Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber is perhaps one of the most consistently entertaining fantasy series to even get close to the ten-book mark. Now Amber has been turned into a consistently entertaining RPG.
I won't try to summarize the Amber novels, because you don't need to have read the books to either play or run this game, as the rulebook is very complete. However, it would help, and even if you don't intend ever to play the game, I recommend the books highly.
I must admit I was skeptical when approaching this game. After all, how could any game writer capture the machiavellian tone of Zelazny's classic Chronicles of Amber ? I figured someone had to be nuts even to try. Not to mention that I heard you begin the process of character creation by auctioning off character abilities! Absolute madness!
Then I began to read the rulebook. After a page or two I had to concede that the author, Erick Wujcik, really had a handle on his subject matter. A few more pages and I was marveling at how well an auction could run, due partly to the thoroughness of their example and partly to my own common sense and gaming experience telling me it would work.
In the game Amber , the players all play the next generation of princes and princesses of the world of Amber . They each have strengths and weaknesses, but only one character in a gaming group can be the best at each of the main abilities. This is where the auction comes in. Players bid to be the best at Psyche, Strength, Endurance, or Warfare. Once an ability's auction is finished, everyone who bid is ranked (first, second, etc.) and the next auction begins. Of course, if you blow all of your points early in the series of bids, you may wimp out at the end.
So, you say "Hey, if Fred is the best at warfare ever, how will I ever beat him in a fight? That sounds really unfair!" Well, Fred will always beat you in a straight fight, so you will have to use your wits to keep from ever getting into a straight fight with him. Or change the fight once it begins û just because he is first in warfare doesn't mean he'll win instantly, so you have time to pull a dirty trick, run away, or use your magic. The main point of the game is to think. Avoid combat if you think you will lose. Never try to drink another character under the table if he has superior Endurance to yours. Don't be stupid . . . unless it's in character.
The auctions aren't all you'll need to spend your points on, either. Skills, like driving or library research, are negligible, and it is assumed that you know all you need to know on any subject, seeing as how you are nearly immortal and have had plenty of time to study anything which strikes your fancy. Magic, on the other hand, is very useful, and can be costly. It is so useful, in fact, that it would be a wise move for every player to save a few points to purchase some form of magic for your character.
Also, there is "Stuff". There is Good Stuff and there is Bad Stuff. Stuff is a multi-faceted attribute which is a little bit like luck and a little bit like attitude. If your character has Bad Stuff (which you might take in order to gain a few more points to spend on creating your character), she will tend to be unlucky, people will judge her harshly whether she is a villain or not, and when it comes down to resolving a dispute between her and someone else where they are pretty evenly matched, she will probably lose. Good Stuff, on the other hand (which you buy with whatever points you still have lying around after you finish the rest of your character), will make your character lucky, people will like him for no reason, and he will often triumph against all odds. Personally, I think it might be more fun to play a Bad Stuff character, just because they sound a little more challenging. Zero Stuff is also possible, which means the scales will not tip either way on a regular basis for your character.
The Amber manual begins with a long and detailed example of these steps of character generation. The example is both interesting and informative, covering most of the questions and concerns a beginning group might encounter in the course of putting their characters together. Rather than simply stating rules which we would promptly forget, the GM in the sample works through the problems with his players, showing us how we can do the same.
I must also mention one of the drawbacks to the system: Because an entire party of characters is generated all at once, and their levels of ability are somewhat intertwined, it may be very difficult to allow other players who have made characters in other groups to bring their characters into your game. It all depends on how versatile the GM is and how flexible the players are.
On the other hand, Amber seems ideal for those gaming groups who can't always all get together, as PCs can wander off and play by themselves very easily. Perhaps they have stepped away into a shadow world where time passes differently (sort of a "time out"). Long-distance gaming is also an option, which the GM can carry out over the phone, later informing the other players of the effects of the missing character's actions. I have heard of a group which has one player who lives in a different state and had to attend the auction by phone, and who is a scheming behind- the-scenes kind of guy, but is still very much a part of the campaign. (This kind of unseen character, as Zelazny readers will attest, is entirely in keeping with the flavor of the Amber novels.)
Another potential problem is that once you have spent all of this time on creating your characters, you will probably want to play for a while. No one-shot game this! The complexity of the world and of the characters you create is intriguing enough to make you want to campaign, whether you intended to or not.
Amber also requires a lot of trust in the GM, both because you must trust her to keep the game going, and because you must believe she will be fair when arbitrating disputes between characters. As this is a "diceless" game, you must be willing to accept the GM's decision on many points and therefore must have faith that she will be fair, or at least that if she appears not to be fair, there is probably a factor involved that you don't know about.
One thing they didn't mention in the book, perhaps out of tact: You know all of those worlds and supplements you have for all of those games you never got a chance to play? You can use them for Amber ! This is a universe where anything and everything not only can happen, but is happening - and happening all of the time. While the overall plot of your campaign may be to foil one or more of your relatives in their shot for control of the throne (as it usually is, because after all, you're part of the royal family of Amber ), you can still spend some time in a shadow world which looks (for instance) something like the Roaring Twenties on Earth, and get involved in a gang war. If the GM is inclined, it will be a shadow where time passes slowly and you won't even have to miss anything in the "real" world while you're away.
As a final note, I must say that by the time I finished the rulebook, I was beginning to wonder where I had stashed my copies of Zelazny's original Amber novels because the tone of the game is so reminiscent of the books it made me nostalgic to read them again.