Monday Lab: In a Word

Earthsea was clearly on everyone’s mind in early role-playing. Due to rambling, I didn’t include some of the time we spent realizing how many systems and settings dipped into its terms and the organization of magic.

It’s also – at first glance – genuinely perfect for fantasy role-playing, as attractive a package as any. You’ve got your map, your various cultures, a strong implied history, and above all, what looks to be a worked-out system for magic. It might be a bit shy on monsters but racks the dragons way up there.

And yet what happens with magic, happens to (and by) the protagonists, and what the entire plots are about – goes elsewhere. The hero levels up, but the story isn’t about leveling up. The hero faces enemies, but the stories aren’t about defeating enemies. So that’s one topic, that the material that seems made for nothing but straight-up gamer adventure is not being used for it.

The other topic is more appropriately discussed: that despite role-playing games’ various schools/branches of magic, the odd wizard school, dragons galore, and maps upon maps, and despite the obvious embedding of Earthsea into way more titles than I’d thought before this lab time, no role-playing game has apparently done that thing with magic-centric, high-and-mighty wizard play that these books do.

What is that, and why? Why might I or anyone want to? And how would that be done?

[Here’s the link to the thread Gordon mentioned: Earthsea RPG?]

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25 responses to “Monday Lab: In a Word”

  1. Other games inspired by Earthsea

    One game mentioned was Archipelago, by Matthijs Holter (Nørwegian Style).
    Link to Archipelago III.

    Flatland games Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures (though clearly more of an OSR game) has some clear influences theme-wise from Earthsea (though the magic in that game is as "mundane" as in most OSR games).

    Clinton R. Nixon's The Princes' Kingdom (game system based on Dogs in the Vineyard) has the islands and a general Earthsea "feeling", but I don't recall it handling the magic aspects of the setting.

    Dutch game Queeste (published from 1979 by Joop Oele) had an interesting magic system based on language (and very much inspired by Earthsea).
    A mage has access to a number of words and grammar rules of the Old Hyksos language (more when he has a higher rank) and must weave them together to produce the desired magical effect. There also is the difference between illusion and truth, where most of the spells you weave are only illusion. The words for "reality", "real" and "make real" only get learned (become available) as you progress to the prime rank of Master Mage, though there are some words with "real" effect before that.

    • This is fantastic information

      This is fantastic information, Herman – thanks! And if you want to run Queeste some day, count me in.

      I was planning to mention the Zu magic rules from The Shadow of Yesterday during the seminar, but forgot about it in the thick of things. It's another grammar/meaning system which I found extremely fun in play and incredibly unpredictable in plot-impact.

  2. While there’s some useless

    While there's some useless (to my eye) stuff in that thread, there's a lot that echoes my thoughts – makes me wonder if I'd read it years back and the influence lingered all the way to this discussion.

    More than anything else, I'm convinced it's useful to think about the manner/magnitude of impact Earthsea can deliver to a reader, and what parts of that are possible/desireable in an RPG.

    Herman, I think I (and maybe Ron) should have asked and listened to more about how the Earthsea-ish game you actually played went!

  3. Belated Thoughts

    (Just a heads-up- the link to that thread is missing a colon after the https, so it doesn't actually work.)


    I was actually hoping to join this seminar, but scheduling didn't work out and I wasn't really intimately familiar with a magic system that would do the job, so… I'll try to catch up later.

    I *did* sketch out a heavily adapted d20 system about ten years back, but I was mostly concerned with taking setting-notes and writing up lists of dis/advantages and having a nice geometric arrangement to the skill/attribute system (the idea was to sync up with the 9 great runes and/or the 9 masters of Roke.)  My eventual ambition was to have some kind of uber-crunchy agglutinative spell-seed system based on a comprehensive Old Speech lexicon before the madness of the notion finally settled on me.

    If I were doing it today, I'd probably crib the object/verb mechanics from Ars Magica, maybe a streamlined version of complications/artha from burning wheel, and let the players gradually invent their own lexicon with suitable knowledge skills.  I dunno, would that work?


