Friday, March 29, 2024

A Boring History Lesson on the Much More Interesting Talislanta, the Game That Won't Die

I started writing about Talislanta a few weeks ago and realized I was cramming way too many things into a single post again, so I've decided to split the wordcount up a bit.

You can read the more gamey bits here once those are finished.

1st Edition

In 1987, after several trips and false starts, a tiny publisher named Bard Games, headed by a weird and eclectic saxophonist named Stephen Michael Sechi, released the first edition of the Talislanta roleplaying game. It distinguished itself from other fantasy worlds of the time with its relative lack of inspiration and/or derivation from Tolkien or European mythology, in favor of a slightly more exotic and more obviously post-apocalyptic feel (not to say that LotR isn't a post-apocalypse story).

It's more influenced by Horror Person Lovecraft's Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath (my favorite thing by Lovecraft ever, partly because the fussy Cheez-It eater hated the story himself) and Jack Vance's Dying Earth setting- though interestingly, this did not extend to pilfering Vance's magic system like certain other games of the time were doing.

To simplify greatly, Talislanta is a game of optimistic post-apocalypse. The world was trashed by the fall of a magical empire 600 years prior in a Great Disaster, leaving the world scarred and full of magical aberration. You pick your character from dozens of archetypes ranging from mage-hunters, to mutants, to lizard people, to hyper-intelligent snails, and have yourself a Weird Fantasy adventure with occasional magitech and airships thrown in.

From its inception Talislanta was played using a skills-based resolution system where every action is decided using a single d20 roll on the Action Table. The Action Table operates on intent, and weighs the outcome against what you wanted to happen with possible mishaps or unforeseen bonuses depending on how bad or well you roll. It was consciously streamlined in a way that most systems making use of the d20 in the '80s were not.

2nd Edition

Between 1988 and 1990 a series of Talislanta books was published that updated the game to second edition piecemeal. These were small rules revisions, additional character backgrounds, some optional systems for edge cases of gameplay like mass combat, etc. These books were then collated into a single gamebook plus a world atlas. As far as new editions go it was a rather mild update, on par with the AD&D 1E to 2E jump.

Bard Games then went out of business.

That would have been the end of the story of Talislanta, if not for the timely arrival of a plucky young TTRPG company that had just recently emerged on the scene and was looking to grow its modest catalogue. The company decided to go out on a limb and buy the license to publish a new edition of Talislanta in collaboration with Sechi in 1992.

That company?

Wizards of the fricking Coast.

3rd Edition

At this point WotC were a brand new company that only had one other game, The Primal Order, to their name. Hell, they hadn't even started Magic: The Gathering yet. What a weird, small world we live in. And what a glimpse into what could have been. Imagine if they had stuck with Talislanta or other weird little games like Everway instead of snapping up D&D and going the way they did.

Regardless, this gave Talislanta another lease on life, and for 2 more years WotC published the third edition of the game. The differences in this edition were more pronounced, shifting the game away from a purely skills-based system to one that combined skills and more traditional character level progression. The timeline also advanced 20 years, with new developments and subplots that found their way into some of the first full-length adventures for the game, also published under WotC.

WotC then dropped Talislanta in 1994 and pivoted to other projects like MtG, which proved to be explosively popular at the previous year's Gen Con.

Anniversary Edition

The license shifted hands again then, to a small Canadian company named Daedalus Entertainment. Daedalus' only other RPG was Feng Shui but their primary focus was on the collectible card game Shadowfist, which shared a universe with Feng Shui. It was kind of a weird urban fantasy Legend of Five Rings situation. It seemed like the trend of a new edition with every new publisher would continue with Daedalus, but development of the next Talislanta languished for years, and eventually the CCG crash of 1997 bankrupted the company with no new Talislanta published.

But 1997 was an auspicious year. It would be Talislanta's 10th anniversary, and Sechi hoped to have a new book out in honor of the date. So he shopped the license around a little more, and eventually found Pharos Press. I'd never heard of them before, and they don't even have a Wikipedia page these days, but they seem most notable for publishing the first edition of Nobilis back in the day. Pharos got to work, but production was plagued by setbacks that delayed publication repeatedly, until finally 1997 came and went with only a mostly-finished new edition extant in the form of a handful of ashcan prints. The licensee was also nasty to work with and "treated Tal fans like sh*t" during that time, reports Sechi.

