Always one to show his work, Noah Lloyd shares his number one technique for running table top roleplaying games in the latest Pelgrane Video Dispatch.

The following news items and diary entries originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in 2000.

You can find the entries for 2001-2002 here.

You can find the entries for 2006-2009 here.

Editor’s note: A few of these news items were not categorized by month or year – I have done my best to approximate their chronology, and have marked them with a small sun symbol.

1998 to 1999

In early 1998 last year, we began discussions with Jack Vance’s agent in New York about the possibility of creating a game based on the Dying Earth Tales. In early June, we started a mail list for interested parties. What could such a game be like? Would it even be possible? We consulted RPG industry professionals, looked at the finest rules systems and adventures and established that such a game was possible given the treatment that Vance’s work deserves.

After long and drawn out negotiations, we established a price and gained extensive licensing rights. We were ready to commence work on the game. Next came the difficult task of deciding who should write the game. We decided at the outset that it should be more than one writer, as we soon discovered that everyone has their own interpretation of Vance’s tales and we didn’t want to impose a single vision.

See the press release for more details.

In December 1999 after perusing the CV´s of many admirable writers, we chose Robin D. Laws to be the senior designer. His name had been put forward very early on, and we were very pleased to get him. John Snead we chose to write the magic system, primarily because of some as-yet-unpublished material he sent us as a sample, but also because of his broad RPG experience and knowledge of effective rules for magic systems. Both these writers demonstrated their ability to add a light Vancian touch to their writing, without creating a pastische.

The novelist Peter Freeman sent samples of his work, and that was sufficient to persuade us that we should make room for him on the project writing flavour text and making other contributions.

10th October 1999

Allen Varney, a well known RPG writer, novelist and games writer volunteers his services; he little knows what we have in store for him.

20th December 1999

Allen sends through final Dying Earth logo and Pelgrane Press graphics – they are accepted.

2000

Integral Edition gathers pace. This ambitious project hopes to print all of Jack Vance’s work in sixty leather bound volumes.

The Dying Earth Gallery was added to the website.

10th January

Hilary Wade, an artist introduced to us by Peter Freeman produced some sample illustrations of creatures for us. They are deemed suitable and original.

24th January

Allen sends the first draft layout. This two-color affair captures the mood of the background very well. Can we afford two color though?

26th January

I spoke to Jack for an hour or so yesterday. He is a quietly spoken and thoughtful man. I found him very helpful and friendly and where he remembered details or concepts from the books, he enlarged upon them. He tries not to re-read work, as much of the earlier work he finds disappointing. He likes all his Dying Earth stories, although he refers to the ending of the Museum of Man as “slightly sophomoric”. His other least favourite DE story is the Grey and the Green. He emphasised that he like these stories. He has a great affection for Cugel (pronounced Coo-gul (Coo like a dove, gul as in prodigal.) and Rhialto. He would be happy for someone to fly to visit him, but unfortunately that’s not in the budget! A few snippets of our discussion follow. He let me know what was in his thoughts when he pictured the map (somewhere on the Earth, although I’m not saying where) He describeds Sandestins as “the executive performers of acts of magic.” People in the Dying Earth are not warlike en masse. There are dangerous areas, but war is a pastime for younger nations. He conjured a great image of archmagicians working on magical problems, likening it to a “a shed full of junk and old paperwork and a couple of old guys trying to build a lawnmower out of odds and ends. They experiment until they find something that works, then they perhaps write down the recipe. Mainly, they are using old knowledge, intuition and years of experience. It doesn’t really matter what the solution is.”

1st February

Robin produces his first draft of the basic engine. Amusing and well-written – the Robin D. Laws TM comes with a built in proof-reader and editor; no RPG company should be without one. This is distributed to the other developers and is greeted by virtual cries of admiration.

2nd February

Ralph Horsley supplied the illustration of the Deodand you see on our home page.

15th February

John Snead produces a very early draft of the magic rules.

Second conversation with Jack Vance. He answered some useful game-relevant questions. He suggested why bows and other projectile weapons are rare (magicians don’t like them), detailed the political structure (people are too difficult and egotistical to be ruled, magicians don’t like rulers) and described why the half-humans and humans hate each other (the usual human reasons.)

3rd March

Allen supplies us with another layout proposal, this time one color. Either layout would be suitable, although we’d like to be able to do two-color if we can.

17th March

Peter Freeman, our sidebar author has finished “The Daybook of Geomalacus” to illuminate the embryonic magic system. An example:

At Azenomei, on the junction of the rivers Scaum and Xzan, word had come that the Arch-Mage Phaeton was seeking an apprentice. On my arrival the town was already full of bursting lights and all manner of reports, odours and fluxions as every jack-leg magician of the district attempted to display his skill, along with many lacking all reasonable pretension to command of the art. Phaeton himself was not present, and so I took myself to an arbour pleasantly shaded beneath a single great pall-willow and sipped yellow wine. I watched in quiet amusement as the various tyros and dabblers argued among themselves, none showing more than a fleeting ability, yet each more vociferous than the last in his claims. All but the most cloddish and ill-refined citizens seemed intent on the contest, even those conversant with but a dozen phases of the Laganetic cycle or possessed of erotic amulets of dubious efficacy.

