In the Gaean Reach, almost every world capable of supporting life gave rise to creatures of an insect-like body configuration. Though biologists assign each planet’s evolutionary tree its own taxonomic categories, in both lay and scientific circles the term “insect” is used to describe them all. The so-called insects of Achernar, for example, bear no genetic connection to those of Zonk’s Star. Yet the operation of parallel evolution assures that similar environments on quite separate planets gave rise to similar animal forms, insects included. Thus mosquito-like insects can be found on most planets in places where stagnant waters coexist next to warm-blooded beings.

Some planets run by nature conservancies have managed to largely screen out invasive lifeforms. But few worlds were settled with such care. All manner of plant, animal and fungal species have spread throughout the universe in the wake of that destructive beast, homo sapiens. Initially the invasiveness ran along one vector, from Old Earth outwards to other stars. Over the centuries, spillover from biospheres has run in all directions. Earth’s cockroaches, once considered invulnerable, have been all but replaced by even tougher and more tenacious equivalents first encountered by penal colony residents on the planet Boniface.

These factors complicate the work of forensic entomologists, yet also give them a topic to endlessly drone about. Always determine the loquacity of an entomologist before agreeing to go on a long star voyage with him!

One religious faith-slash-gambling syndicate, the Thorax Cacophony, deliberately introduces the insect species of different worlds to new planetary environments. They seek out planets with nitrogen-rich atmospheres, which allow arthropod species to hyper-evolve to gigantic sizes. Once nature has achieved this, Thorax Cacophony priestesses train the giant insects for gladiatorial combat, to the disgust and delight of spectators, adherents and well-financed nonbelievers alike. Needless to say, one must wear breathing apparatus in order to witness the bouts first hand. Many bettors prefer to observe the battles from the comfort of orbiting space yachts, via video feed.

Yet a recent rash of incidents has raised concerns of match-fixing, and you and your crew suspect that the mastermind behind them is Quandos Vorn, against whom all of you have sworn deadly vengeance. Is it time to infiltrate the Thorax Cacophony?

Death to Quandos Vorn!

We would never be so indelicate as to suggest that you, as member of a ragtag band of interstellar vengeance-seekers, would ever commit a homicide in the course of your implacable hunt for arch-criminal Quandos Vorn. Yet in the pursuit of this entirely justified enterprise, one might theoretically find oneself saddled with a recently deceased individual whose discovery would inconvenience your crew. Depending on your position in the vast sector of space known as the Gaean Reach, you might consider any of the following spots as places to dispose of incriminating remains.

  1. Crystal Marsh, Nion. The ever-shifting monoliths of this beautiful natural formation (pictured) quickly absorb any matter from the manufactured to the organic, rearranging it on the molecular level.
  2. Energy Fountains, Palmetto Islands, Ys. This laser sculpture provides hours of quiet contemplation to the residents of the area’s many retirement communities. Clients bored with life, or unable to pay for their upkeep, sometimes wander into the beam projectors. (The artist stipulated that no protective barriers obscure the view.) No one bats an eye when one of the beams momentarily fizzes.
  3. Palga Plateau, Koryphon. Inhabitants of this plain, the Wind-runners, object to others flying over their land. They shoot down any and all airborne vessels with their light-cannon. One need merely place the body in a disposable glider or atmospheric torpedo, loft it over the plateau, and let the Wind-runners do the rest.
  4. Port Swaven, Boniface. In this prison processing town, brokers maintain a brisk trade in fresh offworld corpses. With the connivance of corrupt guards these are used to fake convicts’ deaths, allowing them to escape under new identities. No one will find the criminal you seek to get rid of if he’s buried in the grave of an entirely different wrongdoer.
  5. Smugglers City, Terence Dowling’s World. Several competing businesses in this bustling criminal hive refashion corpses into attractive memento mori. Their catalogs offer such choices as keychains, watch fobs, steering mechanism covers, and drink cozies, all guaranteed to resist DNA testing of any kind.
  6. Yink’s Crocodile Park, Old Earth. By centuries-old custom, police officials may not venture into this combination tourist attraction and religious mecca. Acolytes of the Reptile God will baptize you for free in the sacred waters of the Sippewissa River when you provide 50 kg or more of carrion for the delectation of their deity’s earthly avatars.
  7. Zonk’s Star. Any solar orb will utterly incinerate any unwanted biohazards, if you’re willing to steer your space boat close enough. Zonk’s Star, named after a legendary pirate who himself is said to have undergone a so-called “flare funeral”, seems as poetically apt a choice as any.

