Wednesday, October 7, 2009

RPGs I Like: The Dying Earth rpg

RPG Items I Like: The Dying Earth rpg

The Dying Earth is my favorite rpg that my players never want to play again.

The game draws from the great work of Jack Vance and is written by Robin Laws (with assist from John Snead and Peter Freeman). Vance is an often forgotten source of some of the original D&D concepts and details. We can see where the lifts from Tolkien came from, but the Vance ideas have been less acknowledged (Ioun Stones, anyone?). Pelgrane's Press's The Dying Earth rpg helps make up for that lack of general recognition in a game that incorporates a related set of Vance's works-- four books-- The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvelous. I'll focus on the core book for my review here.

Producing a game based on a narrow range of Vance's fantasy work is a brave project. Vance remains one of those important authors in modern fantasy fiction who, while known, hasn't gotten enough attention or credit (like Thomas Burnett Swann). And the game really does delve into the ethos and tone of those stories- getting not only the details but the voice right. Some adaptations manage the former but only a little of the latter. It is really a pity that Pelgrane's license with the Vance estate ran out. I can't imagine any other game company doing a Vance-based game, or managing to do it as well as Pelgrane has. Beyond the core book they produced a number of supplements as well as an infrequent magazine. Compare that to the support and delivery of other licensed games (Stargate, Wheel of Time, Angel, etc).

If you know Vance then it is pretty likely you know this game. For others, this is fantasy world of lassitude, at the end of its days. The general populace accept that there's nothing new other the sun and toil in lives which oddly mix the mundane, the decadent and the apathetic. The tone is hard to convey, a mix of the rich magical wonder of something like Clark Ashton Smith with that of more exhausted version of Candide or Gulliver's Travels

Physically this is a gorgeous product. Beautifully laid out, with plenty of narrative text, quotations, examples and digressions on the nature of this system. It certainly manages to convey the feeling of the setting throughout, accompanied by excellent illustrations. If you collect rpg products, you ought to own a copy of this. I'd say the same thing if you're a student of how complicated rules can be laid out well.

Reading the book is itself a pleasure-- it maintains the wit and language of Vance's particular Dying Earth writing while at the same time no making the rules difficult to read. The language of the writing doesn't obfuscate. That's left to the oddness of the mechanics themselves-- which can throw one off depending on what you were expecting. It appears at first to be heavily mechanically oriented, and there are a number of mechanics there, with odd interactions one has to keep track of. But then you realize you're rolling just a d6 and little actually modifies that. But it certainly isn't a light rules system, and tracking some of the mechanics of its execution can become difficult. As Laws puts it, "The resolution system is designed to waft the characters on the capricious winds of fate."

Dying Earth
presents four guidelines for players who have played other rpgs. They're worth paraphrasing here. One-- if you're in a fight, you've made a mistake. This game focuses on avoiding conflict through duplicity, stealth, betrayal, and fast feet. That's a pretty different approach than most games. Two-- all characters are pretty much alike. The goal of the game is about acting out, experiencing the atmosphere and engaging the story. Everyone's fairly much the same, characters of dubious morality attempting to score in the world. Three-- Killing's not a great solution. The atmosphere has casual and brutal violence, but real success comes from inflicting non-lethal humiliations on one's enemies. Four-- Your character will fail and fail often, so get used to it. The mechanics of the game itself make chance often more important than skill. Players can try to influence those results, but it merely means another risky chance rather than a building bonus. The system also includes mechanics for convincing, persuading, and resisting urges which often take control out of a player's hands. That loss of autonomy can be frustrating for some players-- whether they come from a simulationist or narrativist background.

The game understands itself-- or at least understands what a hard sell the concepts may be. At several points the author stops to gently justify those ideas. It suggests how to reassure the players and which places remain likely to throw them off. Reluctantly in parts it suggests some options for those who continue to dislike this system. Mind you it presents the "Overarching Rule of Efficacious Blandishment"- suggesting that players can do anything if they can properly convince the GM. And specifically the game provides armor from criticism with the following suggestion:

When arguing the merits of the Dying Earth roleplaying game in person or on the Internet, respond to individual who complain about certain rules with the standard reply, "Your argument is flawed. The overarching rule of efficacious blandishment lets you disregard the rule about which you complain so bitterly.

A good and funny point, but still leaving us asking exactly what we've paid for.

The system avoids stats, instead characters are built with five key abilities (Persuade, Rebuff, Attack, Defense, and Health) and then a choice of rated secondary abilities (Athletics, Gambling, Imposture, Scuttlebutt, and the like). Characters spend points based on which of the three "power levels" the game is set at. Characters may also pick up a talent in magic-- with limits imposed by the level of game one's playing in. For example, in the lowest level of game characters might have a few cantraps, a few real spells if they're a dedicated user and/or possibly an item of some magic. At the highest level all characters are expected to be arch-magi, with any non-magi being the likely butt of jokes from the other players.

