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Playing Dice With The Universe

Amber: The Oblivion

by Bill Kte'pi
Aug 12,2004

 

Playing Dice With The Universe

Amber: The Oblivion

The summer of Farewell to the World of Darkness continues!

The title's going to make the premise of the column obvious to some of you. This is something I've been meaning to do for a long time, and was in the hopper when I wrote Suite101's horror gaming column several years ago, but I stopped sending them columns when they stopped sending me money.

I've always wanted to combine Wraith: the Oblivion and the Amber setting, which seems ridiculous in a way but always sounded cool, too -- and "ridiculous and cool" is one of my favorite combinations after "tequila and lime" and "chicken wing and Tabasco sauce." It isn't meant to be rigidly faithful either to Amber canon or Wraith canon, so there's no point in getting upset if you find your ideas of how one thing or another works aren't reflected here. Just hang back, Cap'n, cause we'll probably talk about both games again some other time, in a more canon-faithful sort of way.

And as for how much this has to do with religion, as such -- well, not a lot as far as religious institutions go, but I'm subsuming into my topic a certain amount of things that deal with religious concepts like the afterlife. So there.


Background: Amber

If you're a fan, everything below will be oversimplification.

I mentioned in passing last month that the Amber Diceless roleplaying game was one of the ones which most grabbed me, most got my attention. The game, published by Phage Press (and recently picked up by Guardians of Order, although I'm not sure if they're publishing the original game or a new one), is based on a series of multiverse-spanning fantasy novels by Roger Zelazny, beginning with Nine Princes in Amber and the four books that follow (the Corwin books), and then skipping ahead a generation to Trumps of Doom and the four books that follow it (the Merlin books). The $20 trade paperback collecting all ten novels is well worth the price; unfortunately it doesn't include the handful of short stories that came later, but a recent small-press hardcover does.

The Amber series revolves largely around the royal family of Amber, the one true city of which all other worlds are only shadows by virtue of its Pattern, inscribed by King Oberon, the absent-or-maybe-dead father of the first series' pro- and antagonists; the second series fleshes out the Courts of Chaos, at the other end of the universe, as well as attributing to the Pattern and the Logrus (its nearest analogue in Chaos) at least limited sentience, desire, and powers of manipulation. Many fans of the original series, and especially fans who play the game, don't like the second series and leave it out of their canon. I've always been biased in favor of it, partly because Trumps of Doom was the first of the novels I read, without realizing (until starting the book) there was a series which preceded it.

Whatever your canon, the games traditionally involve intrigue: the royal family is immortal, or damn near close, and PCs are usually distant members of it, either drawn into the game as pawns by elder uncles and aunts, or working the game themselves. Those who are of royal blood, the blood of Amber, may -- after walking the Pattern -- travel from shadow to shadow (alternate worlds, such as our own Earth), and may learn to manipulate the stuff of shadow itself (usually less flashily than in, say, The Matrix -- but for essentially the same reason, an underlying ability to recognize and reconfigure the base unreality of the world).


Background: Wraith

The first of the World of Darkness games to meet its end, and the most difficult to read thanks to its frequent use of light text on dark backgrounds, Wraith: the Oblivion was also the angstiest of the games, especially in its first edition: after all, the characters are all dead, and it's all downhill from there. While the other games had focused largely on shadow societies and grey wars -- supernatural folks who blended into mainstream society, or at least coexisted with it -- Wraith created a geographically distinct setting, the Underworld, which includes the Shadowlands -- the afterlife's dim reflection of the living world.

Not everyone who dies becomes a Wraith: most don't, most simply disappear entirely or are quickly consumed by Reapers after their death. The Underworld isn't the Land of the Dead so much as it's a land of some of the dead.

In death, the first edition Wraith book tells us, "all that is feared, hated, suppressed, and denied takes on a sentience of its own": the Shadow. Every Restless dead has a Shadow, a self-aware force, or split personality of you like, which seeks its end: the trick to Wraith, and maybe the most divisive thing about the game, is that each PC's Shadow is played by a different player (John plays Grim and Grey's Shadow; Jack plays Grey and Greg's Shadow; Jim plays Greg and Grim's Shadow), so that everyone has two "characters," and no one fully has control.

