zdiw tips

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.

Doors and doors, LoGaS

From the kickstarter page for Lords of Gossamer and Shadow


Jason Durall pointed out.

Bridging Doors. While Wardens are limited to Doors that lead to-and-from the Grand Stair, Masters know how to connect two doors in a single Gossamer world together so that they are directly linked, opening from one to another. To do this, the Master must be physically present at one of the doors to be linked (which must be closed) and concentrates on the other door to be linked. This can take a few minutes, less so with a strong mental impression of the other door, and even less with a direct psychic or magic link to the other place. These doors only open from one door within a Gossamer world to another place on the same Gossamer world. They can never bridge worlds.

Bridged doors lack the invulnerability of Doors on the Grand Stair, and they can be accessed and affected by any Warden or Master. These bridged doors are rarely permanent, and the duration will last only so long as the Master desires, usually a matter of days. Making a permanent bridge between two mundane doors takes considerably longer, a process measured in days rather than minutes.

This ability needs some thought, it can be powerful enough to break a lot of scenarios a GM might normally organize.

More later

Threats; thoughts on the LoGaS universe

LoGaSOne of the very first questions you get from GMs and Players when presented with a diceless game that uses an infinite universe as a background is, “what the hell do the Player Characters do with all this?”

You can go anywhere. You can be a legend among mortal adventurers.

What are the threats to the status quo? What do the PCs care about and why do they work together? Why would they oppose each other or another universe faction?

Masters of the Grand Stair are not harmonious…and yet they gather if the Stair is under threat. And a thousand years ago, they were united to fight off the conquering ambitions of the Dwimmerlaik.

The Lords of Gossamer and Shadow have several canon threats already revealed in products for the line. Typhonians. Dwimmerlaik.

(like Amber Diceless, the implication is that getting such powerful characters to work together requires that there is a universe scaled threat that may destroy the ‘universe as we like it’.)

Having done a first read of the two threat assessment books, Typhonians and Dwimmerlaik, I judge these are not ‘starter elements’. They are interesting and they are scalable threats, but I don’t think I’d introduce them early to a campaign. I’d pick something a bit closer to home and hold the Big Bads for later.

So what’s a good Villainous Opposition for LoGaS game start?

  • enemies of your mentor/ally
  • groups that want to restrict access to the Stair
  • groups that worship Masters/Wardens of the Stair
  • groups that want to destroy the Stair
  • worlds that are using the Stair to create empires

Again, the above list because: change is never pretty. Your PCs have power. What will such changes bring?

At Ambercon 2014, I introduced several familiar names as possible villains to the above (not recommending you do this at home):

  • Amber, the Eternal City would destroy the Stair to break alliances between shadows that might rival the Gold Circle
  • the Courts of Chaos would destroy the Stair to trap the powerful Dwimmerlaik in their various shadows

And you can get lots more cosmic with threats than those revealed so far above. Like in the famous Strange Bedfellows Amber Campaign, you could invade the universe from another universe entirely.

Villains generate story conflict that does not have to come from your PCs.


  • threaten values
  • provide common story
  • challenge PC niches
  • challenge PC choices
  • engage PC emotions
  • challenge PC creativity
  • lead to rewards/consequences


100 Landings of the Grand Stair

The Dripping Landings

Upon the Dripping Landings you will experience cold airs and condensation falling throughout the corridors and region.

The Doors here are surly and become time locked if a clumsy attempt to open them is made. If the novice fails to remember the latch sequence, then only a Warden may attempt the Door again in a day cycle. If the Warden should fail to open the Door with grace, only a Master may coerce the mechanism at that point.

The embedded grain of the metal doors here resemble the Rhen markings in other regions of the Grand Stair. Is there some older pattern that the Rhen copied and used? Or is this just the manufacture of these Doors?

There are no lights in the Dripping Landings. Neither do torches do well due to the cold winds and water falling. Recommend solar gems or shrouded magical lights be carried. However, if you are in the region for days, you may find the constant tones of water dripping on the stone veneers is musical.

— Black Raven rutter of the Grand Stair, early version, handwritten, metal cover.

Lords of Gossamer and Shadow (LoGaS) and canon ‘sticky’ across games

Rite Publishing is producing background material for LoGaS that includes stories, NPC descriptions and possible stats, history, tricks, tips, and etc.

This is excellent and very needed when you don’t have award winning literature to base the tone and texture of your game upon (as in Nine Princes in Amber.)  Even with the Amber material available, gaming with various GMs will get you many interpretations of the canon material. A shift of emphasis here; a tweak of cosmology hinted over there; some organizations that seem significant in one campaign that never appear in another.

