Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Tips for the Mapping Referee and Other Calls

Tips for the Mapping Referee and Other Calls

(Or on YouTube!)


Mapping! An essential part of the OSR experience - by request, how do I - as a referee or game master - how do I describe rooms and hallways in an in-person or Theater of the Mind game so as to empower the mapper? Starting off with a handful of call ins - starting with crispy burned goblins and working our way through to tactics and reading the rules: listen on for my answer - how this referee handles corridor and room descriptions.

Want to get in on the conversation? Hit me up on Anchor:

...or come hang out with the gang on Discord:

And whatever you do, delve on!

Show Notes

  • 00:00 - Alchemist's Fired Goblins
  • 00:20 - Theme
  • 00:50 - Confirmation that at Least One Story is True
  • 01:13 - Nerd's Variety Jason: Party v Monster Tactics
  • 05:05 - Evil Jeff: Reading (and Re-Reading) Rules
  • 11:12 - Nerd's Variety Jason: Edition Muddle
  • 14:27 - Jeshields: Table Manners
  • 17:43 - Jeshields: Multiple Games or Ongoing Campaign?
  • 22:15 - Main Topic: Mapping from the Other Side of the Screen
  • 30:41 - Outro


Nerd's Variety Podcast (Jason):
Minions & Musings (Evil/Old Jeff):
J.E. Shields:
    A Grazing Mace:

Saturday, March 18, 2023

N-Spiration: Tales of the Dying Earth, Pt 2 - Vance's Rogues

Horrors wait in the shadows - asleep in the daylight, waiting for the red, wheezing star overhead to slip beneath the horizon or to blink out of existence entirely that they may wander forth, preying upon unwary travelers. Caravans brave the byways - dozens of armed men keeping the night at bay; lone travelers chance refuges and safe-houses, the owners or proprietors of which may be just as much the predators as the alien and chthonic creatures from which their guests are hiding.

And so it is - league upon league across a dying world - as societies and civilizations forget one the existence of one another as history slowly begins to foresee the passing of humanity into memory - Jack Vance's Dying Earth.

The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga

About The Eyes of the Overworld

The Eyes of the Overworld was published in 1966 - officially - 16 years after its predecessor in Vance's far future world, The Dying Earth. I say "officially" published in 1966 as, like its predecessor, The Eyes of the Overworld was initially published in serial as a fix-up beginning in December of 1965, published, and then subsequently the second chapter, Cil - wherein Cugel, having achieved an initial acquisition of his objective, pursues its delivery through a kingdom cursed by a ghoulish creature preying on unprotected citizenry - was published standing alone in 1969 within an unrelated collection. It would later go on to be re-titled, Cugel the Clever, in reprint in 2005 - however, I mention these disparate mechanisms to support a commentary to its style: each story is interconnected, much more so than those in The Dying Earth before it, however each still stands alone - with more or less context - as a self-contained story, representing a stage of the journey Cugel is under: with one or two primary themes tying them together - namely, Cugel's curse to quest for and unrelenting desire for revenge upon the Laughing Magician.

But I get ahead of myself.

The Eyes of the Overworld introduces Cugel - our aforementioned protagonist - as a wily anti-hero: a self-serving and self-aggrandizing character, one who both survives by his keen wit and quick thinking but also who provides his own downfall through a certain hubris. The author - in addition to presenting the world tilted in the perspective of the Cugel character despite still dictating in the third person - uses Cugel as an instrument of drama and humor: mixing the thrill of adventure, the curiosity of exposition and mystery, with comedic moments - situational or jibes from other characters - with a dark undertone of variable intensity. His juxtaposition against other characters - gullible or guileful characters, noble or ignoble, each presenting an opportunity to have or be had - is used to paint a cynical world: one that provides a stark commentary about the nature of societal interactions - the relationship between the commoner and the vagabond; the worker and the employer. In particular - spoiler contained within the following collapsible tag - during Cugel's interactions with the sorcerer, Pharesm:

Cugel, between the mountains and the forest, halfway in his journey home... return the purloined Eye of the Overworld spectacle to the Laughing Magician Iucounu, comes across a perplexing series of stone monoliths arranged in an intentional pattern. He comes to learn this was the work of teams employed by a sorcerer - the lead of the workman team singing the praises of the employer, Pharesm. Pharesm, meeting Cugel, rejects him as an employee due to lack of experience and offers no hospitality whatsoever: which the workman lead also praises, displaying an almost toadying devotion and zealousness for the work to be performed. Thus - both of them are content to see Cugel (admittedly a stranger) go hungry off into the wastes - both of them are then disappointed when Cugel, alleviating the hunger they chose to ignore, devours the very being that the monoliths and centuries of research were designed to lure to Pharesm's study!

Pharesm goes on to attempt to conscript Cugel to recover the creature out of the past - which is thwarted by Cugel's own lecherousness and ignorance - but the message remains: if basic humanity, basic hospitality and understanding, had prevailed instead of raw self-interest (on the part of both parties), everyone would have been off for the better.

Like his other works within Tales of the Dying Earth, the chapters of each story are long: though some of them do have break points for those with bookmarks looking for an opportunity to rest their eyes. This is - also like most of the other work in the collection - due to the serialized publication strategy. Because each of them was, itself, a self-contained novelette, each of them would be of sufficient length to accommodate the trappings of a story arc and to draw value for the attention of a magazine or collection reader. However - due to the occasional breaks and due to Vance's evocative diction over imaginative vistas; our own world presented alien in the far future where the sun ages into decrepitude; and the intermix of humor as integral to the experience - I, myself, did not find the length to be bothersome. Each chapter logically leads into the next - and each satisfied enough to keep me turning the pages.

About Cugel's Saga

Cugel's Saga picks up where The Eyes of the Overworld left off: its first sentence, the first moment following the final events in The Eyes of the Overworld immediately. Published in 1983 - 17 years after its predecessor - it bears many of the same themes and tone, but is its own work: being significantly longer and written singularly (according to the author) rather than serially. Marketed as a novel, it still has a sense of episodic progression - and each of the chapters can be read independently - however the continuity between them is stronger and the context they provide next to each other is greater, contributing more heavily to the sense of events within the work as interpreted by the reader.

