Stages in Design: Trading Pawns (I)

So, “Trading Pawns” is the Amber LARP our family group is offering to run for ACNW, and it’s based off several ideas of an event in the Merlin series, of all places. I figured I’d write a little about the design here.

While I’m the major planner behind the LARP (I haven’t done a big one in far too long) I’m working with Chuck, the LintKing, and Chuck’s boyfriend (who I need to pin a moniker on, other than “Burly, Dark, and Handsome,” which is how I referred to him last night.) They can’t get into my mind, so I need to write a lot down. That means I have to create a whole GM book so they’re starting with the same knowledge.

What goes into a GM book? Well, I am going to point you to that very post on my regular gaming blog when it’s finished, but for this, let’s talk about the set-up.

First there’s the hard numbers – the statistics. In this case, because it’s Amber, I have ranks and I have actual numbers. The first page is the ranks, and I have colour-coded them for quick reference as well. I have the actual numbers in the back reference pages because they’re only really for me to check out how I spaced them as I set everyone up for the same number of points. There are some definite “clumps” of points depending on which attribute is a character’s focus, but the ranks are what the other GMs will be looking for if they need to compare things in a hurry.

Next, in conjunction with that is the list of items. These should be represented with physical objects – if we can’t get actual replicas to play with, they will at least be brightly coloured cards. In the book there will be the quick list (where they start in play, what they can do) and then a second set of pages organized with the large description and their fine points.

Then spells and powers are set up the same way. A spell in one of my LARPs will always be a one-shot item. You will cast them by giving them to a GM who will destroy the card (I’ve always wanted them on flash paper, but…) and explain the results. Some sorceror characters will be able to design spells “on the fly” and we’ll have extra cards available for that, but “on the fly” and sorcery in Amber are not really synonymous – although lynchpins can count as items.

Then a basic character and player list.

The next tab talks about timing and instructions. There are instructions for the GMs to give to players, and there is timing that everyone knows about – it’s replicated in the player books in brief. Then there’s GM events. GM events for this game are oriented first around the GMs’ particular NPC. Each GM has a particular NPC to play (that is developed in whole in case we get extra players who need a character as well – we can adapt on the fly) and then there’s a list in the book about other NPC characters (and hints on playing them as well as their secrets) who can show up in the game. There’s also a page of “complications” broken down to each GM to add to the story if necessary, such as rumours, or minor events that GM can handle exclusively.

The next tab is the reference tab and it has my “Tolerance List” which describes initial tolerances of one character to the next. It also has what the initial house allegiances are, and some of the obvious initial plot items are and how they’ll resolve if the players don’t interrupt.

The final tab is the character list in depth – it has all the details that each player gets privately, in alphabetical order for easy reference.

Each player gets their stats, their backstory, some roleplaying hints, their immediate connections with other players, their goals, the game timing, and a card with their name on the front and some details on the back. If they have spells/items, those will also be in their packets.

What Makes an Amber Game?

The LintKing and I were discussing a couple of other game ideas for entry into the pool for ACNW, when we got into the Usual Argument.

The LintKing goes to play Amber games.

See, we live in a state that supports at least four conventions with significant gaming presence (and I believe at least four different gaming-specific conventions) and yet, we don’t attend any of them. (Well, we go to one, but it isn’t for the gaming.) We are Gamers. It’s the label that sticks.

So it isn’t that he thinks Ambercons should stick to Amber DRPG. He only grins when I argue that I never want to play a diceless game of Amber again. (He knows I will grumble but not stick to it.) I know that if I play a game at Ambercon that isn’t Amber, I’m going to learn something from a GM who either has experience running it or wants to experiment, two things I think are extremely worthwhile, whereas the Amber games can be meh if you don’t believe in the GMs premises. (Maybe we should adopt the GM Merit Badges for some kind of set of assumptions.)

But in talking to people, we have a really different idea of what makes an Amber game. The LintKing jokes that I’ll yell, “Book seven, page seventy-four totally supports this!” but truth be told, I’ll happily explore a different emphasis of the same sentence in a different game. (Dworkin’s bit about an island in the sea of chaos is a great example of this – same as the phrase about being a “lord of the living void.”) Some people really don’t like playing outside of Amber, and the standard ADRPG principles and powers.

