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.


  1. I feel like when he wrote liane he must thought he created too much of a motherfucker and wanted to kill him twice


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