SMS Interview:
The Origins of Talislanta

Marques: Today I will be sitting down with Stephan Michael Sechi. He created a little known fantasy game called Talislanta that has stood the test of time. Through five editions over the last 20+ years Talislanta has gathered a loyal following, and unto those fans SMS has bestowed a mighty gift. He is releasing the entire 30 book line, that’s nearly 5,000 pages, for FREE on his website. So without further ado, let’s get the ball rolling. Why don’t we start by you telling us a little bit about yourself and the origins of Talislanta’s birth?

Stephan: I was really into comics as a kid – first the DC stuff (Green Lantern and JLA – dug that Martian Manhunter, baby!), then later the early Marvel stuff (especially Doctor Strange). Always liked Fantasy and Sci-Fi too, though my reading habits were (and still are) pretty eclectic. I also really like William S. Burroughs, Sherlock Holmes, Thomas DeQuincy, books on military history, Herodotus, and now Jorge Luis Borges. Another big influence on Talislanta was Dave A. Hargrave’s Arduin Grimiore, which I really liked and felt was very much underrated.

Once I got into gaming I discovered Jack Vance, and that was about it for me. He’s still my favorite fantasy writer, though when I started working on Talislanta I also read stuff like Michael Morcock, Clark Aston Smith (the Xiccarph and Zothique tales), Lord Dunsany, and Lovecraft’s “The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath”. One warning if you haven’t read Vance: once you do, most modern writers of fantasy will probably pale by comparison.

I got into RPGs thanks to a younger, stoner cousin of mine from Seattle. I kept putting him off because I was busy playing in a band, but I finally gave in and played some D&D with him. Once I did, I was hooked. I bought a couple of books, started GMing, and like most GMs also started making up some of my own stuff. After about a year I began thinking maybe I should put out my own game, so I started Bard Games with two friends of mine and $600 apiece.

Marques: Many gamers, myself included, have fantasized about creating games or running a game company professionally. Although a large majority of folks within the industry warn that designing games, even as a part-time job, is often fraught with financial peril, personal sacrifice, and very little actual gaming. What was your personal experience like?

Stephan: Bard did pretty well until some issues between the partners began causing problems. I sold my share to one of the partners, put the money in the bank, and spent the next 3 months writing all of the first Talislanta books (Chronicles, Handbook, and Naturalist’s Guide). By the time I was done, my former partner decided he no longer wanted to run Bard, so he sold it back to me and I took on another partner, a very good friend of mine named Joel Kaye.

During the time I was running Bard Games, I was single, living in an inexpensive apartment, and driving an old VW that I’d paid $150 for in cash. Even though I was making very little money, my expenses were so low that I was able to afford to work full-time on the Talislanta game and the business. Once Tal was ready to be published, I was fortunate to find a partner who help paid our expenses, and front the costs of art, printing, etc until we started to sell some books. So from my POV, it was never a hardship – plus thanks to my “musician training”, I had no problem living a very low-budget, bohemian lifestyle :)

We ran Bard together for a few more years, and for awhile it did surprisingly well; the 2nd edition Handbook sold over 12,000 copies in 2 years or so, which was pretty good back then. We got into trouble when we tried to publish the Cyclopedia series – though the first volume sold well, the rest didn’t. But the biggest problem came when an inexperienced book trade buyer gave us a huge order for one of the Atlantis books. I tried to talk him into reducing the order, but he was sure all the books could sell. A year later we got huge returns, and had to give back something like $20,000. That pretty much sunk us, and we barely made enough to pay back the money my partner had invested in the company before we had to shut down.

Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can afford to put out pen & paper RPGs these days. From what I hear, sales for small games average about 20% of what they were back in the mid-late 1980’s. For example, I was able to get advance orders of about 1800-2000 copies for each of the main Talislanta books. Many small game companies are lucky if they can sell 200 advance copies. That’s pretty tough. But if you’re someone who loves creating games, and you can afford the time and expense involved, it’s still a pretty cool thing to do.

Marques: I’m very sad to know this is a rather common end for a pen and paper company. This was not the end of Talislanta though was it? And even though your career as an active game designer was finished you would soon see brighter days. Please tell us more.

Stephan: When I first came up with the idea of creating Talislanta, I was already thinking about the possibilities of licensing the game.  I put a lot of time and effort into designing the visual elements of the game, drawing over 200 sketches of the various creatures and characters so I could show artists what I wanted Talislanta to look like. To me, the visual elements and setting were always more important than the game mechanics, which I thought should be as simple and unobtrusive as possible.

Anyway, the emphasis on creating a property that could be licensed worked out pretty well. I was able to license the rights for miniatures, plus French, German, and Italian-language versions of the game. When Bard folded, I licensed the game to WotC, and it’s been through several other licenses, some good and some bad, since then. I was lucky that when WotC dropped Tal. They gave me a very generous “settlement”, which I used to buy a small digital recording set-up. It took awhile before I found an outlet through which I could sell some of my music, but that got me back into the music biz as a composer.

After a couple of years of writing for music libraries, I kind of did the same thing I did with RPGs and figured, “I bet I could do that myself”. So I found a partner-investor and started my own music library, kept working as a freelance composer for bigger and bigger libraries, and then branched out into sample CDs. Luckily, it’s all gone really well (my “musician training” compels me to knock on wood here) – at least, so far. The sample CD stuff has been especially interesting for me, as it’s allowed me to venture into many different styles of music. I’ve produced all kinds of projects, from Nu Metal to Acid Jazz, Soul, and even two projects that involved going to Europe (one in Bulgaria and one in Prague) and recording a 60-piece orchestra. I love writing and producing music, and having music that I wrote get used in TV shows, films, and commercials has been a pretty cool thing.

