Turjan’s Tome of Beauty & Horror by Robin D Laws with Ian Thomson
Some Solipsistic Wool Gathering By Way of Introductory Remarks
I have of late grown weary of a certain popular fantasy game that has taken up the bulk of my gaming time for the last few years. Despite many hours of diverting whimsy, I began to look around for something else, a game that would do a similar job to this well-known game, but without its dreary appeals to vulgar materialism. Does it really matter, I wonder, who is stronger than whom? Who more dextrous? Who may wear armour and who may not? More than this, I was tired of the drip-feed of experience and levels, and of a system that measured a person’s place in space in five foot steps, while leaving their place in society to the whims of interpretation.(1)
As a replacement, I had been considering a new musically named game from a certain glacial company, and a recently revised game that shares its author with the product currently under consideration. As well as these, having enjoyed short-run and one-off sessions of the Dying Earth Role Playing Game at Cugel level, I wondered if Turjan’s Tome of Beauty & Horror might provide pepper for my jaded palate.
Due to circumstances beyond my control (an over-fondness for expensive victuals and fine garments is an affliction inherited from my late Uncle Dandy) I had not yet secured the necessary funds to pursue these possibilities when those endearingly naïve fellows at Pelgrane Press offered me this product (and simultaneously The Demons of the Dying Earth, for which see elsewhere) for free in exchange for a review to be placed in this archive. Naturally, I leapt at the opportunity like the proverbial twk man at the equally proverbial Salt Mountain of the Almery Coast.
A Disclaimer for the Cynical
It is worth pointing out that this is the manner in which reviews are administered the world over – Did John Ruskin pay to go to all those art galleries? Was Kenneth Tynan charged for his seat at all those Olivier plays? Did T S Eliot actually buy all those volumes of poetry? Assuredly not! And yet, no one accuses them of temporisation or chicanery, indeed they are regarded as men of wit and distinction.
Anyone who believes this natural order of graft and grandstanding compromises the reviewer’s integrity (more seriously, THIS reviewer’s integrity) is invited to absent themselves from this review at once, and satisfy themselves with the sour ramblings of disappointed fan boys to be found elsewhere in this archive. Those who crave professional punditry from professional pedants are invited to read on!(2)
A Rehearsal of Quotidian Facts for the Literal-Minded
Turjan’s Tome of Beauty & Horror is a 174 page soft-cover book, with a black and white interior printed on matte, uncoated paper. The paper is far preferable to me than the glossy paper of the main rulebook and The Players’ Guide to Kaiin, as I am an inveterate marginal-noter (as the proprietors of second hand book stalls have often pointed out, frequently in terms ill-befitting their noble trade) – the matte paper I can scribble upon and erase with impunity; the gloss paper leaves sad memories of previous gaming sessions that no amount of rubber can dispel.
I shall look in more detail at the style and art of the book later in this review.
The Meat of It (Being a Summary of Contents and Some Critical Commentary)
In these situations, waffle and prevarication are to be avoided in favour of precise and exacting assessment, chapter by chapter. Walk with me now as we take slow steps through this volume, pausing to examine controversial points and to gaze in abject admiration at flourishes of genius.
Chapter One – Creating Turjan Level Characters
It is my opinion that The Dying Earth Role Playing Game did not serve Turjan-level play as well as it did Cugel and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Rhialto-level play. This is addressed here by considering the needs of Turjan-level’s darker mood through limiting the more farcical styles of Persuade and Rebuff – they are still available but not present in the tables for rolling random styles that any point-conscious player will consider. Further, characters receive immunity to Pettifoggery, to avoid the comical exchanges that dominate play at other levels.
Consideration is given to various character types common in other fantasy games (such as the well-know game discussed above), very different to the interchangeable rogues of Cugel-level and magical savants of Rhialto-level. Several example characters show how PCs can be produced to fill the roles of more-traditional games – a wizard, a thief, a fighter and a “generalist” type that could be a ranger or trader.