The first four of the key abilities (Persuade, Rebuff, Attack, and Defense) have an interesting mechanic in that players may choose a particular style. For example, Persuasion can be Glib, Eloquent, Obfuscatory, Forthright, Charming, or Intimidating. Each of these styles trumps (and is in turn trumped by) a form of rebuff. This adds an interesting mechanic and distinction, and one which shapes the player's character style. It is a not necessarily intuitive factor, however, to track in the middle of scenes. Attack and Defense likewise have certain trumping styles, with particular weapons associated with the attack styles.

Each of these abilities has a rating which serves as a pool. Players make tests on abilities by rolling a d6. If they roll 1-3, they fail (with the number rolled marking level of failure) and if they roll 4-6 they succeed (with the number marking success level). Nothing is added to the roll.

But here's the trick. If a player is unhappy with their roll, they may spend a point from their pool to reroll the die. They can keep doing this until they succeed. If opposed by an active opponent with a likewise pool of points, that opponent can reroll against the player to best their success. This can continue on until one side or the other concedes. For non-opposed rolls, the player can keep going until the succeed or fail to their satisfaction or until their ability pool runs out.

There are no "difficulties" or modifiers to the die roll in this system. Instead in certain circumstances, for example when trying to persuade someone whose Rebuff ability trumps your own Persaude ability, the player must pay a levy. This levy depends on the circumstance but it means extra points paid from the pool to make rerolls. For example to come back from a "1" rolled on an attempt costs additional points.

Player pools run out-- rolling a 6 on an attempt can restore two points, but otherwise players must "refresh" their pools. For different abilities and styles the means for refreshment varies. For example, a Obfuscatory persuader must spend several hours devising "a theory so complex as to be incomprehensible." Some of these have have a narrative gloss, while other require active action by the character. This system, while interesting is another system which the game singles out as one which players may find difficult or objectionable. In a one-shot this might not be an issue which would come up but for regular play it would certainly happen.

The whole resolution systems intriguing-- very different and intended to capture the feel of the setting.

And my players hated it. I mean really, strenuously hated it. Mind you, the book acknowledges that some groups will find the game difficult to transition to. It breaks so many of the things that are the usual "cookies' for players: success, control, autonomy, deep characterization, and so on. Instead it focuses on a particular flavor of story- where success is fleeting and the situation is a snowball of absurdity and reverses.

Especially if you're been playing other, more conventional games-- regardless of whether they're gamist, narrativist, or simulationist-- your group's likely to suffer some cognitive dissonance. I have a board game analogy that may be a little obscure but actually happened. One New Years Eve we decided to play board games. We played Bohnanza, a game with a winner but one which in which players have to trade with one another in order to get anywhere. There's fun there in the trading and trying to make the most generous offers in order to get a little edge. It is a weirdly fun cooperative game without having a cooperative victory.

Then we played Munchkin.

We ended up with tears from three of the six players and a strong resolution never to play that again.

By this I mean in order to do Dying Earth well you'd have to have a group really ready and on board with the concept. That holds true with most games, but the nature of the game here absolutely requires it. One other criticism I heard from players was that they felt stupid in the face of the game. That they couldn't keep up with the improvisation and quick wits needed to keep up. I think that's a fair criticism and should be taken into account when selecting players.

Mind you, the game does have one mechanic to aid with this problem. I've saved mentioning it until here because it stands out for me as one of the best parts of the game and worth porting over to other games. At the beginning of a session, each player receives three tag-lines written on pieces of paper. The book provides a page of examples drawn from Vance's work and suggests how they can be constructed for particular scenarios (while remaining general enough). Tag-lines are phrases like "What causes such immediate sobriety?", "For me the causality is unconvincing," and "The question regarding hidden valuables again becomes relevant." The goal is to work your lines into your character's dialogue in the course of the session. It is a nice starter for the character to work with and does provide a sense of anticipation. The system also rewards the use of these taglines with Improvement Points. And, other than a pittance for actually showing up, that's the only way to get them.

There's a good deal to like here. The core book includes lengthy discussions for players and GMs. There's a good discussion of what makes a Dying Earth scenario, complete with a nice checklist for building those adventures. You get a lot of good material on the world and background throughout the book and then some nice sections dedicated to that. There's an adventure included as well to finish things out...and always worth mentioning, a useful two-page index.

To sum up, I want to like this game more than I actually do. If I were to run it again, it would be for a one or two shot with a select group of players. Alternately it might be good for a convention game where players might be more open to getting hit in the head with something new and radical.

Portability: I think some elements of this system could be applied elsewhere. The taglines, especially, as a concept would work well in a number of game types (courtly functions, balls, Victorian era games, Pulp Adventures-- anything with a strong sense of genre and catch-phrases). I also like the idea of having varied styles for verbal combat. That's one worth considering for use elsewhere. The Vancian setting might be hard to do as well with another system. Despite the flaws, The Dying Earth rpg simulates the ethos well which may indicate that there's a basic limitation to role-playing that-- you have to accept the vagaries of fate if you're to play there. The surface details and material could be borrowed for another game, but they might end up hollow.


  1. The taglines concept is a great idea. It reminds me of character Aspects from Spirit of the Century.

  2. That's still one I need to pick up. BTW I just got my copy of Trail of Cthulhu and Shadows Over Filmland from my trade today. Glee!