Interview: John Harper on Talislanta

Here’s a fun interview with John Harper, talking about Talislanta:

I used to read the Talislanta books as a teen, loving the implied setting but never delving deep enough to actually play in that setting. I kind of skimmed the surface, never finding the main book in any local game shops. I loved the Mogroth and those mystic wanderers who had eyes on their sticks. Suddenly, I had another monster manual to paw through and paw, I did.

What drew you to the setting? Did you play? GM? What did you do with Talislanta at your table?

I’ll never forget finding that 2nd edition book in the game store. This must have been… 1989? The white cover with the tattooed Thrall warrior by P.D. Breeding-Black. I was blown away by that image and immediately picked it up.

(By the way, all the Talislanta books are available as free PDFs, here:

That edition had little illustrations for every single character type, across several pages. No stats (they were elsewhere), just names and images. At first I thought they were monsters — there were winged gryphon-men, weird scorpion-tailed things — but then I realized these were all playable characters! And the names were great. Arimite Revenant. Black Savant. Phantasian Astromancer

. I got so excited. The art and the setting were crazy; like nothing else I’d seen. Also, on the back, it said “For experienced players and gamemasters only” which I thought was very cool. I was showing my friends and basically jumping out of my skin to play the game.

We played for years and years. I’ve played hundreds of sessions. Almost entirely as GM, but sometimes as a player here and there. Several of my all-time favorite gaming experiences have been with Talislanta.

Mainly, we did sprawling, picturesque travel/adventure yarns in the vein of Jack Vance meets Conan meets Indiana Jones, which is really where all that crazy material points you, I think. The characters rose from petty mercenaries to princes, warlords, and inter-dimensional explorers. I always love a good dungeon crawl, but dungeon games weren’t like the books I was reading. Talislanta gave us that sweeping, alien kind of adventure fantasy that I loved in A Princess of Mars or The Demon Princes.

(One of my favorite series, the Kang Civil War, was recorded for posterity on the Internet around 1993 or so. I cringe at a lot of it now, but it’s kind of fun to go back and look at my very first “actual play” report, from 20+ years ago. Someone reposted it to the Talislanta website, here:

I’m reading the antique AP and loving it.

The guys find themselves at the Farad’s estate (big, big place.. this Farad is one of the key players that “borrowed” the windship arcanology from the Phantasians / Cymrilians and “loaned” it to the Rajans). 

You clearly had internalized the setting right into your bones and making those pieces dance. What was that process like? Reading and day-dreaming? Were you making your own relationship maps between nations and cultures?

Talislanta has a neat trick when it comes to its setting. The world is massive and diverse, but each region and culture only has a few colorful sentences to explain it. So you know that the Kang are ‘a warlike people, born to combat’ and the Farad are ‘widely known for their unscrupulous business dealings’ and there’s some cool artwork and that’s about it. You have to fill in a lot of details yourself, which helps tie everything together in your imagination.

I also did a lot of reading and day-dreaming, for sure. I filled my head with imagery and ideas from every kind of media (the Kang in our games were a lot like Klingons, really). The cultures were built slowly over time with the same player group, so we all had a lot of ownership and familiarity with them.

I definitely made relationship maps; boxes and arrows and all. It was less game prep and more playing catch up. I’d committed to certain things in play on the spur of the moment. Then I’d make these relationship maps that fit the facts so far, to make sense of it and give it structure when the players started delving more deeply into it. I still use that technique a lot as a GM today.

The other side-effect of reading your AP posts is that I am falling in love with the character, Abdul. When he took on the Kang warrior, riddled with arrows and hit a few solid 20’s, I was cheering. I love those mad, beautiful moments.

It is also interesting, in the course of the Kang Civil War, to see you wrestling with a play-style, allowing the awesome things the players were doing to dictate the direction of the game and getting away from linear adventures and moving towards fluid situations with exciting consequences. You can see why the MC Agendas and Principles made sense to you right off.

At this point, there was no civil war. All I had in mind was that there was a deep conspiracy going on in the Empire, and the Warlord was travelling abroad personally to “secure” something or other. I didn’t know what yet. The actual civil war was sparked by… you guessed it, Abdul. But that’s a ways off yet…

In these AP, we are watching you organically come to Play to find out what happens and Being a fan of the players’ characters. I’m also seeing partial successes…AW must have fit you like an old pair of comfy sweat-pants when you read it, huh?

I knew you would love Abdul! He’s one of the all-time great PCs. My friend Patrick Cunningham created him. Abdul became something of a legend in the Talislanta online community.

