This article about the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com.

The Dying Earth RPG as an alternative roleplaying game system
by Lynne Hardy

If you don’t know what a roleplaying game is, read this article about the Dying Earth RPG instead.

Fantasy was the inspiration for the first roleplaying games, and amongst the inspirations for the earliest games was the work of Jack Vance. Indeed, more than one fantasy magic system has been designed according to tenets laid down in the Dying Earth books. If you are unfamiliar with the Dying Earth, there are four books, currently available collected into one volume in the Fantasy Masterworks series by Millennium.

Whilst not the high fantasy associated with elves and dwarves, the world is fantastical in both detail and outlook, covering a range of tone and character. The first book (The Dying Earth) is a collection of tales of a darker nature than the latter three, but all touch on the perverse nature of mankind in his dealings with his fellow creatures in a world that may descend into deadly darkness at any moment.

There are many fantasy roleplaying games available on the market these days, all with varying levels of complexity and background support. Indeed, it seems quite surprising that a game solely based on the Dying Earth took so long to appear considering both when the stories were written and its influence on the beginnings of the hobby. As is often the case, it was worth the wait.

Even if you haven’t read the novels, the game has a lot to offer. In fact, when my group was playtesting the rules, none of us had read them and I’m still the only member of the group who has. Although you will undoubtedly get more from the game if you have read the stories (as with any game based in a specific setting), this game is sufficiently well written and supported that lack of prior exposure is not the handicap it has been in other games. There is enough of the familiar, no matter how skewed it has become in what is, basically, the far distant future of our earth, to give everyone something to hang their metaphorical hat on. And hats are very important in the Dying Earth, a place that can be best described as one of almost (but not quite) chivalrous roguery.

Although this article is primarily aimed at experienced roleplayers curious about a new setting or system, newcomers to roleplaying should also find something of use in this game. The system is simple, being based on an easily available die, the standard d6. There are game statistics representing your character’s abilities. These abilities are bought with points and can be improved through experience and there are even different levels of play. At first glance, it could be mistaken for just another fantasy game, but the design approach is almost as skewed as the world in which the game is set, giving an interestingly different feel to other games.

First, character statistics: In the Dying Earth, swordplay is deadly. As in the books, it is much better for the character to rely on his ability to talk his way out of a dangerous situation than to face down his foe, weapon in hand. Unfortunately, you character may be just as easily bamboozled by spurious logic and had better know it when he hears it. In game terms, this translates into the two most important skills, Persuade and Rebuff. Of course, it never hurts to know how to handle oneself in a fight, giving you the next two skills of Attack and Defence.

Each of these skills is represented by one of six “styles”. For example, Persuade has the styles Charming, Obfuscatory, Glib, Eloquent, Forthright and Intimidating, which determine the particular manner of your speech. These styles can be chosen or rolled randomly during character creation. Whilst allowing fate to take a hand garners you extra character creation points, if you have a particular character in mind its always best to pick those styles which best suit your ideas. The range of each style is sufficiently broad so as not to provide a straight-jacket to characterisation but clear enough when stuck for inspiration, either during game play or character creation.

As well as the four main skills, there are also abilities, resistances and, of course, magic. The list of abilities is mercifully brief (but more than sufficient), which helps to make character creation a swift and pleasant task. Resistances add a small but interesting touch to game play. In the Dying Earth, people are much more prone to indulging their every whim – after all, the sun may go out at any minute. There are six resistances, which determine a person’s ability to maintain clarity of thought when faced with a variety of temptations. Although often a minor component of the game, it adds a further depth to the system.

And then there is Magic, a very powerful force in the stories. It is a difficult skill to learn and master, particularly at the highest levels, but even the lowliest person can attempt small tricks or cantraps. As with the major skills, there are six styles of magic each describing a particular approach to spell casting. All magic is, in truth, performed by elemental beings and powerful mages bind and command the larger of these entities to do their bidding. But as with all things in the Dying Earth, care is needed when dealing with these creatures – after all, everyone is out for themselves.

There are three different levels of play, each named for a character in the novels. The lowliest of these, Cugel, starts with the lowest number of creation points, with Turjan and then Rhialto having increasing numbers of points to represent the higher power levels of those characters. Points are spent on abilities, skills, resistances, health and magic as best fits the character, although there are recommended minimums and maximums for each level.

The actual mechanics of the system appear easy enough: 1-3 on a d6 is a failure and 4-6 is a success. Skills and abilities can be used to affect the outcome of the die roll. At the beginning of a game, a character has both a rating and a pool for each skill. Whilst the rating does not change during the gaming session, the pool will increase and decrease. For example, Richard’s character Karybdis is attempting to persuade a merchant to give him a discount. He rolls a d6 and gets a 2 – a failure. He can now use his Persuade pool to alter that result. By spending one point from his pool, he gets to reroll the die and this time gets a 5 – a success (providing that the merchant does not now Rebuff him). Certain die rolls affect the pool in special ways and it’s never a good idea to run out of points (although pools can be refreshed during the course of the game). This lends a very tactical edge to an apparently simple system; there are times when its better to just let a bad roll go. All of that may sound quite complicated, but its actually one of the most straightforward game mechanics I’ve ever used. I can’t cope with complex systems and this one has never got in the way of my games (or made me give up in despair half way through reading the rules).

