RETROSPECTIVE: Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny

Monday , 15, September 2014 28 Comments

Imagine the ultimate city, the greatest one that could ever exist: a city so awesome, that every other city on every other plane of existence is nothing but a shadow in comparison. Imagine that being king of this city is a very big deal and that this position is contested by nine brothers, all of whom are essentially playing the most titanic game of Diplomacy in the history of the multi-verse as they vie for it. All of them have the power to travel to other universes, all of them could effectively even create their own parallel universe that is almost exactly like the one that contains this perfect city, but none of them would settle for that. They all have powers ranging from weather control to healing factors, and they can all recruit vast armies gathered from any conceivable reality. Their warriors could have almost any attribute imaginable and are hand picked because their respective cultures idolize these nine princes in their mythologies and believe that fighting in their wars is their ultimate destiny.

Now… imagine that you are one of these brothers, you’ve formed your alliances as best as you can, the odds are completely stacked against you, but you’ve chosen to fight for control of this utterly fantastic city. Your men have died in droves and you’ve fought one incredible sword fight after another and you come close, so very close to victory, but in the end you are beaten, your eyes are put out, and you are thrown into prison deep in the dungeons beneath city which you desired to rule. And in that dungeon, a friend of yours remembers you and secretly brings to you a care package of food and wine and… something more. Something precious beyond all imaginings: the only thing that could possibly make your plight at all bearable. Your friend, you see, has brought you… a carton of Salems.

And that pretty well sums up how this novel completely captures the zeitgeist of the year of its release, 1970. The characters drink and chain-smoke their way through practically every scene. The protagonist uses the word “dig” as a synonym for either understanding or finding something to be agreeable. And the princes and princesses of Amber all sound so wonderfully good looking, they could all be models for the sort of cigarette advertisements that don’t exist anymore. When they take a meal together, I can only assume they do so without the knowledge that salt, butter, and eggs pose some sort of mortal threat to their health. I feel vaguely guilty just reading it. That this book presents what were essentially gods and goddesses charting their destinies across a staggering array of parallel universes that cascade in a mind-blowing psychedelic manner as they traverse between them is one thing. In this day and age, it’s probably more startling that they can eat, drink, and smoke without someone hectoring them about it.

Though I’m being somewhat hard on it, I actually quite enjoyed the book. It’s dated, sure, but I did not want to stop reading this series in order to write this post. Over at Tor.com, Michael R. Underwood has recently asserted that “we cannot keep pointing people at Heinlein, Asimov, Brooks, and Tolkien forever and expect those works to resonate as strongly with people born fifty years after the books were written.” I disagree completely as Starship Troopers, The Foundation Trilogy, and The Lord of the Rings were all quite old when they first captured my imagination. They aren’t going to stop being landmark works anytime soon. Similarly, Zelazny’s Amber stories are as compulsively readable today as when they were first published. Although they were written at a time when every conceivable rule was being challenged in the name of high artistry, these short novels still had to meet the same sort of editorial standards that Jack Vance’s work had to meet just a few years before.

But there’s something else to it as well, some dim reflection the earlier pulp heroes still manifest in it. The characters are just so darned pretty, after all. Try as I might, I just can’t find any sort of heavy handed message in Zelazny’s kickoff to his magnum opus. In comparison, I recently had to set aside the much more recent Game of Thrones after gradually figuring out that the superstars of the book consist of a bastard, a dwarf, a cripple, and a carbon copy that girl from Disney’s Brave. (It’s gripping enough that I might have gone on anyway– the writing is solid after all– but when a thoroughly repugnant character like “The Hound” had to be given a rather touching origin story that explains why he turned out to be such rough guy, I was done. Ugh.) No, I don’t see how anything but a freak show can result if you turn a bunch of people loose in some sort of Dung Age world, each of them with the equivalent of a hundred points or more in GURPS disadvantages. If I wanted to see a freak show, all I have to do is look out my window. If I’m reading fantasy, I’d rather read about a bunch of people with a particularly interesting world jumping ability who are set loose to fight a war across countless alternate realities. That’s just cool:

Now, it is written that only a prince of Amber may walk among Shadows, though of course he may lead or direct as many as he chooses along such courses. We led our troops and saw them die, but of Shadow I have this to say: there is Shadow and there is Substance, and this is the root of all things. Of Substance, there is only Amber, the real city, upon the real Earth, which contains everything. Of Shadow, there is an infinitude of things. Every possibility exists somewhere as a Shadow of the real. Amber, by its very existence, has cast such in all directions. And what may one say of it beyond? Shadow extends from Amber to Chaos, and all things are possible within it. There are only three ways of traversing it, and each of them is difficult.

