative uncertainty surely relates to this; my saying that vanilla Amber would be Sim for me isn’t a guarantee that I wouldn’t use the rules system for a free kriegsspiel type affair in some other project. It has distinct virtues in that context, too.

For example, it occurred to me recently that Amber Diceless would actually be a darn nice rules system for a Masters of the Universe roleplaying game. The franchises share a cosmic science fantasy setting, a fantasy caste society, mythic depiction of violence and adventure, and many other thematic conceits that would make conversion easy and fun. Given my unhealthy fascination with MotU, and the way the Amber system forages in its own particular niche, that’d be such a delightful campaign idea to consider. I’ve recently mostly mulled on doing MotU as an old school D&D campaign, which also works great, but this is also a lens worthy of consideration.

I do have a particular favoured Amber Diceless project that’s been bothering me for years, though, and unlike the vanilla case, I think that the social capital might be more realistically there for it. I’ll jot down a few words about it, why not.

Middle-Earth CCG

The Middle-Earth CCG (known at places and times as Middle-Earth: The Wizards) is a Lord of the Rings CCG from Iron Crown Enterprises, the traditional rpg company that used to do big things with the LotR license back in the ’80s. Their flagship game line was Rolemaster, the rules system of which was used in the Middle-Earth Roleplaying Game (MERP). The game was reasonably successful in the way passionate rpg projects are, flowering into a fairly comprehensive and detailed rpg geek exegesis of the Tolkien Legendarium. You wanna know what level Morgoth (yes, Morgoth) is in kinda D&D-ish terms, or want some rando’s ideas for what lies south of Umbar, MERP is there for you.

The CCG is from the latter days of ICE, when during the ’90s rpg industry crash the company adapted by jumping on the next big thing. They weren’t alone on this, the success of Magic: the Gathering inspired many gamers into that direction. And this was the early days of the CCG thing, too, when not every game was a trivial MtG variant; they used to make these weird, form-stretching, form-breaking, excessively ambitious games back then.

And that’s what the MECCG very much is, a grandiose game of literary bricolage disguised into a strategy game disguised into a CCG. It is, frankly, insane. We used to play it a bit back then, and the sheer vision of the game is astounding, but also, it’s aggravatingly clumsy as a CCG, the form constantly limits player development, and ultimately it’s one of those games that would be so great as a computer strategy game. Just plain printing money if whoever owns the property gets their shit together and creates a computer game version.

The premise of MECCG is that the players each take the role of one of the Istari, the order of wizards sent to Middle-Earth from the blessed lands to engineer the defeat of the Shadow of Mordor. The end of Third Age is quickly approaching, and in these fading days you must choose the moves that most advance the cause, such that when the White Council convenes you have the most victory points (“marshalling points”, gained by marshalling the Middle-Earth personages, factions, magics and whatnot to the cause) and can be said to be the best wizard. Or, find and destroy the One Ring.

The game is a mess that should never have been a CCG of all things, but it’s great how the “cardifying” of literary events produces this system of narrative bricolage that has the potential to amuse the players. If you’ve ever been entertained by a MtG deck having a “story” or “theme”, then this is like that, except times a million. It’s arguably more important for a good MECCG deck to have a coherent theme than to be efficient at winning. You decide during deck-building that your game plan’s going to be to hire up all the hobbits and then go on a robbery tour of all the dragon lairs of Middle-Earth, for example, with your wizard leading the merry crew on adventures. That sort of thing, the possibilities are rather excessive.

The game gets particularly crazy with its expansions, which introduce the ability to play as one of the Nazgul, or the Balrog, or whatever. Be a dragon if you want, there’s a considerate fan expansion for that nowadays. I just reconsidered arguably the most literarily ambitious expansion, The White Hand, and I think it’s hella interesting as just plain Legendarium fanfic. The premise of the expansion is that the Istari are at least as likely to go astray from the cause, forgetting their original mission, as they are to outright be destroyed or co-opted by the Shadow. So it makes total sense to print up “corrupt” versions of each of the Istari, with their own subtly wrong scoring rules, wickedly powerful corrupt magics, and the ability to play both dark and light side faction cards in one deck. So if you ever wondered about what it would have looked like if it was Gandalf instead of Saruman who forgot the way, here’s one thoughtful interpretation.