The premise of this work is a duplicate of the previous: Cugel sees himself the victim and seeks to return in order to have revenge on Iucounu, whom he sees as responsible for his current plight. Additionally, the process for accomplishing this end is the same as the prior - the presentation is that of a travelogue, each chapter (or section, depending on what you consider a "chapter") being titled according to the geographic: for example, his journey between the mud flats of Tustvold to the port city of Perdusz is contained in "From Tustvold to Port Perdusz." However - unique to this volume is the happenstances along the way - though the beginning and the destination remain consistent, the places, people, and story elements along the way are entirely new and their own: presenting an entirely new story within the context of the old.

On the subject of theme, Cugel's Saga embraces the same direction but displays a renewed intensity. In The Eyes of the Overworld, where cheating or larceny is common, Cugel's Saga contains blatant murder. True - The Eyes of the Overworld is rife with examples of active malice (and does contain characters killing one another) it seems amplified in Cugel's Saga - example in his aforementioned journey between Tustvold and Port Perdusz:

Coming across ominous warnings against a wizard, Faucelme...

...Cugel encounters a group of farmers whose wheel is off the wagon. In exchange - perhaps - for safety over night (recall, the world is full of man-eating horrors in the dark) he uses a magical item to help them get the wagon moving: holding it partly aloft against the force of gravity. Instead, they muscle him out of his money - the cost of the wheel, they say, because they lost it while he was about - and set him on his way.

Continuing - Cugel takes shelter in the manse of Faucelme - who seems an absolute gentleman. Cugel ties him up, mistakenly using a magical rope over which Faucelme has total control and can escape at will, but instead of hostility, Faucelme offers Cugel entertainment, sup, and shelter... until he sees an artifact which Cugel carries. After which, Cugel not being willing to part with it Faucelme attempts murder by four separate mechanisms: poison at dinner and three separate trapped bedrooms: one of unknown hazard - but bearing no windows; a crushing mechanism on an iron framed bed; and finally a mysterious burst of presumably fatal gas in an otherwise nondescript room - all to obtain the artifact: a shining scale called Spatterlight.

Which is better, perhaps, than what could have happened - as the draft animals (intelligent enough to speak) for the farmers prior reveal that the farmers in bullying for cash did better than they did to previous travelers - whom they would offer shelter only to murder in their sleep: a habit which they stopped only because of the bother to bury the evidence!

These animals, Faucelme describes as drunkards - so they are not without their own vices - but truly: they are the least odious of the whole bunch!

Further, the theme of workman versus employer continues in Cugel's Saga - with Cugel having to out-scheme both a purveyor of antiquities who, through deceptive advertising, entraps workers with debt to the company (something that did happen in industrial America through the industrial revolution - and arguably happens to this day in the form of various avenues of credit... though that's another conversation peripheral to the review) to dig through cold mud pits, and then a second time - a merchant - who seeks to maroon Cugel and replace him: despite Cugel having uncharacteristically actually performed his role aboard ship faithfully.

Faithfulness and trust are rewarded with abuse and betrayal - throughout - and the crafty regularly come out on top: including both Cugel in moments of clarity and those around Cugel in moments where his own ignorance or naivety bites him. To my own reading - the ever-presence of this theme, the never ending predictability of every character to do the absolute worst thing possible in the service of their own goals came off as monotone: Vance's use of egocentric, Machiavellian characters draws a parallel to the more modern G. R. R. Martin's use of character morbidity: where, in the earlier works, the theme and tone serve an end and stand in juxtaposition to how the bulk of literature tends to turn - in later works, it grows sour: the inversion of the trope becomes the trope itself: becomes a gimmick - and the reader (or, this reader) grows weary of the pony performing its one trick. While I am not disappointed to have read Cugel's Saga, I will say that by the end of it, I was excited to have made it to Rhialto the Marvellous.

But that said - mood lightening commentary in spoiler below:

Cugel, in his maritime adventures...

...takes on the role of "worminger." He takes it on not knowing a thing about it, lying a bit saying he simply has been out of the game for a while and would need to knock the rust off.

In a curious parallel - the author, Vance, was disqualified from military service during World War II because of his poor eyesight: not wanting to leave the sea, Vance would then go on to obtain and memorize an optometrist's exam chart - reading the lines from memory rather than sight - in order to join the Merchant Marine! He would go on to a successful career on the water until establishing himself as a full-time writer 30 years later - again, in parallel to Cugel, who learns the worminger trade (tending and goading a giant sea worm strapped to the boat and providing a mean of propulsion) and excels at it, better than the paired junior worminger who had served previously.

It's interesting to note - by the 1980s when Cugel's Saga was written, Vance was still an avid sailor, having left the Merchant Marine, but having lived on a house boat (with Frank Herbert and family - actually - SUCH AN INTERESTING LIFE VANCE LED) and having bought, rigged and operated multiple personal watercraft up to 45 feet in length - and that so much of Cugel's Saga takes place on the open ocean.

Habits and loves of the author injecting themselves into the work.

What's to Like?

Cugel is the archetypal thief. 

Whether he is hiding in the shadows, striking from behind, or experimenting with (and making errors in) casting spells from written material - Cugel is, at least from the 1966 tome, quite an obvious influence on Greyhawk's Thief class. In that sense, there is value in this book for both player and referee in the portrayal and running of Thief-esque characters.

First, Cugel - he is not a fighter. He can fight, but he recognizes his own limitations (or seeks to avoid discomfort, at a minimum) in relation to creatures of the wild or to skilled or numerous adversaries. As such - the wilds being a dangerous place - Cugel finds himself constantly thinking outside the box to address situations he's in: negotiating with (or taking advantage of) other characters he meets, taking on roles or proverbial side-quests to gain access to what he needs for the next phase of his journey, or pitting others against one another in order to achieve his ends. The most memorable of these (to me, at least) being,

when approaching the Mountains of Magnatz...

