In the early 2000s, featured a Jack Vance Random Quote Generator. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to figure out how to incorporate a random generator into WordPress without adding new plugins – so, in lieu of that, here’s a random table of 68 Jack Vance quotes for you to play with at your leisure.

If you haven’t picked up a d68 yet (for some reason), you can use this program through AnyDice. Just click on “roller,” and then “roll,” in the middle of the page.

1 “The fellow is bereft and possibly violent.”
2 “Mischief moves somewhere near and I must blast it with my magic”
3 “A strange abstract law that Pandelume termed ‘Mathematics'”
4 “Embelyon was lost, renounced. And T’sais wept.”
5 “May Kraan preserve their living brains in acid!”
6 “Thus in the dark of the night the spell of Javanne the witch was circumvented and nullified.”
7 “My brain is whole! – I see the world!”
8 “And souls go thrilling up like bubbles in a beaker of mead!”
9 “I am Liane the Wayfarer. Peril goes with me.”
10 “At his elbow a voice said, ‘I am Chun the Unavoidable.'”
11 “Mincing murder, extravagant debauchery, while Earth passes its last hour.”
12 “The vapid mannerisms of pale people, using up their lives.”
13 “Thus and so.”
14 “The city dissolved into turbulence – the result of a freak religious hysteria.”
15 “Whom does a Raider raid?”
16 “You should practice optimism.”
17 “Why do squares have more sides than triangles?”
18 “How will we see when the sun goes out?”
19 “Do flowers grow under the ocean?”
20 “Do stars hiss and sizzle when rain comes by night?”
21 “The void in his mind athrob for the soothing pressure of knowledge.”
22 “I am Guyal of Sfere, by the River Scaum in Ascolais.”
23 “I am forced to believe you guilty of impertinence, impiety, disregard and impudicity.”
24 “I must order you secured, contained, pent, incarcerated and confined.”
25 “Go, I exhort; go I command; go, go, go!”
26 “My eye went to you like the nectar moth flits to jacynth.”
27 “It is but the diseased effort of an elder artist.”
28 “Go, else I loose the actinics.”
29 “My clever baton holds your unnatural sorcery in abeyance.”
30 “Baton, said Kerlin, perform thy utmost intent.”
31 “We go to the image expander; there we will explode the ghost to the macroid dimension.”
32 “Sixty bobbins: Blikdak was no more.”
33 “He had known many vicissitudes, gaining therefrom a suppleness, a fine disposition, a mastery of both bravado and stealth”
34 “My talismans are not obviously useless.”
35 “I am a man of resource, but not insensate recklessness.”
36 “Have no fear, declared Cugel, my word is my bond.”
37 “Cease the bickering! I am indulging the exotic whims of a beautiful princess and must not be distracted.”
38 “Am I known as Cugel the Clever for nothing?”
39 “My name is of no consequence. You may address me as ‘Exalted‘.”
40 “She contrived to twist her body into first one luxurious postion, then another.”
41 “I become drunk as circumstances dictate.”
42 “A doomed man needs no such elegant footwear.”
43 “Only the fact of my broken limbs prevents me from leaping at your throat.”
44 “Only yesterday Dadio Fessadil used a nineteen-guage freezing-bar to groove the bead of a small inverted quatrefoil.”
45 “Until work has reached its previous stage nympharium privileges are denied to all.”
46 “I envision the usual period as a rubble-gatherer, before he is entrusted with tool-sharpening and preliminary excavation.”
47 “First you are swathed head to foot in the intestines of fresh killed owls.”
48 “It is an unthinkable discrepancy that fifty-four men should consume the food intended for fifty-three.”
49 “The creature displayed the qualities reminiscent of both coelenterate and echinoderm. A terrene nudibranch? A mollusc deprived of its shell? More importantly, was the creature edible?”
50 “The wrong that has been committed demands a counter act to validate the Law of Equipoise.”
51 “Today occurred the concatenation; the \’creature\’ as you call it, pervolved upon itself; in your idiotic malice you devoured it.”
52 “It expresses the symbollic significance of NULLITY to which TOTALLITY must necessarily attach itself, by Kratunjae’s Second Law of Cryptorrhoid Affinities.”
53 “Perhaps you will accept this sum to spare me the effort of carrying it?”
54 “Gid: hybrid of man, gargoyle, whorl, leaping insect.”
55 “Grue: man, ocular, the unusual hoon.”
56 “For a single terce you may own a long-necked big-bellied creature of astounding voracity.”
57 “We prostrate ourselves before the fish-god Yob, who seems as efficacious as any.”
58 “We worship the inexorable god known as Dangott. Strangers are automatically heretics, and so are fed to the sacred apes.”
59 “I am Cugel: like yourself, a seeker after enlightenment,”


His Work-book: Beware!”