Me, I look at some of the references Zelazny made and figure they’re a fine playground of their own. Would anyone argue if I drew in a Jabberwock? They’re as much a part of canon as the Fire Angels. That suggests many other parts of Wonderland are fair game, to me. But the ability to melt through a mirror, now, that’s weird? I don’t think so.

OK, I gave in ten years ago about not having “wimpy” Amberites. The truth is, it’s funny how different what the “core” of the game is to different people. Maybe a second edition could clarify… but I think muddying the waters is, indeed, part of the fun.

City of Goats…and Sorcery


It’s no secret that on the three nights surrounding the full of the moon that the ghost city rises above Amber. So when Rey Lukas offers you a chance to infiltrate it, you jump at it. Seems like the King’s going to be gone doing some kind of tour of the Golden Circle, and Rey insists he has a way past the security and on to the stairs themselves.

You won’t be alone. Every sorceror worth his liver and lights will be wanting a piece of the action. You’ve decided to get active with the old gang, because only losers go in without human shields.


Del The Thieftaker. He’s an enforcer. Thinks he’s some kind of superhero ridding the streets of the inept. His magic’s in his fist and his feet.

Ro Jo the White. The guy’s countenance screams assassin, but he’s pretty down to earth. Sniper, for sure.

Mandalas. Morph. Kind of crazy, but what morph isn’t? Real friendly with animals. Maybe they have guard dogs up there? Mandalas claims to be able to do the morph on others these days.

The Artist. Sure, the Artist has a real name, but why not use “Art” anyway? Wanted for that graffiti stunt on the King’s fountain, but hey, they say the Artist can make pictures talk. Has a photographic memory, too.

Mina. There’s not a door in the Circle that Mina can’t get through, they say. She’s an opener.

Goat. Has the morals of one, anyway. Takes brothel girls and makes them high class. The Artist’s twin. Has some kind of death sentence down in the underwater. Something like that, anyway.


I’ve never run a Tir heist before. I like the idea because you could literally run into anything up there. The idea that the team is a group of sorcerors amuses me as well, and allows me to make this a scenario full of weird.

“Hide Yer Wimmen!” (Playtest One, 9/27/2010)

Given that we were supposed to start at 6pm, and we basically just scraped the surfact of things by 10:30pm… and we were distracted by too many cookies… All things considered, the playtest actually went better than expected.

A comedy of errors played itself out in getting to the gaming. I have it requested that we have characters previous to the convention[1], but, if given permission, I will use maybe a couple of the characters we created as potential pre-gens for those folks needing a little assistance.

The character creation indicates that the players are young, in Amber after the war, and kind of indicates that they are at loose enough ends that Random can send them all on a mission. Forty points available (with a 3 point Stuff limit) is just the right amount to give emphasis to a certain trait without having either a huge arms race or pitiful “dump stats” and it means no one is likely to buy anything but the free Pattern. I pointed out you could have “investiture” points into a Power, but I kind of meant to do that as a partial-point system. I didn’t get into that last night.

What caused the experienced players the most doubt was that I added, “Two ways the Shadows Lie for you,” and indicated they could be either Zero Point Powers or Aspects and I really liked the way it turned out.

I gave some examples of each (with emphasis towards the series and experience I’d had in other games) showing how they could be decorative or useful, and it helped give a little more definition to their characters.

Some of what we had in play:

  • “Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall” (kind of tread the line between Aspect and power)

  • I am Bleys’ kid. (Aspect)

  • Always gets the first shot or the last word. (Aspect)

  • Can ride anything with 4 legs. (Power)

  • Always has a sword within reach… (Power, we decided.)

Gameplay was fairly straight forward. I included a “get to know each other” scene just so people could play around and get the fit of the character right. Then we had the scene with Random which I felt went OK (but I’ll have to not read off the sheet and instead get familiar with the text a little more) and then we started Adventure Number One.

Just in writing the thing I realized that the five options of events in the Golden Circle could (if played through) last the length of the convention, so getting two events in would probably be a challenging goal. I think I’ll amend things to the two most interesting situations, with running a time check on the one if I get another playtest, but it just means sewing my plot even tighter.

