Referee’s Bookshelf: Tales of Gargentihr

What is it about Scottish RPG publishers and offbeat game settings? Contested Ground Studios had A|State, Nightfall Games gave us SLA Industries,  and – perhaps most obscurely of all – Sanctuary Games put out Tales of Gargentihr, which gets its elitist on with its front cover defiantly declaring the subject matter of the game to be REAL FANTASY (the implication being that your run of the mill sub-Tolkien D&D knockoff setting constitutes FAKE FANTASY).

Sanctuary Games put out its sole product – the Gargentihr core book – in 1994, and so far as I can make out went out of business almost immediately. The game was picked up by Digital Animations, who after negotiating a US distribution deal with Mind Ventures and reprinting the core book (John Kim’s RPG encyclopedia refers to this as a 2nd edition, though I have found no evidence that its contents differ from the Sanctuary Games version and according to archive.org’s snapshots of Mind Ventures’ website the version of the core book they were distributing had the same page count as the original edition) seemed to do barely anything with the property beyond putting out an adventure as a PDF (on floppy disk, of all things). Rumours percolated that there was a computer game in the works, but with neither company active in the RPG or videogame businesses these days it’s hard to imagine that a revival of the IP is coming any time soon. (Apparently someone at Chronicle City put feelers out towards maybe getting a revival going, but wasn’t able to negotiate a workable way forward.)

In some respects, that’s a shame. In other respects, I actually like it that way. Tales of Gargentihr crams a heap of fun material into its core book, whilst at the same time painting the gameworld beyond the PCs’ homeland with a light brush, giving plenty of freedom for GMs to take the gameworld in whatever direction they wish, and the lack of extensive additional canon encourages this; Gargentihr still feels like a world ripe for discovery, which it wouldn’t if it were finely mapped in a bunch of encyclopedic supplements.

Like Skyrealms of Jorune, Tales of Gargentihr takes a colonial approach to its fantasy. The world of Gargentihr’s oceans are not made of water but silt, across which only a very few may sail safely, and its continents float on top of the silt. Decades before the current date, the continents of Lathmir and Agasha came into close proximity, causing the silt between to be temporarily compressed into a stable land bridge. Across this bridge came the Karro of Lathmir, who established the colonial territory of Gevuria. Now, decades later, the Gevurians have drifted from Lathmir both culturally (most importantly, whereas back on Lathmir the Church of Sanctology rules supreme, in Gevuria the new professional Institutes rule and the Church is reduced to competing on the level of any other Institute) and physically, with Agasha and Lathmir drifting apart again to leave Gevuria isolated from its home culture.

The Gevurians are not alone on Agasha; as well as other human colonial expeditions from other continents, such as the Jouk and the Roquan, Agasha has more alien denizens – and also its own indigenous population of humans, the Ha’esh, some of whom jealously guard their independence as others attempt to adapt to Gevurian society.

Whilst the Karro of Gevuria tend towards bigotry and xenophobia, not all of them are out to wrangle maximal benefit at the cost of the Ha’esh and Gevuria’s neighbours. In particular, the secret society known as the Clondis has become an unlikely hub of cross-cultural understanding. Originally the secret agents and hired killers of Karro nobility, with their severance from Lathmir the Clondis of Gevuria had to seek a new reason for existence. This prompted them to evolve a new code of conduct, once which exhorted them above all other considerations to give their aid to those in need, irrespective of who the needy person happens to be.

Combine that with the powerful oaths of mutual fealty that Clondis cells swear to one another, and you have an organisation which not only is as happy to aid Ha’esh as they are Karro and non-humans as they are humans, but welcome both Ha’esh and Karro into their ranks and make equals of them within the cells. If anyone’s best placed to counteract the ugly side of Gevurian consolidation, give protection to both Gevurian settlers and Ha’esh locals, and reach out to the other cultures that occupy Agasha, it’s the Clondis.

