Settings reputed to be too weird to effectively run are about as old as RPGs themselves; Empire of the Petal Throne was, when it originally came out, reputed to be unplayably dense and weird, though I suspect a lot of that stems from it taking more inspiration from South Asian and Mesoamerican cultures than it did from European history. In the 1980s, the crown of “wackiest setting” belonged to Skyrealms of Jorune, famed for running a series of adverts in Dragon magazine like this one:
And to be honest, right there you can see both what people found appealing about Jorune and what people found off-putting. The artwork is impressively weird, and combined with the dialogue it takes on a whimsical, almost Vancian quality. At the same time, the actual dialogue is full of fantasy gibberish words and suggests a fussy, overprecise setting with lots of fiddly details.
Various incarnations of the game have existed over the years; lately I was able to get a good deal on the core 2nd Edition box and a couple of supplements. The first book you are directed to consult by the back of the boxed set is the Tauther Guide, which is presented as an in-character guidebook for Tauthers. From this you not only get some pointers about the gameworld – rundowns of some of the nonhuman species, a few notes on history and geography, and pointers on survival – but it’s also a handy way to convey expectations about the game.
Skyrealms follows the lead of Empire of the Petal Throne by giving a default origin and agenda for beginning characters in the form of a quest for citizenship. Specifically, PCs begin as residents of Burdoth (and probably hail from its capital city, Ardoth) who are seeking to become full citizens, referred to as a Drenn. To become a Drenn you need to acquire the signatures of other Drenn – and because each Drenn can only provide their backing to 5 citizenship bids per year and are held responsible for who they back, that means much of the game is going to involve travelling around trying to ingratiate oneself to Drenn and gain their trust and support. This not only hardwires in a nice reason to have questgivers handing out difficult tasks to PCs, but it also has a number of knock-on effects which would be likely to lend a Skyrealms campaign a distinctive tone. For instance, because the PCs are seeking approval of people who will get in trouble if the PCs turn out to be unsuitable, that’s naturally going to prompt both players and referee to look for more socially constructive stuff for the PCs to be getting up to and dissuade the band of rogues/rabble of murderhobos style of gameplay that is aired in other games.
That isn’t to say there’s no scope for combat and action – some of the nonhuman races are regarded (with some justification) as foes of all the peoples of Burdoth, so (for instance) taking down a roving group of Ramians who are caught in the grip of the murder-frenzy of chiveer is something almost all Drenn will applaud. In addition, there are enough dangerous wildernesses that there are bound to be some Drenn out to offer sponsorship in return for successful undertakings out in the wild. Equally, though, pursuing more cerebral, political or humanitarian adventures in the heart of society is just as rewarding if you get a signature out of it, and the inclusion of brief sections on wilderness survival on the one hand and etiquette on the other underlines this. Overt rebellion or troublemaking will likely mean an abandonment of the quest for Drenn status – which doesn’t mean you can’t do it, of course, but does mean it’s a bigger deal when you do bite the bullet and go renegade.
The style of the Tauther Guide also offers hints as to the expected style of a Skyrealms game. The use of specialised terminology – much of which you can quickly suss out from context, happily – encourages the reader to become immersed in the ornate canon and distinctive style of the setting. It’s actually quite cleverly written to ease you into grasping these concepts whilst at the same time including evocative references to create the impression that there is plenty to discover about the setting and to get you excited about the process of discovering it. My main gripe is that there’s no clear explanation of the three divisions of humanity, which makes the recent history section rather hard to follow.
However, it is still possible to piece together the essential setting concept from this. Jorune is an alien world which is home to many alien life forms, and some three and a half thousand years ago was colonised by human beings. As well as bringing some Earth fauna and flora with them – horses and cougars exist on Jorune, for instance – the humans had great prowess in biogenetics, and one of them, the great Iscin, crafted entire new races of animals with human levels of intelligence, tool use and language ability – these uplifted cougars, wolves and bears eventually developing their own independent cultures outside of humanity’s control.
At some point, the high technological capabilities of the human settlers were lost, and humans became just another lifeform of Jorune, struggling to survive alongside the rest in the wake of the collapse. Recently, the humans of Burdoth discovered a cache of Earth-Tec, including powerful energy weapons thought long since lost. After a time of rapid human expansion, a new status quo has been reached, with humans and their allied species ruling in Burdoth and its satellite realms.
