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Friday, 4 February 2011

Retrospective: SkyRealms of Jorune

My gaming group first encountered this RPG on a cold, dry day in October 1986 when SkyRealms Publishing came to London and held their own trade stand at Games Day ’86. The game, with its large eye-catching box, mystifying slogan of “leave your world behind” and captivating art proved popular and sold out. I was there and wish now that I had bought a copy of the game then and there; instead I bought a much treasured SkyRealms of Jorune tee shirt. Not long after though, I did purchase a copy of that boxed set. In almost typical fashion, we played the next day, a brawl in a tavern, but we would later go on to play in a lengthy campaign.

“Leave your world behind” sums up everything about SkyRealms of Jorune: a totally alien world with strange creatures and stranger abilities where you adventured to do daring deeds and fight for the common good in an effort to attain citizenship. Whole mountains floated across the sky, and around the planet flowed a stream of ambient energy that could be harnessed to your will. At the time it was so unlike all the other games I had seen or played with their Earth-like settings, cultures and so on. Well, that’s not entirely true, for there is one game to which SkyRealms of Jorune bears some similarities and that is Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.

Their first similarity is that both SkyRealms of Jorune and Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne are games with cult status. The fact that neither has ever remained on the shelves at your local gaming store for very long has not hindered that, as the publishing fortunes of each game has waxed and waned over time. There are similarities in their settings too. Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne describes the planet Tékumel, which lost contact with the rest of humanity in its ancient history, but far in our future. Likewise, the planet of Jorune is an Earth colony, which also has lost contact with the home world. Whereas Tékumel has had to survive tens of thousands of years, Jorune has a human history only lasting three millennia or so. In both games there are strange alien creatures and access to ancient technologies, though in Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, such devices are treated as magic, not Earth technology as they are SkyRealms of Jorune.

Their histories are markedly different though. Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne began life not as a game but as an experiment in languages, to which rules were added later on, though it would take three decades for the setting to acquire a decent set of rules with the publication of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne from Guardians of Order in 2005. Even though that book is out of print, the setting and world remains the creation and brainchild of M. A. R. Barker, a professor of languages.

SkyRealms of Jorune began life as a personal campaign run by the game’s creator, Andrew Leker, using the game system from TSR’s Metamorphosis Alpha. This thirty two page book described how players could explore the “Warden,” a lost colony ship travelling at sub-light speeds, the population of which had degenerated into tribes of humans, and mutated humans and animals. Metamorphosis Alpha would later form the basis for TSR’s Gamma World, an RPG that would go various incarnations and influence the design of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition from Wizards of the Cost before returning to publication itself last year with a seventh edition, also from Wizards of the Coast. Meanwhile, Metamorphosis Alpha would return in 2006 with its own Fourth Edition from Mudpuppy Games, as an interesting, but poorly realised setting.

Meanwhile, back in 1981, Andrew Leker took his campaign from Metamorphosis Alpha back to Earth and then onto onto a planet of its own, a planet called Jorune. Together with his sister Amy, he formed SkyRealms Publishing in 1983 and the company launched the first edition of SkyRealms of Jorune at Gen-Con in 1984. This consisted of a single book, which would later be broken up into four books for the second edition which came out in 1986, and then be brought into a single book for the third edition from Chessex. Many gamers though were fascinated by the adverts for the game that ran in Dragon magazine in the mid 1980s.

The game itself described an alien world over three and a half thousand years into our future. Long ago man had developed the ability to travel to distant stars and Jorune was the first suitable colony that they found, but it was already inhabited: Shanthas, tall eyeless natives of the world able to master the ambient energy of Isho winds that flow across the surface of the planet. They allowed the foundation of a colony, which prospered with the support provided from home. Yet without this support, the colony could not be viable. The colonists were forced to expand into lands sacred to the Shantha when communication with Earth ceased after what was presumed to be a war. This initiated a war that destroyed the colony. Shanthic use of isho allowed them to strike through the colony’s shields with devastating destruction. The colonists found themselves on the losing side and desperation developed and released a plague that all but wiped out the Shantha population.

