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.

This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Considering how focused roleplayers are on plundering and looting, it’s surprising how little stealing we’ve done from the world of improv. Like us, sketch comedy troupes use collective, on-the-spot creativity to make entertainment out of nothing. And they don’t even need d12s. Or whatever it is that we need when we say our hobby is like playing cowboys and indians, except with rules to guarantee that the dead stay down when they get shot.

Let’s hijack one of improv’s central principles right now. That fundamental principle is “never negate.” In an improv, you never merely cancel out another participant’s action. Imagine that you and I are performing an improv together. We’ve been given a location by the audience — a construction site — and that’s all we’ve got to work with. You start the skit by sitting down and miming as if you’re removing your lunch from your lunch bucket. Then you say, “Too bad we’re getting fired today, huh? And here I was, just a week away from retirement.”

Now, my mental wheels were already turning the moment I heard the words ‘construction site.’ I had a whole different direction I wanted to go in. I wanted to establish that we were merely amateur construction enthusiasts at construction worker fantasy camp. Maybe my idea was funnier than yours, but now that you’ve taken the lead, I can’t simply negate what you’ve done to clear the decks for my concept. The principles of improv forbid me from simply saying: “You are completely mistaken, Pete. We haven’t been fired at all. In fact, we are amateur construction enthusiasts attending construction worker fantasy camp.”

Instead, I have to set my thought aside and build on yours. Since I’m trying to be funny, I need to add a twist or reversal, or at least a set-up that my partner can turn into a joke. Such as: “Yeah, you kill one measly supervisor and they get all safety-oriented on your ass.” All of our mental prep work — all sixty seconds of it — is out the window, and we’re off in an unexpected direction, flying blind, creating in the moment. This process generates the energy and sense of surprise that makes improv seem funny — often much funnier than the exact same material would be if rehearsed it and polished into a finished sketch.

In the above example, I’m not negating you’re idea, but I’m not just accepting it and parroting it back to you, either. I’ve returned your serve while putting a new spin on the ball. I’ve said, “Yes, but.” Yes, we’re getting fired, but we deserve it — if anything, we’re getting off easy.

Few roleplaying game sessions present situations as open-ended as the very beginning of an improv sketch. There are game rules to take into account, PC backstories to keep consistent, and a certain amount of world detail and plot preparation you hope to preserve. Within these parameters, though, the ‘yes, but’ principle is a powerful technique to engage your players by rewarding their creativity while at the same time keeping them on their toes.

Let’s say you’re running a game in a landlocked fantasy nation with a vaguely ancient Bronze Age feel. A player building a new character, inspired by her recent purchase of the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, really, really wants to play a pirate. Your initial response, based on the logic of your world and the prep work you’ve done, is simply to say no. It’s crucial to your geopolitical story arc that the kingdom be landlocked. That pretty much rules out naval piracy. However, you’ll have a much better chance of keeping that player happy, and having her contribute positively to the game, if you can give her part of what she wants. Say, “yes, but…”

“Yes, but in this setting the equivalent of the pirate is the bandit in the hills. The bandits in this world are the same unruly, rum-swilling outlaw types with stolen, ragtag finery and a perverse code of brotherhood you’re thinking of when you use the word pirate. But instead of attacking seafaring ships, they raid caravans from horseback.”

Maybe you hadn’t given any thought to bandits in your setting before now. Now you’ve allowed your player to help shape your world, by making your bandits into pirates with the serial numbers filed off. You’ve given her the feel she wants, while changing the details to preserve the campaign elements you need.

“Yes, but,” can be a useful tool during play, too. Is there a magic item shop in your fantasy city? You’ve decided that there isn’t. Not only do you find this gaming convention too ridiculous for belief, but you’ve also established that the city is ruled by a rapacious robber baron. If such a shop did exist, he’d surely have confiscated its wares long before now. However, when the players look for a magic item shop, tell them why, and then hit them with a “yes, but”:

“Here’s what you learn after a few minutes of asking around: there used to be a magic item proprietor in town, but the Black Baron absorbed its contents into his treasury. Now it’s run by one of his stooges, even though it hasn’t sold an item in years. If adventurers show up to sell something, the Baron’s goons confiscate their treasures and give them the bum’s rush out of town. If they show up to buy, the shopkeeper wheedles as much information from them as he can, then reports them to the Baron. The original owner fled the city and supposedly lives in the cave network by the river. He and a number of other exiles are looking for adventurers willing to aid in the baron’s overthrow. Rumor has it that he squirreled a few of his items out of town before the Baron’s tax collectors swooped in. Maybe he’d still be able to arrange a swap for you.”

