There's nothing funny about the truth, except for maybe atrocities. Ha.

Contests

The Basic Theory

For players versus the environment, here's how it usually works: you try to do something, and you succeed. You're playing an Amberite, who is by definition superior to every human alive no matter how skillful or powerful. If it's something even remotely possible for a human, you can just do it for free.
For players versus other players or powerful NPCs, here's how it usually works: you compare the ranks in the relevant Attributes or Powers between the two, and the one with the higher rank wins. The closer the ranks are the longer it takes, but the outcome is the same.
That's it. You now understand the core mechanic of the game; everything else is merely elaboration.

Advanced Mechanics

Rank is always the first and most important thing the GM checks when determining if you can do something. If the contest is sufficiently uneven the GM usually stops there and declares a result; but if the contest is close at all the GM starts to consider other factors.

Internal Factors

Description

How you describe what you try to do matters. Which of these sounds more likely to work: "I shoot him," or "I brace the gun on my arm, carefully aim along the barrel, and shoot him in the back?" It's just a few words, but in a system without absolute stats a few words can make a lot of difference.
Think of your description as an argument put to the GM: you're trying to convince her that you can do something, so you add details to make your action more plausible. There are many ways to describe the same action, and which one you pick can mean the difference between success and failure.
However, keep in mind that it's easy to go overboard on description. There's an infinite amount of details you could consider in any given scenario, and it's easy to get mired down in things that don't matter. Zelazny is very good in the books about keeping things vivid without wasting time, and as a player your job is to do the same. You always have the freedom to add embellishments, but make sure that every detail you add is important.

Tactics

When you're going to lose a straight fight, you can always change what you're doing. Alter the contest: approach the problem from a different direction or add another variable to the mix. Be creative and adaptive. Corwin wasn't above cheating to win fights, and you don't have to be either.
Let's say you're being squeezed to death by someone with a higher Strength. Normally this is a pretty clear cut case-- saying "I'm going to escape the grapple" isn't going to work. But there are other options:
  • "I bite him and while he's distracted I escape the grapple."
  • "I undo the ties on my shirt and slip out to escape the grapple."
  • "I feign passing out and when he loosens his grip I escape the grapple."
  • "I look over his shoulder and shout 'Father, no!' and when he turns to look I escape the grapple."
All of these tactics might not work: the opponent could be armor plated, you could be wearing a space suit, they could have a higher Psyche than you, etc. Or they could just be so much higher in Strength that their grip never loosens sufficiently. But if the ranks are relatively close, any one of these could be enough for you to succeed.

Choices & Trade-offs

Frequently, performing better in one area means performing worse in another. Fending off your sword-wielding cousin takes enough concentration that you might not be able to block that incoming Trump call. Attacking aggressively improves your odds of hurting the other person but also leaves you more open to their attacks. Sometimes the only way to get what you want is to sacrifice something else.
Amber GMs love this kind of drama-- some of the very best gaming happens when players have to make meaningful decisions. You should expect to be given these kinds of choices by the GMs, but you can also create them yourself. If you can come up with a scenario where you plausibly gain an advantage for a cost, the GMs will almost always go for it. Just make sure that what you're buying is worth what you're paying, because the GMs will gleefully use that cost against you.
Remember also that gaining effectiveness via a tradeoff is not the same as winning. It is entirely possible to perform better and still lose, and the negative consequence won't necessarily go away just because you didn't succeed.

Advantage

"Advantage" is the generic term for being able to perform better than your rank would indicate in a contest. If two opponents with nearly equal ranks are fighting each other, the one with Advantage will probably win. If the party with Advantage has a significantly lower rank than their opponent, they may still be able to hold their own.
There are a lot of places where Advantage features in the rules, usually when a Power is used in combination with an Attribute. Some examples:
  • Power Words are based on the Psyche of the user but always grant Advantage; someone with a fairly low Psyche rank can still probably Schang! 1st rank Shape successfully at least once.
  • The target of a forced Trump call always has Advantage over the attacker in the Psyche contest to determine if the call goes through.
  • Mental Shift allows a Shapeshifter to disguise their aura. Detecting it with a Power is a straight contest, but trying to penetrate the disguise with Psyche alone gives the Shapeshifter Advantage.
Advantage can always be overcome by a much higher rank, multiple opponents combining their forces, or situational factors. The game term Advantage refers to inequalities inherent to the contest itself-- it applies in all situations and is always a major factor. This is separate from and in addition to any little-a advantages provided by local environment or the techniques listed above.

