Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Retrospective: Skyrealms of Jorune

Chances are good that, if you read Dragon during the Silver Age, you remember Skyrealms of Jorune. You never played it, of course -- I'm not sure anyone ever did -- but you certainly remember it, because it was advertised heavily in the pages of the magazine and those ads were really intriguing. I myself never even saw a copy of Jorune until sometime in the mid-90s, well after the game was first published (in 1985, I believe). When I finally did see it, I immediately understood both why the game seemed so intriguing in those ads and why I'd never met anyone who'd actually played it: an exotic, imaginative setting that employed a few too many made-up words to describe itself mated to an uninspired, clunky rules system -- a story all too common in the annals of the hobby.

By most accounts, Skyrealms of Jorune began its existence as a hack of Metamorphosis Alpha, the precursor to Gamma World. I can certainly see the connection, although the published version of Jorune presented a much more complex setting than did its source material. Jorune is the name of the first extrasolar planet humanity discovered, home to a variety of strange creatures, including the intelligent shanthas. The shanthas were at a Stone Age technological level when humanity first arrived to explore the world. The two species nevertheless negotiated treaties to allow for limited colonization by mankind. When a cataclysmic war cut the human colonists off from Earth and its supplies, possibly forever, they abrogated their treaties with the shanthas and seized more of Jorune and its resources than they were allowed by treaty. The shanthas retaliated by using a powerful force known as isho -- a strange energy field that permeates Jorune, amplified by its crystal core and which some races can tap into to create "magical" effects. Together, the humans and shanthas nearly destroyed one another and devastated the planet, leading to a millenia-long dark age that saw technology and society collapse.

The game takes place long after the war, once humanity has dragged itself back up to Medieval/Renaissance level of technology and social structure. The PCs are assumed to be humans (or one of two descendant races), seeking to become citizens of the main human state, called Burdoth. To become a citizen, one must impress enough current citizens in order to get them to sponsor you -- and one impresses them by doing all manner of errands for them, thus creating a good excuse for adventures. Jorune provides a good basis for many types of adventures, from seeking out lost Earth technology to exploring the wilderness to learning how to better manipulate isho and more. It's all very well done in my opinion, hampered somewhat by its presentation and by the fact that there's just so much going on that one can easily lose the forest for the trees.

Rules-wise, Skyrealms of Jorune was very much in keeping with Sliver Age sensibilities. It combined aspects of random rolls with player choice (such as swapping ability scores, for example) and used skills rather than character classes. Combat was complex, as were the mechanics of wielding isho. There were lots of charts and tables to consult, which contributed to the sense that Jorune was a fiddly, unnecessarily complicated game. The irony is that, while its rules were clunky, the designers seemed to expect that the game would focus more on "social" conflicts and exploration rather than combat and magical duels, if the referee's advice in the Sholari Guide is any indication.

In retrospect, Skyrealms of Jorune reminds me a lot of Empire of the Petal Throne, a game I've grown to like a great deal as I've had more exposure to it. Both focus on human descendants of interplanetary colonists whose civilization has regressed technologically and now must contend with an alien world populated by dangerous creatures and where "magic" is possible. Both even assume the PCs are unlettered bumpkins seeking citizenship as the framing device for adventuring. And both are hampered in the eyes of many by their detail and use of unfamiliar terms/languages to present their setting. I think this is a pity in both cases, but especially so in the case of Jorune, which seems not be as widely recognized for its creativity as is Professor Barker's creation. For all its faults, Skyrealms of Jorune is a memorable example of Silver Age RPG design and it deserves to be remembered.

51 comments:

  1. I actually bought a copy of the 2nd edition when I saw it at Games of Berkeley, and I did so because I had fond memories of reading the "silver age" dragon magazines, as you call them, and seeing the advertisements. Although, I think my imagination spurred more interesting worlds from those pictures and words than what was actually presented in the book. But then again, I didn't publish a game in 1985, so, shows whose the ass in this farm.

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  2. I actually played it with my GM last year.

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  3. This is the one with the dangerous Kleesh infesting the East Trinnu jungle lands, right? Yeah, I may have seen that ad in Dragon a coupla times...

