The following article on the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.
by Jeanry Chandler
Not long ago, in an interview in the Excellent Prismatic Spray magazine, Gary Gygax described the profound influence that the work of Jack Vance had upon the original design and overall feel of Dungeons and Dragons™. For perhaps the first time since the very early days of that game, a new d20 sourcebook is being introduced, which draws heavily upon the influence of the realm of the Dying Earth.
The Primer of Practical Magic, represents a return to a darker, more eerie feel to roleplaying, to a time when the game wasn’t as polarized between pure good and pure evil, but had more moral gray areas. When a thief was a dubious individual who stole things for a living, not just a loner with an alternative lifestyle and a knack for picking locks. A time when a magician was someone you couldn’t always assume was a kindly old man or a stereotypical villain, but was likely to be something in between, yet always dangerous to annoy without good reason.
The Primer of Practical Magic hearkens to a time when players didn’t know all the spells in the rulebook yet, or all the monsters one could possibly encounter; a time before players argued about every rule, because they were still caught up in the mystery of the game. Toward this noble end of casting a shadow of renewed mystery over the d20 gaming experience, The Primer includes many features which the discerning gamer will appreciate.
The incantations found in The Primer come directly from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels such as The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugels Saga, The Dying Earth, and Rhialto The Marvelous. These spells are sometimes discreet in their effects, sometimes flashy and powerful, but always clever and amusing in their application. They range from the subtle, thinking magician’s cantrips and low-level charms, such as spells to calm a barking dog; put the smell of wine on a rival’s breath; instantly clear the roadside dust from one’s garments; or cantrips to curdle a neighbors soup, or make a frog take on the temporary appearance of a beautiful maiden; through the unwholesome and dangerous summoning magic of the Diabolist, such as The Spell of the Ominous Enthusiast, which conjures forth a small blue demon which can perform any single task with the greatest of skill, but then demands and attempts to forcibly acquire the liver of its summoner as payment.
Finally, the Primer includes a few of the truly mighty spells which made the Magicians of the Dying Earth individuals to be both feared and respected: Phandaal’s Gyrator, The Evocation of Blue Havoc, The Charm of Forlorn Encystment, The Charm of the Omnipotent Sphere and the original Excellent Prismatic Spray (not to be confused with another spell with a similar name.) All are mighty new weapons suitable the magical arsenals of the powerful magicians.
For those who always felt there should have been some element of danger and uncertainty to spellcasting, the Primer introduces an optional spell failure system, based on the system in the Dying Earth RPG™. No longer is casting a spell automatic guarantee of its routine success. Rather, the outcome is a function of the power of the spell contrasted with the skill of the caster, and results can range from Dismal Failure to Illustrious Success. The latter may be an unexpected boon, while the former can cause dire consequences indeed, which is why inexperienced spell dabblers and hedge wizards should think twice before attempting to wield the more powerful arcane magical formulae found in this book. In addition to spells, there are numerous new magical items. Over 40 new Ioun Stones convey a variety of powers and skill effects, and dozens of other curious magic items fill the pages of the Primer. These again range from the very subtle, such as a sheath to wear over your tongue so that one can endure the most disgusting repasts without crying out or vomiting (and thus potentially offending the wrong person), or books containing insulting verses so scathing they can bring a strong man to his knees; through such powerful and useful artifacts as the ever-lengthening rope; Laccodel’s Rune, which protects the wearer against nearly any form of caustic magic; Mieux’s Pantelloons which puff up to frustrate arrows or darts, and can allow the wearer to float away to safety; or the much-feared Schiavona of Kavic which conveys superb fighting ability to even the most inept fencer.
Those players not satisfied with the magical creations of others can dabble with the manufacture of their own Vat Creatures, and through the medium of magic and living flesh, create anything from a comely concubine with whom to while away the twilight hours, to a burly and hirsute guard – beast to chase away uninvited solicitors.
Finally, The Primer includes three remarkable prestige classes for those interested in fully immersing themselves in the Dying Earth milieu. The Sharper is a con artist and a thief, whose natural abilities make it just as easy for her to earn a living taking down marks in any big city as creeping around in the wilderness on a foolhardy adventure. The Diabolist is that rather scary individual who specializes in the control, banishment, and / or binding of Demons and creatures from the outer planes. Thanks to the invaluable contributions of Ian Thomson, The Primer includes several of the unique spells and abilities from the DERPG Demons of the Dying Earth book, from which are formed a deadly arsenal of abilities and skills for the formidable Diabolist. Finally, the mighty Arch-Magician class allows players to flex true magical muscles, and become the kind of character you thought of the first time you ever heard Black Sabbath’s ‘The Wizard’.
Not since Call of Cthulhu™ introduced the feel of Lovecraft to roleplaying games, has a genre as rich as the high fantasy world of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth been so accessible to d20 gamers. The Primer of Practical Magic, available soon from Pelgrane press, is sure to profoundly enrich the d20 experience, and hopefully it will be only the beginning.
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.