Running Dying Earth RPG

Dying Earth RPG, by Robin D. Laws, was my Pick of GenCon for 2001. Dying Earth is remarkable in two ways.

1. Social contests dice out the way you'd dice out combats in most games. This approach gives social contests a dramatic weight that they lack in almost all RPGs.

2. Since so many of the contests are social struggles (rather than fights to the death), it's OK for the PCs to lose frequently. In Dying Earth RPG, getting tricked by NPCs is as important as tricking the NPCs.

Every GM who is serious about talk-oriented (rather than or in addition to combat-oriented) roleplaying should buy a copy of Dying Earth RPG and run at least the adventure provided. (Maybe I'm biased because I like the Dying Earth stories and I like Robin D. Laws. Judge for yourself.)

The information on this page is designed to make it easier for you to run the sample adventure in the RPG, "Cooks of Cuirnif." If you haven't run the adventure yet, you can use the stuff on this page to make your all-important first game more fun. This is all based on running Cugel-level characters; I have no experience running Turjan- or Rhialto-level characters.

Getting across the visually unique style of Dying Earth is important to your first game. I scanned and printed the art from the adventure so I could hand out copies to the players and let them see the illustrations that would otherwise be hidden from them. You can download these illustrations and use them yourself for your game.

Thanks to Viktor Haag, a helpful fellow I met through Alarums & Excursions, you can now also download illustrations with captions naming the characters. Players like captions so they can remember the NPCs' names, but GMs might prefer illos without captions, so as not to give away information inadvetently. It might be handy to have both types of illos available.

I wrote up taglines for players. You can download
my taglines files to use in play or to use as an example of how to do it yourself.

You can download
my Excel file that has three pregenerated DERPG characters in it. These template characters don't have styles assigned, so two players can even use the same template to play two very different PCs.

The Excel file also serves as a sort of PC worksheet. You can't use it without knowing the rules, but it at least keeps track of things for you, if you want to create your own PCs or PC templates.

These PCs are based on the idea that you roll randomly for every style, which you ought to force the players to do, especially if you're not sure you're going to play a campaign. There's a weirdness in the rules that you gain points by spending 2 or 4 points on Magic and then rolling your Magic style randomly. Strangely, you effectively get penalized points for not having a score in Magic.

You can download
my NPC roster to help you keep track of the NPCs in the adventure.

Running Dying Earth is trickier than running most RPGs in one way: an NPC's stats change as a result of social interaction. In most RPGs, an NPC's stats only change when they take damage, use up spells, etc. In Dying Earth RPG, every social contest can result in an NPC having fewer dice left in one or more pools. Be ready to keep track of pools (or to fake it).

You can download
the rules sheet I wrote up for my game. It addresses how I ruled on various optional or ambiguous details in the rules. For example, I couldn't find any reference to the "firestick" in the rules, so I made one up, using the magic item rules.

Before running the game, reread the rules for Persuasion and Rebuff. I overlooked the modifiers to die rolls based on the persuasion attempted, and I think the game would have been better if I'd used those details. If the players read nothing else, have them read these rules.

The examples in the game seem to imply that one's style is a secondary concern. If I were to run the game again, I'd put style at the forefront. If your style, for example, is Forthright, I wouldn't let you spend points from your pool unless you were actually being forthright.

Be careful never to allow a roll for Persuasion if the PC is not actually persuading someone, or if success is impossible. I had a problem situation where a PC tried pretend that she didn't believe the Duke's fine applied to her, and the PC rolled an Illustrious Success. Since the fine was part of the plot, and the Duke didn't care how the PC felt, the roll was irrelevant. That means the roll shouldn't have been made in the first place.

Use the optional rules for refreshing pools by time rather than by circumstance. That way, everyone can use basically the same rules, and they're simpler. If you wind up running a campaign, you might want to use the more detailed rules for refreshing pools.

Use the optional rules for Illustrious Successes and Dismal Failures being unrerollable. That way, the players get a stronger sense for the capricious nature of life in the dying earth. (It's also simpler.)

I never had an NPC curse or bless a PC, and I wish I had. These rules are unique to Dying Earth RPG, and they are worth trotting out. Look for opportunities for a defeated rival to curse a PC on the way off stage.

It's easy to overlook the importance of basic gear: good boots, a stylish hat, nice clothes. Don't.

Boots: Allow everyone with good walking boots to stroll into town with a jaunty gait. Force every other PC to find some lowly form of transport into Cuirnif, such as hitching a ride in the back of a manure wagon.

Hat: Have NPCs treat PCs with nice hats as worthy fellows of grace, while treating those without hat as bumpkins or wannabes.

Loose Ends
A mistake I made (maybe it was the beer) was to lose track of loose ends. One PC sent an enterprising young lad off in search of occupation opportunities for the PC. The player didn't remind me, and I didn't remember, so the kid never returned. If I were to do it again, I'd write down events that are expected to happen (such as a kid returning with news of employment opportunities). Part of the problem was that I was running 6 players, twice the recommended number. Still, with a game a free-wheeling as DERPG, you should take care to remind yourself of future events.

Play Aids
Dying Earth RPG web site has some useful material. The charts for which styles trump which other styles is handy, and the lists of name for flora and fauna can help anyone who participates in the cooking contest.

Irritatingly, the internal references in the test are to chapters by number, such as "see Chapter 7." But the chapter number is not listed in the header, so you can't use the guide words in the header to find the reference you're looking for. I took to writing page numbers at important references and writing chapter names at the tops of pages.

I bought a second copy of the rulebook for use in my game. My guiding thought is that two copies of game that I actually play is worth more than twice as much as a single copy of a game that I don't play. With a second copy, I could hand one copy out to players while still having the adventure at hand.

May 2002