Posts Tagged ‘EPT’

Review: Bethorm

Posted: 4 March 2017 in Reviews
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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.

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.

Review: Empire of the Petal Throne

Posted: 4 April 2012 in Reviews
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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.

Baseline Tekumel: Monsters

Posted: 11 July 2010 in Settings
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It occurred to me that maybe I’m going about this reskinning the wrong way round. The Dnelu, for instance, behaves much like a giant trapdoor spider. So instead of replacing it with a D&D 4e Deathjump Spider, or a Savage Worlds Giant Spider, maybe I treat its appearance as a trapping, describe it as a Dnelu, and use the stats for the relevant spider. It’d be interesting to see how long it takes the players to figure it out; reading through the original EPT rulebook again, it looks like a lot of them are renamed Original D&D monsters, so there is precedent of a sort.

The other aspect of this is that in listing the EPT monsters for conversion, I noticed a number of them are functionally identical. The Dnelu, for instance, in game terms is not that different from a Zrne, except that the Zrne has a couple more hit dice. Same statblock for both, then.

That finally leads me to the conclusion that I can use much simpler encounter tables, based on the food chain pyramids from 2300AD which require only a 1d10 roll. Almost all areas on Tekumel are teeming with life, and so use all 10 slots on the tables; in addition there will be two types of point producers (e.g. trees) and three types of area producers (e.g. grasses, including the Food of the Ssu on Tekumel).

Teeming Food Chain Pyramid with Earth Examples

  1. 1d6-2 Gatherers (e.g. raccoon)
  2. 1d6 Intermittents (e.g. elephant)
  3. 2d6 Chasers (e.g. wolf)
  4. 1d6 Hunters (e.g. bear)
  5. One Pouncer (e.g. mountain lion)
  6. One Large Chaser (e.g. polar bear)
  7. 1d6 x 1d10 Grazers (e.g. antelope)
  8. One Killer (e.g. shark)
  9. One Large Pouncer (e.g. tiger)
  10. One Hijacker (e.g. T. Rex)

I imagine that in real life one would see antelope more frequently than tigers (although I don’t spend much time in the Big Room With The Blue Ceiling), but the creatures that leap on you roaring are inherently more interesting for players than the ones who run away from you; and Tekumel is deliberately set up as a world where the wilderness is full of hideous beasts hungry for your flesh.

Since the campaign will be based in Jakalla, the most useful encounters tables would be for plains or salt marshes. There’s more plains terrain, so that’s the one to start with, as it will be the most used. After a rummage through the Guardians Of Order Tekumel RPG, and the original EPT rules from 1975, I came up with the following list. You will note that I am unencumbered by considerations of what level the party might be; this is the Tsolyani wilderness, everyone knows it is brutally dangerous, and players are encouraged to remember that they can run, hide and scheme as well as fight.