...Cugel is followed by a deodand. Knowing he does not stand a chance in open combat, Cugel hides and attacks with a stone from above - a back-stab, so to speak: albeit with a bludgeon - wherein he cripples the creature. The deodand then goes on to bargain for its life - offering to guide Cugel across the mountains safely if he does not slay it.

Of course, being an evil thing, it goes on to lead him to three of its fellows - who in turn are fortunately killed by rangers Cugel encounters: who, in a technicality, as Cugel said he would not kill the crippled deodand, Cugel encourages to kill the crippled deodand, its purpose and use fulfilled - but this is a perfect example of doing business with a Chaotic creature - one which players and referees alike can draw inspiration out of.

Cugel's propensity for betrayal makes sense as to why a party might be wary of a Thief - or why Thieves as specialists often cannot be employed by a Lawful party for long.

Lastly, consider the spell Geas. In the original edition of the game - wandering magic users, Wizards in particular, were a hazardous encounter, as where a name-level Fighting Man will demand a joust or a name-level Cleric will demand a tithe, a Wizard will demand a quest, a favor, and will do so at the threat of a slowly worsening curse until such time as the geas is fulfilled.

Although Rhialto would - 17 years later - illustrate this quite literally... The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga both, this theme is iterated: at least twice, magic users take advantage of the common man (and of Cugel, specifically) leveraging compulsive magic:

  1. Iucouno, compelling Cugel to seek the eyes on pain of being tormented by Firx, an alien barb attached to his liver.
  2. Pharesm, sending Cugel into the past with an amulet which will only return him to the present when its purpose is fulfilled.

As a plot device, it's convenient - arguably lazy - but as an OSR trope? Priceless.

What's to Toss?

In reviewing the magician-themed Dying Earth tales, I warned the reader that the oldest of the stories were written over 80 years ago and as such, language and themes would not match up to what you might expect from fantasy fiction written today. While this holds true for The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga - the newest of which was published around the time my median reader was born - what stands out more so in the Cugel stories is the severity and darkness of their themes. While bandits and a nihilism brought on by pending heat-death in darkness is surely grim in both cases, in the Cugel stories, it becomes ubiquitous - there is no good in humanity: under the fading red sun, kindness is repaid exclusively with predation.

Further - consider the following; spoilered in collapsible panel, as with the other in-text examples:
In this sequence, Cugel is subjected to a prank by several barnacle elves, as I was considering them. They are sedentary sea life - fey, by the seeming of it, and their mastery of the strange liquid gossamer referenced. In response to being wet - imagine having a child throw a water balloon at you from a tree fort - Cugel reacts by pulling the creature out of its shell and spilling its entrails on the beach.

A hyperbolic overreaction intentionally, sure, for humor's sake - and the reaction and commentary thereafter is used for humorous effect - but Cugel is totally remorseless and indeed self-justifies the act, moving on as though nothing had happened, incident remembered only to try to short-circuit the barnacle child's dying curse laid upon him, once his jerkin dries out. 

Arguably, this is not a human. It is a fictional creature whose species is never heard of again in Vance's writings. Similarly, this is a work of total fiction: am I not over-reacting to this? 

Perhaps. But then, further along in the very next chapter:

Having escaped the well-incurred wrath of a demon-mastering heir to the kingdom of Cil, Cugel and a companion continue in trekking back towards Almery, where the magician Iucounu resides. Encountering a group of ruffians who inform the travelers that a glade they seek to cross is in truth haunted by fey and that they would need guidance across. In exchange - they demand payment: the involuntary servitude of Cugel's newly acquired female companion, Derwe.

Cugel convinces her to to trust him - that he has a plan.

Along the way, they bind her in shackles, they move through the forest outnumbering him, and in the end, you're unsure of whether or not he needed them at all - but through the whole ordeal, the reader is considering, "What is this plan? How will Cugel get through this one?" 

And then... he sells her.

That was the plan all along.

In reading this - I actually (and I expect many others would have) experienced a rising suspicion, an enjoyment in realization, as the tension built. The reader may see what's happening, may understand what the endpoint is going to be - and for me, at least, I drew great pleasure from the build-up and reveal: chuckling audibly to myself when it finally happened. However, that said, the fundamental joke here is human trafficking: a very real and very serious thing that persists into the modern day. 

Then, in the Mountains of Magnatz...

...after having been fooled into taking to a watch tower from which there is no returning, Cugel escapes and kidnaps a woman, Marlinka of Vull - to whom he had been ceremonially wed as part of the fooling, an inducement to take the role of watchman.

In his own words, Cugel is simply taking what is his due: behaving in the manner expected of himself. However, in reading this chapter, I had to read this twice - the first time through, having thought "Is this a fade-to-black rape?"

On the second reading - no - no it was not: and I hesitated to post this comment in the review as the subject material is serious: it does not bear diminishing. But be advised, potential reader, this kind of language occurs at least once, as referenced above - and is something to have in the back of the mind.

Again - in context - these are fictional people, fictional characters, introduced to tell an amusing story: and knowing that is the grain of salt to take when reading - but the presence of truly dark themes embedded sometimes as humor and other times in earnest is at times - or, was for me at times - intense.

On a more editorial note - regarding Cugel's Saga: reading Cugel's Saga can feel like I'm watching Airplane 2. Old jokes get repeated in new contexts, the same plot - and conclusion - gets rehashed. While Cugel's Saga does have great merit to it - in the story-telling, in the world-building, in the humor - by the end of the book, I had grown bored and at a few points, recall having had to force my way through it. 

The Eyes of the Overworld is stronger than Cugel's Saga - and The Dying Earth and Rhialto the Marvellous, to my reading, are stronger as well. The Dying Earth in particular is the strongest of the four: for its mystery, for its novelty, and for the manner in which it explodes the world around you: the reader isn't drawn in - instead, the world is forced out: a V.R. set without the goggles projected directly and suddenly into your mind.

Further Reading

In my previous post regarding The Dying Earth and Rhialto the Marvellous, I mentioned the prolific nature of the Jack Vance library. This remains true - though I add little to the conversation by restating it. Instead, for those interested in Cugel directly, I have come across another book - A Quest for Simbilis - written by Michael Shea.