61 “The Law of Equivalences has been disturbed; and I must contrive a reciprocity.”
62 “Does Zaraides the Sage fear to identify himself with the casue of justice? Does he blink and draw aside from one so timid and vacillating as Iucounu? In a word – yes, said Zaraides.”
63 “All is mutablitity, and thus your three hundred terces has fluctuated to three.”
64 “How was one to reason with a magician not only droll and irascible, but also bereft?”
65 “By and large Cugel was disappointed by what seemed a lack of innate competence.”
66 “I suffer from a spiritual malaise which manifests itself in outbursts of vicious rage.”
67 “So now, be off! Or I inflict upon you the Spell of the Macroid Toe, whereupon the signalized member swells to the proportions of a house.”
68 “Twango’s hospitality, though largely symbolic, does him credit.”

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 post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Those of you familiar with the Dying Earth roleplaying game know its Persuade/Rebuff mechanic. To emulate the twists, turns and connivances of Jack Vance’s sublime source material, the game treats persuasion attempts as having the same structure as combat. You engage in a series of passes against your opponent, and vice versa. Once entered, a battle of wits is difficult to disengage from. Its contestants are gradually worn down; the loser in this battle of attrition suffers a disastrous consequence.

In literal combat – also an option in Dying Earth, and a quick and nasty down-spiraling one it is – the loser dies, or is incapacitated and then killed. Being killed has a long provenance in roleplaying, and although we rarely like it when our characters die, we accept it as a necessary unpleasantness. Without the threat of death, the thrill of adventure loses its zest. So, while death is something we prefer to see happen to monsters, GMCs, and occasionally the PCs of other players, when its hoary hand points at us, roleplaying culture teaches us to accept it with a sporting equanimity.

In Dying Earth’s persuasion contests, the disastrous result is infinitely less permanent than death. You may enter a ridiculous wager in which you’ll likely lose a few coins – already an eminently transitory commodity. You might open a door you don’t want to open, or be forced to wear a ridiculous hat. In short, your PC will suffer embarrassment.

Seems a significantly smaller setback than death, doesn’t it? But roleplaying culture, or at least a vociferous strain of it, bitterly resists any such mechanic. Control of a PC’s actions must always remain in the player’s hands. Any rule that flouts this, including Pendragon’s trait mechanic and its many descendants, is anathema.

The answer to this conundrum lies in that emotional center of the roleplaying experience, power fantasy. We play adventure games not only for excitement, but for a sense of larger-than-life mastery and control. To many players, the possibility of death is just part of the bargain. Besides, the rules are skewed so that their PCs almost never die – the bulk of the gasping and expiring is left to hordes of orcs, goons, and space mutants, all of them rich in experience points.

To many players, loss of control is much worse than death, because it’s much less imaginary. If Sir Gilbert gets impaled by at the gnarled hands of an ogre chieftain or is felled by poison gas, that’s an extreme event that has little emotional reality to it. Episodes of embarrassment, on the other hand, are something we all suffer, on an all-too-frequent basis.

To experience a split between one’s conscious desires and one’s emotional impulses, to behave in one way while knowing intellectually that you ought to be doing anything but, is to be human. For certain of us, though, the experience is so highly charged it’s positively radioactive.

Mild controversy warning: Some folks get very hot under the collar at the mere suggestion that there is a personality type or sub-culture associated with roleplaying. The rest of this piece will really piss them off, so they should probably stop reading now.

I don’t think I’m exactly going out on a limb when I say that we are a glorious geek tribe, and that, as a whole, we tend more to certain personality quirks than others. Further, I submit that we contain more than our fair share of people for whom the split between thought and feeling is particularly fraught. Many of us are to one degree or another uncomfortable in standard social situations. The entire roleplaying form can be seen as an alternate mode of socialization in which the boundaries of interaction are mathematically codified – and plus, you get super-powers.

It is therefore the ultimate form of entertainment for smart people who distrust emotion and have boundary issues.

Except when the games come with persuasion mechanics. They smash the boundaries, dredging up feelings you’d rather not deal with. To lose control over your PC is like losing control over yourself. Worse, the things your PC does while persuaded or controlled are highly likely to be, if not unsettling, embarrassing. They get you worked up, and steal the power you’ve come to the gaming table to experience.