If you're a fan, everything above was oversimplification.


Amber: The Oblivion

So let's toss them together and talk about where Amberites go when they die. I'm going to try to avoid spoiling things from the books that don't need to be spoiled, but that isn't entirely possible.

The Pattern has cast its reflection above, into Tir-na Nog'th, and below, into Rebma; this isn't news. Its unseen light casts rippling shadows of Amber and all within it, and these shadows form the worlds of most mortal experience and the outlying lands beyond the sea and forest which border Amber's city; this isn't news either.

It exerts itself on the universe in one other way: not as light, not in reflection, but in its gravity: in the impact it has on the postlife experience of its bearers.

Is there an afterlife? In the right shadow, Mars is Heaven and Ragnarok's a discotheque. No one knows what happens to the dead if they don't come back, because the only living souls qualified to find out can't get there: when Amberites die, when one who has walked the Pattern perishes, they go to a place we'll call Oblivion because no one's called it anything else yet. No one's confident enough that naming wouldn't have some kind of power, and that power wouldn't bear some kind of responsibility, some kind of burden: parents name children, and sorcerers their vassals, but naming the kingdom at the other end of death could be asking for the wrong kind of trouble.

When an Amberite dies, some part of them goes on, some part of them that's become stuck to the Pattern, trapped in its orbit. This is where some Pattern ghosts return from. This is where the past gets left. This is where the universe ends: at one end of Oblivion is something like the Pattern: unbroken but indistinct, like a blurry photo-negative or a bas relief, a smeared fingerprint left on a smudgy window. At the other end is the Abyss, and the universe of the living and dead connects neatly in a circle.

This is as much a bank, a library, a museum, an arsenal, as it is a heaven or hell.

This is where the blood of Amber goes until the Pattern needs it.

Unlike WtO's setting, the Oblivion gives you no access to the skinlands. There may not be any way for dead Amberites to contact, interact with, or even see the living, and no part of this world intersects with living Amber or its shadows. It looks like the city of Amber -- an anachronistic, historically mismatched city of Amber which might be made of memories and might not, with this room here looking as it did centuries before that building there was anything more than pasture, and doors leading straight off into empty air because what's behind them doesn't exist "yet."

It looks like a ghost town, because for all their intrigues, for all their sexual misadventures and flocks of bastards, there just aren't many dead Amberites (unless you set this sometime after canon, and something nasty's gone on).

A dead Amberite arrives in the Oblivion with their memories intact up until the moment they last began walking the Pattern (which for many may also be the first time they walked it) -- although they'll think they have a hazy memory of completing that walk, they'll be unable to provide details if pressed. Physically, they will appear as they remember appearing. They may or may not remember being dead, but aren't likely to feel surprised if someone points it out to them; on some level, they know.

Their powers of sorcery and other base magics will be intact, but will be confined to this "world" -- no ability which must depend on contact with other shadows to function will do so, but some abilities (conjuring an apple from shadow, say) may be "emulated" by the environment for reasons unknown. The Oblivion is nearly as immutable as Amber itself: anywhere except in the Abyss, which is like slow, heavy, sticky shadow in terms of its response to Pattern use, the stuff of the Oblivion reacts so slowly that it takes years to enact even small changes -- long enough that many of the dead may not realize it's even possible, although they will comment that attempts feel different than they do in Amber.

From time to time, because it wants to, the Pattern will rip one of the dead Amberites out of the Oblivion and force them into the living world, at a place of its choosing: the process is traumatic enough that it temporarily blocks the individual's memories of death, and they will probably forget that they were ever dead to begin with, much less where they went afterwards.

Beyond that, everything else is up to you.


Who gets in?

