Friday, March 29, 2024

Let's Dig Into: Talislanta 4E

It's time for a less indie but still not quite mainstream RPG that has recently captured my interest: Talislanta. Originally this was going to be part of the "New System, New Face" series until I realized how ill a fit that would be, which we'll get into later. But even without character generation shenanigans, I feel this game is very worthy of going over.

It's gonna get quirky.

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 would become semi-famous, or at least an enduring cult classic, both for its fresh setting compared to many other TTRPGs on the market in the late '80s, and for its stubborn refusal to die, like so many other titles of that era did.

You can read my unnecessarily long-winded post about the history of the game as an IP in the companion piece over here, when I finally finish it.

Talislanta 4th Edition is the version of the game that I'm most familiar with, and which seems to enjoy the most popularity online at the moment. So that's what I'm going to be focusing on in this post, where I actually look at the gamey bits.

If you want to read along, or if you want to learn about the game without the filter of my yapping, note that digital copies of all of the old editions of Talislanta are available for free forever because Sechi released them under the Creative Commons license.

The World

Talislanta distinguished itself from other fantasy worlds of the time with its relative lack of inspiration/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.

In the backstory of Talislanta, the eponymous continent (located on the world of Archaeus, orbiting a binary star system somewhere in an unknown galaxy) was dominated for eons by the First Folk. The First Folk were a mysterious and vaguely amphibian/reptilian species that existed long before mammals. Eventually mammalian peoples called the Wild Races (sometimes derisively called "sub-men") evolved and stumbled ass-backwards into an ancient crashed alien spaceship, where they learned magic. One of the Wild Races then used magic to forcibly unite their brethren, overthrow the First Folk, and begin a millennia-spanning golden age as the Archaen Empire.

No, it's not 'Archaean' like I am constantly having to stop myself from typing here.

Like all despotic magocratic empires, the Archaen Empire eventually did something to wreck the planet. Details are vague, but it's believed they did something with just a little bit too much magical energy in their floating sky-cities that sent them hurtling from orbit and nuking large sections of the continent in an event known as The Great Disaster.

Six centuries later, the world is still toast, but things have settled down enough to start moving around again. Sure, much of the land is still mutant-choked wasteland or so magically irradiated that normal weather phenomena include "black lightning" or "icicle rain", and the number of super-powered plants and insects rivals a Dark Sun monster manual, but that can all be managed by a couple of weirdo drifters, no problem! It's an optimistic and enthusiastically adventure-friendly apocalypse.

I am barely scratching the surface here, though. Out of the 500+ pages in the 4th edition rulebook, over 300 of them are dedicated to a traveler's guide to Talislanta told from the perspective of the kooky mage Tamerlin. This is sandwiched between ~100 pages of rules up front and the remaining 80 or so of GM advice, tables, and appendices in back. The world is the heart of the book, as well as the game.

The People

Talislanta advertisements past and present proudly proclaim that the game contains "NO ELVES" (or dwarves, or orcs, or any other standard fantasy species). This tagline is hilarious to me for how narrowly, technically true it is, though Talislanta does deliver a markedly different flavor of fantasy that I find interesting.

Dozens of humanoid and not-so-humanoid species are descended from the Wild Races, Archaen survivors, magical hybrids and experiments, and extraplanar entities that came into existence over the course of the past few ages, and the vast majority of them are playable. Some of them are quite unique, like the giant mollusk philosophers called Snipes, chill anthropomorphic Mogroth sloths, or a person from the Marukan culture that has been generationally cursed to always be poor, depressed dung merchants. I'm pretty sure one of the editions even lets you play an Equs, which is literally just an intelligent lizard-horse.

Other options seem visually unique at first glance, but thematically fit into one or more of the slots normally occupied by more standard fantasy creatures. About a half-dozen are essentially humans with different cultures and different technicolor skin tones like green or purple; the Kang are Blizzard Orcs who look like red reptile people; the Ur are Tolkien Orcs who look like Blizzard Orcs; Thralls are the precursors/inspirations/rip-off victims of later Dark Sun's Mulls except albino and tattooed to hell; and the Ariane are mystical enlightened precursors who look identical to the Drow of other games, and are so excruciatingly elvish that TVTropes just sticks them under that trope heading in the article.

Tropes aren't bad, though. Having some of the familiar around helps accentuate the weirdness of the rest of the world's flavor. It also serves a gameplay function by getting player archetypes and their attendant flavors and concepts out the door and into the player's creative headspace quickly and easily.

Speaking of archetypes...