External Factors

Combined Efforts

Teaming up is a common way to succeed at difficult tasks. In Amber, groups operate at better than the rank of their strongest member. How much better depends on how many people are involved and the ranks of the other participants.
There are no exact equations that say 5th rank + 6th rank = 3.5th rank, or similar; as with anything else, the effectiveness of a group is determined by the GM at the time. In general:
  • Groups whose leader is within a few ranks of the target have a good chance of success
  • Groups which have multiple people within a few ranks of the target have an even better chance of success
  • Groups which contain no people near the rank of the target usually fail
  • Group members with a rank significantly below the leader's don't contribute much
  • Group members without a rank in the relevant Attribute almost never help against a target with even a moderate rank
There's almost always a practical limit to the number of people who can work on a given problem. More than about four people against the same target in a brawl will be getting in each others' way, and only two people could probably paint the same Trump card together. Psyche contests are an exception; they can add an unlimited number of participants with the drawback that everyone is vulnerable to everyone else-- whether they're on the same side or not.
Combined efforts on multiple fronts are often effective; if a target is engaged in Psyche and Warfare combat at the same time, both their defenses will suffer. Each front is evaluated separately but simultaneously to account for any combined effect on the target.

Stuff

Your Stuff--Good or Bad--can apply to every contest. The GM won't use it every time and it doesn't override player decisions or Attributes, but it can still change the environment enough to make a difference. Think of it as positive or negative description that's not under your control. Good Stuff means breaks in the clouds that illuminate your target perfectly, your servant happening to pack the right tool for the job earlier in the day, reinforcements that arrive in the nick of time, and a loose buckle in the straitjacket you're trying to escape. Bad Stuff means discovering a flaw in your sword when it breaks during a parry, distracting thunderclaps when you're trying to line up a shot, your cloak getting caught on the scenery during a chase, and snapping twigs under your feet when you're trying to sneak around.

Point Differences

"So I spent 30 more points than the person below me on the ladder, that means I can totally beat them, right?"
Not really, no. Rank is the only thing that matters in contests, and the number of points between rungs is irrelevant. That means that some purchases are more economic than others, but that's the whole point of the auction.

Ties

Given the structure of the system, ties are extremely rare in Amber. Even if the opponents' ranks are matched, the situational variables usually allow the GM to make a call one way or the other. When ties do happen, it's because the contest was exceptionally close and the GM thinks it's dramatic. Ties never last; sooner or later someone will change what they're doing and alter the contest.

Rank

Ranks represent a scale of competency in the various Attributes and Powers. In ascending order of skill we have Human, Chaos, Amber, "Ranked," and Numeric Rank. (Human, Chaos, and Amber Ranks are only available in Attributes. "Ranked" is only available in Powers.) Within Numeric Rank there are many levels, with the highest being 1st rank and proceeding downwards to the largest Numeric Rank.
Please see Contests for full details on how Ranks are applied.

Human Rank

When compared to an Amberite, almost all humans are trivially inferior-- they provide no meaningful competition whatsoever. Any level of ability equal to or lower than that possessed by a skilled professional human is considered Human rank.
This is the lowest possible rank in an Attribute. Anyone with Amber or better rank can safely ignore you; anyone actually ranked in the Attribute can defeat you instantly. The exact degree of ability represented by your rank only matters in competition with other Humans; even Chaos rank individuals can outperform you without really working at it.
Taking Human rank in an Attribute grants you a reward of 25 character build points, but is always strongly discouraged by the GMs if you have a choice.

Chaos Rank

In human terms, Chaos rank represents the best of the best: legendary or champion humans, the ones that leave the merely competent in the dust. Sherlock Holmes had Chaos rank Psyche and Lancelot had Chaos rank Warfare. In the Amber universe, Chaos rank represents the standard level of ability of any of the demons and denizens of the Courts of Chaos.
Chaos rank is enough to defeat Human rank competitors easily but not instantly or automatically. Amber rank operates in a similar fashion with regards to Chaos rank; Amber rank usually cannot ignore Chaos rank, but it's in no danger of losing either. Exceptional circumstances can sometimes allow Chaos rank to best Amber rank, but practically no battlefield advantage can allow Chaos rank victory over a numerically ranked opponent.
Taking Chaos rank in an Attribute grants you a reward of 10 character build points. Doing so for one Attribute is risky but probably not fatal given the appropriate strategy. Selling down more than one Attribute is almost never a good idea.

