If you think of the things that managed to become cult ones, one of them is definitely a board game called Talisman, played and loved by myriads of fans all over the world. One summer holiday afternoon, back when I was a kid, I opened the box with its Polish version inside and entered a completely new, amazing world, joining them myself. All those who play or used to play Talisman probably know the secrets of the game, others may have heard the title, but how much do we really know about its author? In my newest “remote talk” I had a chance to talk to the man behind it all – Robert J. Harris, the creator of Talisman, an accomplished writer, a great storyteller and interlocutor, as you can see for yourself reading this interview. What does Talisman have to do with school? Who could play Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the movie version of the game and which character would suit Emily Blunt? What was the first game that impressed Robert J. Harris? What are his favourite books, comics and films? How was it like working with Jane Yolen on young adult novels? And what on earth is “Quantum Fridge Audio”? The answers to all these questions (and even more) can’t wait to meet you, so don’t keep them waiting and start reading 😉
Łukasz Garbol: Imagine that someone is making a movie about you and they want to show the origins of “Talisman” and the moment when the idea to create it came to your mind. What would such a movie scene look like?
Robert J. Harris: It would just be a young man staring out a window deep in thought. To liven it up you’d have to use CGI to show all the heroes and monsters romping around inside his mind.
Is it true that Talisman was based on your earlier game, the plot of which was taking place at school? What was the aim of players in that game?
The game was set in my high school Morgan Academy in Dundee. It was called Rectocracy because the Head Teacher of the school was called the Rector. Each player controlled a teacher who moved around the outer region of the board collecting points. Each teacher had a special ability, e.g. the gym teacher added 1 to his die roll because he was fit and could move fast.
The squares in the outer region were all classrooms. When he had enough points the teacher moved into the inner region which were the heads of departments rooms. Finally, you made it to the centre of the board which was the Rector’s office.
By the way, what did you like most at school and what did you hate most back in your school days?
It was a pretty dull time. I wasn’t happy about being forced to play rugby.
When did you play a board game for the first time? Which game was that?
I must have played Monopoly because I know I made my own version of it set in my home town of Dundee.
Do you remember the first board game that really impressed you?
My favourite was called The Bugs Bunny Adventure Game, a race game in which Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety made their way around the board. The fun but was you kept changing characters all through the game. I fist played it when out camping with my parents and my cousin George. I still play it today.
And what was your first contact with fantasy genre in general? Was that a book? Or a film? Or maybe something completely different?
Reading The Lord of the Rings. Some friends and I were members of a wargames club and played historical wargames with metal figures, usually with Greeks, Romans and Persians. We made out own rules for playing Lord of the Rings battles and this was long before anyone head of Dungeons and Dragons.
If someone who hasn’t played Talisman asked you, “What is it about? What do you do in this game?”, what would you say? How would you answer in one sentence?
Enter a fantastic world where you and your friends can be heroes or villains battling against monsters and ghosts to become the ruler of an enchanted land.
What were your main sources of inspiration when you created Talisman?
Playing D&D (Dungeons and Dragons – annotation by ŁG ). I wanted a board game you could just take out of the box and have an adventure as exciting as a role-play.
Who is your favourite character from the game?
Do you remember your best experience of playing Talisman? When and where was it? Who did you play with?
For a long time it was just something I played for fun with my friends before somebody suggested I get it published. I have very happy memories of my second visit to Games Day in London by which time the game was becoming something of a cult. It was my first chance to mix with enthusiastic fans and play with them.
Polish version of Talisman published in 1988 and in 1991 by Sfera had different illustrations than the original version, the illustrations created by Grzegorz W. Komorowski. Some players even say they prefer this version to the original one. Have you ever had a chance to see that Polish version, titled Magia i Miecz (Magic and Sword)? How do you like its visual side?
It’s great to see alternative versions of the characters and creatures.
By the way, do you have your favourite fantasy illustrators?
Chris Achilleos, Gary Chalk.
I know that Talisman inspired some of its players to try playing traditional RPGs. And what is your favourite role-playing game?
When I decided to run games as a games master, I used the Tunnels and Trolls system which I though was simple and fun. I added skills and other aspects to create my own RPG world. Much later I had great fun running games of DC Heroes RPG.
Which character class do you usually choose when you play role playing games?
Let’s unleash our imagination for a moment. Imagine that someone offered you a chance to make a movie based on Talisman. Who do you think would be the perfect director for such a movie? Who would be the main characters and who would ideally play them?