Certainly some answers seem clear: any Amberites who are definitely dead would come here (so that'd be Bucky and Uncle Ben, then), and a campaign using the Oblivion is probably best served by erring on the side of dead for the characters who are only mostly or maybe dead in other campaigns. Finndo, Osric, guys like that: they're dead and they're here. You can fill the rest of the city -- to the extent it's filled at all -- quite quickly with third-generation Amberites, although I would suggest a healthy dose of elders from Oberon's earlier lines (maybe he discovered soon on that having children with women from certain fast-time shadows yielded particularly short-lived offspring).

But what about the others?

Is it only Amberites who have walked the Pattern who come to the Oblivion when they die, or might those of the blood of Amber who die without having come into contact with the Pattern do so as well? If the latter, how are they different? Are they immune to the Pattern's use of them as ghosts? How many of them are there? If the answer isn't "a whole damn lot," Amberites aren't especially fecund.

Imagine a shadow in which Oberon tarried while exploring the far fringes of shadow, the ones least like the norm (the fact that the majority of the characters we encounter are human-like, and that the majority of the ones who aren't are called demons, implies a norm -- if not in the universe itself, then in the universe as it is favored by Amber). Imagine a human-like race which raised fierce, loyal, intelligent warriors. Imagine such a race developing in a particularly harsh environment, or one with many predators (perhaps another tool-using species, extinct or extant) -- and favoring very large multiple births (you'd call them litters if you were talking about dogs) as a result, to compensate for insanely high infant mortality rates.

Imagine the centuplets born to a warrior queen from such a shadow, fathered by Oberon or one of his sons: their Amberite blood keeping them too strong to die as quickly as they were expected to, but all hundred of them eventually perishing, one by one, because without the Pattern life eventually used them up at the end of an unnaturally long life.

Might the Pattern not find a use for such creatures? Might it not be carried sufficiently in the blood for it to call the dead of its children to it?


Walking the Oblivion Pattern

What if the centuplets walked the Oblivion Pattern? Can it be walked? It isn't broken, so the question is really more whether it will let itself be walked. Intuition and canon suggest it will: the Pattern wants Pattern-walkers. But what would walking the Oblivion Pattern yield you?

Could you leave?

Are there shadows of Oblivion -- intersecting not with the living world, but either with other afterlives, the afterlives of shadow ... or simply endless variations on the small ghost city and its handful of inhabitants?


Haunting

Amberites are good at being really, really determined about stuff. Although Amber Diceless gives Endurance as a stat, making Corwin its paragon, he's really the poster boy for Stubbornness, and Brand bid pretty high on it, too.

Even the dead ones are going to try to be sneaky.

So how might they try to break out of the confines of the Oblivion, to one extent or another?

There's Pattern, of course: sure, straight-up regular Pattern abilities don't open any doors in the Oblivion, but what about Advanced or Exalted Pattern? What if the Unicorn hadn't fished the Jewel of Judgment out of the Abyss, and it wound up here -- couldn't an Amberite make a new Pattern right here in the deadlands? Or bargain with the extant Pattern for some sort of special access, special privileges, in return for not doing so? Isn't that a large part of why the Unicorn rescued the Jewel to begin with -- because of the danger it would represent if it passed through the Abyss?

Maybe not; maybe none of that would work. What about Trump, the family ability (which might not be limited to family) to inscribe images of people, places, and things that allow for telepathic communication between the bearer and the subject of the image, or two-way transportation from one to the other? What prevents the usage of Trump beyond the Oblivion's borders -- and can it be circumvented? Can Trump be used within the Oblivion -- to contact another dead Amberite, or travel in and out of the rim of the Abyss? Can Trump be used at least to communicate with living Amberites? Can a very powerful living Trump user contact a dead Amberite using her Trump?

What about Pattern ghosts? They can live on the blood of Amberites even once the Pattern is done with them; could a dead Amberite somehow force the process of becoming a Pattern ghost, and then come and go as he pleased, learning to preserve his memory (the loss of which might not be a necessary result of ghosthood but simply arranged for the Pattern's convenience)? There are Pattern ghosts of Amberites who aren't dead, after all -- are there important differences between the two?