Though you haven’t given the adventurers exactly what they want, you haven’t slapped them with a flat no, either. You’ve provided both a plot hook to follow up on, and a way of achieving their underlying goal (buying or selling a magic item) that doesn’t violate your own tastes or campaign logic.

“Yes, but” can, on the other hand, assist you in improvising additional conflicts challenges into what would otherwise be flat, uninspiring scenes of information gathering. Does the spice merchant know anything about the abduction of the high priest, the players wonder. You decide that the answer is “yes, but”: he saw one of the perpetrators, but will provide the information only in exchange for a favor: the adventurers must first forcibly persuade a decadent young noble to leave his daughter alone.

Though you don’t want to go overboard with side missions like this, the occasional instance can inject variety into your session — and also provide play opportunities for players who are more interested in butt-kicking, infiltration, intrigue or puzzle-solving than investigation.

The usefulness of this technique, however you choose to use it, stems from its origins in improv. It encourages you to add options instead of merely foreclosing them. Most importantly, it inspires you to think sideways before answering important questions, preserving surprise not only for the players, but for yourself as well.

A group of unknown antagonists recently rescued a reporter from a kill squad in Marrakesh; they were then spotted in London at the site of an assassination. What follows is an intercepted internal memo from a mysterious organization calling itself EDOM. Interested agents who want a more detailed account of the events as they transpired should click here.

 

Because most RPG play advice goes to GMs, we tend to focus on them as the source of possible roadblocks in a session’s pacing. However, although in most game systems players lack the narrative control of GMs, they can also throw wrenches into the machinery of any plot.

I’m not just talking about moments when players shoot each other’s plans down (though that too can easily become a drag if you’re not careful.) No, I’m talking about the moment when the player leaps in, trying to turn a GM yes into a GM no.

As a player, when you hear another player propose an action to the GM, you may from time to time feel the temptation to leap in with a logical objection.

Other player: “I rush out onto the fire escape.”

GM: “Okay, once there, you—”

You: “Oh actually buildings in this part of the country typically don’t have fire escapes.”

Other player [fumes silently]

GM [fumes silently]

Now, put as baldly as that, you may be saying to yourself, “Oh actually I don’t do that.” And, as you are a fine and delightful person and a habitue of the Pelgrane blog, let’s stipulate that you wouldn’t.

But some people do, and you might be surprised if you were to inventory your past in-game utterances. Player-side blocking happens reflexively, and I don’t think that anyone who does it means to or realizes the implications of what they’re doing.

Some of us suffer a particular susceptibility to the urge to block GM approvals of other players’ actions. The temptation can strike players who mostly GM. Plot-hole-seeking viewers who have trouble suspending disbelief while watching genre movies and TV shows can also blurt out action-blocking statements at the gaming table.

As in the scripts you’re spotting implausibilities in, GMs are often letting strict practical logic slide in an effort to empower participation and keep things moving. Busting them on this slows or stops the action, shifting focus to picayune detail, at the expense of the broader narrative.

When you feel the tingle of a plot block dancing on your tongue, the easiest thing to do is nothing. Just don’t say that. At the end of the session you can regale the rest of the group with your superior fire escape knowledge while also implicitly praising the GM for not letting stuff that doesn’t matter kill momentum.

Alternately, in cases where your realism needs simply can’t be contained, find a way to turn a block into an adjustment. Instead of saying that the action the GM is ready to allow can’t work, propose a way that it can.

“Oh actually, there aren’t fire escapes in this part of the country, so likely Sajid watches the burglars from a balcony. Is it maybe made of frosted glass, helping him hide while he does it?”

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Previously on See Page XX, I talked about the difficulties we occasionally hear about when GMs who have trained themselves to say “no” come to the GUMSHOE system with those assumptions in mind.

This time I’d like to look at how early roleplaying culture took on that mindset, and how assumptions are shifting during the current RPG renaissance.

GUMSHOE, along with many other games, actively works to move the story forward. When we spot a barrier to narrative development, we add tools to help GMs and players push them out of the way.

For example, the Drives system found in many GUMSHOE iterations, from Fear Itself to The Yellow King, puts the onus on players to engage with the premise and take actions that lead to an engaging story.

It works to correct a previous prevailing unspoken assumption, in which it is the GM’s job to entice reluctant players to take risks with their characters. Drives remind them to make active choices a perfectly rational but uninteresting character might go to some trouble to avoid.

This assumption, like so much else, arises from the early history of the form, which thought more about reward and punishment than about building a fun story together. Early players learned at their peril not to make “stupid” mistakes that would kill off their characters. Drives work to change the question from an older model, “how can I avoid deadly mistakes?” to “what inspires me to make exciting choices?”