4th Edition

Sechi pulled the license from Pharos Press after that, and took some of the ashcans with him. When the publisher Shooting Iron took over and in Sechi's words saved the day, they based their version of Talislanta on the unpublished Pharos draft, to the point that the failed 10th Anniversary edition and the successful fourth edition of 2001 are mostly identical. Or at least that's the usual claim that people, including Sechi himself, have made; the ashcan copies are extremely rare, and I don't believe they've ever been scanned and uploaded to the internet, so I haven't been able to take a look for myself.

When people talk about how Talislanta is the game that just won't die, this is what they mean. Every time a deal falls through or a publisher up and evaporates, it springs up in another mutation of itself somewhere else. And this isn't because of some massive fandom clamoring for more. Don't get me wrong, Talislanta has always had very devoted fans. But they've always been more of a cult following due to the game's relative lack of mass appeal compared to the leviathans that came to dominate the industry. Yet they've shown up for the game year after year and helped carry it forward into the new century. Sechi's stubborn determination to manifest his game the way he's envisioned it certainly helps, too.

Talislanta fourth edition (AKA the Big Blue Book) scrapped the character level mechanic of third edition, refined its magic system to be more freeform and versatile, and reined in most of the bits of NPC-centric metaplot that started to become prominent in third edition. You will sometimes see it written online that Talislanta refuses to have a metaplot, but I think it's more accurate to say they tried it early on, found it didn't work super well with the rest of the game, and then dropped the idea. Whatever the reason though, Talislanta took a step back and tried to become more evergreen with its content at a time when years-long adventure paths and character-focused stories with their own continuities and regular installments of new lore were becoming the norm.

Shooting Iron published Talislanta materials until 2005, at which point it relinquished the license after its largest distributor went out of business without paying them. This cut out most of the money the company should have made off of fourth edition. But instead of languishing in development hell for years again, Talislanta quickly and successfully changed hands to Morrigan Press, which then published a slew of fourth edition material. It took 18 years, but the game finally had a peaceful transfer of publisher power!

Talislanta d20

Sechi shifted toward music as a full-time career at this time in his life, and he let Morrigan Press go wild with the license without any direct involvement from him. As a result, Morrigan Press was perhaps the most prolific of all Talislanta publishers. It released about a dozen titles for fourth edition in 2005-2006, as well as an OGL d20 adaptation of the game. They even blurred the lines between the two parallel versions of the game by including dual stats for both games for their monsters in the 4th edition Talislanta Menagerie.

Everybody and their auntie was scrambling to shoehorn their IP into a d20 book in an attempt to ride the wave of almost-mainstream success enjoyed by D&D 3E at the time, no matter how weird the fit was. I call this the 3E Gold Rush, for lack of a better name. It's unsurprising that even Talislanta joined ranks with such names as Iron Kingdoms, Farscape, and World Wrestling Entertainment. If it sold well, it could have buoyed the IP as a whole.

Did anybody actually play this one, or was it only used
as episode fodder by early YouTube gaming channels?

The d20 version tries its best to emulate the other edition within 3.5E without shaking too much up, but even at a glance it's not the same. I might give it a full blog post comparison someday, but for now I'll leave it at a few observations.

Only some of the playable cultures in the base games make the cut in d20, although balance between them is as stylistically wonky as in the source material. There's a "Restricted Classes" rule that some species have that is never explained anywhere in the book. Are they forbidden from playing that class entirely? Can they only not start as one at 1st level? Is it a matter of class level caps? They never state. 

Some of the classes they wrote or retooled are interesting choices, like removing rage from Barbarians and making them more wilderness warriors with a few Ranger abilities. Others raise my eyebrow in suspicion, because I think they were stolen from other third-party d20 books.

Take for example the Scout class' 15th level ability, Heroic Sacrifice, which lets you continue to fight even after being reduced to -10 hit points, not dying until the end of combat. It's unusual, flavorful, rules-wonky, and almost identical to the 15th level Borderer class ability from the Conan the Roleplaying Game, another d20 book first published in 2003.