Eventually Phaeton arrived, a personage of stately height and demeanour, whose sagacity was evident in the length of his beard. As the crowd began to press on him with claims and counter claims he responded with increasing distaste, until finally he was forced to evoke the Omnipotent Sphere in order to protect himself.

He immediately began to dismiss those ill-bred, lacking in adequate style or innate competence, along with singers of popular songs, lallators, groatmen, those unable to deflect the Spell of Internal Effervescence. At length only a half-dozen remained, all minor mages of greater or lesser worth. At that point I drained the last of my wine, rose and walked to the group, addressing Phaeton with a sweeping bow and ignoring the others. Phaeton returned my greeting with a cool glance, at which I, with a carefully judged flourish, evoked the Liberation of Warp, thus simultaneously impressing him and causing great inconvenience to my competitors. With a second flourish I produced from the folds of my robe that libram I had secured from the tomb of Yasbane the Obviator. Phaeton’s eyebrows, previously immobile, rose perhaps the half-breadth of a finger.
´You overcame the demon Orsadran?´
I responded with a modest inclination of my head.
´Your name?´
´Geomalacus, ´ I replied.
He gave a nod of acceptance, turned and began to stride from the square. I followed, keeping close behind him to avoid the malice of my disappointed rivals. Having gained my goal it seemed superfluous to comment on my agreement with Orsadran.

19th March

Hilary Wade, one of our artist has produced some amusing and characterful illustrations for the game’s Persuasion and Rebuff abilites. Here is an example of a Pelgrane unsuccesfully using its charm techniques on a very wary opponent.

21st March

The Dying Earth RPG play test begins.
Over 50 playtest teams have begun the two-month long process of testing the fledgling core rules for the game. We´ve included two Cugel-level test adventures, one by Robin Laws, the other by David Thomas. We are working on some higher-level example adventures. The play testers range from complete novices who are avid Vance fans, to highly experienced GM´s with no knowledge of the Dying Earth books at all.

April

Millennium to publish Tales Of The Dying Earth in the United Kingdom. All four of the original books are to be printed in one volume under the Fantasy Masterworks series. Fantasy Masterworks is a library of some of the greatest, most original, and most influential fantasy ever written. These are books which, along with Tolkien, Peake and others, shaped modern fantasy. The book, number four in the series, has the ISBN number 1-85798-994-5, is due for release in April 2000 and will cost £6.99. Pelgrane Press intend to sell the book from this website.

2nd June

As might be expected, the play test has taken a lot longer than expected – we are now on the second round of playtesting. Robin fixed a few play tester’s niggles and all the developers are hammering away at John Snead´s Rhiato-level rules to try to break them.

6th June

JS has incorporated some changes to reflect certain loopholes in the Rhialto-level rules that were discovered. They are now more robust. This includes a fix by Robin to the main rules section that caps abilities, preventing powerful characters from hosing everyone in sight with magic.

21st June

The highly-experienced Aaron Allston (industry credits include GURPS, D&D Cycolpedia, and three novels) begins work on the Quick Start rules. He adds some amusing flourishes to the examples he gives.

14th July

Ralph Horsley begins work on illustrating the DE source book.

20th July

David Thomas, who has already supplied us with two example adventures, posts an article to the Guild Companion about the progress of the game. Apart from some slights to Tolkien, it generates some positive comments. (The url is now dead, unfortunately.)

2nd August

The artist Greg Staples (Dragon magazine, Green Lantern, 2000AD) has agreed to do the front cover of the DE RPG. His work really has the atmosphere and professionalism we are looking for. The initial idea:

“Cugel stands on Shanglestone Strand with the sun setting in the background. (Possibly, across the sky or in the clouds is an image of the face of the laughing Iocounu) Cugel is shaking his fist at the sky an cursing I´s name. The Agent of Far Despatch (a winged demon) can be seen as a silhouette in the sky. The friendly glow of Twango´s manse is visible further up the beach, but strange white shapes are can be made out dimly in the woods. Perhaps the distant glimmering of the light of Saskervoy can be seen.”

8th August

Jim Webster, a massive contributor to the Dying Earth mail list, and adventure writer, foolishly gives his consent to editing a quarterly magazine devoted to the Dying Earth. He starts soliciting articles.

9th September

We have had more rules revisions and typo corrections in the main rules and an initial layout for the DE Quick Start rules. David Thomas is combining Jim Webster´s, Steve Dempsey´s and his own work into the Scaum Valley Gazetteer, to be our first supplement. It will be aimed primarily at Cugel-level characters. We are using a CC2 map created by Peter Freeman as the basis of the river course.

15th September

More revisions to the magic rules covering area of effect spells and spell wallops (very powerful magicians against weak defense)

18th September

The Origin of Species, which began as a flip remark on the mail list, and became an amusing Vancian digression, draws to an end. Jim Webster, a major participant posts a listing of proper names, included here. It is full of sources of pedantry, personages and adventure seeds. It can be downloaded from here.

21st September

Aaron Rosenberg agrees to put some polish on the magic chapter. It´s over 41,000 words – we were expecting around 25,000, so some chopping is needed.