Tekumel Plains Encounters

  1. 1d6-2 Gatherers: Jakkohl. Small fox-like creature, not really a Gatherer but it’ll do. D&D: Grey Wolf, but reduce level by one. SW: Dog, but with Size -2 and Toughness 3.
  2. 1d6 Intermittents: Chlen. Looks like a six-legged triceratops with three eyes. D&D: Macetail Behemoth. SW: Drake, but lose the Fear and Fiery Breath, and drop the Smarts to d4(A) – chlen are really stupid.
  3. 2d6 Chasers: Hyahyu’u. Big, six-legged wolf with uncanny tactical sense. D&D: Dire Wolf. SW: Dire Wolf.
  4. 1d6 Hunters: Zrne. D&D: Deathjump Spider. SW: Giant Spider, but without web capability.
  5. One Pouncer: Swarm of insects. D&D: Rot Scarab Swarm. SW: Swarm.
  6. One Large Chaser: Feshenga. A giant snake mounted on a centipede chassis. Poisonous bite. D&D: Deathrattle Viper with the speed cranked up to 10. SW: Constrictor Snake, but increase Pace to 10 and swap the Constrict feature in favour of Poison from the Venomous Snake. They’re right next to each other. Go on, you know you want to.
  7. 1d6 x 1d10 Grazers: Nraishu or Nyar. Six-legged deer. D&D: Riding Horse. SW: Riding Horse, but without the Size +2 (reducing its Toughness to 6).
  8. One Killer: Serudla. Picture a six-legged, wingless dragon with two arms at the base of its neck. D&D: Adult Black Dragon, but flightless. SW: Drake, but the breath weapon is actually acidic spittle rather than fire.
  9. One Large Pouncer: Teqeqmu. A flying jellyfish, full of noxious lighter-than-air vapours, armed with poison gas and poison tentacles. Explodes if the gas contacts fire. D&D: Grell, except that the poisonous bite is replaced with a blast of poison gas. SW: Air Elemental, except that it does not have the Elemental, Ethereal or Invulnerability properties, but its Push and Wind Blast attacks are also Poisoned, its Whirlwind attack represents grappling a foe with its tentacles, and it has Slow Regeneration.
  10. One Hijacker: Serudla. See (8) above. The Serudla gets two slots in the table, partly because it’s cool, partly because EPT has nothing suitable for slot 10, and partly because the original EPT encounter tables are crawling with them. I can always retcon it with something else later.

Tekumel: Dungeon Levels

Posted: 17 June 2010 in Settings
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I woke up far too early today (that happens more and more as I get older) so here are the levels of the dungeon beneath Jakalla, using the London Underground as a map. This has no references to game system as such, so could be used with baseline Tekumel or the reskinned version I’ve been pulling together this week.

  1. Bakerloo Line: The sewers and drainage system of modern Jakalla.
  2. Central Line: The uppermost of three levels built during the Second Imperium. The architecture here is familiar, and inscriptions are in the intricate glyphs of Classical Tsolyani. A layer of meandering passages covering several square kilometres. Two important shrines are maintained here; the enormous temple of Hru’u, and the upper level of the temple of Dlamelish. The temple of Thumis maintains a priestly academy and library on this level. There is also a strange circular temple to Chiteng, and the River of Silence, in the midst of which is an island where Death himself dwells, or so it is said.
  3. Circle Line: The middle level of the Second Imperium, containing the middle level of the shrine of Dlamelish.
  4. District Line: The lowest of the Second Imperium levels, including the lower level of the shrine of Dlamelish. Since this level was the first one built after the Time of No Kings, when legendary figures like Hagarr and Subadim reigned, their treasures are most likely to be found on levels 4 or 5.
  5. East London Line: The first of the Engsvanyali levels. These levels are characterised by smooth, graceful, sophisticated and somewhat effete styles. Inscriptions are in an elegant, delicate cursive script. The typical coin is the Suor, a large gold coin worth about 150 Kaitars. There are many dungeons and torture chambers to hold and torment the enemies of the priest-kings. Since this area was the last built before the Time of No Kings, when legendary figures like Hagarr and Subadim reigned, their treasures are most likely to be found on levels 4 and 5. This level is notable for the Garden of the Weeping Snows, and Lelmiyani, the Sweet Singer of Doom.
  6. Hammersmith & City Line: The middle Engsvanyali level. Includes the shrine to the mysterious He Who Laughs Forever.
  7. Jubilee Line: The lowest Engsvanyali level, including the tomb of Rekmilish III. This level holds the earliest representations of, and shrines to, the Lords of Stability.
  8. Metropolitan Line: The uppermost Bednalljan level. Bednalljan areas of the dungeon are recognisable by their grotesquely baroque murals and bas-reliefs. Inscriptions have a syllabary of curliques and awkward shapes. The earliest Sakbe roads and the walls of Jakalla were built at around this time. Nonhumans reappear in illustrations (there are none of levels 9-11).
  9. Northern Line: The lower Bednalljan level. Sites of interest include the tombe of Mnekshetra. The earliest shrines to Sarku, Hru’u, and especially Dlamelish are found on this level, consequently there are no Qumqum. Allegedly there is also a sealed shrine to the Goddess of the Pale Bone, a goddess so nasty that even the Lords of Change are afraid of her.
  10. Piccadilly Line: This level was built by the Dragon Lords, and is characterised by their leaping flame-and-dragon motif. The Great Shrine of Vimuhla is on this level. Also here is the earliest temple to Ksarul; consequently there are no Mrur or Qol below this level.
  11. Victoria Line: The Llyani level. Script here is squat and square. There are no representations of nonhumans above this level until level 8, since they became isolated after the Interstellar Era. The earliest temples to Vimuhla are on this level.
  12. Waterloo & City Line: The ruins of Humanspace Alliance facilities from the Interstellar Era. This level is a twisted mass of collapsed metal passages, inscribed with geometric embellishments and angular scripts. A current of cold air blows up from the caverns below. This is the most likely place to find Eyes, Ru’un or Yeleth; other ancient creatures such as Thunru’u, Sagun, Tsu’uru etc have likely wandered upwards in search of food.
  13. Docklands Light Railway: Prehuman caverns from before man’s arrival on Tekumel. The walls here are inscribed with Ssu script, rows of perfect circles of different sizes, depths and patterns, incomprehensible to humans.
  14. National Rail: The transcontinental subway system, installed by the earliest human settlers as a system of underground rapid transit.