In the three millennia since the war there have been many changes. Humanity has endured many hardships to form its own place of safety in the realm of Burdoth. They also have evolved—alongside and sometimes against humans are the Boccord—bigger and stronger, able to disrupt the use of isho; and the Muadra, smaller and weaker, but like the Shanthas, capable of mastering the use of isho in order to cast dyshas (a cross between spells and psionics). Only humans though, can operate the powerful weapons and equipment found in the caches of “Earth-tec” hidden by fleeing colonists.

Stranger still were the other races found on Jorune: the fearful and xenophobic Ramian; the Thriddle, fig shaped bipeds that control vast knowledge in their libraries; and the Iscin races. A scientist once part of the original colony, Iscin was a bio-engineer who did not want the Earth’s transported flora and fauna, which found most Joruni native plant and animal life poisonous, to die. He developed stronger and more intelligent strains of various Earth animals to survive on Jorune. Some of these, such as the bear-like Bronth, cat-like Crugar and wolf-like Woffen, as well as the human races, are available to play as characters in the third edition. Although the inclusion of these races make the game seem part of the “pets-in-space” RPG genre (typified by the Justifiers RPG from StarChilde and FGU’s Other Suns RPG), there is more to the game than this, with the designers having made the effort for the Iscin races to have developed strong individual cultures and societies of their own.

Character generation was quite a lengthy process in SkyRealms of Jorune with a player needing to roll for twelve attributes and then using points derived from his Education statistic to buy career packages, practical knowledge, and personal interests. Careers are quite varied from the typical soldier or thief, through to the scientists and innkeepers. Muadra also must purchase the dyshas that they know, although some careers offer them the chance to gain a limited number.

Although the generation of the characters changed little in the transition from the second to the third editions of SkyRealms of Jorune, the game system did. In the second you rolled character attribute checks and combat damage on six-sided dice; skill checks on percentile dice; and combat manoeuvres and dysha use on a twenty sided die. All this meant that the character record sheet consisted of four sides of paper, which like many things for the third edition was streamlined. The sheet became a standard double-sided sheet and a twenty-sided die was used for all rolls except for determining combat damage and the initial attributes.

The notion of similarities between SkyRealms of Jorune and Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne rears its head once again when considering the classic campaign for each game. In Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, the players were simple foreign fishermen, arriving at the docks in the city of Jakalla. They must not only survive in the city, but also work to gain acceptance and possible recognition in the eyes of the native population. In SkyRealms of Jorune, the players are natives of the human realm of Burdoth, who have decided to travel from their homes to the capital, Ardoth. There they decide to register their application for citizenship or “drenn” status, for only then will they have the right to own land, to vote and ask for the use of Earth-tec. Once registered, they are known as “Tauther” and through their future deeds may gain the respect of individual drenn who might then support their continued application. Humans have the least difficulty in attaining drennship, with Boccord and muadra finding it harder, and the Iscin races having the hardest time of all— the feline Crugar in particular.

In both these campaigns the aim is not for the players to focus their attention on the acquisition of wealth, bigger and better weapons or other resources, but primarily on attaining both social recognition and status, and how to live up to the standards of that status. Loss of face and honour can have a potentially devastating effect on your standing with others and in extreme cases can be dangerous to your health.

Just as important as being able to protect yourself in a fight, if not more so in some cases, is the ability to interact with others in the correct manner and to respect their cultures. So, remember that Thriddle only sit in friendly company (they are slow runners and they lose a few seconds in having to stand up), to always look a Bronth in the eye and never, ever mispronounce “Chaun-Tse” the language of the Crugar. In SkyRealms of Jorune there are language, etiquette and interaction skills for all of the intelligent races found on the planet and it is useful to know at least one or two. With Jorune being so potentially hostile because of the number of volatile races, the failure to observe such rules can be a matter of life or death.