28th September

Allen posts an attractive first chapter layout in PDF format with rough illos. This is a two-color version. It’s looking less likely that we can do this. Ralph has excelled himself with headers and footers such as this:

Ombalique

3rd October

I attempt to get printer quotes. Following James Wallis´ advice, I contact a number of printers, and learn strange printer terms, such as offset, coated, lpi, 2/2, smyth sewn and bizzare American paper weights measured in pounds (instead of good old simple gsm)
Can we afford two colors? Hardback? Nice paper?

5th October

Phil Master (GURPS Diskworld, etc.) agrees to write a few thousand words for a project initiated by Robin – “Cugel´s Compendium of Indispensable Advantages” These contain tweaks – an example of which follows:

“Is That Your Spear, or Do You Hide Behind it from Small Children?”
Situation: You are confronted by one or more opponents, and physical violence is clearly unavoidable. You are confident enough of your chances, but would feel better if you could be sure that your opponents would remain innocent of much tactical subtlety.

Description: You a fix your leading opponent with a glance, and issue a remark of brutal contempt. Hopefully, this provokes him to anger, which the wise warrior avoids.

Benefit: For the expenditure of 1 Persuasion (Forthright) point, you may engage your intended victim in a contest of Persuade against Rebuff, with no rerolls permitted on either side. If you win the contest, your opponent is enraged, and will charge you at maximum speed. If he has Ferocity as a style of attack (preferred or secondary), he must use it; otherwise, he suffers a levy of 2 to all his defense rolls for the first three attacks you make. You would be well advised to win the ensuing combat, as you are unlikely ever to make a friend of this person.”

6th October

Allen Varney sends through the laid-out Quick Start rules. Greg Staples cover art arrives. It is a striking an attractive image, with only one fault, Greg has added two moons! In the Dying Earth, the moon has long since departed (some say in the Great Tumble). I send the art back to Greg.

10th October

Jim sends through some articles for the as-yet-unnamed magazine, some 14,600 words. Jim a gregarious and amenable character compensates for his total lack of layout ability by finding an experienced designer and zoologist, Sarah Wroot. She agrees to set the magazine.

11th October

Greg’s final artwork for the front cover is scanned and finished. Here’s a glimpse:

17th October

The Scaum Valley Gazetteer cover is underway. We asked all the contributors to make suggestions (artwork by committee, I suppose) This is what Greg Staples had to work with:

Ideas:

The Valley of Graven Tombs, with a barge and an exhumation. The Sun should probably be present in the picture.

The barger could be something like a big, over-ornate punt, with a little cabin aft (like the tent things that workmen hide under) and stuff (retrieved items, say) being loaded on board. Dying Earth fashions are wild and frequently bizarre; strange hats and costumes.

A deodand ready to pounce would be good, but might be a bit too busy, or even a deodand on a chain.

(The deodand is largely human in appearance. It stands seven feet tall and is extremely broad-shouldered. Its skin is pitch-black in color, offering a dramatic contrast with its large, dripping fangs, which may be yellowed or gleaming white. The surface of a deodand’s skin is well-oiled, reflecting light and highlighting the extraordinary definition of its musculature. It might be considered quite beautiful, were it not for its cruelly bestial facial features and aforementioned incisors.
Deodands eat flesh, craving that of mankind most of all. They speak our language and are often skillful, if wheedling, negotiators. They may pretend that they devour humans only reluctantly, as if driven by uncontrollable instinct. They dwell in forests and jungles. Sometimes they are sighted singly, sometimes in small packs.
If faced with some impediment to the immediate dispatch of human prey, the deodand will plead, bargain, cajole, imprecate, and sweet-talk, seeking to persuade his interlocutor into removing the barriers which stand between them.)

Comments from the writers:

Somehow the picture should look placid without anyone making any real effort, even the barge should drift.

The Valley is natural, with natural tombs on the north side, but artificial on the south.

My mental picture of the Valley. The Scaum runs basically East to West so the sun should be to the south side of the river. Travelling down stream you have the sun on your left hand side. The south side of the valley is the one with the artifical accretion of tombs , the North side is the natural hill side,.probably running up to a plateau which will inevitably be forested. On the north bank there is a village which provides the homes etc of those who work among the vines. Near the river where streamlets draining the plateau run down the north face they have eroded some graves and have washed the contents down onto the river margin forming the “bone fields” where the locals grow some grain for their own consumption.

The valley is long, so you needn’t pick out all these features. Many of the tombs are covered in ancient grape vines which yield a harvest of fine wines.

This is what Greg came back with first as a rough idea:

Scaum Valley cover

We mentioned a few coloration problems, and he came back with this:

Scaum Valley cover - final

The final cover is now at the A3 scanning bureau, so we can’t show it to you. But my, is it impressive!

18th October

A discussion over the name of the magazine continues. I shortlist three:

The Primer of Practical Magic AKA the Primer (mentioned in Rhialto)
The Excellent Prismatic Spray
The Compendium of Universal Knowledge (Duke Orbal’s exposition)

After debate, I choose the latter.

19th October

I change my mind; The Excellent Prismatic Spray it is.

