zdiw tips

ranks, narrative power, LoGaS and Amber Diceless

LoGaSThe Rules As Written for Lords of Gossamer and Shadow are clear, the Attribute Auction establishes the ranks of skill for all the Players, and then the GM can create his NPC cast based on that ladder of ranks.

Oh, but what happens if someone joins the game in two months? You have to squeeze them into the ladder of ranks. That’s a bit awkward.

And what if you have been playing for 18 months and the NPC cast is now over a hundred people? How many npcs of 2.5 rank or 1.5 rank or secret new 1 rank is the GM going to track? And how many dead ties between Attributes have you now created?

And what happens if you go to gaming convention and the GM starts everyone with a pile of points, because auctions take too long? Well, you can build the ladder after everyone does their point builds in secret. Also a bit awkward and it doesn’t add much to in-world play.

Bid numbers versus ranks is a long-standing GM style discussion for running diceless games. (Long standing as in going back to the earliest internet mailing lists.)

It’s complicated by those folks who want to know how much a fight staged with 2nd and 3rd rank PCs ganging up on 1st rank Strength PC, for example.

1st rank is still going to win, but how close is it?

Some long time ago, I had a web reference page for something I called ‘story values’, which is basically narrative ranks, or scale of Attributes for the campaign. The Rules As Written include an overall real-world relationship for Mortal, Superior, and Paragon ranks. And that’s where I start for scaling what’s not said in the rules (ie, much higher rnaks.)

Why scale up practical in-game effects when the rules already tell you who is going to win? Does it matter exactly how strong someone’s Attribute is if it is clear they are the winner? I think it does matter for immersion and the practical side of letting a PC plan their actions out. The best diceless play is when system disappears for the Players (IMHO). Practical, easy to remember scale of Attributes helps this immensely.

So here’s a chart captured from the Wayback Machine, a scale of narrative ranks as they stand in my Amber Diceless games:


The 3 columns to the right include the scales of artifacts/items, Attribute numbers, and ‘story value’ or a real-world feat scale. Mortal (average healthy) equals practical 1 rank scale.

Application is, a Player who decided to not spend points on Strength, has Amber rank, which is 4 times better than Mortal. Meaning that Strength moves 4 times more stuff than what you’d expect a human to move. Easily then, this PC knows he can toss humans out of his way, but is not stronger than 5 mortals working together.

Then the rest follows, based on what trial and error I did those years ago: Prince Gerard (depending on how the points were handed out by the GM) could easily toss young Amber royals out of his way, being 16 times stronger than Mortal and 4 times stronger than PCs who bid no points in Strength.

The chart was a big success for me, because it made Attribute contests flow very quickly. It also allowed Players to ‘feel’ for their capabilities before the game ever started. It also could help during an auction bid process, but that was not its purpose in design.

The chart begins to address lots of conflict issues. Two PCs with heavy investment in Strength, let’s say 25 points, are nearly as strong as Gerard when teaming against him. Do they have his skill? No.

I brought this info out of the dusty nowheres of history as a bookmark to discussion and future commentary.

Talk to your GM in session zero before the game starts about the baseline of such rules in play.


wayfinding, zero dice infinite worlds

Three small paragraphs in the rule set describe the power of Wayfinding for a Warden of the Stair.

Wayfinding. Wardens have an instinctual understanding of where a mundane door leads, or where one of the Doors of the Grand Stair opens to. This ability is like an internal compass, leading the character in a needed or desired direction. It can be countered through some of the disciplines used by Masters of the Grand Stair.

Wayfinding can be used in the Gossamer worlds, Domains, and within the Grand Stair’s entire span (though there are parts of the Grand Stair where it is possible to get lost, even with this ability).

With the Wayfinding ability, a Warden can find a specific place within the Gossamer worlds if the Warden has some idea about the nature of the place or even one specific part of it. Additionally, the Warden can find an ideal Gossamer world that suits a particular criteria, no matter how idiosyncratic that criteria may be. If the Gossamer world has Doors, the Grand Stair can open into it, and a Warden can find the way there.

