What Do I Know About First Impressions? Talisman Adventures Playtest Guide
I was a latecomer to the Talisman boardgame, and I actually played Fantasy Flight’s Relic variant set in the Warhammer 40000 universe before I played Talisman itself. That said, there was a time when I first got the app version of the game that I was playing it obsessively.
I was interested to see what a Talisman RPG would look like when I heard one was in production, but when I heard that Brandes and Rabbit Stoddard had worked on it, I became much more interested in seeing it take shape.
As luck would have it, Brandes and Ian Lemke asked me if I would like to see a copy of the Talisman Adventures Playtest Guide, and I said yes. If you haven’t picked up on it by now, let me reiterate the implied disclaimers—while I’ve only gotten to meet them in person once, this year a Gen Con, I’ve talked with Brandes and Rabbit for years online, and my preview copy of the Playtest Guide was sent to me compliments of Ian Lemke.
Since this is the playtest guide, this won’t be a full review, just a first impression article.
The Playtest Guide document is 82 pages in PDF form, including six pregenerated characters, a character sheet, a page of playtest questions, and a page of designer notes.
The document is professionally formatted, with artistically rendered boarders and a faux parchment background. One thing that immediately stands out to me is that much of the book has female presenting characters represented as adventurers, as well as people of color. This should be a standard now, but it isn’t nearly as common as it should be.
The PDF includes the following sections:
- History of the Realm
- Creating a Character
- Rules of the Game
- The Corpse Watchers
- Character Sheets
- Playtest Questions
- Designers Notes
History of the Realm
This section is a three-page introduction to the game. It gives the backstory of the setting in a concise format. The introduction mentions that the game and its setting should bring to mind fairy tale conventions, and the introduction does this very well. Most of the characters are addressed by their titles. If a location had a proper name, it is a very archetypical one, like The Storm River or the Middle Region.
While some of this is a holdover from the terminology of the board game, much like 13th Age and its Icons, this really lends an air of mythic stories or folktales, rather than more “grounded” fantasy. I think detailing the setting background in this manner accomplishes two purposes at the same time—the core game remains rooted in a fairy tale sensibility, while leaving the details as more archetypical almost implies permission to use this set of rules for other similar fantasy settings.
Creating a Character
Creating a character involves picking an ancestry, a class, an alignment, assigning aspects and attributes, and figuring your derived statistics from all of those other steps.
Right off the bat, I’m happy that we’re using a term like ancestry in this game. The game doesn’t give bonuses or penalties for attributes, but it does set caps and restrictions on certain aspects. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. My knee jerk reaction is to say its better to have caps set differently than to have literal bonuses or penalties, but it still feels like its playing in some long term past issues that we may be able to do better in the future.
One thing I know that I like about the ancestries is that each one has its own background, meaning that while there are thematic trends within an ancestry, ancestries aren’t presented as a monoculture. Additionally, each ancestry has four special abilities, only one of which you pick at first level. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but in advancement, you can choose between class abilities or more ancestry special abilities, keeping with the “thematic, but not uniform” feeling of the ancestries.
The ancestries presented are:
The human special abilities don’t wow me, but I think its always hard to make something as broad as “human” into something that is exciting. Divorced of a particular established culture, “human” is kind of the “point of view,” “create your own core assumptions” kind of ancestry.
My favorite is definitely the ghoul. It’s not an option that you often see in a game, and I love some of the implied story in the background and the special abilities. You can lean hard into creepy, or rise above it a bit and embrace the concept of being a shepherd of the dead, and I really like that range.
Classes include the following options:
The Assassin and the Thief seem to occupy similar thematic space, but I like that the Assassin is more about doing extra damage under the right circumstances and getting advantages from studying a target, and Thief, in combat, is about setting up other characters and learning information about an opponent.
Like the Assassin and the Thief, the Priest and the Prophet are both similar in theme with slightly different execution. The Priest is the character that cares about the day to day administration of the faith, while the Prophet is the person that is shown the big picture. They have abilities that essentially let the GM funnel information from them passively, and actively, they can make checks to have visions or revelations that answer a question that they pose.
Rounding out our thematically similar pairs, the Sorcerer and the Wizard are both arcane spellcasters, and it’s probably not a surprise that the wizard is the one that does the studying for their craft. The Sorcerer, as far as this game is concerned, is more of what D&D would see, in the modern era, as a Warlock—a character that learns their magic from trafficking with unpredictable powers like fiends or faeries, and they get a familiar that might run amok, if left alone.