If one is a prince of princess of the blood, then one may walk, crossing through Shadows, forcing one’s environment to change as one passes, until it is finally in precisely the shape one desires it, and there stop. That Shadow world is then one’s own save for family intrusions, to do with as one would. In such a place had I dwelled for centuries. (page 99-100)

Dig it. It would take a long time before games could catch up to this level of epic fantasy: Tom Moldvay’s Lords of Creation, for instance, and the GURPS Infinite Worlds setting from Steve Jackson Games. (1991 saw the release of an innovative diceless role playing game set in Zelazny’s Amber universe.) Although the original edition of AD&D included strange planes of existence as a core part of its default milieu, it really doesn’t contain anything quite like this. The closest you could get to this sort of tone would be if you attack all of hell with an army of Modrons in an attempt to depose Beezelbub and take his throne for yourself. This book is a wonderful example of just how diverse the books of Gary Gygax’s Appendix N list are from one another. For anyone that is only familiar with the watered down Tolkien ripoffs of the eighties, this book and others like it will be an engaging surprise.

 —

One odd corner of classic AD&D that this book sheds light on is how for some classes, there is only a limited number of high-level positions available for the players. There are only nine ninth-level druids in the default campaign setting, nine tenth-level druids, and at eleventh level, there can be only one Great Druid. (Shades of Highlander!) Now, I’m not saying that this book necessarily inspired this sort of thing directly, but I will say that it can provide some pretty good inspiration for how to actually run with it.

Here’s one particularly involved example from the Monk class:

There can be only a limited number of monks above 7th level (Superior Master). There are three 8th level (Master of Dragons) and but one of each higher level. When a player character monk gains sufficient experience points to qualify him or her for 8th level, the commensurate abilities are attained only temporarily. The monk must find and defeat in single combat, hand-to-hand, without weapons or magic items, one of the 8th level monks – the White, the Green, or the Red. The same must be done at the ninth and higher levels. The loser of these combats loses enough experience points to place him or her at the lowest number possible to attain the level just beneath the new level. The monk character will know where to locate the higher level monks; and he or she must proceed immediately to do combat or else lose experience points equal to the number which will place him or her at the lowest number possible to have attained the level just beneath that of the monk he or she should have sought out but did not. That is, the player character drops to 7th level in the above case and must then work upwards once again.

This stuff is crazy for a lot of reasons. In the first place, few adventuring groups are going to play long enough to get to this stage of the game, so why bother laying all of this stuff out in such careful detail? Secondly, it may even be unreasonable to assume that there are that many high level characters in the campaign setting at all.¹ Third, while other players are setting up their domains or running off the enemy thieves guild of some decadent metropolis, these other classes are assumed to be spending their end game competing for slots in some sort of oddball fantasy bureaucracy. Honestly, is that really what epic, “immortal level” gaming should look like?

Finally, if there’s one thing that players of these sorts of games would tend to expect, it’s that if they bust their tails to earn experience points session after session then they are just entitled to level up when the time comes. Okay, they might go along with training costs that have to be paid, sure, but for someone to be demoted a level because they failed to win some kind of hokey staged single combat? If they lose, I can’t imagine any other outcome but for the player to  flip the table over, storm away, and never come back.

But hey, maybe gamers were made of sterner stuff back in the seventies when these rules were being composed. Or maybe the game masters were well-read enough that they would have instinctively known how to make this awesome anyway. Books like Nine Princes in Amber and Game of Thrones indicate that that whoever takes charge of these sorts of limited high level positions would be a very big deal. People that are not in the running at all will have a vested interest in backing a particular candidate. This will of course be done in return for favors and titles and cushy political offices that will presumably be doled out later on.

The side-effects of this sort of this sort of endgame should be felt and observed long before the players themselves reach the upper levels of power. When someone reflects sunlight into your character’s eyes during a pivotal moment of his duel, it’s not going to be a huge surprise as to who is behind it. But why would those powerful non player characters wait until then to act? It’s not like they don’t have an interest in seeing potential rivals fail to come back when they go off adventuring to gain enough experience points to be able to challenge them….

There’s something inherently “busy” and cosmopolitan about this type of situation that may not be for everyone, and in that case, Nine Princes in Amber again provides a clue for campaign designers. You don’t have to muddy up the mundane world with these sorts of rivalries and political maneuvers, but these sorts of design elements might be the perfect fit for explaining what all is going on at the god-like level of play. Those gold boxed “Immortals Rules” sets for the Frank Mentzer iteration of D&D were a must-have item that ultimately saw very little actual play by its purchasers. Indeed, the concept of a wide open wilderness sandbox would have been quite enough for the typical preteen Dungeon Master of the time, but who knows what sort of epic games might have happened had more of them been familiar with this highly entertaining fantasy classic.

¹ See Lewis Pulsipher’s classic article,  “Fantasy Demography” in The Space Gamer 44: “These figures should astonish those referees who customarily sprinkle across the landscape characters of double figure levels. Even at the most favorable rate, high level adventurers are extremely rare birds.”

28 Comments
  • Rick Stump says:

    Lew Pulsipher reference for the win!
    Yeah, my multi-part rundown on NPC levels, etc., was originally inspired by a 1988 conversation with Lew which led to me running numbers, inventing classes, and (26 years later) writing blog posts.