I would get Kenneth Branagh to direct and it would star Dwayne Johnson (Warrior), Dolph Lundgren (Troll), Emily Blunt (Prophetess) and Mira Sorvino (Elf).
And if you were to choose your favourite films (of any kind), what would you pick?
Favourite films from my childhood are Zulu, The Long Ships, The First Men in the Moon. Some of my favourite films now come from the Far East: from Korea War of the Arrows and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, from Japan Black Butler and 20th Century Boys.
Let’s get back to board games. You say that your children also designed their own games, that you helped them make their ideas come true and you later played them with the whole family. One of your sons created a game based on the popular movie cycle Fast and Furious. Do you remember what that game itself (and playing it) was like?
I remember that all 3 games worked well on the first play, but we didn’t push it after that. It takes a lot of work to create a game that plays out well consistently.
Board games have great myriads of fans all over the world. In Poland, for example, they are gaining more and more popularity among adults, too (which wasn’t so obvious several years ago). However, there are still some people who are sceptical about this kind of pastime. What would you say to them if you’d like to convince them to give board games a try?
Board games are a great way to have fun with family and friends, giving you all an immersive adventure but still leaving you free to talk and joke while you play. It is very sociable.
And, telling from your experience, which board game would you recommend as a good choice for playing something in the family circle?
Labyrinth, Riddle of the Ring. Sadly I don’t think Sorcerer’s Cave or Mystic
Wood is available now, but they are two of my favourite games.
You are known mostly as a creator of the games, but you are also an acknowledged writer. How did this part of your creative work begin?
When I first met my wife she was writing a fantasy novel. (It was her idea that we buy a D&D set, so she also inspired Talisman). When she became a professional author I would help out by roughing out some of the chapters. Our friend and fellow author Jane Yolen decided that I should write my own stuff which led to me writing eight teen novels with her. From there I went on to write my own books.
*And who were your favourite writers when you started writing your own stories?
I learned a lot from working with Jane Yolen and my Leonardo and Will Shakespeare novels were a continuation of the historical fiction she and I had been writing together. Diana Wynne Jones’ comic fantasies were the inspiration behind what became my trio of novels about Norse god Loki unleashed on modern St Andrews, where I live now.
My Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries are (obviously) inspired by Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I have just completed my second novel for grownups featuring the further adventures of Richard Hannay, the classic action hero created by the great Scottish thriller writer John Buchan.
What about now? Whose books do you enjoy most?
I enjoy Dean Koontz’s thrillers, especially his Odd Thomas series. Mostly I read really old books, such as the classic mysteries of John Dickson Carr and am finally reading the classic novels of Sir Walter Scott.
Speaking of writers, I ‘d like to ask about J.R.R. Tolkien. In one of your texts available on the Internet you mention that when you were young fantasy consisted mostly of Tolkien’s books with introductions by Lin Carter and some old classic stories. Do you remember your first contact with Tolkien’s books?
I think I was fourteen when I discovered Tolkien. I remember reading the first chapters of The Lord of the Rings and realising that this was like nothing I had ever read before and that I was entering a whole new world.
And do you have your favourite Tolkienian books and characters? Maybe also particular favourite moments from the Professor’s stories?
I can only say that The Lord of the Rings is a work of true genius and more people should realise that what it is really about is the psychological battle against the corrupting power of despair.
Let’s talk a little more about your own books. Recently The Vanishing Dragon, the second book from the series about Artie (young Arthur Conan Doyle) has been published. What can your readers expect from this story?
Fun, adventure, twists and turns and an ingenious and constantly surprising mystery. Does that sound good?
Sounds absolutely awesome! Arthur Conan Doyle isn’t the only famous person being a main character of your books. You also wrote about the adventures of young Leonardo da Vinci and young Will Shakespeare. Is there any other famous real person you would like to make a character of your book?
I have a couple in mind but I’m keeping it a secret.
Your wife is also a writer. Do you two sometimes exchange ideas while working on new books? Is your wife your first reader and the other way round?
We discuss plots and she edits everything I write before it goes to the publisher.
Another important part of your literary work is writing about mythological heroes and gods. In Young Heroes cycle, created together with the famous fantasy writer Jane Yolen, you wrote about heroes from Greek mythology while in The World Goes Loki about Norse gods. Why have you chosen these particular mythscapes?