If you have played any kind of fantasy roleplaying game before, the archetypes embodied by the Druid, the Minstrel, or the Warrior probably aren’t going to surprise you too much. I did like the explanation of why quickness is important to Minstrels, and it’s interesting that they utilize Nature magic, instead of Arcane or Mystic spells.
Spellcasters have the ability to spend spell points to cast spells. When they are out of spell points, they can burn a spell, meaning that they have to spend time studying the spell again before they can get it back. It’s an interesting, and simple, merger of spell points and Vancian casting.
I also need to take a moment and say how much I love the flavor conveyed in the Wizard’s entry. Wizards get the ability to make psychic attacks, and its flavored in their description by noting that their words themselves have power. If they take a special ability that grants them a staff, their psychic damage is increased. I love that I got overwhelming Saruman vibes just from reading the class description.
Choosing an Alignment is part of character creation, and the alignments are simplified to Good, Neutral, and Evil. Certain class abilities are dependent on alignment, and if a character no longer qualifies because their alignment changes, then they get to pick a new ability, and if they ever go back to their original alignment, they can pick up that old alignment dependent ability again.
In general, I’ve been pretty happy that D&D has been moving away from giving mechanical importance to alignment. The guide for this game goes into a lot of detail to point out that “evil” is, in general, extreme self-interest, and that an evil character shouldn’t screw over their friends or engage in pointless cruelty. The thing is, from the standpoint of emulating Talisman, it makes sense to have alignment as a component, and to have it “shut down” certain abilities when it changes. I’m just wondering if there will be more abilities in the full game that shift alignment, outside of character roleplay, as that’s a thing that happens fairly regularly in the board game.
The different classes set different Strength, Craft, and Life, and Strength and Craft scores are what you use to determine how many points you have to assign to abilities like Brawn, Agility, Mettle, Insight, Wits, and Resolve.
Because it may be a tad bit easy to not pick up on this if you haven’t played the board game, Craft isn’t about making things, per se, it’s about pursuing mental pursuits, such as, for example, crafting spells.
Rules of the Game
The way this book is organized, it has a similar structure to games like D&D, where it jumps you straight into creating a character before it fully explains what all of those numbers mean. There were some tantalizing bits in the character abilities that made me start to wonder, “wait, does that mean . . . “ and here is where I get to find out.
Like the board game, when you want to see if you are successful at something, you roll a number of d6s, then add an attribute if you have a relevant skill, apply a bonus if you have a focus in a skill, or a penalty if you don’t have a skill at all. If you hit the target number, you succeed, and if you don’t, you fail . . . but wait, that’s not all!
Unlike the simpler resolution of the boardgame, in the RPG, there are degrees of success. A standard success is just meeting or exceeding the number. A Great Success is a success where you roll doubles. An Extraordinary Success is a success where you roll triples.
Here is the part where my recent taste in games and preference in game rules gets me excited about this game—the GM doesn’t roll dice, and if the players attack a creature, the creature does damage on a failure, or half damage on a standard success. A Great Success means the opponent doesn’t get to retaliate, and an Extraordinary Success adds extra damage or other effects to the attack.
Any creature that wasn’t engaged by the players and is involved in combat can still take an action, but it its success is determined by the PCs defense roll, rather than by the GM rolling dice.
I love degrees of success, and I am increasingly fascinated with games that define the GMs role with adding complications rather than engaging in the same math as the players. Additionally, there is something that feels different and more impartial about a GM presenting something to the players, but allowing its resolution to be entirely in their hands.
Melee combat, ranged combat, and psychic combat all have different nuances when it comes to what happens in the event of a failure or different levels of success, but all of them revolve around the above generalities.
One of the dice being rolled is the Kismet die, which should be a different color, and works like the other dice, except on a 1 it adds a point of Dark Fate to the GM’s pool, and on a 6, it adds a point of Light Fate to the Player’s pool. Light Fate can be used for rerolls or to trigger special abilities, and the GM can use Dark Fate to trigger special abilities as well.
Surprise rules get a lot more detail than I was expecting, but when getting into the exploration and travel rules presented in the adventure later in the book, this makes a little more sense, as navigation rules can regularly lead to one side or another in a travel encounter having the ability to set up ambushes. The penalties can really rack up during an ambush, and I’m curious to see how devastating ambushes are in an ongoing game.
Injuries are tracked on two different axis, while measuring Life as well as incurring wounds. A character dropped to 0 Life may be dying, but they also get a wound. Even when they get Life back, wounds are treated separately, and provide a persistent penalty to checks. It reminds me a little of the ongoing crits a character can suffer in Genesys, except that in Genesys, losing vitality doesn’t kill you, crits kill you.