Frustrated in your hunt for Quandos Vorn, the arch-criminal of the Gaean Reach upon whom you have sworn vengeance dire? Rather than seek him directly, you and the rest of your rag-tag band of righteous grudge holders may find it fruitful to follow the trail of an item he has stolen. Yes, perhaps in some cases the item will turn out to have been purloined by others. But one of them must surely bring you face to face with the man himself–or at least to one of his bases, or a lackey eager to betray his present location.

  1. Prototype of the First Intersplit Drive. Stolen from the European Aeronautics Museum in Brussels, Old Earth, by an as yet unknown subterfuge. Docents discovered a hologram in its place eight days after its last confirmed cleaning. Recovering this object will entail logistical challenges, as it weighs in at half a tonne.
  2. Sapphire Crown of the Swamp Witch. Carved from an enormous gem of the specified type, this was taken from a shaman of Wyst in a savage raid that left her and seven members of her retinue dead.
  3. Pocket Watch once owned by Ferebos Yalune. Taken from a memorabilia auction on Alcydon. On record as admiring Yalune’s reign of terror from three centuries ago, Quandos Vorn collects artifacts related to his life and is thus suspected in this theft.
  4. Phryndal’s Recursive Refusium. Self-explanatory.
  5. The Jandoon Hotel at Calara. Dematerialized in its entirety, with seventy guests and one hundred and forty staff members, after a billing dispute with a roue later revealed to be a Quandos Vorn alias. Assumed destroyed until relatives of wealthy missing guests began receiving ransom demands. Staff members are believed to have been sold by human traffickers somewhere in the Ferriers sector.
  6. The Perfect Strawberry. Preserved in a beautiful crystal cryosphere, this was judged the apex of the fragaria ananassa at the 143rd Gustation Tournament of Yaphet. It spent its next hundred and twelve years in the Botanic Hall of Fame until it was taken at projac-point by known Vorn associates. Speculation has it that Vorn intends to eat it as part of his upcoming birthday celebrationtime and location to be announced.
  7. Murmurings of the Concrete Column at Plast. Copies of this inexplicable recording of course remain in various top-secret databanks, but the voice unit that captured the original audio was taken during a starmenter raid on the ship Ecdysiast.

The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. This ingenious hybrid fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

As you scour the spacelanes of the Gaean Reach for traces of Quandos Vorn, the interstellar arch-criminal you have sworn at all costs to destroy, you may find it advantageous to familiarize yourself with the very latest terms of abuse. Although humanity in its vast sprawl through the galaxy has retained a common language, local slang terms continue to form, mutate, spread, then fall into disuse. Spurred by ever-present bureaucratic obstruction, the language hungrily seeks new ways to express frustration, contempt and calumny. You may need to know these terms to understand when you are being mocked, or to spur the laggardly into satisfactory action.

Armback: a stupid and/or gullible person. As in, you could convince him he has a third arm growing out of his back.

“No, you wretched armback! I don’t want you to perform the emergency procedure! I want you to learn the emergency procedure!”

Blurniquet: a generally useless person or thing. Derives from the story of Blurn of Blurn’s Planet, notorious for selling substandard or quack medical supplies.

“Don’t just lie there like a blurniquet! The leopards are invading the station!”

Borb: a person whose conversation one immediately wishes to extricate oneself from.

“Why in the name of Diana’s moons did you not rescue me from that unrelenting borb?”