This is much more powerful than shadow walking from the Amber Diceless, IMHO. However, Doors are the limiting filter. While Corwin can find a deserted tropical island paradise with plenty of food and water and rest up, a Warden can only find such a place with a working door, indicating past construction and people, that may now be gone.

Some references to shadow walking in ADRPG are here and here (Rule of Three).

Note explicitly the rules allow the Warden to find specific places inside the Gossamer world if they have information about the place they are searching for. (Whereas, sometimes returning to a specific place with shadow walking is problematic.) Wayfinding gives you a compass sense inside the world.

This is a very powerful narrative changing device. Examples follow, “GM I’d like to walk to a Door….”

  • where the #1 bestseller is “Understanding and Working With Mnemon For Dummies”
  • where the ubiquitous nanites in the air will interface with my mind and explain how to fully control my Dragon Powers!
  • where there is a huge waterfall
  • where I can find the person trying to kill the Dragon Empress


IMC, the first three examples are legit and the fourth fails. The first three exist somewhere, if not in the gossamer you are within. The fourth example imagines an indeterminate future where you will find some copy of a person from a specific set of events in a specific gossamer that has not happened yet. That does not work.

Why? Because of the Rule of Three. Because you have to imagine a baseline of three qualities to your search. Test each example above.

  • You have met Mnemon so you can picture her, her world, and what sort of personality mystery she represents. You shall find something on the Stair.
  • You know about Dragon Powers so you can imagine the Dragons, the nature of the powers, and what sort brain changes may be needed (such as neural pathways, rote practice, and additional sensory learning). You shall find something on the Stair.
  • You’ve seen waterfalls, you’ve seen mountains, and you expect they have common patterns of gravity.

How long does the search take? Well, again, ask the PC what three filters are they applying to the search and rank them. Is the huge waterfall…

  • huge, waterfall, near to me
  • waterfall, huge, safe
  • near to me, waterfall, huge
  • waterfall, huge, fresh water

The Warden is juggling these factors, putting their own ‘spin’ on the culture/experience bias and seeking within Infinity. Something will come up, but how useful it is (IMHO) would be GM finesse. Certainly, the GM is allowed to ask a few clarifying questions of the three values chosen.

And, if the PC has high Psyche, and/or Good Stuff, this will affect the ease with which the destination is revealed.

Does this mean Wardens of low Psyche cannot find complicated things? No. It does mean there is a baseline of expertise given with the Warden attunement. So start with the Rule of Three. If the Warden is very experienced (certain region of the Stair is written into the PC background, or some years walking the Stair), the GM can help out a bit with easy answers. If the Warden has bad stuff, even the baseline three things may show adverse complications along the way. If the Warden has high Psyche, you can add some qualifiers to the Rule, ask for four things, or ask the PC if they wish to avoid seeking something that is already controlled or owned by someone powerful.

Let’s return for a moment to the ‘indeterminate example’. A murder. Can you solve mysteries with the Wayfinding power? I would say yes, only if you bring puzzle pieces together and seek the missing bits.

So the Empress has been assassinated, but no one can figure out who did it. The Warden seeks to find the person responsible for a determinate event that has happened.

The Warden knows, where it happened, how the victim died, perhaps knows the murder weapon. This would count as three things to narrow a search for the murderer, understanding that the assassin might know all about Warden powers, and have left bad clues to send you on a wild goose chase! Let’s say…

  • the Empress did not die in that room, she was moved there
  • the weapon found is not the murder weapon
  • the body found is not the Empress

You can see how some mysteries will work much like other detective fiction, ie, disproving assumptions and finding the real evidence to trust.

Search times: consider the more rare or specific your search, the longer it takes for you to find what you seek. “GM, I’m going to look for a custom armor that fits me, it is invulnerable to damage, it is currently sitting in a broken abandoned castle without guards.”  You’ll get a compass response, a direction, but it may take you a year to get to the gossamer world where this thing exists. And Wayfinding rules as written does not tell you how long to find the thing you seek.

