This may rival Droids as the most obscure game on the Island of Lost Games. Tales of Gargentihr was published in 1994 by Sanctuary Games, a startup game company based in Scotland.
Unfortunately, that meant that Tales of Gargentihr hit the market precisely when the initial success of Magic: the Gathering sucked all the oxygen out of the game business. Distributors and retailers weren't interested in anything but card games, and for a while it seemed that customers didn't want anything else, either. Some roleplaying game publishers managed to ride out the crisis — and a handful profited handsomely by making their own card games before the bubble burst — but there were a lot of casualties. Game Designers' Workshop, the publishers of Traveller and a host of superb wargames, bit the dust in 1996, and even the mighty TSR itself wound up getting purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997.
The collapse of the roleplaying industry in the mid-1990s was especially sad because that era was one of great creativity and innovation. The first generation of gamers who had grown up playing D&D were out of college, ready to start publishing their own ideas. The availability of personal computers and the rise of what was once called "desktop publishing" meant that anyone with a cool idea and not enough capital could (and did) publish a roleplaying game. There were dozens of small game publishers, and they all got swept away as the card games vacuumed up all the money and then the distributors and retailers who had over-expanded went out of business.
But back to Tales of Gargentihr. I bought that game as the result of a review by Phil Masters in a little magazine called Interactive Fantasy. Phil has very nicely reposted that review on his own Web site, with commentary. I don't remember if I ordered it through my local game store, or direct from the publisher (there was no such thing as Amazon or RPGNow in those days).
The actual product is substantial: a 344-page softcover book, printed on European A4 paper so it gets crushed when you store it in the same box as your 11-inch American products, with the traditional page-losing British paperback glue. The color cover art is not bad, while the interior black and white drawings are at least competent. (One of the often-overlooked benefits of our online culture is that it used to be really hard for a small publisher to find competent artists. That's why so many old games look like they were illustrated by the author's friend from high school. You couldn't go to Deviantart or wherever and look for someone with talent.)
In those pre-Open Game License days, every new game had to have its own game mechanics, so about a third of the book is devoted to character generation, combat rules, and general game mechanics. The rules are rather clunky: if you're using a particular skill, you have to cross-reference your skill level with the difficulty of the task on a table (with white numbers on a black background, no less) to find the target number; you then roll a die and must get equal to or less than the target to succeed. Combat uses the same mechanics, with an interesting wrinkle: the attacker chooses the difficulty level of the "task" of attacking, which then affects how hard it is to defend against that attack and how much damage it does.
Character creation is history-based: the player rolls attributes and then works through the character's past life, going through family background, apprenticeships, travel, and employment. The result is that starting characters are seasoned adventurers with connections, plot hooks, and backstory firmly in place.
The greatest aspect of Tales of Gargentihr is its unique and original setting, which spills over into character classes. There are no wizards; the closest thing are "Kyromancers" who look like the Borg from Star Trek and rely on magic crystal technology to keep themselves from fading out into the spirit realm. There are steampunk/clockpunk scientist-engineers, but a lot of their "science" is effectively magic, too. And there are herbalist-shaman types, but their magic seems to rely heavily on knowledge of obscure plants and animals.
The game setting takes up most of the book, and is so weird and interesting that I can barely summarize it here. We're on the continent of Gevuria (and continents in/on Gargentihr float on seas of silt, constantly moving together and then drifting apart), which is currently dominated by a kinda-Victorian, kinda-Elizabethan nation of colonists called the Karro. They in turn lord it over the kinda-Japanese natives, the Ha'esh (and let's just state here for the record that this entire game would be vastly improved if someone had removed the apostrophe key from the author's Macintosh). As the Karro home continent drifts away, the two races have to build a hybrid society of their own.
Vast chunks of the continent are still unknown, home to various humanoid and non-human races. You can do Great White Explorer adventures in the wilderness one week, then switch to Dickensian London intrigues in the coastal cities of the Karro the next. Player-characters are all assumed to be members of a secretive do-gooder organization called the "Clondis," but it's unclear exactly why that should be so.
There is a strong "because it's cool" aspect to the world of Gargentihr. We've got pirates and urban Mafia types in beat-up top hats, priests and cyborg-wizards, gladiators and boffins, with a mix of Victorian and Elizabethan technology. Now, "because it's cool" isn't a bad rubric for creating a roleplaying game world, and Tales of Gargentihr manages the remarkable feat of actually being cool.
But my Tolkeinian soul is a little irked by the odd mix of familiar and strange. Why not just call these top-hatted steampunk/clockpunk colonialists "Englishmen" and have done with it? And then you can call their swords "swords" and their pants "pants" instead of using setting-specific neologisms.
Tales of Gargentihr could have been a great game, but it came out twenty years too soon. It would be perfect as a contemporary e-book, possibly using the Pathfinder rules to allow for a bigger pool of customers. I don't know who owns the rights to it nowadays, but it wouldn't be hard to bring Tales of Gargentihr back, and I think it would find a surprising welcome.
If you want stories of explorers and lowlifes, buy my new ebook Monster Island Tales!