Striking cover to the second edition Talislanta Handbook, published by Bard games in 1989. Art by P.D. Breeding-Black.
|Designer(s)||Stephen Michael Sechi, Jonathan Tweet (3rd edition), John Harper (4th edition), K. Scott Agnew (5th edition)|
|Publisher(s)||Bard Games, Wizards of the Coast, Shooting Iron, Morrigan Press, Ludopathes Éditeurs (French)|
1987 (1st edition)|
1992 (3rd edition)
2001 (4th edition)
2005 (d20 edition)
2006-7 (5th edition)
|System(s)||Custom, Omni System (d20 based)|
Talislanta is a fantasy role-playing game written by Stephen Michael Sechi, with significant stylistic input by artist P.D. Breeding-Black. Initially released in 1987 by Bard Games, the game quickly gained a reputation as an alternative to Dungeons & Dragons that was both much simpler mechanically and far more colorful in tone. The game has maintained a strong cult following among table-top gamers. Talislanta has endured a bumpy publication history, such that there have been five different editions published over the years (eight, if one counts ashcans, alternate rules and foreign editions), nearly all by different companies. Talislanta is now freely available online via a Creative Commons licence.
The Talislanta universe differs strongly from other role-playing games of similar genre. There are very few references to Norse/Celtic mythology or the imagery of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings novel. Instead the flamboyantly diverse setting is more akin to the Dying Earth novel series by Jack Vance. Indeed, Vance is listed by Sechi as a primary influence on the setting, and each edition has been dedicated to that author. Other stated influences include The Travels of Marco Polo, the journeys of Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and a host of other pulp-era fantasy fiction and works by other eclectic authors. As the game reviewer Rick Swan stated, "It's as if H. P. Lovecraft had written Alice in Wonderland, with Hans Christian Andersen and William S. Burroughs as technical advisors."
Existing game literature mostly deals with the continent of Talislanta on the world of Archaeus, home to several dozen very distinct peoples and races, including the Cymrilians, the Gnorl, and the Xambrians. These cultures and races are wholly alien, or akin to Earth cultures not of the stock commonly seen in other RPGs. Thus the slogan, "No Elves!", which appeared in ads for the games upon its initial release, establishing that very little of the common Tolkienic influence was present in the setting.
In the distant past Talislanta was ruled by the Archaens, a race of decadent sorcerers who lived in floating cities and used their uncanny powers mainly in the pursuit of pleasure and distraction. It was this haphazard use of dangerous and unstable arcane powers which presumably weakened the dimensional fabric, causing the magical devastation known as "the Great Disaster". The disaster shattered the Archaen society in a day, and had numerous ripple effects on the continent of Talislanta. Most contemporary races are either some offshoot of the Archaen race, "Neomorphs" created by magical means, or one of a handful of mysterious races more ancient than the Archaens.
The continent is one of great magic, with the eldritch forces being in common use within every social strata of the continent and its many cultures. Arguably the greatest of the magic wielders are the people of Cymril, who founded the Seven Kingdoms (often the default starting point of the game). It is stated many times that the magical capabilities of the Archaens were far beyond this. Archaeans possessed magical equivalents to spaceships, virtual reality theme parks, space stations, and other trappings of an advanced technical life (founded on magic, instead of technology). Many of these advances are left in ruins to be rediscovered by the truly intrepid adventure seekers.
The setting is grim in places, comic in others. Situations vary on the Continent and it is possible to have Talislanta games of greatly varied tone due to this. Areas of the continent are very grim with warring factions and brutal survivalists who live each day to see the next, while others are decadent areas where wealth, magic, and leisure have made the inhabitants petty and argumentative (in a tip of the hat to Vance, as above).
It is reportedly very common for new GMs and players to feel there is too much scope to the setting, and it is advised that players find a single region to concentrate on before moving on to globe-trotting games. This tactic for game development is aided by newer editions, where setting and character material is broken up by major geographic sections of the continent, to allow players to focus until their comfort level is achieved.
The Talislanta rules system, called at various times the 'Action Table System', the 'D20 System' (before the term was used by Dungeons & Dragons) and the 'Omni System', is very simple relative to other role-playing game systems. Characters are defined by Attributes and Skills, which, when used are combined and compared to a target number, the difference between them applied to the roll of a single twenty-sided die. The final number resulting is then looked up on an Action Table, giving one of five possible results: Mishap, Failure, Partial Success, Full Success or Critical Success. This system not only indicates success or failure, but relative effectiveness as well, and scales probability based on the difference between character effectiveness and task difficulty, rather than a flat "roll higher than this number" system common in many other RPGs. This system later became available in 2005 as a stand-alone set of generic RPG rules under the title "The Omni System" by K.Scott Agnew.
For most of the game's history, character creation was handled by offering a list of archetypes to choose from. Early editions of the game offered several dozen archetypes, expanding to over a hundred in later editions. Each archetype represents an adventuring personality particular to a certain culture with such colorful names as "Cymrilan Rogue Magician", "Jaka Beastmaster" and "Mandalan Mystic Warrior". Each archetype offered all relevant information needed to start playing the character including Attributes, Skills, apparel and equipment and, after making a few personalizations, was ready to begin play right from the book. In an aspect unusual among role-playing games, little attempt was made to balance the archetypes, and many were clearly more or less powerful than others. The rationale being that it was more important to present characters that were faithful to the setting than mechanically equal. In the fifth edition, a more traditional character generation system was introduced to create balanced characters, but critical response was mixed.
