Monday, 27 January 2014

Review: The Gaean Reach (Pelgrane Press)

Years ago, someone named Quandos Vorn did something terrible to you, and you've sworn to destroy him. Since that dark day, you've prepared yourself to hunt and confront this dread individual. Now you're finally ready. 

Pelgrane Press has a new RPG out, set in Jack Vance's Gaean Reach universe. I couldn't be more invested in a game, so it was difficult to write an objective review of the pre-order PDF! Luckily, I found a lot to like with only a few reservations. 

Notably, i'm judging this game by how well it reflects the original stories, since they're among my favourite novels. That said: given the violent, mannered atmosphere and the simple rules, I'd be tempted to use this for a game set in 1840s Santa Fe...

Most of the potential readership of this blog probably know Jack Vance as the writer of the Dying Earth series, an enormously influential fantasy short story sequence which had a huge influence on the early development of Dungeons and Dragons.

I'm afraid to say I've never gotten around to reading the Dying Earth, although I intend to as soon as possible. For me Jack Vance means science fiction: Araminta Station, the Demon Princes sequence, Ports of Call, Showboat World, the Alastor Cluster sequence. These books bear little comparison with other fiction (maybe Fritz Leiber's dry wit, maybe Ursula Le Guin's strange cultures, maybe Cordwainer Smith's wild re-imagining of the human condition...). In the Gaean Reach, characters devote themselves to politesse, artistry and mordant wit, along with one final motivator: revengeRevenge comes in all shapes and sizes in Vance: from Kirth Gersen's sociopathic quest against the crime lords who destroyed his village in the Demon Princes through the very personal collision between family members in Trullion: Alastor 2262, right up until Myron Tany's frankly laughable vendetta against his great aunt in Ports of Call

In Vance's novels, to quote the RPG: "heroism unfolds within a spare, and unsparing, moral vision."

For myself, I have a vendetta against Pelgrane Press. Specifically, they keep taking my money. Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu and Ashen Stars are all fine games - i'm an unashamed fan of the GUMSHOE system. I've never actually read or played the Dying Earth RPG, so this is my first experience with the Skulduggery system (this game combines the two).

After completing this review i'm going to locate Robin D. Laws by searching through an intricate archive of punch cards. I'll pursue him all the way to the interstellar masquerade down by Sailmaker Beach... where I'll probably die, because he's considerably more erudite than I.

EDIT: So a few times in the review I brought up formatting and proofreading errors. Chris Huth got in touch with me a few hours after I posted this and I quickly established that 80% of those problems were only happening in Nitro Pro 7 and not, say, Adobe. I didn't think to check because I've never had that kind of problem before. However! I feel I ought to state that those formatting errors might be unique to the 8 people reading this game on a weird piece of business document formatting software, and I've changed the review below to reflect that.

Only losers cry out for fair play. - Baron Bodissey

The pre-order PDF I received is an attractive 100 page document with a small amount of black and white art and a wonderful 1950s 'Space Princess'-type title font. The internal artwork would fit nicely into an Alan Moore comic - while it isn't entirely to my personal taste, it does capture the atmosphere through neat vignettes portraying violence and adventure. Yes, I would have liked colour illustrations. Yes, I also like pre-orders costing less than £10, sooo...

After a brief introduction, we enter a section called Building Your Vengeance Seekers.

The Gaean Reach immediately makes a controversial choice in naming the object of the character's revenge. Quandos Vorn is the target; the exact nature of his crimes are up to the players to decide. The book provides a simple and evocative set of questions to guide the collaborative invention of this villain, along with some notes for keeping the whole thing in the genre. This also determines why they haven't killed him already, the nature of his organisation, and certain aspects of his personality. By the end of character creation the players and the GM should have a strong idea of who Vorn is and why they want him dead.

Character creation is semi-randomised in an entertaining way (I intend to steal it for my next Cyberpunk 2020 game). Players draw 3 cards, each one with a different set of abilities they've acquired through their life. Each stage of this process is designed to be evocative and create a sense of the character as it develops, and players can swap their cards as they go along (there is a more conventional character creation ruleset near the back of the book). Characters are defined by their revenge quest - like Kirth Gersen in the Demon Princes, they might struggle with having any life outside it.

This system would work really well with my current DnD group, half of whom are allergic to the mechanical side of character creation...

The Rules of Reprisal are essentially a cut down version of the GUMSHOE rules presented in other games. As usual, they've been modified to fit the genre - I particularly like the ability 'Nose for Mendacity;' so much more Vancean than "Bullshit Detector!" Politesse ('Punctilio!') and 'One-Upmanship' are both important skills, naturally. 'Scuttlebutt' helps players find rumours of "colourful or appalling crimes." Characters use Investigative skills to pursue clues - in GUMSHOE, they always succeed in finding something that will drive the story forward. The Gaean Reach has the simplest explanation of this system yet, with some detailed (and necessary) explanation of different sorts of clues. 