Amber Rank

There is no human equivalent for how good Amber rank actually is. It doesn't represent the ludicrous extremes of super-heroics found in comic books, but rather a perfection of humanity's existing potential: this is what people would be in the best of all possible worlds. If the average citizen of a fictional world was as good as a champion performer is in ours, Amber rank is how good the champions would be in that world.
Nothing less than Chaos rank even merits your attention, and then only barely. Only your siblings with numeric ranks can provide you with any challenge. Any such character will defeat you on an equal field, but the higher their rank the more quickly and assuredly they can do so.
Amber rank is the default for all Attributes, and costs nothing.

"Ranked" Power

A player that buys the minimum ability of a Power after the auction is considered "ranked," a full step below even the lowest Numeric Rank. "Ranked" is the equivalent of Amber rank for Powers. Powers do not have Human or Chaos Rank.

Numeric Rank

Numeric ranks represent the strongest Attributes and Powers in the entire universe-- even a moderate rank places you far above your Amber or "ranked" siblings, and 1st rank is literally the champion of all creation.
Numeric ranks are by definition relative. Differences of one rank always produce close fights; differences of a few ranks indicate a fight with a likely victor who could be overthrown by circumstance; differences of many ranks are as close to certain as Amber ever gets.
Numeric ranks are priced based on the results of the Attribute and Power auctions.

Time

The Big Important Warnings

Time in Amber is not perfectly regular.

You may get a lot more done in 30 real-time minutes than your siblings, or a lot less. You can rejoin conversations that were hours ago for your character but mere minutes for those involved, or vice versa. There are a lot of factors that make time disjointed, so be prepared to roll with it instead of arguing about who got what done how fast.

You will spend a lot of time just waiting.

Sometimes the GMs have to pause your evaluation to go deal with something else. Sometimes all the GMs are busy and you have to wait for one. Sometimes you're on a self-imposed delay while your character takes care of something that takes a while. Be prepared to sit around for periods of up to half an hour-- bring a book, a wireless device, or a game, or talk to other waiting players.

How Long Things Take

Combat Time

Combat represents the most tightly focused--and slowest--precession of time in Amber. Generally combat time involves actual combat, but any contest between players (particularly larger groups of them) where one action can make a big difference can reduce the action to combat time.
In combat, the GM checks actions every few seconds; usually in "rounds" that allow everyone a chance to act before starting the cycle again. Only actions that can be completed rapidly are allowed in combat time. You can attempt to perform an action listed as taking "minutes" in combat, but odds are good you'll be spending quite a few rounds doing it.

Short Actions

Short actions take a few minutes. They're things that don't require any extended effort on the part of your character, but aren't fast enough to be done in combat time.
The GMs usually evaluate short actions on the spot if there are no obvious problems: "Okay, it takes you a few minutes to shower and change clothes. What would you like to do now?" The action itself shouldn't cause any delay inherently, but circumstances might force the GM to pause the evaluation to check on other events which might impact your action.

Extended Actions

Extended actions take more than a few minutes but less than a few days. They're things that require prolonged, exclusive attention on your part. While you're doing extended actions, you can't really be doing anything else (with one exception: having in-character conversations with other physically present characters is fine).
GMs will usually institute a delay for extended actions to represent that time; this gives other players a chance to take actions while your character is busy-- and potentially to interrupt you. A delay is a 10 minute increment where you entertain yourself without any GM intervention or in-character interaction. A single task can take 1 to 3 delays depending on the exact circumstances: 1 delay is for actions that should take double-digit minutes; 2 delays for actions that should take hours; 3 delays for actions that should take many hours or a few days. The GM will almost always tell you how long of a delay your action will take before you engage it and allow you to adjust your plan accordingly. Some actions that require Endurance expenditure to maintain (notably, Pattern of the Mind and Manifest Logrus) will be charged one additional Endurance per delay, paid when the action is ceased.
If an extended action is interrupted, the GM determines how much of it the character has completed.

Prolonged Actions

Some actions naturally take too long to be accomplished in a Throne War even in a fast-time Shadow-- things that take days or weeks. There are very few of these in the Power descriptions, but some of the normally possible actions can be illogically extended to beyond the scope of a Throne War ("I use Conjuration to hand-create an entire castle and the surrounding town including people," or "I Hellride a lap around the entire universe.") Such actions are still technically possible, but they're never a good idea-- they're effectively the same as retiring from the game. If you attempt to perform such actions, the GM will always tell you so that you can do something else.