I imagine it shows how the premise of MECCG has stayed with me over these decades. I love the concept of a high strategy game from the perspective of the wizards; it’s intellectually provocative and, perhaps, surprisingly Tolkienistic: this is a topic that’d deserve its own article, but I think that Lord of the Rings in particular is totally wargaming literature, authored by a person who apparently wasn’t an active gamer (the hobby basically didn’t exist at his time), but who clearly was an armchair general. Tolkien wrote reams and reams of these speculative thrust-counterthrust essays about what Gandalf did and why, and what he could have done and why he didn’t, and so on. Just consider this: why throw the Ring into the sea? Why not? Just plain reading of the Council of Elrond here, there’s plenty of places in the core text of LotR that are nothing more than wargaming exegesis of the given scenario.

Playing it with Amber

The Istari, called Wizards by mortal men, are angelic yet fallible immortal beings sent to guide the people of Middle-Earth in their opposition to the Shadow.

So, I think that Amber Diceless makes a great rules chassis for a free kriegspiel style tabletop rpg campaign that tackles the Wizards premise. The players create/adopt their own Istari, arrive in Middle-Earth around the beginning of the 3rd age (several hundred years before the events of LotR), and then, well, do whatever the heck they think is necessary. This is deep grand strategy wargaming, so it’s not just “do the victory condition”; it is also discovering what the victory condition is, vis a vis your character’s value set. With the said value set drifting perilously as human generations pass and the memory of Aman fades in the nigh-mortal minds of those who were once angels. In the canon four wizards of five failed, and the last was arguably running a total HAL 9000 bug crash sequence by the end of the Third Age, obsessing over hobbits and tobacco culture.

I’ll close with some basic notes about the rules adaptation and some campaign high level campaign notes. Just, insofar as you’re familiar with either Amber or the Legendarium, these might be of some amusement.

The Attribute Ladder

The Istari are Maia, lesser spirits of creation. “Lesser” as in being secondary emanations of the Will of the One, which still in practical terms makes them eternal (existing since before creation) spirit beings capable of adopting form like man dresses in clothes. For Amber Diceless purposes it’s clear to see where this is going: a character is created by distributing a 100 points, part of them in an attribute auction to attain desired tier of might in each of the four attributes of Will (Psyche), Form (Strength), Fire (Endurance) and Cunning (Warfare).

Mortal-25The Second-Born — race of Men — are generally speaking vastly inferior to Maiar in base Attributes. The Mortal Tier represents the capabilities of an average human; put to contest, the average Maia overcomes Man in physical or mental contest effortlessly, without risk and with negligible expense.
Firstborn-10The average Elf is about as mighty as the greatest of Men; not necessarily due to inborn greatness, but time tells. Elves are immortal and sometimes grow much greater, but the average elf is nevertheless clearly inferior to a Maia, who are so much greater for having witnessed and participated in the Song of the Ainur.
Maiar0Maia are Ainur, angelic beings created directly by Eru Ilúvatar’s will in the timeless time before creation. The average Maia is mighty beyond any mortal in simple presence alone; a mere mortal cannot stand against one such. The Ainur are also perfect in the sense that barring events of history, they have no need for further growth.
RankedauctionMost Maiar never grow much beyond their base nature, for it is a good nature and pleasing to Eru as it is. However, those that engage in travails and show unique personality are tested and trialed over time, and this sets them apart. A Ranked Maia is distinctly superior to the baseline. Balrog, for example, are Ranked, growing terrible by the ambitions of their master.
Most GiftedauctionSome few individual Maia are uniquely Gifted in certain aspects, which enables them to perform great feats even above and beyond those possible to Maia in general. Melian and Sauron are examples of Maia who perform beyond the normal limits of their order in the Legendarium.
auctionGifted Maia generally do not have a true opportunity to continue growing in rivalry; to be Ranked is to have peers, after all. But should the opportunity occur, the Gifted can grow somewhat mightier still from the provocation.
Valar+100The greatest of the created beings, who shaped the world to Eru’s design in the past, and are ever more careful about exerting their might in a world ever more complete and unable to stand such primordial strength. A lesser being rising to this order of might, as Sauron ultimately attempts, would surely upset the great design entire. Valar are like polytheistic Greek gods or archangels of Abrahamic myth; only the most Gifted of the Maia meaningfully compare.
AratarauctionTechnically speaking the Valar are separated in two orders themselves, the Greater and the Lesser Valar. There’s probably no game reason to model this mechanically, but this distinction would be born of the respective attribute auction performed by the Valar during creation and the first age of the world. Those who prove Aratar are the ones who would come to set the tenor of the Valar’s wardenship of reality.

