Monday, February 22, 2021

How To Do A Decent Corwin

 This was sort of buried in my recent campaign log post, and I thought it was worth breaking out and elaborating on.

Corwin is the hardest NPC to improv in Amber, by a long shot. Probably the hardest NPC I've ever had to portray in any game. Why? Because it's deucedly difficult to catch his voice, but anyone who's read even a single Amber novel will notice if you get your Corwin wrong.

We spend 5 novels inside Corwin's, so his personality is well-rendered. Corwin is sly and snarky, but also poetic. What's more, he has this amazing ability to make deep literary references off the cuff. I'm sure Zelazny cheated, by looking things up, and editing the hell out of every paragraph, so I cheat too.

Corwin is hard work. Before every session, if I know or suspect Corwin is likely to show up, I search quote sites on a variety of topics that seem relevant. The goal is to extract a couple of "clever" things that I can slip in and make them look like they were improvised. Shakespeare references are the gold standard for Corwin -- but you don't just literally quote ol' Billiam. You never just take an entire line of Shakespeare, or Tennyson, or Coleridge. You twist it around some way. You want it to sound familiar, and make the players nod along like they're in on the joke, or they at least found the easter egg regardless of whether they understand it or not. It's like Corwin really wants to show the other characters how smart he is, all the time, but he thinks the copyright police are going to burst in at any minute if every sentence isn't transformative. 

In the State of Denmark, there was the odor of decay...

So like I said, every session, if I plan on using Corwin, I brainstorm some topics that might be relevant to, or parallel of, the plots and themes and imagery of the game. Then I go looking for quotes that I can fold, spindle or mutilate into Corwinisms. I check quote sites on the internet, for sure, but I also check Zelazny's work. Sometimes there's already a Corwin line in the Amber novels that'll work perfect in this situation, which then feels genuine and immersive, like the way each of us have our favorite jokes and anecdotes we over-use.  And sometimes I do deep dives into Zelazny's non-Amber novels or his poetry. I have a dogeared copy of his "When Pussywillows Last In The Catyard Bloomed" poetry collection that I've riffed on or stolen from a few times. It's unlikely those will trigger the lightbulb over your players head the way that classical references will, but it definitely gets you thinking in Corwin/Zelazny's tone and style. 

We circulate,

the arm descends,

the diamond finger writes. 

That's three lines from a Zelazny poem, "LP Me Thee", which had on deck for when Corwin talked about how he felt like he had no control over his life and had to just sound the groove that had been carved for him. (With Corwin, there's always this tension of will he do the thing that loyalty and decency need him to do for the good of others, or will he choose this moment to seek personal goals at the expense of the universe. That makes him a good NPC, because him chafing at the need to be a hero and walking off in a huff means an opportunity is open for the PCs to step in and be better than him. But I digress...)

Having done a bit of this now, I feel like the "correct" amount of Corwinisms to drop into a session is two, or maybe three if he's really center stage for a long time. Less than two runs the risk of not feeling like Corwin, especially if the players don't catch the reference. More than three starts to come off as too gimmicky, and runs the risk of making Corwin less suave than he should be. Yeah, Corwin's a huge nerd, but he can also charm the seal-skins off a Rebman monarch. So I'll usually prep three or four especially Corwinian things to say, and just have them ready on deck with the plan to drop whichever pair fit into conversation the best. The ones I don't use can be stoppered and saved to decant some other evening.

Needless to say, running the game online makes it much easier to be Corwin. I've run a lot of Amber over the past two decades, but I feel like this campaign I've done my best Corwin. I can have my three or four prepped references and metaphors visible at the edge of my screen, so I only have to look left for a split second to harness the Corwin. 

But that also makes it tempting to go overboard, which is why I settled on prep 3 or 4,  and plan to just use the 2 that best fall into place organically. It seems to be working quite well, and it's not a particularly arduous burden on the GM to do before most sessions.

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