Monday, July 22, 2019

Interlude #3: Empire of the Petal Throne

Released about halfway through 1975, Empire of the Petal Throne is the second RPG published by TSR. (Okay, maybe the third, I'm not sure when Boot Hill was released in relation. Regardless, it is definitely the first published RPG setting.) The game is the work of M.A.R. Barker, a university linguistics professor whose name is commonly started with three initials, and whose fantasy world has a strong basis in its invented languages. Gee, that does sound familiar...

Gary Gygax noticed the similarities as well, and in the introduction to EPT he declares Barker's work to be at least painstakingly detailed as Tolkien's. I think it's safe to say that Tolkien outstrips Barker in the field of literary merit, but when it comes to working as a game EPT may have the edge.

I've struggled with EPT and its setting of Tekumel for a while. It's all over the earliest issues of The Dragon, and I've never quite been able to wrap my head around it. Dungeons & Dragons, for all its weirdness, is firmly rooted in western folklore and mythology. With EPT, the influences are much further out of my comfort zone, drawing on Asian and South American influences, and everything is weird and unfamiliar.  Even so, the game is so prominent in TSR's periodicals that I wanted to include it as a part of the Ultimate Sandbox, so I've read through the original rules to see how compatible it is.

The answer is that yes, it's extremely compatible with D&D. In many ways it's just a D&D variant, albeit one that's much better defined and organised. There are differences of course. Players roll their stats on 1d100, and Wisdom and Charisma have been replaced by Psychic Ability and Comeliness (the latter of which would be added to the D&D stats, at least for a little while). Damage dealt in combat is dependent upon the Hit Dice of the attacker and defender, with stronger characters dealing multiple dice of damage against weaker ones. There's a skill system.  Players can score an "instant death" kill on two natural 20s, and any natural 20 deals double damage (probably the first appearance of that ubiquitous D&D house rule). There are innumerable small tweaks and adjustments to the D&D rules, but at it's heart it's much the same game.

The real interest lies in the setting, however. There's a lot of densely packed information in the game's 120-odd pages, and I know I've only got the barest sense of it, but I'll do my best here. As I understand it, the world of Tekumel was colonised by the human race during an era of space exporation far in our future. They terraformed the planet, which drove a lot of the native races into hiding.  After some time there was a mysterious event that shunted Tekumel's solar system into another dimension, one where it was discovered that people could wield mystical forms of energy (i.e. magic). A lot of mankind's technology was destroyed though, and they eventually devolved to a more primitive society. At the same time, Tekumel's native races started to fight back as well.  At the time of the game's setting, there are five human empires: Livyanu, Mu'ugalavya, Salarvya, Yan Kor and Tsolyanu. Tsolyani society is heavily traditional and ceremonial, with multiple intrigues and cults and sects. It's honestly all a bit dizzying to me on a first read; I'd need to go over it again pretty diligently to get a proper grasp on it.  It's all quite daunting, and that's just from reading it; I don't know how I'd dump all of this on my players.

That is mitigated somewhat by the assumed beginning of a Tekumel campaign: that the PCs are strangers from distant lands, and know next to nothing about Tsolyani culture. Thus, the players would be learning about things at the same time as their characters. It's a good way to introduce such an alien culture, and also sounds like a big challenge for players and DM alike.

What's easier to grasp is the standard mode of play for EPT: it's a dungeon crawl! All over Tekumel there are ruined cities, and subterranean labyrinths, filled with weird creatures, old magic and ancient technology. It's a great pulpy set-up. The monsters are suitably bizarre, with not an orc in sight, and will definitely be a surprised to any seasoned D&D player. Their stats are 100% compatible with D&D as well, so I can use them with no problems at all.

EPT is an impressive product overall, especially considering the state of D&D at the time. The text is organised and well-edited, the rules are tight and precisely explained, the interior art is flavourful and high quality, and the maps are the sort of thing that would have looked at home in a TSR product from a decade later. Here are the maps of Tekumel and the city of Jakalla below:

The City of Jakalla

Tekumel's northern continent

The question remains: will I include Tekumel in the Ultimate Sandbox? I think I will, perhaps via a portal in or near Castle Greyhawk. I'm already planning for portals to Barsoom, the Old West, Nazi Germany, the Starship Warden, and some others I've probably forgotten, so one more won't hurt. The rules are similar enough to D&D that I won't need to do much work on that side of things. The setting is a lot more daunting, but the prospect of dumping some PCs into the intensely stratified and ceremonial culture of Tekumel is an intriguing one, as is the notion of players being somewhere completely alien to baseline D&D.

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