Another unusual touch is the presence of “Taglines”. These Vancian quotes are intended to introduce the players to the sometimes flowery language of the Dying Earth. Use of a tagline within the game rewards a player with a varying number of improvement points, depending on the skill with which it is employed. Most people find them a little off-putting at first, but they can be extremely useful when trying to get a feel for the background. They can also be very funny and humour is just as important as every other element of the game design.

Then there is the Tweak. Developed for more experienced players in Cugel’s Compendium, a tweak enhances a particular ability under special circumstances. They can give a variety of advantages depending on what skill or ability they apply to and can even allow you to spend points from one pool on a roll based on another pool. Whilst not essential for play, they again add to the atmosphere of the game.

That’s enough of mechanics. What of the potential for roleplaying? Whilst the Dying Earth is richly detailed in parts, Jack Vance left huge swathes of it undescribed. This is very useful when running a game set here. There is enough detail in the main rulebook on the setting that you can actually pick it up and hit the ground running, and yet you still have space to develop your own peculiar whimsy within the world. If filling in the details isn’t to your personal taste, though, you won’t be left stranded, as support material is available from a number of sources. In terms of setting, there are already the Kaiin and Scaum Valley sourcebooks, as well as a variety of articles in the Excellent Prismatic Spray supplements.

The Kaiin sourcebook details the largest city in the Dying Earth and is an open source book – there is no GM only material. This gives the players an unprecedented level of input into creating adventures set in the city and really lends itself well to collaborative play (as well as allowing worn out GMs a well deserved rest). The Scaum sourcebook is more traditional in its approach, but has a wealth of useful information on the most heavily populated areas of the world.

The character creation system is actually very helpful towards roleplaying. Not only do the various skill styles help to visualise a character, the different levels of play also have very distinct atmospheres. Cugel level play is perhaps the most easily recognisable from other fantasy games – lowly characters struggling to survive in the face of overwhelming odds. It can have great humour as well as great triumphs. In keeping with the harsher nature of the stories in which Turjan appears, the middle power level has a darker tone, with greater struggles and more powerful foes. As to Rhialto level, arch-mages can do what they please (within some limits) and are free to explore new ages and new worlds as well as engage in petty rivalries and sundry scheming diversions.

If you are looking for a change, I can recommend the Dying Earth RPG. My group has played pretty much everything at some point in our gaming careers and we were very much taken with this one. The books are well written and are an entertaining read as well as beautifully presented. The game can be as complex or as simple as you wish to make it and it is very flexible towards most styles of play. It won’t suit every group’s tastes – no game can – but for an entertaining diversion once in a while, or for a sustained alternative fantasy campaign, the Dying Earth is very much deserving of your further attention.

And don’t forget your hat.


Get an embarrassment of Dying Earth treasures in the Compleat Dying Earth Bundle of Holding until July 18th!

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.

This article on the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

What is the Dying Earth RPG?
by Lynne Hardy

The Dying Earth is a rich fantasy world, full of complex characters and detailed environs. Thus it presents itself as a perfect setting for a roleplaying game and indeed one has been produced by Pelgrane Press. That is all very well, but what is a roleplaying game?

Everyone is familiar with board and card games, each of which has their own specific rules of play and conditions for winning. Board games require a board, dice and occasionally special cards that affect game play. Roleplaying games share some elements with board games, such as having rules and needing one or more dice. However, they are also distinct from board games in that, fundamentally, there is no board and there is no winner. Historically, the Dying Earth novels were actually amongst the inspirations for the first roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, as well as several other games since then.

So how do you play? Roleplaying is an exercise in imagination, shared with friends. One person takes on the role of Gamesmaster, or GM, and it is this person who is in charge of keeping the game running smoothly. The other players, usually between two and six, take on the roles of characters from the world in which the game is set, in this case characters very like Cugel, Turjan or Rhialto. Together, the GM and the players interact to create stories of fantastical adventure. In some ways, it’s very like improvisational theatre, just without the audience.

Many different companies produce rulebooks for these games and they contain the mechanics of how the game is played, as well as how to create characters. They also contain details on the places, people and creatures of the world in which the game is set. There is usually also a chapter with special advice for the GM on how to set the right atmosphere and how to develop stories for the players to enjoy. Although the players help the GM to flesh out the story, initially at least the basic ideas of what is happening around the players come from the GM. The GM also takes on the roles of everyone the players’ characters meet, so good advice is a handy thing to have. Gradually, as the game develops, the players will have a greater input in the direction the story takes as they become more familiar with either the setting or the rules.

It may seem odd that you need rules if everyone is co-operating to create a story, but just as our world has physics to keep things ticking along nicely, games need some framework so that any decision the GM has to take regarding the success or failure of a character’s action is anything but arbitrary. Some games’ systems are complex in order to realistically model events and are a major part of the game; often, a complicated system has been designed so that it can be applied to many different settings. Others are simpler to better reflect the world in which they are set. This is the case with the Dying Earth roleplaying game (DERPG), where the rules have been specially written to recreate the twists of dramatic fate seen in the novels whilst remaining unobtrusive.

Creating a character is the first important thing to do in order to get a game started. DERPG has been written in such a way that this is very simple and straightforward. Every character has a number of skills and abilities that can be chosen or rolled randomly from lists provided in the rulebook. These skills help to bring the character to life. How good a character is at these skills is up to the player, as they have a number of points to spend on them – the more points you spend on a skill, the better the character is at it. Depending on what level of game you are playing, you have different numbers of points with which to build your character. Cugel level is the equivalent of the beginner’s level in a computer game and is where most players will start; there are two other, higher levels named after Turjan and Rhialto. Whilst in a higher-level game your character will be more powerful and able to take care of themselves, the challenges they face will also be much greater.