Even more than the assumed “supplicants chasing citizenship” structure of Empire of the Petal Throne or Skyrealms of Jorune, the assumption that the PCs will play the members of a Clondis cell is baked deeply into Tales of Gargentihr. This is useful, because it provides focus to a game which might otherwise have been a collection of stuff thrown together without thought as to how this is actually gameable. The risk of designing a game with a high setting tourism emphasis is that you can forget that settings aren’t just things to look at – PCs need to be able to usefully interact with them, and here the Clondis setup allows them to go more or less anywhere and get involved in more or less anything.

The core book provides a lot to be getting on with. Without going so far as to offer a burdensomely detailed town-by-town gazetteer of the continent, the game offers a wide range of human and alien cultures, presented with sufficient depth to make them distinctive and to spark adventure ideas whilst not getting so encyclopedic as to make them feel difficult to handle properly. The setting works in magic, weird technology, herbalism, and Kyromancers – bizarre victims of a dimension-shifting disease who exist mostly in the weird shadow dimension which is the source of the Sa-energy that powers magic on Gargentihr and only dimly perceive the physical world, and who use fantastic cyberwear to temporarily physically manifest and pull off magical feats of terrifying power. The Kyromancers are, in fact, the default PC spellcaster type, being as they are a Karro institution, which I quite like since they are also the most unusual spellcasters and it makes a refreshing change from the assumed culture of the majority of PCs being the most plain and generic.

On which subject, the colonialism aspect of Tales seems reasonably sensibly handled; the Karro are stand-ins for European colonialism, but the colonisation process is not supposed to stand unquestioned, and interestingly the Ha’esh seem aesthetically inspired by ancient Japan more than anything else, which adds a counterfactual twist to proceedings. The other human settlers diverge from what we expect of humanity in some striking ways, suggesting that “human” on Gargentihr is a somewhat broader category than on our planet. It’s a welcome contrast to fantasy settings which present pseudo-Europeans oppressing cartoon native Americans yet again.

As well as being evocatively detailed, the various cultures, communities, political groups and so on are rich with adventure opportunity. This core book presents Gevuria itself in great detail but only sketches the rest of the continent and barely alludes to the rest of the world, which from a referee’s perspective is great – there’s a nice detailed core for you to resort to when you want that support, but also a lot of canvas and a lot of inspiration for you to work on and make the setting your own when you get the urge to. In a way, the abrupt cancellation of the game line is an advantage, since it means there’s no official canon outside the core for players to compare your ideas against.

That said, no game is perfect, and there are three major drawbacks of Gargentihr. Firstly, the system is for the most part bland and uninteresting, with some needless complications here and there, though it does have some nice quirks – for instance, there’s a decent life path system for character generation, and I quite like how when a Kyromancer phases into the physical world they need to expend all their magic points (either through targeted spells or through discharging to earth) before they phase back. Secondly, the aesthetic feels inconsistent – you have cyberwared mages next to crystal-based super tech next to clockwork technology next to more typical Renaissance-era stuff, and it feels a bit like everyone had lots of cool ideas and nobody really thought how they would fit together. The third problem is that sometimes the game’s love of oblique terminology gets the better for it – like its maddening insistence on calling a sword a davin, which I think is meant to sound fantastical but that doesn’t really work when the item the word is attached to is so mundane.

To be honest, for the most part these are minor issues, but combined they meant a big problem for the game. The bland system may have put off customers already happy with D&D or other fantasy RPGs; the failure to come up with a cohesive and distinctive core aesthetic meant it tended to get overlooked in the market; the excessively obscure terminology made the setting look more unapproachable than it actually is. Tales of Gargentihr appears to have sunk like a stone; as well as making more or less no commercial impact, so far as I can make out the world of Gargentihr doesn’t enjoy the same fanbase of dedicated revivalists that other obscurities like Tekumel or Jorune enjoy. To be fair, both Tekumel and Jorune have both had more commercial products released for them, but the lack of any appreciable Gargentihr fan activity is breathtaking – I haven’t been able to find a single fansite, or even a report from anyone who mentions having actually played the game. If you’re after a gameworld which will truly surprise even the most widely-read player in your group, I guess I have to recommend Gargentihr, because Tales really is too good a game to deserve the obscurity it’s suffered from.

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5 thoughts on “Referee’s Bookshelf: Tales of Gargentihr

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