IMC :: the Pattern, on-camera

In My Campaign, characters agree the Pattern is harder to walk each time you try it. It is very hard for everyone in the family, seemingly despite relative physical assets. Your last successful walk does not warrant your next one.
You never want to be tired or injured and face the Pattern.
The Pattern has killed family.
More than once.
Off-camera, as it were.


Over the course of recent gaming in the Eternal City, Player Characters have been watching their kids try the Pattern for the first time. This leads to some very interesting roleplay and pure drama.
For everything a PC can do for their kids to get them ready, practiced and eager to take on the universe, the King will interview them and consider their request to walk the Pattern. And of course, it is personal to each child whether they want ‘witnesses’ like parents and family watching them take the walk that makes them adult members of the royal family.
What would compare? Your parents watching you try to jump a motorcycle across the Grand Canyon? Your older brother watching you take the bar exam? Your uncle cheering while you lose your virginity?
It has been interesting as a GM to watch the tension and interplay between parents and children for this coming of age ritual that is also life and death: on-camera.
For reasons that seem to have no rhyme, various of the young generation have had spectacular troubles in walking the Pattern. The king’s son got ‘treacled’ in the First Veil and a witnessing cousin leapt on the Pattern to catch up and ‘snowplow’ him through it. Another scion found while walking that the Grand Design’s sparks burned. Yet another was blinded when the rising sparks quickly overwhelmed vision halfway through the walk and had to finish without sight of the path. Various otherwise strapping and healthy young amberites have shakily crawled the last few zags of the Design.
Random is getting gray hairs from this drama.
So there has been quite a lot of foreshadow and grim expectation to youngsters walking the Pattern for the first time.

During this past weekend’s play, Xhimena (at seventeen) decided with her parents that it was time. She petitioned the King for access to the Pattern. The King passed her through oral and physical examination. Random discussed what failure meant and how in times past, Oberon never let anyone try it before they were thirty. Random was not yet alive for the previous fatal Patternwalks, but the King knows by anecdote that there are at least three deaths and that they do not respect gender or prowess.
So, King, Cassandra, DeWinter and Xhimena agreed to the act, the desired witnesses were gathered by Trump and the group trooped down into the dark rock of Kolvir to once again challenge the Pattern.

Some GMs in Amber Diceless transparently roll dice for each Pattern walk to inject the deadly uncertainty of the Pattern into the moment. Using dice also buffers the GM from the social fallout of death striking during the grueling drama. (Known statistical chance of death is a quick means to get some gamers to pay attention to the genre drama! If you have trouble imagining the glowing squiggle that can kill your PC, you might have more focus on the die right there on the table that can kill your PC.)
What might be the chance of death: 1 in 100 or 1 in 10? There are no such guides in the rules. The canon states the ritual is deadly serious and each canon character supports it to be so.
I don’t pull out the dice. I prefer to play the Pattern and the mystery of the ritual in an immersive stance. I always play the Pattern walk out, even if the PC is at full-strength in all aspects. I always look for the distraction or misstep by the PC. I play the Pattern itself as a watchful unfeeling instrument of fate and hope for that to register with the Player.
I always try to kill the PC.

Xhimena stepped onto the Pattern and her parents felt the hairs on their necks rise. A chill settled into their guts.
The sparking current seemed particularly agitated as Xhimena moved toward the First Veil. As soon as she entered the Veil, the intangible membrane burst into blue sparks and flames all around her. Her clothes began to burn.

So you might ask: what possible criteria can you use as a mechanic to kill a character on the Pattern? Is GM fiat really going to suddenly remove a heart-invested character from play? If the Pattern is an ‘unfeeling instrument’ then how do you ‘play’ that out?
This isn’t like being struck by lightning, is it? Is it capricious? An act of god?
Which makes more sense; characters always succeed walking the Pattern because there is no criteria, or characters die by statistical probability (or dice), or that characters always die when they are already bruised and tired, or that there is something more intangible, ineffable and mysterious about it all?
To me, the Zelazny canon supports the last bit only, so I try to get that feeling into the play.

Xhimena thrust through the First Veil. She did not make the mistake of switching focus from the path. She steadily went forward and idly beat at some flames in easy reach around her shoulders, hair and face. Her burning clothes abated. She moved on.
Her parents were holding hands—very tightly. They could tell she was hurt badly.
Several very young witnesses (perhaps having heard of the daring rescue of the king’s son by a second walker), moved forward as if to do exactly that and assist Xhimena. Older hands nearby gently held them back.
Odd looks were exchanged between generations. The question ‘why’ or ‘what’ hung unspoken between those who thought to intercede and those who acted to restrain.

As you can see, I’m writing this entry with a knowing eye for tension and pacing. You don’t know if Xhimena is going to succeed. You want her to. You may even hope she will.
But you are worried. Unsure. You have a terrible feeling that she isn’t going to make it. That then I will tell you why she died, or even tell you there isn’t an explanation because the Pattern is ineffable, after all.

Another twenty minutes of progress and Xhimena stepped into the Second Veil. Lightning and fire ran up from the floor around her taking her from view and burying her in calamity. All could feel tremors in the stone floor.

Well, that’s what Zelazny does to us, isn’t it?
We know Corwin should survive each Pattern walk. Corwin is the protagonist. We are the reader. There is some sort of intangible compact with Zelazny that our heart-invested participation in the story is going to pay off for us. Corwin will succeed. We will learn more as he overcomes each obstacle put in front of him.
Yes, the Pattern kills.
But not this time.
Please.

And in this, we echo the parental drama of watching a kid take on the universe, walk the deadly ritual and try to be a mover and shaker in the greater tapestry. Yes, the Pattern kills.
But not this time.
Please.
Please.
Please!

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2 comments

  1. This post has sparked my imagination. I’m thinking of running a campaign in which the default response to “I walk the Pattern” is, “You die.” The question becomes what makes that untrue. Possibilities include everything from manipulations on the Gulick Scale to something like PTA fan mail. (Sort of, “You die” unless another player likes what you’re doing enough to give you a chit.”)
    In past Amber campaigns our Pattern walks were a lot of “Yadda yadda yadda,” inspiring more cynicism than awe, on the theory that “You’re not going to kill me and the ‘oh it’s so hard!’ ‘oh i’m having visions!’ tropes have been done to death. Some people’s solution is to bring dice in. I’m thinking it’s to shift the burden of risk, and maybe entertainment.

  2. Thanks, Jim. I appreciate the note! And I like your ideas for shaking things up.
    Let me know how that works, if it comes to pass.

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