By Robin D Laws
Any game design that starts with me reading an enormous stack of Jack Vance novels is one after my own heart. Before re-acquainting myself with his classic cycle of novels set in the far future Gaean Reach, I assumed that Pelgrane’s companion to The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game would use its rules—or rather, the streamlined and reconfigured version of them that now appears as Skulduggery.
Reading the books, including the Demon Princes and Alastor series, as well as Ports of Call/Lurulu and such standalones as Maske: Thaery and The Night Lamp, I realized that, despite the many similarities between Vance’s fantasy and SF settings, a different underlying structure was at work here, one that would require another core rules set—one that, fortunately, lay to hand in convenient GUMSHOE form.
In both the Dying Earth and Gaean Reach, characters speak to one another with an elevated wit, encounter horror and beauty in equal measure, and embody the eternal selfishness and cupidity of humankind. Though a mordant irony suffuses all of Vance’s works, the space opera titles concern themselves less with the constant one-upmanship and reversal found in the three mature works of the Dying Earth (Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.) The lead characters of these books are scoundrels, nearly as deserving of comeuppance as the antagonists they strive to outwit. Their schemes and plots take place under the rules of Swiftian satire. As readers, we are as amused to see their fortunes overturned as rewarded. The Skulduggery core resolution system, with its rolls and rerolls, emulates the dynamic of constant reversal found in these books.
The Gaean Reach books, on the other hand, extend to the reader a more traditional sense of heroism. Their self-reliant protagonists are sympathetic heroes whose success we root for. The villains earn our hatred, though varying degrees of vicious psychopathy and contemptible pettiness. The self-interested, caviling types of the Dying Earth appear, but as secondary characters placing minor obstacles in the heroes’ paths. Nearly without exception, they draw us into the action with a simple device. The villain wrongs the hero; the hero seeks vengeance. At a midpoint in the action the hero may suffer a single, mammoth setback, which we suffer alongside him. Showing his resolve, he perseveres, and, by following a trail of clues to the villain, whose identity and location are generally obscured to him, achieves the retribution for which he, and we, burn.
This is not a structure of constant reversal, of dueling scoundrels. It is a story centered around investigation, which may be interrupted by scenes of action and danger, sometimes to the great detriment of the protagonists. That is to say, it’s GUMSHOE.
All along Pelgrane-in-Chief Simon Rogers and I assumed that this project would entail some crossover between the company’s two house systems. But instead of GUMSHOE-flavored Skulduggery, the end result revealed itself as Skulduggery-flavored GUMSHOE.
It wouldn’t feel like a Vancian setting without the sometimes florid, sometimes terse, always barbed repartee at the heart of his work. So the first Skulduggery import had to be the tagline system, which rewards the player with tokens for adroitly deploying supplied lines of Vancian dialogue. This system encourages players, including those who otherwise wouldn’t try, to speak in this heightened lingo. Although the results are inevitably less polished than on Vance’s pages, the tagline process reliably succeeds in evoking that spirit—even in players who think they can’t do it, and without the boost wouldn’t let themselves try.
In Skulduggery, the tokens you earn for tagline use buy you ability refreshes. They do this in The Gaean Reach, too. But that can’t be their only function, because GUMSHOE characters don’t deplete their pools as quickly or constantly as their Skulduggery counterparts, especially during a scenario’s investigation-heavy stretches.
Adding a new currency, the token, to GUMSHOE allowed me to solve other design challenges. Gaean Reach guns instantly kill on a single shot. This runs counter to the roleplaying tradition of the extended fight sequence, in which life ebbs away in increments. No one wants their characters to die after a single unfavorable roll. Likewise, many plots end prematurely when heroes can kill their enemies with the same solitary die result.
As one would expect, Vance writes his way around the lethality of his setting’s weaponry. He constructs his situations so that his vengeance-seekers don’t immediately meet and shoot dead his main bad guys. Henchmen and alien creatures die by the drove, but the primary antagonists elude their fire…for a time.
The game emulates this narrative convention by requiring you to spend additional tagline tokens to gain story permission to shoot key antagonists. On the flipside, you can spend tokens to explain your way out of situations in which your enemies ought to be able to shoot you dead.
One way to keep a game currency scarce is to give the players lots of ways to spend it. As in the original Dying Earth RPG, tokens also function as experience points, which you can spend to gain new abilities or add to the ratings of those you already have.
This dovetails with another import from the Skulduggery incarnation of the Dying Earth rules: a lightning-quick character generation process, in which a set of randomly distributed cards defines the characters’ abilities and outward personae.
On-the-fly, players can then spend tokens to fill out crucial but missing abilities, especially the investigative ones. (A backstop process makes sure that someone has a needed ability even if no one has any tokens to spend.) Buying an ability shared by no one else costs less than adding someone else’s existing specialty to your character sheet. This wrinkle prevents spotlight hogs from generalizing their way to omni-competence.
Along with a simplified ability list, these changes make for the most streamlined, newbie-friendly iteration of GUMSHOE yet. I’ve configured this version like this because the game’s default premise activity—pursuit of a terrible enemy who has wronged each member of the party—assumes a finite series, which ends with his climactic defeat.
(As the word “default” implies, we also include options to continue past the nemesis’ destruction, or to adopt alternate frames.)
As a side-effect of this choice, those hankering for an instant-start GUMSHOE with a collapsed ability list now have a game tuned for convention runs—presumably ones in which the PCs avenge themselves not over the course of a series, but in four fast, fatal hours.