|Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT)|
Studies Rules (TSR), 1975
Empire of the Petal Throne was re-released as a single, saddle-stapled book by Different Worlds in 1987. There were minor differences in artwork, but the text is apparently the same.
If Dungeons & Dragons was the first commercially published role playing game, perhaps EPT was the second, copyrighted a year later. Mechanically, the games were largely similar, but in design objectives, they were dramatically different. EPT was always intended to allow players to explore the world presented by the author, while D&D was always designed as a set of rules for a "do it yourself" fantasy game.
To learn about Tekumel as a setting, click here. The game was designed to start in the city of Jakalla, on the southern coast of Tsolyanu (the eponymous Empire of the Petal Throne). EPT assumed that players were new to the world of Tekumel, and the game was designed to gradually introduce them to the setting. Player characters were immigrants from some isolated, barbarian nation, who sailed their way to Tsolyanu to make their fortune. As clanless foreigners, player characters stayed in the Foreigners' Quarter of the city, waiting to be hired by a citizen to do dirty work that a respectable person wouldn't put his hands to.
In practice, this usually meant entering the underworld beneath the city and finding treasures. Should characters survive this gauntlet and go up enough levels, they could apply for imperial citizenship themselves, and be free to walk the streets without fear of insulting people by their accent or taste in clothing. (Note: characters had a one in six chance per hour of causing insult while outside of the Foreigner's Quarter, and depending on the citizen's status and reaction, a player character could be summarily impaled for such an offense.)
While the game was designed for Jakalla (and the city map provided made it easy to start there), EPT provided enough information to allow players to go to most places they might want to. The brightly colored maps covered three of the five empires in their entirety (Tsolyanu, Mu'ugalavya, and Livyanu), and chunks of the other two (Yan Kor and Salarvya). The rules provided a list of many sites of interest for intrepid characters to explore.
The rulebook began with a six and a half page history of the world, emphasizing the region of the Five Empires. One of the charming features of the introduction was the citation of source materials, found in libraries on Tekumel itself ! (Nganjjá pa Ssú! (Flee, Ye Ssu!) by Draka Grillpa, in Pechani, ms. preserved in the House of Skulls in Mechaneno.) This little trick gave the world a feeling of reality, and there were probably many who wouldn't mind finding the House of Skulls to read the manuscriptand if the real-world readers couldn't get there, maybe their characters could.
The introduction ranged from the imprisonment of Tekumel in its pocket dimension, up to the current political situation in Tsolyanu (2354 A.S.). Referees were thus introduced to some of the region's major players, and to the great conflict between Tsolyanu and Yan Kor that will swirl around in the background of the game, long before players would be of sufficient power to interact with these schemes.
As mentioned above, EPT's rules were close enough to D&D's to be considered a variant rather than a new game. But this is an oversimplification. While the two games had a great deal in common (for example, combat mechanics, experience rules, monster encounter tables, treasure tables), EPT had some subtle and not-so-subtle differences. The most obvious difference was that EPT was largely a percentile dice game; other differences will be highlighted below. It must be remembered that EPT was designed and published before the Greyhawk supplement to D&D came out. EPT therefore lacked many of the innovations introduced by Greyhawk, such as the use of different sized dice for both hit points and weapon damage.
The first step of character generation was choosing alignment. EPT had only two alignments: Good and Evil. After choosing their alignment, players selected which god of that alignment their character would follow. Alignment in EPT was a bit clearer than in D&D, as it laid out how to relate to others. Parties of adventurers were either all Good or all Evil, because Good and Evil characters were hostile to each other and would not cooperate. Parties of Evil characters were permitted to attack anybody outside of their party, while parties of Good characters could only attack Evil beings or Neutral beings that had already shown their hostility.
Humans had to choose between Good and Evil; neutral meant nonallegience to any human gods. Some nonhumans worshipped human gods and chose an alignment, while others had no relationship to these gods at all. Nonhumans were classified as friendly, neutral or hostile to humans, and this did not relate to their alignment. The Ssu and the Hluss had no relationship to human dieties, but they were unreservedly hostile to humans, while some Pachi Lei might worship Evil, but be friendly to humans.
Since the whole party had to be of the same alignment, it made sense to select this first. After that, players could start rolling dice. Characters were rolled up on six characteristics (Strength, Intelligence, Constitution, Psychic Ability, Dexterity, and Comeliness), using percentile dice. Hopeless characters were discarded at the referee's option; the rules forbade jiggering with the scores. Players chose their character class next: Warrior, Priest, or Magician (frequently referred to as Magic Users). High and low scores on characteristics gave bonuses and penalties to game activities.
