Thursday, January 31, 2008

Running Amber NPCs

This was apparently an email letter to another Amber GM, which I then converted some time ago and put on my old Amber website. That site is gone, but I still had the file. It's got some interesting character insights, and worth the read if you're an Amber fan.

Running Amber NPCs

I frequently receive questions from new GMs on the web, seeking advice on their campaign. One regular question is the following:
“I am somewhat uncomfortable trying to play the existing Amberites as NPCs. I guess I don't want to be wasting time and energy making sure I'm playing them all "right" (i.e., in-character by Zelazny's standard) but don't really want to do it "wrong" either. How have you handled that? Was it an issue/problem for you?”

This is most likely to be a problem if the overwhelming majority of your players are veterans of the game or long time fans of the novels, and this is the first campaign you’ve GM’d for them. If that’s the case, I recommend visiting my page on alternate and atypical Amber settings. Your best solution in that situation might well be to run your campaign in an alternate Amber with few or none of the normal NPCs and trappings so as to prevent the players from thinking they know more about the campaign world(s) than you do.

However, if only a small percentage of your players have previous amber experience (such as reading the novels or having played in other campaigns), you really should stick to the Zelazny setting. It really does require less work on your part (since the setting has already been created), and if they haven't read the books, there's no chance of them thinking your portrayal of an NPC is "wrong". They won't have the frame of reference to notice any "mistakes" you might make.

The real truth of the matter is that there really isn’t a "wrong" way to play Zelazny's NPCs. After all, Corwin (and Merlin in the second series) is the only one we spend enough time with to really get to know. Anybody else could have been deceiving Corwin, ANYBODY. And even if they weren’t actively tricking him, he could have just gotten the wrong impression.

Myself, I intentionally twist peoples expectations, and to good effect.

For example, it seems that most Amber veterans think Benedict is the guy to save Amber in it’s darkest hours, and they tend to call him when there's real trouble: My Benedict is an abusive bastard, he was Dad's enforcer, and the family bully. Sure he'll save Amber but you'll all watch your backs when in he's in town.

Beyond a doubt, Corwin and Merlin are the hardest to portray. Because we see so much of their thoughts and actions in the books, people get a really good idea of what they're like and are generally correct, too. If you have Corwin do something out of character, everybody calls you on it, and you feel like you've made a mistake.

But if you have Julian do something odd, chances are the Players won't notice:
Even if they do criticize you on it, your response can be "Julian has 3 scenes in the first 5 books. How can anyone claim to know all the nuances of his persona in 3 scenes?"

or "This is my Julian, this is how I play him. There were a lot of gaps in his history and personality that I, as GM, filled in. I know his past, and how he'll react to situations and people. If you watch me closely over the next few months, perhaps you'll get to know my Julian well enough to understand him too. But if you want to get to know him, you’ll have to do it in-character, I’m not going to casually tell you what makes him tick."

Chances are, you'll never have to say those things. As long as you seem confident in your portrayals, your players won’t question you. They'll just accept it. In the year my current campaign has been going on for, I was called to task once for Benedict's actions by my friend Tim. Tim has GM'd many times before and always played his Ben as the nice uncle who watched out for all the family's best interests. So, to him it seemed odd for Ben to be threatening King Random so often. In response, I just said "that's how you chose to interpret Ben's persona in your campaign: as a nice guy who just wasn't sure if Corwin could be trusted in the novels. I respect that, and if I were playing in your campaign right now, I would accept that portrayal and have my PC treat him as a friend. But in my Campaign, Benedict is the abusive older brother that everyone fears. I hope that you'll respect and accept that." Tim did respect my decision, it was never a problem again.

The secret to playing Zelazny’s NPCs is, make your decision on how you want to play each of them, be confidant in your ability to play them, and be consistent in how you play them. Even if they balk at first, the players will quickly come to respect you. (Tim’s character now plays a balancing act, trying to keep Benedict’s wrath and fury aimed at other NPCs while meanwhile he plots good old uncle Ben's assassination. And all the players seem to enjoy it.)

If the prospect of running all of the usual NPCs still seems to daunting of a task, another trick you can use is to have some of the family absent deep in shadow.
Figure out how you want to play a few members of the family and have the rest be in exile or on vacation. You can then focus mainly on the NPCs you understand or find interesting yourself. I started out my current campaign mostly focused on Random and the Redheads. Llewella's only had 2 scenes, she mostly stays in Rebma. Flora's had only a half dozen scenes, all in her son's world. Julian mostly stays in Arden, and only gets played when someone intentionally seeks him out. Gerard and Caine mostly stay with the fleet. All of them are unknowns, the players can't anticipate their responses, which is fine, because the PCs barely know them.

