Review: Tekumel–Empire of the Petal Throne

This is the latest incarnation of EPT, published by Guardians of Order in 2005. In my case, a 243 page PDF from RPGNow; written by Patrick Brady, Joe Saul, and Edwin Voskamp.

(I had the honour of playing in Patrick Brady’s Tekumel campaign, albeit briefly, and I consider him one of the best GMs I have ever met.)

CONTENTS

Chapter 1: Introduction to Tekumel (4 pages)

This highlights what’s different about Tekumel very nicely, as well as explaining the history of the game and the usual “what’s an RPG?” section. However, trust me, if you have never played RPGs before, this is not the one to start with; the rules are complex and the setting is delightfully different from anything you know.

Before I proceed, I should mention that Tekumel is the planet, and Tsolyanu is one of the five human empires on the northern continent. It’s assumed that PCs live in Tsolyanu, and the game is focussed on that nation.

Chapter 2: Character Creation (43 pages)

This is where the game rules and I part company, I’m afraid. It’s a complex, point-buy character generation system derived from GoO’s Tri-Stat system, and a far cry from original EPT’s simple percentile die rolls. If you are an immersive roleplayer intent on a campaign which will last years or decades of real time, you’ll probably love it; it doesn’t suit me, or my group. YMMV.

Either way, you need to track three point pools separately during character creation. Stat points are for stats and attributes, and can be increased by taking defects; skill points are for skills; and resource points are for gear.

First, the GM comes up with a campaign concept and discusses it with the players. Each player comes up with a character concept, such as a scholar priest or a master swordsman. The GM and each player then work collaboratively to create the character. Fortunately, a table of sample names is provided, as EPT is notoriously difficult in this regard (although the last time I ran the game, one player called his character “Uptanogud”, which I loved).

Step 2: Each player chooses a clan for his or her character. This requires you to understand, or be told, which clan is most appropriate for your character concept; Patrick Brady’s campaign was based around the Clan of the Hall of Stone, which he deliberately designed to be a one-stop shop covering all the likely character concepts, and I recommend that the GM picks or creates a similar clan.  Otherwise, each player has to digest 4-5 pages of clans to pick one; each clan has a social status, which will be important later, as well as a traditional set of occupations and gods; and within each clan are lineages, which are mostly fluff rather than crunch.

Step 3: Choose a religion. There are 20 to choose from, and which one you should follow depends largely on your clan; you can always be a rebel, but society on Tekumel hates rebels, so be prepared to be hammered into a round hole in play, however square a peg your PC is. Fortunately, you need only pick one from a page or so of explanations.

Step 4: Assign stats. You have a number of points to allocate based on the campaign style; Gritty Realism offers 30 points, The Middle Way offers 35, and Heroic Fantasy 40 or more. These points are used to buy stats such as Strength, Attributes (edges, feats, advantages which give you bonuses in particular circumstances) There are six stats, ranging from 0 to 12 in value, with 4 being the average human; each stat point costs one of your points, which is simple enough in itself. Before you assign them, you need to check step 7 to see if your character concept places any constraints on them.

Step 5: Assign attributes. You’re still using your stat pool to buy these; there are five pages of them, and the majority of them have a mechanical effect on your PC somehow.

Step 6: Assign defects. These are your disadvantages, hindrances, call them what you will; as usual in a point buy system, taking a defect gives you more points to spend on stats or attributes. There are 6 pages of defects.

Step 7: Choose a career. This is your character’s job; there are a couple of dozen of these, and they may have minimum levels of stats (which are adjusted by your clan’s status – the weak and dumb have a better chance if their clan is rich and influential).

Step 8: Assign skills. Again, the number of skill points you have depends on the campaign style, but in addition all characters have some free skills. There are several dozen skills, each described on one of the 14 pages in this subsection. There are also optional rules for combat manoeuvres and skill specialisations.

Step 9: Determine resources. The number of resource points you have to work with depends on your clan and lineage status, your attributes, and your defects. (You also have some basic equipment provided free by your clan.) If you have enough resource points, you gain a monthly stipend from your clan. Resource points can be used to buy equipment, buildings, promotion in your chosen career, or special items; or you can exchange them for actual cash money. The more expensive items can have a discount applied if there are things about them the player doesn’t know, such as plot hooks for the GM. (“My new mansion is haunted by an undead wizard, you say?”)

