Amber Diceless Roleplaying
When Amber: Diceless Roleplaying first appeared, it virtually created a new genre of table-top roleplaying. The innovation was that the system be deterministic rather than random, and it's a feature that still seems confined to this game.
The game setting is that of Roger Zelazny's Amber universe (primarily the first five books Nine Princes In Amber, The Guns Of Avalon, Sign Of The Unicorn, The Hand Of Oberon and The Courts Of Chaos; the majority of extensions from the second series are in the supplement Shadow Knight). For those not familiar with the series, the rundown is that there's one real place - Amber - and that all other places are "Shadows" of this one true reality. The Amber royal family have the ability to travel through Shadow and find anything they desire; they also have some nifty powers such as rapid healing and regeneration, immortality (or at least vastly extended lifespans), superhuman strength, and other powers. The catch is that they all hate each other and constantly scheme against each other. It's a great series - certainly the first five books - and I heartily recommend it... but this is not a review of Zelazny's world, but rather Phage Press' adaption of same.
Character generation immediately captures the scheming competitiveness of the Amberites. By the time your characters are generated, you'll have (at the very least) rivals if not actual enemies among the other PCs. The way this is accomplished is by using a points based system - but with a twist. Rather than simply select the number of points to assign to attributes, the players bid against each other. So let's say that player A wants to be the best swordsman, but so does player B. Those two will bid against each other for the highest value of Warfare, and no matter which one wins you can bet the one who came second holds a grudge.
As I've said, this system captures the rivalry of the books well, but it is not without its faults. The main problem is that in actual play the attributes (there are 4) are not of equal value. Psyche and Warfare get a lot of use, Strength and Endurance do not. Various house rules on the web address this by bidding on other things (such as Powers - I'll get to those in a moment). Of course, a GM can set things up such that Strength and Endurance assume greater importance, but the setting of the game makes it extremely difficult to impose any serious limits on PCs (they can usually just escape an unpleasant situation pretty much at will).
The rest of character generation is concerned with choosing Powers. These include Pattern (the ability of all royal Amberites, which allows them to walk through Shadow), Logrus (something from the second series, which is basically the Amberites' enemies way of travelling in Shadow), Shapeshifting, Trump (the ability to create magical playing cards that allow communication and travel through Shadow) and three kinds of Magic. It's here that some of the most controversial elements of the game appear. The major powers - Pattern, Logrus, and Trump - are fairly well represented at the Basic levels, but not at the Advanced levels. Advanced Pattern Imprint is something that appears at first to be loosely based on some of the character Brand's powers, but later it becomes obvious that it can't completely explain Brand. So we're left with a power that nobody in the source material has exhibited. While you can argue that the characters in the novels just concealed their powers, it does give the game an unpleasantly different feel to the source material. Similar problems occur with advanced Logrus and Trump.
Shapeshifting is perhaps the worst example of this. Essentially, most of the power appears to have been invented rather than adapted. Shapeshifters in the game are limited by mass, can do funky things like close wounds, and have various "super forms". In the novels, you could argue the mass limitation (when Dworkin shifts to Corwin, he's slightly slimmer) but you could argue against it, too (the demon form that Merlin assumes to fight the Dweller doesn't sound as if it's the same mass as he is). Certainly nobody closes wounds in the novels (and Merlin is wounded often) or assumes anything that resembles what the game describes as "Primal Form". The text is also unclear as to some requirements; for example, it says that Advanced Shapeshifting allows you to create creatures of blood, but it also says that simply Shapeshifting + Conjuring can accomplish this.
The three types of magic are Power Words, Sorcery and Conjuring. Power Words - while questionable in authenticity (I think Corwin was using some sort of Sorcery against the demon in Lorraine) - are well balanced and "feel" appropriate. Sorcery does allow duplication of most of the feats performed in the source material, but I find the explanation of Lynchpins to be very unclear. The situation is that spells are very specific in nature; if you don't know exactly what the conditions are going to be when you cast the spell (for example, where you will be, or who the target will be), you can provide the software equivalent of "configuration parameters" to make the spell more flexible. We are told what Lynchpins are appropriate to each spell, and how long they take. There are two main problems - does this time refer to preparing ("hanging") the spell, or to casting it? (I've always assumed the former, since the alternative makes Sorcery virtually useless - but that begs the question: how long does it take when casting the spell?) The second problem is that some Lynchpins are marked as "optional" - which presumably means that the others are NOT optional. Which contradicts the principle of Lynchpins - you ought to be able to "hard code" parameters if you wish. I've gone on at length here to demonstrate a problem that is likely to occur in most games, since Sorcery tends to be a common power chosen by players.
