Classic RPG Review #11: Talislanta Fantasy Roleplaying

fourth edition hardcover
by Stephan Michael Sechi, John Harper, Adam Sonfield
2001 SMS / Shootingiron Design

“The Fourth edition of Talislanta is dedicated to Jack Vance, preeminent author of fantasy and science fiction...” This dedication pretty much sums up where the inspiration for this game came from. And even if Jack Vance's name is mentioned nowhere else in the text, there is no other game that captures the feeling of Vance's novels so well.

Talislanta is a huge, sprawling world of wonder. It's full of curious races, strange creatures, creatively eccentric magic and unexpected customs and fantasies. Think of Nagra spirit trackers, Sindaran effectuators, two headed dragonlike Duadir, lionlike Jaka beastmasters, Chana witchdoctors, enchantingly beautiful Batrean paramours, or dead ugly Saurean gladiators. Or any of hundreds of other templates and creature races. Most of them with a well crafted pencil illustration – otherwise you'd have no idea. It's beautiful. And pretty weird. Much like the Dying Earth novels or Tschai series that Vance wrote. So I guess he is just not named for copyright reasons.

Personally I did not get around to playing the game, maybe because it's too different from the average fantasy setting. There are no elves, nor dwarves. No orcs. So where do you start as a player? It's harder to sell for a game master than say, AD&D. Maybe I should let my players visit as off worlders to get a feel for it first. Or maybe I should let them read the Dying Earth novels, tweak Talislanta a bit, and ask them to build characters that would fit in the Vance stories.

For now the tome lies on the coffee table every once in a while, trying to entice me and my players. One day it will draw us in, maybe. Five hundred pages. Just about a hundred pages of rules. Most of these are spell lists and skill descriptions. The other four hundred pages are filled with background, artwork, sprawls of character templates and extended world information. The setting is definitely the most important in Talislanta, not the rules. I think the writers have their priorities right.

The rules are light, slick, and fairly realistic. I always find that a good sign. They may leave a lot to the imagination of the game master, but it also gives game master and players more time to focus on story than on rules. Doing an action is like rolling a twentysided die, adding a modifier or two, and “consulting the action table”. This table is so short, you'll know it by heart in three minutes. Making a character is picking a template (that takes most time), and modifying it a bit. All very simple. Then you can start playing.

And that's where the game starts falling short. Where to start? In the hefty hardback there are adventure seeds, but not an example adventure. Nor an example of play. There is no obvious grand scheme of a campaign to run. And since there are no elves or orcs, and it's not your average sword and sorcery, what's your theme? Perhaps the designers figured you should play a grand tour of their continent. “Talislanta on Twenty Gold Lumens a Day”. But as far as I scanned they don't say so.

And that's a bit of a shame, because the work is so inspiring otherwise. It's so hugely different. The artwork and fantasies are so wondrous. I guess the best way to go about it is just do that grand tour. Have the player characters on a mission to deliver a very special package at the other end of Talislanta. And then work through the book region by region, thinking up small plots and encounters along the way. It will be as surprising to the game master as it will be to the players. Actually, I kind of feel like it.

(rules are simple, elegant, and fairly easy to learn, although they leave much open to the game master, hardcore table toppers may find the rules fall short)
(Talislanta is as different, sprawling, wondrous and strange as you may ever find a work. It's also closest to Jack Vance's fantasies, detailed, and well illustrated)
(you'll have to do a lot of work as a game master to set up a campaign and make adventures work. Because so much is new, unknown and not immediately part of our common subconscious, you may have a hard time relating the real feel of the game.)
(wondrous Vancian fantasy, like the Dying Earth or Tschai series, with Moorcock-esque and Arabian Nights elements, scores of weird races, and absolutely no elves, dwarves or orcs, a simple d20 based – but not WotC – set of rules)


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