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  4. You pegged me on this one, bought it, read it, and never played. While I liked certain aspects it just never clicked or me, ended giving my copy to a friend when I moved to Austin. To my knowledge he's never played it either.

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  5. Jorune and Tekumel are both similarly awesome in their detail and creativity. I love both! I wish there were D20 versions of 'em as I hate learning old, clunky mechanics.

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  6. Oh you old school Oldschoolers...

    "You never played it, of course -- I'm not sure anyone ever did --"

    Not only did I run it...

    One week in December during our Winter Vacation from school my friends and I played it over the course of 7 days. Each day in the real world was a day in the game world. Each session was about 6 hours long.

    The adventure dealt with the death of an alien priest and our quest to bury his body in an ancient temple 7 days travel from our homeland. In the process, we were told by his fellow priests that we would learn the meaning of life.

    In the course of the adventure, soon after proclaiming what they believed the meaning of life to be, each PC died, often in some horrible and tragic way.

    Finally, in the epic last battle against zealots who hated the alien priests, two PCs told each other they had the answer to the meaning of life almost simultaneously. One player says to the other, "I'll say what I think it is and than I'll hold off the enemy. You say nothing and bury the priest...than head home. My guess is if you have the right answer you won't die."

    The first PC is killed in the battle while the other accomplishes his task and walks all the way back home alone, the only survivor of a doomed mission. When the alien priests see him they are astonished. "Did you...is it done?"

    The PC looks up at the priests, holds up a blaster (or maybe it was a bomb or something) and says, "I know the meaning of life..."

    Fade to black.

    BEST SHORT TERM CAMPAIGN EVER!

    Let this be a lesson to you kids. Don't just play D&D.

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  7. I was pondering Jorune today myself, and Talislanta too :)

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  8. "...the designers seemed to expect that the game would focus more on 'social' conflicts and exploration rather than combat and magical duels..."

    This itself was very Silvery-Agey. I remember reading a lot of advice like, "if combat is the most interesting thing in your game then you're doing it wrong", kind of thing.

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  9. So apparently I won't be the first to say "actually, I DM'd it" - with 8 players, a sporadically possessed merchant NPC as the patron/puzzle/McGuffin and a lot more flying land than the rulebook states. That said, I think I jettisoned the system and some of the crazy vocabulary, and ran it with Space 1889 and/or GURPS. I did not insist that anyone call me "sholari."

    My players were particularly taken with the Woffen and what my faulty memory wants to call the Ramians, who seemed from the illustration to all have a lot in common with John Cleese. Although I only played it for a year, I think it probably provided the grounding for my later Flash Gordon campaigns.

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  10. Thanks, James. You pretty much pegged it - I always wondered about the game behind that evocative but mysterious picture, but never thought in a million years about actually picking it up and playing it. At a time when everybody and their brother seemed to be putting out yet another sword and sorcery RPG, that ad for Skyrealms seemed to prove that some people were choosing to follow their own path to RPG happiness. I would think "Good for them!", and turn the page to the latest article by "Elminster"...

    :-)

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  11. Apparently rumours of its demise/obslescence are greatly exaggerated, although if they're appropriating Iranian mausolea for their cities then their art budget has probably shrunk.

    I've just realized that your captcha thing here is a Jorune name generator. Genius.

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  12. I always wondered what was happening in that picture. I suppose the guy lying down is a Shantha. Is he sick? What's the bearded guy doing? Who is the green guy? So curious!

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  13. Quivering trid nodes !

    It's the death scene of Sho Xopra-Tra, Sholari of Tashka.

    (does that help - haha!)

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  14. Absolutely one of my favourite RPGs, our group picking it up when the publishers came to the UK in 1986 and eventually playing it solidly for months and months. The setting is a wonderful mix of the familiar and the alien, the artwork is terrific (Miles Teves now works in Hollywood), and the rules just about workable and flavoursome. I love the game so much that I got involved in two fanzines and even helped with a GURPS conversion.