I recognized such a weirdly specific "your wilderness scout's ability is to die for your friends" class feature immediately from my days when I gave a crap about the Hyborian Age. It's very clearly ripped from it and then slightly tweaked. Heck, even the way the text is formatted in each book cuts some of the words up in identical ways.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not decrying Morrigan Press' writers here. I don't think they did anything especially wrong by copying an ability from another OGL property; that's kind of the reason why we have those licenses to begin with. Some of the Conan stuff was extremely shallow and in the spirit of the 3E cash-in craze too, for fairness' sake. It's just kind of weird and funny to me.

They do an admirable job trying to port freeform magic over without falling back on Vancian magic, which I fully expected them to do for an OGL game. But it's a good job achieving what's ultimately an imperfect fit, and it leaves the d20 skill system begging for even greater abuse than usual; modes of magic are skills in this version of the game, you see, and d20 skills can be... janky.

Also the book suffers from a few editing issues, like the unforgiveable "Gamemaster's Only" chapter heading.

5th Edition

After dipping their toes in d20 for a bit, Morrigan Press returned to more traditional Talislanta in 2006, but in yet another form; fifth edition. It is largely a continuation of previous Talislanta rules, with some minor alterations like a magic rework, and some big ones like the point-based character building system. The builder brought Talislanta in line with many other skill-based RPGs, but it also took something that was somewhat unique and appealing about Talislanta—character archetypes—and relegated them to a mere optional rule buried toward the back of the book. It wasn't a fanbase breaker, but among the criticisms made about fifth edition, this was among the biggest.

And I slightly agree? I know that sounds weird coming from the guy who abhors impositions like race/class limits or race-as-class. Don't get me wrong, I would 100% enjoy building a character from scratch (and probably will in a New System, New Face post sometime). But the bundles of abilities, gear, and lore that archetypes are were designed in a fun way that help add to the characterization of the world without locking players into a single gameplay path, similar to how Dark Souls starting classes work.

If archetypes were limiting in the long-term the way D&D classes are, or if Talislanta the game was intended to be played with universes other than Talislanta the setting, I'd welcome the change fully. But that isn't the case, so I am left feeling a very slight amount of loss from the change.

Perhaps the changes in fifth edition played a part, or perhaps there was a lot else going on behind the scenes, but the end result is that in 2008 Morrigan Press went out of business, as so many other publishers of Talislanta tend to do. The curse returned, and for almost a decade the game laid dormant.

Talislanta: The Savage Land

But Talislanta isn't only a game. It dabbled in short stories since the '90s, with the release of the Tales of Talislanta anthology. And in 2015 Talislanta returned to narrative storytelling via graphic novel.

In the Tales of the Savage Lands web comic, Sechi and artist Ben Dennett tell the story of the Vandar endling Severus as he tries to survive in the Age of Confusion immediately following the Great Disaster that ended the world. It's a story of loss, struggle for survival, and the sheer smoldering ruin of the world, quite unlike the tone of modern Talislanta. The comic was eventually completed, taken down, and then published for sale with the help of a Kickstarter as The Savage Land - The Graphic Novel in 2017.

Savage Land served as a distant prequel to the modern age of Talislanta, as well as the first car in a new Talislanta hype-train. Also in 2017 Sechi teamed up with Nocturnal Media, headed by Stewart Wieck, one of the founders of White Wolf, of all people. Their mission was to turn the Savage Land setting into a new edition of Talislanta.

They started a Kickstarter campaign with an ambitious goal: a new Talislanta book, x5. First, they would publish the nearly complete Savage Land for normal Talislanta rules. Then, they would port it to D&D 5E, Savage Worlds, Pathfinder RPG 1E, and OpenD6.

The KS launched on March 29, 2017, coinciding with the game's 30th anniversary. It started off good and got better, funding in ~12 hours and steadily blowing through stretch goals day after day before totaling just under $70k (out of an initial goal of $10k) a month later. Things were on the up-and-up, and it looked like the shotgun approach would work.

Of course, this being Talislanta, that couldn't last for long.

First, Stewart Wieck died in June, throwing the continued existence of Nocturnal Media into jeopardy. Then, it became clear that despite funding very successfully, the project had bitten off more than it could chew: the number of orders placed by Talislanta's devoted fans could not justify porting The Savage Land to every system they had planned. Savage Worlds and Pathfinder had to be scrapped, leaving just the Talislanta, 5E, and D6 versions. Somewhat understandably, a wave of refunds quickly followed as people who had wanted those specific books backed out. Then, somebody linked a spambot to the refund survey form and spoiled all of the response data, forcing the whole process to start over again.