A notable real attribute effect that is not as explicit in the Amber cosmology as it is in the Legendarium: when two powers clash, the incidental destruction of their struggle in itself has an effect tier equal to [lesser attribute tier] – [difference in tiers]. For example, when the Valar marched to war against Morgoth (Gifted of Rank by then, having been lessened by his deeds), and Tulkas (Valar tier) wrestled and broke him, the terrible primordial struggle (Gifted tier) rearranged the earth for thousands of miles in all directions.

Character creation procedure

I’m thinking of a more narratively structured character creation procedure than what’s depicted in the rules. Helps set the stage for players who might not be so up to date on their Silmarillion. I’m also thinking of having certain canonical Maia (the canon Istari, Sauron, Melian, whomever) participate in the proceedings as NPC peers, controlled by the GM; would have benefits and disadvantages, certainly.

  1. Thought of Illúvatar, during which the players each choose which of the 16 Valar-to-be (they’re not Valar yet, because they have not chosen to enter Creation yet) their Maia “follow” (are templated after, are intended to be functionaries for). This defines the choir said Maia sings in. Public choice, negotiate away, treat it like choosing character class for all I care. You can pick Melkor here, nothing says you have to follow him in his career path later.
  2. Music of the Ainur, during which the players set their initial attribute bids, all attributes at once. This shows how prominent the individual Maia are in the Singing of the Song, and thus determines their initial social rankings when they descend into Creation.
  3. Premiere Afterparty, where the Ainur mingle and plot each according to their limited understanding of Eru’s will. Opportunity for the players to purchase certain points-worthy advantages, whatever makes sense for a spirit to wield this early. (Foremost in my mind is “Knowing of Heart”, a social relationship towards another one of the Maiar preceding the actual Creation.) This phase ends with the Creation and the choice of the Ainur; those who choose to remain with Eru and not enter the world are out of the game, obviously.
  4. The First Age, where the Ainur form the Creation during a long sequence of events, struggling with Melkor and putting together a living, stable world. Later Elves appear and the events of Silmarillion in general take place. The players do most of their point-buy during this period, including the attribute auctions, which I’m considering making parallel: you bid for any attribute you want at a given time. Each bid signifies a mythic event as your Maia contests and competes with others, growing in the deed; Maia who contest so have a chance to participate in the great mythic events of this long Age. Powers are probably also purchased at this time in the main.
  5. Heren Istarion, the Order of Wizards, is formed by council degree of the Valar in the late 2nd Age. The Valar are now terribly aware of the destruction their terrible might wreaks on Middle-Earth if released, such as happened at the end of the First Age. However, despite the final defeat of Morgoth, it now seems that the Secondborn are going to succumb to the Shadow entirely if nothing is done. The solution is to form a special order of Maiar who will leave Valinor for the mortal realm. Players purchase the favour of individual Valar here to be sponsored to join the Istari.
  6. Arrival in Middle-Earth, where we do the rest of the character point-buy: players can determine their individual time of arrival in Middle-Earth (earlier = more maneuver space, later = less time to become hopelessly corrupted), purchase allies and resources in Middle-Earth (mostly representing stuff that gets activated later in play; you could purchase ownership of Orthanc here, for example, but it’d only fall on your lap later when you travel there), and so on. Any points not expended, or over-expenditure thereof, becomes the character’s “Spiritual Mantle” (Good/Bad Stuff as per Amber Diceless, pretty much).
Actual play process