The wilder your imagination, the longer you may be looking. Or not? Perhaps the PC’s wit will provide an interesting adventure?

So, rather than waste story time chasing stuff in the Infinite Stair, I shall tell the PC, yes, you sense the direction, it is very far away. Are you going after it?

Talk to your GM in session zero before the game starts about the baseline of such powers in play.

exegesis, furthermore!

LoGaSOne of the tiny rule comments about exegesis is, you have to use the Door of a Gossamer world to tune into the languages there.

I think that logic fails for two reasons.

First, if you’ve never visited Vulcan, and you meet a Vulcan on the Stair, you don’t know what he’s saying even if you are both Wardens, as it is unlikely both Wardens have used the Door to Vulcan. I don’t think that is intended. Worse, if neither of you arrive back on Vulcan by Door (for whatever odd reason) you still can’t understand each other.

Secondly, imagine a thousand languages being spoken in the Stair. But wait, there are merchants and cargo handlers and all sorts who don’t have Warden skills. And if your Warden hasen’t been to their Door, you can’t give them instructions? Even worse, your labor help may not be able to talk to each other. And there are plenty of game stories where not everyone (or every PC) has exegesis. You may have a PC based only on sorcery or Eidolon, so the Warden has to do the translations.

I suggest a small fix that meets the intention of the rule set.

The rule is better if you just say:

Once attuned to the Grand Stair, ie, Warden, you understand any language that exists paired to a functioning Door— or in a polycultural gossamer, all native languages of that world.

A particular GM could wrinkle this by saying the further you are from the transmitting Door source, the less likely the translation works. The key to that particular complication would be narrative emphasis (mostly mine) that the Infinite Stair is very very big and you can run across people that are so far out of your region of Stair you cannot talk to them— or not talk to them well.

Kill all doors to a gossamer language source and the understanding vanishes, as it is no longer transmitted to all Wardens. Destroy a world and the language is gone as well.

If a language vanishes, someone needs to go find out what is going on!

Talk to your GM in session zero before the game starts about the baseline of such powers in play.


the greatest power of them all, exegesis!

LoGaSOne of the smallest power costs (10 pts) is Warden of the Stair. And tucked into the many abilities of the Warden of the Stair is exegesis, the ability to understand anyone within a gossamer world if you have entered the world through the Door.

You can also buy exegesis as a seperate power, see the Long Walk rule book for various power breakdowns.

Exegesis is amazingly powerful, worth the 10pts all by itself, and presents a range of narrative texture decisions for the GM to explain to players. I have to recommend GMs encourage all Players to get the power exegesis whether in the Warden package or through spending separate points. I’ll note some things here (and thanks to the LoGaS group on FaceBook for the content copy):

Does Exegesis convey meanings of words that are technical? For instance, if a character says “aortic aneurysm”, “capitalism”, “specular reflection”, or “Umbra”, would the meaning of the word or term be conveyed?

A practical way to look at exegesis (GM side if you will) is that cultural meaning is conveyed. As long as the your own culture has an equivalent for what the other person is saying, you get a meaning.

But if their world doesn’t have magic, there may be no word for it for them to get.

Two Wardens speaking together may easily overcome this effect, but Warden speaking to Fred Flintstone may have to keep the conversation basic.

Exegesis includes the meaning, but in extreme cases, you may not be passing the meaning you THINK you are. If the Warden says, “We’ve a solution to your problem but it will involve calling up Umbra.”  The native speaker may hear, “We’ve brought an answer. We will pray to the Gods and get help from Pan.”

If that’s the gist of the conversation (maybe there is an immediate lack of time to make detailed response) I don’t think the GM needs to explain anything more. And if results later are complicated by the fact the natives think you are a priest of Pan, well there you are.

So at a finer level of conversation, is “Umbra” just “force of entropy”? Is the pervasiveness and universality of concept conveyed? Can you convey to natives that your team represents “Eidolon” so you can trust us?

