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