20th October

Printer quotes come in. We take the rather brave step of using a Thai printer; the quality of their samples is excellent, and their pricing is such that we can do hardback (although not two colours) Their salesman seems to be knowledgeable and cooperative. (Please don’t quote this paragraph if it all goes wrong!)

21st October

Ralph has spent a week doing additional artwork for the magazine and some extras for the main rule book. His usual high quality is in evidence.

Ossip Wax

7th November

Tor Books to publish United States omnibus edition. The book is expected to be released in November 2000.

The Scaum Valley Gazetteer reaches 92,069 words. David Thomas chases his contributors with a danny-stick to ensure prompt completion of their contributions. Words derived from Dutch, French and other inappropriate foreign languages are banned. The Dying Earth master map is in CC2 form, and we have made some adjustments to it to reflect certain inconsistencies between different writers´ versions.

10th November

Sarah Wroot sends us the first version of her layout for The Excellent Prismatic Spray (XPS). It has a suitably classical style. Allen Varney, with Aaron Rosenberg has cut down extraneous material and re-worded the magic chapters to bring them down to 25000 words. I read through and can´t find anything missing. An amazing job. With a few minor changes, John Snead expresses his satisfaction at the new version.

15th November

Allen Varney´s front cover draft comes through. Eye-catching.

21st November

Quick Start rules are printed! The Excellent Prismatic Spray is at the printers! Hooray! Sorry about the exclamation marks.

25th November

Pelgrane Press launches the Quick Start Rules and The Excellent Prismatic Spray at Dragonmeet 2000. We sold lots of copies of the Dying Earth Tales, even more copies of The Quick Start Rules, and some magazines. We generated a good buzz. Steve Dempsey demonstrated the game to an entirely unfamiliar audience. Most of the playtesters enjoyed the game to the extent that they would purchase the rules.

Playtesters

December

☀ XPS 1 now available to download.


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.

In the latest episode of their temptingly powerful podcast, Ken and Robin talk cursed items, DELTA GREEN’s Bay of Pigs, blind French organists, and iridology.

He’s written several books and more than one chapter on the subject. In this Pelgrane Press video dispatch, GUMSHOE and DramaSystem designer Robin D. Laws distills it all down to his top game mastering tip.

The Utility spell in 13th Age is a lovely way to cram all those spells that are great in the right situation, but useless most of the time into a single handy package. This article presents two variants on the regular Utility spell. Each one takes up a spell slot, as usual.

 

Illusion Utility Spell

1st – disguise self

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Effect: This spell provides you with an effective magical disguise that lasts about ten minutes, making the skill check to avoid unmasking one step easier: easy if it would have been a normal task, normal if it would have been a hard task, and hard if it would have been a ridiculously hard task. The spell only affects your general appearance, not your size. It can be used to hide your features behind the generic features of another person or race. Using it to impersonate a specific creature makes it less effective as a disguise (-2 to -5 penalty).

3rd level spell: The spell lasts for 1 hour.

5th level spell: The spell also provides smell; +2 bonus to any checks.

7th level spell: The spell also handles correct-sounding vocal patterns and rough mannerisms; +4 bonus to any checks.

9th level spell: You can now target an ally with the spell; you can also now use it on up to two creatures at once.

 

1st – illusion

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Effect: You create a minor illusionary sound or smell. Nearby creatures that fail a normal save notice the sound or smell; those who make the save may notice it but recognise it as not exactly real. You must concentrate to maintain the illusion.

3rd level spell: You can create an apparition – an illusory object or creature of up to about human size. Again, those who fail treat the illusion as real; those who succeed recognise the object as an illusion. Interacting with the illusion in any contradictory way (trying to cross an illusory bridge) breaks the spell. Illusory creatures cannot move or attack, but can appear threatening. You can’t cast an illusion over something – it can only appear in empty space. Illusions can’t do actual harm. so if you crush someone with an illusory boulder or stab them with a fake sword, they soon notice they’re not crushed or stabbed. Unless they’re really stupid.

5th level spell: You may animate your apparitions, causing them to move.

7th level spell: It’s now a hard save to see through your illusions.

9th level spell: Your illusions now last even when you’re not concentrating on them. The illusion lasts as long as someone believes in it.

 

1st – cloak

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Effect: You make one small object or person… not invisible, per se, but easy to overlook. The spell won’t hide its target from even a cursory search, but it won’t be noticed by a quick glance. The spell lasts for one minute or so.

3rd level spell: You can now hide 1d4+1 targets.

5th level spell: Those cloaked are now hidden from scrying and divination spells. The caster of the divination spell can tell their spell has been blocked. This protection lasts until sunset or sunrise.

7th level spell: The protection from scrying and divination now lasts a full day.

9th level spell: You can hide a small army or a location (like a village or castle) from divination.

 

3rd – message

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Quick action to cast

Effect: You send a one to two sentence message to another person you know and have touched in the last week. Sending a message to a person you can see is always easy. Sending a message to a person you can’t see requires a skill check using Intelligence against the highest-tier environment that you or the sender are occupying.

The maximum distance you can send a message depends on the spell’s level.

3rd level spell: Across half a city, at most.

