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The Dying Earth: real pleasure and real pain

Started by Ron Edwards, January 14, 2002, 08:26:47 PM

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Ron Edwards


Well, I've started this thread about four times now and given it up each time. P'haps this one will do.

You see, I am a Jack Vance fanatic. Not a fan in the cultural SF-convention sense, but a bona fide literary fanatic. Say you don't like his work? I'll hit you. I've read it all, again and again, chronologically, then sideways, lining up by type of protagonist and re-reading, lining up by setting type and re-reading, the works. I tirelessly pimp his books to everyone.

[Not to say that all his work is top-notch. It so happens that I like his more punchy, hard-hitting social stuff better than his light and funny stuff. It so happens that as with a lot of authors who publish tons of material, whole sections of his oeuvre are really multiple "tries" at a particular issue or character type, with a lot of repetitious material. But even low-grade Vance kicks the snot out of many authors' pinnacles of achievement.]

Anyway, after many an RPG that purports to bring [fill-in-the-fictional-setting] to role-playing, I'm pretty jaded. So when The Dying Earth was announced, I said, "Oh God, not to Vance. Don't let it happen to Vance. Nooooooo ...."

So now I've played it, GMing a pretty nifty little run. In many ways, since I've incorporated so much Vancian-style story content into my role-playing over the years anyway, a lot of the quirks and criss-crossing disastrous scheming was easy for me. So I've got to kind of edit out "my Vance" from the game's in order to see what the game did or didn't do.

Whew. So much for the preamble.

In a nutshell, the foundation system is brilliant. Innovative as hell, funny, Fortune-in-the-middle until you could plotz, and a great example of rich-character sketchy-setting. (One might think the reverse, but it ain't so.) You play rapscallious bounders who are defined in game terms by their style of bullshit, such that this fellow is Glib and Obfuscatory, this other one is Intimidating and Penetrating, and so on. Lists of adjectives were never so much fun, especially because each "offensive" Persuade overrides a single "defensive" Rebuff, and vice versa.

The system itself has nothing to do with simulating "competence" in a percentile-base way, but rather involves managing a resource of how many times you can roll a two-sided die (oh, there are 6 outcomes and thus 6 sides, but it's really 50-50 yes-no per roll) during an exchange (conflict). Even more fun is "refreshing," which is how you "refill" your pool of re-roll privileges - 'cause you see, your given style of Persuade, for instance, only refills under certain circumstances. Robin Laws is a frigging design genius - but we knew that.

Excellent, so far. The problem is that all the above is overlaid with what appears to be a ... crust of old-school gaming priorities. The drowning rules are a tip-off. So is the repeated, pained, frantic text in every frigging chapter about how players should learn to love failing and not resent failed rolls and not whine about being persuaded to do ridiculous stuff. You see, in this mode of story, being hosed is fun - and it is, too - so why not say so once, in a Chapter One up-front way, and take it from there? All that repeated text reads like the game authors (the finishers, that is) trying to convince themselves.

The problem kicks in really hard during play when you find that each and every style of Persuade, Rebuff, Attack, Defense, Magic, and Resistance (to temptation) has a bunch of auxiliary "little" rules that you have to keep track of all the time. I just summarized all of'em and passed them out to the players after they made characters, because it was way too much to do during play. Then I realized that (to make use of the system) I had to do the same thing for a ton of NPCs! Cheese and Rice!

In other words, this old-school mentality sort of came in, saw the Styles + Trump + Boon/Levy + Refresh system, and said, "Oh, Robin, that's too simple. We have to further 'link' and 'buttress' this system so that all sorts of little modifiers keep coming in and going out of the process. No one will have the sense just to apply such little modifiers as seems thematically fit during play. We have to set all that up for them; gamers like to be told what to do and what to keep track of."

I'm serious. The difference between running the baseline system and running it with all the li'l rules too is huge - and exhausting. I found two hours of DE to be draining beyond belief, not because of all the crazy stuff happening (which was fun) but because all the scribble-scrabble of Pools and Boons and Levies crusted over the baseline mechanics of dealing with them took up so much attention.

The combat system exhibits yet another "over-layer" problem. See, you only get hit if you run out of Defend pool re-rolls, or opt not to use the ones you have. Three hits and you're out. But then, there's also this other pooled ability called Health, and so you can negate any damage by rolling that ... so really, you don't get hurt until you run out of that one too. In other words, combat takes a really, really long time and nothing happens. I've turned it over in my mind a few times and cannot for the life of me figure out why the Health pool exists at all - the combat system would be just spiff with only Attack/Defend and Wounds.

I hate the magic system. For those of you who don't know, Vance's book The Dying Earth uses the idea of "memorize, shoot, and forget" as a comedic device. It accentuates the fact that, in this setting, magicians have no idea what they're doing. It's funny, you see, and a little cynical. It's also fun because the writer and reader know full well, when the spell "just happens" to be perfect for the crisis at hand, that it's totally contrived.

It must be one of the grand Kozmik Jokes of RPG history that Gygax decided to use this model of spellcasting in his severely Simulationist & faux-Gamist design of early D&D. I can sort of see why - it translates to strategic preparation fairly well, at first glance. But it by no means corresponds, in any way, to the otherwise dilute-Tolkien-style fantasy. Most importantly, for present purposes, it is utterly counter to the author-audience value in Vance's books in that we all know it's really retroactive, creatively speaking.

In other words, the way to do this, in my view, is to come up with fun spell names in play, retroactively establishing that you'd memorized that particular spell. I did this a few years ago with my Vance-fun-fantasy game called "Fantasy for Real," which some of you have read. Too much fun, easy to do (you roll for the words!), and the spells, remarkably, seem to be perfect for whatever you wanted 'cause you state the effects right there in play.

So what's my point? The point is that in the game, The Dying Earth, they use the memorize, point, & shoot system in the same old (bad) way that D&D did, complete with spell lists to choose from. Yup. There's the source literature, just begging for a metagame-heavy system, and the post-Laws game-authors just ... miss it. You get to pick your bandolier of spells and hope they're worth a fart in hell later. Insert loud agonized groan here.

Yes, yes. Our actual game was fun as hell in the sense of the story-content and the exceptionally rapscallious characters. The pool-ability system did a wonderful job of getting characters totally into trouble, giving them enough rope to scheme their way out of it, and then have every scheme go completely kerflooey. Again, my familiarity with the source stuff played its role, but the system did a great job (here I'm speaking of the baseline system).

Let's see ... OK, I decided to rip off a non-DE Vance novel called "To Live Forever," in which a society is obsessed with "slope," or demonstrated improvement per unit time in one's career. It's quite clearly a satire on rat-race consumerism, and it translated into the DE terms of "isolated, bizarre community" very well. I then added two big-ass wizards, too, one up in an ethereal castle and one down in the sewers, each using the efforts of the community as a battery for their sorcerous duel. The duel itself was predicated on getting access to this teeny-tiny little marble which was actually a whole artificial world designed to survive the Earth's demise.

Insert player-characters and make a huge hash out of everyone's plans, including the characters'. It was even more fun because one of the players came up with a Pure-Hearted character, which is practically the only way not to play a bastard, so we had some ethical contrasts going on too. And also because Dav, who likes to play scheming upset-the-applecart characters on occasion, discovered that the system "bites back" as soon as things start going well.

Basically, if I'd had an autistic, compliant assistant who had nothing better to do then track the secondary modifiers, I'd have had a blast too.



Clinton, Bankuei, James and I start Dying Earth on Thursday.  We've made characters, Clinton is the GM and we'd be able to start talking about actual play if I hadn't been so sick last week we had to postpone.  

I made my character from the Quick Start rules which are the best Quick Start rules I've ever ever seen, and now I'm reading the Dying Earth novels because James loaned them to me.  The one thing the books are teaching me is that Dying Earth is a very provacative, non- politically correct setting which is a godsend to my psyche right now.  Its rather sinister and pulpy and amoral.  Killing and raping and stealing don't really bother the characters, and the hero is he who survives, whatever it takes to do so.

Rod Anderson

About the magic system, it floated through my head that one could assign magic-wielding characters spell names, rather than (or in addition to) lines of dialogue, as taglines. They could use their spells imaginatively to resolve dilemmas, and be scored on appropriateness, wit and audience response, just as with the standard taglines.  Just a thought...

Rod Anderson

P.S. If it's not presuming too much, I'd like to ask Mr. Edwards if "Fantasy for Real" will ever be made available to the public -- it sounds like fun!


I'm really looking forward to thursday's game.  I've never read Vance's novels, but the examples in the quick play guide were hilarious.  I was also surprised to see how close the reroll mechanic was to my Persona system, so it'll be a way to see how things might have turned out had I taken a different path on the design road.


Zak Arntson

I'm glad you finally got to playing it, Ron!  In my opinion, it's one of the truly GOOD roleplaying games (as long as you axe the secondary fiddly rules).

For anyone interested in more Actual Play:">

Okay, on to Ron's comments ...

I completely agree with the weird schism between baseline game and funny additions. The basic mechanic: Lessening Pools, 50% chance of failure/success, scheming as the norm.  The whole thing SCREAMED Dying Earth.

But then, our group pretty much ignored the secondary rules and ran only one combat (between my PC and a drunken idiot, so we didn't use combat rules). I didn't use the magic system, so I can't comment on that one.

Sounds like our opinions jibe, so there must be something to 'em :)

As for some more Actual Play comments - Did you pay careful attention to the Offensive/Defensive Adjective Matrix thing? I found that part somewhat clunky, since it broke the flow of roleplaying, "Since I act _this way_, I get an extra bonus against _this guy_."

I like the sentiment behind Obfuscatory overshadowing Blunt (or whatever), but I felt the rules weren't easy enough on my brain.

And as for "little rules," I felt the method to refresh a pool should have been more flavor than forced. It seemed in play that we were nervous about how we could refresh our pools ... especially given the pickles Vancian folks get themselves into. I felt that if we played for another session, we'd all wind up dead or worse, having nearly run out of our pools.

How did you find the pool refreshing in-play?

Ron Edwards

Hi everyone,

Laurel, you ain't kidding about the not-PC stuff. Yet somehow it's not just a "rape is OK deal" such as you might find in the Gore novels. There is a value system there, evinced in the characters of Turjaan, Tsain/Tsais, and Etaar. Vance has an odd way of clearing the brain, I think.

Rod, I totally agree with you about how the magic system should have worked more on the tagline system. It would have been excellent.

Zak, in part due to my familiarity with Vance, I allowed a lot of time in the scenario, such that players had some chances to wander about and do some pool-refreshing. Given those chances, the rules for refreshment worked really well.

As for the Trumping matrix, the best way to do it is to write out a list for each player, describe who Trumps them at what, whom they Trump at what, and all the refreshment methods for what. Then let the players manage all that crap.

(Oh, side note, as the game admits, the title book is actually not the best source material; I'd put that at Cugel's Saga, the second Cugel book. People reading The Dying Earth may be surprised at its harsh, sardonic, direct adventures, in contrast to the frothy picaresque RPG.)



Ron's experience is close to my own.  I ran two Dying Earth adventures using the quickstart rules.  In the first the characters urgently needed to leave the town they were in and get back to their home city if they were not to miss the King's annual Sumptuous Ball.  The only means of transport sufficiently fast was a coach leaving the next day on which there were six places (five players), all of which had already been sold.

Cue much finagling as each character tried to liberate tickets from existing owners or each other as necessary.

It worked like a charm, great fun, the pools worked smoothly, it was all very Vancian.

The second adventure revolved around the obtaining of tickets for the ball and the ball itself.  This time it bogged down, partly because I now had six players which was simply far too many and partly because one just would not accept that being hosed could still be fun (it was totally the wrong game for him).  Again though, the system worked well save for one thing.  This time there was a combat (which there hadn't been in the first).  It took ages, with attack, defence and health rolls it was just too much.  My experience definitely mirrors Ron's there, next time I run it I will drop health.

Then I bought the full game and sadly haven't run it since.  I have now decided I will continue, but just using the quickstart rules.  Why?  The quickstart for me was rules-medium, a reasonable amount to keep track of but supportive of the genre so that was ok.  The full game has more rules than I can personally keep track of.  I am not confident that I actually could run it, let alone would want to.

The full game is still worth buying, IMO, for the advice and tips contained in it.  The quickstart though is the better game.  Every occasion seems to have it's own rule in the full game, every NPC has a whole new set of rules to keep track of.  It's just too much.

Oddly enough, writing this, I wonder how the Pool would cope with Cugelesque high-jinks, possibly very well...
AKA max


I really have to buy the game someday. Just reading the quickstart rules was fun. Anyhow. For anyone who would like the characters to be just a bit less reprehensible I suggest the addition of an additional resistance (or alternatively the replacement of an existing one, perhaps Pettifoggery):

Resist Quixotism. When you fail to resist, you feel inclined to aid the less fortunate, take up the cause of widows and orphans, stand up for truth and virtue, and back up the losing side in a conflict in admiration of their courage and persistence.

Uncle Dark

This discussion has lead me to get the quickstart download.  Looking at it, I doubt I'll buy the full version.  I really like the rules (except magic) as presented in the quickstart, and (from your descriptions of the game), I doubt I'd find much more to interest me in the rules.

So I'm reading it, and an obvious fix for the magic rules occurs to me:

Rather than choosing spells from a list before play, a player may ?spend? points from his or her Magic ability pool into another pool, their Memorized pool.  When, in the course of events, it becomes necessary to use magic under constraint of limited time, a player may spend a point from the memorized pool.  This represents the use of a previously memorized spell.  Since, however, it would quickly become ludicrous for all magicians to have had the foresight (and vast body of knowledge) necessary to have just exactly the right spell on hand for all occasions, a die is rolled.

If the roll is an Illustrious success, then the character happens to have just the right spell memorized.  A Prosaic success is interpreted to mean that the character does not have the appropriate spell on hand, but does have one which will do, albeit with undesired side effects.  A Hair?s-Breadth success allows that the main effect of the character?s spell is inapplicable, but a side effect of the magic effects his or her intention.

In the unfortunately not-too-rare case that the roll indicates failure, things go slightly differently.  An Exasperating failure creates an effect entirely inappropriate to the situation.  The effect is benign, though, and may be of benefit in later situations.  A Quotidian failure indicates that the spell casting process was fouled in some way, and the memorized spell is lost.  Dismal failure means that the spell was so miscast or misapplied that the character is subject to embarrassing or damaging magical effects.

In any of these cases, the player invents an appropriate name for and effects of the spell (consult the spell list for illustrations).  This roll can be re-rolled, as with any action, drawing on the Magic ability pool.  This roll cannot be re-rolled with points from the Memorized pool, as these points are already invested in previously prepared magics.

Remember that each spell can only be memorized once!  Therefore, a player must invent an entirely new spell for each roll (assuming she or he has not had adequate time to re-memorize a cast spell), even though the situation afflicting the magician may be identical to the situation in which the previous spell was cast.

When attempting to resist magic, points can be spent from either pool, with the caveat that points spent from the Memorized pool represent memorized counter-spells, and must follow all of the rules laid forth above.

As you can tell, I wrote that shortly after finishing the quickstart rules...

So, would that have helped?

Reality is what you can get away with.

Ron Edwards


That would almost exactly be my solution as well. I think you've nailed it.

Another neat way would be to have a list of spell names, with no effects of any sort included, and use it as a common tagline pool, either in combination with a roll such as you describe or moving the magic system into a more Drama-driven format.



Not entirely sure I agree with you guys on the magic.  Some spells in Vance do carry on from story to story.  For example, Excellent Prismatic Spray arises I think twice each time with identical effects.  I think the spell of Undying (or untiring?) nourishment also arises twice.  In Rhialto the Marvellous the same timestop spell is used repeatedly.

More to the point, one story starts off with a mage choosing which six spells he will take with him on a particular outing, it would be nice to have this kind of scene in the game which the pool roll would not permit.  Also, one story refers to there being only 100 or so spells in existence in total.  Allowing creation of new spell names as situations arose would quickly erode that number and would, IMO, lead to a world much richer in magic than the Dying Earth actually is.