A Quest for Simbilis, First Edition Cover: George Barr

Shea - author of the series Nifft the Lean and multiple-winner of the World Fantasy Award for his own works as well as for his contributions to the mythos of both Vance and Lovecraft - wrote the piece, interestingly enough, in 1974 with the blessing of Vance, himself, with whom Shea was friends. It is a sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld, picking up Cugel's adventure where Eyes of the Overworld leaves off and following through on a quest for vengeance in much the same plot driver as Cugel's Saga but following a totally different narrative: presenting different stories, different adventures, and different outcomes for our antiheroic protagonist.

While I have not read A Quest for Simbilis, it is curious to note that - having been written in between 1966's The Eyes of the Overworld and 1983's Cugel's Saga, it stood alone as the official course of events for 9 years before Vance, the original author, orphaned it with his own rendition of post-Eyes events. This in and of itself makes me curious to see what's in it, on top of other reviewers agreeing: if you like the Cugel stories, you may like Simbilis. So - if you're willing to roll the dice on future reading, the dice for A Quest for Simbilis might be loaded: and Michael Shea may find his way in months to come into the Clerics Wear Ringmail N-Spiration series.


As with the other books contained within my purchased anthology, Tales of the Dying Earth, Vance's works are specifically called out in the 1e DMG's Appendix N - and as such, are by default seminal to the ongoing development of the D&D game at TSR and foundational to a fledgling referee's engineering of a tonally faithful campaign. The Eyes of the Overworld, having preceded even the original edition, would have been in Gary and Dave's minds - and I have no doubts that when Cugel's Saga came out years later, they would have binge-read on it, as well. 

For that reason, The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga has to be a 1: Very OSR.

Cugel is our prototypical Thief - and Cugel's story - or stories - is and are emblematic of the prototypical OSR campaign. While there are some rough edges and some moments where the seriousness and the silliness intermingle, do those qualifications not also apply to most home games? The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga both make for a fine addition to your Appendix N library and a fine inspiration for the games a budding referee is yet to run.

Thank you for reading - delve on!


Tales of the Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, and Cugel's Saga are copyrighted Jack Vance and to the affiliated publishers of their respective distributions. First edition The Eyes of the Overworld cover art is by Jack Gaughan; first edition Cugel's Saga cover art is by Kevin Eugene Johnson. A Quest for Simbilis is copyright Michael Shea and DAW Books; the first edition cover art therefor being accredited to George Barr. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeons & Dragons, and D&D and all imagery thereto related are property of Wizards of the Coast. 

Clerics Wear Ringmail makes no claim of ownership of any sort to any of the aforementioned media, texts, or images and includes references to them for review purposes under Fair Use: US Code Title 17, Chapter 107. 

The slide-in of Gary... I got from a meme.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Henchmen, Combats, Battles, and Balance

Henchmen, Combats, Battles, and Balance

(Or on YouTube!)


Henchmen, Combats, Battles, and Balance! OSR and OSR-Adjacent commenters build on the OctOSR conversations surrounding several key topics which don't frequently function in the modern experience as they are written in the original books.

Want to get in on the conversation? Hit me up on Anchor:

...or come hang out with the gang on Discord:

And whatever you do, delve on!

Show Notes

  • 00:00 - Theme
  • 00:30 - Red Dice Diaries John: Henchmen, Loyalty, and Battlefields
  • 04:31 - The Pink Phantom: Seeking Mass Combats?
  • 10:41 - Nerd's Variety Jason: Controlling Hirelings
  • 15:45 - Bandit's Keep Daniel: Investing in Henchmen
  • 18:16 - Red Dice Diaries John: Wilderness Is as Wilderness Does
  • 20:15 - Nerd's Variety Jason: Smart Enough to Run Away
  • 25:32 - Game Balance and OSR
  • 29:42 - Outro


Red Dice Diaries:
Phantom Thoughts with the Pink Phantom:
Nerd's Variety Podcast:
Bandit's Keep:

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

OctOSR Response Conversations - Part 2

OctOSR Response Conversations - Part 2

(Or on YouTube!)


Further responding to calls and conversations between October of 2022 and today. Couple recurring heroes mixed in with a new voice!

Want to get in on the conversation? Hit me up on Anchor:

...or come hang out with the gang on Discord:

And whatever you do, delve on!

Show Notes

  • 00:00 - Theme
  • 00:30 - Bandit's Keep Daniel on Heroes
  • 06:46 - Hindsightless Joe: No Chop Busting? Talking super-heroics!
  • 09:04 - Claw Claw Rend: Healing and Healing Magic
  • 14:02 - J. E. Shields: Beginning of a Good Thing
  • 16:11 - Clear-ics?
  • 17:27 - Serving a Greater Good
  • 25:23 - Not a Genie God
  • 31:48 - Outro


Claw Claw Rend - I can't find you on Anchor or Google Podcasts? Anyone?
Joe, Hindsightless:
Jeshields (James Shields):
    A Grazing Mace:
Daniel (Bandit's Keep) -

Saturday, March 4, 2023

OctOSR Response Conversations - Part 1

OctOSR Response Conversations - Part 1

(Or on YouTube!)


Finally an episode!

Kicking off season three with responses to the massively successful OctOSR podcast and media drive from October of last year. Wide range of topics - some of which you may not even need to re-listen to the OctOSR episodes to contextualize!

Want to get in on the conversation? Hit me up on Anchor:

...or come hang out with the gang on Discord:

And whatever you do, delve on!

Show Notes

  • 00:00 - Theme
  • 00:30 - Nerd's Variety Jason Rambles about Gaming; I ramble about Life
  • 08:10 - Redcaps Kevin & Rules Lite Games
  • 12:13 - Hindsightless Joe: Chop-Busting Part 1
  • 13:56 - James Shields & The Impact of Player Mapping
  • 23:59 - Nerd's Variety Jason: Rulings, House Rules, & Complexity
  • 28:13 - Nerd's Variety Jason: Outside the Character Sheet
  • 32:24 - Outro


Jason, Nerd's Variety Podcast:
    Chainmail with Cerebrevore, Part 1:
    Chainmail with Cerebrevore, Part 2:
Kevin, The Redcaps Podcast:
Joe, Hindsightless:
Jeshields (James Shields):
    A Grazing Mace:
GFC's DnD, Mapping Conventions:

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Obsidian Vault

Stairs lead into a blackened space – floors with the texture and temperature of slate: walls ringed with molding of obsidian rising one-third of the way up to the ceiling, 15 feet distant. Darkness hangs in the air – almost detectable as particulate against timid and flickering torchlight. 

