Review: Bethorm

In a Nutshell: This is the latest incarnation of the Empire of the Petal Throne, which has been around since 1975, and which I have played in and run intermittently since 1976. 262 page PDF, officially $65 but I grabbed it when it was on special offer for $10. Written by MAR Barker and Jeff Dee, uses the Pocket Universe system, published by Uni Games in 2014 so I’m behind the curve as usual.

Core Mechanics: Roll 2d10, apply modifiers, if the result is less than or equal to the relevant attribute or skill level you succeed. Doubles are critical – critical success if the check succeeded, critical failure if it didn’t. Rolling to hit is a skill check, armour is deducted from incoming damage, get knocked out if you lose half your hit points in a single blow, die when you run out of hit points.

CONTENTS

What is Bethorm? (5 pages): The usual; what an RPG is, a thumbnail sketch of the setting, designer’s notes, rules system.

Game Mastering Bethorm (2 pages): Mostly covers why your PCs are working together, who their patrons might be, and what they might be asked to do.

Character Creation (36 ages): A bit of setting information, then into chargen proper: pick a clan; pick age, birthday, gender, name, marital status, whether you have children and how many; pick a religion; we’re 13 pages in before we get to generating attributes (of which there are five, Physique, Deftness, Intellect, Willpower, Psychic Ability) – this is a point-buy system rather than random generation. Then there are eight secondary attributes, which are calculated. Next come Advantages (Edges, Feats, call ’em what you will) and Disadvantages; these are optional point-buy features, but for each point of Advantages you take, you must also take a point of Disadvantages – a point of interest here is that you can take a Crutch with your Disadvantage, an item of equipment which halves the cost of the Disadvantage and negates its effects, but which can break, be lost or stolen, etc. Next the 12 NPC races are listed with their racial Advantages and Disadvantages, and their effects on PC attributes; then the player buys skills and language familiarities, and chooses contacts – friends, associates, family members he can call on for help.

This chapter goes into some detail on social status, sexual orientation, and contacts; this is appropriate for the setting, where those are important and different from the usual faux-Western Mediaeval expectations.

Equipment (11 pages): The usual suspects; weapons and armour; adventuring gear; clothing, food, poisons and antidotes, lodgings, livestock (lots more types of these than usual); siege engines, narcotics, entertainment, buildings, ships and slaves (unusual); gems and jewelry (mostly useful for assessing loot). The source material makes a big point of how Tsolyani clans deal in favours and obligations more than hard cash, but the game systems and even some of the novels stress the importance of actual coinage to the adventurer and would-be noble. I find that a bit incongruent personally, but that’s just me.

Non-Player Characters (2 pages): How to generate stats and personality traits for NPCs.

Turn Sequence & Game Scale (2 pages), Movement (2 pages), Skill & Attribute Checks (4 pages), Combat (7 pages), Healing (1 page): This is the guts of the Pocket Universe engine as adapted for Tekumel. Things that are unusual compared to other RPGs:

  • Measurements are given both in metric (game world) and Imperial (tabletop). This means you can tell whether the value is game world or real world at a glance, but I don’t think it really adds anything to play.
  • Initiative is a secondary attribute calculated during character generation ; each character has three initiative values and dices to see which one applies each round. That seems like an unnecessary extra step to me.
  • Character turns are non-standard in a couple of ways; in each turn you can move and act, but if you don’t act, your action (not your whole turn) is ‘on hold’ – if you charge a foe but don’t quite reach, your attack is on hold, and if he countercharges you may be able to twat him before he closes. Further, each figure has a zone of control, and if an opponent enters your zone of control, there’s a chance that he has to stop moving. Both of these are things that most games I know do with some sort of attack of opportunity.
  • Weapons have three different possible amounts of damage inflicted; you dice to see which one you use. Armour has different values against different damage types, and the appropriate one is deducted from the incoming damage. This is unnecessarily clunky.

Those factors, plus things like the case numbering system beloved of SPI map-and-counter games and the advice on base sizes, show a game that is closer to the wargaming roots of RPGs than is usual these days.

Sorcery (77 pages): Learning spells is a point-buy affair, casting them uses power points rather than Vancian spell slots. There are dozens and dozens of spells (the list alone is two pages long), subdivided by power level, which temple can teach it to you, and phylum (i.e. the sort of thing it does); so I won’t go into detail.

Outdoor Travel (1 page), Outdoor Encounters (9 pages), Underworld Exploration (2 pages): Long-distance overland movement rates, dungeon movement rates, and random encounter tables, including motivations for NPCs encountered and how to stock a dungeon randomly. This bit is not bad, and I do like the notes on what sort of humans may be encountered in a dungeon and why they are there.

Bestiary (52 pages): Another big chunk of book this; again the list of monsters alone is two pages long. All the old favourites like Serudla, more recent additions like Jakkohl, and a few I don’t recognise like Dlikken. Each has stats like a character and some descriptive text; non-human races have standard statblocks provided, and finally somebody writing Tekumel rules has realised that the GM needs pregenerated spellcasters as well as generic warriors. Thumbs up for that.

