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.




3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

The Overworld and the Undertale


As I make my way through the Dying Earth stories, Jack Vance remains one of my newly discovered favorite authors. And yet, I didn’t enjoy Eyes of the Overworld overmuch, and I find Cugel’s Saga thus far to be the same. Still, there are multiple layers to this.

First off, why am I not a big fan of Vance’s Cugel stories? Jesse (in a separate conversation) puts it nicely:

Cugel is a dick. And not one of those guys who’s a dick but then actually has a heart of gold, a ‘la Han Solo. For example, in one incident, Cugel is interacting with some clam-men (yes, they’re dudes who live in clams). They play a trick on Cugel by “gifting” a shirt made of water, which holds together initially, and then…falls apart and drenches him. He retaliates by killing one of the clam guys, who places a curse upon Cugel with his dying breath.

Cugel also abandons smoking hot babes to servitude and death, and murders (or arranges accidents) for various wayfarers he encounters when he can profit by doing so. And he is remorseless for all of these misdeeds.

Now admittedly there is some good fun in some of this. It’s satisfying to see Cugel outsmart even bigger heels than himself. But it does get tiresome to follow the adventures of a d-bag. He often gets some form of comeuppance, but I’d be happy to see him finally bite the dust. Vance’s first Dying Earth book contained several interesting and heroic (or at least sympathetic) characters. I’d have preferred to read more about them. Cugel is all well and good for a few tales, but two novels all about him just feels excessive.

Why do I keep trudging through, then? Well, why did I make myself read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series? Maybe I’m an idiot.

Actually, there’s still a lot to appreciate in the Cugel books, even without really liking the protagonist. Vance’s writing style and technique remain masterful throughout, and I love reading through his descriptions and dialogues. I haven’t learned so many new words in ages! Furthermore, the Dying Earth itself remains a fascinating setting, full of wondrous and memorable characters, artifacts, and situations.

For any DMs out there, these books are just overflowing with ideas ripe for the plucking. How about Magnatz, for example? A small town sits beside a mountain range and a lake. Long ago, a wizard cast an enchantment to protect the town from the terrible giant Magnatz : so long as a Watchman is posted to look out for the return of monster, the town will be safe. The townspeople don’t realize, but Magnatz is actually asleep at the bottom of the lake. You can probably guess what happens after Cugel (thinking he is being Clever) accepts the role of Watchman.


This is just one interesting situation of many. And so I’ll keep reading. But I’m looking forward to being done with Cugel.

In other news, I was able to breeze through Undertale pretty quickly the past ~week. In case you aren’t familiar with this one:

The creator is a big Earthbound fan, and it shows. The music, graphics, and tone of the game are largely reminiscent of the SNES SMAAAASH-hit. It may not look it, but Undertale is able to adeptly hit alternatingly silly, serious, and creepy notes and that really makes nailing it down a challenge. On the surface I suppose I’d call it an RPG, but many of the traditional RPG elements are stripped away or turned on their heads. I don’t want to give away too much here, as I think the discovery involved in this one is a big part of the fun, but I got through it without gaining any EXP or LVLs. Also there are a lot of dogs, if you’re into that.


The bottom line is that Steam and the opening up of the indie game market has been a tremendous boon for gamers. If you’ve got any interest, I highly recommend Undertale.




The Overworld and the Undertale

Into the Dying Earth

It’s been a long time coming – I’ve finally gotten underway on Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth.


Having sampled the first entry of his Demon Princes series and the standalone the Gray Prince, and noting that he’s perhaps best known for Dying Earth…well, I’ve wanted to read it for quite a while, and it’s been perched near atop of my queue for some time now. But I kept veering off to read something less widely-reviewed or topical of conversations being had within the online SFF community. No further delay can be abided!

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of Vance’s four Dying Earth books – The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rialto the Magnificent. The contained stories take place on an ancient, decaying Earth far in the future. Although related to and maybe overlapping with the “post-apocalyptic” tag, these tales properly fall into a subgenre named after Vance’s creation – “dying earth.”

