Thursday, June 07, 2012

Giants in the Dying Earth

Once upon a time there was a great gaming magazine called The Dragon, published by a long defunct game company called TSR.  Although its main focus was D&D, in its heyday The Dragon was the definitivee magazine for the entire RPG hobby. Man, those were the days.  During this long-gone golden age there was a regular feature in the mag called "Giants in the Earth".  The title is a Biblical reference, in Genesis chapter 6 these mysterious giants in the earth father a race of half-humans, "the same became mighty men who were of old, men of renown". The articles, which ran from about the mid-twenties to issue fifty-something, as I recall, did not deal with literal giants. Rather they statted up legendary figures from the popular fantasy novels of the era. Nowadays you couldn't get away with that in a legitimate journal, what with our society's growing obsession with intellectual property.  But those were different, weird times.

Anyway, today I wanted to share with you selections from a couple installments in the GitE series, particularly the two instances where Jack Vance's characters are written up in D&D terms.  Since Vancian magic is and pretty much always been a hot button topic in D&D fandom, I find it interesting how some actual Vance characters, and, more importantly, their magical abilities, end up translated into D&D terms.

That's a friggin' Napoleonics
game featured on the cover.
Truly, 'tis a lost era.
First up is Cugel the Clever, star of the third book in the Dying Earth series, Cugel's Saga.  He also appears in Eyes of the Overworld, I believe.  I've never read that one.  Cugel's uncredited (probably by Lawrence Schick and/or Tom Moldvay) write-up in The Dragon #26 (June '79) pegs him as a Thief level 14 with 18 Intelligence and Dexterity.  I believe this article might be the first installment and it really sets the high-power standards for the series.  Also in the article is a version of Karl Edward Wagner's Kane, done as a Fighter 30/Magic-User 20/Assassin 14 with 2 eighteens, a seventeen and a nineteen in his stats.  Anyway, dig this neato passage:
Cugel once had access to the notebooks of lucounu, the Laughing Magician, and managed with great effort to memorize three spells. These are: Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell (treat as a hold person), Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth (by which the caster can be neither seen, heard, nor smelled) and Thasdrubel’s Laganetic Transfer (or The Agency of Far Despatch, which places a hold person on the target until a demon comes and carries him away to some specified far land). Unfortunately, Cugel doesn’t always get the spells right and there is a 50% chance that any spell he uses will backfire and cause the opposite of the intended effect. Every time he blows the Laganetic Transfer he himself gets carried away somewhere else, which is probably how he came to the D&D universe in the first place.
Dig those neato spell names.  Cugel's peek at Iocounu's spellbooks is one of the origins of the thiefly Read Scrolls ability, along with similar shenanigans from the Grey Mouser, if I recall correctly.  The other thing to note here is that not only are the spell descriptions super-brief, they have no level assigned to them.  For an oddball NPC thief that may or may not even have these spells in memory when encountered, this isn't exactly a big deal.  But I always look at articles like this for things to steal for my campaign, so as a kid this lack of detail annoyed me.