I’m imagining that the scenario here is played as a rigorous wargame, at the more challengeful or antagonistic end of the continuum of creative possibilities depicted by the base game. Amber has a lot of princess play Simulationism genetics in its game text, but for this project I’m more envisioning a style of play where the players are very concretely playing for win or loss against the Shadow, and to a lesser extent, each other. Less “create the character you always wanted to be”, and more “every attribute is the most important attribute”, to quote this mess of a contradictory rules text.

I think that “objective drift” must be a big part of Wizards Diceless, so it has the same issue as Amber does in managing to sow actual distrust between players. The Istari have it far, far too easy if they can just lean on each other and generally expect the team to play against the GM. I’m thinking that the main way to get some actual uncertainty and competing priority here is that the Valar must send their respective Istari off with secret objective folders: helpful hints and cosmological secrets that massage the individual player’s perspective a bit and encourage them to actually disagree with the other Istari.

As a basic more or less canonical example of how that might go, imagine Radagast coming into Middle-Earth with secret orders/lore/permission/advocacy to Save the Earth in an ecological sense. Valar do not understand the entirety of Eru’s plan, so as far as Yavanna Kementári, the Queen of the Earth, Radagast’s divine sponsor, is concerned, the issue with the way the Secondborn have been going during the 2nd age is that their deeds of industrialization are going to kill the planet. So Radagast hey, that’s the Big Picture on this Istari business: you’re to be on the Earth to Save the Whales.

The mission should also be confused from the other end, by the passage of time. The Istari do not have any real means of “phoning home”, and their mortal coil stunts divine insight in a way that leaves them essentially crippled in some ways; it should be well possible for the Istari to forget or misinterpret or outright abandon their original task as they go. I’ll probably involve something like addiction mechanics (ie. choose between forced action or exhaustion) to reflects such corruption, and I’m toying with the idea of actually reducing points as campaign progresses instead of adding them. But of course the main means of causing mission drift should be encouraging the players themselves to actually and truly forget and misinterpret their task.

Coup de Main in Greyhawk

The game’s open to visitors, newcomers, inexperienced players, cats and dogs. We continue having GM scheduling issues, but the game limps on!

Sunday Basic session #9 is scheduled for Sunday 8.1., starting around 16:00 UTC. Teemu-the-GM reports lingering health issues, but at this writing predicts a game.

Monday Coup for Monday 9.1. is likely canceled (barring a filler GM), as I’ll be visiting an ailing relative that day. Should get back for next week.

And, more actual play reportage, of course:

Coup de Main #91

After last session’s epic TPK, Tuomas again continued with Coup-de-Gnarley. The Knights Temp were in the middle of exploring the Incandescent Grottoes, a couple of sessions in at this point.

Knights Temp awoke to new day and continued their exploration of Incandescent Grottoes. After much discussion they decided to head to 2nd level and explore the corridor leading out of the catacombs there.

The corridor led to natural cavern on the shore of underground river. Very fast flowing and cold river, in middle of it was island built to raise 5 feet above the water level. Rob could barely make out something on the flat island, so Knights started working with ropes to get across the river.

