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Skyrealms of Jorune Review: Part One

Inasmuch as my current Mage: the Awakening chronicle will be drawing to a close soon, I'm trying to figure out what to run next. As it happens, last year at Dragon*Con I bought Skyrealms of Jorune (Third Edition) from the Chessex booth, because it would be a strange trip to Dragon*Con that didn't result in Chessex getting at least a little of my money. I first heard about Jorune from a video game guidebook that I purchased, oh, sometime in the mid-to-late 90s. I think I was interested in tips for some one of the Wizardry games, but it included a guide to Alien Logic. Based on its description, I was curious about the deeply-bizarre setting, and was impressed that it was also a tabletop game, but I never saw a copy of the video game or the tabletop game in stores, so I mostly forgot about it. Now, I sort of feel that the main reason to play Jorune is for the geek cred of being able to say I (we) have done so.

To help us make such a decision, I'm going to work through the book and post my commentary. Having skimmed the book so far, my expectation is that I will find the setting bizarre-but-fun, and the rules sort of... agonizingly early 90's. My eyes did not actually skeet blood on trying to tackle the combat chapter, but I'm desperately hoping that reading the whole thing in order will provide some of the context that is missing. The comments on Grognardia's review of the game, however, indicate that context won't help, and the common use of Jorune may be to replace the rules entirely.

This is your first and final warning: I will be linking TV Tropes. For God's sake, do not click a TV Tropes link if you have something you need to do this week. (Correspondingly, this post may take an unusually long time to write.)

Without further ado...

Prologue Materials

To set the stage, the book begins with three pages of intro materials: a Historical Essay on the History of Jorune, "Some Privileges and Responsibilities of Drennship," and an outline of drennship: how to rise from the lowliest tauther to the ranks of the Drenn. If you get the impression just from the descriptions of these pages that the setting is all about introducing unfamiliar words and assuming you'll work out what they mean from context (though the writer might get around to defining them later, perhaps in the Glossary at the end of the book), you would be right. I counted fourteen made-up words on the first page, several of them one letter off from an English word (some familiar, some obscure). I say without judgment that it is done in the style and tradition of schlocky sf; what makes me groan in a novel is perhaps not ideal in a tabletop game, but it is certainly more acceptable. World-building is the be-all and end-all of this text, and I ought not get upset when it proceeds aggressively in its attempt to immerse the reader. (It does mean, though, that you might need to read more than once.)

The Historical Essay firmly establishes Jorune in the same category as T├ękumel, Pern, and even Barrayar; a human spacefaring civilization colonized the planet, and then some disaster cut the planet off from outside contact for a huge span of time, during which the humans regressed to feudalism. In Jorune's case, this event was a massive war against the shantha, a species native to Jorune. At least at this point in the text, fault for that war is unclear, but I'm kind of pleased by the possibility that it's not just humans being assholes and deciding to wipe out the natives. The shanthas seem to mostly win, and over the next two thousand years and change, the shanthas kill a lot more humans, enough to be mentioned as a third leading cause of death (behind war and disease). In Chapter One, however, we learn that shanthas are actually more like Grey aliens, including ubertech-which-resembles-magic. At this point, I am amused by how nearly this resembles the tentaari of Dawning Star.

The text also mentions that humanity has diverged into three types, learned "the shanthic ways" or "dyshas" (indicating a no longer absolutely hostile relationship with the shanthas), and live with only a few remnants of their former civilization; one of the benefits of drennship (citizenship won through heroic service) is the right to bear energy weapons. The text name-drops like crazy, with the names of species created through genetic experimentation and the major characters of history. Those new species aren't described in detail here, but in Chapter One they're introduced as human DNA spliced with Earth-animal DNA - creating wolf dudes, lion dudes, bear dudes, some dudes that are either lizardy or froggy, and maybe some other animal dudes.

"Some Privileges and Responsibilities of Drennship" is a few brief lines on the benefits of citizenship. Along with the page that follows it, this page shows a player the core narrative of Skyrealms gameplay: the tauther's quest to become a drenn. Drenn gain respect, the right to bear energy weapons, the right to own land, the right to collect cletch (surprisingly, a parenthetical notation here clarifies that this means "taxes") all kinds of great things that might appeal to a player.