Perhaps the most important skill in the game is Persuade, your character’s ability to talk themselves out of, or other people into, tricky situations. In many games the ability to fight is the most important, but in keeping with the books, that isn’t the case here. Of course, a character must also be able to defend themselves against verbal sparring, which is where the Rebuff skill comes in. Characters do have fighting and defence skills, they’re just not the most important things a character can do in this game. Each of these four skills, as well as the Magic skill, have one of six different styles which give suggestions as to how the character uses that particular skill. In the case of the Rebuff skill, a character may deflect another person’s argument in one of six ways: obtusely, warily, penetratingly, in a lawyerly fashion, contrarily or with guileless innocence. These styles are determined when the character is created and are very helpful in defining how the character behaves towards other people. This is all very useful for when you come to play the game, so that your performance of that character and their motivations are believable and consistent.

Magic is a special skill that every character has access to, but to become good at it requires you to devote lots of character creation points to it. This is really equivalent to the large amounts of time required in the stories to acquire magical proficiency. You may not have as many other abilities as players who don’t take the Magic skill, but the game is well balanced and you won’t be at a disadvantage (often quite the contrary!). Characters with a Magic rating can defend themselves against magical attacks and can learn spells. These spells are based on ones mentioned in the novels, as well as others inspired by the various magicians who appear within their pages. Even characters who don’t spend points on magic can attempt minor conjuring tricks, known as cantraps. Whilst not very powerful they can be useful, such as lighting candles without the need for matches. After all, you never know when you may need a light.

So what do you do with a character once you’ve created him? Pretty much anything you want to, really. The GM will have decided on a challenge, or adventure, for you and the other players and the first time you play this may be as simple as just meeting the other characters. You decide what your character says and does within the game world and the GM will help to determine whether you are successful or not in your actions. Sometimes, you can act out what you want to do, such as persuading a mean landlord to provide better lodgings. In such cases, the GM may decide that your performance was good enough to succeed without recourse to the rules. Unfortunately, not all of us are sparkling orators and there are some things you just can’t act out. It is in these situations that the game mechanics come to the fore.

This is where dice come in to the game. DERPG uses a single standard six sided die to help resolve actions. Basically, a roll of 1-3 means that an action has failed, whereas a roll of 4-6 is a success. The points you spent on your skills and abilities allow you to re-roll the dice if the result you get isn’t the one you want, so the more points you spent on a skill, the more times you can re-roll. Special rolls on the die can either add or take away from the number of points you have to use, but only temporarily. This game mechanic allows the players a greater control of their fate than you get in many games; running out of points, however, is not a good thing, so it does require a certain amount of tactical savvy in deciding whether to re-roll or save the points for another, potentially more important, roll.

In a roleplaying game, there is no winner. So, how does a game end? It may be as simple as you run out of time on a particular evening – most groups gather for a few hours a week and the story they are creating goes on for weeks or even months at a time. It may be that the characters complete the task the GM set them, such as finding a long lost tome or discovering a new frippery for Duke Orbal. The whole point of a roleplaying game is to have fun with your friends, exploring new lands and discovering exciting treasures in a setting you enjoy. That way, everyone wins.

But what if you don’t have enough people to form a gaming group? At the bare minimum, you only need two people to play – one person to be the GM and the other to be a player. You could even take turns at being the GM. Every GM has their own style, which can lead to subtly different takes on a given situation. It is also fun for the GM to take time off from running the game and actually have a chance to play it (something that doesn’t always happen). If you are short of players, your local hobby gaming shop should be able to put you in touch with other gamers. Internet newsgroups can also help you to identify other players in your area.

What if you just aren’t interested in roleplaying? It is actually still worth looking at the material that Pelgrane Press have produced, all with Jack Vance’s blessing. As with other roleplaying games, there is more than just the main rulebook available. These other books are known as sourcebooks and contain further, more detailed information on the Dying Earth in terms of interesting places, legends, customs, people, objects and creatures. These expand on the ideas set forth in the original stories whilst remaining faithful to the tone of those books. All of the games’ books are well written, often in Vancian prose when that best suites the feel of the piece, and are an entertaining read, as well as being beautifully produced and illustrated. If you want to discover more of the Dying Earth, the sourcebooks are an excellent resource, acting, if you will, as the literary equivalent of a good travel documentary.

The Dying Earth stories have inspired and delighted generations of readers. Roleplaying in the Dying Earth allows you to add your own small contribution to those tales. After all, it is a remarkably interesting place to visit.


Get an embarrassment of Dying Earth treasures in the Compleat Dying Earth Bundle of Holding until July 18th!

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.

This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007. You can find part one here.

A column about roleplaying

By Robin D. Laws

Last month we plundered the gilded halls of improv theory, appropriating for our own roleplaying purposes the “Yes, but” technique. GMs using this technique avoid answering player requests with a categorical no. Instead they look for ways to say yes, but with complications that preserve the coherence of the setting, add additional challenge, or both.

This time we’re going to take the concept to its funky extreme by using it as the basis for an impromptu scenario. Try it next time you’re forced for whatever reason to slot in a fill-in event for your ongoing game, or as a convention brain-teaser.