There were leftovers from an old bridge that Rob used to anchor his grappling hook, enabling him to easily get to the island. The things he had spotted proved to be sarcophagi. Rest of the Knights had barely made it across when the stone lids were lifted from the inside and undead monstrosities climbed out and attacked.

The battle was brief and chaotic. Knights were victorious but suffered some wounds. Two sarcophagi had amorphous black humanoid shaped things with swords that exploded in a shover of ooze when slain. The ooze pummeled everyone equally but and minor damage was suffered except young Will who got severely beaten and went down.

Oh Will… he’s the favoured NPC punching bag of fate. Kinda sad that he seems unable to pick up a character class and learn to avoid this stuff.

The leader of the undead was a bloated corpse of a woman in fancy robes who seemed impervious to normal weapons. Thrumhal didn’t take any chances and wrestled her into the river. The rapid water carried her away but not without harm. Merely touching her had made Thrumhal’s skin shrivel and blacken, causing permanent hit point loss.

After the battle first aid was given and luckily young Will was still alive, but in no condition to continue adventuring. Problem was that they were on an island in middle of a river with no easy way to transport wounded Will across.

Knights checked their surroundings and found an intact bridge across the river on the other side of the island. There was an ominous 5 feet wide round white shape in water below the bridge, but it decided to swim away when Gotdorf started throwing rock at it.

The bridge led to shore with a boat parked next to it! Bad thing that the sandy beach also had crystals jutting out of sand, arranged in hexagonal shape. Magnus confirmed that the area had magical aura.

The boat was close to the bridge so you could jump to it directly from the bridge with some luck. Gotdorf felt lucky, tied a security line around his waist and got to work.

Turns out Gotdorf was not lucky, though: after missing the jump and ending up in the river twice, surviving only thanks to the security line, he gave up.

Magnus felt lucky next, and was indeed lucky. He jumped to the boat and deftly maneuvered it to the island and Knights evacuated young Will out of the dungeon. They also took the boat upstairs to get across the pool at the dungeon entrance room.

The passage behind said pool reeked.

Rob started scouting and came to large chamber with a crude stone slab surrounded my smaller stones. On the slab was a still lizardman-like shape, and the whole room had the most offensive smell imaginable. Quick ambush was planned but aborted at the last moment when Thrumhal concluded that the lizardman was already dead.

Rob was soon at the next door where he could hear lively arguing in unknown language.

This time the ambush succeeded, and the surprised lizardmen were cut down before they could do anything. The usual looting and pillaging were interrupted when Knights heard someone retching behind them.

A quick scramble back to ambush position revealed that a middle-aged human woman in pointy hat and robes had followed the Knights over the pool. Gotdorf immediately spotted something odd and wrong about her and warned his fellow thieves with their cant.

Knights started talking with her but couldn’t quite figure the sorceress out. She claimed to be an adventurer named Marjoram, looking for her companion, a warrior woman named Meg. Both Marjoram and Knights were wary of each other but parted ways without incident. They even ferried her over the pool with their boat.

Knights returned to their looting and pillaging and discovered disturbing things. The room the two lizards had been arguing in had a cabinet full of lizardman skulls with writing on them and a mummified baby.

I kinda concluded last summer that the reason we don’t have honest dungeoneering like this might be me. Looking at the distribution of different kinds of adventures now, though, I think it probably was mostly just that I happened to participate in the game during a scenario that happened to encourage strategic maneuver instead of dungeon stuff. The Knights started doing this effective and productive dungeon-rolling stuff after I went back to hiatus, but that’s just a coincidence.

Coup in Sunndi #65

This session was simple enough for whatever reason; I think we did some ancillary campaign maintenance and didn’t advance the actual adventure too much as a result. Also, super-careful complicated positioning in assailing the Temple of the Seven Stars, as per last session.

The adventurers had encountered some demon monkeys that made them wary, and sending the Ranger scouting paid off in the form of discovering a large-ass hole in the outer walls of the temple compound. Furthermore, a guardman reeking of “bandit” (and cheap wine) was sitting around the hole in the wall. The party Monk could confirm that no, the walls do not normally look like they’ve been blasted open by black hats.