Talislanta is a classless game. Instead it has archetypes, which are similar to the starting packages and character backgrounds we've seen in games like d100 systems or Soulslike vidyas. Each archetype is a combination of species, abilities, starting skills, possessions, and explicit or implied history such as profession or societal role. They occupy half a page each, and mostly consist of second-person lore snippets and a headshot.

Side note, I love these giant goobers and want to set aside
my hatred of all food long enough to give them snacks.

They're simple, easy to approach, and just picking one constitutes the majority of actual character creation in most editions of Talislanta. You could probably use it in place of a proper character sheet in a pinch. Next, you can raise or lower a few of your attributes and make skill selections allowed by your archetype to personalize your character, before going on to shopping and doing the finishing details. Notably (for me, at least) there are no derived attributes in 4E, unlike previous editions and many other d20 games.

Archetypes are why I can't exactly make a New Face using 4E, because it'd be the shortest post I've ever made. But as soon as I get more familiar with the 5th edition (of Talislanta, not the D&D 5E adaptation of Talislanta, which is a separate game that also exists, I know it's confusing) I'll definitely fiddle around with the point-based character building rules there.

There are over 100 archetypes to choose from in the core book, even excluding the NPC-only options. Speaking of which, I think those are kind of a silly imposition. The game does not care about balance from the outset; different archetypes have wildly varying power levels right out the gate, and the game wears this on its sleeve as another manifestation of its flavorful weirdness. But certain archetypes are singled out as for NPCs only in the book, and the choices feel arbitrary. Some are a little weaker overall or less geared up to start adventuring, while others might be more unusual to see abroad considering their society, but so what? Why withhold this tiny shred of player freedom?

He asked rhetorically while acting like "just ignore the NPC tag" isn't an option.

After picking one, you don't have to conform to your archetype, and your character can grow in any direction you choose. Your Snipe Sage can embark on the path of a savage brawler, or your Kharakhan Giant can try their huge, calloused hand at magic. You can't alter your starting attributes after character creation (not even hit points, in a weirdly TROIKA!-esque design choice), but skills are unlimited. Overcoming your archetype's inherent deficiencies and specializing into something unusual is just a matter of time, and surviving long enough to get XP for your next skill rank.

But before I launch into how to get and spend XP, I should probably touch on how the game is actually played.

The Action Table

I might find the gameplay of Talislanta more compelling than its setting. Across all editions of the game (besides the d20 system offshoots), there is one central mechanic for basically every action and reaction a character can take. Appropriately enough, this is called the Action Table.

The Action Table is a single d20 roll that functions on intent. How well you roll explains how well you succeed at the thing you wanted to do, possibly with unforeseen good or bad consequences. That's right; Talislanta's been dabbling in the "fail forward" philosophy since the 1980s.

What you want to do also determines which skill, attribute, and/or miscellaneous modifier is most appropriate to add to/subtract from the roll. Instead of meeting variable DCs like in other d20 systems, here the situational difficulty of an action is expressed through a Degree of Difficulty modifier that can range from +10 (trivially easy) to -15 ("beyond extreme" as the book calls it).

Once you tally your mods and roll, you compare it to the Action Table and the GM arbitrates the results. Some have clear precedent in the written rules, like how a Partial Success on an attack roll might result in dealing half its damage rating to the target. Others are up to more flexible interpretation, like how a Mishap while leaping between rooftops could consist of wonking your face on the far ledge before falling all the way down.

You can also accept a stacking -5 penalty to take multiple actions per turn until you roll a Mishap, which creates an interesting dynamic where you have to strategize and decide how much you want to press your luck. Because taking multiple turns at once is awesome, but if you fail it could backfire spectacularly and erase some or all of your erstwhile success. 

The complications and windfalls are very dependent upon GM arbitration, but the direction for the action to go in and the rolls themselves are entirely player-facing. This extends to combat, where players roll defenses like Dodge or Parry against enemy actions, and things like weapons and armor are passive modifiers to the Action Table or its results.

What you end up with is a game that shifts player responsibility around and switches up the cadence of the player-GM conversation compared to D&D, without any real radical changes.

It's a sleek system, and I wanna steal it for something someday.

You might notice a similarity between this and the unified system of True20, like what Blue Rose uses. They have quite a bit in common, including the lack of emphasis on any other die size besides d20. Talislanta does use a more robust skill list however, and True20 hangs onto many elements of the basic 3E d20 system that Talislanta is not beholden to (unless of course you're playing the Talislanta d20 or the upcoming Talislanta for D&D 5E versions).

Also unlike the other not-quite-d20 games is how Talislanta handles magic, as I alluded to earlier.