No wonder players who feel this way avoid games with persuasion and other behavior-altering mechanics.

Yet almost every fantasy game, starting with that granddaddy of them all, Dungeons and Dragons, includes spells that control characters and alter their behavior. They’ve done so since the form’s earliest days. Yet they attract no such flack. Why is that?

It’s not a question of genre logic, as one might at first assume. The difference lies in the depth at which the potentially upsetting mechanism is placed in the rules set. Dying Earth’s Persuade/Rebuff and Pendragon’s traits are core mechanics. They can happen at any time to any player. Embedded deep in the rules, they’ll come up a lot. All players are expected to deal with them.

Spells like Charm Person, on the other hand, are not buried so deep. They’re what I call a system’s crunchy bits – one of a zillion powers that a character might or might not have access to. They’re encountered much less frequently than a core mechanic.

In fact, I think it’s largely a fallacy that players who hate behavior-altering effects accept them when they’re labeled as spells. They hate the spells, too. But to avoid this class of crunchy bits, one can take steps. Within the game, you can load your character up with Wisdom or Willpower, or whatever other number protects you from this most hated of eventualities.

On the GM-lobbying level, the measures they require are more passive-aggressive than for games with deeply embedded behavior overrides. To avoid them in DERPG or Pendragon, you have to put your foot down and refuse to play the game at all. But you can agree to play D&D or another crunchy bit game, and then pout and fuss whenever you get zapped with such a power. You can even tell your GM in advance that you hate being charmed or controlled, and would sooner have your character die. Most GMs will allow you to continue playing, instead targeting your fellow players for any control spells the GMCs might be packing. Or they can drop the entire crunchy category.

Is catering to a player with control issues any different than supplying roleplaying opportunities to Method Actor types, or butt-kicking scenes for action-lovers? Not at all. While we designers shouldn’t feel constrained to appeal equally to all tastes when we create rules mechanisms, neither should we be surprised when those whose tastes we ignore decline to play our games.

Until we fully develop our globe-spanning mind control powers, that is.

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

You can find the entries for 2001-2002 here.

You can find the entries for 2006-2009 here.

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

1998 to 1999

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

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

See the press release for more details.

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

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

10th October 1999

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

20th December 1999

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


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

The Dying Earth Gallery was added to the website.

10th January

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

24th January

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

26th January

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

1st February

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

2nd February

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

15th February

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

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

3rd March

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

17th March

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

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

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

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

19th March

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

21st March

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


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

2nd June

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

6th June

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

21st June

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

14th July

Ralph Horsley begins work on illustrating the DE source book.

20th July

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

2nd August

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

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

8th August

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

9th September

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

15th September

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

18th September

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

21st September

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

28th September

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


3rd October

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

5th October

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

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

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

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

6th October

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

10th October

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

11th October

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

17th October

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


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

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

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

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

Comments from the writers:

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

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

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

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

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

Scaum Valley cover

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

Scaum Valley cover - final

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

18th October

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

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

After debate, I choose the latter.

19th October

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

20th October

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

21st October

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

Ossip Wax

7th November

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

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

10th November

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

15th November

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

21st November

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

25th November

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



☀ XPS 1 now available to download.

The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following sample article from the Dying Earth RPG‘s Compendium of Universal Knowledge originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

The Asm

The asm is a demon-insect cross. They are primarily black in color, humanoid with compound eyes, and with other insectoid features such as their grinding mandibles and bristling antennae. In many specimens several large fangs protrude from the mouth, as many as eight being recorded. They are known in Ombalique and especially the Plain of Standing Stones. When full grown, asms are confident of victory in single combat against an armed opponent.

“Asms, who have spread into both Ascolais and Almery from the Land of the Falling Wall, are sometimes capable of considerable understanding, including such concepts as symbolism and theology.
Members of the more intelligent subspecies of asm have unusually human sensibilities, and sometimes rob victims without killing and eating them as well. No one is sure why some asms behave in such a human-like way.”

