Review: Tales of Gargentihr

by Richard Cooper, Alastair Cowan, and others; Sanctuary Games Ltd.
ISBN 1-898301-00-X; 344pp; 19.99

Reviewed by Phil Masters

Note; this is an example of my reviewing that doubles as a plug for two other things. To begin with; there are too few British games companies, and too few really interesting, innovative game backgrounds. So when one of the former produces one of the latter, I want to tell people so.

Unfortunately, Sanctuary Games suffered the traditional fate of British games companies -- that is, they went broke. The games was subsequently picked up by Digital Animations, who even put out a scenario on diskette -- but they don't seem to have done very much more with it.

Secondly; this review was written for Interactive Fantasy magazine, another British production, and one of the few places where role-playing games got discussed in some depth and with some intelligence. Unfortunately, that too vanished from the face of the hobby (though fortunately its admirable publishers, Hogshead Publishing, survive.)

Hmm. This is beginning to look a bit gloomy, isn't it?

Also -- a Warning: This review has been quoted in Dragon magazine as an example of verbosity. But judge that for yourselves.

The fantasy genre is, of course, an accident.

There is no reason why a paraphernalia of magic, heroes, and supernatural beings should be bound to bastardised Dark Ages/Medieval/Renaissance worlds, except that readers and writers alike have developed a habit. The fairy-tale collectors of the early nineteenth century, for all their dreams of feudal hierarchy, worked with the muskets and mirrored ball-rooms of their age or a little before. When the tales of the Arabian Nights were first translated into European languages, the demand for them was inspired far more by their exoticism than by their antiquity. It was only as these classics acquired the patina of age that fantasy and medievalism became entangled - and then, along came William Morris and his crew, with their thick rose-tinted lenses, to complete the process. Robert E. Howard and J.R.R.Tolkien, whatever their respective talents and motivations, perpetuated the phenomenon. Ironists, from Cabell through Leiber to Pratchett, have merely responded.

Umberto Eco might have us believe that this nostalgic view of the unreal is bound up with a cultural awareness of the importance of the Medieval era in the formation our modern world-view (see Travels in HyperReality, 1987). He would probably be right. But writers need not be slaves to tradition, whatever its roots, and in fact many of the wisest are not. From the intellectual whimsy of the Magic Realists, through to the paranormal brutalities of modern "Dark Fantasy" horror, there are plenty of instances of fantasy moving beyond sword-and-sorcery medievalism. Well, role-playing games are rarely more than a few decades behind the literary world, and now we have a selection of games reflecting this possibility.

Unfortunately, it is hard to distinguish between genuine thematic adventurousness and a mere greedy desire to mix as many saleable motifs as possible into one product. Forced matings are nasty things, and FASA's Shadowrun, for example, doesn't strike this reviewer as a pretty or progressive sight. Perhaps the first aesthetically successful attempt to lift RPG fantasy out of its medieval rut was Lace and Steel (The Australian Games Group, 1989), but that suffered from distribution problems and over-expensive physical design; one can only hope that the promised forthcoming American edition does the game justice, as its blend of classical and post-Renaissance imagery and fairy-tale grace deserves to be better known. Recently, Castle Falkenstein (pub. R.Talsorian Games; Reviewed in IF #2) has made an attempt to mix historical (predominantly nineteenth-century) and fantastic themes, with moderate success.

Other efforts in the same direction are emerging or promised, and it is patriotically pleasant to be able to say that one strong contender, the subject of this review, is British. Not that Tales of Gargentihr (confidently sub-titled "Real Fantasy") ties itself down in history or geography. Its world is not our own; Gargentihr has, among other features, silt seas on which continents float, crackling storms of mystical energy, and variously shelled, rocky, or bat-winged non-human races. The book's illustrations and motifs wander happily across centuries and continents, including oriental-looking sword-experts, burnoose-clad desert tribes, ruffians in stove-pipe hats, and policemen in helmets courtesy Sir Robert Peel, while the black-clad, angst-prone "Kyromancers", who transmute a wasting disease into a pragmatic style of magic, are unmistakable cyberpunks. However, I'd place the game's stylistic epicentre in or around the West, circa 1750 A.D.; there are rapiers, colonialism, crude (quasi-magical) pseudo-firearms, and a slew of learned societies wielding a still somewhat hermetic sort of science - which is beginning to worry a monotheistic church.

On the other hand, the local date is 1585 on an arbitrary calendar. So what? Well, the scene set by this book is a continent which was "discovered" by the most brashly expansionist human group in 1492 of that same calendar. Why 1492? Why not? It's as good a year as any to go discovering.

So - like most games designers creating new worlds, Sanctuary Games have plucked what they like out of our own history - including a little bit that's arbitrary. This may be highly necessary in this case, to ease players in to a substantially alien and sometimes off-beat sort of setting. Tales... runs to 344 pages, and a lot of that is protein. There's a decent index, which is admirable - and necessary. Unfortunately, the designers haven't entirely mastered the tricky but crucial fantasists' art of inventing decent names. Too much in here looks like random collections of syllables; characters will all have to worry about their Shevin (within the Clondis), their Kai, and their dealings with Chinte' F'har and Mujo.

Familiarity may help, I suppose. Unfortunately, neologisms are often used in place of perfectly good "real" words. Many characters will wield "davins", which are recognisable as rapiers, or "ghurtis", which are simply machetes. I'm not sure that this adds as much in atmospheric strangeness as it takes away in clarity and ease of reading. Just to compound the problem, there is no general glossary; that index doesn't really substitute.