“Yes, but: The Scenario” works best with a freeform resolution system that allows character creation on the fly, preferably with simple or self-defined abilities. I’ve also run it using just a deck of cards as a resolution system, with a high draw meaning a good result, a low card indicating failure, and an ace indicating that the player gets to dictate the ideal result of his action attempt. However, if you’re the kind of GM who can spreadsheet an exquisitely balanced Champions character in your head, you might prefer to rely on a crunchier rules set.

This scenario is more fun and unpredictable if the rules system you choose triggers comparatively few assumptions about world and expected game play. If you haul out the D&D rules books, your players will likely plug themselves into a well-worn pattern and set about performing that game’s default activity, relying less on their own improvisatory creativity than on an off-the-rack set of roleplaying assumptions.

You can start a “Yes, but” game mere moments after your players get settled in. Game play is character creation.

Inform your players that this game depends on their ability to interrogate you. All communications with you must be phrased in the form of a yes or no question. When given a yes or no question, you may elect to supply more information than the query calls for. If given a question which cannot be answered with a yes or no, or a statement which isn’t in the form of a question at all, you will ask the player to rephrase.

Play goes around the table in a round-robin fashion. Players ask questions in turn sequence, one question per turn.

When you’re satisfied that the group understands the method of play (well, sort of understands — expect a certain degree of hesitant bafflement at this point), start play by pointing to the first player.

Expect even more bafflement. Prompt the player to ask a question. If the player can’t think of one, try the next one in the turn order. If everyone seems utterly stumped, start off with:

“You all wake up at about the same time. You’re in a room together.”

Then, once again, prompt for questions.

Soon, if not instantly, the players will see the open-ended game you’re playing. They’ll ask you questions like:

1. “Is it dark?”
2. “Does the room have a door?”
3. “Am I injured?”
4. “Is there anyone else in the room other than us?”
5. “Am I male or female?”

What you’re doing is allowing the players to define their characters, the nature of the scenario, and even the genre, by the questions they ask. The answer to all of their questions is either a simple “yes” or a “yes, but…” followed by a line or two of explanation that mitigates, modifies, or limits the facts their question has put into play. “Yes but” is almost always the most fruitful answer.

So your replies to the above questions might be:

1. “Yes, but there’s light coming from under the door, enough so you can faintly make out a light switch off to one side of it.”
2. “Yes, but it’s behind a barricade of broken furniture. Someone went to a huge effort to keep something outside from coming in.”
3. “Yes, but not seriously. Just a few scratches.”
4. “Yes, there’s a man in a trench coat. But he seems to be dead.”
5. “Rephrase the question.”

As you continue, the Q&A format will define characters, flesh out a setting, and define a goal for the PCs to achieve.

As players ask questions about their characters, you assign abilities and game statistics to them. Whenever an answer defines a character’s abilities, make a note of them, giving them game statistics as necessary. The first-mentioned abilities get the best game stats. Though courtesy or lack of devious imagination may prevent them from trying it, there’s nothing to stop players from asking questions that define other players’ characters.

Clever players will catch onto what you’re doing and tailor questions to their benefit. The “yes, but” format makes this, challenging, though:

“Do I have a shotgun?”
Yes, but no ammo.

“Am I super strong?”
Yes, but only for a few moments a day.

“Do I have the key to that door?”
Yes, but you know there’s a bomb on the other side of the door, wired to go off when a key is inserted into the lock.

Certain questions tend to foster weird or freakish results if you apply “Yes, but” to them. Unless you want a cast of hermaphrodites and mutant halfbreeds (not that there’s anything wrong with that), questions like “Am I male?” or “Am I human?” should be answered with a simple “Yes.” You control the freakiness level of the scenario both with your modifying descriptions, and by which questions you choose to answer with a plain “Yes.”

The default outcome is a scenario about people who wake up trapped in an environment without their memories. The amnesia option can be fun, as it mirrors the player’s attempts to piece together their characters by asking you questions. You can forestall it, though, by simply answering “yes” to the question “Do we remember how we got here?”

Likewise, the PCs generally wind up trapped by asking “Is there a way out?” Starting out trapped is a good way to foster cooperation between the developing PCs, but again you can vary the standard pattern just by saying, “Yes.”

If the players think they’re playing in a given setting, their questions will be tailored to it. They may invoke existing media properties anyway: “Am I a Brujah?” “Can I perform the Vulcan nerve pinch?” The “yes, but” protocol limits your ability to fight this, but so what? It’s not like anybody’s going to sue you for infringing their intellectual property. Expect the resulting adventure to surrealistically blend various genres.

At some point during the game, the Q&A will prove difficult to sustain as your improvised narrative gathers steam. Depending on how quickly your players catch on and how adroitly they manipulate the format, this may happen as early as an hour into the session, or very near to its natural conclusion. Usually it’ll happen at about the halfway point.

When this occurs, tell the players that you’re switching to a regular RPG protocol. Then play out the game as you would any improvised scenario, placing challenges in front of the players as they head toward an exciting climax that resolves the central problem they’ve established for themselves during the Q&A phase. This sounds like a tall order, but, assuming you can improv a scenario at all, you’ll find that the momentum you’ve established in the Q&A carries you along naturally.

Will next month’s column expand this concept into a screenplay suitable for a major motion picture? Yes, but those not equipped with alien senses will instead perceive a column on another subject, germane to roleplaying.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A well-designed modular element for an RPG, whether we’re talking about a GMC, location, conspiracy, or occult tome, does more than extrapolate from an evocative premise. The text you write, explicitly or otherwise, indicates to the GM how it will be used in play.

