Every weekday at noon eastern, the Nerdarchy YouTube channel welcomes guests for a live chat. Industry personalities from the top companies in the tabletop roleplaying game sphere like Wizards of the Coast and Monte Cook Games, creators sharing their work with Kickstarters, streaming or produced video content, blogs, artists, podcasters – the whole gamut of folks making and sharing cool content in the tabletop RPG space join the Nerdarchy community to talk nerdy. Super Geek Senda Linaugh, who joined Nerdarchist Dave to talk about the wide array of projects she’s involved with, really got me thinking about how many fantastic RPGs are out there. One of my favorites from back in the day is Talislanta, an RPG now available completely free!
Listening to Senda talk about all the different games she gets to play got me thinking about all the games I’ve played since I first started rolling funny-shaped dice with the classic red box Dungeons & Dragons around 1984 or so. D&D remains my favorite, and each edition has become my favorite among them (yes, that includes fourth edition, which I’d still love to play again sometime). Warhammer Fantasty Roleplay, Toon, Gangbusters, West End Star Wars, Chartmaster (I mean, Rolemaster) and dozens of others.
Talislanta is a standout RPG
But among them all, Talislanta stands out as special for me. First released in 1987 by Bard Games, Talislanta is a fantasy RPG written by Stephen Michael Sechi with heavy input by the art of P.D. Breeding-Black. At around 90 pages, the black and white Talislantan Handbook is filled with incredible art and packed with everything you need play games in this amazing setting.
And it is truly amazing.
In this magical post-disaster world, you won’t find many of the standard fantasy conventions like elves or dwarves, or even humans! Instead, the strange and exotic lands are populated by dozens of unique cultures and civilizations from dual-brained Sindarans and emerald Cymrilian magicians to warlike Kang of the Quan Empire and masked Djaffir of the desert kingdoms.
The material in the book is presented as a tome written by Tamerlin, a wizard, scholar and explorer of the vast continent of Talislanta. Within the first few pages of the first edition Talislantan Handbook, a double-page map shows tons of intriguing regions ready to explore for players, like the Floating City of Oceanus, the Black Pit of Narandu, and the Werewood along with more civilized areas like the Seven Kingdoms and Carantheum.
Fans of streamlined rules systems should also take note of the basic mechanics, which take up less than one page of the book. All actions in the game, categorized as one of combat, magic, skill or attribute use, are resolved on the Action Table using a d20 with a range of five results from mishap to superior success. Naturally there’s a lot of particulars beyond these rules like a wide selection of weapons and armor, magic and specific skills, but the basics are easy to grasp.
The bulk of the book, which begins on page 10, are the appendices and RPG players will love the huge variety of character types to choose from. Very few or no modifications are required in character creation beyond finding a type that sounds fun. The designer has stated balance among these types was not a big concern, and some are clearly more powerful than others. The goal was presenting average characters of each type, and as a kid playing Talislanta I don’t recall any balancing issues during play. (We might have simply been too young and naive to recognize this however.)
Packed with RPG flavor
What most astounds me, going back and taking a look through these books, is how much material is packed into the core book of each edition. In the first edition book there’s over 80 character types along with illustrations. Skills ranging from general things like swimming and tracking to unusual and highly specific ones like Bodorian sound-sight and distinct combat skill styles like Mandaquan martial arts. There’s dozens of unique cultural weapons, vehicles and gear like the gwanga throwing blade and duneships that sail the desert sands. Different kinds of magic with a really simplified approach to design might not appeal to fans of crunch-heavy mechanics but the way it’s keyed off a characters magic skill makes it easy to understand (if leaving the door open for potentially exploitative interpretation).
Aside from the mechanical stuff, the core book contains a unique calendar and chronology marking major historical events, 15 different organizations, a petri dish full of diseases and magical ailments and several dozen adventure hooks. A glossary of Talislantan terms includes even more ideas to spark the imagination with things like dream essence, Phantasian distillate and a variety of unique games like Quatrillion, Pentadrille and the Zodar deck. There’s even a whole section on Talislantan currencies describing different coinage throughout the continent.
