The Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol 1 No 3
The Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol 1 No 3 Capsule Review by Colin D. Speirs on 18/06/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Not a life-or-death item for the Dying Earth but definitely a useful resource for the GM a little whose imagination is running a little dry. Expensive but for those that need it worth the price.
Product: The Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol 1 No 3
Company/Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Line: Dying Earth RPG
Page count: 73
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Colin D. Speirs on 18/06/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Horror Far Future Comedy Other
Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol 1 No 3
ISBN 0963998029 73 pages £8.95/$12.95
Review by Colin D. Speirs firstname.lastname@example.org
[Disclaimer - I had articles published (and and one twice refused, even after I had rewritten it to the editor's suggestions, churl, refused) in Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol 1 No 2 and I have had work illustrated by Dave Bezzina, one of the artists used herein]
"The Dying Earth RPG" is a game that demands cunning, flexibility and downright sneakiness in both Gamemasters and players if they are to properly emulate the heroes and anti-heroes that populate Jack Vance's far future Earth. In these stories wit usually triumphs over force, either by sheer chutzpah, or by those relying on force metaphorically tripping up over their own feet, or even words, as Cugel found when he misspoke a spell and found him divested of riches and abandoned in a wasteland he had just spent a whole book escaping from.
To aid the Gamesmaster, since gamesmasters have a disadvantage in such an endeavour being beset by usually at least three of the most twisted and lateral minds humanity produces, i.e. role-players, Pelgrane have been producing their own in-house magazine, containing articles, adventure ideas, spells, encounters and even advertisements for goods and services, any of which may be appropriated by the besieged GM or may even spark ideas of his own.
Contained in this issue are articles from Robin Laws and Paul Rhoads, examining the game philosophy being the Dying Earth RPG and a project to publish Vance's work as he intended respectively, after these, and absenting the "Reader's Letters" and occasional adverts the rest of the material is more directly game related.
Fully fledged and detailed scenarios are represented by M.D. Jackson's "The Gold and Amber Cabal" and Lynne Hardy's "The Glass World", the former for mid-power characters who are ready to take the dangerous step up to take on the mantle of "Arch-Magician". The opportunity comes via a circle of Arch-Magicians, the Cabal of the title, who will teach the characters the requisite knowledge if they prove themselves worthy by performing certain tasks that will winnow the suitable candidates from the blowhard pretenders. This is not precisely a single scenario but as a framework with specific events that the GM and players can build on with sub-adventures as the players strive to complete each task. This also allows for a lot of "down-time actions" as the characters seek to fulfil scholarly goals instead of the usual acts of covetousness. Since Arch-magicians are people who assume a certain lofty standing in the community the tests are not merely feats of prowess or power, but include more subtle yardsticks with which to gauge the prospective applicant and as such M. D. Jackson has captured the feel of the aging Earth well.
The other detailed scenario, "The Glass World", is not only a wonderful adventure that might easily be transposed to other fantasy game systems if the GM so desired, but also one that can surreptitiously inserted into an ongoing adventure whilst seeming to be nothing more than local colour, allowing the GM to gain a little more campaign for his terce. Like many Vancian encounters manners and wit here are more important than many players are accustomed to allowing for and so it could be used as an excellent learning exercise. The scenario has excellent illustrations and character information as well as some select taglines to be used.
One of the locations used in M.D. Jackson's scenario, the Tanvilkat valley, is the subject of a gazetteer by the sage Grashpotel, as translated by one Peter Freemen. This description of the valley, a kind of Valley of the Kings for the Scaum region, is nicely illustrated both in plan and, for certain parts, detailed perspective, covers the tombs through the geological ages from its earliest origins to its current status as a vinyard of wide renown, although the vines have their roots in a most morbid mulch. Although mainly written as a travelogue in the Vancian style, there are ideas supplied for adventures and the inhabitants are given in game terms making this very useful as a setting and as such can be used to flesh out the "Cabal" scenario.
Geographical details are used to provide scenario ideas for games are also presented in "The Regions of the Sousanese Coast" by Lizard, again part travelogue part adventure seeds, and "Inspiration from Representation" by James Maliszewski, Ian Thompson and by the ubiquitous Lynne Hardy where the authors have taken a single illustration by the excellent Dave Bezzina as the basis for descriptions of differing locations and the opportunities that can arise from them. Lizard has provide not only the colour text for the geography of the coast, but also the creatures, resources, items and scenario opportunities available there.
One of the problems for any GM of "The Dying Earth RPG" is that the characters will most likely be a suspicious lot, and are likely to treat even the most harmless encounter with a shy herbivore as a potential battle of wits with the GM. One aid to the GM is the "Cozenor's Expedients", to be uncouth, confidence tricks with which to capture the player, who is likely to be on the look-out for anyone who could even spell mountebank, never mind one who practices the mountebank's craft. The two from Lynne Hardy are reasonable enough,and, if played correctly, they should obey the cardinal guide of the con man that the mark has to think that they are conning you. The third is perhaps more subtle in its plan, but likely to be more fraught for the planners to bring off due to the vagaries of players and the GM should be prepared to handle this without threat of "railroading" the player characters.
Some RPGs have a wonderful concept that appeals to prospective GMs but can be actually quite difficult to execute as a campaign. "In Nomine" from SJG has suffered from that problem and "Dying Earth" can present similar problems as many of the heroes are loners, not given to sociability, save to use the contact to wreak some plan against another. Steve Dempsey has used the character of Iocounu the Laughing Magician and the events of the Cugel stories to provide GMs suffering from "campaign block" with a suggested long "adventure arc" that adventures of the GMs own devising can be intermixed into but whilst maintaining the feel of a Jack Vance story, in particular that of a long term goal bedevilled by short term expediency. The included adventure which introduces the characters to their task is not only well written, but definitely has the Vancian baroque and occasionally grotesque atmosphere to it.
The "arc" is spread over multiple sections though it is slightly unclear as to whether the three sections of the adventure referred to in the introduction refer to three sections for the entirety of the campaign or whether there are three parts to the first adventure of the campaign. After speaking to the editor I find that the campaign is intially to be presented as three adventures split over at least four magazines, but that later articles may revisit the campaign and present adventures to insert into the campaign or even to insert into it.
The rest of the book is interspersed with taglines, readers' letters, mock advertisements and even the description of a bath formed in the living rock. James Webster is to be congratulated not only for this, but also for the humourous footnotes that he inserts into the text in his role as Editor. The presentation is clean and well-laid out and the art is either superbly selected from clip-art or drawn in a fitting style by the artists.
It is nearly impossible to find any fault with Excellent Prismatic Spray 3 as it is an excellent resource for Gamesmasters and as that is well worth the price, which would be expensive for a magazine but is fair for a supplement by the same professionals that brought you the game itself. For the size and page count it compares well with some of the softback supplements for other RPGs and the quality more than justifies the expense. It is not essential to play, however, and is squarely aimed at at Gamesmasters, not players and in that sense its appeal may be narrower than the mainstream rules and supplements. If your Gamesmaster is of gentle, but straitened, origins it would be a knavish player who would purchase this for him, seeking to curry favour.