To repeat a Thing I Always Say, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson weren’t trying to create a new narrative art form when they developed the ideas that turned into Dungeons & Dragons, the original roleplaying-game-as-we-know-it. They were working in the wargaming tradition, inventing a new game that reduced the unit size from a squad, battalion or legion to a single individual with a sword or pointy hat.

Included in that brainwave was the brilliant, habit-forming concept of the experience point, a currency you continue to accrue to your character over time. That persistence and growth led by inevitable consequence to narrative.

But it also created an adversarial dynamic between DM and players. The DM has an infinite supply of experience points, creating an environment that withholds them from players until they fight the world and pry them loose.

Early DM advice advised against excessively punitive treatment of the players and the characters, not because the game wasn’t a contest between the characters and the world, but because the game stopped working when DMs abused their unlimited power. DMs had to remind themselves that they weren’t there to crush the players, but to give them the most exciting set of challenges.

Power-mad Dungeon Masters weren’t a mere matter of folklore. When I interviewed him for 40 Years of Gen Con, Dave Arneson recalled the time when he sat down to play with a young DM, who promptly narrated a massive anvil plummeting from the heavens to squash his character to a pulp. “I killed Dave Arneson! I killed Dave Arneson!” the kid cried, to the delight of surrounding tables. Such were the terrible lessons of the early dungeon wars…

Along with warnings against this sort of stuff in early books came contrary messages. DMs were advised to punish uncooperative players with bolts of electrical damage to their characters, or presented with the infamous instant-kill traps in Tomb of Horrors.

We often think of adversarial roleplaying as something that the DM inflicts on players. Anyone whose original Gaming Hut really had shag carpeting, wood paneling and a Peter Frampton album for a screen no doubt remembers players coming at them hard. They rolled at you either in search of those addictive XP and the new levels they brought, or just the opportunity to screw with The Man, who happened to be you. The greater the emphasis on the reward, the more the DM had to ride herd, controlling cheating, minimaxing, and rules lawyering. This was not an era of “yes and” but of “duh, no!”

The experience point still rules the land of D&D, but these days in a more enlightened tyranny. Over the years XPs have become a pacing element measuring the rate at which your characters inevitably get better. Years of design adjustments have cut out exploitable jackpot effects. Later customs of play encourage the whole group to progress at the same rate, and for replacement characters to rejoin at par with the rest of the party. No longer do we assume that they restart at level 1 and try to stay alive long enough to catch up on the XP curve.

Other games carried over the assumptions of rapacious players you had to say no to. Build point games such as Champions and GURPS rewarded system mastery and the search for bargain-priced powers and disadvantages. They relied on GMs to watch for and curtail abuses.

Assumptions of power and control extended to authority over the narrative. The idea that a player could invent a useful prop to describe during a fight scene seems like a dead obvious collaborative element today. When it appeared in the original Feng Shui, it blew minds. Even so, the first edition of that game is nonetheless rife with passages assuming that the players want to hose you, the GM, and that you can turn that thirst to your benefit.

With decades of story-emulating play devices behind us, players have not only become less rapacious overall, but also less movable by either bribery and punishment.

GUMSHOE’s first version of Drives included a mechanical penalty for players who refused to go along when the GM invoked them. This proved unnecessary; once reminded of a Drive, no halfway cooperative player refuses the adjustment.

In a world where thirteen year olds exist, the hunger for advancement and putting one over on the GM will never vanish entirely. But their version of fun is no longer the baseline for every table. Our latest generation of new players is as much influenced by actual play podcasts and the hunger for character and story as by an unruly desire to minimax and grub for XPs.

As player behavior has changed in the aggregate, what the designer needs to do to facilitate maximum fun for all has altered as well. Design change has both shaped, and been shaped by, cultural shifts within the roleplaying community writ large.

Gaming culture can change invisibly as our personal assumptions remain fixed and unexamined. That’s why, I think, when a GM who has played many games over the years misreads a rule, that the misreading will default to the forbidding, even in a system built to be permissive.

That presents a communications challenge, it’s also a tribute to the complexity of a form that continues to evolve in dialogue with its audience of collaborators.

by Robin D. Laws

It’s not true that there’s one in every group. But when there’s one in your group, it sure feels like there is.

I’m talking about That Guy. The overbearing, dysfunctional participant who dominates the room and sucks the fun from the game. He hogs the spotlight. He turns every discussion in an argument. He makes himself the gatekeeper, whose permission the other players must seek to proceed with any plan.