While theoretically the dungeon should be about 50 levels deep (25,000 years or more of habitation, with a new level added every 500 years), I reason that (a) people always exaggerate how old things are, (b) there would always be a reason to put off the expense of rebuilding all the cities in the Empire, and (c) some cultures would not have left ruins. Thus, I have collapsed the long history of Tekumel into the 14 layers on the Underground map. At some point I might align the above sites of interest with specific Underground stations, but now it’s time to start the long commute to work, so off I go.

Tekumel Reskinned: The Dungeon

Posted: 16 June 2010 in Settings
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And now the dungeon. For the overall dungeon map, I’m going to use the London Underground map; it’s big and complex enough to be a megadungeon, and there’s one on the internet and in the back of just about every diary printed in the UK, so I’ll be able to get to it anywhere. You could use any other city map or underground map you like, and if the party explore dungeons elsewhere I can use another one – possibly Milan, because then I could have enigmatic grafitti scrawled everywhere: “The Third Line advances!” (I know what that meant in Milan, who knows what it means on Tekumel?)

For those not familiar with Tekumel, every 500 years each city is razed to the ground in a complex religious ritual, then rebuilt on the ruins. However, conservative priestly factions insist on rituals being performed in the original location, clans need cellars to store things, and so on; the net result is that each city stands on the ruins of many previous incarnations, each of which is honeycombed with a labyrinth of corridors and chambers, laced with treasures guarded by men and monsters. It’s a good explanation, and means the city is right on top of the dungeon.

I scan a copy of the Jakalla map from Swords & Glory, print it out reduced to A4, and then print the London Underground on top of it so I can see easily what is on top of what. (Both images are copyrighted so you don’t get to see that, sorry.) A couple of measurements and some quick arithmetic tell me that the tube lines themselves, which are going to be the main corridors between room complexes, are about 20 feet wide compared to the map of the city above. (Excellent, that means I can use a chessboard folded in half as a battlemat for a main corridor section – there are chessboards everywhere too, and they generally come with pieces that can be used for the party and its enemies; the bishop represents the cleric, and so on.) It looks like stations are never closer together than 5mm, so as long as none of the room complexes is much bigger than 100′ x 100′ I should be alright.

The levels descend in the order they’re listed on in the key; I can tie that in to Tekumel’s history so that, for example, there are lots of strange circular markings in the cramped and convoluted tunnels which make up the 14th level. That will keep for a later post, since I don’t need all the levels for the weekend; just the first couple. Level 1 is the Bakerloo Line, and is the contemporary sewer system; Level 2 is the Central Line, which is where I expect the PCs to enter because it lines up most obviously with known entrances.

