A Taste of Something Different
The Dying Earth RPG as an alternative roleplaying game system
Fantasy was the insipiration for the first roleplaying games, and amongst the inspirations for the earliest games was the work of Jack Vance. Indeed, more than one fantasy magic system has been designed according to tenets laid down in the Dying Earth books. If you are unfamiliar with the Dying Earth, there are four books, currently available collected into one volume in the Fantasy Masterworks series by Millennium.
Whilst not the high fantasy associated with elves and dwarves, the world is fantastical in both detail and outlook, covering a range of tone and character. The first book (The Dying Earth) is a collection of tales of a darker nature than the latter three, but all touch on the perverse nature of mankind in his dealings with his fellow creatures in a world that may descend into deadly darkness at any moment.
There are many fantasy roleplaying games available on the market these days, all with varying levels of complexity and background support. Indeed, it seems quite surprising that a game solely based on the Dying Earth took so long to appear considering both when the stories were written and its influence on the beginnings of the hobby. As is often the case, it was worth the wait.
Even if you haven't read the novels, the game has a lot to offer. In fact, when my group was playtesting the rules, none of us had read them and I'm still the only member of the group who has. Although you will undoubtedly get more from the game if you have read the stories (as with any game based in a specific setting), this game is sufficiently well written and supported that lack of prior exposure is not the handicap it has been in other games. There is enough of the familiar, no matter how skewed it has become in what is, basically, the far distant future of our earth, to give everyone something to hang their metaphorical hat on. And hats are very important in the Dying Earth, a place that can be best described as one of almost (but not quite) chivalrous roguery.
Although this article is primarily aimed at experienced roleplayers curious about a new setting or system, newcomers to roleplaying should also find something of use in this game. The system is simple, being based on an easily available die, the standard d6. There are game statistics representing your character's abilities. These abilities are bought with points and can be improved through experience and there are even different levels of play. At first glance, it could be mistaken for just another fantasy game, but the design approach is almost as skewed as the world in which the game is set, giving an interestingly different feel to other games.
First, character statistics: In the Dying Earth, swordplay is deadly. As in the books, it is much better for the character to rely on his ability to talk his way out of a dangerous situation than to face down his foe, weapon in hand. Unfortunately, you character may be just as easily bamboozled by spurious logic and had better know it when he hears it. In game terms, this translates into the two most important skills, Persuade and Rebuff. Of course, it never hurts to know how to handle oneself in a fight, giving you the next two skills of Attack and Defence.
Each of these skills is represented by one of six "styles". For example, Persuade has the styles Charming, Obfuscatory, Glib, Eloquent, Forthright and Intimidating, which determine the particular manner of your speech. These styles can be chosen or rolled randomly during character creation. Whilst allowing fate to take a hand garners you extra character creation points, if you have a particular character in mind its always best to pick those styles which best suit your ideas. The range of each style is sufficiently broad so as not to provide a straight-jacket to characterisation but clear enough when stuck for inspiration, either during game play or character creation.
As well as the four main skills, there are also abilities, resistances and, of course, magic. The list of abilities is mercifully brief (but more than sufficient), which helps to make character creation a swift and pleasant task. Resistances add a small but interesting touch to game play. In the Dying Earth, people are much more prone to indulging their every whim - after all, the sun may go out at any minute. There are six resistances, which determine a person's ability to maintain clarity of thought when faced with a variety of temptations. Although often a minor component of the game, it adds a further depth to the system.
And then there is Magic, a very powerful force in the stories. It is a difficult skill to learn and master, particularly at the highest levels, but even the lowliest person can attempt small tricks or cantraps. As with the major skills, there are six styles of magic each describing a particular approach to spell casting. All magic is, in truth, performed by elemental beings and powerful mages bind and command the larger of these entities to do their bidding. But as with all things in the Dying Earth, care is needed when dealing with these creatures - after all, everyone is out for themselves.
There are three different levels of play, each named for a character in the novels. The lowliest of these, Cugel, starts with the lowest number of creation points, with Turjan and then Rhialto having increasing numbers of points to represent the higher power levels of those characters. Points are spent on abilities, skills, resistances, health and magic as best fits the character, although there are recommended minimums and maximums for each level.