The Skulduggery system interposes itself into GUMSHOE through the use of taglines. Taglines are snippets of pre-written Vancean dialogue distributed among the players, that can be used to in-game advantage. Some of these tidbits are very funny, some of them positively mundane. They ought to serve to keep the dialogue suitably mordant and dry. A few of my regular players (who don't know Vance, as far as I know) could certainly get into the wit and wordplay of the thing! 

Players use Taglines to gain Tokens which can be used to buy new investigative abilities, refresh resources they have already spent, or deal with Obstacle Costs. Without spending tokens to defeat Obstacle Costs, villains may escape vengeance or the party may be stymied in their investigation. I could have done with that mechanic in my Star Wars SAGA game (the bonfire of villains!), although I wonder if overuse of the system could frustrate players - which is partly the goal: heightening "the reader’s sense of vicarious frustration and preventing the story from reaching a premature conclusion." 

It's only upon re-reading these rules for the review that I realised the game doesn't really have an equipment section. A combination of abilities, spends and player description covers most of that. This is in keeping with the spirit of the books. As someone who grew up running Cyberpunk 2020 and is now playing Shadowrun, it's all a bit alien to me, but i'm sure I'll get over it! Here, the player's resources are personal - their skills and their wit(s).

Give me pseudo-lepidoptery or give me death!

The Gaean Reach has the simplest explanation of the GUMSHOE rules I've yet seen. Combat is fast and loosely described. The Gaean Reach setting includes some incredibly lethal personal weapons whose power is somewhat ameliorated by "fortunate avoidance," an Obstacle Cost that protects player characters. As with all GUMSHOE games, combat seems to be more about driving the story forward than threatening the player characters. Player characters can probably take a few hits from a melee weapon before risking defeat, but it takes considerably more than that to kill them. All sorts of spends and tokens exist to keep them alive and further their personal story.

Following the main combat rules there are simple guidelines for vehicle clashes and a variety of environmental hazards. The few tables are riddled with distracting formatting errors.

. . . when land is vast and easily available, as in the broaching of a new continent or a new world, nothing can keep different sorts of people in close contact. They migrate to new places and particularize, whereupon languages mutate, costumes and conventions elaborate, aesthetic symbols take on fresh meanings. - Baron Bodissey

A Mordant Future covers the Gaean Reach setting through multiple eras and across many planets. It provides a brief rundown of planets from the novels - a few paragraphs each, where the bizarre names prove just as evocative as any extended info-dump - and an introduction to all the lovely vocabulary in Vance novels (pirates called Starmenters, a police force called the Whelm...).

Following this, a GM section provides lots of very specific tools for running a game based on reprisal, based on schemes and counter-schemes. There are some ideas for bringing together a group of misanthropic vengeance seekers and weaving their stories together, along with some (short notes) on alternative campaign styles. This entire section is brief and on point, like the entire book (which is shorter than many Pelgrane supplements, after all). 

Like most Pelgrane games, the book ends with an adventure. In this case, it's called the Cerulean Duke (a name that sounds more like a prog-singer than a Vance character, but I like it!). It features a maniacal villain, "monstrous pseudo-arthropods" and lots of opportunity for different social spends. The illustrations and tone of the piece reminds me of old Marvel Star Wars or 2000AD Johnny Alpha comics as much as anything else. There's plenty of evocative description and a neat twist at the end. 


The Gaean Reach sets out to do one thing - cover a Jack Vance-style vengeance plot. It does this very well, providing the tools for a fast-moving game built around collaborative plot creation and world-building. It avoids all sorts of things - equipment rules, detailed character generation, spaceship rules of any kind - in favour of a Kirth Gersen-esque focus on a single story arc. The rules exist purely to propel the players from the beginning of their shared quest to the final end of their live-defining vendetta. It even chooses to name the object of the vendetta in order to draw people into the shared story.

Judged according to its goals, it succeeds. The rules could serve other games, especially something based on 1960s noir characters like Parker, but they aren't really meant to. As the book points out, Ashen Stars does more conventional GUMSHOE space opera in a more detailed, more varied, bigger way.

The biggest flaw of the pre-order PDF is in proofreading. The text needs a thorough re-formatting to make tables properly comprehensible and remove distracting typographical errors. I'm pretty sure this will have been achieved by the time I receive my physical copy, because Pelgrane don't normally have problems on this front. 

As a society matures, the struggle for survival imperceptibly graduates and changes emphasis, and becomes what can only be termed the quest for pleasure. - Baron Bodissey 


  1. Thank you for your review - we've corrected typos in response to feedback. We always put our books on pre-order in PDF form for exactly this reason. Love all the covers!

  2. No problem :). I've since had a chance to actually *play* the thing and I remain just as impressed!

  3. Hi, good review, came across the RPG as it's today's Deal of the Day on DTRPG. I'm now intrigued to read some of Jack Vance's sci fi taking place in the Gaean Reach. Could you recommend one of his books, if I could only read one?

    1. Thanks :)

      I'm a big fan of the Demon Princes series itself - The Star King is a great accessible introduction both to Vance's science fiction and to the game. I also have a real soft spot for Trullion: Alastor 2262, which is sillier, weirder and more idiosyncratic.