Step 10: Determine rank. Your rank in your chosen career is determined by your clan status and how many resource points you and your clan have spent to influence your promotions.

Step 11: Calculate derived values. There are half a dozen of these, more if you can cast spells.

Chapter 3: Non-Human Races (15 pages)

This modifies character generation for each of six races allied to mankind. Each is presented with a stereotype (how the average NPC views them), the reality (what’s really going on, the GM view) and how to create one as a PC.

Chapter 4: Equipment and Economics (27 pages)

This is the usual equipment list chapter, with sections on income, personal upkeep, and Tsolyani weights and measures (don’t worry, the game operates in metric). There are some nice touches; first, access to clan resources – depending on the wealth of your clan and lineage, what they think of you (attributes and defects come into play here), and how much the items are worth, you can requisition things from the clan warehouse. The clan’s view varies from “take what you want, we don’t bother to inventory those” up to “you get this for one specific mission only, and bring it back in good condition or don’t bother coming home”.

Special items. If you want to, you can have custom-crafted items with particular game effects, or that just look cool. They are more expensive, naturally. Items effectively have attributes and defects of their own. Several evocative examples of both magical and non-magical items are provided, including My Father’s Sword, That Heavy Armour You Got Cheap, the unsettling Scarab amulet, and various Eyes (if you’re not familiar with the setting, think of them as wands).

Chapter 5: Game Mechanics (19 pages)

The basic mechanic is simple: Roll less than or equal to the modified stat on 1d10. For this purpose, stats are modified by skill levels, specialisations, circumstances, and possibly equipment. (Personally, I think it is more intuitive to modify the die roll after the fact than the target number beforehand, but that’s just me.) How much you succeed, or fail, by determines the degree of success you achieve.

Combat is a simple affair; figures act in descending order of initiative (a die roll modified by your armour and weapons) and get one action per round, usually an attack. In an attack, both attacker and defender make skill rolls; the one with the higher margin of success wins. If this is the attacker, the damage inflicted is based on the weapon and the margin of success; conceptually this is a neat mechanic, but it feels a bit clunky to me in practice, as once I’ve rolled the dice I need to look up a table value for success margin, an armour value, and a weapon statistic, do some quick mental arithmetic using all three, and then apply the result to the target’s Shock Value. A nice touch here is that different types of foes retreat or surrender at different damage levels, depending on who they are and what they are defending; it’s another table lookup, but an interesting substitute for a morale check.

Fortunately, there is an option for fast play; each figure can have a Fast Play Value based on various other statistics and attributes. The GM compares FPVs when a fight starts; the higher FPV wins automatically, but how long this takes and how much damage he suffers while doing it depend on the ratio of his FPV to the enemy’s. If I ran this game, I’d probably do all combat that way, and I am periodically taken with the idea of doing something similar in other games. I bet it would work well in Play By Mail, too. FPVs are pre-calculated for typical NPC warriors and beasts, which is handy.

As one would expect, there are a number of optional rules for various attack and defence manoeuvres. Poisons are treated in loving detail.

Of particular interest are the teamwork rules. Each party has a pool of teamwork points. Characters can be skilled in Teamwork, which increases their contribution to the pool. If they have time to prepare, successful skill checks may also add points to the pool. Die rolls can be modified by points from this pool, but – and this is the clever part – you cannot take points from the pool, another player must give them to you, and explain in character how that manifests itself. (“I poke the guard to distract him and this gives Morusai two teamwork points.”) Your Teamwork skill level is the maximum number of points you can transfer at a time.

Respect can also modify die rolls. What your character does can increase or decrease the respect in which he is held, so playing in character can get you mechanical advantages on skill rolls.

Favours can be owed, asked or given, and as befits Tsolyani society there are fairly detailed rules for this.

Chapter 6: Magic (31 pages)

Your Temple (i.e., the GM) dictates what spells your character knows; you use skill points to buy your initial spells, although the cost varies with campaign style. Spells, like characters and items, can have attributes and defects; material components or use of specific languages when casting are defects, so if you want AD&D style verbal, somatic and material components, you can have them (the defects make the spell cheaper to cast), but if you don’t want them in your game, you can avoid them.