Vance’s Dying Earth draws heavy inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith’s contribution to the genre in the Zothique cycle. I haven’t read any of his stuff yet, but soon enough.


What I have read of CAH’s work suggests that he’s another one of the greats that’s fallen into unjust obscurity. Together with Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was a contributor to the Cthulu Mythos and one of the “big three” of Weird Tales magazine. If cosmic horror is your jam, he’s required reading.

I believe Kaiju is going though some of Smith’s material now. For my part, I’m hoping soon to dig into Zothique – the tales of an earth on its last legs. Technology has been lost, the sun has dimmed and reddened, and horrors roam the world. Sounds fun.

So far this is also the flavor of Vance’s Dying Earth. Ghosts and demons abound, and men scrape for wealth and power. Technology is lost and magic, while common, is on the decline. As for horrors, well.

Chun the Unavoidable is a scary guy.

The Dying Earth and Zothique make me think of Final Fantasy VI. Though the SNES classic initially presents more of a post-apocalyptic world than a dying one, there are many similarities.

FFVI’s protagonists encounter all manner of terrible and demonic creatures; abominations; cultists; crazed sorcerers and evil horrors. So too is the world littered with bits of forgotten and ruined technology and proofs of lost magic and powerful artifacts. Espers take the place of gods and demons, though ultimately in a sadder, more servile role.

Image Source


After the collapse of the floating continent and Kefka’s rise to small “g” godhood, the world is changed. The seas become blighted and the land wastes and new terrors are unleashed upon the earth. Strange cults arise. A horrible demon even roams the skies.


The reach of the dying earth subgenre extends far and is observable in all manner of succeeding media.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Jack Vance and the Dying Earth are cool. Clark Ashton Smith is cool. Final Fantasy VI is cool. And you, friends – you are cool.




Into the Dying Earth

Spreading the (SFF) fever

Last weekend I met up with an old Japan-days buddy of mine, so my wife could take some belated wedding photos for him and his better half. Said friend is also a gamer of sorts – some of the video variety, and he also has a bit of D&D experience under his belt. He’s an amateur writer who I think has real talent. I’ve read some of his stuff and genuinely wanted to know how his stories would continue, which is really one of the most important elements of entertainment in my book – leave’em wanting more.

Like myself until not too long ago, he’s read and enjoyed some of the more popular SFF – Asimov and Heinlein and the like. Well over the weekend I handed him my copy of The High Crusade and babbled on and on about Anderson and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack Vance and the injustice of their obscurity. Incidentally it’s going to be a long time before I drink more than one glass of wine again. I can’t remember the last time I suffered such a wretched futsuka.

We exchanged a couple of brief emails this week and he noted that the High Crusade was really well written and he seemed to be enjoying the period language. I find myself marveling at Anderson’s command of it again, myself, while reading through Three Hearts and Three Lions. So far as my friend goes, I hope I’ve planted a seed. An infectious, virulent, classic SFF seed.


In related news, I finished the first Elric book this week. I found that I enjoy Moorcock’s writing but that Elric of Melnibone himself is kind of weaksauce. He’s a somewhat interesting character, but not an awesome one. What I mean is, if I were a boy pretending to be a hero, I’d much sooner be Conan or John Carter than the Pale Prince. Who wants to play as a wishy-washy sorcerer who refuses to use his sweet magic or to kill the bad guy? At least he has a cool sword, I guess.

Even if I’m not in love with Elric or Moorcock, I’m glad to have become acquainted with them. Not everything can be a masterpiece, but I’m sure plenty of this classic stuff has inspired succeeding nerdy works, and I enjoy the insight. It’s kind of like suddenly realizing you’ve been surrounded by inside jokes and fan service your whole life, and not only did you not understand them, but you didn’t even know they were there.


Maybe the Hawkmoon books would be more my speed, but that’ll be a ways off. I’m thinking I may pick up some Amber next, to join in the Puppy of the Month club reading. And Dying Earth continues to sing to me. I can resist for only so long, for I am but a mortal geek.



