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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 Game combines distinctive rules and setting material for the Dying Earth novels of the master fantasist and science fiction writer Jack Vance.

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 even better.

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 fully covered.

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 unnecessary.

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 contradictory).

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.

Editor's Note

The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game is published by Pelgrane Press who can be reached at info@dyingearth.com and found on the Web at www.dyingearth.com.

Nicholas' article, "The Air-cars of Ampridatvir", is currently available at: http://www.rpgaction.com/gu/articles/default.asp?id=13.

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