There is a section on spells, and, broadly, some spells have utility effects (see through an animal’s eyes, teleport a short distance), while others heal or cause damage. Spells generally require tests, however, meaning that it’s not trivial to use them.
The next section caught my attention, because it introduces rules for Followers. This is another aspect of the game that makes sense given that you can pick up followers as assets in the board game, but I really like the implementation of them in this game.
Followers aren’t fully stated out characters. They have a Life score, and a Max Loyalty score, and they have something that they can do for characters, either passively or actively. There are entries on how to restore Loyalty, because if the Followers Loyalty drops for too long, they’ll leave. They are also more fragile than regular characters, meaning they die if they hit 0 Life. No making tests to stay alive for them. Some followers also have alignment requirements as well, and they take off if they don’t like the vibe their getting from their boss.
I love the idea of having followers that do something in the game, but I have always hated the idea of running a fully detailed additional character in these circumstances. Even when the follower is a built using “monster rules,” they still effectively engage the rules in a similar manner to a regular character. I really like that these followers have quantified rules for what they do, and under what conditions they expire or leave. I’m really interested to see this in play.
The Corpse Watchers
The sample adventure sees the adventures arrive in town, find out about some missing townsfolk, travel to a location, stumble upon a cursed area, and have the opportunity to save the townsfolk. Rather than have a GM section that explains reactions, travel rules, or opponents, the adventure serves as the means of giving examples of what these rules look like in play.
I love some of the wilder bits of fantasy in this adventure. The structure is fairly basic, but you run across items like the Phoenix Potion, which lets you come back the next day if you die before the next sunrise. Its kind of a crazy, over the top item that feels very folkloreish in is straightforward implementation. “By the way, if you drink this first, then die, don’t worry, you’ll be back.”
The Exploration rules are mentioned in this adventure as a summary of what a more detailed system will look like in the main rules. It involves giving PCs roles like The Guide, Watcher, and Hunter, and having different events trigger during the trip based on their rolls. This really reminded me of the Journey rules in The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-earth, and that’s a good thing. I think its way more interesting if a “random encounter” triggers from the guide or the watcher not seeing all of the dangers on the upcoming path rather than leaving things up to actual random determination.
Looking over the traits given to the example creatures, I’m not thrilled with having special abilities that the GM can trigger that can potentially paralyze a PC for up to six rounds. Because the GM specifically has to spend Dark Fate to trigger this, it feels very adversarial to me, more so than just doing extra damage or even a lesser, temporary penalty. I think I would almost rather the special abilities that the GM can trigger serve to keep the opponent in the fight longer, rather than doing something extra nasty, since they are specifically spending from their pool to cause that effect.
I like that there are multiple ways to resolve the curse hanging over the afflicted villagers, and I also like the risk versus reward aspect the adventure introduces when it comes to trying to gather extra treasure.
The end of the adventure summarizes what leveling up looks like in the game, which generally involves adding increases to Life, getting access to new abilities, or bonuses to aspects. There are XP rewards for various goals in the adventure, as well as XP rewards for individual monsters. I almost wish the XP reward for potential combat encounters were phrased more like Dungeon Crawl Classics, where the XP is for surviving the encounter, whether that involved killing the monster or running from it, even though the encounter is worth more depending on how dangerous it was.
It’s kind of fascinating that by designing the game to pick up on a lot of the traits of the boardgame, the RPG also picks up on some modern trends in RPG design, such as more player facing and driven mechanics. I am generally a big fan of GM currencies and player facing mechanics, although I do thing some of the triggered abilities in the example creatures feel a bit too adversarial. When I spend resources in games that give me GM resources, it’s usually to make things more complicated or to keep an opponent in play, not to negate a player’s ability to participate.
I’m curious to see more magic items in play in this system as well. Given that one of the spells in the game is a relatively casual magic item destroyer, and given how much the RPG seems to be emulating aspects of the board game, I’m expecting magic items to be fairly common. I’m just hoping for more items with the whimsy (and admitted usefulness) of the Phoenix Potion.
I’m really happy to see the diversity of characters in the artwork. I am curious to see if the game can manage other forms of diversity, given that the genre it’s playing with often only touches lightly on deeper story issues. It would still be nice to see an adventure with a prince’s true love that doesn’t have to be a woman, or to have a priest or a prophet that doesn’t conform to binary gender.
Reading through this playtest document, I’m way more excited to see a full version of this game than I thought I would be. It does a great job of balancing RPG design with thematic elements pulled from the board game, and catching the feel of fantasy that is just a shade closer to folklore than it is to full blown epic fantasy.