Spreading the (SFF) fever

Thoughts on Star King

I’ve been accumulating so many reading materials of late that I had resolved to take a breather before buying anything else. I don’t think that’s going to hold, unfortunately.


Despite having only just finished reading my second Vance story, I think I may be a fanboy now. There’s something I find truly engrossing about his work. Even with those long chapter introductions that I’m not always a fan of, the skill with which he builds his worlds is amazing to me.

There are some writers (Herbert with Dune stands out to me) who don’t seem to make up their worlds; rather they gradually reveal them to the you, as if these were real places and people. Everything fits together and feels organic. It is just believable. Doesn’t always happen for me these days with modern writers, so I’m glad to be discovering these old greats.

I was recently part of a Twitter scrum in which Asimov came up. There were some strong opinions expressed.

This conversation, along with some similar threads out there in the blogosphere, led me to realize another commonality among some of my favorite scifi authors (among which I would count both Vance and Asimov).

It’s been posited that Asimov fell under a Hemingwaysian influence – that is, he became very frugal and spartan with his word usage. I did notice that in the past, though I didn’t make the connection to Hemingway. I would brazenly assert, however, that such a characteristic isn’t all that dissimilar from the style of Jack Vance, once you delve beneath the surface. Vance doesn’t skimp on his descriptors, but I haven’t felt like he overdoes it with unnecessarily long or drawn-out blocks of text. I would say that what I like about these writers is their sense of word economy. In a technical sense, this means no awkward or bumbling phrases or sentences. No glaringly unneeded words. But beyond this, it means they employed the language to achieve their desired effect. For Vance, this may mean a few beautiful and well-flourished sentences painting the image of a haunting alien world. For Asimov, it may be that his focus is entirely on captivating dialogue and intrigue; he illustrates the very basics of a scene and leaves the reader’s imagination to color in the details. Two very different but masterful manipulations of language to tell a story, and neither goes beyond what they deem necessary to convey the essence of his tale.

Star King, the first book in the Demon Princes series, lays the foundation for a very simply-premised revenge story. In Kirth Gersen, we get one of those almost-Gary Stu protagonists that I’ve waxed about – deadly, intelligent, brave, but not invincible. We see him outmaneuvered at times, and we also see him struggle with the ladies. But he’s a winner; he perseveres, and though he can be a little bit of a bastard, he tries to follow his moral compass, meting out cold vengeance upon the wicked and sparing whatever compassion he can for innocents caught up in his orbit.

Vance also did well marrying the scifi and hardboiled detective genres. Gersen does some solid sleuthing without seeming unreasonably lucky or brilliant, and we’re provided some building suspense as he tries to pick out the villain that’s right under his nose.

Next up on the docket is the second Witcher book, but I’ll be back to the Demon Princes soon. The first entry was a great story, even as a standalone. I’ll be tracking down the sequels.





Thoughts on Star King

Steve McQueen, Jack Vance, and revenge

I’m a little ways into Star King now, with a couple of initial thoughts. *Light spoilers ahoy.*


First, I continue to really admire Vance’s writing. Simultaneously intelligent and accessible, he seemed to know how to provide enough description and exposition to flesh out characters and worlds without going overboard. My only gripe so far has to do with the prefaces at the beginning of each chapter. Much like Herbert in Dune, Vance starts each part with one (or more) quotes from books, speeches, people, etc. within the literary world. These provide context for events, locations, or peoples in the story, usually just as the reader is about to encounter them. I do like the use of these in general; I just prefer it when they’re are a few lines long, as opposed to a page or more. When they’re short, they can give a little break as the story progresses and provide some useful insights. When long, it feels to me like they upset the pacing somewhat.