Corruction: to punish with enforced party attendance. Often connotes metaphorical or literal coercion to consume heavy intoxicating or psychoactive substances.

“Beware, Spavine, or we shall subject you to corruction at the nearest star port.”

Glummiker: a complainer or congenital pessimist, especially one who cannot respond in kind to any expression of hope or pride.

“Well, we see who the glummiker is on this mission.”

Goyster: a person or situation that fails to live up to initial promise. Named from the delicious-looking false oysters of Goyanus Prime, a rare example of a food whose nutritional content is negative.

“The intersplit drive looked like a bargain, until I got under the console and saw it was an utter goyster.”

Hasbad: a once fearsome, now risible, individual.

“Take the projac, for all the good it will do you, you pathetic hasbad!”

Quasling: a wishy washy person, who is neither here nor there. A waffler.

“After six hours of interminable blather the quasling would still not definitively say if he has the supplies we need.”


The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. This ingenious hybrid fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

You will surely not employ professional killers to slay galactic arch-villain Quandos Vorn. What he did to you was too cruel, too awful, to allow you to take your sworn vengeance from a remove. However, prowling after him will require you to move in his circles—a milieu also swimming with murderers-for-hire. As many others wish Vorn dead, highly-compensated death-dealers might complicate with your plans with their own attempts to exterminate him. After you start thwarting his schemes, Quandos Vorn may hire assassins to neutralize you. It is therefore wise to acquaint yourself with the top killers working in the Gaean Reach today. With his penchant for disguises, one or more of the names on this list might be Quandos Vorn.

  1. Armas Chent. A devolved human with crystalline hair, taken as a mascot by starmenters, who tormented him enthusiastically. After systematically slaying all of them and taking their ship, he uses the skills they taught to satisfy his twin lusts for cash and slaughter.
  2. Rendis Fole. A native of Astropolis, Fole claims to be the current incarnation of Flust, the unspeakable 13th god of that planet (or star cluster—one is never sure.) He proves his case to skeptics by showing them video of the rite in which Flust mounted him. Those who continue to doubt his divinity taste the point of his anti-matter rapier.
  3. Ellegus Ria. Red-haired, pale-skinned rogue princess of Denebola IV. Generally taciturn but voluble on the subject of the six eviscerations, and the proper order in which to perform them. Gainsay her at your peril.
  4. The Lambkin. Former miner of the Rhea asteroid field. Specializes in death by suffocation but will branch out on request. The sobriquet is ironic.
  5. Slelum Ah. Formerly of the planet Nion, this short, unassuming killer lit out for the spaceways after deciding he never again wanted to eat a bowl of pold. Notorious for weeping during his murders, a propensity his lucky survivors find disconcerting. Favors knives and needles.
  6. Verina. Swore vengeance on Quandos Vorn’s mentor when he drained her formerly lush planet of water, transforming it into an arid hellhole. Agrees to murder only other murderers. Noted for her surgical use of mag grenades.
  7. Iller the Amnesiac. Had his memories surgically removed, a decision that, no longer understanding why he took this step, he now regards as rash. A starred oracle of Euville told him he could restore his recall by committing a string of murders. Iller reckons that he might as well choose victims someone else wants dead, as they are statistically more likely than the general population to deserve it.

The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. This ingenious hybrid fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Do not expect your quest for vengeance against the interstellar arch-criminal Quandos Vorn to be met with universal equanimity. Especially uninterested in the havoc you may wreak while doing so are the Gaean Reach various officials and gatekeepers. Here appear reasons they might give you for dragging their feet or refusing cooperation entirely. Be prepared in advance to refute them.

