The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game
Reviewed by Nicholas HM Caldwell, Copyright © 2001
Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion
The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game
is an elegant 192-page hardback volume designed by Robin D Laws with
the assistance of John Snead (for the magic system) and Peter
Freeman (for genre fiction). Published by Pelgrane Press, The Dying Earth Roleplaying
combines distinctive rules and setting material for the Dying Earth
novels of the master fantasist and science fiction writer Jack
For those unacquainted with Jack Vance's
work, the Dying Earth is the most distant future of the Earth when
the sun has grown old and red, ready to extinguish itself at any
moment. The Dying Earth has exotic decadence, eerie beauty, isolated
cultures with unusual customs, cannibalistic half-men, deadly
predators stalking ruins and wildernesses, and eccentric magicians.
Yet for the adventurers of this world, swordsmanship is less useful
than persuasion and sharp wits. Now if you have not already done so,
buy and read "Tales of the Dying Earth" (the Fantasy
Masterworks Edition is recommended)!
If you haven't guessed, I'm a fan of Jack Vance's work, whether
fantasy (such as the "Dying Earth" saga or the "Lyonesse" trilogy) or
science fiction (such as the "Demon Princes" quintet or "The Cadwal
Chronicles" trilogy), so I'm approaching this review from that
perspective. This is probably also a good juncture to admit to
having written an article ("The Air-cars of Ampridatvir")
for the second issue of "The Excellent Prismatic
Spray", a supplement series cunningly disguised as a magazine.
The contents of the play-test files convinced me last year that this
was a game worth playing and writing for. Well, the final product is
The first chapter is aimed both at introducing novices to
role-playing and experienced gamers to the unique aspects of
The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. In the Dying Earth setting,
fighting is dangerous and the slaying of human opponents to be
avoided. Characters are similar - arrogant, greedy, comfort loving,
indolent, rakish, and pedantic. Portions of the text here and
elsewhere adopt Vancian style and mannerisms, encouraging the reader
to think in such fashion.
Proceed quickly to the second chapter, where "you may complete
your character before the sun dies and all goes dark".
Character creation is easy.
The Game Moderator (GM) selects the power level of the campaign from
Cugel-level (low), Turjan-level (medium), and Rhialto (high). This
determines the initial number of character creation points available
and maximum for character abilities - these maxima can be exceeded
by paying extortionate numbers of creation points. Players who are
willing to submit to the whims of dice rolls can gain bonus creation
points for their characters.
Players pay points to gain useful levels of Persuade, Rebuff,
Attack, and Defense (in that order if they have any sense!).
Characters are distinguished by their styles of persuasion,
rebuttal, and combat. Thus a character may be glib or intimidating
when attempting to persuade and obtuse or lawyerly when rebuffing.
Players may choose or roll the style for each of these abilities. A
substantial rating in Health should be purchased next plus any
additional weapons knowledge (beyond the familiarity with one melee
and one missile weapon granted by the Attack style) and magical
ability. Thereafter other abilities such as Concealment, Living
Rough, and Pedantry may be bought. Creation points can be expended
to establish relationships with named personages of the Dying Earth,
who might be persuaded to act in a character's favor, or to create
retainers (of varying competence and obedience) for Turjan- and
Rhialto-level characters. Cugel-level characters will find investing
in Possessions a more worthwhile use for their creation points. In
Vance's The Eyes of the
Overworld and Cugel's Saga,
Cugel suffered frequent reversals of fortune wherein he lost money
and other valuables. In The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game,
Cugel-level characters (and
their players) can expect to lose anything and everything that isn't
a designated Possession (paid for by creation or improvement points)
on a similarly frequent basis through the attentions of bandits,
incensed mobs, or "any other flimsy pretense" that the GM
devises! Players may choose to buy Resistances to the commonplace
Dying Earth vices of arrogance, avarice, gourmandism, indolence,
pettifoggery, and rakishness - characters without such resistances
will fall prey to these temptations at every turn. Revision of
characters is explicitly allowed to permit players to rectify
mistakes discovered in the first session or two of play.
Chapter 3 introduces the overarching rule of efficacious
blandishment. Succinctly, it allows characters to perform actions
outside and beyond the rules provided that the player can persuade
the game moderator that the results fit the
story. Only in The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game could such a commonplace of
gaming be claimed with such aplomb as an innovation in role-playing!
The focus then moves to the core mechanics, which are elegantly
simple. In character creation, players determine the ability
ratings for their characters. Each ability rating maps directly
to an ability pool whose value will fluctuate in game
sessions. To resolve an action, roll a d6. On a 4 or better, the
character succeeds. On a 3 or less, the character fails. If the
player dislikes the result, spend a point from the relevant ability
pool and re-roll, repeating until either the desired result is
obtained or the ability pool is reduced to zero. Rolling a 1 is a Dismal
Failure which automatically forfeits the character 2 ability
pool points and cost a further 3 points to re-roll. Rolling a 6 is
an Illustrious Success and gains the character a temporary
boon of 2 points (and opponents must expend three points to nullify
such a result).
Contests (such as the conversational exchanges between archmagician
and sandestin over indenture points and allotted duties or fights
between adventurer and half-man) are resolved as follows: The acting
character rolls her ability until she achieves a success. The
countering character rolls an opposing ability until he succeeds.
The acting character must now either pay points to re-roll her
nullified success or admit defeat. If she achieves a further
success, the countering character must now choose whether to expend
points or admit defeat. Contests end whenever one character is
unwilling to nullify a dismal failure or an illustrious success,
uses up all his ability pool points, or concedes defeat.