Suitable for characters of 2nd or 3rd level.

Scale: 10 ft.
Click HERE for a PDF version of this adventure!

A little keyhole icon in a door means the door is locked.
A little "S" through a door means the door is secret.
The other icon on a door - which is supposed to look like a muscly arm - indicates a door is stuck and must be forced open.

W - West Chambers

Stairs Stone Path Down Ruin; Pixabay user dife88

W1 - Entrance

A wide spiral stair leads down into the space. Along the circular walls are pedestals housing statues made of pumice; eyes hollowed out. Upon entry, there is a 50% chance (75% with a light source) that the Driver Ants in W4 take notice of the party.

W2 - Access Control

On the south wall is a lever rising from the floor, trimmed with brass. It is in a center position. If engaged to the left, it will activate area W4; if engaged to the right, it will activate E3 - in both cases, a light will shine faintly down from the illusory ceiling. If left - or replaced - to the center, both areas remain inactive.

Against the west wall is a wooden pedestal - taller (north to south) than it is wide - flanked by urns and draped with a purple and silver cloth. In the urns are glass rods - 8 in total - inlaid with seams of gold and silver. The rods are worth 100 gp each. If the drape is removed, a hidden clasp is revealed: opening to a small hoard of 5,000 silver.

W3 - Gazing Chamber

In the center of the room is a circular, concave depression - large enough for a person to stand or kneel in. Piled around it are six evenly spaced stacks of 60 gold pieces each. On the walls, east and west, hang delicate silver chains - six in total, worth 60 gold pieces each, likewise - interwoven to connect three empty wrought iron sconces on each side.

Along the north wall are three onyx busts facing the central depression, domes of pumice covering the eyes, held on three pumice pedestals. If a character does not disturb the gold stacks (or replaces them where disturbed) and instead enters the circle, the pumice eyes of the busts will cast a low orange glow into the depression, illuminating the character. If the character does not immediately retract themselves - they will be blessed with a strange sight where all non-magical traps will, to their eyes, glow in the same orange tone: standing out from their surroundings.

This effect persists until the character sees in daylight. The effect can be artificially prolonged, as such, by moving at night and covering ones eyes or remaining in closed or underground spaces while the sun is up.

W4 - West Ascent

An otherwise nondescript ceramic alcove is occupied by seven Driver Ants (B34). The ants are scurrying about as though trying (and failing) to climb the walls - climbing upward, but then leaning back too far and falling flat.

There is a hole in the ceiling, hidden by illusion. From the ground, it looks just like the surrounding material - but if prodded, the prod will go through. Additionally, if the space is activated (see W2), there will be a slight yellow glow, gently flickering, coming down from the hole. The illusion will still be in place, but a glow will emerge from it like a spotlight.

Regardless of active or inactive, the party will have to be creative to access the space.

E - East Chambers

E1 - Upper Hall

In the hall above the door is an effigy of a pan flute. The flute has been plugged with cloth. Characters, as they approach, can hear muffled music.

If the cloth is removed, the music grows louder, though still soft, and can be heard eerily anywhere on the map. The music is soothing, if repetitive - any reaction rolls made by or for the players against monsters on this level while the music is playing in this fashion will be treated as one category better than they normally would - or, a "neutral" reaction would translate to "favorable," and so on.

E2 - Lower Hall

A chandelier of wrought iron hangs from the ceiling. It has space for six candles - but none are filled.

E3 - East Ascent

In the center of the room is a circular convex protrusion. Placed at interval around the circular walls are pedestals - onyx - on three of which are pumice statues. The eyes of the statues are all missing except for one - which has onyx domes, one of which is cracked: as though it had been struck with a crowbar or hammer. Any character which interacts with this bust is struck with a flare of intense heat: Save vs Breath or take 1d8 damage.

There is a hole in the ceiling hidden by illusion. From the ground, it looks just like the surrounding material - but if prodded, the prod will go through. Further, if the space is active (see W2), a yellow glow will radiate from it like a spotlight. Any character touched by the glow will feel lighter - able to jump twice as high, climb twice as reliably and twice as quickly - while in direct contact with the glow.

E4 - Treasure at Rest

Lining the north and south walls are three shields, each, with crossed spears behind them. These are antique and in poor repair. Against the west wall is propped a casket, sealed. Inside is a skeleton with a sword bedecked with a ruby in the pommel and crossguard - each gem is worth 100 gp.

Sword Mirror; Britton LaRoche

In the center of the room before the casket is a chest containing 500 gold pieces, a tourmaline (10 gp) and three oval-cut diamonds (500 gp each). Strewn on the floor as though spilled are a further 1,000 silver pieces.

N - Upper Chambers

N1 - East Entry

A man-sized hole is visible from this space, opening into W4. On each of the four corners of the room is a large urn: one of which has tipped over, spilling 600 gold pieces onto the floor near the hole. One of the other urns contains a further 200 gold pieces; one is empty; and the last contains dusty bones, the origin of which is unclear.

The double door to the north is trapped. If opened without disarming, a circular blade ascends along a groove sunken into the door's threshold, dealing 2d8 damage to any character in the door: rolling to hit with a THAC0 of 15.

Knight Armor Middle Ages Isolated; Gerhard Janson Knight Armor Middle Ages Isolated; Gerhard Janson

N2 - Guard Hall

Along all walls except the north face, frescoes depict armored constructs in march. Two Crystal Living Statue (B37) guard the space. If defeated, there is a 50% chance each of them will have a key to either N3 or N4 embedded in their torso.

N3 - Marble Playpen

A space three feet by four is enclosed by white marble walls three feet high. To the south-west is a raised brazier. The enclosed space is empty - its floor, black like the rest of the map.