    @Herman:  Is there an English translation for Queeste floating around anywhere?  Running pdfs through google translate is a little awkward.

  4. More Belated Thoughts

      "To hear, one must be silent."  I should probably have watched the full video before I posted.
      I agree very much with the idea that a wizard's ability to Name a thing would be, at the least, greatly agumented by familiarity/belief/intimacy with a particular subject, and that there's a strong moral or philosophical component to the magic system.  I have no definite ideas for how to model it mechanically, but surely other games have mechanisms for tracking and/or integrating relationships or memories or karmic effects?
      Physical Endurance and School specialisation:  I seem to remember that Ged broke out in a sweat when he repaired the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, lapsed into a coma after his early illusion-spell on Gont, and that the Archmage died of exhaustion (?) while closing the portal after his summoning contest with Jasper.  So there's probably some room for this kind of resource expenditure as a course of last resort?  There is also *some* indication that wizards can have defined 'talents' for particular forms of magic, such as Alder (in the Other Wind) having a knack for Mending, or Ged taking to illusion particularly easily, and presumably the masters of Roke didn't get their roles assigned at random.
      Ged gives a brand-new true-name to one of the Dyers of Lorbanery after she starts shouting her old one to all and sundry.  So apparently 'making it up' is possible under some circumstances.
      I would lean toward the view that the series as a whole gives a fairly prominent role to non-wizards, or at least to those whose power is either minor or latent or expressed in different terms- Lebannen's arc is very Arthurian, after all, and Tehanu being half-dragon (?) might be another variant worth examining.
      Would the topic of gender be worth examining here, given that it's quite significant in the setting and partly motivated Le Guin to re-examine some of the setting's metaphysics in later books?
    • Hi! Great feedback &

      Hi! Great feedback & commentary.

      For memory/et cetera, emotional connection type effects – yes, that's the kind of mechanic that I think might help if these features were to be put at that level of design (could go into the diagram, I mean). Our points about that level of design being "half the battle," necessary but not sufficient, would still apply. I'd love to see someone work with the HeroQuest SRD this way.

      Your points about fatigue are exactly what led me in that direction in my attempts sometime around 1981.

      I tried to be very specific that we were talking only about the original three books, and at least in my case, I was focusing on those precise publications, with those covers and those illustrations. I'd rather stay with that here. We did talk it over during the seminar, and it was a little too rambly to include, but the point was that authorial intent and ideological content turned out not to matter for what we were talking about. The idea wasn't to model Earthsea exactly (and thus open the question of what Earthsea "really is"), but rather to identify the power of this magic in this story, such that it became a story about the magic but still relevant to the human-actual reader, and to see how that might be done in role-playing, for whatever intention or ideology might happen to obtain for the people playing.

    • Adaptations

      That's fair.  I know that a lot of readers noticed a distinct shift in emphasis in the later books, and while I personally appreciated them as postscripts and corrections of a sort, I also know they didn't grip me by the throat in quite the same way as The Farthest Shore.

      I'm afraid the Studio Ghibli adaptation of Earthsea didn't sit well with me at all, particularly given that Hayao Miyazaki (the director's father) was originally entrusted with the project, and was the only person that Le Guin would basically give a blank cheque to do what he wanted with the material.  The sci-fi adaptation I could excuse on the basis of run-of-the-mill incompetence, but given the Ghibli's otherwise strong track-record this verged on outright tragedy.  In general I feel it's a pity that Le Guin didn't live to see her material done justice in some other medium.

      To be clear, I think you've put your finger on some of the underlying themes and emotional concerns of the trilogy much better than I was able to articulate to myself, so I feel genuinely impressed and enlightened on that front.  If and when you did ever get around to sketching out that system, I'd be there to playtest in a heartbeat.