Issue #29 follows up with stats for Iucounu the Laughing Magician himself.  This wee git is represented by Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay as an MU 20 with an Int 18.  More importantly, despite his level he will only know five spells when encountered, rolled up from the following kickass chart:
1-2: The Charm of Forlorn Encystment: this is the same in all respects as the 9th level magic-user’s spell imprisonment.  
3: The Charm of Untiring Nourishment: by speaking this charm, the magic-user need not breathe, eat or drink while the spell lasts. Duration: 1 turn/level. Casting time: 2 segments.  
4-5: The Excellent Prismatic Spray: This is the same as the illusionist’s 7th level spell in all respects save casting time, which is only 3 segments.  
6: Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell: a paralysis spell. Range: 1”/ level. Duration: 1 round/level. Area of effect: 4” diameter sphere. Casting time: 1 segment. Saving throw: neg.  
7: Gilgad’s Instantaneous Galvanic Thrust or the Instantaneous  Electric Effort: this is the same as a lightning bolt in all respects save  casting time, which is only 1 segment.  
8: Houlart’s Blue Extractive: this spell is used to remove a being from its refuge or concealment. If the target fails to save, it will simply fly from its hiding place and land at the feet of the caster. Any being so treated will be stunned for 2-12 rounds. Range: 1”/level. Casting time: 5 rounds. Saving throw: neg.  
9: Houlart’s Visceral Pang: the recipient of this spell will be totally incapacitated by excruciating pains in the abdomen for 1-3 rounds. Range: 9”. Area of effect: 1 creature. Casting time: 2 segments. Saving throw: none.  
10: Lugwiler’s Dismal Itch: the recipient of this spell is cursed with a continual itching over every square inch of his or her epidermis. When in this condition, armor class is two levels worse, all fighting is done at -5, and spell use is impossible. Range: 6”. Duration: until dispelled (remove curse will also work.) Area of effect: 1 creature. Casting time: 3 segments. Saving throw: neg.  
11: Phandaal’s Critique of the Chill: this is the same as the cone of cold spell in all respects save casting time, which is only 3 segments.  
12: Phandaal’s Gyrator: the unfortunate target of this spell is levitated into the air and spun about at any speed the caster desires. At the fastest possible rate of spin, the spinner will take 10 hit points of damage per round due to the centrifugal forces involved. Controlling the spell requires great concentration on the part of the caster. If the concentration is broken, the spell dissipates. Range: 6”. Duration: 1 round/level.  Area of effect: 1 creature. Casting time: 5 segments. Saving throw: none.  
13-14: Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth: the caster of this spell is rendered invisible, inaudible and odorless; virtually indetectable save to true seeing, a robe of eyes or a gem of seeing (and touch). Any attempts at offensive action on the part of the recipient instantly negate the spell (as with invisibility). Duration: 1 round/level. Area of effect: creature touched. Casting time: 2 segments.  
15: Rhialto’s Green Turmoil: the recipient of this spell is overcome with a violent nausea which totally incapacitates him or her for 2-20 rounds. Range: 5”. Area of effect: 1 creature. Casting time: 2 segments. Saving throw: neg.  
16: Spell of the Macroid Toe: in this specialized polymorph spell, the big toe (or similar extremity) of the creature affected grows to the size of a small house. Range: 4”. Duration: until dispelled. Casting time: 4 segments. Saving throw: neg.  
17: Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere: this combines the effects of the magic-user’s spell anti-magic shell with those of a cube of force. It is a near-total (but non-mobile) protection for the caster. Duration: 1 round/level. Area of effect: 10’ diameter sphere. Casting time: 9 segments.  
18: Spell of the Slow Hour: this spell is similar to the magic-user’s spell, slow, except that it is twice as efficient, and slows the affected creatures to one-quarter the normal or current rate. In all other respects (range, duration, etc.) it is the same.  
19: Temporal Stasis: this spell duplicates the 9th level magic-users’ spell time stop in all respects save name.  
20: Thasdrubel’s Laganetic Transfer or the Agency of Far Despatch: when this spell is uttered, the recipient is bound as if by a hold person spell. A nycadaemon appears (i.e., is gated in), grasps the held recipient and flies him or her either to a point designated by the caster or 10-100 miles in a random direction. Range: 3”. Area of effect: 1 creature. Casting time: 1 round. Saving throw: none. 
This part of the article was obviously written by Law Schick, as that guy is the only person I ever heard of who ever really cared about segments of action.  Well, maybe Len Lakofka liked 'em, too.

Some, off the top of my head uses for the chart:
  • Spells for Encounter Critical, which eschew levels already.
  • Third level spells for a Holmes-only campaign.
  • Spells that appear on ancient scrolls that pre-date spells being divided up into levels.
  • Random crap bad guy wizards can throw at the party, the same sort of jerks who use the coolest random chart ever written.
Any other ideas?


  1. Well, these are clearly partial contents of the Ecumenical Compendium of Alvatea, more ominously known as the Cerulean Codex, the most direly comprehensive collection of spells, deliberately lost during the ancient purges and long-sought by both the curious and the cruel.

    Also my current campaign macguffin, so thanks a bunch for the post!

  2. Anonymous5:11 AM

    The names of the three spells Cugel reads out of Iucounu's books, like the magician himself, are straight out of Eyes of the Overworld. So are most of the others. You should read it, definitely.

    (Personally I always felt like Cugel's Saga was mostly a rehash of the better Eyes of the Overworld.)

  3. If Cugel had INT 18 I think he would have lived a much happier life.

    1. If either Cugel or Iucounu have WIS over 8 I will want to know what the author could have been thinking.

  4. I think that underlines how developers of early D&D were fans of Jack Vance but never really got what he wrote. My impression is that Cugel is archtype of con artist that thinks he is smart and suave, not some sort of master thief and genius. If I had to give him stats I would say his 3rd level because his been around and give him charisma of 13 or other limit with slight bonus to fleece the rubes, other stats slightly below or lower than average, 3-12 hit points and hand the character sheet to your deftest player (the type of player that survuives several sessions with 1 hp character).

  5. I genuinely dislike the aftereffects of this article series. It put all literary and mythological characters it covered on the highest reaches of the AD&D power scale, with superhuman attributes, high levels and abilities the rules explicitely recommended against giving to the PCs. Here is why that's all screwed up:

    1. For the most part, these are very unfaithful as adaptations. They are clumsy attempts at shoehorning characters into the game system (whereas the D&D magic system, as implemented in early editions at least, is a good example of adapting Vance's ideas about magic into a collaborative game).
    2. The writeups disregard the internal power dynamic of the literary sources these characters come from. Cugel is a great idea because he is the archetypal low-level, low-Int Thief: he tries schemes way beyond his abilities, and he fails, fails and fails again. He is a nobody. 14th level? That's how Cugel might imagine himself, maybe.*
    3. They set a bad precedent, suggesting that low-level characters, characters without high ability scores, or, actually, characters who aren't decked out in super-effective magical bling can't be relevant and interesting heroes. The message is either "you can never be as cool as these special guys", or "beg, cheat and min-max to be as cool as them". Either way, the result is game-unfriendly bullshit.