  1. I recently supplied some information of a like nature and am now being sued. Can you idemnify me against all legal exposure? Do not reply; the question is rhetorical.
  2. By expressing yourself so violently, you have engaged in active ill-feeling. Please be advised that emotional assault contravenes local law.
  3. Though apparently sound on a practical basis we need to know more about the philosophy underpinning your proposal. Please refer to the attached style sheet for information regarding the format of the required essay.
  4. I’m afraid that your application to hunt Quandos Vorn has been queued for future attention, as many others claim the right to bring about the same result. We must not show favoritism.
  5. Due to mental disability I am unable to remember requests. Though I do not discourage you from making them I am obliged to warn you that all effort shall prove bootless.
  6. I shall attend to your requests with maximum dispatch. To which planet shall I mail the results of my inquiries? What? No, I’m sorry, responses may not be mailed to the planet of request. Labor relations demand strict adherence to this policy.
  7. Religious scruples prevent me from taking action before the Ides of Yench.
  8. I have already accepted bribes to stop you from proceeding. The suggestion that I would go back on prior promises traduces my honesty.
  9. Lest I be accused of entertaining the receipt of bribes, your request must be heard in the presence of a bureaucratic chaperone. I shall put in a requisition for such services. Typical wait time is four to six weeks.
  10. Quandos Vorn? Incised on the form here it clearly says Quandos Chorn. A common input-output error of the form inciser, but needless to say we must start over.
  11. I will be frank and say that the thought of satisfying your entreaty terrifies me.

The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. An ingenious hybrid, it fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

With the release of Robin’s wonderful new story-explorer The Gaean Reach RPG, GUMSHOE extends its tendrils into one of the oldest and most reliable of dramatic forms: the revenge story. In that game, the player characters unite to destroy the indescribably vile Quandos Vorn in revenge for his prior cruelties to them. And just beforehand, the players (this is the really great bit) collaboratively describe Quandos Vorn’s vileness and determine his prior cruelties. The result? A fresh, involving take on a tale as old as Orestes, if not always quite so damp and naked. From Dumas’ Gothy Edmond Dantes to TV’s dreamy Oliver Queen, doughty heroes have sought revenge on Him (or Her, for Orestes) Who Done Them Wrong for millennia — and if Jack Vance’s SF is anything to go by (and indeed it should be) will continue to do so for millennia hence. So what about our own millennium right here? Why not adapt the brilliant story focus of The Gaean Reach RPG to another of your already beloved if not-quite-so-brilliantly-focused GUMSHOE RPGs? Why not, indeed?

Each possibility here introduces your game’s Quandos Vorn and gives a possible reason you want to get him, although the GM should begin with the good old “Why do you hate …?” and only prime the pump if player creativity seems temporarily throttled. Further possible Terrible Deeds appear, followed by the Quarry’s Masks (how he hides from you, possibly in plain sight) and Obstacles (what he can put between you and him) and then the game’s potential Taglines (things you do or say in play to get Tokens which you spend to pierce Masks and overcome Obstacles).

Night’s Black Agents: Chandler Vaughn

Chandler Vaughn is the guy who burned you. Or that’s one of his cover names. You aren’t actually sure he’s with the Agency any more. If he ever was. Maybe he was a double agent. You’re not even sure what he looks like now. Or looked like, then. But you know one thing: he burned you, and you’re going to bring him down.

Terrible Deeds: killed your partner, aided al-Qaeda in a (lot of) terrorist action, smuggled nukes, killed your family, perverted the Agency’s once-proud ideals into the Orwellian sham they are today, released the vampire virus, vampirized your partner, betrayed your country

Masks: cover identities, plastic surgery, can shapeshift, deniable dead drops, is a hive parasite that lives in many minds, cut-outs, brain-hacking,  literal masks you know neat face-mask technology like in Mission: Impossible

Obstacles: billions of embezzled drug dollars for bribes, Russian mobsters, Iranian snipers, North Korean mentats with telekinesis, lots of pull with the corrupt helicopter-gunship-and-SWAT-team parts of the Agency, Renfields, secure immunity in isolated country, total surveillance of all computers

Taglines: Use the Night’s Black Agents Achievements, which are ideal for this sort of thing, as the source of Tokens, not of refreshes (except refreshes with Tokens, of course).

Mutant City Blues: “Quantum Born”

Not the least of “Quantum Born”‘s sins is to have a really lame pseudonym on the Internet. But he’s a mutant (“born of the quantum apocalypse that is ending your corrupt world system so-called”) and a terrorist and a murderer. At least.