    • I can carp about nerdrage as

      I can carp about nerdrage as if I were above all that, but man, one of those authors in the title is not in the caliber of the other one and LeGuin by any stretch, and what was that bit about Utopia? (there's something very Guardian in claiming slavery is basically unobjectionable as long as skin color isn't involved)

      Anyway. Yes, to the point of the seminar and focusing on what the article is about, that's a good call.

    • The Martin hate makes me weep

      The Martin hate makes me weep.


      On a more serious note and to address the topic at hand. So is this the problem of how theme intersects with ‘the thing’?


      The Karate kid and Earthsea are kind of similar right. An angry young man has his call to adventure and enters the world of (Karate/Magic) ‘THE THING’ where mastery at the end is interlinked with the thematic pay off. It’s only when the character learns (faces his pride and it’s consequences/becomes balanced) that they can use their new thematic understanding to master THE THING and win the day.


      So in the Karate kid, gaining balance thematically allows him to use the literal balance of the crane kick. THE THING could be almost anything. The Force, interpretative dance, selling shares, or whatever.


      As soon you make that mechanical though, you kind of lock the theme down. I mean you could have a rule ‘when your character learns that his fear of failure is holding him back, get an automatic success on your next ‘the thing’ roll.’ That’s kind of lame though. Furthermore, in Earthsea it’s a creative use of ‘the thing’. Making a literal rule ‘when you face your pride and it’s consequences, you get to call a Gebbeth by their true name’. Would mess up the creative use aspect even if such a thing were desirable.


      You get can even worse edge cases. In Neuromancer case is a hacker but it’s not his hacking skill that allows him to do the hacking stuff at the end. It’s his cathartic scream when he faces up to his own sense of regret and loss. That seems very hard to put into rules.


      Except maybe in keyword systems like Heroquest. At that point you could literally roll ‘sense of loss’ against ‘computer defence’. There are other systems where you could make it part of the narration. Roll to beat the Gebbeth, ok you do, but how?’


      In practice, when such situations have occurred in my play. Either the rules tend to get thrown out the window in favour of negotiation or we use ‘ok you win, but how?’


      Is this mostly a case of how having rich (sometimes almost incidental) background colour can later become a part of the situation?

    • … maybe?

      … maybe?

      The distinction I see is that The Karate Kid and the bevy of work it represents offer a platitude that few would disagree with, and which confirms a 1:1:1 relationship among physicality, ethics, and desirable outcomes. Whereas A Wizard of Earthsea, and I'll consider it in complete isolation, goes stepwise through several points that are emphatically not like that.

      The main sequence is that when searching for the Shadow, he first identifies it as "my enemy," and is led astray – he has to summon "my Shadow" instead, and then to name it – with his own name. This is not a platitude, it's a position statement at the whole-story level, and like all good position statements is going to meet with staunch opposition from thinking people who happen to think otherwise.

      (Oh no! It's divisive! So terrible)

      It is possible to mandate such things with named traits and mechanics. "Now choose something valid and controversial, pick a side," as a rule … but to go to my Spione and Shahida as examples, they are accessed through stealth variables for dramatic expression through decision/action later, rather than placing the question in bald clinical (boring) in front of the player or players, for purposes of chin-stroking discussion. For example, in Spione, you do choose whether the operation your principal is part of is on "this" side or "that" side in Cold War terms, but the real crisis arises between your personal acquaintances and spying at all, for anyone. The issue is not the principal's loyalty or completion of a mission but rather emotional authenticity, and the price that is exacted even for losing it to the extent that they already have, to say nothng of later in play.

      I also think this overall issue is a matter of picking it up at the table and meaning it, rather than having it sit there in the rules and procedures to be appreciated there. Everyone in the seminar, at one point or another, expressed that position. In game terms, one could play an Earthsea type setting, canonical or not. The question is whether it's a fun little fantasy hits all the reminders, "Master of Herbalism," et cetera,  and we make a memorable but standard story with a digestible platitude ("wow, love really did matter to that guy," "gee, vengeance carries a cost," "golly, war sucks, but they sure were brave and saved us all"); or whether only too far is far enough emerges from play, from ourselves, and from exactly how we are expressing those very selves via what we imagine and say.