After choosing a character class, players selected the character's skills. Skills came in two types: "original" skills were background skills, occupations a character might have, such as baker, sailor, or poet. These skills were split up into three social classes ("plebian," "skilled worker," or "noble"), and players rolled on a table to see what their social class was, then selected skills accordingly.
Adventuring skills were called "professional skills," and these depended entirely on one's character class. Players rolled on another table to see how many professional skills they could have, and how far up the list they were permitted to go, as the skills were ranked in the order that people were expected to acquire them.
For Warriors, the skills were for individual weapons, at least at the beginning of the list. Presumably, one could not use a weapon one didn't have the skill for, but since most weapons were treated the same in combat (virtually all weapons did 1d6 of damage), this made very little difference, except that missile weapons were higher on the skill list. Only a lucky player would begin the game able to use missile weapons. For Magicians, the skills were individual spells, so that beginning characters would know from two to five spells, some of which could be cast more than once. For Priests, the first two skills were languages, with the rest of the skills being spells. An unlucky player of a Priest might only be able to cast the spell Produce Light for her first adventure.
Hit points for characters were based on character class and level, modified by an extreme Constitution score. All hit dice were six sided, with different character classes providing different bonuses. First level characters all got 1d6 hit points, adding one point if the character were a warrior. Warriors accumulated the most hit points, magic users the least.
Players could choose to play some non-humans; that is, the ones that are not inherently hostile to humans. Nonhuman characters were generated exactly the same way as human characters, save that some received more hit points. For example, Shen and Ahoggya received two extra dice for hit points.
Warriors were allowed the full range of armor. Priests were permitted any sort of armor, but no edged weapons. Magic users were limited to leather armor and steel daggers (more expensive than the regular chlen-hide ones, but otherwise no different).
Characters gained experience points by killing foes and collecting treasure. Experience was easily calculated: a flat fifty points for each hit die an enemy had, awarded to the person who dealt the killing blow. Treasure earned one point per kaitar (a gold piece). As characters went up levels, their experience points earned were reduced by a percent found on a table; for example, a level VI or VII character (EPT used Roman numerals for character levels) collected only a quarter of the experience that a Level I character would get for the same challenge.
All character classes needed the same number of points to go up a level, roughly doubling for each level: two thousand, four thousand, eight thousand, etc. As for early D&D, each increase in level earned a new title. Priests, for example, started as Acolytes, then climbed to Priest, Temple Priest, Temple Commandant, and so forth. Unlike D&D, in EPT these level titles meant something. When one became High Priest, a character was now the official High Priest of a temple somewhere, and was responsible for that temple's religious practices and administration. Similar responsibilities accrued to other classes. EPT described this lightly, noting that high level characters would earn salaries, and could be sent on missions by their supervisors. Some characters might be given the control of a fief at level VII or higher, earning a considerable income. There were rules on the type of income for fiefs on different terrains, special resources that might be produced, and procedures for constructing or buying buildings. EPT thus left the option for referees to shift their games from adventure to economics and politics, with an occasional adventure left in for excitement.
As characters increased in levels, they also increased in ability, of course. For each increase of level, players had a 50% chance to learn additional original skills (background skills). More importantly, characters could obtain more professional (character class) skills. For each level increase, the player chose the lowest skill the character didn't already know from the professional list, and learned that. Players of spell casting characters also rolled on a table to see if they earned additional bonus spells off of three tables, with the probability increasing as they got to be higher levels.
The same three bonus spell lists were used for both priest and magician characters. Some of the bonus spells were quite powerful: "Madness" was a Group I spell, which drove the victim permanently insane until cured by a "Remove Curse" spell. "Plague" killed the foe, unless a "Cure Disease" was cast within one round. Group III spells included demon summoning, enchant weapons, raise dead, "Mind Bar" (make the target do something or not do something, but only if the target were Level V or less), the Silver Halo of Soul Stealing, and Wish (subject to referee fiat, the player can ask for anything.)
Hit points also improved, usually by one additional d6, possibly with bonuses. Notice that in EPT, when a character went up a level, the player didn't just add the new hit die to his current hit points, but rerolled all hit dice. If the new total was less than the old one, it stayed the same.