This all falls into what I’ve called ‘zero dice—infinite worlds’ and is a feature, not a bug.

In Amber play, the philosophical weird of being able to find a brother, or a cousin, and yet not be entirely sure that you are talking to the Real Person is a feature of the canon.  It may or may not apply to LoGaS play for NPCs, etc., but I’ve decided that the confusion it adds is not nearly as important as the stunning immersive quality it gives the Players for the infinite worlds aspect.

Things and people on the Grand Stair are more likely real if they do and act on the things you expect of VIP NPCs.  On various shadow worlds? Maybe not so much. Shadow produces doppelgangers of famous folks. This is a subjective element for a GM to interpret.

Likewise, the actual elements of the Grand Stair are going to get descriptions from various GMs.  And this aspect, well, maybe it should not be so flexible in concept. Logistically and in presentation, it would be nice if most descriptions of the Grand Stair were similar.  However, I’m not sure — short of a small video — or sketchbook — or terrific professional prose, that we are going have such visuals to hang things upon.

So once again, Rite Publishing is providing some of this for us. Go read the reviews. The things I’ve seen are good.  Even if we had more graphical stuffs, you’d get the ‘Visual Guide to Castle Amber’ syndrome, where 75% of the audience doesn’t like the reference.

So here are things I used when playing the LoGaS game at Ambercon 2014:

  • regions of the stair have variant architecture and Doors, the regions can be small as a corridor or large as a territory of levels
  • some Doors are marked with the Rhen wayfinding codes, but not most of them (see Lucien’s Guide to the Stair)
  • most Doors have puzzle latching mechanisms
  • some Doors respond to mismanaged operation with security that makes them harder to open or locked
  • some regions do not have lighting, some do
  • the Agora, is huge and confusing, being a hub of several different regions, depending on where you are arriving from, there are surprises in the merged styles. The Agora does not seem to be as ‘themed or organized’ as the Grand Stair leading to it
  • the Grand Stair performs constant slow repairs on itself, you cannot expect marks or damage to be there long
  • trade routes inside the Grand Stair are more often used by regular shadow folk with purchased rutters for navigation, ie, folks do not ‘wander’ or explore the Grand Stair. Get in, get going, get out!

I think the project on the Rite Publishing forum where 100 Landings of the Grand Stair is listed could be a sweet resource for the community.