5th level spell: Across the entire city and a bit into the countryside.

7th level spell: Between cities near to each other.

9th level spell: From any city to any other city, or across a sea.

 

5th – enter dreams

Range: Unlimited, as long as you’ve got a connection of some sort to the target.

Daily

Effect: You enter the dreams of the target. You’re an astral projection, but any damage you suffer on this jaunt is real damage – and you can be killed in a dream. Obviously, you can only cast this spell when they’re sleeping (the spell isn’t expended if you use it on an invalid target). When inside the target’s dreams, you can observe their subconscious thoughts, and may be able to plant suggestions, change their opinions or convince them you’re a messenger or omen – save vs inception, basically. The dream-world may identify you as an intruder and turn on you.

7th level spell: You can now ‘hop’ from dreamer to dreamer, scanning for a particular target even if you don’t have a connection them. You need to target a general area – for example, if your target is in Axis, you can move through the dreams of random people in Axis until you find your quarry. Also, you can take up to five other travellers with you in the dream.

9th level spell: You can now teleport to the location of your target, if they permit it. You appear when they wake up. Other travellers can’t teleport with you – it’s a solo teleport.

 

7th – symbol

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Effect: You brand a magical symbol on an immobile object or surface – typically, castle walls, mountain cliffs, stones marking the border of your domain and the like. If the object’s moved, or the symbol is physically destroyed, the spell is broken.

You may inscribe your own personal symbol, or the symbol of an Icon.

Symbols last until your next full heal-up. You can only inscribe one symbol in a place – if multiple symbols can be seen from a spot, they cancel each other out.

Allies of that Icon are inspired by the sight of the symbol. They may immediately roll any positive relationship dice with that Icon. If you inscribed your own symbol, your allies are filled with awe at your power; any game benefit is up to the GM, but could include gaining a free save against an ongoing condition, spending a recovery, or just general good luck.

Enemies of the Icon – or your enemies – are struck by a Intelligence + Level vs MD attack; those who are hit are affected by Fear (save ends).

Either way, a character can only be affected by a given symbol once per day.

9th level spell: Your symbols are now permanent until destroyed.

 

 

Transmutation Utility SpellShadows Over Eldolan cover

1st – feather fall

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Free action to cast

Effect: When you cast this spell, it arrests your fall, letting you glide down the ground over a round or two.

3rd level spell: You can now target a nearby ally with the spell.

5th level spell: You can now target up to two nearby creatures with the spell.

7th level spell: You can now target up to five nearby creatures with the spell.

9th level spell: You gain some control over where a target falls, like a quickly gliding feather.

 

1st – hold portal

Ranged spell

Daily

Effect: You cast this spell on a door. For ten minutes, adventurer-tier creatures can’t get through the door. Champion-tier creatures can batter it down; each attempt requires a DC 20 Intelligence skill check (including an applicable background) by the caster to resist the battering and keep the spell going. Epic-tier creatures can walk right through.

3rd level spell: The spell now lasts for an hour. Adventurer-tier creatures are stymied. Champion-tier creatures can batter the door down or destroy it after three failed DC 20 skill checks by the spellcaster. Epic creatures notice that the now-busted door had magic on it.

5th level spell: Champion-tier creatures take a few minutes to force the door open. Epic creatures can force it open after one failed DC 25 skill check by the spellcaster.

7th level spell: Champion-tier creatures are stymied for up to an hour by the door. Epic tier creatures get through after three failed DC 25 skill checks by the spellcaster.

9th level spell: Champion-tier creatures can’t enter. Epic-tier creatures can’t get through for an hour.

 

1st – disappear

Daily

Effect: You cause an object to vanish into a pocket dimension. You can call this object back into reality with a gesture, and it appears in your hand or next to you. At the GM’s discretion, willing people or player characters whose players missed this game session count as ‘objects’ for this spell.

You can only disappear or conjure a single object with the spell – but a container full of objects counts as one target.

If you’re unconscious or slain, or when the spell duration ends, the object reappears instantly.

The size of the object depends on the level of the spell.

1st level spell: Anything that fits in the palm of your hand

3rd level spell: A backpack and its contents

5th level spell: A big sack

7th level spell: A large wardrobe, a horse and cart.

9th level spell: Pretty much anything.

 

3rd – levitate

Ranged spell

Daily

Effect: Until the end of the battle, you can use a move action to rise straight up into the air or descend straight down. The spell itself won’t move you horizontally. The up-or-down movement is about half as fast as your normal movement. While levitating, you take a –2 penalty to your attacks and are vulnerable to attacks against you.

5th level spell: You can now cast the spell on a nearby willing ally instead of yourself.

7th level spell: You can now cast the spell as a quick action, and the spell can now affect two targets.

9th level spell: The spell can now affect five targets.

 

3rd – animate

Daily

Effect: By touching an object, you imbue it with temporary animation and life. You could cause a chair to dance, a candlestick to walk over and set a pile of straw on fire, a door to unlock itself, or a chain to wrap itself around a target. Animated objects are slow and comically clumsy – they can obey commands, but aren’t any good in a fight. The objects gain the power to bend and move, but will damage themselves if they try anything too strenuous. Objects connected to other objects (like a door in a wall) can be ordered to rip themselves free, but may succeed only in damaging themselves – and any damage to the object ends the spell.

