Appendix N inspired a generation of roleplayers, gamemasters, and game designers. This series explores the connection between fiction and tabletop.
The first time I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy was when I was in high school, shortly after I’d begun playing Dungeons & Dragons and consuming fantasy fiction at an alarming rate. I remember framing the book in D&D terms, and that it struck me as being about a wizard learning his craft and leveling up. Obviously, I was reading it as fodder for my game, and not objectively or critically, but a number of things still managed to get past my filters and make an impression.
There are a number of things about the Earthsea setting that are unique, or at least unusual, in the realm of fantasy fiction. The people, while human, aren’t white Europeans in culture or appearance a fact grossly overlooked in both the Studio Ghibli film and the television miniseries loosely based on the series. It does not neatly map to any real-world places of history, which to me accentuates the fairy-tale quality of it.
Le Guin borrows Tolkien’s tone in creating a sense of wonder, but doesn’t tap into the same mythologies and analogies. Instead she relies on her own Taoist beliefs, less known and even less understood in the West, to create something that has verisimilitude yet feels unfamiliar, allowing the reader to explore without relying on cultural baggage and overused tropes. In its time, Earthsea was tremendously original and groundbreaking.
Magic is largely based upon knowing the true names of things, because all things possess a spirit to some degree. By knowing the names, things can be summoned, asked politely for assistance, and manipulated. It is understood that this is a zero-sum game; asking the wind to come and help fill the sails of a ship to speed it on its journey means that the wind is not somewhere else, doing something else. Wizards must use magic in ways that do not disturb the balance of nature, because doing so can cause tremendous harm.
For this reason, magic is often small in scale, to avoid tipping the scales and invoking unintended consequences. It is also why much magic is illusory and temporary. To change a thing permanently would be to change its true name, because it is now something else entirely, and changing true names has a ripple effect throughout the balance. It is never done lightly, and when it is, the consequences tend to be grave, if not fatal.
Good and evil are largely defined in relation to the balance. Wizards mostly work at maintaining it, fixing things when they get out of whack so that the world continues to operate smoothly. Altering the balance, especially in service to one’s self and one’s own baser needs, is considered evil because your gain almost invariably results in someone else’s loss.
The action in the books in minimal. It’s there, but the plots often revolve more around figuring things out and acting with wisdom, rather than wildly hurling fireballs at monsters or invading armies. The use of magic can often be as much of a hindrance as a useful tool, so the characters have to reason their way through things.
Le Guin’s fantasy is far more philosophical, driven by story and character. If you want to read the Earthsea books as inspiration for a game, it cannot be on a “game mechanics” or “encounter design” level. You should approach it by considering that character actions have ramifications within the setting, for better or for worse, and the additional story thread that get generated not only by whether they succeed or fail but in the manner in which they attain those successes or suffer those failures. You need to be able to think in terms of balance, of ecosystems, of politics and economics and culture. You need to think beyond the encounter, beyond the adventure, and consider the impact that the characters have on the people they meet and the places they journey through. Thinking on that scale, I believe, has made me a better gamemaster over time.