An interesting addition to character generation are Goals that provide motivation and ambition for Turjan-level characters – to solve magical puzzles such as the creation of vat creatures, to discover the secrets of the ancient past or to destroy their enemies. This gives players something more than the farcical demands of impecunity and arrogance to drive their adventures.
There is a brief sidebar concerning “Conventional Persuasion offering the option to abandon the Persuade/Rebuff mechanic in favour of more conventional round-the-table-badinage. I would be extremely unwilling to do this. In my opinion, the Persuade/Rebuff system is one of the game’s real strengths. I would hope that in a Turjan-level game PCs would use their wits and their tongues as often as their swords to defeat their foes, and removing this option would leave the game feeling a little hollow.
Chapter Two – Running Turjan-Level Adventures.
This chapter provides excellent guidance for creating Turjan-level adventures, challenging these powerful characters and the role of humour in Turjan-level games. Optional rules peg experience to goal-achievement rather than the tagline system in the main book, to avoid too much emphasis on the performance aspect of play.
To be quite honest about it, I have never been totally satisfied by the tagline system as it stands. Too often, taglines fall flat and enthusiastic but (frankly) dull players are penalised for lack of comic timing or stentorian grace. Generally speaking, it has been better in the games I’ve run to reward improvisational comedic ejaculation while making the taglines so infuriatingly precise that the challenge is to manipulate events in such a way that an apparently absurd or eccentric statement is apropos. Neither of these preferences would be suitable for Turjan-level play, and so the alternatives given here are much appreciated.
Key elements of Turjan-level adventures are enumerated in a style similar to that in the main rulebook. Some elements are retained, others are dropped or de-emphasised, while new elements are added. As in the original rulebook, this is brilliant stuff, amongst the finest advice for FRP adventure design I have read. These pages would benefit any FRP GM, in particular those running high-fantasy adventures in that popular game whose name I continue to avoid mentioning.
A minor sour note is struck in the somewhat cursory look at Clark Ashton Smith in the sidebar on page 21. It is certainly worthwhile directing Dying Earth GMs to this author (one of my personal favourites), but this sidebar seems overly concerned with disparaging what he his not (Tolkienesque) rather than celebrating what he is (pure genius). It is quite wrong (IMO) to say that his style of writing is virtually non-existent today: authors such as Micheal Shea, Micheal Moorcock, China Melveille and Jeff van der Meer are clearly influenced as much by Smith as by Vance, and considerably more so than Tolkien.
The space given over to snide remarks about snooty elves and Tolkien’s imitators might have been better used recommending stories such as “The Abominations of Yondo”, “The Isle of the Torturers” and “The Death of Malygris”.(3)
Chapter Three – Arcane Items of Terrible Might
This selection of magical items provides extra puissance to PCs, but also serves as a selection of short-term goals. Together with the usual rundown of what the item does and some historical notes, each is given rumours as to its current location. Player characters are encouraged to let their GMs know that they wish to pursue these items, or the secrets of their manufacture, forming the basis of character goals discussed in chapter one.
The selection is satisfyingly idiosyncratic, and generally avoids the trap seen in other fantasy role playing games of being a listing of martial adjuncts. Certainly, there are several of these – such as the Sword of Contention, the Ring of Surrogate Health and the Ring of Fire(4) – but most deal with information gathering and magic use. There are a few eccentric additions – such as Carrier Beetles and Yimbolo’s Closet, the uses of which I shall leave for the reader to discover for themselves – which typify this game’s imaginative approach. Several deal with the creation of vat creatures, a signature Turjan-level concern.