The object completes one task, then stops moving.

3rd level spell: Any object you can hold in your hand

5th level: A piece of furniture

7th level: Anything up to about the size of a house or small sailing ship.

9th level: Wake up, you lazy mountain!

 

3rd – transmute element

Daily

Effect: You charge your hands with the magical ability to transmute one element into another. Anything you touch while you concentrate on this spell is transformed. You can’t cast other spells while maintaining this one.

Possible transmutations, any of which can be reversed.

3rd level: Rock to mud

5th level: Lead to gold, fire to ice

7th level: Flesh to stone, steel to glass. Also, you can now make your transmutations permanent if you wish.

9th level: No new transformation, but you can now cast the spell as a transmutation wave instead, affecting an area around you instead of being limited by touch.

 

5th – water breathing

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Quick action to cast

Effect: You can breathe underwater for the rest of the battle (or about five minutes). You become aware a couple of rounds ahead of when the magic of the spell is about to end.

7th level spell: You and 1d4 + 2 nearby allies can breathe underwater this battle.

9th level spell: The spell affects you and 1d6 + 2 nearby allies for 4d6 hours.

 

7th – wall

Quick action to Cast

Daily

Ranged spell

Effect: You conjure a wall of stone. It’s a really big wall, nice and thick. It appears between you and the nearest person who intends to harm you, if you’re in combat. The wall can be climbed (DC25) or flown over, but it’s a really, really long wall, so people can’t trivially walk around it. If there are nearby anchor points – dungeon corridor walls, buildings, hills, etc – then the wall appears between them. Casting this spell immediately takes you and any nearby companions out of combat (assuming your foes can’t easily overcome the wall) without incurring a campaign loss.

9th level spell: It’s now a wall of fire.

 

 

 

 

In the latest episode of their cow-shaped podcast, Ken and Robin talk finding story in setting, Utopian architecture, a three-eyed Yellow King foe, and David Lynch’s Revenge of the Jedi.

GUMSHOE divides abilities according to whether failure at that ability can drive narrative. Because it is never interesting to fail to get information, you never fail with your investigative abilities. General abilities, on the other hand, do offer the possibility of something interesting—if often horrible—happening when you fail a test. You can fail to run from the shoggoth while Fleeing, fail to repair your sputtering Cessna’s instrumentation with Mechanics, or fail to keep your wits about you with Composure.

However, just because failure is often interesting doesn’t mean that any given instance of it will always best further the story.

As a GM, you may see no particularly entertaining outcome from a failed test.

  • Failing to Sneak past the security guards, as you have imagined them, doesn’t get you a classic interrogation and escape sequence. Nope, just an exasperating hassle that delays the confrontation with the escaped sapient lab rats.
  • When a character is Riding to impress the hardbitten rodeo clowns, a failed test prevents you from running that scene where they try to recruit the group into their ranks.
  • A Counterinsurgency failure might rubbish the otherwise cool plan the group has spent half an hour cooking up, forcing them back into planning mode.

A common and often useful solution to the boring failure calls for the GM to replace failure with a costly success. You get past the guards but lose 2 Preparedness points when you drop your kit bag. You impress all but one of the rodeo clowns, who later tries to brain you with a wrench. You blow up the revanchist hideout but are identified by witnesses while doing so.

However, the existence of this technique shouldn’t prevent you from doing the simple thing instead: sometimes, you can just let them win!

Success establishes the character as competent and impressive, a feeling the players might not get enough of in a tense session. You get a reward as well, skipping an unneeded complicating factor. In a scenario already packed with action, that wrench-wielding rodeo clown might be one plot wrinkle too many to squeeze in before the session clock runs out.

Even an action that should feel difficult and could yield a rewarding story turn in other circumstances, could in certain instances create more fun as an automatic success.

A failure at the top of a scenario, especially the first one, starts the proceedings on a sour or unintentionally comic moment.

Failures that slow the action just as you’ve gotten it rolling likewise get old fast. If you’ve already got plenty of suspense bubbling, yet another problem to deal with registers as demoralizing overkill.

This doesn’t mean that characters should be able to succeed at unbelievably difficult tasks just to speed your the pacing.

But so long as success feels credible, or can be made to seem that way by your adjusting your description of the situation, you may find the prospect of certain failures overrated.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In the latest episode of their quartz-festooned podcast, Ken and Robin talk TPKs, RCMP misconduct, crystals, and The Mandalorian.

By Kevin Kulp

Swords of the Serpentine doesn’t use Robin D. Laws’s One-2-One rules (including Edge and Problem cards), but the game is designed to play superbly with only one player and one GM. This type of adventure echoes the model of classic fantasy literature such as Conan or Elric where a main hero tackles their adventures alone, or at most with a companion or sidekick.

For one-Hero play you’ll need to make a small number of changes during character creation, and there’s some specialized advice for both GM and player.