Let’s look at roleplaying’s archetypal modular element, the one that has launched a thousand bestiaries, the creature. Or, if your core game prefers, monster, or foe, or alien life form.

In some cases the utility of a creature, or other modular element for that matter, goes without saying. That happens when the core activity of a game is so hard-wired to its modular elements that their function at the gaming table needs no further elaboration.

Take the venerable first mover and perennial market leader, Dungeons & Dragons. Its core activity is: fight monsters in fantastic environments.

(This greatly accounts for the enduring popularity of D&D and its stickiness as a concept. Not only does it have an exceptionally clear, easily enacted and highly repeatable core activity, it tells you this right in the brand name. Fantastic environment = Dungeon. Monsters = Dragon. It’s all right there.)

A well-wrought D&D creature design requires you to address its activity by showing the GM how it behaves in a fight, and how it interacts with its environment. In 5E, the stat block focuses on the former, and the descriptive text on the latter.

Different iterations of D&D have favored one over the other. The classic “Ecology of the X” magazine article format traditionally goes into way more extrapolative detail on a creature’s relationship to its environment than any DM can possibly put into play at the table. 4E, and its spiritual descendant 13th Age, focus much more on what the creature will do in a fight than in the broader world. A stat block might represent not a category of being, but a particular sort of orc or demon or pirate who attacks in a specific way, with its distinctive spell effect or weapon.

D&D casts such a shadow over trad RPG design that the very term “trad design” might mean “has a little D&D influence in it somewhere.”

It’s easy, then, to lose track of what you’re doing by applying D&D assumptions to the creation of creatures for other games. Making an adversary useful and easily playable in another rules set requires you to step back and consider the core activity you’re writing toward.

GUMSHOE games all have slightly different core activities, all of which can be expressed including the verb investigate.

  • Intrepid volunteers investigate the cosmic secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • At the behest of a benevolent conspiracy, trained professionals investigate an occult conspiracy to tear apart the world.
  • Ordinary people investigate their way out of horrific situations.
  • Burned spies on the run investigate the vampire conspiracy intent on destroying them.
  • A freelance starship crew investigates interstellar mysteries.

To design a GUMSHOE creature requires not just a focus on the tropes and themes of the setting—an eldritch abomination, a psychically invasive modern horror, an alien life form—but the creature’s role in the investigative action.

GUMSHOE’s emphasis on structure helps you do this. If you look at the scenario format, you can see that a creature might be:

  1. central to the scenario’s key mystery
  2. a secondary obstacle adding challenge and suspense along the way

In case 1, the creature is either the source of the mystery, or adjacent to the source. The PCs have to interact with it in some way to bring the case to a close. That’s your:

  • salt vampire feeding on the crew of the mining outpost
  • resurrected sorcerer bumping off anyone who uncovers his secret
  • ghost taking vengeance on its killer’s descendants

Many instances of case 2 fall into the broader category GUMSHOE calls Antagonist Reactions. When the heroes start poking around, the primary villain sends some lesser creatures to harry them. Secondary creatures might also be keyed to specific investigative scenes, as guardians or obstacles the characters must overcome before gathering clues. Examples include:

  • the gargoyles the corrupt priest sends to trash your studio
  • the mutated dogs in the abandoned lab
  • the faceless homunculus hitman known only as Mrs. Blank

Your description of a GUMSHOE creature might suggest ways it can appear in either role. When writing up Mrs. Blank, you could indicate how she acts when the PCs are tracking her through her trail of victims, and then what she does when she shows up at the behest of the vamp conspiracy to treat the agents to some silencer music.

Accompanying any core activity is a game’s default identity, the description of a typical PC group: ordinary people, trained professionals, burned spies, starship crew, or whatever. Take that into account also as you design your creature. Show the GM how to get the characters into contact with your entity. In other words, your description needs at least one plot hook demonstrating its introduction into play.

Super easy, again, in D&D: unless you say otherwise, the creature occupies the fantastic environment, ready to defend itself when adventurers show up to fight it.

The more specialized the default identity, the more guidance GMs need getting your creature into their games.

Let’s say you’ve designed a ghost that materializes out of printer’s ink. What motivates the typical group for this game to confront it? The answer differs if the PCs are ordinary people (Fear Itself), burned spies (Night’s Black Agents) or security pros who respond to assignments from their handlers (The Esoterrorists, Fall of Delta Green.) The question in the first two examples is “Why do the PCs care?” In the last case, it’s “Why do their handlers care?”

Keep these essential questions in mind as you first envision your creature, and again as you revise your text. You’ll probably spot passages that explore a rabbit hole of iterative detail but don’t figure into a GM’s key concerns:

  1. What does it do in my scenario?
  2. What does that scenario look like?
  3. Why and how do the PCs encounter it?

A Column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Many moons ago I encountered a phenomenon I later termed an unrule.

A rule, as goes without saying, is text the designer includes into a game to explain how it is played.

An unrule is text you have to include to prevent players from making a mistaken assumption about your game, based on their experience of other games.

This first cropped up during playtesting for the Shadowfist card game. Players were tripping themselves by expecting its characters to act just like Magic: the Gathering creatures.

If you came to Shadowfist cold without having played MtG, it would never occur to you to expect characters to act in this way.

But if you had already learned Magic, as of course many potential Shadowfist players had, you might have assumed this. Or you might see that we didn’t use same rule, but ask rules support just to be sure.