    It's First Edition came out in 1984, to followed by a boxed Second Edition in 1985. Which I think must the edition that was heavily advertised in issues of Dragon Magazine. The Third Edition was published in 1992, received several supplements, and is still available from Chessex.

    These days I would probably prefer to play Empire of the Petal Throne than SkyRealms of Jorune, but the comparisons between the two games are very strong. Just like EPT, Jorune was very popular with British gamers.

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  15. Put me in the "bought, read, but never played" column. Love the illustrations and whimsical setting. I couldn't muster an intuitive grasp of the rules.

    To those who've run the game: Sell me on the rules. What do you love about 'em?

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  16. Anyone wanting more information might like to read my introduction to the game that I wrote for Borkelby's Folly some fifteen years ago. (Wow. As long ago as that...)

    http://www.jorune.org/extracta/BF1_IntroJorune_Pook.pdf

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  17. Just like EPT, Jorune was very popular with British gamers.

    I've never played it, or seen a copy, but I remember that the mid-to-late-90's gaming magazine Arcane ran a reader-voted top fifty rpgs ever list (Call of Cthulhu won, which is only appropriate), and I recall that Jorune scored highly there, so it was clearly played, and enjoyed, by the (largely British) audience of that magazine.

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  18. (Sorry - It's the death scene of Sho Copra-Tra, Sholari of Tashka.)

    I played it, clunky rules an' all.
    One of my favourite settings. Some of the best rpg art ever. The 2nd best boxset ever (the 1st being the Traveller Starter set).

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  19. The game was placed at number three in Arcane magazine's top fifty RPG list. The magazine then proceeded to annoy the game's fans by calling it bonkers.

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  20. I'm afraid I have to ask you to turn in your Old School credentials. The magazine was "The Dragon", not "Dragon".

    But you've done an excellent job of bluffing your way through the OSR the last couple of years.

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  21. Incredibly, this is one I never heard of. Of coure, around 1985 I had just gotten into my later teens, was playing varisty football and chasing girls, and had stopped hanging out with the older, negative creeps at Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica. Most of what I played or was exposed to from around 1985-1989 was strictly D&D related. Sorry I missed out on this one.

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  22. Off topic, but I just wanted to drop you a note to say how happy I am that you are reading the Lord Darcy stories. Those fantastic shorts--and the incredible world it conjures up--have long been one of my favorites and a tale I've long thought would make one hell of a movie.

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  23. Loved the setting and the art, never did get to play the game. At "BRP Central," a good dedicated to Chaosium's Basid Roleplaying system, there's a person trying to do a BRP conversion for Jorune. I think it's the isho system that's giving him the most trouble.

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  24. Not surprised Anthony. The Isho system has always proved to be a pain to adapt.

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  25. I'm afraid I have to ask you to turn in your Old School credentials. The magazine was "The Dragon", not "Dragon".

    It was The Dragon only for the first 23 issues, but officially became Dragon (without the definite article) in issue 24.

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  26. Bought it, planned a campaign, made characters, never actually played.

    I remember when I realized, "Hey, there's not really any magic in this world!", in the sense of arcanery. Isho is really more like psionics, if I remember correctly.

    The art, though, that's what sold me...

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  27. I still own a copy of this game.

    It had a great world and story.

    However, its rules are horrendous. To call this game in line with "Silver Age sensibilities" is slander a lot of really well-designed rule systems (But then I am on record as preferring the late 80s Silver Age over the inconsistent game design of the Golden Age).

    Combat, in particular, is horrendously complex and Loremaster-level fatal. So you are supposed to focus on skills. And these suffer from the classic problems that plagued the early skill system; the designer tries to be complete and "realistic", but the skill selection just appears to be random.

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  28. I bought this game (and it's supplements) when they were originally released. I treasure them. Quite frankly some of the most beautiful artwork I have ever seen in any RPG ever published. I have no memory of the rules at all. I haven't looked at it in years. Sounds like I should. This is just such a wonderful gaming product.

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  29. Speaking of Jorune, we will likely never see another Jorune product. I worked for the guy who designed it, and he indicated the IP is hopelessly tangled in an intractable legal mess.

