Review: Dying Earth RPG

Dying Earth RPG, by my friend Robin D. Laws, lets you play a rapscallion in Jack Vance's fantasy setting, the Dying Earth. It's a world far in the future, where sorcery has replaced science, and culture has evolved and diverged in strange ways. It's a lot like a surreal Renaissance Europe, with rapiers, dukes, foppish attire, and fancy speech, but also with spells, demons, alternate dimensions, and monsters, too.

DERPG has three levels of play: the wandering rapscallion level, the accomplished mage level, and the arch-mage level. The rapscallion level is most familiar to RPGers, and it's the only level with which I have experience.

I ran the introductory adventure in the Dying Earth RPG. It was for six players at MonteCon, Monte Cook's annual gaming house party.

Dying Earth is an excellent RPG, remarkable in its ability to make political or social conflicts easy, fun, and fast. Its special feature is that it makes failure part of the fun. PCs can be humiliated, swindled, stonewalled, or robbed, but they're rarely killed. That means it's OK to lose. In fact, it's funny.

There are a number of details I don't like about the game, but overall it's successful and fun.

Dying Earth RPG is pretty much the epitome of what we look for these days in a sophisticated RPG: a good world, mechanics keyed to the world, plenty of examples, good roleplaying advice, and an intro adventure. In all, it lets you do something new and fun, which is a fine accomplishment for a new RPG.

Dying Earth RPG was my Pick of GenCon in 2001.

Core System
The core system in DERPG is simple, and it works well for the Dying Earth setting, but I don't much care for it because it is mathematically weird.

When you try to do something, you roll a d6, giving you anything from a Dismal Failure to an Illustrious Success. If you're competing against someone else, you need to beat their level of success. In any event, you can spend points from a stat to re-roll. In general, being good at something is represented in the game by your being able to re-roll low rolls more times, thus improving your overall chance for success.

For Dying Earth, this works pretty well. It's simple, and the re-rolling nicely models the back-and-forth nature of social and verbal contests.

What I don't like about the core system is that your stat only makes a difference when you use it up. It also means that, for a single resolution, there's little difference between two high scores, since there's not much difference between being able to re-roll five times and being able to re-roll ten times.

The system presents several bonuses and penalties for representing a task's difficulty.

You can
     treat minor failures and minor successes, or
     treat Dismal Failures as average failures, or
     add +1 to the die roll, or
     make one contestant pay more to re-roll dice, or
     limit the number of re-rolls allowed.

Unfortunately, these methods compare unevenly to one another and interact strangely with the dice pool. A penalty meant to be harsher than another, for example, may or may not actually be harsher, depending on how many re-rolls a character is likely to get. I'm very demanding on a game's dice system, and I hate it when interactions are wonky enough that you can't judge how applying a bonus or penalty is going to affect the odds.

Each social and combat stat has one of six styles, and these styles are more or less good against each other. For example, the Dodge style of combat defense is good against the Ferocity style of attack, while the Speed style of attack is good against Dodge. Meanwhile, the Misdirection style for defense is bad against Ferocity and good against Speed. This element is a master stroke, as it means that the way in which you fight or talk is as important as how well you fight or talk. The system has the added bonus of allowing a very competent character sometimes be outdone by someone who happens to have the style that trumps them.

In play, however, I found the styles to be rather more mechanical than stylistic. Players would use whatever verbal tack seemed best rather than following their styles. If I were to play again, I'd make a bigger point of sticking to styles. I wouldn't let you spend points to re-roll a die unless the action you were attempting fit your style. The examples of play in the book, however, don't show the style as being that important.

There are two ways to generate styles for a character: randomly or by choice. If you determine your styles randomly, you get extra points to spend on your character. I hate that. The character creation process is wordier and less clear because there are two different systems with different point values for each. For example, it's stupid not to take a score in the Magic trait because taking even a score of 1 lets you randomly roll your Magic style, and rolling a style randomly earns you bonus points that more than pay for the score in Magic. The rules say you should consider having a Magic score, but they ought to point out there's no reason not to. It's clever to bribe players into selecting styles randomly, but it makes the rules harder to get through, and I have no patience for that. (It's like the Sorcerer rules not coming out and telling you that you're wearing a hair shirt if you don't give you demon a Stamina at least as high as its Power.)