Sometimes That Guy is also the smartest, fastest thinker in the room. The one who comes up with the great ideas and spits them out at machine-gun speed the instant a new situation arises. That complicates matters. In more measured doses, he’d be entertaining, even essential. He propels the group to action. His energy infuses the room. It kills lulls before they start. When he misses a week, the group, deprived of its self-appointed leader, lapses into passivity and indecision. If only you could harness his That Guy-ness to serve the powers of good!

Sometimes That Guy is not a guy. I mean, theoretically, anyway. Just because every That Guy I’ve ever come across, or heard complained about, is literally a guy, doesn’t mean that the condition is exclusively male. Right?

Sometimes That Guy is the Game Master. (When he isn’t, he may prove himself a backseat GM, d20-blocking you from one end of the session to the next.) His narrative authority grabs you by the lapels, blasting you through his story. Whether he’s acting from a predetermined plan or winging it, he tightly controls the action, deflecting any input that gets in his way. If you’re happy sitting in your seat for a thrill ride, he can give you a great time. But if you want to collaborate, he’s going to shut you down.

And sometimes That Guy is you.

What if—and here’s where the premise becomes a bit of a stretch—you are a dominating extrovert, but have achieved the moment of epiphany required to see that isn’t always the best way to be in the collaborative context of a roleplaying game? How do you become more open to input, more attuned to the moods of others, more able to shift attention away from yourself?

This is one of those issues that goes beyond rules or game style. Or of anything that springs purely from the intellect. The process of de-That Guying yourself is one of personal transformation. That’s always hard. Intellectually deciding to change is way easier than actually doing it.

Roleplaying offers us a space to be creative and social. A big chunk of the folks our form appeals to think of themselves as neither. Many of us who eventually acquired those skills, or mental approaches, or whatever they are, did so with polyhedrals in our hands and grid maps at our elbows.

So look at it that way, That Guy. This is a challenge to be overcome, just like you figured out (mostly) how to deal with people at the gaming table in the first place. It’s possible that you have always been a dominating force in any conversation, socially fearless and a natural attention sponge. More likely, though, you started out shy and quiet. Then, one day, you found other people who would listen to you and you’ve never shut up since.

The dominating extrovert is often just a introvert in disguise. Both types are more comfortable inside their own heads than in reaching out to others. As That Guy, you learned simply to constantly verbalize your internal monologue. Like the quieter types you’re steamrollering—maybe like the person you used to be—you’re still not keying into the social cues that drive true interaction.

So here’s the exercise. Train yourself to listen, to read body language, just as you taught yourself to speak up. Learn to value other’s ideas as you chose to value your own. Apply your considerable force of will to the task. When the GM invites input, take a deep breath. Wait for someone else to speak. If no one else pipes up—if your verbal barrage has bludgeoned them into submission, they might not—pick someone quieter and ask them what they think.

When someone else takes advantage of the space you’ve left to propose an idea, don’t naysay it. No matter how wrong you think it might be. In fact, it’s better if you disagree with the proposal, because it’s better training. Find a way to support that idea, to build on it, instead.

Let’s say you hate plans where the players have to go in and talk to adversaries who outmatch you. You’d sooner sneak in, or subvert them from afar. Never mind that. When one of the other players suggests doing just that, swallow your instinctive objections. Instead, you agree to the plan, then find a way to make it better. You don’t make it your own. Add a little element to someone else’s thought.

You might invite other players to act as leader. Instead of proposing plot threads that revolve around your character, you might use your story-bending habits to bring about a storyline that draws in one of the less active players.

The object is not to drag others to your level of seeming extroversion. Some players are casual types who prefer to hang back and follow the flow. But a group consisting of a That Guy and a covey of casuals isn’t the norm. Instead, focus on facilitating the contributions of middle ground members. The ones who sometimes participate, until you weary them into passivity.

At the end of each session, go so far as to review your successes in your scheme of undomination. Who did you successfully defer to? How many times did you wait and let the others lead? How many opportunities did you take to build on someone else’s idea?

Ask yourself what the other players wanted and what they did about it. If you can answer that question, it means you’ve started to pay attention to thoughts and feelings originating outside your own skull.

Like mapping or creating the perfect point-build character, awareness and openness are skills you can teach yourself. Yes, some people started out with them, as talents, and can employ them naturally. But you can catch up to these social prodigies, because you’re a barrel of mental energy, ready to be harnessed.

Once you’ve learned the skill, you might even find it pays off when applied to real-world interactions unrelated to vorpal swords and the lairs of rampaging shoggoths.

A crazy thought, but it just might work.

Thanks to Philippe-Antoine Ménard for the topic request.