There are some special cases to account for (exceptionally) hard or
easy tasks, the superiority and inferiority of certain styles with
respect to others, and extreme discrepancies in ability ratings
between opposing characters. All are explained with many clear-cut
examples. The succeeding chapter explores each ability in turn and
how to "refresh" ability pools. Depending on the ability,
this might be a good night's sleep, but it could as easily be an
evening of good food and drink, a scholarly disputation, juggling
exercises, or the observation of the social deportment of the
locals. The importance of a high Health rating now becomes obvious.
If a character fails a Health roll, he takes an injury. One injury
is Hurt, two injuries is Down, three injuries is Dead or Dying!
We now turn to the subject of magic. In the Dying Earth setting,
mages can be classified as Dabblers barely able to cast a
couple of simple cantraps, Magicians who study the hundred
great spells known to the lore and who may with difficulty contain
several such spells in their minds simultaneously, and Arch-Magicians
who can summon and dominate the potent sandestins. The rules handle
all three levels of power with equal ease and quickly forestall
distressing complications by forbidding wizards from casting magic
while manipulating time or using magic to refresh abilities.
Moreover the setting itself is protected from the stratagems of
clever players who seek to alter the Dying Earth on a grand scale,
say by renewing the sun to its youthful vigor. Such plots are doomed
to failure by the "primacy of ancient knowledge". If it
could be done, it would already have been done. It has not already
been done, hence it cannot be done. The "encompassing" of
spells (the process by which magicians force complex spell patterns
into the confines of a disciplined human mind - a concept borrowed
long ago by another role-playing game) is explained. I don't like
spell memorization in that other game - however it is wholly
appropriate to the Dying Earth canon and I have no objections to its
instantiation in the rules. Other essentials such as enchanted item
and manse creation, sandestins, and magical resistance are also
All of the named spells from the novels, including such favorites as
"The Excellent Prismatic Spray", "Phandaal's Mantle
of Stealth", and "The Charm of Forlorn Encystment",
can be found in the Grimoire chapter. A number of original spells
are also included, however there is scope for inventive game
moderators to create their own additions to the lore. Enchanted
items receive a similar comprehensive treatment.
A mere two pages suffice to cover the mundane items, which
adventurers with temporarily full purses might seek to purchase.
Well, it's not as if the characters will retain possession of such
items for an extended period, so lengthy equipment lists are
Good role-playing in the Dying Earth milieu demands a distinctive
style of gaming. An entire chapter is devoted to exploring what this
means in practice for players in character creation and in play
proper. Angst is discouraged as are walking weapons arsenals.
Discretion is preferred to valor, combatants can and should choose
to deliver non-lethal blows and offer/accept surrenders from human
opponents, and characters should seek personal satisfaction rather
than attaining grandiose goals. Players are encouraged to cultivate
a little fatalism and to enjoy the occasions when their characters
are bested by persuasion and temptation. Difficult when players
normally expect total control over the behavior of their characters.
Some games have experience points gained for prevailing over foes,
casting magic, or successfully performing actions. The
Dying Earth Roleplaying Game has improvement points which
are gained by the player for the benefit of the character.
The first improvement point is
gained by a player simply turning up. The rest may be obtained by
delivering "tag-lines" (quotations of Vancian dialogue
whether original or pastiche) at apt junctures in the session in a
suitably entertaining and amusing fashion.
The next chapter considers the unique aspects of the Dying Earth
from the perspective of the game moderator. GMs are warned that
The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game is much more unpredictable than
conventional fantasy RPGs. Sandestin-level magic is more powerful
than mere spell lists while ability resolution (particularly
persuasion attempts) can lead to completely unexpected events.
Instead GMs are urged to think of scenarios not as story arcs but as
lists of possible happenings. Substantial assistance in terms of
advice, scenario elements and illustrative scenes from the novels is
provided on how to blend Dying Earth motifs such as swindles, odd
customs, strange magic and the wondrous into adventures. Help is
given on creating taglines (an area which I expect to be the most
difficult part of GMing this game for me) and alternate improvement
rules appear for groups who find taglines irksome. Unconventionally,
these rules reward entertaining failure equally to personal success.
"Places", "Personages", and
"Creatures" form a trilogy of chapters on the Dying Earth
setting itself. "Places" is a concise gazetteer of the
more interesting locations of the 21st Aeon (and adjacent
eras) - much easier than hunting through the novels for tidbits of
information on Almery and Ascolais, let alone more remote
settlements. There is, however, no map. GMs are forced to create
their own individual vision of the setting, which is possibly a good
thing, but not for those incapable of cartography such as myself.
"Personages" features (and gives game statistics for) most
of the principal characters from the novels, including Chun the
Unavoidable. "Creatures" accomplishes the nigh-impossible
task of converting the deadly creatures of Vance's world frequently
evoked only by allusion into game terms. Gids, deodands, erbs, hoons,
pelgranes, and others are described in terms of "known
facts" (laboriously researched from the canon) and
"scholarly conjectures" (which are often deliberately
The last chapter is "The Cooks of Cuirnif", a Cugel-level
scenario, which will allow GMs and players a painless and
entertaining entrance into gaming in The Dying Earth. To say more
would spoil the surprises.
The book ends with a useful index and an example character sheet.
In conclusion, the designers and Pelgrane Press have created a
role-playing masterpiece from one of the original sources of
inspiration for the entire gaming industry. The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game
meshes straightforward, yet distinctive game mechanics with an
excellent conversion of Jack Vance's most famous setting into an
adventure game. All of the exotic flavor of the Dying Earth has been
faithfully captured with the system fully supporting rather than
hindering the transition from novels to a game.
For me, The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game
is simply the best role-playing game of 2001.
The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game is published by Pelgrane Press
who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
and found on the Web at www.dyingearth.com.
Nicholas' article, "The Air-cars of Ampridatvir", is currently available at: