This article on the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.
What is the Dying Earth RPG?
by Lynne Hardy
The Dying Earth is a rich fantasy world, full of complex characters and detailed environs. Thus it presents itself as a perfect setting for a roleplaying game and indeed one has been produced by Pelgrane Press. That is all very well, but what is a roleplaying game?
Everyone is familiar with board and card games, each of which has their own specific rules of play and conditions for winning. Board games require a board, dice and occasionally special cards that affect game play. Roleplaying games share some elements with board games, such as having rules and needing one or more dice. However, they are also distinct from board games in that, fundamentally, there is no board and there is no winner. Historically, the Dying Earth novels were actually amongst the inspirations for the first roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, as well as several other games since then.
So how do you play? Roleplaying is an exercise in imagination, shared with friends. One person takes on the role of Gamesmaster, or GM, and it is this person who is in charge of keeping the game running smoothly. The other players, usually between two and six, take on the roles of characters from the world in which the game is set, in this case characters very like Cugel, Turjan or Rhialto. Together, the GM and the players interact to create stories of fantastical adventure. In some ways, it’s very like improvisational theatre, just without the audience.
Many different companies produce rulebooks for these games and they contain the mechanics of how the game is played, as well as how to create characters. They also contain details on the places, people and creatures of the world in which the game is set. There is usually also a chapter with special advice for the GM on how to set the right atmosphere and how to develop stories for the players to enjoy. Although the players help the GM to flesh out the story, initially at least the basic ideas of what is happening around the players come from the GM. The GM also takes on the roles of everyone the players’ characters meet, so good advice is a handy thing to have. Gradually, as the game develops, the players will have a greater input in the direction the story takes as they become more familiar with either the setting or the rules.
It may seem odd that you need rules if everyone is co-operating to create a story, but just as our world has physics to keep things ticking along nicely, games need some framework so that any decision the GM has to take regarding the success or failure of a character’s action is anything but arbitrary. Some games’ systems are complex in order to realistically model events and are a major part of the game; often, a complicated system has been designed so that it can be applied to many different settings. Others are simpler to better reflect the world in which they are set. This is the case with the Dying Earth roleplaying game (DERPG), where the rules have been specially written to recreate the twists of dramatic fate seen in the novels whilst remaining unobtrusive.
Creating a character is the first important thing to do in order to get a game started. DERPG has been written in such a way that this is very simple and straightforward. Every character has a number of skills and abilities that can be chosen or rolled randomly from lists provided in the rulebook. These skills help to bring the character to life. How good a character is at these skills is up to the player, as they have a number of points to spend on them – the more points you spend on a skill, the better the character is at it. Depending on what level of game you are playing, you have different numbers of points with which to build your character. Cugel level is the equivalent of the beginner’s level in a computer game and is where most players will start; there are two other, higher levels named after Turjan and Rhialto. Whilst in a higher-level game your character will be more powerful and able to take care of themselves, the challenges they face will also be much greater.
Perhaps the most important skill in the game is Persuade, your character’s ability to talk themselves out of, or other people into, tricky situations. In many games the ability to fight is the most important, but in keeping with the books, that isn’t the case here. Of course, a character must also be able to defend themselves against verbal sparring, which is where the Rebuff skill comes in. Characters do have fighting and defence skills, they’re just not the most important things a character can do in this game. Each of these four skills, as well as the Magic skill, have one of six different styles which give suggestions as to how the character uses that particular skill. In the case of the Rebuff skill, a character may deflect another person’s argument in one of six ways: obtusely, warily, penetratingly, in a lawyerly fashion, contrarily or with guileless innocence. These styles are determined when the character is created and are very helpful in defining how the character behaves towards other people. This is all very useful for when you come to play the game, so that your performance of that character and their motivations are believable and consistent.
Magic is a special skill that every character has access to, but to become good at it requires you to devote lots of character creation points to it. This is really equivalent to the large amounts of time required in the stories to acquire magical proficiency. You may not have as many other abilities as players who don’t take the Magic skill, but the game is well balanced and you won’t be at a disadvantage (often quite the contrary!). Characters with a Magic rating can defend themselves against magical attacks and can learn spells. These spells are based on ones mentioned in the novels, as well as others inspired by the various magicians who appear within their pages. Even characters who don’t spend points on magic can attempt minor conjuring tricks, known as cantraps. Whilst not very powerful they can be useful, such as lighting candles without the need for matches. After all, you never know when you may need a light.
So what do you do with a character once you’ve created him? Pretty much anything you want to, really. The GM will have decided on a challenge, or adventure, for you and the other players and the first time you play this may be as simple as just meeting the other characters. You decide what your character says and does within the game world and the GM will help to determine whether you are successful or not in your actions. Sometimes, you can act out what you want to do, such as persuading a mean landlord to provide better lodgings. In such cases, the GM may decide that your performance was good enough to succeed without recourse to the rules. Unfortunately, not all of us are sparkling orators and there are some things you just can’t act out. It is in these situations that the game mechanics come to the fore.
This is where dice come in to the game. DERPG uses a single standard six sided die to help resolve actions. Basically, a roll of 1-3 means that an action has failed, whereas a roll of 4-6 is a success. The points you spent on your skills and abilities allow you to re-roll the dice if the result you get isn’t the one you want, so the more points you spent on a skill, the more times you can re-roll. Special rolls on the die can either add or take away from the number of points you have to use, but only temporarily. This game mechanic allows the players a greater control of their fate than you get in many games; running out of points, however, is not a good thing, so it does require a certain amount of tactical savvy in deciding whether to re-roll or save the points for another, potentially more important, roll.
In a roleplaying game, there is no winner. So, how does a game end? It may be as simple as you run out of time on a particular evening – most groups gather for a few hours a week and the story they are creating goes on for weeks or even months at a time. It may be that the characters complete the task the GM set them, such as finding a long lost tome or discovering a new frippery for Duke Orbal. The whole point of a roleplaying game is to have fun with your friends, exploring new lands and discovering exciting treasures in a setting you enjoy. That way, everyone wins.
But what if you don’t have enough people to form a gaming group? At the bare minimum, you only need two people to play – one person to be the GM and the other to be a player. You could even take turns at being the GM. Every GM has their own style, which can lead to subtly different takes on a given situation. It is also fun for the GM to take time off from running the game and actually have a chance to play it (something that doesn’t always happen). If you are short of players, your local hobby gaming shop should be able to put you in touch with other gamers. Internet newsgroups can also help you to identify other players in your area.
What if you just aren’t interested in roleplaying? It is actually still worth looking at the material that Pelgrane Press have produced, all with Jack Vance’s blessing. As with other roleplaying games, there is more than just the main rulebook available. These other books are known as sourcebooks and contain further, more detailed information on the Dying Earth in terms of interesting places, legends, customs, people, objects and creatures. These expand on the ideas set forth in the original stories whilst remaining faithful to the tone of those books. All of the games’ books are well written, often in Vancian prose when that best suites the feel of the piece, and are an entertaining read, as well as being beautifully produced and illustrated. If you want to discover more of the Dying Earth, the sourcebooks are an excellent resource, acting, if you will, as the literary equivalent of a good travel documentary.
The Dying Earth stories have inspired and delighted generations of readers. Roleplaying in the Dying Earth allows you to add your own small contribution to those tales. After all, it is a remarkably interesting place to visit.
The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.