Review: Empire of the Petal Throne

Why am I reviewing something that first came out in 1975? Well, it’s still available; it rocks; and in my humble opinion, it is overlooked in the influence it has had on later games.

The original Empire of the Petal Throne came out not long after white box original D&D. Where the latter is characterised by the tropes of mediaeval Europe, Conan, and The Lord of the Rings, EPT is very different. You’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy; you’re in some kind of bizarre mixture of Far Eastern and Meso-American cultures. Here’s how I describe it to new players as part of a one-page handout:

PLAYER HANDOUT

The Empire of the Petal Throne has ruled the nation of Tsolyanu for nearly 2,500 years. Rival states are Mu’ugalavya to the west, Salarvya to the east, Yan Kor to the north, and Livyanu to the southwest. Nonhuman foes are the barbarous froglike Hlutrgu in their swamps to the southeast; the bejewelled, scorpionoid Hluss, raiding from the island of Hlussuyal in their hive-ships; and the Ssu: Tall, slender, six-limbed beings who smell of musty cinnamon, and speak in bell-like chimes. The insectoid Pe Choi and batlike Hlaka are allies to man.

The indigenous Old Life consists of poisonous, blood-purplish jungle vegetation, called the Food of the Ssu; the Ssu; the Hluss; and their animal relatives. Imported life forms are those brought by mankind and its allies when they came to the planet Tekumel from ‘the stars’ (whatever they were) long ago to wrest it from the Ssu and transform it to their liking. Most ecological niches are occupied not by mammals, but by large insects or reptiles, usually six-legged. Anything not domesticated is probably poisonous.

Tsolyani society is based on the clan; a clan’s members look to it for health care, education, employment, legal representation, accommodation and food. Tsolyani government is an authoritarian bureaucracy, ruled with an iron fist by the Emperor through the Omnipotent Azure Legion. The punishment for almost every crime is summary execution. Although clanless foreign barbarians deal in hard cash, the Tsolyani rely on a system of cross-clan favours and obligations; imagine that the clan markings on their clothing act as credit cards.

Technology differs from mediaeval Earth in three main ways: First, magic is real. Second, there are no riding animals; most travel is on foot, though creaky, slow-moving carts pulled by chlen (imagine a six-legged triceratops) are used for bulky loads. Third, iron and steel are so rare as to be considered magical; chlen hide, transformed by secret processes into something like fibreglass, is used for armour and weapons.

The ‘gods’ really exist; they did not create man, nor do they especially  favour him, but they can sometimes be cajoled – or bribed – into helping. The gods are divided into those of Law and those of Chaos, and each group has five main gods: A ‘king of the gods’, a god for warriors, one for magicians, one for women, and one for the dead. Every main god has a cohort who specialises in a related area. The Great Concordat, signed by all the temples, prohibits violence by members of one cult against another. At least, while anyone is looking…

THE SETTING

EPT‘s setting is what makes it stand out. At a time when RPGs consisted only of rules, and GMs expected to create their own world before they could start running adventures, EPT produced a complete world: Several huge maps, 25,000 years of history, five competing human empires each with a unique culture and their own freakin’ languages (and you get a set of glyphs and hints of the vocabulary and grammar for the "common tongue", Tsolyani), more sentient and semi-sentient species than you can shake a spear at, a pantheon of 20 unique and distinctive gods, each with their own spheres of interest and vestments for priests, four political factions in the PCs’ home nation, each with their own allies, rivals and goals… it goes on and on, and that’s just in what we’d now call the core rulebook.

Over the years, numerous game supplements and at least five novels have expanded this into a setting more complex and detailed than Arrakis or Middle-Earth. Bizarrely, however, there is still almost no support in terms of scenarios after over 35 years. (Jeez, have I really been gaming that long?)

THE RULES

Tekumel has gone through at least four incarnations of rules, and been run under virtually any system you can imagine. Here I concern myself only with the first of those incarnations, which is essentially original D&D with house rules. But what house rules…

  • Percentile die rolls for attributes and chances of success. Admittedly the latter are a bit hinky, in that you have a % chance of failure which decreases as you level up, and you roll over that to succeed.
  • Increasing attributes as you level up.
  • Over 50 skills and nearly 20 languages, with examples of what you can and can’t do with key ones, and a primitive task system for determining success when you try to use them. Although the rules only allow for fighters, magic-users and clerics, you can mimic a number of other classes by picking one of those and learning a couple of skills. (AD&D, Traveller and all your derivatives: Remember you saw it here first.) The only thing that seems strange to the modern eye is that all your skills increase at the same rate, there is no concept of favouring one over another. (Oh, wait, C&C does it that way too.)
  • The first appearance of daily powers. No power points or spell slots; each spell can be cast a set number of times per day. (In your face, D&D 4th Edition.)
  • Critical hits. Double damage on a natural 20, roll again and on a second natural 20 the beast just dies, however big or nasty it is. NPCs can do that to you, too.
  • Mass combat rules, albeit primitive ones.
  • Random tables for generating patrons and the missions on which they send the party.
  • Divine intervention (% chances again).
  • Support costs, salaries, taxes, basic economics for landowners and fief-holders.
  • Tiers. At 3rd level you’re allowed out on your own, at 6th level you can buy your way into a clan, and at 9th level you gain a noble title (or the equivalent0, and retire from adventuring as the demands of your day job become too great. The rules assume that characters top out around 12th level; there’s a gradual shift from your personal problems, to those of your adopted clan, to court intrigue.
  • Example NPCs (not statted out, though) with goals, connections, and thumbnail backstories.

Something worth noting is that as a first-generation RPG, characters not only required large numbers of experience points to level up, but the amount they were awarded for achievements (OK, I admit it, killing monsters) was reduced as they levelled up. More of that another time, as it would take more room than I want to allocate it here.

THE PRESENTATION

Here is where the game falls down, at least by modern standards. There’s no index, the artwork is of its time, and the rules and setting material are hopelessly mixed up together. In the mid-1970s, it was no worse than any, and better than most, of its competitors; the bar has just been raised since then.

CONCLUSION

If I look at the great concepts of modern RPGs, I can trace the first tentative movements of many to D&D in 1973, and EPT in 1975. All else, ladies and gentlemen, is commentary and house rules.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Empire of the Petal Throne

  1. Tekumel really is one of the landmark works in the field. M.A.R. Barker’s genius in worldbuilding is something more people ought to have the chance to see, and I surely cherish my 1975 boxed set. When I made Stars Without Number, I lifted the “Reroll HP each level and keep it if it’s higher” rule directly from EPT.

    • Indeed. What amazes me is not just the depth and breadth of his world vision, but how many improvements to the rules he made at a time when there was nothing else to look to for inspiration; he made it all up out of whole cloth.

  2. I started playing in 1981 so EPT was something that i had heard of but didn’t actually encounter, mores the pity.

  3. Thank you for the commentary – sorry I didn’t see it sooner. Unfortunately, it appears you wrote this within two weeks after Professor Barker passed away so I was a little occupied. What you’ve written here is great stuff, and I thought I would pass along my own modest contribution to all of this – a discussion about making it easier for people to pick it up and run it: http://odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=ept&action=display&thread=6117

  4. […] Critical hits are one pop culture’s favorite tabletop RPG terms to pirate and use often. Its fun to hit things for damage in games. It awakens a primal urge we have to see things be overpowered by our efforts. Surprisingly, D&D isn’t the father of this baby. Rather, Empire of the Petal Throne, a lesser known tabletop RPG published by TSR in 1975 by M.A.R. Barker, introduced critical hits. The rules said that they represented a “lucky hit on a vital organ”. […]

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