The Player Guide unpacks the tragedy of the past a little more. As it turns out, before the coming of humanity the major power on Jorune were the Shanthas, whose technology was based on their command of Isho, a mysterious energy source permeating Jorune which gives its users powers that are effectively magical. The Shanthas had permitted the human colonisation process, but had strictly regulated where the humans could settle and how much of the local resources they could exploit. However, a cataclysmic war on Earth meant that the supply ships the colonists were going to depend on would never arrive – a crisis the colonists exacerbated by arrogantly expanding their mining and agricultural activities without consulting the Shanthas. Shantha reprisals took the form of devastating magical attacks on the human settlements; the humans responded with genocide, unleashing a plague tailored to only affect Shanthas which killed 99% of their population. Over 34 centuries later, humanity is beginning to rediscover its past – but over three millennia of living on Jorune might just have helped humanity to learn to be better neighbours. In particular, the emergence of the muadra – a diminutive offshoot of humanity who are sensitive to Isho – proved to be a vector for a new understanding between Shanthas and humans, for it was the Shantha Sho Copra-Tra who first taught the muadra Caji how to manipulate and control Isho.
This is a neat colonisation narrative which on the one hand seems to make a legitimate effort to make sure the Shanthas aren’t reminiscent of any particular colonised human culture (which would leave a nasty taste in the mouth) and the colonisation process has no obvious parallel with recent Earth colonial history, but at the same time makes the 22nd Century colonists believably flawed. It’s also a timeline which reinforces the community-minded themes of the game, since from it you can expect maintaining good relations with nonhumans to be an important factor. Perhaps the best way the book conveys this is in the parallel presentation of human and Shantha takes on Jorune’s history, from which the mutual misunderstandings can be gleaned.
As well as a more detailed history section, the Player Guide provides most of the system information. Unfortunately, the actual system is needlessly awkward and fiddly; it seems to have been inspired in part by Basic Roleplaying or Runequest (with its stat-and-skill setup with skills purchased with a pool of points derived from your Education stat and improved through experience checks earned by using the skill in play) and in part by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (your skill rating in a combat skill isn’t directly used to hit people, but instead is used to derive a THAC0-style score to be rolled on a D20, and in character generation you can buy skill packages that correspond to class competences like thieving or fighting).
The downfall of the system is in just how fiddly it is. Rather than just being able to roll to increase a skill when you get a check, you have to pass a roll on your “Learn” characteristic (rolled on D6 plus 7) to convert it to an Education Point associated with the skill you earned the Education Point in, and your skill only increases when you earn 5 Education Points in that skill. Each skill has an associated difficulty level which determines how hard it is to learn, complicating skill purchase during character gen and making the skill packages downright necessary if you don’t want character gen to take up a whole session. Furthermore, to my eyes it looks like a single roll you make at character generation affects character progression way too much – Learn ranges from 8 to 13, and your Learn rolls to get Education Points are rolled on 3D6, so if you’ve rolled 5 or 6 you will on average convert more checks into Education Points than you fail to convert and if you haven’t you’ll probably waste most of your checks.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Depending on the vintage of your Jorune box, it may include a 20 page rules update that came out in 1987 that more or less completely retools the character creation and skill system – in particular, it introduces guidelines on how often you get to roll to improve skills that’s now based on how intensely you’ve used skills and on how much in-game time has passed – the minimum time being one month per improvement check. So, tracking Education Points is out, but at the same time character improvement slows down to an utter crawl unless the campaign includes a significant amount of downtime.
The inclusion of such a comprehensive rules update within a mere two years of putting out the 2nd Edition suggests a mild lack of confidence in the system. Rumour has it that the actual home campaigns of Jorune’s creators (who apparently still use it as a setting for gaming) don’t even use any of the officially published variants of the Skyrealms rules, and haven’t for some time. I could well believe it; it feels as though if they’d had the option in those hazy pre-OGL days of the 1980s, they’d have just put out Jorune as a variant setting for Runequest, a game this resembles both in terms of system and in a shared emphasis on culture and community.
As it stands, the creators have a fairly tolerant attitude towards fan works and adaptations of Jorune, and there’s currently a spirited effort to put out a Basic Roleplaying set of rules for Jorune (via the instrument of Mongoose’s Runequest OGL) which if I wanted to game in Jorune I would be inclined to use – apparently the main job at this point is to adapt the magic rules, which is particularly crucial since the magic of Jorune has a very distinct flavour to it and a lot of setting elements arise from following through its implications – the titular Skyrealms, for instance, are floating islands that are kept aloft by the power of Isho.