Stations marked by a little square show where the room complexes are. I need a way to map those that I can carry with me, ideally in my head; each station has a name, so I shall use the initial letter of each name as the corridor layout for the room complex, and add rooms to taste. Here’s a simple example for the letter D:

Example room complex for stations beginning with "D"

Since I plan to do this on the fly, the same room complex will probably wind up with different layouts over time. I don’t think this matters; do your players visit the same complex again and again? I thought not. (If they do, I can say that temple patrols and workmen have made modifications for some reason not immediately clear.)

Stations marked by a larger circle connect levels. Each is a large circular room, built around a well which connects all the levels (Tube lines) which meet there. The well is actually a lift shaft containing a giant Tenser’s Floating Disk for use as an elevator. Runes and glyphs on its surface, if trodden on in the correct sequence, will move the Disk to another level like a lift, or teleport the party to any other Disk on the same level. There’s more to that, but that’s for another post I think, this one is getting long enough as it is.

Why did I pick D for the example complex to detail? Well… traditionally, the entrance to the underworld beneath Jakalla is from the tomb complex just outside the north-east wall. I look at the composite map and pick a pyramid which is squarely over a Tube station; there are about five to choose from, and I pick Debden underneath the Tomb of the Lost King because it’s the first one for which a theme occurs to me; Debden – the den of someone called Deb. OK, that can be a medusa in contact with the local Thieves’ Guild (which doesn’t exist in baseline Tekumel but will here), acting as a fence and crime boss. A medusa is perhaps a bit stiff as opposition for two first level PCs, so we’ll say she’s out when they come calling. The complex will contain storerooms, slave pens, guard quarters, a meeting room, and a luxurious ladies’ boudoir with no mirrors in it. Hur hur hur.

Whatever they do encounter will be appropriate for the second level, since that is where they enter. When using the DMG random encounter tables, I’ll base the level of encounters on the dungeon level rather than the PCs’ level; that gives them more choice about what they face, and they will probably figure that out eventually.

An adventure session will take about 30 minutes to set up, 30 minutes to pack away, and an hour per encounter. We won’t get more than three hours straight, so I’ll prepare three encounters – two I expect to use, and a third as a contingency. Rolling on the tables on p. 193 of the DMG gives me:

Encounter 1: Easy, Commander and Troops, no extra feature. From DMG p. 58, that’s a Commander (controller or soldier) of level n (i.e. 2) and 4 Troops (brute or soldier) of level n-3 (let’s call that 1). Let’s try a Needlefang Drake Swarm and four Stormclaw Scorpions, it’s becoming a family joke that every 1st level encounter is with Kobolds. They can be just opportunistic vermin. I don’t want to give out magic items this early in the game – I’m stingy with them – so I roll 1d6+4 on the treasure parcels tables, and determine the PCs will find 60 gp when they defeat these chaps.

Encounter 2: Hard, Wolf Pack, replace one monster with Trap. 4 skirmishers of level n+5 (i.e. 7). Three Crimson Acolytes fit the bill, probably here to trade with the Medusa; the fourth one is replaced by a Whirling Blades Contraption, evidently set in the meeting chamber to deal with those guests who just won’t take a hint and leave. These guys are worth 40 gp.

Encounter 3: Moderate, Wolf Pack, no extra feature. 5 skirmishers of level n (i.e. 2). Human Bandits, again here to trade. These fellows have 200 gp.

There we go, ready for the weekend gaming slot, and took about an hour to sort out, most of which was spent drawing the map. That will get faster with time, I’m sure.

Tekumel Reskinned: Monsters

Posted: 15 June 2010 in Settings
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For a while, even before Savage Worlds corrupted me utterly with its shiny Trappings, I have thought that there are archetypes throughout RPGs; in particular, there are certain monsters that appear everywhere, filling the same ecological niches and dramatic roles but with different descriptions. I suspect the variation in game stats is more about how different authors see the creature than anything else.

I had planned a lengthy, scholarly post explaining which EPT monster matches up best with which D&D monster, and indeed which Savage Worlds monster; but you know what, that’s a waste of time – I’ll just go with the standard D&D monsters and the random encounter generator in the DMG, and spend my time preparing encounters rather than converting monsters.