N4 - Dentist's Coffer

On the floor, irregular chunks of marble - six to eight inches high, each - have been arranged as a border creating a crescent oriented east to west, with the ends pointing south and the curve north. The space inside of this crescent has been inlaid with specie: 9,000 silver and 200 gold pieces. Underneath, the floor is inexplicably black and textureless - but the very center reflects light ever so slightly if a light source is held nearby.

N5 - Vault

A skeleton in studded leather lies face down on the floor near the entrance, facing south-east. Beyond it are five barrels, stuffed with 1,000 silver pieces each, and a small box on the floor (locked and trapped with a poison needle) which houses a velvet sack. Five gemstones can be found in the sack - a tourmaline (10 gp), two black pearls (50gp each), and two circle-cut rubies (100 gp each).

N6 - West Entry

Six urns line the space: two to a wall, placed at 10 foot increments. Several have been overturned or damaged as six Tiger Beetle (B31) rummage through them. There is a hole in the floor, visible from this side, to the south-west which leads to E3.

Public domain and open license artwork retrieved from Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay, respectively. Attribution provided in alt text.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

N-Spiration: Tales of the Dying Earth, Pt 1 - Vance's Magic

The sun hangs red in the sky - older than the ages, breaking the millionth dawn since its youth departed, limping into view as it ever wanes towards perpetual dark. Drawn by the mysteries of wonders past, of people and of magic beyond the comprehension of modern man but not only dreamed, but built, by glorious ancestors - wizards, rogues, and scavengers abound: eeking out a living, dredging for orphaned treasure, or ever questing for deeper forgotten knowledge buried in the past.

So is framed Jack Vance's unmistakable Dying Earth: required reading for game masters, old and new school alike.

But didn't you say you were going to use this n-spiration label to talk about new inspiration material, not stuff you found literally in the back of the 1e DMG? Hush, you.

The Dying Earth and Rhialto the Marvellous

About The Dying Earth

What we call - in this collection - The Dying Earth is a collection of half a dozen shared-world short stories published in 1950 by since defunct Hillman Periodicals. It represents among the earliest of Vance's published writings - with disagreement in online sources between whether this was their first appearance at all or whether they had been published independently as short stories in the 1940s while the author served in the merchant marine. In either case - however - they represent a blend of science fiction and fantasy, once common but now almost taboo, and follow the exploits and adventures of a loosely connected cast, seeking their desires and whims while the sun slowly dies, hanging idly in a red sky.

 The series - in addition to blending scientific and fantasy elements - likewise blends elements of whimsy and fairy tale with elements of cynical horror. On the one hand, there exist a race of almost pixie people - the Twk Men - who are of scale small enough to ride the dragonflies and keep watch on the wood: from whom information or favors can be bought with simple things like vials of flower oils or parcels of salt; on the other, there exist the hideous Deodands - muscular humanoids with lusterless skin and slits for eyes, described such that I personally pictured a hairless chimpanzee with the erudition of a connoisseur of literature, who hunt and eat humans caught out at night. There are places of beauty - olive orchards swaying in the wind against the backdrop of sunset across a bay - while at the same time, ruins house horrible sorcerers and apparitions against whom villagers bar their doors at night as a matter of simple habit: lest the ghouls and vagabonds enter, steal, and devour. 

To even explore the first story - and spoilers may follow, so those sensitive to them should skip to the next heading - the author immediately displays an ability to blend human emotion while at the same time separating the magic user from modern morality. Turjan both observes beauty in the world, finds love in human companionship, but likewise with zero remorse apart from disappointment of failure watches a living thing, a mockery of a human, formed from a vat by his experimentation collapse in death from its own deformities. His treatment of this scene is akin to a writer who realizes he has misspelled a word and will have to go back and correct it with white out. Disconnection - contrasted against connection - inhumanity with humanity.

From a gamist perspective, several things jump out at the viewer as having been lifted for the original edition of the game - the spell, Excellent Prismatic Spray, comes to mind - and similarly, a curiosity with the one story regarding a character not a user of magic: Liane the Wayfarer. Liane is a traveling adventurer - and seems to embody the modern notion (not OSR) of a Bard. He is skilled, arrogant, handsome, lecherous, deviant, and self-serving - he experiments with magic items when he finds them to identify their uses (an action referenced in B/X examples of play to determine the function and nature of magic items) - but curiously, he seems to die twice: first, to the blade of another character, T'sais - a swordswoman: who does not know magic, but who is protected by it in artifacts - and second, when encountering Chun the Unavoidable (which is my favorite antagonist, and the first true delve into horror, of the series). 

Did Liane miraculously survive the first, to succumb to the second? Did Liane have a charm about him, or a trick, that could protect him from death? Or did Liane's player simply like the concept and re-roll the same character when his first went down? I was hoping to find out - to see whether he made another appearance - but to date, it is not to be.

In any case - the six stories in The Dying Earth are, without question, old school adventures: ones which serve as templates for adventures yet to be written and played.

About Rhialto the Marvellous

Firstly, spell-check is telling me that I need to spell "Marvelous" with one L - as demonstrated. However, Vance clearly and intentionally appears to spell it with two. Perhaps there is significance - perhaps not: however I am aware of the red squiggles.

Where The Dying Earth represents some of the author's very earliest works, Rhialto the Marvellous is among his latest - having been published in 1984 by Brandywyne Books (defunct, subsequently Baen Books): four decades after the initial stories in its shared setting were penned. Like its predecessor, it consists of several shared-universe stories, connected only by the characters and the setting, some of which had appeared in print previously, others of which were original for this tome. Rhialto the Marvellous continues to blend science and magic - however, in focusing on a cabal of magicians, far less mechanism, far less forgotten technology, makes its way into the stories in favor of esoteric and recherché fictional artifacts.