Chapter Four – Noble Qualities and Obscure Merits
This is a chapter of Tweaks suitable for Turjan-level characters. Tweaks were introduced in The Excellent Prismatic Spray, vol 1, issue 2, and expanded upon greatly in Cugel’s Compendium. I have not purchased Cugel’s Compendium, as I felt at the time that Tweaks added an unwelcome level of fiddliness to a system already blessed with numerous baroque flourishes associated with ability styles (such as special abilities, refreshment conditions and trumps) that were difficult enough to keep track of.(5)
For the benefit of those with only the main rules, Tweaks add bonuses to character actions in specific situations, and are associated with ability styles and skills. For example, if you have the Lawyerly Rebuff style, you could take the tweak “Understanding the Small Print”, which imposes a levy of one on any attempt to convice your character to sign a (doubtlessly disadvantageous) contract.
Looking over the Tweaks provided here, I can see how they could add a great deal of interest to characters and provide opportunities for role playing enjoyment. They are also varied enough to be interesting, giving lie to my initial impression that they simply provided boons and bonuses (which some, of course, do). Perhaps I when my family weaknesses are in remission, I will look again Cugel’s Compendium.
Chapter Five – Occult Footnotes and Marginal Scrawls
At nearly 50 pages, this is the most voluminous chapter in this volume, including as it does over 100 new spells. It introduces the (optional) idea of unperfected spells – unstable theoretical magics that are not part of the 100 or so spells perfected by the great Arch Mage Phandaal. Risky to cast and hard to find, they represent another goal for Turjan-level characters to strive for.
This chapter also includes further magical specializations, rules for protective wards and revised rules for creating vat creatures (a simpler system having been published in The Excellent Prismatic Spray vol. 1, no. 2, this represents the “official” rules).
Chapter Six – Acquaintances of Cruelty and Renown
This chapter enumerates statted-up GMCs for use as acquaintances, adversaries and casual encounters. There is a great deal of extrapolation from minimal source material, and while one may quibble about how these statistics are arrived at, in the absence of any real information regarding, eg, the Sage of Miir, one can only be grateful someone has done the work for today’s busy games moderator.
Chapter Seven– Rumours of Impending Hazard
As further evidence of the player-led activity encouraged by the Dying Earth RPG, this chapter of adventure seeds is aimed at players rather than GMs. So, players browse the section at their leisure and inform the GM as to which rumour they wish to pursue. The selection here is fine as far as it goes (which isn’t that far, given the ten pages allocated), but there isn’t really anything particularly startling or unique.
I can understand the necessity to provide something more detailed than the goals provided in chapter one, but I wonder if this space might not have been better used to expand more on the locations of items, possible locations of rare unperfected spells and detailed examinations of using goals in play. The selection presented is rather mundane in comparison to the high standard this game sets in other areas, and to material that has been presented in The Excellent Prismatic Spray.
None of these rumours are fleshed out and I’m not sure that they are superior to ideas that an imaginative GM or player could come up with on their own account. Another idea – if you REALLY want to empower the players – might have been guidance for players to make up their own rumours similar to the adventure design checklist.
Chapter Eight – Beyond the Dying Earth
This chapter provides capsule descriptions of otherworldly realms that Turjan-level characters may visit. These include Pandelume’s Embyleon and various alien worlds that might or might not be the lost Moon. These are very similar to the adventure seeds in Chapter Seven and suffer, in this reviewer’s opinion, the same weaknesses.
Chapter Nine – Outbursts Pithy and Poignant
I will not rehearse my problems with the tagline system again here – refer to my commentary on chapter two for details thereof. All that said, the selection here is rather variable and many are of a humorous nature that would break the dark mood the game intends. Given that taglines are considered optional for Turjan-level play, I’m a little surprised to see eight pages of them – a single page would surely have been plenty. I would humbly suggest that this space could have been used developing chapters seven and eight.
Indices of Forbidden Knowledge
Backing up the publication by way of index are listings of the new spells and items, giving a summary of their purpose, a page reference and various mechanical details. These pages are an extremely useful addition, particularly during character generation when players can be overwhelmed by the options available. I’d love to see a comprehensive listing, including spells and items from the main rulebook and other supplements. Perhaps such a thing could be made available on the Pelgrane Press website or in a future edition of The Excellent Prismatic Spray?