Casting a spell requires a successful skill check; this is modified by the spell’s cost and level, the local mana level, and other circumstances. The degree of success you achieve on the skill check modifies the spell’s effects. Teamwork or sacrifice can be used to improve casting by transferring energy points (yep, that’s another points pool creeping in there).

All this, plus discussions on the temples as sources of magic, takes up 8 pages; the remaining 23 are spell descriptions, including the iconic EPT spells and new ones.

Chapter 7: The World of Tekumel (16 pages)

Here we find a history of Tekumel, taking us up to the time of the original game, then through the period covered in MAR Barker’s novels, and into current events. This is followed by descriptions of the Sakbe road network linking the cities of Tsolyanu, six sample cities, common urban features such as clanhouses, arenas and temples, the underworlds below them, neighbouring states (I especially liked the sidebars such as “Five Things You Need To Know About The Livyani”), magic (this is the background narrative rather than the rules crunch), astronomy, climate, calendar, and so on.

Chapter 8: The Bestiary (24 pages)

This is split into four sections: Found Anywhere, which includes common and domestic animals; Creatures of the Wilderness, which are less well-known and more dangerous; Horrors, which are the supernatural beings, undead, and other nightmares; and Inimicals, sentient races that are definitely not your friends. The sections are in decreasing order of character knowledge; everyone knows about the beings Found Anywhere, and almost nobody knows about some of the Inimicals.

This is a much slimmed-down list of critters compared to original EPT, but as I’ve said before, once you abandon the class and level approach to character development, the number of different beasts you need to challenge PCs drops dramatically.

Chapter 9: Life in Tsolyanu (38 pages)

This chapter is about daily life, and so is safe for players to read. (In fact, everything except chapters 8 and 10 is player-safe.) It covers religion in some depth, with descriptions of each god and its priesthood; Tsolyani cultural values and mindset; social status; law, crime and punishment; clan, lineage and family, including a day in the life of typical clan members at various status levels; life in the priesthood and the military, followed by descriptions of a number of example legions in descending order of status; and life in the government as a bureaucrat.

Chapter 10: Game Mastering Tekumel (9 pages)

This begins by telling the potential GM that he can run Tekumel, however strange it seems. (True; I’ve done it.) Then we’re into the key decisions for campaign setup: How realistic should the style be – gritty realism, heroic fantasy, or something in between? What level of magic is available – high, middle or low? In what time period should you set the game? What is the social level of beginning characters, and why are they working together – same clan, same religion, same legion, members of a large group marriage? What are non-humans like – incomprehensible and dangerous, foreign but understandable, brothers under the skin?

Then there is advice on running a Tekumel campaign; things to do, things not to do, where to look for inspiration, how to manage player rewards – experience, respect, favours, promotions.

Appendix: Additional Material (5 pages)

A character sheet; a very nice colour map of Tekumel, albeit too small to read easily – I think it’s a reduction of one in the printed version; four sample NPCs, one commoner and three types of warrior; notes on languages; lists of resources online and in print; an index.

FORMAT

Lots of nice line drawings and black and white illustrations, nicely conveying the feel of Tekumel and its inhabitants. This is more important than usual, because while most players and GMs have absorbed a faux mediaeval Europe through osmosis during their childhoods, newcomers have no idea what Tekumel looks like; and it looks very different.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Include calculating the Fast Play combat Value in step 11 of chapter 2.

PC templates for the character concepts in chapter 2. (C’mon guys, you knew enough to put in quick combat rules, and you stress how much easier this version of Tekumel is to run. It really isn’t, you know.)

More example NPCs. The commoners and warriors are fine, but I could’ve really used a few stock priests, magicians and non-humans. I tried creating some myself, but it was so much work I gave up.

Some sort of GM cheat sheet covering the most commonly-used rules and modifiers.

Layers in the PDF so that I don’t have to print the greyscale background on every page.

CONCLUSIONS

This is the best one-volume introduction to Tekumel around. Even if, like me, you don’t find the rules that great, there is a lot of meat about the setting; chapters 1, 7, 9, and to an extent chapters 2 and 8. Sadly, like Guardians of Order themselves, this game seems to have disappeared – I can’t find it for sale online at the moment; anyone seen it?

Despite stressing how it has been designed to make Tekumel easier to run, it doesn’t really succeed in that aim. Sorry.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5, marked down dramatically because I really don’t like the rules. The setting along would be 5 out of 5, but only about 25% of the page count is setting material.

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