Speaking of Skyrealms, the included adventure is based around one – specifically, it takes as its jumping-off point an illicit jaunt to a Skyrealm in order to gather rare crystalline shirm-eh, a lucrative form of contraband, which (based on the information given and the presented timetable of the Realm’s movements) is likely to find the PCs at the hub of a conflict between Ardothian forces and the ramians.
As nice as it is to focus the sample adventure around one of the titular Skyrealms of Jorune, at the same time the Skyrealm itself doesn’t strike me as being a very satisfying sandbox (skybox?). There’s a light sprinkling of interesting things to see, but not an awful lot to actually do beyond gather crystals and dodge ramians. A bigger problem is that the premise of the adventure seems to fly in the face of the supposed focus of the game on the pursuit of endorsement from Drenn. The harvesting and sale of the crystals is explicitly presented as an illegality, which makes it not the sort of activity a prospective citizen is going to be keen to associate themselves with. Indeed, so far as I can tell the two NPCs who try to cajole the player characters into this scheme aren’t actually Drenn (or if they are, the module doesn’t say – a curious omission considering that the difference between Drenn, tauthers, and those who do not even aspire to Drennship is rather crucial to the game’s society), and the way the module has them behaving feels so heavy-handed and suspicious that I suspect a large number of groups would shop them to the authorities just on general principles. It just seems downright odd to me to design an adventure where most PCs, if their players are engaging with the game in good faith, are going to have a compelling reason to reject, and the emphasis on acquiring valuable resources, evading or defeating dangerous monsters and foes, and exploration doesn’t exactly amount to the radical departure from D&D the authors seem to want Jorune to be.
Subsequent supplements seem to have been brought out with an eye both to advancing the timeline and to getting the writers’ vision of Jorune across. In particular, the two volumes of Companion Jorune – Burdoth and Ardoth – each seem to advance the “current” time by one year (part of me wonders whether this was following the progress of the writers’ home campaign) and are, if anything, overstuffed with information. Burdoth provides details on a range of areas and settlements, both in the titular nation and the areas of Jorune under its influence. Pretty much every single location is deeply wired into the history of the region, to the extent that the supplement is positively obsessed with history (indeed, there’s a long and extremely dense writeup of the Energy Weapons War at the back of the book).
Ardoth is, if anything, even more idiosyncratic. In principle, it’s really useful as a complete writeup of what is both the capital city of Burdoth and the centre of the PCs’ quest for Drennship. At the same time, it shares with Burdoth and (to a lesser extent) the core Skyrealms box a love of sharing heaps and heaps of details without necessarily showing much thought as to how these details might be used during an actual game. This is the sort of thing which makes Jorune at once a great destination for setting tourism and a really poor one – there’s lots of nice secrets to discover, but the best and most immersive way to discover them nine times out of ten is going to be just reading the dang books, because it would take a referee with a rare affinity for the setting to do it justice in an actual game. I don’t mean that the referee would need to memorise everything – though certainly, the more they can recall the better – but what I do mean is that Jorune is, even with just the core box, an extremely personal vision, much like Numenera, and whilst I think it’s much more cohesive than Numenera, its cohesion in this case works against it, because it feels like on the one hand the whole point of Jorune is to get the immersive Jorune experience, but at the same time the only way to get it is via a referee who can really convey the distinctive atmosphere of the world. And that’s such a personal and specific thing that I don’t think you could accomplish it unless you were very, very into the creative vision of the authors, and as impressively weird as it is, it doesn’t speak to me enough to make me really want to use this stuff.
Indeed, sometimes to me the most oblique thing about Jorune is how its creators approach gaming. The rear of the Companion Jorune: Ardoth books says there’s a limit of “one encounter per player”, which feels bizarre – why include all that detail if people can’t have multiple encounters in Ardoth? I can see that there might need to be an incentive to get people to go explore the world rather than doing odd jobs in Ardoth until they get their Drennship, but doesn’t that go against the immersive aims of the game as well as the defined parameters of the gameworld and Ardothian society? And is the sample adventure, with its weird insistence that the PCs apply themselves to overt criminality without thought of Drenn signatures, really meant to be what Jorune gaming is all about? If not, why include it? If so, why burden us with all this information about Drenn? As much as I like the aesthetic of Jorune, the logic of it completely eludes me.