Shadows and Thorns

In WtO, every player has two characters, their own PC and another PC's Shadow. "Shadow" is a word with another meaning in Amber ...

... but what if they were the same?

What if one of the best kept secrets in Amber is that very, very near Shadows of Amberites -- the living, breathing reflections of the immortals -- are such near replicas that they possess a stunted capacity for Pattern? They can't travel more than a shadow or two, when conditions are right, and their control is shitty -- but the Pattern can use them.

What if, in the Oblivion, separate room isn't made for them? And every dead Amberite meets his closest Shadow, his doppelganger who by virtue of sympathetic magic and unerring similarity died precisely when he did? Two minds, two spirits, now inhabiting the same Pattern-spun body.

Or what if Pattern ghosts are Xeroxes? What if the dead Amberites are being kept in storage in the Oblivion not to be ripped through it and ghosted into the living world to suit the Pattern's needs, but as master copies from which poorer, temporary-use copies can be made? Standardized Finndos and Osrics against which all others will be compared.

It goes without saying that the idea here would be to take the WtO idea of multiple characters and players, and assign additional Pattern ghosts or Shadow personalities: Jim plays Finndo and Osric's Shadow, Jeb plays Osric and Benedict's second Pattern Ghost, Jub Jub plays Benedict and Finndo's Shadow.


Fetters

In WtO, the dead depend on and are vulnerable through physical objects left behind in the living world: things which were important to them and upon which they imprinted themselves because of strong emotional attachment.

In the Amber books, Amberite cults are briefly mentioned: we're given very few details (speculating further would make a good column sometime), but they involve shrines dedicated to specific Amberites, and devotion practiced by non-Amberites. Devotion to such a cult does not necessarily involve respect for the person of that cult's object: one who is devoted to Benedict might not hesitate to go into war against Benedict, if it's the idea of Benedict which is more important than the actuality of him.

However you want the cults to work in the living world, they might easily be used like fetters are in WtO: to provide a tie to the living world. Perhaps a certain amount of energy may be drawn through these shrines -- or spells cast in its presence -- or even physical objects.

It would have to go both ways: the Amberite may be compelled to materialize as a Pattern ghost at his shrine, either at the command of its builder or when the shrine is sufficiently imperiled (preferably the latter, I think, or the cult becomes less of a cult and more of a device).


The Abyss

Although the actual shape of it isn't clear and might not be static, the Abyss has two ends: one in the living world, beyond the Courts of Chaos where entropy has becomes so unchecked that the universe simply unravels off into tatters and innuendo; and one in the Oblivion. Those who enter at the living end wind up in the Oblivion end ... apparently. Since the only two people to do so -- Brand and Deirdre -- were Amberites, and dying would bring them here anyway, it isn't entirely clear if they made the trip or only died. But unlike most of the dead, their memories seem to be intact and gapless.

No one seems sure if the Abyss is two-way: whether an Amberite could travel from the Oblivion to the land of the living through the Abyss, and whether they would emerge as Pattern ghost or whole. Anyone you ask will tell you it can be done -- because they want you to be the one to try.


The Hall of Mirrors

The Amber short story "Hall of Mirrors" introduces a hall in Castle Amber which appears only occasionally, and not always in the same place: travel through it shows the traveler reflections not of himself, but of other individuals, who are not quite Pattern ghosts, it seems, but are not entirely (or at least not exclusively) themselves, either -- as though they're more recently made copies than Pattern ghosts are.

Might there be a way for dead Amberites to use the Hall as an egress from the Oblivion? The same short story suggests, through one of its characters, that the Castle itself is coming to life, and is a player in the game -- that the Hall is one of its limbs, so to speak, something it can use to manipulate the way we use hands and the way it can't use its other more static chambers. What would the Castle want? Is it playing against (or alongside) the Pattern, or is it one of the Pattern's pieces? If the former, are the Hall's reflections entities like Pattern ghosts which are created to serve the Castle's purposes?

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