So we had to include an unrule–a piece of rules text telling you not to do the thing you would do if this was Magic you were playing.

Unrules needn’t arise from comparison to a specific equivalent rule in another game. They can come about simply by substituting general familiarity with a game form–roleplaying let’s say–to general familiarity for a close reading of the rules.

We all do this. Roleplaying games are full of rules, and we learn by analogy. The more previous RPG books we’ve read, the greater the chance that we let our eyes dart quickly over a section that seems to be saying the standard thing we’re used to seeing that section say. Missing out how a given part of the system works is absolutely par for the course.

For example, Simon recently spoke to a GM who was having trouble with GUMSHOE because you can run out of points in an investigative ability, and therefore can’t continue to use it, stopping you from solving the mystery.

Which would in fact be a terrible flaw in the game, given that the whole point of the system is to ensure that investigators always get the information they need.

The rules directly explain, in clear and explicit detail, that investigative points are never required to get the crucial clues you need to move through the mystery.

You are never required to spend to get pivotal information–especially what we call core clues, the ones that signal the appearance of brand new leads and avenues of investigation. If there’s a new person you need to talk to, place you need to poke around in, or area of research you must embark on, you always get that info, period. No point spend required.

Instead point expenditures give you special extra spiffy benefits above and beyond access to vital clues. In early GUMSHOE scenarios you sometimes got especially impressive information that didn’t directly impact the case, or gained the standard clue in a particularly impressive way. Over the years we’ve put that thought aside in favor of practical benefits to the character. You might learn how to kill a creature more easily, cement an alliance with a helpful GMC, convince an angry bystander not to slug you, and so forth.

Spending every single investigative point on your character sheet never stymies you. You can always continue to gather the clues the scenario provides, just as before. Assuming your character looks in the right place and has the needed ability, you get the info. If you look in the right place but don’t have the ability, another PC will have it. Is that player not present this week? We have workarounds for that, too.

Since you don’t need to spend investigative points to gather key clues, running out of investigative points is extremely rare in practice, when playing the rules as they appear on the page. Spending them all means that you’ve accrued a bunch of benefits, and can’t garner any more of them. It never stops you from proceeding.

Likewise if you have a general ability, used to overcome practical problems and dangesrs, and spend all of your points in it, you continue to use it. You have less of a chance of succeeding, as you can no longer spend points to add a positive modifier to your result. But you will still succeed at least half the time against the most common difficulty number.

Mistaken assumptions like this are hard to head off. Where players are reading a rule into the text that doesn’t exist, you can write a rule telling them not to do that. Though it may be odd to explain what a game doesn’t do, implicitly heading off a comparison to another game can be done.

Reaching players who assume Y when you explicitly write X is a tougher conundrum.

Misperceived rules prove particularly thorny during playtest. Playtest draft documents are a mess, littered with bits to be written later, sections not yet optimally placed, and no index or graphic elements to help one’s saintly playtesters find the references they’re looking for.

You may get an account of a failed game session but never realize that the results were based on misunderstood versions of the rules. Ideally you get enough context to see what has gone wrong and take action. Depending on the misperception, you might flag the existing rule with more insistent visual cues, add redundant text to hammer the point harder, or emphasize it through repetition in various sections of the book. The best way to have this problem is to find out you genuinely wrote an unclear rule, because then you can simply fix it by rewriting for clarity.

The real headscratcher comes long after playtest, when most everyone gets the rule as written and you discover a surprising misinterpretation standing between a pocket of players and enjoyment of your game. Simon has been investigating the possibilities of a squirrel-based system, where his favorite urban rodents fan out from Clapham and across the world, watching Pelgrane’s games play at the tabletop and then reporting back in their distinctive angry shriek when they see rules misunderstandings in action.

Until we get that up and running, GUMSHOE fans, we’re going to have to rely on you to keep watch for misperceptions preventing unfortunate others from enjoying a rules system that works perfectly well for you. Show them the light with the gentility our readers are known for. Remind them GUMSHOE always wants them to get the information. It always wants them to have what they need to solve the mystery. When it comes to clue-gathering, GUMSHOE says yes.

When the Dark is Gone cover_350

by Becky Annison

It all started with Fiasco, a game by Jason Morningstar. Until then I’d loved and played many traditional games but nothing like Fiasco. It had no GM, required no pre-game prep and everyone created bits of the world and story. I’d never see anything like it before!

The idea of no prep and no GM was intriguing for a busy lawyer also studying for a Masters degree. Could I still have a satisfying gaming experience without hours of prep?

But as intriguing as it was, something troubled me. I struggled to imagine how a short game with no prep could reach the depths of emotional engagement I loved about traditional campaign play. Could I really get deep into a character in a game like this? This was the inspiration I needed to take me from player, GM and occasional LARP writer to RPG designer. If a short, prepless yet deeply emotional game did not exist (to my limited knowledge!) then I would simply have to write it. I was skeptical at the time – was what I wanted even possible?

The first hurdle was simple. Fiasco was designed for a completely different style of game. It is tragic-comedy, over-the-top and at times, farcical – just like the Cohen Brothers films on which it is based. A more serious topic, a therapy setting where players create troubled and hurting people would be a short cut for a deeper experience of character.