“Some not only covet goods and foodstuffs but also engage in smuggling and resale, and sometimes even fight with crude weapons. One imagines that at first their human accomplices were reluctant to trust their intentions; and only after recovering from their surprise at remaining undevoured did some kind of mutually beneficial trading agreements evolve. It is likely that part of the reason why robber asms do not automatically slay their victims is in order to cultivate a relatively benign presence in a region and avoid evoking armed response or fearful avoidance – which would disrupt their business. Robber asms may be enticed into regular conversation, and clearly possess a different level of intelligence than their more bestial counterparts. In particular, the robber asm has a solid conviction that its presence and behavior in the world is part of the Law of Equivalence – in that its relative successes make up for the treatment and poor social condition of half-men the world over.

Even if a traveler has no ill intent, it is nevertheless wise to approach asms cautiously. Around their dens, asms may place deadfalls, spiked pits, branch-spear traps and the like. Some are designed to capture their foes, others to slay or disable. When exploring a likely area for prey, the Asm also uses net-traps and non-spiked pits – hoping to capture its victims alive. It is important to note, that as with all half-men, humans play only a small part of their diet (or virtually none in the case of the Robber Asm), and they mostly subsist on medium and small game animals.”
Sakonity the Adamantine

Game Statistics: Asm
Persuade (Forthright) 1~[12], Rebuff (Wary) 1~[10], Attack (Ferocity) 1.5~[14], Defense (Dodge) 1~[8], Health 1.5~[10], Athletics 7, Concealment 3, Perception 4, Stealth 6, Tracking 3, Wherewithal 1~[8].

Special Rules

Victims take a levy of 1 on their Persuasion rolls unless they evidence interest in the anticipated culinary process.

Using Perception to spot a trap, as one moves across the terrain, requires a single die roll against the trap’s Concealment rating. The GM assigns this rating as suits their campaign, depending on the PC ability levels, and how well the asms have performed their jobs. Traps that the asms have had plenty of time to prepare should be extremely hard to spot. Typically a trap’s Concealment rating should be assigned against the Perception ratings of the party, at somewhere in the range of 1~ to 1.5~. Note that those PCs with high Perception may Wallop (DERPG, p33) this Concealment. This happens automatically if it is possible – even though the PC does not consciously act against the trap. Since ‘Living Rough’ is said to embrace the habits of half-men (DERPG, p64), GMs might consider this as a valid alternative to Perception. Additionally, if any PC has been declared as using ‘Tracking’ and this ability is higher than their Perception, it would be unnecessarily cruel to disallow it as a counter to the trap’s Concealment.

Rumors of Impending Hazard

Dealing with Robber Asms
Travelers to Cuirnif have been routinely ambushed by robber asms. These creatures attack in groups of eight or more – lunging from concealment in ditches and wild hedgerows. Fortunately for the travelers, those that surrender are spared harm, and those that fight or flee are subdued with injuries whenever possible. Instead, the asms make off with all trade goods and valuables, including fashionable clothing. Even the most pedestrian authorities regard this as most unusual.

Only three days ago, Duke Orbal’s daughter, Clarassa, was part of such a group returning from Azenomei. She was unhurt, but two of the guards fought back so fiercely that one was slain on the spot and another died later of injuries. Additionally, one of the items taken was a gold amulet – an heirloom to Orbal’s family, and the Duke has posted a staggering reward for the person who recovers it, before the asms can pass it on to their human contact. (A person about whom the Duke knows nothing, but is certain must exist.)

The asms are from the forest twenty miles to the east of Cuirnif, but range across the entire district between, using a variety of hideouts. Adventurers might pose as wealthy travelers, engage in an asm hunt, or trawl the curio shops of Cuirnif seeking trade items believed to have been stolen. The mastermind behind this venture is unscrupulous trader Antamara Gollip, who herself was a victim of the asms last year. Since then she has been supplying them with details of trading groups, and rewarding them with quantities of hallucinogenic herbs that she imports from Val Ombrio. The stolen goods she collects at pre-arranged drop-off points near Cuirnif on her regular trade expeditions between Troon and Azenomei.

The Bandit Trail
Through the mountains east of Efred is an ancient trail leading to certain ruins on the edge of the Songan Sea. This trail passes across stark hillsides, through primal forests, and sometimes through long rocky gullies between craggy peaks. Though the remains of the venerable roadway, and the shells of blockhouses that once provided nightly shelter, reflect better days, this trail is now fraught with hazard. Asms of the more dangerous and primitive kind wander this area in bands, hunting wild game, but are particularly eager for human prey.

These canny creatures know that human magicians and wizards can be dangerous quarry, and so set various ambushes and traps along the way. The asm leader is an aging, yet powerful, individual of unusual cunning, armed also with three stolen magical items that it has learned how to use. For adventurers unable to fly or teleport, this journey becomes a battle for survival. Even at their objective the humans are not safe, as the asms follow them into the ruins.

