Stop – Amber Time!

On with the gamer hat. Not only that, but the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game gamer hat. How’s _that_ for narrowing one’s audience?

It’s been a couple weeks since Jim Henley raised the issue at “The 20′ By 20′ Room”: of “the problem of time in Amber gaming”: His most recent experience with Amber is “my Amber game”:, which is currently on hiatus — as a GM, I needed a break from the complexities and stresses of running an Amber game, some of which rose directly from the sort of timing problems that Jim describes. I’d like to say that I’ve spent the past several days mulling over this issue carefully, but all I’ve really been doing is _trying_ to mull, which has amounted to periodic bursts of “Time in Amber. Hmm. Yep. Still a problem.” I told myself I wouldn’t write any sort of response unless I had an actual _solution_, and in that I am only halfway successful, since I have a solution to offer, though one that’s spur-of-the-moment and quite possibly unworkable.

(I won’t be splicing in quotes from Jim’s essay, so if you’re still along for this ride, go read it and then come back.)

Last part first. As an addendum Jim describes what to my mind is a bigger problem than that of timeflow: the way that spotlight time gets divided into near-nothingness when you have 5-6 players plus a GM for a mere three hours of gaming. One germinal solution he offers is rewarding group play with experience points. In general, I think rewarding players with points — in other words, out and out bribery — is a good way to encourage harmonious play. In Amber, even the most dedicated narrativist will have a hard time turning down that extra point that will give her second rank in Psyche.

A tangent: in my Amber campaign before this one, we eventually dispensed of numbers altogether to the point where no one even bothered to bring rulebooks or character sheets to game night, because they weren’t needed. I was happy about this at the time, but after that, in Mike Jacobs’ game, I rediscovered as a player the value that a point-based game can have in encouraging campaign contributions. The prospect of additional character points was more than enough, for example, to inspire me to write a touch of “mediocre game fiction”: for that campaign. When I started my current campaign, the on-hiatus one, I followed Mike’s lead and used points extensively, including a detailed “partial powers system”: Players got one point for showing up for a session, plus additional ones for campaign contributions and for metagame tasks like tracking spotlight time and jotting down memorable quotes. From my perspective, it’s worked very well.

So generally speaking, I like the idea of a point reward system. But how could we use it to tackle the thornier problem of timeflow? Jim is quite right that the natural actions of Amber players tend to favor the short-term actor, thus shrinking the time horizon and introducing all sorts of unlikelihoods and difficulties. But we can easily imagine an Ideal Amber Game where these problems never come up. In our ideal game, all the players engage in the same relative amounts of different types of spotlight time: short-term conversations with NPCs, middle-term activities like traveling through Shadow, and long-term ones like raising armies or instigating revolutions. Our ideal players aren’t necessarily all moving in the same type of time at the _same_ time, but, conveniently enough, they only choose to interact with other PCs when they’re both at the same place, chronologically speaking. In the ideal game, everything balances out in an intricate, chronometric pattern.

This will never happen in real life, of course, but the difference between the reality and something acceptably close to the ideal is often just a matter of one or two character choices. If an incentive (i.e. a point bribe) could nudge those players in the right (i.e. harmonious) direction, a lot of those timing problems might just resolve themselves.

Let’s take an example. A player (let’s call him Greg) is at a point where he can choose whether to spend the next ten minutes of spotlight time in a one-on-one conversation with an NPC, or raising an army over the next several days and weeks. Greg’s character, Caitlin, is a few days behind the bulk of the PCs in the timeline, and we know that Mike’s character, Alexandria is hoping to trump her to ask an important favor. Clearly, the army-raising would be the preferable course of action from the perspective of group timing. But unless Greg is unusually sensitive to group dynamics, there’s no particular reason why he would favor that option. Maybe he’s like Jim and generally prefers to spend his time engaging in nuanced conversations with NPCs, so all else being equal he’d choose that route.

If Greg could score a character point (or fraction of a point, depending on the scale of the game) by making the harmonious choice, it might be enough to tip the scales, and even make him happy to make the “right” decision. So then the question becomes: where does that point come from? At first I thought this was an idea-killer, since the path of the GM handing out ad-hoc bonus points is riddled with pitfalls. But then it hit me:

It’s your fellow players that hand out the points. The GM stays out of it. In our example, Mike could bribe Greg to take the course of action he preferred. After coming up with this idea I realized it probably owes something to Topos, “Ed Heil’s”: storytelling game, in the way it uses player buying power to create consensus.

Two considerations: where do the players get these points, and what exactly can they spend them on? For the first, I don’t think many players would want to give up their own experience points to another player just to encourage them down a particular path. But what if every second (or third or fourth, adjust as desired) character point you receive is instead a bribery point (needs a better name) that is useless to you but allows you to grant a character point (or fraction of a point, see above, yada yada) to somebody else. As for the second consideration — this is where I see this idea potentially falling apart. At first glance it seems like you could use them for all sorts of things, like getting someone to join your character for a scene or two, or encouraging them to spend their spotlight time in a particular way. But could you use them to encourage _any_ sort of behavior from another player or character? And if not, where do you draw the line? It is here that I punt.

Incidentally, Jim favors 6+ players in an Amber game, and is “a bit baffled”: that anyone could play it with the intimate group sizes that would tend to solve spotlight and timing questions by themselves. I tend to agree, though when you get up to six or seven players plus a GM, I can’t see a way around the problems with spotlight time. Maybe a side perk of player-player bribes is that they provide another reason to stay engaged during other players’ turns. But that is admittedly only a partial fix; barring a pair of telepaths to run things, I’d say the ideal size for an Amber group is 4-5 players plus a GM.