Magic in Talislanta has seen better days- or worse, depending on how you view the multiple apocalypses that have happened thanks to rampant misuse of the arcane. Magic as it is practiced now is weaker and less understood than in the Archaen days, and as such there are certain things that magic is incapable of doing. You can't control time, blend two orders or modes of magic together at once, revive the dead, or create new life wholesale. These are hard limits that cap the magical shenanigans you can expect in the game, making magicians less game- or world-breaking than your average wizards or CoDZillas. Unless of course the GM decides to start handing out old Archaen magic...

Magic in 4E is essentially an extension of the skill system that uses the exact same Action Table. You learn different "orders" of magic that are best thought of as different ways of conceiving of magic, and styles in which that magic is harnessed; they are the sum of cultural traditions, taboos, and local mythologies. Example orders include elemental magic, shamanism, necromancy, cartomancy, witchcraft, etc.

Orders are mechanically differentiated by the advantages and disadvantages they possess, like cartomancy being very discreet and quiet, but requiring a deck of Zodar cards to function at all. They also have a unique class of enchanted item that can only be made by that order, like special wands or protective medallions tuned to the order's style of magic. Each order also has a list of available modes, and the bonuses and penalties that they give to each.

Modes are 12 forms that magic effects can take: alter, attack, conjure, defend, heal, illusion, influence, move, reveal, summon, transform, and ward. These may resemble schools of magic from other systems, but instead of being lists of specific, thematically related spells, each mode is essentially the guidelines for creating your own custom spells of that type on the fly. Some modes can also be reversed like the OD&D spells of old, such as summon spells being reversible to banish summoned entities. The book gives a few example spells for each order, but they're really only there to get you thinking about how to produce your own magical effects.

Amusingly, in-universe this is not how magic works. Instead, each Talislantan magician is assumed to have memorized hundreds of discrete little spells that they pull from on the fly like the world's most flexible Vancian mage, and players are encouraged to come up with evocative names for each as a way of fleshing out their identity as a magic-user. It's purely a gameplay contrivance that we the players design all of our spells on our own.

I think they should have made freeform magic the case for the lore too; it's just more interesting and fits the world better.

Custom spells operate on intent and require a roll on the Action Table like everything else, with bonuses or penalties depending upon how strong, specific, long-lasting, broad, etc. the desired effect is. For example, say a magician wants to cast an illusion spell. They increase the spell level according to how long a range (in 50' increments) they want for the spell, duration (for every round above 5), and how many features the spell has; extra senses affected, animation, complex elements, etc. More stuff means you roll with a bigger penalty.

Even the biggest modes that have multiple optional spell features are never longer than 1 page each, which means there's little bookkeeping. And since you acquire new modes the same way you do skills—by spending XP and many in-narrative weeks training—you're likely to gain more spells at a very gradual rate that lets you get used to each mode, and find creative uses for them.

Other Skills

The rest of the game's skills cover almost everything else that isn't casting spells or killing folks. They range from climbing, to engineering, to fluency in individual languages (including a universal sign language, which might be the first one I've seen in a fantasy TTRPG), to oddities like fashion sense or playing Trivarian, which is a weird abstract 'game' of skill unique to the two-brained Sindaran species.

But what I like the most is that they devised little nets for some of the gaps between listed skills, since those can never be exhaustive in a game limited only by the creativity of its players and the tolerance for nonsense of its referee. No matter how hard the writers try, there will always be edge cases. To help with that, they came up with Backgrounds.

Backgrounds are your character's choice of, well, background. Nomadic, Rural, Urban, and Wandering characters are each assumed to have basic familiarity with tasks and concepts important to the environments in which they grew up. As such, they each function as fallback skills for broadly applicable categories; if you aren't skilled in anything else appropriate for the situation at hand, you might be able to justify a roll on your Background skill.

And That's It

The game is deceptively simple and easy to pick up despite the weight of the tome it comes in. Other books in the edition flesh out more areas of the game and world, and many of the resources from previous (and even later) editions are mostly compatible with 4E. But you really don't need much to get started with Talislanta.


  1. Haven't read the full article here yet but as the creator of Talislanta I'd like to humbly suggest one minor "correction", re: "Thralls are like Dark Sun's Mulls except albino and tattooed to hell". The only issue I have with that comparison is that the D&D character was copied from our Thrall; i.e., Talislanta came first, so the Mull is actually a Thrall minus all the tattoos and the actual Thrall culture :)

    1. Hey, sorry to misrepresent them there! I would say I was comparing them to Mulls because I imagined Mulls might be a slightly more well-known point of reference for the people reading my blog, but in reality I completely got the publication dates wrong and thought the first Dark Sun book came out in like '85.