Lessons From Dumarest

Posted: 13 July 2012 in Reflections

“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” ― Leo Tolstoy

These books are amongst my favourite space operas, and I keep wanting to run a campaign set in the Dumarest Universe; but I mention them now because of the lessons I learned from them as a GM.

Some Background First…

The Dumarest Saga is a series of 33 novels, written between 1967 (The Winds of Gath) and 2008 (Child of Earth). Far future pulp space opera, whose hero is an Earth orphan who stowed away on a free trader. Fast forward 30 years or so, and he has decided to go home – except he doesn’t know where home is any more, and no-one believes Earth exists – it has become a legend like Xanadu or Atlantis. Since he has spent so much time “travelling Low” in suspended animation, he is not entirely sure how long he has been away, either.

Each novel (let’s think of them as “Savage Tales”) brought him to a new system in search of another clue to the location of his lost and legendary homeworld. Often, there was also a clue as to why his arch-enemies were so intent on stopping him getting back, but those were aimed more at the reader than Dumarest himself.

Lesson 1: Things That Don’t Matter

Languages. They just get in the way. Everyone in the Dumarest Saga speaks English, or at least whatever they do speak is represented by English. You could have each novel start with Dumarest spending six months learning the local language, but really that does nothing for the story – he’s already a social outcast, so there is no need to isolate him by language as well.

Equipment. SF games tend to focus lovingly on long lists of equipment. Dumarest goes through the entire saga with lightweight, concealed body armour, a knife in his boot, and his wits. It’s all he needs. It’s all you need.

Maps and Starships. In the entire 33 volume opus, there are no maps, only 2-3 different types of ships, and only two space battles. Sometimes, a ship is used as a portable “base town”; more often it’s just a plot device to get you to the start of the next adventure. Since Dumarest never goes back on his tracks, there is no need for a map; he is where he is, and the next adventure will be further along the line, whenever he turns up. Even if you do double back and revisit an earlier system, do you really need to know exactly where it is? I thought not.

Lesson 2: NPCs Are Expendable

Since you’re going to lose most NPCs with the first turn of the screw – or when the ship lifts – there’s no point lavishing too much attention on them. They have an archetype, such as Machiavellian Cyber, Spoiled Rich Girl, or whatever; their game statistics don’t matter.

Disposable NPCs can be easily recycled by changing their name and attitude. They are also killed at the drop of a hat, often (like Star Trek redshirts) to show the PCs how the monster works.

It can’t be overstated that the game is about the PCs; NPCs are, for the most part, just talking props – not the GM’s personal avatar in the game.

Lesson 3: Winning The Battle, Not The War

This is the most important lesson; how to ensure your PCs win every scenario, but never quite finish the campaign.

The series was often slated for the fact that Dumarest never seemed to get any closer to home, but getting home wasn’t actually the point – it was just a reason for him to keep moving to new adventures.

At the end of each book there was some reason why the protagonist couldn’t quite go home yet. Ones I remember include…

  • Deciding to follow a love interest “back to her place”. The girl usually dies tragically before the hero can settle down with her.
  • Being shanghaied while unconscious and/or kidnapped by pirates.
  • Discovering that an earlier clue was no longer true, or had been a lie spread by enemies.
  • Discovering that a clue was only part of the answer, and something else was needed to make use of it.
  • Being caught up in an intrigue and having to take the first ship out, regardless of destination.

The key to this working was that it didn’t actually matter whether the character succeeded in his quest or not, except to the character.

And yes, in book 33, Dumarest finally does get home. Tubb planned further novels in which treasure hunters followed the trail he had blazed, shifting the focus from “a man goes on a journey” to “a stranger comes to town”, but sadly died before he could publish them.

Someday, I will run a Dumarest campaign. Someday…

  1. These are all good points. In particular, lesson 1 plays a big part in my campaigns. I generally don’t worry about mundane gear except in special circumstances, and I don’t spend much time keeping track of money. If it’s not expensive, the characters usually can just have it. If it’s expensive or rare, that gives me a roleplaying or adventure opportunity.

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