Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Holmes on Empire of the Petal Throne

"Dr. Holmes considers EPT..."

     As reported elsewhere, Professor M.A.R. Barker, creator of the world of Tékumel and several RPGs based on it including Empire of the Petal Throne (TSR, 1975), passed away a few days ago. Today also marks two years since the passing of Dr. Holmes. As a tribute to Professor Barker and his work, I've transcribed Holmes' review of EPT from his 1981 RPG book. I think it provides an excellent introduction to Tékumel for the uninitiated.

Empire of the Petal Throne
by J. Eric Holmes, part of Chapter 7 in Fantasy Role Playing Games (1981)

     The world of Tékumel is one of those rare creations of a single human imagination. It is a fully realized planet with a geography, ecology, history and bizarre civilization, all the invention of Professor M.A.R. Barker. Many greater writers of fantasy have created imaginary worlds or countries so elaborately detailed that their readers become half-convinced that they exist. J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth comes immediately to mind, as does Barsoom, Hyperborea, Islandia, Earthsea, Witch World or the Land of Oz.

     Barker began imagining his own world at the age of ten. Like Tolkien he is fascinated by languages (he is a professor of languages at the University of Minnesota) and started with the written and spoken tongues of Tékumel. As the years went by, his fantasy world became more complete, an entire science fictional history developed as well as the geography, fauna and flora of one of the most exotic planets in all of imaginary literature. Unlike most world creators, though, Professor Barker turned his creation not into a story (although there are rumors of a forthcoming novel) but into a game!
[The novel proved to be Man of Gold (1984, DAW) - Z]

     Empire of the Petal Throne is a fantasy game in which the players take the role of adventurers in a completely unique world, and a very dangerous and exciting world it is, too. Tékumel has been colonized, in the distant past, by humans and other races from far parts of the galaxy, suppressing the original inhabitants. The world then suffered some cosmic catastrophe, was dislocated in space and time, and is now isolated completely from the rest of the universe, alone with its sun and two moons in a continuum where the ordinary rules of physics no longer hold. Here magic is possible and demons from other dimensions can enter Tékumel and influence the course of human events. The catastrophe destroyed the human civilization and most of its technology and now, after 25,000 years or more, mankind has risen again to something one step ahead of barbarism. The game takes place in the Empire of Tsolyani, and the players usually enter the game at the capital city of Jakalla. Most of the creatures and non-human races of Tékumel are unique, being either original inhabitants (mostly hostile) or remnants of extra-terrestrial races who had colonized the world with the original human settlers.

     Professor Barker's rule book gives much of this background as well as an adequate discussion of the rules of the game. Conduct of the game goes very much like Dungeons and Dragons and is obviously modeled upon it. Barker makes extensive use of "percentile dice" - rolling two 20 sided dice and having one be decimals and one units. Combat uses one 20 sided die, and gives the die roll for a hit against whatever armor the defender is wearing. There isn't much metal on Tékumel; armor is frequently a specially treated animal hide, Chlen hide, hardened to metal-like consistency. Magic users command an increasing number of spells as they rise in experience, as do the priests of various gods. There is usually a chance that the spell will fail to work (60% at first level of experience), although the magic user's basic talents will increase his ability to cast spells.

     Magic spells are quite varied. The magician may have the ability to perform ESP or telekinesis or cast an illusion and then gain more spells as rises in level, learning eventually how to do things like call demons, fly, grow invisible or create walls of fire, ice, stone or water.

     Because Tékumel was once a world of complex technology, there are "magical" artifacts still available which perform remarkable feats. Chief among these are the "eyes," small round gem-like objects, usually with one or more control buttons on their sides. Players discovering one of these magical devices may be able to call up a faceless army, or raise the dead, knock down doors, freeze opponents or charm the opposite sex. It is the quest of such power-giving items, as well as golden treasure (Kaitars) which motivates most of the players in the World of Petal Throne.

     There is an underworld to Tékumel, a maze of buried passageways beneath most of the large cities. Here the treasure of the older, lost civilization may yet be found, and also monsters and traps encountered. The "dungeon" aspect of the fantasy game is preserved. Construction of maps for all these aspects of the adventure is left to the hard working referee.

     Playing fantasy adventures in Te'kumel has the appeal of exploring a world which, although human, is totally alien. This may create more work for the poor referee, who must master the background information on politics, zoology and religion before letting the players loose in the world. The clarify of the rule books, however, is outstanding. The rules are remarkably blood-thirsty; the demons and devils of Te'kumel are real; the politics are treacherous; slavery, human sacrifices and assassination are commonplace. The society resembles that of the Byzantine or Aztec empires at the height of their power more than it does contemporary America. But then, if one is going on an imaginary adventure, why not take incredible risks?

     In the past Barker's minor masterpiece has been printed and distributed by TSR Hobbies. At the time this book is written, however, there is a rumor that this relationship has ended and that Lou Zocchi will be producing a new version of the game. Barker's fans publish an "occasional" magazine and some other additons to our knowledge of Te'kumel.

     Professor Barker's rules come with complete descriptions of all of the other worldly characters, monsters, demons and gods of his world, often with illustrations of the more bizarre. The round-bodied Ahoggya, for example, have four legs, four arms and four faces. The illustrations are often amateurish, but make up for anything they lack in artistry in their clarification of detail and the atmosphere of exotic other-worldliness they give the book.

     The rules for the game are carefully explained. Barker is a teacher, and one could predict that he would go to considerable lengths to clarify the methods of play. There is also a map of the major city, Jakalla, with all the major buildings, temples, palaces and tombs indicated thereon. Maps of a large portion of the planet are also included. Professor Barker has of course also included brief descriptions of the Tsolyani script and a guide to pronunciation. These need not be mastered to enjoy the game, however.

[Bolding to one sentence added for emphasis - Z]

1 comment:

  1. Nice -- thanks for the peek! I've got to get my hands on a copy of FRPG one of these days.