Jack Vance, Big Planet, and the Spirit of D&D

The withdrawal symptoms were getting to me. The mind-tendrils prod and poke whenever I pass the bookshelf and my eye is drawn to the as of yet unread volumes of Vancian delight. So I’ve been reading Big Planet.

In some ways I feel like I’ve been to this party before. Big Planet hits a lot of the same notes as Vance’s Planet of Adventure series. But this is a riff that makes me want to rock and roll all night and part of every day.

The “arduous journey” is a framework that seems to work well for Vance’s stories, probably because he excelled at weaving a tapestry of little patchwork tales – gonzo encounters and situations that often serve as modular parts of a grand whole.

And it often makes me think of D&D. The episodic nature of many of his stories is just one piece of this. What really clinches it for me is the accompanying weirdness that evokes the kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants shenanigans that players so often get up to, whether as a result of a brilliant plan gone horribly awry or because of a complete lack of any plan whatsoever. It’s the kind of stuff that makes me laugh, but not always because it’s funny.

Example:

There is a particular episode in Big Planet where the protagonist and his party come to a river they must cross in haste. The water is inhabited by man-eating sea serpents, and the only transport across is controlled by an adjacent village of people who have erected a line to allow a sort of aerial passage. Problem is, the people have been coerced to prevent the protagonist and his gang from crossing, and so they deny the party entry to their village.

So what’s to be done? Well, as a DM would no doubt have described to his players, the wall surrounding the village is made of lashed wood and not especially sturdy-looking. Improvised raft! As the group is liberating the wall from its foundation, the villagers become angry and hostile. Naturally the good guys don’t want to harm them, but left will little choice, they fry a couple before retreating into the river on their new vessel.

Then, when on the water, a sea-serpent attacks. The protagonist blows its head off with his ion-gun, but ah – it wasn’t really a monster at all! Inside are a bunch of pissed off villagers, who start throwing spears. One of the protagonist’s companions bites it, and the hostile villagers get torched.

What fun.

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