Bob Harris

You may have realised that I am quite a big fan of a fantasy boardgame by the name of Talisman. You can then imagine my excitement when I came across a link to a website dedicated to the creator of the game, a Mister Robert Harris. The site is full of great information about the origins of the game and the many books penned by both Bob and his wife Deborah, along with news of goings on in the Harris household.

The site can be found over at

So, I thought it was the decent thing to send an email and was very pleased when I recieved a reply! After a while I asked if Bob would mind answering a few questions for my impending website update, which he kindly agreed to. Unfortunately the site update turned out to be impending for three years!

Still all was not doom and gloom, as in this time, Bob had managed to lay his hands on a prototype version of Talisman or, as it was originally named, Necromancer. He then arranged to send me some scanned pictures, examples of which are displayed below. These are very interesting as they highlight a few changes that were made between prototype and finished game. Look at the Chapel and Desert for instance, and it seems Games Workshop didn’t fancy the idea of having Black Sabbath mentioned in the game.

Bob has recently agreed to answer another batch of questions, which I am hoping will be even more in-depth than the initial mailing. I found that the problem with the first set of questions is that Bob’s site has such a full story of Talisman’s development, that it was hard for me to come up with questions that had not already been covered. Perhaps next time I will have to stick to finding out his favourite colour!!

In the mean time, I hope you like what’s presented here and hope you will check back in future to see what else he might have up his sleeve!

You obviously have a love of fantasy and history, given the subject matter of you and your wife’s [1] books. Then of course, there is the small matter of that boardgame you made! What is it that attracts you to this world?

Those of us who discovered the fantasy genre by reading the Lord of the Rings recall that part of the thrill of it was the sense of a larger world and a longer history that existed around and before the story. This was what made it all seem real, because the real world is like that. History and the larger world are there influencing everything that we do, whether we are aware of it or not. Being aware of it is a good thing.

Fantasy as a genre, though it is a literature of the imagination, is largely based on reworking elements from the real world and existing mythologies. Tolkien himself reworked existing myths and languages to create Middle-Earth. His aim was to revitalise these elements rather than create something entirely new.

In writing our Young Heroes novels, Jane [2] and I work on the assumption that they take place against the background of real history as well as within the framework of Greek myths. We take a certain perverse pride in using existing elements of Greek myth and history to create a new tale while making up as little as possible.

In the first book the young Odysseus ends up in the same Labyrinth where Theseus killed the Minotaur some years before. It is now inhabited by a new monster we have transplanted from one of the legends of Hercules. In the second book the Amazon princess Hippolyta encounters not only a mythical monster from the tale of Laomedon of Troy, but a band of historically accurate (I hope!) Hittites, whose empire was flourishing around the same time.

Your latest books dwell on classic themes such as Greek legends. Do you feel these could make good Talisman fodder?

A bit late to put them in Talisman, but practically any theme can be used to make a Talisman game. The flexibility of the system means that you could use it to make a game set in space or in the Wild West.

Were you much concerned about changing the name of your creation and do you feel it benefited from the change after all?

Talisman certainly was a much less ghoulish and therefore more family friendly name than ‘Necromancer’. This probably helped the game make a partial transition from the purely hobby into the family games market.

Necromancer sounds like it would have played a little differently to the game of Talisman as we know it. Was the gameplay in Necromancer much different to the final draft of Talisman? If so, in what ways?

The adventure cards in the original version of the game were laid out face down on the board to begin with. Making a home made version, obviously I could make the board big enough for this and it had the nice feel that the card was sitting there waiting for you. But, of course, drawing cards on those spaces instead didn’t make any real difference to the game play.

The spaces in the inner circle, the last barrier before the Necromancer’s Isle, were much as they are now except that you were never bounced back out to the outside. Instead, whatever amount you missed the necessary score by when you rolled determined how many turns you had to sit there before proceeding. For example this represented the amount of time you spent finding your way through the mines. The guys at Workshop figured people didn’t want to be sitting around doing nothing for several turns. On the other hand, bouncing them way back to the outer region meant the game took a lot longer. This is actually the major difference between the original and published versions.

When reaching the Necromancer’s Isle you gained the Death Spell which allowed you to lop lives off the other players on the roll of a die. This was changed to the less grisly Command Spell gained from the Crown of Command.

People have developed house rules for Talisman over the years, though this is probably because of complications as new expansions were introduced. Is there anything you wish you hadn’t put in the game or maybe wish that you’d tweaked first?

Not really. Talisman was designed originally just for fun and my friends and I played it regularly week after week, so that by the time I thought of trying to get it published it had been play-tested thoroughly.

Which expansions do you think could possibly have been better with a little more playtesting?

I designed the Talisman Expansion Set which was such a success GW developed the next set, Talisman the Adventure, in-house. Presumably it was done on a tight schedule because they later had to issue three pages of corrections to all the mistakes. That was rather unfair on the people buying it. I then designed the Talisman Dungeon, which I believe worked well, and a Canadian fan [3] submitted an expansion of his own which was developed into the Talisman Timescape [4]. That worked okay, but again could have done with a spot more work. Unfortunately, by the time GW let me have a look at it, it was too late to make any changes.

I’ve always felt that GW could have made more from the Talisman license. How would Talisman have progressed had it been up to you, even as a Fourth Edition?

There was talk of a Talisman card game, and apart from an early unsuccessful effort [5] there was never a Talisman computer game. Still the early edition spawned four expansions and a range of figures as well as being licensed all over the globe, so I suppose you can’t complain. My main ambition for the game was always to see it on sale in high street stores rather than mainly in hobby shops.

A few people have made their own versions of ‘Advanced’ Talisman whereby they add various attributes to try and make it more of a role-playing game. Have you any thoughts on broadening the game in this way?

For role-playing I made my own system which was based on Tunnels and Trolls (remember that?), but heavily altered. I used this same system to run 1930s and Wild West adventures.

My friend Alan McFadzean [6] used his own role-play system fused with Talisman elements to create a Talisman role playing game. For obvious technical and reasons it’s not easy to see any way to market it as such now.

Together, many years ago we made a Thunderbirds role-playing game along similar lines and it was seriously considered for publication by a couple of companies. In the end, however, Thunderbirds were not go. Still I did get to talk to Gerry Anderson and we were provided with all sorts of material by people around him. Maybe one day this will see the light of day.

Are we likely to see any new games bearing the Harris name?

Under wraps for the present.

In closing, I’d just like to ask if you have any cards or suchlike that ended up on the cutting room floor that could be added to this feature?

No [7], but I do have somewhere some comic characters for Talisman a friend made up years ago. I’ll try to find them.

[1] Deborah Turner Harris is also an accomplished author of Fantasy themed literature.

[2] Jane Yolen’s website can be found at

[3] Talisman Timescape was an expansion devised by Frank Bourque.

[4] Not forgetting Talisman City and Talisman Dragons by Evan Friedman & Paul Morrow.

[5] This refers to the game made by SLUG for the Sinclair Spectrum.

[6] Co-writer with Bob of ‘The Queen’s Heid’, which was recently aired by BBC Radio Scotland.

[7] Actually, this isn’t strictly true! For more information check out the “Lost Files” section.