Many ideas and concepts which would become integral to Talislanta first appeared in an early role-playing game written by Stephan Michael Sechi in 1983, Arcanum, also known as The Atlantis Trilogy.
The first edition of Talislanta was published by Bard Games in 1987, a company in part founded by Talislanta's primary creator Stephan Michael Sechi. Bard Games published a revised second edition in 1989, and a series of supplements followed, culminating in the (now officially non-canonical) Cyclopedia series. However, the last Cyclopedia was published in 1990, and Bard games was disbanded shortly thereafter.
Wizards of the Coast (at the time still a small new company just entering the hobby game industry) picked up the license to Talislanta and published the third edition in 1992 (in part written by Jonathan Tweet, who years later would write Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition). An ambitious schedule of supplements was announced, including a trilogy of grand adventures to take players through the events of the "Sub-Men Uprising". But Wizards of the Coast found unexpected lucrative success with Magic: the Gathering and abandoned all role-playing projects to focus on collectible card games.
The final Talislanta supplement published by Wizards of the Coast in 1994 ended with the announcement that Daedalus Entertainment, a small company which had gained some attention for the game Feng Shui, would be publishing a new edition within the year, written by noted game designer Robin Laws. But Daedalus collapsed before its version saw print.
The next company to attempt to revive Talislanta was Pharos Press (also known as Plaid Rabbit), who announced they would create a special tenth anniversary edition of the game in time for 1997. Despite early promise and enthusiasm, this release was long delayed past the actual anniversary, and then only appeared as a small run of ashcan copies. Following the botched anniversary, Stephan Michael Sechi (who maintained creative control of Talislanta through all editions) rescinded the license from Pharos.
The line was picked up by Shooting Iron, a modest graphic design company and fans of Talislanta who had worked for Pharos. Largely on their own time and without remuneration, Shooting Iron expanded the rough draft of the Anniversary Edition into Talislanta Fourth Edition, publishing in 2001 what remains the largest single volume collection of Talislanta rules and setting. Shooting Iron then published the first new supplement for Talislanta since Wizards of the Coast, The Midnight Realm, in 2003. Though a range of further supplements was announced (including a "City Guide" and further volumes detailing the "Lost Continents"), Shooting Iron found maintaining what was essentially a vanity press too demanding, and allowed the game to pass from their hands.
In 2004, Morrigan Press acquired the Talislanta license and published a number of books for the game, including a d20 edition in early 2005. Morrigan also published new games using Talislanta's rules system, including a new edition of Stepphen Michael Sechi's Atlantis Trilogy and a generic Omni System rulebook. In 2006, Morrigan announced the upcoming release of Talislanta Fifth edition, and the first few volumes of the multi-book game saw release in early 2007. The final core book of the fifth edition was released in August 2007 (A Gamemaster's Guide to Talislanta). Reception to this edition was mixed, as the texts suffered from sloppy editing and poorly designed changes to the rule system. In 2008 Morrigan foundered and Talislanta once again went dormant.
In 2004, a French publishing company Ludopathes Éditeurs acquired the license to adapt the game for a French audience. A starter kit was published in 2005 and was followed by the rulebook in September 2005 and a GM's screen "Secrets of the Reaper" (Les Secrets du Faucheur) in early 2006. An original campaign "The Moons Chronicles - Phandir" (Les Chroniques Lunaires : Phandir) was released on July 2006, and a sourcebook on the Omniverse "The Guide of Spheres" (Le Guide des Sphères) was released in late 2006 as well as a series of PDF booklets giving the rule to create characters from the different parts of the continent. Others books followed since then, in April 2007 "The Western Lands" (Les Terres de l'Ouest)was published, a sourcebook detailing that part of the continent. Then was published in January 2008 "The Seas Devils" (Les Diables des Mers) a sourcebook about some of the peoples wandering the south seas. The next chapter of the campaign: "The Moons Chronicles - Zar" (Les Chroniques Lunaires : Zar) taking place in the Western Lands was published in January 2009.
In 2010, Stephen Michael Sechi announced that he was abandoning traditional publishing and making all existing materials for Talislanta, from first to fifth edition, freely available on the Talislanta website. According to the website, "Talislanta is released to the world, for free, under the Creative Common license. You are free to download the books for your role-playing pleasure, but please no re-selling or remixing." While not the first time a role-playing game company has decided to release its product as "free", it is certainly the largest to date.
In 2014, a new Talislanta work titled "Talislanta: the Savage Land" was begun. Savage Land would detail a portion of Talislanta's past and allow game play in that earlier era of the milieu.
Other Continents related to Talislanta, and sometimes referred to as the Unknown Lands, have been mentioned. The Midnight Realm was the first book dedicated to one of these additional worlds. Plans to publish other continent books, such as Altarus, Celadon, and Draknar, are rumored to be in the works.
- Swan, Rick (1990). The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 204. ISBN 0-312-05060-7.
- Sub-men Rising. Wizards of the Coast. 1994. p. 120.
- Shannon Appelcline (2011). Designers & Dragons. Mongoose Publishing. pp. 174, 279. ISBN 978-1-907702-58-7.