Terrible Deeds: set off a bomb in the subway, killed your partner, leaked your case files all over the Internet and got a jillion hardened criminals set free on technicalities, killed your family, bio-engineered a worse version of the Quade virus for the most destructive possible power combos, provides foolproof schemes to other criminals and terrorists, hacked into a candy company’s mainframe and poisoned several thousand kids by altering its ingredient ordering software, is a serial killer among his other hangups

Masks: anonymous Internet existence with the Tor and the onion and such, hoodie and sunglasses, army of easily-gulled hipster anarchist wannabes to claim his identity, is blackmailing members of the force to cover his trail and feed him clues, shape-changing mutant power, is actually an AI given a computer analog of the Quade virus, surveillance-obscuring software, could literally be anyone at all

Obstacles: insanely devoted online love cult, not actually in your home country to say nothing of your actual jurisdiction, police red tape that says “it’s too personal with you and him,” super-powered goons paid big Bitcoin to hit you a lot, your own online history/credit report/everything ever, previous criminals you put away broken out (or legally freed!) by him, is protected from on high by government or corporations or a big seemingly cool charitable or progressive foundation, army of computer-controlled drones and makerbots

Taglines: Use Achievements, as above, or Taglines, as in Gaean Reach, or both, but sourced from either “gritty” comics dialogue or from police procedural TV shows.

Trail of Cthulhu: Kwan-Ho Wong

Or, sure, if you’d rather be torn apart by peculiarly intelligent wolves than poisoned by enormous purple centipedes, Gennadiy Voronin. He is a dealer in antiquities of a repellent aspect, and the lord of a criminal empire extending from Limehouse to Leningrad to Lhassa. He possesses perhaps the finest mind you’ve ever encountered, all the more terrifying because it is his brilliance that has led him to the Mythos …

Terrible Deeds: unleashed a shoggoth, killed your mentor horribly, stole your research and left you floundering and bankrupt, drove you mad and had you institutionalized in some charming colonial hellhole, denounced you to Stalin/Hitler, assassinated FDR, found the Ark of the Covenant first, raised a god or titan once and didn’t have the courtesy to die or go mad

Masks: master of an ancient serpent-man cannibal shapeshifting technique, is an identical twin, has never been photographed, wears an all-enveloping hooded robe at all times, mind-swapped or drug-enslaved pawns, plastic surgery, is (or commands) an ambulatory shoggoth, yellow mask

Obstacles: hideous and hideously-strong enforcer, Ahnenerbe or Black Ocean or NKVD favors, lives in an immense ruined temple to a Mythos entity, hyperspace gates for escapes, bribed or addicted officials in all countries, byakhee flocks, fanatical cultist followers, cannot die

Taglines: Gain a Token by suitable, effective, in character use of a properly Lovecraftian adjective.

As vengeful space effectuators of the Gaean Reach, you know what the interplanetary war criminal Quandos Vorn did to you—and what you must do in return to him, when you catch him.

That part remains more easily said than done.

Rejoice, then, in these latest intercepted transmissions. They detail some of the identities Quandos Vorn has recently traveled under in his never-ending quest for greater acts of barbarity. As is well documented, the chameleonic Vorn gains and sheds disguises with frustrating ease. Some of these people might be real individuals he has impersonated; others, his entirely fictional creations.

Elbin Throm, collector of rare militaria. The stooped, shaggy-haired Throm walks with the aid of a cane. Demanding and quick to take offense, Throm uses his wealth and expertise to bully finders, brokers and auctioneers of antique armaments. The tip of his cane contains a paralyzing toxin that dissolves its victims from the inside out, leaving the brain and screaming nerve endings as the last portions of the body to die.