Combat used a relatively simple system. First, each side rolled a d6 for "reaction time," with high scores going first. The referee looked at the combat table, cross-indexing the attacker's level against the defender's armor class. The result was the number the attacker had to equal or exceed on a d20. A successful hit meant rolling for damage. Armor made the character harder to hit, but did not reduce damage. Attacking monsters and creatures that didn't have levels used a separate table, where the referee cross indexed attacker's hit dice to the defender's armor class.
Missile weapons used the same rules, taking range into account by going up or down a row on the combat table, making the target easier or harder to hit. There were even rules for using siege engines in combat.
Virtually all weapons did 1d6 of damage: the exceptions were daggers, rocks, and light missiles, which did d4 damage, or heavy weapons such as battle axes, flails, maces, poleaxes, etc, which did 1d6+1. The great N'luss two-handed sword did 1d6+2, but required a strength of 90 or more to use.
Higher level characters did more damage when attacking low level characters: the referee cross indexed attacker's and defender's level on a table to see if the attacker got to roll extra damage dice.
EPT pioneered two additional concepts: critical damage, and morale. If the attacker rolled a natural 20 on their to hit roll, then the attacker did double damage. The attacking player could choose to roll again: a natural 19 or 20 on the d20 meant instant death to the unlucky target. For morale, there was a table where the referee cross-indexed the percent of one side remaining in a fight, with their average hit dice. The referee then had to roll the target number or higher on 2d6.
Spell casting was simple enough. A priest or magician needed to be able to see and have their hands free. The player announced what spell was being cast, and rolled percentile dice to check for spell failure. A Level I caster had a 60% chance of a spell failing; higher level casters had a lower chance of failure, as did characters with high Psychic Ability scores.
The target usually got a saving throw, where the player needed to beat a target number on a d20. This number was found on a small table, where the character's class and level were cross indexed to the type of attack: poison, spell, paralysis/hypnosis, and Eyes (the small magical-technological devices on Tekumel that take the place of magic wands).
Most spells could only be cast once or twice a day; a few could be cast more often, as noted in their descriptions. Further, players were permitted to take a bonus spell twice, permitting their character to cast the spell more often. All spells were automatically regenerated at dawn the next day.
As in D&D, EPT featured a treasure list of various magical items player characters might find. We've mentioned Eyes before. These are ancient devices from Tekumel's technological past, and they feature ornate names: The Abominable Eye of Detestation, The Eye of Being an Unimpeachable Shield Against Foes, The Eye of Triumphant Passage Through Infernos, and so on. Eyes sometimes have labels describing what they are, and sometimes have little counters displaying the number of charges they have left.
This explains why languages are so important for characters on Tekumel. Rather than having a simple "Read Magic" spell that deciphers all magical scripts, on Tekumel, the magicians wrote using the languages they knew. The device may simply be so old that the language is only known to a few greybeards in the various temples. This need for languages extends to magical scrolls and books one might find, because these were also written in ancient or obscure scripts, rather than magical ones. Thus, the language skills of Priest characters assume some importance in the game.
The list of miscellaneous magical items is interesting for another feature: some of them list how many are known to exist, and in a few cases there are hints as to where they can be found, such as the Clockwork Automaton of Qiyor, a fighting robot: Two are known: one was recently destroyed in Milumanaya, and the other is in the hands of the Mu'ugalavyani.
The Rest of the Book
The rest of the rule book provided all of the other information a referee might need. A lengthy list of creatures and encounter tables, equipment lists for players to buy the gear they need, information on the various gods, rules for divine intervention (the chances were small, there was usually a higher chance of further punishment, but nevertheless...) and so on. There were a few pages discussing how to function in society (salaries, taxes, advertising for hirelings, dispersal of one's goods after death) some referee tips, and a guide to writing the Tsolyani script and how to pronounce the words (each letter had only one sound, and vowels were mainly pronounced as in Spanish: Tekumel should be pronounced TAY-ku-mayl). Some of the prominent features of the dungeons beneath Jakalla are mentioned: the River of Silence, the Garden of Weeping Snows, the Tomb of Mnekshetra, the temples of Hru'u and Vimuhla, and so on. Professor Barker adds a few NPCs from his own campaign: Tlaneno the Steersman, Admiral of the Imperial Fleet; Lady Mnella and her lover Lord Hngaku of Livyanu, and others.
The book had plenty of art, but lots of it was in a crude, blobby style. Some of it was evocative of the setting, especially David Sutherland's picture of a duel between a Shen and a Ssu, or the uncredited picture of the High Priest of Durritlamish preparing a human sacrifice.