After our first collaboration Queen’s Own Fool was published, Jane was asked to write a series based on Greek mythology. Since my academic background was in classics she suggested we write these together.
When I started work on a novel of my own, I delved into my long time interest in Norse mythology. The original version of The Day the World Went Loki was the first solo novel I wrote but the third to be published.
And what was it like to work on those young adult novels with Jane Yolen? Was your cooperation full of idyllic atmosphere or rather like the “clash of the Titans”?
We always got on really well as our talents complimented each other. Even though it’s some years since we wrote together we are still the very best of friends.
Having written stories about Loki, how do you like the newest movie (although comic-based) version of Loki portrayed by Tom Hiddlestone in Marvel cinematic universe and his duet with Chris Hemsworth as Thor?
When I visit schools as an author I do have to make sure that the children understand that Marvel comics did not invent those characters and that my versions of them are different.
Thanks to Loki we went to another field of your creativity. I’ve read that during school times you used to make your own comics. What stories did they tell? Could you say a few words about the heroes you invented back then?
I always loved Batman comics, so I drew my own comics about my own hero the Owl who had an Owl Cave and an Owlmobile. Eventually I created my own world full of superheroes.
What about your favourite comics? What were the best titles you’ve ever read? Do you have your favourite characters from comic books?
My favourite have always been any title from DC featuring the Justice Society of America.
In the last several years many comic book heroes and heroines have been appearing on the cinematic screen. Which of the movie adaptations of comic books have been your favourite ones so far?
The three Captain America films.
They are among my own favorites, too. And is there any superhero or superheroine that hasn’t appeared on the screen yet and you would like to watch his / her adventures in a film / TV show version?
Yes, Booster Gold.
From the screen let’s move to so-called “theatre of imagination”. Together with a few more people you run “Quantum Fridge Audio – Podcasts for the People”. Could you introduce those who haven’t heard about it yet to this project? How did it come into being? And why did you decide on such a name for it?
Some years ago my friend Alan and I wrote some comedy shows for BBC radio. Later we developed other scripts we decided to do ourselvesand put them on the internet. We have four shows running now on our site Quantum Fridge Audio.
The name is a real scientific term but we use it to mean that your shows are so ‘fresh’ it’s like they just came out of a fridge.
Radio adaptations of famous sci-fi and fantasy books and radio series of these genres used to be very popular before the rule of TV began. I’m curious if you’ve ever listened to any of those classic radio shows – those British or American productions. If so, which of them are your favourite ones?
I am a great fan of old time radio and fortunately those old shows are all freely available on the internet. I have all the episodes of “The Shadow” and Sherlock Holmes (with Basil Rathbone).
And in general, do you think this kind of entertainment can still be attractive to the public nowadays? What can it offer that other media cannot?
I would recommend people today to listen to the old shows but also to go to Decoder Ring Theatre where they can hear the adventures of Canada’s greatest superhero The Red Panda, which are recent shows written by Gregg Taylor.
We’re talking during summer holidays – for many an opportunity to travel more. You had a chance to visit several different countries. Which of those visits was the most unforgettable? Which place did you like most? Maybe you will inspire someone to see these places next summer?
I would recommend anyone to visit Greece and in 2000 we had a family holiday in Florida which we still share memories of today.
Could you recommend our readers something worth reading and something worth playing this summer (or in the summer time in general)?
Read any or all of my books. Read the science fiction of Eric Frank Russell and the mysteries of John Dickson Carr.
At the end of our “remote talk” let me ask you a question of a different kind. Imagine that you are to leave your words forged on a magical stone that will not perish till the end of the days. What message would you leave for the posterity if you had such a chance?
Being alive is a great adventure.
Thank you very very much for the talk. It was a true pleasure and honor 🙂
Check Robert J. Harris’ page and follow him on Twitter:
by Łukasz Garbol, August – October 2018
*If you quote the interview or use some information from it, please just give the usual credits: my name and / or the name of the blog plus the link to the interivew. Thank you 🙂
Photos of Robert J. Harris by Kirsty Nicol.
Photo of the Bugs Bunny Adventure Game: https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/bugs-bunny-adventure-board-game-1849125763
Photo of Dwayne Johnson and photo of Dolph Lundgren by Eva Rinaldi
Both under CC licence: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo of Mira Sorvino by Manfred Werner – CC by-sa 4.0
Photo of Magia i Miecz cover:
Book covers from Robert J. Harris’ Twitter, Amazon and GoodReads