    This article series, IMO, was, and remains downright harmful to the understanding of D&D's poer levels and the meaning of character abilities. Bill Seligman's equally misguided Gandalf was a 6th level Magic-User at least makes for a good game: it misrepresents Gandalf, but it lets low-level characters kick ass and shine; it makes your 4th level hobbit Fighting Man into Peregrin Took and your 6th level human Fighter into Conan.
    * Idea for a Cugel one-shot: give these stats to one of your players. Secretly keep a real sheet with a 3rd level, 9 Int Thief on it. You've now got the beginnings of a game that might play out like the Cugel stories.**/***
    ** Don't really do it if you want to keep your group.
    *** Footnote of a footnote, it has recently occurred to me that Dan Duryea (from Scarlet Street and Ministry of Fear) would be the perfect Cugel the Clever casting choice. He is smarmy, he is sleazy, he wants to get by without honest work, and ultimately, he is an absolute lightweight. Has the perfect looks for the role, too.

    1. I always thought the reason they gave NPCs high levels in those giants in the earth columns is entirely to make it hard for your asshole PCs to kill a beloved literary icon.

    2. *I love that idea about two sheets, though I am not exactly sure would I want to be that player and as DM I am afraid my players would device something as equally amusing in revenge, they are not smart and devious bunch but they are smarter and more devious than I.

      I agree on developements following this series of articles sort of poisoning the well as it got worse year by year, "you will never be as cool as Drizzt, Rikus, Raistlin or some other cool setting NPC" was one of the many reasons I did not pick a d20 for long time.

    3. It was only 5th level actually! That article is a good tonic for this Giants bullshit.

    4. That is sobering.

      As unrelated side-course to discussion I remember reading some musty White Dwarf article decades ago about Moria that statted whole Fellowship too, issue was in my my friends big brothers rpg materials pile, most striking thing was that Gandalf was a 8th level cleric and not a magic-user.

    5. Cole: It is a potential motivation, and it's the TSR guys digging themselves even deeper by inventing plot immunity. :D

    6. Oh god yes. Was John Henry part of this series too?

    7. Yes, John Henry was written up in GitE.

  6. I subscribe to the theory that Cugel the Clever has that name for the same reason that Little John is called Little John.

  7. "Cugel is a great idea" --> "Cugel is a great example".

  8. Wow, Jeff, you haven't read Eyes of the Overworld? That's the best thing Vance wrote. You should totally read it.

  9. As it happens, "Eyes of the Overworld" is also all about Cugel. Just a heads up on that. I'm actually currently re-reading all of the Dying Earth books. Good stuff. The entire collection can be picked up on Amazon in one volume for something like $8.


  11. Anonymous10:44 AM

    Have you ever read the amazing Dying Earth RPG from Pelgrane Press?

    1. Joseph9:44 AM

      Pity, it's amazing. If there were house fire (gods forbid!) and I only had one rpg to save, that would be the one.

  12. Cugel *is* clever.

    He survives on his wits and not because he is loved by the gods or he is lucky - he experiences extraordinary bouts of good and back luck pretty equally.

    I would give him an Int 15 or 16 but in vanity he thinks he is an Int 18. I would have him as a 4th lvl thief at the beginning of EotO rising to 7th/8th lvl thief and 1st lvl MU by the end of Cugel's Saga.

    The intelligence of the inhabitants of the Dying Earth appears to form two peaks at Int 4/5 and Int 15/16 rather than one peak at Int 10/11. There are an alarming number of eloquent ingenious psychopaths in the world and Cugel holds his own amongst them.

  13. actually answering your question, I would put these in the library the players heist, list them on cargo manifests to encourage the players to try a heist, have mountebanks in the street offer to cast them (when all they really do is throw a little glitter and smoke), threaten NPC informants with them and leave their recognizable aftereffects as evidence of magical crimes.

    And I love that it's Felojun's SECOND hypnotic - that's an adventure seed right there, for anyone with an interest in first editions.

  14. "actually answering your question"

    Thanks! It's always interesting when the comments go off in a totally different direction than I expected, but it's also nice to get a direct answer to my query.

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  16. Lawful Neutral3:18 AM

    I always thought it was a running joke in the books that Cugel didn't understand his nickname was sarcastic.

  17. temple of solution wins the thread. Statting up the great priest omigodo right now. Except maybe I'll put the silent -t back in, and he's the priest you never see.

  18. So that's where the whole read scrolls/use magic device thing came from - good to know. These would be awesome statted-up and used as alpha cards for the Gamma World game. It would do a great job of reflecting the one-shot nature of these unique spells.