Second, there’s something about the way that grandmasters like Vance, Howard, and Burroughs crafted their characters that makes them likable for me, despite coming close to Gary Stu status (as opposed to some R.A. Salvatore characters I can’t stand). Conan and Carter are charismatic, strong, brave, and honorable men who conquer foe after foe and have to beat off the hot ladies with a stick. Perhaps they’re acceptable because they suffer defeats and setbacks, and they know how to win and lose like men. Invariably it means they keep on keeping on, no matter how grim the situation.


I didn’t note much description of Gersen’s physicality and I haven’t read anything yet to make me believe the womens are swooning all over him, but he is a master fighter/poisoner/killer. It’s also clear that he’s a pretty bright chappy. So he’s brave, strong, and smart at the very least. Relatively early on he proves his fighting prowess by overcoming an Earthman of considerable fighting skill, but Gersen doesn’t feel like an invincible (dark elf) killing machine. Though you know he’s going to survive at least for quite a while (after all we’ve got 4 more books in the series after this), he feels vulnerable and fallible.

Ok, so that’s Star King. That’s where my mind is these days, at least a part of it. On the classic SFF.

Last week I decided to watch something light on Netflix and it seemed time to knock Nevada Smith off my list. This one is a western from 1966, starring Steve McQueen as half-Indian Max Sand as he quests for revenge. That’s not so unusual in and of itself, especially for a western. But man, immediately I thought to myself – “Holy cow, this is the Demon Princes writ-small, except in the Wild West!” And only two years after the publication of Star King!

Well, I’m not so sure there’s any connection, but the general setup of the story sounds pretty similar. Max’s parents are tortured and killed by three outlaws, and so he sets out to seek revenge.


Along the way he experiences a few hard knocks but eventually runs into a gunsmith who mentors him on how to hold his own with a firearm. Some time passes, and Max becomes more competent and prepared for his task.

One notable aspect of Nevada Smith is that the story is as much about revenge as it is the struggle to give up on that hatred and forego revenge. The first appeal to this end comes from his gunsmithing mentor, Cord. Cord offers for Max to come with him and give up on his pursuit of the outlaws, to no avail. Max passes on the offer of a new life and meaningful employ by his new friend.

The second appeal, presented twice, is new life and a family. During a period of convalescence, he is taken in by the beautiful Indian woman Neesa and her tribe. Max is asked to stay but refuses. Later on he uses the Cajun girl Pilar’s feelings for him; he recruits her to help him and his second target escape from a prison surrounded by swamp (at this point the outlaw doesn’t realize Max’s true identity). Pilar begs Max to “treat her nice” when they escape, but it’s obvious that although he bears her no ill-will and perhaps does care for her, he has no intention of giving up his mission. As his second target is getting into their escape boat, he tips it and Pilar falls into the water, where she is bit by a venomous snake. A short while later she succumbs and dies. If he had left the outlaw and his vengeance behind, he could have escaped with her. She would have lived and he perhaps could have found peace building a family with her.

The third appeal follows a while later. Injured once again, he is found by a priest, who takes him back to his mission and introduces him to Christianity and the Bible. Several times he asks Max not to pursue his final mark. Max mentions that his favorite part of the holy book was “an eye for an eye” and that the priest can’t understand. The good father reveals to Max that he too survived after watching his family tortured and killed, and knows of that hatred and lust for vengeance. But he took a different path. This shakes Max, but does not dissuade him.


In the final moments of the film, Max has the third evildoer at his mercy – in a river at gunpoint. Max shoots his arm and both his legs, but struggles internally as the outlaw taunts him and exhorts him to end it. It’s at this point that our hero finally realizes how hollow his pursuit has been, and that killing his parents’ murderers will not gain him peace. He tells the dastard that he’s not worth killing, and walks away as the wounded bandit curses him, calling him a coward and yellow.



I’m not sure how the Demon Princes saga will progress and ultimately end, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a different course. In many revenge flicks, the bad guys are paid back for their evil ways, though often the hero pays a toll as well. It was a nice twist in Nevada Smith that after finding religion (though perhaps not the only decisive factor), the protagonist is eventually able to give up on revenge.




Steve McQueen, Jack Vance, and revenge