Posts Tagged ‘Jack Vance


In AD&D You’re Always Stepping on 1d100 Woefully Encysted Creatures

cr0m’s recent comment to James’ post about Grand Motholam reminded me of a Gygaxism that I find utterly mind-blowing. He notes, justly, that:

In Vance’s stories, the spells available are much more wondrous, powerful or ridiculous than Sleep, Charm and Magic Missile. You’ve got incantations like the Spell of the Macroid Toe (victim gets a giant toe!), The Spell of Woeful Encystment (victim is in stasis deep beneath the earth), the Spell of the Sequestrous Digit (caster’s hand appears elsewhere, usually poised for groping someone attractive and/or picking their pockets). Is it really memorization/resource management that makes magic boring?

I quibble that The Spell of Woeful Encystment is, in AD&D, a ninth-level spell named Imprisonment. But yes, simply lifting a spell from Vance is boring in its own way. Gygax’s unique genius comes in this added detail:

The reverse (freedom) spell will cause the appearance of the victim at the spot he, she, or it was entombed and sunk in the earth. There is a 10% chance that 1 to 100 other creatures will be freed from imprisonment at the same time if the magic-user does not perfectly get the name and background of the creature to be freed.

Perhaps Maldoor will contribute a calculation of exactly how many creatures have already been encysted, on average, at each and every spot in the Prime Material Plane where you might choose to cast an incompletely-specified freedom spell. I will merely note that what these rules say about the world –  that wizards of the 18th level or higher have been sealing people in small spheres far beneath the earth for so many aeons that now the main problem is losing track of which particular one you’re looking for – that the globe is an over-stuffed filing system for people who rubbed Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter and his buddies the wrong way –  is why session reports of a peyote/crack/LSD binge are indistinguishable from just playing D&D.

For my money, imprisonment is as brilliant a riff on Vance’s themes as any of Gene Wolfe’s, that other acolyte for whom The Dying Earth was the Book of Gold. In The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe tells us that no delver can turn a spadeful of earth that does not contain some artifact of the past, and his viewpoint character Severian so takes it for granted that every mountain there is has been given the Mount Rushmore treatment in some past age that this fact is never directly stated. Which is awesome and all, but is it mundane of me to be even more amazed by the suggestion that, armed with my trusty polyhedrons, I could determine just how many artifacts there are in each spadeful?

EDIT: To avoid the promulgation of error among those who might not read the comments, Eric writes there:

Oh, Tavis! That isn’t Gygax’s genius at all! It’s pure Vance. When we see Cugel the Clever get the spell of forlorn encystment backwards in The Eyes of the Overworld, the ancient earth coughs up dozens of time-lost encystees.

Oops! While I’m doing my penance and re-reading Tales of the Dying Earth (with the fitting Brom cover instead of the out-of-place Berkey one, natch!), y’all can discuss whether this means that the idea of a reversible spell is also a lifted Vancism.


Fantasy Fiction: Rhialto the Marvellous

By reason of special factors (which lie beyond the scope of this present exposition), the magicians of the day were a various lot; gathered in colloquy, they seemed an assembly of rare and wonderful birds, each most mindful of his own plumage. While, on the whole, lacking the flamboyant magnificence of Grand Motholam, they were no less capricious and self-willed, and only after a number of unhappy incidents were they persuaded to regulate themselves by a code of conduct.

—Jack Vance, “Rhialto the Marvellous”

Jack Vance is best known among D&D players for the magic system that bears his name. In his Dying Earth stories, magicians wrestle potent spells from ancient librams into their brains. Fans of Vance’s work attend more to his imagination, his wit, his flair for sardonic dialogue and his spare, elastic prose. The three stories compiled as Rhialto the Marvellous give us a full dose of both categories; the book is chock full of earthy, damaged magicians frittering their lives away beneath a dying sun.

Vance’s stories certainly entertain on a sensory level. He sketches portraits of bizarre landscapes with only a few words, many of them obscure, archaic or freshly minted. But while his mastery of language is a great strength, it’s his grasp of character and theme that give his stories backbone. Behind their fanciful names and mannered diction, his characters are authentically selfish, venal and eccentric, and their sparring is both engaging and to the point.

“… What of the clevenger?”

“Pay it no heed. Do not approach the cage. Remember, its talk of both virgins and wealth is illusory; I doubt if it knows the meaning of either term.”

“Just so, sir.”

The three stories in the collection share a theme; the characters are the vapid descendants of greater generations, and they squander both their talents and their inheritance on inane plots and frivolous pursuits. Vance grew up during the Great Depression and struggled to be involved in the Second World War; the last story in the collection, “Morreion,” was written at the close of the Vietnam War, while the others were written during the “me years” of the ‘80s. Regarding the stories in that context, it’s easy to read the critiques of American society embedded in the text: feminism and gender theory; corruption of the rule of law; the predicament of veterans when the public chooses to forget about the war. Scratch the surface and there’s strong stuff underneath.

Aside from the magic—which is, itself, curious and entertaining stuff—and the tales’ thematic weight , I strongly recommend these stories to old-schoolers for the characters. They are the platonic ideal of OD&D PCs: self-absorbed, cowardly, greedy, and dreamily unconcerned with morality and ideology except when such matters impinge on their activities, yet strangely compelling by dint of their surface qualities: wit, eccentricity, verve and panache. If only all of our adventurers were so engaging!

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2022

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