  5. How many heroes are there?

    Earthsea only had a few heroes. Ged, Tenar/Arha, and a few mentioned in the back story, like Erreth-Akbe.

    So who are the players supposed to play? Some wizard who might have an adventure or two and ends up being the local wizard on an island?

    It's not an uncommon problem when adapting source material.

    • Very true. As a detail, I’d

      Very true. As a detail, I'd include Arren/Lebannen as a protagonist too, for a total of three. But that's not my point; which is, we're not necessarily talking about playing Earthsea the game, but rather, role-playing in such a fashion as to produce work of this caliber, especially concerning "meaningful" magic. In such a game, there wouldn't be a Sparrowhawk; there'd be a lot of wizards like Jasper or as a positive example, Vetch, but the point would not be "you can be one of these guys," but rather, "how will you transcend the problems they cannot."

      The Glorantha tradition in role-playing has always included its minority community, or scattered like-minded individuals, who strive toward that in play. I or we discovered it in our game of Hero Wars fifteen years ago. It is obviously an ambitious ideal and the trajectory for this material has more often than not focused elsewhere, or stumbled if I were speaking harshly. I think the extremely recent versions of HeroQuest and RuneQuest are tuned toward that ideal in different systemic ways.

      To get Gloranth-y for a moment, the first necessary notion toward that end is to disavow characters like Kallyr Starbrow or even Argrath as the epic protagonists. There aren't any. The way is open – and very hard – for your characters to do it.

      That also leads to much debate concerning Illumination, especially whether it is or isn't in the rules in the various versions since 2000. I better stop before I hit TMI.

  6. Only Too Far

    "…or whether only too far is far enough emerges from play, from ourselves, and from exactly how we are expressing those very selves via what we imagine and say."

    I'm reminded of another quote from the master summoner, where "as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower; until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do."  I wonder how compatible that is with sustained player agency, and if so, how you'd model it mechanically?

    I don't know if it's a counterpoint or an illustration, bug or feature so to speak, but there is also the problem that the major source of antagonism in these stories also derives from 'going too far'.  (Hob's unwavering avarice vs. Ged's unwavering sacrifice, say.)  Perhaps it's as simple as saying that belief/goals become more powerful, both for good and ill, the longer they remain unchanged?  (I am reflexively thinking of the Burning Wheel approach here, which I'm fairly comfortable with, but perhaps that feels a little on-the-nose to you.)


    I'll also put in my two cents that the early books of a Song of Ice and Fire are terrific reads, even if the plot-padding becomes a serious problem in later installments.  *scurries away*

    • I’m reminded of another quote

      I'm reminded of another quote from the master summoner, where "as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower; until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do."  I wonder how compatible that is with sustained player agency, and if so, how you'd model it mechanically?

      That's what the design of my game in development, Vigil, is all about, courtesy of its parent design, The Path of Journeys by Ram Hull. Terrifyingly, it seems to be working.

      That ties into your next point, about antagonism. Ultimately this viewpoint, or angle of attack or experience regarding stories, loses the notion of bad guys and good guys, and yet brings morality front and center in terms of saying, or sharing, with others, the question of what is "good" to you? Without tropes signaling what to think, without semiotics coding for you to identify with.

      Yes, Hob and Ged are antagonists. And yes, in a fairly enjoyable way, Ged is the good guy and Hob the bad. But why? The virtue of The Farthest Shore is that it's not particularly reassuring, in its answer, merely that you are willing to choose. Someone else can choose Hob's way, if they want, and many have – more, arguably, and more successfully, than otherwise.

      Ged and Lebannen triumph, in that particular fiction. In reality, I fear we are actually traversing the Mountains of Pain, and wondering if coming out, all the way through, can ever happen.