Here's another issue that comes up with random versus chosen styles. You get a big bonus if you have the Intimidating style for Persuasion and the Strong style for Attack. This synergy means that if you're choosing styles freely you're penalized for not being Intimidating and Strong. It means that if you randomly roll Intimidating for style then you have a good incentive not to roll for Attack and choose Strong (to get the synergy bonus). It also means that even if everyone rolls, one in thirty-six players will have a big advantage. The Intimidating/Strong rule makes sense on paper, but it's bad for character creation.

Characters are on a point buy system. It's not clear what an "average" score is in a trait or in a stat, but there is a sample character that I took (rightly or wrongly) to be typical.

In addition to buying stats, you can buy things, which is cool. In the social and political world of Dying Earth, a snappy hat can be as important as a rapier. Items that you pay points for are easy for you to hang onto and get back if they're lost. Items that you haven't spent points on are easy for the GM to steal and never give back. If I were to run Dying Earth again, I'd pay more attention to the things that PCs can have, as I think it would be a good way to differentiate PCs.

Characters can also have magic items. Magic items have points costs, based on their features, and standard items area available for beginning characters to buy as part of character creation. (Magician characters can create unique magic items following a point-buy system.)

Characters are mostly the same, selfish but sympathetic rogues out to get what they can through skill and chicanery. As with Feng Shui, Robin has intentionally gone against expectations for what "good" RPG characters ought to be. In the case of Feng Shui, they're to be melodramatic and overdone. In the case of Dying Earth, it's OK for them to be basically the same. (The similarity works especially well in a small group, where the redundancy doesn't get too great.)

A magic-using character in DERPG knows discrete, powerful spells with fancy names. Many of these spells are recognizable as the sources for D&D spells, such as the Excellent Prismatic Spray. A rapscallion-level character might know a few, but it's possible for a single, simple spell to kill a mundane character outright. The average person has no defense against magic; there's no default "saving throw."

It seems that a character with spells needs a grimoire (and needs to spend at least 1 point on it), but the character rules didn't come out and say so.

I didn't see enough magic in play to have a good sense for how it works.

As appropriate for an RPG based on Vance's work (in which wry turns of phrase are commonplace), you gain experience by saying something witty. Each adventure, each player gets three "taglines," some provided by the GM and some chosen by the player. When the opportunity seems right, you cut loose with a tagline. The better use you make of it, the more experience points you get. (You also get 1 point per session, just for showing up.) Experience points are spent sort of as build points.

One thing you can do with build points is spend them on items you've found. If spend points on an item, you get a chance to hang on to it (or get it back) when you would otherwise lose it. If you have an item that you haven't spent points on, the GM is probably going to take it. Since you can't spend points on cash, the wise DERPG character spends cash prodigally when they have it. This is a terrific way to handle treasure and items, especially because it lets the GM rob the PC blind without going "over the line."

The monsters of Jack Vance's stories are, for the most part, suggested rather than described. That makes it hard to stat these monsters up (especially as players might read the descriptions). Robin gives each monster several descriptions, and the GM can choose among them. All the descriptions are interesting and varied.

Many of Vance's monsters, especially the "half-men," have a common theme. They speak eloquently to travelers, and then eat them.

There are lots of details that don't add up in DERPG. It's a very nicely done book, but it has a number of irritating problems. For example, characters with the Finesse attack style are skilled with the "firestick," but I couldn't find reference to a firestick anywhere. Cross-references are by chapter number, but the chapter numbers don't appear on headers, so it's hard to find your way to "Chapter 7," or whatever. Some rules that are implicit are not made explicit. In some cases, the written rules don't even acknowledge the implicit rules (such as the rules saying that a Magic score is worthwhile instead of saying that you're an idiot not to have one).

Introductory Adventure
As all RPGs should, DERPG provides an introductory adventure. It's a fine adventure with plenty of things happening at the same time, so that the players can stumble onto something no matter which leads they follow. I ran it with six people, which is about twice as many as you should have, and it was fun.

Introductory adventures never have enough props and play aids to suit me, so I whipped up a bunch of stuff to help me run the game. Now you can use those play aids to run DERPG.

July 2002