But then came the challenge. It is difficult for one individual to carry the weight of improvising all the material external to the player characters in any game e.g. the background, story, world building and non-player characters. A GM falling to improvise with sufficient speed, certainty and consistency damages the player’s ability to suspend disbelief and emotional buy-in to the world created. This is why traditional style games (game with a GM who directs all details of the world and story) tend to require large amounts of preparation. Prepless or low prep games tend to divide the work of improvising all this material (to greater or lesser extents) amongst all the players e.g. in Hillfolk by Robin Laws –  scene set ups are described by each player rotating round the table (indeed there is an argument as to whether Hillfolk even needs a GM!), in Dream Askew by Avery McDaldno scene setting rotates around the table but each player also has responsibility and creative control over a different part of the world the characters inhabit, even in Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, the GM (or MC) is required to continually ask the players questions, getting them to define aspects of the setting which are then folded into the story by the MC.

There are many techniques and ideas out there for dividing creative control over the world, setting and story amongst multiple players. But they all held the same problem for my game. They all require the players to step out of character and think as a director or author of the story, rather than a participant in it. These are two very different mind states, often requiring different and occasionally contradictory agendas) I knew that in order to achieve deep character immersion in only 2-4 hours players would need to stay completely in character and that the culture of staying in character would need to be enforced by the group. In a traditional style game with a GM directing the story and the world, players can stay in character for the majority of a game, but even those games require players to refer to stats, roll dice or ask clarifying questions about the system and/or world.  I wanted to dispense even with these out of character moments.

This gave me a number of problems to solve:

  1. How do you get the players to create details about the world and the story entirely in character?
  2. How do you maintain consistency and resolve conflicts entirely in character?
  3. How do you enforce a cultural norm in character?

The setting of a therapy session provided me with all the answers.

  1. The players create details in character because they are remembering something which has already happened. They cannot react to the things they create, except in so far they react to the memory of it having happened. Creating memories of a fantasy world as in When the Dark is Gone allows the players to have a lot of fun, but isn’t compulsory.
  2. You don’t bother with consistency or conflict resolution. Memory is fallible, people remember the same event differently all the time. If the memories created are inconsistent or conflict this it is brilliant – the characters can explore why their memories differ. It just creates more story.
  3. The last problem led to the creation of the Therapist character. Each session has a facilitator who is entirely in character as a Therapist. They ensure that interesting ideas get prompted and then explored by asking the players lots of in character questions. The Therapist constantly reinforces the in character culture and maintain the momentum and pacing of the session.

A surprising amount of the design for When the Dark is Gone went into the guidance for playing the Therapist. At first glance this might appear like a typical GM role. In fact it is very different.  The Therapist has no creative input in the story at all – they are a true facilitator and yet it is a surprisingly satisfying role to play.

I’m pleased to say that in all the play testing rounds it was clear that When the Dark is Gone really produced a deeply emotional game, without prep and in a single session.

When the Dark is Gone is part of the Seven Wonders anthology by Pelgrane Press, available for pre-order here.  I hope you enjoy playing it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

See Page XX

A Column About Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A while back Cat asked me for guidance on an unheralded facet of tabletop RPG production, the gentle art of collating feedback from a group of playtesters into a single document of greatest use to the designer. After writing it up I figured that it might be more generally useful to budding line developers. They perform a tough job without access to as big a pool of advice to draw on. So I polished that memo up, inserting some strategic diplomacy, and here you have it.

As Cam Banks did a killer job assembling playtest feedback for Feng Shui 2, an alternate title for this piece could be “Cam Banksing Your Way To a More Efficient Playtest Feedback Document.”

Perennial playtesters could reverse-engineer this advice into guidelines for providing more effective feedback. However, if you fit that description, you’re worth your weight in gold already. Just keep on doing what you’re doing, and let the developer and designer worry about turning your reports into design and presentation changes.

The “you” found below refers to the line developer. The designer is either a singular “her” or a plural “us”, as context dictates.

The number one most useful thing you can do in assembling a feedback document is simply to group all of the comments in order, by chapter and major subject breaks within each chapter. Depending on how the designer laid out her manuscript, breaking it down to Header 1 categories ought to do the trick. (If your designer hasn’t formatted her document with headers, you need to have a talk with her about that.)

This ordering process alone saves the designer a ton of time. She now won’t have to jump around randomly in the manuscript as she addresses issues from various groups in sequence. Ordered collation allows her to consider possibly opposed views on particular issues at the same time.

The second most important task the developer can perform is to strip comments of any emotional petitions playtesters are making of the designer. Boil them down into tonally neutral observations of actual problems encountered during play.

A natural disjunction exists between the desires of playtesters and the needs of designers. People like to have opinions and to feel that they’re being heard. They want to feel their impact on the process when they read the final product. The designer, on the other hand, wants to drill past opinions into descriptions of experience. Here the line developer jumps in to reconcile those two divergent requirements.

In the able developer’s hand, “We hated hated hated the scuba diving rules. They were too complicated and disrespected the glorious field of oxygen tank repair” becomes “One group disliked the scuba diving rules, finding them too complicated.”

As developer, you will also find yourself encapsulating “It’s irresponsible in this day and age not to include a full character build system” as “one group wanted a full build system.”

By doing this you allow the designer to skip the cognitively costly step of processing the playtester’s unhappy emotions, moving straight on to fixing the problem, if indeed she finds that there is one.

Conversely, the stripping of pleas and demands from the original context prevents the designer from dismissing a valid concern because the respondent couched them in an off-putting way.