Character Creation

As noted on p. 36 of the Adventurer’s Edition of SotS, if you’re the only player you’ll gain 14 Investigative Build points to create your Hero. That’s 4 more than you’d get with a full 5-person group. You can get an additional bonus point if you keep to only one profession, but that’s not always a good choice for one-Hero play; diversifying gives you more options when looking for leads.

The GM chapter on p. 269 of the Adventurer’s Edition has additional information, including that in one-Hero play the Hero gets an additional Ally point.

Example

Let’s say you want to play a hero patterned after the accomplishments of the real-world Ching Shih the pirate, making your hero a deposed pirate queen who’s fled to Eversink to regain her strength.

Five Players?

Were there five players or more, the Hero might look like this:

Fayne Chaskin, aka Captain Chask, deposed pirate queen of Min

Canny, diplomatic, strong-willed, middle-aged, murderous, loyal

Drives (what is best in life?): Wielding deadly force; following your own course; making an example for others to see

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 1 (the leather hide of a great kraken), Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (confidence), Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 5: Damage Modifier +1 (commanding)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +1 (rapier)

Investigative abilities: Command 2, Intimidation 1, Nobility 1, Servility 1; Scurrilous Rumors 1, Skullduggery 3

Allegiances: Ally: Ancient Nobility 1, Ally: Outlanders 3; Enemy: Mercanti 1

General abilities: Athletics 4, Burglary 2, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 3, Sway 5, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: A now-lost fleet of 800 ships (and almost 50,000 sailors) stolen from you by the Witch-Queen of Min; international warrants for your arrest and execution; a surprising sense of optimism; a desperate need to lay low; a perverse desire to crash the parties and balls of the nobility; your flagship The Savage Crown, moored unnoticed in a hidden swamp cove a day away; a handful of very important blackmail documents; fond memories of your gambling house and salt trading days; a jeweled hair comb from your mother, looted by her from Eversink nobility while you were still an infant; kraken-hide armor (Armor 1); a rapier whose hilt is fashioned from some kingdom’s stolen royal scepter, you aren’t sure whose (Damage Modifier +1)

One Player?

With only one Hero, though, you might build her Investigative abilities and Allegiances like this with the extra points:

Investigative abilities: Command 3, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 1, Servility 1; Ridiculous Luck 1, Scurrilous Rumors 1, Skullduggery 4

Allegiances: Ally: Ancient Nobility 1, Outlanders 4; Enemy: Mercanti 1

 

With Flashback from a high Preparedness, and 3 ranks of Ally: Outlanders, Captain Chask in a 5-player game has great narrative flexibility and wields substantial political pressure – and she can spend those points to have her still-loyal pirates show up in almost any circumstance to act as decoys, extra muscle, inside men, and assistants.

When you’re the only player, you have a Hero who is even better at having her commands obeyed; you can tell when someone is lying to you; you have a small amount of ridiculous luck; you’re even better at illegal activities (amongst the best in the city!); and your ties to your still-loyal pirates are remarkably strong. What you can’t do yourself, you can usually get someone else to do for you.

Player Advice

When adventuring you’ll run into the need for useful abilities you don’t have. Think like a fantasy hero: use a different ability creatively or find someone else in the city who might know what you need. If the GM gives you an interesting sidekick with a few abilities, they can help fill in for your weak spots.

You’re probably mighty in a fight, but you’re only one person – and your biggest weakness is facing lots of people at once in combat. If you’re facing a lot of enemies at once, you have a few options. You could surrender (although it’s probably more fun to make them work for it) and fight your way out later; you could spend a point of Taunt to challenge their leader to single combat, completely side-stepping the mooks; or you could spend points of an ability like Intimidation to buy yourself time to talk with your foes instead of fighting them. You could even use Flashback and spend a point of Charm to establish yourself as an old friend of the enemy leader. Consider creative solutions and pick the one that makes for the best or most exciting story.

Still want to fight? That’s solid heroing! If you’re facing Mooks and you have Warfare, Sway or Sorcery at 8+ ranks, spend all your combat ability at the start of the fight in a single amazing attack to try and down as many Mooks as possible as quickly as possible. You’re likely to defeat as many as 4 or 5 in that sudden flurry, and that will get you Refresh tokens AND buy you some time. You can spend Investigative points to briefly boost your defenses (p. 75); in a tough fight, that may well mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Finally, spend your Ally points to draw on your Allies in any situation where you want backup. That’s especially useful if you don’t already have a sidekick; a convenient nearby ally can help heal you, can bolster your Morale, may have knowledge and expertise you lack, and can pitch in during a fight. Intimidating your foe by having a dozen mercenaries or thieves suddenly show themselves is an excellent use of that resource.

GM Advice

GMs will find advice for one-Hero play on pp. 269-270 of the Adventurer’s Edition. Try not to toss the hero into an adventure that they’re particularly ill-suited for; without access to Teamwork, setting a Warfare-based hero against a monstrosity that can only be defeated by reducing their Morale is just going to be frustrating. More fun is an adventure where the Hero’s strengths can shine, and where the foes are not prepared for a single dangerous assailant.

As mentioned above, we like the idea of a sidekick during one-Hero play. It’s particularly useful for offering Investigative abilities that a Hero may lack, for emergency healing that keeps the Hero on their feet, and for giving you someone particularly fun to roleplay.