We repeatedly compare EPT to its peer, D&D. Where the games had similar rules and the same basic narrativeexplore the dungeons until you gain enough experience to handle the tougher challenges above groundEPT had a moderately well-developed campaign world for characters to enter, where D&D was much more dependent on the referee's imagination.
Although the rules were similar, there were some differences worth noting. EPT had the idea of different weapons doing different damage (an idea that TSR used to a much greater extent in the Greyhawk supplement to D&D), and EPT included a critical hit rule that inspired many D&D players to use a "double damage on 20" rule. EPT had a table that multiplied attack damage if the attacker were several levels higher than the defender, and the missile range rules that modified which row to use on the table was simple and elegant. EPT pioneered skill-based character abilities, although the system was rudimentary. EPT spell casters could cast more spells than equivalent level D&D characters, although the chance of spell failure more than compensated for this.
Where EPT really shone, of course, was in the setting. While the complexity and alienness of this undoubtably made the game inaccessible (and the deluxe boxed set and attendant high price didn't help), it also made the game special. With the release of D&D's Greyhawk supplement the same year, EPT's game mechanics alone would not have sustained it in the market. But the setting gave the game a tremendous longevity: the rules were re-released by Different Worlds in 1987, even though the game itself was painfully obsolete at that time, twelve years after the original release.
Although EPT was not widely played , it had a huge effect on the hobby as an example of what a setting could be. There was a great deal of support for the game, if you knew where to look, with two adventures published by Judges Guild, a set of miniatures rules published by TSR, a board game based on EPT wizards having a spell duel (War of Wizards) also published by TSR, and a handful of columns in The Dragon. Professor Barker and his fans kept a small stream of materials published, including a Tsolyani-English-English-Tsolyani dictionary, two additional sets of miniatures rules, a dedicated line of miniature figures, a painting guide, a book on demonology, and some short-lived fanzines. But the EPT articles in The Dragon faded out. There was the cost of the package that was off-putting, too: the boxed EPT set cost two and a half times what D&D did. Finally, TSR let the game go.
Modern Tekumel fans will notice that EPT is no longer canonical with what we know of the setting. Magic users cannot have steel daggers: metal disrupts spell casting. Leather armor would also disrupt the casting of some spells. Alignment is changed from "Good" and "Evil" to "Stability" and "Change." Clans are a fundamental feature of life in the Five Empires, but EPT mentions them in only one sentence. The legal system is now more subtle: in EPT, impalement is virtually the only punishment, while later setting information uses a system where offenders pay fines to redress insults. (Of course, a high status character can still slay a clanless barbarian with few repercussions.)
Personal notes from the Curator
I bought EPT about a year after I started playing D&D. While I was enchanted by details of the game, I couldn't play it. I had trouble grasping the culture and world, and my players were less able to enter the world than I. The game sat unused on my shelf, inspiring me to greater depth of detail in my D&D games. But I never forgot my enchantment with Tekumel, and I kept collecting material and reading it until I felt I had a good grasp on the world. I consider myself an active Tekumel gamer, or at least, semi-retired.
Playing EPT today would mainly be for nostalgia. It might be fun to play this relatively simple game as an introduction to Tekumel, although the character level mechanics would give the world a different feel that what I'd like it to have. (I'm not the only referee who complains of a small band of players who take on an entire Imperial Legion of crack troops and dispatch them without breaking a sweat.) But EPT is not entirely worthless, especially if it can be obtained cheaply, such as the Different Worlds reprint. First of all, there is the very effective six page history in the front of the book, still a useful summary even if it's behind on current events. Secondly, it serves as a cheap bestiary: the hit dice and level mechanics makes it easier to translate monsters into other game systems than the Swords & Glory/Adventures on Tekumel's HBS mechanic. Third, there is the map of Jakalla. While the Different Worlds edition is smaller and not as beautiful as the original TSR one, it is still functional.
The EPT scenario might still work: you're all a bunch of foreign barbarians, hired by a wiley Tsolyani citizen to plumb the underworld for him to acquire some gee-gaws. It would be ignoble for him to get dirty doing it, and the embarrasment of being caught by the tomb police would be insurmountable for him. If your band survives, they are hired for progressively bigger jobs until they've garnered enough wealth on their own to buy their way into a clan, and escape the foreigner's quarter forever. (Say, around 3rd level.) Now your group is ready to either find a new patron, or consider outdoor travels to other cities. It's easier to see how an exalted PC like Karim Missum might have ascended to the very top from a Nakome barbarian background using EPT or an EPT-like system than in more modern game rules.
EPT still has attractions, even for an old Tekumel-hand like me.