Gascade, poet and troubadour. Famed for his quatrains in praise of Quandos Vorn. Of willowy frame and limpid blue eyes, he exerts a powerful sexual magnetism on women and men alike. His bright purple goatee precedes him into art festivals and bacchanals throughout the Reach. Dogged by accusations that he drugs his famous paramours in order to sell their organs to collectors. Evidence has yet to substantiate these rumors. May be a henchman of Vorn’s who occasionally lends him his identity.

Jebbas Mrin, hero of the rebellion on the planet Quane against starmenter (pirate) usurpers. Bald, broad-shouldered, with a musical baritone speaking voice. Never goes anywhere without the halberd he used to behead the starmenter Brerum Sosk. Though revered by the people of Quane, the taint of corruption surrounds his administration as its World President.

Castrel Flogg. A shadowy identity known chiefly as a set of signatures on documents claiming ownership over the platinum mines of Vesro.

The Ebbast, champion fencer and high priest of the religious order of Kolf. Won the tournament of Vosto by applying a neurotoxin to his epee. Described as possessing a skull-like countenance with deep-set eyes and a grinning, scarred mouth. By becoming a criminal and fugitive he invalidated the Kolf credo, leading to dozens of devout suicides. A schism among the surviving Kolfites centers around the question of whether the crimes were committed by the true Ebbast, or an impostor.

The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. An ingenious hybrid, it fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

gaeanreachvoerA column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

In The Gaean Reach Roleplaying Game, your team of interstellar grudge-holders journeys to the galaxy’s darkest crannies in search of the arch-criminal Quandos Vorn. In reprisal for the despicable wrongs he’s done each of you, you’ve sworn to track him down and send him to his grave. But with his vast resources and illimitable flair for chicanery, he’s so far managed to stay one step ahead of you. A flurry of contradictory new reports places him on a variety of worlds. Pick one, if not several, of these, giving your GM sufficient advance warning that you’ve found your next destination.

(Worlds listed here do not appear in the works of Jack Vance, the late science fiction master and creator of the Gaean Reach setting. So feel at liberty to destroy them.)


Thick, verdant flora covers the rocky continents of Ballairides. Despite its lushness, the plant life proves thinly rooted, surviving on a shallow but super-nutritious soil layer. Scientists prize not its run-of-the-mill carbon-based botanical species, or the lackluster food network of decapedes, crawlers and air slugs it supports. Ballairides’ true interest to researchers lies in the rocks themselves. Before meteoric spores seeded its present ecosystem, this world hosted a silicon-based fauna. Crystallized fossils of these bizarre, asymmetrical lifeforms fill its sedimentary rock layers. Licensed geo-plunderers drill deep beneath a hard igneous stone wrapper to find and harvest them. Prized both as museum pieces and as art objects spawned by rogue, whimsical nature, the fossils attract a criminal element of illicit looters. Dodging the efforts of understaffed rock wardens, these paleontological pirates covertly meet interstellar demand for Ballairides fossils.

Your informants tell you that Quandos Vorn now commissions a notably ruthless crew of fossil looters, insisting only on complete specimens of the most gigantic extinct lifeforms. Have his laboratories perfected a method, long thought possible in theory, to resurrect these lumbering titans? If so, to what destructive use does he intend to put them?

Cegiel’s Ghost

The last planet allegedly discovered by the legendary world-prospector Lamint Cegiel veritably burst with exploitable life and mineral resources. Probes from his ship, the Tactile, noted temperate climes, abundant timber, and, in its northern region, magma lakes literally made of liquid gold. Yet when eager clients flew to the coordinates he sold them, they found nothing. Or rather, the five per cent of them who returned said they’d found nothing. Occasionally communications arrays pick up messages from purported descendants of those vanished would-be settlers, begging others to join them on their paradisaical but sadly underpopulated planet. Now and then another group of crack-brained utopians falls for this obvious hoax and sets course for Cegiel’s coordinates, never to be seen again.

Some deluded believers say that Cegiel’s Ghost can only be a real planet, cut off from the rest of the galaxy by a space-time ripple. Those lucky enough to approach it at the right instant pass from our molecular resonance into the pocket reality it resides in.