Treasure (26 pages): Random tables for treasure determination. Which tables you use depend on what you had to overcome to get the treasure, which is made up of the usual suspects; coins, gems, weapons, armour, magic items, scrolls, magical books.

Character Advancement (2 pages), Income and Expenditures (2 pages), Appendix (3 pages): PCs get 1-3 experience points, per session, with which they can improve skills. If they do really well, they may also get an advantage point which can be used to buy off Disadvantages or get new Advantages. Annually, or when a PC performs some worthy deed, the player can roll for promotion in the character’s official career, such as priest of soldier. No, “murderhobo” does not count as an official career. There’s a nice map of the city of Katalal with a key, a regional map of the area it controls, and a larger-scale map showing where the city and region sit on the main world map.

Finally, some record sheets; a party combat record and an entourage record for the GM, character and spell sheets for the players. Either of the GM sheets would work as well for NPCs and encounters as for the party.

FORMAT

Colour cover wrapped around two-column black text on white background with lots of black and white art by Jeff Dee. I like Dee’s art, and Tekumel is a world which benefits more than most from being illustrated, because it is so different from the usual RPG setting. No complaints here.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

This is essentially a rulebook with a little bit of setting material, which is the reverse of what I was looking for; so the sort of minor tweaks I usually suggest here aren’t the answer – basically, I bought the wrong book, for what I want I should have bought Swords and Glory volume 1; but I already did that in the 1980s. Maybe I’ll review that some other time.

More practically, it looks like there’s a fair amoung of flipping backwards and forwards in the rulebook during play; a change of organisation, or some sort of quick reference, might be useful there.

CONCLUSIONS

Previous incarnations of EPT have devoted a lot of page count to the world itself, this one assumes you’re already familiar with the setting (which I am), have original EPT and Swords & Glory (which I do) and just want to know how to run it under Pocket Universe (which I don’t).

Like most other versions of EPT, this has a steep learning curve for the player, and a steeper one for the GM. Generating PCs is going to take a while, especially for spellcasters, and if I were to use this system I would make up a bunch of pregens and let people choose one.

I might get some usage out of the name and encounter tables, illustrations and maps, and there is a new city to start players in rather than the usal Jakalla, but overall this one’s going on the virtual shelf.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. I was going to say 2, but the sections on encounters and statblocks for NPC spellcasters persuaded me to bump it up to 3. Your Mileage May Vary, especially if you like Pocket Universe.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Bethorm

  1. Tekumel in any incarnation can be a challenge to run for the Referee and to play for the Player. The complexity of the societies and the variety of societies take time to integrate. The society of Tsolyanu, the primary empire, is controlled by the Temples, Clans, and the Government. There are no individuals out there because the clans have so much power, being clanless is inviting yourself to be imprisoned, enslaved, or knocked out of whatever position you are in. This can take some time to adjust for players used to the “Murder Hobo” style of playing where you do as you please. Doing so in Tekumel is a sure way to find yourself taking the high ride on the impaling stake!

    If players want to play a barbarian, then they can play a Nluss barbarian warrior with a 2 handed sword. Warriors are usually soldiers in a legion, bodyguards, or temple/clan guards. Mixed fighter/sorcerer or thief/sorcerer classes are not available withing the five empires. Specialization is tantamount in sorcerer characters and every sorcerer is also a priest- balanced level for level. The temple to which you are devoted will determine the type of magic available. Your clan will tend to aim you at certain occupations and not others. Your social class and/or lineage within the clan are extremely important if you are interacting with upper class patrons or NPCs. Don’t smart off to that upper class priest or clan person, because it will cause lots of trouble you don’t want. So, recognize your station and act accordingly.

    Brett Slocum has a great GURPS Tekumel set of free rules on the internet at http://www.weirdrealm.com/tekumel/. The primary site for Tekumel is useful to send your players to educate them on the world: http://www.tekumel.com/. Short stories from this website are instructional: http://www.tekumel.com/tektales.html. Just a few ideas. Lastly, if a player really wants to play a non five empires type of character, then try a shaman or a character from one of the lesser countries. Of course, they will likely be treated as low status clan or clanless, until they are able to prove otherwise. I hope this illuminates some of the complexity of playing in the Empire of the Petal Throne – Tekumel, Bethorm in particular.

  2. I backed Béthorm, as did my friend, both Tékumel fans, both never actually played or run a game there.
    We were both disappointed by this book despite the fact that Jeff Dee loves the setting, draws a great picture and has great plans. It felt like a 1980s book, lots of dense text, and very little handholding from the Kansas of vanilla D&D to the rich weirdness of Tékumel. BUT, as you have pointed out, a lot of Tékkie books have been just settings, or dreadful game systems, or simply died horribly at the shops.

    So I shall return to this book, to the Tri-Stat version, to Morris’ Tirikelu, to Sandy Petersens’ RQ3 rules, to James Mailewski’s zined and podcast, the novels and try and remember.. Barker probably ran the game like a narrative Braunstein, and take it from there.. I’d love to see a Slack tear-down and build-up of a Tékumel campaign BTW…

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