The actual mechanics of the system appear easy enough: 1-3 on a d6 is a failure and 4-6 is a success. Skills and abilities can be used to affect the outcome of the die roll. At the beginning of a game, a character has both a rating and a pool for each skill. Whilst the rating does not change during the gaming session, the pool will increase and decrease. For example, Richard's character Karybdis is attempting to persuade a merchant to give him a discount. He rolls a d6 and gets a 2 - a failure. He can now use his Persuade pool to alter that result. By spending one point from his pool, he gets to reroll the die and this time gets a 5 - a success (providing that the merchant does not now Rebuff him). Certain die rolls affect the pool in special ways and it's never a good idea to run out of points (although pools can be refreshed during the course of the game). This lends a very tactical edge to an apparently simple system; there are times when its better to just let a bad roll go. All of that may sound quite complicated, but its actually one of the most straightforward game mechanics I've ever used. I can't cope with complex systems and this one has never got in the way of my games (or made me give up in despair half way through reading the rules).
Another unusual touch is the presence of "Taglines". These Vancian quotes are intended to introduce the players to the sometimes flowery language of the Dying Earth. Use of a tagline within the game rewards a player with a varying number of improvement points, depending on the skill with which it is employed. Most people find them a little off-putting at first, but they can be extremely useful when trying to get a feel for the background. They can also be very funny and humour is just as important as every other element of the game design.
Then there is the Tweak. Developed for more experienced players in Cugel's Compendium, a tweak enhances a particular ability under special circumstances. They can give a variety of advantages depending on what skill or ability they apply to and can even allow you to spend points from one pool on a roll based on another pool. Whilst not essential for play, they again add to the atmosphere of the game.
That's enough of mechanics. What of the potential for roleplaying? Whilst the Dying Earth is richly detailed in parts, Jack Vance left huge swathes of it undescribed. This is very useful when running a game set here. There is enough detail in the main rulebook on the setting that you can actually pick it up and hit the ground running, and yet you still have space to develop your own peculiar whimsy within the world. If filling in the details isn't to your personal taste, though, you won't be left stranded, as support material is available from a number of sources. In terms of setting, there are already the Kaiin and Scaum Valley sourcebooks, as well as a variety of articles in the Excellent Prismatic Spray supplements.
The Kaiin sourcebook details the largest city in the Dying Earth and is an open source book - there is no GM only material. This gives the players an unprecedented level of input into creating adventures set in the city and really lends itself well to collaborative play (as well as allowing worn out GMs a well deserved rest). The Scaum sourcebook is more traditional in its approach, but has a wealth of useful information on the most heavily populated areas of the world.
The character creation system is actually very helpful towards roleplaying. Not only do the various skill styles help to visualise a character, the different levels of play also have very distinct atmospheres. Cugel level play is perhaps the most easily recognisable from other fantasy games - lowly characters struggling to survive in the face of overwhelming odds. It can have great humour as well as great triumphs. In keeping with the harsher nature of the stories in which Turjan appears, the middle power level has a darker tone, with greater struggles and more powerful foes. As to Rhialto level, arch-mages can do what they please (within some limits) and are free to explore new ages and new worlds as well as engage in petty rivalries and sundry scheming diversions.
If you are looking for a change, I can recommend the Dying Earth RPG. My group has played pretty much everything at some point in our gaming careers and we were very much taken with this one. The books are well written and are an entertaining read as well as beautifully presented. The game can be as complex or as simple as you wish to make it and it is very flexible towards most styles of play. It won't suit every group's tastes - no game can - but for an entertaining diversion once in a while, or for a sustained alternative fantasy campaign, the Dying Earth is very much deserving of your further attention.
And don't forget your hat.
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All words and images are ©2000 Pelgrane Press. Based on the Dying Earth book series by Jack Vance. Produced and distributed by agreement with Jack Vance c/o Ralph Vicinanza.The Dying Earth Roleplaing GameandDying Earth Quick Start Rules are trademarks of Pelgrane Press. All rights reserved.