3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

Not too long ago I expressed my ambivalence regarding Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The guy is a heel, and as such he’s not always fun to follow for me. Still, the tales are demonstrative of Vance’s cleverness, if not always that of their titular protagonist.

I already suggested this, but it’s worth expanding upon: for those DMs and GMs and writers out there, much can be gleaned!

There are indeed ransomware-inspiring ratmen to be found in Vance’s Dying Earth, as well as an enchanted, slumbering giant ever-ready to destroy the town at its feet should the villagers slacken their vigilance. Those are but two examples. Here are three more you might want to filch for your game or else draw inspiration from in some form or other:

1. Gems are boring

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s fun to loot precious stones from baddies, that’s true. But when your players are just picking’em up and basically auto-selling them in the first city they come to, eventually the jewels cease to sparkle.

Why not spice things up, then? At one point, Cugel briefly joins the employ of a small company that sends divers into a slime pit to retrieve the scales of a godly denizen of the Overworld. These scales, depending on the body region they originated from and their condition, are worth hefty sums to a wizard who is buying them up as artifacts. You may not need the weird slime-diving or vague origin story of said scales. They don’t even need to be scales (though they can be fun as they may be shiny and colorful and can vary greatly in value) – you may use ivory or monster bones, rare crafting materials like ironwood or mithril (which is overdone but people recognize what it is), or some other artifacts or uncommon goods.


2. Do the Worm


Another job Cugel takes up at one point is that of “worminger” for a vessel upon which he wishes to procure passage. What is a worminger? Well, this ship is carried forth by great sea worms. They must be carefully tended to and managed by wormingers, who clean them, feed them, bait them, and steer them among other things. Maybe the winds have died in your campaign world, or maybe you just want a cool boat that’s towed by worms or some other giant aquatic creatures.


3. Geas some palms

One popular way to coerce players or NPCs into undertaking quests or tasks they normally wouldn’t is by means of a geas. This is basically a high level charm spell that forces the target to do or not do something.

But how about spicing that up a little bit and building a little character or adding some roleplaying options (besides a boring wisdom saving throw) into the equation?

In Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is burdened with an alien parasite named Firx. Basically, Firx’s job is to make sure Cugel does the job he was sent out to do. There are times when the creature suspects Cugel is shirking his assignment or dawdling. When this happens, the little beast flexes its barbs, which are wrapped around Cugel’s guts. At these times, the protagonist either has to give in to Firx’s wishes in order to stop the pain, or else convince it that he’s pursuing the best (or only) course of action available.

And so I’ve come to find this – that even if you don’t like Cugel and don’t particularly find his stories fun, there’s still a lot to draw from them and a lot of good ideas and quality storytelling to appreciate.





12 thoughts on “3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

  1. I’d like to note that part of the point of gems is that they represent compact/dense wealth. Adventure land is flush with liquid wealth, leading to ridiculous inflationary prices. Coinage is heavy (one person can only carry enough gold to purchase one suit of plate armor!) but gems can fit in your pocket and be worth anywhere from 10 to 1000s of gold. They can actually become the preferred medium of exchange in a system where a DM actually enforces encumbrance rules.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. True – good point. But even in that case, they have a very bland and overdone kind of flavor. Maybe not as overdone as elves or Cthulhu, but still. ;)

      “You get 100 gold, 20 silver, and three opals worth 50 gold each” may as well just be “You get 252 gold” if you don’t play with encumbrance rules (in my case as DM I was pretty lax; would track the weight of basic stuff like armor and large goods, but money, rations, ammo, etc I didn’t care to bean count).

      If you’re stricter with the rules or if someone cares to use gems for crafting or some such, then maybe they’re a little more interesting or practically useful. Still, items like rare monster scales or relics can also be kept small and light, and I think they are more interesting than jewels. Though once again the play style of the particular DM is important here – whereas some will just let players unload all their loot at any generic city shop, others may require the players actually find someone who wants to buy monster scales.


      1. I never tell my players what gems are worth unless they try to get them appraised; I’ll sometimes make them haggle if they’re trying to barter, but they can guestimate what they’re worth sometimes by how much XP they net from them.

        I do agree, though, that weird and interesting treasures that the party might want to hold onto for utilitarian or sentimental reasons is always better than generic coins or gems.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Indeed! I don’t care for telling the players the value or non-obvious properties of anything (ie “You find a +1 sword” or “You find a magic sword.”) either. But I guess it comes down to the play style of each group and DM, like pretty much everything else.


  2. Heh. Those are great ideas. I’ve used the Firx option on my players before, and they just HATE it.

    I second Cirsova’s comment regarding jewels as the preferred exchange medium. Silver and gold, whether coins or bullion, are HEAVY. Dealing with that has lead to some interesting situations, not to mention guarding it.


    1. Thanks John!

      Yeah, that’s true. Personally I find that accounting for coinage weight/mass to be tedious, and I think the friends I’ve played with would quickly bore of it unless I overhauled currency/pricing. I mean 1000 gold for many adventurers is nothing, yet that’s really a lot of coins when you think about it. Would be a pain to haul around pouches or backpacks full of them. Using jewels to barter or as an alternate denomination of sorts is an interesting thought.


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