  • Eric Ashley says:

    The Ladyfaire said she started reading SF with the A’s, and was underwhelmed so she went to the Z’s and found Zelazny.

    I read the books and played the computer game.

    Zelazny is part of our mortar.
    =============

    Wrote up ‘Dragonhunt’, a setting based on dragon’s as apex predators. Did the demographic math for Elf and Human. Elves had 1…one….21st Level mage. Humans had less….one mage that could cast Wish, but he was old enough to be very near his end, and not want to spend 4 yrs..

  • Daniel says:

    Heh. My junior high school copy of Nine Princes in Amber smelled like a pack of Camels.

    • Jeffro says:

      As soon as Zelazny wrote about Salems, all kinds of memories of the seventies I didn’t even know I had came flooding back. If he’d thrown in a Tampa Nugget box somewhere, I’d have about died!

  • Daniel says:

    The best, if somewhat anachronistically propped, scene of that era was when Freaks & Geeks played D&D. Funniest part is that the nerd’s mom only provides diet Faygo soda instead of Mt. Dew.

    When I first saw it, I could smell the basement of the funeral home where we used to play.

  • Yes, Amber is foundational, and fantastic in all senses of the word.

  • Ostar says:

    No comment on the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game? Some of my favorite gaming memories are of that, probably because I finally was able to be, at least vicariously, in the Amberverse…

    • Jeffro says:

      I know people that are completely in love with that game, but I have never seen a copy. It was silly not to at least mention it, though…!

      Also: X2 Castle Amber was an adventure module that was loosely based on the book, though it probably owes more to Clark Ashton Smith.

      Edit: Added parenthetical aside to the post.

  • Doug Wardell says:

    The first five books in this series are seminal for me. And FYI, the unabridged audiobooks narrated by Zelazny himself are amazing.

    • Jeffro says:

      I see lots of praise for the first five books, but not as much for the second five. Ah well. I’m glad the first cycle keeps up the quality, though.

      • Doug Wardell says:

        The second set are still good and worth reading, but they don’t reach the greatness of the first set. It’s hard to provide more detail without getting spoilery.

  • Tim McDonald says:

    Wish you could have experienced Zelazny the way I did, as a junior high student in the 70s, scouring the library for his books, saving lawn mowing money to buy the paperbacks, and in later on having the money to buy each book of the last 5 Amber books as it came out. And while Amber is great, his stand alone novels (particularly The Changing Land and Madwand, his takeoff on roleplaying games, and Jack of Shadows, which was my first Zelazny and is still perhaps my favorite (ever wonder who REALLY did Steampunk right? and was certainly my first exposure to it, though it was not called that at the time).

  • Great books, though the second series went kinda haywire. The characters are somewhat reminiscent of Greek and Roman heroes from ancient stories: all bigger than life in every way, good and bad. That makes them seem like throwbacks too. Most stories today don’t have heroes; or as you mentioned with GoT, the heroes have to be just as grubby as the proles.

    • Jeffro says:

      Alan Moore’s Watchmen was the high water mark for that sort of fiction. I was both shocked and entertained by it as a teen, but that sort of thing just gets tiresome after a while.

      • Daniel says:

        Interesting. I was inspired by Rorschach as a pure and uncompromising heroic figure who lays down his life while exposing the truth in the process. I can find nothing tiresome in the character or any types who might have been inspired by him.

        I place him among the fantasy pantheon of purely great, non-ironic, non-postmodern heroes. I don’t care if Alan Moore thinks me an idiot because of it. If he does, he doesn’t have a clue what he wrote.

        Watchmen is about a man rejected by a sick society who violently cures it of cancer. That is the meaning of the final panel. The truth finally, even after all hope seemed lost, comes out…and it happens to be–quite literally–in the reader’s hands.

        Watchmen is a brilliant and heroic work. The nihilism is window dressing to be undermined and a disguise to get it past the censors.

        Caveat: I’m only semi-literate, however. Half-savage, if you will. I also think the most hopeful and inspiring book ever written by Stephen King was…The Long Walk. So…there’s that.

  • luagha says:

    One of the most brilliant points made in Eric Wujcik’s Amber Roleplaying game is about Corwin if he was a player character.

    Imagine your player character making a play for the big leagues, trying to take the whole shebang.. and losing, getting blinded and thrown in the dungeons. (You aren’t killed for several reasons.)

    The game keeps going on for three years, during which you have nothing to do but smoke Salems and pace blind in your tiny cell. Any of the other player characters could contact you in an instant, but none do.

    Would you keep showing up to that game? Week after week, year after year? Plotting impossible escapes, accepting paltry charity? You would, if you loved your character.

  • Daniel says:

    Z’s Rose for Ecclesiastes has a very funny bit about the earthman being very glad he thought to bring ashtrays with him, because the completely lame Martian society had evolved beyond sex and cigarettes.

  • Robert Reynolds says:

    Don’t know if you’ve seen it, but you might be interested in checking out Roger Zelazny’s Visual Guide To Castle Amber. Most people either love it or hate it. I fall in with the former.

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