Conjuring is the third of the Magic powers, and I'm not at all convinced it's necessary. There are no examples of it in the series that could not be explained by some other power - Oberon creating the creature of blood could quite easily be explained with an advanced Shapeshifting ability (and indeed the game supports this idea), while Merlin always fetches things from Shadow using Logrus even when "in the Shadow boonies" where one would imagine he would use Conjuring if it existed. Conjuring is a lot cheaper than Logrus, and it can be used for much the same effects. I suspect the power gamers among players will seize upon it as the power most open to abuse. It's possible to create an entire army of nasty critters with a few hours of Conjuring, and even to make that army extend over multiple Shadows. While Pattern, Logrus, or even Trump can accomplish this, it takes a lot longer and there's more that could go wrong.
After character generation, the book goes on to explain how to resolve contests. Remember, it's diceless, so the simple mechanic is that you compare the values of the appropriate attributes of the contestants, and the highest one wins. So if I've got Warfare 99, and you've got Warfare 100, then you'll always beat me in a fight. It's a little more complicated than this (situation comes into it; if, for example, I'm stronger than you then I might be able to use that to my advantage, or I could ambush you), but that's the basic mechanic. The catch is that nobody knows exactly what the others are capable of. You know who is the best, but not necessarily who is second best. This is very much in keeping with the novels. Everyone knows Benedict is the best swordsman, but Corwin doesn't know if he can beat Eric or not.
There are those who object to pure GM determinism on many grounds - the GM won't be surprised, the GM can screw over his players, it's fun to roll dice. In order, my answers to these objections are: if the GM isn't surprised, he's playing with very strange players (mine surprise me regularly); the GM can screw over players in any system, it's a common use for GM screens; and sure, it's fun to roll dice (another favourite system of mine is Champions, after all). In the end, I think determinism works in Amber because there's very little in the source material that can be ascribed to "bad luck" (it usually turns out to be manipulation by a sibling). It may not be the second coming of roleplaying, but it works here. Which is not to say that you couldn't just plug in a dice system instead, of course - there are house rules on the Web that do just this.
The rest of the book is devoted to a GM section and a couple of adventures. The GM section is really redundant; it has very little to add to what was in the previous section, and in many cases simply repeats the previous information. The best part of the GM section is the advice on running an Amber campaign. Using a simple example-response format, it addresses many common problems that happen in RPG sessions, although there's nothing particularly specific to Amber here nor anything that hasn't been said before. The section on the Elder Amberites - the characters from the novels - is interesting; there are multiple versions provided for each, and you can select which to use (or create your own, of course). The versions vary from reasonably accurate as far as the novels are concerned to quite outlandish.
The adventures, though, leave a bit to be desired. They suffer from two main problems. Firstly, none of them are particularly typical adventures for a new group: Throne War is specifically mentioned as an off the wall variant adventure and the others are of the apocalyptic "only the PCs can help us" type that I believe are inappropriate for beginning adventures. The second problem is that they are little more than frameworks. Any Amber adventure will suffer from this problem to an extent - after all, the PCs can go off to entirely new universes at a moment's notice - but a little more help for the (presumably novice) GM would have been appreciated. At the very least the important events could have been more detailed, if not the more important locations. I found I had to adlib furiously, and while I accept that this is going to be a staple of many Amber sessions, I would have appreciated being hand held a little more the first time out.
I'm a huge fan of the setting, and I've run some memorable Amber games in the past. All the flaws I've mentioned are annoying rather than critical, and there's a wealth of house rules on the Web if you ever find yourself running out of ideas. A few final observations:
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)