No, I don’t think so. I think the GM can make a short list of trans-Infinite culture terms if she/he likes, but I doubt Umbra/Eidolon/Sorcery/Invocation are on that list. I’d rule the powers in the rules are not often ‘commonly known’.

If you say, ‘I have magic!’ or ‘I will solve it with science!’, you’ll mostly be on safe ground for the common language. And this quite depends on the gossamer world where you are standing. In Shatterlight, the Grand Stair is a more commonly known abstraction and discussions about esoteric matters are more commonly understood.

Talk to your GM in session zero before the game starts about the baseline of such powers in play.


GM responsibility and extending the rules

In a post from last year, I offered this:

My GM solution to gaps in the rules (or a PC’s back story) is that this is where the GM has to step up and make it all reinforce the narrative. How can I strengthen the story? How can I speed up the game? How can I make the group thread together more strongly? How can I illustrate the wonder of the Grand Stair through these little details, and also make it more exciting for me to be part of the canvas shepherding this narrative along?

So when do you extend rules (as Player or GM) and when to you keep RAW (Rules As Written)?

[edits follow, thanks to comments by Kit Kindred]

Perhaps your philosophy of GMing is that there should be no GM story challenge, no overall narrative, that in fact, everything the Player Characters want to do is ALL that is driving the game. This role then is the GM as a living referee judge. In a case like this, you may seek to stay as close to RAW as possible. Don’t invent new powers, as they will have a bias of the GM’s invention. Don’t invent new civilizations, but grab them from the PCs vague descriptions of worlds they are seeking. Don’t invent villains, as you can make them purely from NPCs opposed to the goals the PCs have discussed or agreed to.

Certainly do not twist powers or abilities within the framework of the game rules to do new things or favor a single PC. And since no rule set is perfect, what do you do when the PCs discover a flaw or bust in the rules? Probably the thing to do is to sit down with the gaming group and talk it through.

The example is spurious, and not terribly serious:

“The experience rules are broken weird, because Ted can take his character to the Bwang Confederation, where he has Control of Time Flow, where he forces time to 36 times the rate in the Stair. He can set up battles, cause wars, and challenge monsters there, and when he comes back in a month to rejoin the group, his PC has gained an experience point per year that gives him 3 points the rest of the group does not have. What do you all think? How shall we address this issue?”

Hopefully this sort of rules jiggering is not normal in your group.

Don’t think as a GM you can solve a group dynamic, or mechanics issue without an out-of-game conversation. The reason for fun is a group experience. It’s a game shared, so share the solutions to the bumps and pitfalls.


Why would the GM create or tweak additions to published RAW? Why read the rules and decide to do things differently? A short list of reasons could be:

  • Many Players do not want to read the rules, and therefore have no interest or background to judge the mechanics. For this group, the GM is trusted to keep things working and fair. This will mean invention and tweaks from the GM.
  • Many rule sets have been play-tested for months, but games can last years, and go places that the designers never foresaw. Narrative or mechanic problems may arise.
  • Some Players will skim the rule set, note things that are objectionable to fun, and ask for tweaks. Ask me about my (insert politics here) agenda! As just one example of this, the canon Zelazny Amber material includes torture and patriarchal gender slams.
  • Sometimes a rule set misses the genre by a little or a lot. A Buffy game where the strength of women is -3? No way. A gods game where there is secretly a power the gods don’t know about? Well, that sounds odd. A game emulating a book where the main book protagonist turns out to be evil and must be stopped? Why did I buy this game?
  • Power levels are assumed in the rule set, but what if you’d like a smaller story, with PCs who have less power? Or what if the group wants to play the monsters but not the mortals?

A longer examination of reasons could be knowing your audience and/or having a big picture in mind, and the idea that a few tweaks will reinforce the world building in a way that is not clear in the original rule set. This gets off in the direction of mashup rules and perhaps is beyond the point.

And when the rule set tries to define an Infinite Stair, one might expect no single rule book is going to cover it all. That why supplements and extensions are fun.