In the typical playtest, count on one group to vehemently reject the game’s entire premise and all of its attendant design goals. For a new iteration of an existing game, it is not unusual to get a group that asks for alterations to established elements of the core system that work perfectly well and are not up for grabs in the current playtest. You can safely drop these from your feedback report.

Sometimes the first class of objections, reframed in emotionally neutral terms, help the designer write the expectations management sidebars that explain why the game works as it does.

Now and then you’ll get feedback from groups expect the rules to serve their very idiosyncratic play styles, or to solve issues concerning their specific problem players.

“These rules don’t constrain Randy nearly enough. You know, Randy! He’s a jerk but he drives the rest of us to game.”

“When we heard of your English parlor mystery game we were really hoping for a rules set that fuses our favorite parts of Nobilis and Rolemaster. Your investigative game could still be that if you added fifty pages of combat results charts and dropped mystery solving for mythic interaction. And we’re going to keep emailing you about it until you see how important this is. Because everyone else must want that too.”

As developer, your job is to run interference, keeping your designer focused on meeting her design goals and undistracted by passionate campaigning to deviate from the premise. After all, it might be you who assigned her this remit in the first place.

When you do include a bit of feedback you find off-base, flag it as such. The designer can enjoy a chuckle and keep going.

Playtesters naturally find it way easier to spot problems than to call out the segments of the game that already work. When a group does do this, it is helpful to know, so the designer doesn’t drop a thing most groups have success with in order to satisfy a problem had by a few.

Whenever possible, indicate how widespread a particular issue is among groups. “One group found the procedural rules too complicated” calls for a very different response than “Two thirds of the playtesters found the procedural rules too complicated.”

You can safely omit another common strain of feedback: “We didn’t like the look of that rule so we made up our own and here’s what happened.”

If you sense, or are told, that comments are based only on a reading of the rules, throw them in the garbage. Do not waste your time sifting them for pearls. They’re guesses at what might happen at the table. Plausible-sounding guesses are the worst, as they can prove deeply misleading. The designer needs to hear what actually happens when rule X or Y hits the table.

Proposed solutions to design issues are almost always unhelpful. Nine tenths of the time they add additional complexity without taking the whole of the rules engine into account. Share them only if the designer asks.

As a designer, I’d rather just see the problems: combat was too slow, we had a TPK in the first scene, the players refused to get out of the starship once they realized there were Class-K entities on the planet, we found the procedural rules too hard to learn, the character with telekinesis outshone everyone else, the example of initiative doesn’t agree with the rules text, the arithmetic is wrong in the Fleeing example.

Specific notes on the balance of particular crunchy bits are quite helpful, even if I wind up disagreeing with some of them. Here theories by someone who has actually played the game but not seen a certain hosy combo come up can in fact be useful.

Comments rendered in the language of game theory or general philosophizing are of almost no use, except in expectations management.

Some groups really love composing detailed write-ups of what happened in their games. I’m always abashed at the work that goes into these, because I have to admit that I skim them at best.

One big exception: if play write-ups list what character types got played (in a game that has them), and you can collate those, that’s very useful. Here we might discover that every group has a hobo in it but none of them have professors, in which case we might want to buff up the professor because this is Trail of Cthulhu, dammit. We might also want to determine if people just really love hobos, or if we’ve accidentally assigned them twice the build points other starting PCs get.

Organizational complaints always arise in playtesting but are devilishly hard to evaluate. A raw manuscript without an index and page numbers is hard to learn from. Lacking the mnemonic qualities of art placement and layout, a work in progress is by definition a mess. Many observations stem from not being able to find a rule in a raw document. This one you simply have to expect and hope to address during production.

Like most designers, when I get a stray idea for a game mechanic I try to exercise the discipline to make a note of it.

Here’s where I can’t speak for other designers: I almost never use them, because they are misconceived by dint of their very nature as stray ideas.

Mechanics for their own sake don’t serve the games we try to fit them into. The standalone rules idea is invariably aesthetically pleasing in the abstract. And that’s not rules should be. They should solve a problem arising from your design goals, not sit there looking all pretty and innovative.

For example, I’m glad I saved the following note, and even gladder that I didn’t build it into DramaSystem:

Grid you fill out to keep track of identically framed scenes –- repetition alters odds of success, as you can’t have the same outcome more than twice (and then only when you haven’t advanced the conflict in any other way.)

The idea of a grid you have to fill out seems momentarily engaging. It gives players a concrete way of interacting with the rules. You can imagine yourself behind a booth at Gen Con opening up a book and showing it to a someone you’re pitching the game to.

Yet in practice it would pose a distraction from the organic creation flow DramaSystem aims to facilitate. The occasional transfer of a drama token, and the even more occasional play with procedural tokens and cards, provides more than enough ritual gaminess.

It is worse than distracting, in that it sets out to solve a hypothetical problem that in practice never occurs in DramaSystem. Once it gets moving, the story moves so quickly that you’re not tempted to revisit an exchange that has already been resolved. Players searching for a scene to call naturally reject this option, without needing a rule at all, much less one that has them filling in a freaking grid.

No matter how beautifully graphic designer Christian Knutsson would have made that grid look.

Lesson: jot down those free-floating rules ideas for what they might teach you about design. But don’t wedge them into your designs, inflicting them on unsuspecting players.

As Gridlock the Stray Rules Idea, pictured at right in full tentacled glory, might say, “If I’m aesthetically pleasing in my own right, I’m too complicated!”


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.