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Cugel's Compendium

Reviewed by Nicholas HM Caldwell ©2002

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

Cugel's Compendium, more fully Cugel's Compendium of Indispensable Advantages, is the first full-blown supplement for The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game, published by Pelgrane Press. Wittily and clearly written, this 72-page volume has Aaron Allston, Robin D Laws, and Phil Masters as its principal authors. 

With refreshing honesty, Cugel's Compendium opens with the statement "In all candor, this is a toy book." Indeed there are a multitude of "toys" for players and Game Moderators (GMs) alike involved in Cugel-level games, starting with "Arcane Adjuncts of Obvious Utility". These magical items are minor in power and scope, but all are of interest and will entice the avarice and curiosity of player-characters. Unexpected twists and limitations of the devices will prevent players from treating them as another form of "loot". For example, the Cloak of Fire Retardation does indeed protect its wearer from fire damage - by liberally dousing him/her in smelly water whenever he or she gets too close to a naked flame! There's also a salutary reminder that, unlike other games, PCs must spend improvement points to convert these items into Possessions or their "ownership" will be brief. 

The mundane items detailed in "Fashions, Fripperies, and Fops" are every bit as exotic and entertaining. The many-tiered hats, which are the height of fashion in the lands of the Scaum River Valley, are drawn directly from Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels, but others are original creations in the spirit of the master. Where else but in the Dying Earth would Wequill's Manual of Jests be an appropriate item? 

Two dozen minor magical effects, suitable for Dabblers in spellcraft, are collected in "Clever Cantraps for the Resourceful Rogue". The chapter avoids practical homely cantraps, concentrating instead on those useful for adventurous rogues in society, in the library and magical workroom, or outdoors. "Dancing Coins", "Fashionable Attire" (important for adjusting one's garments to be just right), "Bring Book to Hand", "Withstand Insects", and "Douse Flame" are some of the possible spells available to the studious Dabbler. Each cantrap's description has a clear function, a unique set of ritual gestures and/or sounds, and a range of effects dependent on the success or failure of the casting. 

The penultimate chapter, "Farragoes, Feints, and Flailings", introduces the "tweak". This is an enhancement to an ability or to a specific style of an ability. In a very specific situation, a character may use the tweak and gain some equally specific and usually modest benefits. Tweaks must be purchased with either character points or improvements. They are also only available to characters that have at least 3 points in the associated ability/style. To avoid overwhelming players, the authors advise against their use by novices. As there are about eighty of them, this advice should be taken. Even experienced GMs may be anxious about this addition to the mechanics slowing the game down as players and GMs are required to look up the rules. Tweaks, like all the other "crunchy bits" found proliferating in the "class books" of other games, are toys for "improving" characters - more toys can mean more player enjoyment but always means more admin for the harassed GM. Cugel's Compendium proposes a neat solution to this potential overload - any player who pesters the GM during the game for what a tweak can do before using it loses the tweak (and the points spent.) Likewise if the GM asks what it does, the player must be able to answer quickly. The tweaks are diverse, providing potential advantages for characters in combat, contests of persuasion and rebuff, magic, and new applications for existing abilities. 

The final chapter, "The Fine Art of Negotiation", is a series of impressive essays on how to recreate and promote the verbal duels of persuasion and dissimulation found within the Dying Earth novels. These guidelines describe how to flatter, distract, misdirect and convince opponents, human and otherwise. Scattered throughout Cugel's Compendium are a series of sidebars covering every aspect of the confidence game, from tools and stratagems to setting up the swindle and getting away in time. The most dangerous swindle of all is described - how to con the GM! 

Some games have random encounter tables or treasure tables. Refreshingly different, Cugel's Compendium closes with a comprehensive Random Costume Generator which is much more useful for harassed GMs trying to dream up clothing and adornment for NPCs - when the sun might go out at any moment, only loons and deodands eschew an interest in tailoring. 

Summing up, Cugel's Compendium is an extremely fine addition to the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. As a "toy book", the items and especially the tweaks will enhance any Cugel-level game, without the risk of altering existing game balance. However it is the essays on negotiation and confidence games that are the truly indispensable portions of the book to player and GM alike. Cugel's Compendium is a must-have for any fan of the Dying Earth. 

 

Editor's Note: Cugel's Compendium of Indispensable Advantages is published by Pelgrane Press. (www.dyingearth.com)

 

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