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Thursday, 4 June 2020

A whole heron's nest of untidy ambiguities!


When the waters became calm, Ys of the Ages, Ys the Beautiful, Ys of the Many Palaces, was sunk beneath the sea. In later times, when the light was right and the water clear, fishermen sometimes glimpsed the wonderful structures of marble, where nothing moved but schools of fish.


If you haven't read Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy then, really, what are you doing here? Vance was a huge influence on both fantasy fiction and fantasy roleplaying, the Lyonesse books are a delight worth returning to again and again, and in point of fact they'd make a great open-world gamebook in the Fabled Lands style.

I don't have the rights, so we're plumb out of luck as far as the gamebook goes, but Lawrence Whitaker of The Design Mechanism has just published a Lyonesse RPG based on Mythras, the current incarnation of the game formerly known as Runequest. If the video whets your appetite, you can buy it on DriveThruRPG. (Full disclosure: I was one of the writing team and penned the sections on Ys and the Ska. But I'd be recommending it anyway, because it's Vance.)

The new RPG offers an exhaustive (500-page) guide to the world, but what if Mythras/RQ isn't your beaker of the blushful? Once you're read the Lyonesse books you'll no doubt have your own take on how to run it. There was another set of roleplaying rules published in 1999 by Men in Cheese, If you want to focus on the activities of sorcerers and their associates, Lyonesse would be a great fit with Ars Magica, I'd love to see a Powered By The Apocalypse version, and you might even use Dragon Warriors. Whatever your favourite system, just dive in. It's a world that is guaranteed to catalyze your creativity.



'I could cite other such relics. Those which are not lost are revered and guarded with care. They might be difficult to obtain.’

Queen Sollace spoke decisively: ‘No good thing comes without hardship. That is the lesson of life!’

‘How true,’ intoned Father Umphred. ‘Your Highness has succinctly clarified a whole heron’s nest of untidy ambiguities.’

19 comments:

  1. I’d earmarked this as a possible Xmas present for my brother (who loves Lyonesse) but now I know that you’re involved I’m sold... as I read someone comment on the internet somewhere “everything Dave Morris writes is gold”.

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    1. Ooh, that's kind of them. (Maybe they're thinking of my 1990s James Bond Jr gamebook, As Good As Gold.) I only wrote 17 pages of Lyonesse, so don't buy it to get a "Dave Morris RPG" -- but it's the work of lots of talented folks, and if you like Jack Vance that's reason enough.

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  2. Point taken, Dave. I've read quite a few Jack Vance as I think I've mentioned, but not Lyonesse. It's on the list.

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  3. I admit that I've never yet read either the Lyonesse trilogy nor any of The Dying Earth stories/novelettes. I am an RPG heretic. Even nor it's not really my cuppa. I find myself more interest in the world of Warhammer, which is more inspired by Europe of the 14th-16th centuries. In my last campaign I started as a Dung Collector (that's an actual Career. Aside from the basic starting stuff you get a cart, a shovel, dung and a bag of maggots) and took that guys all the to being a High Priest of Sigmar who ultimately stepped down to become a Witch Hunter 'cause they weren't burnin' them witches fast enough to his mind.

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    1. And a bag of maggots... that’s hardcore! :-)
      I must confess I need to get into Vance too. The whole notion of “Vancian magic” heavily influencing RPG magic system design sounds intriguing as well.

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    2. Well, it didn't really influence it in a really "good" way. That silly-ass D&D crap about how you spend like an hour "memorizing" a spell, cast it and then completely forget it afterward? That's "Vancian magic." Meaning if you wanted to potentially blast your enemies with a ball of fire twice, you had to "memorize" Fireball two times. Somehow.

      It was fine for 1975 or so (and clearly still is good enough for many given on popular/dominant D&D is and remains), but there's other, better ways of doing that stuff.

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    3. 99% of Western gamers and readers seem to prefer fantasy settings based on medieval Europe, hence the popularity of D&D. My own introduction to RPGs was through this quote from Prof Barker in 1975: "The author can only say that he enjoys societies which are not simply reruns of the usual Graeco-Roman or Mediaeval fantasy mythos, but which present something really different: something akin to stepping off an airplane in Bhutan or Medina, rather than in familiar old London or Paris."