I need to sandbox a little less for sure. I hate to feel like convention gaming is all railroading, but the time limit does to some extent limit your choices. I had good flexibility in making the methodology fit the players’ expectations without being “easy.” I ended up with a characterization I didn’t plan on but could probably manage to do in front of a mixed group. And hopefully, I won’t have a “too many cookies” character breaking up the focus so much. (You rarely do at the convention.)

Next week is The Beanstalk playtest which has a much different feel.

[1] I did leave character creation instructions around, but things got in the way.

The Third Game [ACNW 2008]

I’ve had a(nother) game cancelled at an ACNW. Death of ego is a strange experience in GMing.

I’ve had a(nother) game cancelled at an ACNW.

So, I had been very frustrated about the third game I wanted to run at ACNW 2008. I know it came out in the description, leaving a certain incoherence and a certain level of nonchalance that didn’t give the same “bang” in the description as I’ve been able to make in other games. I know that was part of it.

Now, obviously, I’m fighting a malaise in my games – I’ve had some big hits and some big misses at previous instances of the convention. I’ve had a couple games just unravel on me – certainly I want to claim what part of it is my fault, but I’ve also had tired players and other participation/play-style issues. So it could just be the number of people (a small but significant number) who say, “I’ll play in anything but MaB’s games.”

It was also post-Merlin, and that’s ALWAYS had a set of people who have said, “No way,” so that’s worth considering. Myself, I run a strong Merlin, and I ignore the whining/super aspects (and the “Able to Speak and Sing” Powers) and come up with a character who is tech-savvy and very modern but also still able to handle the more savage aspects of his society.

The idea here, though, is how I would have felt in previous years to have a game cancelled, and the truth is, while I have reasons to be relieved, I am actually strangely (to me) fine with this.

Steven Barnes talks a lot about “death of the ego shell” and I think that part of it is that, simply, I do not have “GM” as so much of my identity anymore. I still enjoy it – my “Please and Shank You!” game was a fun example, if it devolved a little during the killing cycle, and even although the game I ran at WorldCon wasn’t at all what I wanted it to be, I still gave a taste of the game.

I have a lot of energy and ideas ready for “The Madness of King Lir” and “A Friendly Exchange” that makes me think they have the potential to be intense games.

But I’m not going to feel like I’ve failed somehow if I’m not “full up” in my games. It’d sound too much like sour grapes to say, “Maybe next year I won’t run anything,” but I won’t run anything for which I don’t feel like I have a real, solid enthusiasm, time, and energy. I never should have in the first place, and that‘s where I want to take the blame for the past failures.

A Friendly Exchange

You have spent a quarter century as a prisoner of your own honor amongst the people of the Thelbane.

to replace Secret Handshakes

— Game Title —

A Friendly Exchange

— Teen Friendly? —


— GameMaster(s) —

Meera Barry and Kingsley Lintz (as Martin)

— Contact Email —

— Game Description —

Game may run late into the evening.

Dark / Grim — Alternate Amber

You have spent a quarter century as a prisoner of your own honor amongst the people of the Thelbane.

You have learned secrets, dangerous secrets, and you have suffered for it. The Courts are always darker than you think.

Your sentence is concluded. You are free to go.


They say you can never go home again.

— Setting —

I looked and I saw Random. He was standing with his back to us about thirty meters away, on a shelf of rock, facing the storm. It was very close now, and a wind whipped his garments. Lightning trails crissed and crossed before him. The thunder boomed almost constantly.

“How long-has he been there?” I asked.

“Only a few minutes,” Fiona replied.

“That is how long it has been – since our return?”

“No,” she said. “You have been out for a fairly long while. Random talked with the others first. The real Lords of Chaos. They’ve thanked you for indulging their pets, but the storm isn’t of the Pattern, or the repair. The storm,” she emphasized, “is them. Or some of them.”

I turned my head.

There was movement along the black road, a dark column heading out toward the citadel. Gossamer strands drifted between us; there were a few sparks at the far end, about the nighted hulk. Overhead, the sky had completely reversed itself, with us beneath the darkened half. Again, I felt that strange feeling of having been here long, long ago, to see that this, rather than Amber, was the true center of creation. I grasped after the ghost of a memory. It vanished.

I searched the lightning-shot gloom about me.