There are plenty of other options in both games for adventure other than that of gaining social recognition, though in Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne it remains the major focus of the game. In SkyRealms of Jorune, you can investigate the ancient underground ruins of the Shanthas with their strange technologies; explore the floating SkyRealms full of hidden secrets or home to a band of the feared Ramian; cross through the East Trinnu Jungle Lands, once again infested by raiding parties of the uncommunicative Cleash; or travel in style to your destination, sailing through the skies on a Jaspian crystal schooner.

Jorune is a world with seven moons; it is so unlike our home planet of Earth, lost long ago. A place of mystery, wonder and intrigue. It literally is a chance to, “leave your world behind.” One thing that strikes everyone upon seeing SkyRealms of Jorune for the first time is the art, done by Miles Teves, a high school friend of Andrew Leker. His work graced all three editions of the game, but would later be supplemented by the efforts of other industry stalwarts. Some of his art for Jorune, as well as he current work in the Hollywood film industry can be seen on Miles Teves’ own web site.

Another similarity between SkyRealms of Jorune and Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne is that of language. Both settings require a certain approach by both players and GM alike, since they use a great number of unfamiliar words, more so than most RPGs, and certainly, the point of this heavy use of different and alien sounding words is enforce the alien nature of each world. Yet each setting is very different in its approach to language. Not surprisingly, Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne is the more mature given its academic origins, with five fully developed human languages of its own, complete with grammar books – some of which have been available for purchase. Indeed many of the words, phrases, and concepts to be found in Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne are taken from human history, though not our occidental one. The roots for Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne lie in the ancient cultures of Central America, ancient Egypt, India, and South East Asia. When playing Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne it helps to have an understanding of many of these words and to be able to pronounce a few, and the same can be said of SkyRealms of Jorune. Yet that game lacks the verisimilitude to be found in Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, the terms and phrases, such as “Sholari” for the GM, often suffering from a degree of artificiality. In both games the issue of language and the various terms and phrases are a barrier to play, more so in SkyRealms of Jorune than Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.

Throughout its publishing history, only a handful of books were released for SkyRealms of Jorune. The First Edition is now impossible to find, while the Second Edition’s boxed set and its supplements, Companion: Ardoth, Companion: Burdoth, and in particular, Earth-tec Jorune, are more difficult to find and more expensive to buy. Chessex’s Third Edition is the most accessible, with the most useful beyond the core book is The Sholari Pack, a combined sourcebook, adventure and screen. Particularly, the errata, glossary, gazetteer, and timeline are all very useful. Beyond this, The Gire of Silipus is a better scenario than Innocents of Gauss and The Sobayid Atlas is a useful supplement detailing the southern region of the human nation of Burdoth.

Unfortunately, The Gire of Silipus was the last book to be released by Chessex. That was in 1993, and the game has remained in a limbo ever since, part of the reason being a clash over who owned the rights after Alien Logic, the computer game from SSI was released in 1994. Chessex’s website still claims to have the game in stock, while the writer and editor of the Third Edition, Joe Addams, has done much to keep the game alive in the years since. The internet enabled the fan base to keep in touch, with fans creating their own sites and adaptations to other game systems, including HERO, GURPS and Trinity, and just as with Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, the game has seen its fans provide support and a point of contact with various fanzines. Some of these adaptations can be found at the game’s previous website, while the publisher of fan driven material, Oak & Lotus Publications also has its own site.

So fifteen years on, the future of SkyRealms of Jorune remains uncertain, perhaps destined to be no more than a relic of the gaming past. This is a pity, as there still remains a core of fans and potential for more if the game were to receive the support it deserves. Perhaps there is a future in the fan driven supplements from Oak & Lotus, but that is a question to be answered another time. In the meantime, SkyRealms of Jorune is a rich world awaiting your exploration and worth your time tracking down a copy.