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.

The following article on the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

The Primer of Practical Magic

by Jeanry Chandler

Not long ago, in an interview in the Excellent Prismatic Spray magazine, Gary Gygax described the profound influence that the work of Jack Vance had upon the original design and overall feel of Dungeons and Dragons™. For perhaps the first time since the very early days of that game, a new d20 sourcebook is being introduced, which draws heavily upon the influence of the realm of the Dying Earth.

The Primer of Practical Magic, represents a return to a darker, more eerie feel to roleplaying, to a time when the game wasn’t as polarized between pure good and pure evil, but had more moral gray areas. When a thief was a dubious individual who stole things for a living, not just a loner with an alternative lifestyle and a knack for picking locks. A time when a magician was someone you couldn’t always assume was a kindly old man or a stereotypical villain, but was likely to be something in between, yet always dangerous to annoy without good reason.

The Primer of Practical Magic hearkens to a time when players didn’t know all the spells in the rulebook yet, or all the monsters one could possibly encounter; a time before players argued about every rule, because they were still caught up in the mystery of the game. Toward this noble end of casting a shadow of renewed mystery over the d20 gaming experience, The Primer includes many features which the discerning gamer will appreciate.

The incantations found in The Primer come directly from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels such as The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugels Saga, The Dying Earth, and Rhialto The Marvelous. These spells are sometimes discreet in their effects, sometimes flashy and powerful, but always clever and amusing in their application. They range from the subtle, thinking magician’s cantrips and low-level charms, such as spells to calm a barking dog; put the smell of wine on a rival’s breath; instantly clear the roadside dust from one’s garments; or cantrips to curdle a neighbors soup, or make a frog take on the temporary appearance of a beautiful maiden; through the unwholesome and dangerous summoning magic of the Diabolist, such as The Spell of the Ominous Enthusiast, which conjures forth a small blue demon which can perform any single task with the greatest of skill, but then demands and attempts to forcibly acquire the liver of its summoner as payment.

Finally, the Primer includes a few of the truly mighty spells which made the Magicians of the Dying Earth individuals to be both feared and respected: Phandaal’s Gyrator, The Evocation of Blue Havoc, The Charm of Forlorn Encystment, The Charm of the Omnipotent Sphere and the original Excellent Prismatic Spray (not to be confused with another spell with a similar name.) All are mighty new weapons suitable the magical arsenals of the powerful magicians.

For those who always felt there should have been some element of danger and uncertainty to spellcasting, the Primer introduces an optional spell failure system, based on the system in the Dying Earth RPG™. No longer is casting a spell automatic guarantee of its routine success. Rather, the outcome is a function of the power of the spell contrasted with the skill of the caster, and results can range from Dismal Failure to Illustrious Success. The latter may be an unexpected boon, while the former can cause dire consequences indeed, which is why inexperienced spell dabblers and hedge wizards should think twice before attempting to wield the more powerful arcane magical formulae found in this book. In addition to spells, there are numerous new magical items. Over 40 new Ioun Stones convey a variety of powers and skill effects, and dozens of other curious magic items fill the pages of the Primer. These again range from the very subtle, such as a sheath to wear over your tongue so that one can endure the most disgusting repasts without crying out or vomiting (and thus potentially offending the wrong person), or books containing insulting verses so scathing they can bring a strong man to his knees; through such powerful and useful artifacts as the ever-lengthening rope; Laccodel’s Rune, which protects the wearer against nearly any form of caustic magic; Mieux’s Pantelloons which puff up to frustrate arrows or darts, and can allow the wearer to float away to safety; or the much-feared Schiavona of Kavic which conveys superb fighting ability to even the most inept fencer.

Those players not satisfied with the magical creations of others can dabble with the manufacture of their own Vat Creatures, and through the medium of magic and living flesh, create anything from a comely concubine with whom to while away the twilight hours, to a burly and hirsute guard – beast to chase away uninvited solicitors.

