Tuesday, 3 January 2012

"Doing" Vance

I came across a link to this Forge thread while on my ramblings through Google reader this morning. Long story short, it's a a game designer who I respect (Vincent Baker) saying a lot of weird things, and then a whole load of very very pretentious people literally talking gobbledegook. But! It contains an interesting line (to me, anyway):

Then I remembered how much I love Vance, of course, and how much I'd enjoy trying to channel him, and just how much fun his ironic, cynical relativism is. So now it's great.

And it got me thinking about games that set out to "do" Jack Vance. It turns out, from a little bit of Googling, that not only is there already a Dying Earth RPG, it was written by no less than Robin D. Laws and John Snead, two of the least Cugel-like people in the entire world. Curiouser and curiouser!

I'm just perusing the quick start rules on my lunch break. No time for an in-depth analysis now, but suffice to say there's stuff in here that's likeable (spell titles like "The Astonishing Oral Projection"). I'm a bit more dubious about this:
In [this] game we're not always rooting unreservedly for the characters to succeed. They are often selfish, greedy or overconfident... What matters is not victory or defeat, but how well the story entertains us... We reward you, the player, for making the game entertaining.

It might just be my nautral prejudices, but when I read stuff like that it sets alarm bells ringing: there's nothing less entertaining than people trying too hard to be entertaining. If I was designing a Dying Earth RPG my main focus would be on getting the players to be interested in self-advancement and self-aggrandization, rather than on being entertaining - which, it strikes me, is more of a by-product.

But we'll see. I might be tempted to make a purchase all the same.


  1. Our experience with this echoed that a little. For a game focused on story and narrative interactions, the DERPG actually has a surprising number of mechanics and interactions you have to track. But more importantly for my group, some people really felt on the spot and uncomfortable trying to keep up with the "entertainment" of the game. They felt leaden compared to the couple of people who really 'performed'. It is also a system in which you will lose and suffer obligations, which bothered a couple of players.

    I know it holds true for all games, but more than most DERPG requires the players to be absolutely on board with the premise and atmosphere. It is very easy for them to get irritated if they aren't. I did a little review of the game a while back here. Pelgrane has also reworked those DERPG rules into the Skullduggery rpg.

    Finally, the coolest thing to come out of that game is the Kaiin Players Guide, a city-book completely for the players so that they can come up with stories for themselves.

  2. Yeah, I am fairly satisfied with it. It has several interesting social mechanics, not the least of which is using a vancian phrase in play that you draw from a hat.

    I would recommend, if your entire group has read vance.

  3. I think I must have a high bar for emulating Vance.

    I own DERG and there is much I like in it, but there is a whiff of something that just seems too contrived--a bit too much emphasis on the superficial wordplay and less on the themes that move his dialogue.

  4. If you're curious enough to get it, I'd like to read along with you, if I may. I'm a long time Laws fan but I never picked this one up (possibly his first complete RPG?).

    ...I'm not sure you want a game written by a Cugel-like character. I'm almost certain it wouldn't be finished. I'm also not sure I want a strictly Vancian game, but I'm curious, certainly.

  5. I own DERG and there is much I like in it, but there is a whiff of something that just seems too contrived--a bit too much emphasis on the superficial wordplay and less on the themes that move his dialogue.


    DERPG -- to which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I contributed published supplementary material -- can be a very fun game, but it's a little too focused on "Vance emulation" (or, even more specifically, "Cugel-story emulation") to the point that it feels less like a RPG and more like ... well, something else. Mind you, that's my usual reaction to Robin Laws games, so maybe I'm just hyper-sensitive to his designing quirks. Regardless, DERPG has lots of points in its favor, but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a "perfect" fit for Vance in my opinion.

  6. I really like the “trumps” mechanic. I’m not crazy about the “spend a point to reroll” mechanic. (Abstract resource management tends to not sit well with me.) I like the “quote from the hat” bit. Not appropriate for every game, but when it is, it can be fun.

    I don’t know that I’ll ever have a group with enough people who know Vance to really make it work, though. So, I was interesting in Skullduggery, but it really seems to focus on the areas that make me think my hobby and Robin’s are very different things.

  7. I haven't looked at the DERPG, but it's hardly the only game to borrow heavily from Vance's work.

    The RPG Talislanta took a lot of inspiration from Vance's Dying Earth. While it does not make use of "Vancian Magic" it has a lot of the other flavour that makes the Dying Earth stories so compelling. It might have more of what you are looking for.

  8. I'm with James: I absolutely love Vance's books, but the DERPG dissapointed my for its obsession in emulate his written work. I'd like to play adventures in the Dying Earth (the bizarre beings and customs, the nameless ruins, the demons, forgoten technology and all) but I'm not interested in reenact the aventures of Cugel doing it just like Cugel did, I guess.

  9. Lowell Francis: I think I could get my players on board. I liked that review on your blog - very illuminative.

    ckutalik: What are those themes, in your opinion? I'm curious, as I've thought about this a bit.

    richard: Sure, I might post a read-along thing on my blog.

    -C, James, Robert, David, Liza: Thanks. That's interestingly mixed. But for £6 it seems rude not to give it a look, which I think I'll do.

  10. That sounds like a book writen by someone who only likes Dying Earth with caveats:

    "It's not a good story, or good characters, but it's written well."

    So he goes of to make a game about rubbish characters portrayed well..

    Or maybe he's just trying to work out how to make failure fun, but in a wonky way.

  11. make failure fun, but in a wonky way
    that sounds like a pretty good summary of Cugel's Saga...

  12. In the "making failure fun" as an approach, I do think that Fiasco has more than a little of DERPG's gaming-DNA in it. That's also really asks players to invest in their catastrophes.

  13. @David re Talislanta - the 1st and 2nd eds of Tal had a magic system that was much more Vancian than later eds. There are only some 13 (?) spells still in common use; all others having been lost to the ages. That makes finding new old spells a common goal for wizarding types. Also, there was no priestly magic - many priest types had magic but it was the same stuff an anyone else used. They, of course, explained it differently, but that was a hoax.

    @Liza - I agree. My problem is that I love the book, The Dying Earth, but find the others significantly less interesting. I know Pelgrane did a Turjan-level book, but I haven't seen it.