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.
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.
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".
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.
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, 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.