  7. If we aren’t talking about

    If we aren't talking about Earthsea, then the question of background/setting becomes open.

    Personally, I would go with the Shelleys (Percy Bysshe AND Mary), plus, naturally, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

    I'm not sure what the resulting game would be, but I would be happy to play it.

    Ozymandias, Frankenstein and Kubla Khan. And that's just the beginning.

    Not an elf in sight.

    • That’s how those fantasy RPG

      That's how those fantasy RPG authors from the 70s were thinking!

  8. The Narrow Way

    Ged and Lebannen triumph, in that particular fiction. In reality, I fear we are actually traversing the Mountains of Pain, and wondering if coming out, all the way through, can ever happen.

    Vigil sounds like it's developing nicely…

    I do remember Lebannen voicing the idea that the Balance itself would act as a fundamental check on the abuse of wizardly power, and Ged's response- "Who allows?  Who forbids?"- is far from reassuring.

    As much as the conflict is uncertain and internalised, however, I don't think the original trilogy ever really hints that good and evil are blurred or relative– you have to turn to the later books for any suggestion that the Old Powers are reflections of human worship rather than extradimensional malevolent entities, or that the Lore of Peln can be used to heal.  All something of a departure from "It is light that defeats the dark".

    • I agree! That’s an important

      I agree! That's an important point. The trilogy's content reminds me much more of Camus' existentialism, in which the lack of absolute or at least of simplistic good and evil does not absolve the individual of right-and-wrong, but rather demands that they be judged and acted upon. Or as Nietzsche put it a few decades earlier, just because there's no Good and Evil, doesn't mean there's no good and bad.

    • Camus? Ha!

      Camus? Ha!

      But Satre, at least, tells us about the afterlife.

      Again, I have no idea what this game would look like, but I would play it.

      Of course there is always the Samuel Beckett game, where you hang around and encounter Wandering Monsters, … OK, I'm being silly here.

  9. Trust, being, and authenticity

    As many times as I've read the trilogy, I never made the connection between To Know Is To Name from the first book and giving Arha hers back in the second.  It makes an already beautiful passage even more moving: Ged names Arha immediately after she stops pretending she doesn't care what happens to him; when she trusts another person enough to show her vulnerableness for the first time since being with her parents.  Then Ged looks at her and says, "Take care, Tenar."

    I can't think about how to get the emotional authenticity, as Ron called it, of that moment in play unless it's emergent.  Or Ged's "Trust…that is one of its names.  It is a very great thing.  Though each of us alone is weak, having that we are strong, stronger than the Powers of the Dark."

    The one mage who was not mentioned in the Lab epitomizes many of the problems addressed in it: what does one do in gaming terms with the Master Patterner?  Because if anyone tries to reduce him to a collection of Detect spells, I will throw myself screaming into the Lips of Paor.  He doesn't do, so what are the mechanics for just being?

    And how does one address what I think of as the Hitchcock Problem?  Part of what makes the Patterner dramatically compelling is so much of what he is being left to our imagination.  To pin him down with mechanics removes that mystery or, to paraphrase another talky-wizard, once you write on it, it's no longer white.

    So I'd be interested in hearing more details about what made those Hero Wars sessions of fifteen years ago work in this respect.  And, by the way, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who doesn't think "epic protagonist" when I see Argrath.


    • It’s not safe to reply

      It's not safe to reply without reviewing more carefully, but … (and with the provision that I've read only the original trilogy, and the Lab was limited to it) …

      My reading of the trilogy includes the point that in each story, the authoritative mages are, well, wrong. Or useless. Or at the limits of their knowledge, which is fine as far as it goes, but not only has limits, but hits them. They come off as over-educated, not in a bad or evil way, but as having talked themselves into a sensible but safe understanding of things.