“The Paradoxists: The Paradoxists of Zandu are in all respects the ideological nemeses of the Orthodoxists, having a long history of conflict with their Ammanian counterparts. Adherents of Paradoxy espouse freedom of expression, and are tolerant of all religious beliefs. They have no patron deity but exhibit a casual reverence for ”the Ten Thousand,” a baffling array of saints, luminaries and minor deities. There are no priests or temples of Paradoxy, and the cult has no definable goals or objectives except as pertains to the Orthodoxists; the mutual hatred which exists between these two rival factions led to the infamous Cult Wars of the Early New Age, which lasted for four hundred years.” – One of the organizations listed under Cults, Secret Societies, and Magical Orders in the first edition Talislantan Handbook
Towards the end of the book, a few pages are devoted to climate and weather in Talislanta too. Even more interesting are the aberrant weather conditions caused by the magical disaster that formed the continent. Blizzards, sandstorms and the like are trouble enough, but arcane black lightning, Witch Winds and icicle rain are a few of the meteorological anomalies making travel challenging.
Perhaps the most impactful takeaway from Talislanta, which made quite an impression on me as a kid, is the entry on mochan, “a dark, invigorating beverage that is especially popular in the desert kingdoms. Mochan is usually served hot, in small copper or red iron cups.”
Imagine my surprise to find a tin of mocha in the cupboard back then. My adolescent mind immediately whirled – there was a fantasy drink right there in our kitchen! I recall pouring a few heaping spoonfuls of the chocolately powder into a big mug of coffee and chugging down the thick liquid concoction thinking I’d made some connection to the fantasy world I loved.
Side note: I’ve been a stalwart espresso imbiber every since.
As if that all weren’t enough there’s an entire adventure in the book too! Designed to introduce the setting and mechanics, the short adventure is pretty standard fare – investigating some uncovered ruins. But it’s a good illustration of some different cultures in the setting and has an elements of wilderness travel and exploration along with a trap-filled tomb guarded by an ancient automaton. The end of the adventure also has suggestions for possibilities of where to take the campaign next.
And that’s all just in the first edition core book!
Talislanta is completely free
The entire collection of Talislanta material, like A Naturalist’s Guide to Talislanta, Archaen Codex, guide books to specific areas, adventures and more for all the editions from first to fifth are all available FREE from the creator himself. In 2010, Stephen Michael Sechi made all the existing content freely available under the Creative Commons license.
This is nothing short of extraordinary. Even if you don’t find the mechanics and rules systems to your liking, the world of Talislanta is amazingly creative. I’ve plucked elements of it many times over the years for my D&D games. At the very least, there’s tons of cool names and places you can use for NPCs and locations your adventurers visit. A city molded from green glass, a flotilla colony in the clouds, a decadent empire whose slave class are secretly mystic martial artists – these are just a few of the elements of Talislanta you’ll find in these books.
You can find all of the Talislanta PDFs along with creator interviews, community content and more at Talislanta.com.
Before D&D there was Talislanta
While looking through these PDFs for this post, I noticed something very interesting in the third edition Talislanta Guidebook. The publishers for the edition, which was the version I got as a kid and still my favorite edition of the game, was Wizards of the Coast! Yep, that’s right. Before WotC acquired TSR’s then-struggling D&D brand, the fledgling company took ownership of this gem and published the third edition Talislanta Guidebook in 1992.
Much larger than previous editions, this core book is over 300 pages long. Building on everything from earlier editions, there’s more stuff and it’s all further developed here. Lands and kingdoms, character types, magic and more gets a lot more in-depth – including the rules system. Looking back over it now, I notice large chunks of the rules text are examples though, which is pretty cool and useful to illustrate how certain things operate during play.
The juice is still those character types, and there’s so many of them! Not every one might be very exciting, like a peddler or locksmith, but for the scope of the Talislanta RPG trying to provide a vibrant immersive setting, it works. I get the sense Talislanta is going for, putting players in the role of people who live in this incredible world and for whom being a simple trader can be quite an adventure.
The magic system in third edition Talislanta is way more developed too, codifying things like botanomancy and technomancy that were left vague and open to perhaps too much interpretation in earlier editions.
Whether you’re looking for a whole new RPG to play, or a setting to use for a game you’re already into, or even just a few unique elements to drop in your campaign, Talislanta is bursting with content. With this fantastic wealth of material available completely free, what have you got to lose?
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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, world building, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy or his own blog The Long Shot, he’s a newspaper designer, copy editor and journalist. He loves advocating the RPG hobby and connecting with other nerds and gamers on social media and his site thelongshotist.com.