Other Notes

Amber Time

In general, a Throne War takes place within a single day (or less) in Amber. The action simply isn't that extended; once the children of Oberon start fighting, it doesn't take all that long for them to figure out a winner.
It's a good idea for the GMs to periodically let everyone know "the time in Amber," since this becomes rapidly obscured by people taking different actions across Shadow. If your game is happening in play blocks, the beginning of the block is an excellent spot to announce this information.
Historically in our Throne Wars, the game has started in later afternoon/early evening in Amber, and Tir has come up around the beginning of the second block. How much time progresses after that point is highly dependent on player actions.

Shadow Time

Time in Shadow is not precisely parallel to time in Amber; time can proceed much faster or slower on an individual world.
For game purposes, "fast time" Shadows can (where appropriate) reduce an extended action by one delay, turn an extended action into a short action, or make a prolonged action possible as an extended action. "Slow time" Shadows can add a delay to an extended action, turn a short action into an extended actions, or turn an extended action into a prolonged action. Characters unknowingly caught in a prolonged action will realize it after a time period determined by their Stuff.

Rests

Rests are a particular kind of extended action used to recover Endurance and heal wounds. By default, a rest is a several hour action, which puts it at 2 delays. Most Amberites rest in fast time to reduce that to one delay. At the end of a rest period, the Amberite is restored to her natural number of Endurance tokens and heals wounds appropriate to her Endurance.
If a rest is interrupted, the GM will give the resting player back half her normal Endurance recovery in tokens or as much as is needed to bring her back to full, whichever is lower. No healing takes place during interrupted rests.

Auctions

Combat

Attributes

Powers

Toys

Character Creation


Sidebars

Unranked Powers

Classically, Powers aren't ranked-- there's no reason why you can't use the original book's scheme of flat fees for basic and advanced Powers. Some of the abilities we've invented aren't strictly covered in the books, so you can either remove them from the game to go with the original book rules or factor them into the two categories.
Note that auctioned powers are frequently less expensive than the prices listed in the book; use the flat prices as a control for how many Powers you think an individual player should have.

Anonymous Auctions

It's always an option to run auctions anonymously with pseudonyms. If you do, you can reveal which pseudonyms are attached to which players after the auctions are complete-- or leave it completely anonymous right up until game starts for a truly unpredictable Throne War.

Serial Auctions

For smaller Throne Wars (or ones without ranked Powers), old fashioned one-at-a-time auctions are an option. Doing serial auctions reduces the confusion and anxiety of players a lot since they only have to keep track of one thing at a time, and allows for more entertaining verbal interaction between the auctioneer and players. However, simultaneous auctions are pretty much a necessity for large Throne Wars with ranked Powers-- the process simply takes too long otherwise.

Auction Order

In general we've run the Powers auctions before the Attribute auctions-- Powers are usually more central and specific to character concepts. But there's no reason why you couldn't run Attributes first and Powers second-- it would certainly encourage higher bidding on the Attributes.
If you're using serial auctions, auction order is particularly important. Are players saving points to use in another auction, or have they already spent too much? It makes a significant psychological and tactical difference in terms of how much players end up spending.
Whichever order you end up using, make sure you tell your players about it in advance so they can plan!

Optional Mechanic: Trading Up

To make Advanced abilities more readily available and increase build diversity, you can add the following optional mechanic: two abilities of a level can be sacrificed to gain one ability of the next level up. So, someone with 3B could trade up to 1B, 1I-- sacrificing flexibility for more powerful abilities. Multiple trades are allowed, but the final configuration must never have more abilities in a higher level than any lower one.
This mechanic has no effect on people at they very high or very low end of the ladder, but gives people in the middle a meaningful choice about their abilities.

Unnecessary Waiting

Not all waiting is caused by the delays of extended actions. If a player has spent time uselessly waiting for adjudication, a GM may choose to grant free rest to her character. This only occurs when the character could logically have taken a rest, and never during "GM pause" in the middle of actions. Depending on the length of the wait, the GM may offer a partial rest or up to several full rest periods-- but never of course more than the actual time wasted.

Joining the Party

Frequently, situations will arise where a player is stuck outside a cluster currently engaged in adjudication and would like to join. In such cases, the GM should try and incorporate the additional player within a few minutes regardless of any temporal differentials; better to have more people involved and break the timeline a bit than to have people waiting on nothing.