Rhialto the Marvellous, Dust Jacket Artwork, Stephen E Fabian

When reading The Dying Earth, the sense of scale is limited. That is, one particularly powerful wizard in The Dying Earth - Mazirian the Magician - is quite inflated with himself that he can commit to memory five or six spells at a time. In an OSR sense - this places him at around fifth level. This is an achievement in the Basic line, but represents only the beginning of a character if compared to the Advanced. The magicians in Rhialto the Marvellous represent the Advanced half of the game. They represent the wizard after the wizard has graduated beyond the dungeon and instead - with a head full of spells and a kit full of magical artifacts - walks across the stars and the fabric of time, itself, to deal with entities beyond the comprehension of mortals. As such, in reading Rhialto, consider that it informs the expected experience - and arguably expected power level - of an N-teenth level Magic User.

Also - it informs GP for XP: each of the wizards lives in a massive manse and has troves of treasure accumulated over the years. Suddenly the "literal tons of gold" argument against GP for XP and the coin-weight encumbrance system seems to reveal its inspiration.

Similarly, of almost immediate observation in reading Rhialto - the tone of the stories has changed. Where The Dying Earth was about exploration, greed, curiosity, adventure: classic pulp - Rhialto reads almost like a dark comedy. Picaresque, to be certain - in (to make a contemporary reference) a Martin-esque fashion, the reader may be expected to enjoy, reading the stories, the practice of divining events to come by trying to ascertain the most unfavorable motive, the most unfavorable outcome, or the most dishonest interpretation of a promise that the characters might reasonably - the character you're "supposed to" like tends to come out on top: but he does so through a comedy of errors. In The Murthe, for example (spoilers for the remainder of this paragraph), only two of the magicians' order seem to notice that they have been ensorcelled and that their biological sex has been reversed. Similarly, in Fader's Waft and Morreion both, the main crux of the conflict could have been avoided if the magicians had simply thought about it. Should we convict Rhialto of crimes he is not here to defend himself for, even when more than half of us have knowledge, kept secret, which implies his innocence? Our colleague, we sent on a recon mission alone - how long should we expect him to be gone before we ask questions? Or should we simply assume we can pursue our own affairs - despite the obvious intrinsic value to his task? As a result - characters fall prey to circumstances that, their lives having been measured in aeons and their proficiency with magic being unmatched in the known universe, they should not have: and a reader begins to wonder how they survived as long as they did with the wits that they display. Thus, the humor of the stories - designed and successful at producing enjoyment for the reader - likewise somewhat works against the verisimilitude.

Of further note - regarding science and magic - the nature of spells is clarified. Magic remains magic, but there is science to it in that magic works according to established patterns which a magician might learn and observe with experience. In Mazirian the Magician, of The Dying Earth, Mazirian speculates that Phandaal - a legendary magician who personally penned over 100 spells - had demons whispering to him when he wrote. In the foreword to Rhialto the Marvellous, this is essentially confirmed - where spells are stated to codes which are heard by living things (some intelligent, some not) which are able to effect the spell's instructions on the world. A hierarchy is given - with easy (read: low level) spells being attributed to frail elementals or sandestins (genie-like spirits compelled to do the will of the magician) and difficult (read: high level) spells being attributed to daihak (intelligent, motivated spirit beings akin to demons or deities). The mysterious nature is not lost - in my opinion - with this revelation: instead, it provides a basis for spell level in a Vancian magical system. Why is this spell level 1 while this other spell level 2? Obviously, it's because the spirit who will carry out your instructions is a different creature - one whose willpower is greater than that of the former.

Regarding the characters - all of them, almost without fail, are self-serving. This departs from the blend of personality that was present in The Dying Earth, where both good and evil - altruism and egotism - might exist in the same individual, producing a deeper personality. This is sacrificed in Rhialto in part to serve the humor, but also - from the perspective of an OSR game - illustrate the departure that a magician might have, the separation between the high level hero and the low level servant or peon, that would be necessary to play the game as a wargame. Your lieutenants may have names - but they may not; your foot soldiers most certainly don't: or, at least, your character is unlikely to care what those names are. When walking the planes or conquering kingdoms - these things become less relevant, less pertinent to the goals of the player and the player character. Also like a player, the characters are overt about it - in Morreion (spoiler), the party states - officially - that their mission to the end of the universe is to rescue their long lost comrade, however consistently and constantly, the wizards - especially Gilgad - ask and inquire and persist about IOUN stones: articles of power which have been, to this point, highly coveted: but the utility of which - why are they valuable apart from their scarcity - is not disclosed. The blatant effect of this, we - the readers - and the magicians, without admitting it - know that the reason they are going is to discover the secret of the IOUN stone: not to rescue a colleague lost to them thousands of years in the past.

The Wizard's Shotgun; K. C. Green

Last spoiler of the review - side note - this is where D&D gets IOUN stones.

Though the capitalization, if I remember right, does not follow Vance's pattern (which I use here) - their function is revealed slowly through Morreion as the stones orbiting the title character, Morreion, are expended, exerting their influence - artfully, having piqued the reader's interest and then fed it to said reader slowly thereafter to allow piecing together of the picture - something which a veteran of D&D will know already. Similarly, the mechanism of their creation? RAW AWESOME. I will not spoil it here. Read Morreion.

Would you pick Dying Earth over Rhialto? In terms of pure enjoyment, yes - however in terms of importance to the hobby and to the genre, no. The two collections and the dozen or so stories serve different purposes, inspire different facets, of the Magic User experience: both of which are enjoyable to read - don't get me wrong - and both of which inform the curious referee or the aspiring player.

Why either? (Or both?)

Mentioned above, villagers bar their doors at night and travelers dare not sleep on the road. Of the implied setting of the original D&D game, commentators on the OSR style have long referenced that the world, itself, should be seen as a series of points of light embedded and scattered amongst chaos, which reigns in the wilderness.

Reading these books will change how you look at "Points of Light." 

Likewise mentioned above, large cities of grand persons and exquisite architecture thrive in decadence among neighborhoods of larger, fallen cities built by grander people and greater architects in ages past and epochs lost. Stepping outside the boundaries of these neighborhoods as pass for cities, the ruin is immediately evident: the treasures of the past are available to be uncovered by the daring. This aspect of the stories illustrates two things:

  1. First, reading these stories will change how you understand the "starting dungeon."
  2. Second, reading these stories will change how you consider the implementation of treasure tables.