Finally, The Primer includes three remarkable prestige classes for those interested in fully immersing themselves in the Dying Earth milieu. The Sharper is a con artist and a thief, whose natural abilities make it just as easy for her to earn a living taking down marks in any big city as creeping around in the wilderness on a foolhardy adventure. The Diabolist is that rather scary individual who specializes in the control, banishment, and / or binding of Demons and creatures from the outer planes. Thanks to the invaluable contributions of Ian Thomson, The Primer includes several of the unique spells and abilities from the DERPG Demons of the Dying Earth book, from which are formed a deadly arsenal of abilities and skills for the formidable Diabolist. Finally, the mighty Arch-Magician class allows players to flex true magical muscles, and become the kind of character you thought of the first time you ever heard Black Sabbath’s ‘The Wizard’.

Not since Call of Cthulhu™ introduced the feel of Lovecraft to roleplaying games, has a genre as rich as the high fantasy world of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth been so accessible to d20 gamers. The Primer of Practical Magic, available soon from Pelgrane press, is sure to profoundly enrich the d20 experience, and hopefully it will be only the beginning.

The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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

Turjan-Level Gaming and the Lands of the Near East

by Lynne Hardy

Abandon now your witty banter and your lightning repartee for they will only serve to mar your progress through a world no longer colourful but deadly dark for the unwary. The difficulties you had before are but pale shadows of the challenges that now await you. Welcome to the Dying Earth as it was originally written: hard, cruel and at the mercy of natural justice. Welcome to Turjan level play.

“So what’s the difference?” I hear you ask. It’s a good question, especially for those who may only have a passing acquaintance with Jack Vance’s work. The original Dying Earth stories were written in 1950 and are very much darker in tone than the later cruel but oddly comedic Cugel stories and concerned far more with epic yet intimate struggles than the grandstanding of the Rhialto tales. In them, characters struggle on quests (often seeking lost knowledge) and are often called to task by fate for their actions along the way.

For instance, there is Liane the Wayfarer. Beautiful but cruel and callous, he appears to have everything his way until an encounter with the mysterious witch Lith, who sends him to his just desserts in the company of Chun the Unavoidable. Then again, there is T’sais. Flawed and violent, she craves understanding and yearns to know beauty and love. Through harsh experience she meets a man as flawed as herself who helps her in her quest to become whole. Justice is weighed and measured and meted out accordingly.

Okay, okay, but how does that affect your game? As described in Turjan’s Tome, the latest sourcebook from Pelgrane Press, there are several mechanical adjustments. These include the down-grading of Persuasion and Rebuff to the status previously held by Attack and Defence (of secondary importance and only to be relied upon if all else fails) and a way of maximising your magical capabilities (although with suitable constraints for those who feel the need to let fate truly take a hand). They also allow for more in-depth development of allies and adversaries and bolster the possession point system, providing an interesting mechanism for trading up all those lovely toys you have gathered throughout the course of play for even bigger and better ones with which to impress your friends and cow your rivals.

But perhaps the greatest change is in the overall tone of the game. Gone are the tales of flashy bravado and erudite linguistics (although please feel free to keep them if you wish; after all, this is for your entertainment). Instead there is danger, intrigue and great reward for those brave enough to search for it (as long as they are prepared to pay the often heavy price). The boundaries are less clear, the morals potentially more dubious. The noble succeed and the wicked fall prey to their vanities. Are there shades of grey? Perhaps, but perhaps the world is more clear-cut than you previously thought.

It was with this in mind that I set about writing “Fields of Silver”. This book contains both background on the lands of the near East and a campaign in the tradition of the legendary Call of Cthulhu supplements. Most of the locations are detailed by Vance in The Eyes of the Overworld, which provided a handy springboard to immerse Turjan level characters in a world where even less than before was what it once seemed.

The lands around Erze Damath are mostly ignored in the currently available support material, which tends to focus on Kaiin and Almery. Yet there is a wealth of descriptive material on the eastern lands in the original stories (which, trust me, is quite a rare thing!). The book is divided into seven chapters, which are split between source material and campaign details. Five of the chapters detail locations mentioned by Vance in his stories to enable you to explore them fully even if you do not wish to use the adventure as is. In case that isn’t enough, there’s also an appendix with a few extra titbits in case you use everything in the main sections. There are strange peoples and mysterious ruins to explore and where there are mysterious ruins, there are bound to be hidden secrets.

And that is what the campaign sections of “Fields of Silver” are all about – solving mysteries, uncovering hidden secrets and dealing with ancient evils. The story takes your characters right across the continent, from Almery to Erze Damath, taking in a host of wonders along the way. It pitches them against dangerous foes in their quest to put right a misdeed so great that it could shake the very foundations of a mighty city. Who is responsible for the slaughter of the characters’ friends? Who is the mysterious Lady and why does she need their help? Will they face up to their responsibilities, or will they leave the dark legacy of history unchallenged?