This was in addition to a host of other, more minor issues like BackerKit glitches, delays in printing and fulfillment, and all the other stuff you tend to get with big Kickstarter projects.

But in spite of all of the screwups and bad luck, Talislanta: The Savage Land launched in 2019.

... Aaand since I didn't back the KS and I don't happen to have $50USD to burn comparing and contrasting the three different books, I have to keep actual details of this edition to a minimum.

I never said I was a good historian.

But! I do know a few things for certain.

Savage Land expands the scope of gameplay by including an optional campaign mode where each PC is the leader of a tribe struggling to survive in this new dark age. Leading, protecting, and helping your tribes flourish can allow you to eventually forge larger polities that can then exert their will on the continent at large, enforcing the 'order' of empire on the vacuum left behind by the sudden and literal fall of the Archaens.

It can even set the stage for your own custom campaign in modern Talislanta, where the actions of one party and their tribes can fundamentally shape the face of the world for the folks who come along 600 years later.

The Great Disaster has also caused a rash of anti-magician prejudice, which causes the prequel to be a lower-magic setting compared to modern Talislanta. You can still use magic if you so choose, but your character has a higher chance of being killed by an angry mob than you might normally expect.

Going into the 2020s (and all the existential fun those have been so far), I might've expected Talislanta to coast along with this new edition for a few years, publishing a handful more books before reentering dormancy, like it always does. Not so.

6th/Epic/Final Edition

Last year saw a campaign to fund the 6th edition of Talislanta, also known as the Epic Edition for the name of its new publisher, Everything Epic, who also seems to have inherited rights to all of The Savage Lands products after Nocturnal Media shifted to focusing on its outstanding projects in the wake of Wieck's death.

6E/Epic is intended to be a greatest hits album of every edition up to this point, synthesized together into a truly gigantic set of tomes that sets out to complete the game and the world as Sechi always envisioned it. It will consist of a player's guide, menagerie, and world atlas, accompanied by a novel, and a 5E conversion guide, because we're in the midst of our own 5E Gold Rush at the moment.

It's also known as the Final Edition because, well, this is it.

The game will be considered finished after this point, and no further development is planned. In a market where so many recognizable IPs chug along on creative fumes for as long as it's possible and profitable to, I respect the desire for a clean cut and a graceful bowing-out after so long a fight.

I hope they nail it. We'll see, when the books ship sometime this year.

But at the time of writing, the end of Talislanta is not yet written, and this overdone overview can finally peter out.

4/12 Edit: I was remound in the comments below to include a link to the official Talislanta website where ALL of the older editions of the game are available for free, forever, after Sechi released them under the Creative Commons license. Dive into the trove here.


  1. Great article - and almost everything in it is 100% true :) I'm the weird saxophonist who create Talislanta, and I wanted to thank you for publishing all of that info. The only minor corrections I would add are: 1) the Pharos Press version was caned because I pulled the license (the licensee was treating Tal fans like sh*t so he had to go). 2) Shooting Iron came in and saved the day for the game's fans, putting out the (IMO) fantastic 4th Edition book (AKA the Big Blue book) and a strange but (IMO) fun supplement called The Midnight Realm. The Big Blue book actually sold quite well, but Shootingiron got ripped off for most of the money they should have made after their largest distributor folded and didn't pay them. 3) the 5th Edition is the only edition that I wasn't involved wth in any way; I was busy writing music for a living and just let the licensee run with it any way they wanted to.

    One aside: after Morrigan went out of business, I decided to give away all of the the Talislanta books ever published (editions 1-5) for free in PDF format. The Tal community pitched in to scan all of the books, and the PDFs were released or free on They're still there, and still free - so anyone reading this, please feel free to help yourself to a big batch of free RPG books. :) Thanks again for publishing that article - much appreciated.

    1. Thank you so much for this! I really have to up my research game. Sorry about all the bumps and drama you and your partners went through- I've been meaning to give Midnight Realm (and more of the cosmology in general) a thorough read. 4E really is a treat.

      I'll include the corrections ASAP, as well as point out the free books here. I did remember to do that in the 4E post I made, at least.

      While I've got you here, I listened to some of your albums. Soul Power is pretty groovy! Do you have any standout inspirations for your music?