Wiser heads presume that the world is as imaginary as ever, and that starmenters ambush those lured in by their faked beacon signals. After stealing their ships and supplies, the pirates leave them floating naked in space, their last thoughts wistful dreams of Cegiel’s World. Who might lead such vicious starmenters, if not Quandos Vorn?


Shallow seas cover the whole of Grentic. A long-lived, highly boredom-resistant person might circumnavigate the entire planet by wading, without ever getting wet above the mid-thigh. Occasional circuitous loops might be required in one’s path, to avoid its few ocean trenches. Settlers on Grentic live on interconnected platforms, chained to the profusion of granitic spires rising through the muddy seabed into the salt-choked sky. Feeding on a rich variety of quasi-crustaceans and cod-mollusks, Grentic’s people adhere to the founding maxim of its deliberately nameless first explorers: “We’ll mind our business and you mind yours.” Only the principle of unity against outside interference binds its population of sodden-toed libertarians. They join together with projacs and harpoons against any who would attempt extradition of any resident, no matter how recent his arrival. Fugitives tend not to tarry long here, due to its lack of amenities and excitement. Quandos Vorn, it is said, takes occasional Grentic idylls, freeing his turbulent mind from the pressing issues of arch-criminality.


Dithermal image showing Quandos Vorn on Grentic. Note the newly acquired scar on his left cheek.


Don your flame-suits when you step from your ship onto the heat-baked surface of Myrt. A luxuriant grassland covered its surface when first settled, five hundred years ago. By clearing it for farming, its pioneers triggered catastrophic climate change, turning it into a desert hellhole. Too proud to admit either defeat or fault, they tunneled beneath the surface, undergoing rapid hyper-evolution. Now blind, bald, hunched, and bleeping and burbling in a sonar language standard human ears cannot fully apprehend, Myrtans worship the stern fungal god Bletch, rigorously enforcing the many sanctions of their faith. Rumor has it that We-9Y, the psychotropic communion brew quaffed during its solemn festivals. confers extraordinary sensory powers. That users untrained in the psychic arts of Myrt often drop dead after a handful of doses does not deter questers after heightened perception.

You hear that Quandos Vorn has entered the We-9Y market in force. From this one can safely assume that he can at times be found in the tunnels of Myrt, or clues to his whereabouts might be found there. Persons less intent on vengeance than yourselves might note with caution the extent to which off-world trade in We-9Y has stoked divisions in Myrtan society. But what trouble could a little civil war cause you, now that you finally have a solid lead to Vorn’s whereabouts?

By Robin D Laws

Any game design that starts with me reading an enormous stack of Jack Vance novels is one after my own heart. Before re-acquainting myself with his classic cycle of novels set in the far future Gaean Reach, I assumed that Pelgrane’s companion to The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game would use its rules—or rather, the streamlined and reconfigured version of them that now appears as Skulduggery.

Reading the books, including the Demon Princes and Alastor series, as well as Ports of Call/Lurulu and such standalones as Maske: Thaery and The Night Lamp, I realized that, despite the many similarities between Vance’s fantasy and SF settings, a different underlying structure was at work here, one that would require another core rules set—one that, fortunately, lay to hand in convenient GUMSHOE form.

In both the Dying Earth and Gaean Reach, characters speak to one another with an elevated wit, encounter horror and beauty in equal measure, and embody the eternal selfishness and cupidity of humankind. Though a mordant irony suffuses all of Vance’s works, the space opera titles concern themselves less with the constant one-upmanship and reversal found in the three mature works of the Dying Earth (Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.) The lead characters of these books are scoundrels, nearly as deserving of comeuppance as the antagonists they strive to outwit. Their schemes and plots take place under the rules of Swiftian satire. As readers, we are as amused to see their fortunes overturned as rewarded. The Skulduggery core resolution system, with its rolls and rerolls, emulates the dynamic of constant reversal found in these books.