    I always had an interest in it from those Dragon ads, and never even saw a copy until I was much older. The artist, Miles Teves, is one of the top Hollywood concept artists now: milesteves.com

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  30. I owned the first two editions of this game. I never figured out what to do with it, but I will add to the chorus that the second edition had some of the best, most evocative art I've ever seen in an RPG. I'd love to see a new edition, perhaps even as a setting book for some other RPG.

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  31. Always saw the ads, never came across the game. The first & second groups I ran with really preferred a mix of combat with some political intrigue. I doubt the game would have gotten much play even if I had come across it. I did manage to play Man, Myth & Magic for a while. After Dragonquest, Gamma World probably got the most play, then Star Frontiers. There were a host of other very specific genre games, but none had the staying power of a fantasy setting.

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  32. Thank you for this post: your analysis really and truly hit home like a dart to the heart. It is too tempting to develop an overly complex and completely useless self-referential set of overly complicated rules that drive away anyone who might have been interested in the setting in the first place. It's a trap that has snared many along the path, not just the creators of Jorune. The setting can be as exotic as all get out, but in the end the rules used to explore it need to be accessible and flexible enough to allow people to actually play within the setting, otherwise it becomes an exercise in authorial-tyranny, canonical-arguing, and pretentious posturing that was boring and old before it even hit the page or monitor.

    Like I said, you've given me, personally, some food for thought in a most timely manner, and I thank you for it.

    Looks like it is time to go back to the roots all over again. Cool.

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  33. The first edition ( http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2798/4099870964_a97e6e7557_o.jpg ) - which appears to have had abysmally poor sales - is a bit more rough-and-ready in play-style (wilderness/dungeon-crawling D&D in Avatar-land *jk*) and doesn't use that "first EPT adventure" framing device, etc., although there are clearly more backstory similarities there than with MA.

    > The irony is that, while its rules were clunky, the designers seemed to expect that the game would focus more on "social" conflicts and exploration rather than combat and magical duels

    Those aspects came more to the fore in 2e although the depth of background and potential for steering such a course is still clearly "bubbling under" in 1e.

    > By most accounts, Skyrealms of Jorune began its existence as a hack of Metamorphosis Alpha

    Only if Runequest is a D&D hack, perhaps?
    There's a difference between system and campaign setting and not so many RPGs were designed from scratch without any previous gaming "baggage" or experience. The Jorune /campaign setting/ evolved from extended gameplay far beyond original-setting MA game playing.

    > You never played it, of course

    As used to be said of C&S... ;)

    Oi! Well, OK we didn't play it for /long/; only tried in passing. :)

    Thanks for the retrospective, James; and agreed, definitely one that deserves to be continued forward, too, rather than consigned to the past. The setting need not follow the mechanics slavishly, of course.

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  34. > buzz said...
    > I owned the first two editions of this game. I never figured out what to do with it

    (ah; so you were responsible for the other 1e sale *jk*. Beware, you will have collectors on your tail if you still have that ;)

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  35. Wow - this is freaky. I was actually going to post a question this week on DF to see if anybody knew what the hell this old Jorune game was! (after not finding any info because I mis-remembered the name as "Journe") Thanks! Yeah, 25 years later I still remembered those weird ads in Dragon.

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  36. Good post. I had nearly forgotten about this game, due to the fact that in my area, I never saw it for sale. Anywhere. If not for the Dragon, I would never have known of its existence.

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  37. Bought it, DMd it, loved the art. I don't remember the skill system at all but I remember combat taking forever - it was a series of challenged skill rolls (d20s???) that took forever to finally complete.

    Also, like Talislanta, the world was too alien, so unless the players had also bought and read the rules (they hadn't) they were confused and at sea from the moment they started playing.

    Great idea though!

