The ad featured in Dragon Magazine had the headline “no elves…” I found The Chronicles of Talislanta in my local Waldenbooks. And that’s how my love affair with Talislanta began. That love has survived five editions of a game that an awesome guy named Stephan Michael Sechi dared to dream.
In his interview on talislanta.com, Mr. Sechi expounds upon his journey of writing and creating Talislanta that began in 1987. It’s a good read, and one I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of this RPG. I’d say that Talislanta is one of three games that have managed to capture and hold my imagination consistently throughout my own history of playing and running RPGs.
As I mentioned, Talislanta has been through five editions. So first, let’s take a look at the common bond between all five editions. It has remained virtually unchanged through all five editions, and you’ll find it in each. It’s called the Action Table, and one of the publishers that had licensed Talislanta (Morrigan Press) created a system around the mechanic they called the Omni System.
The Action Table is a pretty simple mechanic used to determine the results of any action a character undertakes that might come into question within the game. The numbers have remained the same throughout all five editions: 0 or less represents a Mishap, 1-5 represents a miss, 6-10 represents a partial success, 11-19 represents a success, and 20+ indicates a critical hit.
One thing that’s critical in all versions of Talislanta is that, before rolling, you must state the intent behind your action. It’s enough to say that you are trying to succeed at picking a lock, striking an opponent, or leaping a chasm. But should you state your intent as disarming an opponent with your strike, or slicing a tendon in their leg to reduce their capacity to chase after you when you run away, or blind them with the sparkles from your spell that creates dancing lights, these special effects are achieved (in addition to damage) with a critical hit. It’s really up to the player’s imagination as to what they wish to do with their intent, and although some of the game rules do describe a variety of these effects, nearly every edition relies upon the player’s description and the game master’s adjudication of these results.
Modifiers to the Action Table have varied by edition. These modifiers are very sparsely described in the first and second edition, but include comparing the “Degree of Difficulty” to the rating of the Skill the character and using the difference as a modifier is using that is common in all editions. While first and second edition had no scale for this degree of difficulty other than the GM’s ruling, the Third Edition and beyond use a scale of difficulty between 1-10.
Attributes play into modifying an Action Table roll as well. The eight attributes a character possesses have remained the same throughout all editions, and I find them to be my favorite attribute spreads in any RPGs I have played or run: Intelligence, Perception, Will, Charisma, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Speed. Secondary attributes including Combat Rating, Magic Rating, and hit Points have remained mostly unchanged until the fifth edition split Combat Rating into Combat Rating and Ranged Combat Rating. Like any RPG, these attributes inform how capable your character is in their natural abilities.
In every edition of Talislanta, Skills also factor into modifying an Action Table roll. Skills have been organized into categories based upon their application in every edition as well. For example, someone who wishes their character to specialize in the thieving “arts” would select skills such as Legerdemain, Stealth, and Streetwise. Combat skills are represented by Brawling, Arimite Knife-Fighting, and specific weapons. There are also Common skills that anyone might have a good chance to know. The fourth edition features a special group of skills known as Backgrounds, that represent catch-all knowledge one with a specific background such as Nomadic, Rural, Urban, or Wandering might have. These skills were presented as Common skills (Customs) in the third edition of the game.
The first through third edition of Talislanta included character level, much like Dungeons & Dragons does. A character’s level affected their skill ratings and combat and magic ratings as well. Character level was dismissed in determining a character’s capabilities with the fourth edition, and those capabilities became solely determined by skill rating after that through fifth edition.
One thing that remained unchanged through fourth edition was character generation. A player selects an archetype, and may modify that archetype’s ability scores slightly, and writes up their character sheet according to the archetype’s information, giving their character a name and describing them. Each archetype contains the abilities, skills, equipment, and capabilities of a specific character type such as an Arimite Knife-Fighter, a Dhuna Witch, a Cymrilian Magician, and many, many more.
Fifth edition Talislanta presented a few tweaks to the archetype presentation. The Paths system of character generation was introduced, allowing more customization in character generation. Each Path represents a training period of years in which certain skills were practiced and learned. In theory, Paths could replicate archetypes very easily. In practice, I’ve found starting characters using Paths to be older, and often less skilled, than similar archetypes would be from previous editions (and even within Fifth).
Fifth edition also expanded on a system presented for Fourth edition by a widely accepted fan writer, Colin Chapman. Quirks were introduced as special abilities that any character could take, and introduced minor mechanical advantages (or disadvantages) for taking those quirks.
The magic system has varied in editions of Talislanta, ranging from a small list + create more of your own in first-second edition, to a wider-ranging list in third edition, to a much more player-dependent effects-based system in fourth-fifth edition. When deciding upon an edition of Talislanta to play, I would urge prospective players to consider this. Is your group willing to go with a more free-form approach to magic that involves them providing the detailing of their own spells within an effects-based system, or would they prefer a list of spells to choose from?
Another aspect of a game I like to examine in my review is the physical presentation of the game. Layout, artwork, and writing style frequently inform someone’s opinion on a game. In Talislanta’s case, easily the best representation among presentation would be Fourth Edition. The fourth edition of the game is presented in a single volume (often called the BBB or big blue book) by fans. The layout by the Shooting Iron team was amazing and in my opinion the best of the editions. The artwork throughout all editions, especially that done by P.D. Breeding-Black, Adam Black, and Ron Spencer was fantastic, all of it amazingly representative and evocative of the game world itself.
And the game world contains no elves. The standard fantasy races one would expect are entirely absent, in fact. Instead, you will find Thralls, Muses, Vajrans, Kang, and a wide variety of races designed for the game and living in the world of Talislanta. It is a colorful imaginary place with amazingly detailed flora, fauna, and inhabitants.
The Archaen people of Talislanta were the first intelligent race that picked up the art of altering reality through magic. In time, their civilization fell in a Great Disaster whose origin is still uncertain. Many of the current denizens of Talislanta are the descendants of these Archaens, One such group is divided in philosophy rather sharply, although they both originate from the same peoples. The Zandu are a culture of people who believe in Ten Thousand gods, and are vibrantly colorful and emotional people. The Aamanians are a culture of people who believe in but one god, Aa the Omniscient, and are repressive of individual expression and emotion. The two cultures have clashed for centuries, but their warfare has worn down both nations enough that a truce was called, and the two now separate their once-united capital city by a great wall.
There are also the Thralls, a race that masters the application of combat and warfare, who were magically bred by the ancient Archaens for physical protection. And the Ariane, a race of transcendent mystics who believe in reincarnation. And the Gnomekin, a diminutive race of underground-dwellers. And the Muses, a butterfly-winged race of ephemerally beautiful artists. And I could continue onward, but I can’t even begin to scratch the surface in describing all of the races present in Talislanta in this space.
In exploring Talislanta, your first choice would be to choose which edition you’d like to play. They aren’t that separated in concept and game play, other than the magic systems and character generation, as I described above. My own personal selection, after years of play and introducing several groups to the game and world, is the third edition.
You can find all of the editions of Talislanta and their volumes available at talislanta.com to download for free here, thanks to the generosity of the game world’s creator, Stephan Michael Sechi. I urge you to check them out, see what you like, and play Talislanta!