I think the spell descriptions and casting procedures in the game are very faithful to Vance.  Where I feel it goes wrong is in the amount of magic available.  A Turjan level character can learn a dozen or so spells.  That's just not right.  In the story where a Turjan level mage actually goes through memorisation it is specifically mentioned that six spells is a great number for a mage to memorise.  Further, cantrips in the blessing and curse sense just aren't in the stories.  The curses cast on Cugel are always from entities such as ghosts, supernatural shell creatures and the like.  No human casts an apparently successful blessing or curse themselves.  In the DE rules Cugel should be able to cast cantrips, something which he never does in the stories.  Neither Turjan nor Rhialto ever do anything of the kind either.

Personally I would have liked to see Cugel level characters with no working magic of any kind (they can sometimes read something from a book but with limited success perhaps), Turjan with perhaps 4-6 spells and nothing else and Rhialto characters in another system altogether.
AKA max

Ron Edwards

Hi Max,

When I was designing and playtesting Fantasy for Real (and I know it's not fair to keep mentioning it 'cause only some of you have it), I ran into this problem. If we're talking about improvising spells into existence at the player level, interpreted as having memorized them at the character level, then what do you do with a spell once it's been invented into existence?

Cursing the necessity of a rule for this, I decided that it could be done, but limited the use of the usual mechanic slightly once the spell was used again. That is, say, in session 1, Bob uses the system during play to determine that Bartholemew had memorized (and is now casting) "The Amazing Iron Vibration." So in session 2, Bob or another player wants to cast that same spell - well, that's fine, but that player's character now has a limit or stop or penalty or something to reflect that some of his memory-space was "used up" by the Vibration for this session.

Also, in the baseline rules for spell-stuff, the player has a bit of metagame tweaking rights to determine certain aspects of the spell (based on the syllables of the name that you'd rolled up; the Amazing Iron Vibration has 8 usable syllables). In using a previously-used spell, those rights are waived.

Dammit, I have got to dust off those rules and present them. The magic rules were incredibly successful during playtesting, but the other aspects of the system fell apart.


Uncle Dark


Interesting concerns.  I've only read a couple of Dying Earth short stories in anthologies, never the novels themselves, so my acquaintance with the source material is sketchy at best.

Beyond that, I was more concerned with maintaining the style and tone of the game than being faithful to the source material.  And, I only have the quickstart download, not the full rules.

The thing is, in what little I've read (and what I've gathered from people who have read more), there isn't a scene in which a magician says something like, "Damnation!  Would that I had memorized The Frigid Octohedron, which would be most applicable in this situation, instead of The Plethora of Pinatas, which is useless to me!"  Their spell selection seems curiously appropriate to whatever situation in which they find themselves.  That's what I was trying to get into.


Yes, Ron, do dust off that arcane game you keep mentioning.  You've got me very curious, now...
Reality is what you can get away with.



Ironically, the short stories in the Dying Earth book aren't really what the game is based on.  Rather it is based on two novels set in the same world, called respectively Cugel the Clever and The Eyes of the Overworld.  Both are as good as fantasy writing is capable of getting, incredibly funny.  

On your point regarding spells, you are correct.  The stories I was citing, even though much thought goes into spell selection, never involve characters saying anything like "damn, I have Efferveld's Immanescent Effulgence when what I need is Endermine's Irridescent Excruscance!"
AKA max

Blake Hutchins


I have to say I think the book is well worth purchasing, if only for the sheer entertainment value.  The Quick Start rules are good, but I enjoyed the elements of Vancian adventure fleshed out in the book, various examples of play, and the like.

I share the concerns about the secondary rules, since they represent exceptions and ugly additions grafted onto the base mechanic.  I had no problems with the magic system, but I like the idea of incorporating spell taglines with the magic pool.  Maybe this would encourage an expansion of spells,  but I'd like to see how it plays.  This is a game, after all.  The goal I see on this thread concerns how to replicate the feel and flavor of Vance's books, an objective that doesn't necessarily translate to a completely faithful duplication of every particular of the setting.