The facing page, which outlines the course of drennship for tauthers (applicants), is certainly a sufficient meta-narrative for many sessions. As it explains, tauthers wander all over the place, performing tasks and trying to make a good impression on others, especially those who are already Drenn, so that they will mark your challisk. When you have a large number of such marks and think you can pass the exams, you return home and, if you have accumulated enough Drenn points, you may succeed (based on a percentile roll, with additional rolls for more than the minimum number of Drenn points). The bare minimum might well take anywhere from eight to fourteen marks.

Chapter One

This chapter is an in-character description of the many creatures, places, laws and customs, and so on that players are likely to encounter on Jorune, intended for players to read. I question the likelihood of players absorbing the information here, but it is a generally entertaining section. The only downside is that if anything, it is more densely packed with invented words than the previous pages. Obviously, there is a metric ton of world flavor introduced here, and Jorune is weird. These creatures range from vaguely anthropomorphic to not remotely so. (To be fair, the anthropomorphic guys are genetically engineered.) Thriddle defy ready explanation, but I offer this. Weird as they are, thriddle are pretty interesting; they are keepers of language and protocol, and are pretty much universally helpful to players. Their primary goals seem to be increasing their personal supply of the bugs that they like to smoke and avoiding the more universally hostile and carnivorous races that prey on them.

Continuing through the intelligent races, I'm reminded to a certain extent of Dark Sun, which was released just prior to the third edition of this setting, in the conscious effort to make the whole thing alien. Oh, and the scarmis are close enough to thri-kreen that I think one could be forgiven for imagining some shared inspiration. Overall, the aesthetic that I see in the creatures interests me. They're not heroic or monstrous, just weird, often with lots of physicality and bulk; only the shanthas seem ethereal, and a number of creatures might be described as lean or wiry. Most creatures would be fairly described as wizened. There are non-sapient creatures as well. Most creatures of any kind, aside from the thriddle, are likely sources of conflict for players, either because they prey on the player races, or because they occasionally go into a berserk frenzy for obscure reasons, or because they are easily offended and respond violently (crugar, corastin).

This communicates a very sword-and-planet feel to me, though the protagonists are not humans plucked from an Earth culture, but humans who have lived with Jorune culture all their lives. Within the lands that they hold, the human and their two nearest offshoots are by far the dominant race, so the unfamiliarity of these creatures may still be appropriate in-character. The dangers of Jorune are about protocol to a surprising degree; of the sapient races, few are universally kill-on-sight. Several of the more distant human offshoots despise one another, however, each blaming someone else for the murder of their scientist-progenitor.

There's also a chapter on history; at the moment, it's making my eyes glaze over. I'm afraid I've hit my absorption limit for the time being. Maybe I'll have better luck with this in my next post on this topic.

Jorune (famously) revels in its unfamiliarity, but once a reader has at least a passing grasp of the races and a few other setting basics, it seems like a promising setting, with a rather unusual and promising reason for adventure. Later chapters, especially the Sholari ("guide" - that is, GM) chapters, emphasize this further, strongly steering gameplay away from the murder-hobos of some D&D games. There's plenty of room for exploration and combat, but I get the sense that the game would really, really like combat to be rare, with the majority of challenges focusing on interaction, skill use, and learning the byzantine protocol. The setting's mysteries receive only the lightest touch in the first chapter: it's clear that there are mysterious things, but it would be hard to even phrase the question at this point. It seems like pretty good material, though I'm looking forward to some later chapters that drill down a bit deeper.

My main issue with trying to run anything in the setting is that it's an awful lot of unfamiliarity for me, as Sholari, to hold in my head at once, and it's not all that modular; there would probably be a long course of meandering around relatively safe areas before the game shifted to exploring further afield. Getting players familiar with a huge number of concepts and names was the primary challenge of my Mage chronicle's first ten sessions or so - and at least there I had the benefit of more experience with the setting (if still not as much as would have been useful). I would not blame my players for getting frustrated the third or fourth time an encounter went rapidly south because of a misstep of etiquette that Skyrealms wants players to internalize. It is kind of the opposite of the jump-in-and-play game.

On the other hand, maybe I'm wrong, and my comments here intrigue them...

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