Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cunning, Comedy, Casual Cruelty?

If your answer to this question was The Dying Earth RPG, you'd be right.

The Dying Earth RPG is a role-playing game intended to emulate the world -- and words -- contained in Jack Vance's Dying Earth series of novels and short stories. You'll note that I did not include "Combat" in my alliterative title. I did this for a very simple reason: The Dying Earth RPG actively discourages you from engaging in mortal combat, and the game system reinforces that by making combat very deadly. You only need to take a couple of blows before your character is out-of-commission, or more likely, dead.

What then is The Dying Earth RPG about? It's about clever repartee, social combat, cunning subterfuge, laughter, and casual cruelty.

Clever Repartee

The principle game mechanic of nearly any role-playing game is the system governing the accumulation of experience points. Experience point award mechanics are important in role-playing games, as they are the mechanism permitting character upgrades. The experience point mechanic of an RPG is thus a powerful communicator of what is expected of a Player. In The Dying Earth RPG, experience points are ONLY awarded for clever repartee. No experience for combat. No experience for treasure. Just witty dialogue, elegantly framed in the Vancian style, and delivered with impeccable timing. Therefore, The Dying Earth RPG is a game like no other: it is a role-playing game to its very core.

Social Combat

I'm not a big fan of social combat systems. My reasoning is that those combat systems either encourage conflict between players (PvP conflict typically happens as a matter of course, but i'm not interested in encouraging it) or govern the interactions between player and DM (in which case, as a "fair" DM, you should be able to judge when you have been verbally bested and concede defeat, without having to resort to a die-roll). The Social Combat system in The Dying Earth RPG is based on dice pools. Each player (and any encountered NPCs) has a dice-pool made up of d6's, and can continue spending dice from their pool until they or their opponent has exhausted theirs. Scoring a 1-3 means failure, while a 4-6 means success, with the 1 and 6 being catastrophic failure and incredible success, respectively. Depending on your roll, your opponent may have to expend more, or fewer dice, to respond to your success or failure. This mechanic feels artificial to me, as I would rather engage in the actual role-playing, of two combatants trying to convince the other of the superiority of their position, but the dice-pool is a reasonable substitute, for those who are uncomfortable "talking with funny voices".

Cunning Subterfuge

Like the characters in Vance's Dying Earth books and short stories, each of the Player's characters are lazy, self-absorbed, covetous, avaricious, and arrogant. So are most of the NPC's they encounter. Therefore, the game resolves around the planning and execution of cunning strategems to gain wealth, comfort, power, prestige, fineries, and delicious food, with as little effort and risk as possible.

Laughter

As was mentioned earlier, experience points are awarded for clever repartee. This is accomplished through a mechanism whereby the DM provides several Vancian phrases to each player, prior to the start of the game session. They must weave those phrases into the game at some point during the session. For those who deliver their line, at an innapropriate time, no experience points are awarded. For those lines delivered when appropriate, but eliciting no positive response from the other game participants, one experience point is awarded. But when the line is delivered, and elicits positive responses, propels the adventure in a humorous or unexpected direction, or garners laughter from the other players and DM, two or even three experience points are awarded by the DM. Therefore, Players are encouraged to ham it up, directing the in-game conversations in such a way as to allow for the delivery of their appointed lines.

Casual Cruelty

Casual Cruelty, or "man's inhumanity to man", is a common theme in the tales of the Dying Earth. You see this in the Liane the Wayfarer stories, or in Cugel's treatment by, and of those he encounters in "The Eyes of the Overworld". The author of The Dying Earth exhorts the DM to insert scenes of casual cruelty (sparingly), establishing the nature of the cruelty, and allowing the imaginations of the players to fill in the horrifying details. He opines that a successful scene of casual cruelty will nag at the players after the game, as they think more fully of the implications.

The Dying Earth RPG allows you to run the full gamet of emotions during a role-playing session, from hilarity to horror. The Dying Earth RPG is clearly not for your typical hack-n-slasher, and is more appropriate for your more cerebral gamer. What I love about this game is its respect for the Vancian source material, and its overt discouragement of mortal combat, which is a refreshing change from the direction Dungeons and Dragons has recently been drawn to.

10 comments:

Trey said...

I've never played the game, but I find it interesting. The Kaiim (I think) city book was particularly well done.

Zzarchov said...

I myself tend to like social combat systems because it allows for tales of great orators and incredibly clever charlatans that "talking through it" doesn't allow. In the same way as if we had to act out how we engaged in physical combat, I doubt that dragon would be going down.

I could never see for instance, a player ever convincing a king that his clothes can only be seen by the righteous or that a cart full of onions is worth more than a cart full of gold, but those are two specific stories of the great charlatan. As sure as some people like to play the dragon-slaying hero, some like to be the king-swindler. Without a social combat system, that simply won't occur.

JB said...

I own this game and love most everything about it...except the fact that I've never had a chance to play it. Most people (and most gamers) wouldn't know Jack Vance even if you hit 'em upside the head with a copy of Cugel the Clever.

ghostofmarx said...

I've been reading Vance lately and it makes D&D make a lot more sense. BUT, while your review is great and the game sounds awesome it has actually discouraged me from purchasing. I don't know any players past or present that would be willing to give this a try.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Trey said...
I've never played the game, but I find it interesting. The Kaiim (I think) city book was particularly well done.

I prefer Cities of Harn, but I suspect my preference is a scale-thing: the sizes of the Cities of Harn are at about the limit of my ability to mentally manage them.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Zzarchov said...
I myself tend to like social combat systems because it allows for tales of great orators and incredibly clever charlatans that "talking through it" doesn't allow. In the same way as if we had to act out how we engaged in physical combat, I doubt that dragon would be going down.

I could never see for instance, a player ever convincing a king that his clothes can only be seen by the righteous or that a cart full of onions is worth more than a cart full of gold, but those are two specific stories of the great charlatan. As sure as some people like to play the dragon-slaying hero, some like to be the king-swindler. Without a social combat system, that simply won't occur.


Your comments make sense. I will have to reconsider my opinion of social combat systems.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

JB said...
I own this game and love most everything about it...except the fact that I've never had a chance to play it. Most people (and most gamers) wouldn't know Jack Vance even if you hit 'em upside the head with a copy of Cugel the Clever.

I don't think i'll ever have the pleasure of actually playing this game. Its' style of play is far too intense, even for immersive role-players.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

ghostofmarx said...
I've been reading Vance lately and it makes D&D make a lot more sense. BUT, while your review is great and the game sounds awesome it has actually discouraged me from purchasing. I don't know any players past or present that would be willing to give this a try.

The game is awesome. Chance that you will ever get a group together to play it? Slim.

Roger the GS said...

It's also been hard for me to get a group together to play this, with enough people who are witty enough to get into it. Although our current small D&D group might qualify, come to think of it.

It is a system that promises great fun, from the looks of it.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Roger the GS said...
It's also been hard for me to get a group together to play this, with enough people who are witty enough to get into it. Although our current small D&D group might qualify, come to think of it.

It is a system that promises great fun, from the looks of it.


If you ever get a group together, I will love to read the session recap!