“All of them – gone?” I said to her.

“They return. The rules have changed, Corwin. You have changed.” She looked down at herself for a moment, then looked back up with a sly hint of a smile. I cursed silently. She had changed, too, and not for the better. “Do you wish to follow them now?”

I shook my head.

“I’m staying here with Random.”

“I knew you would say that.” She did, too. “We’ll be bringing some of them back. They’ll foster some of ours. Perhaps we’ll learn better this time.”

Her gaze took in the Abyss, and for a moment, perhaps it looked back into her.

— Character Instructions —

You are one of the children of the Amber Elders. You were there as Brand was struck down, helping Amber, a cause in which you believed. You can choose your parent(s) pretty freely (no Dworkin/Oberon/Creature.) You have 100 points, with the note that you will have Basic Shapeshifting for free – it was necessary to survive, after all. You may have additional restrictions, bonuses, and guidelines depending on the House of Chaos you have chosen via the quiz at

– if for some reason the quiz does not work in your browser, please e-mail me and I will offer it in my response and “grade” it myself.

— Player Information —

Minimum: 3

Maximum: 6

The Madness of King Lir

— Game Title —

The Madness of King Lir

— Game Description —


What dost thou profess? what wouldst thou with us?


I do profess to be no less than I seem; to serve

him truly that will put me in trust: to love him

that is honest; to converse with him that is wise,

and says little; to fear judgment; to fight when I

cannot choose; and to eat no fish.


What art thou?

“What art thou indeed? That your blood is like flame, and yet the cool waters of the En-ehtlab do not soothe you. That your ethereal nature is not of this or any other realm? Can I trust one such as you that eats not fish? I dub thee Taninim. Begone from my realm, child of the Leviathan.”

Moire swears by Lir’s bones, leading us to believe there is more to this story. After all, there are many secrets hidden in the depths. Secrets like, who was Lir? And where are his bones? Why is the castle built for tritons, and not the soft feminine inhabitants?

And the strangest secret… how did the women take over?

— Setting —

In Rebma, it is still a time of legends and magic. The things Random has changed in Amber reflect oddly in the mirrors of the ladies. Information may pass up to Amber and maybe even to the other side of the universe.

— Character Instructions —

You are children of Moins, sisters (or perhaps a brother) of Moire. Partially pregenerated, you are adventurers, explorers, and keepers of secrets. Have an idea? Give me something between a 100 and 200 point character, and I’ll tweak it to fit.

Secret Handshakes

Game submitted for first slot at ACNW 2008.

— Game Title —

Secret Handshakes

— Teen Friendly? —


— GameMaster(s) —

Meera Barry

— Game Description —

Tense / Real-time — Non-Amber

Three passions are required to care for the seed that blossoms into a world.

The first is love, for you must know the generating force.

The second is knowledge, for you must know how to use the magics.

The third is vengeance, for you must have lost to know the truth.

Worlds die as the stars dance, but only those who walk the worlds know how few remain. What is it in the garden that chokes the life out of the living worlds? Who stands to profit?

The Gathering has been called.

This is a “Night in the Lonesome October”-inspired adventure/LARP.

— Setting —

It starts on what we know as Earth, real-time.

— Character Instructions —

Characters will be pregenerated based on myth, story, the GM’s wicked amusement, and your responses to the following two questions:

1) Are you a good witch or a bad witch? No wait, wrong story.

Which of the three passions do you bring?

2) What is your familiar?

As for the second, as this is a LARP, we expect you to bring your familiar (or a representation thereof) with you to the Gathering. So no split-atoms, no ioun stones, and no half-naked showgirls, unless they’re a bribe for the GM.

Continue reading “Secret Handshakes”

In other news…

No, no ideas for ACNW. I’m getting more and more this way with age. Maybe it’s something to do with getting older. You’d think I’d have more time to plot and plan.

I have zero, zip, nada ideas or motivation for ACNW games this year, save for the one I have already submitted.

OK, that’s not entirely true. I have ideas. Little tadpoles of inspiration. They seem to be suffering from poisons in the environment and very few of them seem to be growing up into frogs of game possibilities.

There’s a metaphor for you. There’s a twisted metaphor that’s just like those little tadpoles, as a matter of fact.