But all my Players know Fiona and Bleys and Random and Benedict really well. They have defined personalities that can be counted on to respond in certain ways. My players are constantly saying things like:

  • "Oh, Ben's gonna kick the **** out of you for that one!"
  • "Random's gonna flip his lid"
  • "of course Bleys will help you with your fencing, but if you go in there dressed like that he's gonna hit on you too"
  • "Corwin's and his daughter are just butting heads again, give them a day or two and they'll sort it out."
  • "I'm just worried what Fi will do when she hears about it, she's been under so much stress lately"

One good way to get a grip on the characters is to first make a list of what you've gleaned from the books about their persona:

  1. "Julian is stoic"
  2. "Gerard is insecure, thinks everyone else is smarter than him"
  3. "Fiona is generally calm and cool, but with flashes of biting sarcasm"
  4. "Corwin is still very emotional about Deirdre"
  5. etc. etc.
Then, analyze this list, and come up with a few pivotal moments in their early lives that you feel could have made each character act this way. Having access to a handful of seminal events in the NPCs childhood gives you a great anchor to work from.

Example: Oberon used to criticize Gerard very vocally whenever he'd make a bad decision. Now, if anyone calls Gerard a fool or even just tries to point out to him an better plan of action, Gerard takes it personally and gets really confrontational. If anyone seems to excel at
problem solving or intellectual pursuits, Gerard will either avoid them or try to impress and scare them by showing off his strength.

More Examples: Deirdre is so militaristic because of the way Oberon treated her. This abuse led to her rage and desire to one day grow good enough with a blade to seek her revenge.

Eric never took a stance against Oberon when he would be abusive to Deirdre.

As a result of his guilt, he did take a stand to protect Fiona in her childhood. She was young and impressionable, and thought she was in love with him because of it.

Eric rejected her after a brief and ill considered romance. As a result, Fiona tends to strike back by using men as playthings. It was this attitude that led to her cabal with Bleys and Brand falling apart.

On a related note, years before that cabal, Fiona seduced young Julian. She then, in full family style, used him, broke his heart, and cast him away for someone else. As a result Julian both hates and loves her. He's never resolved his emotion over this. He keeps thick emotional barricades around himself, pretending not to care for anyone and letting no one into his heart.

Eric saw through this, recognizing that Fi treated Julian just how Eric had treated Fi centuries earlier. He made an effort to befriend Julian as a result.

We now have a Fiona that uses sex as a weapon or means of control, a Deirdre that rebels against her father and is bitter and resentful that Eric defended Fiona and not her, an emotionally wounded Julian, a guilt-ridden Eric, and secret motivations to explain why the various family members interact the way they do.

None of this of course is ever stated in the books, yet it (and any of a hundred other possible interpretations) does fit the framework of what we see of the characters and their relationships.

The trick here is to find some sort of web of personality traits and events that defines the characters in your mind. Not just how they act, but the reason behind it. The players don't necessarily ever have to learn the "truth" about the NPCs pasts. But your being aware of a few details as GM will allow you to improvise the NPCs behavior and reactions in consistent and intriguing ways. Your players will feel part of a real world, not a two-dimensional scenario, and they'll appreciate it. They might even be in awe of it if they've mostly played hack & slash before.

Well, that’s all the advice I have on playing the “famous” NPCs. I’d also have to recommend re-reading the DRPG rulebook, Wujcick packed it full of good ideas and tips.

To get your creative juices flowing, I’ll leave you with a couple more ideas, these drafted from my campaign. . .

My Bleys is a closeted gay man, who tries to out-macho all his brothers to hide his own insecurity in this family of raging testosterone. I found a similar Bleys in the character quizzes of the Sleeping With The Enemy campaign. I’ve further complicated him by giving him guilt-baggage from the most horrible thing that ever happened to Fiona, which he still perceives as his fault.

My Random looked to be the most friendly, honest, and open-hearted of the Amberites. 8 months into the campaign everybody learned he'd taken the throne by means of plotting and cabal. So for a while the PCs hated and distrusted him.
Random, as youngest and smallest child in a family full of Herculean bruisers like Oberon, Ben and Gerard found it easy to identify with shadowlings. Especially those in the golden circle, who were more real than most of shadow, lived near to Amber’s greatness, but had no power or rights in the grand scheme of things.
Bleys and Fiona came to him with a plan to make Chaos equal to Amber. He agreed to conspire on the condition that the redistribution of wealth and power also strengthened the Golden Circle and the average citizens in Amber. Together, they stole the throne from Oberon.
When the PCs finally heard what Random’s motivations for usurping the throne were, many of them swung back to respecting and supporting him.

I put similar twists into virtually all my major NPCs. Concepts that just barely fit Corwin’s descriptions of the family, as if his perception of everything were biased and just slightly skewed. It keeps my players on their toes.

Those are just ideas, and long winded ones at that. I apologize. On a related note, I don't necessarily buy that the Lords of Chaos are immortal. In Corwin's saga we don't see any that are particularly old. For all we know, Duke Borel could be in his late 30s. They could have lifespans only as long as shadowlings, or hundreds of years like the
non-royals of Amber city. The Pattern is the source of permanence and stability after all, so one could argue that it's initiates have immortality while initiates of the Logrus, symbol of change and transformation, have short life times and possibly reincarnation. And yeah, I have a page about reincarnation in Amber too, but that's a whole other can of worms...

Anyway, thanks again for writing, hope some of this was useful. Good
luck with your campaign!

Rolfe Bergstrom

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