Wealth exists beyond measure, built and earned by forgotten ancestors and waiting to be squandered by their sticky-fingered successors: and what of their lost trinkets and articles? How many of these things were common before, perhaps magical - perhaps mechanical: the secret lost with time? The "dungeon" is a window into the past - and is available freely to start, as civilization clings to it as its only connection to its history. What stands between you and all this? Understanding? Courage?

The Dying Earth (Special Hardcover); George Barr

 Lastly, there comes a point where wealth loses meaning. By high levels, wizards live into the eons, and they have had time to acquire all that there is to have - eventually having to adventure far and wide, across the Earth, through time, and around the stars to further sate their desires. This illustrates that a Magic User will supplement the spell allowances of level and class with items, magic items, which - in OSR editions - do not convey experience. Their utility is in their collection and their deployment - and it's OK to Christmas Tree characters (this is not intrinsically a new school idea), however its also not to be necessarily expected of them. No two high level characters are going to be the same - their wanderings and their expeditions will have uncovered different miraculous items, their spell research and their forging of artifacts, different tools. This explains why OSR editions don't give XP for magic items, nor do they assume them of the characters - instead, OSR editions assume magic items will be simply tools, no different than ammunition or rations, to be used inventively and to be discarded when their utility is spent. Worried about too many magic items in the game? Don't - their abundance (and maybe reading these stories) will encourage the players to expend them. Easy come, easy go.

Do these points mean that you have to change your game to match? Of course not. However, to expose yourself to them is to immerse yourself into the universe from which the original authors of the game derived their concept of a magician - and through the lens of which the original designers for the game envisioned the world in which the game would be played. A dozen lessons and more - inspiration and sudden understanding - spring to mind: all of which, or some, or none (at your discretion): free to inspire your game, and your appreciation for the game, for the better.

Be Aware

When I am reading - be it a story or novel - I like to come to stopping points. Either I need a break in the text - a horizontal rule, a chapter heading, a breaking space: something to let me know that the current train of thought has ended and another is about to begin - or I need to finish the story: otherwise, my brain rebels and will on occasion need to re-read or binge in until it finds the closure it desires. This closure can be absent in some of these stories. The short stories are longer than many I have read, and most of them - especially the early ones - do not have breaks. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if you have the time to devote to it - or if you are a faster reader than I am - but be advised: once you sit down with one of these stories, you're in it for the haul.

Similarly - as with many Appendix N titles - Vance's works were written in another time for another  audience. Some of the themes can be rough, some of the expectations derived from another zeitgeist than a modern reader will have been raised in. Personally - I have no problems with this. Most readers, I think, will have no problems with this. The concepts in the game match the concepts in the books - and thus offer counter-illumination - and the writing is fluid, engaging, and intriguing. But from time to time - and this applies to Cugel (see, my forthcoming "part 2" review) more frequently than to the two Magic User collections - subjects broached and actions taken may shock or offend, part of the world-building for a decadent and dying world.

Lastly - and in my opinion - most worth noting: Vance is the source of classic D&D's High Gygaxian prose. People describe Gary as well-read and of extensive vocabulary - true, and his style of communication being on occasion dense or a challenge to divine: this is, I argue, in homage to Vance. Vance was widely read and has a penchant for using one word, a precise word, where a dozen or so would be necessary in "common English" - for that reason, the reader may find himself reaching for a dictionary during the experience. I personally found myself looking words up fairly frequently near the end of the stories - not to laud nor denigrate my own vocabulary - in half for obscure or antique terms, words which have meaning but that Merriam Webster says "Sorry, I don't have this in my online format because no one ever asks for this any more!" and in half for terms that Vance made up. Part of the world building is to invent these places, these things, these concepts - but because of the presentation: be advised - I recommend internet-searching the word and seeing if it comes up in a "Words Vance Made Up" blog post before thumbing through your lexicon.

Further Reading

During his life, Vance was highly prolific - and a list of those highly prolific publications is fairly easy to find:

He was more prolific in the realm of Science Fiction than he was in the realm of Fantasy - so, if you enjoy Science Fiction and enjoy the style Vance writes, you're in luck. Or, might be.

Regardless of genre - some of the pieces, especially the collections, are still in print: others are not and may require a trip to eBay or a well-stocked used book store. This is likely the result of their niche market - Vance is not a household name as, say, Frank Herbert might be (whom I use as an example as Herbert and Vance were friends in life) and the books were written a long time ago. The collection that I read - Tales of the Dying Earth - is in print and available on Amazon: so, at a minimum, the content of this review can be found freely.


Jack Vance, as an author, and The Dying Earth specifically, are called out by Gygax in Appendix N as being inspirational to the game. Surely, Rhialto the Marvellous would have been called out as well - but the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide came out in 1979 - five years prior to Rhialto's publication! With that in mind, it's obligatory - an obligation, mind you, with which I heartily agree - to rate The Dying Earth and Rhialto the Marvellous - half of the Tales of the Dying Earth compilation - as 1: Very OSR.

The Dying Earth is a matchless influence on the evolution of the D&D game - and a priceless inspiration as to how an adventure can both run and make sense. Rhialto the Marvellous is likewise indispensable - serving to elucidate how higher level games might play out and how the influence of power changes a character, isolates them from the mortal section of humankind. I highly recommend both.

Delve on, readers.


Tales of the Dying Earth, The Dying Earth, and Rhialto the Marvellous are copyrighted Jack Vance and to the affiliated publishers of their respective distributions. Cover art for Tales of the Dying Earth by John Berkey. Cover art pieces for The Dying Earth by George Barr and by the Hildebrandt brothers. Cover art pieces for Rhialto the Marvellous by Stephen E Fabian and by Geoff Taylor. The Wizard's Shotgun, retrieved from, is copyright K. C. Green. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeons & Dragons, and D&D and all imagery thereto related are property of Wizards of the Coast.

Clerics Wear Ringmail makes no claim of ownership of any sort to any of the aforementioned media, texts, or images and includes references to them for review purposes under Fair Use: US Code Title 17, Chapter 107. 

The slide-in of Gary... I got from a meme.

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