Marques: There have been five editions of Talislanta to date. Rather than ask you to define what each edition brings to the table mechanically and what the pro’s and con’s are of Edition X versus Edition Y, is there any developer “behind the scenes” information you can share with us? Just a little unknown fact for each of the five editions?

Stephan: First edition Handbook suffered from the low budget. We kind of ran out of money after paying P.D. for all the work she did on Chronicles and Naturalist’s Guide. Crazy because back in those days, we were still paying type-setters. That was expensive. Second edition Handbook was a good book, in my own opinion. Probably the easiest rule system for Tal, and the best-selling Tal book ever. Third edition eh, so-so. Hated what they did to the cover of the Guidebook, which I put a lot of work into designing. Some of those other WotC books were really good, though.

Fourth edition is still my all-time favorite. The Big Blue Book kicks ass, man. :) The Shooting Iron guys really “got” Talislanta. I also really like Midnight Realm. 5th edition… can’t really say, as I wasn’t very involved in these books. I’ll leave it for others to decide what they think. I will say this though. Morrigan really tried hard to sell Talislanta, and I appreciate the effort that they put into it.

Marques: Which edition is currently sitting on your gaming bookshelf at home right now and, if different, which edition is your absolute favorite and why?

Stephan: 4E Core Rulebook, the Big Blue Book is the only one I keep handy. :) It’s one of my 2 favorite Tal books, the other being the first Chronicles.

Marques: How on Earth did you come to the decision of releasing the entire Talislanta RPG collection for free?

Stephan: I’ve been very fortunate to have done pretty well with the music thing. The business has shockingly been very good to me for the past few years. In the past, the money I was able to derive from licensing Talislanta helped pay the bills and put food on the table. Luckily, I don’t need to rely on Talislanta for that anymore and when Morrigan fell into financial difficulties I began thinking about it then. So when the Morrigan license was about to expire, I just figured, why not make all the old Tal books available for free?

My main reason was I wanted to give something back to the small but very loyal community of Talislanta fans, who helped keep the game alive for almost 25 years. Some of these folks have been fans since the 1st edition, and have bought every Tal book since then. They’ve had to put up with all sorts of crap over the years, from publishers going out of business to promised books being months/years late or never published at all. At the very least, I felt that those fans deserved to get something back for their patience and support.

Tal fans are great, man. I saw something online where some dude said something like; “you can’t say anything bad about Talislanta or the fans will kill you”. Hahaha! That’s Tal-fans. They’re the best.

Marques: With the release of the entire Talislanta line I think we’re all pondering the same question. Do you have any plans to further license Talislanta in the future for a sixth edition?

Stephan: I figure that Tal has already had five editions. How many more editions can you do? Any more, and I feel like you’re just trying to soak money out of the people who play the game. Though I got a couple of legit offers from other game companies to license Tal, I decided not to do it. And I’m glad I did. The free PDFs seem to have made a lot of old Tal-fans happy, and may even be stirring up some new Tal-fans. Man, I just checked and we just went over 6000 unique visitors since the site opened April 1st. Not bad for a crazy old game that’s been kicking around for more than 20 years.

Marques: Surely this doesn’t mean that Talislanta, as an intellectual property, is being retired indefinitely?!

Stephan: By cutting ties with any further paper RPG editions of Talislanta, I thought it might just give me the incentive to try something else with the Talislanta setting. For instance, I’ve always wanted to create a Talislanta comic book or graphic novel. We came very close to getting one published back in the late 80s, but the company that wanted to do so went out of business 3 months before our title would have been released. At the very least, I plan to do an online comic. Kind of a dream of mine since I was a kid.

Khepera Publishing is working on a full-color art book that I think is going to be a very cool thing. Jerry’s take on Talislanta is really, really interesting. I’m currently working on a couple of ideas for licensing a different era of the Talislanta milieu in other media. I’m still hoping to license Tal as a video game. Ever since I saw that video game, Myst, I’ve been thinking: “how cool would it be if there was a Talislanta video game?” That would really be cool. I’m still licensing Talislanta, but not as a paper RPG.

Marques: I don’t even know where to begin with a response to so much goodness. Alright lets pretend that you were offered a single opportunity to showcase the world of Talislanta, in any form of media, regardless of budget or time constraints, what would it be and why?

Stephan: Single Player RPG or MMORPG, definitely. Because I think that the Talislanta milieu would work great for either of those venues.

Marques: Well its about that time. Would you like to offer any words of wisdom or reflection to the troves of old and new Talislanta fans that, through their love of your immeasurably unique work, have rendered Stephan Michael Sechi immortal throughout the unfathomable ages of time?

Stephan: Dude, you’re out of control. Seriously, though, I just want to say thank you again to all the people who helped support Talislanta over the years, to my partners and the many Talislanta play-testers (especially the first group), and to everybody who has worked on the Talislanta game in all of it’s various iterations. And thanks once again to The Compleat Strategist game store in NYC, which bought the very first Bard Games book.

Oh yeah, and thank you too, Marques, for doing this interview. :)

Marques: You are most welcome. For you fine folks who have stuck with us this far I have some parting information. The Talislanta website is still a work in progress. Currently the best way to get connected with the already sizable and established Talislanta community is to join the Talislanta Yahoo Group. If you have any questions the aforementioned group or our freshly released article New to Talislanta? are both great places to start!