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  38. Thanks to Sean Wills for pointing out the caption I overlooked. I googled it and found a website by Robert Dushay with the following explanation:

    "The caption reads "Death scene of Sho Copra-Tra, Sholari of Tashka." This is a complex and important scene to the setting. The aged human is probably the muadra Gends, the first of the muadra trained in isho skills by Sho Copra-Tra himself. A sholari is a priest, and Copra-Tra is another title meaning "master of Tra." The glowing orb between their hands is a naull orb; it is the simplest of isho manifestations, and reveals your personal essence. It is used as a peaceful greeting among muadra. Sho Copra-Tra's naull is almost pure white, the visible portion of tra energy. The huge figure in the back is a corastin. These are simple beings of great strength, who frequently hire themselves out as guards. From their poses, it is likely that the human female and the corastin are servants of Gends."

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  39. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  40. In what sense did "The Dragon" "officially" become "Dragon" in issue 24? On the cover it is "The Dragon" until issue 38, and in interior text written by editorial references to "The Dragon" continue for some issues (not sure how many). The first masthead that has "Dragon" instead of "The Dragon" is 42.

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  41. Doh! That is supposed to say "text written by editorial staff"

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  42. Damn this game looks awesome!!! but I'll have hard times finding a copy of a 2nd edition...

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  43. In what sense did "The Dragon" "officially" become "Dragon" in issue 24? On the cover it is "The Dragon" until issue 38, and in interior text written by editorial references to "The Dragon" continue for some issues (not sure how many). The first masthead that has "Dragon" instead of "The Dragon" is 42.

    I am in error on this point. I was responding quickly to an earlier comment and didn't bother to check my issues to see when the changeover happened, since it occurred before I started reading the magazine around issue 60-something or other.

    If anyone is looking for some other point to correct me about, I am sure I've misspelled a few words in my posts here and there too.

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  44. Played the third edition of Jorune once and ran it twice, for a total of about 5 or 6 game sessions...

    The first problem is teaching players the language, the second is giving up on the game system to go back to playing AD&D.

    I'm tempted to house-rule Jorune into another system now, maybe Mutant Future or Swords & Wizardry.

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  45. I always wondered what was happening in that picture.

    The illustration includes a description in its black and white version but I can't recall what it was. I believe it depicts the death of a famous shantha from the history, but my memory may be faulty.

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  46. Speaking of Jorune, we will likely never see another Jorune product. I worked for the guy who designed it, and he indicated the IP is hopelessly tangled in an intractable legal mess.

    That's what I remembered reading somewhere. It's a real pity, as I think Jorune is an awesome setting and, if properly presented and with better rules, it could have been much more accessible than it was.

    Ah well.

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  47. "Loved the setting and the art, never did get to play the game. At "BRP Central," a good dedicated to Chaosium's Basid Roleplaying system, there's a person trying to do a BRP conversion for Jorune. I think it's the isho system that's giving him the most trouble."

    That would be me, and the problem is not Isho, but real life consuming my time. Maybe I will get a chance to get back to it this weekend ...

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  48. Got here from the Harn post (http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2010/03/retrospectve-harn.html).

    I've never run or played Jorune though I've had and read 2nd and 3rd edition and played the computer game some. The basic premise isn't too difficult really and the art is amazing and really helps the setting come to life.

    However the use of setting terms as gaming terms in place of standard terminology made it difficult to just get in and play. Also no edition that I've read had rules workable enough to play without essentially re(writing) whole chapters. Perhaps with one of the fan systems.

    In contrast Tekumel uses standard gaming terms and has both playable published and fan systems. It's also easier to get, though Jorune is technically still in print, as Chessex still sells 3rd edition last time I checked.

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  49. I'm trying to update the Jorune Conversions. What I have so far...

    FUZION, HERO SYSTEM, MYSTERY SYSTEM, OVER THE EDGE , GURPS, UNISYSTEM, STORYTELLER, PLUS SYSTEM and ORFA (One Roll Fits All). There were noises of conversion to FATE, FUDGE and BURNING WHEEL. Any news on these?

    Some are complete, some are playtested, some are just notes ... I'd like to get them all into one place.

    Contact me through joe adams 1950 at g mail dot com.

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  50. Skyrealms of Jorune, Sholari Guide, 1985 for sale : http://bit.ly/eLXJ2u

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