      • No one can explain to Ged or help him regarding his shadow. He has to figure out the entire concept from scratch. The Master Namer says it has no name; he's wrong. Even Ogion, who rightly prefers not to "talk" himself into corners, can keep Ged from dying or going mad, but nothing more regarding what to do.
      • Ged's on his own in the Tombs. I don't recall any direct references, but since he's a pretty bad-ass respected guy at home (no longer a trouble-making student), my inference is that no one at Rolke dares challenge the ancient cult and the earthly/unearthly power they draw upon. It's beyond them.
      • The whole premise of The Farthest Shore is not only that the other mages are hands-off about the problem (as in the second), but already shattered and ruined by it. In the previous story he had to do end-runs around concepts; now he has to end-run the whole friggin' cosmos.

      As I say, it's one reader's view. If it has any merit, relative to the text, then in turning to role-playing, you and I are struck by the fact that the superficial hobby notion that when you do X, here is the rule for X; when you get big and strong, you will be able to do Y, and so, waiting for you for later, here is the rule for Y, is absolutely impossible to use toward this view.

      Instead, you must have a game author who is willing to take this view toward his or her own work, especially the notion that someone else will do something with it (without knowing what that will be); and now, you need players/users of the game who share that view, will seize the opportunity as they perceive it, and do with it as they will.

      I will say that I know this applies to Glorantha (i) because I wanted to do it myself as soon as I read Cults of Terror, in the early 1980s, and (ii), acknowledging the risk of gregging, because twenty years later Greg confirmed it to me personally and enthused about it – if we haven't over-used this term – authentically. The long-awaited heroquesting rules are intended for their users to re-shape the concepts, not just rules or powers, by which we understand the reality of the heroes. It's about society, ethics, gods or God, identity, and purpose. But what about those things? The game says, you tell me.

      We should probably have a conversation about the Hero Wars material. A bit of reflection about it can be found in my essay Goddess of Rape.



      I just read the essay.  In one of my earlier emails I said that the more I found out about Glorantha, the less I liked it.  I see now that the very things about it that provoked me may be those that if literally brought to the table could result in a deeper level of play.  And there is certainly enough in the Earthsea series approach to magic that could do the same.

      As a gamer returning from years of early Glorantha through RuneQuest, would enjoy talking about Hero Wars more.  I just read the core rules and then HeroQuest Glorantha this summer.  Would that involve moving that part of the conversation to a different page?

      I could say more but had better put this out first:  the novels are so evocative that there are aspects of them worth talking about on their own merits.  Would you prefer that we restrict the observations here to features of the novels that inform play?


    • The Glorantha discussion

      The Glorantha discussion would fit very well as an Actual Play post that reflects on your early experiences with RuneQuest and the setting. That alone would be grounds for comparison with plenty of other people here, and it could grade into a Hero Wars/Quest comparison too. I don't know if you've seen Gray Sage or Panel: RuneQuest and Glorantha at Gothcon, but they include a range of comparative experiences. There's a lot of actual play posting here about my fun with the 1979 rules (2nd edition, although the text doesn't call itself that) too.

      Let's not dive into a pure novels-reading chat about Earthsea here. I offered my thoughts on one variable above because it was relevant to the role-playing discussion: the idea that in-setting magical-skill leveling up, by whatever name, was not the same thing as achieving the degree of action and proactive insight that Ged displays.

      I'm totally OK with discussing the books in line with post's topic. However, that topic is definitely not "how do we play or write an Earthsea RPG." And getting into whatever you or I may have seen or thought we saw in the novels as a topic of its own sounds like a recipe for madness, and certainly there are other websites devoted to that kind of discussion.



      Sounds good.  I've just read your "Narrativism: Story Now" essay, which addresses the majority of my issues.  I'll also check out the Gothcon panel and Gray Sage.  If I still have questions about HeroQuest and Glorantha after that, I'll gather my thoughts for an Actual Play post.  If you're interested in my thoughts on Glorantha, I'll post regardless of whether I still have questions, but don't expect anything particularly profound.


      PS—Dont forget about the Monday Lab about The Pool.  Subtle nudge nudge.

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