The game is (as far as I know) the company's first product, and I do get a sense of creators still learning their trade. 344-page books don't always imply professionalism; professionals know when to stop, and I've had some bad experiences with disorganised, everything-we-thought-of, heavyweight game books. But Tales... isn't that bad. Its physical appearance is a little "muddy", with blurred page headings and mostly competent but sometimes stiff or murky artwork. The writing suffers from occasional, amateurish shifts of person or tense, and that bizarre but commonplace confusion of "viscous" with "vicious"; worse, the authors have no idea of the traditionally correct use of apostrophes, and so scatter them at random.

Still, it's all quite usable. And Sanctuary certainly show signs of the will to success; putting 'phone, fax, and bulletin board numbers and e-mail addresses on your title pages implies confidence, as well as a certain trendiness. Internet aficionados will find that they even have their own World Wide Web page.

As a game, Tales... shows a willingness to learn from the hobby's past, and to adopt and refine good ideas - albeit linked at times with a certain excessive traditionalism. Player-characters (here re-labelled "ACs" - "Adventuring Characters" - for no clear reason) are assumed to begin play when they sign up with the "Clondis", a high-minded secret society of skilled adventurers, which assigns them to a small team which is required to display strong internal loyalty - their fellow ACs. The game is shamelessly honest about the pragmatic purpose of this "adventurers' club" in equipping the GM (sorry, "Narrator") with a plot structure. Unfortunately, it may be too manipulative for some tastes, especially as the Clondis seems to take a rather paternalistic attitude to its members. The only thing to be said for it is that it should usually work, but that's not trivial.

But first, ACs must be created. This involves a "prior career" system of the type pioneered by Traveller and refined by the likes of Cyberpunk; the nascent adventurer spends six "terms" of variable length in various apprenticeships and crafts, earning points to spend on skills. For each term, the Narrator rolls dice to identify one interesting incident that helps form the character's personality and social ties. Table-driven systems like this can seem highly constricting, arbitrary, or repetitive, but these tables are reasonably long and flexible, and the Narrator is encouraged to apply some creativity to the results; on this basis, it looks like a good system. It produces decently skilled characters in their twenties or so, with friends, enemies, and personal concerns - viable adventurers rather than promising adolescents. Furthermore, players have considerable control over the outline of their character's career; this is at heart a "design" system, for all its random elements. The skill list is reasonably extensive, and contains some entertainingly offbeat touches that reflect the particularities of the setting.

The game's mechanisms are mostly conventional, although counting 0 as zero (not ten) on ten-sided dice seems perverse. The skill system cross-references character attributes and task difficulty to find a target number on a table, which is then modified by appropriate skill levels. This looks manageable, although things get a little more complicated when it comes to resolving contests of skill - as, say, in combat. GMs are also required to improvise a certain amount of descriptive detail in fights or complex activities. Combat is explicitly designed to be reasonably dangerous and chancy; the rules are linked in to a fairly clean and sensible encumbrance and fatigue system. This is not a minimalist rules set, although it's probably perfectly manageable once one gets the hang of it.

One example of the game's determined oddness is that the list of ten character attributes includes two neologisms. "Dalshra" is magical aptitude, while "Kai" is a mixture of honour, reputation, self-confidence, willpower, and general player-character-ishness. This latter ties up to a full-scale set of rules for handling personal honour and reputation, which perhaps helps to reflect an honour-obsessed game society. The only thing that I disliked was the way that rules for handling insanity are mixed in with the Kai system; they look arbitrary and tacked on.

The presence of insanity rules should hint at the nature of the game setting, which is all quite gothic, with some touches of horror. For all the magically-enhanced clockwork technology, there's a lot of fog and shadow in the picture of Gargentihr. It is also depicted very much as a collection of cities, so the game has a strongly "urbanised" feel, although the continent described also has a lot of semi-explored frontier. Most of the descriptions of non-urban areas seem to mention swamps, swampy forests, or mountains, and the character generation system doesn't produce any offspring of peasant farmers. It's not totally clear how this society feeds itself.

But there's also a lot of intricate and eccentric detail, with highly varied societies and off-beat (if largely humanoid) non-humans, not to mention maggots and violent team games. At its best, Gargentihr is (I suspect deliberately) reminiscent of the best work of Jack Vance. At its worst, it's silly or self-indulgent - but then, the same is true of Vance.

The magic, incidentally, is a mixed bag, involving a shadowy spirit world and a lot of power-of-faith. AC magic-wielders will either be "Kyromancers" (essentially sickly cyborgs whose implants give them access to the spirit plane), experts in a kind of faith-enhanced herbalism (which runs to explosives and tangle-webs as well as medicine), or monotheist priests who can manage the odd exorcism as well as wielding a short-range force-weapon that they think is God-given (but which probably isn't).

So there's a lot for players to internalise in those 344 pages, before a game can really get underway. This looks to me like a high-risk marketing strategy; game-buyers will have to get pretty interested in the setting to find the book comprehensible, let alone enjoyably playable. Of course, once such converts are made, they should be good customers, but they are likely to take a certain amount of convincing beforehand. The main sample scenario, incidentally, is a straightforward crime-busting exercise, designed to demonstrate a variety of skill applications and player actions, but probably too inflexibly written to allow for players who produce any but the anticipated responses.

There's much to like here, and if a review had to be boiled down to a yes or no, this one would be a yes. I really wish Tales... well (although I also wish that the authors had learned to write or edit a little better). Gargentihr's Vancean richness, its blend of gothic imagery and a kind of steampunk audacity, and the ambition of the project, all deserve some kind of reward, and the game rules look competent and playable enough to support the background.

But a review should be more than a thumbs up or down; it should look at the game's place in the wider world. And, despite the occasional game-oriented distortions - the adventurers' clubs and enhanced healing rates - Gargentihr strikes me as perhaps a touch too ambitiously strange, as needing to make converts faster than its density of imagination will allow. But I hope that I'm wrong, and I'd encourage anyone to buy a copy and decide for themselves.