The party took it upon themselves to ninja-mosey over to Bebob (this slightly porcine-themed guard-mook) and surprise him, capturing him alive. Bebob was interrogated and being a possibly-wereboar-but-mostly-just-a-loser, he spilled the beans to the party, painting a picture of how the Ticotaco Bandits had been empowered by Master Stigu, their demonic cultivation sponsor. Stigu apparently having issues with the Temple (yeah, he was a former disciple), he’d organized this whole thing to raze the place and probably steal its cultivation secrets. Standard Chinese wu/xianxia fantasy stuff, you could say, except with a weird Teenage Mutant Ninja Lycanthropes flavour.

The big issue for the Ticotacos was that the main hall of the Temple was apparently magically warded (2d6 holy damage to lycanthropes trying to get in!), which had allowed the survivors of the Temple’s disciple corps to fort up in there and wait for rescue. The players would later learn that they’d sent messengers to the outside world, including to some fairly powerful peer organizations, but that werewolves hanging out in the woods had apparently been fairly successful so far about keeping the lid on this “secret siege” that was coming to its fifth week when the adventurers arrived.

After learning what they could from poor Bebob, the party tried to sneak into the main courtyard and thence to the great hall of the Temple, so as to get in touch with the good guys. Probably not much in the way of better moves when it’s already nighttime and you find that you’ve ended up in the middle of a major siege, with enemies behind every corner.

However, the unfortunate reality of the situation was that during night-time, the Tengu (bird lycanthropes) created by master Stigu’s blood magic from weak-minded disciples of the Temple itself celebrated the demonic triumph of in the courtyard, guarding and gnawing at the morale of the remaining Temple defenders. This was the case tonight as well, and a fairly sizable flock assaulted the adventurers when they were in the middle of their sneaking.

The situation was one of those old school D&D “what game balance?” things, with like 8 Tengus, 2 HD each, descending upon the confused adventurers who were operating with a slim crew of four or five men. The fight was furious but short, men going down, obviously desperate. One of the PCs tried to escape into a tower (one of the seven towers prominent in the Temple’s architecture), but got killed futilely pounding the locked door of the abandoned tower. (Seven towers, two with lights out, five with lights; but of course you couldn’t know they were locked without trying them.)

The players were really determined to not give up, though; they played hard, not giving an inch, even as I was myself in total TPK mode already. The two remaining adventurers dragged what bodies they could with them up the stairs to a second tower’s door, and the darn thing was unlocked against the odds, so in they went.

This entire Temple edifice is explicitly modeled on xianxia fantasy patterns, so it’s significant to know that the “Seven Stars” are the seven greatest martial artist cultivators of the temple. Each has their own tower and cultivation specialization and so on, as one does. The Tengu know, and they respect the notion that these veritable sword-saints will make short work of them if they try to assault one of these towers just like that. So understandably there was some hesitation about following the adventurers in there.

The party had some significant extra luck in that not only had the star cultivator (Verdegren I think her name was) whose tower they attacked left the door unlocked, but she also happened to be the stock personality type of “nice fairy”, and the cultivation specialization of “alchemist”, which all amounted to her not taking the situation too badly; she even supplied healing potions that brought one of the adventurers just off the brink of death. So overall, this could have gone much worse if not for some luck in dice and pick-a-tower.

We had to wrap up the session after this, but getting from the tower to the main building wasn’t really a big deal anyway, so we could start preparing for the next session with general exploration of the state of the siege. Because that’s the adventure here: a high fantasy siege of magic kungfu vs demonic lycanthropy. What can the adventurers do to tip the odds?

State of the Productive Facilities

As I mentioned in passing earlier, I’ll be visiting an ailing relative in Helsinki next week, so that’ll probably eat up on the productive time. We’ll see how it goes.