The Gaean Reach books, on the other hand, extend to the reader a more traditional sense of heroism. Their self-reliant protagonists are sympathetic heroes whose success we root for. The villains earn our hatred, though varying degrees of vicious psychopathy and contemptible pettiness. The self-interested, caviling types of the Dying Earth appear, but as secondary characters placing minor obstacles in the heroes’ paths. Nearly without exception, they draw us into the action with a simple device. The villain wrongs the hero; the hero seeks vengeance. At a midpoint in the action the hero may suffer a single, mammoth setback, which we suffer alongside him. Showing his resolve, he perseveres, and, by following a trail of clues to the villain, whose identity and location are generally obscured to him, achieves the retribution for which he, and we, burn.

This is not a structure of constant reversal, of dueling scoundrels. It is a story centered around investigation, which may be interrupted by scenes of action and danger, sometimes to the great detriment of the protagonists. That is to say, it’s GUMSHOE.

All along Pelgrane-in-Chief Simon Rogers and I assumed that this project would entail some crossover between the company’s two house systems. But instead of GUMSHOE-flavored Skulduggery, the end result revealed itself as Skulduggery-flavored GUMSHOE.

It wouldn’t feel like a Vancian setting without the sometimes florid, sometimes terse, always barbed repartee at the heart of his work. So the first Skulduggery import had to be the tagline system, which rewards the player with tokens for adroitly deploying supplied lines of Vancian dialogue. This system encourages players, including those who otherwise wouldn’t try, to speak in this heightened lingo. Although the results are inevitably less polished than on Vance’s pages, the tagline process reliably succeeds in evoking that spirit—even in players who think they can’t do it, and without the boost wouldn’t let themselves try.

In Skulduggery, the tokens you earn for tagline use buy you ability refreshes. They do this in The Gaean Reach, too. But that can’t be their only function, because GUMSHOE characters don’t deplete their pools as quickly or constantly as their Skulduggery counterparts, especially during a scenario’s investigation-heavy stretches.

Adding a new currency, the token, to GUMSHOE allowed me to solve other design challenges. Gaean Reach guns instantly kill on a single shot. This runs counter to the roleplaying tradition of the extended fight sequence, in which life ebbs away in increments. No one wants their characters to die after a single unfavorable roll. Likewise, many plots end prematurely when heroes can kill their enemies with the same solitary die result.

As one would expect, Vance writes his way around the lethality of his setting’s weaponry. He constructs his situations so that his vengeance-seekers don’t immediately meet and shoot dead his main bad guys. Henchmen and alien creatures die by the drove, but the primary antagonists elude their fire…for a time.

The game emulates this narrative convention by requiring you to spend additional tagline tokens to gain story permission to shoot key antagonists. On the flipside, you can spend tokens to explain your way out of situations in which your enemies ought to be able to shoot you dead.

One way to keep a game currency scarce is to give the players lots of ways to spend it. As in the original Dying Earth RPG, tokens also function as experience points, which you can spend to gain new abilities or add to the ratings of those you already have.

This dovetails with another import from the Skulduggery incarnation of the Dying Earth rules: a lightning-quick character generation process, in which a set of randomly distributed cards defines the characters’ abilities and outward personae.

On-the-fly, players can then spend tokens to fill out crucial but missing abilities, especially the investigative ones. (A backstop process makes sure that someone has a needed ability even if no one has any tokens to spend.) Buying an ability shared by no one else costs less than adding someone else’s existing specialty to your character sheet. This wrinkle prevents spotlight hogs from generalizing their way to omni-competence.

Along with a simplified ability list, these changes make for the most streamlined, newbie-friendly iteration of GUMSHOE yet. I’ve configured this version like this because the game’s default premise activity—pursuit of a terrible enemy who has wronged each member of the party—assumes a finite series, which ends with his climactic defeat.

(As the word “default” implies, we also include options to continue past the nemesis’ destruction, or to adopt alternate frames.)

As a side-effect of this choice, those hankering for an instant-start GUMSHOE with a collapsed ability list now have a game tuned for convention runs—presumably ones in which the PCs avenge themselves not over the course of a series, but in four fast, fatal hours.

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