Friday, June 13, 2014

J is for Jorune

The latest in a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

One of the most inspiring images in gaming.[12]
In 1985, just before my family relocated from the UK to Canada, a friend of mine got his hands on the boxed set of an intriguing game we'd seen advertised in the pages of Dragon magazine [1] - Skyrealms of Jorune. 

This game seemed at first blush to somehow meld a 19th Century imagining of the Renaissance with science fiction and fantasy, and we were desperate to play it, but the publisher was quite a small one [2] and copies of the game were remarkably hard to find.  I've since learned that while Skyrealms of Jorune never really got any traction in the North American games market it was quite popular in the UK, so perhaps the problem was simply that such a small publisher could never keep up with demand.

In any case, get our hands on the boxed set we did [3] and we eagerly sat down to look through the books - and were immediately hungry to play.

The art, of course, was amazing. Back in the 90s, gaming art was just going through a renaissance, but even in that context it was beautiful - perhaps one of the most beautiful gaming books I have ever seen.[4]  But the universe...

There were no elves.[5]  Instead there was a many-layered history of waves of colonization on a far world.  Humans [6] were merely the latest, and society was already rich.  But then disaster struck, and the humans of Jorune were cut off from the wider civilization of humanity, and in true human form the reacted in the obvious fashion: by ignoring the treaties that had carefully established enclaves for them and instead carving out much larger realms with their superior technology. [7] High technology or no, the locals weren't to be so easily pushed around: using a kind of psionics deriving from the glorious vibrations of the crystal at Jorune's heart, the "natives" fought back, and the whole cast of sophonts on Jorune ended up back in the dark ages.

The game begins with a newly ascendant civilization in which the player characters are seeking citizenship - and in order to gain this boon, it's necessary to perform tasks and favours for an established citizen to curry favour and get sponsored.

The races presented, the rich history, the cultures described - they were like dreams to people who had been consuming Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and all manner of Golden Age science fiction in the school library.  In the course of an afternoon we not only ploughed through the rulebooks, but brainstormed plotlines and adventures and backstories for characters and had grand visions of the campaigns we would play!

Then we started to really read the rules.

For a couple of kids who had previously played BXD&D almost exclusively the mechanics were nightmarishly complex.  When we first started to try to figure out how combat worked, we got so frustrated that my friend threw one of his miniatures [8] across the room and trashed it.  In the end, we never did even play through a short scenario that day, and it wasn't long after that that my family moved, and I never saw a copy of Skyreams of Jorune again - though I often looked at the ads in Dragon with a combination of wistfulness and bitter disappointment.

Many years have passed, and I have played a wider variety of games.[9] I sometimes wonder if the mechanics would make more sense to me now. Of course, if you poke around online no doubt you'll find the same comments and reviews that I see - all of which seem to agree that while the setting was luxurious, the rules themselves were horrifying.

But something else always comes across in online discussion of this game: Inevitably, someone steps forward to say that they played the game for some time with their friends, sometimes for a long time.

The setting was just that good.

Rumour has it that the rights to Skyrealms of Jorune are hopelessly tangled up [10] so it's not likely we'll see a reprint - or, considering the state of the mechanics, a reboot under one of the many excellent systems now being played. [11]

This is a shame, because it's one of the games I would dearly like to play.

1. Which we never bought, but flipped through at the bookstore - because we were die-hard fans of White Dwarf and were loathe to give "that yank rag" our money - so most of what I remember from that era of Dragon was the covers and the full page ads.

2. Surprising, considering the level of the artwork and the amount of advertising!

3. Second edition, I believe, published just a year after the release.  I'm told there was a third edition published in the 90s, but I never saw it - and it seems that there were printing quality issues that would have made that version alone unplayable.

4. It turns out that the main artist has since become a prominent concept artist for Hollywood - check out his achievements here. He started out as concept artist for Legend!

5. Gratuitous Talislanta reference, since we're talking fringe games.

6. Three species of us!

7. The other starfaring races had fallen on hard times after finding Jorune as well, apparently. An ill fated star indeed!

8. Lead - we were old school baby!

9. I also like to think that I'm smarter than I was at 15.

10. No doubt related to the computer game that was made.

11. Or could a film or TV series be considered? With modern CGI it would be fantastic to see the setting realised visually! Of course, we know that Hollywood would gut the concept and turn it into some kind of obscene parody of what it should have been.

12. The image from the cover of the 2nd Edition of the game, explained thus at this website: 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 nuall 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 servents of Gends.

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