Now you’re thinking, “But it doesn’t seem like our style. Why should we even look at it?” It’s a good point, even taking into account all that lovely source material. After all, who wants to buy a book to only use half of it? My group has their own distinct style of play, which is usually humorous and free-flowing. Turjan level play is darker and much more menacing. Would they enjoy a game written in that style? Could they be persuaded to enter into the spirit of this grimmer world?

Well, yes, they could and they thoroughly enjoyed it. They even enjoyed the change of pace. The secret was to get them hooked, then build suspense and finally let them realise (too late, of course) that they were in a huge amount of trouble and there was only really one thing they could do about it (see it through to the bitter end, of course). Paranoia was rampant, but so too was a desire to find out what was happening to them and why. Not that I can give too much away here – it would be a great shame to spoil the surprises lurking there between the covers!

Hopefully after you’ve read “Fields of Silver” you’ll realise that there is so much more to the Dying Earth than Kaiin (exciting as it may be) and that Turjan-level play is just as entertaining as Cugel level, but for very different reasons.

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.

The following press release for the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on around 2004.

Stories of the Earth’s demise are premature.

Press Release
Pelgrane Press

LONDON, ENGLAND – Dying Earth RPG released.

After two years of development, design and playtesting, Pelgrane Press has released its role playing game based on novelist Jack Vance´s seminal Dying Earth series. Written by Robin D. Laws (Feng Shui, Hero Wars) John Snead (Nephilim, Star Trek) and genre writer Peter Freeman, the game features robust, fast-playing rules that encourage creativity and interaction.

Simon Rogers, Managing Director of Pelgrane Press said “The Dying Earth RPG has exceeded all our expectations. Jack Vance and Robin D Laws are a killer combination – great rules and a superb and atmospheric background. The artwork and layout are of the highest quality, and the book itself is glossy and attractive. We intend to support this game with new releases throughout the year and beyond.”

In the game you enter a world where the sun is in its dotage, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words, and a fine sense of fashion. Choose from three levels of play, a lowly rogue such as Cugel the Clever, surviving by wits and cunning, an ambitious and deadly mage searching for lost lore, like Turjan of Miir or finally a supreme magician to rank with Rhialto the Marvellous, commanding the omnipotent but quarrelsome Sandestins. The Dying Earth is available through good RPG stores and on line at Pelgrane Press.


Jack Vance is the world’s greatest living Fantasy author. Jack Vance wrote the DYING EARTH series of books over many years; the original volume “The Dying Earth” was released before Lord of the Rings. Other volumes include “Eyes of the Overworld”, “Cugel’s Saga” and “Rhialto the Marvellous.” He is said to be “tolerant” of the idea of a roleplaying game based on his work.

Principal designer Robin D.Laws has inveigled such game publishers as Wizards of the Coast, Last Unicorn, Pinnacle, FASA, and Steve Jackson Games into compensating him for his efforts. His works include the roleplaying games Feng Shui (Atlas), Glorantha: Hero Wars (Issaries, Inc.), and Pantheon (Hogshead), and the novels Pierced Heart and The Rough and the Smooth (Atlas).

Magic rules designer John Snead has, to his astonishment, designed no fewer than six magic systems for roleplaying games. He has also written for the Trinity, Aberrant, and Star Trek: The Next Generation RPGs.

An established genre author, contributed the illustrative “Daybook of Geomalacus,” “Journal of Xolon the Hide Merchant,” and “Disavowal of Jhail” sidebar texts. He holds a degree in Ecological Genetics, which offers an interesting perspective on the creatures of the Dying Earth.

Pelgrane Press Ltd
18-20 Bromell’s Road

Pelgrane Press acquire the rights to publish an RPG based on the Dying Earth Books By Jack Vance.

LONDON, ENGLAND: Pelgrane Press Ltd, a UK-based company is pleased to announce that it has acquired the rights to produce games based on Jack Vance’s seminal Dying Earth novels.

Pelgrane Press is jointly owned by ProFantasy Software Ltd, which produces the renowned Campaign Cartographer map-making software, Simon Rogers, co-founder of ProFantasy Software and Sasha Bilton, a long-time Vance fan, role-player and top Java programmer.

“We are very excited by this property,” says Simon Rogers. “We intend to do justice to the license. In a world of genre fiction, vanilla fantasy, Vance’s voice is unique. We are brimming with idea to bring Vance’s world to life. In the game, your choice of menu will say more about your character than whether you know the business end of a Bohemian ear-spoon.”