I definitely developed my play style as a GM during that series. Before that, I had tried running “plotted” campaigns several times, with mixed results at best. Games often fizzled and I felt drained by all the work I had to do pre-game. The Kang Civil War happened because I had created this big plotted campaign in the northern lands, but after the players tried the first mission, they simply said, “Nah, we don’t want to do this. We leave,” and headed south. I was flabbergasted, had nothing prepped, and just decided to wing it.

 That lead — very organically like you said — to a style of play that Vincent captured so well in Apocalypse World. You might not know that Vincent is also a huge Talislanta fan, and was playing the game and reading the email-list during the Kang Civil War stuff. Talislanta is listed as an influence in the AW book. So there’s definitely a historical connection there. I’m blown away by Vincent’s ability to distill and evolve that play style into something concrete and procedural in the AW text. It’s really a work of genius.

But yeah, the style of play described in AW is something that I came to gradually over many sessions during the KCW, thanks to the amazing group of players we had, and the solid foundation of Talislanta‘s setting and game system. It’s really cool that you were able to see that develop in the AP. I remember the feeling at the time — like we were discovering some secret language of gaming. It was so hard to explain! I spent a couple decades trying to convey it through countless discussions online and off. Now I can just say “Read Apocalypse World.”

I went through that same frustrating process, trying to wade through conventional wisdom and my own experiences to figure out what mysterious alchemical process made for a good/great/legendary session of gaming.

I knew that there were games where it was fun to hang out with buddies and talk in funny voices and nights where something tangible happened to make the game amazing but wasn’t sure what techniques were necessary to get there.

I can feel the strong pull of this conversation, leading me to ask the inevitable and maybe too obvious questions:

If you were going to play Talislanta today, how would you go about doing so?

I’d play it straight. I know the game inside and out, and it’s a solid design. The tricky part is getting everyone on board with the vast setting in a reasonable time frame. I might use a sub-section of the world to start, like the Seven Kingdoms or Carantheum or something and let the group explore outward into the unknown from there. The exact makeup of character types would really drive things. That weird alchemy you get when a Sindaran Collector, Thrall Warrior, and Cymrilian Swordmage get together is pure gold.

And I know you did work on the game’s 4th edition, is there a temptation to go to Mark Williams and help orchestrate a kickstarter of some kind?

I designed the 4th edition of the game system, did the layout for the book, the bulk of the writing, and published it with my partner Jon Elliott, under our Shooting Iron imprint. We had the help of the Talislanta online community (which is stellar) and the full support of the game’s creator, Steve Sechi — otherwise it never could have happened. Also, lots of people from Wizards of the Coast (who did the 3rd edition) helped us a lot, including John Tynes, Jonathan Tweet, Ron Spencer, Anson Maddocks, and especially Jesper Myrfors, who arranged for us to get the massive Talislanta artwork archive, all scanned and ready to go.

 It was a huge, crazy task. Self-publishing an RPG book was so much harder back then, but I’m really glad I did it. I made so many mistakes and learned so much. The book design alone got my foot in the door for several cool gigs and ultimately lead to the graphic design career I have today.

There’s no temptation to do a kickstarter. It’s Steve’s baby, and he’s happy to keep it freely available in PDF form, far as I know. I’ve been talking to him about some other game projects recently — some of which are really cool — but who knows if they’ll come together. Steve is a great guy and I love working with him, but we both have other lives pulling at our attention.

It is really interesting to me that the eclectic groups of player characters are the ones that work best, especially in a setting this alien and wondrous. Any ideas on why that is and how to best set that kind of game up for success?

In Talislanta, your culture/species is your “character class”, for the most part. So the eclectic mix works for the same reason that Fighter, Thief, Magic-User, Cleric works in classic adventure gaming.

The bonus is, in Tal, your characters also have an outlook and heritage automatically attached to their character type that gives the players an easy roleplaying hook beyond their job description. It’s a simplistic way to handle a complex thing like culture, but it gets richer and more interesting through the process of play, as stereotypes are challenged and cultures become nuanced as they’re revealed.

That sounds great, John.

 Thanks for sharing your love of Talislanta and taking the time to talk to me.

Please post comments below or over here on the G+ thread.

This design and more in the Geek Media Studies Collection…

4 thoughts on “Interview: John Harper on Talislanta

  1. Pingback: Talislanta | Grota Drozdala II

  2. Pingback: Interview

  3. I felt that same thrill seeing the 2nd edition book way back when and the sheer difference in setting from other traditional RPG’s of that time. Seeing this post makes me want to crack the books open again. Great interview!

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