If converting existing adventures, handwave or eliminate large numbers of Mooks. A single Hero will likely focus on the most dramatically interesting target in the fight, and while they might need to fight their way through some speedbumps to get there, that shouldn’t necessarily be the focus of the scene.

Since your player won’t have any other players to bounce clues off of, don’t be at all shy about summarizing and talking through what they’ve learned, who’ve they’ve talked to, and where they’ve been so far in the adventure. It’ll help make sure they don’t accidentally bump into dead ends.


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, currently available for pre-order. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

A column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I did it again. As heard in a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, I made up a new term. Since it is easier to cite articles than podcast episodes, and because new terms want to be propagated, I’ll revisit it here.

The term: table sense.

It’s what developers look for when you write scenarios or source material for roleplaying games.

It’s what game masters need from you when they read your material.

Table sense is what it sounds like: the ability to forecast what will happen at the gaming table when the scene, magic item, background detail, monster or whatever it is comes into use.

How do you get it? By playing roleplaying games of the sort you’re writing for. And more importantly: by picturing the play experience as you write, away from your table.

Table sense may be a particular challenge for writers steeped in the story game world, which assumes a high degree of cooperation to jointly create the designers’ very specific preferred structure. They create a shaped or tailored version of agency with strong parameters.

If the designers doesn’t expect you to punch the bartender in their game of Bowler-Hat Show Ponies (to name a currently popular example), storygame players do not allow such loucheness to cross their minds. Instead their characters proudly stick to wearing bowler hats to equestrian competitions, because that’s the premise the entire game tailors itself to.

In games with a more traditional wide-open agency, where the freedom to act as chaos agents lies well within the expansive remit of any core activity, you can be that eventually some player is gonna at least contemplate some bartender-punching.

Using your table sense, as you write a scene with an annoying bartender and characters with fists at the end of the arms, you know to explicitly answer the question: what happens when someone takes this implicit option?

Table sense reminds you, when writing a setting’s deep backstory, to answer the question: how do the player characters learn about this? What difference does it make to them when they do?

When reviewing a scenario you’ve rewritten, table sense allows you to zero in on those moments when you assume that players will conveniently take this or that action that makes your sequence of action work. Once you’ve spotted them, you can ask yourself if they will really do that thing. You can move from there to the panoply of crazy powers, spells, or tech they might be able to deploy to blow past all of the obstacles you have carefully placed in their path.

Table sense tells you, when creating a new spell or magic item, to ask “will a player be excited to get this? What story possibilities does it create?” It leads you to imagine yourself as a player character gaining the item. Do you keep it, or sell it as soon as you can? If you keep it, what cool things might happen? Depending on the game system and its core activity, butt-kicking might be a cool thing, or a very cool thing. Or not a thing at all, in which case, your table sense reminds you that you’ve designed an item for a game other than the one you’re currently working on, and need to highlight and hit the delete button.

When you apply table sense to a description of a Game Master Character, you can spot the elements you’ve written that will be hard or impossible for a GM to activate. Does your grimy trader on a decaying space station dream of a new life in the core Combine worlds? If so, and you’ve also described him as taciturn and unwilling to reveal his true self, your table sense alerts you to a problem. You must then show how the players can overcome his reticence to learn of his yearnings. While you’re at it, table sense allows you to envision at least one situation in which that actually matters to the players.

In other words, as you write, always think about how the GM will take your text and put it on the table.

Table sense differs depending on the system you’re writing for.

The basic unit of fun in 13th Age is the fantasy fight. If the element you’ve created can feature into a combat sequence, your job is done. On the other hand, your description of the taciturn bartender who yearns to move to a great metropolis of the Dragon Empire ought somehow to relate to a fight the characters are headed toward or have just completed.

GUMSHOE’s core activity is investigation. When you create a monster, you have to ask how it might appear in a mystery scenario. A good old-fashioned ravening beast that lives only for slaughter might fit into a mystery. For the most part though you’ll be looking for cleverer, tricky creatures: less Conan, more X-Files.

Table sense also inspires you to structure information in a way that works at the table. The information on Government Lethal Chambers in the Aftermath sequence of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game appears in FAQ format. This cues the GM to introduce a few key facts, and then encourage the players to ask questions about the world their characters grew up in. Those answers, laid out for ease of reference, tell them about much more than these devices. They allow them to imaginatively engage with the alternate reality of the post-Castaigne regime world. The GM could extract that info from a conventionally structured chunk of setting exposition. And indeed, other bits of world background are presented in that format. But for this key setting linchpin, I made a point of going beyond the reading experience to envision how information goes verbal as it passes from GM to player.

You get table sense from GMing, and then GMing some more, and also by GMing.

It fades over time and must be renewed. If you haven’t run games for years, your developer can spot that. She might also be able to pinpoint the era you came up in, and when you stopped.

Table sense acts as the fuel for the imaginative exercise of seeing sessions in progress that use your material.

Passages written with table sense not only avoid pitfalls and maximize fun, but also help the reader to imagine play in progress, and how great it will be to get a group together to run your game or scenario, instead of one of the many others their time and affection.

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