Game: The Primer of Practical Magic
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Series: The Dying Earth
Review Dated: 1st, April 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 14
Average Score: 7.00
Review of Primer of Practical Magic
Published by Pelgrane Press
Author: Jeanry Chandler
Reviewer: Eddy Lara
The Primer of Practical Magic is based on the work of noted fantasy author, Jack Vance, and is an attempt to translate the magic of the Dying Earth RPG, from Pelgrane Press, into D20 terms. Before continuing with this review I will note some caveats. I have been a DM (yes, I still prefer DM to GM) since the late 70’s, before I was a teenager. I have played D&D from the beginning and have incorporated many ideas from other systems into my own, including D20, which I think is a giant leap forward in consistency. Because of this, I look at any new product mostly with an eye towards stealing ideas, whether it’s crunchy rules or cultural flavor. Most importantly, whatever worthy new information my gaming group takes from a product is sifted and modified by the group in order to fit our gaming style. Two other important considerations are that I have never read Jack Vance’s novels nor do I know anything about Pelgrane’s non-D20 Dying Earth RPG, so I can’t comment from those angles. Now on to the review!
After reading through the book and noting some interesting ideas, my first impression is that the book touches on a lot of subject matter for its size. It has many new spells and cantrips and the flavor of the Dying Earth setting shows in the names and uses of many of them. A simple and adaptable variable spell effect system adds a touch of chaos by introducing dismal failures and illustrious successes. As this system can easily be used in place of the original D20 percentile system, I agree with the author that it is a more elegant system and clearly more in line with the ‘one system, one die’ mantra of D20.
The Dying Earth style also comes through in the histories of some of the spells and magic items. It is this history which separates Selua’s Quill of Writing, one of the many Marvelous Tools of Selua the Slave, from the Pen of Chabal, an arch-mage of the 19th Aeon. In fact there are quite a few spells and magic items whose origins are in the famed 19th Aeon. There have been many articles written on giving +1 swords a brief history in order to better immerse players in the campaign and the method is applied throughout the Primer.
This attention to detail is not often seen in many products and is commendable. As a guide to the magical workings of the Dying Earth setting, explanations of entities which are ‘able and not unwilling to alter the environment in accordance with the message conveyed by the spell’ and other quotes from the Dying Earth books definitely add flavor to the Primer. These quotes are sprinkled liberally throughout and they give the reader a sense of the sophistication, false or otherwise, of the people of the Dying Earth.
The setting is obviously very rich and the book notes that Gary Gygax wrote Jack Vance for permission to use some of his themes for the original D&D rules. Spells such as The Excellent Prismatic Spray had me reminiscing back to my junior high school weekends and playing D&D until 4 am on the weekends. The writing itself also evoked memories of a time when the target audience of D&D was definitely a college age crowd that knew how to use a dictionary.
The consistency of the depth is, unfortunately, uneven. There are no spells associated with the magic items in the book. There is a detailed system for creating vat creatures yet there are no suggestions for creating items with the unique flavor of the Dying Earth. The new Diabolist prestige class can summon a companion, essentially a powerful familiar. However the list of companions given are D20 creatures, and as wondrous as some might be, they are not the unique beasts of the Dying Earth and it’s subworlds. I got the impression that many descriptions were watered down in the editing in order to save space.
Important descriptions such as the Sandestines, beings similar in idea to Genies, and which can be summoned by the new Arch-magician prestige class, are too short. Earlier in the book are stat blocks for small elementals, but when it comes to giving a description of the year long quest to capture a Sandestine or of some other possible means of incorporating them into a game there is a weak explanation that sounds like popcorn instructions for a microwave; in effect, spend the xp, wait a year and voila! A Sandestine that can grant wishes. Instead of the stat blocks for small elementals (which can be inferred from the Monster Manual) a more in depth description of the Sandestines, their origins, their motivations and interactions with the Dying Earth and some ideas for this year long quest for a being that can grant wishes would have been much preferred.
The organization of the book is fair except that the description of a Dying Earth D20 campaign should have been in the front as the Primer is clearly a guide to the workings and ideas behind Mr Vance’s system of magic. The relevance of vat creatures, Arch-magicians, the new Sharper prestige class and the powerful Sandestines to a campaign should also be together with the campaign material. Only the Diabolist is given this treatment and a web supplement could help clear these issues.
The Primer has many great ideas and is well written if not well organized. There is great untapped potential for adventure, from the year long quest for a wish granting Sandestine to the possible motivations of the Diabolist or the variable spell effects of dismal failures and illustrious successes; but the book is too small. Simply, this book needs to be bigger to adequately flesh out many of the themes presented and give the material the treatment it deserves. Wizards of the Coast and many other gaming companies use their sites to publish not only errata but also web enhancements to their products. These are usually items that were cut due to space reasons. This would be a perfect opportunity for Pelgrane to draw some of the D20 crowd to the original inspiration for the D&D magic system.
As a primer to the magic of Jack Vance, the Primer of Practical Magic barely gives you a taste when there is clearly a feast to be had. It is a good taste and I recommend getting this book, especially if you are a tinkerer like myself. I hope Pelgrane can realize a significantly larger volume for their next Dying Earth effort that better presents the rich future mythology of Jack Vance’s novels. As WotC and other publishers have shown, a web supplement for this book would help fuel speculation of the Dying Earth world and I for one would love to see more.
-List of Favorites form the Primer of Practical Magic:
The Vulgar Interruption Cantrip – induce the call of nature in a pursuer!
Enchantment of Youth Renewed – remove unwanted wrinkles by aging your enemies, my girlfriend loved this one
Yasbane’s Displacement of Woe- redirect damage to another opponent
The Excellent Prismatic Spray – yes, it is excellent
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