Some Commentary on Execution OR The Devil is in The Details
The layout of Turjan’s Tome continues in the style of main rule books, although there seems to be less white space here. The patterned header and thick rule at the bottom of the page hold the text in place, and the type is clear and unfussy. This volume is let down somewhat (although by no means fatally compromised) by minor layout and typographical gaffes, in particular paragraphs that are not indented and the occasional reference to the dreaded page XX. I really don’t like the style of the greyed-out tables – but perhaps this is down to my own highly evolved aesthetic sensibilities rather than any real problems – and the rules in these tables creep distractingly close to the text, sometimes to the point of striking through the descenders.
The art ranges from the superb to the barely adequate, traversing the over-familiar from previous Dying Earth publications (but who can forgive the publishers from wanting to reuse the work of the marvellous Ralph Horsley?) and teetering at the abyss of the rubbish with the rather slap-dash work of C Reid. Occasionally his illustrations show some imagination (Gurshan’s Demonic Presence on p 112 is quite effective, for instance) but too often his illustrations are poorly composed and under worked.
I was extremely impressed by the use of copyright free images (from the Dover range? I suspect so), which have also been used to great affect in previous DERPG publications. When seen in this context, one has to wonder why no one ever thought of it before. Cheap and effective, they put some of the commissioned images to shame.
The writing is clear, for the most part, and rules matters are well-explained. The tome lapses occasionally into inappropriate humour, particularly in the use of wise-cracking footnotes that have become a signature conceit for Dying Earth RPG supplements. It is worth pointing out that the original novel The Dying Earth did not use these footnotes, being something Vance developed later in his career and I wonder if their use here is strictly appropriate? Additionally, Vance himself tended to use them for (albeit, often whimsical) anthropological and linguistic asides, and not to undermine the authority of the main text.
General Thoughts By Way of Summary
Like other DERPG products (notably The Players’ Guide to Kaiin) Turjan’s Tome of Beauty & Horror encourages players to move the game ahead, rather than follow the lead of the GM. In practice, this requires more effort than one usually gets from FRP players, most of whom (in this writer’s experience) are happy to sit around and let the game wash over them like so much flotsam.
In the short play test adventure I ran(6) we were certainly not able to test this form of player-led play, but I am confident that with the correct sort of encouragement players will come to appreciate having more control over the direction of the game. One thing I noticed was that large pools meant lots of rerolling, although once again this was partly a by-product of the brevity of the game, but I would suggest GMs institute the Purist Option discussed in the main rulebook.
Taken as a whole, Turjan’s Tome is an impressive adaptation of the essentially whimsical toward a more traditionally adventurous FRP model. In doing this, the authors have managed to avoid dispensing with the baby while draining the bath water, and the DERPG still stands distinct from more traditional fare. In the near future I was considering getting away from fantasy all together in my games, but this volume has given me so much food for thought it would be criminal not to clear my plate – as my Mother used to tell me: “There are role players starved for inspiration in D&D clubs, you know.”
1. Not that I mean to unnecessarily mock this game: it is a fine game with much to recommend it, one that I have played at great length. But one can have too much of a good thing, and only the vulgar are satisfied by the same delights again and again.
2. The attentive may notice this disclaimer is also appended to my review of Demons of the Dying Earth, below. Rather than cavil at the repetition, why not revel in the opportunity to enjoy the text again?
3. Interested readers are directed to my own review of the collection The Emperor of Dreams located on the internet here: http://www.zone-sf.com/empdreams.html.
4. Presumably not that eluded to by Mr John R Cash.
5. Indeed, it has been said of The Dying Earth RPG that the introductory game (available for download from the Pelgrane Press site here: http://www.dyingearth.com/qsrules.htm) is superior to the full game due to the absence of the confusing details. In the opinion of this writer, however, these details are important to game flavour and providing extra benefits to the PCs.
6. Too short to really call this a play test review – we did not really play to the games strengths in my linear one-shot.