GM responsibility and constraints on PC backgrounds

Some various thoughts about GM constraints on world building vs Player Character backgrounds over at Facebook.LoGaS

Christopher LaHaise says:

The thing is, I prefer not having to extrapolate as a game master. If it isn’t explicitly said in the game book, then it doesn’t ‘exist’ officially. And I like things being tidy and official. I’ve noticed with LoG&S I’ve had to do a lot of extrapolating, and this kind of annoys me from time to time, because it means if I’m comparing notes between my view of how RAW with another GM, there’s going to be crossed wires. And that might become more problematic when we’re talking characters.

‘Well, my character did XYZ, because of these reasons’.
‘Err, that kind of physics doesn’t work in my setting, because of these other reasons’.

For example – how does a Gossamer L&L (Lord or Lady–ed.) take over a world and ‘claim it’? Is it a ritual? Is it just by being there long enough? Is it sheer force of will? Do they have to go someplace special? Does it involve use of power? All of these? None of these?

How does a L&L make artifacts? How do they make companions? Where do these come from? This is the kind of thing I often wonder as a game master, and what I REALLY want to know as a player.

IMC (in my campaign), the GM is very involved with approval of PC creation and background. This is not always the case with other GMs I’ve played with. Sometimes, a GM asks if you have questions, and if you don’t, the GM says ‘ok we start next weekend’ and you are off and running.

Christopher’s question above, touches on a reason why I consistently want to know more about your PC, and generally ‘sign off’ on what you have written into the PC’s backstory. Because every Player in my game is authoring legends and possibilities to the universe just by creating a Player Character. If I cannot wrap my head around the idea of your PC, or the legends that brought them into the game, then I’m not going to be as supportive of your intent as Player.

And that’s not good for the game, the GM, or the group going forward. That is a misunderstanding waiting to happen.

Case in point:

I write and run many convention games. I review the PC creations (weeks before the game is run) even though we are only likely to play that game for 4 to 6 hours. In recent memory, I ended up with a complete disconnect in the game as run between the Player intent and the GM narrative, even though I had exchanged a half dozen lengthy emails with the Player about the PC background to hone the creation process and wrap my head around what the Player wanted.

The Player made clear that the PC was very fond of outwitting Royals of Amber, and sticking it to them in their areas of expertise. But the PC was always willing to help ‘fix up’ the pranks and conflicts that resulted from showing up the Royal. The PC was supposed to be a ‘shake hands and all’s fair’ sort, within the Family Game.

But in actual play, behind the scenes of this PC legend, there were forces set into motion to take down this PC because of the string of successes and public pranks inflicted on the powerful. Payback was brewing.

End result, things blew up, and yet the Player was sideswiped by a storyline he did not see coming. The Player did not have fun, and I had to apologize for a rough finish to the game over the disconnect between us.

The importance of the anecdote is not just GM fallibility, but the idea that helping clarify the PC concept gives both sides better idea of the narrative and ‘fences’ of the story to come. Without some idea of PC backstory ‘why?’ and legend, you don’t have fuel for immersive narrative collaboration.

Now the other part of Christopher’s question is about what is ‘official’ and what isn’t between the rules, the game, and other GMs. What does the rule set say about creating things the rules have not specifically included?

Well. Um.

Actually, while Lords of Gossamer and Shadow is a step up in clear communication from the predecessor Amber Diceless Role Playing Game, the power of a diceless game and the collaborative space between a GM and Player is the actual fuel for expanding and making the game your own. So specifically, if the Player doesn’t write it into their background, it does not exist in the Player’s half of the collaborative space.

That does not mean it doesn’t exist in the GM’s half of that collaboration. It has to.

So the answer to Christopher’s question is, extrapolate the missing info, or invent something, or ask more questions of the Player, and/or provide a placemark in your GM notes for the Universe to have some mechanism for answering that missing info. So like some twisted version of the old Champions game, you do have to pick your ‘special effects’ with your PC story.

