These are somewhat free-form notes about some of the design decisions that the staff has made in the course of constructing the game. We'll be scribbling here from time to time. At the moment, quite a few things are still up in the air, so expect that a fair amount may change before we open.
Our core principle is "How do we make characters awesome?"
First off, we wanted to support characters being powerful right out of the game. The Corwin Chronicles have a certain pulp sort of feel to them; the named characters are all potent, and to capture the right feel for the genre, PCs on the game need to be of that same stature.
Allowing characters to be powerful at the start gives people the ability to immediately express their character concept rather than waiting for some time before feeling like their characters are where they want them to be. We also hope that this will encourage people to play older, established characters — not just kidbits recently picked up out of shadow, going through youthful hijinks.
Also, the thought of "all characters can be as cool as book Features" gives certain freedom in terms of powers. There are going to be a lot of abilities on this game, and it won't be unusual for characters to start with unique abilities. It means that there are a lot of inherent mysteries of the universe, and individual schticks. Our intent is to provide plenty of room for differentiation.
"But wait!" you say. "If everyone is awesome, does that mean that no one is really awesome?"
We think the answer to that is firmly, "No." This isn't an inflationary awesome, so to speak — we're not just giving you a pile of points and telling you to go to town. Instead, we're giving each character the opportunity to be distinct and potent. Because there are a lot of abilities out there, you'll never be certain of what you might encounter when you get into a conflict. And no one can simply overwhelm another player with the might of his sheet. Playing smart, planning carefully, obtaining information, and gathering and keeping allies are all key to in-character success.
We wanted to avoid playgroup fragmentation, so that distance doesn't prevent people from scening with others. In order to make that possible, travel either needed to be nigh-instanteous, or we needed a central location.
Because Rebma and the Golden Circle are key to the game, however, travel distance is an issue — there aren't really good ways to do near-instant travel, available to all PCs at all times, between these locations and Amber. Consequently, we've decided that the core play in the game is going to be located in Amber City.
We're going to build other areas as needed for roleplay, but in general, we are going to strongly discourage starting playgroups that aren't based in Amber. If your character is from outside Amber, he's a representative from that place who spends nearly all of his time in Amber. In many cases, that will mean that the prop controller for a shadow is a character in Amber, and the King of that place is an NPC (played by that character or by someone he designates).
Shadow is still a place where adventures happen, and events in the Golden Circle and beyond will be key to what's happening in the game, but it's not a place where player characters normally live in the present time. It's expected that many players will have shadows as props, though, whether in the Golden Circle or beyond, and a significant percentage of play will take place in shadow.
The Fantastical and the Dramatic
Amber is far from a mundane place, and our take is an attempt to return to the earlier-era fantasy that the initial Amber novels belonged to — harkening back to pulp, swords-and-sorcery, early high fantasy millieus, and mythology. That makes our inspiration writers who are contemporaneous to Zelazny or who came before him — authors like Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, PC Hodgell, and Fred Saberhagen.
We agree that it's sometimes useful to draw from real-world historical models, but we don't feel locked into paradigms drawn from our own world. We do want Amber to have a logical internal consistency, but it's one that is derived from its unique history and circumstances — it's definitely not just a medieval kingdom or a Rennaisance city-state, for instance.
We are a narratively-focused game, and consequently, we want people to think a little like novelists or screenwriters. Contemplate what's going to be interesting and dramatic, and go in that direction. We want our players to go for the spectacular, for the unexpected, for the quirks of bad luck or bad timing (or good luck or good timing). Stretch the special effects budget. Our system and setting are both leaned in the direction of the epic.
Balance Consequences, Rather Than Restricting With Rules
Our RPG system is based around the idea that what's significant is the scope of the consequences of an action, whether a conflict or something that you're personally undertaking. We don't want to be legislating that X power can do exactly Y or Z in circumstances A and B except where C applies, because that way leads to having to make a million little tiny nuanced rulings, the potential for rules lawyering, and the removal of colorful and unexpected use of abilities.
