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Games from the Dying Earth

Copyright David Thomas 2000

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories are some of the best fantasy tales ever published. Written between 1950 and 1984 (and recently re-issued by Orion, as a single volume, Tales from the Dying Earth), some of them predate the Lord of the Rings. They also avoid its clichés – übermenschen, ersatz mythology, clumsy epic sequences, prescriptive morals and coy sexuality. Vance is not interested in sterile mythic icons, his work is always about people; real individuals with human failings and desires, who remain true to their nature.

The Dying Earth is an acknowledged influence on fantasy role playing – Gary Gygax borrowed wholesale from it for Dungeons and Dragons, while Greg Stafford exhorted Runequesters to be more like Cugel and less like Lancelot. But, while those designers were inspired by Vance’s work – Gygax even borrowed Dying Earth magic for D&D – they left the background well alone. Instead, D&D’s major debt is to all those retellings of Lord of the Rings – elves, orcs, that sort of thing – vanilla fantasy. Runequest is mostly about Greg Stafford’s own beliefs on the nature of myth and the need for heroism.

Dying Earth is entirely different. Unlike most fantasy environments, the world is dying and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. The sun is old, a dull ruby, so dim that people can look directly at it. Most of the planet is a wilderness, pocked with fallen cities, deserted castles and mysterious ruins. Strange, savage creatures, perhaps the result of magical experiments, wander the land.

What people remain live in ancient settlements. They can be lethargic, fatalistic, fanatically religious or desperately merry, but they have no long term plans. This is no time for heroics, as there is no point. Very few people are altruists, fewer still are trusting, all insist on payment in advance. After all, the sun might go out tomorrow. Their communities have strange customs of their own and outsiders should learn and follow them – there is no prospect that the locals will change their ways to suit visitors.

For all its exotica, Dying Earth is still about people. Vanilla fantasy has a few mismatched heroes, a pantomime villain and a selection of walk-ons. Vanilla worlds are mostly populated by interchangeable people who fight stoically, die like dogs or suffer assault and robbery without complaint. They have no motivations, they just turn up and stand about and no one misses them when they are gone. In Vance’s work, everyone’s human, even the monsters. They usually take the time to justify themselves. They are rational, they behave with personal dignity and protest assaults against them and usually seek revenge. They have depth. They are fashion and status conscious, opinionated, often selfish, occasionally cruel.

Then there are the magicians. Many people in the Dying Earth derive social influence from magic. Usually they use enchanted adjuncts, such as a studded bracelet which controls a demon (pressing on the carbuncles gives him headaches), but there are real practitioners around, who can use spells. Dying Earth magic is not subtle – in principle a wizard can do anything if he knows the correct incantation – and it is difficult to resist. In many places, wizards rule. They obey no laws except that of Equivalences (or Equipose – basically "no free lunches") and so do as they please, although they usually observe niceties like buying and selling and keeping their word.

The Dying Earth offers a great deal to gamers – an alien world filled with bizarre sights, sounds and smells, written in a unique, witty style, packed with vivid descriptions and intelligent characterisation. Then there’s the droll, articulate dialogue. Although some role players can and do include these elements in their games, Pelgrane Press feels that no currently available rules set or published background encourages this style of play. The lure of vanilla – a need for elves in every forest and orcs down every tunnel – is just too strong. In short the world needs Dying Earth roleplaying.

The game’s authors – designer Robin Laws, magic system specialist John Snead and genre writer Peter Freeman have come up with a new system that emphasises interaction and roleplaying over simple hack and slash.

To create the right feel, the rules encourage the players to follow the spirit of the stories. They should choose – and describe – what their character likes to wear, pick a suitable name and use as much Vance-style language as they can in play. Selections, whether from the books or imitations by the game’s writers, are provided and players earn extra experience points for using them. Preliminary experiments at UK conventions showed that players, even those who had never heard of Jack Vance, soon caught on and liked what they found.

Unlike most games, players are not in complete control of their characters’ wishes – in the stories, protagonists get intimidated, fooled, tricked and bribed into acting against their best interests, so too in the game. Uniquely, the primary mechanism is persuade/rebuff, with characters having a preferred method of influencing others, perhaps by glibness or by intimidation, and a preferred defence against being persuaded, say by being obtuse or lawyerly.

Combat is furious and desperate, just like it is in the stories – a skilled fighter can easily kill with one blow. In the original tales, no one wears armour, except as couture – a prospect which worries most players – so in the game it confers no benefit! As with persuade/rebuff, there are different styles of attack and defence, each with game benefits and drawbacks.

Magic follows the books closely, with some small concessions to player character survival. Jack Vance actually changed his mind about how magic worked in Dying Earth, and the rules use this shift to present different levels of ability: dabblers, practitioners (like the wizards in the first book), and archmages. Only the archmages can control the creatures which make magic happen, the sandestins. This rationalises the changes in the books and provides a simple campaign plan for magicians.

The background - the actual Dying Earth itself - takes up a large part of the rule book and will be developed further in supplements like the Scaum Valley Gazetteer. Then there’s the half-men, demons and other creatures, who will have a volume of their own, although the most common, including pelgranes and deodands, appear in the source book.

The stories fall naturally into three groups, so the game will run at three levels of, for want of a better word, "power". All offer different rewards so Dying Earth Roleplaying will support all three levels of play with adventures and campaign materials.

By far the most extensive part of the cycle features Cugel the Clever. We first meet this fox-faced vagabond at Azenomei fair, where he is trying to sell the lead talismans he has cut from an old coffin. They are, in his own words, "not obviously useless". Cugel is the spiritual father of many a fantasy PC – not only is the D&D thief class explicitly based on him, but his selfishness, vanity and scant morals pop up at virtually every gaming table. Cugel-level games are picaresque, amusing misadventures.

Some of the earliest stories covered magicians of middling ability – thoroughly nasty pieces of work with names like Turjan and Mazirian. They are power-mad, selfish and lustful. They think nothing of extortion, torture, theft and killing. One – Mazirian – even has an enemy’s life stored in a gong and tortures him remotely by beating upon it. Turjan-level games are dark and paranoid, with characters staying alive through a balance of terror.

The last part of the series is Rhialto the Marvellous, stories about an association of archmages, their rivalries, recriminations and plots. These wizards could all kill each other, so have agreed to follow a set of regulations, which are administered by powerful otherworld entities. Imagine a large number of vain, billionaire celebrities trying to get along, then add magical power. Rhialto-level games concentrate on the relationships between very powerful, extremely childish characters, and their reactions to external threats. They also lend themselves perfectly to live action gaming.

Obviously, it is possible for a character to start at Cugel-level and eventually become an archmage. The rules will encourage long-running campaigns and subsequent publications will provide enough background and game material to support them, complete with excellent cartography from Pelgrane’s stable mate ProFantasy Software and stunning art from existing names in the genre and some newcomers. Greg Staples is creating the cover art for the core rulebook.

Gamers can enter Vance’s hypnotic, doomed world of vat-grown beauties, cruel wizards, sadistic bandits, innocents abroad, petty rogues and puerile archmages later this year.

The Dying Earth RPG will be published by Pelgrane Press, who can be found at www.dyingearth.com.

Editor's Note

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