Sasha Bilton said, “The Dying Earth has been such an inspiration to fantasy roleplaying games designers and now, finally, we’ll get to play at the source. The chance to work with the highly professional team who run ProFantasy Software Limited is the icing on the cake. ProFantasy has the distribution channels, industry knowledge and business savvy that will set Pelgrane Press apart from most game company start-ups. I can’t wait to get playtesting.”

Vance’s style is humorous and vivid, yet melancholic. His characters, petty or powerful, are well drawn and credible. They have weaknesses and vices combined with a redeeming humanity. Vance’s creations range from Cugel the Clever (an incorrigible rogue whose fortunes fluctuate with his pride) to Rhialto the Marvellous (a dashing, vain mage who commands elemental spirits called sandestins). In between are less talented wizards, doomed brigands, vat-grown beauties and wandering innocents. All overestimate their abilities and the stories delight in describing their misadventures.

Pelgrane Press will begin work on its roleplaying game in January. Submission guidelines will be available soon.


Jack Vance is the world’s greatest living Fantasy author. He wrote the DYING EARTH series of books over many years; the original volume “The Dying Earth” was released before Lord of the Rings. Other volumes include “Eyes of the Overworld”, “Cugel’s Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous.” He is said to be “tolerant” of the idea of a roleplaying game based on his work.

PROFANTASY SOFTWARE LTD was formed in 1993 and publishes critically acclaimed PC software for gamers including Campaign Cartographer, Dungeon Designer and the Forgotten Realms Interactive Atlas for Wizards of the Coast.

SASHA BILTON is the Managing Director of Ends of Invention and is one of the few expert Java programmers in the UK.

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 about the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on

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, your 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 gameplay 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 gameplay. 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 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.

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.

Jack VanceJack Vance, master-story teller, is dead. He died aged 96, with a huge body of work and a wide but subtle influence as part of his legacy.

In his eponymous story, Mazirian the Magician encompasses spells, forcing them with great effort into his cerebellum then releasing them at moments of narrative convenience. They are gone from his memory as if they never were, like a military-grade hard-drive scrub. Amongst the majority of the fantasy roleplaying community, that is how he is best remembered – via Gary Gygax, as the Vancean spell system. But I’m not knocking Gygax; it was his lengthy bibliography in the Dungeon Master’s Guide which lead me to Vance in the first place. Vecna is Vance, and while Vance was bemused by roleplaying games, he returned the favour with his character Lord Gygax (though perhaps it helped that Gygax is a properly Vancean name).

Vance’s stories are the opposite of Mazirians’s spells. They encompass you, they creep out unexpectedly – when ordering fish off-menu, conversing with a cold caller, or picking out a telling detail for a story. A friend has even snuck some of his choice phrases into Hansard. Vance is no moralist, but it is clear from his writing that he is fascinated by human foibles and the richness of culture: art, music, food and dance. Once his tales have captured you, it’s hard not to view the world through Vance-tinted cusps: not rose exactly, more a novel hue brought into being by his subtle view of the world. He offers cruelty, humour, the great sweep of history; the mighty brought down, and yet with time to pause at a plant and describe vermillion petals and heady scent.

In 2001, I was inspired with Sasha Bilton and Mark Fulford to approach Vance’s agent, a fox-faced vagabond if ever there was one, to acquire a license for the Dying Earth Tales. I shared (and now share again) an office with James Wallis, then of Hogshead Publishing, and it was through him that I contacted Robin Laws and set off on the path to becoming a publisher. We paid over the odds for the license, I know now, but I also know that Jack Vance benefitted, so it was a pleasant lesson. I spoke to Jack Vance, who chuckled gently when he recounted the exploits of Cugel and encouraged us to leave things open, not to pin everything down with numbers and definitions. Without Vance, who knows where I would be. Perhaps I have neglected Vance a little in the headiness of the new, but Vance always subtly reminds you of his presence; and the Gaean Reach will get the push it thoroughly deserves.

Here I am in Spain, looking over a white-washed adobe wall, pale-headed eagles soaring above, surrounded by extravagant viridian blooms, scarlet bottle brush and tiny five-pointed jasmine. In the distance, a dry path winds up through olive scrub, then over a hill and out of sight. Now I raise a glass of Golden Porphirion, sup and spill a little in remembrance of a modest man and a great writer.