Moreover, Zelazny was a highly improvisatory writer. He wrote what came to mind at the time, sometimes without much regard for consistency. Capturing the feel of an improvised story (as well as explaining the inconsistencies of the books) means offering more interpretive flexibility and improvisatory capabilities to our players. Doing things for dramatic color is cool, and we want to encourage more of it. By making consequences the currency of fair negotiation, it takes things a step away from the "rules", separating the decision of what a fair outcome is from what is dramatic about a scene.
As an example: Having a bird of desire crash dramatically through a window to deliver a note is colorful and theatrical but has no real significant consequences (presumably). Having a bird of desire crash dramatically through a window to drop a bomb is something that potentially has severe consequences. We don't want to have to say, "Birds of desire land outdoors or in open windows in these exact circumstances" because of the potency of the latter application; we'd rather just say that this is a message delivery power and not one intended to have consequences, thus allowing the first dramatic entrance without also allowing the second abusive use. (Is this logically inconsistent? Potentially, yes, it is, but it is also more playable and less restrictive, and Zelazny isn't exactly full of precise consistent-application powers, anyway.)
We are a strong-consent game, and as such, our abilities are normally written to make it clear that consent is to be respected, and we tend to avoid creating abilities for which consent will be a significant issue. Note, moreover, that we buy heavily into the idea that consequences are intended to punish the character but should still be enjoyable for the player; conflict is for drama and for interesting roleplay, not for kicking people in the teeth.
The Role of Antagonists
NPC antagonists, whether they are staff-controlled or introduced by players taking on temporary GMing roles, ultimately exist so that they can be defeated. The only question is when, how, and what happens before they do get defeated.
Because of this, NPC villains really exist so that players have a backdrop against which to be no-holds-barred awesome, without some of the worries that sometimes attend player-vs-player conflict. The story is ultimately not about the villain; the story is about the player characters. As such, whatever actions the players take have to be important — the preparations they make, the clever plans they come up with, the roleplay they invest, all of these things should have a chance to shine on-screen against the villain. Similarly, the dangers and the costs have to come out of the things players care about — without meaningful prices, victory also loses its dramatic meaning.
Players facing NPC villains sometimes worry that there's some "right thing" that they need to do, treating the situation like one that needs to be "won", and fearing the Big Stick of the GM will do something to them that they don't like, or crush play that's important to them. This kind of thing is directly contrary to our philosophy. NPC villains exist to provide colorful opposition — to enhance the play environment, and to give the player characters the opportunity to show off their cool. There is no "right thing", and no "winning" or "losing". Relax, and go for being awesome.
The Role of the Staff
We decided that our game would be small enough that it can be somewhat LARP-like, in that every character can be made integral to what's going on, by ensuring that the background elements of their character concept play into the goings-on.
We also decided that we would focus on the things that people are interested in pursuing, as exhibited by where people spend their play time and what they buy into in terms of the RPG system.
What we did not want to do, however, was to run a lot of scenes that require a GM. Not only does this tend to rapidly burn out staff members, but there's inevitably some player tension around who gets GM time and who doesn't. So you'll tend to see us start "plots" by tossing balls into play — things that we believe will create conflict — but we don't have any predetermined endings in mind.
The number of staff-originated plots will be extremely minimal. We are keepers of the cosmology and the history, and we will launch elements into play as players request, but there is no particular story that we are trying to tell, and we have no personal investment in story outcomes going one way or another, so we are happy to simply facilitate story directions that players would like to explore.
We also have the desire to empower players who want to run plots. So our RPG systems are going to support limited-visibility (allowing players to give player-GMs some visibility into their sheets without revealing everything), and we're going to encourage players who want to toss new elements into the setting that'll create conflict, run villains, and so forth.
We have decided that the game is going to be divided into arcs, which you can think of as kind of akin to a television season. There'll be a set of core conflicts during each arc, themes that we want to emphasize, but there will be a bunch of other stories threaded throughout, as well. (For instance, the matter of the succession is one of the core conflicts of the first arc.)
We don't have any set timeframe for the game, but we expect that it'll run a couple of years. We expect that there'll be significant changes over that period of time, as is true for any RPG campaign.