Did your PC legend come from scifi or magic? Well then, your dominion of a Gossamer world probably involves that same source. The hitech gal learns the ultimate hack codes. The sorcerer supreme fella finally takes over from the Ancient One.

Does your companion have special powers in a mundane package? Again you really should get the Player to tie this into their back story. How did you meet the shapeshifter horse you ride through the Grand Stair? Where did you acquire the golden belt that becomes a 30 foot tall beast?

My GM solution to gaps in the rules (or a PC’s back story) is that this is where the GM has to step up and make it all reinforce the narrative. How can I strengthen the story? How can I speed up the game? How can I make the group thread together more strongly? How can I illustrate the wonder of the Grand Stair through these little details, and also make it more exciting for me to be part of the canvas shepherding this narrative along?

For the Player or GM that finds this kind of sudden improvisation rather challenging or producing anxiety, it may be good to have a cheat sheet list of mysteries/narratives that can source your answer.

This list might be a genre list, or something from the Tropes wiki so you can avoid cliche. Perhaps showing this to the Player prompts them to give the GM the missing bit of info, or a promise to write up a little paragraph about the Artifact or Extra Power.

And then you can decide how it fits into the Greater Puzzles the Player does not know about yet.



Crossing the Forbidden, and not Breaking the Universe, and GM responsibility

Some various thoughts about Shapeshifting in the LoGaS discussion group.LoGaS

The short answer is, yes, I’ve used these (shapeshifting) rule tweaks in my campaign and in convention play. I try not to use convention play for any examples, because I feel Players in a 4 to 8 hour game that only happens once (or maybe continues) will do madcap things and make choices that are certainly NOT long-term immortal mindset.


IMC (in my campaign), the GM is very forthcoming with OOC warnings, and impartial to Players going across forbidden lines where they might/shall lose control of some aspect of their PC. Sometimes that becomes a story about ‘getting back’ to normal once the crisis is over. Sometimes it becomes a learning experience where the PC discovers something new about themselves.

Generally, I find Players do NOT want their PC changed by the GM and so they take these warnings seriously. In conventions, I see a more mixed reaction, where the Player may see more ‘spotlight time’ if they take the chance and dance across the Forbidden. There are certainly some Players who are OK torturing their PC concept and grabbing more face time with the GM.

As I say above, I’m pretty open and informative as a GM. I consider my advice to Players as not only their own Expertise (Attribute wise and/plus immortal experience) but also I definitely want it to be more than clear that if you go into a Forbidden Art, you may find you lose something of your original PC concept. Or you may find something new and wondrous about your PC, or perhaps you’ll just be trapped in a story line about how much your PC regrets having pulled that trigger. As seems obvious in the rulebook, owning a power sometimes means living with a certain forced perception.

As the GM, I’m your partner in perception. Just like Stuff changes how you interact with the Universe, and how people tend to see your PC, I think bigger pools of power, Exalted, or Primal, or Terrifying, etc, will tend to warp your PC’s perceptions to align with the power.

In other words, is Dworkin mad, or does he just see the Universe in a way no one else does?

GM responsibility here is not to steal authority from the Player or deprotagonize him/her, but to act as the altered perception filter. This is certainly dangerous territory for the Game Master. A bit too much, and the Player thinks you’ve ruined the PC. A bit too little, and it appears the Universe rewards crazy risks with insane amounts of unearned power.

What is the guide? Most rules do not actually address crossing the line into Forbidden Arts.

I think the guide is actually story tension. The GM and the Player both want the story to have tension. It isn’t going to be fun if the choices are gone. It’s not going to be fun if the tension is gone, or if the GM keeps saying, ‘No, your new bloodlust means you attack your friends on sight’. At the same time, it cannot be ALL FUN because there are costs to breaking the Forbidden. And the PC cannot be unchanged because they DID choose to touch/claim/swallow the Forbidden.

It’s also not bad if the other PCs are now looking at the changed PC as if they are a train wreck. Story tension, in effect, for everyone.