      Most of Vance's work is much more original than any other fantasy fiction, but I think he probably wrote the Lyonesse trilogy at the urging of his publisher. As it's set in a medieval (actually Dark Ages) European world, it was of course the most popular of his books, but pride of place on my shelves goes to the Dying Earth, Showboat World and the Gaean Reach series.

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    4. We're gonna need a bigger shelf...

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    5. Story of my life, that, Andy.

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  4. Yes it’s a convenient game mechanic but doesn’t seem all that “realistic” if that’s not an absurd term to apply to made up things! Start a new thread on this one Dave? Perhaps you can elaborate on the thinking behind Jewelspider magic and “hard” vs “soft” magic as they say in the fantasy fiction world...

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    1. I looked up "hard" and "soft" magic just in time (the Wiki entry is marked for de;etion) but I'm not sure I'm any the wiser. What gamers call Vancean magic is something Gygax swiped from some of the early Dying Earth stories. It's not even how all magic works in the Dying Earth, and Lyonesse is not set in the same universe -- or even genre -- as Dying Earth in any case, even though both mention sandestins, which are entities that can be used to effect magic.

      What Gygax seems not to have realized is that what works in literature, where the author controls all we see, doesn't necessarily work in the more rigorous framework a game demands. Magic is on my mind as I refine the Jewelspider rules, but I've been looking at folklore rather than novels for inspiration.

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  5. Yes I wondered whether that was the challenge in Jewelspider- how to make the Magic vague, mysterious, atmospheric and mythical yet have clear enough rules for a game. From memory Maelstrom (another British classic) has a fairly open system which I feel probably places too much stress on the player and GM to fully interpret and realise the magic. But then it’s an inherently low magic setting so perhaps that works okay. The other challenge I suppose is game “balance”. How to make spellcasters useful and fun to play but not too overpowering, particularly at high levels. But I’m rambling now. I suppose an awful lot depends upon the setting, creative players and a fair and sensible GM.

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    1. It relies on trust and mutual improv, that's for sure. A real balancing act. When I think of the notable wizards we've had in games -- few and far between, but there was my Tao-following illusionist Master Bao in Paul Mason's Outlaws campaign, Tim Harford's Vancean semi-mountebank Flamstead in our latest Jewelspider campaign, and Steve Foster as the original Cynewulf in Dragon Warriors -- it could easily have gone wrong if the players had pushed it into power-gaming. I still think the best games have few PC wizards (or none) but to every rule there's the exception. In our current campaign, every player-character is a wizard. Somehow it works.

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  6. Cynewulf Magister! I suppose I should have guessed he was a player character. He’s never appeared in a game of mine but has loomed large like an ominous presence in many a campaign... a bit like Bargle the Infamous in basic D&D. Can you share some of his derring do’s?

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    1. Even the biggest baddies need an origin story. Those who have trembled at his very name (as we have) in later campaigns, or seen the white owl that symbolizes his power, would hardly guess quite how small he started out. I remember one incident where, having got hold of a one-use Animate Bones spell in a book, he took a flensing knife to a dead body so as to clear off all the meat & gristle before he turned it into a skeleton bodyguard. I can't see that inglorious moment going on his CV.

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  7. Now that’s a villain! Or perhaps just a stone cold pragmatist? Twyin Lannister skinning and gutting a deer has nothing on a bit of Cynewulf vivisection!

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  8. The Lyonesse trilogy is one of my all time favourites; so laden with horror and delight, playfulness and erudition*, whimsy and melancholy. Westeros without the unnecessary gore; Faerie forests into which one could wander, and the next day emerge in the Legend of Dragon Warriors !

    *And the best use of footnotes outside of Discworld.

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    1. I often secretly feel Jewelspider could share a border with the Forest of Tantravelles, but I'm enormously flattered you should say so, John.

      While yielding to none in my admiration of Jack Vance, as far as footnote mastery goes I think Susanna Clarke might pip him at the post with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

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    2. Truth accepted ! SC does take the footnote laurels from JV I have to admit.

      Now what I would have liked to see was a debate between some of JV's characters and Messrs Strange & Norrell. There would be some delicious dialogue !

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