ZDIW: curtain in five minutes, principal actors on stage, please

Over in the Livejournal, Ginger puts down a few thoughts about how personality and face time work in House of Cards.
If you have spent any time here, you know I owe most of my casting effort, the visuals I share with my Players, to the House of Cards dramatis personae.
So collected here, for the first time are the GM reasons behind some of the faces–in order of age— because that’s what matters in this family.
Benedict: is the ultimate survivor who keeps a mannered but snappish regard for his family. He chooses his words carefully because his father was the ‘show me’ King of which all others are but shadows. Basil Rathbone is chosen for his precise speech, his ability to play a villain and his uncanny way of projecting competence when doing nothing at all but watching. It helps that he is narrow of face but broad of mind.
Eric: is the charming handsome prince who knows he’s better than most of his family and can often prove it. He can explode into action. He prefers to sneer and discuss the weaknesses of his opponents in detail. He can make you smile even when you don’t like him. Jonathan Frakes is chosen because he has attitude, charm, a terrific smile and I don’t trust him any further than I can throw him. He does a good sneer. It helps that he has done commanding roles and is a pretty good director.
Corwin: is a straight ahead bastard who just may have been even colder and meaner in a younger life. He was held down and abused by his much older more competent brother Eric. He resents authority, but can get a job done. He prefers wine, women and song. He is used to breaking rules to get things he wants. No one likes Corwin except people who don’t know him. Timothy Dalton is chosen because he is quite likable unless he is a stone cold killer. He has that air of switching between gentleman poet and psycho action hero. It helps that he played James Bond and got all the girls. He plays a good jerk.
Deirdre: we don’t get but a taste of Deirdre. She’s lovely, she’s quite feminine, she’s awfully good at talking people into things and she can break a werewolf across her knee and kill it. Oh, and she prefers an axe when most princesses use bows or daggers or spells. She isn’t exactly subtle but she seems to be a bit of a fussy femme. Possible manic mood swings, probable incredible manipulator given her father and older sibs. Catherine Zeta Jones is chosen because she does action roles, swords, cat burglar, femme fatales even though she is tiny and almost delicate. It helps that she has played killers without moral yardsticks and does a fair job displaying incredible vanity.
Caine: is an eccentric in a family of sibs that toe the line to King Oberon. He’s dark and laughing, alternately mean and crass and quite ingenious. He’s bloodthirsty but conniving and practical. He misbehaves, a lot. He doesn’t mind being underestimated in a family where that gets you out of favor and trampled. He will talk to anyone in persuasive manner, regardless of his station or ranking in the official lists. He’ll stick up for brothers he doesn’t even like. He’s a bit contrary that way. Oded Fehr is chosen because he is exotic to the entirely too Euro-centric feel of the myth in Amber. His look and feel bumps the appreciation of the princes into a whole different shape. It helps that he appears formidable even as he appears mysterious.
Fiona: we get a lot of Fiona canon. She’s glamorous, feminine, extremely petite and rather lone-wolf compared to other princesses. She likes puzzles, mysteries and she’s really really good with jibes. She’s off-handed in her brainy qualities and she knows that makes you crazy. Myrna Loy is chosen because she’s redheaded, smart, witty, playful and can also be mysterious, athletic and exotic. It helps that Myrna was once the woman all women wanted to be. Please do watch her in ‘The Thin Man’ or ‘Mask of Fu Manchu’ to get a sense of the range of intellect to her acting.
Bleys: is good at everything he lets you see. He’s good at things he hides. He’s just good. A worthy prince and a daring one. Impractical? Perhaps. Kenneth Branagh is chosen because he’s cool and charming and dashing and sharp like a knife. It helps that he has a terrific sense of humor and drama.
Llewella: is withdrawn and more than a bit guarded. She’s otherwise off doing other things. She quits the center of power, or so everyone believes. Maybe she’s not playing the Family game? Llewella is almost the only member of the Family obviously of another species. Grace Kelly is chosen because leaving the center of power when you are beautiful and important is part of her legend. It helps that she happens to look otherworldly also.
Brand: is whip-crack smart and quite the persuasive fellow. He’s a compulsive talker, but knows that and has as many layers of chat as he needs to hide his real agenda. Jeremy Irons is chosen based on faith that Ginger and Michael know what they are talking about. I liked him in ‘Lion King’. Never seen his work otherwise. Note that younger pictures of him are spot on for artistic redhead.
Julian: is refined and competitive and quite the wit. He takes the quiet intellectual route as all other brothers are busy dashing about proving something for Dad. He seems to like appearing cruel but definitely has his hidden side. His ability to think ahead of his brothers may be more than just wishful thinking on his part. This quality stands him well with his breeding of creatures for his gain of power. Jude Law is chosen because he looks like he could skewer you with a jibe and keep his armor immaculate. He’s also able to bring the smackdown action. It helps that his delivery of dialog is very precise and cutting.
Gerard: is likeable and somewhat dangerous to annoy. He protests he is not really up to snuff with the intellects in his family. So he asks a lot of questions. He jumps to conclusions. He roughs up folks. He preempts actions of his sibs when he thinks things are getting too complex. Liam Neeson is chosen because he plays a great affable fella. Then too, when he gets mean, he’s quite scary intense. He can deliver very soft dialog and equally ferocious growls. It helps that he is really large, looks good in a kilt and might be able to tip over a car.
Florimel: is so apolitical that no one is quite sure if she has personal agenda. She’s considered weak and sometimes stupid. However, she never seems to pick the losing side. Lots of chance seems to fall her way. Susan Sarandon is chosen for her accessible manner and ability to analyze men at a glance. She does glamour. She does wiles. She does quiet strength and bawdy laughter. She is versatile and sexy. It helps that she is a bit of a chameleon and can keep you guessing.
Random: is the youngest and conspicuous for his lack of any redeeming qualities by most accounts. Described variously as a layabout or drinker or homicidal fink. One gets the distinct impression that Oberon did not care much for his offspring at that point and Random took that lack of attention as license to be a royal pain in the ass. Ewan McGregor is chosen because he can range from rocker layabout and drunk musician to redeemed authority figure. It helps that you almost forgive him anything if he laughs and includes you in his joke.
Well…there. Certainly not modern or complex or definitive….casting calls like this prompt kudos and strong dislikes in equal chance. Folks bring to the exercise a hidden emotional agenda…which often will get you words like ‘hate this one’ or ‘omg, she is so not!’
But perhaps the narrative above gives you some insight into my Amber-verse.
and of course…. Oberon was a prick.